A Syrian refugee I met this past summer in Turkey had just fled his beloved friends, family and country when the violence struck too close to home — a car bomb exploded right outside his house in Damascus. But if he is anything like millions of other Syrian refugees, he now faces violence and danger in his supposed safe haven. Unbeknownst to most of the world, the Free Syrian Army is quietly turning refugee camps — especially in Turkey – into makeshift military bases.
Syrian rebel forces have found that civilian refugee camps offer safe havens for them too — with valuable perks. They get a break from the bloodshed so that they can rest, regroup and mobilize attacks. They can exploit the food and medical supplies intended for civilians, hijack vehicles and use humanitarian aid money to buy weapons. And the rebels can use other refugees to assemble a ready — though not necessarily willing — population of recruits.
An International Crisis Group report recently confirmed fears that refugee camps were becoming FSA “springboards” for launching attacks into Syria, as well as bases for training troops and storing military supplies.
A similar situation played out during the Rwandan genocide, when 1.5 million refugees fled to camps along the border. Although many of these Hutus were innocent civilians, some were warriors who took over refugee camps and launched incursions across the border to complete the “unfinished” genocide. Like Syrian rebels are doing now, the combatant Hutus stole civilian aid to buy weapons and recruited other refugees.
Could Syria become another Rwanda?— News reports, concerned citizens, and political leaders fear potential parallels: the present violence spiraling into genocide, the international community neglecting moral obligations. And now there’s this little known parallel unfolding in refugee camps.
One Syrian wrote, “Syria should not be allowed to become the Rwanda of the 21st century.”
But countries like Turkey, seemingly top-notch hosts in most other respects, aren’t heeding such warnings. Instead, Turkey is turning a blind eye to the military maneuverings in camps, allowing FSA members to run back and forth over the border with their weapons.
Already, this issue is stirring diplomatic tensions. The Syrian Foreign Minister lashed out against Ankara, viewing the government’s willful ignorance as “support to the rebels.” He said, Turkey “provides [rebels] with weapons, helps them set up bases, and supports their illegal movement into the Syrian territory.”
The use of refugee camps as military bases has dangerous repercussions. Not only does it increase the possibility of the Syrian war spilling over borders, but it also decreases the credibility of innocent civilians seeking refuge.
Photo credit: Freedom House