Tensions Grow Between Former Allies Syria, Turkey
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THING CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Tensions are growing along the border between Turkey and Syria. Turkish troop reinforcements and anti-aircraft gunners were dispatched to the frontier after Syria shot down a Turkish military jet over the Mediterranean on June 22nd. The circumstances of the shoot-down are still in dispute.
Today, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad told a Turkish newspaper he wishes his forces had not shot down the plane, but that is unlikely to change Turkey's new military posture. NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Turkish border region. She's in Hatay and she joins us now. First, Deb, how big is the Turkish military presence along the border?
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Robert, the Turkish media made a big show last week. You saw military maneuvers rolling through towns. It's not really obvious now. Syrians say that they heard jets flying on the border today, which would make it the fourth day of air patrols. We were at the Syrian border last night. We were there to interview the deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army.
The camp where the officers stay is only about three miles from the border, so Syrians, both rebels and refugees, say they feel safer with this beefed up military presence. And this is also part of the country where the weapons are smuggled across the border, so there's more protection for that operation.
SIEGEL: Deb, we're seeing more and more reports of Syrian Army defectors, including some senior officers, crossing the border into Turkey. How big a trend is that?
AMOS: Two big defections in the last two weeks, but it's really more likely that it happens like this: Small groups of soldiers contact the Free Syrian Army, a guy knows a guy, and asks, could you attack my guard post? In the confusion, they change sides. Now, the story we heard today was about 17 soldiers who wanted to defect. They didn't come to Turkey. They wanted to stay and fight so they're now negotiating to join a Free Syrian Army brigade.
And they're also negotiating to have weapons brought into the border areas for them.
SIEGEL: Well, since arms are being sent across the border from Turkey into Syria for the rebel forces, do you have any sense of how much of an impact those arms are having inside the country?
AMOS: I think what you can see is that the rebels are inflicting more casualties on the Syrian military. That's come at a price. Civilian casualties inside Syria are rising dramatically. The Syrian army is now using more artillery, more tanks, they're destroying entire neighborhoods to fight these rebels. So what the Free Syrian Army says is they need specialized weapons, anti-helicopter, anti-tank.
They're not getting those weapons. And it appears that the international backers don't want those weapons to fall into the wrong hands.
SIEGEL: There are reports that a lot of the weapons going from Turkey into Syria are intended solely for Islamist groups. What impact is that having on the fighting in Syria?
AMOS: I think solely isn't fair, but you hear this complaint a lot here, that the militias with the most money are the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, which are considered even more radical. The money to back them, I'm told from Syrian sources, is coming from the Gulf. So, beards are in and our sources at the Free Syrian Army joke that even the arms smugglers are growing their beards to look more convincing as Islamists, because they know where the money is.
Now, FSA sources say that international donors are trying to keep track of who's getting the weapons and the supply line for those weapons are the safest. But Turkey has this very porous border and all of this is still a little chaotic. Any group can smuggle in weapons. So, with this infusion of arms, for the first time, I'm hearing Syrians talk about the end game. Should the regime collapse, they worry that these militias will turn on each other at some moment, when another kind of power struggle begins.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Deb.
AMOS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Deborah Amos, reporting from Hatay in Turkey near the Syrian border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.