Syrian president's envoy in talks with Turkish PM


THOUSANDS OF supporters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad marched yesterday along the broad Mazeh boulevard in Damascus, unfurling a red, black and white national flag more than two kilometres long.

The demonstration coincided with a meeting in Ankara of Dr Assad’s envoy, Hassan Turkmani, a former defence minister, with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has urged Damascus to end its crackdown on protests and initiate political reforms.

UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay issued a report on the situation in Syria as troops entered the town of Maarat al-Numan, 40km from provincial protest hub Jisr al-Shughour, and swept eastwards to the oil producing cities of Deir el-Zor and Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border. The report condemned the “use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians, including [by] snipers positioned on rooftops . . . and the deployment of tanks in areas densely populated by civilians.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian Red Crescent has been instructed to facilitate the return home of 8,500 Jisr al-Shaghour area residents who took refuge across the border in Turkey. The official Syrian news agency said “calm and security” as well as electricity and water had been restored. Hundreds of other civilians have been camping in fields on the Syrian side of the frontier, ready to cross at the approach of troops.

The government says soldiers were dispatched to Jisr al-Shaghour, a town of 41,000, after 120 soldiers were killed by “armed gangs” based there.

Anti-regime activists argue that 48 civilians and 60 police, including 20 deserters, died in fighting with troops. Neither claims have been verified by independent observers but Joshua Landis, writing on the authoritative Syria Comment blog, said the stories put forward by “both sides seem to have been filled with falsehoods and exaggeration.”

In spite of televised interviews with deserters, he observed there “is little evidence of wide-scale mutiny of Syrian soldiers” and “no solid evidence that they shot at each other”.

Prof Landis said the number of security personnel fatalities was lower than claimed by the authorities which, in his view, are seeking to justify the harsh crackdown in the northeastern Idlib province which is, for both Syrians and Turks, a highly sensitive area.

Idlib abuts the Turkish province of Hatay, the former Syrian district of Alexandretta/Iskanderun, annexed by Ankara in 1939. Arab inhabitants of the area, including Alawites from Dr Assad’s community, were expelled. Syrian resentment simmered until Ankara and Damascus reconciled in the 1990s.

Turkey has so far rejected international assistance for the displaced Syrians although the UN and European Commission have offered aid. Deputy prime minister Cemil Cicek said: “Our expectation is for the number of refugees to hold at current levels and for the situation to be resolved before there’s a need for the United Nations or other international organisations to step in.”

A total of 1,297 civilians and 340 soldiers and security agents have been killed since protests started in the southern town of Deraa in mid-March, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on its website.