The once-close relationship between the neighbors appears close to breaking point as thousands of Syrians have fled to Turkey to escape a fierce crackdown by President Bashar Al Assad’s security forces.
State-run Anatolian news agency said Mr. Assad’s envoy, Hassan Turkmani, was due to arrive in Ankara, where he will face Turkish impatience over Syria’s repressive tactics and slowness to reform, as well as anger over a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.
Anatolian reported on Tuesday that Mr. Assad had telephoned Mr. Erdogan to congratulate him on winning a third term in office in an election on Sunday.
Thousands of Syrians fled the historic town of Maarat Al Numaan to escape tank forces thrusting into the country’s north in a widening military campaign to crush protests against President Assad.
In the tribal east, where all of Syria’s 380,000 barrels per day of oil is produced, tanks and armored vehicles deployed in the city of Deir Al Zor and around Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, a week after tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding an end to Mr. Assad’s autocratic rule.
“The army is coming, find safety for yourselves and your families!” residents said mosque loudspeakers announced on Tuesday in Maarat Al Numaan, a town of 100,000 that straddles the main north-south highway linking Damascus with Syria’s second largest city, the merchant hub of Aleppo.
Syrian forces pushed toward Maarat Al Numaan after arresting hundreds of people in nearby villages close to Jisr Al Shughour, residents said, according to Reuters.
Syrian state television said security forces “are pursuing and hunting down the remnants of the members of terrorist armed organizations in the areas surrounding Jisr Al Shughour in order to enable the residents to return to their neighborhoods.”
Residents from Maarat Al Numaan, Jisr Al Shughour and surrounding villages streamed toward Aleppo and to villages in the desert to the east, while some headed to neighboring Turkey.
They sought shelter across the border to escape Assad’s latest assault on protests demanding more freedoms in a country dominated by the Assad family, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, for the last 41 years. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim.
Around 70 percent of Maarat Al Numaan’s residents have fled, Othman Al Bedeiwi, a pharmacy professor there told Reuters by telephone. He said helicopters, which also fired at protesters on Friday, had been ferrying troops to a staging camp in Wadi Al Deif, several km (miles) from the town.
Syria has banned most foreign correspondents since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify accounts of events in the 23-million-people nation.
On the edge of a limestone massif in a relatively prosperous agricultural area, Maarat Al Numaan is a center of Muslim pilgrimage with a rebellious history.
It was the site of the massacre of thousands of men, women and children by Crusader forces in 1099. In modern times, the town was focus of a brutal campaign to crush Islamist and leftist challengers to Bashar’s father, the late Hafez Al Assad.
In the eastern province of Deir Al Zor, witnesses said several tanks deployed inside the provincial capital, on the Euphrates river, after security forces pulled out from the streets last week.
But protests continued and a violent confrontation occurred this week between Assad loyalists and protesters during which several people were seriously injured, they added.
“A pattern keeps repeating itself across Syria. The local garrison goes to their headquarters and leaves a city to try and create disorder, then tanks and troops are sent in to subdue protesters,” an activist in the city said.
“Sadly the invention of rubber bullets has not reached Syria,” he said. “It is live ammunition on protesters or nothing.”
Rights campaigners said around 20 tanks and armored vehicles also deployed around the town of Albu Kamal to the east of Deir Al Zor city, which is also an official crossing point to Iraq, but said there were no troops inside the town.
Mr. Assad, 47, initially responded with vague promises of reform, but the increasingly deadly government crackdown has only added fuel to the movement. Thousands of protesters across the country now vow to continue until President Assad leaves power, according to The Associated Press.
Deir Al Zor province borders Iraq’s Sunni heartland. The two sides are linked by family ties and trade routes that preceded the creation of the two states by colonial powers in the 1920s.
France, with British support, has spearheaded efforts for the United Nations Security Council to condemn Mr. Assad’s repression of the protests. But Russia and China have suggested they might use their veto power to kill the resolution.
Turkey has set up four refugee camps just inside its borders and the state-run Anatolian news agency said on Tuesday authorities might provide more.
Refugees in Turkey offer a grim picture of what they left behind, but the Turkish government has largely prevented access to the camps.
Neil Sammonds of Amnesty International appealed to Turkey to allow access to the camps. But he stressed that inside Syria, thousands are still desperate for help, according to AP.
“They’re living under trees, exposed to the elements,” he said. “Last night was a terrible storm - rain, thunder, lightning and all the rest of it. And that’s women, elderly, children, who have been walking for days from the Jisr Al Shugour area. No one is helping them until now.”
Many seemed to be helping themselves. Male refugees emerging from Syria on Tuesday could be seen carrying bread, water and milk for children, as well as diapers, to distraught families just across the border in Turkey.
Fleeing refugees described shootings by troops and Alawite gunmen loyal to Assad, known as “shabbiha,” and the burning of land and crops in a scorched earth policy to subdue people of the region after large protests.
(Abeer Tayel, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English