General: Refugees at Turkish Border a 'Crisis' That's Getting Worse

Top U.S. general says allies are bracing for humanitarian plight as winter comes.

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A senior U.S. general warned Tuesday of a humanitarian crisis along the border of Syria and Turkey with refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria in record numbers and the steady approach of winter snows.

The number of refugees at the Syrian border attempting to escape the bloody fighting in their war-torn homeland is tens of thousands more than previous estimates, Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling told reporters at a breakfast meeting in Washington, exceeding the 100,000 limit Turkish officials said earlier in October that the country could withstand.

"It's October. What [Turkey is] very concerned about is the approach of winter, and the way they can address the humanitarian crisis on the border," Hertling says.

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The Turkish government has already spent nearly 400 million euros in relief efforts for the refugees.

This growing concern is further complicated by the NATO ally's existing struggles against the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, in that same region, making it difficult to determine the scope of the refugee situation.

The commander of Turkish land forces Gen. Hayri Kıvrıkoglu said last week there are nearly 140,000 refugees on the Syria-Turkish border, according to Hertling, who commands U.S. Army troops in Europe. Previous estimates had that number at 100,000, up from only 10,000 at the end of August.

A Turkish embassy spokesperson confirmed 100,363 Syrian citizens are in 13 separate Turkish tent cities as of Oct. 15. There are five of the camps in Hatay, three in Gaziantep, two in Sanliurfa and one in Kahramanmaras, Osmaniye and Adiyaman.


View Turkish Refugee Camps in a larger map The embassy declined to comment on any future planning for the camps or the potential threats posed by the impending winter or PKK fighting.

Since April 2011, more than 143,000 Syrians have crossed the border, according to an Oct. 15 release provided by the embassy, and almost 43,000 have returned to Syria.

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"All kind of humanitarian aid supplies have been provided by [Turkish aid organizations] in camps for more than a year," the release states. "Sheltering, food, health, security, social activities, education, worship, translatorship, communication, banking and other services have been provided in tent cities and containers by related organizations and institutions within the coordination of our Presidency."

The Turkish government has already supplied aid, tents and other humanitarian efforts to the refugees, Hertling adds, and are anticipating the onset of winter.

This picture from within the camps depicts the living conditions there, according to Twitter user @Hussamov11. U.S. News has not been able to independently confirm its authenticity:

this photo from a refugee camp in #Turkey.. do you see any kids/women? no just bearded men! #Syria #FSACamps #Terrorism twitter.com/Hussamov11/sta…

— Hussam (@Hussamov11) October 12, 2012

Hertling's forces, based largely in Germany, are equipped to perform non-combatant evacuation operations, but have not been asked yet for assistance.

"We have had a relatively few number of U.S. Army Europe personnel in Turkey recently," the general says. "Some of that has been sharing intelligence."

The Turkish conflict with the PKK can be seen as an extension of the larger regional issues stemming from the violence in Syria, leading to an indirect war between the two nations. The Assad regime has stepped up distributing weapons to the PKK fighters in the last year, particularly those based in towns the Kurdish rebels control in northern Syria. Over 460 have been killed in clashes between the Turkish army and PKK fighters this year, according to a September BBC report.

In turn, the Turkish government has openly provided support to Syrian rebels.

Some in Turkey believe that the Assad regime's downfall would weaken the PKK significantly.

The exodus of Syrians has affected the entire region, with more than 100,000 spilling in Lebanon, over 100,000 in Jordan and over 40,000 in Iraq, according to a Reuters report of U.N. estimates.