Assassination Galvanizes Syria's Kurdish Minority

The anger inside Syria at the assassination of the country's leading Kurdish politician is reverberating along the country's border with Turkey. More than 7,500 Syrians are already sheltering in camps in southeast Turkey. Activists say the regime feared Mashaal Tammo because he fought for all Syrians, not just Kurds.

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An eruption of anger inside Syria at the assassination of a leading Kurdish politician is reverberating along the Turkish-Syria border. More than 7,500 Syrians are already sheltering in camps in Turkey. Now that Turkey is about to announce new sanctions against Syria, it's worried about a fresh wave of migration if violence continues to escalate.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has this report from Turkey's Hatay Province near the Syrian border.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: As the Arab Spring slides into autumn, the fruit trees around the village of Guvecci are heavy with pomegranate and persimmon. A few young boys play soccer, tomatoes and peppers are drying in the sun, and the rooftops are empty of journalists that camped here this spring to watch thousands of Syrians flee to safety as the Syrian army swept north.

In one of the refugee camps near here, which Turkey prefers to call guest camps, is Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who says he's the head of Syrian Free Army, which he says is open to any defecting soldiers. He says guerrilla-style military action is the only way to free Syria from the grip of the regime. Others have their doubts.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Inside one farmhouse, a farmer who doesn't want his name used - he's one of many Turks here with family still in Syria - says the flow of refugees has been slowed by the Syrian army, but not stopped completely. Just the other day, he says, another Syrian soldier made it across, all the way from Daraa in southern Syria. A few minutes later, that soldier walks into the room.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: He's called only Mahmoud to protect his family. He's a 19-year-old private, not privy to the military strategy guiding the crackdown. But he has two main impressions of his time in Daraa, birthplace of the seven-month-old uprising: Someone was firing back at them and their orders were brutal - show no mercy, burn anything in their way, and keep the streets clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENYON: With the assassination of veteran Kurdish politician Mashaal Tammo, activists say the regime has galvanized a Kurdish minority that has largely stayed out of the fight so far. Syrian Kurdish activist Abu Rahman was imprisoned this spring with Tammo. He says the regime feared Tammo because he was the rare Kurdish leader who fought for the rights of all Syrians, not just Kurds.

ABU RAHMAN: (Through translator) His last message to the guys in jail was to set aside your old Kurdish slogans; just go out and join the protests, whether they're Arabs, Kurds, anyone who's opposing this regime. This is our fight too.

KENYON: In another sign of building tension, not far from here the Turkish military is wrapping up exercises along the border. Among the scenarios being prepared for: another flood of refugees from Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAFE)

KENYON: At a cafe in Yayladagu, where some of the camps are, old men roll dice and slap down tiles in a game similar to gin rummy. At one table, Syrian activist Abu Ismail considers the growing violence and the likely hardships of the coming winter. He smiles and shrugs, as if weather is the least of their worries.

ABU ISMAIL: (Through translator) Look, our people have been patient for 40 years. We can last a few more months.

KENYON: But the escalating violence has thrown a more urgent light on the opposition's slow political evolution. The newly formed Syrian National Council is struggling to get on its feet and has yet to convince Western or Arab states to provide much more than rhetorical support. Syrian activist Mohammed Feezo believes the regime is trying to turn a largely peaceful uprising into a civil war. He says they remain against an armed insurgency, but if the West could help with, say, a no-fly zone, the Syrian free army could help to defend civilians and buy time for the political efforts.

MOHAMMED FEEZO: (Through translator) If the no-fly zone starts, we would see many more army defections. The ones that have already left are very scattered. A no-fly zone would allow them to organize.

KENYON: The logistical and political obstacles facing a no-fly zone appear huge, but Damascus is clearly worried about the opposition gaining political momentum. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem warned yesterday that Damascus would take unspecified tough measures against any country that recognizes the Syrian National Council. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, near the Turkish-Syrian border.

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