Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Syrian refugees on Sunday that victory for the rebels in their country was not far off and President Bashar al-Assad was “losing blood” by the day.
Mr. Erdogan, who has tried to rally international support against the government in neighbouring Syria over its 14-month crackdown against opponents, was met with enthusiastic applause and shouts of “Long live Erdogan” at the Kilis refugee camp.
“Bashar is losing blood every day,” the Turkish premier told the crowd of about 1,500 people less than a kilometre from the border. “Your victory is not far off. We have just one issue: To stop the bloodshed and tears and for the Syrian people’s demands to be met.”
He addressed the crowd from the top of a bus while military snipers watched from rooftops. Hundreds of police and soldiers guarded the road from the airport to the camp.
His remarks came on the eve of a parliamentary election in Syria that Damascus has said shows reforms are under way.
The Syrian regime has portrayed Monday’s vote for a 250-member parliament as a sign of its willingness to carry out democratic reforms. Syria’s opposition dismissed the election Sunday as a cynical attempt to salvage Mr. al-Assad’s tattered legitimacy and asked voters to stay away.
Mr. al-Assad’s opponents say elections cannot be held under the threat of gunfire. Activists said at least five people were killed by army gunfire Sunday. In late March, the United Nations said 9,000 people have been killed during the conflict, now in its 14th month.
“We think the elections have no credibility at all in the middle of a situation where the regime is killing the population,” said Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile. “It is an insult to the democratic process.”
The fighting in Syria continues despite a United Nations-monitored ceasefire, brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in place since last month. Fresh clashes erupted on Sunday between rebels and Mr. Assad’s forces in eastern Syria.
“We maintain our hopes for the implementation of the Annan plan, but the bad news out of Syria is progressively undermining those hopes,” Mr. Erdogan later told a news conference. “Simply following the Annan plan will not bring about a resolution. ... A reform process that expands freedom within a parliamentary, constitutional system should start immediately.”
Monday’s elections come three months after the adoption of a new constitution that allows the formation of political parties to compete with Mr. al-Assad’s ruling Baath party and limits a president to two seven-year terms. Mr. al-Assad succeeded his father, and the two have been in power for a total of 42 years.
Opposition leaders said any reforms without their input are a farce.
The UN says more than 9,000 people have died in the crackdown, while the Syrian government says it has lost at least 2,600 of its forces to “foreign-backed terrorists.”
About 9,000 Syrians fleeing violence are sheltering at the camp in Kilis province, comprised of 2,000 container homes. It also has three schools, two mosques and a supermarket.
In a sign the refugees’ stay is expected to be a long one, authorities are moving occupants of tent cities at other spots along the 900-kilometre border to the Kilis site, which cost $50-million to build, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
Turkey is providing shelter for a total of 23,000 Syrian refugees, Mr. Erdogan said. In all, Turkey has spent about $150-million (U.S.) providing for Syrian refugees.
Stray bullets from clashes between the Syrian army and rebels hit the Kilis camp in April, injuring two refugees and two Turkish workers and sparking a furious response from the Turkish leader, who hinted that Turkey, as a NATO member, could invoke Article 5, which calls for an allied defence of its borders.
The attack last month “created an atmosphere of terror in the camp,” said Naji Abdul Wahab, a farmer who fled with his wife and children after government forces destroyed their home.
“Erdogan’s visit here is a victory for us,” Wahab said.
Reuters with a report from Associated Press