Paris will not send weapons to the Syrian opposition, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday as Turkey took measures to stop Syrian refugees and rebels coming and going freely across the border.
“We do not intend, neither today nor tomorrow, to send weapons to the Syrian opposition,” the minister told journalists in Beirut when specifically asked about supplying weapons to the opposition.
“Things are very clear: on the question of supplying weapons, the answer is no. France does not supply and will not supply the Syrian opposition with weapons.”
The rebel Free Syrian Army has called several times on the international community asking for arms, to help them fight forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile, Turkish authorities have begun taking steps to stop Syrian refugees and rebels coming and going freely across the border with the conflict-torn country.
“Police have come knocking on our door,” said Hassan, an illegal Syrian immigrant in the border town of Reyhanli, where he lives with about 20 fighters “on leave”, wounded people and refugees.
All of them, living on what he calls “apartment rest”, have crossed the border illegally, mostly at night, through a hole in the fence.
Their presence in Reyhanli in Hatay province along with hundreds of other illegal Syrians was until recently tolerated by the authorities, which took a rather benevolent attitude towards the rebels and refugees.
But things are changing.
“Police gave us 24 hours to leave,” said Hassan. “Those who don’t have a visa, papers that are in order, must go to the refugee camps. Or else go back to Syria,” said Hassan, who did not give his full name, according to AFP.
Others, who have a valid residence permit, must leave Hatay province and live elsewhere in the country, he added.
Turkey is officially hosting more than 80,000 refugees in a dozen camps concentrated in the Hatay border province.
There are also thousands of illegal Syrian immigrants, the majority Sunni Muslims, who have been living rough for months.
This steady stream has provoked growing concern among the local population, and at times there are tensions, in particular in the cosmopolitan provincial capital of Antakya where many people are Alawites.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is also from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
For the past three weeks the Turkish army has stepped up its patrols along the border, which Syrians had previously been able to cross on a daily basis.
“It means that from now on we have to cross in the middle of the night, with the greatest of care. No cigarettes, no mobile phones, headlights off, no noise,” said one man.
“It is becoming difficult not to get caught,” he said.
In the Syrian village of Atme, a rear base of the rebellion, the population has grown from 6,000 to over 30,000, according to medical sources there who have been alarmed by the deterioration of sanitary conditions.
Nearly 3,000 other refugees are camping there in the fields and olive orchards all along the barbed wire border fence.
On the Turkish side, at Reyhanli, where the local population of Sunni and Bedouin origin have greeted the refugees with open arms, identity checks have increased.
“This time, it’s serious. The police stopped a minibus carrying seven refugees right in the center of town,” said Hassan, a deserter from the Syrian army, himself without proper papers.
“I’m going to have to leave,” he grumbled. “If not, I will have to resign myself to going to a camp.”
The prospect of moving to a camp appalls Syrians used to crossing the border when they wish to visit relatives or fight.
Officially, Ankara denies any hardening of its attitude towards the refugees, but admits to having reinforced security measures.
“We have not changed our policy regarding the Syrians,” said an official at Turkey’s disaster agency (Afad), who asked not to be named.
“But I admit that the security measures are now more strict than in the past,” the official said.
Pressure was growing along the border, added a Syrian activist in Antakya, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
“There are more police interventions, more arrests,” she said.
Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said on Thursday the deadly conflict in Syria was getting worse as he arrived on his first official trip aimed at ending nearly 18 months of violence.
Brahimi spoke after rebels were reported to have advanced into a key district of the northern city of Aleppo, where activists said at least 11 people were killed in a strike by a helicopter gunship.
As many as 165 were killed by Syrian forces across the country on Thursday, activists said.
Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad said: “We trust that Brahimi has a general understanding of the developments and of the way to solve problems despite the complexities. We are optimistic and we wish Brahimi success.”
However, the veteran Algerian diplomat highlighted to Arab League envoys in Cairo this week that he knows he faces an uphill struggle, with no sign of a lull in the violence.
In Brussels on Thursday, Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi reiterated that Assad must step down because “a president that kills his own people is not acceptable.”
And British Foreign Secretary William Hague, visiting Baghdad, told reporters the Damascus regime is “doomed, that it is not possible for it to survive, and so many crimes (have been) committed that it should not survive.”
On the ground, rebels and troops battled for control of the strategic Midan district of central Aleppo, which opens the way to the main square, with fighting raging around two police stations, residents said.
More than 27,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s rule erupted in March last year, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In neighboring Lebanon, Maronite Christian Patriarch Bishara Rai said Pope Benedict XVI will call on the world to stop arming belligerents in the crisis when he begins a three-day visit to Syria’s neighbor on Friday.
The United States meanwhile slapped new sanctions on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, over the Lebanese Shiite movement’s alleged support of Assad, the U.S. Treasury announced.