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Michel Sailhan: Turkey takes on Syria, planning new measures
November 08, 2011
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Turkey is hardening its stance against former ally Syria, laying the ground for Syrian dissidents including army defectors and readying to announce new measures against Damascus. “We cannot remain a mere bystander” to the developments unfolding in Syria, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Berlin during a recent official visit.

“We believe it is necessary to implement certain sanctions” against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, whose crackdown on protests has claimed more than 3,000 lives since mid-March, according to the United Nations, he said.

Erdogan however did not elaborate on what kind of sanctions he was mulling against his former “friend” Bashar. Turkey had enjoyed good relations with its neighbour before the uprising began, holding joint cabinet meetings, abolishing visas and fostering trade.

Erdogan had been expected to announce sanctions as early as October on a planned visit to Syrian refugee camps, but escalating Kurdish rebel attacks and a devastating earthquake which killed more than 600 in Turkey’s east put them on hold. “Turkey is not in favour of sanctions in principle. That might be because it fears the Europeans might invite Turkey to join the Western world on Iranian sanctions, which are opposed by Ankara,” Istanbul-based analyst Sinan Ulgen said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu prefers to use the term “measures” instead of sanctions. Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government had tried to convince Damascus to implement reforms, but the Syrian regime’s failure to heed the appeal prompted Ankara to take another route.

Istanbul hosted the founding of the Syrian National Council, the largest and most representative opposition grouping, in late August and on Oct.18 Davutoglu officially met with the leaders of the movement. Turkey is also sheltering Syrian army defectors who are currently staying at refugee camps in Turkey’s Hatay province, home to around 7,500 Syrians who fled the violence.

One of the most prominent is Colonel Riad Al Asaad, who defected in July and is now leading an armed opposition group called the “Syrian Free Army.” Contrary to usual practices regarding refugees, Asaad is allowed to talk to media, and indeed interviews are organised and selected by the Turkish foreign ministry.

In these interviews he has said his group is already fighting against Damascus with its own weapons and appealed for more. “Nobody is allowed to cross the border with weapons,” said a Turkish foreign ministry official when asked by AFP whether Turkey was providing the Syrian colonel with arms.

“Turkey believes the life of the Syrian regime is not too long,” Ulgen said. “So it is helping the opposition movement, including armed defectors. Turkey has lost hope of being heard by Damascus.” Among measures being considered by Turkey is the creation of a militarised buffer zone inside Syrian territory in an attempt to secure the border and absorb a massive influx of refugees in case of a civil war.

This option was discussed by the Turkish government last summer, according to journalist Mehmet Ali Birand. Davutoglu, however, remained vague about such a move during an interview with the Financial Times early this week.

“We hope that there will be no need for these type of measures but of course humanitarian issues are important. There are certain universal values all of us need to respect and protecting citizens is the responsibility of every state”, he said.

The Turkish government has many reasons to be involved in the Syrian issue. As Erdogan said Wednesday, the border between the two countries stretches more than 800 kilometres, bearing a high risk of instability for Ankara. Both Turkey and Syria have significant Kurdish populations, and Urgen said Turkish authorities think Syria is trying to “use the PKK card,” referring to a surge of attacks in Turkey by rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

“There is a parallel link between the escalation of PKK terror and Turkey’s anger with Syria,” Akif Beki, former press advisor to Erdogan, wrote in his column in the daily Radikal. Another important reason for Erdogan to act on Syria is the United States, which is supplying Turkey with real-time intelligence to fight the PKK. In September, Washington called on its Nato ally to “put more pressure” on the Syrian regime.

Agence France-Presse


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