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Analysis

Turkey should have thought twice on Syria

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the opening session of the 36th Ordinary UEFA Congress in Istanbul March 22, 2012. (REUTERS/Osman Orsal)

ISTANBUL: Turkey may have acted too fast when it took its tough stance against Damascus, expecting a rapid fall for the regime, some observers have argued ahead of a "Friends of Syria" conference in Istanbul.

Now, a number of commentators in Turkey are suggesting it might be time to think again.

"Turkey had better revise its policy toward its southern neighbor, ahead of the second gathering of the Friends of Syria group on April 1 in Istanbul, by placing diplomatic efforts in front of all other options," wrote Serkan Demirtas in the Hurriyet Daily News.

Those other options circulating in Ankara as well as Western and Arab capitals, run from humanitarian corridors, to a buffer zone in Syria to accommodate refugees, or even direct assistance to rebels.

Many rebel leaders, including ex-general Riad Asaad, are already in Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the stakes sharply on March 6 when he called on Damascus to allow for the "immediate" opening of humanitarian corridors.

While his words matched international calls from western powers, the demand lacked substance. It was not clear if Turkey would gear up for the task, given its 910-kilometre (560-mile) common border.

The creation of a buffer zone is another issue that Ankara has not been clear on, since it implies sending troops to secure the area.

But it is still on the agenda as Turkey already houses 17,000 Syrians, and its Red Crescent organization says it is preparing for half a million.

"We are determined to consider every possible measure," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday, adding that the move would aim at ending the suffering of Syrians, but also at securing the border.

Critics however say the buffer zone would be an "interventionist policy" that could prove Ankara too reckless, and too adventurous.

Forming a buffer zone, Demirtas wrote, "would not only break the image Turkey has built in the region, but is also inconsistent with its general foreign policy principles, the main pillar of which is peace."

"Without a UN resolution to back it up, a buffer zone would be a daring initiative for Ankara," added analyst Sinan Ulgen from the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

As for the rebels, Ankara is silent about plans to arm or train them for counter-attacks on Syria's security forces. The regime in Damascus has already denounced "incursions" into its territory from refugee camps in Turkey.

On Wednesday, AFP journalists witnessed smugglers carry a cargo of shotguns and buckshot into Syria, but the load contained no major weapons of war.

Erdogan embraced the Syrian political opposition after having failed to get President Bashar Assad to introduce reforms.

"The day will come when you will also have to go," he told Assad in late November.

But according to columnist Semih Idiz, the Syrian president has "outfoxed Ankara."

"(Ankara's) expectation was that the uprising in that country would not drag on for long and that Bashar Assad would be toppled relatively quickly -- the way it happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya-- with Turkey emerging as a key mentor for the new Syria," he wrote.

Along with the threat of a massive influx of refugees, mostly Sunnis, Ankara has also had to contend with dissent at home over its policy on the crisis, Idiz added.

Its large Alevi population, close to Syria's dominant but minority Alawites, are "not all that pleased about Turkey's stance on Syria."

The Syrian regime looks to remain in place "for much longer than Ankara expected or is prepared for," he concluded.

That possibility has also prompted the main opposition Republic People's Party (CHP) to attack Ankara's decision to cut ties with the Damascus regime.

"For now, the Syrian regime is not ready to leave or be overthrown," Faruk Logoglu, a CHP lawmaker, told AFP. "Ankara should have kept channels of dialogue and communication open with Damascus."

Western and Arab countries will join Syrian opposition groups at the April 1 meeting in Istanbul.

But Turkey is not the only nation struggling with its approach to Damascus.

"Does the Western alliance have a plan for Syria? Does the Syrian opposition offer a credible image?," asked another columnist from the Milliyet daily, Kadri Gurselhe.

 

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