Middle East

Turkey, Jordan to set up safe zones in Syria: diplomats

BEIRUT: Turkey and Jordan, backed by Western and Arab powers, are preparing to set up two "safe zones" for civilians inside Syria, diplomats said Friday.

The Western and Arab diplomats told The Daily Star that Syria's two neighbors would press ahead with preparations to establish the two havens if President Bashar Assad did not sign on to an Arab plan aimed at ending a bloody crackdown on anti-regime protesters by Saturday. 

The diplomats said an international meeting in Paris would discuss later Friday the details of the plans to set up the zones in southern and northern Syria.

On Wednesday, the Arab League gave Assad three days to agree in writing to allowing hundreds of observers into Syria to oversee the implementation of the Arab plan to end eight months of violence against protesters that has killed more than 3,000 people. 

Representatives of  the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan will meet to coordinate a response to Assad's possible refusal to sign on to the deal, the diplomats said. 

On top of the agenda is agreeing for NATO member Turkey to establish a safe haven in northern Syria and for U.S.-ally Jordan to set up a similar zone in southern Syria. 

The diplomats said with Russia and China continuing to support Assad, it was impossible to get a U.N. Security Council resolution that would impose measures to protect civilians in Syria. 

In the absence of the possibility of Security Council action, Friday's meeting in Paris was the best way to provide an international umbrella for these measures, one diplomat said. The Arab League is also expected to propose economic sanctions on Damascus next week, he said.

Damascus and its allies have warned that any military intervention in Syria could lead to chaos in the Middle East. 

Syrian forces have been planting mines along the Jordan border this week in what appears to be in an anticipation for such a move, the diplomats said. The Syrian forces had mined parts of the border with Lebanon a few weeks ago. 

Turkey, which had set up camps for Syrian refugees inside its territory, has become more vocal in its opposition to one time ally Assad while Jordan's King Abdullah called this week on the Syrian leader to step down.

Protesters and activists in Syria have been calling for international protection for months. Some army defectors and gunmen have stepped up attacks on Syrian forces in recent days.

The diplomats also reported that Assad appeared to be growing increasingly nervous over his safety with some reports suggesting he feared being targeted by an air strike. There were also reports of discontent among his inner circle and some Syrian diplomats abroad, though no signs of that have been visible.  

There has been no independent confirmation of these reports.





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