Turkey preparing to take "new steps" against Syria
As the crisis in Syria deepens, Turkey seeks international support for refugees and steps up preparations for a possible buffer zone along the border.
By Ayhan Simsek for SES Türkiye in Ankara -- 10/04/12
Concerned by a large influx of refugees and deepening crisis in Syria, Turkey announced that it may soon request international help to address the growing humanitarian crisis along its border.
A Syrian refugee walks at the Boynuyogun refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border. [Reuters]
The call comes as joint UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Turkey Monday (April 10th), where he examined the camps amid reports of continued Syrian Army attacks north of Aleppo and Idlib, that are spilling over the border.
According to a statement on Turkey's Foreign Ministry website on Monday, two Syrians and two Turkish nationals were wounded in the Kilis refugee camp by stray shots fired from the Syrian side of the border. On the same day, near Kilis, 21 wounded Syrians fled across the border and two died in Turkish hospitals.
The total number of deaths throughout Syria on Monday reached over 100, according to Syrian activist groups, as the UN-Arab League peace plan looks doomed to fail.
Under the six-point Annan peace plan, Syrian military forces are to pull out of cities on Tuesday, and a cease-fire is to be implemented by Thursday, a prospect Turkey's Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru described yesterday as increasingly unlikely.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Ankara will implement "new steps" if violence does not stop by the Tuesday deadline set by the Annan plan.
Erdogan did not specify the next steps, but talk of a buffer zone along the border to protect Syrian civilians and provide humanitarian assistance continues to be discussed. Erdogan stressed that Turkey’s doors will remain open to Syrian refugees.
"Turkey is making all necessary plans and preparations against the risk of a large instability and influx of refugees," Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Selcuk Unal told SES Türkiye.
Over the past week, a record number of Syrians have entered Turkey to escape the violence, testing the country's ability to absorb the rapid increase.
"We have received around 2,500 refugees in a single day [last Friday], that is almost 10% of all Syrian refugees that are already in our country," Unal said, highlighting the severity of the situation. "If this influx continues to increase rapidly, there may be a call for international assistance through the UN and international organisations. We are not ruling this out," he said.
Nearly 25,000 Syrian refugees have been given temporary shelter in camps near the border. Some refugees have been transferred to camps in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa to open space for the newcomers. The monthly costs to Turkey reached 27m TL ($15m) last month.
Meanwhile, Mahmut Osman, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), told SES Türkiye that opposition groups are trying to smuggle humanitarian aid, medical supplies and communication equipment across the 910-km long Turkey-Syria border.
"There are promises by the international community. But so far only little help could be brought to the civilians. People are losing their hope," said Osman, adding that meeting the demands of civilians could not be met by smuggling alone.
"A security corridor should be set up to bring humanitarian aid to the civilians. In the past, the international community witnessed several similar situations. There are ways to bring this aid, with the leading role of the UN," he said.
According to Osman Bahadir Dincer, senior Middle East expert from the International Strategic Studies Centre (USAK) in Ankara, the Annan Plan is collapsing, making further militarisation of the problem inevitable.
"The Annan Plan only postponed the creation of a buffer for some time. There seems to be almost no hope for the success," he told SES Türkiye. "Under these conditions, a buffer zone would become a necessity. I expect moves towards creation of a buffer zone within a month."
Due to divisions at the UN Security Council and historical sensitivities in the region, the creation of a buffer zone involves several risks. Dincer says these risks, including the military option, are not preventing Turkey from acting.
"The Syria crisis has reached a point where there is no option without a risk. Any step in one direction or another will have risks," he said.
USAK, in a recent report on the Syria crisis, urged the Turkish government to display an pro-active, multi-dimensional policy on Syria, but also warned that several actors in the region have launched negative propaganda against Turkey, trying to portray it as an occupying force.
"A buffer zone is a complex issue. The most important thing for Turkey, before moving ahead with such plans is to get international approval and support. Otherwise, there can quickly be a climate against Turkey in the region," Dinçer said.
Speculation continues, particularly in the Arab press, that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf countries are trying to provide arms to the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the opposition whose command and control centre is based in Turkey.
However, paralleling the SNC's position, Osman says arming the opposition is neither a desired option, nor a feasible one.
"Our main priority has been to maintain this peoples' movement as a civilian movement, to achieve our goals as a civilian movement," Osman said. "Once you provide arms to the groups, it may become difficult to maintain control and unity," he said.
"But on the other hand, the Assad regime, is leaving the people with no other option than to acquire arms for self-defense," he said, noting that the poorly armed groups are no match for the superior firepower of the Syrian Army.