ISTANBUL // The Turkish government is considering economic sanctions against Damascus to stem the ferocity of Syria's military crackdown on protesters.
The United States and the European Union have already taken punitive economic measures against the regime of the president, Bashar Al Assad.
The possibility that Turkey, a key ally, would follow suit emerged after six hours of talks in Damascus on Tuesday between Mr Al Assad and Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, in which the Syrian president is said to have rejected renewed demands by Ankara to enact political reforms.
After the talks, Mr Al Assad reiterated his government's determination to pursue the "terrorist groups" he has blamed for the five-month-old uprising in which more than 1,600 people have died.
Mr Davutoglu returned to Ankara, where he made it plain his government was running out of patience with Damascus. "The developments that will take place in the coming days will be decisive with regard to the expectations of Turkey and the Syrian people," he said.
The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said yesterday there were indications Syria was heeding Turkey's pleas.
Addressing members of his Justice and Development Party, the prime minister said Turkey's ambassador to Damascus had visited Hama, where Syrian security forces backed by tanks have killed dozens of people since the beginning of Ramadan. The envoy reported that troops and tanks were withdrawing from the central Syrian city. "This is highly important to show that our initiatives had positive results," the prime minister said.
Whether the withdrawal was an isolated incident or signalled the start of a relaxation of the nationwide crackdown was unclear. Nevertheless, the UN was poised to take a tougher stand after its statement last week condemning the Syrian government's violence appeared to have little effect.
The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon was to update the Security Council late yesterday on the violence in Syria amid demands by the United States and some European governments for tougher action. Reports from Washington said the Obama administration was considering a statement explicitly demanding the departure of Mr Al Assad, something the US has avoided so far.
The US ambassador, Susan Rice, said yesterday she hoped Syria would remain high on the United Nations Security Council agenda after the council's statement last week condemning government forces for attacking civilians.
The US had been among council members pressing last week for a legally binding resolution against Syria, but Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa had argued that condemnation would not promote negotiations. Momentum for bolder steps has also quickening after Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus and Egypt's foreign minister, Mohammed Amr, declared publicly on Tuesday that Syria was "heading to the point of no return".
Envoys from India, Brazil and South Africa pressed for an end to the bloodshed during a meeting with Syria's foreign minister in Damascus yesterday. Despite international pressure, Syrian authorities have remained steadfast in their insistence that reforms cannot be implemented until the "armed gangs" responsible for the country's spiral into turmoil are quashed.
During Mr Davutoglu's meeting with Mr Al Assad, he is reported to have countered with the warning: "If you say 'security first', then that day will never come." The Turkish foreign minister also questioned Mr Al Assad's position that Syria had been undermined by armed gangs. Mr Davutoglu is said to have asked: "300 to 400 militants are destabilising Syria?" A Turkish official confirmed that Mr Davutoglu had confronted Mr Al Assad with the need for reform but denied the minister had raised the sanctions issue.
The Turkish media, however, quoted Mr Davutoglu as saying Turkey would be obliged to follow international sanctions once such a decision had been taken. In previous international crises such as the row surrounding the nuclear programme in Iran, another Turkish neighbour, Ankara rejected the idea of sanctions.
An active Turkish role in implementing economic penalties now would be crucial because the two countries share a vast border and hold trade ties. Syria last year agreed to establish a free-trade zone with Turkey, as well as Jordan and Lebanon. Bilateral trade between Syria and Turkey alone reached US$2.5 billion (Dh9.18bn) in 2010, up 43 per cent from the previous year.
Nevertheless, Mr Davutoglu is reported to have told Mr Al Assad that if Syria did not shift course, Turkey's adoption of sanctions was inevitable. "Political sanctions will be followed by economic sanctions," Mr Davutoglu told Mr Al Assad, according to the pro-government newspaper, Sabah. "Even if we do not want this as Syria's neighbour, we will have to comply once the decision is taken."
* With additional reporting by Reuters