x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Turkey says it won't use its military in Syria

France's foreign minister has called for EU-backed humanitarian corridors to allow aid groups a way into Syria.

During a government-organized tour for the media, Syrian army officers on Saturday carry the coffin of one of the 17 army members the military said were killed in an ambush on Thursday.
During a government-organized tour for the media, Syrian army officers on Saturday carry the coffin of one of the 17 army members the military said were killed in an ambush on Thursday.

ISTANBUL // With a proposal by France for the establishment of humanitarian corridors in Syria and demands by dissidents for a Turkish-controlled safe haven offering protection against the Assad regime, Turkey's government has rejected the idea of military intervention in Syria.

But that may not be Ankara's last word on the issue, analysts say.

"We absolutely do not want an intervention in Syria and will not accept a Turkish role in an intervention," Bulent Arinc, a Turkish deputy prime minister and the government spokesman, told Turkish television interviewers Thursday. "We will neither send soldiers, nor intervene, nor permit others to intervene."

Mr Arinc spoke after Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, had called for EU-backed humanitarian corridors to allow aid groups a way into Syria. Mr Juppe called the situation in Syria "no longer tenable" and accused the regime of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, of "a savagery we have not seen in a long time". The European Union said in a statement that the "protection of civilians in Syria is an increasingly urgent and important aspect of responding to the events in country".

A Turkish official noted that Mr Juppe had not provided details about how such a corridor could be established. "I don't know how they can implement it," the official told The National, speaking on condition of anonymity. He added that the issue had not yet come up in talks between Turkish officials and their Western counterparts.

Turkey, which has the second strongest military in Nato after the US and is Syria's biggest neighbour, has grown increasingly critical of Mr Al Assad as the Syrian government tries to crush an eight-month-old uprising. Speaking last Tuesday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, called on the Syrian president to resign.

On Friday, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, warned Syria that his country's patience had run out. "We have no more tolerance for the bloodshed in Syria," Mr Davutoglu said. He added Damascus could accept the Arab League's demand for an end to the bloodshed or face sanctions. The minister said he was in contact with the Arab League as well as with the EU, Nato and UN Security Council members.

The Arab Leage finance ministers met in Cairo yesterday to draw up possible sanctions against Syria, but they had not issued any announcement by late last night.

Ankara has given support to the Syrian opposition in exile and allowed the leaders of a group of Syrian army defectors, the "Free Syrian Army" (FSA), to steer their troops from Turkish territory. Lieutenant Salem Odeh, a defector from Latakia, told the Reuters news agency historic and religious ties with Turkey that go back to the Ottoman Empire meant that Mr Al Assad's opponents in Syria would accept a Turkish military role.

"I just hope there will be Turkish military intervention. It's better, and they have long-standing blood ties from old times, and they are closer to the East than West," he said.

The leader of Syria's exiled Muslim Brotherhood also said this month that Syrians would accept a Turkish intervention in their country. "The Syrian people would accept intervention coming from Turkey, rather than from the West, if its goal was to protect the people," Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Riad Shakfa told reporters in Istanbul.

Turkey is reluctant to take military action across the frontier, but Turkish officials have been quoted by news agencies and Turkish newspapers as saying in recent days that they could act to set up a sanctuary on Syrian territory if huge numbers of refugees head for the border or if large-scale massacres take place in Syrian cities. Mr Erdogan, answering questions by Turkish reporters on Nov 19 about the possibility of an intervention, said no such move was on the agenda "at the moment".

So far, about 10,000 Syrians have crossed into Turkey. Syrian deserters and civilians in refugee camps and villages in Turkey close to the frontier say the Syrian army has reinforced its positions in border areas, according to Reuters.

The two neighbours came close to war in 1999 over Syria's decision to grant asylum to the leadership of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a rebel group fighting Ankara, but Syria expelled the PKK leadership the same year and relations flourished until the start of the uprising against Mr Al Assad in March.

Speculation about possible preparations for military action by Turkey was fuelled when Gen Hayri Kivrikoglu, Turkey's land forces commander, arrived at the Turkish-Syrian border for a surprise visit to inspect troops there on Nov 22. Shortly afterwards, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Israel's government had concluded that Turkey was moving towards an armed intervention in Syria.

Veysel Ayhan, a specialist on Syria at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (Orsam), a think tank in Ankara, said the escalation of the conflict in Syria made an eventual intervention by the international community more likely.

"Different groups in Syria have begun to arm themselves," Mr Ayhan told The National in a telephone interview on Nov 25. "If the situation in Syria turns into a civil war like in Lebanon, with everybody fighting against everybody, Turkey will not allow it, it will not remain a spectator."

Should the question of an intervention arise, Turkey would not act alone, but together with allies in the Arab world, Mr Ayhan said. The role of the West in such a scenario would be very limited. "The West would not be accepted by the people in Syria, but Turkey and the Arabs would," he said.

Asked about Mr Arinc's outright rejection of any idea of intervention, Mr Ayhan said the deputy prime minister was right, given the situation at the moment. "But if the situation in Syria changes, the situation will also change for Turkey."

 

tseibert@thenational.ae