x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Continuing violence in Syria prompts Turkey to consider tougher stance

Turkey is getting increasingly frustrated with the violence in Syria and is considering a formal declaration that the regime of Bashar Al Assad has lost its legitimacy.

ISTANBUL // Frustrated by the violence in Syria, Turkey may soon take a much tougher stance that could include a formal declaration that the regime of Bashar Al Assad has lost its legitimacy, according to government sources and analysts.

A high-ranking official said yesterday Turkey was not planning to issue such a statement "at this very moment". He was reacting to a report in a pro-government newspaper yesterday that such a declaration was imminent,

But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, left the door open for such a move at a later stage. "We will follow developments and act accordingly," he told The National.

Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Center for Mideastern Strategic Studies, or Orsam, a think tank in Ankara, said yesterday that after months of trying to get Mr Assad to implement meaningful political reforms to answer legitimate democratic demands of the protesters, Ankara was changing tack. Declaring that Mr Assad had lost his legitimacy was one possible step, Mr Orhan said by telephone. "Maybe it will not happen right away, but it is not far off either if violence continues."

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, admitted late on Monday that hopes for an improvement of the situation in the neighbouring country had been dashed by recent action of the Syrian armed forces in the coastal town of Latakia, which has been pounded by gunboats.

Operations in Syria had "intensified" despite his talks with Mr Assad in Damascus on August 9, Mr Davutoglu said. "The operations must end immediately," he told reporters in Ankara. "If not, there will nothing for us to discuss" with the Syrian regime, the foreign minister said, without giving further details. The chairman of a consultative body advising Mr Davutoglu's ministry said sanctions against Syria may come onto the agenda.

Mr Assad's government has been trying to crush an uprising since March. Army action against demonstrators has cost nearly 2,000 lives, according to Syrian activists, but Mr Assad maintains he has been confronting armed gangs bent on destabilising the country.

Given Mr Assad's refusal to embrace reforms, Turkey was preparing to state officially that the Assad regime was not longer a legitimate government, the pro-government Sabah newspaper reported. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, was expected to make the announcement in the coming days, the newspaper reported, quoting unnamed diplomatic sources.

Bulent Aras, chairman of the Center for Strategic Research of Turkey's foreign ministry, an advisory body, said this week that Ankara was still pursuing efforts to "engage" Syria, but could move towards a policy of isolating Damascus and applying sanctions if the violence continued.

"Turkey could withdraw its ambassador," Professor Aras, a political scientist at Istanbul's Isik University, told the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper on Monday. Ankara could also try to win over other countries in the region for a joint initiative to isolate Syria. Another option was for Turkey to press for sanctions against Syria in the international arena or to apply unilateral sanctions such as stopping Syrian imports into Turkey.

The statement by Mr Davutoglu, the Sabah report and Prof Aras's suggestions, published in another pro-government newspaper, appeared to be part of an effort to make it clear to the Syrians that the consequences of further violence would be serious. It could also demonstrate to the majority Sunni Muslim public in Turkey itself that the government was not soft on Mr Assad's Alawite regime.

Ankara was also under growing pressure because repeated and fruitless appeals to Syria to end the violence could undermine Turkey's claim to a regional leadership role in the Middle East.

After an initial approach of encouraging Mr Assad to embark on reforms to prevent chaos in the neighbouring country and a possible wave of tens of thousands of refugees across the joint land border of almost 900 kilometres into Turkey, Ankara has markedly sharpened its rhetoric. Earlier this month, Mr Erdogan said that Turkey had come to the "last moments of patience" with Mr Assad.

Mr Davutoglu was the latest top official to publicly vent his frustration with the regime in Damascus. Referring to the first two days after his talks with Mr Assad last week, he told reporters that Turkey had initially been encouraged by the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from the city of Hama and allowing the Turkish ambassador to visit the city.

"But then, especially since late Thursday, operations have been intensified and extended, instead of halted," Mr Davutoglu said. Ankara had been calling on the Syrians "on every level" to stop the operations, he added. Violence against protesters in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor and in Latakia was "inexcusable".

Mr Orhan of Orsam said a statement by Turkey saying that Mr Assad was no longer a legitimate leader would have much more influence on the balance of power inside Syria than a similar statement by the United States, which was also reported to be mulling such a move.

"If Turkey says something like this, the opposition will feel encouraged and strengthened," Mr Orhan said. The possibility that the US may publish a similar statement soon was another factor being weighed in Ankara, he added. Turkey did not want to be seen as following Washington's lead on a regional issue.

Foreign ministry sources in Ankara, speaking to The National yesterday, denied reports by Turkish news channels saying Turkey had decided to establish security zones along the Syrian border to prevent a sudden surge of refugees into Turkey. The situation in Syria was expected to come up during a meeting of Turkey's National Security Council tomorrow. News reports said Turkey's ambassador to Syria, Omer Onhon, would brief senior government and military officials during the meeting.

 

tseibert@thenational.ae