Impatient Turkey wants Syrian crisis solved soon
ISTANBUL // With only days to go before a major conference on Syria in Istanbul, host Turkey is showing signs of frustration and impatience with international peace efforts, but observers warn unilateral steps by Ankara could steer Turkey into isolation.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, shrugged off the agreement by Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, to accept a peace plan by international mediator Kofi Annan.
"I don't believe him, I don't trust him," Mr Erdogan, referring to Mr Al Assad, told Turkish reporters travelling with him to South Korea and Iran, according to Turkish news reports yesterday.
In a meeting with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, whose country has provided crucial political support to Mr Al Assad, Mr Erdogan on Tuesday called on Moscow to turn away from the Syrian regime.
"Assad has not taken the necessary steps despite his promises of democratic steps," Mr Erdogan told Mr Medvedev in a 40-minute meeting on the fringes of an international summit on nuclear security in Seoul, Turkish media reported.
"The international community does not believe anymore that he will take those steps," Mr Erdogan said about the Syrian president. "We expect you to see that as well," he told the Russian leader. "It is time you saw that Syria will not be convinced. It is time you saw things will not go on with Assad" remaining in power.
Yesterday, Mr Erdogan arrived in Tehran, another close ally of Syria, for talks with Iranian officials. No details about those talks were immediately available.
Mr Erdogan's comments in his meeting with Mr Medvedev reflected a growing sense of exasperation in Turkish government circles with the slow pace of international efforts to increase pressure on Mr Al Assad and with perceived tactical manoeuvres by Damascus.
"We are impatient," a Turkish diplomat told reporters in Istanbul this week. He said about 17,000 refugees from Syria, where a government crackdown on protesters has killed more than 9,000 people since last March, had arrived in Turkey so far, and more could be on the way.
"The insecurity is affecting us," the diplomat said.
On Sunday, Mr Erdogan is scheduled to address the second conference of the "Friends of Syria", a group of 80 western and Arab countries calling for more pressure on the Al Assad regime.
A first meeting of the group in Tunis last month ended with a call for a ceasefire in Syria, but failed to end the bloodshed. Mr Erdogan has promised the second meeting will produce "very different results".
Political heavyweights such as Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, as well as senior officials from several Arab states are expected to attend.
But Turkey has failed to persuade Russia and China, two veto powers at the United Nations that have thwarted efforts to isolate Mr Al Assad further, to send delegates to Istanbul.
Turkey's immediate concern is the refugee situation.
Mr Erdogan and other officials have suggested Ankara could create a buffer zone inside Syria in case of a large-scale influx of refugees. But there are no details about the way such a zone would be secured militarily, and government officials underline that while military preparations for a zone may have begun, no decision has been taken.
Yesterday, Gen Hayri Kivrikoglu, commander of Turkey's land forces, inspected part of the Turkish-Syrian border in Kilis province in a surprise visit, according to media reports. The area bordering Kilis on the Syrian side is seen as a possible location for a buffer zone.
Some observers say Turkey, a former ally of Syria that abandoned all links with the Al Assad regime after mediation efforts failed last August and that closed its embassy in Damascus this week, has put itself in a potentially difficult situation by burning all bridges with its neighbour.
Onur Oymen, a retired ambassador and former opposition lawmaker in Ankara, said Mr Erdogan should be careful not to step outside the United Nations peace moves.
"Turkey is not the gendarme of the region," he told The National this week. "Turkey should refrain from taking sides".
Semih Idiz, a columnist with the Milliyet newspaper, said Ankara's exposed position on Syria was one of the reasons for the growing irritation of the Erdogan government.
"Turkey planned on Assad to have disappeared by now, and this has not happened," Mr Idiz told The National. At the same time, Ankara is unhappy with the direction of Mr Annan's peace mission because the former UN secretary-general's plan include a demand for negotiations between the government in Damascus and the opposition.
This is at odds with Ankara's demand that Mr Al Assad step down and make way for a new government.
"Turkey is concerned that Assad may survive this," Mr Idiz said.
Another headache for Ankara is the divided Syrian opposition. At a meeting in Istanbul this week, called by Turkey and Qatar, several hundred Syrian activists discussed ways to find a more unified voice ahead of the "Friends of Syria" conference.
In a statement on Tuesday, most factions agreed to recognise the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group, as the official representative of the opposition. But differences remained.
Kurdish delegates and Haitham Al Maleh, a veteran human-rights activist, left the meeting, saying their voices were ignored by the SNC.
Updated: March 29, 2012 04:00 AM