x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Nato plans to defend Turkey if Syria border tensions escalate

Prospect of a broader military confrontation between Turkey and Syria draws closer as Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Ankara is "preparing for all eventualities".

ISTANBUL // The prospect of a broader military confrontation between Turkey and Syria drew closer yesterday, as prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his government was "preparing for all eventualities" and Nato declared it was ready to come to Ankara's defence.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, head of the 28-member North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, said that Ankara could rely on the European military alliance, which had "all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary".

At the same time, Mr Rasmussen appealed to all parties involved to show restraint and avoid a further escalation in the crisis, saying he hoped Nato military intervention would not be required in a war that has already left more than 32,000 people, mostly civilians, dead.

Nato ambassadors threw their support behind Turkey in an emergency meeting last week after Syrian shells struck a border town in Turkey killing five civilians. The neighbours have repeatedly exchanged fire since then, the most serious outbreak of cross-border violence since Syria's revolt against president Bashar Al Assad erupted 18 months ago. With Ankara's blessing, anti-Assad rebels are operating from camps inside Turkey.

As Mr Rasmussen assured Turkey of Nato support, Mr Erdogan defended his government's decision to order a military build-up along the already tense Syrian border.

"Nothing will remain without retaliation from now on," Mr Erdogan told his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara in a televised address. "We are preparing for all eventualities."

The premier said Necdet Ozel, the chief of general staff, had travelled to the border region to inspect troops and oversee military preparations there. Turkish media reported the military was moving additional tanks and fighter planes closer to the frontier.

Sections of the 900-kilometre long border are showing signs of becoming a tinderbox. Besides fighting between Syrian forces and anti-Assad insurgents on the one hand and Turkish and Syrian artillery batteries on the other, up to 100,000 Syrian refugees are holed up on the Turkish side of the border, exceeding Ankara's ability to cope, according to Mr Erdogan.

An additional 8,000 Syrians are stranded on the Syrian side of the frontier because there was no place for them in overcrowded Turkish camps, a Turkish official, who wished to remain anonymous, said. He said the Syrians were receiving humanitarian aid from Turkish aid workers on the border itself.

On Monday, Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, described Syria's civil war and its regional impact as the "worst-case scenario that we have all been dreading".

"Sooner rather than later there will be change, a transition," he predicted. "Our only hope is that this happens before more blood is shed, and before Syria self-destructs more than it already has."

In his speech to fellow party members yesterday, Mr Erdogan echoed the sentiment yesterday.

"Assad is finished," Mr Erdogan said. "At the moment, Assad can keep standing only on crutches," he added. "When the crutches fall, so will he."

Turkey, a former ally of Syria, has become one of Mr Al Assad's fiercest critics. The Ankara government has called on the Syrian president to step down and last weekend floated the idea to let the vice president Farouk Al Sharaa take over as leader of a transitional government.

"It could be a way out," a Turkish government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said yesterday. "There should be people who have no blood on their hands to manage a transition."

The official said the Turkish government was talking to several sides about the issue, adding that international Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was expected in Ankara for talks next week.

Members of the Syrian opposition reacted positively to the prospect of a transitional government led by Mr Al Sharaa.

"I don't mind him as a temporary solution," Molham Al Drobi, a leading member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition umbrella group, said yesterday. He said the SNC general assembly would talk about the issue at a four-day meeting in Doha starting on October 17.

Abdulbaset Saida, the SNC president, said on Monday that Mr Al Sharaa would be a possibility because he apparently had not played a role in the government crackdown against the opposition, according to Associated Press.

Bassam Dade, an adviser to the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force fighting Mr Assad's government troops in Syria, also welcomed the proposal. It was "the best way" to end Mr Al Assad's rule, Turkey's semi-official Anadolu news agency quoted Mr Dade as saying in Cairo.

* With agencies

tseibert@thenational.ae