x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Syria peace plan is 'invalid' as violence spills over Turkish border

The Turkish government has declared the UN-brokered peace plan for Syria "invalid" after stray shots injured at least five people in a Turkish refugee camp on the border.

Turkish medics accompany a wounded Syrian man after he crossed the border at a hospital in Gaziantep, Turkey, yesterday.
Turkish medics accompany a wounded Syrian man after he crossed the border at a hospital in Gaziantep, Turkey, yesterday.

ISTANBUL // The Turkish government has declared the UN-brokered peace plan for Syria "invalid" after stray shots injured at least five people in a Turkish refugee camp on the border.

With just a day to go before the deadline for Syrian troops to withdraw from flashpoints, three Syrians fleeing from the violence and two Turkish officials were hit by bullets from the Syrian side of the border.

Naci Koru, Turkey's deputy foreign minister, said the unabated fighting had rendered today's deadline for a withdrawal of government forces and an ensuing ceasefire "invalid".

Yusuf Odabas, the governor of Kilis province in southern Turkey, said 21 Syrians were wounded in fighting close to the border overnight.

When the wounded started moving towards a refugee camp on the Turkish side in Kilis in the morning, shots were fired from Syria.

In a statement posted on his office's website, Mr Odabas said a Turkish policeman and a Turkish translator in the camp were injured. At least three Syrians were also said to be hit.

Mr Odabas said two of the 21 Syrians wounded in the overnight fighting later died in Turkish hospitals.

The shooting came as tensions along the neighbours' 900km border mounted with Turkish officials accusing the Syrian government of offering fresh support to a Turkish-Kurdish rebel group that has been fighting Ankara for almost 30 years.

Turkey says it is considering the creation of a buffer zone inside Syria if its own national security is threatened by events in the neighbouring country.

After the shooting in Kilis, the Turkish government contacted the Syrian mission in Ankara to demand an immediate end to the shooting. It also said it was investigating whether it was a deliberate attack or whether the victims were hit by stray bullets.

"We are investigating how serious it was, if there was action directed against us or if there was fire crossing over from Syria" without intent, Mr Korusaid.

The sound of fighting close to the border on the Syrian side could be heard in Kilis.

International mediator Kofi Annan is scheduled to visit Turkish refugee camps today, but it remained unclear last night whether he will go to the camp in Kilis.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said last weekend Turkey would "implement steps" if the violence did not stop after April 10. He did not say what those steps may be.

Turkey is increasingly concerned that the fighting in Syria, where a government clampdown on protesters against President Bashar Al Assad has killed more than 9,000 people since March last year, could destabilise its southern border region. Activities of Turkish-Kurdish rebels in Syria add another dimension to potential regional effects of the conflict.

Turkish government sources and members of the Syrian opposition say the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a rebel group based in northern Iraq and fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984, has sent militants into Syria with the consent of authorities in Damascus. The PKK's reported move comes 14 years after Damascus ended the group's presence in Syria under Turkish pressure.

"Turkey is concerned over a possibility of a renewed Syrian support to PKK," a Turkish official told The National on condition of anonymity. He said Turkey was "monitoring and evaluating intelligence information" about PKK action in Syria.

Last month, Murat Karayilan, acting leader of the PKK since the group's founder, Abdullah Ocalan, was forced to leave his long-time residence in Damascus in 1998 and was jailed by Turkey a year later, warned Turkey against intervening in Syria.

"If the Turkish state launches an intervention against our people in western Kurdistan, the whole of Kurdistan will turn into a war zone," Mr Karayilan told the pro-Kurdish ANF news agency, referring to the Kurdish regions in Syria. Cemil Bayik, another high-ranking PKK leader, said last year the PKK would fight against any Turkish intervention in Syria.

Syria's two million Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the total population and who live mostly in the north and north-east of the country in areas bordering Turkey and Iraq, have been less active in anti-government protests than other groups. Members of the Syrian opposition in exile say part of the reason is pressure put on Kurds by the PKK.

"Assad wants to use the PKK against Turkey," Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition umbrella group, told The National in Istanbul last week. "It is one of his cards in rising tensions with Turkey."

Mahmut Osman, the Turkey representative of the SNC, said the Al Assad regime was using the PKK to prevent unrest in parts of Syria's Kurdish regions in order to free up government forces for operations elsewhere in the country.

"It's like a sub-contractor," Mr Osman said. "The PKK is putting pressure on the people so they do not take part in protests. The PKK threatens people and also beats them."

Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, a think tank in Ankara, said there was a "tactical cooperation" between the Al Assad regime and the PKK.

"For the regime, this cooperation has the advantage of the PKK putting pressure on people in the Kurdish regions. Seen from the PKK's point of view, the cooperation means it can be back in Syria after 15 years, it has gained new room to manoeuvre," Mr Orhan said by telephone yesterday.

tseibert@thenational.ae