x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Turkey 'ready for any scenario' in Syria unrest

Turkey said yesterday it did not want military intervention in Syria but was ready for any scenario to deal with President Bashar Al Assad's crackdown.

ISTANBUL // Turkey said yesterday it did not want military intervention in Syria but was ready for any scenario to deal with President Bashar Al Assad's crackdown, including setting up a buffer zone to contain any influx of refugees.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also said Turkish sanctions against Syria were ready and would be announced after he meets with President Abdullah Gul and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A former friend of Syria, Turkey is now a vocal critic of Al Assad and his military action against protesters. In his most direct message to the Syrian leader, Mr Erdogan called on Al Assad last week to step down.

"If the oppression continues, Turkey is ready for any scenario. We hope that a military intervention will never be necessary. The Syrian regime has to find a way of making peace with its own people," Mr Davutoglu said in an interview with television broadcaster Kanal 24.

"If tens, hundreds of thousands of people start advancing towards the Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey borders, not only Turkey but the international community may be required to take some steps such as a buffer zone. We don't want that to happen but we must consider and work on that scenario."

However, Mr Davutoglu played down his comments at a news conference yesterday, saying a buffer zone was not on "today's agenda".

The Turkish army set up a security buffer zone inside northern Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991 and has maintained small detachments there ever since.

Turkey's border with Syria is about 900 kilometres, of which more than 500km is mined on the Turkish side, the legacy of an era when Syria and Turkey almost went to war over a Syrian policy of housing Kurdish militants.

On Sunday, the Arab League imposed sanctions on Damascus over the crackdown, in which close to 4,000 people have been killed in eight months. The European Union weighed in one day later.

Ankara has said it will follow the Arab League in imposing sanctions on Syria and yesterday Mr Davutoglu said those sanctions were now ready and would be announced soon.

He did not specify a time frame but repeated Ankara's long-standing stance of applying measures selectively to avoid harming the Syrian people.

"The sanctions will not affect Syrian people's daily lives," Mr Davutoglu said, adding that Turkey would not cut off water to Syria.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, who earlier this month floated the idea of cutting off electricity supplies to Damascus, said yesterday the flow would not be restricted as this was a basic need.

Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey would conduct trade with the Middle East via Iraq if the violence worsened in Syria, echoing comments by the economy minister earlier this month that Turkey was looking at new routes to bypass Syria.

Turkey is Syria's biggest trading partner with bilateral trade worth $2.5 billion last year. However, Turkish exports to Syria dropped by 10 per cent in October and the first two weeks of November because of the rising insecurity, the economy minister has said.

Mr Yildirim said civil aviation flights will not be halted and Turkish Airlines services to Damascus will continue, but that Turkey would continue enforcing an arms embargo.

The Turkish newspaper Sabah, without identifying sources, said Syrian government accounts at the Turkish central bank will be suspended, official sales to the Syrian state will be halted and a travel ban will be imposed on Al Assad and his family.

The paper said the Arab League measures were discussed at a meeting of Turkish ministers on Sunday and will be imposed after approval from Mr Erdogan.