Turkey is seriously considering all options it may take against Syria, including a military presence on Syrian soil to set up a humanitarian corridor or safety buffer zone for refugees, should Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fail to comply with the UN special envoy's six-point peace plan by the April 10 deadline.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that Turkey may start to take its own steps against Syria if the UN offer expires without any sign of compliance from Assad. “Kofi Annan [the joint UN-Arab League envoy] has to watch closely to see if the deadline he gave of April 10 is followed by the Syrian regime. We are following this process patiently. We will take our own steps after April 10,” said Erdoğan while in Konya before he left for China for a diplomatic visit.
Erdoğan did not specify what these “measures” may be. However, Turkey has recently floated the idea of creating a buffer zone into Syria if the exodus of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence reaches an unbearable degree.
Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz said over the weekend that Turkey is ready for all contingencies in the Syrian issue. “The state should think through all the possibilities and make itself ready for all situations, but this is does not mean [we are making] war preparations,” said Yılmaz.
President Abdullah Gül said last week that Turkey must maintain its diplomatic activism and military preparedness in the face of escalating tensions in neighboring countries. Gül, speaking to graduating officers at a military school in Ankara on Thursday, said that despite Turkey's upbeat expectations for the future, there are great risks and threats in its vicinity. He pointed to the violence in Syria, political instability based on sectarian discord in Iraq and the possibility of war over Iran's nuclear standoff as sources of a potential cold war in the region.
According to Turkish officials, the number of Syrian refugees in the country has exceeded 24,000. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu spoke on Saturday with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres by phone, providing him with an update on Syrian citizens staying in Turkey.
Oytun Orhan, an expert on Syria from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Research (ORSAM), told Today's Zaman that Assad's recent compromise on Annan's plan has alleviated international pressure on his regime. “If Assad had not compromised on Annan's six-point peace plan, the decisions made at the meeting of the Friends of Syria in İstanbul would be tougher and more severe. Probably, the [Syrian] National Council [SNC] would have been accepted as the sole legitimate representative of Syria. The Annan plan was actually used as a diplomatic maneuver by the Syrian regime,” said Orhan.
The Syrian regime announced the agreement on March 28 to a compromise on Annan's six-point peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of regime forces from besieged Syrian towns and villages. However, there has not been any significant progress on such a withdrawal and the shelling of Syrian opposition strongholds has continued.
When asked what kind of measures Turkey may take, Orhan replied that Turkey can come up with tougher, more concrete sanctions on Syria with the support of the UN. The establishment of a humanitarian corridor or buffer zone could be on the agenda after April 10. The expert added that the next few weeks will be decisive. If Annan's peace plan fails to stop the violence in Syria, then a meeting of the Friends of Syria to be held in France may see a turning point. Additionally, China and Russia may reevaluate their positions regarding the Syrian regime. Russia and China both vetoed a UN resolution in February calling on Assad to step aside but consented to Kofi Annan's peace plan.
Veysel Ayhan, an expert at ORSAM, told Today's Zaman that the recent statements by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu should be taken together, underlining that they relate to the possibility of the establishment of a buffer zone. “If the problem is not resolved inside Syria, then there will be two alternatives to resolve this problem: either by a UN decision or by a regional initiative, in which Turkey would also be included,” said Ayhan, adding that the establishment of a buffer zone will be the most likely topic on the agenda after April 10.
Touching on the possibility of the establishment of a buffer zone, Ayhan said international support and international legitimacy would be absolutely necessary. “If there is no international support for the establishment of a buffer zone, Turkey should be very careful not to act alone in its establishment. Otherwise, it will be considered Turkish intervention by the neighboring country. Therefore, a safe zone should be created with the support of the international community, including the UN, the Arab League and NATO,” said Ayhan.
When asked what kind of measures Turkey may take, Ayhan replied that as a diplomatic step, Turkey may declare its non-recognition of the Assad regime and recognize the SNC as the only legitimate representative of Syria. “By recognizing [the SNC], Turkey can lend both diplomatic and economic support to the new administration,” said Ayhan.
In the meantime, Erdoğan is discussing the Syrian crisis with Chinese officials while in Beijing this week. China is one of the international heavyweights backing the Assad regime in Syria.
Meanwhile, the US has claimed that the regime's forces are not withdrawing but only changing their locations. Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, posted satellite images online late Friday that he said cast doubt on the regime's readiness to pull out. “This is not the reduction in offensive Syrian government security operations that all agree must be the first step for the Annan initiative to succeed,” Ford wrote on his embassy's Facebook page.
Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, an expert on the Middle East, told Today's Zaman: “We see that there are serious statements being made by the Turkish side. The statements made by the Turkish president, prime minister and foreign minister are the evidence to show Turkey is planning to take harsh steps after April 10. Turkey is actually sending messages directly to the Assad regime and the countries supporting the regime, including Iran, China and Russia.”
Pointing to the possible measures Turkey may take against the Assad regime, Erol underlined that after April 10, Turkey will try to isolate Syria by increasing pressure on Iran, China and Russia. “Turkey is drawing a red line in the Syrian issue. Turkey will try to bring the Syrian issue to the international agenda and will focus on the establishment of a buffer zone,” said Erol.