Turkey has said it is considering setting up a “security” or “buffer zone” along its border with Syria and may withdraw its ambassador to Damascus after Turkish citizens inside the neighboring country return home.
"We are making assessments including the withdrawal of our ambassador," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters in Ankara. "There are also considerations about creating a buffer zone and a safe zone, we are evaluating alternatives."
Erdoğan didn't elaborate, but said Turkey is currently building temporary housing units for Syrian refugees and would move them from tents to those units when they are ready.
He voiced hope the April 2 meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria group in Istanbul will help settle the crisis.
"We are planning to hold it with large participation and with the aim of finding a solution," Erdoğan said.
Turkey has invited both Russia and China, which shunned the group's previous meeting.
Turkey is wary of military intervention in neighboring Syria, but has signaled a large flood of refugees entering its territory, or massacres by Syrian government troops, could force it to act. It has said that in any operation it would need some form of international agreement and involvement.
A buffer zone inside Syria would need to be secured. Without at least tacit Syrian government acceptance, that could bring Turkish forces, the second biggest in NATO, into confrontation with Syrian troops. Fighting has moved closer to the Turkish frontier, with a government assault in the Idlib region.
Erdoğan also said Turkey was considering recalling its ambassador from Damascus once Turkish citizens had returned from Syria, which the Turkish Foreign Ministry urged them to do at once.
Earlier in the day, the Turkish Foreign Ministry told Turkish citizens in Syria to return to Turkey, citing growing security risks. “It is evident that developments in Syria pose serious security risks to our citizens [in Syria]. In this regard, Turkish citizens in Syria are strongly advised to return home,” the ministry said in a statement.
The statement also said consular services would not be available at the Turkish Embassy in Damascus as of March 22. However, the Turkish Consulate in Aleppo will continue to provide services, the statement added.
The ministry recalled that it had earlier issued a travel warning for Turkish citizens planning to go to Syria. It had warned Turkish nationals not to travel to Syria unless absolutely necessary due to difficulties in maintaining public order, while urging those currently in Syria to be cautious and remain in contact with Turkish missions at all times after pro-regime protestors attacked Turkish missions in Syria.
Most recently, a 75-year-old Turkish citizen, Hayrettin Ayoğlu, who had been severely wounded in an armed attack by Syrian soldiers in the Syrian city of Aleppo died on Monday. Ayoğlu had been brought to the southern Turkish province of Kilis for treatment after being shot in the head near the town of Aziz, outside of Aleppo, during an armed attack on his car early on Monday.
Two Turkish journalists have also been missing in Syria for nearly a week. The two men were reportedly being held by Syrian intelligence, according to the Anatolia news agency on Thursday. However, there has been no official confirmation of these reports.