Turkey says Syria only has a few days left to get its act together

June 17, 2011, Friday/ 16:13:00

Turkey has delivered a blunt message to the Syrian leadership, saying the regime's willingness to undertake sweeping reforms in the unrest-laden country will determine the position of Turkey in the coming days, if not weeks, diplomatic sources told Today's Zaman.

Turkey warned Syria that it will start supporting tougher United Nations resolutions asking further pressure to be exerted on the Bashar al-Assad regime if the Syrian government does not adopt sweeping reforms immediately and halt the crackdown on anti-government demonstrators

The Turkish response to Syria will be shaped by how the regime responds to unrest engulfing the country and whether or not the promise of switching to a multi-party system to reflect the diversity and pluralism of Syrian society will materialize, the same source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to an incremental plan, Turkey will start supporting tougher UN resolutions if the regime fails to live up to the expectations of the international community. The strongest message yet to the Syrian leadership was conveyed by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who spoke with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's special envoy, Hassan Turkmani, earlier this week. “We underlined that Turkish support to Syria hinges on the willingness of the Syrian government to adopt sweeping reforms in the country. We detailed our suggestions before and even relayed a written proposal to Damascus on how they should proceed to stabilize the country,” the source explained.

The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Alawite dominance has bred resentment, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria. But the president now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed Assad relatives, to crush the resistance.

While the UN Security Council authorized military action to protect civilians in Libya, Russia and China are opposed to a much milder resolution that would condemn Syria for its deadly crackdown on protesters and demand an immediate end to the violence. The resolution's sponsors -- Britain, France, Germany and Portugal -- say they have the minimum nine "yes" votes to adopt the measure, but are seeking additional support from Brazil, South Africa and India. Diplomats say the extra support could persuade Russia and China to abstain rather than veto.

Ankara has also warned Syria about the ongoing crackdown on dissidents, urging Syrian security forces to stop resorting to violence and bloodshed. “We want a strong, stable, prosperous Syria. To achieve this we believe it is necessary to implement the comprehensive reform process towards democratization guaranteed by [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad,” Davutoğlu told reporters after three hours of talks with Turkmani on Thursday morning.

“In order to achieve this, the violence must stop immediately. Yesterday I clearly saw the fear in the eyes of the people, and I shared this,” he added, describing talks with Turkmani as friendly and Syria as Turkey's “closest friend.”

Erdoğan to visit Egypt and Syria

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also discussed recent developments with Middle Eastern leaders shortly after his re-election on Sunday. Diplomatic sources said the prime minister spoke over the phone with his Lebanese counterpart, Najib Mikati, with respect to violence in Syria. Erdoğan also had talks with Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Erdoğan is expected to pay an official visit to Egypt soon and a visit to Syria is also in the planning stages.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called on Assad to stop the violence. He said he had spoken to Assad and urged him to halt the violence. "I again strongly urge President Assad to stop killing people and engage in inclusive dialogue and take bold measures before it's too late," Ban told reporters in Brazil.

Syrian forces, which retook the rebellious town of Jisr al-Shughour near the Turkish border on Sunday, have circled two nearby towns on the main north-south road linking Damascus with the second city of Aleppo. Army units "have deployed near Khan Sheikhoun and Maarat al-Numaan to ensure the safety" of the highway, Syrian news agency SANA said. Many of the residents of Maarat al-Numaan, a town of 100,000 fled after Syrian forces swept through the northwestern province of Idlib last week near the Turkish border. On Friday, there were reports that large numbers of soldiers had entered Maarat al-Numaan. It was not immediately clear whether there were any casualties in the operation.

The number of Syrians fleeing violent clashes between the army and anti-government groups to Turkey has reached nearly 9,700, a Turkish border official said on Friday. Syrians who seek shelter in Turkey are accommodated in tent sites in the towns of Altınözü and Yayladağ, both in the southern province of Hatay. Activists say another 10,000 have been sheltering by the border just inside Syria.

Partial concession comes too late

In a move to calm down anti-government protest demonstrations, Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of President Assad and the focus of anti-corruption protests, said he is quitting business. Makhlouf controls several businesses, including Syria's largest mobile phone operator, duty free shops, an oil concession, an airline company and hotel and construction concerns and shares in at least one bank.

He reportedly said he will put his 40 percent holding in Syriatel up for sale in an initial public offering, with profits allocated to humanitarian work and the families of those killed in the unrest. Makhlouf is a childhood friend of Assad's who has expanded his business since the president assumed power 11 years ago. He has been subject to US sanctions since 2007 for what Washington calls public corruption, as well as EU sanctions imposed in May, but repeatedly maintained he was a legitimate businessman whose firms employ thousands of Syrians.

Syrian activists said, however, that the announcement of Makhlouf stepping down would not put a halt to the protests unless it was part of a wider package of reform.

Syrian rights groups say 1,300 civilians and more than 300 soldiers and police have been killed since the protests broke out in March against 41 years of rule by the Assad family.

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