With just hours left into what seems to be already collapsed UN brokered ceasefire deadline on April 10, the last minute diplomatic rush to avert more bloodshed in a 13-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has gained momentum. Turkey is putting the squeeze on its southern neighbor with strong indications that Ankara is finalizing plans to set up a humanitarian corridor and possibly a buffer zone inside Syria in order to contain the burgeoning refugee crisis and border skirmishes.
As Assad's government's last minute conditions for the ceasefire on Sunday, which were immediately rejected by the opposition, effectively killed Annan's plan, Turkey increased security precautions along the Syrian border. Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru said on Monday it seems the April 10 deadline is void and a new process will start on Tuesday. He underlined that neither Turkey nor the governments in the region expect any new developments when the deadline expires.
Syria was on the agenda of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during his first official visit to China, on Monday. Erdoğan who signaled that Turkey would take measures after the expiry of the Tuesday deadline warned that the Syrian issue will be on top of his agenda during talks with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao. He first stopped on Sunday in Urumqi, capital of China's far west Xinjiang region, whose Uyghur ethnic group shares linguistic, ethnic and cultural links with Turks. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin acknowledged the country's differences with Turkey over Syria. "Although we don't share complete agreement, we agree that we should play a constructive role," said Weimin.
President Abdullah Gül and Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz both signaled last week that a military option has not been ruled out in resolving the Syrian crisis. The Turkish Red Crescent announced on Friday that it was preparing to deliver humanitarian aid to Syria in the event that Turkey or the international community calls for a “humanitarian aid corridor” inside Syrian territory.
UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is scheduled to visit refugee camps in southern Turkey on Tuesday, which shelter thousands of Syrians who sought refuge in Turkey after fleeing violence in their country.
“Mr. Annan will visit a refugee camp in Turkey tomorrow (Tuesday) on his way to Iran,” his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva on Monday. Annan is expected to have talks with senior Iranian leaders about Syrian crisis. In the meantime, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem arrived in Moscow on Monday for a two-day visit. Russia has lent political cover to the Assad regime during its 13-month violent crackdown on the opposition, and has twice-vetoed the UN resolution condemning the Syrian government.
Annan’s visit to Turkey coincides with the UN deadline for the Syrian government to withdraw troops from populated areas. Nearly 3,000 Syrians fled to Turkey last week, pushing the total number of refugees to over 24,000. Currently, 8,095 Syrians are living in Hatay province, 5,498 in Gaziantep province (Nurdagi-Islahiye), 9,089 in Kilis province and 1,599 in Sanliurfa province (Ceylanpinar). Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Annan spoke over the phone about the huge influx of refugees, with Annan reportedly having said he would be in Turkey soon to observe the situation.
A series of security agreements, including 1998 Adana Agreement, Turkey has signed with Syria over the course of the last decade give Turkey the right to intervene in Syria if the security situation in the country becomes threatening to the national security of Turkey. Turkey may even ask NATO to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which says that an attack on any member shall be considered an attack on all. The article was invoked by the US for the first time in October 2001, when NATO determined that the terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, were indeed eligible under the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty.
Since the Assad regime allows the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates to launch attacks on Turkish soil and harbors some 1500 to 2000 hard-core PKK militants in areas close to the Turkish border, Turkey can very well utilize the NATO security provisions as a last resort. Özgür Özdamar, assistant professor of international relations at Ankara-based Bilkent University, claimed that the situation has not declined enough to invoke the NATO charter. “We have not come to that point yet,” he said, predicting that Turkey would act according to international law. “Ankara may launch cross border operations to secure a safety area for refugees inside Syria if the wave of refugees becomes unbearable,” he added.
In the meantime, the tension at Turkey’s border with Syria got tense after Syrian forces fired shots across the border on Monday, wounding 19 and killing two Syrian refugees according to reports from the Kilis province near the border. Among the wounded were two Turkish citizens. The Turkish foreign ministry summoned the Syrian charge d’affaires in Ankara to deliver a note of protest regarding the killings. The last incident happened in February when bullets struck a solar heating system mounted on a village house in Güveççi village at the Turkish-Syrian border with no reported injuries.
Bezen Balamir Coşkun, the Middle East expert at the Gaziantep-based Zirve University, told Today’s Zaman that the negotiations are now over. “Assad is no longer a party in resolving the Syrian crisis. Turkey will lead from now on an international effort to create a humanitarian corridor or buffer zone in Syrian soil,” she said, adding that Ankara will exert more pressure on veto-wielding power Russia.
Syrian National Council member Khaled Khoja told Today’s Zaman that the biggest limitations of the Annan plan is that it was never accepted in anything but word by Assad. Stressing that the opposition have accepted the initiatives layed out in the Annan plan, Khoja lamented that Assad was not held by the international community to any mechanism which would threaten punishment if he did not follow through with the plan.
A peace plan drawn up by Annan requires Syrian President to “begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers” by Tuesday for a truce to start 48 hours later. But the pullback looks unlikely after new demands were raised by Damascus on Sunday. Annan said on Sunday that an “unacceptable” escalation in violence in Syria violated guarantees made to him and called on the government to keep its promises to end the bloodshed.
“From the beginning, it has been clear that Bashar al-Assad is relying on a strategy which allows him to gain time -- first there was the Turkish initiative, then the Arab initiative, and now the current initiative which is allowing Assad to gain time and avoid international condemnation,” Khoja explained. “So the current initiative is no different, Assad will use this plan in order to gain more time. We would have seen a harsher reaction to Assad at the Friends of Syria meeting, for instance, but people had hope that the peace plan would work, so he used it to keep pressure low,” he added.
Metin Çorabatır, the spokesman for the Ankara office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Monday that the UNHCR is ready to assist Turkey in meeting challenges of the refugee crisis. Çorabatır praised Turkey’s generous “open border” policy regarding the outflow of Syrians that began on April 29, 2011.
Ali Semin, a Middle East expert from the Turkish think-tank -- the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), also agrees that Turkey’s ‘B’ plan for Syria would kick in now that Assad defied the Annan plan. He said that Turkey needs to work with the UN to gain legitimacy for the plan in order to avoid the perception of an illegal military occupation of Syrian territory. “The UN connection is a must for Turkey,” he told Today’s Zaman.
According to wire reports, a leading international human rights group said Syrian forces have summarily executed more than 100 people, most of them civilians. This includes several mass executions in the restive provinces of Homs and Idlib, according to a report on Monday by Human Rights Watch. The New-York-based group says it only included cases corroborated by witnesses but has received more reports of similar incidents. The executions allegedly took place over the past four months, with most happening in March.