In a statement that may be interpreted as the harshest response yet to the escalating 13-month-old Syrian crisis, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the first time on Wednesday raised the possibility of calling on the NATO military alliance to protect Turkey's border against incursions by Syrian forces.
Speaking to reporters travelling with him during his official visit to China, Erdoğan said Turkey may consider invoking NATO's fifth article to protect Turkish national security in the face of increasing tension along the Syrian border. His comments came after four Syrians who fled to Turkey from the violence in Syria were killed by Syrian forces targeting refugees on the Turkish side of the border on Monday.
“NATO has a responsibility to protect Turkish borders,” said Erdoğan, signaling that Turkey may officially ask NATO members to apply Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which says that an attack on any member shall be considered to be an attack on all, if the situation in Syria becomes a serious enough threat to Turkish national security.
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 charter.
Erdoğan stated that Turkey would closely follow the developments in Syria. “Turkey’s sensitivities are clear on the Syrian issue. We will follow the Syrian situation closely at the United Nations,” he said.
Meanwhile the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday saying that Turkey expects the UN Security Council to adopt a decision that would include taking necessary measures to protect the Syrian people as Bashar al-Assad has failed to live up to commitments he made by accepting the Annan cease-fire plan. The Turkish initiative came after the cease-fire deal hammered out by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan failed to bring a resolution to the bloodshed in Syria, with Assad making new demands from the Syrian opposition over the weekend.
“The United Nations should gather and take a decision on Syria. The organizations and the institutions which met in İstanbul should pressure the UN to make a decision,” Erdoğan told reporters in Beijing.
Syrian opposition groups say more than 800 Syrians have been killed since Assad accepted Annan’s peace proposal on March 27, including 38 on Tuesday.
When asked whether there is a possibility of the continuation of the Baath regime in a post-Assad period, Erdoğan stated that Baath members are standing with the current regime. If the regime topples, the Baath party will also collapse. “In Iraq, the Baath party collapsed with Saddam’s decline, and only some ruins of it are left behind. Some want the Baath regime in Syria to stand because they want the autocratic system to continue. But we [Turkey] wish for Syria to have a multiparty democracy,” Erdoğan said.
After wrapping up his visit in China, Erdoğan will fly to Saudi Arabia on Friday to have a meeting with King Abdullah in Riyadh at the end of the week. Erdoğan is expected to press the king about Arab countries taking the lead in coordinated international measures against Assad. “Saudi Arabia also has sensitivities on the Syrian issue. In regards to the interests of both our sides, we [Turkey and Saudi Arabia] wanted to speak about this topic together,” said Erdoğan.
After 13 months of bloodshed, a revolt that began as a mostly peaceful movement against Assad’s stagnant and entrenched regime has morphed into an insurgency. The UN estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising began, and the toll continues to climb every day. Regime forces assault opponents with tanks, machine guns and snipers, and the Free Syrian Army launches frequent attacks against government targets, killing soldiers and security forces.
Syria’s main opposition group has said about 1,000 people have been killed in regime attacks in the last eight days alone, a figure that could not be independently confirmed.
“Turkey has a unique attitude; history is evidence of this. Turkey will at least take the position other countries would take in a similar situation. Syria should put itself in order. If Syria continues its violence, then, Syria should be ready to pay the consequences of this violence. Yesterday also there were armed attacks across our border with Syria. In terms of international law, it is clear what Turkey should do in terms of border violations,” said Erdoğan.
The number of refugees who have fled to Turkey from the violence in Syria has exceeded 25,000. Regarding these refugees, Erdoğan stated that Turkey will never close its doors to the Syrian people even if this number reaches 100,000, in accordance with Turkey’s “open door” policy on Syrian refugees.
Erdoğan lobbied the Chinese government on Syria during the visit. He said that China has moved from its earlier position after Turkey explained what has really been happening inside Syria.
“The death count has reached nearly 10,000. We shared our concerns on this topic with the Chinese side, particularly with Chinese President Hu Jintao. They said they don’t approve of this situation,” said Erdoğan.
Erdoğan stated that he reminded the Chinese about the eight vetoes China has exercised as a member of the Security Council, two of them on the Syrian issue. “We [Turkey] reminded them about their [China’s] two vetoes regarding the Syrian issue, and they [the Chinese] said that after this China will not easily take such decisions,” said Erdoğan.
Russia and China had blocked strong action by the UN Security Council, giving Assad a significant layer of protection as his crackdown continues.
Erdoğan also said that inhumane actions were going on in Syria and that labeling the opposition as terrorist is simply wrong. “How can a baby who was killed be a terrorist? What is a tank doing in a civilian neighborhood?” he asked.
Erdoğan underlined that after his Saudi Arabia visit he is expecting to go to Russia in order to work out differences between Turkey and Russia on the Syrian issue