Fulya Ozerkan, AFP
Last updated: 11 April, 2012

Turkey steps up pressure on Damascus after border crisis

A furious Turkey has stepped up threats against Syria after escalating tensions on their common border while pushing for buffer zones to be established for refugees, say analysts.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has implicitly warned that Turkey may use force to set up a safe haven for refugees within Syrian territory if President Bashar al-Assad forces Turkey to take such a step.

“Don’t push us too far,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Turkish press on Wednesday while on an official visit to China.

Turkey has no intention to enter into Syria, he said.

“But if anybody forces us to do this, it would be the Syrian regime itself,” the prime minister added.

Erdogan remained vague on what he intended to say but analysts said Turkey was edging closer to setting up a buffer zone on Syrian soil after the number of Syrian refugees fleeing Assad’s year-long crackdown has exceeded 25,000.

“The latest news shows that the number of refugees is increasing,” Mehmet Ali Birand wrote in English-language Hurriyet Daily News.

“With the rate of this increase, the probability that a buffer zone will be formed inside Syrian territory is also increasing. The official name of this is an invasion of Syria. Take one more step and it means Turkey and Syria are at war,” he argued.

Analyst Nihat Ali Ozcan of Ankara-based TEPAV think tank warned it was not easy to set up a bufferzone which he said must be supported by military force on Syrian soil.

“This means a declaration of war,” he told AFP.

Erdogan’s latest warning against Damascus followed Monday’s shooting from the Syrian side which wounded six people on Turkish soil, a first case of its kind that drastically strained already tense relations with Damascus.

The Turkish premier blasted the incident as a “very clear violation of the border.”

Syria in return accused Turkey of undermining the peace plan of international mediator Kofi Annan by helping Syria’s rebels smuggle arms and cross the border.

In addition to taking in more refugees, Turkey has also emerged as the main haven for Syrian opposition groups and rebel fighters, but it refuses to arm the forces fighting the Assad regime.

On Wednesday, Turkish media reported fresh shots fired by Syrian forces hit another refugee camp just across the border.

The increasing activity at the border prompted Turkey to boost security measures as television footage showed police helicopters surveilling the borderline with Syria, while also giving a push to diplomatic efforts.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was accompanying the prime minister in China, had to skip the Shanghai leg of the visit and fly home Tuesday.

Erdogan is expected to visit Saudi Arabia on Friday, which is spearheading anti-Assad efforts together with Qatar.

And local media reported that Erdogan, who wrapped up talks in China, may even stop in Russia, another major ally of Damascus alongside Beijing, though it is not yet confirmed by officials.

Analysts say Turkey is seeking international consensus for any action it might take on crisis in Syria.

“Can Turkey intervene in Syria without the backing of the United Nations, or the United States?” asked Huseyin Bagci, international relations professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.

As the clock ticked down to the Thursday deadline for Damascus to abide by the Annan plan, Turkey’s government is pessimistic that Assad will live up to his pledge to pull out troops from protest hubs.

Erdogan’s open challenge against Syria where the unrest has claimed well over 9,000 lives according to UN estimates since the uprising erupted more than a year ago, irked Turkey’s opposition parties which warned of “chaos” if Turkey was involved in any military operation.

Opposition politicians accused Erdogan’s government of making a U-turn in its policy toward Syria which was once among the neighbours with which Ankara forged “zero problems” foreign policy.

Commentators also appealed on Turkey to act prudently.

“The developments show the Middle East is a serious minefield for Turkey,” columnist Semih Idiz wrote in Turkish daily Milliyet.

“Everyone knows that one cannot simply barge into a minefield even if it’s to save someone caught in the middle.”