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Tensions Rise Further Between Syria, Turkey


Syrian refugees gather around Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (center) during his visit to the Turkish Red Crescent camp in the Yayladagi district of the Turkish city of Hatay on June 15.

Syrian refugees gather around Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (center) during his visit to the Turkish Red Crescent camp in the Yayladagi district of the Turkish city of Hatay on June 15.

ISTANBUL -- Turkey's prime minister has raised the heat in a simmering dispute with Syria, saying he no longer has confidence in the Syrian regime.

The verbal assault on the former close ally follows weekend attacks on Turkish diplomatic missions in Syria by demonstrators loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Ankara, which has increased its support for the Syrian opposition in the course of eight months of protests, has demanded a full apology and the prosecution of those responsible for the attacks.

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It is against that background that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made pointed comments before parliament.

"Nobody expects that [Assad] will meet the demands of the Syrian people and the international community anymore," Erdogan said on November 15. "He is constantly deceiving people. The Syrian administration is on a thin and dangerous line, like a knife-edge. We all want them not to enter a dead-end street but turn from the cliff as soon as possible."

Meanwhile, the death toll in Syria, thought to be well over 3,500 since the crackdown began against antiregime protests in March, continued to mount.

'Big Blow To Damascus'

Erdogan's disdain for the Syrian president, once a close ally, was underlined by a reference to him by his first name Bashar, warning that he risked joining a list of leaders who "feed on blood."

Erdogan's declared loss of confidence in the Syrian leader follows Jordan's King Abdullah, who said on November 14 that he would step down if he were President Assad. Two days previously, Syria had been suspended from the Arab League over its crackdown on protesters.

Semih Idiz, a diplomatic columnist for the Turkish daily "Milliyet," says Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will be seeking to further isolate the Syrian regime at a November 16 meeting of his Arab League counterparts in the Moroccan city of Rabat.

"I think Turkey will be telling the Arab countries to remain united," Idiz says. "Eighteen countries have voted against Syria. This is a very big blow to Damascus, given that Damascus considers itself the seat of pan-Arab nationalism and is a founding member of the Arab League."

He suggests the resulting political pressure is "why Turkey will maintain that the line...set forward by the Arab League should be pursued.

"This is what Mr. Davutoglu will be trying to get across to his Arab interlocutors in Rabat," Idiz says.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on the eve of the Arab League meeting in Morocco that the United States expects that organization to send a "forceful message" to Assad.

Syrian state television said on November 15 that authorities had released more than 1,000 prisoners who had been involved in antiregime protests "and who did not have blood on their hands." Prominent dissident Kamal Labwani was also released.

One Door Closes, Another Opens

Davutoglu formally met with representative of the opposition Syrian Council on November 13, the day after the attacks on the diplomatic missions in Syria.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal says Turkey agreed to the opposition's request to open an official office.

"They will have an office in Turkey, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mr. Davutoglu, received the Syrian Council members for a second time," Unal says. "They have explained their views of the situation in Syria .We told this group that the fate of Syria will be determined by the people. We also suggested that they stay in peaceful methods in their work."

Ankara has in the past few months allowed the Syrian opposition to operate in Turkey. Last month the Syrian Council, an umbrella group of various opposition groups, was formed at a meeting in Istanbul.

"It's playing an interesting, bittersweet game," diplomatic correspondent Idiz says. "It's saying it's not arming the opposition in any way, but it's clear on the other hand it's providing protection and the venue to meet."

Idiz says that now that Davutoglu has actually sat down and met with the opposition it appears that Turkey "considers that Assad's time is over and it's just a matter of time."

While Ankara official says it only supports peaceful opposition, it is hosting the leaders and members of an opposition militia -- the self-declared "Syrian Free Army" -- which claims to have as many as 15,000 members fighting the Syrian Army.

Long Road

Some observers suggest that Ankara is playing a dangerous game.

"Despite all the bravado in the talk, I think Turkey is fundamentally a very conservative country. It would not want to go beyond certain limits," international-relations specialist Soli Ozel, of Istanbul Kadir Has University, says. "But the real problem [is] whether or not you will be able to control every step...in this unfolding problem."

Ozel cites reports of the opposition arming itself, a step that might be "reasonable to expect" under the circumstances. Moreover, he says, "I am sure there are plenty of sources that would like to arm the opposition -- [and] once that starts, you are in shifting sands. So whatever your position today, [it] may not really hold ground in the future."

Rumors are growing both in Turkey and the wider region that Ankara could intervene militarily and create a safe haven in Syria for opponents of Assad. Foreign Ministry spokesman Unal does not rule out such a possibility. But he says it's not currently on the agenda.

"Well, like every country, Turkey, the Turkish government, has also its contingency plans for everything, for every eventuality, on every occasion, and on every issue," Unal says.

Still Cautious

Economic sanctions against the Syrian regime are on the agenda, however.

"We are still looking into the measures on this issue [of economic sanctions], and some of them are in place, actually," Unal says. "But of course, in this case, we look to the methods from the perspective of the benefit of Syrian people -- so any kind of measures should not hurt the Syrian people themselves."

Prime Minister Erdogan had indicated that sanctions would be announced last month. But the earthquake in the Turkish city of Van in October ensured that Ankara was occupied with domestic affairs.

Now, Syria is likely back near the top of the Turkish government's agenda.

Diplomatic columnist Idiz says Turkey's 800-kilometer border with Syria and a rapidly deteriorating situation dictate that Ankara avoid recklessness vis-a-vis Damascus.

"The days of Turkey putting itself forward as the make-it and break-it entity in the region, the great bringer of peace, the negotiator/mediator -- all of this is over now," Idiz says. "I think Turkey is reacting to a developing situation about which Turkey has no definite knowledge as to how it will end, and therefore Turkey feels it has to be very cautious."

with additional wire reporting

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