Turkish prime minister considers ‘buffer zone’ amid calls from UN envoy to Damascus for end to brutality
Turkey has hinted it might establish a haven for refugees fleeing the relentless violence in neighbouring Syria, which was described on Friday by the UN’s envoy to Damascus as “very dangerous and threatening” to the region.
Kofi Annan announced the UN would send a team of technicians to Syria before a mooted international monitoring mission aimed at breaking months of diplomatic deadlock and providing relief to the country’s besieged towns and cities. “In the name of the people, and for the sake of humanity, let’s stop this brutality,” he said.
The announcement came two days after the UN statesman received a reply to a peace initiative he tabled during two meetings with Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus last weekend. His mission was the latest in a series of fruitless efforts by regional and global leaders to end the anti-regime revolt raging across Syria.
Annan also suggested that another attempt to force the hand of Assad might soon be made at the UN security council, which has remained impotent as the violence in Syria has worsened, unable to pass any resolutions condemning the year-long crackdown by regime forces against demonstrators.
One of Syria’s main allies at the security council, Russia, this week flagged more flexibility in dealing with the ongoing crisis, which has sorely tested Moscow’s relations with the Arab world and the west. However Russia still seems anchored in a stance that any resolution must place equal onus on regime forces and opposition fighters to stop the violence.
France has condemned Syria’s insistence that it was involved in a two-way fight with terrorists, with the foreign minister, Alain Juppé, saying: “I cannot accept that we put the oppresors and the victims in the same boat. It’s a nightmare. This regime has become mad. We back Kofi Annan to implement his mission, but we will not be fooled by Syrian manipulation.”
This week Annan met members of Syria’s lead opposition group, which has become increasingly fractured as the violence in Syria has spread into areas that were considered rebel strongholds until recent weeks. He described the meetings as “productive” and again warned of serious consequences if the international community miscalculated its response to the crisis.
Turkey, meanwhile, has urged its citizens to leave Syria, and will close its consulate in Damascus on 22 March. From then it will maintain a scaled-back diplomatic presence with the Assad regime, which was an ally of the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, until military forces launched a crackdown against dissenting regions near the Turkish border last summer.
Turkey first flagged the establishment of a buffer zone on its southern border as refugees streamed into its lands from the nearby Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughur after an assault by loyalist forces in July.
In his first public statement on the issue since then, Erdogan said on Friday his government was “reviewing several options” including “a buffer or a security zone”. He added that a planned meeting by the “Friends of Syria” in Istanbul on 2 April would offer more clarity.
Turkey is also setting up additional refugee camps along the Syrian border, where displaced Syrians have sought shelter for the past nine months. The Turkish Red Crescent humanitarian group said it expected up to 500,000 Syrian refugees to enter Turkey, a huge increase on the current figure of 14,000.
Refugee numbers have surged in the past week, with families fleeing from Idlib into Turkey and from Homs towards Lebanon, where 20,000-30,000 Syrians are thought to have already taken refuge. Some 230,000 Syrian citizens are thought to have been displaced by the violence, with most remaining inside the country.
Clashes were reported on Friday in central Damascus, which has largely remained supportive of the regime. However, the conflicts were quickly contained.
Elsewhere, up to 40 people are thought to have died. Syrian activists said most of those killed were demonstrators. Between 8,000 and 9,000 people are thought to have died during the uprising, which began in the southern town of Deraa on 15 March last year.
from Kofi Annan, Martin Chulov, Constanze Letsch