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Turkey edges nearer to buffer zone for Syrians

Associated Press

ISTANBUL (AP) – Events are pushing Turkey ever closer to setting up a buffer zone in Syria to protect civilians.

Turkish officials have long been hesitant about the idea, even while the U.N. reported that thousands of Syrians were being killed as President Bashar Assad’s forces crush dissent.

But on Monday, a Turkish official indicated that a surge of refugees from Syria might compel Turkey, preferably with international backing, to establish a buffer zone on Syrian soil to guarantee the security of its own southern border as well as the welfare of civilians fleeing violence.

“This is just an option. Nothing has been decided so far,” the official told journalists on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Turkey already shelters 17,000 Syrians in refugee camps, and the official did not say how many more refugees might constitute a tipping point.

But there are a host of factors for Turkey to worry about.

A safe zone would necessarily involve Turkish security forces and involve the potential for clashes with neighboring Syrian troops.

Establishing a buffer zone on the grounds of Turkish national security would sidestep the gridlock now immobilizing the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have blocked action against the Assad’s regime.

But the move would likely lack international consensus, raise questions about Syria’s territorial integrity and highlight a year of failed diplomacy aimed at pressuring Assad to stop his violent crackdown.

This potential game-changer could undermine Assad by setting the stage for full-fledged intervention by foreign militaries, as was done in Libya. But it could also trigger sectarian or regional strife that Turkey and its Western and Arab allies would struggle to control.

Turkey has done this before, in 1991, when it set up a buffer zone to deal with hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees flooding over the border from Iraq during dictator Saddam Hussein’s war with a U.S.-led coalition.

The Turkish official referred to the possibility of “a huge influx like we faced in the first Gulf War” or suggested that demand for a buffer zone could be triggered by a sharp upswing in atrocities in Syria, such as “massacres by hundreds a day.”

“Nobody knows what would happen in such an eventuality,” the official said.

So far, Turkey has handled the stream of refugees from Syria in an orderly way, setting up camps and issuing IDs to allow refugees some freedom of movement outside their temporary homes.

However, the number of refugees, which had stabilized at around 7,500 two months ago, has since climbed by another 10,000 as Syrian forces moved to dislodge rebels and occupy towns near the border with Turkey. Last week, about 1,000 Syrians crossed into Turkey in one 24-hour period.

“The insecurity in Syria is directly affecting us,” the Turkish official said.

The Turkish Red Crescent has warned that, in a worst-case scenario, up to 500,000 Syrians could attempt to enter Turkey. The two countries share a 911-kilometer (566-mile) border that has minefields in some areas.

Turkey is caught between the desire for international legitimacy on a Syrian strategy and the discomfort of standing by as Assad’s forces assault civilian centers across the border. On Monday, Turkey closed its embassies in Damascus and called back its ambassador to Syria, citing a worsening security situation.

Norway also closed its embassy, joining the U.S., France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries that have done the same in an effort to isolate Syria.

In Istanbul on April 1, Turkey hosts a meeting of the United States and dozens of other nations that will encourage the divided Syrian opposition to form a viable alternative to the Assad regime, which has largely held firm despite military defections and strains on its resources.

The Turkish government says 10 Syrian generals, 19 colonels and other low-ranking officers and soldiers, numbering in the low hundreds, have fled into Turkey. Witnesses say parts of the Turkish border area act as a rear logistics base for Syrian rebels who collect food and other supplies and take them into Syria on rugged smuggling routes.

The U.S. and other key allies, however, are considering giving Syrian rebels communications help, medical aid and other “non-lethal” assistance. A move to arm them appears unlikely in the short term because of confusion over their unity and leadership, as well as fears that the bloodshed would evolve into a protracted civil war without a clear winner.

A buffer zone, while defined as a humanitarian and national security mission, would amount to military intervention in a sovereign state and would therefore encounter opposition in the U.N. Security Council.

Russia, an Assad ally, has opposed foreign intervention even though it has become increasingly vocal about the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Russian officials see an international monitoring force inside Syria as a wedge to open the way for overt international military involvement, recalling the seven-month NATO bombing campaign in Libya that aimed to protect civilians but ended up helping to topple leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Turkey is concerned that a current mission by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to Russia and China will be manipulated by Assad to buy time and divert international pressure.

Annan’s plan, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, includes a cease-fire by Syrian forces, a daily two-hour halt in fighting to evacuate the injured and provide aid, and talks about a political solution.

Until now, Turkey has pushed hard for international diplomacy on Syria, but it is showing signs of fatigue. Its government feels betrayed by Assad because he failed to act as promised on its appeals for reform. Turkey now calls for his resignation with increasingly harsh rhetoric.

“Turkey is trying to take the initiative on ending the humanitarian crime in Syria and to ease the tears being shed there,” Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said. “Turkey cannot remain indifferent to the tragedy taking place near it.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)