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Turkey says no, for now, to buffer zone with Syria

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CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA | February 15, 2012 03:23 AM EST | AP


ISTANBUL — Turkey condemns what it calls atrocities in Syria and says the world cannot watch another Sarajevo, the Bosnian city that endured years of siege warfare and international dithering in the 1990s. Yet it is steering clear, for now, of proposals for a "safe haven" across the border where civilians could shelter and army defectors regroup.

Turkey matters in the global debate about the bloodshed because of its 566-mile (911-kilometer) frontier with Syria, and because it has matured into a regional power and potential counter to Iran, a backer of Damascus. Despite diplomacy and condemnation, however, Turkey increasingly resembles an anguished observer as the death toll climbs across a once-friendly frontier.

The Turks are essentially actors in a proxy conflict as hosts to Syrian dissidents, and they are also trying to amass pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad and deliver aid to Syrian civilians. Some dissidents suggest a buffer zone with foreign protection could satisfy each portfolio for Turkey.

But such intervention, even with U.N. support that is currently lacking, threatens deeper sectarian and regional conflict – a prospect that may make the Turks wary.

"This issue is not on our agenda at the moment," said Selcuk Unal, spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry. "We are following things very closely. We don't want the bloodshed to continue. We don't want instability to continue. We are ready for every kind of eventuality."

Unal did not entirely reject the idea of a buffer zone, a sign of awareness that the crisis was difficult to predict in the long term.

Visiting Washington, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said Turkey intends to lobby for aid deliveries at the United Nations and rally allies on pressuring Damascus at an international meeting on Syria. Some advocates say it's time to look beyond diplomacy and economic sanctions to steps such as arming or protecting Assad's opponents.

The question is whether some coalition of powers, presumably involving Western and Arab allies and Turkey, eventually decides on more robust action even though Russian and Chinese opposition makes U.N. approval unlikely.

Bassam Al Immadi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, described a Syrian safe zone as "a compromise between military intervention and non-military intervention" that would encourage mass army defections because disillusioned soldiers would know where to find refuge.

Syrian activists say such a buffer or "no fly" zone needs the legitimacy and logistics of an international institution such as NATO, and cite the alliance's 1999 air campaign against Serbian forces in Kosovo as a case study. Al Immadi recalled discussions over whether Turkey would favor such a zone when thousands of Syrians streamed across the border last year.

"All that talk disappeared and everybody denied it because of some complexities that have do with Iran and Russia," he said. "The international arena was not prepared for such a thing. I think now things have to be rethought."

Proponents see a loose comparison with Libya, where NATO, acting under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, staged airstrikes to support rebels pushing from the eastern city of Benghazi. The help allowed opposition forces to coalesce, and leader Moammar Gadhafi was eventually killed.

Conditions for what some call a "Syrian Benghazi" are lacking, even if an outbreak of border hostilities or another cross-border surge of refugees upends Turkish restraint.

Russia and China blocked a U.N. resolution against Assad, stripping international consensus from any eventual intervention in Syria that, while humanitarian in name, would arguably have belligerent motives. With its proximity to Iraq, Iran and Israel, Syria is in a far more combustible part of the world than Libya.

And Turkey, as much as it fumes, is wary of barging into another sovereign state after years of projecting soft power through diplomacy and economic outreach.

"It's a very legitimate concern. It's a very humanitarian concern. The feasibility of the issue is a whole different story," said Arda Batu, professor of international relations at Yeditepe University in Istanbul and editor-in-chief of the Kalem Journal, a website about regional affairs.

Batu said Turkey would not intervene without allied help, and that its history of Ottoman rule over neighbors had a restraining effect because, for all the admiring talk of Turkey as a regional model, some observers wonder whether it has "imperialistic intentions" to exert influence over old territories.

They fear, he said in a joking reference to the Star Wars film series, that "the empire is going to strike back."

Modern Turkey has a history of foreign intervention. Its troops joined U.S.-led forces in the Korean War in the 1950s, invaded Cyprus in 1974, nearly went to war with Syria in the 1990s over its sheltering of a Turkish Kurd rebel chief, and periodically conduct air strikes on Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq.

In 2003, Turkey refused to let U.S. troops use its soil to launch military operations against Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Today, it is a NATO member whose relatively harmonious blend of Islam and democracy makes it a success in a troubled region. A messy, legally suspect intervention in Syria could undo its image-building in the past decade.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially ruled out NATO action in Libya and later changed his mind, though Turkey did not participate in airstrikes.

There is already a "safe zone" of sorts on the Turkish side of the border, where nearly 10,000 Syrians live in camps. Some are said to belong to the Free Syrian Army, a looseknit group of military defectors. Turkish leaders say they will welcome any Syrians fleeing the crackdown, which has killed well over 5,000 people, by some estimates, in the past year.

Fred Wehrey, a senior policy analyst with the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based research center, noted that a safe zone for fractured opposition groups hardly guaranteed Assad's ouster.

"Even if you have a liberated zone, are you creating political conditions for some sort of rebel force to liberate the rest of the territory?" Wehrey said. "That's the fundamental question. It's not simply a question of geography."

Andre Akulov, a columnist for the Strategic Culture Foundation, an online journal based in Moscow, said such a zone has no chance of being approved by the U.N. Security Council and that it would violate international law. If it happens, he wrote in a message to The Associated Press, "Turkey's rivals" would stir minority grievances inside Turkey and its conflict with restive Kurds would deepen.

"Think twice before you jump, I'd say. Easy to start, hard to end," Akulov said. "Let's recall the U.S. experience in Vietnam, Iraq."