Turkey urges Syria to stop crackdown

ISTANBUL - Turkish envoys on Thursday urged Syrian President Bashar Assad to meet the demands of pro-reform demonstrators but held out the prospect of closer economic ties, even as Western powers warned of sanctions if Syria’s bloody crackdown does not cease.

By (AP)

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Published: Thu 28 Apr 2011, 9:13 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 2:17 AM

The escalating efforts of Turkey, NATO’s biggest Muslim ally, to intercede reflect its deep sensitivity to the Syrian uprising because it has a close relationship with Assad, but also sees itself as a model for regional democracy.

Turkey shares a 877-kilometer (545-mile) border with Syria, most of it heavily mined. Some Turkish commentators have warned of the possibility that refugees might try to flee to Turkey, though there is no sign of such an exodus for now.

Assad met a delegation led by Hakan Fidan, chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, and Kemal Madenoglu, undersecretary of the State Planning Organization, which oversees infrastructure projects, Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported from Damascus.

The agency said Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar was also present at the meeting, and that Turkey’s possible contribution to “the reform process in Syria” was discussed. Experts from the Turkish planning group were expected to visit Syria in coming days to help plan development of infrastructure.

It was unclear how the prospect of Turkish economic assistance, apparently a bid to entice Assad to halt the crackdown, might sit with increasing calls in the West for sanctions against Syria, whose forces have sought to crush the revolt, the gravest challenge to the 40-year ruling dynasty of Assad’s family. More than 450 people have died.

The crisis poses a major challenge to Turkey’s developing trade and political ties with Syria, and calls into question Turkey’s self-declared policy of seeking “zero problems” with neighbors in its diplomatic efforts in the region.

Turkey’s warming relations with Iran and Syria in recent years have raised concern in the West, even though the Turkish government says it remains committed to traditional alliances. It initially opposed sanctions and a role for NATO in Libya, but then agreed to support the military campaign without conducting any air strikes itself.

Much like its Western counterparts, Turkey is balancing concerns about economic and other links to Mideast nations while urging their autocrats to meet the demands of protesters. A group of Syrian opposition figures held a two-day conference in Istanbul this week, highlighting Turkey’s willingness to keep channels open to both sides.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has talked to Assad at least three times since protests began in Syria, said Turkey does not want to see an “an authoritarian, totalitarian, imposing structure” there. But he has not called for Assad’s ouster, in contrast with earlier calls for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi to step down.

Tensions between Turkey and Syria ran high in the 1980s and 1990s when Turkey accused Syria of sheltering Kurdish rebels from Turkey. In 2009, Turkey and Syria implemented visa-free travel, and Turkey hopes to almost double trade with Syria to $5 billion by next year.

European leaders have demanded that Assad’s regime stop the violence, though the deeply divided U.N. Security Council failed to agree on a Western-backed statement Wednesday condemning the crackdown.

The European Union said its political and security committee was also planning to discuss Syria on Friday in Brussels, adding “all options are on the table.”

Germany has said it would strongly support EU sanctions, and Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd called for debate on the issue.

“We believe the time has come for the international community to now consider the use of sanctions against the Syrian regime,” Rudd said while visiting London.

In Istanbul on Wednesday, U.S. Treasury Department official David S. Cohen said the United States was “considering a number of different options, including the possibility of targeted financial sanctions” against Syria, and that any action would be taken in consultation with allies.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Thursday said his country wouldn’t interfere in the domestic affairs of any other country but that the “same behavior” and the “same principles” the international community used to protect civilians in violence-torn Libya should be applied in Syria.

Lieberman was indeed referring to the need for international intervention in Syria, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The international community, led by France and Britain, agreed quickly to sanctions and then to military intervention in Libya.

U.S. Senator John McCain, meanwhile, said in an interview on France-24 television that a military intervention in Syria would be risky and might not stop Assad’s crackdown on opponents. McCain, on a visit to Paris this week, urged sanctions and pressure by the U.N. Security Council.

The Human Rights Council based at the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva has agreed to a U.S. request for a special session Friday on Syria, in a rare focus on the behavior of one nation.

Britain announced Thursday it had revoked an invitation to the Syrian ambassador to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton because of the attacks on protesters.

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