Syria’s opposition has urged Turkey to mount a military operation to protect civilians from President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, it was claimed on Thursday, as Russia warned that the fighting in the country was now akin to a “civil war”.
Representatives from dissidents groups submitted a formal request to Turkey for troops to be sent across the border to create a haven for civilians and rebels fighting Mr Assad’s regime, according to a Turkish newspaper with close links to the government in Ankara.
The Turkish administration has already provided shelter to the Syrian Free Army, an increasingly potent rebel force, on its side of the border, but has long denied having any intention of forming a buffer zone within Syrian territory itself.
Despite the risks of being drawn into a regional war with its neighbour, Turkey is considering the request and could take action if it received backing from the United Nations and the Arab League, the Sabah newspaper quoted officials as saying.
Stepping up the pressure on Ankara, Islamists within the Syrian opposition indicated yesterday that they could ask Turkey to broaden its mission by imposing a no-fly zone across the country.
“If the international community procrastinates, then more is required from Turkey as a neighbour to be more serious than other countries,” Mohammed Riad Shaqfa, an exiled leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, said in Istanbul.
“If other interventions are required, such as air protection, because of the regime’s intransigence, then the people will accept Turkish intervention. They do not want Western intervention.”
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned that the situation in Syria was “all looking very much like a civil war”, but insisted that the opposition was as much to blame as the government.
“It is not a secret that along with the peaceful demonstrators, whose strivings and demands we support, there is more and more participation from groups of armed people who have an entirely different agenda from reform and democracy in Syria,” he said.
“Their agenda concerns ethnic and tribal interests, and these people have received and are continuing to receive weapons in growing amounts from neighboring countries, and they don’t particularly hide it. Weapons are being smuggled in through Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and if the opposition uses such methods, this will lead to a full-scale civil war.”
In recent days, the Syrian Free Army – which was formed only in July – launched a series of co-ordinated attacks against four military targets on the outskirts of Damascus, including the air force’s intelligence directorate, a powerful and hated symbol of the regime’s authority.
Yesterday, it struck again, attacking a ruling party building near the Turkish border with rocket-propelled grenades and launching a raid on a security building close to the Lebanese frontier. There were no details of casualties.
Turkey has emerged as the region’s most virulent critic of Syria’s bloody repression of the eight-month uprising against Mr Assad, during which more than 3,500 people have been killed according to UN estimates.
How willing it would be to become involved militarily is open to question, however, with fears that any armed confrontation between Turkey and Syria could cause a civil war in one country to turn into a conflict engulfing many.
But with the situation growing ever more violent – 400 people have reportedly been killed in the country this month alone – many Arab states fear that instability could equally spread if decisive action is not taken.
The Arab League last week suspended Syria’s membership. On Wednesday it gave Mr Assad three days to allow observers into Syria to verify whether he is abiding by a league-brokered peace plan.
In the meantime, a number of Arab states have offered to co-sponsor a European UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s repression. The resolution is to be introduced next week but is non-binding.
Britain is also hoping they can win Arab backing to revive a Security Council resolution threatening the Assad regime with sanctions, a move so far blocked by Russia and China.