Erdogan warns of Syrian ‘sectarian war’

Turkish prime minister says his country must take a leadership role to address worsening crisis on its southern border.

pro-Assad rally
Syria’s opposition said Arab League mission has so far succeeded only in giving the government more time [Reuters]

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has warned of a growing danger of an escalating civil war in neighbouring Syria.

Erdogan, speaking late on Monday, said the situation in Syria, where months of unrest have left thousands dead, was “heading towards a religious, sectarian, racial war, and this needs to be prevented”.

“Turkey has to take on a leadership role here, because the current situation poses a threat to Turkey,” he said.

Erdogan, who has called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and imposed sanctions on Damascus, did not say what Ankara would do to prevent the country from descending into civil war.

Ankara has floated the idea of setting up a buffer zone on Syrian soil if fighting triggers a flood of refugees posing an immediate threat to Turkey’s security.

But even then, Turkey, which shares a 900-km long border with Syria, has said it would seek UN backing.

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition figures said on Monday that the Arab League mission, which began work two weeks ago to judge whether Damascus is complying with a peace plan, had so far succeeded only in giving Assad’s government more time to violently crush its opponents.

‘Giving regime time’

After a review meeting in Cairo on Sunday, the regional bloc said Damascus had only partly implemented its pledges, which include the withdrawal of troops from cities, prisoner releases and political dialogue.

Adnan Khodeir, head of the monitors’ operations room in the Egyptian capital, said more Arab observers would reach Syria this week, bringing the team’s strength to 200 from 165.

But Rima Fleihan, a writer and a member of the opposition bloc the Syrian National Council (SNC), said: “The initial report is too vague, and it essentially buys the regime more time.”

“We need to know what the League will do if the regime continues its crackdown in the presence of the monitors. At one point it needs to refer Syria to the UN Security Council,” she said.

“Those who want Syria to be an arena for their own agenda against the will of its people, I say to the Arab League and to the United Nations that Syria has angels … that will fly over it until resurrection day.”

– Ahmed Hassoun, Syria’s Mufti, the country’s most senior Muslim authority

Russia and China have opposed any Security Council move on Syria, while Western powers critical of Assad have so far shown little appetite for Libya-style intervention in a country that sits in a far more combustible area of the Middle East.

On the ground, gunfire erupted near a car carrying Arab monitors away from an anti-Assad demonstration they had attended in the turbulent city of Homs on Monday, but no one was hurt, activists said.

Rami Abdulrahman, the founder of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said keeping the Arab monitors in Syria without a substantial increase in their numbers would only “give the regime more time to deal with the Syrian revolution”.

He said Syrian authorities had hidden tanks in military and security compounds or repainted armoured vehicles in blue police colours to mislead monitors.

Only a small proportion of the thousands of detainees seized during the unrest had been freed, he added.

Syria ‘will not be humiliated’

Syrian officials say they are fighting “terrorism” by subversives armed from abroad, not a broad-based revolt against more than four decades of Assad family rule.

The authorities say their foes have killed 2,000 security force members.

Arab League officials said the future of the monitoring mission, due to make a full report on January 19, depended on the Syrian government’s commitment to ending the daily bloodshed.

“If the … report comes out saying the violence has not stopped, the Arab League will have a responsibility to act on that,” Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, the Qatari prime minister, told a news conference after the Cairo meeting.

There was no formal Syrian government response to the Cairo meeting, but Ahmed Hassoun Syria’s state-appointed mufti, the most senior Muslim authority, gave a defiant message.

“The land of Sham (Syria) will not be humiliated,” he said in a Damascus church during multi-faith prayers for 26 people the government said were killed by a suicide bomber on Friday.

“Those who want Syria to be an arena for their own agenda against the will of its people, I say to the Arab League and to the United Nations that Syria has angels … that will fly over it until resurrection day,” Hassoun said.

The League communique called on the Syrian opposition to present its own political vision and asked the League’s secretary general to convene a Syrian opposition meeting.

Syrian opposition groups have struggled to unify and the acceptance military intervention as a solution for the crisis is believed to remain the major source of division between the two groups, the SNC and the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC).

Opposition leaders meeting in Istanbul on Monday gave Burhan Ghalioun a one-month extension as head of the SNC, after earlier rejecting a draft accord he had signed with NCC.

Source: News Agencies