Syria crisis enters 'new phase' after Assad ignores UN deadline

Turkey is likely to stir international leaders to stronger action after two Turkish officials were injured by cross-border gunfire. Envoy Kofi Annan said it was too early to say the UN cease-fire had failed.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
UN envoy Kofi Annan (c.) is welcomed by Syrian refugee children upon his arrival at Yayladagi refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border on Tuesday.

A United Nations-brokered pullout deadline expired in Syria overnight Monday, with fighting continuing and a cross-border shooting into a refugee camp in Turkey threatening to widen the 13-month conflict.

With the six-point peace plan of UN envoy Kofi Annan honored more in the breach than the observance, diplomatic efforts continued to try to contain the crisis in Syria which the UN says has already claimed more than 9,000 lives.

Mr. Annan's initial pullout deadline has become meaningless, said Turkey's Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru: "April 10 has become irrelevant. A new phase will be starting [today]."

But speaking today after a visit to Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, Mr. Annan said it was “a bit too early” to say his mission has failed.

“This has gone on for too long, and it is time that the violence stopped, it’s time we stop the guns, and it’s time the military went back to their barracks,” said Annan. He called on both sides to end hostilities without preconditions by 6 a.m. April 12, when the cease-fire is finally meant to take effect.

“I had hoped that by now we would be much further ahead … with the government of Syria honoring its commitments, and all the parties beginning to take steps to end all violence,” Annan said. “We still have time, between now and the 12th, to stop the violence.”

“The plan is very much alive,” added Annan. “If you were to take it off the table, what would you replace it with?”

The Turkish government may already be thinking about that.

"Turkey will try to use this event as a strong proof to activate the international system and show that Syria is hopeless and that something needs to be done," says Prof. Gokhan Bacik, director of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Zirve University in Gaziantep, Turkey.

"I do not think Turkey would be ready for any unilateral action," says Prof. Bacik. But "any bad development along this border is emphasizing Turkey's [predominant] position more and more. If things get more dramatic, then it will become a very, very difficult situation for Turkey."

Turkey vows to take 'necessary measures'

On Sunday, Annan called "unacceptable" the escalation of violence before the pullout deadline. The Syrian National Council says 160 people were killed in Syria yesterday alone, with as many as 1,000 killed over the past eight days, according to the Associated Press. Activists also reported that shelling continued in the city of Homs today.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem sought to highlight the "positive steps" Syria had taken in keeping with some requirements of the Annan plan. He said today in Moscow that Syria had "pulled out some military units" from some areas and allowed "more than" 28 media organizations into the country since March.

Mr. Moallem had just met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, Syria's most powerful backer, which along with China has vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions against Syria. Mr. Lavrov limited his criticism to saying that Syria's peace plan actions "should have been more decisive."

Lavrov suggested that it was the opposition that had rejected the peace plan. In recent days, Syria said it would only accept Annan's conditions if it received written guarantees from the opposition not to take advantage of any military withdrawal from urban areas.

The Syria government has thwarted a number of other efforts to curb the violence, saying that anti-regime protesters are "armed groups" and "terrorists" who must be put down by force. The asymmetric balance of power could not have been more evident in recent weeks, as armored columns of Syrian tanks and artillery blasted city after city, from Homs to Idlib to Deraa, to rid them of activist fighters armed with assault rifles and grenades. 

Turkey today vowed to take "necessary measures" in response to yesterday's Syrian shooting into the refugee camp at Kilis, a former Turkish customs post just 500 yards from the border, which wounded a Turkish policeman and translator, and two Syrian refugees.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the firing a "clear violation of the border," while on an official trip to China, one of Syria's main backers on the Security Council.

'An act of provocation'

Turkish media today described the government "finalizing" plans for possible humanitarian corridors or a buffer zone "to contain the burgeoning refugee crisis and border skirmishes." Already more than 24,000 refugees have fled to Turkey, some 3,000 of them last week as Syrian forces advanced into anti-regime strongholds in the northwest.

"Turkey has set a threshold of 100,000 refugees," says Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

The cross-border shooting was "an act of provocation," says Prof. Ozel. "What the Syrian regime's plan is I don't know, but it's certainly squeezing Turkey."

Turkey has imposed an economic embargo, withdrawn its ambassador from Damascus, and – despite Mr. Erdogan's close relationship to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until last year – hosts Syrian opposition activists and even the nominal head of the lightly armed ad hoc Free Syrian Army.

"I don't see what other leverage we have on them, other than establishing a secure zone, which would require military protection," says Ozel.

Hosting refugees "is also becoming very costly for Turkey, $150 million up until now, and with the current flow this is going to increase," adds Ozel. "There is a massive verbal escalation, but I really don't think [Turkey] would act unilaterally."

Still, the Turkish Foreign Ministry was scathing in its criticism after yesterday's shooting incident. Syrians seeking refuge "because of the current regime's aggression are under total security and protection of Turkey," it said in a statement on Monday.

It stated that "the Syrian regime's attack on the people" had moved to border areas, and that 21 wounded Syrians fled to Turkey on Monday, with two dying shortly thereafter.

"It is a fact that the Syrian regime is abusing the international community's well-intentioned efforts," the Turkish statement said.

 

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