Turkey Feels Pressure To Act On Syria

Turkish rhetoric has now escalated to the fullest, with Friday's call by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Syrian President Bashar Assad to leave power. Turkey insists it won't move unilaterally, but pressure is building to protect civilian life in Syria.

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The Arab League meets today in Cairo to consider imposing sanctions against Syria after Damascus rejected the League's demand that Syria allow an observer mission into the country. As protests there continue and the death toll mounts, neighboring Turkey says it's ready to join the Arab League in levying punitive measures against the government in Damascus. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul, Turkey's deep reluctance to endorse a military option underscores the complex risks surrounding any foreign intervention in Syria.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Once Turkey got over its fear of losing lucrative business and trade ties with Syria, the anti-Syrian rhetoric escalated rapidly. This week Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad must step down in remarks laced with references to some of the 20th century's most notorious dictators.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) Bashar al-Assad says I'll fight to the death. But for God's sake, who are you fighting? Fighting your own people isn't heroism, it's cowardice. Look at Hitler, Mussolini, Romania's Ceausescu. If that's not lesson enough, look at the Libyan leader, killed in a way no one would wish. He used the same words you're using.


KENYON: The capture and killing of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi may have re-energized protesters in Syria, as this video posted on the internet yesterday shows, but it has done nothing to push Turkey or any other country over the line to endorsing intervention. Syrian activists have found a relatively safe haven in Turkey in recent months, including the defected Syrian army officer who claims to lead the opposition Free Syrian Army. Arms are trickling across the Lebanese border, and recent death tolls have included more Syrian security forces. Opposition activists say the Free Syrian Army is trying to protect civilian lives, something they have urgently requested from the international community. But Turks refuse to publicly entertain proposals such as a no-fly zone or a humanitarian corridor. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc made that clear to a Turkish television station this week.

BULENT ARINC: (Through Translator) Not only will Turkey not intervene in Syria, we won't accept any foreign intervention that Turkey is in any way involved with. There is a government that is oppressing its people, and we have fulfilled our responsibility by warning that regime that it must move to democracy.

KENYON: Turkish sanctions could do significant economic damage to Syria. But analysts such as Turkey scholar Henri Barkey at Lehigh University have noted that a trade embargo or border closing would harm Turks and further jeopardize Ankara's effort to reduce Turkey's current account deficit. Military intervention is in another league altogether in terms of risks and unwanted consequences. Syria analyst Peter Harling with the International Crisis Group, in an Internet conversation from Cairo, said Damascus is slowly growing more isolated. But there's still no comparing it with Libya, because while evidence on the ground of Iranian assistance in Syria is scarce, Harling there is a high risk that a foreign military intervention could trigger a sharp retaliation from both Tehran and its proxies such as the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

PETER HARLING: The problem with Syria is that the Syrian regime is not isolated as the Libyan regime was. Declaring war against regime essentially means declaring war to the axis as a whole, comprised of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran.


KENYON: But as the bloodshed grows - more than 3,500 dead by the latest U.N. estimate earlier this month - pressure is also likely to grow for more direct action. Turkey, with its long, mountainous border, will continue to be a favored location for an opposition safe haven. Whether to move such a proposal beyond the discussion phase may be one of the most important Mideast policy decisions facing world leaders in the coming months. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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