United Nations Urged To Help Syrian Refugees

Turkey's foreign minister plans to ask the U.N. Security Council to establish a safe zone inside Syria for refugees fleeing the war there. With close to 100,000 refugees already in camps on Turkish territory, the foreign minister says his government lacks the capacity to host more.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Turkey's foreign minister is in New York today. He's urging the United Nations to begin sheltering and protecting refugees inside Syria. It's a move that would almost certainly require international military involvement to safeguard an area inside the country. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says talk of a safe zone inside his country is not practical. NPR's Peter Kenyon has this report from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In an interview with pro-government Addounia television, owned in part by his cousin Rami Makhlouf, Assad made his first public admission that it will take time for his forces to put down the uprising. The Syrian leader also dismissed recent high-level defections as a self-cleansing of the government and said talk of buffer zones inside Syria is unrealistic. Heard here through an interpreter, Assad said neighboring Turkey was partly to blame for the heavy death toll in Syria.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: (Through translator) The politics of Turkish officials is leading towards the death and the bloodshed of Syrians. We cannot act in a similar way. We cannot say that a few months ago Turkey was an ally and then months later release bombs and bullets against them. The real issue is maintaining national unity in the country. We need to overcome the internal differences and disagreements. But this is an internal issue which has nothing to do with foreign countries.

KENYON: As the Syrian refugee population in Turkey rapidly moves toward the 100,000 mark, Ankara's calls for international help have sharpened. But any safe zones inside Syria would almost certainly require a military enforcement by someone. Analyst and columnist Yavuz Baydar says if anything the notion that Turkey would take the lead on such a project is less likely, now, than it was several months ago, because Turkey has other problems on its mind.

YAVUZ BAYDAR: No. The situation is very precarious, and Ankara is even acting more cautiously, because of the escalation of the PKK violence.

KENYON: The PKK are militant Kurdish separatists, blamed for a series of bloody attacks in southern Turkey this summer, including a bomb blast this month in Gaziantep that left ten civilians dead.

A senior politician with Turkey's ruling AK party said, yesterday, that it's crystal clear that the Assad regime is using the PKK against Turkey. In this atmosphere, there is no groundswell of Turkish public opinion for more aggressive action in Syria, and the once-independent Turkish military is falling in line with the government's cautious approach.

Baydar says regionally, one thing Turks have noticed is that the silence from Sunni Arab states, and especially from the Arab league, has been deafening.

BAYDAR: So Arab League stands there completely passively, doing nothing, and the least it could do would raise the financial aid to have helped the refugees. U.N. has limited possibilities to make any progress, but Arab League can.

KENYON: But the Arab league is hardly alone in its arms-length approach. In Washington, a state department spokeswoman, yesterday, repeated the Obama administration view that it's focused on helping Turkey deal with the surging refugee population in Turkey, and had nothing to say on the subject of safe zones in Syria.

Left unsaid was the conclusion many world powers seem to have reached - that enforcing a buffer zone with either a no-fly zone or foreign troops on the ground entails dangers and risks that no one at the moment appears willing to take. Syrian opposition activists say that attitude is leaving the field clear for Assad's forces to continue their assault on villages and towns across the country.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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