Turks build up defences as warning to Assad

Sat, Jun 30, 2012, 01:00

HELICOPTER GUNSHIPS bombarded a strategic town in northern Syria overnight while tanks moved close to the commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels said, but they kept well clear of new Turkish air defences installed to curb Syrian action near its frontiers.

Turkish commanders inspected the missile batteries deployed on the border region on Thursday following Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish warplane a week ago, which has sharply raised tensions between the two nations.

The Turkish deployments, a graphic warning to President Bashar al-Assad, coincide with rising violence across Syria and increasingly urgent international efforts to forge a peace deal.

As the Turkish-Syrian dimension ratcheted up pressure, peace envoy Kofi Annan said yesterday he was “optimistic” crisis talks in Geneva today would produce an acceptable outcome. However, diplomatic signals emerging later in the day were less than positive.

Senior officials holding preparatory talks in Geneva failed to overcome differences over Mr Annan’s plan for a political transition. Western diplomats said Russia was pressing for changes to the text. Russian diplomats said the work continued but they would not “impose” a solution on Syria.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton were to talk over dinner in St Petersburg yesterday, a meeting that may determine whether today’s gathering in Geneva can make much progress.

Regional analysts said while neither Turkey nor its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) allies appeared to have any appetite for enforcing a formal no-fly zone over Syrian territory, Turkey’s prime minister Tayyip Erdogan had made it clear Mr Assad would be risking what he called the “wrath” of Turkey if its aircraft strayed close to its borders.

Mr Erdogan told a rally in Erzurum city, broadcast by Turkish television: “We will not hesitate to teach a lesson to those who aim heavy weapons at their own people and at neighbouring countries.”

Syrian forces and rebels have clashed recently near the border. Last weekend, Damascus said “terrorists” infiltrating from Turkey were killed, while there have been reports of Syrian forces shooting into camps for refugees in Turkey. The US, Britain and France have said Assad is responsible for the violence, which the UN estimates has resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 people. Russia and China, however, reject what they describe as western calls for “regime change”.

Turkey, sheltering 34,000 Syrian refugees and providing bases for the rebel Free Syria Army, is in the forefront of the efforts to bring down Assad.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 190 people, including 125 civilians, were killed on Thursday.

Gen Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Higher Military Council, a grouping of senior officers who defected from Assad’s forces, said about 170 Syrian tanks had assembled at an infantry school near the village of Musalmieh, northeast of the city of Aleppo, just 30km from the Turkish border.

“They’re either preparing to move to the border to counter the Turkish deployment or attack the rebellious [Syrian] towns and villages in and around the border zone north of Aleppo,” he told Reuters by telephone from the border.

Omar Abdallah, an activist in Idlib co-ordinating with the Free Syrian Army, said: “After taking hits in rural Aleppo and Idlib, the army is regrouping . . . There is speculation that these forces intend to ring Aleppo, starting July 1st.”

Neither Turkey, which fears a local clash escalating into a regional sectarian conflagration, nor Syria has any interest in a confrontation on their shared border. Ankara, which has the second biggest army in Nato, called an emergency Nato meeting after its warplane was shot down.

Turkey has in the past talked of creating a humanitarian corridor on Syrian territory if refugee flows became dangerously unmanageable or the scale of killing in Syria became intolerable. It had said this would require international endorsement. – (Reuters)