TURKEY MOVES TANKS TO HILLTOPS OVERLOOKING SYRIA
By Sibel Akbay and Zaid Sabah
October 14, 2012
Turkey’s government threatened to respond to any further attacks from Syria, after shelling across the frontier last week killed five Turkish citizens.
“Turkey will retaliate if Syria violates its border again,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a news conference yesterday in Istanbul. “We will do what’s necessary.”
Turkey deployed tanks and missile-defense systems on hilltops overlooking Syria last week, the state-run Anatolia news agency said, hours after Turkish jet fighters confronted a Syrian helicopter that flew close to the border. Turkey has threatened to target Syrian forces if they pose a security risk. Syria downed a Turkish fighter jet in June.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the United Nations Security Council yesterday for its failure to agree on decisive steps to end the 19-month civil war in Syria, the Associated Press reported.
More than 30,000 people have died nationwide during the 19- month civil war, according to opposition groups, and the violence is becoming more indiscriminate. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are using cluster bombs, which detonate and then disperse smaller bomblets, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
“Syria’s disregard for its civilian population is all too evident in its air campaign, which now apparently includes dropping these deadly cluster bombs into populated areas,” Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch, said in a report.
EXCHANGE OF FIRE
Turkey’s ties with Syria, once an ally, deteriorated over Turkish backing for Syrian rebels fighting forces loyal to Assad. Turkey fired artillery in response to Syrian shelling that killed the five people in the Turkish border town of Akcakale on Oct. 3.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Turkey is a member, called the attack on Akcakale “a flagrant breach of international law,” and assured the Turkish government of the alliance’s military support if it’s attacked.
Davutoglu spoke after holding talks in Istanbul with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. and Arab League special envoy to Syria, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. He didn’t comment on the discussions.
TURKISH AIRWAYS BAN
Brahimi is also planning for a 3,000-troop peacekeeping force that might involve European troops in policing a future truce and has been sounding out which countries would be willing to contribute soldiers, according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Syria is ready to start talks with Turkey to ease tensions between the two countries, according to state-run SANA agency, citing a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry. The statement welcomed a proposal by the foreign minister of Syria’s ally Russia, Sergei Lavrov, to “create a mechanism of direct dialogue on security issues between Syria and Turkey.”
Syria banned Turkish Airlines flights from Syrian airspace, according to SANA. Turkey grounded a Syrian plan on its way from Moscow to Damascus last week and seized what it said was military equipment. The Moscow-based newspaper Kommersant said the plane was carrying parts for Syrian air-defense radar.
Rebel forces in Syria last week captured the village of Azmarin in the province of Idlib, near the Turkish border, Anatolia reported. Syrian forces also attacked the rebel-held village of Derkush in Idlib with tanks and ground forces, the state-run Turkish news agency said.
Turkey is sheltering 99,500 refugees in camps along the border, and another 14,000 Syrians are waiting to cross into the country, according to Turkey’s Foreign Ministry.
Syrian security forces killed 143 people across the country yesterday, the Opposition Local Coordination Committees said in an e-mailed statement. Syrian rebels in the Damascus suburb of al-Ateba have captured an air defense brigade after clashes with government forces that lasted for eight hours, the Observatory for Human Rights in Syria said in an e-mailed statement. At least eight rebels and 15 government soldiers were killed during the fight, according to the statement.
Syrian forces “eliminated a large number of terrorists” in fighting in the northwestern commercial hub of Aleppo, the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported. The army also fought rebels who “cut off roads” in Idlib, killing and injuring some of them, the news service said.
MiG SHOT DOWN
Syrian rebels in Aleppo shot down a government MiG warplane, the rebels’ Free Syrian Army said on its Facebook page. Rebels posted footage on YouTube showing the wreckage of the aircraft in flames and armed men surrounding it.
The Observatory for Human Rights in Syria confirmed the rebels’ claim and said the jet had bombed the town of Khan al- Asal in the suburbs of Aleppo.
Syrian government forces set the historic Umayyad mosque in Aleppo on fire and damaged the shrine of the Prophet Zechariah, father of John the Baptist and venerated in Islamic and Judeo- Christian traditions, located inside the mosque, Al Jazeera television reported.
The rebels’ Free Syrian Army later captured the mosque and advanced to besiege the city’s medieval Citadel, which is occupied by government forces, Al Jazeera reported.
TURKEY BANS SYRIAN PLANES FROM ITS AIR SPACE, REBELS GAIN
By Angus MacSwan and Khaled Yacoub Oweis
October 14, 2012
BEIRUT / AMMAN -- Turkey has banned all Syrian aircraft from its air space as it takes an increasingly firm stance against President Bashar al-Assad, while Syrian rebels said on Sunday they had made more gains in a key province near the Turkish border.
Human Rights Watch said Syrian government forces had dropped Russian-made cluster bombs over civilian areas in the past week as they battled to reverse rebel advances, an act which rights groups say can constitute a war crime.
NATO-member Turkey has increasingly taken on a leadership role in the international coalition ranked against Assad.
Turkish confrontation with Syria increased in the past two weeks because of cross-border shelling and escalated on October 10 when Ankara forced down a Syrian airliner en route from Moscow, accusing it of carrying Russian munitions for Assad's military.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Sunday Turkish air space had been closed to Syrian planes. Syria banned Turkish planes from flying over its territory on Saturday.
"We made a new decision yesterday and informed Syria. We closed our air space to civilian Syrian flights as well as military flights," Davutoglu said.
Russia has said there were no weapons on the ground plane and that it was carrying a legal cargo of radar. But it moved to cool friction with Ankara -- Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the incident would not hurt "solid" relations.
The bloodshed inside Syria has worsened markedly in the past two months although neither side has been able to gain a distinct advantage. Combat has been reported nationwide but the crucial strategic battles are being fought in an arc through western Syria, where most of the population lives.
Rebels surrounded an army garrison on Sunday near a northwestern town, in the latest push to seize more territory near the border with Turkey, opposition activists said. Rebels also posted video on the Internet purportedly showing a fighter jet they had shot down in the area the previous day.
Several hundred soldiers were trapped in the siege of a base in Urum al-Sughra, on the main road between the contested city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial and industrial hub, and Turkey.
"Rebels attacked an armored column sent from Aleppo to rescue the 46th Regiment at Urum al-Sughra and stopped it in its tracks," Firas Fuleifel, one of the activists told Reuters by phone from Idlib province, west of Aleppo. He said the jet was shot down while trying to provide air support to the column.
"ASSAD'S LAST BREATH"
Rebels say they have been extending their control of the rugged agricultural province throughout the past week, capturing several towns on the border and making gains in the al-Rouge plain west of the city of Idlib, the provincial capital.
The province is the main base and supply route for rebels fighting urban warfare against Assad's forces for control of Aleppo, a city of several million people that could determine the course of the 18-month rebellion against Assad.
After four days of heavy fighting in the town of Azmarin and surrounding villages along the border with Turkey's Hatay province, the rebels appeared to have a fragile hold there.
"These areas are the last areas around the border where Assad has control. If he loses these then all of the border around Hatay will be under the control of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army," rebel fighter Ahmad Qasem told Reuters, after crossing into Turkey.
"Assad's army is taking its last breath in this area."
Assad's forces still control the city of Idlib on a main highway linking Aleppo to the port of Latakia, making the route an important rebel target.
"Lots of roadblocks of Idlib have been taken out. Rebel focus is now on supplying the Aleppo highway," said Abu Ali, an activist using an alias.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said cluster bombs were dropped from planes and helicopters near the main north-south highway running through Maarat al-Numan, a town rebels seized last week cutting the route from Damascus to Aleppo.
HRW previously reported Syrian use of cluster bombs in July and August, but the renewed strikes indicate the government's determination to regain strategic control in the northwest.
Cluster munitions drop hundreds of bomblets on a wide area, designed to kill as many people as possible. More than 100 nations have banned their use under a convention which became international law in 2010, but Syria has not signed it, nor has Russia, China, or the United States.
Towns targeted included Maarat, Tamanea, Taftanaz and al-Tah. Cluster bombs have also been used in other areas in Homs, Aleppo, and Latakia provinces, and near Damascus, HRW said.
"Syria's disregard for its civilian population is all too evident in its air campaign, which now apparently includes dropping these deadly cluster bombs into populated areas," said Steve Goose, arms director at HRW.
HRW said it learned initially about the latest use of the weapons from videos released by opposition activists and had confirmed it in interviews with residents in two towns. It had no information on casualties. The bombs were Russian-made, but it was not known how or when Syria acquired them, it said.
Syrian government officials were not immediately available to comment on the HRW report. The official state news agency said on Sunday that loyalist forces had killed dozens of "terrorists" in Aleppo, and had captured rockets.
The United Nations peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was in Tehran on Sunday. Brahimi, who took over the mediator job after former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan quit in frustration, will meet Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
"We think that these problems can be resolved peacefully. The United Nations and the Arab League are prepared to offer any assistance in resolving this crisis," Brahimi told a news conference after the meeting. "The U.N. is ready and demands a stop to the sending of arms to all groups in Syria."
Salehi said Iran was ready to work with Brahimi for peace and repeated its call for an immediate ceasefire before reforms and elections to resolve the conflict.
"We all need to join hands so that this conflict comes to a halt and further bloodshed is stopped," Salehi said.
Shi'ite Iran is the main ally in the region of Assad, who is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this week Brahimi would visit Syria soon to urge Assad to call a ceasefire.
The anti-Assad uprising has been led by the Sunni Muslim majority and is backed by Sunni-ruled Arab states and by Turkey, also led by a party with its roots in Sunni Islamist politics.
Brahimi met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Davutoglu and Syrian opposition members in Istanbul on Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall and Ece Toksabay in Istanbul, Jonathon Burch on the Turkey-Syria border, Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Zahra Hosseinian; Writing by Peter Graff and Nick Tattersall; Editing by Jon Hemming and Alastair Macdonald)
WITH TURKEY-SYRIA ESCALATION, WORRIES GROW ABOUT A TIP INTO WAR
By Scott Peterson
** With Turkey and the Syrian regime on opposite sides of the antigovernment uprising in Syria, flare-ups like the Turkish grounding of a Syrian jet this week carry great risk of tipping the two into open conflict. **
Christian Science Monitor
October 12, 2012
ISTANBUL -- Tension has steadily risen for months along Turkey's long shared border with Syria, spiking with the Syrian shoot-down of a Turkish jet fighter this summer and again last week as Turkey responded to Syrian artillery shells landing on its side of the border. Turkey says it doesn't want war, but it is far from clear where the tit-for-tat with Syria will stop.
The incident is the latest development in what has become a proxy war between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and allies Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, and its opponents, who are backed by Turkey, the US, the European Union, and rich Persian Gulf states.
Turkey hosts the Syrian opposition and has facilitated supplies to the rebel Free Syrian Army, which is fighting to topple Mr. Assad in a 20-month uprising that has turned into a global tug-of-war.
But it was Turkey's decision to force a Syrian passenger plane to land in Turkey overnight on Oct. 10 that has analysts using the word "escalation." Turkey confiscated what it claims was illegal military equipment en route from Moscow, though it has yet to make its findings public. Syria accused Turkey of "air piracy," while Russia demanded an explanation.
Chief of Staff Gen. Necdet Ozel visited the border the day of the plane grounding and said Turkey would respond "with greater force" if Syrian shells continued to land in Turkey. Reuters reported today that two jet fighters had been scrambled after a Syrian helicopter fired on a Syrian border town. The Turkish parliament last week authorized troop deployments beyond Turkey's borders.
The risks are high for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, not long after the anti-Assad rebellion began, reversed his government's friendly policy toward "brother" Assad to cheerlead for the opposition -- figuring that Assad would in short order go the way of removed Arab Spring dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
The Turkish government "assumed this would be a very fast process [and] wanted to have some stake," so began a "proactive involvement in this process. Actually, this calculation turned out to be wrong," says Ersin Kalaycioglu, a political science professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul.
"Now we are into this mess up to our waists, probably, if not our neck. [Turkish leaders] don't want to get out of it very easily and they are afraid of losing face," says Prof. Kalaycioglu.
Poor relations, combined with "a few accidents, and a few [incorrect] assumptions and decisions, could go all the way to a greater escalation and perhaps even war, and therefore it's a very unnerving process," says Kalaycioglu. The Erdogan government has been making "one error after another, as far a Syria is concerned."
Mr. Erdogan sought yesterday to explain the diversion of the Syrian passenger plane by stating that "munitions" destined for Syria's Ministry of Defense were among the items onboard the flight, sent by Russia's state arms exporter, and that "carrying such materials through our airspace is against international rules."
Yet Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said only that items that "may" have military application were onboard. Turkish media reported communications equipment -- information that appeared to be backed up by a Syrian Airlines staff interviewed in Damascus, who described Turkish officials comparing the electronic items to the documents that described them as such.
Russia's Kommersant newspaper today said the cargo included radar spare parts for Syria's Russian-made missile-defense systems.
"Turkey has to work really hard to avoid giving the impression that it's escalating the situation," says Hugh Pope, the Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group in Istanbul.
"Definitely Turkey's main effort should be to stay within international consensus, do its utmost to try to bring Russia, China, and Iran and all the other players that are part of the problem there onto the same page," says Mr. Pope. "There are signs that Russia is uneasy with the situation, and that Iran is uneasy, and Turkey should build on those. . . . It's really important for Turkey that it not be seen as part of the Syrian problem."
PUBLIC OPINION OPPOSED TO WAR
Opinion polls in Turkey make it clear that Turks -- whose nation forms the eastern anchor of the U.S.-commanded NATO alliance -- do not want to get involved in a war in Syria that could spread across the region. With some 100,000 Syrian refugees now in Turkey, and more in Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, some say that regional consequences of the slow-burn rebellion are already absorbing the region.
"One of the huge successes of Turkish policy over the last decade is to decouple itself from the difficulties of the Middle East, and prove itself to be an almost-European player," says Pope. "Of course, if Turkey's attacked, and people get killed, then there is a desire for prevention, revenge . . . and the responsibility of the leadership in these cases is to guide public opinion and keep things proportionate and not whip up popular sentiment, because there is no good, quick outcome of the events in Syria."
Indeed, the killing of five Turkish civilians last week in the town of Akcakale stirred nationalist sentiments in Turkey, prompted Ankara to call for an emergency meeting of NATO to discuss defensive plans – but also raised new questions about where Turkey's Syria policy was taking it. "The calculations done [about a quick Assad exit] in nice offices worked out on paper," political analyst and Milliyet columnist Semih Idiz told Al Jazeera English.
"But these expectations went awry . . . the sectarian dimension kicked in, the fact that Syria proved to have a much more complicated sociology than these other countries kicked in, what was supposed to be a straightforward thing for Turkey . . . has in fact turned into some kind of a debacle," says Mr. Idiz.
"[Erdogan] has to internationalize the issue as much as possible, personalize it less, and not concentrate so much on Mr. Assad . . . but on the need for stability and peace in the region," adds Idiz. "There is a civil war going on in Syria at this stage, and if you take sides in a civil war, then there is very little contribution that you can make for peace."
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