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Strident Demand For Buffer Zone Inside Syria As Refugees Flood Turkey

3/19/2012 2:38 AM ET

With an average 250 Syrians fleeing daily to seek safety in neighboring Turkey following a surge in attacks on civilians by the pro-Assad forces, the Istanbul-based Opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has made an urgent plea for the creation of a buffer zone within Syria to provide shelter for civilians as well as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in their fight against government forces.

Khaled Khoja of the SNC was quoted by the Turkish media on Sunday as saying that a buffer zone was urgently needed. "We are calling for a buffer zone to be created immediately to protect the hundreds of thousands of refugees within Syria. Politicians are talking about this, but there have been no concrete steps or promises," he was quoted by the Today's Zaman newspaper as saying.

Ankara has recently come under increasing pressure to act amid the national and international outcry over atrocities committed by pro-Assad forces, yet it is reluctant to act alone without a clear international mandate authorizing interference in Syria. Turkey has already signaled that it may intervene militarily to establish a safety zone within Syrian territory when it is faced with a massive influx of Syrian refugees. "A buffer zone, a security zone are things being studied," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Friday while his deputy Besir Atalay said the move, which was considered but rejected last year, was again being contemplated.

The number of Syrian citizens who have crossed into Turkey reached almost 16,000 by Sunday and is expected to increase rapidly as clashes escalate in areas close to the Turkish border. The Syrian government forces widened their recent offensive in the border province of Idlib, a stronghold of the rebel FSA. Turkey has made contingency plans to accommodate as many as half a million refugees on its soil by raising a tent city.

The only thing holding Turkey back at the moment is the lack of some sort of international legitimacy to sanction such an action. Ankara hopes that the fresh wave of violence may prod Russia and China to join the anti-Assad camp after they vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that sought to condemn the Assad regime. Last week, 200 human rights groups urged Russia and China to back U.N.-Arab League action against Syria.

Turkish security experts seems to have formed a consensus on backing the idea of military intervention in Syria to establish a buffer zone or create a humanitarian corridor provided that Turkey is given a clear mandate from the international community and an unambiguous exit strategy.

Though ideas concerning "a security zone, a humanitarian corridor or a buffer zone" all aim to shelter civilians from violence, military protection would be necessary to provide such security. It could lead to clashes with Syrian government forces or provide sanctuary for the FSA to launch an offensive against pro-Assad forces. In any case it would change the dynamics of the year-old uprising against the Assad regime.

The SNC already said it would use the buffer zone to encourage defections and mount attacks against government targets. Khaled, who said that the buffer zone should be extended to opposition cities like Homs and Idlib, which have been severely pounded by government forces, also reiterated the need to create a buffer zone to improve the odds of the badly outgunned FSA, a loosely coordinated group of military deserters who are the only armed opposition to Damascus.

"Currently, the FSA is severely outgunned, but there are larger and larger segments of the Army that would defect to join them. However, defection is extremely dangerous because there are no safe zones for defectors to flee to; this is something that a buffer zone in Syria's north might provide."

Khaled also said a militarily enforced buffer zone would help whole units defect at once, taking heavy weapons and armor with them. Defections from Syria's Army have stepped up in recent months -- with over 50 officers and six Brigadier-Generals defecting to the FSA earlier in March -- but its lightly armed forces have proven unable to stand up against the Army's tanks and artillery, the newspaper reported.

In the meantime, the two main Opposition parties in Turkey expressed reservations about a buffer zone. The principal Opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) questioned the motives behind a possible incursion by Turkish military into Syria to establish a buffer zone. "Where will this buffer zone be established? In Syria? Why are we to enter Syrian territory? How would we respond if some foreign country came into Turkey and set up a buffer zone, saying, 'You did the same in the past to Syria, now it is your turn'?" CHP's Kemal Kiliçdaroglu said the other day.

He accused the government of doing a "contract job" in the Middle East for what he describes as "Western imperial powers. This [Turkish] government, which does the bidding of one [foreign] country, does not fit the [stature of] the Republic of Turkey," he added.

In the meantime, a 33-year-old truck driver from Turkey was killed in an armed attack near Idlib early on Sunday. The Foreign Ministry last week had urged Turkish citizens in Syria to return to Turkey amid increasing violence in its southern neighbor. "It is evident that developments in Syria pose serious security risks to our citizens [in Syria]. In this regard, Turkish citizens in Syria are strongly advised to return home," the Ministry said in a statement on Friday.

Erdogan had also indicated Turkey withdrawing its Ambassador to Damascus once Turkish citizens inside Syria returned home.

by RTT Staff Writer

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