Turkey may consider buffer zone at tense Syrian border

Turkey may consider buffer zone at tense Syrian border

Turkey is doing its best to facilitate the accommodation of terrified Syrians fleeing the violence in their country at refugee camps in Hatay province, but may consider the creation of a buffer zone if it is deemed necessary, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay has said, Today's Zaman reported.

Atalay, who spoke to the NTV news station on Thursday, said 1,100 people from Syria have entered Hatay in the last 24 hours, adding that more are expected to come as the Syrian army is believed to be preparing to storm nearby villages in the city of Idlib, which saw a bloody massacre take place over the last few days. "Currently, there are more than 15,000 Syrian citizens in Turkey," he said.

He indicated that more people would be able to come in if it were not for the Syrian government opening fire at border crossings. A city of prefabricated housing that can host 10,000 people has been established in Kilis, he said. He also noted that Turkey has been taking the utmost measures to ensure that terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants do not use the opportunity to cross onto Turkish soil. "The issue of a buffer zone can be considered, depending on the developments," Atalay said. Syrian troops started assaulting the northwestern city of Idlib, a rebel bastion, earlier this week.

Activists in the region report tanks and heavy shelling taking place in the city. More than 50 people have been killed in Idlib, most of them rebel fighters, but also civilians. Syrian troops are now believed to have taken control of the city.

Hundreds of Syrians are fleeing the city of Idlib, where the Syrian army has killed dozens of people already, following ruthless massacres in the city of Homs against the rebels carried out by the Syrian government under the control of President Bashar al-Assad. Rumors that the troops are planning to storm nearby villages outside Idlib were the cause of the panic that led people to flee their homes and run to Turkey. On the Turkish side of the border, where many have relatives in Syria, there is similar anxiety. Those who welcome relatives are happy, but the concern for those who remain behind still gnaws at many others.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu reiterated that the President Bashar al-Assad-led regime has to step aside, having no shred of legitimacy left after the year of violent assaults it has committed against the Syrian people.

Davutoğlu, in an interview Wednesday night with private broadcaster TGRT, ruled out the possibility of the Syrian leadership rebuilding its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, claiming that Assad has been too late in implementing reforms.

"The death toll reached nearly 9,000 and the number continues to grow, reaching as high as 20,000 when the number of missing people is considered. Around 70,000 people are behind bars. There is not a shred of legitimacy attached to Assad in the eyes of those who have lost their relatives," Davutoğlu noted.

The foreign minister underlined that Assad should be convinced to step down. He has rejected the upcoming elections that are to be held in Syria in May, saying that under the control of Assad it would be "cosmetic vote."

"The hearts and minds of the Syrian people have been shattered and they cannot be remade. This regime cannot endure the way it has. Assad, the regime and those who commit this massacre have to be convinced to step down," Davutoğlu maintained.

Davutoğlu claimed that only an "impartial actor," with reliability in the eyes of the Syrian people, would be able to step in and reinstitute peace and security in the country. "The Syrian people can only trust an impartial leader who will not resort to violence as Assad has," Davutoğlu asserted.

The foreign minister also ruled out speculation that Syrian rebel groups are being armed by outside powers, including Turkey, pointing out that the groups have rather primitive weapons at hand. "If such assistance in arms exists, why are their [insurgent groups'] weapons that primitive?" stated Davutoğlu.

He claimed that the only weapons resistance groups possess have come from Syrian army defectors, noting that currently around 60,000 soldiers have defected from the Syrian army and roughly one-third of them have joined the ranks of the opposition.

Davutoğlu did note, though, that Turkey sent assistance in the form of food on Thursday to Assad's forces that are facing a food shortage in the Azaz city of Syria near the Turkish border, which could be seen as a proof of Turkey's impartiality regarding the conflict in Syria. Despite explicitly calling for Assad to step down, Davutoğlu maintained that Turkey is not selective in delivering humanitarian assistance.

After losing control of Azaz in their struggle with rebel groups, the security forces' communication with Damascus has been cut. The soldiers who remained were deprived of food and sought assistance from Turkish officials at the border.

"When it comes to humanitarian situations, we do not act discriminatively," Davutoğlu noted.

In another development, the number of generals in Turkey who have defected from the Syrian army reached seven, after another general have fled to Turkey on Wednesday among the continued influx of Syrian refugees to enter since last week.

During a press conference in Ankara on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Selçuk Ünal stated that after the first Syrian army general fled to Turkey, the number of defecting army generals has reached seven.

Ünal also indicated that the number of Syrians who have fled to Turkey reached 14,700 as of Thursday, noting that within the last 24 hours, 1,000 refugees had come in.

Stressing that the humanitarian and political crises in Syria are becoming more severe day by day, Ünal also stated that Turkey maintains talks with the Russian and Iranian administrations in order to persuade them to increase their pressure on the Assad regime to end the violence in Syria.

Conflict-ridden Syria is becoming a very dangerous place for foreigners who have to travel into the country as well as Syrian people in army-besieged towns. Hasan Koçak, a Turkish truck driver, died Thursday in an armed conflict as he was passing through Syria. Upon the initiative of Turkish authorities, Koçak's body was delivered to Turkey at the Cilvegözü border gate, near Hatay province, on Thursday.

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