Syria risks civil war, sanctions pointless:Turkey

BRUSSELS Thu Feb 9, 2012 9:52am EST

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad still has support from Syria's middle class and the opposition is fragmented, raising the risk of a slide into full-scale civil war that inflames the region, Turkey's ambassador to the European Union has warned.

Turkey, Syria's largest neighbor, is also concerned that sanctions being imposed on Damascus by the European Union and the United States will not succeed in forcing Assad from power, while Iran and Russia provide him with steady support.

"What we are seeing is horrendous. The result will probably be bloody, and unfortunately the Russians are backing him," Selim Yenel told Reuters late on Wednesday, emphasizing that Turkey was doing what it could to support Syria's opposition groups, short of giving them arms or other military assistance.

"Assad still has backing. The middle class is still supporting Assad. They are afraid of what comes after him."

Syrian forces bombarded opposition-held areas throughout the country on Thursday, with a focus on the city of Homs, where the uprising against Assad has been strongest.

"The regime is not just a person, or one family. It's a big group of people and ... they want to hold on to power," said Yenel, underlining that Syria was a distinctly different case to Libya and its late leader Muammar Gaddafi.

"That's why we are fearing it is going to turn into a civil war, and this civil war could turn into a regional conflict."

The EU began a campaign for tighter sanctions against Damascus this week, with the aim of freezing the assets of the central bank and banning trade in diamonds, gold and other precious metals. The measures could be agreed by February 27.

There is also a renewed push in the United Nations to win backing for a Security Council resolution calling on Assad to go, after the last attempt was vetoed by China and Russia.

While the sanctions may have some impact in the short term, Yenel said they had little chance of toppling Assad's government and were more likely to strengthen his popular support.

"We don't believe in sanctions. They never work. That's why we are against them in Iran," he said.

"In Syria they will hurt people. Whether in the long term they will turn them into more vocal opposition, I don't know. We have never seen that happen before."

IRAN CHALLENGE

In Iran, Yenel said there was evidence of sanctions strengthening support for the government, rather than convincing the Iranian leadership to negotiate over its nuclear program, as is the stated aim of the West's measures.

"Everyone in Iran is for the nuclear program. So sanctions are not the answer," he said. "We have to convince the Iranians that they are not isolated. They fear everyone is against them, especially with sanctions ... So sanctions are not the answer."

Instead he counsels another diplomatic push, a move Ankara has long advocated even if it has failed in the past to bring Iran back to the negotiating table and keep it there.

Tehran maintains that its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful energy and medical purposes, but the West and other states believe it is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon.

The ambassador, raised in the United States, said efforts to restart talks through Turkish mediation were not successful in part because of an insistence by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represents global powers in Iranian diplomacy, on receiving direct signals from Tehran.

"It seems Lady Ashton is waiting for two things: a written letter or a message directly from the Iranians themselves, not through intermediaries," he said. "That's what we are hearing, and unless that happens, nothing will happen on the talks."

(Additional reporting by Luke Baker; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)