Turkey warns against sectarian view of Syrian conflict

ANKARA Tue May 15, 2012 10:37am EDT

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ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday the violence in Syria should not be viewed as a sectarian or ethnic conflict, and those who did so risked setting the whole region on fire.

In an apparent reference to Shi'ite Iran, Ankara's main rival in the region and closest ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan called on Shi'ites to see the conflict in Syria only through "brotherly eyes".

Majority-Sunni Turkey, which shares a 900-km (550-mile) long border with Syria, fears the internal conflict could develop into sectarian and ethnic fighting that could spill across borders, pitting Shi'ite Muslims against Sunnis.

Referring to clashes this week between Alawite Assad supporters and Sunni Muslims that killed five people and wounded more than 70 in Lebanon, Erdogan said he wanted to send an "important reminder" to the region and the world.

"Viewing the crisis in Syria as a sectarian conflict is absolutely wrong. Whoever views these events through a sectarian window, through an ethnic or ideological window, and whoever adopts an according attitude, is committing a big wrong," Erdogan said.

"This kind of outlook is like walking towards a fire with a bellows and, God forbid, turning the spark in the region ... into a large fire," Erdogan told a weekly parliamentary meeting of his ruling AK Party.

APPEAL TO SHI'ITES

Once a close ally of Damascus, Turkey has become increasingly frustrated with Assad's refusal to bring an end to the violence, and has thrown its weight behind his opponents.

The conflict in Syria has also strained ties between Ankara and Tehran, which has openly supported a government crackdown on protesters. Turkey fears Iran's support for Assad and Iraq's Shi'ite-led government could lead to a regional sectarian war.

Turkey has been urging Iran privately for months to use its influence to persuade Assad to step down. Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni.

Erdogan appealed to all Shi'ites not to see the Syrian conflict as a sectarian struggle.

"Those that claim to carry the love ... of the Prophet Hussein must only see the Syrian problem through brotherly eyes," he said, referring to the Prophet Mohammad's grandson who is revered by Shi'ites and whose defeat at the battle of Kerbala in 680 defines Shi'ism and its rift with Sunni Islam.

Violence in Syria has rumbled on despite a ceasefire declared a month ago by international envoy Kofi Annan and the presence of a 150-strong U.N. monitoring mission.

More than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising began some 14 months ago and last week 55 people were killed in twin suicide bombings in the capital.

Erdogan said the bombings were wrong and Turkey would not encourage or support such attacks whoever was responsible.

"In these incidents, innocent people, women and children are dying and are suffering," he said.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

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