| ANKARA, Sept 21
ANKARA, Sept 21 Turkey has suspended talks with
Syria and may impose sanctions on Damascus, Prime Minister
Tayyip Erdogan said, the clearest sign yet that Ankara has
parted ways with President Bashar al-Assad over his bloody
crackdown on anti-government protesters.
After long maintaining close relations with neighbour Syria,
Turkey has spoken out increasingly against Assad, urging him to
end a military crackdown on a popular uprising and to launch
During a tour of Arab countries last week, Erdogan said that
Turkey's approach to Syria had changed and that Ankara would
soon announce its "final" decision on Syria by the time the U.N.
General Assembly meeting in New York.
"I halted talks with the Syrian government. I did not want
to come to this point. But the Syrian government forced us to
make such a decision," Erdogan told Turkish journalists in New
York on Wednesday after meeting U.S. President Barack Obama on
the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
"The United States has sanctions regarding Syria. Our
foreign ministers will be working together to decide what our
sanctions may be," Erdogan said.
"As a result of this cooperation, the sanctions may not
resemble those on Libya. Every sanction differs according to
country, people and demographic structure. Thus, sanctions on
Syria will be different. We have preliminary studies on the
issue," he said, according to the state agency Anatolian.
Assad's attempt to stamp out dissent by having troops and
tanks assault restive areas has prompted the United States and
European Union to gradually escalate economic sanctions against
the authoritarian Damascus leadership.
Turkey, which has been Syria's main trading partner, had
resisted sanctions up to now after suffering the consequences of
past generations of sanctions imposed on next-door Iraq during
Saddam Hussein's rule and now on Iran, another neighbour.
Bilateral trade between Turkey and Syria was $2.5 billion in
2010, up from $500 million in 2004. Investments of Turkish firms
in Syria reached $260 million, Turkish official data show.
Turkey, a Muslim member of NATO that has applied
to join the European Union, is one of the few countries in the
world that has had open communication lines with Damascus.
Under Turkey's policy of "zero problems" with its
neighbours, Ankara built up political and commercial relations
with Syria after the two almost went to war in the 1990s over
Kurdish guerrillas harboured by Damascus.
But with Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkish camps across the
border and Assad defying repeated international calls to return
his forces to barracks and open up to reform, Turkey has found
itself in the awkward position of trying to champion democracy
in the region while maintaining ties, especially for trade
purposes, with the Middle East's autocratic leaders.
The United States and EU, along with the governments of
Britain, France and Germany, have called for Assad to quit.
Erdogan, who once vacationed together with Assad and his
family on the Turkish Mediterranean coast, has stopped short of
calling for his departure.
But he told journalists in New York, "We do not have any
confidence in the current government," and accused Damascus of
launching "dark propaganda against Turkey".
The Syrian crisis has pushed Ankara and Washington into
closer cooperation, despite U.S. concerns over a fraying of
relations between its allies Turkey and Israel.
Syria sits at the heart of numerous conflicts in the Middle
East, and Turkey and Iran have competed for influence there. An
unstable Syria would have repercussions for Turkey, which also
borders Iran and Iraq.
(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Writing by
Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Mark Heinrich)