LONDON (Reuters) - Turkey appears to be preparing for some form of civil war in neighboring Syria, wary of any unilateral intervention but fearful fighting there could quickly escalate to a broader sectarian conflagration in the Arab world.
"I observe a simmering threat in the region based on a Sunni-Shiite divide," Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on Wednesday. "It ... has the potential to move the Muslim world from the 21st century into the darkness of the Middle Ages."
These were words Gul would not have uttered in public even a couple of weeks ago. But Ankara has in recent days openly abandoned any notion of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad staying in power and is focused on dealing with the chaos that could follow his removal.
"Contingencies seem to be based on a worst-case scenario," said Semih Idiz, a commentator with Milliyet newspaper. "The assumption seems to be that this is leading to some form of civil war."
Political leaders had held consultations with military and intelligence officials on Tuesday over a protest movement in which 3,500 people have already been killed now taking on the characteristics of an armed conflict, as soldiers desert, with some alarming sectarian overtones.
Turkish land forces commander Hayri Kivrikoglu visited the border area on Tuesday, declaring there was "no special reason for our visit." Excursions by top generals to the area are indeed frequent, but they are not normally made public.
Ankara has floated the idea of setting up a 'buffer zone' on Syrian soil if fighting triggers a flood of refugees. Thousands are already housed in camps on the Turkish side of the border and army deserters, already using the area as a safe haven, want Turkey to provide them with a bridgehead inside Syria.
But it would clearly take a huge flow of refugees and an immediate threat to Turkey's security to trigger any Turkish involvement on the Syrian side of the border; even then, Turkey would probably seek some form of United Nations backing, possibly from the General Assembly.
Russia, standing by Assad where Turkey has abandoned him, would likely block any move against Syria in the Security Council, where it has a veto.
Western and Arab powers alike appear happy with Sunni Muslim Turkey playing this prominent role on Syria's borders. Turkey itself has enjoyed growing diplomatic and economic influence in the Arab world under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
"Turkey is trying to act as a firefighter-in-waiting at the moment," said Yavuz Baydar, a columnist with Zaman newspaper. "But Turkey will not go it alone."
Turkish strategists, traditionally wary of involvement beyond Turkish frontiers, are inevitably making provision for that fire getting out of hand. But Ankara has made it clear its desire to avert any military conflict that could unleash unpredictable forces.
President Gul raised the specter of broader sectarian conflict between Sunni Muslims and Shi'ites in his speech in London on Wednesday.
He named no country; but Iraq, another Turkish neighbor, could be vulnerable if the Syrian conflict took on a sectarian form. Tensions between the Sunni minority and the Shi'ite majority run high. The sectarian clashes following from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have eased but tensions still run high and are exacerbated by competition for control of oil resources.
Shi'ite Iran also views Turkey's growing influence with some suspicion. Turkey's Kurdish rebellion could be worsened by unrest among Kurds in Iran, Syria and Iraq.
Erdogan's recent invocation of Nazi Germany in describing Assad's Syria, General Kivrikoglu's border visit and President Gul's warnings of ethnic conflagration will read for many Turks more like an exhortation to Syrians to settle the crisis themselves, and quickly.
Turkey had over many years of better relations with Damascus cultivated an educated and influential business middle class close to the political elite and eager to open to the West. It saw this elite as the key to integrating Syria and ending its virtual pariah status.
"The hope is that this business elite will seek a way out (with Assad)," said Baydar.
The alarm signals emanating from Ankara, however, suggest those hopes are fading.