Turkey to keep pushing for UN-backed Syria safe zones

ISTANBUL/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Turkey will continue to seek international backing for a foreign-protected safe zone inside Syria after a U.N. Security Council meeting this week failed to deliver much beyond a French plan to channel more aid to rebel-held areas.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France and Turkey had identified “liberated zones” in the north and south that had escaped President Bashar al-Assad’s control and which, if given funding and properly administered, could serve as a refuge for civilians caught in the chaos.

But the French plan to allocate much of its future 5 million euros ($6.25 million) aid for Syria to these areas stopped short of the foreign-protected “safe zone” advocated by Turkey, which is struggling to cope with a growing influx of refugees and is increasingly frustrated by the lack of international action.

“Bashar al-Assad has come to the end of his political life. At the moment, Assad is acting in Syria not as a politician, but as an element, an actor, of war,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview broadcast on Turkish television late on Friday.

Ankara will again push for foreign agreement on setting up a safe zone at the U.N. General Assembly next month and will try in the coming weeks to pressure Russia and Iran, who strongly oppose any such action, Turkish government sources said.

Assad’s opponents will only be able to form a credible transitional authority inside Syria if such a foreign-protected safe haven is established, Syrian opposition figure Basma Kodmani told Reuters.

“Such a provisional government needs to be based inside Syria in the liberated areas ... That requires a safe zone where it can be based,” said Kodmani, who quit the Syrian National Council (SNC) this week saying it was out of touch with forces on the ground.


Civilians in rebel-held parts of Syria have suffered frequent deadly air strikes from Assad’s forces and in some areas there are doubts about the control the rebels really have, with fighters crossing into Turkey to sleep at night.

Credible protection for “liberated” areas would require no-fly zones patrolled by foreign aircraft, but there is no chance of securing a U.N. Security Council mandate for such action, given opposition from veto-wielding members Russia and China.

“We cannot take such a measure unless the United Nations Security Council decides in favor of it ... First a decision for the no-fly zone must be taken, then we would be able to take a step towards a buffer zone,” Erdogan said.

The northern town of Azaz, 3 km (2 miles) from the Turkish border, is notionally a “liberated zone” but at least half the population has fled and Assad’s forces still shell the town from a nearby military airport on an almost nightly basis.

Abu Musaab al-Surie, commander of a rebel unit of around 20 men, said a no-fly zone would mean they could take the airport.

“If we had no army planes bombing us, it would take two days,” he told Reuters last week.

Western powers have said they will not supply weapons to lightly armed Syrian rebels, who have few answers to attacks by Assad’s combat planes and helicopter gunships.

After the U.N. council meeting to discuss the humanitarian crisis ravaging Syria 17 months in to the conflict, they said military action to secure safe zones was still an option.

But they have shown little appetite for sending warplanes to Syria to protect safe havens or mount the kind of NATO bombing that helped Libyan rebels to topple Muammar Gaddafi last year.


Turkey’s government feels increasingly uncomfortable being seen to support rebels with no clear road map in Syria and has repeatedly made clear it will not undertake any kind of intervention on its own.

“A coalition must be established by at least NATO, the Arab League or neighboring countries. Otherwise it would amount to an occupation if Turkey acts alone,” said retired Major General Armagan Kuloglu, now an analyst at a think-tank in Ankara.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres questioned the idea of buffer zones as a means to protect civilians.

“Bitter experience has shown that it is rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas,” he said.

Up to 300,000 Syrians have fled the country, while many more are displaced inside it, and conditions for those trying to escape the fighting are worsening, humanitarian agencies say.

Fabius said more help must be given to rebel-held areas and that Paris and Ankara were working to identify individuals in these zones who could be part of a future Syrian authority.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said this week that the United States had started programs for administrators in territories outside Assad’s control.

“In the Syria of the future, these people will play an important role because they have emerged out of the conflict and they have the trust of the population,” Fabius said.

The United Nations says nearly 20,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. Syrian opposition groups put the death toll far higher.

Reporting by John Irish in New York, Catherine Bremer in Paris, Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Ece Toksabay in Istanbul and Oliver Holmes in Azaz; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Kevin Liffey