ANKARA/BOYNU YOGUN, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey said on Friday it might set up a “buffer zone” inside Syria to protect refugees fleeing President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, raising the prospect of foreign intervention in the year-long revolt.
With the uprising entering its second year, U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan reportedly told the Security Council that Syria’s response to his plans for peace were disappointing and urged major powers to put aside their divisions over Syria.
On the ground in Syria, the violence continued. Syrian forces battled protesters in at least three suburbs of the capital Damascus, opposition activists said. There were also flare-ups in other cities, with a number of deaths reported.
The United Nations estimates Assad’s forces have killed at least 8,000 people during the revolt, which has splintered Syria along sectarian lines and deeply divided world powers.
While the West and much of the Arab world has lined up to denounce Assad, Russia, China and Iran have defended him and warned against outside interference.
“The stronger and more unified your message, the better chance we have of shifting the dynamics of the conflict,” an envoy said, summarizing Annan’s remarks to the Security Council.
Refugees were crossing hills into Turkey, evading Syrian forces and minefields to reach refugee camps. The growing flow, and memories of some 500,000 fleeing into Turkey from Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, are causing growing concern in Ankara.
Turkey urged its citizens to quit Syria on Friday because of the growing insecurity and raised the prospect of creating a safe zone on its border to protect the refugees.
“A buffer zone, a security zone, are things being studied,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told reporters, adding this was not the only proposal under consideration.
Ankara is wary of military intervention and has made clear any creation of a ‘security zone’ would need some form of international agreement, not least because it would require armed protection and could alter the dynamics of the uprising.
“If implemented, it may be a game changer,” said Anthony Skinner, Middle East analyst at UK-based political risk consultancy Maplecroft. He added it would “clearly benefit the opposition”.
Turkey says it is now hosting 14,700 Syrian refugees after 250 people crossed its borders on Friday. Some 1,000 had arrived the day before, fleeing fierce fighting in Idlib province.
At a refugee camp near the village of Boynu Yogun, Syrians celebrated with songs and chants against Assad when they heard Erdogan’s comments broadcast on live television.
“This is what we wanted from the beginning. We want all the civilians in this area protected,” said Walid Hassan, one of the refugees, who fled Syria nine months ago.
Turkish officials were expected to discuss a buffer zone and other ideas at a meeting of Assad opponents in Istanbul on April 2. Turkey has become a hub of the anti-Assad movement, hosting the main opposition umbrella group and rebel Free Syrian Army.
As such, Ankara has a unique insight into the growing division among these groups that could complicate any establishment of a new administration in Damascus.
Pro-Assad supporters staged mass rallies around Syria on Thursday to mark the first anniversary of the uprising, but anti-regime protesters were met with live fire when they tried to take to the streets, opponents said.
Activists said security forces fired heavily in southern Damascus’s Qadam suburb on Friday to chase demonstrators off the streets. They also reported firing in the western suburb of Daraya and clashes with army deserters in Ghouta, east of the capital, which has seen gun battles in the past.
Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as authorities have barred outside rights groups and journalists.
The Syrian government denies accusations of brutality against civilians. It says it is grappling with an insurgency by terrorists and foreign-backed militants.
Annan said he would dispatch advisors to Syria early next week for talks about sending international monitors, in the hope their presence would break the violence and warned the situation was highly delicate.
“Yes, we tend to focus on Syria but any miscalculation that leads to major escalation will have impact in the region which would be extremely difficult to manage,” Annan told reporters in Geneva after addressing the Security Council by video link.
The veteran diplomat presented Assad with a six-point peace proposal at talks in Damascus last weekend. Envoys said he told New York on Friday that the response to date was disappointing.
Underlining Assad’s growing isolation, four members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced the closures of their embassies in protest against its violent crackdown, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.
Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Qatar were to follow in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and halt diplomatic activity in Syria, the GCC was quoted as saying in a statement.
Russia, one of Assad’s few remaining friends, condemned the decision, saying it was vital to keep communication open.
Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister, told reporters in Moscow that international calls for Assad to step down were “counterproductive because they send the opposition a false signal that there is no sense in entering dialogue”.
Writing by Crispian Balmer; Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Louis Charbonneau in New York,; Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Jonathon Burch in Boynu Yogun and Peter Apps in London; Edited by Sophie Hares