Turkish President Abdullah Gul warned on Wednesday that President Bashar al-Assad's violent crackdown on an eight-month-old revolt in Syria threatened to drag the whole region into turmoil and bloodshed.
Gul's fears for regional stability followed a searing attack by Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan the day before when he accused Assad of cowardice for turning guns on his own people, evoking comparisons with Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Erdogan bluntly told his former friend to quit.
In a sign that Turkish leaders may be moving past vitriolic rhetoric on Syria, once considered the NATO member's friendliest neighbour, Turkish media reported that Turkey's land commander had inspected troops near the border.
We exerted enormous efforts in public and behind closed doors in order to convince the Syrian leadership to lead the democratic transition, Gul said in a speech in London.
Violence breeds violence. Now, unfortunately, Syria has come to a point of no return, Gul told a think-tank.
The future of the entire Middle East could hinge on the fate of Syria, Gul said. Defining this democratic struggle along sectarian, religious and ethnic lines would drag the whole region into turmoil and bloodshed, he warned.
The United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed in the uprising, triggered by Arab revolts which have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Syria, which blames the unrest on armed terrorist groups, has barred most independent media.
Few experts believe Assad, from the Alawite minority sect, will respond to the unrest with the sort of change that many of Syria's 22 million mostly Sunni Muslim citizens demand.
Syrian opposition groups demand the dismantling of the police state and the Assad clan's power monopoly, free elections and an end to corruption. It is not clear what control they have over those who have taken up arms against the government.
Assad, 46, seems prepared to fight it out, playing on fears of a sectarian war if Syria's complex ethno-sectarian mosaic shatters. He may calculate that neither Western powers nor Arab neighbours will risk military intervention.
Assad's own spectre-waving has reinforced the fears of Syria's neighbours - Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey - about the possibly seismic consequences of a power shift in a nation on the faultlines of several Middle Eastern conflicts.
Instability in Syria, an ally of Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah, could spread to volatile Lebanon or Iraq.
Most analysts said Assad, who can depend on the loyalty only of two elite Alawaite units - the Fourth Armoured Division and the Republican Guard - cannot maintain current military operations without cracks emerging in the armed forces.
LOOK AT THE KILLED LIBYAN LEADER
Syria appears to be on the brink of a Libya-style armed insurgency, with arms flowing in from Lebanon, Jordan and from soldiers who have deserted with their weapons.
Bashar al-Assad comes out and says 'I will fight to the death'. For the love of God, who are you fighting with? asked Erdogan on Tuesday. Fighting your own people until the death is not heroism. It's cowardice. If you want to see someone who fights his people to the death, look at Nazi Germany, look at Hitler, look at Mussolini, he told his ruling AK party.
If you cannot learn a lesson from them, look at the killed Libyan leader who turned his guns on his own people and only 32 days ago used the same expressions as you, he said, referring to the lynching of Muammar Gaddafi by fighters last month.
But, echoing the stance of Arab League foreign ministers who suspended Damascus and have threatened economic and political sanctions, Erdogan said his criticism did not mean Turkey was calling for international military action.
We do not have eyes on any country's land, we have no desire to interfere in any country's internal affairs, he said.
Highlighting Syria's growing isolation, 122 countries voted on Tuesday for a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee condemning the government crackdown. Only 13 countries voted against and 41 abstained.
Following the U.N. General Assembly vote condemning repression in Syria, (foreign minister) Alain Juppe will confirm France's support . for the construction of a united democratic opposition, that includes all of Syria's democratic forces to prepare a peaceful transition in the country, foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said on Wednesday.
The resolution says the committee strongly condemns the continued grave and systematic human rights violations by the Syrian authorities, such as arbitrary executions, excessive use of force and the persecution and killing of protesters and human rights defenders.
It also demands an immediate end to arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, including children in Syria.
Russia and China, which vetoed a European-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution last month that would have condemned Syria and threatened possible future sanctions, abstained, according to an official U.N. tally, which diplomats said could indicate a shift in their positions.
Countries that voted against the resolution included Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Vietnam. Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said the resolution, drafted by Britain, France and Germany, had no meaning for Damascus.
Ja'afari held up for delegates what he said were documents naming terrorists arrested while smuggling arms into Syria. He said the documents offered clear proof of a U.S.-led plot to topple Assad.
There are many scenarios that could see Assad brought down, none of them neat and orderly.
Some see an Alawite who is part of the community's hierarchy - but not the regime's inner circle - moving to oust Assad and his family and, in the interest of the Alawites and other minorities such as the Christians and Druze, to embark on an orderly transition towards a new democratic Syria.
Observers say there are some prominent Alawite figures who could play a role in a post-Assad Syria while defecting military officers could also be at the forefront.
Related to that, there are groups within the opposition working on a strategic 10-year transition plan.
It involves some sort of a national unity government, which comprises major blocs and is as inclusive as possible and could last for a couple of years. This would set the stage for parliamentary elections and a new constitution.
As opposition plans start to crystallise with increased external support, Assad is trying to present himself as the only shield against a slide into chaos, Iraq-style sectarian carnage, and the triumph of hardline Islamists from the Sunni majority.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft in London and John Irish in Paris, Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Jon Boyle)