Turkey is considering setting up a buffer zone inside Syria to tackle the flow of refugees fleeing the conflict there, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, comments that stirred celebrations by Syrians sheltering in Turkish camps.
Turkey is wary of military intervention that could bring it into confrontation with Syrian forces, but has signalled that a large flood of refugees crossing its borders, or massacres by Syrian government troops, could force it to act. It says any such operation would need some form of international agreement and involvement.
On the subject of Syria, a buffer zone, a security zone, are things being studied, Erdogan told reporters, but said other ideas were also under consideration. It would be wrong to look at it from only one perspective.
A buffer zone inside Syria would need to be secured. Without at least tacit Syrian government acceptance, that could bring Turkish forces, the second biggest in NATO, into contact with Syrian forces. Fighting has moved closer to the Turkish frontier, with a government assault in the Idlib region.
Turkish officials have not spelled out in any detail how they might envisage a 'security zone' and under what conditions it could be established.
You can't have a peacekeeping force without a peace to keep, said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst. Really you need a cessation of hostilities, otherwise Turkey could be fighting its way across.
The danger is that it may draw Turkey militarily into the conflict, said Anthony Skinner, Middle East analyst for political risk consultancy Maplecroft.
Ankara has been keen to avoid head-to-head confrontation with the Syrian military, but establishing such a zone would dramatically increase the risk of such a confrontation, he said.
Erdogan said Turkey was considering recalling its ambassador from Damascus once Turkish citizens had returned from Syria, which the Turkish Foreign Ministry urged them to do at once.
Turkey says that there are now 14,700 Syrian refugees living in camps on its territory. On Thursday it announced there had been a sharp increase in the flow, with some 1,000 arriving in the previous 24 hours, driven by fighting in nearby Idlib.
But the number who fled to Turkey in the 24 hours up to Friday morning, had gone down to around 250, an official said.
At a refugee camp near the village of Boynu Yogun, close to the border, Syrians celebrated with songs and chants against President Bashar al-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 has fled Syria nine months ago.
This is a very good thing. It is what we asked the government to do, said another, Muhammad Amr, maybe now we'll go back to Syria.
TURKEY UNLIKELY TO GO IT ALONE
If Turkey does intervene in Syria, that point is likely to be some way off, and be dependent on international backing.
I don't think Turkey is going to get involved in any military action other than one agreed by the United Nations, said Murat Yetkin, editor of the Hurriyet Daily News.
Ankara is also likely to follow the lead of the Arab League on Syria. Some Arab countries, notably Qatar, have called for an Arab peacekeeping force and arming the rebel Free Syrian Army. Those calls could be repeated at a meeting of Western and Arab states, the Friends of Syria, in Istanbul on April 2.
Erdogan said he was waiting to see the content of a U.S. draft U.N. Security Council resolution designed to be acceptable to Russia. Yetkin said the U.S. resolution would perhaps seek an international humanitarian effort for Syria that will need military protection.
Chinese and Russian vetoes have hampered Western and Arab-backed diplomatic action over Syria in the United Nations.
Turkey is concentrating on achieving results from the April 2 meeting in Istanbul, Erdogan said.
We are coming together with the U.N. and the Arab League at the Istanbul summit. We are planning to have a meeting that is wide-ranging, but directed at achieving results, he said.
I believe the Istanbul summit will produce very different results for the future, he said, but did not elaborate.
Memories are still vivid in Turkey of the flow of some 500,000 Iraqi Kurdish refugees into Turkey at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
Then NATO troops, backed by a United Nations resolution, set up a no fly zone over northern Iraq, helping Kurdish forces wrest control of the region from Baghdad. Limited numbers of NATO ground troops also crossed the border to help in the humanitarian operation.
(Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Janet Lawrence)