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4 Gulf States Shun Syria as Turkey Warns Citizens to Leave

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s diplomatic isolation deepened on Friday as four more Persian Gulf states moved to close their Damascus embassies in protest of the violent suppression of a year-old uprising.

At the same time, Turkey advised its citizens in Syria to evacuate and announced that it would soon suspend consular services there, a possible prelude to the closure of its embassy as well.

In a further sign of alienation between Turkey and Syria, formerly close neighbors, the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters in Ankara that his government was considering the possibility of establishing a military buffer zone inside Syrian territory to help handle the flow of Syrian refugees across the border.

While other Turkish officials have raised that possibility before, Turkey is not expected to take such a step, which would put Turkish soldiers in Syria, unless it receives broad international support.

About 15,000 Syrians are now living in camps in southern Turkey, and Turkish officials have said they are preparing for the possibility of at least 30,000 more arrivals. The head of the Turkish Red Crescent, Ahmet Lutfi Akar, said that his organization had discussed plans to accommodate up to 500,000 refugees in an “extreme scenario,” Turkish news media reported Friday.

There was little evidence that international diplomacy had made any significant headway in defusing the Syrian crisis, which has left more than 7,500 people dead, according to United Nations estimates, since March 2011, when political activists energized by the Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere began protesting the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, who has responded with a harsh military crackdown.

At the United Nations Security Council on Friday, members received a confidential briefing from Kofi Annan, the former secretary general appointed as a special representative on Syria for both the United Nations and the Arab League, about his talks last weekend with Mr. Assad to reach a cease-fire and negotiated settlement.

Mr. Annan, who spoke to the council via video link from Geneva, told reporters there afterward that he was sending a team back to Damascus this weekend to resume discussions with the government on the proposals he had presented. He did not give details of those proposals but said they focused on stopping the killing, expediting humanitarian assistance to civilians and creating a process that “will lead to a democratic Syria.”

He gave no indication of how the proposals were received by Mr. Assad, who has refused to negotiate with political opponents and has described the uprising as foreign-backed terrorism.

Mr. Annan said he would return to Syria for further discussions but did not specify when. He described the Syrian conflict as enormously complex and said that “any miscalculation that leads to major escalation will have impact in the region which will be extremely difficult to manage.”

The developments came a day after pro-Assad crowds thronged Damascus, bringing it to a near standstill for what the government called a “Global March for Syria,” apparently a bid to pre-empt gatherings by protesters on the first anniversary of the conflict.

Scattered clashes were reported across the country on Friday, including fighting between government forces and army defectors in the Damascus suburbs, but nothing on the scale of the military’s recent assaults on the major centers of anti-Assad protests, notably the northern city of Idlib, the central city of Homs and the southern city of Dara’a, where the uprising began.

The Saudi press agency reported late Thursday that four members of the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council — Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — had joined Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in announcing the closing of their embassies in Damascus.

On Friday, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Turkish citizens in Syria should leave as soon as possible and that consular services in Damascus would be suspended on March 22. Turkish officials did not rule out the possibility that the embassy might be closed.

The effort to isolate the Syrian government has deepened a division pitting a diplomatic alliance of Western and Arab countries and Turkey against Mr. Assad’s few remaining allies, notably China, Iran and Russia. Several Western countries, including the United States, have closed their embassies in Damascus as their governments press Mr. Assad to step aside as part of a settlement.

In Beirut on Friday, Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations refugee agency’s newly appointed coordinator for the Syrian crisis, said teams from a number of United Nations relief agencies would be touring major cities in Syria next week with the cooperation of the Syrian government to assess the needs. But it remains unclear whether the Syrian authorities will agree with their assessment on the level of need, given the government’s efforts to portray the uprising’s leaders as terrorists and thugs.

Authors:  and  (Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Alan Cowell from London. Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed reporting from Geneva, and Rick Gladstone from New York.)

Published: March 16, 2012


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