Turkey calls for change in Syria, but not Assad's resignation



ISTANBUL // Turkey's political and military leadership yesterday called for "democratic change" in Syria, one day after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, issued his strongest criticism yet of the Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad by comparing him to the Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi.

A statement published after a scheduled meeting of Turkey's national security council in Ankara said participants renewed calls for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, but they stopped short of following the example of the US and other major Western powers in demanding the resignation of Mr Assad.

The council said "democratic political change in line with the legitimate demands of the Syrian people … has to be implemented following a clearly stated timeframe". The meeting included a briefing by Omer Onhon, Turkey's ambassador in Syria, officials said. The council is chaired by Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, and includes top government officials as well as top commanders of the armed forces and intelligence chiefs.

Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March, Ankara has repeatedly called on Damascus to end the crackdown on protesters that has cost about 2,000 lives and to implement democratic reforms. Lately, Mr Erdogan's government has grown increasingly frustrated with what it sees as empty promises by the Syrian regime.

"Unfortunately, our demands were not answered by" Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi," Mr Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul on Wednesday. "Now the same thing is happening in Syria."

The prime minister said that after sending his foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Damascus for talks last week, he spoke personally and at length with Mr Assad on the telephone last weekend. "But they are still shooting on civilians," Mr Erdogan said about Syrian government forces that have been trying to crush the five-month-old revolt.

Mr Erdogan's comparison of Mr Al Assad to Col Qaddafi was significant because Turkey has publicly called for the resignation of Col Qaddafi, something Ankara has avoided so far in the case of Mr Al Assad. The statement highlighted the loss of trust Turkey has had in the Syrian regime. The two countries were close partners before the uprising began.

A Turkish official told The National yesterday that Ankara had so far refrained from telling the Syrians that the government in Damascus was no longer an "interlocutor". But he did not exclude the possibility that this may happen in the future.

Mr Erdogan's government did not react publicly to reports yesterday saying that Mr Assad had assured the UN that all military action against demonstrators had stopped. Privately, Turkish officials expressed doubts the crackdown would end.

Barack Obama, the US president, yesterday called for Mr Al Assad to resign. It was the administration's first explicit demand for Mr Assad to step down and was accompanied by an executive order freezing all Syrian government assets in the US and targeting the country's lucrative energy sector.

The move was coordinated with the UN and with US allies in Europe and the Middle East, and followed an intense diplomatic campaign to increase pressure on Mr Al Assad. The European Union issued an identical call shortly after Mr Obama's statement, followed quickly by similar words from the leaders of France, Britain and Germany.

Mr Onhon told Syrian officials several days ago that Turkey was disappointed with the failure of the government in Damascus to stick to assurances given to Mr Davutoglu last week, a Turkish official told The National.

The Syrian government did pull its forces from the city of Hama and allowed Mr Onhon to visit Hama afterwards as promised, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks in Damascus were confidential. But they did not stop the violence elsewhere.

"So the ambassador told them that if the oppression continued, there was no point in continuing talks about a [reform] process that they were saying they were pursuing."

Yesterday's meeting of Ankara's national security council was the first since a shake-up of the Turkish military earlier this month. A new general staff was appointed on August 4, following the resignation of former top commanders in protest against the arrest of scores of officers who have been indicted for involvement in coup attempts to bring down Mr Erdogan. The change of guard at the top of the armed forces was a political breakthrough for Mr Erdogan's efforts to scale down the political role of the military.

Reflecting the change, the formal seating order of the security council was changed in yesterday's meeting. In former sessions, civilians and generals faced each other across a table headed by the president. Yesterday, the seating order was organised according to diplomatic rank, which resulted in civilians and generals sitting side by side.

In the session, the council was also expected to take up the Kurdish conflict after rebels killed eight Turkish soldiers and one pro-Turkish militiaman in an ambush on Wednesday. Turkish artillery and warplanes hit installations of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a rebel group fighting for self-rule in Turkey since 1984, deep inside northern Iraq late Wednesday in retaliation.

The general staff said on its website yesterday that 60 PKK targets in northern Iraq had been hit by warplanes. Before the air assault, Turkish artillery had taken 168 PKK targets in northern Iraq "under heavy bombardment", the statement said.

Installations in the Kandil Mountains in Iraq, about 100 kilometres south of the Turkish border, were among those hit, the statement said.

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