Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said on Friday that Turkey had no desire to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs, but that it could not stand by if security in the region was put at risk.
“Turkey has no desire to interfere in anyone’s internal affairs, but if a risk to regional security arises then we do not have the luxury of standing by and looking on,” Davutoğlu told reporters in the Turkish capital, referring to Syria.
Davutoğlu said Turkey had a “responsibility” and the “authority” to tell Damascus “enough” if it was putting Turkey’s security at risk by fighting its own people and forcing people to flee the country.
In addition, Davutoğlu urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to punish his security forces if he is “sincere” in denying that he ordered a violent crackdown on his people. Assad claimed in a rare interview Wednesday that he never ordered the brutal suppression of the uprising and insisted only a “crazy person” would kill his own people. His remarks were an apparent attempt to distance himself from violence that the United Nations says has killed 4,000 people since March.
“If he is sincere he will punish the security forces, and he will accept the Arab League observers and help change the atmosphere,” Davutoğlu said. “He still has the opportunity to do this.”
As one of the latest in a series of moves aimed at pressuring Assad to halt the regime’s crackdown on people, Turkish authorities said Friday that Turkey will also suspend a 2008 free trade agreement with Syria, which will lead to taxes of up to 30 percent on some goods. Syria had already unilaterally suspended the agreement, but Turkey’s Cabinet needed to approve the suspension, so it can also increase taxes.
Customs and Trade Minister Hayati Yazıcı said in Ankara that Turkey is also planning to encourage trucks to favor Iraqi and Jordanian routes for delivering goods to the Middle East, because of the deterioration in relations.
“We are having tensions with Syria,” Yazıcı said. “Of course, our trade is important, but our stance based on humanitarian values is above everything.”
Cargo ships were also planning to bypass Syria, running between Turkey’s Mediterranean port of İskenderun and some Red Sea ports in line with sanctions against Syria.
Meanwhile, tensions have grown on the Turkish-Syrian border where the Syrian army has reportedly deployed tanks as reinforcements.
The reports of reinforcements on the Syrian side of the border, which appeared in the Turkish media, came days after Syrian news agency SANA reported a failed infiltration attempt from Turkey by a group of “35 armed terrorists.” SANA also said some of the enemy wounded escaped over the border and were treated by the Turkish military, a claim denied by Ankara.
Foreign Ministry sources declined to comment on the reports, with one official only saying, “We have [been] following and carefully examining the reports.”
Observers say Turkey would not be surprised to see Syria reinforcing its troops and increasing the number of tanks near the border. This is because Ankara is increasingly aware that Syrian troops find it more and more difficult to suppress unrest as the security situation keeps deteriorating in the country.
On Friday, journalists asked Transportation Minister Binali Yıldırım, who was speaking at an event in İstanbul, about his opinion regarding Syria’s move to close its border gates with Turkey. Yıldırım said that Syria made a unilateral decision.
“Syria had such an increase in transit fees and bureaucracy means “come no more.” Therefore, related ministers and institutions came together in Turkey, and we debated possible measures, and we implemented them,” he said. “Our position is quite clear. Whatever measures we take, we will never allow the suffering of Syrian people. We think Syrian civilians have no fault in that absurd stubbornness. But the [Syrian] regime will see the results of its measures against our country.”
Asked if ties are “completely cut” with the Syrian regime, Yıldırım said:
“Relations would never be cut. You cannot cut your relations with a country with which you share an 833-kilometer border.”
Turkey was once one of Syria’s closest regional allies, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had built a strong rapport with Assad. But as the violence grew worse and Assad ignored Ankara’s advice to halt the crackdown on protesters and make urgent reforms, relations broke down, and Erdoğan has now bluntly told Assad he should quit.
Last week, Turkey followed the Arab League by announcing a list of economic sanctions on Syria it said would target the government, including freezing state assets and imposing a travel ban on officials and suspending financial transactions.