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Turkey caught in a diplomatic catch 22 as it pushes for Syrian reform

Turkey has appeased its western allies by calling on Syria to end violent government crackdowns. In spite of close diplomatic ties, Turkey has condemned its neighbour while hosting talks between Syrian opposition leaders

Turkish and Syrian flag

Turkey has close diplomatic ties with Syria

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan conceded to pressure from the west and voiced concern on Tuesday over Syria's violent crackdown on demonstrators.

In the last few years, Turkey has built up close political and economic ties with its Syrian neighbor. But as violence escalated across the border, Turkey faced calls from its western allies to take a harder line on the Syrian government.

Erdogan reportedly telephoned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to push him to introduce democratic reforms.

"I expressed in clear terms during my conversation with Mr. Assad our concern, our fears, our discomfort over recent developments," Erdogan said at a joint news conference with his Kyrgyz counterpart Almazbek Atambayev.

Erdogan praised Syria's move to lift a 48-year old draconian emergency law, but said that much more needed to be done.

He announced that he planned to send a team of special envoys to Damascus to aid the reform process, saying that they may arrive as soon as Thursday.

"We don't want... an authoritarian, totalitarian regime with anti-democratic practices to develop" in Syria, Erdogan said. "Our wish is... that the process of democratization is rapidly pursued."

Although Turkey had previously expressed concern about the situation in Syria, Erdogan had stopped short of expressing harshly worded criticism.

Grassroots revolution

Meanwhile, leading Syrian opposition leaders reasserted their commitment to bringing democratic changes to Syria, after talks held in Istanbul on Wednesday.

Turkish and Syrian protestors protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Protests against Syrian President al-Assad have also taken place in Istabul

In a statement issued by an umbrella group of opposition activists called the National Initiative for Change, opposition figures declared that unless President Assad introduced democratic reforms, their "massive grassroots revolution will break the regime."

The group added that democratic transition will "safeguard the nation from falling into a period of violence, chaos and civil war."

Opposition leaders have stressed, however, that they will need Turkey and other international allies to step up the pressure on President Assad to end his brutal crackdown. Wlid Saffour, President of the Syrian Human Rights committee, called on Turkey to aid anti-government protesters in their efforts.

"The latest developments in Syria are very, very horrific. From my point of view, I want Turkey to apply further pressure," he said. "The role of Turkey is a key one in the situation," he added.

Opposition leaders had previously expressed their frustration at Turkey's response to the crisis and criticized the Turkish government for not taking a tough enough stance.

"I don’t think the Syrian leadership is listening to Turkey at this moment of time," said Anas Abdah the chairman of the international branch of the Damascus Declaration, an umbrella group of Syrian opposition groups.

"It is the time for the Turkish leadership to take that one step further and work with the international community to help and take all the measures to stop targeting the civilians," he added.

Afraid to alienate Syria

The Syrian opposition has called for international sanctions, backing for a UN Security Council motion against Syria and for cases to be opened against the Syrian leadership at the international criminal court.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Erdogan risks alienating Syria by supporting western opposition

While other western countries have been firm in their condemnation of the Syrian government, Turkey appears to have come no closer to meeting these demands. This has triggered suggestions that Prime Minister Erdogan is too heavily invested in developing relations in Syria and is reluctant to alienate key political allies.

Retaining ties with Syria and Iran would be seen as a significant diplomatic triumph for Erdogan in the build up to a general election.

"If Turkey sides with, or even offers implicit support to the dissidents and support some sort of regime change, Iran will take it as directly against itself and it will ruin our relations," political scientist Nuray Mert said.

Author: Charlotte Chelsom-Pill, (Reuters, AFP)

Editor: Rob Turner

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