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Turkey anxious over protests in Syria

ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News | 3/22/2011 12:00:00 AM | SEVİL KÜÇÜKKOŞUM

Turkey's PM has warned the Syrian president and advised him to make democratic reforms as Turkey’s neighbor is shaken by anti-government protests.

The Turkish prime minister has warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and advised him to make democratic reforms as Turkey’s close neighbor is shaken by anti-government protests inspired by the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world.

Ankara is anxious about the possibility the protests could turn into a sectarian clash. “The winds of change are everywhere. During my last visit to Syria I talked with Assad and mentioned that a similar process might develop in his country and that there was a threat of a sectarian approach. Now we see that situation is happening,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the daily Hürriyet on Tuesday.

“I told him to take lessons from what has been happening in the region,” he said. Assad should find a different way than the other leaders in the region, by approaching his people with a democratic attitude, Erdoğan said.

Protests spread on Monday in Syria from the city of Deraa, where five people have been killed, to three nearby towns. The protests are the most serious domestic challenge yet to President Assad. The Assad family, members of the prominent Alewite minority, rules the Sunni-dominated country.

After improving its relations with Middle Eastern countries in recent years, especially with its neighbors, Turkey in this respect had taken significant steps for Turkish-Syrian relations. Two countries, which once came to the brink of waging war against each other because of terrorism issues, are now walking on a path for economic integration.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also pointed out how vital for Turkey it would be if a wave of unrest hit Syria. “Syria is on an important threshold. We hope problems between the people and the administration [in Syria] can be handled without trouble,” Turkey’s foreign minister said in an interview on CNNTürk late Monday.

“Although a couple of people have died in the clashes, we should not expect these protests in Syria to have as much influence as those in other countries,” an expert said.

“From time to time protests arise in Syria; however, it seems difficult for protests in this country to reach the potential of Egypt and Tunisia,” Bilkay Duman, a Middle East expert from the Center for Middle East Strategic Research, or ORSAM, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Tuesday.

Elaborating the factors that meant Syria could less affected by regional turmoil, Duman said the reforms the Syrian administration had enacted in domestic politics and mentioned how Damascus has solidified its regional bonds. “Syria has developed political, social and economic relations with both Iran and Turkey, and this will have an impact on this issue,” he said.

Duman also said there was no significant opposition to Assad in Syria, as there was with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “There has been as yet no opposition movement in Syria that will guide protests.”

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