Turkey delivers blunt message to Syria’s president

Syria’s increasingly isolated government fought to maintain its grasp on power in the face of bitter criticism from neighbors and former allies who questioned the right of President Bashar Assad to continue ruling his country after months of bloody repression.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former supporter of Assad, declared that Syria was on “the edge of the cliff” in a blunt, personal message to the embattled president.

“Those who fire on their own people will go down in history as leaders who feed on blood,” warned Erdogan, who also referred to Assad by his first name, a show of disrespect. “You are on the same path.”

Erdogan made his comments Tuesday amid reports that clashes between armed rebels and Syrian government forces are dramatically increasing.

Casualty figures are impossible to confirm because Syria has restricted access by journalists, but opposition forces say November may be the deadliest month yet in the eight-month uprising, with the death toll close to 300. As many as 50 people were killed Monday, the highest reported daily death toll in months, according to anti-Assad activists.


Turkey also canceled oil exploration plans in Syria and said it was considering ending sales of electricity to its neighbor.

Syria’s economy is already suffering under the pressure of international sanctions, a European oil embargo, a collapsed tourism industry and the wholesale desertion of investors and capital.

The Arab League appeared to rule out Assad’s urgent appeal for an emergency summit with the group. Syria seeks a reversal of its impending suspension from the league for its failure to implement a league-brokered peace plan.

A Saudi-led bloc of six Persian Gulf countries on Tuesday rejected Syria’s plea for a meeting, underscoring the influential gulf nations’ hostility toward Assad.

Arab foreign ministers are scheduled Wednesday to meet in Rabat, Morocco, the deadline to avoid Syria’s humiliating banishment from a regional alliance it helped found more than half a century ago.

A senior Saudi prince, Turki al Faisal, said Tuesday in Washington that it was inevitable that “in one form or another” Assad would be forced out.

“There will be growing popular opposition to him, and killing every day,” predicted Al Faisal, the nephew of the Saudi king and a former intelligence chief and envoy to Washington and London.

On Monday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said Assad should step down for the good of his country.

“Whenever you exert violence on your own people, it is never going to end well,” Abdullah told the BBC, becoming the first Arab head of state to say Assad must go, aligning with the position of the Obama administration and other Western governments.

Even Russia, a steadfast Assad ally, met with members of a leading opposition group whose charter declares that Assad’s exit is the only way out. The meeting, in Moscow, was an indication that Russia may be hedging its bets on Assad’s future.

While still supporting Assad, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov expressed exasperation with the Syrian government’s failure to grasp the urgent need to end the crackdown on protesters and open up its autocratic system.

“We have repeatedly said that the Syrian leadership has been making mistakes and is slow on reforms,” Lavrov told Russian journalists at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Honolulu.

Damascus announced late Tuesday that it had freed almost 1,200 prisoners. The release of political detainees was one mandate of the faltering Arab League peace plan that Syria said it would support. Syria has also said it would bow to another demand of the accord and allow a delegation of Arab ministers, observers and journalists into the country.

The pact also calls for a cease-fire and for dialogue between Syria and the opposition.

But the accord appeared to be on shaky ground Tuesday. Some opposition groups and Arab diplomats suspect that Syria is only looking to buy time. The Obama administration urged Arab ministers to stand firm at the Morocco session, to be held on the sidelines of an Arab-Turkish cooperation forum.

“We look for the Arab League [on Wednesday] to again send a forceful message to Assad that he needs to allow for a democratic transition to take place and end the violence against his own people,” said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman.

Syria is pushing to keep the crisis within the purview of the Arab League and not have it land before the United Nations. Assad wants to avoid what happened in Libya, where a United Nations vote to protect civilians opened the way for a Western-led air campaign that hastened the end of Moammar Kadafi’s four-decade rule.

Western leaders say they have no intention of intervening militarily in Syria. But the U.N. could take lesser measures, such as dispatching monitors or human rights investigators. Damascus believes that any U.N. involvement could be a first step toward broader Western intervention.

Last month, Russia and China vetoed a draft U.N. resolution that would have condemned Assad’s handling of the crisis. But analysts say it might be more difficult to block a proposal that came with the imprimatur of the Arab League.

The league’s suspension of Syria “could allow the opposition to make another try at the U.N.,” noted Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor who runs an influential blog on Syria. “If you can get a condemnation from the U.N., all sorts of things can begin to happen.”

Experts caution that Assad retains considerable support in Syria, especially among Christians and other minorities worried about Iraq-style sectarian bloodletting should his secular government fall. The conflict has heightened polarization of Syria’s population and, in some cases, taken on a sectarian character, observers say. The government has aggressively attempted to reinforce the notion that its departure could lead to chaos.

Leading the revolt is Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, whose members are prominent in the command structure of Syria’s military and security services.

However, analysts say a continuing downward spiral of the economy and a potential breakdown of authority as the rebellion spreads could sap support from Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Until this year, the Assad dynasty had meant security.

“The whole edifice in Syria is built on loyalty and confidence that he [Assad] is going to bring them through,” Landis said. “As that erodes, people begin to look for exits. They look for a way not to compromise themselves.”

The uprising has left at least 3,500 people dead, mostly civilians, according to the U.N., which says a brutal government crackdown is to blame for the deaths. The Assad administration blames “terrorists” who it says have killed more than 1,000 security personnel and engaged in a campaign of bombings, sabotage and armed attacks.