ANKARA, BOYNU YOGUN, Turkey – (Reuters) – Turkey said on Friday it might set up a “buffer zone” inside Syria to protect refugees fleeing President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, raising the prospect of foreign intervention in the year-long revolt.
With the uprising entering its second year, U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan urged the Security Council to end its divisions over Syria and work to help a peace mission mired in difficulty.
On the ground in Syria, the violence continued. Syrian forces battled protesters in at least three suburbs of the capital Damascus, opposition activists said. They were also flare-ups in other cities, with a number of deaths reported.
Refugees were crossing hills into Turkey, evading Syrian forces and minefields to be taken into refugee camps there. The increasing flow, and memories of a flood of 500,000 fleeing into Turkey from Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, are causing growing concern in Ankara.
Annan said he would dispatch advisors to Syria early next week for talks about sending international monitors, in the hope their presence would brake the violence. But Western diplomats had little expectation of any swift breakthroughs.
The United Nations estimates that Assad’s forces have killed at least 8,000 people, many of them civilians during the revolt, which has splintered Syria along sectarian lines and also deeply divided world powers.
While the West and much of the Arab world has lined up to denounce Assad, Russia, China and Iran have defended him and warned against outside interference.
Neighbor Turkey, which has grown increasingly at odds with Assad, urged its citizens to quit Syria because of the growing insecurity and raised the prospect of setting up a buffer zone along the border to protect the swelling ranks of refugees.
“A buffer zone, a security zone, are things being studied,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told reporters, adding that this was not the only proposal under consideration.
Ankara is wary of any military intervention in Syria, fearing a broader civil war could spill over its borders.
It has made clear that any creation of a ‘security zone’ would need some form of international agreement and backing, not least because it would require armed protection and could profoundly alter the dynamics of the uprising.
“If implemented, it may be a game changer,” said Anthony Skinner, Middle East analyst at UK-based political risk consultancy Maplecroft. He added that it would “clearly benefit the opposition”.
Turkey says it is now hosting 14,700 Syrian refugees after 250 people crossed its borders on Friday. Some 1,000 had arrived the day before, fleeing fierce fighting in the Idlib province.
At a refugee camp near the village of Boynu Yogun,, Syrians celebrated with songs and chants against Assad when they heard Erdogan’s comments broadcast on live television.
“This is what we wanted from the beginning. We want all the civilians in this area protected,” said Walid Hassan, one of the refugees, who fled Syria nine months ago.
Turkey has become a hub of the anti-Assad movement, hosting the main opposition umbrella alliance and the rebel Free Syrian Army. As such it has a unique insight into the growing division among the groups that could complicate any establishment of a new administration in Damascus.
Some 45 civilians have been killed in the Idlib region in the past day, including 23 whose bodies were found with their hands tied behind their backs, as well as five army deserters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
The Syrian government denies accusations of brutality against civilians. It says it is grappling with an insurgency by terrorists and foreign-backed militants.
Pro-Assad supporters staged mass rallies around Syria on Thursday to mark the first anniversary of the uprising, but anti-regime protesters were met with live fire when they tried to take to the streets, opponents said.
Activists said security forces fired heavily in southern Damascus’s Qadam suburb on Friday to chase demonstrators off the streets. They also reported firing in the western suburb of Daraya and clashes with army deserters in Ghouta, east of the capital, which has seen gun battles in the past.
Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as authorities have barred outside rights groups and journalists.
Underlining Assad’s growing isolation, four members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced the closures of their embassies in protest against its violent crackdown, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.
Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Qatar were to follow in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and halt diplomatic activity in Syria, the GCC was quoted as saying in a statement.
Russia, one of Assad’s few remaining friends, condemned the decision, saying it was vital to keep communication open.
Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister, told reporters in Moscow that international calls for Assad to step down were “counterproductive because they send the opposition a false signal that there is no sense in entering dialogue”.
Annan, a former U.N. Secretary General, went to Damascus last weekend to discuss proposals to end the violence. Syria said it responded positively to the initiative, but Western diplomats have expressed pessimism about the chances of success.
Addressing a closed-door meeting of the 15-nation Security Council via video link, Annan said the stronger their message was in support of his efforts to negotiate a ceasefire, the better his chances would be of altering the dynamics.
Russia and China have twice vetoed Security Council resolutions condemning Assad.