Turkey has suspended talks with Syria and may impose sanctions on Damascus, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said, the clearest sign yet that Ankara has parted ways with President Bashar al-Assad over his bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters.
After long maintaining close relations with neighbour Syria, Turkey has spoken out increasingly against Assad, urging him to end a military crackdown on a popular uprising and to launch democratic reforms.
During a tour of Arab countries last week, Erdogan said thatTurkey's approach to Syria had changed and that Ankara wouldsoon announce its "final" decision on Syria by the time the U.N.General Assembly meeting in New York.
"I halted talks with the Syrian government. I did not wantto come to this point. But the Syrian government forced us tomake such a decision," Erdogan told Turkish journalists in NewYork on Wednesday after meeting U.S. President Barack Obama onthe sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
"The United States has sanctions regarding Syria. Ourforeign ministers will be working together to decide what oursanctions may be," Erdogan said.
"As a result of this cooperation, the sanctions may notresemble those on Libya. Every sanction differs according tocountry, people and demographic structure. Thus, sanctions onSyria will be different. We have preliminary studies on theissue," he said, according to the state agency Anatolian.
Assad's attempt to stamp out dissent by having troops andtanks assault restive areas has prompted the United States andEuropean Union to gradually escalate economic sanctions againstthe authoritarian Damascus leadership.
Turkey, which has been Syria's main trading partner, had resisted sanctions up to now after suffering the consequences of past generations of sanctions imposed on next-door Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule and now on Iran, another neighbour.
Bilateral trade between Turkey and Syria was $2.5 billion in2010, up from $500 million in 2004. Investments of Turkish firmsin Syria reached $260 million, Turkish official data show.
Turkey, a Muslim member of NATO that has appliedto join the European Union, is one of the few countries in theworld that has had open communication lines with Damascus.
Under Turkey's policy of "zero problems" with itsneighbours, Ankara built up political and commercial relationswith Syria after the two almost went to war in the 1990s overKurdish guerrillas harboured by Damascus.
But with Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkish camps across theborder and Assad defying repeated international calls to returnhis forces to barracks and open up to reform, Turkey has founditself in the awkward position of trying to champion democracyin the region while maintaining ties, especially for tradepurposes, with the Middle East's autocratic leaders.
The United States and EU, along with the governments of Britain, France and Germany, have called for Assad to quit.
Erdogan, who once vacationed together with Assad and hisfamily on the Turkish Mediterranean coast, has stopped short ofcalling for his departure.
But he told journalists in New York, "We do not have anyconfidence in the current government," and accused Damascus oflaunching "dark propaganda against Turkey".
The Syrian crisis has pushed Ankara and Washington intocloser cooperation, despite U.S. concerns over a fraying ofrelations between its allies Turkey and Israel.
Syria sits at the heart of numerous conflicts in the MiddleEast, and Turkey and Iran have competed for influence there. Anunstable Syria would have repercussions for Turkey, which alsoborders Iran and Iraq. (Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Writing byIbon Villelabeitia; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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