November 12, 2012 4:00 pm

Turkey warns of Syria chemical arms risk

Aircraft attack in Syria near Turkish border©EPA

Turkey warned on Monday of the risk of Syria using missiles with chemical weapons as tensions rose between Israel and Syria, whose forces traded fire for a second consecutive day.

In an interview with the Financial Times on a day that a Syrian fighter jet also attacked an area near the Turkish border, President Abdullah Gul raised the possibility of Damascus using chemical weapons against Turkey – a threat he said could be countered by Nato Patriot missiles.

“It is known that Syria has chemical weapons and they have old Soviet delivery systems, so if there is in some eventuality some sort of madness in this respect and some action is taken, contingency planning has to be put in place and this is something Nato is doing,” he said.

In comments that also highlighted the international concern that the Syrian war represents a growing risk to the broader region, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary-general, vowed the alliance would “do what it takes” to protect Turkey.

Ankara is considering asking Nato for Patriot missiles on its border with Syria, but Mr Gul’s comments go further than previous statements in spelling out Ankara’s fears that Syrian chemical weapons may be used against it.

The Turkish president does not have a strong executive role but as a former foreign minister is one of the country’s best-known faces on the international stage.

He said he believed that a series of incidents in which Syrian shells have landed on Turkish terrain – which have led Ankara to return fire – were not intentional, but added: “Of course we cannot tolerate such action and we give the necessary response.”

By contrast, Israeli officials signalled growing concern that Damascus is deliberately seeking to draw Israel into Syria’s internal war.

“As of yesterday [Sunday], our impression was that what we were seeing was the spillover from fighting inside Syria,” one Israeli official said on Monday. “We are not necessarily convinced that that is still the case.”

The comments contrast with earlier Israeli assurances that the Syrian fire consisted of stray bullets and mortars not aimed at Israel.

The latest incident with Israel came after another Syrian mortar shell landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israeli soldiers fired tank shells across the border in response, scoring what it said were several “direct hits”. According to an Israeli military official, at least one Israeli shell struck a Syrian mobile artillery unit – the first direct Israeli hit against a Syrian military target since the end of the 1973 October war.

On Sunday, following a similar Syrian mortar attack, Israeli forces fired a missile across the border in response. That missile, however, was intended as a “warning shot” and was not directed at any specific target.

In the northeast of Syria, regime forces have been hitting back hard since rebels pushed into the town of Ras al Ain in the predominantly Kurdish Hasaka region last week, contributed to a surge that saw about 9,000 refugees cross the border into Turkey in one day.

Mr Gul said a further increase in the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey could also represent a security risk for Ankara. Going higher than official figures, he put the current total of Syrians in the country at as many as 150,000, including people outside designated camps.

But he added that the “first and foremost” danger was to the Syrian people. “This is clearly a situation that cannot continue,” he said. “It is a country that is consuming itself.”

His comments came as the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional grouping of six Gulf Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, recognised the newly formed Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people”.

The opposition group was formed over the weekend as a new political force in a fresh effort to unify dissident ranks, a move that has been welcomed by Ankara, the US and the UK.

Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the coalition, flew to Cairo on Monday to seek help from the Arab League, which is due to discuss Syria, in securing international recognition of the body.

“The first step towards recognition will take place at the Arab League,” said Mr al-Khatib.

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