June 21, 2011 12:02 pm

Turkey increases pressure on Assad

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Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, has criticised his Syrian counterpart’s address to the nation, saying that it was “not enough”.

“[Bashar al] Assad should clearly and precisely say: ‘Everything has changed. We’re transforming the system into a multi-party one. Everything will be organised according to the Syrian people’s will and I will be carrying out this process’,” said Mr Gul.

Mr Assad has been under increasing pressure from allies in Ankara to end a violent crackdown of a three-month protest movement which has prompted more than 10,000 refugees to flee to neighbouring Turkey.

There were hopes that Mr Assad would offer major concessions in Monday’s heavily-trailed speech. But in spite of some conciliatory gestures, he failed to commit to any concrete reforms and implied the crackdown would continue, saying there could be “no political solution” with armed groups, which he claims are manipulating the protests.

An advisor to Mr Gul, who is an influential independent voice despite his largely ceremonial role, reportedly told the Dubai-based al-Arabiya channel on Sunday that Mr Assad has less than a week to start implementing reforms in the face of wide-spread pro-democracy protests.

Some analysts questioned however what kind of pressure Turkey might really be able to bring to bear on Mr Assad in the absence of reform.  “For the past month the Turks have been telling him he had a week left,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

Mr Assad also said in his speech that he was attempting to expand the scope of a recent amnesty on political prisoners and on Tuesday the government announced a general amnesty for all crimes committed before June 20.

Activists pointed out however that the last general amnesty offered on May 31 was followed by continued mass arrests.

Dozens of people were arrested overnight on Monday on the university campus in Aleppo, where  some students had protested against Mr Assad’s speech, according to Rami Abdulrahman from the London-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory.

A large pro-government demonstration was meanwhile reported in central Damascus on Tuesday. According to the AFP news agency tens of thousands of government supporters carryied Mr Assad’s portrait and chanted “we will sacrifice ourselves for you Bashar!”

Meanwhile, Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said on Tuesday after two days of talks with senior Syrian officials in Damascus that a deal had been struck whereby the humanitarian agency would gain greater access to civilian populations and areas caught up in the uprising.

Syria is also considering an ICRC request to visit people who have been arrested, the humanitarian agency said.

“The discussions focused exclusively on humanitarian issues and were frank and operational,” Mr Kellenberger said.

“The Syrian officials were receptive, and agreed to give the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent wider access to areas of unrest. I will closely monitor how this understanding is put into practice.”

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