Turkish president says Syrian crisis at a 'dead end' and change is inevitable
An exclusive interview with Abdullah Gul on the eve of a visit to Britain amid reports Turkey is preparing a buffer zone with Syria.
Ian Black, Middle East editor guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 November 2011
Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, has insisted that change in Damascus is inevitable because Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, can no longer be trusted after an eight-month uprising in which thousands have been killed.
Syria's crisis was now at a "dead end" after Assad failed to heed calls for reform that might have resolved unrest, Gul told the Guardian in an exclusive interview.
Gul, who was speaking on the eve of a three-day state visit to Britain, declined to comment directly on reports that Turkey was preparing to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian border. Creating a haven for armed groups was out of the question, he said, although Ankara would continue to offer a "democratic platform" for Syrian opposition organisations.
"Syria is now at a dead end so change is inevitable," Gul said. "But we don't believe the right way to create change is through external intervention. The people must make that change. Civil war is not something that anyone would want to see happen. Everything must be done to prevent it. It is very dangerous."
Gul's strongly worded comments came on a day that saw Syrian soldiers shoot and injure two Turkish pilgrims on a bus near the Syrian town of Homs, the focal point of recent violence. It is further evidence of how Turkey is being affected by the prolonged instability in its southern neighbour. Witnesses claimed the soldiers had opened fire when they realised the passengers were Turks.
The Turkish president said he had spoken to Assad regularly until a few months ago and had advised him to allow free elections, release political prisoners and announce a clear timetable for reforms.
"It's quite too late for that sort of thing now," he said. "He seems to have opted for a different route. And frankly we do not have any more trust in him."
The Arab awakening had happened with "something of a delay", said Gul, whose Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled Turkey since 2002. He had urged Arab leaders to follow Turkey's example.
"There was a need for deep-rooted reform," he said. "They could not carry on as they were for ever. In the end, it would either be the people or some sort of external interference that would bring change. Turkey now is a source of inspiration to many of these countries."
Dealing with Iran
Gul and Turkey's AKP prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been mobbed as heroes by ordinary people in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt in the course of the turbulent year of the Arab spring.
Turkey's history meant he could advise the generals who rule Egypt what to do during a crisis that has escalated continuously since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February.
"Based on our own experience, the job of the military is not to govern a country," he warned. "If they do that, the masses will turn against them."
Gul also defended Turkey's record on dealing with Iran, following a recent damning UN report and western and Israeli warnings over its alleged ambitions to build a nuclear weapon.
"It is important to put oneself in their shoes and see how they [the Iranians] perceive threats," Gul said, referring to Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal. "There are different groups and concentrations of power in Iran. You can't see them as one single authority. For the sake of peace it is very important that the dialogue between Iran and the west progresses in a more frank and transparent way. When I say transparent I mean Iran, and when I say frank I mean the west."
Turkey was opposed to military options for dealing with the issue. "Looking at the Middle East, one has to have a comprehensive approach [to disarmament]," he added. "A piecemeal approach would not yield the same results."
Syria is likely to dominate Gul's UK state visit, the first by a Turkish president in 23 years. But Ankara also wants to lobby London on the vexed issue of Turkey's EU membership bid, stalled for the past two years because of French and German objections – many believe because of its Muslim identity – and problems over Cyprus, whose northern half has been occupied by Turkey since 1974 and has defied diplomatic solutions ever since.
Next July, when the Greek Cypriots are due to take over the EU presidency for six months, Ankara is expected to freeze its ties with the union in protest and will only resume them in January 2013.
But Turkey, Gul said, was determined to pursue membership. "Relations with the EU are a strategic choice," he said. "It goes beyond political parties."
The prospect of EU membership had allowed Turkey to promote and embed the rule of law and democracy – one reason Britain backs its membership.
Turkey, unlike EU members, is enjoying robust economic growth – 8% in 2010 – and has a strong public finances and sound banks, Gul said.
Britain and Turkey agreed on the eurozone crisis, he argued, since both depended on it as a key trading partner. "If Turkey had already joined the EU, its position would be exactly the same as Great Britain," he added.
Treatment of Kurds
Gul defended Turkey's controversial record in dealing with the country's Kurdish minority, complaining that "terrorist groups" had been trying to sabotage the process of reform.
Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, made waves recently when he called for support of the PKK, to retaliate for Turkish backing for the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and the bitter row over Israel's killing of Turkish activists on a Gaza-bound aid ship.
Syria has in the past harboured PKK fighters and occasionally hinted that it might revive that support.
Cross-border raids might be necessary if there were attacks from safe havens, Gul said, but added: "I don't think the Syrian government would make that kind of mistake."
Gul is to hold talks with David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and the foreign secretary William Hague, as well as with London's mayor, Boris Johnson, whose Turkish descent gives his near-universal allure another dimension in Ankara.
Hague urges opposition to unite
Britain is intensifying contacts with the Syrian opposition, but insists it has no plans to recognise them formally as it did with the Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi earlier this year.
William Hague, the foreign secretary, saw representatives of the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Co-ordination Body in London on Monday , and urged them to "unite around a common political platform".
But arrangements were complicated by disagreements between and within the groups. Syrian sources said a key problem was the position of the Muslim Brotherhood, a member of the SNC, because it would back military intervention by Turkey – a view rejected by other members of the group. Its delegation was led by Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based exile.
Hague said: "I received detailed accounts of the appalling situation on the ground in Syria, the mounting toll of death, casualties and grave human rights abuses, and the need for sustained diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime. At a time of acute national crisis, Syria's opposition members need to show the leadership and vision needed to overcome the country's divisions and the current bloodshed." There was special concern about the need to respect the rights of minorities to overcome sectarianism, Hague said.