ANKARA, Turkey—Not long after the Arab Spring began, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, then an ally, that he had to reform. After months, as the Syrian revolution continued and there was no sign of reform, Erdogan called for Assad to step down. Erdogan has allowed the Syrian opposition to make its base in Turkey and has remained at the forefront of the fight for regime change. Lally Weymouth spoke with Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday. Excerpts:
Lally Weymouth: How do you see the future of the regime of President Assad in Syria? You know Assad well; you had a close relationship with him. Do you think he will go down with the ship, or will he leave his country? What do you think will happen?
Recep Erdogan: If we look at history, we will see that regimes which persecute [their people] do not remain standing. In the process of the Arab Spring, we have unfortunately seen a development in Syria where the regime has been oppressing its people. Tens of thousands of young and old people and children have been killed or displaced as a result of these actions. This cruel regime continues to pursue the same policies.
We have 83,000 refugees in Turkey, and the Lebanese have about the same amount, and there are about 200,000 in Jordan. These people have not fled their country because they wanted to. Also, there are currently 2.5 million people within Syria who have been displaced; close to 30,000 people have been killed in this conflict.
As a result, we see the opposition gaining strength every day. So this regime will go. Bashar is politically dead. Of course, it is difficult to tell whether this will take place in a week, a month, or when. This also has to do with how Russia and China approach the situation.
L.W.: China is a problem, as well as Russia, in vetoing U.N. resolutions that would support the opposition?
R.E.: China and Russia have been acting in the same way. We have, of course, been talking to Russia, China, and Iran—and will continue to do so.
L.W.: Will Russia continue to arm the Assad regime?
R.E.: The Russians won’t accept that they are arming the Assad regime.
L.W.: But aren’t they?
R.E.: It would not be befitting for me to point a blaming finger at Russia. Iran has said it has Revolutionary Guards on the ground in Syria. We know such statements from the newspapers.
L.W.: In your talks with China, Russia, and Iran, do you see any hope that they will change their position and stop supporting the regime?
R.E.: We see that they, too, believe that Assad will go. The question they ask is: What happens after Assad? My answer to them is that if we believe in a democratic parliamentary system, then the will of the people will be what will come to pass. We do not wish to see any external intervention in trying to form a regime in Syria. What we envision is a transitional government basing its actions on a fair constitution, a system where people are free to elect candidates and establish political parties.
L.W.: Your government has been very supportive of the Syrian National Council [SNC], which is strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Are you supportive of the SNC, and are you concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood’s domination of it?
R.E.: Everyone inside and outside of Syria who has the ability to represent Syria has been part of this council. The members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria are also part of the Syrian people, and they have the right to exercise their democratic rights.
Similar developments took place in Egypt. For years, the regime that existed did not allow members of the Muslim Brotherhood to exercise their political rights. In Egypt now, the people have elected the party of the Muslim Brotherhood as their government. When there was a presidential election, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected as president. If we believe in a democratic system, we have to accept the will of the people.
L.W.: It is said that the United States is stopping Turkey (and the United States says Turkey agrees) from allowing anti-aircraft weapons to cross the border into Syria. Is this so? How can the Syrian opposition win without anti-aircraft weapons?
R.E.: So far, the United States has been part of the process through their statements but has not had any other contribution. Support has been given to the opposition by countries in the region and Syrians who live outside of Syria. Turkey provides logistical support—food and medicine. We also provide support to those who seek refuge on our side of the border in camps. So far, the total amount of this support is more than $250 million. We will continue to provide this support to our brothers and sisters, the neighborly people of Syria.
L.W.: Does the Syrian opposition need more weapons, whether they are from the United States or the international community? How can you win a war with blankets?
R.E.: From the region and from Syrians living outside of Syria, the opposition is getting all kinds of support. But as far as Turkey’s contribution is concerned, we provide the logistical support. It includes refugees—the 83,000 people who live in camps on the Turkish side.
L.W.: Among the Syrian opposition, do you see a potential leader? I have heard two scenarios: One is people mention names of specific people as possible future leaders. And the other is that just the Assad family will go but not the entire apparatus of the state, as was the case in Iraq. The structure of the state should stay for a transitional period. How do you see Syria making the transition?
R.E.: Russia and Iran are asking the very same question that you posed to me now. But those people who believe in democracy should not be asking such questions.
L.W.: It is different to say that all of a sudden the Assad family will go and there will be a neat transition. Do you have concerns about what would follow? Syria does not have experience with democracy.
R.E.: This is not a problem. In Egypt, the Mubarak family was in power for more than 30 years, and he is gone. And the people elected someone [as president]—Mohamed Morsi—whose name was not known. The Syrian people will bring about a strong leader through their own will. If we believe in democracy, this is what we should trust in.
L.W.: You have been interested in creating a buffer zone—a no-fly zone—in an area adjacent to the Turkish border. The French foreign minister was ready to introduce a resolution recently at the United Nations supporting this. Would you like to see the international community back the creation of such a zone?
R.E.: The decision of the U.N. Security Council would be important in that case.
L.W.: You don’t want to see it created without the support of the U.N. Security Council, even though you know Russia and China would veto a resolution supporting it?
R.E.: You never know. Today that may be the case, but tomorrow things might change.
L.W.: Would you like to see it done through NATO, without the United Nations? Would you be willing to go ahead without the support of the United Nations?
R.E.: We would not accept being part of what would then be a trap, doing something without the U.N. We are a member of the U.N., and its job is to establish peace in the world.
L.W.: Is it possible for Turkey to play a stronger unilateral role in creating a no-fly zone?
R.E.: Former Turkish prime minister Mesut Yilmaz took the armed forces to the border and told the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to stop hiding Abdullah Ocalan [then leader of the PKK, a Kurdish terror organization] in Damascus or face a Turkish invasion. Assad gave up Ocalan.
There is some misinformation there. Syria sent Ocalan to Greece. He was arrested in Kenya and brought back to Turkey from there.
L.W.: So you would not think of playing a stronger unilateral role?
R.E.: Turkey has a strong army. That’s right, no. If there is an attack on our country, then we would do what is required. But this situation has an international dimension and a dimension that concerns the Islamic world. So the U.N. and also the Arab League should be involved with respect to Syria.
L.W.: Would you think of renewing Turkey’s relationship with Israel if Israel met your terms?
R.E.: As I have always said, when our conditions are met [an apology for the deaths of Turks aboard an aid flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip in 2010, compensation for their families and the lifting of the blockade of Gaza], the process of normalization can begin.
L.W.: Israel is a democracy, and you have had your differences with Israel, but can you say anything to give the Israelis hope? If they met your conditions, would you be willing to send your ambassador back?
R.E.: The three conditions should be met simultaneously. What we call normalization would include the embassy and other steps that could be taken.
L.W.: If the three steps are met simultaneously?
R.E.: Yes, there would be normalization as a result of that.
L.W.: Are you concerned about Iran building a nuclear weapon?
R.E.: I don’t want to use the term “nuclear weapons” because those people in Iran who have authority say they are not building nuclear weapons. I make an appeal to the countries who do have nuclear weapons. They don’t consider them a nuclear threat. But let’s say a country that doesn’t have nuclear weapons gets involved in building them, then they are told by those that already have nuclear weapons that they oppose [such a development]. Where is the justice in that?
L.W.: The one difference is that none of the countries that have nuclear weapons has threatened to wipe a member state of the United Nations off the face of the Earth, as Iran has threatened to do with Israel.
R.E.: Israel is saying the same for Iran.
L.W.: They are saying they might strike to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
R.E.: I will tell you more. There should be no weapons in Palestine. The Israelis hit a place like Gaza for 15 days with phosphorous bombs.
L.W.: Turkey closed its airspace to Iranian overflights headed to Syria to rearm the regime, whereas Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has left Iraqi airspace open for such flights. Why did Maliki not do the same as you?
R.E.: That question you have to ask Maliki. They must share something in common—Iran and Iraq.
L.W.: The United States asked you when the Arab Spring broke out to break your relations with the Syrian regime. But you said no, you wanted to give Assad a chance to reform. You pushed him to reform, but he did not do it.
R.E.: We have determined our own policies.
L.W.: That is what I said—you tried to give Assad a chance to reform.
R.E.: We told President Assad from January 2011 onwards that we would provide support to him if he wanted to engage in reforms. I had a three-hour meeting with him myself at that time, and then I sent my envoys. And we also had telephone conversations. Syria asked for our help, and we sent that help, but nothing changed. Unfortunately, he kept killing his own people by using his tanks, artillery, helicopters, and aircraft.
L.W.: There are rumors that you want to become president after your term as prime minister is over and that you might want to change the constitution to enhance the powers of the presidency. Do you have an interest in becoming president?
R.E.: So far, I have not come to any of the positions that I have filled through wanting to be there. I was sought—people wanted me to come to those posts. I am talking about all my positions: mayor of Istanbul, chairman of the party, prime minister.
With respect to the presidency, depending on the demand, if there is one, from the people and depending on what my political party decides, we will see. This next presidential election will be the first in Turkey when the president will be elected by popular vote.
L.W.: Everywhere I go in this country, I hear about journalists being in jail with no charges. Why don’t you let them out of jail? This is not good for Turkey. Why don’t you allow them to say whatever they want?
R.E.: I don’t know what your source of information is about this subject. I think it is sad that your publication should take these unfounded ideas and allegations as the basis of a question like that.
These journalists are not journalists who have the yellow press [identification] card. There are nine of them. These are people who have been in touch with or worked with terrorist organizations. The others are people who are in prison for reasons like being a member of a terrorist organization or for carrying guns. Are you saying they should be released because they are journalists? Even if these are not people who hold the yellow press card?
I was put in prison simply because I recited [an Islamic] poem.
L.W.: Yes, but that was wrong, too, don’t you agree?
R.E.: So I know what it means to be in prison. But what these people have done has nothing to do with my action of reciting a poem.
In my case, I was not involved in injuring or killing someone or carrying arms. I was the mayor of Istanbul, and I was reciting a poem that was approved by the Ministry of Education—and that is why I was jailed.
Today, Turkey is very different than Turkey was 10 years ago, when we first came to government. We are now going through a period where freedom of expression is at its peak.
L.W.: What worries you when you think about the future of Syria?
R.E.: The deaths are very sad. So seeing the scenes that we see in Syria—the destruction of historical sites with bombs—this is very sad. Son Assad is doing what father Assad did 30 years ago. His father massacred children, and now the son is doing the same thing again.
L.W.: As you know him so well, do you think President Assad will go down with the ship or leave? You have spent hours with him.
R.E: I hope that he will opt for the most ideal way out for him. And so the people of Syria will be free of his persecution in the shortest time possible.
L.W.: Is there a country he could go to if he wanted to?
R.E.: There would be.
R.E.: Yes, and Tunisia made an offer.