Bashar al-Assad, the embattled Syrian president, has given a rare interview to Turkish journalist Utkur Cakirozer from the Istanbul-based Cumhuriyet newspaper. The interview comes weeks after Syria downed a Turkish jet that it says was in Syrian airspace, an incident that has heightened tensions between the two neighbours.
Since the protests against al-Assad began in March 2011, Turkey has cut off all diplomatic and trade relations with Syria.
Here are excerpts from the second part of the interview. The first part of the interview can be seen here.
Utkur Cakirozer: You and Prime Minister [Erdogan] were so close that your families could go on holidays with each other. What happened so that you are in the present situation now?
Bashar al-Assad: The question you need to ask in order to get an answer is this: Who has changed? He or I? You can reach some conclusions by looking at the change that has come about in our region. For instance, just look at the countries around us. There has been no change in Syria’s relations with Iran, Iraq and Lebanon during this process. Now look at the opposite: You can look at the course of Turkey’s relations with Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan and reach a conclusion yourself. The relations between all these countries and Turkey have deteriorated. That goes to show that Erdogan himself has changed.
Coming to what has happened; in his relations with us, Erdogan has gone beyond friendship and brotherhood and moved towards interfering with our internal affairs. We are, however, a sovereign country. We are a country with self-respect. We would never allow those outside us to meddle in our affairs.
This initial wish to interfere with our internal affairs has unfortunately rendered Turkey as a party in the following period in all the bloody incidents in Syria. Turkey has given every logistical support to terrorists who killed our people. And then, through embarking on adventures dangerous for both Turkey and Syria, our relations acquired a different dimension. These were the things experienced in our political relations.
There is also other aspect regarding what happened between us which has to do with the Prime Minister’s personal traits. I must say that in the statements he made, he exceeded every line of manners and respect and went too far, and he has far exceeded the line between two politicians and two people.
“Turkey has given every logistical support to terrorists who killed our people.”
– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria
UC: From what you have said, do we read that Erdogan has changed? What is it exactly that has changed?
BA: In fact, the circumstances, more than Erdogan, have changed. And these new circumstances have revealed the true face of Erdogan. Let me explain by these examples: We all know Erdogan’s stance when Israel attacked the Gaza.
However, when Israel conducted the same attack against Lebanon in 2006 Erdogan did not display a reaction in the same tone. However, both those in the Gaza and Lebanon are fighting against the single enemy, that is Israel. Israel killed almost the same number of people on both sides: 1,600 people. Why is it that when Hamas is involved, he takes ownership of Gaza and raises hell and when the issue is Lebanon where Hezbollah is present, he is silent?
UC: Why is it so, in your opinion?
BA: It is because he is acting on religious sectarian motives. His demarches always reveal what’s on his mind. For instance, why is it that he sheds crocodile tears for the people of Syria while he sheds no tears for those killed in the Gulf countries? Why doesn’t he interfere with the issue of democracy in those countries?
UC: What countries are you talking about?
BA: You could say, the Gulf countries, including Qatar.
For instance why hasn’t Turkey taken a single step after the Mavi Marmara incident other than shouting about it? Despite its cocky stance against Israel, why did Turkey allow a missile shield that will protect Israel to be deployed on its soil?
Do you believe the US deployed that radar in Turkey for a threat directed against itself? Which country can pose a threat against the US from such a distance anyway? Of course, that is not the reason. The answer is, to protect Israel.
These developments have revealed the true face of Erdogan. Erdogan has not changed. The outlook of people towards Erdogan has changed. Erdogan and his reliability is now debatable in the entire Arab geography.
UC: Have you burned the bridges with Erdogan?
“… why is it that [Erdogan] sheds crocodile tears for the people of Syria while he sheds no tears for those killed in the Gulf countries?”
– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria
BA: Yes, almost. Because he has lost his credibility in this geography.
This is not a personal issue. It’s not in the eyes of Syria alone, but also the same in the eyes of other Arab people in the region.
UC: Is there a way out of the crisis between Syria and Turkey in your opinion?
BA: First, the Turkish government must step back from its mistakes.
It should not use small incidents to create big issues. They should protect the interests of our peoples rather than go after personal interests and goals. The consciousness of the Turkish and Syrian people will overcome that.
If he genuinely looks for a way out of the crisis, he should heed the words of the dead pilot’s father who stands honourably against war.
UC: In his recent statement, the Prime Minister said you did not keep your promise. What did he want and what did you promise?
BA: Even these words alone testify to the fact that he is meddling in our internal affairs. If the Prime Minister is not a party in Syrian internal policies, how can it be construed that I make promises to him? He was asking me some questions, making some recommendations. And I was telling him my own views regarding the incidents. We were having a chat. He was recommending some reforms. But I was already telling my people the same things I told him and I was taking steps in that direction.
We started taking significant steps towards reforms six days after the incidents started on March 15. If you go to Erdogan now, he would say ‘reforms’ again. However, if he were sincere, he would have said the same things he is saying now, back in 2004 during our discussions. Why did he not mention reforms back in 2004?
Here there is a double standard, some hypocrisy.
Was it the case that he was not so sensitive for the Syrian people before and then these feelings suddenly emerged? Did he receive a divine revelation from above later? Does he love the Syrian people more than I love them? There is some hypocrisy here. Instead of meddling in other people’s affairs he should take care of his own internal affairs. He should leave us aside and try to implement whatever is left of his “zero problems with neighbours” policy.
UC: You said reforms in the general sense, but what did the Prime Minister specifically ask for?
BA: The project in his and in his team’s mind is a larger one. It’s larger than Syria. In fact, it is a project that encompasses my position as well. He has his own special agenda. He wanted terrorists to be free in Syria, he wanted no pressure to be placed on them and he wanted us not to defend ourselves against them. He would have been very happy if we did those things.
UC: Who are you talking about, the Ikhwan movement (Muslim Brothers)?
BA: Ikhwan is part of it. Since our earlier talks, he was very excited about the Muslim Brothers movement in Syria. He was so concerned about them that he did not place that much importance on the development of Turkey-Syria relations.
The instinct of helping Muslim Brothers and defending them has become the real basic premise of his Syrian policy. Of course, on this issue we have not given permission – and will not give permission – to Erdogan or anyone else.
“Does he love the Syrian people more than I love them?…. Instead of meddling in other people’s affairs, he should take care of his own internal affairs.”
– Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria
UC: What kind of messages did the Turkish delegation give you during the discussions you had? We heard that you said to the CHP (Republican People’s Party) group that visited you, “Erdogan and Davutoglu are bringing the messages of the US to us”.
BA: They did not bring many new messages. They were elaborating on the issues voiced by the US in greater detail. What they brought as messages was generally not new, other than threats and intimidation.
UC: There are those who say “Relations with Assad was a mistake”. Do you see your relation with Erdogan as a mistake?
B.A: I do not believe I have gone too far in my relation with Erdogan. I have established my strategic relationship with the Turkish people. When I took that decision, Erdogan was not even in power. We started the friendship in 200 with the then president Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Then, when Sezer came to Turkey despite all foreign pressure, relations were improved further.
Relations with Erdogan came after that. Erdogan will go away one day, but our relationship with the Turkish people will remain forever.