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Exclusive Erdogan-interview: »We see a human tragedy before our eyes«

Politiken has interviewed the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recently compared Zionism with fascism. He is currently on an official visit to Denmark, and he and several of his ministers will be discussing Syria, the EU and Danish-Turkish relations.

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Bo Lidegaard og Michael Jarlner

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Wednesday on an official visit to Denmark, where he and his ministers will be discussing a range of issues, such as the civil war in Syria, the European Union and Danish-Turkish relations.

Politiken has interviewed the Turkish leader, who has much invested in the Syrian civil war. He was once a personal friend of Syria’s President Assad, but as the bloodletting of the past two years has increased; he has become one of his greatest opponents.

As a neighbour to Syria, Turkey is also host to more than 250,000 Syrian refugees as well as parts of the Syrian rebel army FSA. As such, Erdogan is a central actor in a Middle East in which Turkey is both trying to build bridges to the European Union as well as being part of a regional power game with such important regional players as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Kurdish rebels. The interview was carried out by e-mail.

QUESTION: According to Reuters (March 14), Iran is secretly stepping up its military support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, flooding the country with weapons. Iran’s increasing aid puts it in line with Russia as one of Syria’s strongest allies in an increasingly messy civil war and border battle with Turkey. On the other hand, the US is still reluctant to deliver substantial weapons to the Syrian opposition forces. What consequences do you foresee from such a policy?

ANSWER: The conflict that has been on-going for the last two years in Syria has led to the massacre of innocent civilians and poses a serious threat to regional peace and security. The heavy toll for these two years is more than 70.000 deaths, hundreds of thousands of wounded, 1.5 million refugees of which 300.000 are hosted by Turkey and close to 3 million people who are displaced.

We see a human tragedy unfold before our eyes in Syria. It may be considered normal, up to a certain point, for regional and global actors to have different points of view with respect to the developments in Syria. But it is the Syrian people who suffer as a result of the indifference of the international community, especially the UN Security Council, to the massacres and the support extended by some to the Assad regime. The regime continues to indiscriminately massacre its people, including women and children. No country that claims to adhere to universal values can turn a blind eye to the violence targeting the Syrian people.

Assad has blood on his hands; his regime is on its last legs and has lost all legitimacy. Supporting such a regime cannot be reconciled with political responsibility on any moral ground.

QUESTION: Will Turkey argue for a lifting of the EU weapons embargo on the Syrian opposition? Could you imagine any situation in which Turkey decided to arm the Syrian opposition forces unilaterally?

ANSWER: Although the weapons embargo of the EU is a part of a broader approach towards Syria, it is only the opposition who is affected by it. Some countries continue to provide weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime while the Syrian people who suffer from the cruelty of the regime are deprived of the possibility to defend themselves.

The UN Security Council should no longer remain an observer to the spiral of violence that is going on in Syria. The embargoes on Syria are currently having an impact not on the regime, but on the opposition. Therefore, it is necessary to question to what extent the current embargoes serve their purpose. The implementation should be reviewed so as to ensure that it provides support to the struggle of the people there.

QUESTION: How long do you give President Assad?

ANSWER: This will depend on the developments that will take place. However, one thing is clear: the Assad regime does not exist morally, legally and politically. That they resort to terrorism and violence to maintain their de facto existence is a clear indication of this fact. Our assessment is further strengthened by the fact that the opposition is better unified within a more inclusive structure and has made progress in becoming a reliable alternative to the Assad regime.

The humanitarian and conscientious duty of the international community is to stand with the Syrian people in their justified resistance. It is necessary to support the transition to a pluralistic political system based on constitutional equality and democracy in Syria.

QUESTION: In some quarters, your recent remarks on Zionism have been understood to imply a questioning of the very legitimacy of the state of Israel. Is this interpretation correct?

ANSWER: I understand that my statement in Vienna led to some debate. But no one should misunderstand what I said.

Everyone should know that my criticisms on certain issues, especially Gaza and the settlements, are directed at Israeli policies. And it’s entirely natural for us to continue to criticize Israel, as long as it will not give up its approach of denying the right to exist of the Palestinian state.

On the other hand, we have recognized and continue to recognize the Israeli State, within the framework of the 1967 borders and on the basis of the two-state solution. One should not forget the fact that in the past we have hosted many Israeli Presidents and Prime Ministers in Turkey to reach peace towards a two-state solution. Today as in the past, Turkey supports all international and regional efforts to find a just, lasting, and comprehensive resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict on the basis of the two-state vision.

My several statements openly condemning anti-semitism clearly display my position on this issue. In this context, I stand behind my remarks in Vienna.

The Turkish leader’s visit to Denmark comes as President Obama is in Israel – another of Syria’s neighbours – to revive the Middle East peace process.

QUESTION: What will happen in the Middle East if the present stalemate continues and a breakthrough in the peace process is not achieved?

ANSWER: The current stalemate in the peace process is not sustainable. It leads to instability in the region and beyond. The Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip on the 14th of November caused the death and injury of many innocent Palestinians and created new chaos in the region.

These recent events have proven that there is no substitute for peace and that such escalation is inevitable until true peace is established, Israel’s occupation of Palestinians territories comes to an end and an independent Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital is established.

It is necessary to immediately revitalize the peace process which is constantly delayed based on one pretext or other. As Turkey, we will continue to support efforts for restarting the peace process. Lastly, we cannot ignore the fact that Muslims under the age of 50 are not allowed to enter the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Turkey still wants Europe
While Turkey is trying to position itself in relation to the many changes taking place in the Middle East, the Turkish government is maintaining its membership application to the EU.

QUESTION: Is EU membership still a top priority for Turkey?

ANSWER: We continue to view our membership to the EU as a strategic goal because we believe that there will be new opportunities for both sides with our membership to the EU. In this framework, we consider our relations with the EU as a win-win situation and aim to develop this relationship further.

Our membership will make a positive and strong contribution in our region in the context of its global implications.

QUESTION: In how many years from now will Turkey be a EU-member? 5, 10, 20, 50 years?

ANSWER: We would like to see Turkey as an EU member in the shortest time possible. The fact that Turkey’s membership process has already taken 50 years is a clear indication of the delay.

Furthermore, blocking more than half of the chapters for negotiation by EU member states either collectively or individually since 2006 after the beginning of our accession process in 2005 has seriously harmed our relations with the EU. This is not sustainable. The accession negotiations whose aim is full membership were initiated by a unanimous decision of all EU member states. The EU should stand by its commitments and not undermine the negotiation process.

The fact that France has recently lifted its block on Chapter 22 is a positive step. However, I should also say that this is not sufficient; we expect the accession talks, stalled for the last 2 years, to be revitalized and believe that complementary steps should be taken in order to achieve progress towards our EU membership which shall be to the benefit of both sides.

If there is political will in the EU, then our country is in a position to rapidly open chapters on economy, monetary policy, education, culture and energy as well as all others for negotiation. In our estimate, it is possible to technically open 10 chapters in 12 months and 15 chapters in 18 months.

Erdogan’s anger
When Recep Tayyp Erdogan as in Denmark in 2005, he angrily cancelled a news conference at the prime minister’s office as he would not accept the presence of a journalist from the Kurdish Roj-TV. According to the Turkish government, the TV station is a tool of the PKK, which Turkey sees as a Kurdish terrorist organisation.

QUESTION: In spite of court cases and large fines, ROJ-TV still upholds its permission to broadcast from Denmark. What are your comments to that?

ANSWER: The Danish court decision on January 10, 2012 on ROJ TV is very important. On the other hand, we were disappointed to see that the channel’s broadcasting license was not revoked. We follow the appeals procedure closely. We expect a decision at the end of this process that is in line with international conventions and obligations for fighting against terrorism.

Unfortunately, we do not get the support we expect from Europe in the fight against terrorism. The EU member states who want Turkey to implement reforms in line with EU criteria are probably not aware of the fact that terrorism constitutes a big obstacle in the reform process. We must, in any case, cooperate fully in fighting against terrorism as friends and neighbors. Housing cells of the terrorist organization does not go hand in hand with the European criteria for democracy and transparency.

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