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Turkey skeptical on Syria talks

Interview: Kersten Knipp / slk
February 5, 2013

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has warned against interpreting Syria's civil war as a religious conflict. This interpretation could play into the regime's hands, he said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu pauses during the 49th Conference on Security Policy in Munich February 3, 2013. Senior politicians along with the leader of the Syrian opposition are in Munich providing a rare opportunity for talks to revive efforts to end the civil war in Syria. REUTERS/Michael Dalder (GERMANY - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Image: Reuters

DW: Foreign Minister Davutoglu, many experts are indicating that the divide between the supporters and opponents of the Assad regime within the region runs increasingly along sectarian religious lines. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have spoken out against Assad staying in power. In contrast, the Shiite dominated states of Iran and Iraq and also the Lebanese Islamist militia Hezbollah support Assad. In light of these circumstances, can one now speak of a religious conflict?

Davutoglu: I would say totally no, because it is not a war between Sunnis and Shiites. But it is a tension, a problem between a dictatorial regime and the people. For example, in Egypt or in Libya they were Sunni leaders. We were still against them when they tried to oppress people in these countries. In the region, the general problem is not sectarian. It is a problem between people and Cold War structures - authoritarian regimes, dictatorial regimes.

And in Syria, it will be unfair to say this to many Alawites, who are fighting against the regime - who are in the opposition. There are many representatives of Alawites, Christians, Druze working in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and on the ground fighting against the regime. So it is not a sectarian war, and it will not be a sectarian war.

But the regime wants to make this a sectarian war in order to consolidate certain groups around the regime. There may be some sectarian intentions, which are harmful for our region, but for Turkey it is not a sectarian issue and in essence, in reality it is not sectarian.

During the Munich Security Conference, you were critical of the idea of dialogue between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime. What are your reservations?

For many months in 2011 and 2012, first we (Turkey) tried to convince and then Kofi Annan and other players tried to convince Bashar Assad to have a dialogue. But Bashar Assad rejected the opposition outside Syria and claimed this opposition is terrorists. So will he recognize the opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, as the new player in Syria? Without recognizing Syrian National Coalition or opposition, what kind of dialogue will it be? It cannot be a dialogue if Bashar Assad claims that all these people are terrorists.

Secondly, dialogue should not be legitimizing Assad's authority as if there is one government making dialogue with the rebels. This image will legitimize Assad's power and will give an impression, wrong impression. And then who is accountable for 60,000 people being killed? Hundreds of thousands of people are refugees and millions of people are IDPs (internally displaced persons). Who is responsible for that?

Third, the objective of the dialogue should be for interim government. And then there should be a basic understanding that this government will have full executive power, which means Bashar Assad should be ready to deliver all his power to this authority. Otherwise, dialogue will be not reaching anywhere in this sense. We are not against dialogue, but the substance and contents of the dialogue should be well defined.

Your own country, Turkey, has gone through an impressive economic development in recent years. And in terms of foreign policy, Turkey has made a name for itself. How do you see the future role of Turkey in the Middle East?

Of we course we never claimed any role - self-claimed role - in the region. We have our own experiences as Turkey. But everyone in the region and international arena appreciate and they say this experience of Turkey was a success story.  Why is it success story? Because of democracy, because of economic development and because of an active foreign policy.

Without reform in a country, you cannot change the mentality - you cannot change the politics and also economy. Therefore, we are supporting all reform attempts in our region. We are supporting the newly elected governments, presidents in our regions. We don't take any side in the sense this is from this group or from the other group. Whoever comes to power by the choice of the people, these are our counterparts and we will support them.

Recently, we gave $500-million (370-million-euro) soft loan, 100 million is grant, to Tunisia and $2-billion soft loan to Egypt for economic development. We established joint economic, high level strategic council meeting, intergovernmental meeting. Why do we have these? Because we want to share our experience in health, in communication, transportation, energy policies, good governance, and democratic reforms so that we can help. This is not an imposition, this is not dictating anything. But this is our duty to help our brotherly nations in our region for the success of their reforms.

In May 2010, Israel security forces stormed the ship Mavi Marmara, which was carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, in international waters. In response, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel and diplomatic relations reached a low point. How does it stand today, almost three years later, in terms of Turkish-Israeli relations?

We have been very consistent in this. Israel killed our civilians in international waters. And Israel is accountable for this killing. It is a crime and we have three conditions which we have been repeating for the past three years: apology, compensation and allowing us help Gaza - end of blockade.

Of course, if these conditions are being met, there could be a way out for normalization. But if the regular army is killing our civilians and does not apologize as if they have the right to kill anybody in international waters - this is unacceptable. We will never improve or normalize relations if these three conditions are not being met. If they are being met, or course we will normalize relations.

Ahmet Davutoglu is the foreign minister of Turkey.

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