By Bülent Keneş, Today's Zaman
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said he appreciates the efforts undertaken by Turkey, which rushed to mediate between Syria and Iraq in order to ease the tension that arose between the two countries after several bombs recently exploded in Baghdad.
The Syrian president responded to the following questions posed by Turkish journalists at the Qasr al-Shaab (the People's Palace) in Damascus, where special guests were hosted ahead of Assad's visit to Turkey scheduled for Wednesday.
Since the war in Iraq, there have been a number of developments that closely concern Syria and Turkey. After these numerous developments, do you think the region is now safer than before for Syria?
There are both positive and negative aspects to the developments that occurred after the occupation of Iraq. On the negative side, in terms of the consequences of the war, the security situation in Iraq, as we all know, is very bad. Confusion and chaos create a suitable environment for terrorism everywhere. And terrorism will use this environment in order to strike other countries. In this respect, the postwar region is no more stable than before. But, as you know, there are always "buts," and there were things that we have learned from this process. In the first place, we must note that we have learned that the attitudes and views of Turkey and Syria were right and correct. As you know, before the war in Iraq, the leaders of some countries had come to us and lectured us. But, it came out that they were wrong and we were right. By the way, we have learned another thing: The solution offered from outside the region does not always solve the issue. We have insistently asserted that this occupation will not be a solution, but will have destructive effects. That is, we need to make this distinction: We need to stress that there is a difference between having good relations and surrendering.
As you know, Iraq claims that Syria is responsible for the recent bombings in Baghdad. What do you say in response to these accusations? What do you think of Turkey's intermediation efforts between the two countries? Can you say that the problem with Iraq is close to being settled?
Turkey's intermediation efforts arrived really quickly. Timing was an important factor. Moreover, Turkey's approach was really objective and realistic. As a matter of fact, Turkey's general approach is, "If some problems arise among my neighbors, this will affect me in some way or another." Before Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu came to Damascus, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called me, and I immediately responded positively to his offer of intermediation and supported Turkey's efforts. In several days [on Wednesday], we will hold a meeting in Turkey to discuss this problem.
But Syria was held responsible for the explosion in Baghdad. And Iraq accused your country. What really happened there?
We were really shocked to hear those accusations because we had signed a strategic cooperation agreement with [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki only two days before. Moreover, about 1.5 million Iraqi refugees are living in Syria. Despite this, we are accused of killing Iraqi people. Some claim that Baathist insurgents are backed by Syria. Such a thing is illogical. The problem is inside [Iraq]. There is an atmosphere of conflicts and clashes in Iraq, but Iraqis tend to put the blame on external forces, and they accuse us. Since 2004, they have applied to us many times, demanding that we extradite people from the Iraqi opposition to them. But they do not offer us any proof of the crimes these people are accused of. We tell them that we will give those people to them if they submit evidence to us, but until now, they have failed to provide any such evidence.
Turkey will soon hold a joint cabinet meeting with the Iraqi government, and it has been declared that it may hold a similar meeting with Syria. What is the Syrian side's approach to such cooperation? Do you welcome this proposal?
During my visit to Turkey, we will clarify this matter. There is already a similar mechanism in place between Syria and Iraq. It is our opinion that any good relations between two neighboring countries will prove beneficial to all neighbors. For instance, if Turkey had not had good relations with Iraq, how would it have been possible for it to initiate intermediation efforts between Iraq and us? For this reason, if bilateral relations are improved to the highest extent possible, this will be beneficial to all countries in the region.
'The Armenian initiative closely concerns us'
Turkey has recently launched an initiative to open the common border between Turkey and Armenia. Simultaneously, it has launched a Kurdish initiative. The Armenian initiative may not be of much interest to you, but how do you think the Kurdish initiative will affect Syria? How do you see these initiatives from the Syrian perspective?
You may be surprised to hear this, but the Armenian initiative closely concerns us. And, this is not only because it is a problem that is of interest to the Armenian minority living in Syria. We believe that if the relations between Turkey and Armenia ease, this will lower tension in the region. For this reason, we need more initiatives and settlements. For instance, international trade does not occur just between two countries. Many nearby countries are involved in the process.
The Turkish government has not informed us officially about the Kurdish initiative. We follow the issue through the press. Overall, I can say that every initiative may have dozens of steps and dozens of right moves. But things may still go wrong. But for us, the important thing is: What is the framework of this settlement? Whether the framework of the settlement is national or racial/ethnic is important. Be it national or ethnic, the important thing is how this settlement will be beneficial to the country's territorial integrity. Also, even if a framework is delineated, its implementation may take a long time. Moreover, you need to take into consideration events around the country while you implement an initiative. In my opinion, any initiative in any area is a positive thing. But this initiative should be within the framework I mentioned above.
Do you think this initiative could end in the country's division? How might Syria be affected by such an unwelcome consequence? Do you see this initiative as an end or as a means?
In my opinion, the initiative is not an end, but a means. The main target is to ensure the country's stability and development. As for political division, this is one of the greatest sins or one of the greatest evils. Whatever you do, you must maintain the unity, indivisibility and territorial integrity of the country as your most important target. But, in any case, we will eventually be affected by what goes on in Turkey. Therefore, we want this process to result in stability.
Were these issues on the agenda during Mr. Davutoğlu's visit to Damascus? Did you discuss this issue with him?
I will discuss it with Mr. Erdoğan on Wednesday.
There is a technical aspect to this issue that concerns Syria. It is said that the PKK's Syrian members do not hold Syrian citizenship, and if they lay down arms, their status will be uncertain, and this is a factor that complicates Turkey's Kurdish initiative. What is the Syrian approach to this problem? Can Syria make any contribution to the Kurdish initiative in this regard?
If some people, be they in Syria or in Turkey, decide to abandon terrorist activities, then we must accept and afford protection to them. We did the same thing with the Muslim Brotherhood issue in the 1980s. As a state, we embrace those who have abandoned terrorist practices. We will embrace and pardon again. A state should pardon, because our aim is to eliminate terrorism, not to take revenge.
'There must be a comprehensive settlement'
Does that mean that you will re-naturalize the 1,500 Syrians who are, according to intelligence reports, members of the PKK?
Here, we must acknowledge that the PKK issue concerns three neighboring countries. Any settlement of this issue should be discussed among these countries. At that time, I had stressed that we could not solve the terrorism issue through the US method, i.e., by hunting down terrorists. This is because the terrorists you kill will be replaced by new ones. For this reason, there must be a comprehensive settlement. The factors that cause terrorism should be assessed and analyzed exhaustively. We need to discuss how this issue can be solved through joint efforts because there are common factors in Syria, Turkey and Iraq. We need to seek ways to improve our cooperation in security and policy areas in this context. We, as Syria, have always stressed the need for cooperation on security issues.
Was the method that was applied to the Muslim Brotherhood successful in Syria?
I can say that it was relatively successful because some wanted to renounce violence and terrorism, while others did not. Thirty years later, some are still insisting on creating terrorism. But those who continue terrorism will definitely be bound to give an account before the law.
'The Turkey-Syria friendship initiative has a very short history'
Mr. President, relations between the two countries improved significantly during your tenure. Which development sparked these relations? How can bilateral relations be developed to the desired advanced level in the economic area?
The first spark began when Mr. Ahmet Necdet Sezer visited Damascus in 2002 for Hafez al-Assad's funeral. Later, Mr. Abdullah Gül came to Damascus in his capacity as prime minister. This was followed by my visit to Turkey in 2004. Naturally, political relations between the two countries can develop more rapidly, while developing economic relations can take some more time. Bureaucracy cannot inhibit the development of political relations because there is a strong political will behind it. But, it takes time until this will is reflected in the economy. Do not forget that the Turkey-Syria friendship initiative has a very short history. Naturally, businessmen want initiatives to be implemented quickly. But this is all we can do. The İstanbul Stock Exchange [İMKB] opened in 1980. As for us, we were able to open a stock exchange just this year. Private banks have been operating in Turkey for 50 years, but in Syria they've only been able to start operating in recent years. Despite this, many Turkish companies operate here. There are factories set up by Turks.
Unfortunately, we encounter problems even in privatization tenders from time to time. When there is non-compliance in tender criteria, problems arise. But my advice to businessmen would be to make assessments that are not solely based on the current situation. They should use foresight when making investments. A businessman who takes steps to invest in our country today should know that he will be in a more advantageous position in the coming period. If he waits too long, others will take this position. I am very optimistic about this issue. We achieved a trade volume between Turkey and Syria that exceeds $2 billion in a very short period of time. Our current target is to make it $5 billion. I think we are on a good path. We are moving fast, but perhaps we need to move much faster.
During US President George W. Bush's term in office, relations between Syria and the US were very strained. Have you observed any difference in the US's policies toward the Middle East and Syria following the election of Barack Obama as president?
From the perspective of the general political frame, we do not see any positive development in practice. If there is anything that has changed, then it is the differences in the approaches toward existing problems. There is no longer a US policy of dictating to us. There is a US that is more willing to listen to our opinions. There used to be a sentiment in the US that "think tanks in America could solve the problems in the Middle East." Now the mentality that problems can be solved by working with countries in the region is being instilled.
To give a concrete example, in contrast to the Bush administration, there is a US administration that is more open to Turkey's mediation efforts in the region. But in terms of solving problems, the US administration's viewpoint is not very clear, although we do hear general things such as "comprehensive peace" in the region. This is very important from our perspective. Comprehensive means including Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and Syria [in the peace process]. There was nothing like this during Bush's time. [Obama] needs to fill in the details under the main heading. This needs to be followed by an implementation/action plan. Nine months have passed since Obama came to office, and this is a very important period in a four-year tenure. We think he needed to act more quickly so that we could say "OK, the Obama administration is different." All in all, I can say that there are intentions, but we need to see results as well.
Like Turkey, Syria is an important country in regional policy. We also know that like Turkey, Syria can take up an initiative with respect to regional policy. The region is currently in the middle of a critical process. The US is withdrawing an important portion of its soldiers from Iraq. In this respect, what do you envisage for the future of the Middle East?
We live in a geography that has a very rich social fabric. This social mosaic will determine upcoming developments the same way it influenced the past. First we must identify the social mosaic so that we can determine our political vision accordingly. We could create a political vision to dissolve the social fabric. This way, the human fabric would dissolve along ethnic and denominational lines. Or to the contrary, this fabric could be united by strengthening it even more. After making this kind of analysis, we can say that some countries in this region will either dissolve in this process or come out stronger. This inevitably leads to these questions: How do we view ourselves? How do we define ourselves? How do we perceive ourselves? What is our identity? How do we conduct our denominational or ethnic or secularism debates?
I think even debating these issues today is the wrong method to pursue because by debating these topics were are accepting dissolution. This debate took place in Syria as well. We debated how we could extensively establish accord between secularism and religion. By removing the perception that the secular system was hostile toward religion, we carried it to a platform where secularism meant freedom of religion. I give this example because there is a similar debate in Turkey. If a unifying instead of a dissolving approach is adopted in debates, you will help in bringing the society together. Another example is Turkish-Arab relations. Up until a few years ago, there were immense discrepancies in Turkish-Arab ties. Now, it's vastly different. What has changed? Turks are the same and so are the Arabs. But because perceptions between the two societies changed, we are able to talk about brotherhood and friendship now. When the thought mechanism changes, so do the results. What will I gain by being hostile or the complete opposite toward Turkey? More importantly, we were always trying to define ourselves and understand who we are by looking at the West. I studied and lived in the West, and there are many things that I like about the West. Many people in Turkey and Syria may have an interest in the Western lifestyle. But despite all this, I see myself as a person of this land. This is a cultural viewpoint, and the political view should be compatible with this.
Is Turkey's mediating role between Syria and Israel a matter of discussion again?
Turkey's role is a very fundamental one. There are many reasons for this. As a country in this region, Turkey is more concerned with every aspect of this land than any other country. Turkey is a very skillful country both in its efforts to solve problems and in removing obstacles that lead to problems. Secondly, there is unconditional trust between Syria and Turkey both at the political level and between the peoples, and this is very important for us. There is no mistrust on any issue. Furthermore, Turkey has proven in a short period of eight months how skilful and rational it is in mediating, although this was Turkey's first effort concerning the Arab problem.
How do you evaluate Israel's offer to meet directly? Is your outlook positive or do you insist that Turkey mediate?
We had direct meetings with Israel in the 1990s. But we were not able to talk about concrete issues. There were main headings but no subheadings; in other words, there were no details. There were uncertainties. Because there was a failure to fill in the details, the 1990s meetings were not successful. When we started to meet again, but with Turkey as mediator, we started to talk about the details. When we reach a concrete point, we will be able to hold direct meetings. It is for this reason that we always want to shift to direct meetings once we reach a certain point through indirect meetings with Turkey's mediation.
So should we take this as a clear "no" to Israel's offer to directly meet?
Yes. Our answer is "no" until meetings achieve a proper and healthy foundation.
How do you assess Erdoğan's stance at Davos and his attitude toward the attack on Gaza?
Mr. Prime Minister's stance incited an emotional joy among Syrians. But as president, I cannot talk emotionally. There was a demonstrative situation there, and that had consequences. When the prime minister was displaying that stance, he was not displaying his personal stance. He displayed that stance as the prime minister of Turkey. This stance proved how Turkey can adopt a respectable stance based on its own sovereign decision. This stance was completely a "made in Turkey" stance. It is very important because it is Turkey's sovereign stance.
Is a potential US or Israeli attack on Iran a current problem for you? What is your view on this?
If Iran is attacked, the region will enter a very critical phase that will last for several decades. The region will not be able to emerge from this situation for many years. Not only will the attack prevent stability in the Middle East, it will also impose a heavy cost on the region as well as the entire world.
How does Syria view Iran's nuclear activities? Does it see it as a threat? As you know, Turkey is trying to complete its security defenses prior to a possible Iranian attack by purchasing Patriot missiles from the US for $7.8 billion. Does Syria have similar concerns?
The important question here is who will Iran target with these weapons. Will it use these weapons against Turkey? I don't think so. Will it use them against Israel? I don't think that's likely, either, because there are many Arabs living in Israel and its surroundings. Nuclear arms are owned not for use but to benefit from their deterring effect. Take Pakistan and India; they became more peaceful after becoming nuclear powers. Besides, I don't think Iran is after nuclear weapons. But we are against nuclear weapons regardless of what country is pursuing them. We introduced a resolution on this issue at the UN Security Council.
Are your demands related to Turkey's overuse of water being met? Are good neighborly relations dominating this issue as well?
The winter before last, Prime Minister Erdoğan called me. He told me there was a drought in southeastern Turkey. He requested that the amount of water in the Orontes (Asi) River, which originates in Jordan, flows through Syria and into Turkey's Hatay province, be increased. Although we had water problems as well, I ordered that the amount of water provided to Turkey be increased. In the recent past, Turkey fulfilled all its commitments regarding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But this year it has not been able to fulfill a portion of its commitments. The amount of water that was left to us was little due to some investments Turkey made. However, the prime minister has said the amount of water which was supposed to be left over to us will be provided in the near future. Iraq, Syria and Turkey have reached an agreement over the Tigris. Relations over water were brought to a very good level by establishing a common commission.