Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is “a good friend of mine,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said, complaining, however, that the embattled Syrian leader had failed to take steps on time to address his people's demands for reform.
“Bashar is a good friend of mine and we had long discussions [for a year or even more] about lifting [the] state of emergency, [the] release of political prisoners, we discussed these issues and elections, I mean, changing the election system, allowing political parties, and we discussed all of these issues with him,” Erdoğan told PBS's Charlie Rose Show on Wednesday night. “However, he was late in taking these steps. … Taking these steps was delayed and that's how, unfortunately, we ended up here.”
Assad, who has built close ties with Turkey over the past years, has been facing growing protests at home. Turkey has urged the Syrian administration to take steps for reform but Turkish officials have been increasingly vocal lately in their complaints that Assad is delaying those steps.
Erdoğan said it was still too early to call for Assad's withdrawal, emphasizing that it is a decision up to the Syrian people. “And I wish Syria is not damaged by that. The unity and integrity of Syria should remain, and they should act in unity and integrity, and that's how we want to see our neighbor,” Erdoğan said.
‘Hamas not a terrorist organization'
Asked on a recent deal between Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government, Erdoğan said he was very pleased with what had happened. “I spent a lot of efforts as prime minister for many years to bring them together, and now I am very happy to see that this happened,” he noted, adding to that, “If peace will come to the Middle East, this will start from internal peace in Palestine.”
The prime minister also dismissed labeling Hamas as a terrorist organization, saying calling them terrorists would be “disrespect” to the will of the Palestinian people who voted for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“Let me give you a very clear message, I don't see Hamas as a terrorist organization. Hamas is a political party,” Erdoğan said. “They won the elections, they had ministers, and they had parliament speakers who were imprisoned by Israel; about 35 ministers and members of parliament are in Israeli prisons. Where is the terrorism? They entered the elections and after the elections this is how they were reacted to. Calling them terrorists, this would be disrespect to the will of the Palestinian people,” he went on.
Erdoğan also reiterated criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. “How can you put all Palestine and Gaza in [something] like an open prison? Of course they will rebel [against this],” said the prime minister.
The Turkish leader also repeated his government's earlier demands from Israel that came after the flotilla incident of May 31, during which nine Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli soldiers. He said Turkey is looking for three demands to be met by Israel. “This is absolutely certain,” he underlined, referring to the demands for an apology, compensation and the lifting of the embargo on Gaza.
‘Israel should get rid of its nuclear weapons'
When asked to comment on neighboring Iran's nuclear program, Erdoğan said Turkey was against nuclear arms in the Middle East, but complained of different reactions that Israel and Iran get from the world in this respect.
“We are against nuclear arms in this region. … But in Israel there are nuclear arms, and while there are nuclear arms in Israel, no one talks to them, no one says anything about them, no one pushes them, but on the other side there is Iran. Iran is being pressured although they don't have nuclear weapons,” he said. “And we find that unfair. If we have to be fair … let's first of all get rid of the atomic bombs in Israel, then let me act together with you against Iran.”
In response to another question, the Turkish prime minister described his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as a “centrist party with conservative democratic features.”
“The AK Party was favored by the people. It is because it does not permit extremism. We are not the extreme right. We are not the extreme left. We are right in the center of Turkish politics. … The right and left can find many things in us [that appeal to them] because we sit at the center with conservative democratic features,” he said.