"[Syria's] willingness to surrender the chemical weapons stockpile is a good development," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in reference to Russia's proposal for placing Syria's vast chemical arms arsenal under international control.
Speaking on a televised program Monday night, Davutoğlu said Turkey spent great efforts in the past to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to abandon his chemical program.
Assad could avoid a US military strike by surrendering all his chemical weapons within a week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday, but he immediately made clear that he was not making a serious offer.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed the Syrian side to seriously contemplate the issue. Syria announced that it welcomes the call.
“We welcome the latest development. But there is a serious crime here. It can't go unpunished,” said the Turkish foreign minister, expressing Turkey's doubts that the move could overshadow the recent use of chemical weapons, which, according to the US intelligence assessment, killed more than 1,400 people, one-third of whom were children, on Aug. 21.
“The Syrian regime has killed more than 100,000 within two years. The regime can't escape responsibility. It must be made accountable.”
Davutoğlu argued that Syria welcoming the proposal indicates an acknowledgement of having chemical weapons, a move that contradicts the regime's previous policy, which denies any charges that Damascus has a chemical arms stockpile.
“The proposal shouldn't pave the way for forgetting the recent massacre, shouldn't dilute international determination to make the regime pay for its role in the chemical attack,” Davutoğlu said.
He said following the massacre in Ghouta in Damascus on Aug. 21, Russia and other backers of Syria now see a need to distance themselves from the regime. Turkey and Russia are at odds with each other over how to handle the prolonged Syrian crisis that shows risks of spillover to neighboring countries.
As to the upcoming vote in US Congress over authorization for the use of force against the Syrian regime for its chemical attack, the Turkish foreign minister said it is difficult to predict the outcome of the voting as a "no" vote is not impossible given the complex dynamics of US politics.
He said such an outcome will have strong reverberations and implications for US politics in the years to come.
"If US President Barack Obama backtracks from his "red line," this would likely embolden [Assad] and other dictators on the use of such [chemical] weapons," Davutoğlu said, in a forceful bid to push Washington not to backtrack from its decision to hit Syria.
The Turkish foreign minister also lamented the ensuing debates over which side was responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical attack as some countries, including Russia, expressed skepticism of the regime's role in the incident.
As the US Senate is poised to vote on a resolution on the use of force against Syria, the US public is overwhelmingly against a new military entanglement in another Middle Eastern country, recent polls show.
The war-weary American public also doesn't want to be fooled again by false intelligence reports, which led the United States into a protracted war in Iraq a decade ago.
Addressing the debates proliferated around the reports of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, Davutoğlu raised his objection against the Iraq analogy, which he says misleads people on the issue.
"The claims of weapons of mass destruction [WMD] in the Iraqi case were unproven and were only claims. But, in this [Syria] case, there is an undeniable chemical attack. A chemical attack took place in front of our eyes, killing more than 1,000 people. It is not a claim. It is a fact; it happened," he said, stressing that the comparison to faulty intelligence regarding the WMD arsenal in Iraq is a weak one.
Davutoğlu also dismissed the Syrian regime's accusations that the opposition forces carried out the chemical attack in Ghouta, Damascus in late August.
"If the opposition was able to hit its own neighborhood with missiles, why didn't they target Assad's palace and military headquarters before?" he asked, casting his doubts over what he believes is the regime's attempt to shift the blame on the opposition.
Speaking on news reports and claims that suggest Turkey has cultivated some form of relationship with radical groups operating in Syria, Davutoğlu rejected such charges in the strongest of terms:
"Turkey has no relationship with any radical group within Syria, especially with al-Nusra Front."
The issue came to forefront as the US Senate is contemplating its vote on Syria. Stalwart opponents and skeptics of an intervention in the US Senate have made sweeping arguments about whether American military strikes could empower radical elements among the opposition forces, including groups linked to al-Qaeda, an arch-enemy of Washington.
"Turkey views the rising of radical groups that are filling the power vacuum in Syria as a serious threat. This factor bothers us more than anyone else," Davutoğlu said.
As to the opposition's harsh criticism of the government's Syria policy, the Turkish minister rejected charges of warmongering leveled by main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
"We even remained calm after our aircraft was shot down [by Syria], despite calls for a harsher response that could lead the country to a war," Davutoğlu said in attempt to underline that Turkey always preferred diplomacy over other heavy-handed methods.
"We made great efforts to convince Assad for democratic reforms. When I went to Damascus on Aug. 9, 2011, for the last time, I almost begged Assad to launch reforms and dialogue with the opposition," Davutoğlu said.
Settlement process is alive
Commenting on the settlement process with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- which aims to end the decades-old Kurdish dispute and related terrorism problem that has left more than 40,000 people dead in the past three decades -- Davutoğlu asserted that the process is proceeding on its own merits, regardless of the developments in the Syrian crisis.
"The [settlement] process and the withdrawal [of PKK militants from Turkish soil] has nothing to do with the Syrian conflict. Turkey launched the process even before the Syrian uprising. We launched the process regardless of the fears of how regional affairs or development could affect the whole thing," Davutoğlu said in response to a question on the fate of the settlement process.
Reiterating the government's determination to keep its commitment to the settlement process and reach an enduring social peace in Turkey, Davutoğlu said a successful end of the process could contribute to regional peace and stability as well as emboldening the Turkish position in the region.
He also warned against possible attempts of some regional countries to derail the settlement process with the PKK. However, he said Turkey is as determined as ever to finalize the process with unwavering resolve.