PM Erdoğan says Turkey cannot be indifferent to events in Syria

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he spoke to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad twice in the past few days to discuss prospects for reform in his country, insisting that Turkey cannot remain indifferent to what is going on in the neighboring country.

Erdoğan, speaking to reporters on Monday before departing for a visit to Baghdad, said Assad had not given him “a negative answer” when he urged him to listen to his people in two telephone calls over the past three days. “It is impossible for us to remain silent in the face of these events, we have an 800-kilometer border with Syria,” Erdoğan said.

Erdoğan's remarks came hours before Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara said Assad would announce important decisions that will "please the Syrian people" in the next two days. Erdoğan said he had suggested that Assad meet some of the demands of thousands of people who have taken part in pro-democracy demonstrations across Syria. “[Assad] said they were working on lifting the state of emergency to meet demands. They told us they were working on political parties.

We hope these measures are actually implemented rather than remaining promises,” Erdoğan said. “We did not receive a negative answer when we urged Mr. Assad to listen to the voice of the people. I hope he makes the announcement today or tomorrow.”

Syria has been rocked by more than a week of demonstrations that began in the southern city of Daraa and exploded across the nation on Friday. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators in at least six places, leaving dozens dead.

Turkish officials have been hesitant to comment on the events in Syria. Relations between the two countries have improved since Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power, while Turkey’s old friendship with Israel has soured.

Turkey’s ruling AK Party implemented a reform program after coming to power almost a decade ago, trying to strengthen democracy and modernize the economy.

Turkish intelligence chief in Syria

Erdoğan told reporters that he dispatched National Intelligence Agency (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan to the Arab country to follow the developments, adding that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also closely monitoring the events there. Erdoğan said there are “demands that have been building up for years,” which he said he discussed with President Abdullah Gül earlier.

In remarks published by Japan’s Nikkei newspaper on Monday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Turkey and Syria maintain deep economic relations and that, using its leverage, Turkey will encourage Syria to make political reforms. The Turkish foreign minister urged Syrian authorities to rapidly implement the reforms to avoid being plunged into tensions like Libya.

Diplomatic sources said Davutoğlu called his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, on Saturday after Erdoğan’s talk with Assad, assuring the Syrian foreign minister that Turkey will back Syria’s reform steps, the Anatolia news agency reported.

Davutoğlu reportedly expressed his dismay over the death toll and welcomed the government’s move to prosecute suspects who are involved in killing protesters and release some 260 political prisoners. Davutoğlu also told al-Moallem that Turkey welcomes the start of political, social and economic reform activities that would meet the legitimate demands and expectations of the people.

A frequently quoted statement defining Turkish-Syrian relations is that these two have written one of the most successful reconciliation stories in modern history, forging a strategic partnership despite having been on the verge of war only a decade ago. Turkey and Syria reciprocally lifted visa requirements and their trade volume has risen exponentially.

Davutoğlu stressed during the talk with his Syrian counterpart the importance of the rapid implementation of decisions and pledged Turkey’s full support to the Arab country’s reform process.

Trade volume between Syria and Turkey now nears $2 billion and both countries enjoy free trade and tourism benefits. Turkish trade associations have already raised concerns over negative sentiments among Turkish investors in Syria, hoping for the urgent settlement of the crisis in the neighboring country.

2011-03-29

Muhabir: Today’s Zaman with wires