Why Assad Must Go—No Matter What Obama and Putin Say

Global politics, economics, and ideas.
Sept. 23 2013 10:26 PM

Why Assad Still Must Go

Turkish President Abdullah Gül explains why Syria’s president must be toppled, no matter what the United States and Russia say.

Abdullah Gul
Turkish President Abdullah Gül

Photo by Henrik Montgomery/Scanpix Sweden via Reuters

Turkish President Abdullah Gül said in an interview with the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth that he does not see the U.S.-Russia framework agreement as a solution to the Syria crisis and that President Bashar al-Assad must go. Excerpts:

Lally Weymouth: What do you think of the U.S.-Russian agreement on chemical weapons?

Abdullah Gül: We appreciate it. But the discussion on Syria should not be reduced only to a discussion of chemical weapons. ... That is not to take away from the importance of the agreement. On the other hand, we are also aware of how technical the chemical weapons issue is and that it needs to be verified. The important thing is that it does not spread over too long a period of time and that there are mechanisms in place to check on progress. That is why the U.N. Security Council has to weigh in with a clear-cut mechanism with respect to this specific issue.

L.W.: You are talking about enforcement through Chapter 7 [of the U.N. Charter]?


A.G.: Yes, of course, I mean within the framework of Chapter 7. ... If these developments regarding chemical weapons are carried out and then it is as if everything is over with respect to Syria, that would be wrong and would lead to a loss of credibility on the part of the international community. We should not say the work is done once the chemical weapons are taken care of.

L.W.: It seems that President Bashar al-Assad is left in power by this agreement. Is that wrong?

A.G.: That's not something we can live with.

We have to remember that when these events broke out, there was a lot of hope given to the Syrian people. The rhetoric was high, but the actions did not match the rhetoric. ... So far more than 100,000 people have been killed and almost half of the population is in a refugee status. ... If today we say this is not our job, it is people fighting in that country among themselves, then we have to question the rhetoric at the beginning. If we leave things on their own, there is a danger that what is happening in Afghanistan will happen on the shores of the Mediterranean, and no one can tolerate that.

L.W.: It seems that Assad will stay in power.

A.G.: There's been a breakthrough with the chemical weapons. But if there is no solution to the war that is going on in Syria—and if no new order emerges, then I'm telling you what will happen.


L.W.: People here [in the United States] are saying that the opposition is dominated by extremists. They're blaming Qatar, they're even blaming Turkey for allowing arms to go through Turkey to get to extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. Is that fair?


A.G.: There were no extremists in Syria. If things are left on their own in Syria, people will become extremists first, then radicals, and then terrorists. We should have been much stronger in our reaction ... at the very beginning, but this was not done. If things go on the way they have been going, then in six months or a year from now, we will see the emergence of very well-established, well-structured groups with quite high numbers of people involved and it will be very difficult to disperse them. Those who allow this to happen will have a burden of responsibility in terms of what happens in Syria.


L.W.: Do you blame the United States for allowing this to happen?

A.G.: No, I think everybody has responsibility. Especially the P5 [permanent members of the U.N. Security Council]—all the allies. The determination had to be there from the very beginning. I don't mean to point the finger at one country alone. But there is no doubt, of course, that the most powerful country is the United States.

L.W.: Watching the United States in the last couple of weeks—threatening to use force, not using force—do you feel the United States let you down? Do you feel that President Obama abandoned Turkey?

A.G.: No, I wouldn't say that. Of course, military action is a last resort. It's good to let diplomacy take its course. I don't mean to single out the United States. From the very beginning, there was never a well-calculated political strategy in place with respect to Syria. Military intervention, which is not part of an overall political strategy, will not yield results. You need to have a comprehensive political strategy. 



L.W.: I think one reason Congress has been reluctant to help the Syrian opposition is that there are reports that Turkey has been allowing aid to go to the radical groups, like [Jabhat] al-Nusra. Is that incorrect?

A.G.: People who say this are wrong and they lack foresight and they don't know us. I would not accept such an accusation and I would actually see it as a pretext—an excuse to move away from the events and to not do something.

L.W.: One argument that was made throughout the congressional hearings was that the Saudis and Qataris are aiding the radicals groups in Syria and that Turkey was allowing aid and radicals to pass through its borders.

A.G.: These extremists don't come to Turkey. But the moderates—the ones who are working for democracy—meet in Turkey. We have exposed ourselves so much in helping the moderates. So if this is not appreciated for what it is and, on the contrary, we are blamed for doing something exactly opposite of what we're doing, I see this as a pretext for people who are trying to move away from the Syrian situation.

L.W.: I think the [Obama] administration is disappointed that after Israel apologized [for the 2010 flotilla incident], the relationship never progressed. Do you see any hope for progress in the Turkish-Israeli relationship?

A.G.: As per that agreement, there are delegations going back and forth. They have a certain calendar of meetings. ... It's not to say we have no relations other than the apology. They are now coming to our celebrations, national days when we hold receptions. The meetings are also going on very positively.

L.W.: So you think the relationship might one day resume?


A.G.: Things are getting on track.

L.W.: You have made some positive statements about the E.U.

A.G.: The E.U. is very important for Turkey—it is a strategic matter for Turkey. The negotiations for membership are going on but very slowly. E.U. membership for Turkey is a strategic goal.

L.W.: How do you see the prospects of a U.S.-Iranian deal on the nuclear issue? Do you look on it favorably?


A.G.: It is clear that the newly elected president has embarked on a new era in Iran. I would not be surprised if there was progress in U.S.-Iranian relations.

L.W.: Going back to Assad, do you trust him to live up to his word to give up Syria's chemical weapons?


A.G.: If there is a firm U.N. resolution which can in no way be misinterpreted under Chapter 7, then we can be more hopeful about him complying with this deal.


L.W.: But the Russians have said they won't go along with such a resolution.

A.G.: If that's the case, then nobody should deceive themselves about what the outcome will be. The language of the resolution has to be very clear-cut.

L.W.: So President Assad has to go?

A.G.: How could one contemplate him staying against the backdrop of such a bloodbath?

L.W.: But you have to persuade the world?


A.G.: That's why I focus on the P5 plus the neighbors. If they can get together and work hard ... a political way [could be] found out of this crisis.

L.W.: A political way with Russia or without?

A.G.:  I've always made the point that Russia and Iran ought to be a part of these discussions. I've seen from the outset how committed both Russia and Iran have been in terms of their position [on Syria], more so than others.

L.W.: They look like the winners.

A.G.: I don't think anyone is winning. I think everyone is losing. The United States is powerful. It just needs to exercise it. Those who are powerful manifest their power as a last resort.

L.W.: Do you think it's important for Egypt and Turkey to keep a strong relationship?


A.G.: It is very important because Turkey and Egypt are two important countries in the Mediterranean. The Turkish people and the Egyptian people have a deep love and respect for each other, irrespective of topical issues. We had a good relationship with the people of Egypt before the revolution.


L.W.: Are you going to run for president again?


A.G.: There is time yet. There is exactly a year. When the right time arrives, there will be statements made at that point.

L.W.: Turkey has a real problem with the refugee crisis if Assad stays.

A.G.: The refugee issue has become very serious. So far, we have 500,000 [refugees] in Turkey; 200,000 of them are in camps. Turkey is providing everything to them and so far it has cost over half a billion dollars. ... Definitely this is our honor. So we will continue with this. There is no meaningful contribution from outside. If a long time passes, it will become a real problem for the host country and for ... the refugees. We need a settlement so they can go to their homes and keep their sense of identity. It is important that the fighting stops in Syria and people find it safe enough to go back. It is important that we work together so that a solution can be found.


L.W.: And you think one can be found?


A.G.: I certainly believe that there would be a solution found if everyone is engaged in this and is determined.


L.W.: People say the secular opposition doesn't have a chance because al-Qaida is so much stronger. Do you believe the secular opposition has a chance?


A.G.: As I said, if there had been meaningful and determined support from the beginning, then we would not be confronted with the kind of structures that we are so worried about. I think that if there is no firm position taken with respect to the situation in Syria now, then the future will be even more bleak.

Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.