ANKARA, Turkey—Not long after the Arab Spring began, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, then an ally, that he had to reform. After months, as the Syrian revolution continued and there was no sign of reform, Erdogan called for Assad to step down. Erdogan has allowed the Syrian opposition to make its base in Turkey and has remained at the forefront of the fight for regime change. Lally Weymouth spoke with Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday. Excerpts:
Lally Weymouth: How do you see the future of the regime of President Assad in Syria? You know Assad well; you had a close relationship with him. Do you think he will go down with the ship, or will he leave his country? What do you think will happen?
Recep Erdogan: If we look at history, we will see that regimes which persecute [their people] do not remain standing. In the process of the Arab Spring, we have unfortunately seen a development in Syria where the regime has been oppressing its people. Tens of thousands of young and old people and children have been killed or displaced as a result of these actions. This cruel regime continues to pursue the same policies.
We have 83,000 refugees in Turkey, and the Lebanese have about the same amount, and there are about 200,000 in Jordan. These people have not fled their country because they wanted to. Also, there are currently 2.5 million people within Syria who have been displaced; close to 30,000 people have been killed in this conflict.
As a result, we see the opposition gaining strength every day. So this regime will go. Bashar is politically dead. Of course, it is difficult to tell whether this will take place in a week, a month, or when. This also has to do with how Russia and China approach the situation.
L.W.: China is a problem, as well as Russia, in vetoing U.N. resolutions that would support the opposition?
R.E.: China and Russia have been acting in the same way. We have, of course, been talking to Russia, China, and Iran—and will continue to do so.
L.W.: Will Russia continue to arm the Assad regime?
R.E.: The Russians won't accept that they are arming the Assad regime.
L.W.: But aren't they?
R.E.: It would not be befitting for me to point a blaming finger at Russia. Iran has said it has Revolutionary Guards on the ground in Syria. We know such statements from the newspapers.
L.W.: In your talks with China, Russia, and Iran, do you see any hope that they will change their position and stop supporting the regime?
R.E.: We see that they, too, believe that Assad will go. The question they ask is: What happens after Assad? My answer to them is that if we believe in a democratic parliamentary system, then the will of the people will be what will come to pass. We do not wish to see any external intervention in trying to form a regime in Syria. What we envision is a transitional government basing its actions on a fair constitution, a system where people are free to elect candidates and establish political parties.
L.W.: Your government has been very supportive of the Syrian National Council [SNC], which is strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Are you supportive of the SNC, and are you concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood's domination of it?
R.E.: Everyone inside and outside of Syria who has the ability to represent Syria has been part of this council. The members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria are also part of the Syrian people, and they have the right to exercise their democratic rights.
Similar developments took place in Egypt. For years, the regime that existed did not allow members of the Muslim Brotherhood to exercise their political rights. In Egypt now, the people have elected the party of the Muslim Brotherhood as their government. When there was a presidential election, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected as president. If we believe in a democratic system, we have to accept the will of the people.
L.W.: It is said that the United States is stopping Turkey (and the United States says Turkey agrees) from allowing anti-aircraft weapons to cross the border into Syria. Is this so? How can the Syrian opposition win without anti-aircraft weapons?
R.E.: So far, the United States has been part of the process through their statements but has not had any other contribution. Support has been given to the opposition by countries in the region and Syrians who live outside of Syria. Turkey provides logistical support—food and medicine. We also provide support to those who seek refuge on our side of the border in camps. So far, the total amount of this support is more than $250 million. We will continue to provide this support to our brothers and sisters, the neighborly people of Syria.
L.W.: Does the Syrian opposition need more weapons, whether they are from the United States or the international community? How can you win a war with blankets?
R.E.: From the region and from Syrians living outside of Syria, the opposition is getting all kinds of support. But as far as Turkey's contribution is concerned, we provide the logistical support. It includes refugees—the 83,000 people who live in camps on the Turkish side.
L.W.: Among the Syrian opposition, do you see a potential leader? I have heard two scenarios: One is people mention names of specific people as possible future leaders. And the other is that just the Assad family will go but not the entire apparatus of the state, as was the case in Iraq. The structure of the state should stay for a transitional period. How do you see Syria making the transition?
R.E.: Russia and Iran are asking the very same question that you posed to me now. But those people who believe in democracy should not be asking such questions.
L.W.: It is different to say that all of a sudden the Assad family will go and there will be a neat transition. Do you have concerns about what would follow? Syria does not have experience with democracy.
R.E.: This is not a problem. In Egypt, the Mubarak family was in power for more than 30 years, and he is gone. And the people elected someone [as president]—Mohamed Morsi—whose name was not known. The Syrian people will bring about a strong leader through their own will. If we believe in democracy, this is what we should trust in.
L.W.: You have been interested in creating a buffer zone—a no-fly zone—in an area adjacent to the Turkish border. The French foreign minister was ready to introduce a resolution recently at the United Nations supporting this. Would you like to see the international community back the creation of such a zone?