PM Erdo?an says he is watching Syrian unrest with concern

EKREM DUMANLI
LONDON/?STANBUL

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and a number of journalists from Turkey return from an official visit to northern Iraq on the prime ministerial plane.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an has expressed concern over unrest in neighboring Syria, saying he plans to have further talks with President Bashar al-Assad after he dismissed protests against his 11-year rule as the result of a “foreign plot.”
“I intend to call him in the next day or two. I want to see what reaction the statements have caused,” Erdo?an told journalists who accompanied him on a visit to the UK, on Thursday, apparently referring to Assad’s speech earlier this week. “I want to see what happened with regard to people’s expectations,” Erdo?an said onboard the flight from the UK to Turkey, referring to demands for the lifting of emergency rule underway in Syria for decades, release of political prisoners and a new constitution. “If these expectations are not fulfilled, we will tell him [that],” Erdo?an said of the telephone conversation he plans to have with Assad, while declining to comment if Assad should or will have to resign.
Erdo?an has spoken twice to Assad in recent days to discuss the unrest in Syria and has sent the head of the National Intelligence Agency (M?T) to Damascus for talks with the Syrian leader, who enjoys warm ties with Turkey.
On Wednesday in his first public speech since protests erupted, Assad did not spell out reforms and urged instead for unity, saying Syria was the target of a foreign conspiracy to stir up protests. But he later took steps towards addressing grievances including lifting emergency law, granting rights to disenfranchised Kurds and ordering an investigation into protest deaths in the flashpoint city of Deraa and the port of Latakia.
Erdo?an, who had talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday, suggested at a joint news conference after the talks that Assad’s speech failed to meet expectations. “I wish more concrete, clearer messages had been given. I think this would have been more appropriate,” he said.

“People’s desires for rights and freedoms should not be ignored,” Erdo?an also said, noting that he told Assad that speeding up the reform process would be very helpful.

The protests in Syria have come on the heels of popular uprisings that have toppled long-time presidents in Tunisia and Egypt and sparked clashes in Libya. Turkey, which says Arab regimes must listen to their peoples’ demands for change, has very close ties with the Assad regime and has urged Assad to speed up reforms to avoid further instability in his country.

“We are of course watching [the situation in Syria] with concern,” Erdo?an told journalists aboard the plane, remarking that Turkey’s longest land border is with Syria. There are concerns that the unrest in Syria could spark an influx of refugees fleeing conflict into Turkey, especially given the visa-free travel regime that exists between the two countries. Asked whether there could be a such an influx, Erdo?an said: “I hope not. It would cause us difficulties.”

‘Libyan rebels should not be armed’

Meanwhile, Erdo?an also rejected the idea of arming rebels fighting against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, saying that this could feed terrorism.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Cameron on Thursday, Erdo?an said Turkey’s view was “negative” on the issue of arming fighters seeking Gaddafi’s ouster. “This could also create an environment which could be conducive to terrorism, and that would itself be dangerous,” he said. “It should be NATO which should protect civilians from cruelty.”

US and UK leaders have repeatedly raised the possibility of arming Libya’s embattled rebels, who have struggled to capitalize on airstrikes aimed at pushing Gaddafi’s forces back from populated areas. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, however, told Congress on Thursday that the US still knows little about the rebels and that if anyone arms and trains them it should be some other country.

Erdo?an dismissed any rift with Cameron on the issue, saying that Cameron too “does not have a positive view” about arming the rebels. “President [Barack] Obama was the first to raise the issue. Then we said this is not on our agenda,” he said.

At the joint news conference with Erdo?an, Cameron said no decision had been made to arm opposition groups in Libya, adding that all efforts should conform to the UN resolution, which authorized use of force to protect civilians in Libya. Cameron also said Turkey and Britain also agreed to set up a joint center in Ankara to help meet the humanitarian needs of the Libyans, without elaborating.

Not eye to eye with Sarkozy

Erdo?an and Cameron also praised the level of bilateral relations, with Cameron saying that British-Turkish relations “have never been stronger” than they are now.

Cameron, a staunch proponent of Turkey’s membership in the European Union, also said that the case for Turkey’s membership in the EU was “clearer than ever.” Cameron said he will continue to champion Turkey’s membership, emphasizing that Turkey’s entry into the EU would offer “increased economic prosperity, a bigger market for goods and services, more energy security and real benefits for the EU’s long term stability.”

Asked to comment on French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s opposition to Turkish membership, Cameron said Turkish membership in the EU was one of the issues in which he and Sarkozy are not in agreement. He did praise Sarkozy, however, for initiating aerial attacks on Gaddafi forces, saying the strikes, jointly conducted by France, Britain and the United States, saved people the rebel city of Benghazi from a massacre.

Turkey, on the other hand, has publicly criticized France for the rushed military campaign, saying it did not comply with the appropriate international procedure. Turkish officials have also questioned France’s motives in pushing for attacks on Libya, suggesting Sarkozy is after Libya’s oil wealth.

Sarkozy is also at odds with Turkey on several foreign policy issues. He did not invite Turkey to a summit in Paris last month, prior to the commencement of aerial attacks. Erdo?an reiterated Turkish criticism of the French decision to exclude Turkey, saying Turkey is being excluded from gatherings even though it is a country negotiating for membership with the EU.

 


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