Turkey’s prime minister has said it is premature to say whether Bashar al-Assad should quit, while renewing a call on the Syrian leader for speedy reform to end bloody turmoil in his country.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Assad as a “good friend” and said Ankara had begun applying pressure for reform even before a wave of uprisings began in Arab countries, in an interview aired on the US television channel Bloomberg late Thursday.
“He was late… I hope he takes those steps quickly and gets integrated with his people because in each of my visits to Syria I see people’s love for Bashar al-Assad,” Erdogan said through voice-over translation.
Asked whether Assad could survive or should go, Erdogan said: “It’s early to make a decision today because the final decision will be made by the people of Syria… The unity and integrity of Syria should be preserved.”
Erdogan said he had “long conversations” with Assad last year on the need to lift emergency rule in Syria, release political prisoners, amend the election system and introduce multi-party politics.
“I said ‘if necessary, send us your people and we can train them’… how does a political party gets organised, how to communicate with the people,” he said.
“Then we actually agreed on these points. However taking these steps was delayed and this domino effect (of the Arab uprisings) eventually caught Syria as well,” he added.
Turkey, whose ties with Syria have flourished in recent years, has said that it is against foreign intervention in its southern neighbour and that the unrest-hit country should solve its own problems.
Last month Turkish envoys held talks with Assad in Damascus as part of Ankara’s efforts to cajole him into reform.
On Friday, some 200 people demonstrated after weekly Muslim prayers outside the Syrian consulate in Istanbul calling for Assad to go and condemning killings by his security forces.
In comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Erdogan welcomed an accord, sealed last week, to end the feud between the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and the secular Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.
“I am very pleased,” he said. “We want it to continue like this because… if peace is to come to the Middle East this will start from internal peace in Palestine.”
Erdogan reiterated he did not view Hamas as a terrorist group but as “a political party… a resistance movement trying to protect its country under occupation” which could be a partner in peace efforts in the Middle East.
“But of course, there is a need for mutual understanding. Israel should get rid of its present mindset,” he said, slamming the Jewish state for having turned the Gaza Strip into an “open prison.”
Once-flourishing Turkish-Israeli ties plunged into a deep crisis last year when Israeli forces killed nine Turks in a raid on a Turkish ferry, part of an activist flotilla carrying aid to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.