In an interview with Kersten Knipp, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warns against interpreting Syria's civil war as a religious conflict. This perception could play into the regime's hands, he says
Foreign Minister Davutoglu, many experts are indicating that the divide between the supporters and opponents of the Assad regime within the region is increasingly running along sectarian religious lines. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have spoken out against Assad staying in power. In contrast, the Shiite dominated states of Iran and Iraq and also the Lebanese Islamist militia Hezbollah support Assad. In the light of these circumstances, can one now speak of a religious conflict?
Ahmet Davutoglu: I would say absolutely not, because it is not a war between Sunnis and Shiites. It is tension, a problem between a dictatorial regime and the people. For example, in Egypt or in Libya there were Sunni leaders. We were still against them when they tried to oppress people in these countries. In the region, the general problem is not sectarian. It is a problem between people and Cold War structures – authoritarian regimes, dictatorial regimes.
And in the case of Syria, it would be unfair to say this to many Alawites, who are fighting against the regime – who are in the opposition. There are many representatives of Alawites, Christians, Druze working in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and on the ground fighting against the regime. So it is not a sectarian war, and it will not be a sectarian war.
The regime, however, wants to make this a sectarian war in order to consolidate certain groups around it. There may be some sectarian intentions, which are harmful for our region, but for Turkey it is not a sectarian issue and in essence, in reality it is not sectarian.
You are critical of the idea of dialogue between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime. What are your reservations?
Ahmet Davutoglu: There were several attempts to convince Assad to enter into a dialogue in 2011 and 2012, beginning with Turkey, then Kofi Annan and other players. But Bashar Assad rejected the opposition outside Syria and claimed that this opposition is terrorist in nature. So will he recognize the opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, as the new player in Syria? Without recognizing the Syrian National Coalition or the opposition, what kind of dialogue will it be? It cannot be a dialogue if Bashar Assad claims that all these people are terrorists.
Secondly, should a dialogue be taking place, this dialogue should not be legitimizing Assad's authority. This image will legitimize Assad's power and give the wrong impression. And then who is accountable for 60,000 people being killed? Hundreds of thousands of people are refugees and millions of people are internally displaced persons. Who is responsible for that?
Thirdly, the objective of the dialogue should be to set up an interim government. And then there should be a basic understanding that this government will have full executive power, which means Bashar Assad should be ready to deliver all his power to this authority. Otherwise, the dialogue will achieve nothing. We are not against dialogue, but the substance and contents of the dialogue should be well defined.
Your own country, Turkey, has experienced impressive economic development in recent years. And in terms of foreign policy, Turkey has also made a name for itself. How do you see Turkey’s future role in the Middle East?
Ahmet Davutoglu: Of we course we never claimed any role in the region. We have our own experience, one that everyone in the region and in the international arena describes as a success story. Why is it a success story? Because of democracy, because of economic development and because of an active foreign policy.
Without reform in a country, you cannot change the mentality – you cannot change the politics or the economy. Therefore, we are supporting all reform attempts in our region. We are supporting the newly elected governments and presidents in our region. We don't take any sides. Whoever comes to power by the choice of the people, these are our counterparts and we will support them.
Recently, we gave a $500-million (370 million Euro) soft loan to Tunisia, and a $2-billion soft loan to Egypt for economic development. We established joint economic, high-level strategic council meetings, and intergovernmental meetings. Why do we do this? Because we want to share our experience in health, in communication, transportation, energy policies, good governance and democratic reforms so that we can help. This is not an imposition, this is not dictating anything. But this is our duty to help our brotherly nations in our region to ensure the success of their reforms.
In May 2010, Israeli security forces stormed the ship Mavi Marmara, which was carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, in international waters. In response, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel and diplomatic relations reached a low point. How are Turkish-Israeli relations today?
Ahmet Davutoglu: We have been very consistent in this. Israel killed our civilians in international waters. And Israel is accountable for this killing. It is a crime and for the past three years, we’ve been calling for three conditions to be fulfilled: an apology, compensation and allowing us help Gaza – the end of the blockade.
Of course, if these conditions are being met, relations could be normalized. But if the regular army is killing our civilians and does not apologize as if they have the right to kill anybody in international waters – this is unacceptable. We will never improve or normalize relations if these three conditions are not being met. If they are being met, of course we will normalize relations.
Interview conducted by Kersten Knipp
© Deutsche Welle 2013
Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp