Ankara, Asharq Al-Awsat- Ahmet Davutoğlu is the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs and a prominent Turkish academic. He holds a masters degree in public administration and a PhD in political science and international relations, both obtained from Bosphorus University. Before being appointed as a government minister, Davutoğlu worked as a professor and lecturer in various academic institutions over two decades. He has published several highly influential books and articles on foreign policy, in both Turkish and English, with his 2001 publication “Strategic Depth” considered his key work.
After gaining prominence in Turkish academic circles, Davutoğlu became a government advisor in 2002 and went on to play a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in developing Turkey’s foreign policy outlook in the years that followed. In 2009 he was appointed as Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, with a prominent focus upon enhancing the country’s international role and status.
Asharq al-Awsat recently met with Davutoğlu in Turkey to discuss his country’s stance towards the crisis in Syria. During the interview, Davutoğlu provided his assessment of current events on the ground – and whether there is a sectarian undercurrent to the crisis, in addition to outlining his expectations for the forthcoming “Friends of Syria” conference in Istanbul, and Turkey’s future plans should the situation continue to deteriorate.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The situation in Syria, and indeed the region, is very volatile at the present time. Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi has expressed his fears regarding the future of Syria’s Christian community, whilst other Syrian minorities have expressed their own fears of the future. Would you agree that it is these fears that are complicating the situation?
[Davutoğlu] That’s correct.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So what must be done to calm these fears?
[Davutoğlu] Such fears are not only heard by the minorities, for the majority in Syria has its own fears as well, for there is a historical turning point, and change always brings new challenges. Change is a necessity, and if history is moving quickly, we cannot stand idly by without a response. The minorities may be more concerned for they do not know what this change will bring, and what their position will be in the new political system. This concern includes the Christians in Syria and Egypt, as well as their concerns about their presence in the region as a whole, and therefore the Muslim majority must pay strong attention to this, and have a response that alleviates the concerns of these minorities, and reassures them that their religious beliefs will be respected in the new regime, whatever the case. This is very important because without religious freedom, peace is not possible. Within [religious] communities, there are also the concerns of sects, for the Muslim Shiites are concerned as a minority in the midst of a Sunni majority.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would you agree that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s comments about “Sunni rule” in Syria served to further increase tensions and concerns?
[Davutoğlu] Yes, but today, the fears of the Sunni majority are greater. If sectarianism is being carried out by the authorities, this is very dangerous, and no less dangerous than sectarianism without society. Therefore, there must be a new contract between the Syrian sects which confirms mutual support.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think what is happening today in Syria is a civil war or a case of sectarianism?
[Davutoğlu] I do not want to say this is based on sectarianism, although there is some sectarian behavior. What is happening is a confrontation between a whole community and a theocratic regime whose suppression does not just affect the Sunnis, but also the Christians and Alawites. This suppression affects everybody; today it is affecting the Sunnis, and tomorrow it will affect the Christians and others. For us, the confrontation in Syria is not a civil war or sectarianism, it is a confrontation between a society that is trying to decide its own fate, and a theocratic regime that is trying to save itself and preserve the status quo by persecuting large sections of the [Syrian] people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What should we expect from the “Friends of Syria” conference being hosted in Istanbul?
[Davutoğlu] Firstly, we must ask why there is a “Friends of Syria” conference in the first place, for even at the end of last year there was no such group, and its formation was caused by the prolonged violence in Syria. In the beginning we tried to intervene via our bilateral relations, to convince the regime to stop the bloodbaths and massacres and carry out reform. In August  we had come to an agreement on a roadmap, but the Syrian authorities failed to fulfill its obligations. In the second stage, we tried to work with them within a regional framework, and so Turkey worked with the Arab League, and in Morocco we reached an Arab peace initiative that included the same components as our own initiative, and the Arab League tried [to resolve the Syrian crisis] but to no avail, there were many promises that were unfulfilled by the regime. Following this, we, along with the Arab League and other states, went to the UN Security Council in the hopes of reaching a decision to stop what was happening [in Syria], however unfortunately we came up against the Russian – Chinese veto, so we could not act. After this stage, we moved towards forming a “Friends of Syria” group in order to find an international initiative, rather than a regional initiative in order to demonstrate solidarity with the Syrian people, but for the regime to feel that it cannot continue its abuses without there being an international response to this. The first meeting took place in Tunis, and the second meeting is now taking place in Istanbul; until now between 75 and 80 countries have confirmed that they will attend, and this number may increase.
The first task of this group is to send an international message against oppression, and to show solidarity [with the Syrian people], and this time the meeting must come up with specific steps to stop the massacres and show support for the Syrian people, particularly the Syrian National Council [SNC] and the second step that the international community must take with regards to the SNC. We are monitoring the consultation that is taking place between the states participating in the conference, and we hope – and are confident – that specific steps will be decided upon.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How can the “Friends of Syria” provide assistance to the Syrian people, particularly as the al-Assad regime continues to show indifference to international pressure and sanctions?
[Davutoğlu] Firstly, we must acknowledge that this is a difficult operation. I pay tribute to the Syrian people, who continue to demonstrate their bravery and courage after a year of being subjected to attacks and massacres, and who continue to confront suppression. This courage by the Syrian people must be encouraged by the international community, and this is the first and least thing that we must do to support the Syrian people. We must also support the SNC which recently held a summit in Istanbul and announced a “national pact” which deserves appreciation and respect, and which draws up a picture for Syria in the coming period. This is very important, because until now there have been criticisms regarding the lack of programs, and people would say: Bashar al-Assad may leave, but who will replace him, what will the new administration be based on? The basis today for this is very clear, as has been determined by the SNC. As for the practical second step, this must be strengthening and supporting the Syrian opposition on the ground both within Syria and externally within the international community. Thirdly, we must increase pressure on the theocratic Syrian regime, which means taking certain actions against this regime and Baathism, by sending a clear message that these countries are raising their voices against this [al-Assad] regime. On the other hand, we were in Tehran and we carried out talks with officials there, having previously carried out talks with the Russians, and after this [Friends of Syria] conference, myself and Turkish Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] will travel to China Our objective is to increase pressure on the al-Assad regime, whilst at the same time following-up on political dialogue with certain countries. The decisions that will take place will be decided by the countries that participate, but there will certainly be practical steps to increase support for the Syrian people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you talk about increasing support for the Syrian people, does this include arming the Syrian opposition?
[Davutoğlu] I do not want to go into details, of course, but I can say that the practical steps will include looking at the humanitarian situation [in Syria] which is terrible. 17,600 Syrians have fled to Turkey, and in just a few days this number will have exceeded 20,000. We are concerned that this number will increase and increase if the regime continues its suppression. We certainly cannot remain silent and stand idly by in the face of what is happening on the ground. Support inside Syrian territory means humanitarian aid for the Syrian people, regardless of where they are, not just in the border regions. Some Syrians are lucky that they live in the border regions, so they are able to flee to Turkey or Lebanon or Jordan, but those living in cities inside Syria cannot flee. In Homs, around 60 percent of the population fled, but where did they go, and how are they able to remain alive, particularly as there is now no safe route between any two towns in Syria. This is a terrible state of affairs, and supporting the Syrian people means humanitarian intervention and increasing pressure on the regime, so that it cannot continue to carry out massacres, as well as establishing good communication between the opposition within the Syria and the opposition abroad, at all levels.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think there is still any chance of a political solution in Syria? What is your opinion regarding the chances of success for Annan’s mission in light of your own experiences negotiating with the al-Assad regime?
[Davutoğlu] What we have learnt from our experiences is that any new initiative means more time for the [al-Assad] regime to kill. This is why we support Annan’s initiative as a starting point, for the 6 points do not solve anything, they are just preparing to start an operation. That’s why when Mr. Annan came to Turkey –we have also carried out a number of telephone conversations with him over the past few days – we told him: yes, we support you…but how long must we wait, until implementation is carried out. The regime says it has accepted this, just as the al-Assad regime told us in August that it had accepted our 14-point plan…and then it carried on killing. It accepted the Arab League initiative…and also carried on killing. It accepted the calls of Russian Foreign Minister [Sergey Lavrov] and then began the shelling of Homs. After each initiative, it would carry out even more attacks! We hope this time the efforts of Mr. Annan – who we respect – will lead to results, and that these efforts will not be misused by the regime in order to kill more people. After they accepted Annan’s initiative, hundreds of people were killed within a period of two or three days. In any initiative, it is imperative that there is a force behind it. We will continue to support this initiative and hope that it is implemented, but this is just a starting point, and we will see what happens afterwards. If you asked us our opinion, we would say that last year, and indeed over the past 7 years, Turkey has tried to convince al-Assad to carry out reform, but he always said that he needed more time, until we reached this point. There must be a deadline to implementing Annan’s initiative, otherwise this is an endless process, and this would mean endless killing as well.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you discuss “buffer zones” and “humanitarian corridors” at this meeting?
[Davutoğlu] This depends on [recent] developments. However we, in Turkey, are ready to support the Syrian people on the humanitarian level, but there must also be international effort responding to the killing taking place in Syria, not just on the part of Turkey. The issue of “humanitarian corridors” and “buffer zones” is something that concerns the international community, and if there is a decision, we are certainly ready to contribute to reaching every Syrian who is suffering. The solution must not just comprise Syrians living in the border regions, but those living in Syrian cities far from the border, for even if we establish a buffer zone, what will happen to those who live in Daraa, Lattakia, Homs, Hama and Aleppo? Turkey is ready to provide assistance in any initiative or decision supported by the international community, in addition to the Turkish National Security Council. If there is instability in the border region, then there is no doubt that we can’t just stand by and watch, and so we will monitor these activities and developments, and if there is a massive influx of refugees, then we will certainly take special steps in this regard.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] By “special steps”, do you mean establishing a buffer zone?
[Davutoğlu] This means whatever steps we take…if there is a huge influx of refugees, this will create instability on our territory.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many people in Syria are pinning their hopes on Ankara taking action to rescue them. This is due to Turkey’s geographical position, as well as Ankara’s strong statements about the Syrian crisis, such as Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan warning al-Assad against committing a “second Hama [massacre].” Do you feel like you are letting down the people of Syria?
[Davutoğlu] First of all, I believe that many people estimate that the main part of this issue is on Turkey’s shoulders, in terms of the status of refugees, diplomatic action and protecting the Syrian people. This is not something that we take lightly; indeed it is a historical responsibility, as a neighboring country to the Syrian people. We are, of course, aware of these expectations, but Turkey is doing everything that in can in terms of initiative and exerting pressure to help the Syrian people, and we will see what happens. We do not, for one second, accept what is happening in Syria, and today the strongest voice objecting to this is coming from Turkey, and the only practical steps have been made by Turkey. I believe this is the subject of appreciation from the Syrian people and the people in the region, for what other country accepts all refugees? What other country is helping the SNC? We are doing everything that we can, and we will do even more, in cooperation with the Arab states…this is part of a communal effort.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people are saying that Turkey is afraid to intervene in Syria, due to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] and the demography of southern Turkey?
[Davutoğlu] This is not true. Turkey is a strong and democratic state, and we have no fears whatsoever. We believe in ourselves, and the Syrian people believe in us, thanks to the experiences that we have had over the past years. We do not have any such fears; rather our fears are about our brothers and sisters in Syria and the regional states. What is important is that their suffering and pain is our suffering and pain. We have no fears about our domestic scene; rather we are concerned about the regional instability, which is something that affects us all. We are not immune [to instability], there will, of course, be some challenges, with regards to the PKK, if anybody does carry out any [attacks] we will take action on all levels to protect our national security.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your view of the Syrian Kurds who refused to join the SNC over disputes regarding their future in a post-Assad Syria [the Kurdish National Council walked out of the SNC summit held in Istanbul earlier this week]?
[Davutoğlu] No, this is not correct, for there are Syrian Kurds in the SNC, and on the SNC’s Executive Bureau. Of course we would prefer if all Kurdish parties were part of the SNC, and efforts are being exerted in this regard, but there are some disagreements between the parties, and we are exerting all efforts to ensure that the SNC represents the widest possible spectrum of the Syrian opposition. We would prefer the Kurdish parties to cooperate more strongly with the SNC. Syria is for all of them [the opposition], and there should not be any exclusion or discrimination, whilst at the same time there should be a respect of the territorial integrity of Syria…and it is always possible to come to an understanding and reach solutions. This is natural, particularly as we are talking about a country where there has been no culture of opposition for more than 60 years. They are learning from their experiences today, and it will be better if things are resolved via logic, rather than emotion.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will Ankara recognize the SNC, now that the Syrian opposition has, for the most part, united beneath its banner?
[Davutoğlu] We will consult with our partners in the “Friends of Syria” group on this issue. The level of recognition will certainly increase, but we are working on this… we want to send a clear and strong message of support to the SNC.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What did you tell the Iranians about Syria during your recent visit to Tehran?
[Davutoğlu] We held extensive talks with Iranian officials yesterday [Thursday], we met with President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei…they both said that they did not support what is happening in Syria, and that they regret the loss of life. However at the same time, the regime of “resistance” to Israel [Syria] is very important to them. This is also something that is important to us. We talked in a friendly and open atmosphere, and we said that the demands of the Syrian people must be respected by all. We will continue to remain in contact with everybody. Until now, no leader or president has told us that they support Bashar al-Assad’s behavior, or that the regime has not committed any mistakes. Everybody acknowledges that the [al-Assad] regime is committing mistakes; however viewpoints differ on how to resolve this situation and how to respond to these tragic incidents and loss of life.