Despite threats to his country, Prime Minister Naji Al Otari of Syria, answered questions from Zaman’s foreign news editor, Abdulhamid Bilici.
Relations between Damascus and Ankara are developing at such a pace that it is eliciting envy in some centers. Considering such potential, why did the two countries wait for so long?
Unfortunately, there were some negative factors in between. Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit revealed the insignificance of these factors. Also, Erdogan saw the love of our people for Turkey, and for himself. Our people respect him. Especially for the recent sensitivity he showed for the suffering of the Palestinian people and the tough reaction to Israel, as well as the policy that he followed in Iraq.
Is it possible that this relationship will gain a strategic property, or it is only for good neighborly relations?
I can say that this is a strategic relationship. [Syrian President] Bashar Al Assad and [Turkish President] Ahmet Necdet Sezer decided this together when they met in Ankara. Turkish President Sezer will visit Syria in 1-2 months. This relationship predicts mutual, regional and international cooperation in all areas including politics, economics, and culture. Within this frame, Turkey and Syria have already started to act together on many international issues. To me, the reason behind this situation results from the dangers that the two countries share. This situation naturally causes cooperation.
Are you talking about an alliance targeting a third country?
No, contrary to what you said, this is a strategic alliance aimed at regional peace. This is a step that will contribute to the development of peace and stability for all nations in the region, not just for two nations. As Erdogan said, these steps will be a guide for other countries. Our aim in the coming days will be to transform these economic relationships into political relationships. Trade volume will reach its peak in this frame. The free trade agreement signed during this visit will start this.
Does not this relationship between the two countries bother some countries, especially the USA and Israel?
This could be expected because of the current situation in the region, but when the USA and Israel see the truth one day, they will see that this relationship will contribute to their long term policies in the region. Israel, which is constantly pursuing a divide and govern policy, will be naturally disturbed by this relationship. It does everything to keep us isolated, and not only us, but all Arab countries. It tries to keep them isolated from each other.
Is your becoming close to Turkey the result of an increasing threat from the USA and security anxiety?
No, I don’t perceive it like this. The relationship should be this way because both countries are targeted by the same dangers and both sincerely want peace and stability in the region.
The USA does not threaten Turkey with intervention. So how can you say that the two countries have the same security needs?
There are two kinds of threats: direct and indirect threats. There is a direct threat to the region as a result of events in Iraq. Unfortunately, stability, security and democracy could not be established there. We need to act together against the US’s invasion and assimilation policy in Iraq, and not alone. Also, the whole world is against US policy. If you take a look at the history of the region — even the world — you will see that the invading country considers first its own interests, and not the interests of the invaded country. Unfortunately, today the interests of the USA and the interests of Iraq, as well as the region, are different. The danger is getting bigger day-by-day. As we see this danger, we support Iraq’s land and national unity. We want Iraq to determine its own future, and we want legitimacy to take all responsibilities in the country. There is no other choice.
What Kind of Future Awaits Iraq?
Very dangerous scenarios are talked about for its future. I believe however, that the Iraqi people will not allow these dangerous scenarios.
The possible division of Iraq and the foundation of a new Kurdish state in the North makes both Syria and Turkey nervous. Both countries have civilizations that are Kurdish. What is your policy about this?
While evaluating the relationship between Syria and Turkey, we mentioned factors that caused us to be closer. There are situations within these factors that provide an open threat to both countries. Now, a Kurdish state founded in Iraq is not a definite situation, however, the situation is discussed. As Mr. Gul said, this is Turkey’s red line. We say this is a red line for Syria, too. Both countries are dealing with the same situation.
Could this situation cause a skirmish that would draw in neighboring countries in the future?
We hope this will not cause such a thing.
The administration of Syrian President Bessar Al Assad is trying to reform many fields different from those of his father. Despite this, why do you think the US, who wants reform in the region, is threatening you?
We consider events in Iraq to be a continuation of Arab-Israeli skirmishes. When observing events from this perspective, as Syria, we defend the rightful case of the Palestinian people. We want Israel to give back the Palestinian and Syrian lands that it occupies. This is the origin of the problem. When we sat at the table with Israel in Madrid, we signed the ‘peace for land’ convention, which was under the leadership of the US. The US currently ignores this convention however. We furthermore know that the radical Israeli power will follow a similar line, and will not approach the peace. But we do not want to give up a dialogue with the US.
Do you believe that Israel awakened the US?
What do you say in response to claims that you are overlooking Syrian insurgents and foreign groups who cross into Iraq?
This claim is completely a lie. Because there is no proof when we demand that they show it. They know the truth and this makes us sorry. When Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and other managers came to Damascus, we, again, demanded the proof. They said, “The US and Britain want us to blame.” We signed an agreement with the Iraqi government against terrorism and border leaking. The US also thinks so. Furthermore, many US commanders came to Damascus and expressed their pleasure, made by three countries, to ensure border security. These confessions are in our hands. We believe that terrorist activities which target civilians, and Iraqis, in Iraq are not done by people, but by external powers who have an interest. The US, UK, Israel and others, which have an interest in the continuity of the occupation Naturally, terrorism becomes the reason for a continued occupation. They entered Iraq in order to leave immediately, the date becomes longer however. Nobody can say now when the US will withdraw. Call it resistance or terrorism; everybody forgets that the main cause for problems in Iraq is the occupation. Since they cannot say that they are unsuccessful because the Iraqi people resisted, they place the blame onto foreign countries and terrorists. Also, they gave 20 Syrian names from the 11,000 people they have arrested. There are 600-kms of border between Syria and Iraq. There are relatives between them. Can the Syrian government be accused if 20,000 people went to help? And can the US charge us to protect the Mexican border from illegal trade and refugees?
‘Fenerbahce Will Play in Halab’
While improving relations with Turkey, you discovered your blood bond. How did this happen?
Relations developed incredibly when Bessar Assad was visited. I hope it will be better. This is a single-directed, one-way road. Erdogan asked about my relationship with the great Turkish composer, Mustafa Oturi, during my visit to Ankara. When I returned to Syria, I learned that he was an ancestor of mine. He went to Istanbul from Damascus in 1760. I am very happy with this tie. Even this example is enough to show the deepness of the relationship between the two nations. Also, the works of Mimar Sinan in Syria affected him. When I saw them, I was affected, too. It was fine when people wanted to embrace him. Both nations wanted friendship actually; maybe we were not aware of this in the past. When there was a forest fire in Lazkiye, Erdogan called us and offered his help. I thanked him. When I learned that fire engines from Hatay had come to help, I was very affected. According to me, visits between the leaders revealed a deep friendship. Therefore, that Syria and Turkey are coming together should be no surprise.
We heard that you conducted a poll to measure the people’s view of Turkey before Erdogan visited. How was the result?
I don’t want to talk about percentages. Erdogan saw the love of the people when he visited. Anyhow the Syrian and Turkish people are a single nation.
Since both you and Erdogan are Fenerbahce fans, did that affect your dialogue with him?
Yes, this was very important. Accidental things do happen. First I was a municipality president. Erdogan was also a municipality president, in his case, Istanbul. Second, I was a football player, so was Erdogan. I supported Halab’s team, he supported Fenerbahce in Istanbul. All these factors came together and helped to bring the relationship to a higher level. There are human factors as well. These contributed to our relationship. Although they were accidental, they contributed to the power of our relationship.
Is Fenerbahce going to go to Syria for the opening of the big stadium in Halab?
Yes, we invited Fenerbahce to the opening of the big stadium in Halab. We want them to play against a team from Syria for the opening of this stadium, which has a 71 thousand seating capacity. Fenerbahce will come and there will be a good match.
Tomorrow: Can Turkish Schools be opened in Syria? Does he expect a USA operation to Syria?