Turkish president says Syrian crisis at a 'dead end' and change is inevitable
Publisher: The Guardian, UK
Author: Ian Black, Middle East editor
Story date: 21/11/2011
Language: English

An exclusive interview with Abdullah Gul on the eve of a visit to Britain amid reports Turkey is preparing a buffer zone with Syria

Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, has insisted that change in Damascus is inevitable because Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, can no longer be trusted after an eight-month uprising in which thousands have been killed.

Syria's crisis was now at a "dead end" after Assad failed to heed calls for reform that might have resolved unrest, Gul told the Guardian in an exclusive interview.

Gull, who was speaking on the eve of a three-day state visit to Britain, declined to comment directly on reports that Turkey was preparing to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian border. Creating a haven for armed groups was out of the question, he said, although Ankara would continue to offer a "democratic platform" for Syrian opposition organisations.

"Syria is now at a dead end so change is inevitable," Gul said. "But we don't believe the right way to create change is through external intervention. The people must make that change. Civil war is not something that anyone would want to see happen. Everything must be done to prevent it. It is very dangerous."

Gul's strongly worded comments came on a day that saw Syrian soldiers shoot and injure two Turkish pilgrims on a bus near the Syrian town of Homs, the focal point of recent violence. It is further evidence of how Turkey is being affected by the prolonged instability in its southern neighbour. Witnesses claimed the soldiers had opened fire when they realised the passengers were Turks.

The Turkish president said he had spoken to Assad regularly until a few months ago and had advised him to allow free elections, release political prisoners and announce a clear timetable for reforms.

"It's quite too late for that sort of thing now," he said. "He seems to have opted for a different route. And frankly we do not have any more trust in him."

The Arab awakening had happened with "something of a delay", said Gul, whose Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled Turkey since 2002. He had urged Arab leaders to follow Turkey's example.

"There was a need for deep-rooted reform," he said. "They could not carry on as they were for ever. In the end, it would either be the people or some sort of external interference that would bring change. Turkey now is a source of inspiration to many of these countries."

Dealing with Iran

Gul and Turkey's AKP prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been mobbed as heroes by ordinary people in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt in the course of the turbulent year of the Arab spring.

Turkey's history meant he could advise the generals who rule Egypt what to do during a crisis that has escalated continuously since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February.

"Based on our own experience, the job of the military is not to govern a country," he warned. "If they do that, the masses will turn against them."

Gul also defended Turkey's record on dealing with Iran, following a recent damning UN report and western and Israeli warnings over its alleged ambitions to build a nuclear weapon.

"It is important to put oneself in their shoes and see how they [the Iranians] perceive threats," Gul said, referring to Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal. "There are different groups and concentrations of power in Iran. You can't see them as one single authority. For the sake of peace it is very important that the dialogue between Iran and the west progresses in a more frank and transparent way. When I say transparent I mean Iran, and when I say frank I mean the west."

Turkey was opposed to military options for dealing with the issue. "Looking at the Middle East, one has to have a comprehensive approach [to disarmament]," he added. "A piecemeal approach would not yield the same results."

Syria is likely to dominate Gul's UK state visit, the first by a Turkish president in 23 years. But Ankara also wants to lobby London on the vexed issue of Turkey's EU membership bid, stalled for the past two years because of French and German objections – many believe because of its Muslim identity – and problems over Cyprus, whose northern half has been occupied by Turkey since 1974 and has defied diplomatic solutions ever since.

Next July, when the Greek Cypriots are due to take over the EU presidency for six months, Ankara is expected to freeze its ties with the union in protest and will only resume them in January 2013.

But Turkey, Gul said, was determined to pursue membership. "Relations with the EU are a strategic choice," he said. "It goes beyond political parties."

The prospect of EU membership had allowed Turkey to promote and embed the rule of law and democracy – one reason Britain backs its membership.

Turkey, unlike EU members, is enjoying robust economic growth – 8% in 2010 – and has a strong public finances and sound banks, Gul said.

Britain and Turkey agreed on the eurozone crisis, he argued, since both depended on it as a key trading partner. "If Turkey had already joined the EU, its position would be exactly the same as Great Britain," he added.

Treatment of Kurds

Gul defended Turkey's controversial record in dealing with the country's Kurdish minority, complaining that "terrorist groups" had been trying to sabotage the process of reform.

Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, made waves recently when he called for support of the PKK, to retaliate for Turkish backing for the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and the bitter row over Israel's killing of Turkish activists on a Gaza-bound aid ship.

Syria has in the past harboured PKK fighters and occasionally hinted that it might revive that support.

Cross-border raids might be necessary if there were attacks from safe havens, Gul said, but added: "I don't think the Syrian government would make that kind of mistake."

Gul is to hold talks with David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and the foreign secretary William Hague, as well as with London's mayor, Boris Johnson, whose Turkish descent gives his near-universal allure another dimension in Ankara.

Hague urges opposition to unite

Britain is intensifying contacts with the Syrian opposition, but insists it has no plans to recognise them formally as it did with the Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi earlier this year.

William Hague, the foreign secretary, saw representatives of the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Co-ordination Body in London on Monday , and urged them to "unite around a common political platform".

But arrangements were complicated by disagreements between and within the groups. Syrian sources said a key problem was the position of the Muslim Brotherhood, a member of the SNC, because it would back military intervention by Turkey – a view rejected by other members of the group. Its delegation was led by Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based exile.

Hague said: "I received detailed accounts of the appalling situation on the ground in Syria, the mounting toll of death, casualties and grave human rights abuses, and the need for sustained diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime. At a time of acute national crisis, Syria's opposition members need to show the leadership and vision needed to overcome the country's divisions and the current bloodshed." There was special concern about the need to respect the rights of minorities to overcome sectarianism, Hague said.

Turks of Western Thrace still struggling for rights, recognition
Publisher: Today's Zaman, Turkey
Story date: 21/11/2011
Language: English

"I was a student in the Law Faculty of İstanbul University. It was March 1981, and I was preparing for the midterms.

I noticed that my passport had expired, so I applied to the Greek Consulate in İstanbul for the extension of my passport. Six months later I was told by the consulate that I had been deprived of my Greek citizenship." These are the words of Burhaneddin Hakgüder, who has been living in Turkey ever since, and is the president of the Western Thrace Turks Solidarity Association, headquartered in İstanbul. Hakgüder was not the least bit aware of the Greek government's intention before he was told by the consulate that his citizenship had been taken away. He had committed no crime, no wrongdoing whatsoever with respect to Greek law, to deserve any such action, nor did he want to abandon his Greek nationality. "I wasn't allowed to go to my native land for 17 years," he told Sunday's Zaman. Hakgüder, who suddenly found himself stateless, is but one of the victims.

Thousands of people from the Turkish minority living in Western Thrace have been victimized by the now-repealed Article 19 of the Greek Nationality Code, losing all of their rights as Greek citizens. The former Article 19, which was in effect between 1959 and 1998, read as follows: "A person of non-Greek ethnic origin leaving Greece without the intention of returning may be declared to have lost his or her Greek nationality."

In fact, the total number of "Greek citizens of non-Greek descent" who lost their citizenship under the law is given as 60,000, including minors, in various reports such as the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance's (ECRI) and that of the Council of Europe. Ethnic Turks from Western Thrace formed the major group of victims, with 50,000 losing Greek citizenship. Quite a few of these people found out they had lost their citizenship when they returned to the Greek border from a visit of only a couple of days in Turkey, spent with relatives or visiting a son studying at a university in Turkey. The infamous Article 19 was abrogated long ago, but because its repeal was not retroactive, thousands of stateless minority members are still unable to regain their Greek citizenship, unjustly taken away by the Greek authorities, and have been paid no compensation.

The actions of the Greek authorities in denying these people their citizenship goes against both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares, "No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality." It is in view of such unjust treatment that the ECRI criticized Greece in its report published in September 2009.

Greece's Turkish minority has seen hard times in the past. They were arbitrarily denied driver's licenses and were not allowed to buy real estate, run shops or restore their houses. The minority group, most of whom who still earn their livings in agriculture, was even denied driver's licenses for tractors. Police issued fines when they caught Turkish farmers in tractors plowing their own fields. But those days are now over, with new regulations introduced since the 1990s. The Turkish minority no longer feels under so much pressure. But there still remain some major problems to be solved for the minority, such as identity, education and the election of a religious leader (mufti) for the Turkish community.

According to Ozan Ahmetoğlu, the vice president of the Friendship, Equality and Peace Party, unlike in civil rights, there have been no improvements in minority rights, which are supposedly protected under the Treaty of Lausanne, of which Turkey and Greece are among the signatory countries. "Getting permission for the minaret of a village mosque is still a problem today, let alone getting minority demands in the areas of identity and education met. The Greek authorities don't allow minarets to be taller than nine meters, and the construction of the minaret is pending," he told Sunday's Zaman.

The Greek state, in a bid to assimilate the Turkish minority of nearly 150,000 people, in addition to ignoring the minority's demands in the area of education, has since 1983 not permitted the minority to establish or run organizations which carry in their names the word "Turkish." Greek authorities claim that there are no Turks in Greece, but only Muslims, basing their argument on the Treaty of Lausanne, where the minority is referred to as Muslim and not as ethnically Turkish. It is for this reason that minority associations such as the Turkish Union of Xanthi, the Cultural Association of Turkish Women of the Region of Rodopi and the Union of Turkish Youth of Komotini, though they have remained in existence, have been forced to drop their signboards, on which the word "Turkish" was written. And the Turkish Union of Xanthi, which was founded in 1927, started a legal fight, as did the Cultural Association of Turkish Women of the Region of Rodopi, which ended in a victory for the minority, with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) concluding that the organizations have the right to use the word "Turkish" in their names.

Yet, in spite of the ECtHR's decision, issued in March 2008, Greek courts have to this day not allowed these organizations to use the word "Turkish" on their signs. Now the case is once again in front of the Greek Court of Appeals, and the court is expected to pronounce its final judgment in a few months. Greek authorities have as of late started to display the same negative attitude toward the word "azınlık" (minority), which is not tolerated on signs either. In contrast, the same Greek authorities don't make any difficulties for those organizations which use in their names the words "Pomak" or "Roma."

Education is another major theme for the Turkish minority, although there have also been some improvements in this area in recent years. On the positive side, minority students now enjoy a quota of five out of every 1,000 university seats guaranteed to them. And as Mustafa Sarnıç, Turkey's consul general in Komotini, notes, this year for the first time 21 minority students have been admitted to the faculty of pedagogy at Thessaloniki Aristotoles University, a step which it is hoped will offer a better education to would-be minority school teachers, a plus for secondary education.

But in general, the neglectful attitude of the Greek state on the issue of education for the Turkish minority, which has been based on "not educating," according to most minority members, is viewed by most as part of an effort to assimilate the Turkish minority of Greek Thrace. Turks have been unable to get a proper education in minority schools for years. The result: The Turkish minority is much less qualified, as well as being disadvantaged financially, compared to the Greek average. Their children learn neither Turkish nor Greek properly in primary schools, and it therefore becomes difficult for them to succeed in higher education. It's not unusual for a Turkish student who makes it to university to drop out because s/he cannot keep pace with others who have received a much better education.

Another important education issue for Greece's Turkish minority is nursery school. The Greek authorities do not allow the minority to open its own nursery schools, claiming that nursery schools are not part of primary education, and expect the parents to send their children to Greek nursery schools. Although the number of minority children sent to these schools is limited, there is a danger in the practice, Hakgüder warns: "Turkish children, seeing their [Christian] friends cross themselves, do the same. This proves the hypocrisy of Europe's preaching of freedom of religion." But Rıdvan Kocamümin, a former assistant governor who now works as an attorney in Komotini, says the parents, with some rare exceptions, get past this difficulty by sending their children to children's clubs operated by the Association of University Graduates of the Western Thrace Minority. With Greece in a deep economic crisis which has resulted in the rise of nationalist feelings, it's difficult to draw a rosy picture for the Turkish minority, which is already culturally and economically a downtrodden part of Greek society.

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