Turkey has been at the center of global media attention due to protests across the country in recent weeks.
Demonstrators have expressed frustration with policies of the ruling party, which led to clashes with police in Istanbul’s Gezi Park adjacent to the city’s Taksim Square.
Al Jazeera’s Jamal El Shayyal sat down with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss the situation in the country as well as Turkey’s foreign policy and Syria’s war.
Al Jazeera: What is your take on what’s being shared on social media, and images on TV channels which seem to show widescale opposition and anti-government sentiment in Turkey?
Ahmet Davutoglu: I think this misperception and misimagination [sic] sometimes is just created. First of all, Turkey is a democratic country. Of course, like in other democratic countries, people and different segments of people have full right of demonstration:expressing views, and sometimes these demonstrations may go quite high in the sense of tense atmosphere but it doesn’t mean that there is any extraordinary situation in Turkey. Almost the same incidents happened in Frankfurt, Germany, for “Blocupy” demonstrations. So, it is something natural in democratic societies. But [the] important thing, as you said, such an image to be given in social media as if there is an extraordinary situation in Turkey is really a wrong perception.
AJ: The demonstrations started out much smaller. Some people say the reason they grew was because ‘the heavy handed approach by the police’. Do you believe that your government has made any mistakes in dealing with this?
AD: Here, we are making an analysis of what happened in 18 months – as government, as our party, and as an academician also, I am trying to analyze [this]. I can see five actors in the process. One is environmentalists, who care about Istanbul and the environment, and as an intellectual I understand and want to have a real consultation with them about the future of Istanbul and our city – we love Istanbul and Istanbul is a legacy, a huge legacy to us. That is understandable.
The second factor is a young generation – a new rising generation – in fact from 17 to 25 years old, and in fact this generation was created during our government. When our government started they were seven or eight years old so they were growing up in an atmosphere of freedom, not under military rule or extraordinary situation law but under a freedom so they have full confidence… self-confidence. They want to raise their voice and this also should be understood well, and we respect these voices.
AJ: You say you ‘respect the voices’, while some people point to the statements that yourself and also Prime Minister Erdogan made with relations to uprisings in the Arab world. But they seem to ask if you really did ‘respect the voices’, if ultimately you sent in security forces to clear Taksim Square.
AD: Well there are two groups. If the demonstrations continued with these two groups then it could have been managed much easier. There is another Turk group which are provocateurs, some ultra-leftists, some ultra-nationalists, some extremist groups which try to use these good intentions or different views of these two groups in order to create a political unrest. And then the issue shifted from an environmentalist issue to another area where they want to make change which they reacted against the prime minister, and acted against the elected government. The fourth group is some politicians and some circles of [the] economic sector who tried to use this and exploit this atmosphere to see this as an opportunity to criticize government and to criticize prime minister, especially focused on these.
And the fifth factor is there are certain international circles who have tried to react to the policies of our government. Therefore when we combine these, of course at the beginning [the] prime minister has admitted we all said that there were some mistakes committed by some police, some security members, in dealing with the demonstrations. Turkey is a country of rule of law and investigation is continuing for those who made any mistake using tear gas, or water during the early stage of demonstrations but the next day we gave full freedom and police had been withdrawn from the streets, from Taksim square, and almost 15 or 16 days any demonstration was free.
Even beyond the laws and rule of law there are some illegal groups who tried to misuse… you can see the slogans they raised and they are not democratic slogans. They insulted the government, individuals; they made some attacks, provocative attacks to certain groups, especially ladies with headscarves which tried to create a polarization in the society.
AJ: How will you deal with them? And do you think Turkey is being polarized?
AD: No, that will not happen. First of all nobody should be confused and make any mistake to compare demonstrations in Turkey to demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East, even with the demonstrations in Europe. In the last three years there were two big demonstrations [and] reactions. One is in North Africa and the Middle East, the other one in Europe. In North Africa and the Middle East, in Tahrir, Benghazi, today in Syria, in Tunisia, young people made demonstrations requesting free and fair elections, freedom of speech, freedom of media and transparency against corruption etc. In Turkey there is no such case because two years ago during the Arab Spring we had a free and fair election and our party won by almost 50 percent [of the] vote. In Turkey there is a rule of law: everybody can face transparency. Those demands have been fulfilled in Turkey.
In many places in Europe: Athens, in Bucharest or in Rome, in Madrid, in London… people demonstrated in order to ask for jobs and in reaction against economic crisis. In Turkey it’s the opposite. We have a huge economic success story in the last 10 years and there is no question of unemployment like in Europe. I said this to some of my colleagues in Europe: “Fortunately our people and the young generation are demonstrating for environmental issues, not for freedom or employment.” Environment is an issue of advanced democracies. When your stomach is full, when you have freedom, you start thinking about the environment. That is a good indication.
AJ: Do you feel that the criticism made against freedom of media in Turkey was fair?
AD: I don’t think so because they made live broadcasting – not only Turkish media but international media. Even sometimes they misuse these. I was shocked when I saw CNN International or some other international reporters. They used gas masks during the day when there was no tear gas being used and they broadcast this as if there is a war or internal strike, while at the same days hundreds of people are being killed in Qusayr in Syria. Thousands of them being killed [in Syria], there was no coverage at all. It was surprising for me. The total media broadcasting from Turkey in the past two weeks by international media was more than the broadcasting from Syria in the last two years. So it is so strange. 100,000 people have been killed and international media did not make one hour of live broadcasting nonstop.
They made these broadcasts from Taksim, there was no limitation. It’s not any other country where you can cover the stories. Only four people have been killed in all these demonstrations. Even one person is important, I don’t say the number is not important, but three of them were because of accidents and one of them was police. But during the demonstrations, several stories [have] been created – tons of people have been killed, hundreds have been heavily injured. Where are they? Media, I am saying, is important, we have to respect the freedom of press – but press has to respect the ethics of media. If you are distorting stories, if you are trying to create a false image based on false stories, you are acting against the ethics of media.
AJ: Syria now. The US said it will arm the rebels after it established that Assad’s army had used chemical weapons. Have you seen any evidence that Assad’s army has used chemical weapons?
AD: Yes, it’s Turkey also, not only because the evidence it has seen in the hands of the American administration. As Turkey as a neighboring country we had our own investigation. We had several cases, incidents, where we suspected that chemical weapons are being used and there was a special team that made research on injured people, and on these injured people we also identified and found strong evidence regarding the use of chemical weapons.
AJ: So you can confirm?
AD: Yes of course. Of course we confirm. We have our own evidences and we shared this with relevant authorities as well and with other countries. We approached the United Nations to do more investigation on this but unfortunately the Syrian regime did not allow a special team from the United Nations to come to Syria and do necessary research. Therefore this statement by the United States is not something surprising for us. We hope that the international community will act decisively on this situation.
AJ: Russia, China, Iran, Hezbollah, have been unwavering and united in their support of Assad. Why is this?
AD: To be very clear the Turkish position was very clear from the beginning. We tried first to convince the Assad regime to listen to their own people, and to make a peaceful transformation in the system so that the rightful demands of the people would be realized. Unfortunately they didn’t listen. Then we worked with the Arab League… for more than almost one year, but again they did not listen to us.
Then we approached to international community and we formed what you call “Friends of Syria” and that group is composed now of 114 countries and international organizations. The psychological and ethical upper hand is on this side. But unfortunately, those who are supporting the Syrian regime, as you said supported in all means, and the same circles who supported the Syrian regime accused others, including Turkey, as if they are doing foreign intervention.
Today, yes there is a foreign intervention. Those who are selling or giving arms to the Syrian regime, they are escalating the war and the tension. What happened in Qusayr is alarming, what happened in Aleppo is alarming, using Scud missiles is alarming, using air bombardment is alarming.
AJ: What will it take for Turkey to intervene militarily, unilaterally, in Syria? Your borders have already been breached a few times. Just a few months ago there was the bombing in Reyhanli and others.
AD: If there is any violation of our borders we will, of course, react, like what happened in Ras al-Ain last year. There was a clear violation of our border and our artillery has responded and cleaned the other side of the border. Reyhanli was a terrorist attack and we established certain linkages to the regime and we are collecting now the evidences and of course on the right moment we will respond with the right methods. But Turkey is a rule of law country, we are collecting all the evidence and when it has been clarified incident of course we have full right to respond. So, if there is such a violation it is our right to respond.
For humanitarian intervention or something like this, of course it’s not only Turkey’s responsibility, it’s the responsibility of the international community. We need to act together in order to stop this aggression and crimes against humanity.