Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad criticized Turkey’s military campaign in northern Syria and depicted the Turkish military presence in his country as an occupation.
“First of all, this is an aggression, this is an occupation. Any single Turkish soldier on Syrian soil represents occupation,” Assad told the Greek Kathimerini newspaper in an interview published on Thursday.
“That doesn’t mean the Turkish people are our enemies. Only a few days ago, a political delegation visited from Turkey. We have to distinguish between the Turks in general and [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” he said.
The Syrian president’s hold on to power only a few years ago appeared in tatters but later he managed to reverse the tide of events on the battlespace with the help of Russia and Iran. During the interview, he dwelt on an array of issues concerning Syria’s conflict-ridden relations with its northern neighbor. He ascribed the blame mostly on Islamist ideology of President Erdogan whom he once cultivated cordial friendship.
“Erdogan is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood,” the Syrian leader said.
As social upheavals swept the political landscape in many Middle Eastern countries during Arab Spring, Syria was also shaken by protests against the Assad regime in March 2011. What started as peaceful demonstrations later morphed into an armed uprising after the brutal response of the government forces against protesters.
Turkey first urged Assad to enact reforms and a new constitution for a plural political system. Erdogan tried to use his friendship with the Syrian leader to nudge him for reforms. But his persistent calls went unheeded in Damascus.
After August 2011, Ankara openly began to call on Assad to step down to allow a political transition. Assad simply ignored such demands and portrayed Turkey’s efforts as meddling in its internal affairs.
When things quickly escalated into a full-blown civil conflict, Turkey began to back armed rebels against the Assad regime.
In the interview, Assad argued that Erdogan is implementing the U.S. agenda against his country. He claimed that Turkey, under Erdogan’s leadership, was supporting “terrorists” from the very beginning.
While the West appears to be irked by the emergence of radical groups, such as Islamic State (ISIS), in the anarchy of the Syrian civil war, they don’t share Assad’s portrayal of rebel groups as “terrorists.”
Once adamant in its demand for removal of Assad from power, Ankara later shifted its focus to contain the expansion of the Syrian Kurdish militia along its southern border. In his remarks, President Erdogan even telegraphed an intention to work with Damascus again against the Kurdish militants Ankara deems terrorists due to their affiliation with an outlawed Kurdish organization that has fought against Turkey for decades.