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Turkish Ambassador: Arming Syrian Rebels ‘Easier Said Than Done’

March 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Leaders of the opposition Syrian National Council met Friday with the Turkish foreign minister in Istanbul to call for opening a military bureau in Turkey to coordinate the resistance in Syria. Ray Suarez and Namik Tan, Turkey's ambassador to the United States, discuss Turkey's toughening stance against its longtime ally.
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RAY SUAREZ: Leaders of the opposition Syrian National Council met in Turkey today with that country’s foreign minister.

The council’s leader has called for opening a military bureau in Turkey to coordinate the resistance. Once a close ally and trading partner of Damascus, Ankara has have taken a tougher and tougher public stance against the Assad regime. Syrian officials can no longer enter Turkey. All transactions with Syria’s Central Bank have been cut off, and there are some 10,000 refugees along the two countries’ 500-mile border.

For more, we turn to Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Namik Tan.

Ambassador, welcome.

The Syrian army has entered Homs. There are reports of widespread arrests, even executions right on the street. Has your government made a formal reaction to Syria?

NAMIK TAN, Turkish Ambassador to the United States: Well, thank you first of all giving me this opportunity to express our views and thoughts on a very, very serious issue.

Turkey has, from the very beginning, shown a very strong reaction to the killings, to the atrocities, to the shelling of the cities, to the humanitarian disaster that has been caused by the unreasonable acts of the Syrian administration.Namik Tan, Turkey's ambassador to the United States

Actually, yes, from the very beginning, we had a principled stance on Syria. Syria has lost its chances to carry on the once, I think, a very meaningful relationship with Turkey. Why? Because it turned a blind eye to the demands of its own people.

We are for the people of Syria. Turkey has, from the very beginning, I think, shown a very strong reaction to the killings, to the atrocities, to the shelling of the cities, to the humanitarian disaster that has been caused by the, I think, unreasonable acts of the Syrian administration.

And for the time being, we have had no change in our position. It’s — I think it is a responsibility for us as the, I think, one of the most important neighbors of Syria, to try to protect the civilians.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it Turkey’s position now that there can be no future for Syria with Bashar al-Assad in charge?

NAMIK TAN: Well, I think it is almost over, I can say, because Syrian administration, from the very beginning, really, we could not understand why they did this. But they were quite reluctant to listen to we asked them to do.

RAY SUAREZ: There are some suggestions in tonight’s reports on our program that this is kill Grozny, perhaps another Srebrenica. Is it now a humanitarian disaster on that scale, in your view?

NAMIK TAN: Well — well, I haven’t been to the ground, so I don’t know the conditions there.

But from the recordings and from the reports that we receive from our sources in the region, the situation is very, very difficult. And I think it is — it can well be described as a disaster.

RAY SUAREZ: Last night on our program, one of the leaders of the Syrian National Council from Istanbul called for international help and called for weapons.

Is Turkey willing to help arm the Syrian resistance?

NAMIK TAN: Look, I think some of the things are easier said than done.

Of course, I know the first thing that we want to do is to protect the civilians. The humanitarian efforts are much more important than anything else at this moment. Military involvement is not in our agenda at the — for the time being.

RAY SUAREZ: Are you afraid of a humanitarian crisis spilling over into your country if people try to leave Syria?

NAMIK TAN: Well, actually, we are hosting around 10,000 Syrians in our country, in adjacent areas. Actually, it’s my hometown, Antakya.

And we will continue to host them as long as they need our help. That should be known. And we are able to just provide them the necessary needs. And I think, as much as we receive such demands, we will address them.

RAY SUAREZ: You say that military help is not on your agenda.

But you also note that you’re an important country in the region, a neighbor of Turkey, a rising power, a NATO member, one of the largest military forces in NATO. Isn’t Turkey uniquely prepared, more prepared than other neighbors of Syria, to help out in this regard?

NAMIK TAN: That is a good question.

Look, I think, the key word here is legitimacy. Legitimacy is more important than anything else. What I mean by legitimacy, there are two aspects of the legitimacy. One is the internal aspect. The other one is the international aspect.

The international aspect of course should be, I think, designed or engineered by the U.N. We don’t have any U.N. decision, resolution from the U.N. Security Council. We failed, as you know.

So, we should also have a legitimate — legitimacy, I think, domestically, which means I think should be, I think, full — full embracing, and I think powerful opposition which covers every aspect of the people in Syria. So, in both fronts, we have not gotten really quite at that stage yet.

RAY SUAREZ: But if, as you say, the U.N. is stuck, unable to move, does that just leave the people of Syria to their suffering if. . .

NAMIK TAN: No.

I think that’s why — that’s why we are trying to broaden the base of the international front. That’s why we were — I think we were critically involved and we were very instrumental in putting up this so-called Syrian — friends of Syrian people group, and it had a very, very successful meeting in Tunisia on Feb. 24.

And I think that’s one of the steps that we’re building on. That’s a platform that would create some legitimacy. That’s what we are trying to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Syria, as you note, not only is a neighbor of Turkey, but also of Iraq, of Jordan, of Lebanon, of Israel. It is in a very, very tense spot in the neighborhood.

NAMIK TAN: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Is an unstable Syria dangerous to everybody in the Eastern Mediterranean?

NAMIK TAN: Absolutely. I cannot agree more.

I mean, let’s call it, not dangerous — but I think it’s dangerous for the stability and I think peace in the region, which we need most in that volatile region. Look at the region, I mean, very carefully. There are enormous challenges. I mean, you talked about Iraq. We have, as you said, the entire Middle East, the Arab spring.

So, if you put them together, this, I think, crisis, we don’t need.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Tan, thank you very much for joining us.

NAMIK TAN: I thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. Thank you so much.