Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor for The Washington Post.
In a hotel room in Davos, Switzerland, this past week, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu talked about the differences between his country and the United States over how to handle Syria and the Islamic State. Both nations agree that the two crises demand urgent action, but they part ways on priorities and tactics. They almost reached an agreement in December, but the deal fell apart. Davutoglu talked to The Washington Post about what happens next. Edited excerpts follow.
You marched in the Paris demonstration following the recent killings at Charlie Hebdo. Do you agree with French President François Hollande that there has to be a fight against Islamic terror?
The term “Islamic terror” is wrong. We never identify any terrorist activity with religious identity.
But they identified themselves . . .
They didn’t say they were Islamic terrorists.
So who were they?
They themselves claimed they had contacts with ISIS or al-Qaeda in Yemen. We are against this, but we are also against using terror and Islam together.
Hayat Boumeddiene, the partner of one of the French killers, escaped through Turkey into Syria. Is Turkey turning a blind eye?
There was no intelligence report on her coming from France to Turkey. Our police discovered this after they got the list of names and informed France that she could have come to Turkey. One day before the attack in Paris, there was a terrorist attack in Istanbul and a policeman was killed by a suicide bomber. So the police were on alert.
There is a lot of talk of strains over Syria policy between the U.S. and Turkey. About two years ago, your then Prime-Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushed the U.S. to create a no-fly zone. But it didn’t, and the Syrian opposition became weaker. Is Turkey now at odds with the U.S. administration? Isn’t the U.S. administration saying America’s priority is to fight ISIS, while Turkey says it is crucial to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fall?
In a potential crisis, if you don’t take necessary measures at the early stage, at a later stage you face much bigger problems. Yes, two years ago we were asking to have a no-fly zone . . . to allow the moderate Syrian opposition to have control in the north of Syria. If the opposition had been supported, there wouldn’t be the threat of ISIS.
Since we didn’t protect civilians or help the opposition, there was a tactical cooperation between the Assad regime and ISIS. When the Assad regime attacked opposition positions, [rebel] forces had to leave those towns and cities. The ISIS forces then occupied these towns. There was no fighting between the regime and ISIS until last summer. The presence of ISIS helped Assad to stay in power because everyone said there was a terrorist treat — it helped Assad legitimize himself in the eyes of the international community.
So what would you like to see the U.S. do?
Our position is that we need to have an integrated strategy for the future of Syria. If we eliminate ISIS without such a strategy, another terrorist organization will emerge.
Once again do you want a no-fly zone?
Of course. No more refugees.
Does that mean taking out Syrian antiaircraft weapons?If there is a strong message from the coalition that there should not be any more air bombardment, the Syrian regime will have to stop bombing civilians. The moderate opposition has to be trained and equipped to create a third alternative.
U.S. officials have said trained opposition fighters won’t be deployed until spring.
That is too late. We should not allow the Syrian people to be under two pressures — the regime and ISIS. A third option is needed — the moderate opposition. In that force, there should be no foreign fighters. Only Syrians should defend Syria. There have been foreign fighters on the regime side — Hezbollah, Shiite militias from Iraq and Iran. All foreign fighters should leave Syria.
Who is going to make them do that?
We have to strengthen the Syrian forces.
That would take a long time.
It would have been easier two years ago. But this is the only option.
Isn’t it too late?
What is the other option?
The U.S. wants to use your Incirlik Air Base to bomb ISIS, and Turkey has not given permission for this.
To use our air base, we want to see an integrated strategy — to create a no-fly zone and a safe haven for refugees so that there will be no more refugees in Turkey.
Reportedly, there were negotiations in December to give the U.S. and the coalition the right to use the base — and for Turkey to help in the fight against ISIS.
Yes, there was almost an agreement, and there is still a possible agreement. What we want is simple — we don’t want to see any refugee flow or air bombardment by the Syrian regime. We don’t want to see the presence of terrorist groups. The best way is to declare a safe haven.
It seems that the U.S. is saying that America’s priority is to defeat ISIS, not to defeat Assad.
We say both threats should be taken care of simultaneously. We have to have a strategy to defend the Syrian people against ISIS and the Assad regime simultaneously. We have 1.7 million refugees, and [while] 1.5 million escaped from Assad, only 200,000 escaped from ISIS. So if we want to have peace in Syria, we have only one criteria.
Get rid of Assad?
Yes. If 2 million refugees decide to go home one day, that is peace. Otherwise, eliminating ISIS will not bring peace to Syria. Refugees will stay in Turkey if they see Assad is sitting in power in Damascus. They know well that they will be killed if they go home.
At the same time, your government just hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is supporting Assad.
Yes, but we have a comprehensive economic relationship [with Russia]. We have energy cooperation.
More than 50 percent of your natural gas comes from Russia.
Around 65 percent of our natural gas.
Yet the Russians are strongly backing Assad.
The U.S. is talking to Russia — this is diplomacy.
Were you disappointed when President Obama drew a red line on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and then did not act when the regime used them?
Drawing a red line and not committing to it gives more courage to the aggressor. In those days when the U.S. administration requested our support to join the coalition of the willing against chemical weapons, we joined immediately. But the Syrian regime misused good intentions. Still they have a chemical weapons capacity. Nothing has changed. They killed 300,000 people, and there are [millions of internally displaced people as well as millions of refugees]. Still, Assad is in power. There are people who think he may remain in power after so many crimes against humanity. This is unacceptable.
How close is Aleppo to falling?
The moderate opposition is defending certain neighborhoods . But if the air bombardments continue, it will be difficult for them. If Aleppo falls, another 1 million refugees may come to Turkey.
Right now, coalition planes are flying side by side with Syrian planes — isn’t that so?
There is an agreement that they will not attack each other.
People in the U.S. are very critical of the treatment of journalists in Turkey.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there were 10 journalists in prison. They discovered that three of them had been released and the rest had been put in prison in the ’90s — one for killing a policeman and another for a shooting.
But the prosecutor went after Cumhuriyet, a Turkish newspaper, for printing the cartoon that was on the memorial issue of Charlie Hebdo.
Not only in Turkey but in many places, this was a provocation. I was in Paris to defend the right [of free speech]. But no one has the right to insult and to provoke the masses. It is a legal procedure. Even against Christians, no one can use provocative language.
Didn’t you go to Paris to celebrate freedom of the press?
It doesn’t mean I am defending insulting the prophet of a religion. There is no right to insult Islam or Muslims.
Turkey’s relations with Israel seem to be on a downward spiral. Is there any hope relations will be renewed?
We were very close in the spring of 2013, when [thanks to] the efforts of [President] Obama, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu apologized to Turkey [for Israel’s raid on a Turkish ship bound for Gaza]. But later they stopped the talks on compensation.