Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad accused Turkey of giving logistical backing to Syrian “terrorists” and told Ankara to stop meddling in his country’s affairs in an interview published on Wednesday.
Assad also accused the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of being “two-faced” for pursuing a sectarian agenda in the region and trying to persuade Damascus to introduce political reforms while ignoring the killings and democratic shortfalls in different Arab states.
“With his desire from the beginning to interfere in our internal affairs, unfortunately, in the subsequent period he has made Turkey a party to all the bloody acts in Syria,” the Cumhuriyet newspaper quoted Assad as saying.
“Turkey has given all kinds of logistical support to the terrorists killing our people,” Assad said in the second part of an interview published on Wednesday.
Speaking to another Turkish newspaper, Vatan, on his way back from Egypt on Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu dismissed Assad’s comments as lies and said he did not believe the Syrian leader had any such regrets.
While the West never had solid relations with Syria, Turkey cultivated close ties with its southern neighbor in the past decade. Erdogan even addressed Assad in Damascus as “my brother” and the two were photographed meeting up during holidays.
But as Syria’s president continued to ignore Turkish calls for restraint in dealing with an uprising against his government and pressed his attacks on protesters, the two leaders fell out and the diplomatic tension took on a personal dimension.
Erdogan has since called for the authoritarian Assad - in power since 2000 - to step down and has compared his crackdown on opponents with the practices of Nazi Germany - some of the strongest words of any major leader on Syria.
Turkey now hosts rebels from the Free Syrian Army fighting Assad’s security forces, allowing them to cross over the border freely and giving them logistical support. But Ankara denies it is arming the rebels.
There are also more than 35,000 Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey along the 900-km (560-mile)-long Syrian border.
Asked about the political reforms Erdogan wanted Damascus to implement, Assad said he had already started to introduce changes days after the protests first started and said the Turkish leader was displaying “double standards”.
“If you go and ask Erdogan now, again he will say ‘reform’. However, if he was sincere he would have said the things he is saying now during our meetings in 2004. Now he is talking about all these reforms,” Assad told Cumhuriyet.
“There is a double standard here.”
Assad said Erdogan was pursuing a sectarian agenda in the Middle East.
The Syrian president added that the whole Arab world had changed its view of the Turkish prime minister and were questioning his reliability.
“For example, by crying for the Syrian people in a two-faced manner, why isn’t he also crying for those dying in the Gulf countries? Why isn’t he interfering in those countries’ problems with democracy?” Assad said.
A third part of the interview will be published in Cumhuriyet on Thursday.
In the first part of the interview with Cumhuriyet, Assad said he regretted that his country’s defense forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet on June 22, but still insisted the plane was in Syrian airspace.
“I would have wished 100 percent that we had not attacked it,” he said two weeks after the F-4 Phantom jet on a training mission was shot at and crashed into the Mediterranean, off Syria.
But he said the plane was flying at a low altitude and in an air corridor used in the past by the Israeli planes to attack Syria.
He also insisted the plane was in Syrian airspace, and not international airspace as maintained by Ankara.
Russia backs Assad’s version of events
An unnamed Russian source was quoted on Tuesday by Interfax news agency saying that the Turkish fighter jet shot down by Syria last month was asking for trouble when it entered Syrian airspace.
“The actions of the Turkish plane were no doubt a provocation. Otherwise how would you explain the fact that the fighter jet flew two, albeit short, sorties in the Syrian airspace?
“The crew had to have only one motive for such actions- to test the combat readiness of the Syrian air defense systems and it indeed tested them. And also to conduct a reconnaissance of the strength and capabilities of the Syrian air defense systems in the coastal direction,” it said.
The source quoted by Interfax did not make clear where the information came from.
“In any case, the crew on the Turkish Phantom have tried hard to literally ask for the Syrian air defenses’ fire,” the source was quoted as saying.
Turkey viewed the loss of its fighter jet as a hostile act and has taken steps to fortify its border with Syria.
Syrian general gets refuge in Turkey
A Syrian general from an engineering division defected to the opposition rebels and fled to Turkey on Wednesday, bringing the number of such top ranking officers given refuge on Turkish soil to 16, Free Syrian Army officials said.
A total of 66 people fled into Turkey from Syria on Wednesday, including the general and two colonels as well as soldiers and their families, the diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Turkey now hosts some 250 officers who have defected to the FSA in its southern Hatay province and helps them with logistical support, though Ankara denies providing them with weapons.
The FSA officials, who declined to be named, said the number of officers defecting was rising daily as it became harder for them to avoid involvement in the conflict and due to their reluctance to be involved in the shelling of towns and villages.