Erdoğan slams Russia for ‘grave mistake’ in Syria before key visit to Europe
DHA PhotoTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dubbed Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria “unacceptable” before embarking on a visit to Europe, where he will hold critical meetings with EU leaders that are expected to be dominated by the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Europe’s growing migration crisis.
“As Turkey, the steps that Russia is taking at the moment and the bombing campaign in Syria have no acceptable side,” Erdoğan told reporters at a press conference at the airport on Oct. 4 before departing for a two-day state visit to Belgium.
“Russia is at the moment making a grave mistake. This may be a sign of a step that will take it to loneliness in the region. The fact that it is taking these steps despite Turkey saddens us,” he said, adding that he conveyed his reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin over telephone “a few days ago.”
Moscow’s commencement of bombing raids in Syria could bring Russian warplanes to the very borders of NATO member Turkey, which is itself being used as a base for U.S. and allied air strikes. The dangers of unintended clashes and uncertainty over Russia’s intentions have raised concerns in Western capitals.
Tensions over Turkey’s stalled EU bid, a Turkish government corruption scandal and a cancelled visit by Erdoğan as prime minister in 2011 mean that Erdoğan will not be getting the red carpet welcome in Europe.
His visit comes only days before the official annual progress report is due to be published on Turkey’s EU membership bid and weeks before the country holds a snap election on Nov. 1.
The EU has been especially critical of the crackdown on the media in Turkey, which languishes far down global press freedom rankings. Scores of people have been investigated on accusations of insulting Erdoğan, who remains nonetheless Turkey’s most popular politician.
The president will visit Strasbourg, where he will attend a mass rally to “condemn terror,” as a spiral of violence has gripped Turkey since a two-and-a-half year long de facto non-conflict ended in July with renewed fight between security forces and militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Erdoğan was set to proceed to Brussels on the evening of Oct. 4 and his official contacts in the EU capital will be held on Oct. 4. As part of his bilateral visit, he will hold talks with Belgian King Philippe and Prime Minister Charles Michel as well as with the presidents of the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate.
On the EU front, Erdoğan will hold both separate meetings with European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and European Parliament President Michael Schulz.
During a dinner meeting, Erdoğan will join Tusk, Juncker and Schulz, with the meeting effectively turning into “a quartet mini summit.”
Concerns over Russia’s latest moves in Syria are likely to top the agenda of the mini summit.
Sources say the EU side may use the meetings as an opportunity for bargaining over Turkey-EU relations by asking the candidate country to shoulder further burden through accelerating implementation of the EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement in turn for facilitating the ongoing visa liberalization process.
Repeatedly explaining the insufficiency of assistance to deal with the hosting of more than two million Syrians, on which Ankara has already spent more than $7 billion, the Turkish side is expected use the meetings as an opportunity to insist on creating “safe zones” in northern Syria. The EU has not so far signaled any intention of agreeing on the safe zones idea.
“I wonder how many refugees there are in Russia and Iran. How many are there in Europe? There are 200,000. Now what are they telling us? ‘Make sure you don’t open your doors.’ Well, we will stay patient until a certain point,” Erdoğan said on Oct. 4.
EU diplomats in the Turkish capital Ankara believe that EU leaders will question Erdoğan about the escalation of PKK attacks since the June 7 parliamentary election, attacks on the Doğan Media Group, and the latest physical assault on journalist Ahmet Hakan, a columnist for daily Hürriyet and a TV show host on CNN Türk, both of which are owned by the Doğan Media Group. The group has repeatedly been criticized by Erdoğan and does not always follow the government line.
Earlier this week, Hakan, who has previously faced death threats, was hospitalized after sustaining injuries to his ribs and nose. A gang of four attacked him shortly after midnight outside his home in the upscale Nişantaşı district of Istanbul.
There has been growing concern about deteriorating press freedoms under Erdoğan, in particular over the number of journalists facing legal proceedings on accusations of insulting top officials.
Tensions have risen further as the government wages a relentless campaign against PKK militants, with officials accusing critical journalists of taking the side of “terrorists.”
Hakan has been the target of threats by pro-government media figures for his criticism of the government and had already asked for police protection.
Hürriyet headquarters were attacked twice last month by pro-government demonstrators who accused the paper of misquoting Erdoğan on his comments on Turkey’s recent unrest.