BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad took direct aim at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday in the second part of an interview with a Turkish newspaper, signaling the latest escalation of the nasty war of words between officials of the two formerly allied nations.
The Syrian leader said Erdogan, his former “brother,” had “changed” and was determined to incite sectarian tensions and interfere in Syria, an Arab nation in a region where Arabs have historically been wary of Turkey’s ambitions.
“Erdogan went beyond being a friend and brother, and he began to meddle in our domestic affairs,” Assad told the Cumhuriyet daily. This "has unfortunately made Turkey take sides in all the bloody events taking place in Syria at this time. Turkey has given all kinds of logistical support to the terrorists who are killing our people.”
The Turkish area along the country's border with Syria has become a haven for rebels fighting Assad's rule, but Turkey has denied arming the insurgents or facilitating weapons transfers into Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, meanwhile, fired back at Assad, telling the Turkish daily Vatan that Assad should not remain in power “for one more day,” according to a report by the Today’s Zaman newspaper.
The Turkish foreign minister also charged that the Syrian leader was “living in a world of fantasy” by imagining that his administration could survive a United Nations-brokered political transition plan for Syria hammered out by diplomats in Geneva last weekend.
“Assad still thinks that he can fix everything,” Davutoglu said, “while even in Geneva people are talking about a post-Assad era.”
Turkey’s top diplomat cast doubt on the sincerity of Assad’s expressed regret about the Turkish jet downed by Syria last month off the Syrian coast. He dismissed the Syrian leader’s assertion that his military mistook the jet for an Israeli warplane.
In the first installment of the interview, Assad lamented the shoot-down, but defended the action and issued no apology.
Meanwhile, Turkish media reported Wednesday that the bodies of the two missing Air Force pilots had been discovered on the sea bed of the eastern Mediterranean. Efforts were continuing to retrieve the remains, the Turkish military said.
During the past decade, Turkey forged close ties with Syria, a trend initially accelerated under Erdogan’s leadership. Turkey, a NATO member with global ambitions, has been keen to improve relations with the Arab world, where the longtime occupation under Turkey's Ottoman rulers left a legacy of mistrust.
When Syrians rose against Assad last year, Turkey urged Syria's leadership to act with restraint. But Erdogan later likened Assad’s crackdown to Nazi-era repression, broke off diplomatic relations and called on Assad to step down.
Following Syria’s downing of the Turkish jet on June 22, Erdogan labeled Syria “a clear and imminent threat” and denounced Assad as “a bloody dictator.” The blunt rhetoric has clearly rankled Assad, whose office invited the Turkish media to Damascus to hear the Syrian leader’s viewpoint.
“I have to say that in his [Erdogan’s] speeches he overstepped all boundaries of decorum and respect; in fact, he overstepped the boundaries that exist between two politicians or two people,” Assad commented.
Assad accused the Turkish prime minister of pursuing a sectarian agenda in the region. Sunni Muslims, the majority populations in Syria and Turkey, are spearheading the rebellion against a Syrian administration led by Assad and fellow members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“For example, why does he [Erdogan] hypocritically cry for the people of Syria yet not shed a tear for those who are killed in the Gulf countries?" Assad asked, in an apparent reference to crackdowns targeting Shiites in the Sunni-dominated monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
The third part of Assad’s interview with Cumhuriyet is scheduled to be published on Thursday.
Photo: A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, during an interview with a journalist from the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet in Damascus. Credit: Syrian Arab New Agency / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.