Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has called on the Turkish government to engage with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, amid the Turkish military’s ongoing operation in Afrin.
“The way to make peace between Turkey and Syria, to create rapprochement between the two countries and to jointly focus on maintaining [Syria’s] territorial integrity is [to establish] dialogue between Turkey and Syria. We should engage with Syria one way or another if we do not want terror organizations finding shelter in this country,” Kılıçdaroğlu told the Ankara bureau chiefs of media outlets on Jan. 29.
“We believe that steps need to be taken to mending ties with Syria,” he added.
Ankara cut off political ties with Damascus in late 2011 after al-Assad opted to harshly crack down on opposition groups through military means.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s call came on the 10th day of the Turkish military’s “Operation Olive Branch” into northern Syria against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The CHP has announced its support to the operation but has also reiterated criticism of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) policies since the beginning of turmoil in Syria in March 2011. Kılıçdaroğlu accused the AKP of jumping into what he calls “the Middle East swamp” by intervening into Syria’s internal affairs, accusing the government of helping the YPG gain international legitimacy in the early stages of the Syrian civil war.
“Wasn’t it you who hosted Salih Muslim in Ankara on red carpets?” Kılıçdaroğlu asked, referring to the former head of the PYD who was a frequent visitor to Ankara before mid-2015.
“Who is responsible for those killed during the Afrin operation? Who hosted the PYD? If you don’t acknowledge it as a terror organization, the United States will not accept it either. You then changed your mind and designated it as a terrorist group but the U.S. has not done the same. It was your policy that created this trouble,” the CHP leader stated.
Army’s success should not be overshadowed by FSA
Kılıçdaroğlu also voiced discomfort with the fact that the operation is being carried out with the participation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), drawn from various opposition groups mainly of Sunni Arabs and Turkmens.
“We have an army, a heroic army. It fights under difficult conditions. But we are here in a sense transferring the heroism of our army to the FSA. Why? What is this FSA? We are disturbed by the fact that our army is associated with this group,” he said.
His remarks followed CHP deputy Öztürk Yılmaz’s statement that the FSA is “partially made up of jihadist terrorists” including al-Qaeda and al-Nusra militants.
CHP considering visit to Damascus
Meanwhile, Kılıçdaroğlu revealed that he plans to visit to Damascus in the coming period, in order to help restore broken ties between Turkey and Syria.
“We are evaluating [a possible visit to Damascus]. We attach importance to the opening of contact mechanisms between Turkey and the central government for bilateral ties,” CHP leader told. He did not reveal any details of when such a visit would be possible and whether it would involve a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The CHP has previously deployed similar delegations to regional countries with which Ankara’s ties are severely strained, including Iraq and Egypt.
Pro-peace groups under pressure
Kılıçdaroğlu also criticized legal and administrative measures against dissidents calling on the government to end the operation in Syria.
“There is clear pressure on those who have different views regarding the Afrin operation. Many have been detained for saying ‘No to War.’ One cannot talk about democracy in a country where expressing thoughts is not allowed,” he said.
‘Afrin op should not be used for snap election’
Kılıçdaroğlu reiterated his expectation that the government could opt to call early presidential and parliamentary elections this year, warning that “Operation Olive Branch” must not be “politicized” for political gain.
“Early polls are likely. But I must say that using the Afrin operation in an early election would not be right. This operation is being carried by the army of this people, not by the AKP. This is the struggle of Turkey,” he said.