Erdogan set to cut all Turkey's ties with Syria

Prime minister accuses Assad of lying as Turkey says it will allow Syrian opposition groups to set up offices on Turkish soil and will open up refugee camps to media scrutiny.

Members of the Syrian opposition living in Turkey wave Syrian and Turkish flags as they stage a protest against the Syrian regime outside the United Nations headquarters in Ankara. ADEM ALTAN / AFP PHOTO
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ISTANBUL // Turkey moved closer yesterday to cutting all bilateral ties with the beleaguered Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad,

The Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly accused the Syrian president of lying, and said Ankara would allow the Syrian opposition to open an official office on Turkish soil.

The further widening of the rift between the former allies follows Mr Erdogan's announcement that Turkey was working with the United States to prepare sanctions against Syria, and the interception last week by Turkish authorities of a ship carrying weapons for Damascus.

Talking about Mr Assad to Turkish reporters as he flew back from the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Mr Erdogan said: "He lied continuously.

"I asked him how many political prisoners there were. He told me 83 and said 'I can send you a list'. But I found out from various other sources that there are thousands of political prisoners.

"He says, 'I will lift the state of emergency', but he is not serious. He attacks Latakia from the sea. Freedom for political parties has not come about either."

The statements were the latest examples for the deterioration of ties between Turkey and Syria, two neighbours who co-operated closely in recent years and even held joint cabinet meetings.

During his visit to New York, Mr Erdogan announced that he had broken off all direct contacts with Mr Al Assad, whose regime is trying to crush an uprising that began in March. Almost 3,000 people have been killed by pro-government forces, according to UN estimates.

After the outbreak of protests in Syria, Mr Erdogan's government spent several months trying to convince Mr Al Assad to introduce political reforms. The prime minister made several phone calls to the Syrian president to deliver that message. Turkey's efforts broke down when Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, failed to secure an end to the violence during a visit to Damascus last month.

Since then, Ankara has toughened its rhetoric and strengthened its support for the Syrian opposition, which has held several meetings in Turkey. Mr Erdogan told reporters on his plane that the opposition would open an office in Turkey "within a week".

Mehmet Sahin, an expert at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (Orsam), a think tank in Ankara, wrote in an analysis that Turkey trusted Mr Assad at the start of the upheaval, but had drawn its conclusions from the fact that its initial response failed to stop the violence.

"In the early days of the actions by the Syrian opposition, Turkey thought that Bashar Al Assad would be able to lead the country to reforms," Dr Sahin wrote on the Orsam website. But today Turkey had "lost its belief in the Assad government, which is increasing pressure and violence against the opposition every day".

The Turkish prime minister has not publicly called for Mr Assad's resignation, but he used an interview with CNN on Saturday to make it clear that Ankara does not expect the Syrian president to remain in power for long.

"You can never remain in power through cruelty," Mr Erdogan told the US cable news channel. "This process might be extended a little bit more but sooner or later in Syria, if people take a different decision, that decision is going to be catered to. Such as in Egypt, such as in Tunisia, such as in Libya. People want to be free. Dictatorial systems are burning down to the ground."

Mr Erdogan wants to raise the pressure on Syria by visiting the camps for Syrian refugees in the Turkish border province of Hatay. He told reporters on his plane that the camps, which have been closed to reporters so far, would be opened to the media. "If we open the camps for the world, people will explain the truth to the whole world."

The prime minister said the opening of the camps to the media was "the most important step" of Turkish actions against the regime in Damascus. "Syria is very concerned about this," he said. The camps house about 7,500 Syrian refugees at present, according to the Turkish foreign ministry. No date for Mr Erdogan's visit has been set.

Ankara has been angered by recent reports in Syrian state media alleging that dozens of women in the refugee camps had been raped by Syrians and by Turks. "The message relayed by such news sets a matchless example of dark propaganda, lie and maliciousness," the foreign ministry in Ankara said.