LONDON (Reuters) – Turkey said on Friday anti-government fighters in Syria were at a disadvantage because they weren’t properly armed, and stopped just short of calling for a European Union arms embargo to be lifted.
In some of his strongest comments on the subject so far, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he had discussed the embargo barring delivery of all arms to Syria with Britain and Germany.
Turkey, which shares a 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria, is seen as a pivotal player in backing the Syrian opposition and in planning for the era after Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
“If there was international support … or a common stance against certain war crimes, I don’t think there would be a need for arming the rebels,” Davutoglu told reporters during a visit to Britain, saying he thought such pressure would topple Assad.
But the minister said he had discussed the status of the embargo with British Foreign Secretary William Hague as well as with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who has publicly defended the embargo.
When asked to say if he favored lifting the embargo, Davutoglu said: “If one side only has weapons at the end of the day the side which has weapons in their hands have all the opportunities to kill the other side.”
Likening the Syrian conflict to the 1992-95 Bosnian war, he suggested the world should not repeat the same mistakes it made then.
“In Bosnia they were looking for weapons from anyone to defend their homes. Now the same thing is happening in Syria,” he said. “For three years, we have the green light to Milosevic, Mladic and Karadzic to continue killing people.”
An EU embargo prevents weapons being supplied to Syria’s rebels, but sanctions have been amended in recent weeks to allow more non-lethal equipment, prompting Britain to expand the scale and scope of its aid to the Syrian opposition.
One of the issues which has made many countries wary of lifting the embargo is the presence of Islamist fighters among the Syrian opposition and a perception that radical Islamist influence is on the rise within their ranks.
But Davutoglu played down those fears, saying neither Libya nor Egypt had embraced radical Islam despite predictions to the contrary.
“They are at war,” he said of the Syrian anti-government fighters. “They are going to die. There are always religious slogans in war.”
Turkey hosts almost 400,000 Syrian refugees and has been hit by shell fire from the conflict next door. It has repeatedly criticized Assad, a former ally, saying he should step down.
Comparing Assad to late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, Davutoglu made it clear his country’s patience was wearing thin.
“We are feeling the heat every day, it’s not a question of long-term planning,” he said, adding there was a need for “urgent action”.
Providing for the needs of Syrian refugees had cost around $600 million so far, an amount Ankara had not expected, and Turkey still had no idea how much longer the situation would continue.
“People are suffering on the ground and Turkey is paying the bill,” he added.
(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Andrew Heavens)