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With Assad on the brink, the Conscience Convoy highlights the plight of women in his jails

The Conscience Convoy in Istanbul, Turkey on March 1, 2018 [Yvonne Ridley/Middle East Monitor]
The Conscience Convoy in Istanbul, Turkey on March 1, 2018 [Yvonne Ridley/Middle East Monitor]

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a blistering attack on world leaders from East to West on Wednesday as he met an international delegation of women in a demonstration of solidarity for the Conscience Convoy heading through his country towards the Syrian border. From Bashar Al-Assad — “a war criminal” — to the US President, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Iran and most European and Arab leaders, very few were left unscathed by his salvo of searing comments directed at one and all for their inaction over Syria as well as other conflict zones in the Middle East.

Erdoğan called for change and a “New World Order” by pointing out that the world is greater than the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which have continually blocked and vetoed proposals intended to end the violence. Organisations like the UN, and in particular its Security Council, were also targeted in the scathing attack by the Turkish President, who is clearly frustrated at the lack of determination to bring an end to the seemingly endless wars across the region. He also lambasted the five-hour ceasefire in operation in Eastern Ghouta.

Almost in passing, he also raised eyebrows when he wondered aloud if the number of US military bases established inside Syria should they be taken as a sign that America plans to attack Turkey. It was a question, he told us, that he had put to US President Donald Trump. From his reaction, Erdoğan deduced that “Trump was not aware of this.”

The portrayal of the US leader provided by Erdoğan was that he is a man kept in the dark by his own generals. Indeed, the generals themselves, not only Trump and his advisors, apparently know very little about the politics, the cultures, the history or the peoples of the region, he added.

Read: Women around the world mobilise for Syria

As far as a journalist is concerned, President Erdoğan’s speech was a bevy of riches, with headline quotes thrown out rapidly like machine gun fire; so much so, in fact, that when I ran out of paper First Lady Ermine Erdoğan passed her own notepad to me.

Perhaps it was the conversation that the Turkish leader had had with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin the night before our meeting in the Presidential Palace in Ankara which had stoked Erdoğan’s fiery rhetoric. He explained that he was also due to speak to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by telephone after our meeting and revealed that all three would be meeting on 4 April for talks.

The Conscience Convoy in Istanbul, Turkey on March 1, 2018 [Yvonne Ridley/Middle East Monitor]

The Conscience Convoy in Istanbul, Turkey on March 1, 2018 [Yvonne Ridley/Middle East Monitor]

His speech on the eve of International Women’s Day showed the Turkish President to be a man clearly frustrated on several levels. While we were not privy to the content of his high level talks with Moscow or Tehran, it is obvious that he blames the Iranians for continuing to support the Assad regime.

However, the fact that he omitted to mention Russia in this unconditional support prompts us to ask if Putin is now reviewing Moscow’s friendship with Bashar Al-Assad. Could Russia be reviewing its position, with Assad appearing to be more of a liability because of what Erdoğan called his “terrorist actions”? Citing the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons, he insisted that it is pointless “beating about the bush” before adding that “Assad should be declared a war criminal.” In his opinion, “Assad is on the brink of being ignored by the entire world.”

I asked about Turkey’s role as a peace broker in a region of turmoil and, again, President Erdoğan attacked Assad as well as his late father, blaming his legacy for fuelling terrorist activities and sectarianism. On hearing that I am from Britain, he turned his attention to the West and added that pressure should be applied to Prime Minister Theresa May over her continued role in offering unconditional support to the US and its coalition forces.

He then offered his audience some refugee statistics, including details of the 3.5 million given shelter in Turkey and of the appalling treatment meted out to those who “travelled to the gates of the European countries.” He contrasted and compared how refugees were treated in Turkey with how he “watched in shame” at the way that the Syrian refugees were treated in “countries that like to talk about human rights and democracy at every opportunity.” He accused the international community of being driven purely by “dollars and oil.”

The Turkish leader reserved his greatest criticism for the ongoing ceasefire arranged in Eastern Ghouta. He called it “a joke” and lambasted the Gulf countries, Russia, Iran, the US and Saudi Arabia for “working together to get a ceasefire and all they could manage was five hours. It’s degrading. A five hour ceasefire is futile.”

Erdoğan spoke about his long term plans for creating a safe zone in Northern Syria, something which he says he had discussed previously with the Obama administration in Washington and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Clearly exasperated by a lack of progress to his proposals, he accused the West and Gulf countries of being more obsessed by “dimes and dollars spent on armaments” instead of investing in his safe zone proposals which would encourage refugees to return to their native land. What’s more, he also pledged to rebuild Afrin, including schools and hospitals, to encourage the residents to return when Turkey has concluded its military operation there.

Read: Bosnian women set off for all-women convoy in Turkey

Delving back into history he then mentioned the five million massacred in Algiers and described how the former colonial powers had plundered Africa for its oil, previous stones and gold without re-investing in any of the countries involved. The President then spoke about the genocide in Bosnia and specifically Srebrenica before laying blame on the Netherlands for allowing the atrocity to unfold on their watch in the “heart of Europe”.

In a wide-ranging speech, he made special mention of the Trump Presidency and revealed his surprise at discovering that the US President was on the brink of forging an alliance with the terrorist YPG and PYD Kurdish groups. “I told Trump, if you want to fight Daesh you cannot use another terrorist organisation to destroy it.”

Drawing on his own experience, he told us how he had cut ties with Assad and his family when he saw the extent of the tyranny of the regime and urged the US to do the same with the Kurdish groups designated as terrorist organisations by Turkey.

#WomensDay

Referring to Jerusalem as “the capital of Palestine” Erdoğan also found time to criticise the international community’s biased treatment of Israel, citing UN resolutions which are ignored continually by Tel Aviv. He was quick to point out that 128 countries around the world supported Turkey in condemning the US proposal to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the American Embassy there.

“Not one country stood next to the US, apart from seven with populations of less than two thousand,” he pointed out. “This shows the US that being strong does not necessarily mean being right. The world is greater than the five countries in the Security Council.”

His overall message — after the stinging criticism — was one of unity and strength. Clearly moved by some of the personal testimonies of Syrian women present at the meeting and words from women from Srebrenica, he hinted that he would add his weight to the Conscience Convoy’s efforts to get women released from Assad’s prisons in Syria.

This was a positive note upon which thousands of women from 55 different nations left Ankara to gather on the Syrian border on International Women’s Day. They are calling for the Syrian President to release all women prisoners being held by his regime, thought to number around 7,000 along with 400 children. Our mothers, sisters and daughters must know that they are not forgotten, and take heart that so many women from around the world are determined to bring their plight to the attention of the international community.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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