The prime minister, who has been one of Assad’s harshest critics, called on Russia, China and Iran to change their stance on the crisis in Syria and said history won’t forgive those who allow a massacre to go on unabated.
The United States, European allies, Turkey and Gulf Arab states have sided with the Syrian opposition while Iran, Russia and China have backed Assad, whose family and minority Alawite sect have dominated Syria for 42 years.
Erdoğan addressed thousands of delegates in a sports arena on Sunday at which his ruling AK Party is laying the groundwork for what it hopes will be its continued domination of Turkish politics in the years ahead.
In his lengthy speech, the Turkish prime minister touted the rising power’s regional stature and strong economic growth and celebrated a decade of electoral success for his ruling party.
His speech also touched on a vast array of issues from domestic politics to foreign policy, from relations with Israel to domestic civilian-military relations, but as one loyal AK Party activist said privately, “He did not say anything new.”
Erdoğan is scheduled to pick new officials to guide his AK Party in local, presidential and general elections in the next three years and announce policy goals for 2023, when the country will celebrate its centenary.
The congress is being held amid an increase in attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and challenges presented by the war in neighboring Syria.
Thousands of visitors flocked to the Ankara Arena sports hall in the early hours of the day to attend the fourth ordinary congress of the party, which attracted 40,000 people, including hundreds of reporters, delegates and foreign visitors.
The AK Party wants to turn the convention into a major show of solidarity among the party rank and file while luring as many as 80 foreign dignitaries, including Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Massoud Barzani and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
Yemeni Nobel peace laureate Tawakul Karman and the mother and sister of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who triggered the Arab Spring when he set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, attended Sunday’s congress as guests of honor.
The congress is being translated into English, French, Russian, Portuguese and Arabic for foreign participants and events are live outside the sports hall on a large screen for those who cannot get in. Turkish TV channels are also broadcasting the congress live.
Shortly after he started his historic speech, Erdoğan mentioned the names of incumbent and former leaders of states to salute them.
Among the list of the dignitaries Erdoğan saluted were Morsi; Barzani; Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal; Iraq’s fugitive Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi; Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister İrsen Küçük; Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province; former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder; and Rashid al-Ghannushi, the leader of the Tunisian moderate Islamic party known as the Ennahda Movement.
Meshaal stood out as the most applauded foreign guest as the prime minister saluted him.
In his speech, Erdoğan emphasized how his government has improved Turkey’s democratic standards and protected the rights of every citizen living within its borders in the decade-long AK Party rule.
“Before we [the AK Party] came to power [in 2002], there was no economic stability, no safety, no democracy in this country,” Erdoğan said in his address to the roughly 40,000 party members that filled the sports hall.
“The era of coups in this country will never return again,” Erdoğan said amid applause. “Anyone who intervenes or tries to intervene in democracy will sooner or later go in front of the people’s courts and be made to account,” he added.
Earlier this month, a court sentenced more than 300 military officers to long prison terms for attempting to topple the government in 2003 in a coup plan called Sledgehammer.
Erdoğan said his party was an inspiration to all Muslim nations.
“In a country where the majority is Muslim, we let democracy rule in its most advanced form and became an example for all Muslim countries,” Erdoğan told an audience that included Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, who later addressed the crowd, praising Turkey’s achievements.
Many people applauded Erdoğan enthusiastically and some were moved to tears.
The increasing acts of violence by the terrorist PKK was also on Erdoğan’s agenda.
“We have been alone in our fight against terrorism, in our process of democratization,” the prime minister said, inviting the main opposition parties — the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — to solve the long-standing Kurdish question together with the AK Party.
“We are determined to solve the [Kurdish] issue despite provocations and attrition campaigns against the government,” the prime minister further stated, adding that terrorism in Turkey is supported by both internal and external forces. Erdoğan also criticized those who capitalize on terrorism.
“The Kurdish question can be solved not by those who hug terrorists, but those who hug the nation,” he said, referring to a video showing deputies from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and a group of terrorists from the PKK chatting and hugging one another in the Şemdinli district of the southeastern province of Hakkari.
Recent attacks on Islam’s sacred values and the Prophet Muhammad were also on the receiving end of criticism in Erdoğan’s speech.
Erdoğan spoke in reference to the California-made anti-Islam film that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad and has recently sparked a series of violent protests in Arab countries, resulting in numerous deaths including those of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
“Insulting the sacred values of a religion cannot be considered protected within the scope of freedom of expression and thought,” Erdoğan said, adding that Islamophobia is a crime against humanity.
On the subject of the nation’s finances, Erdoğan said Turkey will clear its remaining $1.3 billion of debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) by next April.
In the past the Turkish government relied on IMF loans to meet financial shortfalls, but it has managed to do without the aid since 2008. It has been gradually reducing its debts to the fund, which stood at $1.9 billion in late May.
“We took over $23.5 billion of debt. As of now we have $1.3 billion of debt and we will cut this to zero in April. We are holding technical discussions now,” Erdoğan told party members and supporters.
Turkey’s last standby agreement with the fund was in 2005 and expired in May 2008.
The party leader also touched upon Turkey’s policies towards Israel and Armenia in his historic speech.
Turkey will not restore relations with Israel unless the country apologizes for the Mavi Marmara deaths, Erdoğan said.
The alliance between the Jewish state and Turkey fell apart after the Israeli military raid in May 2010 of the Mavi Marmara ship headed for the blockaded Gaza Strip carrying humanitarian aid, which killed eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish American.
Israel denied wrongdoing after the flotilla attack and offered statements of regret, rather than contrition.
Concerning relations with Armenia, Erdoğan said, “Armenians, Armenia and those who stand by them both inside and outside Turkey must know that until the rights of Azerbaijanis are fulfilled, Turkey’s position on Armenia won’t change.”
Erdoğan is running for the party leadership for the last time as party guidelines bar members from holding posts for more than three consecutive terms. But Erdoğan is widely expected to run for presidential elections in 2014 when, observers say, he could hand over the party’s reins to a trusted confidant and retain some control over both the running of the party and government.
The prime minister has said he favors changing Turkey’s political system to a strong presidential one similar to that of the United States, although opposition leaders have balked at the idea of an all-powerful presidency.
The AK Party swept to power in 2002 on the heels of an economic crisis and went on to win elections by commanding margins in 2007 and 2011. It has maintained the country’s system of secular politics, but undercut the political power of the military, which has staged three coups since the 1960s and forced an Islamist government out of office in 1997.