News of Soleimani's death shocked us, Erdoğan says

The news of Qasem Soleimani's death shocked Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said, adding that the assassination was carried out a couple of hours after he held a phone call with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump. "It's very clear that Qasem Soleimani proved himself and was exceptionally valued by Khamanei," Erdoğan said, adding that "this won't end here, there will be a follow-up process."

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that the news of Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Lieutenant General Qasem Soleimani's death shocked Turkish officials.

In a televised interview on Jan. 5, Erdoğan said that he talked to U.S. President Donald Trump over the phone just hours before Soleimani was killed.

"What's interesting is that I talked to Trump that night and this happened four or five hours later. It means that this was planned. We were shocked to hear the news," Erdoğan said.

"I told Trump that tensions with Iran shouldn't be increased," he added.

Soleimani, the architect of Tehran’s overseas clandestine and military operations, was killed on Jan. 3 in a U.S. airstrike on his convoy at Baghdad airport.

'This won't end here'

During the interview, Erdoğan said that Turkey follows the risks posed by the assassination on the region's peace and stability with deep concern.

"Because this won't end here, there will be a follow-up process," he said, adding that tension between Iran and the U.S. increases from time to time over various incidents.

"We have been showing serious efforts as Turkey in order for this tension to be kept under control, decreased and left behind via diplomacy and we are still working on that," Erdoğan said.

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Saying that no solution could be found to the tensions despite all efforts and international initiatives, the Turkish President noted that the crisis has started to escalate once again, but this time through Iraq.

"Selection of Iraq is rather meaningful," he said, adding that making Iraq a battlefield would harm the region's peace and stability.

"We are acting together with Iran and Russia in the Astana process. In addition, we have a 350-kilometer-long border with Iraq," Erdoğan said, referring to the Astana peace process aimed at ending the Syrian conflict.

Erdoğan noted that Turkey has always been against foreign intervention in the region, adding that the country perceives Soleimani's assassination from this perspective.

"Tensions that began with attacks on some U.S. targets in Iraq, meaning the embassy, have reached a critical level with the U.S. operation that killed Qasem Soleimani," he said, while pointing to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's remarks on getting the top commander's revenge.

"No one should ignore Khamanei's statements. Moreover, Trump said that they determined more than 50 spots to attack in case anything happens. This tension needs to be brought under control before it reaches a point where all sides will be harmed," Erdoğan said.

Erdoğan calls for restraint

In the interview, Erdoğan said that the Middle East is weary.

"They've been and still doing everything they can to turn the Middle East into a blood bath," he added, before going on to list foreign presence in the region.

"You see that the U.S. is in the region. It seriously invested weapons here and has bases [in Syria]. When you look at western Euphrates, Russia is there. When we go south, the regime is there via the support it got from the U.S., Iran and Russia," Erdoğan said.

Stressing the need for restraint in the face of recent events, Erdoğan said that he talked to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iraqi President Barham Salih, French President Emmanuel Macron and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani about the assassination, adding that talks will be held with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Turkey on Jan. 8.

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Praising Soleimani for the important roles he assumed, Erdoğan noted that no one would become a top commander for nothing.

"He was promoted to the level of lieutenant general, he is a person of that sort," he said, while criticizing comparing Soleimani to slain ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

"Qasem Soleimani was not a person pursuing to be a caliph like them. The person who can be accepted as in that position is Khamanei in that country. It's very clear that Soleimani proved himself and was exceptionally valued by Khamanei," Erdoğan added.

"The fact that the U.S. chose him [as a target] caused tensions to increase in the region. I don't think that killing a top commander of a country will be left unanswered. Hence, I think, selecting him was not accurate," he also said.

'Troops gradually moving to Libya'

Turning to the issue of troop deployment to Libya, Erdoğan said that Turkish military units had started moving to the country to support Fayez al-Serraj's internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli.

Turkey's parliament approved a bill on Jan. 2 that allows for the deployment of troops in Libya to protect Ankara's interests in North Africa and the Mediterranean and to help achieve peace and stability in Libya.

"There will be an operation center [in Libya], there will be a Turkish lieutenant general leading and they will be managing the situation over there. [Turkish soldiers] are gradually moving there right now," Erdoğan said.

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The GNA last month requested Turkish support as it fends off an offensive by General Khalifa Haftar's forces, which are backed by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

Senior Turkish military personnel will coordinate with the combatant forces in Libya as well as provide training and expertise on the ground, Erdoğan said.

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"There will be different units over there as combatant forces, they will not be from our military. Our top-level military personnel will be coordinating the situation over there," he added, without elaborating.