Full version: ISIL most acute challenge in Iraq and Syria: US envoy
Serkan Demirtaş ANKARA
US Ambassador to Turkey John Bass (C) speaks with Hürriyet Ankara Bureau Chief Deniz Zeyrek (R) and Hürriyet Daily News Ankara Bureau Chief Serkan Demirtaş. HÜRRİYET photo, Rıza ÖZELThe United States regards the threat posed by extremist jihadists in Iraq and Syria as its “most acute” challenge and is focusing its efforts on not allowing these groups to extend their control in the region, the new U.S. ambassador to Turkey has told the Hürriyet Daily News, underlining that Washington will continue to work closely with Ankara to support the “moderate Syrian opposition.”
“We believe that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] is the most acute challenge we face in Syria and Iraq today. That’s where we are focusing much of our effort, but we are also continuing to work very closely with the Turkish government to support the moderate Syrian opposition, to enable them to continue to defend their homes, and to continue to press the case on the ground with the goal of a negotiated political settlement down the road,” John Bass said in his first interview since he beginning to serve in Ankara.
How would you describe the current state of the relationship between Turkey and the U.S.?
This is one of our most important partnerships and important relationships in the world, full stop. This is true for many different reasons, but I think very importantly it is because it is a partnership based on a foundation of 60 years of shared interests and shared values. As the U.S. ambassador, I am in some respects, the steward of our side of that relationship here in Turkey, making sure that both capitals understand each other’s perspective, understanding the places where maybe we have a difference of view about the scope of a problem or how best to approach a problem, and trying to resolve those differences to make sure we can move forward.
We have an awful lot that we are doing together as two governments. The most interesting development, I would say since I first started coming to Turkey 20 years ago, is how much is now going on between the two societies. This is a relationship between two countries, not simply two governments. And, as the ambassador of the United States, my objective and vision for what we are going to do while I am ambassador is to continue to build on this strong set of foundations that we have in the relationship. We will continue to grow our partnership, to ensure that we are supporting each other in all our security concerns and interests, and to ensure that together we are taking advantage of the very big opportunities we have to invest in each other’s economies and societies.
This is your vision, but there are also realities that depict another story. The two countries have different visions on a number of issues: Syria, press freedom, the Armenian issue, etc.
I think there are more things we have in common than there are things that we see differently or on which we act differently. We share a common perspective with respect to the situation in Syria. Both governments believe there is no military solution to this conflict. Both governments are committed to a political process based on the principles in the Geneva Communique in which there is a future government in Syria that doesn’t include Bashar al-Assad. Both governments are committed to working together, and with other partners, to make that a reality. At the same point in time, we have a big immediate challenge posed by this terrible extremist organization ISIL. We are very focused right now on ensuring that ISIL and its terrible actions in Syria and Iraq do not further destabilize Iraq and do not further complicate the situation to a point where we’ll have an even more difficult challenge to reach that shared vision of a future outcome in Syria.
We believe that ISIL is the most acute challenge we face in Syria and Iraq today, and that’s where we are focusing much of our effort. But we are also continuing to work very closely with the Turkish government to support the moderate Syrian opposition, to enable them to continue to defend their homes, and to continue to press the case on the ground with that goal of a negotiated political settlement down the road.
You said, “We support the Syrian opposition.” According to you, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is part of the opposition in Syria, but according to our government the PYD is a terrorist organization. Isn’t there a problem in this? President Erdoğan was also a quite angry at your help to the PYD and he expressed his feelings many times. What do you think about this?
Well, as I said, we are very focused on addressing the acute, very urgent challenge posed by ISIL in Syria. In that context, we are providing assistance to a range of groups within in Syria, first and foremost the Free Syrian Army, but also in a couple of specific instances Kurdish groups that are actively involved in fighting ISIL. It is important not to overdraw a conclusion about the limited amount of support specifically focused on an acute military threat to some very specific territory in Syria. It is important not to overdraw a conclusion about what that limited support means in terms of our overall perspective on the PYD. We believe it is very important for the PYD to cooperate with other organizations inside Syria and to actively focus, as other organizations inside Syria are, on the main problem with respect to Syria’s long term stability, and that is the al-Assad regime.
As part of the fight against ISIL, Turkey has put down serious conditions to its active participation in the coalition, and we are also aware that military and political talks between Turkey and the United States are continuing. Where are we in these talks? Are we ready for a deal, for example, to train the moderate Syrian opposition, such as the Free Syrian Army, in Turkey or elsewhere? Are we ready for such deals to show the world that Turkey and the U.S. are cooperating on concrete terms?
We are having a very productive, intensive and detailed set of talks between experts about the scope and mechanics of a program to train and equip additional numbers of fighters for the moderate Syrian opposition. As you can imagine, the objective that both governments share is to ensure that the forces we train are capable and can have an impact on the ground. It is a fairly complicated process to start that kind of training program from scratch. There are a lot of variables in terms of how long the training program runs, what specific tactics you are instructing people in, how the larger units are going to be operating, as well as ensuring that they have the capability and opportunity to be effective once they’ve concluded their training and are actually back in Syria. What we are doing right now is working through all the details to make sure we can reach that specific objective.
What other military or political demands has Washington been asking from Turkey and to what level, to what extent, do you think they are going to be met? To the point of opening airspace or military bases or other facilities?
Both governments are engaged in ongoing conversations about all aspects of our efforts through the coalition. Firstly, to reduce the amount of space that ISIL has to operate in; secondly, to address some of the capacity challenges that currently exist in the Iraqi security forces and within the landscape in Syria; thirdly, to address the ongoing challenges from the enormous refugee outflows from Syria and those Syrians who have been displaced within Syria, as well as to try to deal with the phenomenon of propaganda that ISIL and these extremist groups are using to recruit additional fighters and to suggest that their vision of an extremist, violent space is a place that is perversely exciting and attractive and a place where people would want to actually come. So, we are talking about all of these pieces. And Turkey has been very supportive in those conversations about the overall effort. We saw from our perspective what appears to be a very constructive visit by the Iraqi foreign minister here last week. We think it is a good development to see the prospect of a stronger relationship between the Iraqi and Turkish governments to address not just the immediate challenges both countries face but also to build a stronger, longer term relationship and to work with the authorities in Baghdad, and also in Arbil, to help them develop the capacity to address their specific security threats and challenges.
With regard to relations between Turkey and the U.S., I remember that our president Mr. Erdoğan, until recently, was seen as one of the five leaders in the world who are very close to Obama. But recently we observe a different picture regarding their relationship. What has happened? What is the problem? Why doesn’t Obama talk to Mr. Erdoğan from time to time, like in the past? What is the situation?
Well, I guess I would disagree with the premise of your question that there haven’t been contacts at the most senior levels. The last time the president was in Europe was in early September for the NATO summit, and he sat down with President Erdoğan. There are phone calls back and forth between the two presidents, with Vice President Joe Biden, and both the president and the prime minister. As I have seen myself over the last two years having worked directly for Secretary of State John Kerry, there is constant interaction between the foreign ministers on a range of issues, often in quite an intense fashion depending on the particular challenge we are trying to address at that moment in time. So, I think it is important not to take a week, or two weeks, or three weeks, or four weeks, in a relationship out of a broader context and decide that’s the new barometer for whether or not it’s a healthy relationship. We have a lot of work we are doing together. Sometimes it involves the leaders talking directly and that continues to happen when it is needed.
But you know, our president confessed three months ago that he could not talk to Mr. Obama directly and he requested former President Abdullah Gül to call him. What was the reason for this?
Well, a couple of weeks ago President Obama and President Erdoğan spoke with each other. That’s why I say it’s important not to use any given moment in time as the singular lens through which you view the relationship. President Obama has an enormously complex, challenging agenda in the international community. Over the past few weeks, even while we’ve been addressing the urgent threats and challenges posed by ISIL and the situation in Syria, which he’s been focused on, he’s also been very focused on a series of challenges to international security and international prosperity in Asia, which are also in Turkey’s long-term interests. So, at any given point in time there are always more challenges and issues that the president could be spending time on than he has time available for. I think it’s important to see the interactions with any specific country or specific leader in that broader context.
Do you call this relationship, for example, a “model” or a “strategic partnership”?
We continue to see our relationship with Turkey as a strategic partnership. As I think I said when I first arrived at the airport, Turkey and America have been good friends and strategic partners for many years.
The problem is not whether you used the term or not, but whether you feel it’s true?
I do, and the reason why is because while you and your readers may often be focused on one issue on a particular day where there is a perceived difference of views about how we might approach that problem - Syria being the example that is getting a lot of attention and time for obvious reasons - while you are focused on that, I and my colleagues in the U.S. government see the breadth and depth of the whole relationship. Even while we are working on that key challenge in Syria, we are also working on a whole range of issues where we have a common purpose and a common interest. We are working on the next evolution of our security partnership with Afghanistan to ensure that the gains we have made over the past 12 years endure and that we give the Afghan government the best possible success prospects for success going forward. We are working together to address threats to security and stability in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Guinea and in North Africa and then there is the context of our enduring alliance with NATO in Eastern Europe. So, all of those things continue outside of the bright lights and intense discussions of the moment about one issue, and that’s why I would absolutely continue to call this a strategic partnership.
Let’s continue with Syria. Do you think that the city of Kobane is more important than other Syrian cities like Tel Abyad or Aleppo? Why were you interested in Kobane so much more than other cities?
This gets back to the notion of the question, “What is the main priority in Syria at this moment in time?” For us, as you have seen General Austin explain and some of our colleagues in Washington explain, Kobane became important because of the amount of attention and resources that ISIL was contributing to try to capture that town, which is yet another border crossing with Turkey. Our initial objective in our effort to address the problem created by ISIL is to prevent their ability to continue to expand the territory they control, the possible resources at their disposal from that area and a sense of momentum that they are continuing to grow and expand. It is important to see our support for the Syrian opposition elements in Kobane, because there are a range of Syrian groups now in Kobane fighting against ISIL. It is important to see our support for those elements within the context of that particular objective. We are also very concerned about the situation in and around Aleppo. We continue to provide support to Syrian opposition groups in northwestern Syria and to support their efforts to prevent the regime from encroaching further and encircling Aleppo. And we continue to work with Turkey and with other partners to try to prevent that from occurring.
Do you think it is important for Turkey for the resolution of the Kurdish problem? I mean, it was said that if Kobane was taken by ISIL, it would affect Turkey terribly regarding Kurdish issue. Do you think so?
You are a much better analyst of the nuances of the reconciliation process, the solution process, than I am. I think the answer to your question depends on perceptions among the Turkish-Kurdish population and how what they perceive to be the most important elements from their perspective, which they believe need to be addressed through the solution process. I would just say that we continue to believe the process is very important, we would like to see it continue and yield positive results, even as we continue to support Turkey’s right to defend itself against terrorism.
There are two different pictures. One of them is from Silopi, a village on the border of Iraq, and the other is from Istanbul. In Silopi, we saw Peshmerga chanting “Biji Obama,” meaning “Long Live Obama,” and in the other picture from Istanbul, some young Turkish guys tried to capture your soldiers to protest your government. What do you think about this difference? What did you feel when you heard about phrases like “Biji Obama,” as well as the incident in Istanbul?
Well, with respect to the reaction that the Peshmerga received and some of the supportive noises from people there about the United States, I think that reflects the extent to which the U.S. moved quickly after ISIL captured Mosul to prevent it from encroaching even further into northern Iraq and putting the stability of those areas administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG], as well as in Iraq at large, in greater peril. And we are continuing to be consistent in trying to, as I talked about, both reduce ISIL’s ability to operate in the space that it currently occupies and begin to reduce that space. But we are also trying to ensure that all elements in Iraq have the capabilities to be effective partners with us and other members of the coalition, and with each other, in addressing this threat to Iraq’s integrity and security in the long term. I think it is only natural when you see people respond to support that they perceive is coming from the outside, from the international community.
With respect to the incident in Istanbul, obviously I wasn’t pleased to see it, I don’t think anyone who appreciates the breadth and depth of the U.S. commitment to Turkish security and Turkish society was pleased to see it. It is certainly not in keeping with the experiences of many of us with respect to Turkish hospitality and the deep traditions of hospitality in this culture. You know, I regret that those three sailors who may have been experiencing this country for the first time are now left with the impression that it is a place that is unwelcoming for Americans.
But I think it is important not to take it too far out of context, it is an isolated incident. We have lots of ship visits. We have enormous numbers of Americans who are visiting Turkey now. You know, when I first came to Turkey 20 years ago, Istanbul was a pretty exotic destination for Americans. Now, when I walk the streets of Istanbul, as I did last weekend, I hear a lot more English, a lot more American English. That is a reflection of the strong interest in American society in coming to experience Turkey and understand it.
It is just a kind of marginal incident?
I think so. Look, we fully support the right of anyone in this society to express their views about our partnership and our relationship and the presence of American military personnel in Turkey. Where we obviously get concerned is when those expressions, that free expression, turns into violence and physical confrontations. We do not believe that is appropriate.
On the Kurdish peace process, there are reports that the U.S. has plans to be what they called “the third eye” of the process. Does the U.S. have this kind of intention to be an active partner mediating between the Turkish government and the Kurds?
This process is a domestic process. It is a matter for Turks to resolve. I would say it is important, with full respect to both you and your organizations, to be a critical and sometimes skeptical reader of some of the things you might see in the press and some of the comments people might make to the press.
Parallel to incidents in Kobane and the peace process, there are campaigns carried out in Washington for the removal of the PKK from the terrorist list. What is the current position of the United States with regard to this campaign?
The current position of the United States is that the PKK is a foreign terrorist organization designated under our legislation. I am not aware of any thought or plan within the U.S. government to consider changing that designation.
Before your arrival to Turkey, at your hearing at the Senate, you were forced to admit that the government in Turkey is “drifting toward authoritarianism.” How does it make you feel to serve in a country that is drifting towards authoritarianism?
Well, it is important to put all of the U.S. governments’ observations and comments about the status of democratic development in Turkey in the context of our understanding that building democratic institutions, and more importantly, building democratic culture is a very complex, challenging, non-linear process that we in the United States are still working at ourselves. We have had some instances in the past year, some of which have gotten quite a bit of coverage in the Turkish media, where we have not done our very best in terms of getting the balance right between freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and maintenance of public order. So, whatever we might say about the situation in Turkey, or the situation in another country, is very much out of a deep appreciation for how hard this is and how we are still working at it, but also from a perspective of a shared interest and a belief that democracies make better partners and create better opportunities for citizens in those countries and in those societies to live the lives they individually aspire to.
My comments in that moment were consistent with what you have seen from the United States in our annual Human Rights Report, in our annual Religious Freedoms Report, in the other places where we talk about what we see happening in other societies against that goal that we all aspire to, of those full protections of those universal values. And it is going to be a part of an ongoing conversation between our two governments and two societies certainly during my tenure, and I would expect in the years following my tenure.
So you stand behind your words? Did anybody criticize you during your official visits in Ankara, the president or the prime minister, about your remarks?
Actually, they haven’t come up specifically in my conversations. We have been very focused in all of my conversations about looking forward and looking at all of the challenges on which we are working together.
What do you think about our new presidential palace, which is bigger than White House?
Well, the White House is, I think on the scale of presidential residences and operational complexes around the world, toward the smaller end of the spectrum, so I don’t know whether that’s the right benchmark.
Have you been to the palace?
I was there briefly on Cumhuriyet Bayramı [Republic Day] and saw a couple of the rooms. It’s a fairly expansive facility.
Did it make you feel like you were in an authoritarian atmosphere?
That’s not the way I would describe it. I think it is important that the conversation about the residence is able to occur in society and that it’s a topic of discussion within the media and across society. And ultimately, from my perspective, it’s much less important what I think about the complex and much more important what Turks think about the complex and what you collectively decide is the appropriate scale and purpose for a facility like that.
What would happen in your country what if your president built such kind of a new presidential palace although White House is still there?
I think it is very difficult to project hypotheticals like that into any society, including our own. So, I don’t know really, it‘s hard to say.
To what extent have Turkey’s much-criticized democratization process and related issues made your agenda in dealing your counterparts in Turkey now?
The promotion of democratic values, adherence to universal values, conversations about how those basic freedoms and rights are respected and applied in societies are part of every U.S. ambassador’s responsibilities and duties in the countries to which they are assigned. We have a pretty rigorous process we go through every year as we prepare our annual Human Rights Report, because we want to not simply capture individual incidents, but we want to understand the context in which those incidents occur and make sure we are getting an accurate picture, both of the circumstances and also what people are experiencing and how they view these issues within their own society, as we look at them against this set of benchmarks. And so, I fully expect throughout my tenure that I will be discussing with many people in this society, inside and outside of government, their perspective on Turkey’s ongoing democratic development, just as I expect them to have questions for me and perspectives about the ongoing efforts in our own society to further refine our own democratic culture. And I fully expect that as specific incidents that really concern us arise, I will be focusing on those and working on those with folks in government and outside government.
Ambassador, is the U.S. going to recognize the 1915 massacres of Ottoman Armenians as genocide in 2015?
What I would say about that today is that we have been quite clear as a government about our views on the circumstances and the events that transpired in this horrible tragedy beginning in 1915, as you see from our statements this past year on Armenian Remembrance Day and in prior years. We continue to believe that a full and frank acknowledgement of the facts behind those horrible events and this terrible set of massacres and tragedies that occurred is in the interest of both Turkey and Armenia, and important to building the kind of the relationship going forward between the two countries that we believe is in the interest of both countries, and in the end, our shared interest with Turkey and building and strengthening stability in this region.
One of the things I have noticed on returning to Turkey since I visited 20 years ago is the space for conversation and discussion and debate about what happened in 1915. There is more space and there is more conversation and I think that is a healthy development that has been started and that needs to continue. President Erdoğan’s comments this past year were, from our perspective, historic and important and we believe there needs to be additional work building off those comments.
Like what kind of work?
I think additional work to get to a full and frank acknowledgement of the facts surrounding the events in 1915.
Two questions. One of them is about Fethullah Gülen. What is the latest situation? Are there any plans for deportation? My second question is about the TTIP [Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] process with the EU, Turkey has some demands from the U.S. and EU, what is the latest situation about these topics?
With respect to the TTIP, we have, even while we continue to work on this negotiation with the European Union, we are continuing to have conversations with the government of Turkey and with businesses in Turkey about the potential impacts and I believe the Turkish government is also having conversations with the European Union about the potential impacts. I say "potential" because obviously this negotiation is still in progress and we’ll have to see where we get with the EU. We believe as this much of the leadership within the union that this in agreement would be very beneficial for both economies, both sets of economies, and we are proceeding with that very much in mind.
With respect to Mr. Gülen, we have a very rigorous process around deportations from the United States that is grounded in our laws and administered by a specific legal process under the Department of Justice. We don’t, as a matter of policy, comment on individual deportation cases if they are occurring, but I can assure you that any deportation proceeding that we initiated would start after a careful consideration of facts and clear evidence of violations of U.S. law.
You mean it’s not a political issue, it’s about a person’s situation in the country?
As I said, we have a very clear legislative basis and a legal frame that governs deportations and that with respect to any deportation request that is initiated by a foreign government or that comes to light based on evidence that we find internally in the U.S. as a function of violations of our law, then we have a process that goes from there. And that’s the governing mechanism within U.S. legislation.
You don’t see the issue as a matter of political matter between Turkey and the U.S. governments.
As I just said, we have a strong legal framework through which we evaluate a deportation.
Is there an official application from Turkish authorities to start a case on the deportation of Mr. Gülen?
We don’t comment on individual cases.
Is there any official appeal from Turkish side? Have you received anything?
If there were a deportation process initiated, that would be public record.