ISIL most acute challenge in Iraq and Syria: US envoy

ISIL most acute challenge in Iraq and Syria: US envoy

Serkan Demirtaş ANKARA
ISIL most acute challenge in Iraq and Syria: US envoy

The Turkey-US relationship ‘is one of our most important partnerships in the world,’ US ambassador to Ankara John Bass tells Hürriyet. HÜRRİYET photo, Rıza ÖZEL

The United States regards the threat posed by the extremist jihadists in both Iraq and Syria as the most “acute” challenge and is focusing its efforts on defeating them, the new American envoy to Ankara has told the Hürriyet Daily News, stressing the importance of supporting the "moderate Syrian opposition."
“We believe the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [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 defending their homes, and to continue to press the case on the ground with that goal of a negotiated political settlement down the road,” U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass said, in his first interview since he begun to serve in Ankara.
Here are some excerpts from the interview:


John Bass (C), US ambassador to Turkey, speaks with Hürriyet
Ankara Bureau Chief Deniz Zeyrek (R) and Hürriyet Daily News
Ankara Bureau Chief Serkan Demirtaş. 

How would you categorize 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. For many different reasons, but I think very importantly, because it is a partnership that is 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, in making sure that both capitals understand each other’s perspective, understand those places where maybe we have a difference of view about the scope of a problem or how best to approach a problem, and that we try to resolve those differences and make sure we can move forward.
This is your vision, but there are also realities that tell another story. The two countries have different visions on a number of issues.
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. 

You said ‘We support the opposition of Syria’. According to you, the Democratic Union Party [PYD] is a part of the opposition in Syria, but according to our government, the PYD is a terrorist organization. Isn’t that a problem? President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was also quite angry with 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.  
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?
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 people would want to actually come to. So, we are talking about all of these pieces.
Do you think the city of Kobane is more important than other Syrian cities like Tel Abyad or Aleppo. Why were you so much more interested in Kobane than others places?
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.
Do you share the opinion that Kobane is important for the Kurdish peace 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.
What do you think of the incident in Istanbul in which three American soldiers were attacked?
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.

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.
There are campaigns carried out in Washington for the removal of the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] 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 in 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?
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.
What do you think of 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, it’s 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.
To what extent is Turkey’s much-criticized democratization process and related issues in making your agenda in dealing your counterparts in Turkey now?
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 ... And so, I fully expect throughout my tenure that I will be discussing with many people in this society, inside and outside government, their perspective on Turkey’s ongoing democratic development, just as I expect them to have questions for me and perspective 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 Armenian massacres of 1915 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.
Has the Turkish government issued a demand for the deportation of Fethullah Gülen?
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 framework 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.
Is there any official appeal from the Turkish side? Have you received anything?
If there were a deportation process initiated, that would be public record.