Turkey has become a mere spectator as region changes, former diplomat says
Cansu Çamlıbel ISTANBUL
Murat Özçelik was Turkey’s special representative in Iraq from 2007 to 2011 and then served as an ambassador to Baghdad."The right policy is neither Arabist, nor Kurdist," according to Murat Özçelik, Turkey’s former ambassador to Baghdad.
Özçelik has never been one of Turkey's best known ambassadors, but he was always one of the trusted confidants that top level government officials knew and worked with. He served as Turkey’s special representative in Iraq from 2007 to 2011 and then as an ambassador to Baghdad. During this period, he was in the close circle that contacted the Iraqi Kurds and prepared the platform for the Kurdish “expansion” reforms in Turkey itself.
Özçelik was appointed as the head of the Public Security Directorate just before the public announcement of the talks between the government and Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in 2011. He only served in that office for six months, and rumors of him clashing with Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay echoed in political circles in Ankara after his removal.
He has been silent for the past two years, and only accepted the offer of an interview on the condition that the interview will be limited to the current situation in Iraq.
After its hasty withdrawal from Iraq, the United States seems to be back in the region with the recent airstrikes. However, according to recent statements from Washington, they are hesitating to be a part of any further involvement. What is the U.S. trying to accomplish?
The United States is well aware of the consequences on global terrorism of having an Islamist state establist. The U.S. will continue to search for a solution to resolve this problem, but for now, it has a palliative approach. If we are to take the Yazidis and the Turkmens of Tal Afar into account, the U.S. will try to support the Kurds with airstrikes and arms shipments for them to establish dominance in the region.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threat seems to be pulling the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Masoud Barzani, who had distanced himself from the PYD, closer together. Even the Peshmerga who are fighting against ISIL support the PKK.
It is reasonable that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), who have faced difficulties facing ISIL, will try to counter this threat with the PYD and the PKK, with whom they have had clashes before. In a situation like the one in Iraq, you initially act against the most immediate threat and then sort out your differences. So the Peshmerga will continue to fight against ISIL alongside the PYD and the PKK. In addition to that, as you know, the U.S. is trying to form a new government in Baghdad.
Can Baghdad’s stratagem still hold the country together after this point?
As long as you can reform the military structure and adapt your budget accordingly, you can pull the Sunni tribes back into the system, as happened in 2007. I should say the U.S. will work with Baghdad to manage these tasks.
So despite the Obama administration’s reluctance, is the U.S. back in Iraq?
Yes, they are now back in Iraq. Who else would have been able to force Nouri al-Maliki to resign from the presidency? I think there was cooperation on the subject of separating him from the Iranian side. Yes, we now all talk about the actions taken against ISIL, but we should not forget the Shia also have a significant number of militants. If the ISIL attacks had been larger in scale or if the U.S. had not intervened, we could see Iran, using its own Shia militants, driving Sunnis out of Baghdad and establishing a Shia-dominated zone in southern Iraq. This scenario has now been prevented. Although with different motivations, the agreement between Iran, the U.S. and al-Maliki seems to be a hopeful step forward. It would not have been accomplished otherwise.
Initially, you said it was quite reasonable for the Peshmerga to unite with the PKK and other Kurdish elements due to the immediate threat posed by ISIL. How does it reflect in Ankara? Won't the images of Barzani congratulating the PKK militants in Mahmur make Ankara uncomfortable?
I'm not currently involved with any political relations between these parties, but I would like to have a say on it. Recently, I was in a conference at the London School of Economics. The grandson of one of the important Shia leaders, Hayder al-Kohei, told me: “Please do not take it as an irrespective comment, but in an environment in which you let ISIL grow and is welcomed by your own intelligence, the Shia will not have amiable feelings toward Turkey.” I am reporting what a Shiite told me. The government rejects these claims in official statements, but if we look at the foreign perception, the government has different policies for the Kurds in Iraq and the Kurds in Syria. The events in the region show that Turkey is pursuing an “Arabist” policy in Syria. If Turkey’s main policy should be helping the people repressed by autocratic regimes in the region: You should have the same approach that you have in Iraq against the PYD in Syria.
Then why didn’t Ankara undertake the reforms done for Iraqi Kurds against the PYD? Is it because of the strong connections between the PYD and the PKK?
When you truly want to solve a problem, you should solve the problem with both your mind and your heart. If your mind says “We should have done the same to the Kurds,” when your heart is with the Arabs and Islamic groups, you won’t be able to apply the right policy.
What is the right policy?
The right policy is neither Arabist, nor Kurdist. The right policy for Turkey should be to end the suffering of the people in the region, be democratic and respect human rights. I shouldn’t be called a dreamer. This is not a dream, because we used to support the national integrity of both Syria and Iraq. Their models will now be different over time.
The model for Kurds in Syria and Turkey is not very clear yet, but aren’t Kurds in Iraq on the way to independence?
Maybe they are, but wouldn’t you go on your own path after the al-Maliki regime? How could Turkey not help in that situation? In my opinion, all of the political parties in Turkey, including the main opposition parties, will see that Turkey has no option but to help in reality.
You suggest that Turkey should not object to Kurdish independence.
Europe and the United States would not object to it either.
When do you think this will happen?
Everyone said, “As long as Iran is in the game as a factor, it is not the right time to take steps for Kurdish independence,” but when the territorial integrity of a country began breaking down, the policymakers started to ask themselves, “What to do now?” I do not think we should have high hopes about it. Hayder al-Abadi has to form a new Cabinet in Iraq and this new Cabinet has to take steps according to each internal factor, as well as according to each foreign neighbor. Meanwhile, neighbors should also stop intervening in Iraq’s internal affairs.
Is it realistic to expect the said scenario when the sectarian violence is worsening?
It is related to the level of U.S. involvement. America is now helping the Kurdish region by supplying weapons and conducting airstrikes. The U.S. also says “No” to their independence for now, and it has more say on the subject of independence due to the support it has given to the Kurds. If a new government is to be formed, it should be given a chance. If they lack these political structures, the new government won’t be formed anyway. That is realpolitik. In a professional approach, realpolitik has some requirements.
Is Turkey ready for the independence of the Iraqi Kurds?
The turn of events is being assessed by the higher echelons of the government and the foreign office. Nobody should pretend as if they do not know it. Ahmet Yıldız was the Turkish representative in Mosul while I was the ambassador in Baghdad and he is now an advisor for the prime minister. Wouldn’t he know what is going on in Iraq? And I do know everything about those kids. I can see everything as it is, as a man who spent years there.
Even Turkish officials acknowledge that there are more than 1,000 Turks in ISIL. What is the result of this state of mind?
Remember the main concern in 2010. You have steady steps toward EU membership on one side and cordial relations with Islamic “brothers” on the other. They were not irrelevant agendas. Think about the subject of our strategic depth. Our strategic depth in the West is as important as our strategic depth in the East. The West wants to profit from our influence on the Islamic world. The East sees in us a door that opens into modernity and to the West and aspires to be like us. They do not care if we are more religious or not. I’m saying this as a person who has lived in these countries.
I understand that you see 2010 as a breaking point for foreign policy. How do you describe the AKP’s vision before that point?
When they entered the fray with the ideology of Neo-Ottomanism, one of the things professionals like me observed was that Turkey had an influence on the Islamic world. That is true. So you could increase your economic, political and social influences in that hinterland and follow policies from which Turkey can benefit. As diplomats, our view on the secular system was that we can regain the power of the Ottomans under modern ideas, such as egalitarianism and being neutral to sects.
Until then, there were no intonations that promoted “Sunni-ism,” right?
This ideological approach was not like this before 2010-2011. Until then, do you know what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used to say? “We are Muslims; we are neither Sunni, nor Shia.” He used to send amiable messages to Shias during Ashura. But now nobody falls for this, I assure you. If you create an image that you are in contact with ISIL, it is hard for you to convince them that you are not in connection with them, as long as the same people are in government.
What should Turkey do to get rid of this image?
Initially, it should be in a state of total co-operation with the West. This means preventing the mobilization of the jihadists, using every means available, to be in a structure of thought for working with Interpol and publishing most wanted lists; secondly, upgrading the visa system to be compatible with the EU system. The U.S. is now doing some work in Iraq. Do we have a say? No. Is there any request from us? No. This is a sad situation, but the only requests that we receive come from non-state actors.
Who do you mean as non-state actors?
I wanted to use a milder description for the terrorists. Al-Maliki can be the side you don’t like, you can also meet with the opposition, but if you are meeting with people that are severely damaging the government, that is a state of war. Look at Syria for example. Before you support someone against al-Assad, you can show yourself when something is done against you. You can then act accordingly.
I guess it was a reference to the events such as Reyhanlı, the worst terrorist attack in Turkey’s history and the shooting down of our F-4 plane, both organized by the al-Assad regime according to Ankara. What should have been done in your opinion?
Turkey’s army is still strong. Instead of doing something with non-state actors, you should act as a state. You should show force, appeal to NATO for something to happen in Aleppo for example, not the Arab League.
NATO was applied to, though.
Let’s remember that process. First, you say “No to NATO” and then you go to the Arab League. And when it doesn’t work, you appeal to NATO! Turkey was a strong actor who used initiative and could rely both on Western and Islamic countries when needed from 2005 to 2010. I would be lying if I said the government failed at this during that period. Why I am in agony now? Because the mistakes made after that point brought us to the point of disaster. Kerry speaks to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu almost every day. What are they saying? “Can we remove a certain element from the main body of ISIL?” Shouldn’t Turkey have an effect on the establishment of connections between proper actors? Today, a new government is forming in Baghdad. No one asks for our positive contribution. That is the saddest part. America helps the Kurdish region. It is building up a new government in Baghdad. As the most important country of the region, we have become mere spectators. This is not what we deserve.
Will ISIL release the 49 Turkish hostages, including the ambassador to Mosul, Öztürk Yılmaz?
That is not possible. I do not think that is a matter of debate. I believe we have come to a certain point, especially after the U.S. airstrikes, that it is impossible to release the hostages with any negotiations. I say this with great sadness.
Are you implying the need for an operation?
I guess our National Intelligence Agency (MİT) has reached that capacity since the start of my public security director. But of course, the real fear is whether these people will die or not until this operation is completed successfully. It could have been easier in the beginning, but it has become much harder at this point. If the government is unable to do anything at the moment, I think they are considering these risks. We should come to a point where we do not make such mistakes initially.
Davutoğlu is mentioned as the strongest candidate for the position of prime minister. What message would Davutoğlu’s ascension to that position give to the world?
It would be a sign for the continuation of the policies that have been disliked by other countries since 2011. They would not consider this change a democratic step or a change for a new Turkey.
Do you mean the West by saying “foreign countries?”
Both the West and the East. Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood would be happy, so would Hamas, but that does not mean that Egypt, Palestine or Jordan would be happy. Still, let’s be optimistic.
While keeping optimism, let’s add Hakan Fidan as the foreign minister in this scenario.
Look, I have a difficulty here as I worked very closely with these people. I worked with them and they acted on our advice. I saw them accomplish many great deeds. I don’t have a word since I saw these people, who were once very successful, changed on an extraordinary scale due to ideology. Whatever the messages they give, if they do not change their means of action, you will be left with what you said and accomplish nothing. No one wants anything against Turkey’s interests.
Were you one of the officials who met Öcalan when you were the Director of Public Security?
No, I have never met him.
You were in the core group that laid the foundation of the peace talks and prepared the reform policies. Today, how does the process look like from outside?
I proved that I have no prejudice against Kurds or anyone else. With Mr. Atalay, I stood behind every pragmatic step for the resolution of mistakes done against Kurds. I am happy where I am today, despite my separation. Selahattin Demirtaş showed a great performance in the presidential elections, in accordance to the system I had in my mind. I had said: “Don’t waste time with something else: Let us progress with parties like the Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP] and the Peace and Democracy Party [BDP] in a democratic country.”
You had proposed that the talks should be made with the BDP, instead of Öcalan.
Yes, I had proposed that it should be done politically, with the BDP. I still think the same way. Mr. Demirtaş carried the Kurdish political movement above the 10 percent barrage. No one should think the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) or the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) can take control of this process, or they can terminate it anymore. Now, an organization, which is aware of their own rights and has the power to solve the Kurdish issue, is now in Parliament and has attained a strength of 10 percent. The HDP does not need the AKP anymore and that is what I had been saying since the start. I advised that whatever we do in Parliament, let’s do it with the BDP.
Don’t you believe in the success of a reform process that only includes Öcalan? What should Öcalan’s role be in this process?
I do not want to say something against the feelings of some people. Although he fought for Kurdish rights and provoked the fury of the Turkish people, Öcalan is an actor who served for this cause. That is agreed. Due to his participation in this struggle, it is normal for him to be in the hearts and minds of some Kurds. But what is Öcalan’s role in a democratic environment in which the people’s rights were given to them to create a better Turkey? I think the role of supporting younger generations who understand politics would suit Öcalan and would serve Turkey.