Turkey, Saudi pact seen as ‘confusing’ in Washington
Interview: Cansu Çamlıbel Photos: Levent KuluRecent reports about a “pact” between Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the Syrian war are “confusing,” Karen Donfried, a former senior U.S. administration official, has told Hürriyet during her visit to Turkey.
“It was confusing that on the one hand they were trumpeting the start of that, while on the other hand there is a press report that the Saudis and Turks are working together in some way that is not supported by Washington,” Donfried, who is currently the president of the German Marshall Fund, told Hürriyet in an interview published on May 11.
Before she assumed the leadership of the German Marshall Fund in April 2014, Donfried was the special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council at the White House. Her portfolio as President Barack Obama’s adviser on European policies also included Turkey.
What is your impression of the mood in Turkey ahead of the general elections?
It has been a fascinating few days in Turkey. Everyone I have met spoke about the parliamentary elections next month. For me as an American, what I had not appreciated so much was the significance of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) potentially getting 10 percent of the vote, passing the election threshold, and becoming the fourth party in parliament. There are implications of that on Turkey’s government going forward.
What is your feeling about it? What happens if the HDP doesn’t pass the threshold, what would it mean for Turkish democracy if they are left out of parliament? Would it be a worrying sign for Turkey?
One thing I will say about Turkish democracy is that everyone reminds me that over 80 percent of the electorate will go to the polls, which is such an affirmation of Turkish democracy. I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t believe the AKP will remain the largest party in parliament. The question is whether they will have the governing majority or whether they need to form a coalition. That is where the HDP and the 10 percent threshold becomes important. If the HDP doesn’t make 10 percent, I have heard some people saying there actually could be violence in some parts of Turkey. Under no circumstances do I hope that would happen.
Clearly there are a lot of expectations in this election. It will be fascinating to see what happens next month and what kind of government emerges from that.
How do you see the relationship between the president and the government right now? There is a domestic discussion that the president is actually violating the constitution by not distancing himself from his party.
Clearly one of the issues that everyone connects to the outcome of the election is whether Turkey will change its constitution to put in place a presidential system, rather than a parliamentary system. My understanding is that if the HDP were to cross that 10 percent threshold, it would be hard to have support in parliament for a move to a presidential system.
Does the U.S. have an official position on a preferred model?
To my knowledge there has been no position taken by U.S. officials. My sense would be that is a decision for Turkish citizens to make, not a decision or something that the U.S. should express an opinion on.
Opponents of the presidential system are worried that the checks and balances would not be strong with a presidential system. Do you see such a threat as well?
It is certainly true that the system of governance that you have depends on the specifics of that system. But I don’t think a parliamentary system is necessarily better than a presidential system, or that a presidential system is better. In the U.S. we have a presidential system that has many checks and balances. There is a real division of power between different branches of government: The executive branch, the judiciary, the legislative. It is that kind of democracy that is important for citizens’ ability to express their views and affect how they are governed.
In the last couple of years we know from the official statements of the White House and the State Department that Washington is concerned about the quality of Turkish democracy. What is the state of play right now after moments of tension with the Turkish government? Is this trend of concern in Washington continuing?
Turkey is a friend of the U.S. Turkey is a NATO ally and we are in that alliance together. So the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey is incredibly important, whether we are talking about shared security concerns or our economic relationship. I think that relationship is stronger if our democracies at home are stronger. For the U.S. and for Turkey it is always important to be thinking about the strength of our democracies, whether that is freedom of the press, freedom of expression, the rule of law and due process. The U.S. speaks out on these issues with all of its friends and allies. It is something that we pay attention to at home as well. So I think you will always see that dimension of the relationship.
Let’s talk about the Gezi Park protests of summer 2013. The U.S. interest seemed to frustrate the Turkish government. Later, during the protests in Ferguson, Turkish officials criticized the silence of the U.S. administration? Isn’t this a somewhat fair criticism?
I think everybody has the right to express their views. Certainly the comments of Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek got particular attention in the U.S. because he spoke about a particular individual, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf. I actually thought it was appropriate for the U.S. ambassador in Turkey to come out in solidarity with blondes around the world after that. But the point is that it is critical to have an open discussion. I would argue that the most senior U.S. official, President Barack Obama, has spoken at length and with concern about Ferguson, about the death of the man in Baltimore in police custody. These are issues that the U.S. is struggling with. My sense is that we are trying to deal with that in an open way.
You used to be in the US administration until a short while ago. Considering your position in the administration, I imagine you were present in very critical meetings during then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the White House in May 2013. What would you say about the state of relations back when he was received at the highest level and today?
You are absolutely right that I was at the NSC during that visit in May 2013. I can’t underscore enough how critical the issues that we work together with Turkey on are. You can imagine what the agenda was in May 2013.
It is interesting to look at where we are today in the relationship. Many of those issues are still dominating the agenda: The P5+1 deal with Iran, the situation in Syria, etc. Where we are today underscores that in many ways we have succeeded in deepening cooperation. We are now together with Turkey and other allies in training and equipping the moderate Syrian opposition. On the issue of foreign fighters we are working together more effectively than in May 2013. That issue is emerging as something critical for both sides. So when I think about that passage of time, you are right that there have been difficult periods. But the many concerns we share has allowed us to deepen our cooperation in certain areas.
We know that in the past there have been different views on how to tackle the opposition to Bashar al-Assad. Lately we have been hearing a lot about the Saudis and Turks sealing a deal on a safe zone in Syria. Yesterday there was an article quoting Turkish officials confirming the deal. They also criticized the Obama administration for not being able to tackle the issue properly. What would Washington’s reaction be to such a deal? Would it be supportive of this sort of intervention in Syria at this point in time?
I think I saw the article to which you are referring. Honestly I found it confusing. Because what happened yesterday in Washington is that the U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the train and equip mission is actually starting. As you know, this train and equip operation is something that we are doing together with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So it was confusing that, on one hand, they were trumpeting the start of [the program] while, on the other hand, there was a press report about the Saudis and Turks working together in a way that is not supported by Washington. So I am confused by that. My sense is that we had moved forward in aligning our views of how to be supportive of a moderate Syrian opposition.
Does this mean that you would not expect such a move from Ankara now?
I found it confusing, also from the Saudis. As you know there is a Gulf Summit next week in Washington where the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council will be meeting with President Obama in the context of a potential Iran deal that may be concluded at the end of June. We don’t know what will come out of that but there is a lot of talk about new security guarantees or increased arms sales. But again, this is another indicator that would suggest that the U.S. is working closely with these allies not just Turkey.
I am not sure what to make of the article about Turkey-Saudi cooperation. Of course, all of those countries work together with the U.S., in the global coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). So there are a lot of indicators. Even though we see Syria differently, which is not surprising. Geography is destiny. Turkey borders Syria. American officials and I are very aware of the two million Syrian refugees that Turkey has today. Turkey is playing incredible role in helping manage a very serious humanitarian crisis. So I do understand why Turkey may see policies more appealing than Washington does. That safe zone has been in conversation for a long time. It is something that Turkey has advocated. You will find some members of the U.S. Congress who advocate for it as well. But it is not something that, to this day, the Obama administration has supported. That being said, the administration has given substantial assistance to Turkey for relief efforts.
When you say that now Ankara and Washington are on the same page about foreign fighters, we are talking about ISIL?
What I mean when I talk about foreign fighters is an issue that has been of deep concern in Washington. I think this is a concern in Europe that Turkey shares - the fighters that are coming from outside Turkey could be U.S. citizens or Europeans crossing Turkey to fight in Syria. Some of those individuals become further radicalized in Syria and then return to their home country. For example, the attack on the Jewish Museum in Belgium was a Frenchman who fits this model. There have been many conversations over the past year about how we Americans, Turks and Europeans can work together to stop the stem of foreign fighters. A piece that has to do with this is stepping up intelligence cooperation. I think it is clear Turkey is doing more to detain individuals they suspect of being terrorists. Turkey is putting into place more measures to try to stem that flow.
Why do you think Turkey was late in doing so? Were they mistaken by the hope that any opposition to al-Assad would be good in the fight against the current regime?
There are, no doubt, a lot of reasons for it. In the same way that we in Washington were asking Turkey to do more, Turkey was complaining that its allies were not sharing enough intelligence. So I think, hopefully, we have passed that period of criticizing each other. We have actually worked out more effective methods of cooperation. Because I think there is a real threat to Turkey as well. You could also have these people coming to Turkey and carrying out terrorist attacks. So I think there is fundamentally a shared interest on this issue.
In the past, priorities were different for the two countries. It has always been primarily to bring down Assad for Turkey. What about the U.S.? Is it ISIL or al-Assad?
I don’t think we have the luxury of making a choice. I think we are trying to meet all these challenges. The U.S. officials are on the record saying Assad is a failed leader and doesn’t have a future in Syria. There is also a very urgent threat posed by ISIL. Clearly, it was that threat not only in Syria but also in Iraq that caused President Obama last fall to start a global coalition against ISIL and conduct air strikes. So I think there are multiple challenges we face in Syria.
I am sure you are aware of a domestic discussion in Turkey about some trucks stopped on Turkish soil on allegations of carrying guns to groups in Syria [related to the Gülenists vs. AKP government]. How do you see this from outside? You were in the intelligence community when you were working for the U.S. administration. What is your sense of the trucks’ content?
I do not know the answer to the question of what was actually inside those trucks. But it highlights one of the many challenges we face in this train and equip mission. There is a commitment on the part of the countries participating in this mission to train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition. If you look at the U.S. statements about this mission, we always say the vetted Syrian opposition. This means are these individuals really part of the moderate opposition or are they actually ISIL members? That is a challenge in this conflict and something the U.S. takes very seriously. I think other countries share this concern. It is a challenge to differentiate among these groups but it is something the U.S. is absolutely committed to. We are, in fact, training and equipping that moderate opposition which represents the alternative to Assad.
What about al-Nusra? We understand they are considered a part of the moderate opposition by Turkey. The U.S. did not before; is that view still valid in Washington?
This is actually a very interesting question. When we say we are vetting the opposition, what does it actually mean? I don’t know what the different factors are. But it is going to be hugely significant because the ambition of the train and equip program is to train 5,000 members a year for the next three years. That is a somewhat substantial number.
What is your take on the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases, in which the Turkish military suffered a great deal? Apparently there is a common understanding among the generals that were sentenced in those cases that American intelligence had a role in the plot against them. Are you upset that your country, your intelligence community, is somehow linked to the allegations in the Turkish domestic debate?
Let me start by saying I am not a fan of conspiracy theories. I think that case is actually a very important illustration of why a strong democracy is so important. Whether we are talking about the U.S. or Turkey, the rule of law is what our systems are based on. Again, if there are charges brought against any party, how do you make sure that those charges are fair and what are the checks and balances within the system to make sure that you don’t have a miscarriage of justice? So I think it is important in all these cases that we are reminded of the fatality of a vibrant democracy. So I would look through that lens. I think it is important that all countries have a free press asking questions about what is happening; that we have civil society that is holding governments accountable. All those elements of democracy are what ensure that at the end of the day you come out with a fair outcome.
What would you say about people’s tendency to link it to the U.S. then?
I have seen no compelling evidence that there is any link to the U.S. in this case.
The criticism also goes along the line that the West in general saw these cases as pragmatic tools to push the Turkish military back to the barracks.
I don’t know if the U.S. has ever weighed in on a specific case. The U.S. consistently talked about the importance of the administration of justice in due process. There is a very close relationship with the Turkish military. As you know, Turkey is still playing a critical role in Afghanistan and working closely with the American military. On Syria, the U.S. military has deployed missile batteries together with European NATO allies in Turkey to help protect Turkey should there be missile attacks from Syria. There is continuing to be deep cooperation between the Turkish and the U.S. militaries. Actually, Turkey is hosting a NATO meeting next week. Turkey continues to be a critical NATO ally for us.
It is no secret that there has been a growing concern in the U.S. administration over the authoritarian tendency in the Turkish government, especially over the leadership style of President Erdoğan. Some observers in Turkey actually criticize the U.S. and the West in general and ask why they were so late to spot this trend. Did the U.S. government turn a blind eye on what was happening in Turkey until it was too late?
Why are you saying it is too late? I have confidence in Turkish democracy. You have elections next month. President Erdoğan was democratically elected. The Turkish people have spoken and said this is who we want to lead our country. So he is the interlocutor for President Obama. It seems to me that Turkey has changed over the 10 years Erdoğan has been prime minister and president and will continue to change.
Does the U.S. have any concern about election safety in Turkey?
I think it is always an issue in every country that the country conducts free and fair elections. It has been an issue in the U.S. in the past. We have OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] observers coming to the U.S. for elections. I know that there will be outside observers also here. I also learned here this week that one of the outcomes of the Gezi Park protests… there is a new look at the conduct of the elections… I think it will be a topic of conversation within Turkey with the OSCE and other observers. The integrity of elections is always a core principle.
For the Turkish government’s Kurdish initiative, Feb. 28 [1997 military memorandum] is a common declaration for a road map. Now we see a different rhetoric from the government side. What is your take on it? If the Turkish government gives up on its aspirations to find a solution to this problem, what would be the outcome for Turkey and the region in general?
The U.S. has long supported Turkey in its fight against terrorism. For that reason the U.S. believes that it is hugely significant for this peace process to succeed. I think it is so important for Turkey’s future and clearly for Erdoğan when he was prime minister and I certainly hope it is the case that he, as the president, will remain committed to that peace process. Because I think it is so consequential for Turkey given that 20 percent of the population is Kurdish. I certainly hope it will continue. It has been confusing to watch it over the past year, not only because of events in Turkey but also because of events in the region and the place of Kurds in neighboring countries and the connections among those groups. To me it is fascinating to think about the HDP as a Kurdish party potentially getting 10 percent of the vote and how popular the leader of the HDP is in Turkey, and not only among Kurds, as he is appealing to much of Turkey that is not Kurdish. To me there is something encouraging there as well. You know one doesn’t look at politics through an ethnic prism. So I think a lot of pieces of it are changing. But I would hope that both sides remain committed to a peace process that could be transformative for Turkey domestically but also for Turkey’s role in the region.
What about the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)? We know that it is currently active in Kobane. But it is still on the official terrorist lists. Do you think that could change quickly? We have seen a shift in perception toward the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. Could we see a similar shift for the PKK?
I don’t know the answer to that. The PKK remains on the terrorist list. It is hard for me to imagine that changing until there is a successful peace process here in Turkey.
Is it true that the PKK is viewed differently by the West after the fighting in Kobane?
That is why I was saying this has gotten very complicated over the last year. We have different Kurdish groups in different countries playing different roles. But I just don’t know the answer to how that plays out in the longer term.
What about the wiretappings and fraud scandal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was wiretapped. How does the U.S. deal with this? How should Turkey?
This is an incredibly complicated issue and it was during my time at the NSC that the disclosures about national security agency surveillance appeared in our newspapers. You are also right that it was more sensitive in the case of Germany. The first chapter of that had to do with large-scale data collection. The intelligence community in the U.S. traditionally does not want to talk publicly about intelligence activities. President Obama understood from the beginning how important it was to talk to the greatest extent possible publicly about that program, which he did. Then there was the second chapter in October 2013, and allegations came forward about the U.S. having tapped Chancellor [Merkel’s] cell phone. The president immediately said that we are not and will not monitor the chancellor’s communications. The way the U.S. dealt with those issues was that there was an internal review and there was also an external review set up. Both of those groups reported back to the president and in January 2014 the president gave a speech in which he talked about the changes that he was putting in place in reaction to those disclosures. The comments about not monitoring Chancellor Merkel’s [phone] were extended to all our allies. There were some changes he made, some related to the U.S. and some related to our foreign relations. That is still an issue, there are still disclosures coming out. But there also continues to be a vibrant debate in the U.S.
Where do you draw the line between protecting security and safeguarding civil liberties and privacy? The corruption allegations in Turkey were put aside because the wiretappings in the case were illegal. How would this be considered in the U.S.?
It is certainly true that in any system that is based on rule of law, evidence has to be obtained legally. So the ends never justify the means.
What is Washington’s take on U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen and his movement? Turkey is expecting him to be extradited. Could that happen? The Gülen movement is now officially considered a terrorist organization by Turkey’s national security council.
It is certainly true that Gülen lives in the U.S., in Pennsylvania. The view of the U.S. administration is that he is a private citizen living in the U.S.
Does this mean that the U.S. does not agree that he rules a terrorist organization?
If a request comes from Turkey to extradite him, it would be handled just like every other extradition request. The evidence should be viewed according to the principles in the U.S.
Are the Turkish elections a big source of interest in Washington these days?
I am not sure there is a broader interest in the country. But Turkey is a friend and a key ally of the U.S. so there will absolutely be interest in the election and attention will be paid in Washington.
Personally, I envy you and the very short campaign period. We have an election coming up next year in the U.S. and the campaigning has already begun. I am looking forward to seeing very high participation in the Turkish election, and I will watch the outcome with great fascination.