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Turkish foreign minister to ERR: Better relations with Russia not influencing relations with NATO allies

Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who will arrive for a visit to Estonia tomorrow Thursday, said in an interview with ERR on Wednesday that Turkey’s improved relations with Russia didn’t signify a policy shift in the country’s foreign policy.

Turkey’s relations to its NATO allies, Estonia among them, were still strong. In the matter of the crises in Iraq and Syria, Turkey supported the political and territorial unity of both countries, Çavuşoğlu said.

ERR: In recent months, bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia have seen a noticeable warming. How should these developments be interpreted in Estonia? What impact do they have, for example, on Turkey-U.S. relations, and Turkey’s role in the NATO alliance?

Çavuşoğlu: Turkey has a multidimensional foreign policy. We are a NATO member, but also continue to develop our relations with all our neighbors and partners, including Russia.

We are indeed closing the post-Nov. 24 episode with Russia. As of today, bilateral relations are almost fully normalized, except for a few remaining issues.

Normalization with Russia is an issue that is often taken out of proportion. Six months ago, many of our friends were saying “normalize with Russia”. Now that we are normalizing, we hear these comments about “Turkey is getting too close to Russia”. We are not changing our fundamental foreign policy orientation. We are simply getting back to where we were with Russia before Nov. 24.

We need to look at the big picture here. The importance of dialogue between Ankara and Moscow is obvious in light of the crises in our region and beyond. Increased interaction among stakeholders can only contribute to our common objectives, including the goals we all share as NATO allies.

From the beginning, we have always supported a meaningful dialogue with the Russian Federation, both bilaterally and through NATO. We need to restore confidence-building measures to enhance mutual trust.

With this understanding, we see the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) as an important platform for dialogue. The current volatile security environment requires increased dialogue and cooperation from all related stakeholders.

It is no secret that we are going through a delicate time in our relations with the US because of FETÖ and US support for PYD/YPG. But as before, the Turkey-US alliance remains robust, relevant and resilient.

The truth is the U.S. and Russia are not each other’s alternatives for Turkey. Therefore, restoring our ties with Russia will certainly not have any impact on Turkish-American relations.

The US, just like Estonia, is our NATO ally and our commitment to NATO remains unchanged.

One matter where Turkey communicates inevitably both with the U.S. and Russia is Syria. What is Turkey’s main objective in Syria? In other words, what would be the most ideal solution for the Syrian conflict in the eyes of Ankara?

The conflict in Syria is now in its sixth year. Its consequences have been catastrophic: Half a million killed, millions displaced internally and over five million Syrians have sought refuge in other countries. Turkey is directly impacted by every dynamic of this conflict. So, our major objective is to stop the bloodshed, ensure unhindered humanitarian access and pave the way for a credible political process for a stable, united, democratic and prosperous Syria.

We are supporting the territorial integrity and political unity of Syria. From the outset, Turkey has been actively involved in the efforts to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria. To end the conflict, there must be a genuine political transition process leading to a new constitution and free and fair elections whereby the people of Syria can fully express themselves. This cannot happen with Assad. He has been systematically killing and starving civilians, destroying entire cities to cling to power.

We are all witnessing the tragedy in Aleppo. Peace and stability cannot be reinstated in Syria unless the legitimate demands of the Syrian people are met. The international community must work together to bring about the much needed political transition. With this objective in mind, Turkey is cooperating with both the U.S. and Russia on Syria. We have a common interest to bring peace and stability to Syria through a genuine political transition. This is not only a prerequisite to end the conflict, it is also essential to effectively fight terrorism. The regime helped create the terrorist organizations operating in Syria today. It then forced the burden of dealing with these terrorists on the shoulders of the international community along with the refugee problem. Only a legitimate government, embraced by the Syrian people, could truly fight terrorism.

Iraq is also fighting against terrorism and Turkey is actively involved there as well. The same question for Iraq: ideally, what should Iraq’s future look like?

Iraq is very important for the stability and prosperity of our region. Presence of terrorist organizations in Iraq has direct consequences on the regional and international security. Defeating this terrorist organization is not enough for Iraq to achieve lasting peace and stability. The Iraqi people have to build a politically stable, economically prosperous state in order not to allow terrorist organizations to exploit Iraq’s territorial integrity in the future.

Iraq’s ethno-sectarian diversity which is its strongest asset has to be preserved. For a stable and secure Iraq, no single sect or ethnic group should dominate the country. We believe that a functioning federalism, as stated in its Constitution, where fair power and revenue sharing is guaranteed is the only way to address Iraq’s structural problems. This is also the best formula to keep this country united. The Iraqi Government should strive more to conduct the necessary reforms and implement policies that will gain the confidence of the disenfranchised segments of the Iraqi society, mainly the Sunnis and the Kurds.

As its neighbor and as a member of the International Coalition against DEASH, we will continue to help our Iraqi brothers rebuild their country with its rich history, diverse ethnic and religious composition and enormous natural resources.

It has been pointed out both in the case of Syria and Iraq that the boundaries of these countries at the time occurred in a way which did not take into account the interests of all local people and thus there has been speculation that in the result of current ongoing conflicts Syria and Iraq might disintegrate. What is the position of Turkey in this matter? Has Ankara considered the possibility that a new neighboring state could emerge in the territory of Syria and Iraq? What would be Turkey’s reaction?

Turkey is supporting the territorial integrity and political unity of Syria and committed to it. This is an important principle underlined by the Geneva Communiqué and the UN Security Council resolution 2254. The conflict needs to be ended through a political process in which there will be a political transition, a new constitution and election. Structure of government is an issue that Syrians themselves will take up when they will be drafting the new constitution after the political transition. Any declarations, moves or steps for any type of governance structure by any actor would therefore be invalid. Moreover, the Syrian opposition with representatives from every ethnic and religious group, including the Kurds, that makes up the Syrian society have shown that they are fully capable and willing to continue their coexistence, free from all sectarian divisions and pressures.

We remain firmly committed to the preservation of the territorial integrity and unity of Iraq. These are the fundamental principles in our bilateral relations. Furthermore, Iraq’s integrity is essential for the regional dynamics. Threats to Iraq’s territorial integrity would potentially disrupt the current dynamics in favor of other regional countries. The only way to maintain the unity of Iraq is devolution of more power to the local administrations and functioning federalism.

Following question is directly linked to the previous one. In February this year, the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan Massud Barzani, who is known to have good relations with Turkey, announced that the time has come for a referendum on statehood. In the long term, would Turkey be ready to accept the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in the territory of Iraq or Syria or both of them, provided that one, the new state does not infringe Turkey’s territorial integrity and two, PKK has nothing to do with the creation and management of this state? Or is Turkey fundamentally opposed to any independent Kurdish state wherever it may occur?

I would like to reiterate my answer to the previous question: Turkey strongly supports the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria. Therefore we are against pursuance of any unilateral agenda in Syria that would go against the main principles that we all subscribed to in Geneva Communiqué and UNSC Resolution 2254. What needs to be done in Syria is to have a genuine political transition, making the new constitution and holding free and fair elections. Syrians will ultimately decide the rights and liberties of all Syrians in this process. Nobody should be allowed to sabotage this whole process by unilaterally acting on their own. It is incumbent upon the international community to prevent one ethnic group from expanding territory at the expense of other ethnic groups, by resorting to violence, suppression and forced displacement. Fanning ethnic strife will only prolong and further complicate the conflict in Syria.

And as I said earlier, our policy is clear that we support the unity and integrity of Iraq. On the other hand, the KRG controls the other side of our common border with Iraq. Any instability and insecurity in that region would directly impact Turkey. We also have strong economic bonds with the KRG. Therefore we develop our relations with the KRG in line with the Iraqi Constitution.

We believe that any decision about the future of Iraq should be taken by Iraqi people through dialogue and consensus. Nobody should impose their own plans and views for the future of Iraq through fait accompli.

Terrorist organizations such as DEASH and PKK as well as the failures of the Iraqi authorities to address the legitimate concerns of the disaffected segments of the society are the main obstacles to the vision of a unified and stable Iraq. Therefore, we should focus on overcoming these threats and concentrate our efforts to the creation of an inclusive Iraq.

Does Turkey still have the goal to join the European Union?

Membership to the EU is a strategic choice for Turkey and there is no deviation from this strong political will. However, Turkey has been subject to the longest accession process in the EU history. To date, only 16 chapters out of the 35 have been opened. 14 chapters are blocked due to artificially created political reasons. Our main expectation is that the accession negotiations are conducted and concluded as a technical process without being subjected to artificially created obstacles. 

We continue to uphold our commitments to the EU, aim for full membership and hope that the EU also does the same. Therefore, according to the understanding reached during the Turkey-EU Summit in November 2015, we expect to see the concrete results of the preparatory work carried out by the Commission for the opening of 5 more chapters. (15-Energy, 23-Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, 24-Justice, Freedom and Security, 26-Education and Culture and 31-Foreign, Security and Defence Policy). We resolutely continued reform efforts, in parallel with the expectations of the Turkish people and within the harmonization work with the EU acquis.

On the other hand, the EU itself turned anti-enlargement arguing that enlargement brought a heavy burden on the EU. This wrong assessment took away the most valuable asset in the possession of the EU: its soft power. If the EU wants to be an influential actor in the global arena, it needs to keep its doors wide open.

So, what we want to see clearly are positive messages, more balanced and attentive approaches from EU leaders in order to sustain the Turkish nation’s belief in the EU accession, which Turkey has pursued since application for membership in 1987.

As in the case of migration crisis, Turkey proved to be the key strategic partner for the EU. Hence, improving Turkey-EU relations with a long-term strategic perspective, without being overwhelmed by populist views and short-sighted political gains, is vitally important not only for two sides but also for the whole region.

What are Turkey’s current reproaches to the European Union regarding the implementation of the migrant deal? Is there a risk of Turkey abandoning the agreement?

Although the 18 March Agreement has been built upon Turkey’s initiative, it is based on commitments by the EU and by Turkey. So far, Turkey delivered on all her promises. Since 4 April when the Agreement has been activated, we have taken back 698 irregular migrants from the Greek islands and resettled 1.996 Syrians to the EU Member States. We stabilized irregular crossings in the Aegean Sea and thus prevented since 18 March around 500.000 migrants from illegally entering the EU via Turkey.

Once the shortcomings on the Greek islands regarding some administrative and legal procedures are eliminated, the Agreement will be fully functional. These shortcomings being largely put forward in the latest report of the European Commission on the 18 March Agreement dated 28 September, should be carefully dealt by the EU and Greece. Despite some deficiencies in the implementation, through the 18 March Agreement we achieved our objectives, namely to stop loss of lives at sea, crush the migrant smugglers networks and replace illegal migration with legal migration. So far, all the stakeholders of the Agreement owe this success to Turkey’s huge efforts.

As the Agreement has been built on mutual commitments, now we expect the EU to address its pledges. First, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens should be granted at the earliest. We have fulfilled almost all the benchmarks of the Visa Liberalization Roadmap. In the decision-making process, the EU should take into account the heavy burden Turkey assumed in the bilateral cooperation on migration. Our visa liberalization process should not be hostage to any obstacle.

Then, the Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme that was promised by the EU should be launched without delay. This will further strengthen the “legal” nature of the Aegean as a safe route towards the EU.

We also expect for concrete steps from the EU side on the swift transfer of 3 billion Euros for Syrians in Turkey and other commitments indicated in the 18 March Agreement.

If the EU is not keen on delivering on its promises, we will not be eager to continue to cover unilaterally the elements of the Agreement. Every cooperation involves more than one player and is based on trust. Once the other player does not assume its obligations, this cooperation fails with all its elements.

Much has been said about the possibility that after military defeat in Syria and Iraq ISIS could go more “underground” and start organizing more terror acts in Turkey and the EU. How likely do you consider such a scenario and how this could be prevented? What would Turkey – as a country that has more experience in fighting against terrorism – recommend to its European counterparts? How to fight terrorism, how to prevent radicalization, how to recognize potential terrorist from among true refugees?

Turkey has begun to counter the threat of foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) since 2011 and called for source countries to take necessary legal and administrative measures to prevent departure and travel of FTFs from their countries. In this regard, we have been stressing the importance of cooperation and information sharing.

Turkey is at the forefront of DEASH/ISIL threat, and has been seeing the most ruthless face of terrorism of DEASH. The bomb attacks of the terrorist organization took 254 lives of our citizens and left hundreds of people wounded.

Defeating DEASH militarily doesn’t mean that the threat arising from ISIL or FTFs is over; for it is highly likely that DEASH and its ideology will continue to exist in other shapes or forms. This means that the nature of the threat is evolving. We must anticipate the future challenges and shape our responses accordingly.

Now, we must be prepared for the challenges posed by returnees and by those who have been radicalized in their countries of origin but have not yet travelled to the conflict zones. We must approach the issue in a cohesive and multi-dimensional manner.

In this context the monitoring/surveillance and eventual prosecution of returnees is of crucial importance. We should also promote policies for the rehabilitation of those who are radicalized. We should aim to obtain and share critical information from all returnees, and prevent new recruitments. We must develop and implement policies to prevent radicalization of those who are vulnerable. In order to be able to achieve all these objectives, cooperation and information sharing is even more crucial than ever before.

We expect the EU member states to be fully aware of this threat and commit to sincere cooperation and information sharing.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn

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