Transcript of Ambassador Bass’s Interview with Sabah Ankara Bureau Chief Okan Muderrisoglu and Daily Sabah Correspondent Ali Unal – January 12,

Ambassador Bass’s Interview with Sabah Ankara Bureau Chief Okan Muderrisoglu and Daily Sabah Correspondent Ali Unal

January 12, 2015

Muderrisoglu: During the tete-a-tete part of the meeting between President Erdogan and President Obama at the NATO Summit in Cardiff in September 2014, Fethullah Gulen’s extradition was discussed. While Erdogan emphasized that Gulen was “the leader of an organization” and called him “a national security problem”, Obama said, “We would take an issue that is a national security problem for you seriously, but concrete information and documents are needed.” Now, the judicial process concerning Gulen has started in Turkey and the court has issued an arrest warrant. What is the U.S. administration’s view regarding the extradition or deportation process of Pennsylvania-based Gulen? What does the expression “parallel state structure” mean to you? How do you materialize it?

Some circles in Turkey think that Gulen and CIA are connected. What do you think about that?

And also, is Fethullah Gulen an American citizen at the moment?

Ambassador Bass: First, before I get to the specific questions, let me thank you for coming to see me and sitting down to talk.  I think it is important for us to have opportunities to interact directly with journalists here in Turkey.  I have great respect for the profession and for the craft, and I know how important it is for you to be able to speak directly to senior officials and ambassadors, so I am glad we have this opportunity today.

Let me just, if I may, make a couple of observations about the overall relationship as we start the new year and then I will be happy to get to specific questions.

From my perspective after being here for about 3 months, and looking ahead, I do so very much from the perspective of a reminder to myself that I believe, and we believe, that we continue to believe, a strong, deep and enduring strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey.

As with every relationship, whether it is a relationship between governments, between individuals, between friends, in a family, no one agrees with each other a hundred percent of the time. And in this partnership, we have some areas where we see things a bit differently and we are going to continue this year to work on those areas to see if we can narrow our differences or at least better understand why we have these differences.

But even as we continue to work on those areas where we might have a little friction or some differences, there is a wide range of areas where we continue to cooperate very closely to the benefit of both countries and to many of our allies and partners.  The Turkish parliament’s decision to support deployment of Turkish troops to the training mission in Afghanistan just being the latest example of where Turkey is making a really important contribution to a shared priority between the United States and Turkey and with our other NATO allies.

I also think we have some great opportunities this year to further strengthen and deepen our partnership and relationship particularly in the areas of trade & investment, educational & scientific cooperation, depending on some of the choices that Turkey makes about the degree to which its economy going forward will be more globally integrated and open to foreign investment and increased trade, and to the extent to which it will be a welcoming environment for foreign companies who want to base some businesses here.

So, as I look at the year ahead, I see some really important opportunities for us to grow and deepen the relationship to an even greater extend, even while we continue to work on the very important set of issues and challenges and opportunities on which we are already working together.

With respect to your questions about Mr. Gulen, let us take your question with respect to his citizenship. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t believe he is a U.S. citizen but I want to confirm that for you.

With respect to any legal proceedings against Mr. Gulen, what I can say is that we take all extradition requests from foreign governments with whom we have the appropriate legal arrangements very seriously and we evaluate them very carefully to determine whether the case that is presented to us and the basis under which a foreign government is requesting extradition, how that matches up against U.S. law and whether we see violations of U.S. law within the presentation that we receive. As a matter of long-standing policy, we do not comment on individual extradition cases or hypothetical extradition cases as they apply to individuals.  So, I am afraid I cannot give you any more specifics with respect to a possible or an actual proceeding that could be underway.

With respect to your second question, it is quite clear to us, obviously, as observers of Turkish society and Turkish politics, that there is a very serious set of allegations and charges against a set of individuals some of whom were in the Turkish government, some of whom were outside of the Turkish government, concerning activities that, according to the allegations, were designed to undermine the Turkish state.  Those allegations and charges are obviously now part of a Turkish law enforcement and judicial process.  We very much respect that process, and because of our respect for that process and because this is from our perspective a Turkish process as it should be involving Turkish citizens in the Turkish judicial system.  I do not think it is appropriate for me to comment individually on the allegations. I would just say we believe that it is important that the process as it goes forward be fair and transparent so that the results of that process generate confidence in the Turkish public that it is a good, honest, effective judicial process, and that overall in addition to people having confidence in the outcome, they also have additional confidence in the judiciary and judicial system as well.

With respect to your third question which was?

Muderrisoglu: Some circles in Turkey think that Gulen and CIA are connected. What do you think about that? Is it a conspiracy theory?

Ambassador Bass:  I would very much see it as a conspiracy theory.  Look, I think when you look back at the history surrounding the end of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Turkish Republic, and the circumstances around that period and the attitudes and actions of some foreign governments during that period, I think it is understandable that there might still be some people in this society who immediately look abroad for an explanation as to why any events might be happening here inside Turkey, particularly when there is potential conflict between segments of society.  But obviously from my perspective, I approach it from looking at a deep, strong partnership that now has 62 years of us working very closely together on some very challenging issues. And frankly, I scratch my head in puzzlement, I guess, at some of what I might see or some of which is recounted to me as being out there [in the press]. With great respect for your profession, I think any reader of any newspaper or website that is providing news or opinion needs to be a bit skeptical about some of the things they read.

Muderrisoglu: Thank you for that part. The 100th anniversary of the incidents of 1915… The U.S. government prefers the expression “Great Calamity” despite Armenian allegations. Is there a change in this stance?

Ambassador Bass: What I would say today is, I think we have been quite clear most recently on Armenian Remembrance Day last year in characterizing our view of the terrible events and the circumstances around the terrible massacres and other tragedies and atrocities that happened in that period. I would also note, as we did at the time, and as I did when I was in front of the U.S. Senate before coming out here, that we continue to believe strongly that a full and frank review and acknowledgement of the facts surrounding those events is in the long-term interests of both Turkey and Armenia, and is in the interests of both societies and both governments to building the kind of long-term relationship that we believe is very much in the interest of both societies as well as our interest.

And so, our hope is that there will be additional discussion and reflection and hopefully action this year, building off of President Erdogan’s, then PM Erdogan’s very important and I would say historic statements last year to continue to make some progress towards that goal that we have identified as one we believe is very important. In other words, to take an ongoing conversation and review of the events of 1915 to move towards and hopefully achieve a full, frank acknowledgement of the facts and circumstances of that period.

Muderrisoglu: The Peace Process in Turkey has reached the final stage. How does the U.S. administration follow the process? Does it have any contribution or role to facilitate the process?

Ambassador Bass’s Interview with Sabah Ankara Bureau Chief Okan Muderrisoglu and Daily Sabah Correspondent Ali Unal
Ambassador Bass’s Interview with Sabah Ankara Bureau Chief Okan Muderrisoglu and Daily Sabah Correspondent Ali Unal

Ambassador Bass: First, let me say we approach this process with a fundamental understanding and respect that it is a Turkish process, a domestic process within Turkey. We very much support the process and support the objectives of the process which is bringing to a peaceful conclusion a terrible, enduring problem and conflict that has really had terrible consequences for Turkey and its society for over 30 years now.  So, if there are ways going forward that we can be helpful, we are certainly open to being helpful, but, first and foremost, we approach this with respect for the fact that it is fundamentally an internal, domestic matter for Turks to discuss and resolve.

Unal: Your excellency, in last November there was a discussion regarding a third part involvement to ongoing reconciliation process and even Cemil Bayik said that they would welcome U.S. involvement as a third party. So, would you comment on this issue?

Ambassador Bass: I would just point back to what I’ve just said that fundamentally, first and foremost, this is a domestic process. If, at some point, everyone involved in the process within Turkey concluded that we could be of benefit, we would certainly take that request very seriously and look at how we could contribute.  But in the absence of that sort of request…

Unal: Have you received any requests so far regarding this issue?

Ambassador Bass:  I certainly have not personally and I am not aware that we have received that kind of request in Washington.  And I think I would probably know.

Muderrisoglu: Terrorist organization DHKP-C, which conducted the bomb attack against U.S. Embassy Ankara, has been described as “a common enemy” for Washington as well. What kind of activities have been conducted so far in order to break down DHKP-C’s capacity to act? What is your level of cooperation with Ankara?

Ambassador Bass: Let me first express on behalf of all of my colleagues here at the embassy and the U.S. government our condolences to the family and friends of Officer Kumas who tragically lost his life in this latest attack.  We condemn yesterday’s attack, as well as the attempted attack last week outside of Dolmabahce.

As you know well, we have within our own embassy family here personally suffered from an attack by this organization which is a designated terrorist organization in the United States. We continue to work very closely and intensely with the appropriate authorities within the Turkish government to continue to reduce this organization’s capacity and ability to conduct attacks inside Turkey and to continue to reduce their space of operations or ability to plan activities from outside of Turkey. Obviously, in this case, notwithstanding our combined efforts, the organization was able to carry out this terrible attack and we are going to continue to work very closely and intensively with our partners here to try to ensure that there are no future attacks.

Muderrisoglu: We offer our condolences for that incident again, it was a very saddening incident.  We know that there is a serious intelligence activity aiming at reducing financial capacity, limiting monetary actions and preventing terrorists coming to Turkey from third countries particularly from Greece. Is there any further information on this issue?

Ambassador Bass:  Instead of speaking to specifics which, I would not want to compromise the effectiveness of what we are doing, I would just say, broadly speaking, that a key component of all of our efforts in the counter-terrorism sphere are to continue to reduce the ability of terrorist organizations to use financial networks that are established for peaceful purposes, normal banking systems, those kinds of things to move money and provide support for their planning and operations of any specific terrorist attacks and that applies across the board.  We obviously have a range of capabilities and information-sharing in a variety of fora both globally and within the region where we try to conduct that activity as well as bilaterally with the Turkish government and that is an important component of our ability and Turkey’s ability and other countries’ abilities to prevent these organizations from drawing on resources from a variety of places.

Muderrisoglu: PKK is still in the designated terrorist organizations list of the United States and under the current circumstances, will it remain in the list?

Ambassador Bass:  Yes.  We have no plans to reconsider our designation of the PKK at this point in time.

Muderrisoglu: Turkish-U.S. relations? Ambassador has touched on it in his opening remarks. Maybe he would have some additional sentences. What is the latest situation in U.S.-Turkey relations described as a “Model Partnership”? What constitutes a “Model Partnership”?

Ambassador Bass: I would go back to what I said at the outset which is we have, we continue to have a strong, enduring, deep partnership that enables us to work together to address a lot of different threats and challenges to our collective security.  Some of that we do through a NATO context as we are in Afghanistan, some of it we do through other organizations of like-minded countries such as the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum where the U.S. and Turkey have just concluded a period in which they co-chaired that forum which we found to be an important vehicle for helping countries that were facing and still are facing challenges from terrorism to develop their own capacity to confront and address some of those challenges themselves. There has been a lot of sharing of expertise in best practices and some training that has been given voluntarily from countries including the U.S. and Turkey, two partners who have a greater need for developing those capabilities within their own societies.

Turkey’s support for the Somali government and our common efforts to address the instability in the Horn of Africa and the ongoing threats from piracy in the waters of the Horn of Africa is another great example, as is Turkey’s ongoing willingness to train, in the future, general forces for a future Libyan armed forces.

So these are just some of the ways in which we are working to address problems that threaten us from outside the immediate geography of our traditional alliance, to try to get at them in places where they currently exist to ensure that they do not become greater threats that we have to address in the future.

And from my perspective one of the, I think, most important facets of a model partnership is the ability not simply to work on and react to today’s challenges but to work together to prevent tomorrow’s challenges from taking route.

Unal: Recently Victoria Nuland said that although we have a strategic partnership, or if you call it model parnership, there are tactical differences. From your point of view, what are those tactical differences?

Ambassador Bass: Well, as I said at the outset, in any relationship, in any partnership the two parties in that relationship do not agree a hundred percent of the time and you are always going to have some differences. We currently, I think, have some differences of view about the best way to look at a set of complex, interlocking problems in Syria and Iraq – where from our perspective, we believe that DAESH poses the most acute threat to the stability of Iraq and, by extension, the broader context for the conflict in Syria.  And we think that, and are acting accordingly, to try to address that most acute threat as we see it.  However, even while we are focused on that, I think it is important to remember that we have a lot of common perspective on the crisis in Syria.  Both governments believe that there is, in the long term, not going to be a military solution to this conflict.  Both governments are committed to a diplomatic process that achieves a political settlement on the basis of the Geneva Communique and those fundamental principles.  Both governments are working very hard with the Syrian opposition to continue to develop its capacity; to conduct the negotiations when they occur; to realize that settlement based on those principles; and both governments are continuing to provide a wide range of support to Syrian opposition groups inside Syria who are defending themselves against attacks from the Asad regime and defending their villages and homes, and to enable them to continue to make progress on the battlefield in order to get us to a political negotiation for settlement.

Unal:  As you know, it’s been announced yesterday that U.S. and Turkey agreed to start training of the FSA army. So starting from this point, can we say that Turkey and U.S. narrowed tactical differences on Syria issue?

Ambassador Bass: I would say that what you just cited which is our ongoing conversation to work out the details for how we are going to go about training and equiping elements of the Syrian opposition here in Turkey, are an important part of our cooperation in Syria and an impormant area where we share a common perspective and are committed to working together to realize that objective of increasing the capacity of the Syrian opposition to address the threats it faces whether they come from ISIL or from the regime.

Muderrisoglu: Although the U.S. and Turkey state that Asad regime has lost its legitimacy in Syria, why is there still difference of opinion in basic topics such as buffer zone, no-fly zone?  What kind of an agreement has been achieved between Turkey and the U.S. for the start of Train & Equip process?  When will the activities start?  What will be the U.S. contribution?

Ambassador Bass: Let me say as I just noted that we are continuing  to work out the practical details of how we are going to conduct this training, and how we are going to go about equipping these elements that we train so that the net result at the end of this process is a capable force that has an impact on the ground in Syria. Obviously, there are a lot of details involved in that process from the starting point of identifying the right people to train and then going through a training process and then ensuring that that cohort that is trained is capable of defending itself and capable of having an impact on the battlefield in Syria.  I am confident we are going to work through the remaining details we have which are primarily conversations between military professionals who are going to be conducting the training on a timeframe that is going to enable us to get started in the near future.  I cannot predict a particular date because it is a pretty complex process.  And with respect to details about the program I think we will have to wait until we are actually started before we are going to be in a position to provide you with some of that granularity, if you will.

Muderrisoglu: Would it be optimistic to expect a development in issues such as buffer zone and no-fly zone in the near future?

Ambassador Bass: I would say that we continue to discuss the Turkish government’s concept so that we can better understand it in all its complexity. The terms that are used, and there are several terms that tend to get used interchangeably, mean very different things from a legal basis and have very different practical constructs for how they would be implemented, as well as potential consequences for civilian populations in an area that would be covered by that construct.  So, from our perspective it is very important to understand to a really fine degree of detail conceptually what these concepts mean and how they would be applied and then to think about how they would potentially contribute to changing the situation on the ground.  At this point, I would say that we are continuing to have those conversations with the Turkish government in order to better understand this broad set of possibilities.

Muderrisoglu: The U.S. administration has presented some opportunities to PKK’s Syria branch PYD, including military equipment, on the assertion that “Kobane will fall” and this choice has drawn the reaction of Ankara. What is the latest situation?

Ambassador Bass: First let me say that one of the fundamental tenants of our policy in Syria is that we believe a future Syria needs to be democratic and unified. And that the future Syrian state should be a unified Syria that is governed by a democratic government from Damascus – or wherever the Syrian people may choose to put their capital. I’m making an assumption that it would be Damascus because that has, of course, been the Syrian capital.

We believe that all of those groups that we see opposing the Asad regime, most importantly those groups within moderate Syrian opposition, but other groups that potentially could support the Syrian opposition. We believe those groups should also have this vision for the future and we continue to call on them to commit themselves to a future Syria that is both unified and democratic. I think it is important to remember that that is one of the things that we are expecting from the wide range of Syrian opposition groups, including the PYD –to the extent it characterizes itself as a Syrian opposition group.

With respect to Kobane, I would note that Kobane from our perspective, became an important area of conflict with ISIL, with DAESH, because DAESH chose to put so much of its force into that geography and it has given us an opportunity to reduce their capabilities and reduce the number of fighters it has at its disposal because they have been insisting on conducting operations in that area. So from our perspective, Kobane over the past couple of months, has been an important place in which we have been able to: number 1, hold ISIL’s advance; number 2, reduce its capacity to continue to extend the range of territory that it occupies and the range of resources within that territory that it can exploit; number 3, begin to shift the momentum in the other direction. I know some people look at Kobane in isolation, as an individual place. I think it is important to put what has happened, and is happening, in Kobane with the support of the peshmerga contingent there, in a larger context of what is also happening in places like Sinjar, Baiji and in Anbar province and in some other places where the many elements of the coalition that are involved in supporting both the Iraqi security forces and the KRG security forces and other elements in their fight against ISIL. We cannot take these pieces in isolation; they are part of an overall plan and effort to reduce ISIL’s capacity and to reduce the amount of geography in which it is operating.

Muderrisoglu: Is ISIL still is a threat with more priority when compared to Asad for the U.S.? Is it still considered that the fight against DAESH (ISIL) will yield results through air strikes? Are there new military and diplomatic options on the table?

Ambassador Bass: The fight against DAESH is an effort that involves many different pieces. Air strikes are only one component. They have been an important component in this initial phase of our coalition efforts at reducing ISIL’s ability to maneuver, to concentrate forces in specific areas and to expand the geography that it controls.  It has never been our expectation, and I think if you go back and look at the comments from any range of American senior military and political officials, you will not find someone saying that air strikes will solve this problem.  What you will find is people saying that air strikes are and have been an important first step in reducing ISIL’s capacity and its ability to continue to expand and maintain control over the territory it’s had.  While we have engaged in this first phase, which has included a lot of air strikes, we also have been working with the Iraqi government and with the government in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, to expand in some cases and other cases develop and begin new training programs so that they can generate and be able to employ on the ground, the security forces that will be neccessary to take back territory from DAESH and to hold that territory and to enable communities that have been devastated by DAESH to reconstitute, and for people to resume their lives in those areas. That is going to take some time but we are going to be persistant and continue to stay focused on it. So air strikes are only one piece of what we are doing. And we continue to work closely with all of our coalition partners including the government of Turkey to work on all of the efforts to address this problem.

Press Attache Wierichs: I think we have time for just one more.

Muderrisoglu: Islamophobia and increasing racism, let us talk about that. Today for example, there has been an attack in Paris. Then we will ask one more question.

Ambassador Bass: We of course oppose any discrimination against any population or set of individuals based on their faith or their ethnic identity or their expressed political views or views on any given topic. It always concerns us when individuals or groups are subject to intimidation or prosecution based on their religious identity, their expression of faith, their expression of opinions about world events or events in whatever particular country they live in, that are enformed by their religious faith. That is true in America, it is true in Europe and it is true in Turkey. If you look back at our annual assessments or human rights report or religious freedom report, we are pretty clear when we see those kind of instances and are concerned about them. And that applies to cases in which people who are adherents of Islam, find themselves in those circumstances. I think the challenging aspect to any individual instance of persecution or violence that stems from faith, is not simply to focus on that particular instance but to look at the reactions it engenders in a wider society at a particular point in time. For example in Germany, we have seen some disturbing incidents but I think it is also important to remember that we have seen a very strong reaction from the German government and from many people across German society who are equally disturbed by those incidents and who are committed to ensuring that that does not become a dominant narrative or a dominant school of thought within their own societies. I think whether it is in Turkey, Germany or in the United States, all of us who believe strongly in the fundamental  tenants of democratic governance have an obligation and who have a commitment to universal human values, we have an obligation to live those values in our societies and to speak out and act when we see those values being threatened within our socieities. And I hope that will continue to be the case in every society where we see these instances whether it is Islamophobia, whether it is anti-Semitism, whether it is a dominant political party or school of thought intimidating a minority group with a different school of political thought.

Muderrisoglu: There is an ongoing debate about media and expression freedom in Turkey. What does the ambassador think of the freedom of media and expression debate and about this debate being connected to President Erdogan’s attitude and statements?

Ambassador Bass: I think it is an important debate and it is important that the debate occur and be able to occur without perspectives on one side of the debate, or the other, feeling that they cannot speak freely because of fear of repurcussions. We believe strongly, I think you know, that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are cornerstones of any healthy vibrant democratic society. And we have a saying in the States that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”; and one of the most important checks on governments’ ability to act without regard for consequences, or without regard for the perspectives and opinions of citizens, is the media’s ability to investigate stories, to present their findings and to inform and educate the public about what is going on. So from our perspective, it is really important that any society include an ability for media outlets across the spectrum, to be able to operate on an equal footing, to have equal access, if you will, to government officials, government institutions and information about what is happening in society and to be able to make those views public and inform their readership in the free marketplace of ideas, if you will.

Muderrisoglu: I would be happy if you could add an assessment of Putin’s latest visit and the situation in Ukraine.

Ambassador Bass: I would just say quickly about Ukraine, we continue to believe strongly that all states in Europe should have the freedom to choose their own futures and an important part of that is to choose the types of relationships, whether its political, economic, diplomatic or security, that they have with other states. That has been a fundemental tenant of our policy since the end of the Cold War and frankly, since before the end of the Cold War. And has been part of what we have worked together so strongly with Turkey and our NATO allies and partners across the region, to do over the last 25 years. So it is in that context that we have been so disturbed by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and by its behavior in Eastern Ukraine; and why we have imposed along with the European Union some fairly strong sanctions against sectors in Russia and individuals in Russia, who are responsible for a lot of this behavior. We very much hope that we will see full implementation of the Minsk Agreement even while we continue to call on the Russian government to end its illegal annexation of Crimea.

Muderrisoglu: Thank you. Should we expect any high level military or diplomatic visits from the U.S.?

Ambassador Bass: I think you can expect to see the same kind of pace and interaction and engagement between our two governments in the coming year that we have seen in the previous years. Last year featured some important interactions between our leadership whether here in Turkey, or in the U.S., or in other places. I expect that will continue to be the case this year.

(Published in Sabah: