Ambassador John Bass First TV Interview in Turkey

Ambassador John Bass First TV Interview in Turkey

February 6, 2015

[Transcript of the TV interview Ambassador John Bass made with NTV which was broadcasted on February 6, 2015]

Deniz Kilislioğlu: [Introductory remarks in Turkish] Turkey and the United States of America are model partners; there are cooperation obligations in a lot of areas for both sides.  However, disagreements on issues such as Syria persist.  Have the relations been cooling recently?  Is Turkey, despite disagreements on issues such as Syria, still strategic partners with the United States?  Clearly, another important issue which is a question mark is Fethullah Gülen.  Turkey has made its request for extradition. However, an official document is still to be sent to the United States.  What is the United States’ attitude going to be?  Now the answer to this question is a matter of concern, with regard to the relations between two countries.  We will get the answers to these questions from the most authorized individual.  Our guest is Ambassador of the United States to Ankara, Turkey, John Bass.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us.  We have got a lot of issues that we need to talk about, but I would like to start with the Turkish- U.S. relationship.  We know that Turkey and the United States are model partners, but at the same time, there are various issues like Syria over which the two countries have a kind of disagreement.  When you compare with the past, how can you define the Turkish – U.S. relations?  Can you say that the two countries are still strategic partners?

Ambassador Bass: Well Deniz, first off, let me thank you for having me today.  I am really delighted to be here.  With respect to your question, Turkey remains one of the most important partners the United States has in the world.  This relationship is one of our most important bilateral relationships.  For 60 years this relationship has been grounded in the work we have done together as allies and strategic partners, to address one of the fundamental principles which is defending and promoting the right of people in all societies, to have the freedom to choose their own futures.  We have had a lot of success through the Cold War defending that principle, and, in the post-Cold War era, promoting the advancement of that principle and creating a new set of relationships in Europe that enabled the people of Eastern and Central Europe to choose their futures.  Now, today, north of Turkey, and certainly south of Turkey, we see threats to that principle, a push on that principle in many different ways from governments and from non-governmental actors.  And that is all the more reason why it is important for us to continue to work together.  We do have our differences sometimes on tactics and on priorities. But that is why we continue to work so closely together to address them.  Because we believe we are always stronger when we work together.

Deniz Kilislioğlu: Can you say Turkey and the U.S. are still strategic partners?  You talked about the past, but can you say that right now that the two countries are strategic partners?

Ambassador Bass:  I can.  We are still strategic partners.  As I said, we have differences over tactics. We have differences over relative priorities of some of the threats we face.  But the things that we share in common are still fundamentals and they are the foundation of the relationship.

Deniz Kilislioğlu: We are going to talk about those tactics and priorities, but I would like to talk about high level dialogues.  When we look at the past, Turkey’s President Erdogan had a close relationship with Mr. Obama, one of the closest.  Maybe we could count him in the top five leaders. But it seems like nowadays the two presidents do not have a close relationship anymore.  Do you agree with that? If so, what is the problem?

Ambassador Bass: I think there is always a tendency to try to evaluate a relationship between two countries, two societies, two peoples, through a very narrow prism of how often their leaders talk on the phone.  The reality is that every day our two governments work very closely together on a very wide range of issues.  This weekend in Munich, I am sure there is going to be some interaction between senior officials from both governments as there was in London two weeks ago and as there is every week.  So I think it is important not to focus too much on any one individual piece.  The two presidents talk when they feel a need to do so when the circumstances and issues are such that they need to have that direct personal connection.

Deniz Kilislioğlu: I would like to talk about an issue which is really important for Turkey and there are a lot of debates about it:  Fethullah Gülen issue.  We know that Turkish officials, Turkish authorities cancelled his passport and the Turkish side declared this to the United States.  What will be the next step?  I am just asking technically.  As far as we know, he has a green card, but since he does not have a Turkish passport does he have to renew his application for the green card?  What will be the procedure for that?

Ambassador Bass: Let me say that with respect to any individual’s status in the United States, that is something that is bound by our policies regarding an individual’s right to privacy. So I cannot speak to that specific case. What I can tell you is that any interaction surrounding an individual that is of interest to one of our allies, or strategic partners, is bound by the legal framework – in this case a treaty between the United States and Turkey – about how we handle those matters.

Deniz Kilislioğlu: Does Fethullah Gülen issue fit on that agreement? Because, the Turkish side announced and declared that the U.S. has obligations and responsibilities according to this agreement.  Do you believe that the Fethullah Gülen issue is fitting on that agreement?

Ambassador Bass: I cannot, as I said, comment specifically about an individual.  What I can tell you is that in every case in which one of our allies and partners presents a request for extradition, or a request for a legal proceeding against one of their nationals who is present in the United States, we look at that and evaluate it very carefully, very rigorously involving two of our three separate but co-equal branches of government – in this case the ministry of justice and the court system.  And we would evaluate the evidence that was presented and make a determination.

Deniz Kilislioğlu: You have not received a written court decision, right?  As the United States?

Ambassador Bass: As I said, we do not, as a matter of policy, comment on any specific case but I am describing for you the framework in which we would evaluate any request we received.

Deniz Kilislioğlu: You do not want to talk about too many details on this issue but do you see any risk for the relations?

Ambassador Bass: I think every time in either society there is an issue that is getting a great deal of attention from governments and particularly from the media and where there is a lot of public interest, there is always a risk that actions will be misinterpreted, and I would say that is why from our perspective it is very important that everyone involved in a process be making judgments and making assessments of that situation based on fact, not opinion.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  OK.  Another issue about Turkey, if you would allow me, I would like to ask about an internal issue.  Since you are a U.S. Ambassador and Turkey is debating adapting the Turkish administrative system into a presidential one like the United States, how do you follow the discussions in Turkish politics? I mean, when you think about the U.S. presidential system, what are the strengths and weaknesses of that?  Do you recommend that kind of system for Turkey?

Ambassador Bass:  As you noted, it is an internal matter.  It is an issue for Turkish citizens to decide.  It properly, from our perspective, should be a matter of public discussion and debate and one that involves respect for a wide range of views as possible changes are considered and evaluated in society.  From our perspective, we have a system that is a result of 238 years of experimentation and refinement in our system.  It works very well for us although we from time to time continue to debate changes to our own system.  Why does it work so well for us?  It works so well for us because we have created a system in which we have three separate but co-equal branches of government, with a fairly rigorous set of checks and balances so that power is distributed across all three branches.  Our president is our head of state and our head of government.  But he does not exercise full power to do anything, anywhere, at any time.  He is bound by a set of laws, he has to live within the budget that is approved by the Congress, and his actions are subject to oversight and scrutiny by the United States Congress.  So, for us, we have found that to be a very effective system, and, obviously, if others see value in our structures for their societies, that is a matter for them to decide.

Deniz Kilislioğlu: OK. Let us talk a little bit about foreign policy issues. There is a core issue that has been going on for more than four years: Syria.  We know that the U.S. and Turkey have different approaches on that. But there have been ongoing talks about equipping & training the Syrian moderate opposition.  It has been a couple of months right now and we did not see any deal or agreement.  Why is that?  What is the problem?

Ambassador Bass:  Let me first remind your viewers that the United States and Turkey agree on quite a bit with respect to Syria.  We both agree that Assad has lost all legitimacy and that he cannot be part of a future democratic Syria.  We agree that ultimately there is no military solution to this conflict, that there must be a political solution according to the principles of the Geneva Communique from a couple of years ago.  And we both agree that one of the important ways to get to that negotiated political solution is to continue to support and strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition, as you mentioned.  The process through which we do that, in what is an active conflict with many contesting parties, is complicated and fraught with peril for the individuals involved.  So we are taking a very methodical, thorough approach to ensuring that when we do start this new additional effort to train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition, it can be successful.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  You said that Asad has lost legitimacy.  What is a priority is an important issue, because we heard from the U.S. side that countering terrorism and fighting against ISIL is the priority.  Is that still a disagreement with Turkey? Because, Turkey wants to target the Asad regime and it thinks “what is going to happen if we get rid of ISIL, then the Asad regime will take their place”.  There are some arguments about it.  Do you still have that disagreement about priorities?

Ambassador Bass: These are a set of complex interlocking problems that we face.  From our perspective, we believe that the most acute threat we face and that the region faces right now is the threat posed by DAESH.  That’s why we are putting such a weight of effort behind supporting all of those parties in the region who are working through the coalition to combat this problem, to increase support to the Iraqi government, to increase support to those elements in Syria that are already fighting DAESH and prepared to do more in that fight, even as we continue to take steps to strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition to pressure the Asad regime to come back to the table.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  I would like to talk about the talks a little bit more.  Are we – Turkey and the U.S.- going to sign an agreement in the near future? How are the talks are going?

Ambassador Bass: As I said, we are continuing to work through some very complicated details that are involved anytime you are training people to use lethal force.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  What kind of details?

Ambassador Bass: Well, it is a matter for our militaries and the professionals involved to sort out the various responsibilities for which party is going to be doing which piece of the training as well as all the logistics involved in moving people from various places to where they needed.  I do not want to put a specific date on when we will sign it.  I am hopeful that it will be quite soon.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  We just want to make something clear, we know that Turkey has put a condition about the no-fly zone and also safe havens.  Does Turkey put also equip & train program into this package?  Does Turkey see that as a full package?  We want to understand that, because there were some debates in Turkey that the reason for not signing the equip & train agreement is because the conditions are not being covered by the United States.  Do you agree so? Do you see it as a package?

Ambassador Bass:  You need to ask my counterparts and colleagues in Turkish government about their views on how these things fit together.  I would say, we are continuing to work very closely with Turkey, with other allies, with members of the London Eleven, to find the best mix of pressure and action that we can all take to get us to a political solution in Syria.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  You do not want to get into too much detail in technical talks, but did the U.S. demand from Turkey to use the İncirlik Base?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, as we have with all of the other members of the coalition, we look at the contribution each member can potentially make.  Whether it is equipment, whether it is facilities, whether it is training and other expertise.  We are certainly looking for as much support as we can get from as many members of the coalition, as are willing to contribute.  But ultimately it is up to each member of the coalition to make their own decisions about what contributions are in their interest in and what is possible for them to do within their own national security priorities.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  Okay, you said “the acute threat for us is the fight against terrorism” and you talked about DAESH.  But there are discussions in several countries including Turkey which sometimes blame the U.S. in this term. Turkey believes that these terrorist organizations are not the result. I mean, because there are some important reasons for these terrorist organizations (to be) created in the region.  Turkey sometimes blames the United States, we heard Turkish officials saying “if the United States gave full support to democratic processes in the Arab Spring, then the atmosphere and the picture would be different”.  What would you say about this argument?

Ambassador Bass:  I would say a couple things.  First, I think our record of support for people of this region seeking to choose their own futures has been quite strong through this period.  I have to say I am disturbed by some of what I read and hear in the Turkish press from many people in this society alleging or asserting that somehow Western policy or attitudes in United States or in Europe are responsible for the rise of this group of people who are hijacking a religion for their own cynical, violent political ends.  And again, I think this is an issue where it is useful to take a look at the facts and not simply concentrate on opinion.  The fact of the matter are that the United States spends $7 billion a year in foreign assistance to five Muslim majority nations.  Five of our top six recipients of U.S. foreign assistance are Muslim nations.  So, the notion that this is somehow the result of a perspective in the United States that opposes Islam simply could not be further from the truth.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  Turkish Land Forces Commander Hulusi Akar was awarded with the Legion of Merit and this created a discussion in Turkey a couple of days ago as it was presented by General Odierno. Turkish public has a high sensitivity about General Odierno.  We know that, if not please correct me, he was awarded by the United States because his efforts in Syria.  Is it right that it was the reason Hulusi Akar was awarded, because of the efforts in Syria?  And what is your comment on all that reaction to the award ceremony?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, I was not here last week I was in Washington actually. So, I missed the debate so I have to say I am not in a position to really comment on that aspect.  What I can say is that we frequently bestow awards from our military to members of foreign militaries who we believe have made strong contributions across their careers to the strength of our relationship and to joint actions that we sometimes undertake together.  Whether it is through the construct of the NATO Alliance, whether it is in places like Afghanistan under the international security assistance forces, and things like that.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  I would like to talk about the peace process in Turkey. It is not just Turkey’s issue but there are also some legs in Syria and Iraq, so this process is important for this region.  How do you follow this process?  How do you see the talks when you look from the U.S. perspective?  Are you hopeful as the United States?  Do you think that this time it is going to end with peace?

Ambassador Bass: I certainly hope so and we continue to strongly support the process.  We think it is important to find a way to bring this terrible conflict which has inflicted so much pain and suffering on the people of Turkey to a close, and we are ready to provide support at any time if the parties involved in the process would like that. But otherwise we continue to provide active public support.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  There is a short question I should ask, because it is totally related with the future of the peace process in Turkey.  HDP, the Kurdish party, made a decision to run for the parliament as a party.  Selahattin Demirtaş had a meeting with the EU ambassadors and there are some rumors that you also had a meeting with Demirtaş.  First of all, did you meet with him?  And, do you have any concerns about HDP’s decision to run for the parliament as a party? In terms of, I am asking, the Kurdish peace process.

Ambassador Bass:  I meet with a wide range of people in society, in government, outside of government.  It is part of our effort to understand what is going on in Turkey.  I met with Mr. Demirtas, along with the heads of many of the political factions.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  When was that?

Ambassador Bass:  Last month, I believe.  We believe it is important for a wide range of voices, perspectives, opinions to be heard and represented in democratic societies.  Our experience in the United States is that vibrant democracies are strong because they are diverse, because there is tolerance for other views, other opinions. And that best policy comes from healthy, vibrant debate from people who have different opinions.  So, whether it is in the media space in Turkey, whether it is in educational institutions, whether it is in parliament and other parts of government where people are representing the views of the wider population.  We think it is important there be a range of opinions and voices that are heard.

Deniz Kilislioğlu: Do you carry any concerns about the possible result that they might be left out of the parliament and they might not go further from the ten percent threshold?

Ambassador Bass:  Look, the choices that HDP is making are theirs to make.  And they are clearly evaluating the electoral landscape and making, from their perspective, an informed decision.  We will see how they do in the election.  I think the important thing here is that the election occur, and the campaign occur, in a way that allows for every citizen of Turkey who will be voting, to have an opportunity to hear from a range of parties and a range of perspectives and to make an informed choice when they go to vote.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  Mr. Ambassador, I’d like to talk a little about the Armenian issue.  This year is the 100th anniversary of some dramatic events which Turkey called “tehcir-migration” and Armenians called “genocide”.  President Obama used the word “Meds Yeghern” in the last couple of years, do you think that this year there will be a change in the U.S. position and the U.S. President’s position on that?

Ambassador Bass:  I cannot speak to how the events will be characterized in whatever the President or the Congress chooses to say on the anniversary.  But, I can tell you that our policy hasn’t changed.  Our policy is that we believe that a full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts surrounding those terrible massacres and tragedies in 1915 is in the interest of the citizens of Turkey, it is in the interest of the citizens of Armenia and it is in the interest of the descendants of people who suffered in that period.

Deniz Kilislioğlu: I would like to ask how you evaluate Turkey’s invitations for the 24th of April.  You know that President Erdogan has sent some invitations to world leaders for commemorating the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli.  Did the U.S. receive an invitation?  Will anyone attend those memorial ceremonies?  At the same time, we wonder what you can say because it is on the same day with the Armenian commemoration.  What is your evaluation on that?

Ambassador Bass: We are looking at the invitation along with other invitations that our senior officials receive and trying to balance out their obligations around the world.  As you know, as a global power, the United States and our most senior folks often have many competing things that they would like to be doing at the same time.  So, it is too early to say how we will be represented in Gallipoli.

I would say, with respect to the timing of the commemorations, you know there is so much depth of feeling and so much suffering that occurred in 1915 among many populations that, I think, from our perspective, we think that commemorations should occur in a way that allows every community that suffered to commemorate events in a way and in a manner that is respectful of the dead and that allows them in their own ways to acknowledge that suffering and to commemorate their dead respectfully.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  I’d like to talk a little bit about Iraq.  It is not on the top of the agenda nowadays but we wonder how the United States sees the policies of Mr. Abadi, the new Prime Minister of Iraq. Because, right now there is a chaotic picture in Iraq and according to some analyses this is because of Maliki’s policies.  How do you evaluate, how do you see the new PM’s policies in Iraq?  Do you think that these policies will stop the ethnic clashes?

Ambassador Bass: Along with Turkey, the United States has a strong interest in seeing PM Abadi succeed and in seeing the government of Iraq proceed in a fashion which creates more confidence among all Iraqi citizens that the government, the national government, is the government of all Iraqis. Obviously, you noted some significant tensions during the prior government and through the conflict that were sectarian in nature.  We rejected those at the time.  We have been working very hard for many years to help Iraqi citizens develop a government that works for them, that they have confidence in and that delivers the kinds of services and benefits to all citizens in Iraq that a democratic government is responsible to do.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  What will Turkey and the U.S. do to cooperate in Iraq?  What will be the further steps?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, there is already good and I would say growing cooperation between the United States and Turkey in Iraq.  I have to say the Turkish government’s positive outreach to Prime Minister Abadi and his government in their attempts to help strengthen his government in its early days is an important contribution, as is the ongoing work that we are both involved in with along with some of our other partners to strengthen Iraqi security forces so that they can address the threats posed by DAESH and take back the territory that DAESH currently controls and create a secure Iraq in which all Iraqi citizens have an opportunity to live peacefully.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  Turkey and Northern Iraq have established a strategic partnership, strategic relations for the last couple of years. Let me ask you directly, does this relationship disturb the United States?

Ambassador Bass:  Turkey’s relationship with Iraq and with the Kurdistan Regional Government is a matter for Turkey to decide.  We see its relations with both Baghdad and Irbil as an important contribution to again creating that future Iraq which is stable and peaceful and which provides a future for all Iraqi citizens.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  We have two more minutes to go, so I will end with Turkish-Israeli relations.  We have not reached a deal to normalize the relations.  When you look from the U.S. perspective, where do you see the problem?  Why cannot the two sides get together?

Ambassador Bass: Well, clearly, a big part of the disagreement between Turkey and Israel is around the Israeli-Palestinian issue set and the attempts to continue to work to build a two-state solution in Palestine and in Israel.  We continue to strongly support efforts to strengthen the negotiation process.

Deniz Kilislioğlu:  Are we going to see new initiatives on that?

Ambassador Bass:  I would not prefigure anything at this point in time. That is a matter for the parties to decide, but we believe it is in the interest of both Turkey and Israel that they have a strong, productive relationship going forward, particularly, when you look at the range of challenges and instability across the wider region.

Deniz Kilislioğlu: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us and thank you for all the comments you had.

[Closing remarks in Turkish] Ambassador of the United States to Ankara, John Bass, was our guest.  We spoke about Turkey-Israel relations, as well as issues such as the debates in Turkey regarding the presidential system, the extradition request for Fethullah Gülen and what the United States’ reaction to that will be. We wish you a good day from Ankara.