April 7, 2016 – 10:45 A.M. | Holiday Inn Hotel, Ankara
Ambassador Bass: Çok teşekkürler. Arkadaşlar — hoşgeldiniz, merhabalar. I’m really pleased to be here, as I always am when I get an opportunity to talk to and interact with members of your profession. I think you all know how strongly we feel about the work you do and the service that all of you provide to the public, both here in Turkey and to Americans and Europeans and others outside of Turkey who are interested in what’s happening here. And so I’m pleased to have an opportunity to take questions from you and try to give you some perspective on how the United States sees developments. Before we get to your questions, let me say a few things just to open the conversation.
The first observation I would make is that obviously we are living in very challenging times and this is a very challenging period for Turkey — as it is a very challenging period for the wider region, and indeed the three regions that Turkey is part of. And it is a very challenging period for all of us who are working together to combat terrorism, reduce violence, promote peace, increase security —all of those things— across the Middle East, across the Maghreb, and in Europe and Eurasia. As we do that, as we all work together on that complicated set of interlocking problems, we have been deeply touched and pained by the extent to which those problems have landed and manifested themselves here in Turkey, and our hearts continue to go out to all the citizens of this country who are suffering as a result of the terrorist attacks and the violence which continues to occur here. And the United States remains strongly committed to working with the government of this country, and the people of this country to combat the terrorism that is afflicted on this country and to bring the violence that is impacting so many in this society to an end. And we continue to reject the use of violence to try to achieve political objectives. And as we have so many times — and as we will continue to do after today — we call again on the PKK to stop its campaign of violence, and to put down its weapons, and to undertake a legitimate conversation, to the extent there are opportunities to do so, in a manner in which the citizens of this country conclude is acceptable, to talk about the underlying problems or grievances which have contributed to the violence.
The wider set of challenges though, I think reinforces and underscores the imperative that all of us need to continue to work very closely together to address this common scourge of terrorism, to address the conflicts that are interconnected with the extremist violence that we see emanating from Iraq and Syria, and to continue to support our friends and partners in many countries around the world who are dealing with these challenges. We are always stronger when we work together, and the global nature, or the regional nature, of many of these challenges that we face means we have no other choice but to work together, and we are committed to doing so.
And that takes me to the second observation that I’d like to make, which is related to the question of leadership. We talk extensively, and you write extensively, about the challenges created in this society by the large number of refugees primarily from Syria who are present in this society. And we salute and commend the generosity of the Turkish government and the Turkish people in caring for these refugees, largely out of Turkey’s own resources. We salute the warmth, the hospitality and the generosity of the Turkish people.
I want to talk about this issue, however, for a moment, not in terms of generosity but in terms of leadership. It is usually cast –Turkey’s support for these refugees– in the context of generosity, but I think it is important to also look at it through the lens of leadership. And it is the kind of leadership that, frankly, we think is expected of countries that are part of the G20, that are leading political forces, that are leading economic forces in the world, because the sad reality is that the three million refugees present in Turkey are only a part of a much larger number and a much larger challenge we are all dealing with in the world. That larger number is 55 million. 55 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world— many of them are residing in countries that are much smaller in terms of their population, and that are much, much smaller in terms of their economy than Turkey’s, and they are much less capable of supporting the refugee and IDP populations in their countries — whether we’re talking about South Sudan, whether we are talking about Congo, whether we are talking about some of the other place where there are large populations.
Turkey’s leadership in largely carrying and largely tackling the challenge of the refugee population here inside Turkey means that the United States and some of the other donors are able to devote our resources to helping populations of refugees and IDPs in those countries that are less capable of doing so themselves, whether it’s the other neighboring countries to Syria that are accommodating substantial refugee populations themselves with much smaller economies, whether it is helping refugees and IDPs in Africa or Asia or Latin America. This is part of what I am referring to when I’m talking about the importance of a global perspective and global leadership and global partnership among the leading nations of the world. And so, as we look at the ongoing challenge of refugees, and we will be looking at that very closely, obviously in the context of the World Humanitarian Summit coming up in Istanbul in May, it is important to acknowledge this larger global challenge we face and the importance of all of us and many different countries and governments in providing contributions and additional steps to help those displaced populations until the time they can go home.
So with that, again, I’m really pleased to be here and look forward to your questions.
DMD Chairman Mahmut Gürer: Let me remind you that after first three questions, we will invite our cameramen friends to go outside and we will continue our meeting without cameras.
Question: Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu, Voice of America Turkey. Mr. Ambassador, I would like to ask about after the terror attacks in Turkey – the U.S. government warned its personnel and its personnel’s families in Turkey, troops’ families especially, to return back to the United States and evacuate Turkey. So, what is this point? What is the main risk about United States citizens in Turkey, and [will] the United States be continuing other protections in Turkey? What do you expect about the new terror attack in Turkey?
Ambassador Bass: Well, thanks very much for that opportunity to clarify some of the reasons why we have reduced the number of family members who are present in Turkey. The first thing I would say is: we work very closely together with our colleagues in the Turkish government to make sure we are sharing information about terrorist threats, that we are working closely together to try to disrupt those, and that we are providing all the support we possibly can to address those challenges and threats, whether they are threats against Americans in Turkey, or whether they are threats against Turkish citizens in Turkey. We always have more work to do in this area, and we are committed to doing that in collaboration with our Turkish partners.
With respect to the steps we took in Incirlik, I think it is important to put that in the context of the ongoing military operations against Daesh that are happening from that area, and to understand that it was very unusual for us to have family members at a facility that is actively engaged in military operations, and particularly one that was so close to the what the military would call the theater of operations, where those military actions were actually taking place. So, given the ongoing evolution of the conflict and the increased persistence of Daesh’s efforts to conduct attacks inside Turkey, it was prudent for us to reduce the number of American citizens, what we call dependents, family members of U.S. government employees, that were present in that particular area. But I also want to emphasize that we continue to conduct the full set of activities from our consulate in Adana, our staff there are present in Adana, and Mersin, and the surrounding provinces, doing all the work that they were prior to this action and we will continue to do so in the future.
Question: Thank you Mr. Ambassador. Ece Göksedef from Al Jazeera Turk. There were talks on who will control the area in northwestern Syria after it is cleared from ISIL. So, reports say the FSA will be settled in the north part on the Turkish border and the SDF will link Manbij and Tal Rifat to SDF-controlled regions to the south. Is there an agreement between Turkey and the U.S. on that area and on the PYD, which has been a problem for a long time?
Ambassador Bass: Well, let me say, we have worked very closely with our Turkish colleagues in the Turkish government for many months to determine the best way to ensure that local Syrian forces can push Daesh out of areas that they had previously controlled, or currently control, and remain in those areas to provide appropriate levels of security and basic governance after Daesh departs, so that the aftermath of the conflict to push Daesh out does not result in additional populations of refugees or internally displaced people within Syria. We have been working very hard on this problem for many months. It obviously has been a very complicated problem because many of these groups, in addition to fighting Daesh, have also been fighting Nusra and fighting the regime. I think, now that the cessation of hostilities is showing itself to be a contributor to reducing the violence, some of these groups are now able to devote more of their attention to clearing Daesh out of the area around Manbij and we are determined to work closely and provide all the support we can with our friends and partners here in Turkey and with many of the other members of the coalition to enable them to be successful. And we will continue to do that.
You all know there is a parallel discussion, a set of political-tracked discussions under the auspices of the UN in Geneva about the political transition in Syria. I think it is important to remember that the U.S. and Turkey share the same goals in Syria. We believe that there is not a military solution to the conflict and we believe that Bashar Al Assad is not part of the future of Syria and we are working very closely together to make sure that the appropriate energy and diplomacy is present in these talks to try to find a way to bring about that objective we seek together. Whatever political arrangements in Syria arise from these talks, we believe it is important that they arise from decisions made by Syrians. And we believe that the future political arrangements of Syria should be a matter for the Syrian people to decide through a political process, not as the result of military efforts against Daesh.
Question: Zeynep Gürcanli from Sozcu newspaper. It is a very timely meeting, thank you Mr. Ambassador. I want to ask about the press freedom in Turkey. Because, President Obama answered a question about it right after the Nuclear Summit in the United States and there were some critical remarks from him on press freedom in Turkey. But when President Erdogan came back, he said that none of these critical remarks on press freedom were mentioned during his official negotiations in Washington DC. Could you a little bit clarify the situation? Did American officials make a public statement but not say the same things in official meetings? And, also, what is your impression of Turkish press freedom and freedom of expression?
Ambassador Bass: Well, thanks very much for that question. I am going to let President Obama’s remarks speak for themselves. I would say they reflect what we have been discussing on many different occasions between two governments who are friends, in private as well as public. And I think, what we have said previously, whether it was the Vice President during his recent visit, whether it is what you have heard from the spokespersons of the State Department and the White House, it’s been very consistent. I have to say I‘ve been struck by some of the coverage of this issue here, in terms of suggesting that there is a degree of hypocrisy in the approach taken by U.S. officials.
And I think it reflects, as I try to understand where that line of argument comes from – I think it reflects perhaps a lack of appreciation for the differences in our legal systems when it comes to application of freedom of speech. The United States does not have a law at our national level against defamation, against speech. So, there is no criminal process in the United States at the national level for statements that are insulting. And if you look at, for example, at President Obama’s Instagram feed on a daily basis, you will see quite a bit of commentary that qualifies as pretty insulting. But – and I don’t like it, I find it insulting, and I find some of what is posted on my Instagram feed or the Embassy’s Instagram feed insulting. And I certainly don’t agree with it – but we tolerate it because, for us, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are two of the most important foundations to our constitutional democracy.
Now our friends in Europe, including in Turkey, have taken a bit of a different approach to this issue in terms of having defamation laws, and that’s a matter for the citizens in each of those countries to determine whether or not that’s an appropriate balance for them and for their societies in terms of how they balance speech freedoms against personal privacy and other aspects of their legal system. I am not going to say that our system is better , I would just say that it is different and I think it is important for your readers and citizens of this country to understand that, when they see us approaching things differently, it is because we have a different legal tradition that underpins our approach to the issue.
DMD Chairperson Mahmut Gürer: Can we take the cameras outside please? Colleagues, the part for the cameras is over, thank you.
Question: Hi, your excellency. Thank you very much for this opportunity. This is Ali Ünal from Daily Sabah. As you know, President Erdogan recently said that, during his visit to the U.S., he handed over a list of the moderate opposition, which is about 1,800 people, to fight against Daesh instead of the PYD. Basically is there any development in this issue? How would you comment on this?
Ambassador Bass: As I was saying in response to an earlier question, we are very focused on and committed to doing everything we can to support armed opposition groups in northwest Syria in their fight against Daesh. And we’ve been in a series of conversations with the relevant professionals in the Turkish military, in Turkish government, to talk about whether there are opportunities now, as a result of the cessation of hostilities, to intensify the efforts and the support we’ve been providing to those group in the northwest and to push Daesh east from the current line running roughly north-south from northern Aleppo to the border. We’ve had some progress in doing that in recent weeks, as those groups have pushed further east along the border, and we are going to continue to focus on that area and we believe we will probably have some opportunities in the coming weeks to make some additional progress. And it is important to us to do so.
Question: Just to follow-up; you know that the Train and Equip program has ended. So, is there any plan to re-vitalize this train and equip program to strengthen the fight against Daesh?
Ambassador Bass: I would not want to pre-figure decisions by the U.S. military, but we are currently looking at a wide range of options about ways we can provide additional support to those armed opposition groups.
Question: [Tülay Karadeniz-Reuters] Mr. Ambassador, my question will be regarding the violence in the Southeast and the operations that have been going on. There are some curfews in certain cities and, as you know, President Erdogan this week stated that these terrorist will either surrender to justice or they will be eliminated, and there will be no other third option. And he said the peace process is in the refrigerator now. What is the position of the U.S. administration regarding the ongoing operations in Turkey? And in the talks during the President Erdogan’s visit, did you encourage the Turkish government to start the peace process once again? What is the latest on this?
Ambassador Bass: Let me say a couple of things about that. First, the U.S. strongly supports the Turkish government’s right to protect its population, the citizens in this country, against all terrorist threats and against violence that is perpetrated against its citizens. That is a basic responsibility of any government. And we see the effort to address the PKK violence very much in that light. I’ve been very disturbed by the levels of violence in urban environments in southeastern Turkey. But I think it is important to remember why that violence is occurring. It is occurring because the PKK has chosen to pursue terrorist attacks and declarations of autonomy for political areas inside urban environments that are completely inappropriate. So, it is natural for a central government to take measures against a terrorist threat whether it is happening in rural area or in an urban area.
Having said that, I think we believe it is important, and I would say we’ve learned this lesson through very painful experience, for counter-terrorism operations to be as precise as possible and to be conducted in a way that to the greatest extent possible minimizes civilian casualties. This is one of the reasons why we are so careful in many of our operations against Daesh, and in part why it is perhaps taking longer to have the effects we want to see in the areas that Daesh controls, because we are being very careful about any civilian casualties that might come from our military action against Daesh. It is a very challenging problem; there is no question about it.
And I think we, as I said in the outset, those of us, who are here as guests and diplomats in this country, can feel the pain and the suffering that is created by all this violence. And that’s why I think it is so important for the PKK to stop its violent attacks, its terrorist attacks. And to enable to start of a process that ends up once again with the citizens of this country determining the best way to address the underlying issues that have prompted the violence in the first place. And, in that context, let me just emphasize the solution to this violence, the way and which this society addresses this violence and those underlying issues is a matter for Turkish citizens to decide. It has to be a solution that comes from within this society if it is going to be sustainable over time.
Question: [Yusuf Kanlı – Hurriyet Daily News]Mr. Ambassador, [we] appreciate very much your emphasis on freedom of speech and freedom of media in a democratic society. But I would like you to elaborate on one term that you emphasized, constitutional democracy. What [is it] you precisely wanted to pass on with the emphasis on constitutional democracy?
Ambassador Bass: Well, I was referring to it solely in the context of the nature of our government structure in the U.S. But, it is a common feature of all of the members of the NATO alliance, and certainly a feature of governance which is the preferred form of governance for many of the countries that are signatories of the Helsinki Charter. From our perspective, questions of the structure of Turkey’s democracy are questions for Turkish citizens to decide. It is a matter for everyone in this society to determine what adjustments, if any adjustments, need to be made to the constitution, to legal protections for citizens. It is not for the U.S. to be offering opinions on the form. What we pay particular attention to is the extent to which any constitutional democracy provides protections for the universal values that are the foundational principles in any democracy.
Question: [Duygu Güvenç – Cumhuriyet] Personally, I have many questions – but first, do you have concerns, with respect to Yusuf’s question as a follow up, with respect to the Turkish constitutional democratic system?
Ambassador Bass: Well, as I said, it is not for us to comment on the particular structure of Turkey’s constitutional system. That is a matter for folks in this society to discuss and debate and to make informed choices about. I think one of the reasons why press freedoms are so important is to ensure that citizens in a democratic society have access to a wide range of information and perspectives on the issues that affect them. So that they can make informed choices and be part of an informed discussion and debate about the issues like this.
Question: [Duygu Güvenç – Cumhuriyet] And Ambassador – basically about the PKK and the PYD – the Turkish government thinks they are both the same, while, for U.S., the PYD is a partner on the ground. Right now you are telling us that, with respect to north Syria, there are some preparations, cooperation between the Turkish government and the U.S. going on, and that we might see [this] in the near future. Would you elaborate a little bit whether it is the Turkish government [that] is changing the position? Or, is it [the] U.S. [that is]changing its position? Or, is it both – that they are making some concessions? And basically, there were reports with respect to the SD,F that some of the Arab tribes would separate themselves from the groups so that they would take the IS-free area. So, is it true? I mean, in all that PYD/PKK difference between the two capitals – I mean how can we, how do you evaluate the fall of negotiations of the peace process between the Turks and Kurds and the Syrian influence on the issue?
Ambassador Bass: Let me again reiterate what I said earlier, which is: we reject the actions of any group that is promoting violence and terrorism inside Turkey. And we are quite concerned by any indications that outside forces or outside groups are contributing to that violence, and we examine carefully any suggestions to that effect that are brought to our attention by the Turkish government. You all know – the PKK is for the U.S. a designated terrorist organization. We have been very clear with any of the groups that we have worked with in any fashion in Syria that we’re only working with them with a limited focus of pursuing operations against Daesh and any support we have provided to Syrian Arab groups has been provided with the expressed purpose of counter-Daesh operations. And I would just reiterate again, since there continues to be speculation about this issue – the U.S. is not arming the YPG. We are not providing arms, we are not providing ammunition to the YPG.
Question: [Emine Kart- Hürriyet/Hurriyet Daily News] Mr. Ambassador, as the ambassador of a constitutional democracy, could there be any prospect in a constitutional democracy having signed the Helsinki accord to lift the citizenship of people who have [been] found to be supporting terrorism; in regards, I mean, keeping in mind that supporting terrorism is a very vague concept also in Turkish laws – I don’t know the laws in the U.S. – for supporting terrorism, but could such a prospect occur in such a democracy? Thank you.
Ambassador Bass: I’m not a legal expert. As a diplomat who has, like most American diplomats, many other diplomats, spent some time doing consular work, I am aware that the body of law in most countries surrounding questions of citizenship is among the most complex body of law within respective legal systems. And I think different countries have different approaches to this issue. You can look across the EU, you can look across the Euro-Atlantic community, and see many different approaches to who qualifies as a citizen and how do you gain citizenship and how do you lose citizenship within that country. I think for us, the important thing is that those processes in a constitutional democracy occur under a strict legal framework and occur through a legal process that offers both parties an opportunity to make their case and that it reflects the rule of law.
Question: [Emine Kart- Hürriyet/Hurriyet Daily News] Just as a follow-up, could lifting the immunity of some lawmakers help Turkey better resolve its problems regarding the Kurdish issue?
Ambassador Bass: Well again, that’s a question for Turkish citizens to evaluate and discuss. It’s not appropriate for me to comment on an issue like that in the context of the ongoing conversations here about constitutional reform and questions of parliamentary immunity. I think we would look at it again through the lens of: is it a process that reflects legal norms in the society and is it conducted in accordance with that process?
Question: [Zeynep Gürcanli – Sözcü] A Turkish national taken into custody in the U.S. recently, Reza Zarrab. He is a dual citizen, Iran and Turkey. There are some accusations against him of making some fraud against the American government. It was a federal case, as far as I know. Is there any asking [request] from the American side for information from Turkey about this specific case? Because, you know as a Turkish citizen, you know it can be normal that the American side can ask [for] some info. There is cooperation or is there any cooperation between the two states about this specific federal case?
Ambassador Bass: So, it won’t surprise you that I am not in a position to comment on an ongoing case before a federal court in the U.S. I would refer you to the releases from the southern district of New York in addressing the indictment, which gives you the scope of the charges that have been brought against Mr. Zarrab. And that’s really all I can offer you at this point. More broadly, I would say we enjoy close cooperation between our respective law enforcement professionals, between the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Justice in the U.S., on a wide range of legal and criminal matters.
Question: [Yusuf Kanlı- Hurriyet Daily News]May I have a hypothetical question? When I was, you know the people here have not lived [did not live through] 1980, but I was a journalist at that time. And I remember many people were stripped of Turkish citizenship under the coup administration because either they didn’t perform their military service, or they left the country to escape prosecution, or some criminal charges, or just simply being accused of being a terrorist. That was the last time Turkish citizens were stripped of citizenship with that accusation, and that was a coup administration. Fairly from now, what happened in 1980, was that normal in any country around the world? Not about today. I’m talking about 1980.
Ambassador Bass: That’s a pretty expansive question, if you’re talking about global application of citizenship standards over a long historical period, and I am not a historian by trade and profession, and I’m certainly not a historian of citizenship law. I would just say again, I think any process that involves conveying or stripping citizenship for citizens of a country, we evaluate through the extent to which it is reflecting the rule of law and through which due process is observed.
Question: [Mahmut Gürer- DMD Chairman/Akşam] There are two things that President Erdogan is underlining in every speech by him. First one is, he is always saying that he shared all evidences with EU partners, with NATO partners, that the PKK and the PYD are the same. What did Turkey share, or did they share, any intelligence with the U.S. government about it? And the second one is about the Fethullah Gulen movement – that you said that we are cooperating about every terrorist organization and etc. with Turkey as the U.S. Turkey says that the Fethullah Gulen movement is a terrorist organization. Are you sharing any intelligence with Turkey about the Fethullah Gulen movement? Or is Turkey asking for any intelligence from the U.S. about the Fethullah Gulen movement? Is there any possibility of deportation of Fethullah Gulen in the short term? Thank you.
Ambassador Bass: With respect to your first question, we have an ongoing wide-ranging discussion between our two governments about a range of terrorist organizations, including the PKK. A few months ago, the Turkish government brought to our attention the incident in which they had recovered U.S.-made weapons from some of the militants in the southeast that they had arrested. And we were able to verify that those weapons came out of stocks that we provided to Iraqi security forces, which I think was helpful information to the Turkish government. We’re constantly in discussion and dialogue on things like that. And we are very focused on providing support to the Turkish government in its legitimate fight against the PKK, including to ensure that outside elements are not infiltrating or supporting the PKK with material that allows them to conduct their campaign.
I’d say, with respect to the activities of Mr. Gulen and his organization, we are always interested in receiving information regarding actual or possible criminal activity in the United States. We always take that seriously, whether it comes from Turkey or Germany or other partner law enforcement organizations. We evaluate it in the context of US law. There have been a couple of instances recently where adherents of Mr. Gulen were found to have violated US campaign laws. And those cases are, I believe, before the Federal Election Commission for adjudication at this time. So any time we have evidence of wrongdoing or illegality in the US, we take appropriate action.
Question: [Emine Kart- Hürriyet/Hurriyet Daily News] As a follow up to this question, Mr. Gulen and his movement’s activities are subject to federal election law. But, other than that, could you please make it clear whether a governmental-level application has been presented to the US side from Turkey.
Ambassador Bass: We don’t comment on actual or hypothetical extradition proceedings between our Justice Departments. We don’t comment on that because we respect the separation of powers, and the importance of allowing our judicial authorities to undertake an appropriate review at such times as those cases come forward to them.
Question: [Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu – VOA Turkish Service] Mr. Ambassador, Turkey colored itself as a European country, according to fundamental principals in Turkish history. But now there are so many terror attacks and ongoing issues, and debates on press freedom – it looks kind of like Turkey became more and more a Middle Eastern country. So what do you think about Turkey’s position? It’s a temporary position for Turkey or it’s became [what] Turkey [is] changing [into]? What is your opinion as a foreign person, as a diplomat, in Turkey?
Ambassador Bass: I think, questions of identity, and orientation in societies are really questions for people in those societies to determine. It’s kind of like asking an American, ‘what are you? Are you an American, are you from New York state, do you see yourself as a North American?’ If you ask 20 people in the States, you’ll probably get 25 answers. Questions of identity can be pretty complex. I would say, from our perspective, we see Turkey as an important member of the Euro-Atlantic community, as a key contributor to European security. As a key contributor to everything we are trying to promote – security and stability in the Middle East and North Africa. And as an increasingly important partner in addressing global challenges, including the challenge I identified earlier regarding refugees.
And, you know, if you look at the relationship over the last 70 years, you see a consistent pattern of US investment in Turkey and US commitment to this country’s success, to its strength and to its prosperity. I find myself puzzled by the ongoing perceptions of so many people in this society, which you see in polling, suggesting that the United States is interested in undermining the territorial integrity or the strength of Turkey, of preventing Turkey from being a strong, confident, prosperous country. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s go back 70 years to 1946. One of the first countries in Europe that the United States made significant investments in military assistance and economic assistance to was Turkey. $100 million in military assistance when Turkey was threatened by the Soviet Union in 1946. That’s the equivalent of about $1 billion today. In the early stages of the Marshall Plan, one of the first countries to receive assistance under the Marshall Plan was Turkey – before allies that we had worked with during the war received assistance. If you go forward 25 years, one of the strongest advocates for Turkey’s membership in the European Union, and realization of its vocation as a full-fledged member of Europe, has been the United States. Sometimes to the frustration and irritation of our European friends.
So you have consistently seen, over the last 70 years, the U.S. government expressing its support for this country realizing its full potential. And we continue to feel really strongly about that. We want to see a strong, confident, prosperous, tolerant Turkey. It’s in our interests and it reflects our belief that our community of democracies in the world offers our citizens and other citizens in the world better opportunities live peaceful, prosperous lives.
Question: [Bahar Bakır- Habertürk newspaper] Mr. Ambassador, I have two questions. First of all, the terrorist attacks in Turkey against civilians and foreign people, is Incirlik still [an] important base for the U.S.? Because in some articles we see that the U.S. has some plans to change the base against operations for Daesh [i.e., of operations against Daesh]. It’s my first question, and my second question is you know there is an ongoing debate about a coup d’état in Turkey. And we saw in some articles in the U.S., and the three latest ambassadors of the U.S. in Turkey, also told about an opportunity of a coup d’état in Turkey. What do you say about these allegations?
Ambassador Bass: So, with respect to Incirlik, and other areas from which we conduct military operations or work on military to military cooperation with Turkey, it remains an important contributor and important element within the broader coalition and the broader strategy to defeat Daesh. And I expect it will continue to be as long as the Turkish government continues to welcome our operations and those of other coalition partners from the base. Over the last six months you have seen an increasing number of countries operating from İncirlik, as opposed to a decreasing number of countries. And I think that alone indicates the value different members of the coalition see in operating from Turkey.
With respect to your second question – unfortunately, one of the challenges of living in an open society with free speech and free press is that you tend to get a standard distribution along the bell curve and you see people writing and saying things that don’t make a lot of sense. And I would put the commentary about the possibility of coups in Turkey precisely in that category. Certainly it doesn’t reflect any analysis or policy by the U.S. government. Former ambassadors to Turkey, once they are outside their employment by the U.S. government, are free to speak their mind. I don’t agree with everything they say, just as I don’t agree with everything that a range of people here in Turkey have to say. And I think it is most important, frankly, for Turkish citizens to be having this discussion about politics and governance inside Turkey. And I would hope that there would be opportunities for that kind of conversation to be happening inside Turkish society, as it has been, in the months ahead. But I recognize, as I see lots of interest and commentary about U.S. elections from other countries, that it is a topic of interest.
Question: [Emine Kart- Hürriyet/Hurriyet Daily News] Mr. Ambassador, excuse me for repeatedly asking this question, but I have a legitimate point for asking this because the issue, the PYD and Northern Syria issue, was most recently discussed between President Obama and Erdogan. And, just, only a few days later we have heard that a military and diplomat delegation from the United States was here to discuss, most probably, according to reports which are denied so far, to which my colleague has referred, Erdogan’s proposal about the composition of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The thing is, why I am talking about legitimacy is, it was November 17 when Mr. John Kerry spoke of shutting off the 98 km line. It has been six months and we still have not heard of a concrete agreement on how to do it between Turkey and its NATO ally. At least from what you know about the latest meeting, can you tell us a little bit about the most sticking point? Why is that six month long…
Ambassador Bass: Well, let me make several observations. The first one is we are very mindful of, and sensitive to, Turkey’s concerns about the PYD controlling the entire length of Turkey’s border with Syria. And the extent to which Turkey believes that it poses a national security threat to this country. We are very sensitive to that fact. Second thing I would say is that we continue to work very closely together on a range of measures to reduce, and over time eliminate, Daesh’s ability to move people in and out of Syria and Iraq. We have seen over the last few months that it has become more difficult for Daesh to do that, and that it is in part because of the very important work and effective work that the Turkish government has done to make the border difficult to cross and the work it has done to identify and pressure the smuggling networks that are facilitating some of the people moving across the border.
With respect to the military operations in that area that Daesh still controls, you will not be surprised that I am not going to get into the details of those operations, in part because we would not want to make it easier to counter them, but I would say that we work very closely together to make sure that we have the right forces that we can together support to clear that area and that we will have the right mix of people, Syrians, preferably from those communities who can return to them, to provide security and administration after Daesh has been cleared out of them. We do not want to see one problem replaced with another problem. And, as I said previously, we oppose efforts by any group in Syria to change the demography of any section of Syria under the guise of conducting operations against Daesh.
Question: [Duygu Güvenç – Cumhuriyet] Ambassador, I do remember your successor [predecessor], while meeting with our association in the past, during the Ergenekon, Balyoz case trials – they were so much concerned of the long term trials on these cases. And right now, with respect to your being a member of a NATO country, are you concerned about the trials against the Cemaat members, academics, journalists that these might continue for so long? And is it a priority for you, as much as freedom of press, freedom of expression, that the independence of law, the rule of law in a country that is a member of NATO, is it important for you?
Ambassador Bass: I think we have been very clear for many years about our belief of what the core principles are, for membership in the alliance and participation in the OSCE, for any individual member state. I think the important aspect here is that any individual case, set of allegations of illegality, are able to proceed through the judicial process in a manner that is in accordance with the laws of that particular country and in a way that gives the people of that country confidence that their judicial norms and their legal processes are being respected and fulfilled. And, you know, ultimately for any of us, those are the standards we look at.
Question: [Duygu Güvenç – Cumhuriyet] Just maybe we should not forget, for all of us, with respect to the normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations and the latest Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between – Would you comment and have you taken this issue with your counterparts?
Ambassador Bass: Well, it is among a set of issues we discuss regularly with our Turkish counterparts. I would just say that it is obviously a matter for the two governments to work out. But we believe that the normalization is very much in the interest of both countries, and would be an important contribution to the ongoing effort on all of us to increase security across the region at a time when we are facing so many challenges.
Question: [Duygu Güvenç – Cumhuriyet] Is that for Israel or Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
Ambassador Bass: I am sorry, we were talking about Israel.
Question: [Duygu Güvenç – Cumhuriyet] Was it for Israel, or the Armenian-Turkish dialogue, or Nagorno-Karabakh?
Ambassador Bass: Oh, I am sorry. What was the second question?
Question: [Duygu Güvenç – Cumhuriyet] I asked – I would like to learn your view about Israeli-Turkish relations, the normalization of relations, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the latest situation. Your words refer to Israel or…
Ambassador Bass: I was focused on normalization, I am sorry. With respect to Nagorno-Karabakh, we are obviously very concerned about the resumption of violence. I think it shows yet again that it is inaccurate to call any conflicts in the Caucasus frozen conflicts. And that it reminds all of us that it continues to be very important for us to redouble our efforts to find a diplomatic solution. And I believe you will see the Minsk Group co-chairs working very actively both to
that the provisional ceasefire in place extends and we see a cessation of the recent fighting; as well as redoubling its efforts to put additional energy into finding a way forward to address the underlying issues that prompted the fighting in the first place.
Question: [Zeynep Gürcanlı- Sözcü] You said that the pull out of the American citizens, the families, was from Incirlik, but I saw in the news that there was also some pull out from Izmir and Mugla. And it is very far from those areas…
Ambassador Bass: In that case, we also have a number of U.S. military personnel assigned to the NATO headquarters in Izmir, and a few in Mugla. And so, rather than do this in a series, the Defense Department decided that they would take advantage of this particular moment in time to also bring those families home at the same time.
DMD Chairman Mahmut Gürer: Any closing remarks?
Ambassador Bass: I just say again, really pleased to see all of you. Thank you for all the work you are doing. You help inform me and you help me to understand what is happening in Turkish society, so that I can better inform my colleagues in Washington. The work of diplomats, and particularly ambassadors, is to help both the capitals if you will – the capital of my country and the capital of Turkey in this case – to understand each other, and having a good grasp and access to a lot of information about what is happening in this society is a really important element of our ability to do that.
Thanks a lot for taking the time today, I really enjoyed it.