June 22, 2015
ORUC: Because we are very limited in time, I would like to start with the developments in Tal-Abyad, which is a very popular subject now. I will ask in a concrete way, without going around the issue. Is the United States involved in and leading the process of the establishment of a new Kurdish state to our border?
AMBASSADOR BASS: No. And let me make a few points to try to set the frame a little bit. And one of the reasons I’m so glad we could sit down today, first off, is that I’ve been really disturbed by what I have seen developing in Turkish media over the last week, 10 days, around this concept of a complot or a grand design that the United States has, to change borders and change demography in the region, including on Turkey’s border. Nothing could be further from the truth. That is not our intention. That is not our design. That is not our policy. The United States opposes the change of borders in this region, just as it opposes the change of borders by force in Europe and Eurasia. And just as we have been working very strongly to oppose the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea and the terrible conditions that have put the residents of Crimea, including the Tatar population there – the conditions that they’re subjected to as a result of that – we continue to oppose that. Personally, I continue to be perplexed at the lack of interest here in Turkey, including by many journalism outlets, at what’s happening in Ukraine, and what’s happening in Crimea, and how little attention that gets.
Second point. The United States strongly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Turkey, of Syria, and of Iraq. Right now, we believe the greatest threat to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria and of Iraq is Daesh. And that is why we are focusing so much effort on trying to pressure Daesh, reduce its ability to operate, reduce its ability to replace losses it is experiencing on the battlefield. And that is why we felt it was so important to cut the access that Daesh enjoyed, from Raqqa, to Tal-Abyad and the Turkish border. Because it has been clear for some time, as you can see in our just released Report on Terrorism, that despite the efforts of the Turkish government and many of its partners, Daesh has in the past six to eight months, maintained an ability to replace some of its losses from taking advantage of its proximity and its presence on the border with Turkey. So that’s why we have been focused on finding ways to isolate Daesh from access to the border.
ORUC: May I ask something at this point? The PYD, the Syrian Kurdish Party, is a branch of the PKK. Despite the fact that the United States considers the PKK as a terrorist organization, it does not include the PYD in the list of terrorist organizations. Here, at this point, do you cooperate with the PYD against Daesh?
AMBASSADOR BASS: We are supporting with airstrikes a variety of groups in Syria that are fighting against Daesh. Syrian Arab groups under the Free Syrian Army, some Syrian Kurdish groups, including the PYD.
ORUC: Are you supporting the PYD with —
AMBASSADOR BASS: We are providing some air support that targets Daesh where we see it, when we see it. So the notion that we, for example, over the weekend I read allegations that the PYD is threatening villagers that if they do not leave or they do not cooperate they will provide coordinates to the United States for airstrikes. We do not undertake any airstrikes until and unless we have done very thorough assessments of what is on the ground, and verified that there is a concentration of Daesh at that location, that merits an airstrike, and even then, if there is the prospect of civilian casualties happening because of that airstrike, we will not strike that target. We have very, very strict guidelines in place, to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties.
ORUC: In Azaz, the Syrian opposition is battling ISIS. Why don’t you give support to the Syrian opposition in Azaz?
AMBASSADOR BASS: In northwest Syria?
AMBASSADOR BASS: On the Marra line. In and around Azaz and Marra. We have conducted airstrikes in those areas, in the past two weeks, to support the moderate Syrian —
ORUC: But it has recently taken place that clashes between the Syrian opposition and Daesh, and there was not the PYD there, and you didn’t give any airstrike support there.
AMBASSADOR BASS: Well, I do not know specifically which day and which clash you are referring to. What I can tell you is that on several occasions over the last two weeks, we have conducted airstrikes in northwest Syria against Daesh positions, to support the efforts of moderate Syrian groups, Syrian Arab groups, fighting against Daesh in those areas. Now let me say, if I may, one other thing about the situation in north central Syria. We reject the use of the current fighting to permanently change the demography of that region. We do not want to see demographic change in north central Syria, or in other parts of Syria —
ORUC: You don’t see?
AMBASSADOR BASS: We do not want to see. And we believe that it is very important that the residents of Tal-Abyad or the residents of surrounding communities, who fled their homes to avoid fighting, have the opportunity to return to their homes as soon as they feel it is safe to do so.
ORUC: But at this point the PYD, during the clashes in Tal-Abyad, they forced the people to migrate to the Turkish border and then they prevented them to return back and then they just made groups of Kurdish people from Northern Iraq to be placed in Tal-Abyad. So it’s in concrete term, in concrete words, it’s a demographic operation, isn’t it?
AMBASSADOR BASS: I would not characterize it that way. Certainly that is not our intention, and as I said, we reject any efforts to take advantage of the current fighting to permanently change demography. We want to make sure, we want to achieve a result on the ground, that allows the residents who had to depart, whether they were Syrian Kurds, whether they were Syrian Arabs, whether they were Turkmen, we want them to be able to go home, as soon as they feel safe enough to do so. And we are making our expectation clear, that they should be able to do that, when they feel safe enough to do so. So these reports that you’re describing that the border has been closed on the Syrian side, we take those seriously, we’re looking into them, and unless there is a good reason for security grounds that that happens, we want to see that prevented.
ORUC: What will you do in concrete terms to prevent a sort of demographic operation in the region, in concrete terms? You don’t want, you don’t want to see it, but on the ground, what kind of actions will you take?
AMBASSADOR BASS: We will continue to support members of the moderate Syrian opposition, first and foremost, as part of our commitment to supporting their efforts to bring about a political transition in Syria that results in the departure of Assad, who has lost all legitimacy to rule. We continue to support efforts to create a future Syria that is unified and representative of all of the peoples of Syria, and we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance and support for civilians, local councils in these areas to be able to, as Daesh leaves, have the opportunity to take care of local administration for themselves.
ORUC: For toppling Assad. What kind of steps will you take?
AMBASSADOR BASS: We’re continuing to work closely with a range of partners, including very importantly, the Turkish government, on additional steps —
ORUC: But it seems that the priority has changed. Before the priority was to send Assad, but now the priority is Daesh.
AMBASSADOR BASS: Well, they’re both priorities, and I think, and one of the advantages we have is that people can look at the landscape and this complicated set of interlocking problems, and draw different conclusions about what the highest priority should be. From our perspective in part because of the analysis that we’ve done as we’ve watched the evolution of this conflict, we’ve watched the evolution of Daesh over the last two years, and its ability to control territory on both sides of the Syria and Iraqi border. We believe the highest priority right now, has to be reducing, pressuring Daesh and reducing its ability to hold territory, exploit that territory and the people who live there for additional resources to finance its brutal terrorism. This is an organization that burns people in cages, and that simply has no place in the modern world. And to the extent that Daesh is destabilizing, or trying to destabilize Iraq, to the extent that it is prolonging the conflict in Syria and making that even harder to resolve, to the extent that it is promoting franchises in other countries in the wider region, all three of those are reasons why we believe it is important to really focus on pressuring Daesh right now. That doesn’t mean we are not committed to continuing to work hard to create a political transition in Syria that leads to Assad’s departure. We are working on that as well.
ORUC: I’d like to return back to the events in Northern Syria. In concrete terms what is your policy on an independent Kurdish state?
AMBASSADOR BASS: As I said, we support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Turkey, of Iraq, and of Syria.
ORUC: But, Barzani, I interviewed, Safeen Dizayee, the spokesperson of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and he told me, Barzani also said several times, they are dreaming of an independent Kurdish state. It’s just a matter of time, he stated so. And we know that Salih Muslim is an affiliate of the PKK also, and we know the ideas of these people, and they are active, and you are cooperating with these people on the ground.
AMBASSADOR BASS: We are certainly not cooperating with them with the intention of creating an independent Kurdish state or an autonomous region in Syria. We do not support an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. We support a unified Syria that has a government that is representative of all Syrians. And it will be important for the Syrian people to decide how to balance out the appropriate opportunities for various ethnicities to participate in governance and to make sure their interests are understood. But we are not cooperating with the PYD in Syria with the intention or with the policy objective of creating an independent Kurdish state.
ORUC: If they will declare in Northern Iraq, the independence of the Kurdish entity there, I will ask for Northern Iraq, will you prevent this?
AMBASSADOR BASS: I don’t think it’s constructive right now to get into hypotheticals about what might happen. What I will tell you is take a careful look at statements by the President, by Vice President Biden, by our special envoy John Allen, by our deputy envoy Brett McGurk, they all talk about the importance of supporting Iraq’s ability to maintain Iraq as a unified state with a high degree of federalism that allows the various communities the opportunity to govern themselves and address the needs of their communities, but with ties to the central government.
ORUC: There are concrete statements made by Barzani and other Kurdistan Regional Government officials. It’s not a hypothetical question. We are talking about possibilities also. If they do so, will you prevent it?
AMBASSADOR BASS: When you get into an “if” question, that’s a hypothetical.
ORUC: As diplomats you’re always studying “if” questions as well.
AMBASSADOR BASS: What I’m trying to convey to you is that if you look closely at our statements, you will see that we support Iraq in its current geography, in its current territorial boundaries, with a federal structure that provides a degree of ability for the respective communities to take care of local affairs. So our approach to any future developments in Iraq will be viewed through that lens.
ORUC: O.K. In Northern Syria, it seems that there’s an energy corridor which has been created along the border and there are efforts to unite the cantons of the Kurdish cities. What’s your policy on Northern Syria and if they will continue to declare new cantons there, will you take any steps to prevent this?
AMBASSADOR BASS: As I just said, we are opposed to efforts that dismember Syria or create administrative arrangements in Syria that violate this principle of the unity of Syria. I have seen, again, these speculations about the interest of the United States in creating an energy corridor through Syria. There is already an energy corridor from Northern Iraq and it runs through Turkey, and there’s been some cooperation between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Regional government and the central government in Baghdad to ensure that energy exports from that area occur in a way that is respectful of national law in Iraq, but also on a practical level, can get some of these resources to market in ways that are legal. That system, it’s not perfect but it works. So why would there be an interest in creating an alternative?
ORUC: But the Turkish media reports so but they’re not daydreaming. There are concrete developments there, there’s the formation of a new map. So, these reports are being written.
AMBASSADOR BASS: Well, I know the reports are being written and I know people are drawing lines on maps and publishing them and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come to talk to you today because certainly that’s not our map. Those lines and those proposed energy corridors that you’re describing, that we see in the paper, they’re not our corridors and they’re not something we support.
ORUC: There’s another map which has been published by the American media also. Last year, it was a map including the north of Syria, Iraq, as well as the southeastern parts of Turkey. It was CNN who published this map and CNN said that there was not any mistake regarding the map. The recent developments in Syria, Iraq, you can just imagine the realization of this map. What’s your comment on this map?
AMBASSADOR BASS: CNN, like any media organization in the United States, is free to draw maps however they would like. It doesn’t mean that they correspond to reality. It doesn’t mean they reflect the policy of the United States Government. Any more than a map published in a Turkish paper, I would expect, unless it is indicated that it came from a Turkish government entity, I don’t assume that that map reflects the policy of the Turkish government.
ORUC: And Operation Provide Hammer, there has been Operation Provide Hammer years ago. It created the ground for the formation of a Kurdish establishment in northern Iraq and the establishment has become a safe haven for the PKK.
AMBASSADOR BASS: So
ORUC: I will ask the question.
AMBASSADOR BASS: OK
ORUC: And now it’s the main goal to make the PKK become a state which is at the stage of leaving arms with the same scenario being staged in the north of Syria.
AMBASSADOR BASS: And so, I don’t recall what our work with the Turkish government to support providing humanitarian assistance to Iraqi Kurds was called in Turkish. In English it was called Provide Comfort, not Provide Hammer (laughter).
ORUC: We used to call it Cekic Guc.
AMBASSADOR BASS: OK, so we called it Provide Comfort and that’s because what we were trying to do was to relieve the very strong pressures that Turkey experienced from this outflow of people, to provide humanitarian assistance for them and to, again, create the conditions that allowed them to return home, at a point in time when Saddam Hussein was massacring them. Never was our intention that that operation would create an administrative region for the PKK which was then and remains today a designated foreign terrorist organization for the United States. We do not support the creation of independent territory that the PKK controls in some fashion. Not our policy, not our objective, and we work very closely with the Turkish government across the board to address a wide range of terrorism challenges that both countries face.
ORUC: One of my sources told me that last year in June and July, Turkish officials informed the U.S. officials about the links between the PKK and the PYD and they clarified, but it seems that the United States didn’t take this information into account.
AMBASSADOR BASS: We look closely at a wide range of information as we are trying to evaluate the criteria for designating individual organizations as foreign terrorist organizations. Up to this point we have not -as you know- designated the PYD a foreign terrorist organization. We are very mindful of the fact that Turkey however does, and that it sees very strong links between the PYD and the PKK.
ORUC: Don’t you trust Turkey in its information that they have?
AMBASSADOR BASS: I don’t think it’s a question of trust, it’s a question of trying to understand the landscape, number 1; trying to understand interconnections among various groups, number 2; and number 3, putting that information together against the construct of our legal requirements in the United States. I think the more important thing here is that we continue to work very closely with the Turkish government to address -as I said- a wide range of threats to our common security presented by terrorist organizations and we continue to strongly support the solution process here in Turkey which is a matter for the Turkish people and the Turkish government to work out.
ORUC: What about PYD?
AMBASSADOR BASS: With respect to what?
ORUC: Turkey sees PYD as a terrorist organization and you are on the ground cooperating with the PYD.
AMBASSADOR BASS: Our cooperation with the PYD is not focused on Turkey or destabilizing Turkey or creating an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria on Turkey’s border. The limited cooperation we have with the PYD comes in the form of air strikes against Daesh in areas on the Turkish border.
ORUC: May I, if I may say…
AMBASSADOR BASS: Let me just make an important point here. We understand the concerns that Turkey has about the PYD. We have seen over the last year, as Daesh controlled big swaths, long distances of Turkey’s border with Syria. We have seen Daesh continue to grow in potency and continue to be a really destabilizing, adversary and terrorist organization, and despite the best efforts of the Turkish government, we’ve seen Daesh continue to draw resources through smuggling from Turkey, and the Turkish government and the Turkish military have had to work very hard to try to prevent members, followers of Daesh from leaving Syria and traveling through Turkey to other locations. It is in the interest of all of us including Turkey to prevent Daesh from spreading its ideology and creating cells in a whole bunch of other countries and by the way creating cells here in Turkey. I don’t think it’s in Turkey’s long term interest to see Daesh take root here.
ORUC: Turkey is struggling to prevent Daesh being transferred from its borders also. 170,000 Daesh members I think, they were arrested, they were prevented to go through the Turkish borders, so.., ok. Turkey’s proposal for a buffer zone, the formation of a buffer zone was not accepted and 2 million Syrians migrated into Turkey and there are too many social problems, economic problems also. How will you comment on this and about the buffer zone or a no fly zone? Will you say anything on this?
AMBASSADOR BASS: So we continue to talk very closely, in great depth with the Turkish government about how we can best now address the problem of Daesh continuing to be on the other side of the border in the northwest of Syria. We do not want to see Daesh maintain its control in that space any more than Turkey does, and we are continuing to talk about the best way to prevent that from happening. Clearly we have ongoing support including through our effort to train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition, to improve their ability to protect themselves against Daesh, against the regime, and to take some offensive action against Daesh. That’s one element of the approach we are working on. More broadly I would say it’s important for us to acknowledge the enormous generosity of the Turkish people and the Turkish government in accepting so many Syrians who are displaced by conflict. Some of those displacements predated our discussions about how to try to address the instability in Northern Syria and who controlled the border but the bigger point here is that the generosity of the Turkish people is also a form of Turkish leadership because what the generosity of Turkey does is it has enabled the United States to direct the vast majority of almost 4 billion dollars in assistance that we have given to Syrian refugees or to Syrian populations in Syria, enabling Syrians in Syria to stay home and not become additional refugees, but also to direct the majority of our assistance to supporting refugee populations in Lebanon and in Jordan, two countries that have comparatively less capacity to deal with the numbers they are dealing with, which has prevented further instability across the wider region which would not be in Turkey’s interest either. So we have developed a partnership in terms of how we are working together to address the whole phenomena of the refugee populations that have been expelled from Syria. We don’t want to see those populations permanently resident in Turkey, I think any more than those populations want to be permanently resident in Turkey. And just as I said, we are committed to trying to help all of these residents recently displaced from Tal-Abyad and from surrounding villages to be able to go home when it’s safe to do so. We are working with Turkey and other governments to try to create the broad conditions in Syria through a political transition that over time will allow many of the Syrian refugees to go home.
ORUC: If you have any other message you’d like to give about Syria, Iraq because I will get into other issues also. Before each election there is a tradition that some Turkish leaders will visit Washington like Selahattin Demirtas, Mustafa Sarigul, and then there has been always a change. There are some comments that, reactions that Turkish politics perhaps might be designed in Washington. What’s your comment on the election results and these comments?
AMBASSADOR BASS: Well, with respect to this allegation that, or this idea that there is a complot or grand design in Washington about manipulating Turkish politics, I think it’s profoundly disrespectful to the Turkish people first and foremost who I think demonstrated in this last election that they are interested in the issues, thought seriously about the candidates and the platforms, made sure they understood what the choices were, went to the polls and made an informed decision and we’ve seen all parties that contested the elections very strongly respecting the results and now trying to figure out the best way forward that reflects their interest and the national interest. That to me is a sign of really healthy democratic culture and so I think to suggest that Washington manipulates Turkish political parties or the Turkish voters from afar disregards the actual facts on the ground, and again it’s really disrespectful of the Turkish people. We see lots of political leaders from many countries whether they’re in government or outside of government visiting the United States just as many political figures from the United States, as they are preparing to run for office, visit a range of countries around the world to make sure they understand the issues before they are asked to take a position as part of a campaign from our perspective that’s a natural, healthy thing to happen in democratic societies, and I think when we see Turkish political leaders coming to the States it’s through that lens.
ORUC: Last question. President Erdogan has stated that relations with Obama have started to fall in a negative direction after the one-minute event..
AMBASSADOR BASS: I’m sorry, after?
ORUC: After one-minute. When Turkish Prime Minister in Davos…
AMBASSADOR BASS Ok, I just missed the reference point.
ORUC: Relations between Obama-Erdogan-Turkey and the United States.
AMBASSADOR BASS: President Erdogan is of course free to evaluate the relationship as he sees it. I think from our perspective Turkey remains a vital partner of the United States and a NATO ally and there is a wide range of issues where we continue to work very closely together and a number of issues where we don’t necessarily see it exactly the same, where we are trying to understand why we don’t see at the same way and maybe if we even can’t agree on all of the aspects of a policy, still find a way to go forward in ways that benefit both countries. There is not a relationship between two governments or two leaders in the world where they agree a hundred percent of the time and given the challenges in this region and the conflicts on Turkey’s land border to the South and its maritime border to the North, I think it’s only natural that people would look at those conflicts from a slightly different perspective depending on where they sit and we’re going to continue to work closely with the Turkish government to try to address the causes of those conflicts and try to prevent them from getting bigger and make sure that over time, we continue to apply additional pressure to Daesh and that we bring back the political transition in Syria that sees the departure of Assad.
ORUC: Thank you very much.