Interview with Haberturk’s Muharrem Sarıkaya – June 27, 2016

June 27, 2016 

Ambassador John Bass
Interview with Haberturk’s Muharrem Sarıkaya
U.S. Embassy Ankara 

Verbatim transcript

Ambassador Bass: Well, the first thing I wanted to do was to reinforce again our deep sadness and sorrow over the suffering that citizens of this country are experiencing as a result of the ongoing terrorist attacks. As you know, and as I think your readers know, we have unfortunately experienced ourselves, in the United States, several terrorist attacks in the last few months. We know what it feels like and it’s very painful, as a friend, and ally, and close partner of Turkey, to see the challenges this society is facing right now.

But I think, also, it’s important, even as we deal with this terrible suffering – we feel it, this society feels it – I think it’s also important to realize that we are making some important progress in the fight against terrorism. Daesh controls 50% less territory in Iraq than it did two years ago. It controls more than 20% less territory – it’s lost over 20% of the territory it controlled in Syria. It’s lost most of its access to the Turkish border. It is having a much harder time replacing extremists who are killed in the fighting. And so, as a result of that, we are making progress, and I think part of the reason we’re seeing more attacks in Turkey is because Daesh is feeling and experiencing the pressure.

Now, obviously, we still have a lot more to do, and to do together, and that includes in the fight that Turkey is experiencing against the PKK. And, as I have previously, I just want to reiterate our view that all of the PKK’s violence inside Turkey is unacceptable. We reject it. We reject its use of terrorism. We call on the PKK, again, to cease its attacks, to lay down its arms, and to be prepared to return to a political process to discuss the issues that it says motivate its conflict and its ongoing operations.

At the same time, even as the government continues to conduct operations to provide security for the people in this country, which any government needs to be able to do as an obligation, we think it’s really important that the military and security operations be as precise as possible to minimize, to the greatest degree possible, any civilian casualties. And we also think it’s very important that the fight against the PKK not broaden to increase pressure or reduce the ability of citizens of this country to exercise freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It is not a recipe for success if government, anywhere, chooses to crack down on journalists or academics simply because they don’t agree with government policy. And we hope that will not continue. We remain very concerned about the pressure that journalists, in particular, and academics in Turkey are finding themselves under at this time.

And, you know, we offer that concern as a friend and ally of Turkey, and a country that’s been deeply invested in the success of this country for over 70 years. And, I guess, the last thing I’d say in opening is to, once again, reject the narrative that I see too frequently in the Turkish media that suggests the United States is trying to undermine Turkish security and prevent Turkey from being a strong, successful country. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I think the history of our strategic partnership and our alliance shows that we have continually invested in this country, continually invested in its security, in its prosperity, and that we remain committed to helping everyone in this country realize a future in which Turkey is strong, and prosperous, and peaceful, and tolerant, and is a country where there is enough space for everyone in the society to live in peace. So with that, I’m happy to take your questions.

Haberturk’s Muharrem Sarıkaya: [in Turkish] I’ve prepared some questions that are right on your remarks. With regard to relations between Turkey and the US – there is continuity, as well as conjectural problems, in the relations between the two countries. As you’ve mentioned earlier, there is the regional fight against ISIL in Syria and the fight against the PKK inside Turkey, along with the issues of freedom of speech and the issues with academics, as you mentioned. So how do you define this continuity and these conjectural problems in these relations during your term in office? 

Ambassador Bass: Well, you know, I would say there still is a great deal of common interest that underpins the relationship between our two countries. First and foremost, we remain allies within the NATO alliance. We’re committed to protecting each other, and, if necessary, sacrificing the lives of our soldiers and military personnel to do that, and that – the United States views that as a sacred obligation. At the same time, just as within any relationship, we don’t agree on every issue all the time, and currently we’ve got some differences that we’re continuing to work through in the fight against terrorism, principally revolving around how best we can address this challenge that extremist organizations, including Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, pose for both countries’ security, and that of our European friends and allies, and our friends in the Gulf as well.

And we continue to work through those challenges, and find the best way to make progress in Syria and Iraq, in ways that do not undermine the security of any individual ally in the process, and we are working very hard to do that on a daily basis with Turkey, and – in particular – working very hard to make sure that the ongoing military operations in Syria, that are supporting a variety of groups committed to fighting Daesh, do not ripple into Turkey in ways that make the PKK conflict here more intense, and in ways that make it harder for the government to deal with its terrorist threat here.

Muharrem Sarıkaya: [in Turkish] Right on that issue, we see that President Obama has this doctrine that uses – instead of using the United States’ own forces – local alliances to solve the Middle East problem and regional issues. How does that affect Turkish-American relations? You just mentioned a portion of that with regard to Syria and Iraq – how do you see or define the problems that may appear in the coming term with regard to the continuity and conjectural issues in the relations between the two countries?

Ambassador Bass: Well I think it’s worth looking at first principles behind President Obama’s philosophy about addressing terrorism in the Middle East. The first point is that, in democratic societies as you know, it’s important to have the support of the citizens for any long-term military operations, and President Obama has been dealing with, and evaluating options to address the terrorism challenges in Syria and Iraq, and the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, with the continued understanding that there is very little support in America for another big U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. I’d say there’s very little support in the region for that either. We also want to be sure that whatever military action we undertake does not feed into the narrative that Daesh is trying to promote – that it is engaged in a clash of faiths, and that it is defending Islam from aggression by the West and by Christian countries. So, we are trying to approach the military operations in ways that don’t allow Daesh to use that popular propaganda narrative. And also do this in ways in which, on the other side of Daesh’s defeat, there are local forces who can assume responsibility for security in their countries.

Now, obviously this is connected to resolution of the conflict in Syria and the reality that, over the longer term, there will need to again be government security forces that are providing security for the people of Syria instead of attacking half of the population. And, even as we work on the challenges in the counter-terrorism fight against Daesh, Secretary Kerry and the President and other senior American officials are continuing to work very hard to try to continue to stimulate the political negotiations to get the Assad government to negotiate seriously.

Muharrem Sarıkaya: [in Turkish] Then where may those areas of conflict appear?

Ambassador Bass:  In what sense?

Muharrem Sarıkaya: [in Turkish] With regard to the approach to the solution of regional problems in Turkish-U.S. relations. Especially regarding the method used in the fight against Daesh.

Ambassador Bass: I think the clear example where we have some friction is over the participation of the Syrian Kurdish organization, the YPG, that has this affiliation with the PKK, and its actions and efforts against Daesh. We see it as an important element in fighting Daesh currently, and in continuing to put pressure on it and reduce the amount of territory it controls and its ability to conduct attacks here in Turkey. But we are also very sensitive to the fact that Turkey is concerned that YPG control of more territory in Syria will reinforce the PKK’s campaign inside Turkey. We don’t want to see that happen. We are working very hard to make sure that, to the extent we are providing any support inside Syria for operations that involve YPG elements, such as putting additional pressure on Raqqa, that that support is directed solely at those operations against Daesh. We do not want to see any party in Syria trying to exploit its work in the counter-Daesh effort to leverage a political change in Syria that benefits that individual group. We strongly support a unified Syria that is intact in its current territory. And we believe that any adjustments to the current geographical administrative boundaries within Syria, and the nature of Syria’s politics and governance, is a matter for all Syrians to decide.

Muharrem Sarıkaya: [in Turkish] But despite that, Ankara’s concerns were not totally eliminated. We have seen a similar approach in the remarks of the Deputy Secretary of State [Antony Blinken], but given the fact that there will be the Jarabulus phase after the PYD’s Manbij incident, we see the problems faced by Ankara about the return of PYD forces – I mean the YPG – to the east of the Euphrates, and they openly declare that. Have you promised Ankara that PYD forces will again pass to the east of Euphrates after these operations?

Ambassador Bass: Well, as I said, we’re supporting local forces inside Syria in ongoing military operations against Daesh. We’re supporting forces fighting in and around Manbij, and we are working closely with the Turkish government to continue to support Syrian Arab forces along the Marea-Harjalah line to push Daesh east to protect that space in northern Halep province. And we’re going to continue to do that. So, I think it is important to again remember that this isn’t a case where we are picking a single partner inside Syria that we are working with. We are working with a number of different groups inside Syria. My expectation is that, once operations against Daesh in Manbij are completed, that the forces that have been conducting those operations are going to be re-directed to undertake additional operations against Daesh elsewhere in Syria. And, as I noted earlier, we are very focused on putting additional pressure on Raqqa. So, I don’t think it will be the case that you will see a big force remaining behind in Manbij, because those forces are going to be needed elsewhere.

And, you know, let me just take a minute to also note that a lot of this friction that we’re talking about is a reflection of that area in our respective counter-terrorism policies where we don’t have complete alignment between our two governments. We see an awful lot of tension about the fact that Turkey does not like the extent to which we’re working with this particular element inside Syria, because it’s a terrorist organization, formally designated, for the Turkish government but not the United States government. I think it’s equally important to remember, though, that this is not the only place where we have this challenge in our relationship, and, if you look at it from the other perspective, Turkey has a very close relationship with Hamas, which is a designated terrorist organization for the United States. And it’s been designated because, over its history, Hamas has killed a number of American citizens in terrorist attacks. We don’t particularly like the fact that Turkey has this close relationship. We make our views known to the government. But that doesn’t stop us from continuing to work on the broad area where we do have alignment in our counter-terrorism policies.

Muharrem Sarıkaya: [in Turkish] To put it more clearly, do you think PYD forces will withdraw to the east of the Euphrates after Manbij and Jarabulus?

Ambassador Bass: Well, as I said, that’s my expectation – that those forces will, once they’ve completed the current operation, they’re going to be redirected – or redirect themselves, I think that’s probably a better way to put it – against Daesh in other places. I don’t have any evidence to suggest something different. And, as I have said previously, we do not support, the United States government does not support, the YPG connecting areas currently under its control to form some type of new administrative area in all of the border regions of Syria across the Turkish border.

Muharrem Sarıkaya: [in Turkish] What is your assessment regarding the developments in the Middle East? Is this a sectarian war between the Sunni and the Shia? Or is it a people’s uprising against authoritarian regimes and underdevelopment? A search for a war of freedom? What do you think is the motive for civil war?

Ambassador Bass: I think you see, in the conflicts in the Middle East, a number of different elements and a number of different actors seeking to exploit this conflict and instability for their own objectives. It’s clear there are some actors, some countries that are fueling conflict in the Middle East, that have a sectarian agenda and are trying to stimulate conflict in ways that inflame sectarian tensions. But I think it’s also true that some of these conflicts are arising from a frustration among citizens in these various countries about the quality of governance and their ability to have their voices heard and to live in societies where government respects the needs of the people and is responsive to the needs of the people. And so I don’t think you can identify and suggest that this is an “either-or” – there’s a lot of factors at play and in part that’s what makes it so complicated to address these specific conflicts, because they are interconnected. And because there are so many different dynamics in play, currently.

Muharrem Sarıkaya: [in Turkish] I’d like to ask this: do you think the U.S. sees Kurds as a whole in this geography or as separate ethnic structures within the two countries? Again, in that regard, do you believe the Sykes-Picot agreement will be revived on its 100th anniversary, or do you think the process has been completed now?

Ambassador Bass: Well, with respect to your first question, the United States remains committed to the nation states which are currently present in this region.  So, to the extent we look at individual populations in countries, we first and foremost see them as citizens of the country in which they’re resident, in which they’re citizens.  And we work very hard not to differentiate along the lines of ethnic or sectarian identities as a matter of policy.  We look much more intensively and work very hard to try to promote concepts of governance that create societies or sustain societies in which there’s room for everyone who lives in that society, irrespective of their ethnicity, irrespective of their faith, irrespective of where they fall on the political spectrum.  Obviously, you’re dealing with, in the Middle East, a number of different forms of governance – you’ve got different ethnic and sectarian mixes within populations.  There isn’t a single answer to this question of how best to provide good governance and good relationships between government and citizens of a country.  And we don’t think, frankly, it’s our job, or our responsibility, to create answers to those questions for citizens of each country.  We think it’s important for them to be able to choose their own futures.  And to come to conclusions about those questions themselves.  And, you know, that’s been a foundation of U.S. policy for decades.

Muharrem Sarıkaya:  [in Turkish] As we have little time, I might ask some connected questions that actually have some unity within them. When you started your term here, there were not many areas of conflict in Turkish-American relations, between Ankara and Washington. As time passed, there came the Gülen issue, the PYD, now Reza Zarrab’s trial. Recently, President [Erdogan] also expressed his resentment and expectations regarding Obama’s last term. What do you thing triggered these disputes? The second issue is: you have been serving in Turkey for some time now, you have been in Istanbul as well, and you know the Turkish public and the Turkish system. Do you think a U.S.-style presidential system would work for Turkey?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, I’d say – with respect to your first question, I think disagreements and disappointments between governments, and between leaders, often occur when governments aren’t communicating enough with each other, and they’re not necessarily listening enough to each other in an effort to understand each other’s perspectives.  And I think that sometimes is a challenge in the digital age, when there is so much information immediately available in both countries about what’s happening internally in the other country.  Sometimes things people say can be taken out of context or not understood in the broader structure of the relationship.  And so, you know, from my perspective it’s a reminder that, particularly when we have issues where we don’t see it eye to eye, we have to work even harder to make sure we’re understanding each other.  And I see that happening everyday between the two governments on a wide range of issues. I’m sure there are issues – I know there are issues – where the Turkish government is frustrated with U.S. policy.  There are issues where the U.S. government is frustrated with Turkish policy.  But I think if we went back thirty years, we’d be able to identify some of those issues too, where the two governments were frustrated with each other at different times.

With respect to your question about the presidential system, I think the real question here is whether Turkish citizens think this is the right form of governance for them.  And I’ve been here long enough to understand and to see that people across the political spectrum in Turkey feel very strongly about being involved and having a voice in questions of governance within the country.  Our presidential system works for us, but it is a system and a structure that has evolved over 240 years.  We’ve constantly been making refinements, making adjustments, to make sure that it reflects the complexity of governance in the modern age, and that it enables us to continue to have a system of governance that provides the right kinds of services and support for our citizens, in ways that help them to feel they participate in governance.

And, in our system of three separate but co-equal branches of government, all three branches have important roles to play in creating that balance, and ensuring that no individual branch of government can dominate the others and drive policy, or drive policy choices, in a way that don’t work for a big chunk of our citizens.  I think if I’ve learned anything from watching our politics across my life, it’s that it’s much harder to sustain support for a policy if citizens feel that change is something that is being done to them, as opposed to a process in which they are involved and have an opportunity to participate, so that change is occurring with them. And that’s – I think it’s been an important lesson in our democracy. It continues to be and will be through our upcoming presidential election. I look forward to seeing how citizens of this country continue to think about these questions here.

Muharrem Sarıkaya: [in Turkish] It would be unbefitting to the time and place that we’re in right now if I don’t ask this question – what do you think about the agreement between Turkey and Israel?

Ambassador Bass: If the reporting is accurate – I hope it is – I think it would be a very constructive step forward.

Muharrem Sarıkaya: Your government supports many efforts I think…

Ambassador Bass: We have long believed that it was important for two of our very good friends and allies to try to find a way back to a more normal relationship. We think it’s good for both countries. We think it’s in the long term interests of both countries, and it’s in the long term interest of promoting peace and prosperity across a region that is deeply troubled and riven by conflict right now. So, a very good step forward.

Muharrem Sarıkaya: Thank you.