Ambassador’s Interview with CNN Turk TV – September 02, 2015

September 02, 2015

Hande Fırat:
(In Turkish) Good day to all from Ankara. We are at CNN Turk’s Ankara studios and we have a very important guest, U.S. Ambassador in Turkey John Bass is with us. Ambassador, welcome to the broadcast of CNN Turk.

Ambassador Bass: (In Turkish) Pleased to be here.

Hande Fırat: (In Turkish) We have many headlines, but we would like to start with the fight against ISIL, because the agreement between Turkey and the U.S. was signed and the first operation took place afterwards. So, what does Turkey’s participation in this coalition together with its jets mean for international public opinion and for the U.S.? Let us comment on that first.

Ambassador Bass: Well, first let me thank you again for the opportunity come talk with you and your audience. For me, it is always a pleasure and a privilege to get a sit down with professional journalists and really pleased to be here.  With respect to the coalition effort against DAESH, the inclusion of Turkey in the full spectrum of operations against DAESH we believe is a really important development and an important additional contribution to our effort to degrade over time and ultimately defeat this terrible terrorist organization.  We have seen in the last week, Turkey start to fly combat missions against DAESH in Syria as part of the coalition effort; that’s a really important step forward.  And we are already benefiting not only from Turkey’s active participation, but also from the ability to base U.S. and potentially other coalition aircraft and assets in Turkey which greatly reduces the time for those assets to reach targets in Syria, and therefore increases the capability of the coalition to pursue this military campaign.

Hande Fırat: (In Turkish) Now, I will have questions about deployment, but we are also interested in technical details of the operation as the first operation was conducted. For instance, where is the operation center? Where is the operation managed from? And how is intelligence collected prior to the operation? Is there coordination?

Ambassador Bass: Well, you can understand I am not going to get into a lot of operational details given that your viewers extend beyond Turkey I am sure, and potentially into the conflict zones.  And we want to make sure that the operations we conduct, that we do so for maximum affect.  But what I can tell you is that the overall coordination of the air operations is done from a U.S. Central Command facility in the Middle East.  And partners, participating nations from across the coalition have personnel contributing to that center and, with the appropriate technology, all of the coalition participants and all the aircraft that fly are in contact with each other.  And that’s how we ensure that we can conduct operations safely and securely and for maximum effect on the ground.

Hande Fırat: (In Turkish) Is the Asad regime, through the U.S. or the coalition, informed prior to operations and before jets take off? I am asking this because Turkish jets enter Syrian airspace. Is there a notification prior to that?

Ambassador Bass: Well, obviously the diplomatic exchanges we engage in, we don’t get into the details publicly, but we and other members of the coalition have taken measures to ensure the Asad regime understands that we are operating in Syrian airspace to address a terrorist and a terrorist problem they are unwilling to address themselves, and that we are going to be operating in their airspace to prosecute this fight.  And we expect the regime to stay away from our aircraft lest we have to engage in appropriate measures to protect coalition aircraft, which we absolutely will do if we need to.

Hande Fırat: (In Turkish) Another headline that gets a lot of attention is the debate over an ISIL-free zone, a clean zone. The expectation in Turkey and Turkish public opinion is the cleaning of the 45 km-deep area on the Jarablus and Azaz-Mara line, formation of an ISIL-free zone and settlement of several opposition groups there. The U.S. has never been very clear on this issue. Has Turkey’s demand on that matter been met? Did the U.S. say ‘OK’? So, can we say that there will be a clean zone with 45 km of depth, that it will be cleared off ISIL and opposition elements will be settled there?

Ambassador Bass: I think the real important part here is not what we call it, but the effect we have on the ground.  And what we are doing right now is working together with colleagues in the Turkish government, particularly between our two militaries, to figure out the best way to address a critical security threat to the coalition but also to Turkey.  And, that’s DAESH’s control of this border area that you’ve just mentioned.  We believe that the success of our effort over time to degrade and defeat DAESH depends in part on our ability to clear this space and to eliminate DAESH’s ability to take advantage of its presence on the border to smuggle people and equipment and technology from Turkey, through Turkey into Syria and Iraq to benefit its effort to continue its terrorist operations.  So, you know, we are in the middle of a very complex process of figuring out the best way to support Syrians on the ground to retake control of their own territory and to sustain their control of that territory and to push DAESH out of that area.  So, you know, again, what is the most important thing here is the result we are seeking not necessarily what we call it.

Hande Fırat: (In Turkish) Another thing is whether or not the Free Syrian Army will be efficient enough? Does it have the power to settle there and to protect the such zone?

Ambassador Bass: Well, that’s precisely what we are talking about and working through between the two militaries is assessing the capabilities of various groups that both governments, both countries would be comfortable seeing participate in this campaign, in this military operation.  Obviously, there are some groups operating in Syria in opposition to the regime that the United States does not support, would not support, and would not provide assistance too.  And so it’s important as we are working through the details of this prospective operation that we have a clear understanding about who we would be supporting.

Hande Fırat: (In Turkish) But of course there is a problem here, I guess there is no clear consensus on the names and the groups to be supported, how will this be done? I am asking this because, for example Ahrar Al Sham, will you approve if Turkey supports this group? What kind of a consensus are you planning to reach on the groups to be supported?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, as I said, we believe that to be effective and to create a sustainable result we need to be supporting a set of Syrian opposition elements that both governments agree should be supported for this operation.  Turkey might put forward some groups that we wouldn’t be comfortable with.   If they did, we would be very clear in saying that we were not going to support that group and we would not support them participating in the operation.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) On the other hand, we are also seeing that Turkey has become an open target right after this operation. For instance, one soldier was martyred by DAESH and another is missing. We may see other developments. First of all, do you have any latest information on these and in which framework will you be able to provide assistance and contributions to Turkey on these issues?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, I think unfortunately what we’re seeing certainly yesterday with this incident on the border and our hearts go out to the family of the Turkish soldier who was killed and the family of the Turkish soldier who is missing as I do to all Turkish military law enforcement personnel who have killed on duty in the past month.  What we’re seeing is an extension to Turkey of the terrible types of activities, that this terrorist organization engages in.  And it’s a reminder of the reason why we all have to be working very closely together within the Coalition to degrade and ultimitely defeat DAESH.  Part of that is the military operation and we’re very pleased with the additional cooperation and support and contributions that the Turkish government has decided to make to the Coalition.  But there are several other equally important parts of that.  We have a lot of work to continue to do to address DAESH’s ability to move fighters, recruit fighters from other parts of the world and move them into the conflict zone through Turkey and other surrounding countries.  We’ve got work to do to continue to squeeze its ability to finance itself and we’ve got work to do collectively to address this terrible ideology which for some reason attracts people.  So, within all of that obviously Turkey plays a critical role.  In doing so proactively, it invites a degree of retailation from DAESH.  We’re very sensitive and mindful of that and we’re working very closely with the appropriate law enforcement and intelligence and other officials in the Turkish government to share what information we have on threats so that we can ensure that everybody here and both governments are working together to minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the additonal risks posed to Turkey and its citizens.

Hande Fırat: (In Turkish) Turkey has taken a decision to strengthen its borders, walls are being erected, I guess you have been seeing the reports. On the other hand, there is a certain sharing of intelligence. Efforts are underway to prevent crossings of foreign fighters. But are all these enough? I am asking this, because some say that air operations will not be enough and a land operation is needed. Another allegation is that the U.S. expects such a move from Turkey. Does the U.S. expect Turkey to conduct a land operation? 

Ambassador Bass:  Well as I said at the outset, this is a multi-faceted campaign which requires a lot of cooperation and work by the members of the Coalition in many different areas.  The military is an important piece of that, the counterterrorism effort and the work together among law enforcement officers and professionals to address what we call  the ‘facilitation networks,’ the transit networks, counter-financing, counter-ideology, addressing all of the elements that enable DAESH to maintain its presence in the area it controls.  Ultimately, the military piece is critical in reducing the territory under DAESH’s control and eventually over time defeating it on the ground.  We have never said that air strikes would be sufficient to achieve that objective.  But we also believe strongly that it is going to depend on the people and contributions from the government in Iraq and from the elements in Syria that are fighting DAESH to have that effect on the ground.  These are their countries, these are their homes and villages and cities that are being occupied and subjected to this terrible brutal reign by DAESH.  And those are the people that are going to have to take the action on the ground to push it out and ultimately defeat it.  And what we’re talking about is a range of measures that we can take, and are taking already, to provide appropriate support to these organizations as they undertake that critical effort on the ground.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) As far as I understand, supporting groups within (Syria) is more likely and the U.S. prefers that, too. You are giving the message that you have no expectation for a land operation, but there are problems among groups.  It seems there is a problem particularly for Turkey and the U.S., which is the PYD. What kind of a middle ground you found on the PYD issue?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, as we have said repeatedly, we’re focusing on supporting the groups in Syria and in Iraq that are fighting DAESH, that are pushing DAESH back and that ultimately will be the solution to its control of territory.  And we’re going to provide support to those groups that are doing that which are not extremists or threatening the United States.  That support extends to a range of Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arabs, Syrian Christians who are all involved in this effort.  And we’ve been quite clear with the Turkish government that we believe that’s an essential element to our ultimate success in Syria.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) We would like to learn this as well. Turkey has an allegation, a concern. According to that, the U.S. or the coalition first bomb the areas under ISIL’s control, then PYD enters and a Kurdish corridor is being established. We know that Turkey is sensitive towards a Kurdish corridor in the north of Syria. Does the U.S. actually have such an intention; does it have the intention to create a Kurdish corridor that will belong to PYD in northern Syria?

Ambassador Bass:  No, we do not.  The United States supports the territorial integrity of Syria, just as it supports the territorial integrity of Turkey and Iraq.  We do not support parties using, capitalizing on, the current conflict in Syria to dismember the country or to create more than one political entity out of that country.  And we believe strongly that the end result of this conflict, which has no military solution, has to be a political transition to a government without Assad in power; but that is to a transition to a government that is responsible for all of Syria.

Hande Fırat: (In Turkish) Sorry, I think I was a bit confused there. Are you talking about a transition government with the presence of Asad? I am asking this because long ago, it was noted that Asad has only days, weeks, but he is still in power. The U.S. and international community, don’t they focus on a formula without Asad anymore?

Ambassador Bass:  No, we continue to believe strongly that Assad has no future in Syria, has lost all legitimacy to govern and to remain part of a government in Syria.  So what we are continuing to work on closely with a wide range of allies and partners and other countries, including Turkey, is the best way to achieve that objective, and how we get from the terrible conflict that continues in Syria to a point in time when we see that transition to a future Syria that does not include Assad in government.

Hande Fırat:   (In Turkish) One more thing about PYD and PKK. We know about these actions of PYD together with the U.S., but the Turkish intelligence has the information that nearly 2,000 PKK members in Kandil are fighting together with PYD in the north of Syria. Don’t all these complex structures concern you when Turkey’s security is taken into consideration?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, let me first say that with respect to the renewed conflict inside Turkey, obviously that is something that we find concerning.  It troubles us that we see a resumption of conflict in Turkey that has been prompted by attacks by the PKK inside Turkey.  And we continue to strongly support the Turkish government’s right to defend itself and to address terrorism within its borders.  That principle and that steadfast support has not changed, will not change, from the United States.  With respect to the situation in Syria, as I said, we are focused very much on ensuring that Syrian Kurdish, Syrian Arab, Syrian Christian groups and individuals that are committed to fighting DAESH in Syria have the support they need to be successful at achieving that objective.  That is the boundary for our support for any individual group within Syria with respect to any military operations they might be involved in.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) Then I will ask one more time openly. Is there a consensus between you (the U.S.) and Turkey on these groups? I am asking directly. Shall we perceive it that way?

Ambassador Bass:  We have been quite clear with the Turkish Government in our approach in Syria and I think they understand our approach and understand the rationale behind our approach.

Hande Fırat:   (In Turkish) Now that we are talking about PKK, it is important to mention that Turkey is conducting a fight, but on the other hand, there are some allegations. The allegation is that the U.S. is turning a blind eye against PKK. Is that true? Cemil Bayik has delivered a statement recently and said, “even if they deny, there is a dialogue and we have been exchanging messages with the Americans”. Is anyone in the U.S. having talks with PKK, is there such a dialogue?

Ambassador Bass:   No, the United States government is not in dialogue with the PKK.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) And what about PKK’s call to the U.S. to act as “a third eye, a mediator” in the solution process? Turkish government has multiple times said that it does not look positively to that, but how would the U.S. assess such a demand?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, let me return to what I started to say about the resumption of the conflict inside Turkey.  First of all, as I said, we believe strongly that the solution to the issues that underpin this conflict, that originally created it thirty years ago, that created the tremendous suffering for many citizens of this country, that the solution to those issues is not going to come through conflict.  It is going to come through a peaceful, democratic process and we believe it is really important that that process resume and continue until it achieves its objectives. The last thing Turkey needs, the last thing this region needs is another conflict with additional death and suffering and instability generated by it. So we believe it is really important to see the process resume and obviously the first step in getting to that is a cessation of the current conflict and fighting.  And that starts with the PKK stopping its attacks.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) At that point, the very clear condition of the Turkish government for the restart of the solution process is PKK’s laying down arms within Turkish borders and a withdrawal. This issue was discussed at the National Security Council (MGK) meeting as well. Isn’t it natural for a state to put forth such a condition?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, as I said, I think the first step here to getting back to the process is the end of the current fighting.  And the end of the current fighting starts with the PKK stopping its attacks, which are the cause of the initial resumption of conflict.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) Mr. Ambassador, I will ask a few things about ISIL.  Because, when Turkey started the operations a month, a month and a half ago, the operations against PKK and ISIL were simultaneous.  However, at the end of the first night, the first day, the operations against ISIL stopped, but those against the PKK continued.  It is now being asked why Turkey ended its operations a month, a month and a half ago?  It was said that the request to halt the operations came from the United States.  Is it true?  Was it in order to prevent asynchronies that Turkey was asked to stop its operations against ISIL?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, I am glad you asked that question so I can clarify how we developed, over time, Turkish participation in the coalition.  You are correct in that description that after the initial attacks that Turkey took against DAESH on border in response to the attack from DAESH on Turkish soldiers along the border in late July, that the United States and the coalition asked Turkey not to conduct a lot of additional, unilateral operations until we could fully integrate Turkey into the coalition’s air operations.  The air war against DAESH is complicated, there is a lot of aircraft flying in very small geographic areas and it is really important that all of the members of the coalition can do that safely and, as I said earlier, for maximum affect.  So, we have taken a few weeks since late July, when Turkey announced it would be participating fully in the coalition, until last week when it actually began flying missions as part of the coalition, to work out the details of that coordination and make sure that militaries were all in sync, so that when Turkey resumed flying it could do so safely and effectively and make important contributions to the coalition’s overall efforts.  So that is the reason why you saw after that initial set of attacks against ISIL, a period of several weeks a period of several weeks where Turkish military was not conducting operations against DAESH.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) Now it got clearer.  On the other hand, the Incirlik base has, of course, been opened to the coalition forces.  How big a force will come from the United States?  Because it was expressed that the 480th fleet would come.  How long will the Americans stay in Incirlik?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, you will understand that I am not going to get into a lot of operational details about specific types of aircraft, specific numbers of personnel precisely because of the concern you indicated earlier in terms of threats posed by DAESH or other terrorist organizations, and to preserve operational security.  What I can say is, we anticipate that, over time, the U.S. and potentially the other coalition presence in Turkey to conduct military operations against DAESH will be substantial and make important contributions.  That is going to depend…  What the actual composition is will depend obviously on how the military campaign evolves and what the specific requirements are to be able to be most effective against DAESH.  In terms of duration, we expect that we will be here as long as it is required to achieve the objective that we share which is to degrade and ultimately defeat DAESH.  So, we are thinking of this very much in terms of a set of objectives as opposed to a period of time.  So, to summarize, we have already got a substantial presence operating from Incirlik.  We anticipate potentially growing that and sustaining it for as long as we need to achieve the objectives that we have agreed are important and that we need to fulfill.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) Are there going to be other countries in this growing, developing force?  Will the jets of other members of the coalition come too?  Is there an agreement about this?

Ambassador Bass:  That is a matter for the government of Turkey and for the governments of other coalition partners to decide.  From our perspective, if Turkey and other coalition members can reach an agreement on their basing and operations from Turkey that potentially offers some potentially additional advantages for the coalition for the same reasons it offers advantages for the U.S.  We would welcome that but, as I said, that is matter for the government of Turkey and the governments of some of the other coalition members to decide.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) Now, I will ask about U.S.-Turkey relations.  Because, I have time left for a few questions only.  The relations between Turkey and the United States have been described pessimistically for some time.  Does this description apply at the point we are now, or are we at a different point?  How would you describe the dialogue between President Obama and President Erdogan?  When will they be meeting next, do you have any information?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, the two presidents, like the two governments, have a strong, productive, constructive working relationship.  They talk to each other when the issues are sufficiently well developed or when there is a need for them to talk.  Just as our respective foreign ministers, our respective finance ministers, and many other officials of our government’s talk to each other.  There is ongoing close coordination between both governments.  We are going to have two U.S. cabinet secretaries this week for G-20 meetings.  That is an important facet of our cooperation and it reflects, I think, the breadth and depth of the relationship which we see in the exchanges between the two leaders and the two governments.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) One of the issues that come up in these relations is Fethullah Gulen, because Turkey wanted Fethullah Gulen to be extradited.  Is there a development about this matter?  Can you at least talk about a timeline?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, as a matter of long standing policy, the United States does not comment on actual or hypothetical extradition requests.  What I can tell you is that any extradition request the United States receives is evaluated very carefully by our Justice Department to evaluate the merits of the request against the charges that are being presented in the evidence, and against U.S. laws governing extradition and comparable crimes.  So that any extradition requests we might receive our judicial professionals and our judiciary would evaluate it very carefully on the basis of the evidence presented.

Hande Fırat: (In Turkish) I am asking this question, because it is on Turkey’s agenda at the moment.  An operation was conducted against the Ipek Group, which is known to be close to the Gulen Community; because, as you know, Turkey has been conducting operations and a fight against what is called fight with the parallel structure.  There have been some reactions within Turkey, as well.

Ambassador Bass: Well, we have obviously been watching it with interest to both understand the facts of what happened and to understand the rationale for the incident and the actions conducted by the government yesterday.  I think, from our perspective, whenever there is government action against a company that owns and operates media outlets, that raises, I think, important additional requirements and responsibilities for governments in democratic societies to make sure that any actions like this are conducted in accordance with the law, and that they scrupulously adhere to and support the fundamental the universal rights in democratic societies of due process, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.  And I think particularly in countries like Turkey, where you have very polarized politics and a very polarized media environment, it is important for government to provide to all of the citizens of this country confidence that the law is being applied fairly and equally to all citizens and all companies, so that at the end of this process, however it ends, it is clear to everyone that the result is a result that they understand, that makes sense in the context  of the law and that reenforces their confidence in due process and reenforces for them a degree of confidence that freedom of the press and freedom of expression, which are enshrined in the Turkish constitution, are being fully respected.

Hande Fırat: (In Turkish) I will interrupt to ask, there is the issue about the British journalists, but first, are you saying this because you are concerned?

Ambassador Bass: Well, again, the United States believes strongly as you’ve heard me say in other interviews with some of your colleagues in other media outlets, as you’ve heard our spokesperson say many times in Washington, the United States believes that freedom of the press, freedom of expression, due process are universal rights and essential elements to vibrant, healthy, democratic societies.  And so, anytime we see instances in which there appear to be actions that undercut those fundamental rights, it’s a matter of concern for us.  And that’s true in any democratic society, including our own.  And we have some pretty strong debates about freedom of expression, freedom of the press, what the appropriate role and responsibilities of the press are, just as other democratic societies do.  That does not mean that we believe journalists and media companies are above the law, but it does mean that whenever there are alleged or perceivedviolations of the law by journalists and media companies, we think there is a special obligation on governments, as I said earlier, to demonstrate the reasons for the investigation and to be transparent about both the process they are following to ensure that it’s respecting national laws and supporting due process, but also to ensure that at the culmination of that investigation, that the result gives the wider public confidence that the law has been respected and that there were reasons for treating these journalists or the parent company in the manner in which they were treated and in the manner in which the law was applied. And I think particularly as we enter another campaign cycle here in Turkey, where the ability for Turkish citizens to have access to a wide range of information and perspectives about the important issues facing this society, so that they can make informed choices on election day. That’s all the more reason why it is important for  everyone in this society to have confidence in any government actions against journalists or media outlets.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) The last question is, again, about journalists.  This time about the British journalists who work for an American news outlet.  They have been interrogated, detained, arrested and there is the allegation that they are spies.  How would you comment on this and will the United States take a step?

Ambassador Bass: As you may seen from  my colleague at the podium at the State Department in Washington yesterday, obviously, as I said, anytime there is government action against journalists who are practising their professional obligations, trying to report on stories, we have an interest in that and in making sure that whatever reason is being given for their in this case detention, arrest, is based in fact and that there is a fact pattern behind it that merits the actions that have been taken.  So obviously,  we believe it is very important in this case, as in every case against journalists, that there be very strong adherence to due process, that the facts of the case justify the charges that are being presented, and that whatever legal process unfolds fully reflect Turkish law but also international norms and standards with respect to this important universal right of freedom of press.

Hande Fırat:  (In Turkish) Mr. Ambassador we would like to thank you very, very much.  We thank you for your striking remarks about very important matters and for attending our program on CNN Turk.  The U.S. Ambassador in Ankara has answered our questions at the Ankara studios of CNN Turk.  We wish to see you again and wish you a good day.