U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass’ interview with Milliyet’s Serpil Çevikcan – December 10, 2015

December 10, 2015 – Ambassador’s Residence, Ankara

Ambassador Bass:  Well, if I could just give you a couple of thoughts to start and then happy to take your questions. First off, really delighted to have an opportunity as I always do, to sit down with you. Anytime I get an opportunity to talk to members of press, I see it is a privilege and opportunity to talk to your readers.  As you know, we are living in a very challenging time globally, but I think particularly in this region.  To Turkey’s south, we continue to have the ongoing challenges of dealing with DAESH and dealing with Russia’s direct military intervention in the conflict in Syria. We, in the fight against DAESH, we’re seeing DAESH putting more energy and effort into creating franchises in other countries and in also conducting attacks in Turkey and in the rest of Europe and in the United States.  And here in Turkey of course, we have seen the resumption of conflict with the PKK and the violence that’s created.  And we also have, in the aftermath of the elections last month, obviously a continuation of a degree of political polarization and political tension in Turkey and concerns about the range of media freedoms and opportunities for everyone in the society to speak, to be heard and to be respected.  But you know, against that landscape, which is very troubling, we also have seen, I think, some important progress over last six months that doesn’t get as much attention on a daily basis.

The reality is that DAESH controls less territory in Syria and Iraq than it did six months ago.  It has less money available to fund its terrorism.  And it’s harder for it to regenerate its strength and to sustain same level of terror that it’s been conducting.  And here in Turkey, I think despite all of the challenges associated with the conflicts in the neighborhood and also inside the country, there I think are opportunities over the next months and years for some important forward progress as well.  The fact that, you know, the Turkish economy grew at all this year, despite the challenges in the neighborhood and in Turkey itself, is remarkable.  And the fact that we have made progress over the last six months despite these challenges is a reflection of the extent to which the U.S. and Turkey and other countries have been able to work together to address these problems.  And we are committed to continuing to work very closely together with our ally and our strategic partner here in Turkey and with other members of the coalition and other members of the NATO alliance to address the many security challenges we face and also to continue to work to promote economic development and prosperity and stronger trade and investment ties between the U.S. and Turkey in the coming year.

Serpil Çevikcan:  There are two main issues. The first of them is based on President Obama’s recent statement that Turkey needs to shut down its borders. He said that there is a gap, especially in this 98-kilometer line between Jarabulus and Azaz, with regards to both foreign fighters and illegal oil trade, and this part of the border needed to be completely shut down. Are there any points of disagreement between Turkey and the U.S. on this issue? Or how will this part of the border be closed? What will be the U.S. support on this issue?

Ambassador Bass:  Well the fact that you hear President Obama, Secretary Kerry, other U.S. officials continuing to talk about this stretch of Turkey’s border with Syria reflects our ongoing concern about DAESH’s ability to exploit its presence on the Syrian side to continue to smuggle people and equipment and technology across the border to sustain its operations.  And so it’s absolutely essential that as part of our effort to defeat DAESH, we have to make sure that it is no longer able to exploit the border between Turkey and Syria.  But we want to make sure as we address this problem, that we create a durable solution to this problem.  So that when DAESH is pushed off that border, it can no longer control that border and it doesn’t have the opportunity to come back into that space in Syria.  Now, proper control of the border against smuggling and criminal networks and terrorism requires controls on both sides of the border.  So the solution to this problem is partly in Syria and partly in Turkey.  On the Syrian side, we’re continuing to work closely with Turkey and with other coalition partners to support Syrian opposition forces in northwest Syria who are fighting to recapture and reclaim their towns and communities and areas along the border from DAESH.  And we believe those groups are the essential elements in this process because they’re from those areas, they’re Syrians and they have a very strong interest in going home and in protecting those communities.  Unfortunately, some of those groups are facing pressure from the regime, which has reduced their immediate ability to focus on this particular operation, but we’re going to continue to work and to provide support to those groups on the ground who are committed to pushing DAESH out of that area.  And I want to stress that on the south side of the border, we believe that the groups that are involved in this operation should not include the PYD or the YPG.

Serpil Çevikcan:  Which groups?

Ambassador Bass: For this operation to push DAESH out of this space, the area between Kilis and Jarabulus, we do not believe the PYD or the YPG should be part of operations on the ground to control that space. Just very briefly, on the north side of the border, we think there is also work that the government of Turkey needs to do to better control that border in this period while DAESH is still present.

Serpil Çevikcan:  What are those things? And in terms of expectations from Turkey, is Turkey responding in a satisfactory way?

Ambassador Bass: Well I would say our own experience with our own border with Mexico, for example, shows that there is always more work to do, particularly when there are groups that are determined and well-organized and see either a profit motive or a particular incentive to exploit a border.  But it requires the work of many different parts of a government, and in this case the Turkish government, it requires some improvements in terms of physical obstacles and barriers on the border, it requires a very careful screening of any people that are going back and forth, and it also requires some very focused attention on the smuggling groups and the groups that are supporting DAESH in being able to move people back and forth through Turkey, from Turkey into Syria and Iraq.  And that’s where we are working very closely with the Turkish government along with some other allies and partners and we all need to do more, and we are committed to doing more, to support Turkey’s efforts on this important problem.

Serpil Çevikcan:  Turkey, especially President Erdogan, continues to insist on the issue of establishing a humanitarian safe zone in the mentioned region. We know that the U.S. administration has opposed to this since the beginning. What is the U.S. hesitation on this issue? I refer to the hesitation about establishment of a humanitarian safe zone?

Ambassador Bass: The challenges with concepts like safe zones, humanitarian zones, no-fly zones, all of those have very distinct obligations that come with them under international law.  And a safe zone in particular brings with it an obligation on the part of the countries that create it to provide security for anyone who is present within it.  Given the state and the complexity the conflict in Syria, our view is that the military resources that would be required to not just establish, but more importantly to sustain a safe zone over a longer period of time would require the increase of significant additional forces, including ground forces.  And we neither see a set of countries that are willing to provide those contributions and those ground forces, nor do we believe that the introduction of foreign ground forces for that purpose would contribute to the longer term solution of the conflux and the defeat of DAESH.  It is clear that one of the things DAESH is trying to achieve is the introduction of foreign and particularly European and American ground forces into Syria so they can use that as a recruiting tool to attract more people to, under their propaganda, to defend their false caliphate.  President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu have noted that Russia’s presence on the ground is now a new magnet for people coming to the fight.  So that’s why we think the solution here has to be Syrians on the ground, controlling Syrian territory.

Serpil Çevikcan:  Despite the expectations for the start of an intensive air operation in the said region, this operation has not taken place yet. Is this because of Russia having more involvement in the equation and its intensive action in the region? What is being waited on?

Ambassador Bass: I would say two things.  The first is actually we have had, across all of Syria, a more intensive air operation in recent months than we had prior to that.  And, even with the Russian presence, we have seen the Syrian opposition forces on the Mari line make some important initial progress against DAESH and re-capture some villages.  But clearly Russia’s presence and its focus of its operations on opponents of the Assad regime other than DAESH has made this more complicated and means it will take longer to achieve.  Unfortunately Russia continues to direct the majority of its operations against groups in Syria other than DAESH, and from our perspective that is not helpful.

Serpil Çevikcan:  Is it true that the U.S. aircraft based in Incirlik are being used less frequently and there are fewer flights out of there after the downing of the Russian military jet by Turkish military forces?

Ambassador Bass: We have made some adjustments over the past couple of weeks in terms of where we are flying to make sure that, as we conduct operations across Syria, we are maintaining safe distance and maintaining safe operations for all of the pilots flying in the coalition.  But we continue to conduct a wide range of operations in a wide set of geography across Syria.

Serpil Çevikcan:  Then let me repeat my question by rephrasing it. Based on your answer, I conclude that a period of more careful and sensitive action with regard to the flights over Syria has started. Is this true in terms of flights into Syria?

Ambassador Bass: I think it is fair to say that, starting with the start of Russian operations, what was already a complicated air campaign in Syria, because of the size of the geography and the number of coalition aircraft that we have flying at different times and different altitudes against different targets, that has become even more complicated and it certainly continues to be the case after the incident in which the Turkish air force shut down the Russian plane.

Serpil Çevikcan:   One of the discussions in Turkey, especially after the onset of the crisis with Russia, is Russian allegations that Turkey is in cooperation with DAESH in some areas. Some in Turkey think that the U.S. has not extended the necessary support to Turkey on this issue. What would be your assessment? Do you deny those allegations? The allegations even include things against President Erdogan’s family members. How does the U.S. view those allegations?

Ambassador Bass: Well, we have seen no evidence to support these allegations that Russia continues to promote that the government of Turkey, or senior government officials, or their family members, are engaged in some kind of illegal oil smuggling and oil trade with DAESH. And we have worked very closely with the government of Turkey across the last fourteen, sixteen, months to address any possible smuggling was happening from Syria and Iraq that involved oil under the control of DAESH.  I would also say that over the last year and a half, since the start of the conflict in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, we have seen a pattern of Russian government behavior in which they make outrageous allegations and pose as evidence, whether its satellite imagery, whether its other pieces of information that are completely unconnected to the allegation they are making. And so I think it continues to be important for journalists everywhere and frankly for readers everywhere, or viewers, to be very skeptical about the allegations like this that are made by the Russian government.

Serpil Çevikcan:  It looks like the transition calendar envisioned in Vienna has not been accepted by Assad. Do you think the Vienna talks will lead to a result?

Ambassador Bass: The diplomatic and the political efforts that are underway right now are designed to put that question that you just posed to the test. There is no question that the U.S., Turkey, and many of our partners have a different vision for the transition in Syria than Russia and Iran and the Assad regime.  But we all have an interest in seeing if, with support from international partners and other countries, all of the interested parties in Syria can sit down at the same table and try to work this out. Because fundamentally, at the end of the day, it is Syrians that have to own this process and it is Syrians who have to all agree on a way forward for it to be successful. It is important to be clear that the U.S. continues to believe that Assad has lost all legitimacy and does not have a future at the head of the Syrian government.

Serpil Çevikcan:  Here comes the second set of questions, which are about the PYD and the west of the Euphrates River being declared a red line by Turkey. You touched on the issue a bit, but it looks lke the basic point of disagreement between the U.S. and Turkey is on the PYD. In Syria, particularly in northern Syria, is it possible for the interests of the two countries on the PYD issue to overlap in near future?

Ambassador Bass: I think there is actually quite a bit of overlap on the perspectives of the two governments regarding the PYD and its role in a future Syria. The U.S. believes that whatever Syria comes out of a political process must be a unified Syria.  And we don’t support a future Syria that is divided into autonomous areas that are organized around religion, or ethnicity, or ideology.  And as I said earlier, we are very mindful of Turkey’s concerns about the PYD controlling the territory between Kilis and Jarabulus, and connecting areas under its control in north-west Syria and north-central and north-eastern Syria.  And that’s why we control to work together to support the Syrian opposition groups working in north-west Syria to conduct operations to control that area.

Serpil Çevikcan:  From these words of yours, can I draw the conclusion that you do not look positively towards the establishment of a Kurdish region, Kurdish corridor, or a de facto Kurdish zone through the formation of cantons in northern Syria?

Ambassador Bass: Well as I said, we don’t support the creation of autonomous areas in Syria unless that is something that all Syrians agree is in the best interest of the country and its citizens.  And we don’t support the concept that the operations against DAESH are a license to change the demography of certain areas inside Syria. We believe it is very important that people who have been displaced by fighting are able to return to their homes and communities when they feel it is safe to do so.

Serpil Çevikcan:  I’d like to ask a couple of questions about Russia, then the Mosul issue, and hopefully several more. After the downing of the Russian aircraft by Turkey, Russia located S-300 missile systems in Syria despite U.S. objections and doubled the number of its airbases there. According to the U.S., what is Russia trying to do in Syria? Is it there to stay? What would be your assessment?

Ambassador Bass:  You have to ask the Russian government what its intentions are.  We continue to be concerned by the focus of Russian operations against everyone other than DAESH.  You know, when 70 or 80 percent of Russia’s operations continue to be against targets and groups other than DAESH, and when we continue to see indications that Russia is striking non-military targets like clinics in its efforts, you know that is not contributing to creating the conditions in Syria that will lead to the political transition we all believe is essential to end this conflict.

Serpil Çevikcan:  Moscow’s threats are on the rise after the downing of the Russian aircraft that violated Turkish airspace. They have mentioned they would not be giving a symmetrical response. However, Turkey is alarmed. Will there be a step by the U.S. and NATO to support Turkey’s defenses, mainly its air defense system? Is there such a plan?

Ambassador Bass: Well, you’ve seen President Obama and number of other leaders of NATO allies and the Secretary General of the alliance, all underscore their support for Turkey’s right to defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and to reaffirm NATO’s commitment to support Turkey’s defense of its territory.  And at the NATO ministerial last week, the ministers indicated that the alliance would be looking at additional measures it might take.  And I would note, between the U.S. deployments operating from Incirlik, the German decision to deploy some reconnaissance aircraft and the ongoing discussions in some other NATO capitals about contributing additional aircraft, that’s a pretty powerful signal of NATO allies’ presence and partnership and alliance with Turkey in addressing conflicts immediately to its south that threaten Turkey’s security. 

Serpil Çevikcan:  Would you describe Turkey’s downing the Russian aircraft as a violation of sovereignty rights? Or would you have additional, different remarks?

Ambassador Bass: Well, it’s pretty clear that Russian aircraft violated Turkey’s airspace.  And it did so after some pretty clear warnings from the Turkish government about the consequences of violations of Turkish airspace by Russian aircraft.

Serpil Çevikcan:  The Russian administration has been announcing several sanctions after the Turkey-Russia crisis. These are particularly economic sanctions. In this context, how does the U.S. view these threats of sanctions and would you like to deliver a message in support of Turkey?

Ambassador Bass:  I think we clearly have been concerned at the breadth and intensity of the Russian reaction, recognizing that no country likes to lose service members, members of its armed forces, in conflict.  We believe, first and foremost, that it is important that this incident be an isolated incident and not lead to further escalation of tensions or possible additional military encounters between Russia and Turkey.  Certainly, the Russian government appears intent on demonstrating, in a very expansive way, the scale and the intensity of its displeasure.

Serpil Çevikcan:  What about the second part of my question? Is there a message you’d like to give to Turkey with respect to Russia’s threats about economic sanctions? Tourism sector, bans on certain products, major energy investments…

Ambassador Bass:  Well, every country makes its sovereign decisions about how it reacts to actual or perceived threats to its security and to its own interests, and clearly that’s what Russia is doing in this case.  It seems to me that, in the long run, reducing Russian consumers’ access to fruits, vegetables, other products, reducing the number of places they can go on vacation, would not be in the best interest of the society.

Serpil Çevikcan: The Mosul issue. Turkey’s deployment of extensive military forces, supported with tanks, to the Bashiqa region near Mosul has given rise to the suspicion that the action may have objectives other than training and brought to mind a potential operation. This is interpreted as a preparation for an operation that would be participated in by the U.S. as well and there is an expectation for an operation against Mosul any second. What would be your assessment on this issue?

Ambassador Bass: Our first principle, with respect to military operations and military activities in Iraq, is that anything the United States, or any other coalition member, or frankly any other country, is doing in Iraq needs to respect Iraqi sovereignty and to occur with the consent and approval of the Iraqi government. And, obviously, in the aftermath of the public revelation or knowledge that Turkey was increasing its deployments, there has been a pretty strong reaction from the Iraqi government and an assertion that these deployments were not properly coordinated with Baghdad and did not have the approval of the Iraqi government. Given these different perspectives of the two capitals, we think it is really important for the two governments to be talking together, and very quickly, to try to address that difference and to resolve this and put whatever military training Turkey is doing in Iraq fully under the umbrella of approved activities by the Iraqi government. I saw this morning that Undersecretary Fidan was going to Baghdad today; we think that’s a very important and constructive step.

Serpil Çevikcan:  Shall I understand this response of yours that Turkey’s strengthening its deployment in Bashiqa, Mosul has no connection with the coalition and that the U.S. was not informed about such a move?

Ambassador Bass: The Turkish training activities in northern Iraq have not been occurring under the coalition. They have been conducted independently, and so they have not had the same level of coordination and information sharing that would have occurred if they had been coalition activities.

Serpil Çevikcan:  Then, I did not get any indications for an operation against Mosul from your remarks. With respect to an operation by the U.S., by the coalition…

Ambassador Bass: I wouldn’t draw that conclusion. The liberation of Mosul and its restoration to control of the legitimate authorities in Iraq continues to be a very important priority and objective for the coalition in supporting the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty.  But, like our operations in Syria, we want to make sure that, when we conduct the operations, when the coalition conducts the operations in Mosul, the result is (a) successful and (b) sustainable over a longer period of time.

Serpil Çevikcan:  We have seen in the newspapers today that major security measures were taken at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul.  Is there a threat that was not reflected [in the news], that we don’t know about? Also, I would like to ask this directly: Do you, for instance, feel yourself safe in Ankara, in Turkey?

Ambassador Bass: The measures that we took over the last couple of days and the close work with Turkish law enforcement to provide appropriate additional security at the Consulate reflected concerns about some specific threats out of what continues to be a very persistent threat against the U.S. and U.S. personnel and facilities all across this region and Europe. But, even while we were taking those measures yesterday, I was in Istanbul at a conference organized by the Government of Turkey and the UN to address the really important challenge of reducing violence against women and girls, and also doing some meetings with the business community.   And I think these two things show our approach. We are going to take measures that we need to keep our people safe, but we are determined to continue to be present in Turkish society, engaging Turkish businesses, Turkish universities, the Turkish government, the Turkish people every day.

Serpil Çevikcan: This would be my last question. There are serious ongoing clashes in the southeast. Diyarbakir Bar Association head Tahir Elci was murdered. Clashes continue on every street and it seems the solution process will not come down from the shelf for a long time. Could you share your comments?

Ambassador Bass: I think Mr. Elçi’s death is a great loss for everyone in Turkey who is committed to finding a peaceful, constructive solution to the issues that have been beneath and stimulated this conflict for 35 years. And in the same way, the resumption of conflict in Turkey does not serve the interests of anyone interested in seeing a peaceful resolution of these deeper issues. To the extent that conflict every day is being driven by parts of the PKK declaring certain sectors of cities as autonomous, that is a big problem and a real concern. So, we believe strongly that it is important to find a way as quickly as possible to end the current fighting and to begin the process of talking about the issues that have driven the conflict again. That means, first and foremost, we need the PKK to stop fighting; we need a ceasefire so no one is fighting, no one is shooting; and then we need a return to a process where people are talking instead of shooting. And we are going to continue working with everyone who is interested in achieving that result.

Serpil Çevikcan: Thank you very much.

Ambassador Bass: Thank you very much.