Ambassador Bass’s interview with Sabah newspaper

January 15, 2016
Okan Müderrisoğlu
:  (In Turkish) Thank you very much, sir, for giving us the opportunity for a second interview. Taking into consideration the limited time we have, I would like to start with questions right away. My colleague Mr. Unal will join with follow-up questions.

Ambassador Bass: Of course.

Okan Müderrisoğlu: (In Turkish) We would like to start with terrorism. We have seen your statement from yesterday, and thank you for your sensitivity. Ankara, Paris, Istanbul … Terrorism, especially the DAESH terror, can target anyone, anywhere, regardless of nationality and religion. Everyone condemns terrorism, but terrorism continues to exist. What is the cure for that and do some states still use it as a tool?

Ambassador Bass: Well, first let me reiterate our deep condolences to everyone in this society, and in other societies, who are suffering as a result of yesterday’s attack, as well as from the earlier attacks that you mentioned, to which I would include the attack in the United States in California of the same nature, stimulated by some of the same warped ideology.

It is clear that the threat posed by terrorism in this region is one of the major challenges that we are facing together, along with all of the other nations in the coalition. The immediate challenge we face is how we continue to apply pressure to DAESH to reduce the territory it controls, to continue to reduce the resources it has available so that it can no longer conduct this reign of terror in the territory under its control; so that it cannot export suicide bombers or other terrorists to conduct attacks in other countries; and so that it is not in a position to stimulate other terrorist organizations in other regions, whether it is in Libya, whether it is in Nigeria, or whether it is in other parts of the world.

That’s the challenge we face as the United States, as Turkey, and as a broader coalition. We’ve made some important progress over the past year but, as yesterday’s attack demonstrates, we still have some very important work going to do going forward. And some of that work is ongoing military cooperation and military action inside Syria and Iraq; some of that work is additional measures to further strengthen Turkish border security so that it is harder for people to get in and out of Syria and Iraq. And part of it is the work we have to do together here in Turkey and in other places to identify and disrupt the criminal and terrorist networks that support DAESH in moving people and equipment and resources into Syria and Iraq, or out. So, that is a pretty complex challenge. It requires work across our two governments, and it will be a principal focus of our cooperation in the coming year.

Ali Ünal: Your Excellency, if you allow me, you just mentioned that border security is an essential issue to prevent terrorism between Turkey and Syria. And yesterday’s incident once again proved that Syria is a country that exports terrorism. So, in order to prevent this issue, Turkey has been suggesting a safe zone, a kind of a safe zone, between Jarablus and Azaz; a kind of an ISIL-free zone. And somehow, you know, it did not implement it yet. So, is there any reluctance from the U.S. side to cooperate on this issue with Turkey? If there is, where does this reluctance come from?

Okan Müderrisoğlu: (In Turkish) Sorry, a follow-up. This Azaz-Mara line – the Americans expect to cut DAESH’s connection with Turkey. Turkey wants to clear DAESH from this area and turn it into a safe zone. The Americans, on the other hand, think that this area may become a target for terrorism and they share their concern that “if such a zone is established, it might become an open target”. There are talks about a joint operation, but this operation has not started. Why does it not start?  Due to this concern, or due to the Russian factor?

Ambassador Bass: Okay, both very good questions and very topical to the issues of the day, certainly. Let me say several things. First off, we have a strong agreement between the governments of Turkey and the United States that we cannot afford to have DAESH present on Turkey’s border in that section between Jarabulus and Kilis, where it is still present. And so, we continue to work very hard to identify the best way to push DAESH off that border to complement the work Turkey has to do, and is doing and needs to do more of, on the north side of that border, right? So, there is work on both sides of the border to be done. With respect to the specific geography, what we are focused on is ensuring that when DAESH is cleared out of that area, it does not return. We want to make sure we have a durable solution. And so from our perspective, that means ensuring that the forces that clear that area are familiar with that area. Some of them may come from that area. But they need to be capable of not simply pushing DAESH out, but then holding that area after DAESH is removed. That has become more challenging following the Russian intervention, because we have seen some of the forces that might have been able to fight DAESH in that area instead having to focus their energy against addressing attacks from the regime, supported by Russian airstrikes in Idlib.

So in that sense, that’s one of the reasons we continue to have some concerns, some pretty strong concerns about Russia’s military operations in Syria. Russia claims they are counter-DAESH operations and that is their objective. But, from our perspective, based on the reports we see about the targets they strike, and the information we see from organizations like the Syrian Observatory and other knowledgeable information sources on the ground, we believe that over 70 percent of Russia’s military action has not been directed against DAESH. It’s been directed against the opposition or against civilians and that’s been a big problem. So, there is not, to come back to your question, a reluctance on the part of the U.S. to clear that space. The challenge though is to make sure as we clear that space we do it in a way that again provides a durable solution and does not generate additional challenges in that area as a result of these operations. And, to conclude a lengthy answer, that is why we also do not support the YPG pushing DAESH out of that area and occupying that section of territory.

Okan Müderrisoğlu:  (In Turkish) Turkey has concerns over the establishment of a Kurdish corridor in the north of Syria. To what extent does the U.S. side share this concern? What is the level of cooperation between the PYD and the U.S. in the field? Is the PYD an instrument to work with on the ground for the U.S. or has it become an ally now? Also, are there concerns that the U.S. shares (with Turkey) and tries to prevent about a potential change in regional demography?

Ambassador Bass: As I noted in response to the earlier question, the United States does not support the PYD or the YPG being the force that clears DAESH out of that remaining section of the border and displacing Arab communities in those areas and connecting the areas under its control in central and north-eastern Syria with that frame. We don’t think that creates the durable solution that I mentioned earlier. We believe it is important that those actors and those forces on the ground that are fighting DAESH do not take advantage of the situation to change demography, change administrative boundaries or make other changes to Syria that should properly be decided in a political transition by all of the citizens of Syria. So we don’t want to see military facts created on the ground which have a big impact on Syria’s future political arrangements. Our focus in Syria, with respect to fighting DAESH, remains on putting as much pressure as we can on its headquarters in Raqqa and disrupting DAESH’s ability to move forces between Raqqa and the Turkish border or between Raqqa and Mosul or other areas that are still under its control. And our work with various Syrian groups that are committed to fighting DAESH is for this purpose and following this principle.

Okan Müderrisoğlu: (In Turkish) Turkey has very clear engagements, assurances about Iraq’s territorial integrity. In the meantime, there is a training camp in Bashiqa, and Turkey insistently expresses that it has a presence there for the fight against DAESH. What is so important about this issue that the U.S. Vice President has had two phone calls and the U.S. President another call with Turkey? Is Turkey’s presence there troublesome for the U.S.? What is the latest view of the U.S. regarding the presence or absence of Turkish troops in Bashiqa?

Ambassador Bass: Clearly, as you have seen over the last 18 months, we are looking at this campaign as one unified space in which we need to make progress. Meaning, we can’t simply focus on Syria or Iraq; even as we make progress in Syria, we also need to be making progress in Iraq. And we have seen some important developments in the past month in the Iraqi government’s ability to reassert control of Ramadi. Obviously in the future, one of the important pieces of this campaign will be the liberation of Mosul and Nineveh province. We believe Turkey has an important role to play in helping Iraq and the governorate of Nineveh and the Kurdistan Regional Government prepare and train the forces necessary for those operations to be successful.

But as a first principle, the United States believes that all of the work that the United States, Turkey, that other members of the coalition are doing in Iraq to support the fight against DAESH, needs to be done with the full coordination and agreement of the Iraqi government. And in the case of the Turkish training activities in Bashiqa, clearly there are some different views between Ankara and Baghdad about the training activities that are being conducted there, and I think importantly, the terms of reference that the two governments agreed to that started those training activities earlier last year. So, from our perspective, we think it is important that, whatever training activities Turkey is conducting in Bashiqa, those need to be fully coordinated with the Iraqi government and they need to be adjusted over time to reflect possibly changing priorities of the Iraqi government.

Our footprint and what we are focused on in Iraq looks very different today from what it looked like when we started 18 months ago. That’s, in part, a reflection of the changes on the battlefield, but it is also a reflection of some changes that the Iraqi government asked us to make as it evaluated its priorities for how best to prosecute the fight against DAESH. And to ensure again that the solutions on the other side of actual military operations would be durable and sustainable. So again, we think it is very important that, whatever training Turkey is doing, whatever training the U.S. is doing, whatever training any country is doing, needs to be fully coordinated with, and approved by, the central government in Baghdad.

Okan Müderrisoğlu: (In Turkish) I would like to ask a question about the sectarian conflict. Does this rising sectarian tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran have the tendency to turn into a hot battle in the region? Also, do Iran’s sectarian policies influence the Baghdad administration? What should be done to ease the tension? We can also put it this way – has the agreement reached on the nuclear program given too much liberty to Iran in this geographic region?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, I would say as a first principle, the United States believes there is already too much conflict and tension in the region.  So, any measures or developments which contribute additional tension are problematic and need to be avoided.  And so, for that reason, we have been encouraging both governments to take steps to reduce the tension that has spiked in the last few weeks.  More broadly speaking, that doesn’t mean that we are not very concerned by the Iranian government’s policy choices and its activities in inserting itself into actual or potential conflicts in many of the countries in the Arab world.  That is of profound concern to the United States, and something we continue to urge the Iranian government to stop doing and we will continue to work with a range of our partners and allies across the region to address specific threats posed by Iran and its paramilitary activities and the activities of the Revolutionary Guards where those activities present a threat to specific countries.

I think with respect to the nuclear talks and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, we view that as a very positive development in the region.  We think the region is much better off without Iran continuing to build a nuclear weapons program that puts them on the cusp of actually having nuclear weapons.  And, frankly speaking, you know we all have concerns about the level and the activities in which the Revolutionary Guards engage themselves today.  From our perspective, we think that they would be even more aggressive if Iran possessed nuclear weapons.  So, I know there are arguments out there that the deal is going to make the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian foreign policy even more aggressive.  I think to an extent that’s a false choice and an analysis, and it’s important to see the benefits we will all gain from Iran no longer being so close to acquiring nuclear weapons.

Ali Ünal:  Your Excellency, if you allow me before we move on to other topics – as you know, there are Vienna talks to find a permanent solution to Syria.  And, as you know, this decision needs to be implemented in the coming months.  Well, what is the U.S. stance on this issue?  Do you believe that the Vienna talks’ decision (inaudible) will be implemented and will bring permanent peace to Syria?

Ambassador Bass:  I would say our approach to the talks in Vienna is guided by some fundamental principles that, frankly, have not changed throughout our approach to Syria.  The first principle is that we do not believe there is a military solution to the conflict in Syria.  So, there has to be a political settlement.  There has to be a political transition.  Second principle: we believe that Assad has lost all legitimacy to govern or rule Syria and that any successful transition, any political settlement in Syria requires his departure.  Third principle: the transition from where we are now to that post- Assad future is fundamentally a matter for Syrians to decide, with support from the United States, from Turkey, from a number of other international countries.  That’s the construct under which we are approaching the upcoming diplomacy in Geneva, which first and foremost is going to be a discussion and hopefully a negotiation between the various parts of Syrian society that need to sit down and work out a political transition and a process.

Okan Müderrisoğlu: (In Turkish) Turkey’s president will be in the U.S. March 29-31 for the Nuclear Security Summit. He has the intention to meet with the U.S. president. Has there been any response on that issue yet?

Ambassador Bass:  I’d say at this point it’s too early to predict whether there’ll be a bilateral component to the visit.  You can imagine there will be a large number of foreign leaders in town for the Nuclear Security Summit.  But we’ll certainly be looking carefully at the possibility of an interaction.  I would note that, as you know, Vice President Biden will be here next week.  And that’s just the latest in a series of what have been very important bilateral engagements, and we expect to see a steady tempo of engagements and meetings between seniors in both countries, both governments in the coming year.

Okan Müderrisoğlu: (In Turkish) The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff was [recently] in Ankara. Apart from the agenda about Syria and Iraq, Turkey has several demands. One is about smart bombs, about which the U.S. has said in principle it can procure but cannot deliver before 2017. The other one is about armed drones. The U.S. says it can only use those for its own operations and it has no extra ones in its inventory that can be provided to Turkey. Shall we expect progress on these two matters?

Ambassador Bass:  We are continuing to talk about a range of military cooperation, including potential additional sales of military equipment and ammunition to the Turkish government.  I think the challenge we have globally with regard to precision munitions is there are a limited number of manufacturers.  And at this point in time many countries are using quite a few of those munitions for the ongoing combat operations against DAESH and other terrorist organizations.  So we have a bit of a challenge with supply and demand.  But we believe it’s important to support all of our allies who are engaged in counter-ISIL  operations.

Okan Müderrisoğlu: (In Turkish) We have a standard question about Gulen. When we bring up the Gulen issue, U.S. officials express that this is a legal process, that it is attentively followed, that it would not be right to comment on individual cases and that this is a general stance. The legal process has started in the United States. How do you follow the process and do you share concerns similar to Turkey’s about this structure in general? Turkey has the approach that this is a terrorist organization within the state – can the U.S. understand or accept such an approach? How would the U.S. describe this structure?

Ambassador Bass:  Under our system in the United States, as you know, we have three separate co-equal branches of government at the national level, but also at the state level.  And, in our democratic culture, we place a very strong premium on the executive branch not commenting specifically about cases that are currently in the courts for fear of creating a perception that we are trying to influence an outcome.  What I can say is that with any court cases that are brought against Mr. Gulen in the States, or with any formal legal proceedings that Turkey might request of the United States related with Mr. Gulen, all of those will be evaluated very carefully by our Justice Ministry and the appropriate U.S. courts to look at the body of evidence that is presented and evaluated in accordance with possible violations of U.S. law, and that will be consistent with whatever dimension of this process might make its way into U.S. courts.

Ali Ünal:  Your Excellency, the main point is actually that Turkey considers this group to be a terrorist organization.  Does the U.S. share the same concern with Turkey?

Ambassador Bass:  We have not been presented, as a matter of policy, with evidence that Mr. Gulen engaged in what would be considered terrorism in the United States.  Whether some additional information is being presented or detail is being presented through a formal legal process, I can’t comment on.  But, in our policy discussions that we engage with regularly with Turkey and many other countries about terrorist organizations, I am not aware of specific evidence that Mr. Gulen is engaged in activities that would fit within our definition of terrorism.

Ali Ünal:  I know that it is a legal process, but in the recent years we have experienced that the U.S. and Turkey had cooperation – for example, the terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan was delivered by the U.S. Secret Service to Turkey.  So, can we expect any intermediate solution before the end of the legal process?

Ambassador Bass:  Well, what I would say is that any time we are presented with specific evidence of illegal activity, criminal activity, terrorist activity, the United States government takes it seriously and acts appropriately and according to the gravity of what is presented to us.

Okan Müderrisoğlu: (In Turkish) When President Erdogan held talks at the White House in 2009 and earlier, I had the chance to cover those visits.  [Then] the PKK terrorist organization was called the “common enemy”, there was a significant intelligence sharing and the U.S. had an important contribution. Does the intelligence sharing and cooperation in the fight against the PKK continue today? The second part of my question is that there are terrorist groups which set up barricades, open trenches and mass weapons in several provinces of Turkey. How do you assess this scene? What kind of a meaning does this scene have within the U.S. approach and could such a scene take place in the U.S., for instance?

Ambassador Bass: First and foremost, the resumption of large-scale violence in the southeast is a great tragedy. I don’t see anyone in this society that benefits from the resumption of violence, from the disruption of normal life, from the closing of schools, from the targeting of hospitals, from the death of innocent civilians who are caught living in neighborhoods in between PKK militants and government security forces. And we believe strongly that the last thing the wider region needs, the last thing that Turkey needs is more conflict. So, we think it is very important that everyone in this society who is interested in that bright, affirmative future in which there is space in this society for all Turks to participate equally in civic life, in economic life, in academic life, we believe it is important that there be an opportunity for all of those people to come back to a conversation about what that future looks like and how it can be achieved without the oppression of violence twisting that conversation or preventing that conversation from happening.  The first step, obviously, is that the PKK needs to cease its attacks and it needs to stop declaring autonomy within zones or neighborhoods or regions inside Turkey. That’s an attempt to change political arrangements by force, and that is something we strongly reject.

At the same time, we believe it is very important for government security forces to be engaging in operations with restraint and with precision to avoid the collateral damage and impact on wider communities and civilians that unfortunately has been happening because of the nature of the conflict over the last couple of months. And we continue to strongly urge both the PKK to stop its attacks and the government to be ready to begin a new, or a resumed, political conversation with people across society about that important political future.

Ali Ünal: Your Excellency, it seems like KRG officials are testing waters to declare independence. So, briefly, basically, what is the U.S. stance on this issue?

Ambassador Bass:  U.S. policy still supports a unified Iraq with a high degree of federalism that allows various communities within Iraq to have confidence that they can manage their own affairs. And so, we don’t support independence at this time.

Ali Ünal: What if they declare independence, what would the U.S. reaction be?

Ambassador Bass: As I said, our policy continues to be support for a unified Iraq with a high degree of federalism under which the Kurdistan Regional Government would continue to exercise a high degree of autonomy and be able to conduct many of its own affairs.

Okan Müderrisoğlu: (In Turkish) There is a significant difference in the diplomatic tone of the remarks of the U.S. president before and after he was elected about the incidents of 1915. Would he preserve such a stance right before he leaves office? In other words, would his view and official statement about the incidents of 1915 continue in the same way, or could there be a structural change?

Ambassador Bass: I am not in a position to predict what the President or the Congress may say on Armenian Remembrance Day this year, but what I can tell you is that our policy has not changed. We believe it is important that a full frank and just acknowledgement of the facts surrounding what happened in 1915 occur. We believe that that conversation about the full range of what happened in 1915 is in the interest of citizens of this country, of neighboring countries and in the interest of the wider region. But I think it’s also important to remember that this is also not simply a question of history, it is a question of the present and the future. And one of the things that strikes me about contemporary Turkey is the extent to which a relationship with one of your neighbors, with whom it is manifestly in the interest of both countries to have a good, productive, bilateral relationship, is largely seen through the lens of one day on the calendar and one phrase, which is important in the historical context, but only part of a story and part of a set of exchanges in cooperative relationships which we believe is very important for both countries to be developing. So, even as inevitably there will be interest in what the United States and what other countries have to say on Armenian Remembrance Day, we think it’s equally important that people be thinking about the kind of relationship Turkey should have with Armenia and how to achieve that.

Okan Müderrisoğlu: Thank you very much.

Ali Ünal:  Thank you very much, your Excellency.