Ambassador John Bass’ Interview with NTV’s Ahmet Yeşiltepe

NTV Studios, Ankara | December 22, 2016

 [Introduction in Turkish]

Question: Mister Ambassador, thank you very much for this opportunity. Turkey is going through terrible times, actually. Your assessments are very valuable for us to understand the current situation. First of all, I would like to start with the assassination of the Russian ambassador. What do you think about the hideous murder of the diplomat?

Ambassador Bass: Well, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to be with you today and to be on NTV. First let me say, on this terrible attack this week – I first want to say to all of your viewers and all of the people across Turkey, basininz sagolsun. I live here. I experience and feel the pain and the suffering that everyone in this society is feeling today – the fear that’s created by the uncertainty of what may happen next. And we are deeply disturbed and outraged by the recent attacks, whether it’s in Kayseri, whether it was the Besiktas bombing, whether it was the other outrageous attacks conducted by the PKK here in Turkey. We absolutely reject those attacks. We condemn them, again, and we call on the PKK to stop this senseless violence, to lay down its weapons, and to cease to try to use violence to achieve a political objective. That never works.

Now, with respect to your question about Ambassador Karlov – obviously, first and foremost, this was an enormous human tragedy. As a diplomat, as a career professional like Ambassador Karlov, I can imagine being in those circumstances. And I’ve seen the trauma and suffering that his colleagues and his family are feeling, and our hearts go out to all of them at this terrible moment. And we have condemned this heinous attack, which was not only an attack on Ambassador Karlov, not only an attack on Turkish-Russian relations – which are important, given your neighbors – but also an attack on the profession of diplomacy, and the international norms that states should have representatives who can talk to each other and talk to people in each society. So, for all of those reasons, I think it’s really important that whoever else may have been involved in planning this attack is brought to justice as quickly as possible.

Question: Mister Ambassador, who do you think is behind these kinds of terrorist attacks in Turkey? How do you evaluate the allegations against Fethullah Gulen, the Gulenist movement, being behind this attack? And what relationship the United States [has]?

Ambassador Bass: Well let me say a couple of things. First, I don’t have any direct information about the evidence that the Turkish police are collecting as they conduct their investigation. I think it’s very important for all of us to let that process proceed so that everyone in this society, everyone in Russia, everyone in the wider world, has confidence that the outcome of that investigation gives us a firm and clear answer about who was responsible. With respect to these allegations that I’ve seen in the Turkish media that somehow the U.S. government was involved – I categorically reject those. There is no evidence to support that and I think it’s an outrageous claim that has no basis in evidence. We want nothing else – nothing better – than to ensure that diplomats around the world are protected and able to do their jobs, and we – I lost a good colleague four years ago, our ambassador to Libya – so any time there’s this kind of violence against a career diplomat, it hurts us deeply.

Question: Does the American intelligence have any information and/or leads about this issue?

Ambassador Bass: I would say there are ongoing conversations between our security professionals in law enforcement, in intelligence. As we do after every attack in Turkey, we have offered our support to the investigations underway here in Turkey. And we will continue to do so. But to protect the integrity of that investigation, and whatever legal proceedings [and/or] court cases that may follow, I think it’s important to respect that investigation and not be talking about it publically.

Question: I can understand. How – if Russia confirms that the force behind the assassination is the Gulenist FETO organization and this fact is carried to an international platform, would the United States government expedite the extradition of Fethullah Gulen?

Ambassador Bass: So, we would take quite seriously any specific information about any resident in the United States who is involved in committing crimes overseas that would qualify for extradition. That’s why our governments are working so closely together on the cases that are being developed with respect to 15 Temmuz [the coup attempt of July 15], and the terrible events and outrageous attacks that were committed that night. And, we’ll continue to approach any additional investigations, any additional cooperation between our two ministries of justice with the same spirit and determination to support the Turkish government’s efforts to bring those responsible to justice.

Question: What is the current status of extradition of Fethullah Gulen?  Is the case moving forward?  There is an understanding that the process has slowed down due to the presidential elections.

Ambassador Bass:  I don’t think that’s an accurate description of the process.  Our two justice ministries are working very closely together on this process.  We want to make sure, as I said, that we’re doing everything we can to support the Turkish government’s efforts to bring those responsible for the coup attempt to justice.  One of the important factors for your viewers to understand is that the difference in our legal systems means that it’s very important for us not to be talking about it publicly, to ensure that we do not provide a perpetrator in the U.S. a reason to suggest to a judge that there is a predetermined outcome.  So in our judicial system, the less we say about a case, the more seriously we are taking it.  And that’s perhaps a bit of a difference from the approach to similar cases here in Turkey where people talk about them publicly without having an impact on the actual judicial case itself.

Question: Again, it’s all about your justice system, and it takes a long time maybe.

Ambassador Bass: Actually, if I may on that point, I think anytime a society experiences a big trauma, there is a natural human desire for swift justice.  We’ve experienced that in the U.S. ourselves after September 11th, where there was a very immediate urge to make sure that everyone responsible for those attacks was brought to justice as quickly as possible.  But despite that urge, it took some time for our law enforcement professionals to find the other people responsible for the plot who were still resident in the U.S., to build the case and to ensure they were convicted in U.S. court, and now they are serving life sentences for their involvement in those terrible attacks.  Throughout that process, there was some frustration in the American public at times.  But I think the outcome of that process ultimately gave people confidence that we had the right people, that justice was served and that they’re being punished for their crimes.

Question: President Elect Donald Trump seems to be eager to return Fethullah Gulen to Turkey.  What is your expectation on this matter?

Ambassador Bass: Well, as you can imagine I can’t speak for the incoming administration.  What I would say though, I’d say a couple of things.  First off, it has been a foundation of the U.S. policy towards Turkey for many years that the U.S. wants Turkey to succeed.  We benefit, Europe benefits, many regions benefit when Turkey is strong, stable, prosperous, democratic, and successful.  It is not in our interest for Turkey to be divided, to be in turmoil and so we’ve been working hard over the past years and decades to make sure we’re contributing to this nation’s security and prosperity and I’m confident that, whatever adjustments we may see in policy with the new administration, that’s going to remain a fundamental basis for our approach to Turkey and our relationship.  Because a wide range of Americans across political parties understand that we are always stronger when we work together, when we can find a way forward together.

Question: Regarding recent developments in our region, how do you evaluate the initiative started by Russia, Iran and Turkey to establish a ceasefire and lasting peace in Syria?  Do you think the decisions made in Moscow would bear positive results?

Ambassador Bass: Well, as my boss Secretary Kerry, and some of my colleagues in Washington have voted for several days, we welcome any efforts by any countries that have a productive result in reducing the suffering and reducing the violence, particularly in Aleppo, but potentially for wider segments of Syria. And so we welcome the efforts that Turkey’s undertaken and its creative diplomacy to achieve this result with Russia and Iran, that’s created this local ceasefire and the ability for the members of the opposition and their families and other residents of east Aleppo to evacuate those areas.  That’s a really constructive important step. Whether it leads to a more durable ceasefire over a much bigger piece of Syria, we will have to see, and we are continuing to work closely with the Turkish government, with the Russian government, with our friends and allies in Europe to try to achieve that result.

Question: How do you evaluate the recent relations between Turkey and Russia, especially the closening [sic] of the ties and efforts to create a common direction in economy and politics?  And this is seen by some as a means to distance Turkey from [the] West.  What is your opinion?

Ambassador Bass: Well, we understand and we support Turkey having a good, productive, constructive relationship with Russia.  You share a significant border, maritime boundary in the Black Sea.  There’s been a longstanding commercial relationship.  There is a lot of history obviously between Turkey and Russia.  So, we understand why it’s important for Turkey to have that positive, constructive relationship with Russia and with its other neighbors.  I think the people who want to look at this as a binary choice between a and b, I think are misreading the complexity of the international world today and certainly the international economy. And it seems to me that Turkey can have a good relationship with Russia that is respectful, but is also, I would expect, cautious about some of the Russian government’s policies and the way it behaves in the region. And one of the things I find disturbing about a lot of what I have been seeing in the media here in Turkey recently is, are these allegations that the U.S. somehow wants to undercut this rapprochement between Turkey and Russia because we want to somehow dismember Turkey or see it be unsuccessful. No one has been more committed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Turkey than the United States. But in contrast, the Russian government is the only government in Europe that in the past years has used military force to change international borders and to seize part of another country. And so it’s certainly our hope that as Turkey develops, re-develops its relationship with Russia and continues to keep those facts in mind as well.

Question: I would like to continue with Syria again. What is your current level of relations with PYD/YPG structure? Who you do support, especially in the Raqqa operation?

Ambassador Bass: So, we continue to provide support to a range of Syrian groups that are committed to fighting Daesh and to pushing Daesh out of the areas it still controls in Syria and in Iraq. We have been providing support to Syrian Arab groups working under the umbrella of what’s called the Syrian Democratic Forces. That umbrella group also includes the PYD. But we have not then providing direct support, we have not been providing weapons, we have not been ammunition to the PYD. I know there’s a lot of allegations…

Question: Allegations of United States providing anti-aircraft and high caliber rifles, namely Dochkas and you have been denying [this].

Ambassador Bass: So, there is no basis in fact for those allegations. We have not provided sophisticated weapons to the YPG. We have not provided heavy weapons to the YPG.

Question: Would you please tell us, define [for] us the relations between the PYD, YPG and the United States?

Ambassador Bass: There is a, I would say a relationship on the ground between some of the military professionals in our military, who have been charged by our president with doing everything possible to push Daesh out of the areas that controls in Syria. It is a very narrowly focused, I would say tactical discussion, about how we do this in the most effective way to reduce Daesh’s ability to conduct attacks, whether they’re in Syria, or whether importantly they are in Turkey or the United States or Europe. One of the reasons we’re doing this, notwithstanding with concerns here, is because we are very mindful of the suffering that Daesh has created here in Turkey. Daesh has killed more people unfortunately in Turkey than in Europe or the United States. We do not want to see them conducting additional attacks here and that is why we work so closely with the Turkish government over the last two years to achieve together the success we have had in making sure that Daesh no longer has access to the Turkish-Syrian border. That has been a real important development this year even in the midst of all the pain and suffering and we believe that one of the reasons Daesh has been trying to conduct even more attacks because they are feeling that pressure and that loss of territory.

Question: Mister Ambassador, you know Turkey regards PYD/YPG as a terrorist organization due to its close and organic ties with the PKK. How does the U.S. administration plan to shape its relations with PYD/YPG in the light of Turkey’s sensitivities?

Ambassador Bass: Well, we have been prosecuting the campaign in Syria for the better part of two years with two overarching goals in mind. The first goal is to defeat Daesh and to eliminate its control of territory and particularly that territory along the Turkish-Syrian border because of the threats that created for Turkey, for Europe and for the United States. But the other goal we have had is to approach this problem set in Syria and to ensure we conduct military operations in ways that do not create a long-term strategic problem for Turkey, our NATO ally. That is an important reason why we do not support, have never supported, connection of the so-called Kurdish cantons in Syria. That is why we do not support anyone on the ground changing demography or changing political governance structures unilaterally based solely on their military success against Daesh. And one of the things we have called on and continue to call on the YPG or the PYD to do is to allow Syrian Arabs who have been displaced from Tal Abyad and communities like that to be able to go home. And that is something we will remain committed to. We believe the future of Syria is for all Syrians to decide, not any individual armed group, even if those groups are involved in fighting Daesh.

Question: How would the relations with those organizations be shaped during the Trump Administration?

Ambassador Bass: Well, as I said, I can’t speak for the new administration.

Question:  Can we expect a policy change?

Ambassador Bass: As I said, I can’t speak for them. I can’t predict how they will approach this problem set. What I would say is though, I am confident the new administration, as I said earlier, will remain committed to this fundamental principle in our relationship, which is we’re always stronger when we work together, when we find a way to work together. And that is part of the reason why, even in this transition period, I and many of my colleagues in the U.S. government are continuing to work so intensively with our partners in the Turkish government to find those ways forward to address the security threats Turkey faces in Syria and Iraq, and to do it in a way that creates a durable solution, so we don’t simply exchange today’s problem for another problem tomorrow.

Question: I’d like to talk more about the self-governance of Kurds. How will the self-governance demands of Barzani in Northern Iraq and the Syrian Kurds be answered by the Washington administration?

Ambassador Bass: Well, our fundamental basis for our policies in both Iraq and Syria is the questions of governance in Iraq and Syria are for Iraqis and Syrians to decide. And one of the reasons we have been pressing over the last 4 years, unfortunately unsuccessfully to this point, for a political solution, a negotiated solution in Syria is because of our commitment to this principle. We do not want to see the future of Syria decided in a back room by foreign powers that have specific interests there or from there. We believe Syrians should be able to decide their own future, all Syrians.

Question: There was an apology controversy about the allegations of Turkey buying oil from ISIL. Turkish foreign ministry officials remarked that they received written apologies for misinformation from both John Kerry and the CIA, and yet the CIA and American officials deny it. What exactly happened? Is there an apology or not?

Ambassador Bass: What I think there has been is an evolution in the understanding of how Daesh was conducting oil smuggling from the areas in Syria that were producing oil when it controlled those areas. There were some initial indications that some of that oil was coming out through the Turkish-Syrian border.  The Turkish government took some important steps in 2014 and early 2015 to eliminate those small-scale smuggling efforts. As we work together between our governments to further investigate the matter, we were able to determine there was not, any longer, or in any scale, the kind of oil smuggling that we had feared was occurring, and we acknowledged that to the Turkish government. I would note [that] I’m not aware that the Russian government, which has been much more critical and engaged in all kinds of accusations about oil smuggling and who in the Turkish government was allegedly involved in that – I’m not aware that they have ever corrected the record, unlike the United States.

Question: So, I would like to ask again – is there an apology or not?

Ambassador Bass: I don’t want to get deep into the communications between individual ministries in government. I’d just say, look, we acknowledged that some of the initial assessments that we had were either corrected or were off-target a bit. And we constantly do that. We admit when we make mistakes. We often wish that some other governments would do so as well.

Question: Turkey is going through difficulties, difficult times with the fight against terrorism. Do you think the actions taken are effective against terrorist organizations, mainly PKK, FETO and ISIS?

Ambassador Bass: We have seen very important progress over the last year, and as I said, even between and around some of these terrible terrorist attacks here in Turkey that have created so much suffering, we’ve had some important successes working together as two governments, as two security services to identify attackers, to eliminate plots, to disrupt plots. And I am pleased to say that, over the last year, the U.S. has contributed [to] and supported Turkish efforts that prevented a number of attacks here in Turkey that could have killed hundreds more people. So, I am not satisfied with the progress to date, I don’t think anyone is because people are still dying and suffering, and that is unacceptable. But from my perspective, that only reinforces our determination to continue to work very closely with our friends and allies here in Turkey to address all of the terrorist threats that this society is facing and suffering.

Question: Turkey, as an ally, I’d like to ask – in which areas is Turkey getting concrete support from the United States? Can you give any examples, especially against Daesh, PKK and FETO?

Ambassador Bass: Well, as I just said, there is intensive engagement and discussion and support between the respective law enforcement organizations, the respective justice ministries, the respective security services, whether it’s military or intelligence. Obviously, we don’t talk about a lot of that publicly, because we do not want to signal to terrorists what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and make it easier for them to conduct attacks. We are providing quite a bit of information about we’re seeing as Daesh is evolving and adapting to its loss of territory. We are sharing a lot of information about attacks it wants to conduct here in Turkey, in Europe, in the United States, in other places. We’ve worked very closely to strengthen Turkey’s border controls, so that people in Syria and Iraq cannot get out, or that people who aspire to joining Daesh, even now, cannot reach Syria and Iraq to do so, and create even more pain and suffering there. And we continue to work very closely together with a range of colleagues across the Turkish government to address a much broader set of foreign policy issues that matter very much to people in this society. We’re working very closely with the Turkish government on the ongoing negotiations to try to bring the Cyprus problem to a settlement. We are working very closely together on a range of security measures in Europe. We’ve worked very closely to support Turkey’s efforts to work with the European Union. We’ve provided some support here in Turkey to help the Turkish government deal with the challenges posed by hosting 3 million refugees. But most importantly on that front, we have also provided an enormous amount of support to Syrians in Syria from Turkey, so that those people who felt safe enough to stay in Syria could do so and not become additional refugees here in Turkey or in Lebanon or Jordan. And those are all important, but I think less well-appreciated dimensions, of all of the work we are doing together today.

Question: We are coming to the end. Could you please give Turkish society, Turkish people a specific message about terrorism and fighting against terrorism? And, [as] we mentioned before, Turkey is going through troubling times. Do you have a specific message?

Ambassador Bass: Well, what I would again like to say is how deeply pained all of us are, but particularly all Americans who live in Turkey, who have Turkish friends, who shop at Turkish stores, who go to Besiktas or any of the other stadiums – how deeply saddened, troubled we are by the turmoil this society is experiencing. We, those of us working in the U.S. government here, are working very hard to try to eliminate that terrorism, to support the Turkish government’s efforts to eliminate that terrorism. And we are doing that with an eye to trying to ensure that the support we provide contributes to solutions in this society that give everyone in this democratic society confidence in those solutions, and confidence that today’s terrorism will not be exchanged for tomorrow’s terrorism. It’s a very troubled region. A lot of these issues are interconnected – they’re complicated. There are not any easy solutions, but that’s again why we believe it’s so important for our governments and our countries and our business communities to continue to work together to support each other so that we together can produce that better future for all of us.

Question: Lastly, can you send a message, if you want, to Turkish media about the allegations [of] terrorist activities behind the United States, or some groups, or [the] CIA, or whatever? If you  have…

Ambassador Bass: Well – my message would be similar to ones I’ve made previously in media…

Yesiltepe: Categorically…

Ambassador Bass: I categorically reject those allegations. They have no basis in fact. There is no evidence or facts to which any of these commentators can point. I find it shocking that columnists, who are now alleging that the United States wants to destroy the relationship between Turkey and Russia, only six months ago were writing about how evil the Russian government was and that it was out to destroy Turkey. There seems to be a little challenge in the integrity of their analysis at least about how they can go from one position to the completely opposite position, when not very many factors have changed. And what I would like to see in the Turkish media, frankly, is a bit more reliance on facts and evidence, and a little less reliance on opinion. There is place for – there is room for opinion in every journalistic enterprise. But when it is masked as news – that’s when we have a real problem. Because that undermines public confidence in what’s actually happening in societies, and it makes it much harder for everybody to work off a common basis of what problems we face together.

Yesiltepe: Mister Ambassador, thank you very much for this interview. You have been very helpful in our understanding of the current situation we are in. Thank you again.

Ambassador Bass: Çok teşekkür ederiz. Very happy to have joined you today.

Yesiltepe: Thank you.

[Exit remarks in Turkish]