Abdullah Gul: We’ll support Assad if this solution suits everybody

Turkey has launched a major military campaign in Syria, vowing to destroy Islamic State (IS) and contain Kurdish forces from expanding in the area. With a handful of international players already active in the conflict, it’s proving difficult to operate in a complex web of allegiances on the ground. On the home front, Ankara is reeling from a failed military coup, facing a Kurdish insurgency, terrorism and struggling to cope with millions of Syrian refugees on its borders. Can Turkey contain its acute troubles? And how far can it take the battle against IS? We're joined by a central figure in Turkey’s political establishment, former President Abdullah Gul, on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: President Erdogan said that Turkey ‘has a duty’ to destroy the Islamic State and called the Turkish military operation in Syria - Operation Euphrates Shield - ‘the first step’ in that direction. Why has it taken so long for Turkey to take this first step? We know that ISIS was moving supplies through the Turkish-Syrian border, they carried out terrorist attacks in Turkey...

Abdullah Gul: From the very beginning, from the very inception of ISIS Turkey has been warning about the danger it poses. We were the first to bring up this threat, back when the international community wasn’t taking it seriously and was paying no attention to ISIS. ISIS came out of the aftermath of the Iraq War. Catastrophic mistakes were made in Iraq - career officers of the Iraqi Army were excluded from society.  A number of separate radical forces took advantage of it and gathered all those excluded people under their banners. And so today we have this powerful terrorist group.  Back then I was the Prime Minister of Turkey, I personally told our allies many times that the vacuum they were creating in the country would give rise to new uncontrollable radical forces that would become a danger to the entire region. The Iraq War was followed by instability in Syria which triggered another civil conflict.Turkey has obviously been gravely affected. We have a 900-km long border with Syria. Turkey has suffered many heinous terrorist attacks that ISIS claimed responsibility for, including in Ankara, Gaziantep, Hatay and other cities. Many Turkish citizens died as a result.  

Yes, Turkey is fighting ISIS with everything it’s got – police and law enforcement ,and military forces as well. This is also an ideological battle, since ISIS claims to be acting in the name of Islam, deceiving Muslims by manipulating the concept of Islam. We’re facing this threat inside the country as well.To prevent the spread of false ideas the Religious Affairs Directorate, responsible for religious education, and all the imams and muftis continuously explain to the people and warn them that such groups are a threat first and foremost to Islam and all Muslims. The government and the opposition parties are working tirelessly hand in hand  to prevent the spread of ISIS ideology in our country.    

SS: Turkey launched its operation amid the military success of the Syrian Kurds, whom Ankara considers terrorists due to ties to the Turkish anti-government PKK party. Is Turkey willing to have a major confrontation with them? After all, they have the American military backing them...

AG: Speaking about the Kurds, there has to be a clear understanding that Kurds as a nation are closely related to us, they are our brothers. Millions of Kurds live in Turkey, and not only in Turkey, in all the neighbouring countries – millions of Kurds live in Iraq and Syria, and we care about them. But a political movement, a terrorist organisation -  the Kurdistan Workers' Party [the PKK] – is using terrorist means to obtain certain rights from Turkey. In Turkey Kurds and Turks have the same rights, both ethnic groups are treated equally, we’re all citizens of the same country. The PKK forged ties with some of the Kurdish political forces in Syria, turned them into the mouthpiece for PKK’s ideas. The PKK’s Syrian Kurdish allies forced all the existing Kurdish forces and parties to disband in order to build up their influence. These Syrian Kurdish forces don’t deny their connection to the PKK terrorists. Turkey is concerned that the PKK and their Syrian branch, using threats and violence against Kurds themselves, seek to create an autonomy along the Turkish border, driving out or destroying other ethnic groups – Arabs, for instance. That would mean changing the ethnic makeup of this region and creating a so-called Kurdish belt.  We always said that we wouldn’t tolerate such political games. Turkey has never done anything against the Kurdish people. On the contrary, we’ve done everything in our power to ensure the Kurds could lead peaceful, safe and happy lives. Turkey opposes only those Kurdish forces that are affiliated with the PKK and are driving the Arab and Kurdish civilians out,  trying to change the demographic composition of the area and establish their control over the territories.

Turkey’s operation in Syria in no way targets the Kurdish population in Syria, no. We are only countering the forces that are trying to create an autonomy through violent means, that are killing civilians. But it’s not only them we’re fighting, but also ISIS, So the Turkish army’s objective is to scatter all these criminal groups, cleanse the territory of them and ensure our borders are secure. To protect our own national security Turkey won’t let such groups dominate the region. 

Turkey has no intention whatsoever to seize new territories outside its current borders or create a sphere of influence.  We only want our 900-km border with Syria to be secure and free of danger or attacks carried out by terrorist groups, and the people on both sides of the border to have a life of stability, peace and security. I’ll say it again: this is our sole wish and objective. I believe that other countries share this wish. Russia also considers ISIS a security threat. You think that Russians becoming terrorists and joining ISIS is a threat, and we think so too. This isn’t about some faraway land, we’re dealing with the situation right here on our border.

SS: But tell us, Mr. Gul, is Turkey willing to start a full on confrontation with the Syrian Kurdish forces, even though they get support from the US?

AG: Turkey is ready to fiercely fight any terrorist organisation posing a real threat to the world, and, as you can see, we are leading this fight. But even so, we are committed to cooperating with the international coalition. Cooperating with Russia, the U.S. and other countries in the coalition will undoubtedly be of help in our fight. Yes, since we have a border with Syria we are threatened more than other countries, but we see that major international players such as Russia, the US and European countries are just as concerned. We need to think of this fight not as one country’s struggle for  security, but as a collective effort, and then coordination and cooperation will bring real results.  

SS:Operation Euphrates Shield is entering a new phase, with the Turkish military now attacking ISIS positions that aren’t all that close to the Turkish-Syrian border. Will the Turkish army march all the way to Aleppo?

AG: This question should probably be addressed to Turkish leaders currently in charge of the country. As a former president, I don’t have a definite answer for you, but from what I know Turkey isn’t after any territorial gains. Turkey recognises current Syrian borders, and redrawing the borders or making territorial claims are out of the question.

The only objective of the Turkish military operation in Syria is to prevent the terrorist groups lurking just beyond the Turkish border from establishing their control over certain parts of Syria. We don’t intend to achieve this on our own, but through cooperation with the international coalition.  We coordinate with our allies all the time.

SS: Turkey supported the ceasefire agreement in Syria brokered by Russia and the U.S. Even though the truce is in trouble, how is it impacting Turkey’s own military operation in Syria?

AG: Turkey strongly supports the ceasefire. The agreement reached between Russia and the US is  very important indeed. We strongly believe and hope that this ceasefire will evolve into an extended truce and dialogue, and that after five long years of war the Syrian crisis will be resolved through political means. We hope that the clashes and the bloodshed will be brought to an end on all the fronts and that Syria will once again become a peaceful and hospitable place. We hope that millions of refugees will be able to return to their homeland. The ceasefire applies to all of the opposition forces and the government troops. However, it does not apply to ISIS, and that is why Turkey is currently fighting ISIS terrorists and their cells. Thus, while supporting the ceasefire and constantly co-ordinating its efforts with the leaders of both Russia and the U.S., Turkey continues to fight against ISIS.

In my personal opinion, and I have expressed it since the very beginning of the escalation of the conflict in Syria, in the years when I was president of Turkey, and I have defended this position both in Turkey and internationally: until Russia and Iran are included in the peace process, there is no reason to expect peace and stability in Syria. I sincerely believe that until a political resolution is found and until everyone knows who is going to be the main participants of the peace process, there will be no end to radicalisation, to the destruction of Syria as a country, to the depletion of its resources and – most horribly – to people's deaths. If we keep utilising only military means, we won't achieve any constructive results, we will only continue to see the Mediterranean turn into another Afghanistan.

SS:Turkey supports the Syrian rebels who are fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. Is Turkey ready to mend ties with President Assad if he remains in power in Syria?

AG: A political solution is only possible through reconciliation and willingness for compromise. If the problem could be solved by just one side,  which would dictate its own terms, it would have long won the war, forcing everyone else to accept its conditions. I know for a fact that peace in the region is impossible to achieve by military means – war cannot beget peace, and only political dialogue can give us hope. And if a political solution is found, all the parties will have to recognise its terms. When the framework of such an agreement is shaped, then, undoubtedly, Turkey will support it. Whether you like it or not, whether it corresponds to your wishes or not – in order to achieve peace, each of the parties will have to make concessions and find a compromise.

When stability in the country is secured, the number of followers of radical groups will start to dwindle, they will start breaking down and the fight against them will become significantly easier.

SS: So, you’re saying Turkey is willing to improve relations with Syria and start a dialogue with Assad if he remains president, right?

AG: I am not currently president, I am an ex-president and I am expressing my personal opinion. In my view, if the conditions for reconciliation are reached and a political resolution follows, Turkey will support it. As for what this agreement will look like – I do not know whether Bashar al-Assad will remain in power for some time and step down later, whether there would be some kind of a transition period under his rule or whether he will remain president until the next presidential election, with a condition that he is not to be nominated for the position. But if we are able to shape a solution that will –  to a greater or lesser degree – satisfy all of the parties, then, I am sure, Turkey will not say no to it.  

SS:What is Turkey going to do if their allies, the Free Syrian Army, come face to face with the government forces on the battlefield?

AG: Turkey is not waging war in Syria. Turkey is not at war with the Syrian government troops. Turkey wants to create a safe zone across the border for those millions of refugees who settled in Turkey. We only seek protection against threats Turkey is facing.

SS:As part of its campaign in Syria Turkey is backing the Free Syrian Army, but that army really consists of multiple smaller units, some more radical than others - how does Ankara determine which groups within the FSA should be given support? Does Turkey have a safe and proven method?

AG: Yes, Turkey supports the Free Syrian Army which, as you know, fights against both the government troops and ISIS. But when it comes to finding a political solution to the conflict, it will be up to the Syrians, to all factions that are at war in Syria, to look for a solution. And if all the groups involved give the green light to some kind of a political solution, how can we in Turkey say no?  This is a very complicated and intricate problem, but it is obvious that the longer this war is waged, the more radicalised the fighting factions will grow and the more complex and chaotic their relations with one another and their goals will be, and at some point it will be impossible to make out who fights who and what for.

The war needs to be ended as soon as possible. And to achieve this massive pressure is needed from the entire international community, support from all the countries neighbouring Syria in conducting joint talks and searching for a political solution. I think this is the most important thing right now.

SS: The military coup attempt in Turkey came as a shock to the entire world. With all the tough measures, has the government fully reestablished its control over the country? Is there a danger of similar attempts in the future?

AG: July 15th was a shock for all of us. No one had ever expected something like that. But the coup was doomed to fail. Neither the Chief of the General Staff nor the combat arms commanders of the Turkish Army participated in the coup. They did not join the plot. The crime was carried out by just one military group within the Turkish armed forces.

The coup though was suppressed both by the army and by the nation, by the people of Turkey, all political parties and their leaders who took to the streets in a show of courage. I believe another coup attempt is out of the question.

SS: Following the failed coup attempt in July, thousands Turkish soldiers and officers have  been arrested. President Erdogan said this was ‘ a chance to cleanse the military’.  In what state does that leave the Turkish military? 

AG: The rebels that attempted the coup represented just a fraction of the Turkish Army. The vast majority of the troops, all the combat arms commanders and their subordinate commanders chose not to join. The coup was organised and ran by a few servicemen occupying key coordination posts within the Turkish Army, for example, by military aides to the president and their subordinates. But they were very few. Prosecutors have identified all the organisers of the coup. All of them have been arrested, and the names of all their accomplices have been established. All those people have been removed from the army ranks and are under investigation.

They will stand trial and an independent court will pronounce judgement in each of their cases. The Turkish Army has been purged of these traitors. So now there is no threat of a repeated coup attempt.

The Turkish armed forces, as you can see, are now engaged in an active fight against the PKK on the one hand and ISIS on the other. 

SS: US State Secretary John Kerry threatened to put Turkish NATO membership under scrutiny -  if President Erdogan didn’t stop the mass arrests following the coup attempt.  Should such threats be taken seriously?

AG: I think that you are mistaken. I haven’t heard any such threats or statements by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. He can’t have said something like that. And I don’t recall any such words coming from NATO.

SS: Mr Gul, I just want to stress that Mr. Kerry said that in July, after the coup attempt, at the press conference in Brussels following the meeting with EU foreign ministers… 

AG: I have neither seen nor heard anything about this. There haven’t been any reports on this in the Turkish press. I think there is a mistake here. I wasn’t aware of any such threats.

SS: So Mr. Kerry did make those statements, the Western media covered it. Now that you know he hinted at that, what do you think about such threats? Should they be taken seriously? 

AG: Of course, some people like Turkey, and there are those who don’t, there are various points of view and preferences within NATO. But let’s look at the facts. The U.S. or European nations have shown no support or solidarity to the people of Turkey at the time of the coup. 

And we were very upset to see the reaction of the West. Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed his firm and clear support for the government and the people of Turkey, and the Turks won’t forget this and are very grateful to him for his stance. 

SS: When the American diplomats criticised the violation of human rights in the country, the Turkish Prime Minister responded by saying that “American ambassadors are not governors in Turkey”. Do you think that American diplomats are crossing the line interfering in Turkey’s domestic affairs?

AG: You have to understand, these are emotional statements. These verbal spats occur between countries from time to time. Of course, American diplomats pay close attention and analyse the situation in any country they are based in and report to the ministries at home. But in doing this, the U.S. ought to remain within the limits set by international agreements on diplomatic missions and it has to be discreet and careful in the language they use and judgements they share about the politics of Turkey or any other state.

If they are not careful enough or discrete in their words and actions, they will not be able to serve their country well. 

SS: Ankara accused the cleric Fethullah Gülen of organising the coup attempt. He lives in the US, but Washington is in no hurry to grant Turkey’s extradition request. Why is the US refusing to help its ally? 

AG: As far as I know, official documents containing investigation results and the demand to extradite Fethullah Gülen were passed on to the American side last month when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Turkey. We’re waiting for an answer to the official extradition demand which was sent to the United States.

SS: We’re seeing ties between Russia and Turkey improving. Is Washington unhappy about that?

AG: I wholeheartedly support the efforts aimed at restoring the relations between Turkey and Russia. It is absolutely essential not only for our two countries, but for all the other countries in the region as well. The crisis we have witnessed was a severe blow and a tragedy. Thank God, it’s all in the past now. Speaking at the Eurasia Forum held in Istanbul last year at a time when the Russian-Turkish relations had hit rock bottom, I said that we must restore ties as soon as possible, and moreover, reach a new level of cooperation. 

Today it is with immense satisfaction that I see the relations between our two countries reestablished and the atmosphere of mutual trust and confidence restored. It is not only our two countries that need strong and trust-based relations, they are needed to ensure stability and peace in the entire region. They will surely contribute to resolving the conflicts in the Middle East.

As a former foreign minister, prime minister and president, I can say that I put a lot of effort into developing the ties between Russian and Turkey. I visited Russia on multiple occasions and was proud to host  my Russian colleagues in Turkey. I believe that our relations will only strengthen and  reach new heights.

SS: I agree with you, Mr. Gul, but that wasn’t my question. My question was – do you think the US is apprehensive about the positive changes in the Russian-Turkish relations?

AG: I am not sure what the U.S. thinks about this. Let them judge for themselves. We don’t care if they like it or not, if they welcome our ties with Russia or not.

It is important for us to develop mutually beneficial relations which reflect the interests of both Turkey and Russia, develop bilateral ties and contribute to establishing peace and security in the region. If someone doesn’t like that, why should we care? We need to stay on the right track and work towards achieving our own goals.

SS: The Turkish Foreign Minister said that the Ministry is considering abandoning the idea of joining the EU, seeing how the people are growing less and less enthusiastic about it. Is Turkey’s Eurodream dead?

AG: Turkey’s EU membership bid is not at the top of our agenda right now.  The European Union is also focused on solving problems that are more pressing. Turkey’s accession to the EU is not the top priority for both sides right now.

SS: Turkey is responsible for halting the influx of Syrian refugees to Europe, while the EU in turn grants visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. But the EU keeps stalling the visa-free regime. Will it get to the point when the deal falls apart and Turkey opens its western borders for the refugees trying to get to Europe?

AG: The refugee deal between the EU and Turkey  is a very important document. We’re already witnessing a sharp decrease of the number of refugees trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas. Before the deal around 6 thousand refugees arrived in Europe every day, now that figure is close to zero.

I think that the European Union will grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel sooner or later. Turkey is holding talks on its ascension to the EU, it has a customs union with the bloc, so it’s a shame that the EU has not yet established a visa-free regime with a partner like Turkey.

Many other countries - for example some Latin American states, which are totally unrelated to the EU, were granted visa-free travel long ago. It is sad that Europe has not yet abolished visas for Turkish citizens. I hope that this issue will be resolved in the near future.

SS: One million refugees in the EU have caused plenty of headache to the union. But in Turkey there are 2,7 million refugees from Syria alone. How is Turkey dealing with such a high influx of migrants, does it create internal tension in the country?

AG: Of course, it is a huge burden for the country. The number of refugees is very high. In a very short time Turkey accepted as many refugees as all the European countries combined did in the past 10 years. But it’s a purely humanitarian matter, it’s a question of humanity.

When crowds of refugees are amassed at your country’s borders, when they look at you with hope and ask you for help and assistance, ask you to save them, when they’re being bombed, shot by the different warring factions - what else is there left for us to do?  Can we turn our backs on them and leave them there to die?! Or shall we listen to our conscience and open the doors of our home to  them, save their lives? Turkey has taught the world a lesson of humanity. We have opened our borders to all those seeking refuge. Turkey has already provided asylum to over 3 million refugees. That’s a huge figure. And all these people need decent living conditions, jobs and an education. The country is under tremendous pressure. That’s why we are so anxious to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis that will put an end to the war, and allow people to return to their country, to their abandoned homes.