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France, UK, US have no right to put troops in Syria – Erdogan’s chief adviser

The Syrian war is heating up and the threats of US airstrikes are adding to tensions in northern Syria, where the Turkish Army is conducting its own operation. How can Ankara influence the situation and what are its plans for the future? We ask President Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ilnur Cevik.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Ilnur Cevik, chief adviser to the Turkish President, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you back.

Ilnur Cevik: Thank you.

SS: Lots to talk about. There’s talk of bombing Syria following the alleged chemical attack in Douma. One day Donald Trump is telling Russians to “prepare” for the coming missiles, the next day he says that it can happen “soon or not so soon”. Do you think, this is an attack that is really coming, are these threats real? 

IC: As far as we can see, Trump needs something for his domestic consumption. They may have a missile attack, but I don’t think it’s going to be a very deadly missile attack. I don’t think it’s going to be a very effective missile attack, just like they did about a year ago when Donald Trump again unleashed a missile attack against Syria. It may be a similar attack. They just want to show to their own people that ‘we said something and we kept our promise’. But I don’t think it’s going to be an attack that’s going to affect the balance of power in Syria. I don’t think it’s going to be an attack that will antagonize Russia. I think, they’re just doing it for public consumption. 

SS: So what does Turkey feel about a possible clash in this situation, will it welcome the American military action? 

IC: Turkey is not going to welcome any more complications in Syria. Turkey and Russia as well as Iran are partners for peace in Syria. Any move that will spoil this is something that Turkey doesn’t desire. Plus, Turkey is a friend of Russia. Yes, we’re allies with the United States but we have vested interest in Russia. And, as I said, the peace process was started by Turkey and Russia, between President Erdogan and President Putin. So we want that process to continue without any hindrance, and outside interference is just going to make things more complicated. But I don’t think, any kind of intervention by the Americans, British or French is going to make any real impact on the peace process. It will just be a ripple.     

SS: If worst comes to worst and American and Russian missiles do collide in Syrian skies, what would that mean for Turkey’s operation in the north of Syria? 

IC: Well, it’s a very undesirable situation because the Americans’ presence in the north of Syria, their alliance with the Kurdish terrorists PKK is undesirable for Turkey. Turkey doesn’t want this kind of American presence there. What Turkey wants is the Americans to be part of the peace process, if they really desire. But the way they are going on they are only serving to divide the country instead of keeping it united. The Americans always say they are supporting a united Syria but the way things are developing they are doing everything but secure the united Syria. So I think, Turkey doesn’t want this kind of clash, Turkey will do everything in its power to avoid this kind of clash. If it comes to worst then we’ll have to sit down and see.  

SS: The U.S. military refused to work with rebel militias that are now part of the Turkish operation in Syria, because they were considered too Islamist and hardline. There is video and press reports about former jihadists, including ex-ISIS, fighting in Afrin in the rebel ranks. Why does Turkey tolerate extremists among its allies? 

IC: Well, Turkey doesn’t tolerate any extremists. These are, I think, misrepresentations of the situation. Turkey is cooperating with the Free Syrian Army. The Free Syrian Army are not a band of terrorists. The Free Syrian Army are ordinary people who want their land back. They are mainly Arabs who had been thrown out of their lands by the Kurds in Manbij, by everyone. They had been subjected to cruelty by Assad in the past. They have all come together, they were a small group when Turkey first launched its Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016. They were a small group, but when Turkey succeeded in the Euphrates Shield with the Russian help (Russia helped us by opening the air space) and it was a successful mission, this created a positive impact among the Syrian opposition forces. They started to unite around Turkey in a joint cause. So the Free Syrian Army’s success in the Euphrates Shield resulted in a more united front which is not terrorist, not jihadist but which is ordinary Syrian opposition people. So I do not think it’s right to call these people jihadist, Daesh, etc. The same Free Syrian Army units are also deployed in the south of the country and they are cooperating with Israel - nobody raises questions about them cooperating with Israel. But when it comes to Turkey in the north, when we’re talking about the Free Syrian Army everybody starts saying ‘ah, they are extremists, they are jihadists’. I don’t accept that argument. 

SS: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released a video where Kurds in Afrin are threatened with death by Turkish-allied rebels, if they don’t convert to a Salafist form of Islam. Now that Afrin is under Turkish control and the Syrian rebel forces are stationed there, how big of a danger is there of ethnic cleansing for the Kurds who live on that territory? 

IC: There’s no danger of ethnic cleansing in the area. The area was dominated by the PKK terrorists who are separatist Kurds of Turkey. They had imposed their will on the people. They had hijacked the Syrian-Kurdish political moment. Now Turkey has liberated the area. Now the people of Afrin, the Kurds of Afrin are free. Turkey has liberated them. Now they can make their own decisions without PKK imposing its will on these people, they can choose any kind of system they want. But Turkey says that area was a security problem for Turkey. And we feel that those security considerations, threats have to be overcome. So Turkey says ‘I am there to provide security for my own land, but also to liberate the area from effects of PKK so that the Syrian people can freely decide on their own future cause but, of course, within a solution in Syria’. So when Turkey is there, Turkey is not a conqueror, Turkey doesn’t want to take over the land for itself. All Turkey wants is to secure the area for itself so that it’s no longer a security threat, terrorists cannot infiltrate into Turkey from that area, plus, PKK never returns to that area so that the free Syrian Kurdish people can decide on their own faith.    

SS: Mr. Cevik, how long will the Turkish army stay in Syria’s north? 

IC: As long as it’s needed, there’s no time constraint. There has to be a solution in Syria for Turkey to leave the area and this solution has to satisfy Turkey’s security concerns - any solution in the area and in general in Syria because there’s no piecemeal deal only for Afrin or only for Northern Syria. There has to be a general agreement that the north of Syria is no longer a threat to Turkey, that Daesh will never come back there threatening Turkey, that PKK never comes back there and threatens Turkey. So as long as that potential threat continues Turkey is going to be there just like the Russians are there, just like the Iranians are there, just like anybody else is there. 

SS: Trump has said that the U.S. might be leaving Syria “very soon”. Soon after, his national security advisers said that the withdrawal won’t happen tomorrow and the troops are staying for now. What do you read in this, is Turkey expecting the Americans to go and does Ankara want that? 

IC: Turkey will only be happy if the Americans leave the area because Turkey feels that Americans’ spot for PKK terrorists, for PYD and YPG, is only complicating matters. There’s no Daesh threat left. If there’s any Daesh threat left then Turkey and Russia can deal with that Daesh threat. Iran can deal with that Daesh threat because it’s a minimal threat. However, the Americans are there and they want to stay on there. Despite President Trump’s declarations, as you know, Pentagon has managed to convince him that ‘we have to stay for the time being’. How long that time is being - nobody knows. Still President Trump is saying ‘as soon as possible’ but nobody can define what that ‘as soon as possible’ means. The Americans want to stay there, Pentagon wants to stay there to be able to counter Russian  and Iranian presence in the country. So the Americans are not really there to fight Daesh. They are there to have a certain control over the north of Syria and to be at the bargaining table. 

SS: Mr. Cevik, President Erdogan has said that the Turkish operation will not stop in Afrin and  that the Turkish forces will go further and take Manbij. But U.S. forces are stationed in Manbij right now. Will Turkey attack Manbij while the Americans are there? 

IC: Turkey is saying something very straightforward: we don’t want the PKK, we don’t want the YPG, PYD Kurdish militants in Manbij because Manbij doesn’t belong to the Kurds. Afrin is a Kurdish place, we have liberated it, as I said. One day we’re going to give it back to the rightful owners which are the Kurds - the Syrian Kurds, of course. Manbij is the same. It’s the city which has the 95% population of Syrian Arabs. The PKK, PYD, YPG invaded Manbij under the pretence of fighting Daesh or ISIS, as you call it, and what they did was… later on  Americans would say ‘we will withdraw the Kurds from that area, and the rightful owners which are the Syrian Arabs can stay there’. But the Americans didn’t keep their promise. With the Americans we say: “You don’t want to leave this place? Ok, don’t leave this place. But if you won’t, the Kurds are not going to be there. Otherwise we’ll also have to intervene in Manbij to clear the Kurds out of the city”. So the Americans have the choice - either they push the Kurds out and we’re offering them another solution, say, ‘why don’t we secure Manbij together - Turkish and American troops - against possible Daesh return to the area, or ready for an interference’. So what Turkey says is very straightforward: we don’t want the PKK, PYD, YPG Kurds there, we want them to leave the city, we want the city to be run by the Syrian Arabs who are the rightful owners of the city.  

SS: There is an “understanding” between Turkey and the U.S. about the situation in Manbij and your foreign minister said that this understanding should be a model for all other places controlled by the Kurdish YPG. What is this understanding? How is it going to work? 

IC: The understanding is that YPG, PYD and PKK Kurds have to leave all the eastern Euphrates area, especially the border areas because the border areas continue to be a direct threat to Turkey’s security. We know that in cities like Kobani and Qamishli there are PKK elements which always infiltrate into Turkey. Kobani was the place where suicide bombers were trained and sent into Turkey and that killed a lot of people in Ankara and Istanbul in the past. So Kobani is the hub of terrorists. We don’t want terrorists there. We want all the eastern Euphrates area, especially our border area, to be cleared away from the PKK threat. So the United States has to either clear these people out of that area or we will be taking the matters into our hands clearing the area ourselves.   

SS: Turkey and the U.S. are obviously NATO allies, and now Turkey is fighting a U.S. ally in Syria directly. Is there a red line with the U.S. that Turkey won’t cross in Syria, a limit to what it can do without really making its American partners angry? 

IC: Well, the American partners have really frustrated Turkey. We regret this kind of attitude. The Americans promised to take the Kurds out of Manbij - they didn’t. We told the Americans not to support PKK, not to give them arms, not to give them heavy arms - but they continue doing it. And everybody in Turkey is questioning what kind of an alliance is this with the United States. Why are they so openly supporting the PKK terrorists who are fighting an insurgency war inside Turkey? They know these are terrorists, they are actually on the American terrorist list. They are on the list of terrorist organizations in the United States and in Europe, but the Europeans and the Americans continue supporting the PKK. So the Turkish public doesn’t understand this. We are telling the Americans: this kind of attitude is increasing the alienation among the Turkish public. The Turkish public is questioning - are they friends or what are they? I mean, what kind of friendship is this? What kind of alliance is this? A bulk of the Turkish people are starting to question the relationship between Turkey and the United States. This is what we are telling the Americans: look, relations between the peoples are very important because they are everlasting. Relations between governments are a passing phase. But if the relationship between the Turkish people and the American people is hurt, if there’s a wedge between them, then this is going to cause long-term difficulties and long-term harm.    

SS: I want to talk to you about this other thing - the French reportedly have troops in Northern Syria. Now Turkey has denounced the French deployment, calling it “illegal”, “illegitimate”, calling it an “invasion”. But isn’t France doing exactly the same thing Turkey is doing - deploying troops in Syria without asking for permission from the Syrian government? Why is the Turkish deployment legal and legitimate and when the French do it, it becomes illegal? 

IC: Look at it this way - Turkey has a border with Syria. Why is Turkey’s operation legitimate? Because it’s following international rules, the UN Security Council resolutions. What Turkey is doing is an act of self-defence. We have been threatened by that region so we are taking matters in our own hands. Why? Because that region has become an insurgency area. Nobody is in control of it properly. The Assad regime has never been in control of it. The Assad regime has actually left the area to the PKK which are the enemies of Turkey so Turkey had to take matter into its own hands to provide its own security and secure the border areas. This is a very legitimate cause. However, who are the French to be there? Who are the Americans to be there? Who are the British to be there? And to be honest, I’m not too sure, the French are there either, like the American troops. Some people said, the French troops are there because Macron announced so. Macron didn’t announced this. Macron invited the delegation of Kurdish militants to the Elysee and there he didn’t say ‘we are sending troops to you’. The Kurds who were at that meeting leaked the news that France was sending troops to the Northern Syria. And then the Elysee Palace denied this, they said ‘we are not sending any troops, we’re not militarily involved in this area’. So I’m not too sure what the military involvement there is. There are some elements, some French, British advisers, but also, unfortunately, there are French- and British-paid soldiers of fortune who joined YPG and PYD and some of them have been killed in Afrin. 

SS: Turkey is purchasing Russia’s S-400 air-defense missile systems and has even asked to speed up the delivery. NATO’s Military Committee Chairman Petr Pavel has warned that Turkey would have to face the ‘consequences of this decision’. What can those consequences be? 

IC: Well, they are threatening us with sanctions, they are threatening us with not giving us certain arms, vital arms that we need. But Turkey wanted the air-defense systems from the Americans. Turkey asked the United States to sell the Patriots and the Americans didn’t even want to hear about it. On the contrary, in 2015 there were Patriot missiles deployed by the Americans, the Germans and the Dutch on the Turkish soil against possible airstrikes by Assad and they withdrew these missiles. So the United States withdrew its Patriots from Turkey, never mind giving it or selling it new air-defense systems. So, Turkey says: “We wanted it from you, you never gave it, you even took away those that were deployed in Turkey. So, what was I supposed to do? I need a viable air-defense system. And the Russian system is very viable…”  

SS: I know, it’s viable. Can I ask you something: is NATO basically upset that Turkey isn’t buying NATO-made weapons? Is this a market, business issue for Turkey’s NATO allies? Could this be about that? 

IC: Well, some of the allies are upset. NATO has said Turkey has the right to purchase any air missile defense system it likes. It may not be compatible with the NATO systems, but let me remind you: Greece also deployed S-300s in its soil, it’s a NATO country and nobody opposed that. So why should anybody now raise questions about Turkey buying S-400s? Plus, the Russians are giving us technology for S-400s, the Russians are speeding up the delivery of the system. So we’re only happy that this is happening. 

SS: We were talking to Ilnur Cevik, President Erdogan’s chief adviser discussing the situation in Syria and Turkey’s view of these events.