Turkey, US to provide air protection for moderate Syrian opposition forces
Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, speaking to Daily Sabah in an exclusive interview while attending the fifth MIKTA Foreign Ministers Meeting in Seoul, said the moderate Syrian opposition forces that will be part of the train and equip program in Kırşehir won't be abandoned once they are back in Syria. He said ignoring their plight once in Syria was against what the program wanted to achieve, adding that the U.S. and Turkey had agreed in principle to provide the trained and equipped moderate forces with air protection in Syria. He said that the air cover for trained Syrian forces was not part of the comprehensive plan put forward by Turkey that included setting up no-fly zones and safe zones in Syria. On the issue of Rohingya refugees, he said Turkey was in close contact with Indonesia and Malaysia, which are also MIKTA members, adding that the government had donated $1 million to help the refugees. The foreign minister also remarked on the start of the latest round of Cyprus unification talks, noting that Turkey was more determined than ever to resolve the issue. The current positive climate created by the resumption of talks needed to last, he said.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey and the U.S agreed to provide air protection for the moderate Syrian opposition forces that are currently being trained as part of the train-and-equip program which started in the Turkish province of Kırşehir recently and aims to train up to 2,000 fighters until the end of this year. Regarding the allegations that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have agreed upon an operation in Syria and Turkey will become a part of a sectarian war, Minister Çavuşoğlu said that all of these claims are conspiracy theories and he underlined that Turkey is against sectarianism. Daily Sabah spoke with Çavuşoğlu during his visit to Seoul, South Korea for the Fifth MIKTA Foreign Ministers Meeting. The foreign minister discussed the recent MIKTA meeting, Rohingya refugees, EU relations, the Cyprus issue, relations with Israel, regional developments, and the upcoming elections.
You were in Seoul for the meeting of MIKTA foreign affairs ministers. What are Turkey's expectations from MIKTA?
MIKTA is an organization formed by Mexico, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Turkey, and Australia. Turkey's taking part in these kind of initiatives is a reflection of our proactive foreign policy. We see such organizations as important in improving Turkey's stance among international organizations. MIKTA is an organization established by five countries that do not have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. We look through the same window in terms of U.N. reforms, the U.N.'s role and in many other subjects. Having a common perspective, it is important to increase cooperation under the framework of MIKTA and become apparent in international organizations. Therefore, we are working towards the institutionalization of the organization and trying to make it politically active as much as possible. We did not want to chair MIKTA for the term, due to the G20 term presidency; however, our attendance in the meetings despite the upcoming elections indicates the given importance both to our bilateral relations with South Korea and MIKTA.
The issue of Rohingya refugees was discussed in the meeting. What decisions were had?
We, as Turkey, wanted to bring forth this subject; however, Indonesia acted first. In the meeting the Indonesian envoy informed us about what they had done. We shared our opinions after their presentation. Firstly, human trafficking has become an internationally organized crime; it is done professionally. To tackle this situation, international cooperation is needed. It has become more dangerous than terrorism; they sink ships without hesitation and kill thousands of people. Secondly, as it is with every issue, we must look for the cause of the problem. Every person has their own story; some escape from their country due to unemployment, natural disasters, or the regime. Rohingya people are fleeing due to the oppression and discrimination of the Myanmar administration. This must be stopped. While we are providing all the material aid we can, we should work together in eliminating the cause of the problem.
We are in close contact with the Indonesian and Malaysian foreign ministers, the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, the general secretary of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the U.N. itself since this has started. We will be providing a donation of $1 million. This sum is equally divided between the International Organization of Migration and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Indonesia and Malaysia have agreed to take this monetary assistance and we added that if they need further help for settling the refugees, we will provide help with the establishment of infrastructure. We have experience in this area due to the Syrian and Iraqi refugees we have settled.
Turkey sent a ship to gather the refugees. What are the latest developments?
We had a frigate in the area that was at seven or eight hour distance, also some commercial vessels. We were planning to pick up the refugees, but decided to wait until the meeting on Wednesday. When Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to take the refugees, there was no need to send our vessels.
How do you evaluate the EU Progress Report? As you know, the report was postponed until June.
EU Turkey Reporter Kati Piri is doing the best she can to prepare an objective report; however, there are many suggestions for changes in the report. Unfortunately, there is a trend of animosity towards Turkey in the EU. They are trying to reflect this animosity in the report. Nevertheless, there is no benefit in unrealistic criticisms and assaults. Turkey will not accept this kind of offensive action. We welcome criticism, but only if it is constructive. We are hoping that the report will be a balanced one; the Ministry of the EU is also following this report closely.
Negotiations have started again in Cyprus. There are some statements from the Southern Cyprus administration that Turkey's blockade in entering the EU may be lifted. What are your comments on this subject?
Cyprus is not a criteria in Turkey's official negotiations with the EU; however, it is usually discussed. The EU is trying to serve it as a criteria, but we do not accept it. We have stated this in the Association Council meeting; nevertheless, it is still a de facto part of the negotiations. Our expectation from the EU is the removal of political obstructions.
There is a positive attitude in Cyprus that should be utilized, especially by the Greeks. In my opinion, a permanent solution in Cyprus is much more important than opening a new chapter in EU ascension. While they do not provide an alternative for each other, I would prefer stability. It is an issue that has been ongoing for 50 years. Therefore, these statements are as important as they are encouraging. This positive attitude has to last. We are more determined than ever in the resolution of the issue. We hope that the Greek part of Cyprus also maintains its determination for a resolution, and then we will have a solution.
How do you evaluate the new negotiation process in comparison with the previous ones?
There is only a more positive attitude now. As a significant difference, this is the last chance. This last chance should not be wasted.
There was speculation on the train-and-equip agreement signed with the U.S.. Is there a problem or contradiction with the U.S.?
There are no problems or contradictions; there is only a delay. A day is named; however, due to a delay in technical preparations, it may become obsolete. There was a delay in logistics and the arrival of the personnel.
What are Turkey's expectations from the train-and-equip program?
We aim to consolidate the moderate opposition in Syria both politically and militarily. We advocate a political resolution, but a significant alternative in the field is also needed. Both ISIS and the regime forces continue their assaults and killings. Aleppo's defense against these forces is extremely important. Superiority in the field must be provided. As there are no military operations against these forces currently, with this program, we are trying to achieve a balance. The opposition forces are fighting on both fronts; while the fight against ISIS is prioritized, the regime must be also stopped.
Are there any developments regarding the no-fly zone in Syria?
No-fly and secure zones are a part of the extensive resolution for Syria. However, to provide security for the personnel that were trained and equipped, these are partial solutions.
Is there cooperation with the U.S. in providing air support for the train-and-equip army?
Of course. They have to be supported via air. If you do not protect them or provide air support, what is the point?
Does this air support include the use of armed drones from the İncirlik air base?
These are technical details. There is a principle agreement on providing air support. How it is going to be provided is in the responsibility of the army.
There was news that alleged that Turkey and Saudi Arabia agreed on an operation in Syria, and Turkey will become a part of a sectarian war. How do you evaluate these allegations?
These are only conspiracy theories. We are against sectarianism. We advocate national unity in every country that is in a crisis. This is true for Yemen, Libya, and also for Syria; however, in Syria, this must be accomplished without Bashar Assad. He delegitimized himself when he killed 300,000 people. It is not possible for him to govern Syria anymore; he will not be able to unite the nation. There are not any agreements with Saudi Arabia regarding Syria; however, we are of the same mind regarding the regime in Syria, ISIS, and extensive strategy. While we had different opinions on Egypt, there were not any differences concerning Syria. The leader of the main opposition party even claimed that we were going into war in Syria. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we are not obliged to answer every wild speculation made every day.
It seems like a nuclear agreement will be inked between Iran and western countries. How does Turkey evaluate this development?
We are in support of this agreement, because we are against nuclear weaponry. The peaceful solution of this issue through dialogue is our desire. We hope that this will be an extensive resolution and the embargoes will be lifted. We do not condone a continuous embargo on a country such as Iran. Not only because it affects our economy, but we do not find it fair for our Iranian brothers to be punished in such a way. However, this process should not affect Iran's regional role negatively. On the contrary, Iran must act more responsibly. It must play a more positive role in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
How do you evaluate Netanyahu's statement that they are ready for a two-state solution?
I hope that they are sincere, since they have not even considered this until now. If they are ready for it, its framework is obvious. Two states should live in peace within the borders of 1967. To prove that they want a two-state solution, firstly they should stop the settlements in Palestinian territories that they have illegally claimed.
Will this development normalize Turkish-Israeli relations?
Actually, there is a tentative agreement on normalization. Now it is Israel's turn; their administration needs to approve it. We are supporting the normalization and we have been waiting for a year and a half for it. If Israel is trying to constantly postpone it with some excuses, it is not a truthful approach. However, if the tentative agreement is approved, we can normalize our relations and contribute to regional stability. Turkey can also contribute to the solution of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.
If we return to the internal affairs, the person who bombed the HDP bureaus in Adana and Mersin turned out to be a DHKP-C militant. What are your comments on this development?
These are vicious acts we observe when the elections are just around the corner. We have expressed our sincere sadness and condemned the attacks. We advocate democracy and elections; we do not approve of any form of violence. The opposition accused us of being pretentious because it was allegedly our party that bombed HDP bureaus; however, it was found that this heinous act was carried out by a terrorist organization. It is obvious that these attacks are done in order to make us targets. Whom the DHKP-C serves should be investigated.
As I have said, we advocate a civil politics untainted by violence and we believe that elections must be held in a peaceful and secure atmosphere.
There is speculation about the safety of the elections. How do you evaluate these speculations?
Turkey's elections are successful in regards to security. The 10 percent threshold might be controversial; it creates a perception that the ruling party is at an advantage, as it is in Europe. As the ruling party, due to governance, you are inevitably more apparent. As the AK Party, our campaigns are executed quite professionally and efficiently. We work with the best firms, use the best methods, and prepare the best programs. This is "unfair competition," if you consider doing your best as unfair.
The most prominent obstacle in a safe and free election is the PKK and its extensions' oppression on our Kurdish citizens in eastern and southeastern Anatolia. They threaten our citizens with violence if they give their vote to a candidate other than theirs. There was a election observation commission from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to observe last year's presidential elections. Our friend Andreas Gross, who is a Swiss MP, was observing the elections in Van. He saw that the votes were counted and the ballot box that was being controlled by HDP members was closed before the deadline and all of this happened without an observer. As long as there is pressure and oppression from the PKK and its extensions, the elections cannot be free. While elections are to be held transparently, freely and democratically, they try to obstruct it. Because they know that our Kurdish citizens are not on the same side with them and normally they would not vote for them. We should focus on these rather than wild speculations.
Turkey's number of representatives in Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will be increased. What are your comments on this subject?
When I was the chair of the assembly, I had suggested that Turkey must be represented with 18 MPs. While I had the right to increase the number during my presidency, I especially did not increased Turkey's number of seats against the possible allegations of being biased. Now, we have accomplished the required procedures to increase the number of our seats; hopefully, we will represent Turkey with 18 seats.
Turkey deserves this on the premise of its population. On the other hand, the direst issue of the Council of Europe is the finance. Finance is necessary for every action spanning from consolidating the institutional structure of the council to providing financial aid to the countries. As one of the founding countries of the Council of Europe, we thought that an institution which has an important role and we have spent a great deal of effort, should not face financial issues; therefore, we become one of the 'Grand Payer' countries. While there were five 'Grand Payer' countries which were the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Russia, with Turkey it is now six. This will eventually be important for Turkey's role in the council.