The relationship between America and Turkey is as important for the region as it is for Turkey. Since the declaration of a strategic partnership between the two countries in 2008, relations have undulated. Daily Sabah spoke with Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Sakarya deputy Şaban Dişli, who has also presided over the Turkish-American Friendship Group within Parliament and is one of the founders of the AK Party, about the current situation in Turkish-American relations. Describing the relations between the two countries as "multilayered" and "crucial," Dişli asserted that the current strained state of relations is temporary. Dişli said relations will improve after the presidential elections in the U.S., while also adopting new approaches toward regional and local issues, and added that keeping relations close is mutually beneficial for both countries.
DS: As a politician who has lead the U.S.-Turkey Friendship Group and has closely observed U.S.-Turkey relations, how would you describe the current condition of relations?
Relations between the US and Turkey are crucial and multilayered, consisting of economic, political and military dimensions. Regarding the military dimension, we can talk about NATO, which is almost completely constituted by the U.S., considering the proportion of its military force. In the economic aspect, despite the distance, there is an increase in bilateral trade. The trade volume has increased to $20 billion from $10 billion in a duration of 10 years.
Concerning political relations, the U.S.'s active role in the world is known by all. In recent years, the region has become a ring of fire. We have to be in counsel with both NATO and the U.S., which we are doing. To summarize, U.S.-Turkey relations are continuing to develop in a multidimensional and multilayered manner.
DS: There were some undulations due to differences in foreign policy strategies in recent years. In your opinion, are these issues only temporary or is there a rift in the making between Turkey and the U.S. due to different perspectives?
We should say foreign economic affairs, instead of just foreign affairs, as it involves mutual interest. There is friction when our regional interests clash with the U.S.'s. The EU should also be included as a third parameter for Turkish-American relations. The EU is an important factor in U.S.-Turkey relations; however, it is not always possible to establish an equilibrium.
With the AK Party governments, we made it our principle to participate in every meeting and negotiation that concerns the region and shaped our foreign policy according to this principle. However, in bilateral relations these kinds of factors are obstructive. Our expectations may not meet with the U.S.'s, for example, when there is an attack on the Palestinian people or there is a development in Egypt. We may have different thoughts regarding these issues but, in the end, we will have a mutual understanding. The U.S. and Europe has started to understand and say what we have said before. Europe has started to understand following the migration crisis, while the U.S. understood the situation after Russia's involvement in Syria. We had said a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria should be established, which would contain the migrants and, thus, they would not be deprived of their Syrian identity. We would have supported them with the aid coming from the U.N. Due to various reasons, perhaps due to the difference in political interests, the U.S. and EU had declined this offer. Yet, it seems that we are moving towards this conclusion, as Russia became much more involved than both EU and the U.S.
I believe the current tensions between Turkey and the U.S. are temporary. The U.S. is acting in a more deliberate manner with their presidential elections are drawing near. However, I think that relations will improve after the presidential elections in the U.S., while also new approaches toward regional and local issues will be adopted.
DS: During its 13 years of governance, the AK Party has worked with both Republican and Democrat U.S. presidents. As a founding member of the AK Party, who do you think is more suitable to cooperate with, Democrats or Republicans?
It is a hard question, as the political climate is ever-changing. The 2008 crisis has drastically affected the variables. Since the said crisis, Europe has not been able to fully recover, causing sharper rises and falls in our relations. There was the Iraq crisis during the Republican presidency. Turkey's interests and approach to the issue was completely different than the Bush administration. We had expressed that Turkey's interests are actually as important for the U.S. as it is for Turkey. Since joining NATO, we have come a long way by stressing the importance of Turkish-American relations.
During the Democrat presidency, regional issues continuously emerged: The Libyan crisis, Egyptian crisis, Arab spring... The Arab Spring, which the people, us and the world observed with great expectancy, turned into Arab winter. We saw its first indications in Libya, then in Syria. Therefore, in this ever-changing political climate, the relations were determined by crises, rather than choice.
Also, in settled and strong countries such as the U.S., there is also the aspect of security and the Pentagon. There were undulations in these aspects as well; yet, both us and the U.S. knows that the close relations between our countries are mutually beneficial.
DS: Since the declaration of a strategic partnership in 2008 until 2013, relations became more tense. Seemingly, we are at a better level today. Are there other reasons than differing perspectives regarding the regional issues that caused tensions between Turkey and the U.S.?
There were changes in the perspectives, as well. In Obama's first term, the Secretary of State was Hillary Clinton. There were certain developments that could improve our bilateral relations, such as the protocol regarding the Armenian issue, which was signed in Switzerland. There was also Turkey serving as a role model for the Arab Spring, in order to provide an example of a settled democracy for the other countries, as it was also defined by the U.S. Not only Turkey's, but also the whole world's expectations were not met in this matter, along with the region's people. Some of the administrations shifted towards different methods, such as repressing their own people. Some decided to settle an agreement with the people, while the rest had a revolution, such as in Tunisia, yet failing to accomplish it with a sound government. Therefore, every development provided different aspects to our relations with the U.S. and Europe. Therefore, we cannot talk about a long-term fixed relationship. However, it is important to stress that Turkish-American relations have always been important for both our country and the region.
DS: Last year, you were present as an observer at the negotiations of the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) agreement between the EU and the U.S. What are the recent developments in this matter? What are Turkey's expectations regarding the TTIP agreement?
The negotiations are at a certain stage; yet, I believe the presidential elections in the U.S. are waiting. There is an issue with the customs agreement we have with the EU, which is that we are not included in the agreement with third party countries. When we are trying to sign agreements with third world countries, we are at a disadvantage. Therefore, there are efforts in order to update the customs agreement; however, the U.S. is a large market. If the TTIP, which is to be signed with the U.S., has no benefits for Turkey, it will be hard to update it later. We are working in order to make this agreement more beneficial for us, in the case it is signed with both the U.S. and the EU. This process will probably accelerate after the presidential elections in November.
DS: How do you evaluate the rejuvenated EU-Turkey relations? Do you believe that both parties are sincere in their efforts?
We were always sincere with the matters regarding EU. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while he was the AK Party leader, had declared that joining the EU was a masterplan for Turkey. However, we were expecting to be obstructed in the process and we were right in our expectations when were faced with the Cyprus issue and French blockade. Despite all this, we said that we would not wait for the obstructions to be removed and we would consider the EU criteria as our own government's.
As I have said, we never suspended the process. The EU has always been important for Turkey's democratization and economic development. We were always dutiful in doing our part. We had progressed a lot in mutual agreements and visa-free travel before the migration crisis. Now, after the crisis, there is a will in the EU to further cooperation and restart the negotiation process, which pleases us.
We have, from the very start, always said that we are not going to be a burden for the EU, but we will be sharing its burden, as President Erdoğan once said. As I have stated, Turkey was always sincere in its EU process. We will see whether the EU is sincere. However, we never had a thought about abandoning the process and we never will. Even though the Turkish people will lose faith in the EU process, we will bolster it with the gained benefits.
DS: There are comments that the anti-Turkish lobbies conducted by Gülenists are effective in US-Turkey relations. There was news about the movement organizing tours with Congress members or donating to their campaigns. In this manner, do you think that Turkey is able to clearly express itself in its fights against Gülenists?
We are fighting on multiple fronts. We are fighting against the PKK, global terrorists, and regional issues. Therefore, you cannot plan how much effort you are going to dedicate in fighting a certain element; however, our president, prime minister and the cabinet are trying to explain the December 17-25 coup attempts by Gülenists on every platform available. For example, during the centennial anniversary of the Armenian issue, this group acted against Turkey with the support of the Armenian lobby. Getting the signature of 92 senators, they wrote a letter to (Secretary of State John) Kerry. In this letter they claimed that freedom of the press was being constrained in Turkey and stated that the U.S. should warn President Erdoğan, not Turkey. When we were explaining what the Gülenists are after, their members accused us of being anti-Semites. It is sometimes hard to explain the situation. We had certain processes when our roads crossed with the organization during its 40 years of activity. Some people still use this fact against us. Therefore, it is not always easy to explain. Yet, this is a constant struggle; our president and prime minister have given us certain instructions regarding this issue and we will continue to fight against this terrorist organization. I can also add that we have come a long way in this fight.
DS: What are your thoughts about the normalization process with Israel and how it will affect U.S.-Turkey relations?
It would be more accurate to start with the second part. It would, of course, have a positive effect, as we know the activities of the Israeli lobby in the U.S. With the involvement of Iran, Turkish-Israeli relations have caused the formation of an unusual group in the region. This may also be beneficial; however, we have certain conditions to mend our relations with Israel. Some of these conditions were realized and some were not. Of course, there is also opposition in their country, along with people with common sense. The latter are trying to mend relations as they are aware of the relations' importance, which is seldom obstructed. You set a meeting and you see that it is leaked to the press before it is even held; therefore, you are not able to get the results you are expecting. Besides these, there are groups that do not want Israel to normalize its relations with Turkey. However, I believe that, for the security of Turkey, we should understand the polarization in the region and then to make our mutual interests apparent, in order to compromise.
DS: Turkey joining the Shanghai Five, which was proposed by President Erdoğan a few years ago, was met with comments that Turkey was shifting away from the West. On the other hand, after the aircraft crisis with Russia, it is being said that Turkey is trying to consolidate its position in the Western bloc. How do you evaluate these comments?
We are a permanent country in this region. While there are short-term undulations in the relations with Russia or the West, it requires us to consider being equal and acting accordingly. President Erdoğan's proposal was mainly due to economic expectations, while the former was excluding the discourse of EU, which was also affective in this suggestion. It would not be fair to consider this proposal a shift in foreign policy.
While the relations fluctuated at times, since Ataturk, Turkey has always faced westward. I would like to remind that, as the AK Party, we were the party that launched the EU negotiation process and we consider Turkey's EU membership as a strategic target.
Therefore, we can be a full member of the EU, while being an observing member of the Shanghai Five. Turkey has previously been in various regional alliances and organizations. These are not alternatives. Of course, strong relations with other parties would be effective in sharing the benefits with our partners. Hence, the overtly emotional outbursts of Russia, which is to achieve other means, will cease in the short term. Afterwards, we can continue from where we left off, as both of the countries are historically, militarily, culturally, and economically important. The issues should not be perpetuated, as it is not sustainable. I believe a new equation will be created.