With Trump in the driving seat of US foreign policy, Turkey expects strategic realignment in ties

SERDAR KARAGÖZ @serdarkaragoz
PRESIDENTIAL PLANE
Published
President Erdoğan spoke to journalists and answered their questions on the presidential plane on the way back to Turkey from a three-day Africa tour.
President Erdoğan spoke to journalists and answered their questions on the presidential plane on the way back to Turkey from a three-day Africa tour.

Turkish-U.S. relations, which had been strained over several issues during the Obama administration, should be realigned swiftly with the new U.S. President Trump, President Erdoğan said, adding that he has already spoken with him on the phone

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking to journalists early Thursday on his way back from Madagascar after concluding his three-day southeast Africa tour, said there was an urgent need for a strategic realignment in Turkish-American ties with the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump. The president said he had already spoken to Trump on the phone and efforts to schedule a face-to-face meeting as soon as possible were continuing. The Syrian policies of previous U.S. President Barack Obama, especially the support extended to the PKK's Syrian wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), had seriously harmed bilateral ties.

It is generally believed that Trump, who has been extremely critical of Obama's domestic and foreign policies, will undertake a significant overhaul of U.S. foreign policy in the short-term. Erdoğan said the first meeting had to focus on the strategic reassessment of the ties. "As things stand, can our strategic relations be considered healthy? No. We need to address that. One other issue of importance is the Middle East. We need to rejuvenate our ties in the context of developments in the Middle East. We are two NATO member countries but it cannot be claimed that we are cooperating in the region as two allies should."

Erdoğan also said a face-to-face meeting will allow Turkey to understand what Trump's critical comments on NATO as an alliance really means.

The U.S.-led international coalition against Daesh had failed to provide the initiative and success in Libya and Syria that Turkey naturally expected, Erdoğan stated, adding, "This week's Syria summit in Astana, Kazakhstan has proven a success and may, we hope, facilitate a broader agreement in Geneva early next month. "

He contemplated a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Astana summit upon his arrival in Turkey, Erdoğan said. "A similar phone conversation with Trump before a face-to-face meeting is also possible."

The commercial dimension of ties with the U.S. was equally important, he argued. "There were many joint military defense projects between the two countries. Will there be such cooperation in the future or will the commercial ties be based on the 'you are the market and I'm the dealer' mentality? Our attitude is that further cooperation on joint projects will be of mutual advantage."The extradition of Fetullah Gülen, the mastermind behind the coup attempt on July 15 last year and the leader of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), from the U.S. to Turkey will definitely be one of the topics of discussion with Trump, Erdoğan noted, adding, "We will ask the fate of the boxes of evidence we sent to American authorities to start the extradition process."

When asked about the YPG's rejection of the Astana agreements, Erdoğan directed the question to Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who said, "It was us who did not allow the YPG to attend the Astana talks. It is normal for them to respond as such. There are conflicting attitudes with respect to the YPG and Hezbollah. On groups such as Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and Iran have very positive attitudes. Russia is not too cool toward them either. We cannot reach a consensus on such groups. But on the issue of the fight against the YPG, we know Russia and Iran are closer to us than the U.S."

OPERATION EUPHRATES SHIELD

On Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield in support of the moderate Syrian groups against terrorist concentrations in northern Syria, Erdoğan said after pushing back Daesh from Jarablus, Dabiq and al-Rai, Turkish and Syrian forces had surrounded al-Bab. "The Turkish Armed Forces are moving carefully to ensure no civilian is hurt. The operation is conducted in cooperation with the international coalition. Russia, from time to time, is also supporting the operation."When asked whether a confrontation with the Syrian regime was likely in al-Bab, Erdoğan said: "We are already confronting the regime. In al-Rai and Dabiq. In Afrin, we faced the regime's proxies the YPG."

FIGHT AGAINST FETÖ

The fight by the judiciary, security forces and other state agencies against FETÖ is continuing on all fronts, Erdoğan said. "Such enemies never sleep. We will continue the fight until we get results. The State of Emergency will remain until then."

In addition to the economic damage caused by FETÖ's activities, the terrorist group was also engaged in a global propaganda campaign against Turkey, Erdoğan said. "It is unbecoming of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament to criticize our efforts to make our country safe. Turkey will do everything within the bounds of the law to fight this threat." He also cited Greek reluctance to extradite eight FETÖ-linked military officers who fled on the night of the coup, noting that failure to keep the promise of a quick extradition of these FETÖ operatives had harmed the trust between the two nations.

About FETÖ members who turned informers, Erdoğan last week issued a warning that everything they say should not be trusted. When asked to expand, "There may be very sincere people who turned informers. However, there may be those who are just trying to profit from the developments and escape punishment. Some just repeat what everyone knows. Several judicial officials have told me that they are finding out seriously important information from some informers."

REFERENDUM ON REFORMS

On the issue of the public vote on the constitutional amendments that will change the system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential one and whether the transformation will take place soon after the referendum expected to be held in early April, Erdoğan said: "There is nothing binding concerning holding elections after the referendum. There is no debate on bringing parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2019, forward. What's important is our people's will. We first need to see what our people decide before engaging in any other debate. Campaigns for the referendum will begin on Feb. 7. We need to respect the voice of the people."On the attitude of the main opposition Republican People's party (CHP), he said they had never deemed it necessary to go to the people.

"They either try to create disturbance in Parliament to scupper legislative efforts or go to the Constitutional Court to get the changes revoked. It was the same when I was prime minister. Democracy is respecting the people's will. They argue that it is not necessary to respect the nation's will all the time. Whatever they say, we know that the nation's will is paramount. As the campaigns begin, the nation will better understand the reforms proposed. CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu argued that they were not consulted. They were against it from the start. The government and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] were consulted. What they [CHP] understand of consultation is to create disturbance and throwing plastic bottles around."About the referendum taking place during the state of emergency, Erdoğan said there were no problems associated with such a scenario. "It may even ensure peace during the campaign. I believe the government is of the same opinion. Those who criticize this should remember that it was the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government that lifted the decade-long state of emergency in the southeast when it came to power in 2002.

Erdoğan said the decision to join the campaign for the constitutional changes was not taken as yet and would be decided after consultation with his associates.

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