President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking to journalists accompanying him during his tour of the Gulf countries, including visits to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, said strategic relations between Turkey and the U.S. had entered a much more productive and collaborative phase after Donald Trump assumed office with respect to the fight against the terrorist groups Daesh, the PKK, the PKK's Syrian-offshoot the People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ).
Turkish-American ties took a nosedive after the Obama administration's open support for the YPG in the fight against Daesh. The PKK, which is recognized as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU, is known to have used weapons provided to the YPG by the U.S. against Turkish civilians and security personnel. YPG militants have also carried out several attacks against Turkish military forces currently engaged in fighting Daesh in northern Syria. The telephone conversation between the two leaders took place on the night of Feb. 7. Turkey and the U.S. also saw eye to eye on the plan to establish a safe zone in northern Syria, Erdoğan said: "As you know, 'safe zone' is a term that has been used by Trump himself, even before he became president. I had suggested the same during Obama's term. We call it a 'terror free safe zone.'"
Erdoğan continued: "Another related issue is to establish a 'no-fly zone' in the region. Even that's not enough. We need an army to enforce the safety of the civilians. 'The train-and-equip program' aims at forming the necessary army. The Free Syrian Army [FSA], formed of mostly Syrian Arabs, is the product of these efforts and is crucial for the security of the region."
With Turkish military support, the FSA has been fighting Daesh as part of the Operation Euphrates Shield since last August and has freed Jarablus, al-Rai and Dabiq. "The FSA will also maintain peace in all these places, and once al-Bab is freed, they will do the same there," Erdoğan explained.
With significant U.S. military support, the YPG took over the strategic town of Manbij and imposed the ideology of the PKK on its mostly Arab citizens. Despite U.S. vows to ensure the YPG withdraws to the east of the Euphrates, the terrorist group has tried to expand its zone of influence to other mostly Arab populations.
Erdoğan has maintained that Turkey will free Manbij and also Raqqa in the coming period. "The FSA should also be in Manbij," he said."I told Trump that they needed to distance themselves from the YPG. 'If YPG is involved in the efforts to free Raqqa, Turkey cannot be involved. You don't need the YPG. We can, with coalition help, certainly do the job. Any offensive with the YPG will result in the break-up of Syria' I told him," he added.
Trump told Erdoğan that he will take these statements into consideration. "We are determined to fight all terrorist groups, including Daesh," he said. While there had been Turkish casualties, more than 3,000 Daesh militants have been killed during Operation Euphrates Shield, he emphasized.
Daesh was close to withdrawing from al-Bab and the same can happen in Raqqa, Erdoğan said, adding, "But unfortunately, the [Obama administration's] insistence on cooperating with the YPG precluded any cooperation." Turkey's plans to free the region and establish a terror-free safe zone produced no objection from Russia, Erdoğan maintained, adding, "Russia only says that it will be good if we do not move any further south or west of al-Bab."
FINANCING THE SAFE ZONE
The establishment of the safe zone also included building the necessary social infrastructure and accommodation for those fleeing violence, Erdoğan argued. During the discussions over the refugee readmission deal, Erdoğan said, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had expressed her willingness to transfer 10 billion euros annually for their upkeep if the refugee influx ended. He explained, "In her latest visit [on Feb. 2], I reminded her about what she had said. I told her that the total cost of this project can be calculated. We are willing to do all the construction. She acknowledged her previous statements. However, such discussions have yet to turn into concrete pledges. She said we needed to find donors."
COOPERATION AGAINST FETÖ
Another sticking point that prevents improved cooperation between Ankara and Washington D.C. is the continued presence of FETÖ leader Fetullah Gülen in Pennsylvania. Gülen is the ringleader of the failed coup attempt on July 15 last year and despite incontrovertible evidence, U.S. authorities have prevaricated in extraditing the suspect to Turkey.
"In our conversation, I asked for his assistance in fighting FETÖ. He said he will be following the matter closely and said he will be sending CIA Director Mike Pompeo to Turkey for further deliberations. Only two days later, Turkey was Pompeo's first overseas visit after taking office. I had a wide-ranging discussion with him, and he later had a several hour-long meeting with National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Director [Hakan Fidan]. We are waiting for the results," Erdoğan said.
If the referendum in April results in a "yes" vote for the change from a parliamentary to presidential system, a gradual process of implementation will start, with the system coming into force in 2019, when the elections for Parliament and the president takes place, Erdoğan said. The referendum on April 16 will introduce a presidential system, where the highest executive body will be the president who will be a party member. The office of the Prime Ministry will be abolished.
"We need to prepare for the change through a sound process. With hopefully an affirmative vote in the referendum, the process may start with me registering as a party member. The two-year interval will also allow the public to get used to the change while establishing the legal foundation of the new system," Erdoğan said.
He said he will carry out visits across the country and abroad during the referendum campaign and added: "The campaign preparations, which are in a preliminary stage, are being done in cooperation with Prime Minister [Binali Yıldırım.] We are planning to visit all 30 of the metropolitan cities. We are also considering visits abroad. A visit to Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands is under consideration. It may also include one of the Scandinavian countries."When asked if he had any public surveys on the possible result of the referendum, Erdoğan said, "Pollsters may make such guesses. It would be improper for me to do so."
On claims of pressure on those who were considering voting against the proposed changes, Erdoğan said: "I truly have a hard time understanding such claims. Every night on television, pundits and pollsters, both those who support and oppose the changes, are talking about their predictions and opinions. It would be wrong to argue that voicing one's opinions in support of change is pressure on those against it. We will, of course say what we believe. We, myself, the prime minister and [Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahçeli are calling on the nation to vote 'yes' in the referendum. This is our basic right."
He also argued that it was natural for one to assess who supported what. "Who has openly voiced opposition to the changes?" he asked, citing the PKK's vocal opposition to the introduction of the presidential system. He said the PKK and the pro-PKK Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) were united against the changes, while the main opposition the Republican People's Party (CHP) was cooperating with them.
On government decrees that fired academics, Erdoğan said: "My personal opinion on this matter is this: If bureaucrats and technocrats are paying the price for supporting terrorism and undertaking criminal acts, academics cannot be left immune. If academics are working with FETÖ or the PKK, they will, of course, be suspended if necessary. Everything done within the bounds of law is being done to protect the country."
GERMANY TREATING IMAMS AS SPIES
The president also criticized German and Austrian authorities for treating imams sent to Europe by the Presidency of Religious Affairs as if they were spies. He said, "I told Chancellor Merkel that this was wrong. These imams are there to help Muslims in Germany and the rest of Europe in their religious worship. They are being treated as spies because they are supposedly passing information concerning the activities of FETÖ. There is no such thing. When I told her about this, Merkel was a bit bothered. She said the matter will be investigated."
Erdoğan said he was planning a visit to Germany after President-elect Frank-Walter Steinmeier officially took office and hoped to discuss the matter further with both him and Merkel.
On bilateral ties with Israel, Erdoğan said: "Unfortunately, certain negative developments are happening in Israel. Just when we think the ties are normalized and the two countries are on the cusp of a deal for natural gas, we see a harmful move concerning the al-Aqsa Compound. Then they try to ban the call to prayer. Such developments are unfortunate. It violates the right to freedom of religion."
TRUST IN TURKISH ECONOMY
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reaffirmed his trust in the Turkish economy and advised others to do likewise, citing the continuing capital inflow and movement of Turkish currency that confirmed his belief.
He said the recent transfer of state assets to Turkey's Sovereign Wealth Fund was of utmost importance.
"The usual critics started to object, mostly due to their failure to comprehend what was taking place. The same people objected when [former President Turgut] Özal started the economic modernization drive. We are currently undertaking many infrastructure projects that are second to none in the world. For example, 200 million people have traveled through the Marmaray [underwater railway tunnel in Istanbul that became operational in 2013]."
He said the İzmit Gulf Bridge, which is a part of a major highway project, had relieved much traffic stress and once the project is complete, travel between Istanbul and İzmir will be cut down to just 2.5 hours.
"Some claim that the transfer of assets to the sovereign fund is the same as privatization. This fund will create a significant thrust for the growing economy. The fund will be able to form partnerships with countries and initiate projects," the president said.
He noted that once the transfer took place, the Turkish lira began to appreciate against the dollar.
"I believe the value of the lira will reach 3.5 against the dollar. Why? Because capital inflows will continue, that's why. Turkey is a safe haven [for investment]," Erdoğan said.
He also said the huge number of international conglomerates wishing to form partnerships with Turkish counterparts to enter state tenders for major infrastructure projects was proof alone that the Turkish economy remained resilient, adding that the government was determined to do everything in its power to create a suitable business environment to boost investment.
JOINT PROJECTS DOMINATE GULF TOUR
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said during his Gulf tour to Bahrain, Sudi Arabia and Qatar, discussions were centered on economic cooperation with all sides willing to a launch cooperative projects to further expand commercial ties.
In his discussions with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who Erdoğan noted was the first Arab leader to visit Turkey after the failed coup attempt on July 15 last year, the focal point was opportunities of cooperation, he said. "The king attended the inauguration of the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge [Third Istanbul Suspension Bridge that opened in August last year] and I believe, he was impressed with it."
Erdoğan said the king mentioned the plan to build a second bridge between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. "He told me that it was Saudi Arabia's decision to pick who built it. When I met the Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, I mentioned it and he gave the necessary instructions. We hope the bridge is built by Turkish firms."
"While we were there, the king of Bahrain decided to ask Turkish constructors and architects to build a 15,000 to 20,000-capacity mosque in the capital Manama. They were impressed with the mosque we are building in Çamlıca, Istanbul."
He said another priority for Turkey was to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Bahrain is the term-president.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia, he had the chance to meet with King Salman, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, where discussions were on furthering military, political and economic cooperation while the newly founded Turkey-Saudi Arabia Coordination Council, Erdoğan argued, would usher in a new era between the two countries. He said there were also plans to cooperate on finance, which will benefit both sides enormously.
"Turkey has its 2023 Vision program while Saudi Arabia has its own 2030 program. I believe if we cooperate, it will become a virtuous circle that helps both of us."
The president also noted that on regional developments the two countries shared a similar outlook, especially concerning Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Palestine and the fight against terrorism.
"The Saudi king said 'Turkey's security is our security' and supported our efforts to end the Syrian crisis. He also shares our determination to protect Syria's territorial integrity and the two-state solution in Palestine."
The action taken against FETÖ-linked groups in Saudi Arabia was commendable, Erdoğan added.
On Qatar, Erdoğan noted the country already had $1.2 billion in investments in Turkey, including a 50 percent share in commercial vehicle company BMC and cable television provider Digiturk. "Right now, the focus is on attracting Qatari investment in tourism. I showed Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani some projects, especially hotels related to winter tourism."
Qatar, likewise, shares Turkey's concerns on FETÖ and Daesh, Erdoğan said.
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