Turkey is increasingly taking its place on the world stage as a bigger actor and remains an indispensable ally of the United States, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Jeffrey Flake said, adding: "As the United States and Turkey, we see the benefit of our current close relationship. Our security has strengthened. Turkey has been an important member of NATO for 70 years."
Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA) in an interview published Tuesday, the newly appointed envoy evaluated the bilateral ties between the two NATO allies and regional issues.
"Turkey is an indispensable ally of the United States. Turkey, as a 70-year NATO member, is a critical country at a very important time for us. This is extremely important for us, for regional and world security ... Turkey is increasingly taking its place on the world stage as a bigger player," he stated.
Expressing that he will contribute to the "continuation of strong bilateral relations" and that relations can be even stronger, Flake said that the two countries have many common interests.
Emphasizing that Turkey-U.S. relations are not just about security, Flake pointed out that the economy is an important and developing area for both countries.
"We have an extensive and growing trade relationship with Turkey, (an) important market. So we have many vital things that we need to promote and develop," he stated, adding that the trade with Turkey increased by 28% last year, reaching $28 billion (TL 382.63 billion).
Drawing attention to regional developments, Flake said: "Undoubtedly, our relations with Turkey are much more important in the face of emerging threats in the region, as in Ukraine now."
Regarding the cooperation between Turkey and the United States in NATO, Flake said: "Turkey is an important NATO member. It has the second largest F-16 fleet and is the third-largest contributor to NATO missions."
Citing the recent phone call he had with the U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison, Flake continued as follows: "(Hutchison) asked me to convey the United States' thanks to Turkey for its role in NATO and, in particular, its commitment to the United States and its commitments to NATO missions abroad. So this is extremely important, especially when there is a threat like Russia.
"I must also say that Turkey remains determined to support Ukraine's sovereignty. This is very important to us for the region and the world. It has also helped Ukraine to maintain its sovereignty. On the other hand, Turkey also shared our commitment to 'applying to a diplomatic solution if there is a way out.' It gave great support in this regard."
Moscow and Kyiv have been locked in a conflict since hostilities in the eastern Donbass region broke out in 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.
Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine's borders, prompting fears it could be planning another military offensive against the former Soviet republic.
The United States and its allies have warned of an imminent attack and threatened Russia with "severe consequences."
Moscow, however, has denied it is preparing to invade Ukraine and said its troops are there for exercises. The Kremlin also issued a list of security demands from the West, including a rollback of troop deployments to some ex-Soviet states and guarantees that Ukraine and Georgia will not join NATO.
Turkey has been closely following the developments and is in close contact with both Kyiv and Moscow. Ankara has also offered to mediate talks between them.
Flake also evaluated the joint mechanism that will be established for the development of Turkey-U.S. relations and the latest developments regarding the working group where problematic issues in relations will be discussed.
Recalling the meetings between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Biden in Rome on Oct. 31, 2021, he said that the leaders of the two countries have established a strategic mechanism that encourages high-level dialogue on issues on which Turkey and the United States must work together or do not fully agree.
Regarding when the United States will respond to the document, which includes Turkey's views on the working group, where the problems between the two countries will be discussed, Flake said: "We hope for more high-level visits to take full advantage of this strategic mechanism. Turkey has set a format for it and we have received it. Our government waited for me to take up this role before responding. Now that response will come shortly."
"With this strategic mechanism, we have a great format that will allow us to host mutual high-level visits. Given the importance of this relationship and this new commitment to dialogue, I hope we will see high-level visits."
Erdoğan and Biden last year met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Rome and expressed their joint desire to strengthen bilateral relations that have been strained as of late, agreeing to establish a joint mechanism in this direction.
Flake stated that he worked on many issues regarding Turkey in the U.S. Congress, saying: "Turkey is our main ally and an important player on the world stage. Turkey is an important ally in pushing back Russia's adventurism and aggression in the region."
Stating that the U.S. and Turkey are working together in the Caucasus and North Africa, Flake said that during the six months he chaired the African subcommittee in the Senate, he saw Turkey's increasing positive contributions to Africa.
"Turkey has always been at the center geographically, in terms of its wide reach and foreign policy, and we are fortunate to have an indispensable ally like Turkey, especially given the difficult challenges we face regionally today," Flake said.
Ankara and Washington disagree on a number of issues that have further strained bilateral ties in recent years, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems to the U.S. support of the PKK terrorist group's Syrian branch, the YPG, as well as Washington's refusal to extradite Fetullah Gülen, the leader of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), among other legal matters. The greatest challenge that Turkey-U.S. relations face is Washington’s support for the YPG, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stated last year.
Regarding the issue, Flake said that Turkey and the U.S. have a joint commitment to get rid of the Daesh terrorist organization.
Flake stated that the fight against Daesh is not over yet, and "Turkey has become an ally in this fight."
Recalling that the U.S. recognized the PKK as a terrorist organization in 1997, Flake said: "We accept Turkey's responsibility to its own citizens. We mourn the Turks killed by the PKK. However, we must also make sure that we are successful in our efforts to get rid of ISIS (using an alternative acronym for Daesh). Therefore, in this regard, there are many areas where we can cooperate (internationally)."
The PKK is a designated terrorist organization in the U.S., Turkey and the European Union, and Washington's support for its Syrian affiliate has been a major strain on bilateral relations with Ankara. The U.S. primarily partnered with the YPG in northeastern Syria in its fight against the Daesh terrorist group. On the other hand, Turkey strongly opposed the YPG's presence in northern Syria. Ankara has long objected to the U.S.' support for the YPG, a group that poses a threat to Turkey and that terrorizes local people, destroying their homes and forcing them to flee.
Under the pretext of fighting Daesh, the U.S. has provided military training and given truckloads of military support to the YPG, despite its NATO ally's security concerns. Underlining that one cannot support one terrorist group to defeat another, Turkey conducted its own counterterrorism operations, over the course of which it has managed to remove a significant number of terrorists from the region.
Evaluating the talks between the two countries on the modernization of F-16s and the purchase of new F-16s, Flake said: "Negotiations on the F-16s are going well. As a matter of fact, there was a delegation here just last week, just like the delegation in December to support the preparation of the so-called 'LoR' request letter. The talks are going well. But this is a long, complicated and very technical process. So we're working on it. We see Turkey's request as a positive development and the Biden administration is determined to support the process."
Expressing that Turkey's request for F-16s is a positive development that also shows its commitment to NATO, Flake said, "Obviously, we know that having interoperability is extremely important."
Regarding whether there will be compensation for Turkey's payment to the United States for the F-35 warplanes, Flake said: "This is a very complex process. But lawyers and accountants are working on it every day ... We will get through it."
As Turkey looks to modernize its air force, both with national means and with possible purchases, after the deal on F-35 jets fell through, the country has requested to buy 40 Lockheed Martin-made F-16 fighter jets and nearly 80 modernization kits for its existing warplanes from the United States.
Ankara had ordered more than 100 F-35 jets, also made by Lockheed Martin Corp., but was removed from the program in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Defense on the pretext of purchasing a Russian missile defense system, a move regarded as “unilateral and unlawful” by Ankara.
Washington argues that the S-400 air missile systems acquired by Turkey could be used by Russia to covertly obtain classified details on the Lockheed Martin F-35 jets and are incompatible with NATO systems. Turkey, however, insists that the S-400 would not be integrated into NATO systems and would not pose a threat to the alliance.
Ankara has reiterated various times that the removal from the jet program was illegal and unilateral, demanding a fair approach and saying that it is open to negotiations with Washington.
The ambassador also touched upon his wife Cheryl's love of Turkey, saying: "Maybe for 35 years... No matter where we travel to the world or which beautiful capital city we go to, my wife always says: 'It's beautiful, but it's not Turkey.'"
Flake, who was nominated by U.S. President Joe Biden as his country's ambassador to Ankara in July last year, came to Turkey on Jan. 7, 2022, after the approval of the U.S. Senate.
Starting his duty by presenting his letter of credence to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Jan. 26, Flake was interested in politics for many years before starting his diplomatic career.
Flake was a key Republican ally for Biden during last year's race to the White House and endorsed the Democratic then-nominee after establishing himself as a Republican at odds with former President Donald Trump.
Flake served in both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during nearly two-decade tenure in Congress. Flake served in the U.S. Senate for Arizona from 2013 to 2019 and in the U.S. House from 2001 to 2013.
He retired from the Senate at the end of his term in 2019, saying he was out of step with the Republican Party in the era of Donald Trump. He later wrote a book, "Conscience of a Conservative,” that was a critique of Trump.