The primary aim of Operation Olive Branch led by Turkey is to eliminate the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Daesh elements from Turkey-Syria border so Syrians can safely return home, Deputy Prime Minister Hakan Çavuşoğlu has said.
He rejected all allegations of an invasion and called on those who accuse Turkey of it to look at their own histories.
Çavuşoğlu said the allegations of civilians being harmed in the operation were terrorist propaganda carried out by the PKK, the PYD, and the anti-Turkish lobbies.
He added that the missiles attacks by militants from the PYD and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), have targeted houses and places of worship inside Turkey, causing a number of deaths. He said the allegations that Turkey was targeting civilians were being spread only to cover up the PKK attacks.
The foreign minister underlined that the PKK and the PYD were not only hostile towards Turkey and Islam, they were against all humane values including those of Christianity.
He also noted President of the World Council of Arameans Johnny Messo's statement which confirmed that the terrorists were targeting Syriacs as well.
As a politician, who was born in Western Thrace, Çavuşoğlu talked about Turkey's relationship with Greece. He said that Turkey was working to increase cooperation with neighboring Greece but also pointed out that the latter was failing to improve the conditions of the Muslim Turkish minority in Western Thrace. The community lacks ethnic and religious freedom and does not have access to proper education.
Çavuşoğlu said the condition will be a thorn in Turkey-Greece relationship as the Greek authorities fail to bring necessary changes.
There are allegations that civilians are being harmed in Operation Olive Branch, especially from foreign media. What is your take on these allegations?
These allegations are lies spread by the PKK, the PYD, and anti-Turkey lobbies. They are nothing but terrorist propaganda trying to create an unfavorable image for Turkey.
The sad part is that these so-called news pieces are being spread when Turkey is actually being very cautious not to harm a single life.
We are hosting 3.5 million Syrians in our country for years. Moreover, Turkey is trying to help people worldwide through the Turkish Red Crescent, Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA).
You cannot just accuse a country that is helping people around the globe of killing civilians. Our military is being very meticulous so that there is no collateral damage.
It is the terrorist PKK who targets civilians. PKK missiles launched from Afrin targeted houses of worship and killed civilians. On Jan. 24, two civilians died when one rocket fell on Çalık Mosque in Kilis. May God have mercy on their souls.
As this terrorist attack indicates, terrorist organizations do not respect life, belief or religious values. I have visited Kilis after the attack; our citizens have high morale and are supporting the operation. We see that our people have exceptional understanding and insight, which makes us proud.
PKK missiles attacks launched from Afrin also killed other civilians in Kilis and Reyhanlı, including a 17-year-old girl.
Despite the terrorist organization's clear disregard for human life, Turkey is the one being accused of targeting civilians. This is a blatant attempt to cover up what the PKK is doing.
Our allies should never forget that terrorists do not respect any valuea and target all. Disregarding these terrorist attacks toward Turkey in order to undermine our country's just cause might leave them in a hard spot when they suffer terrorist attacks in the future. The PKK and PYD are not only hostile toward Turkey and Islam; they are an affront to all humane values. Our Western friends should remember this fact.
World Council of Arameans (Syriacs) President Johnny Messo condemned the actions of the terrorist PYD/PKK and said Syriacs are also suffering from threats, abductions and oppression. He said "these infractions should end. We demand YPG to be respectful toward Syriacs. We call on the U.S. to relay this message to the YPG." Until 2011, Christians constituted 10 percent of Syria's population. Now, hundreds of thousands of Syriac Christians have fled the country and this fact is being disregarded by Western countries.
On the other hand, these terrorists have forced people to leave their homes especially in Diyarbakır with the trench warfare in 2015. I visited Diyarbakır after this incident. With my own eyes, I saw many historical structures reduced to rubble in the Sur district. Two of the 14 historical structures that were destroyed were churches. One of them was the Armenian Catholic Church, while the other was the Armenian Protestant Church.
All statements regarding the PYD/YPG show that they are a vicious terrorist organization that disregard all religious and humane values. This fact is out there for those who want to see it.
Seeing all of these, it is not possible for us to be indifferent. Regardless of their belief and origin, Turkey never turns its back on those who are being oppressed whether they are in Rakhine region or Haiti. This is the understanding Turkey has inherited from its long-lasting civilization.
Turkey has never targeted civilians and never will. We have seen this during Operation Euphrates Shield. Now, the people of reclaimed villages are welcoming our armed forces and we see them embracing our soldiers with joy.
While Turkey's Operation Olive Branch continues to eliminate terrorist organizations from the country's border with Syria, there are claims that the operation is actually an invasion. How would you respond to these allegations?
I would like to express that these allegations are just ridiculous, as Turkey has never been an invader. Our aim is to prevent terrorist organizations like the PKK, PYD, YPG and Daesh from establishing themselves on our border and thwart any attempts to form a terror corridor; we have exhausted every other means to achieve this. Moreover, as a result of the oppression of Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds in Afrin, many people have fled to our country. The return of the aforementioned people to their homes is also one of our aims in the operation.
The PKK and PYD have been attempting to infiltrate into Turkey through the Amanos Mountains. In addition, there are many incidents in which these terrorists have attempted terrorist attacks in Turkey. This being the case, Turkey has to achieve border security which will also allow refugees in our country to return to their homes.
Therefore, this operation targets terrorist organizations in the region and can never be defined as an invasion. Moreover, as it was the case in Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey aims to cleanse the region from terrorist elements and wants life to return to normal in these cleansed territories. After Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey left the control of the region to the local populace. Now, people are living in relative peace and comfort there. In this respect, we cannot accept any accusation of invasion. We advise those who accuse us of invading to look at their own histories.
Recently, President Erdoğan stated that the operation could expand to Manbij. Certain comments suggest that Turkey and the US might face each other there. What is your take on this issue?
The U.S. first promised not to allow the PYD into Manbij. Then, the U.S. allowed the PYD to move into Manbij, promising they would retreat. None of these promises were kept. We are not concerned about facing the U.S. there, as our main target is terrorist organizations like the PYD-YPG and Daesh.
President Erdoğan, who is also the commander-in-chief, has expressed clearly that the Syrian border will be cleansed of terrorist elements. Turkey will never allow a terrorist state near its borders and is determined to continue operations until all terrorist elements are cleansed. This might be Manbij or any other place that is occupied by terrorists.
Led jointly by Spain and Turkey, the UN Alliance of Civilizations is an initiative you are also responsible for. Could you inform us about the projects that are to take place throughout the year?
As you know, the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) was initiated together with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who was the prime minister then and Spain's Prime Minister Zapatero; then, it was adopted by the U.N. and became a U.N. initiative.
The aim is to learn about other civilizations' histories, cultures, world views and ideals, while introducing Turkey's civilization to others. In this respect, it is a valuable initiative; the U.N. has appointed a full-time representative to it. Currently, 128 countries back this initiative.
We believe that UNAOC will contribute to world peace immensely through projects. However, this year we will focus on education, youth, media and immigration. Immigration is truly an important issue that needs social awareness. In addition, we continue to organize seminars and conferences; as we believe these are the keys to world peace and we will focus our attention on these kinds of events.
In this respect, what is your take on President Erdoğan's visit to the Vatican?
As you know, after the U.S. unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Pope Francis had expressed his concerns about this development and suggested a resolution that is similar to what Turkey has been advocating. In this respect, President Erdoğan's visit is important.
The visit to the Vatican will probably lead to discussion of different facets of the two civilizations. We could say there is currently a clash of civilizations; however, it is not between religions, but other aspects. One side of this conflict is an understanding of a civilization that aims to live and let live along with rejuvenate, while the other side justifies imperialism and uses proxies to kill to further its own interest.
In this respect, we need to counter any destructive understanding by embracing all human beings regardless of their religions, ethnicities and cultures, just because they are humans. This will make the world more livable and peaceful.
As a politician who was born in Western Thrace, the Turkish minority in Greece is of utmost importance to you. In this sense, could you evaluate the conditions of Turks in Western Thrace and Turkey's relations with Greece, especially over Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's statement which defines Turkey as an 'aggressive neighbor?'
Greece is our neighbor and it is a fact. Therefore, we desire to develop our relations further with Greece and increase cooperation to improve the standards of living for both countries.
Indeed, during President Erdoğan's visits along with my own visits, we were able to work on various fields of cooperation. In the following days, we will hold a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council in Thessaloniki. Our aim is to improve cooperation and cohabitate with our neighbors. This has been a principle since Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) rise to power in 2002.
Meanwhile, we do not want anyone to feel ostracized or alienated; this being the purpose, we have done everything so that all minorities in Turkey could feel as equal citizens. We will continue to do whatever we can for them, as they are our citizens.
As you know, per the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne, there is a Turkish minority in Western Thrace in exchange for the Greek minority in Istanbul. Turkey is doing all that it can to allow the Turkish minority in Greece to access all their rights.
We have assured certain rights regarding associations, houses of worship and education to minorities living in Turkey. However, we fail to see the same progress in Western Thrace towards the Muslim Turkish minority. This being the case, our compatriots there are asking us to communicate with the Greek state to assure their rights.
Western Thrace is the least developed region of Greece, along with the Balkans. Today, in Western Thrace, you cannot talk about a free ethnic or religious identity. Therefore, Greece has to shift its policies towards this particular region.
Greece became an EU member in 1980. In 1985, two associations in Western Thrace which had the word "Turkish" in it were closed down with the instruction of the mayor. Legal process was initiated and European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found Greece unjust in its actions in 2008.
However, since 2008, Greece has been refraining from implementing the court decision and has yet to change laws which will allow these associations maintain their names. Considering how Turkey and Greece is treated by ECHR, you can see the double standard there.
In terms of associations, Greece is not allowing this Muslim Turkish minority to elect its own administration to associations. Similarly, this minority is unable to elect its own muftis; moreover, the Greek state tries to oppress the elected muftis through various court decisions.
Therefore, what we expect from Greece is the recognition of rights to this minority there which is assured by the international law. There are numerous infractions, especially in terms of education. Kindergarten has become mandatory in Greece and a child is not allowed into primary school if he/she does not have a kindergarten certificate.
The Muslim Turkish minority in Greece does not want their children to be educated according to Christian principles and become assimilated. These children are under the risk of being assimilated and becoming alienated to their own culture and language.
For this reason, this minority is demanding kindergartens to have bilingual education; however, the Greek government is against it. In addition, the people of Western Thrace were never allowed to benefit from the facilities provided by the EU. I believe Greece defining Turkey as an "aggressive neighbor" is an attempt to play the victim.
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