Turkey will eliminate the PKK's Syrian affiliate, the People's Protection Units (YPG), from northern Syria sooner or later and not allow any terror corridor to be established that poses a threat to the country and the people of Syria, Vice President Fuat Oktay said.
In an exclusive interview on Thursday, Oktay answered Daily Sabah's questions on a variety of issues, including recent developments in Syria, increasing tension in Idlib, implementation of the Manbij road map, Turkey's position on U.S.-Iran escalation, Turkey's S-400 purchase, Turkey-U.S. relations, Turkey's drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, rising anti-Islam rhetoric in the West, coup attempts in Venezuela and Turkey's fight against the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ).
Elaborating on Turkey's position and expectations from the Manbij agreement and the ongoing safe zone consultations with the United States, Oktay indicated that the emergence and performance of the agreement has not been satisfying for Turkey so far.
"There is no change in our position on this matter. The situation in Idlib cannot be sustainable. Joint patrols and training have started but Manbij has not been cleared of the PKK, Democratic Union Party (PYD), or the YPG yet. This terror corridor is still a threat for Turkey and the people of the region. But we have also said to our counterparts that we will take this matter into our own hands if it's necessary. No one should expect Turkey to change its position in this direction. We will eliminate these terrorists from the region sooner or later," Oktay continued.
Turkish and U.S. officials held the third meeting of the Turkey-U.S. working group on Syria last December, agreeing to continue the Manbij road map and underlining their commitment to Syria's territorial integrity. Since then, Washington's relationship with the YPG, under the name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group that is dominated by the YPG, continues at full speed. The U.S.-led coalition already trained 10,000 to 20,000 SDF forces in northeastern Syria under the pretext of defeating Daesh, and the number is expected to grow further.
Tension in Idlib result of regime's destabilization attempts
Pointing to the recent developments in the northwestern province of Idlib, Oktay underscored that rising tension in the region is a result of destabilization attempts of the Bashar Assad regime that aims to extend its gains. "Increasing attacks of the regime toward Idlib clearly show that the regime has an ambition to gain ground there. We have shared our opinions and concerns with Russia on that matter. Turkey fulfills its obligations according to the Idlib agreement and continues to work with Russia and Iran under these terms. We are closely monitoring the situation out there," Oktay said.
Emphasizing that there are some countries from different regions that have special interests in Idlib, Oktay said that there are also coalition forces in the region. "Along with Turkey's southern corridor you will establish a terror corridor and expect me to allow it. We will not. If this coalition assists this terror corridor's existence, we will certainly take a stance against this," Oktay said.
With regard to a new projected humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Oktay also said whoever aims to destabilize the region has to know that Turkey will not tolerate a new refugee influx from Syria. "Already 150,000 people have left their homes in Idlib. Who will take care of them? We are not able to afford a new refugee influx in Turkey. We have already declared this. For now, these people have been meeting their needs across the border in Syria. The countries that want to destabilize Idlib have to see this humanitarian problem and reality," Oktay stated.
The situation in Idlib has been worsening on the ground lately. Thus, important developments that center on the city have enhanced Ankara and Moscow's diplomatic traffic last week. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed the recent attacks carried out by the Assad regime and its ally against civilians in Idlib with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a phone call late Monday. Yet, following intensified regime air raids in the last three weeks, which caused the death of nearly 150 people, hundreds of thousands of people began fleeing the city. The more dramatic thing is that one-fourth of the city's population is made up of children.
No one should threaten Turkey or Northern Cyprus
Touching upon Turkey's drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, Oktay also said that Turkey's position is also clear on the matter. Noting that no one or any alliance in the region would be able to intimidate Turkey or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), Oktay said: "Research and drilling activities are Turkey and the TRNC's natural rights that are guaranteed under law. We will neither allow anyone to deny our rights nor take the issue single-sided. Above all, no one can intimidate Turkey or the TRNC forcefully with the support of some international alliances. We will not make any compromise on our rights or our brothers and sisters' in Northern Cyprus. We will continue our research and drilling in the region."
Turkey, as one of the guarantor powers on the island of Cyprus, along with Greece and the U.K., has consistently contested the Greek Cypriot administration's drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, while asserting that Turkey and Turkish Cypriots also have equal rights to resources in the area. Oktay also pointed out that the Greek Cypriot administration acts like a "spoiled child" especially after it was accepted by the European Union as a member. "We will not allow this type of behavior from the Greek Cypriot administration, which tends to ignore the fact that Turkey and the TRNC have equal rights," Oktay said.
The island has seen an on-and-off peace process in recent years, including the collapse of a 2017 initiative in Switzerland held under the auspices of the guarantor countries. Turkey announced its continental shelf to the international community and registered it with the United Nations.
Rising anti-Muslim discourse result of populist Western politics
At least 50 Muslims were killed when a terrorist opened fire on worshippers during Friday prayers at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15. Oktay was one of the very first statesmen who traveled to Christchurch to share the grief of New Zealand. Pointing to the rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the West, Oktay said that this is the result of Western politics' populism in domestic politics. "The New Zealand attack is the result of how the hostility against Islam was instrumentalized by Western politics. Whenever there are elections across Europe, anti-Muslim, anti-Turkey and anti-immigrant sentiments become viral in their political campaigns. This is a very populist approach and they started to get scared of what they have created," Oktay continued.
Meanwhile, 290 people were killed and more than 450 others were hospitalized in near-simultaneous blasts that rocked three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, April 21. Oktay said that there are some international actors who benefit from the enmity between Muslims and Christians. "When we look at both cases in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, can anyone claim that Muslims and Christians are happy with these attacks? If you are a human being this is not possible. However, this has continued for centuries. There are international powers that benefit from this. There is hope for different approaches to the issue. Sri Lanka and New Zealand must be a wakeup call. There are some symbolic developments, but they are not sufficient unfortunately," Oktay stated.
The West watching refugee crisis like a drama movie
Touching upon the Western community's approach to the humanitarian crisis, Oktay also noted that the sensitivity of the West to the humanitarian crisis is over. "The immigration and humanitarian crisis are not an entertainment or a drama movie that you can enjoy after all. There is real grief and real people. People are suffering. I think this sensitivity has been lost in the Western community," Oktay said.
Since 2011 when the conflict in Syria triggered the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, Turkey has received a constant flow of displaced Syrians fleeing the conflict, and their numbers have expanded from mere thousands to millions. Currently, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees with over 3.5 million Syrian refugees and many more refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia. Ten cities host some 2.8 million refugees, while others are scattered around the country; nearly 1.6 million of the Syrian refugee population are children in Turkey and nearly 300,000 Syrians have been born in Turkey since 2011.
Ankara to not compromise on its principles when it comes to Iran sanctions
Elaborating on Turkey's stance amid U.S.-Iran tensions, Oktay said that Turkey's position always leans on principles that refer to supporting whoever is right. "Iran is the neighbor of Turkey, it is not a country that is 10,000 kilometers away. Just because some countries want to impose sanctions on our neighbor, we cannot cut our trade and economic relations. This is not possible. Turkey has always been keen on being on the side of the rightful. This has been the same throughout history. Our position says that we have our own interests and we have to take care of our own. Thus, we cannot follow your decision whenever you want," he said. Oktay also noted that the aforementioned tension seems to not have a satisfactory reason in terms of how it has emerged. "I think we should look out for other developments or plans that are being pursued to be implemented in the region, while Iran-U.S. tension grows. Our radar is always open," Oktay added.
'S-400s issue is not a crisis for Turkey'
Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey have reached a fever pitch in recent months with Turkey set to begin receiving the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia. U.S. officials have suggested Turkey buy the U.S. Patriot missile system rather than the S-400, arguing it is incompatible with NATO systems and is a threat to the F-35 fifth-generation stealth aircraft. Turkey responded that it was the U.S.' refusal to sell Patriots that led it to seek other sellers, adding that Russia offered a better deal, including technology transfers.
Touching upon the issue, Oktay said that there is no crisis for Turkey with the U.S. on this matter. "I don't see any crisis with U.S. but it might be a domestic discussion for them. Turkey has its own security needs. Turkey discussed this need with U.S. first for the purchase of Patriots. Our requests were very clear in terms of purchasing this defense need. This is not only a matter of pricing, crediting or payment but most importantly about technology transfer, know-how and joint-production. At this point we got rejected. What can be expected from us after all?" Oktay asked.
He also emphasized that Turkey is a sovereign country and would not ask any other country to make a decision on its security needs. "If Turkey promised something its signature and commitments have a great value. On the other hand, since we are a country that knows its responsibilities very well in NATO, we will not allow any mistake that causes a problem. S-400s will not be integrated with our NATO systems anyway," Oktay noted. He also asked why U.S. integration considerations between the F-35 and S-400 is not a problem for other NATO countries such as Greece, which has S-300s; or Israel, which has F-35s and operates in Syria where S-400s are deployed.
Also saying that there is no final decision on the purchase of Patriots from the U.S. Oktay said: "The talks have been resuming but this is a different issue. Our approach would not be in the position that is to be substituting one for another."
'We are closely monitoring Venezuela'
Touching upon developments in Venezuela, Oktay said that Turkey is monitoring the situation with concern. "There is a leader who says that he comes and goes with the election, and there are other powers, such as the U.S. and some European countries, saying that they don't like him and don't want him in power. They claim that they have appointed another person and impose sanctions. They also say that they do all this for the sake of democracy. We don't know if this type of democracy exists based on our experiences," Oktay added.
We maintain our relations with US despite disagreements
FETÖ and its U.S.-based leader Fetullah Gülen orchestrated the defeated coup of July 15, 2016 in Turkey, which left 251 people killed and nearly 2,200 injured. FETÖ was also behind a long-running campaign to overthrow the state through its infiltration of Turkish institutions, particularly the military, police and the judiciary. Ankara formally requested Gülen's extradition on July 19, 2016, and has been pressing the U.S. ever since, sending hundreds of folders of evidence implicating Gülen and FETÖ in the coup attempt. Yet, Washington has refused to extradite Gülen, disregarding boxes of evidence. Although at least 30 countries have shut down FETÖ institutions that fund the terrorist organization, the U.S. has not taken any steps on the matter.
Commenting on current U.S.-Turkey relations, Oktay pointed out that the two countries have common views on issues but indifferences and disagreements to some extent, such as the PKK and FETÖ terrorist organizations. "You bring the number one terrorist organization for Turkey to our southern border and give them a weapon that we cannot buy with our money. Despite all this, we try to maintain our relations and alliance, but we don't attempt to impose sanctions on you," Oktay said.
As for other major disagreements between Turkey and the U.S., Oktay said that the U.S. has to declare that they can't continue to back FETÖ. "So where is the leader of FETÖ? In Pennsylvania. He is in the U.S., and he pretends to show himself as strong from there. If the U.S. is genuinely fighting against terrorism, it has to declare and accept the fact that – yes this is a terrorist organization, and it has attempted to attack the elected government and killed civilians. We cannot continue to tolerate and feel shame for harboring this organization in our country. But the U.S. says that they need evidence…is there any country other than us that has provided such huge amounts of evidence to another country?" Oktay asked.
Oktay also underlined that FETÖ's operational capacities were fully wiped out on a domestic scale since July 15th, and they cannot further attempt anything against Turkey and the Turkish people. "However, this is an organization like a matruska. So we cannot overcome by languor. We will continue our battle until the end without any compromise and with full responsibility of state institutions." Oktay said.