Interview with H.E. Mr. Osman Koray ERTAŞ
Ambassador of Turkish Republic in Romania
Vasile SIMILEANU: Your Excellency,
Thank you very much for willing to give us this interview on a complex issue involving important state actors: Russia and the US, as well as regional actors: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey. The Middle East is on the permanent agenda of international diplomacy. The problems generated by local conflicts are of interest to the international community, and their effects are global. What are the strategic effects on the Turkish state?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: The Middle East is the theatre of a series of security challenges. The Israeli – Palestinian conflict continues to be at the core of the problems in the region. Terrorism and violent extremism have shown up as the main threats to regional security with global implications. Regional crises especially in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have not been settled yet. The failure to achieve a lasting peace in these conflict zones has cultivated a fertile ground for DAESH.Turmoil in the region turned irregular migration into a pressing global issue.
Turkey has been directly affected by the rising instability and growing challenges in the Middle East. While becoming a host country to more than 3 million refugees, it has been combatting major terrorist groups simultaneously such as DAESH, PKK / PYD, and FETÖ. That is why Turkey has been actively engaged from the start in the international efforts to help resolve regional crises and fight terrorism to ensure lasting
peace, security and stability in the region. We will continue to pursue a principled, multidimensional and proactive diplomacy in this direction.
V.S.: The internal situation in Syria and Iraq imposed new strategies promoted by the Ankara leadership. The effects of the conflicts in the two states affect Turkey’s security in the medium term. We know very well your country’s financial efforts on Syrian and Iraqi migration. In this context, what are the strategies of the Turkish state to limit the migratory flow to other states? Are you considering new geostrategic and humanitarian approaches?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: From the beginning of the crisis in Syria, Turkey has pursued an “open door” policy towards Syrians. Acting in line with humanitarian considerations, we have accepted 3.1 million Syrians without any discrimination, more than any other country worldwide. We have also opened our doors to more than 300.000 Iraqis, including 20.000 Yezidis and Christians. Moreover, as part of the humanitarian relief efforts in Iraq, we have set up three IDP camps in KRG that host almost 40.000 IDPs.
In parallel to this, we have been doing our best to prevent illegal crossings from Turkey to Europe. As you know, we reached a game changing agreement with the EU in March 2016 on migration as a result of which the number of illegal crossings in the Aegean fell dramatically.
In short, Turkey did its share by taking a big risk and burden. This is not only an economic burden, but far from that, a social and security challenge. So far, we have spent almost 30 billion dollars, whereas the total contribution we received from the international community is far from meeting the expectations. Obviously, our means and capabilities have limits. The Syrian humanitarian crisis is a global phenomenon. Neighboring countries cannot be left alone to bear the brunt of this crisis. Equitable and meaningful burden and responsibility sharing is necessary. Providing financial assistance to the host countries should be the first step to this end. Resettlement is another way to share the responsibility for Syrians. In this respect, we commend the recent statement of Romanian authorities about the readiness to host close to 2,000 refugees in this country. Last but not the least, addressing the root causes of irregular migration is of vital importance. It is now high time to act together to resolve this problem in solidarity and cooperation.
V.S.: Turkey is currently approaching new strategies for domestic policy and foreign security. How are the new changes in Turkey perceived in the Middle East? Positively or negatively?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Turkey is a NATO member and accession country to the EU. However, we have strong historical, social and commercial ties with the Middle East. There has been no change in this major policy line. However, due the dramatic events in the regions, notably in Syria and Iraq, we calibrate our foreign policy to match our national security needs. Turkey continues to be security provider in this volatile region. We try to take an active part in resolving many issues. With its democratic and secular nature and booming economy, Turkey will continue to contribute to the stability and welfare of the region. Given the numbers of visitors and investment figures from the Middle Eastern nations, as well as Turkey’s rising soft power, perception of Turkey continues to be a positive one among the people of the region.
V.S.: In the international press, analyses have been published for and against Turkey regarding the new geopolitical and geostrategic reorientation. Leaving aside misinformation and analysing Turkey factually, how do you see the diplomatic, political and geostrategic relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: The talk of Turkey’s “shifting axis” or “drifting” or “turning its back to the West” is not new at all. It has long been in the press for more than a decade. Whenever Turkey takes a step in line with its vital national security needs, you hear such analyses. Looking back to the last decade however, Turkey’s contributions to NATO operations have increased, not decreased. Turkey’s trade and human ties with Europe strengthened, not weakened. Turkey’s role as a beacon of stability and its position as an economic powerhouse in a highly volatile region has also increased, not decreased.
Obviously, being located at the center of a volatile region marked by instability, failing states, and constant crises, Turkey has to pursue a multidimensional and proactive foreign policy to protect its national interests. This requires maintaining relations with all major players in its wider region.
To give a simple example, PKK, accepted as a terrorist organization by all of our allies, is a major threat to Turkey’s unity and well-being. If eliminating this threat requires cooperation with Iran or Russia, the two countries that you mentioned in your question, we will surely cooperate with them on that file. Another simple example is in the field of energy, where Turkey is heavily depended on imports of fossil fuels. Likewise, Turkey will surely continue its cooperation with Russia, a major energy provider, to meet its vital energy needs.
With respect to relations with Iran, despite differences on regional issues, we maintain our dialogue, which is essential especially in dealing with Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni files. We share a long border for 4 centuries and have extensive commercial and business ties. Relations between Turkey and Russia faced serious tests in recent years. Now, our political dialogue with Russia is back on track. We continue to work to recover economic ties as well. Obviously, there are issues that we do not see eye to eye with Russia. Yet, we keep the channels of dialogue open and work together in areas of common interest. Saudi Arabia, the third actor that you referred to in your question, is a key country for security and stability in the Gulf and the wider region. We value our relationship and try to further develop bilateral relations. The Turkish-Saudi Coordination Council that was established last year provides the institutional basis for joint work in this direction. Recent years have also witnessed an increase in high-level visits, the most recent one being the visit of H.E. President Erdoğan in July 2017.
V.S.: The relations with the EU are not at their best. Does this tension in bilateral relations affect Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East, or is the stake of a different kind?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: EU membership has been and still is a strategic choice for the Turkish foreign policy. Unfortunately, the negotiation process has almost come to a stand-still since many chapters are blocked due to political reasons. As agreed at the leaders’ meeting on May 25 in Brussels, we need to take concrete steps to put our relations back on track. We are committed to move forward in our accession process. We also would like to see progress in the visa liberalization dialogue and upgrading of the Customs Union.
Turkey and the EU have shared interests on a wide range of issues. With respect to the Middle East, evolving risks and threats such as terrorism and illegal migration threaten not only Turkey, but all our European allies. Turkey and Europe need each other more than ever, in tackling these challenges. Indeed, our security and prosperity are inextricably linked. Last year’s agreement on migration is just one powerful example of the importance of maintaining close cooperation.
As long as the EU shows solidarity with Turkey in its tough fight against terrorism, we are ready to continue working closely on issues of common interest.
V.S.: We live in a period of changing international paradigms. Turkey is an important Eurasian regional actor and a security donor! In this sense, I will be direct: What is Turkey’s geopolitical role in the Middle East? How does Turkey act in this regard in Syria and Iraqi Kurdish region on diplomatic, political, economic and military levels?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Turkey plays an active and constructive role in the Middle East. Whether it is about developing bilateral or multilateral economic partnerships, or about addressing pressing regional crises like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, we act on the basis of moral values and with a sense of regional ownership. Indeed, as our region faces multiple challenges, greater ownership of the problems by the regional countries is essential. Our solidarity is indispensable to fulfil our common vision for ensuring security, stability and prosperity in our region.
Protracted crises and instability in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya not only foment terrorism and lead to refugee flows, but also harbour risks of deepening sectarian divide. In this connection, Turkey, which accommodates the largest number of refugees in the world, is combatting several terrorist groups such as DAESH, PKK / PYD, and FETÖ on multiple fronts. We also take active part in international efforts to help resolve the ongoing crises and address the root causes of the problems.
In this context, we continue our efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria through both the Astana meetings and the Geneva process. Our ultimate goal is to end the Syrian conflict through a political solution which should be based on the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and should reflect the will of the people. On the other hand, fighting against DAESH remains a priority. In this respect, we expect everyone to have a clear stance towards terrorist groups. PYD / YPG is a direct affiliate of the terrorist organization PKK. We believe using another terrorist group in the fight against DAESH will only bring further instability and create greater security risks in the future.
We have close ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and we would like to maintain them based on respect for Iraq’s territorial integrity. Iraq continues to occupy a critical place in the efforts to achieve lasting peace, security and stability in the region. Recent successes against DAESH in Iraq are welcome and supported by Turkey. Iraq’s territorial integrity and political unity are vital. That is why we, together with major regional players, consider KRG’s decision to conduct an independence referendum as risky and counterproductive.
V.S.: A delicate issue of Turkey’s diplomatic relations is that concerning the State of Israel. What is the situation regarding bilateral relations?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Relations with Israel have entered a new era after the understanding reached in June 2016. In the following period, Ambassadors assumed their duties on both sides. Reciprocal visits at Ministerial level have resumed. There is promising potential for cooperation especially in the fields of trade, energy, high technology and tourism. Last year, the volume of bilateral trade reached 4.4 billion dollars, while the number of Israeli tourists visiting Turkey increased by 25% reaching about 300 thousand. The number of weekly flights between İstanbul and Tel Aviv alone, which stands at 98, reflects the intensity of interaction between both countries.
Indeed, we have a long history of good relations going back to the Ottoman period when Jews expelled from Spain found refuge in the Ottoman lands. They were welcomed again to Turkey during the Second World War fleeing the Nazi persecution. We are proud with our shared history that has created strong bonds between both communities and we would like to strengthen ties based on this valuable capital. While doing this, we continue to encourage Israel to remain committed to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders that would lead to the establishment of an independent, sovereign and viable Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital, to live in peace and security with the State of Israel.
V.S.: The Qatari crisis has an impact on Turkey’s relations with Arab states in the Middle East region. In this regard, please describe some of the strategic and geopolitical aspects, as well as the negative economic effects for Turkey. How is Turkey’s diplomacy perceived by regional countries?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Peace and stability of the region is of utmost importance to us. Therefore, we are concerned by the continuation of the crisis in the Gulf region. We keep calling for the settlement of the dispute through dialogue. Whatever the accusations and disagreements are, the sanctions targeting the daily lives of the Qatari people and even mixed families are hard to explain.
As part of our good relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and all of its members, we have been trying to help de-escalate this tension, without taking sides in this diplomatic rift. We will continue our efforts in this direction. As the current Chair of the OIC Islamic Summit, we have the responsibility to offer our help. Hence, our President and Foreign Minister have been conducting an intense diplomacy since the beginning of this crisis. President Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar on 23-24 July to assist in the efforts aiming at reaching a peaceful solution. We hope common sense will prevail and the crisis will be over soon.
V.S.: Turkey’s participation, as a NATO state, in the conflict in Syria was not welcomed by Moscow. Will Turkey still play an important role in the fight against DAESH, even if it will inconvenience strategic partners? I ask you this question in the context in which Turkey was one of the main targets of this terrorist organization! How has tourism been affected by terrorist attacks? Have there been negative economic effects?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Turkey’s war against terrorism continues on multiple fronts, including DAESH that was designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey back in 2005. Since its formation, Turkey has been actively participating in the activities of the anti-DAESH coalition to defeat this group. We have channeled tremendous resources in this effort also at the national level. As of July 2017, more than 53,000 people were included in our no-entry list and more than 5,000 foreign nationals suspected of terrorist related activity were deported. More than 8,000 DAESH, Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda affiliated individuals have been detained. Around 2,600 DAESH fighters were eliminated through the Operation Euphrates Shield.
Turkey, which has done more than its share in countering DAESH threat, will continue to be a key stakeholder in the fight against DAESH as it poses a direct security threat to its people. In this respect, we will maintain an active involvement in the efforts of the international coalition. That being said, we reject the notion of good and bad terrorists. Just as we cannot cooperate with Al-Qaeda since it is fighting against DAESH, we should not condone PYD terrorism, just because they are against DAESH as well. Terrorism should be condemned unequivocally regardless of its nature, motivation, and manifestation.
Thanks to Operation Euphrates Shield and the relentless efforts of our security forces, there has been no major DAESH attack in our cities this year. This has helped Turkish tourism to bounce back, which makes Turkey one of the top travel destinations in the world again. Terrorism threats every one of us and no nation is immune to terror attacks. The recent heinous attacks in Spain, Britain, France, and Germany are clear examples to the global reach of DAESH terrorism. Fight against this terror group requires international solidarity. We should unite our forces in fighting this scourge.
V.S.: Your involvement in the development of bilateral relations is well-known and I sincerely congratulate you on your achievements in various fields. Turkey has been and will be a credible partner for Romania. In this context, how do you perceive Romania’s involvement in conflict resolution in the Middle East?
Osman Koray ERTAŞ: Turkey and Romania enjoy close relations based on mutual trust, common values and joint interests. As of 2011, we upgraded our relations to the level of strategic partnership which has further solidified the existing ground for cooperation. The relationship is well founded as it not only has political, security or military aspects, but also has strong economic, commercial and social dimensions. Turkey is among Romania’s top trading partners and Turks are one of the largest foreign investors here.
Our countries project stability in the neighborhood. They share similar views on many regional and international issues. The level of our relations as well as the policies we pursue make us natural partners on many foreign policy issues. As two NATO allies we regularly exchange views and cooperate on issues covering a broad geography including the Balkans, Black Sea, Caucasus, and the Middle East as well as on issues such as fight against terrorism and organized crime. The existing consultations mechanisms between our Foreign Ministries function effectively. Our militaries also maintain close contacts. Our sailors and soldiers take active part in joint exercises. In the face of the existing security challenges in our wider region that affects us all, we are determined to continue working closely with our Romanian partners. In a difficult geography, these intense politico-military contacts will continue to flourish as a force for peace. We also strive to strengthen NATO’s eastern and southern flanks. We see the trilateral mechanism with Poland as a valuable strategic forum to strengthen our solidarity.
Interview by Vasile SIMILEANU