Interview with Ünal Çeviköz, by Yonca Poyraz Dogan, Today’s Zaman, Feb 21, 2016
If Turkey cannot resolve its Kurdish issue and continue to breed ethnic polarization, a new Gaza might be created right at its borders, my guest this week on Monday Talk says. “I suggest that Turkey stop dealing with foreign matters for a while and look inside to resolve its own difficulties and reestablish the peace process in order to solve the Kurdish issue and then, with stability and security inside, use its potential to become a source of inspiration for other countries in the region. Then, it can be more confident in contributing to the resolution of regional problems,” said Ünal Çeviköz, a veteran ambassador who serves on the board of trustees of Istanbul Kadir Has University and writes for web-based news portal Radikal.
Çeviköz also said Turkey’s problems with Syrian Kurds are very much linked to its domestic Kurdish problem. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently called on the United States to give unconditional support in the fight against Syrian Kurdish militants, illustrating growing tension between Ankara and Washington over policy in northern Syria. Despite denials by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Turkey says the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — the armed wing of the PYD that the United States is backing in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria — was involved in the recent Ankara bombing that killed 28. [See: TAK member’s father claims Ankara bomber’s photo is of his son, Today’s Zaman, Feb 22, 2016.]
Çeviköz answered our questions on the recent suicide attack in Ankara and other related issues.
Yonca Poyraz Dogan: How would you evaluate the bombing in the heart of Ankara and the Turkish government’s quick identification of the perpetrator?
Ünal Çeviköz: First of all, I’d like to offer my condolences to the victims’ families, and I wish the injured a speedy recovery. It is probably one of the most serious terrorist attacks in Turkey’s history. It was, as you mentioned, in the heart of the country, in the heart of the capital. The prime minister immediately declared that the perpetrator was the YPG. It is quite striking to identify the bomber and his links to the YPG in a matter of less than 24 hours at a time when you cannot even identify the victims. Identifying the bomber was possible only through a fingerprint, and that means the same fingerprint was in our records as he entered Turkey after the events of Kobani. So if you know the links and identity of this person, how was he able to freely conduct such an act in the capital? Attempts by the government to try and shape public opinion that the event and the YPG are linked are dubious. I am afraid it will be hard for Turkey to convince the world that this terrorist event was the act of the YPG. And the YPG denies any connection to the bombing and has stated it does not view Turkey as an enemy.
It seems like there is a sharp difference in how Turkey and the international community view the YPG. How does this affect Turkey’s relations with the international community?
Turkey has been expressing a different line regarding Syria right from the outset. Turkey has not been taking the same line with the world and the international community. It thought the main problem was Bashar al-Assad and the Baathist regime. No one interfered in the Syrian conflict at the beginning, but as the situation became more chaotic, several radical elements viewed Syria as a fertile ground. That is how ISIL started to use Syrian territory and started to capture and control some areas. When international public opinion started to see ISIL as the main threat emanating from Syria, they then started to fight against its terrorism. The priority of the international community is combating terrorism and ISIL whereas Turkey still sees the Baathist regime and Assad as the main source of the problem. I thought both views came closer to one another after the June 7 election last year when Turkey decided to open Incirlik Air Base, giving the impression that it might be shifting its priority from the Assad regime to combat against ISIL but that didn’t happen. As you recall, only a few bombings were realized against ISIL targets but the main operations of the Turkish Air Force focused on the PKK.
Turkey still insists that Assad should go…
And when there were attempts to have a political solution to the Syrian problem, Turkey still insisted that Assad should go, that he should not be a presidential candidate and that he should not even be part of a political settlement. This showed us the difference of opinion between Turkey and the international community was still there. The second difference of opinion between Turkey and the international community was in regards to the PYD. As the main priority of the international community was the fight against ISIL, the PYD and its military wing the YPG were important partners in the fight against ISIL. Turkey views the PYD as a terrorist organization and therefore feels it should not be considered as a partner to fight ISIL. Turkey sees the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PYD and ISIL as being the same type of organizations. The third difference of opinion started after the shooting down of the Russian military aircraft on Nov. 24. Before Nov. 24, Turkey was able to carry out certain air operations and participate in air operations and the Turkish Air Force was able to attack ISIL positions, though in a very limited way. Now they are the target of Russian aircrafts. All of this threatens the security of Turkey because international terrorism has been exported to Turkey.
What can we expect with regards to Turkey’s position in the international arena?
In the eyes of the international coalition, in the eyes of the United States, Turkey will probably no longer be seen as an asset but as a liability. It has lost its honest broker position to resolve problems in the region. Differences of opinion regarding the Syrian issue have placed Turkey in a position of liability.
In the region, there are no allies of Turkey left except for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) even though Iraqi Kurds were earlier considered by Ankara as enemies. Now Turkey is treating Syrian Kurds the same way it did with Iraqi Kurds before. Taking lessons from the past, can’t Turkey find ways to cooperate with the PYD to sort out the differences of opinion?
Turkey can certainly find a way to cooperate with different actors in the region and Kurds living in Syria are probably one of those actors. Differences of opinion between Turkey and Syrian Kurds started at the beginning of the process because Turkey wanted to support the Syrian opposition that encompassed several different organizations, be they Syrian Arabs, Turkmen, Sunni Syrians or some Alawite Syrians. But the PYD did not want to become a part of that. When PYD leader Saleh Muslim visited three to four years ago, Turkey insisted that the PYD be part of the coalition. There are Kurds in the Syrian opposition but the PYD believes they are the strongest group that represents the interests of Syrian Kurds and they did not want to be part of a coalition that Turkey supported. Still, there is the possibility for cooperation. As you know, Turkey has not always had good relations with the KRG and now Turkey has a consulate general in Arbil and we have good energy and trade relations.
It seems like Turkey’s shelling of YPG positions are not slowing down the advance of the YPG. Is it possible for Turkey to stop the YPG’s advance?
The shelling is taking place in the Azaz region but the PYD-YPG is active to the south of Azaz, like Tell Rifaat. It does not seem to have any deterrent results, according to reports. The Turkish government uses the Ankara bombing as a pretext to continue shelling the YPG. Reports suggest the YPG is finding other avenues of progress in the region. The only way to stop or deter the YPG is a serious stance taken by the international community against the YPG. There are limited signs of this, for example, the US criticism of the YPG for acquiring territory and benefiting from the chaotic situation in the region.
What dangers are there if Turkey cannot find ways of cooperating with Kurds in the region?
Turkey is facing several problems. In particular, the problem with Syrian Kurds is very much linked to its own Kurdish problem. It is time for Turkey to come to terms with Kurds, our compatriots and loyal citizens of Turkey. As long as Turkey continues to alienate its own Kurds and breeds ethnic polarization, this contributes to the polarization and alienation of Kurds outside because they have relatives in Turkey — as seen in the events of Kobani where Kurds were prosecuted by ISIL and Ankara did not show any sympathy for them. This created a Kurdish reaction toward Ankara.
I’m afraid Turkey is about to create a Gaza in its immediate neighborhood if it views Rojava as an enemy. I’m also afraid Ankara’s policy of criticizing Turkey’s allies vis-à-vis the PYD issue is also distancing us from our allies. This may also hurt the solidarity that Turkey expects from its allies.
How has the Nov. 24 incident of the downing of the Russian military jet by Turkey influenced the course of events for Turkey?
With the antagonization of different actors in the neighborhood, you force those “enemies” to have solidarity among themselves. This is what is happening. We used to have very good relations with the Syrian regime, we tried to have good relations with Kurds living outside of Turkey and we had excellent relations with Russia until Nov. 24. Now we have serious problems with all of them.
The situation was aggravated by the downing of the jet. Now Russia will try to hurt Turkey in order to get retaliation. They think they have the right to force Turkey to pay some kind of compensation against the shooting down of the Russian jet. They are likely to use several instruments, for example manipulating the terrorist elements that bother Turkey.[sic] There is already a proxy confrontation between Turkey and Russia thorough the Syrian theater, as Turkey claims to support moderate forces against the Baathist regime while Russia, Iran and the PYD-YPG are behind the Baathist regime. And Russia does not differentiate between ISIL and other opposing forces to the Assad regime. To Russia, ISIL and others including al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army are the same. Recently, Russia asked the United Nations Security Council to meet to discuss Turkish shelling of YPG targets in Syria’s north, and the UNSC has urged Ankara to comply with international law in Syria. ‘Turkish Ostpolitik needed to make peace with Kurds’
In one of your recent interviews, you mentioned a new type of Cold War polarization and that Turkey might be a new front country in that new Cold War. Would you elaborate on this idea?
In the old concept of war, we saw two blocs facing one another. On one side, there was NATO and on the other was the Warsaw Pact. Throughout the Cold War years, we saw that Germany was the front country directly facing the Warsaw Pact countries. At the northern flank was Norway and at the southern flank, Turkey. Germany pursued a clever Ostpolitik during the Cold War years. East Germany, being a part of the Warsaw Pact, was an opponent at the beginning. Under the leadership of Willy Brandt, who took an initiative for more peaceful and constructive relations with East Germany, a policy of dialogue was established to diminish tensions between the two camps. This was called Ostpolitik later, and it was successful. When the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact started to disintegrate, we saw an easy reunification process between East and West Germany, a result of Brandt’s Ostpolitik. What is happening in today’s environment is this: There is peace in East, West and Central Europe so there is no longer any confrontations. If there are any, they are at the borders of the former Soviet Union. Even three republics of the former Soviet Union, the Baltic States, are members of NATO now, but Russia has made it very clear that apart from the Baltic States, other former Soviet territory including Ukraine, Georgia and the Caucasus, etc. is their red line. However, there is a new confrontation, and it has shifted to the eastern Mediterranean. And in the eastern Mediterranean, the new confrontation is brewing in Syria. There is an interlocking confrontation between Russia and perhaps its allies — the Baathist regime and Iran — and Turkey, which is with the West and a member of NATO. In this new confrontation, Turkey is becoming a direct, central, focal country. If we see this as a brewing new Cold War, Turkey is the frontal country. And this is dangerous.
Because if Turkey did not have any problems with its Kurds, and if Turkey could make some kind of human outreach to those Kurds who live outside of Turkey through the Kurds who live in Turkey, then, that would probably be a redefinition of the Ostpolitik that Germany pursued during the Cold War. A kind of Turkish Ostpolitik is needed to make peace with Kurds.
It sounds like Turkey needs a Brandt-type of leadership to achieve it… Do you see any Brandts in Turkey’s leadership?
Not at the moment but Turkey is full of skillful human resources. I simply want to keep my hopes for the future. I really believe if Turkey resolves its domestic Kurdish problem, and if it reaches out to the Kurds living outside of Turkey, that could become a serious humanly constructive policy. I suggest that Turkey stop dealing with foreign matters for a while and look inside to resolve its own difficulties and reestablish the peace process in order to solve the Kurdish issue and then, with stability and security inside, use its potential to become a source of inspiration for other countries in the region. Then, it can be more confident in contributing to the resolution of regional problems. ‘Turkey going from one mistake to another in foreign policy’
Turkish foreign policy was quite persistent until the strategic depth vision was introduced to the scene by Davutoglu, the former minister of foreign policy and current prime minister. How do you think this vision changed Turkish foreign policy and its perception outside?
There has been serious criticism of the implementation of strategic depth and if this is the main theoretical background of Turkish foreign policy conduct in the last six or seven years, then the criticism is certainly justified. Turkey pursued a very positive policy conduct in 2002-2009 and was an exemplary regional actor. It was an honest broker and was able to bring together Syrians and Israelis for proximity talks. Turkey was also helpful in the talks between Palestinians and Israelis. But the turning point started with the one-minute incident in Davos at the beginning of 2009, and it was followed by the Mavi Marmara incident. Starting with those incidents, Turkey lost its impartiality because it started to antagonize Israel which it had never done before. Then, Turkey became handicapped and lost all the advantages it had. It was perceived as a partial actor. And Turkey did not help to correct this vision. Today, it is going from one mistake to another. In addition to its mistakes in its Syrian policy, Turkey is now giving the world the impression that it is taking sides with the Sunni formations. Recently, the Iranian foreign minister made it clear Iran is extremely unhappy with the vision Turkey is projecting by taking sides with Saudi Arabia. If there is a new fault line developing between Shiites and Sunnis in the region, Turkey should not be part of that. It should be overcoming those new fault lines and dividing walls. I am afraid the foreign policy pursued in the last several years by the Turkish government is completely against this concept. PROFILE
Ünal Çeviköz joined the Foreign Ministry in 1978. After serving as second secretary of the embassy in Moscow, consul in Bregenz and counsellor of the embassy in Sofia, he was transferred from the ministry in 1989 to the NATO international secretariat and worked in the economics and political directorates. In 1994, he was assigned to open the NATO Information Office in Moscow. He also drafted the NATO-Russia Founding Act which was signed in Paris in 1997. Going back to Ankara the same year, he continued to work in the Foreign Ministry first as the head of the Balkan department, later as deputy director general for the Caucasus and Central Asia. He served as Turkey’s ambassador to Azerbaijan (2001-2004), Iraq (2004-2007) and the UK (2010-2014). From 2007 to 2010 he was the deputy undersecretary of the MFA for bilateral political affairs. During that period he prepared the Turkish-Armenian protocols signed in 2009 in Zürich. He retired from the Foreign Service in 2014. He is currently a member of board of trustees of the Kadir Has University and president of the Ankara Policy Centre.
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