President Barack Obama says that the United States and Turkey have expanded their partnership over the last four years. In an exclusive interview with Milliyet Washington Correspondent Pinar Ersoy, President Obama reviews the state of U.S. – Turkey relations. Full transcript:
Interview by President Obama with Milliyet
The outlawed left wing group DHKP-C claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the US Embassy in Ankara last week. Among the reasons they listed for the attack were Kurecik radar base, NATO’s Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, American policy on Syria’s civil war and Turkish government’s thriving relations with the US. What are your thoughts on the motivations and possible ramifications of this terrible attack?
The attack on our embassy compound in Ankara was an outrageous act of terrorism for which there is absolutely no justification. This was a tragedy for both our countries. Our hearts go out to the family of Mustafa Akarsu, who gave his life to protect others, Turks and Americans. We are very grateful for the prompt response of the Turkish authorities, and the cooperation between our two governments has been excellent. We’ll continue to coordinate closely and do everything we can to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The group that claimed responsibility for this terrible act seeks to sever the partnership between Turkey and the United States, which, as you say, is thriving. But it’s already clear that they failed. If anything, this incident has brought our two peoples even closer. Mustafa Akarsu’s sacrifice is a reminder that Turks and Americans work side-by-side every day to advance our shared security and prosperity. And we’re deeply grateful to all the Turkish leaders and citizens who have expressed their condolences and reaffirmed their support for our alliance.
As I said when I visited Turkey on my first overseas trip as President, Turkey is a critical ally and a strategic partner with the United States. We’ve stood together as NATO allies for more than 60 years and this has meant greater security and prosperity for both our countries. Turkish-American cooperation has been critical on a range of challenges, including the global economy, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. We’re safer and stronger because we stand together.
I’m pleased that over the past four years we’ve been able to expand our partnership by increasing trade, promoting entrepreneurship, and broadening the ties between our peoples. For example, more Turkish students came to American colleges and universities last year than from any other European country, and more American students than ever before are studying in Turkey. One of the most memorable moments of my visit to Turkey was the opportunity to speak with Turkish students who will define the future of your nation. Seeing their talent and optimism, I’m convinced that there’s so much more our countries can do together in the years ahead.
There is a lot of debate in Turkey about the Patriot missiles. Many people think that they are installed to protect Incirlik Air Base, Kurecik radar site or Israel rather than Turkey. Who do the Patriot missiles protect?
I want to be very clear—Turkey requested that the United States and NATO deploy Patriot missile to help protect Turkey from ballistic missiles. In other words, this is a NATO deployment designed to help defend Turkish territory and the Turkish people. The United States is proud to join two other NATO members, Germany and the Netherlands, in this deployment, which is tangible proof of the commitment of our Alliance to Turkey’s security.
I also want to take this opportunity to personally thank the Turkish people for the welcome they have given our personnel who are part of this deployment. These Americans, far from home, are experiencing the warmth and hospitality for which Turkey is known, and which I felt myself when I visited Ankara and Istanbul. I believe this latest cooperation is just another example of the enduring ties that bind our nations as allies and friends.
Prime Minister Erdogan told journalists in November that he declared his wish to visit the US during a phone call with you. When should we expect this visit and what would be the key agenda items for the meeting?
I always appreciate the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Erdogan. We’ve had a number of bilateral meetings, and we’ve worked together as partners in international settings, such as the G-20 meetings and our Nuclear Security Summits. I consider the prime minister a good friend and an outstanding partner on global issues, and I very much appreciate the leadership that both he and President Gul have displayed.
I think we’ve developed the kind of relationship where, as friends, we can speak honestly about the challenges we face together, even if those conversations are sometimes difficult. No two countries see everything eye-to-eye and Turkey and the United States are no different. But it’s a testament to our shared interests, our common values, and the strong bonds between our two countries that even these difficult challenges can bring us closer.
So I very much look forward to seeing my friend Prime Minister Erdogan again. I know my team is working hard to identify a time for us to meet, and I’m confident that we’ll find an opportunity to do so soon. When we do, it will be another opportunity to work together to tackle the shared challenges that we must address as global leaders.
The Turkish government is negotiating a peace agreement with the PKK after three decades of war. Does the US contribute to the process, if not, in what ways can you help?
I applaud Prime Minister Erdogan’s efforts to seek a peaceful resolution to a struggle that has caused so much pain and sorrow for the people of Turkey for more than thirty years. More than 35,000 men, women and children have been tragically lost to PKK violence. Hundreds of thousands more have endured the trauma of being forced from their homes, losing a loved one, or being targeted simply for expressing their views.
While the United States has long encouraged political efforts to counter the PKK, the United States has also been a steadfast supporter of Turkey’s efforts to defend itself from terrorism. We have provided significant assistance to our Turkish friends, including advanced technology and sharing best practices, and we’ll continue to do so. In addition, we’ll continue to seek opportunities to fully utilize the technologies and resources we have to help the people of Turkey live in security.
I believe that the proactive measures that the Turkish government is undertaking can lead to real progress. A peaceful resolution will not only improve the lives of millions of citizens living in the violence-torn regions of southeast Turkey, it will mean more security and prosperity for people across Turkey for generations to come. The Turkish people should know that the United States will continue to support– in concrete ways – their desire to close this terrible chapter and begin a new chapter of peace and security.
A recent report by the Council of Europe cites “longstanding, systemic shortcomings in the administration of justice in Turkey (that) adversely affect the enjoyment of human rights”. The report details lengthy proceedings and detentions (up to 10 years); arrests of scores of journalists and activists; and uncertainty about the judiciary’s independence from the executive. Some analysts around the world argue that there is a serious democracy deficit in Turkey, an ally of the US and a possible model for the Arab world. Have you ever raised these concerns with Prime Minister Erdogan?
The United States has been very clear, including in my discussions with Prime Minister Erdogan, that a modern Turkey has the opportunity to set a standard by upholding the rule of law, good governance, and protecting fundamental freedoms for all its citizens. I bore witness to Turkey’s heritage as diverse, multi-ethnic society in my visits to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. And history shows that nations that uphold universal rights and freedoms are ultimately more successful, stable and prosperous. Especially now, during this Arab Spring, so many people across the region are looking to Turkey as they seek to reform and modernize their own institutions.
The AK Party has long promoted a reform platform, and we support the government’s efforts to advance universal freedoms, including freedom of expression. The current leadership, the opposition parties, and citizens themselves all share the responsibility in ensuring progress. I encourage the people of Turkey to participate in this process by continuing to demonstrate their interest in reforms. I encourage Turkish leaders to advance reforms that serve the interests of the people and strengthen democratic institutions. And I encourage the press to continue a healthy public dialogue on the choices facing your country. Strengthening democracy and respect for human rights is another example where Turkey has the opportunity to demonstrate how reform can enable their advancement on the world stage.
Here is what you said back in 2011 while defending intervention in Libya: “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” In light of this previous declaration about Libya: will the US intervene in Syria where over 60 000 people have been killed, where we now hear rumors of chemical weapons being used?
What’s happening in Syria is an absolute tragedy. The horrific violence inflicted on the Syrian people by Assad and his regime—innocent men, women and children being gunned down and tortured simply for demanding their rights; entire neighborhoods and communities being leveled; countless people being driven from their homes—it’s appalling. It’s heartbreaking. It’s why Assad and his regime have lost all legitimacy, and why Assad needs to go.
The United States has certainly not turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Syrian people. On the contrary, I took a very clear position when I announced in August 2011 that Assad should step aside and that the Syrian people should determine their own future. Prime Minister Erdogan made the same point at the same time.
Since then, the United States—working closely with Turkey and other partners—has been leading the international effort in calling for an end to the Assad regime and for a transition toward a peaceful, inclusive and democratic Syria. We’ve worked to isolate the Assad regime politically. We’ve imposed sanctions to starve the regime financially. We’ve worked to bolster the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which we recognize as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. We’ve called for accountability for those who perpetrate atrocities.
At the same time, we’ve worked with Turkey and other countries to provide critical humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. I recently announced an additional $155 million in U.S. aid—medicine, blankets, clothing and food—for people in Syria and refugees fleeing the violence.
Our donations fund United Nations relief efforts, non-governmental organizations active in Syria, and relief organizations serving Syrians in neighboring countries, including Turkey. This brings America’s total humanitarian aid to the Syrian people to $365 million, and we continue to call on nations around the world to contribute to the latest UN humanitarian appeal.
We’ve taken all these steps in close coordination with the Turkish government, and I want to commend Prime Minister Erdogan and the Turkish government for playing a leadership role in trying to end to the violence and begin a political transition in Syria. I especially want to applaud the people of Turkey who have shown incredible generosity in hosting more than 170,000 Syrians who escaped the violence and found refuge in camps in Turkey.
This speaks to the great heart of the Turkish people, who seek to help a suffering neighbor, and the strong friendship between the Turkish and Syrian peoples. It also speaks to Turkey’s role as a leader in the region. I realize that this carries a great cost to Turkey, which is why we continue to offer humanitarian relief to help care for these refugees.
We are very mindful that the days ahead will continue to be extremely difficult, for the Syrian people and the region. But we also know that the Assad regime continues to weaken and lose territory. The regime continues to suffer defections, while the opposition grows stronger. And make no mistake—the Assad regime will ultimately come to an end and the Syrian people will have the opportunity to decide their own destiny. That’s the future that we will continue to work toward, in partnership with Turkey and the international community.
The world is anxiously waiting for a diplomatic solution with Tehran. Do you think Turkey can/should play a role, perhaps as an intermediary between the US and Iran, to help avoid a war in the Middle East?
When I first took office as President, I presented the leaders of Iran with a choice. They could either meet their international obligations and re-integrate Iran into the global community, including better relations with the United States, or they could continue to flout their responsibilities and face greater pressure, sanctions and isolation. Unfortunately, time and again, Tehran has consistently chose the path of defiance, subjecting the Iranian people to further hardship.
Iran’s nuclear program continues to be a major concern. A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a serious and unacceptable threat to its neighbors, including Turkey, and to the world. That’s why I have repeatedly made it clear that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.
Along with our P5+1 partners, we prefer to
resolve this matter peacefully, through diplomacy. The leaders of Iran know what they need to do—they need to meet their nuclear obligations and assure the international community that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. If they do, there is an opportunity for Iran to rejoin the world community and enjoy the benefits and progress that comes with greater trade and ties with other nations. If they do not, the unprecedented pressure on Tehran will only increase.
Meeting this challenge requires continued international solidarity. I realize that sanctions and economic pressure on Iran brings certain costs for other nations, including for Turkey. Turkish businesses are giving up business opportunities with Iran. The Turkish people, like people around the world, are paying higher energy prices. What’s clear is that the price of a nuclear-armed Iran would be even higher, and it would be measured in a region that is far more dangerous, especially for Iran’s neighbors like Turkey.