Background Briefing: En Route to Turkey

Below is the State Department transcript for the background briefing of Secretary Kerry’s trip to Turkey.

Special Briefing

Senior Department Official
En Route, Ankara, Turkey
March 1, 2013

MODERATOR: All right, good morning everybody. We are en route from Rome to Ankara. This is now our fourth stop on Secretary Kerry’s first trip.

QUESTION: London, Berlin, Paris, Rome.

MODERATOR: This is our fifth stop on Secretary Kerry’s first trip. We have with us today [Senior State Department Official], hereafter Senior State Department Official, to talk to you about the Ankara stop. Take it away, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hi, everybody. So we’ve got a full afternoon and evening planned for Ankara, where the Secretary will have a chance to meet with Foreign Minister Davutoglu, Prime Minister Erdogan, and President Gul. He’ll actually begin as soon as we land by doing a memorial ceremony at the Embassy.

You know, of course, on February 1st there was the bombing at the Embassy that sadly, tragically took the life of a Turkish guard, and he wants to pay tribute to the courage of that individual who was performing his duties and protecting Americans working at the Embassy. And that will also underscore the importance of our common challenge in facing terrorism, which will be one of the big things on our agenda for the discussions.

Turkey – it was – the Secretary felt it important to stop in Turkey on this trip. It’s obviously in some ways a pivot between the European stops that we just did and the challenges in the Middle East, and Turkey naturally plays an important role in both as a member of NATO, an aspirant to the EU with important relations with European countries – Greece, Cyprus, and the Balkans – but also a neighbor and important player in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East.

So as always with Turkey, there’s an enormous agenda. We always try to get through it all, and there’s never enough time. But fortunately, as I say, we got a long afternoon and evening, so we should have a chance to really go into depth into a lot of issues. I won’t try to do that for you, and I’m happy to take your questions. I’ll maybe just flag a couple of those that I’m sure will be raised, I guess – starting with Syria, the urgent problem that we have been addressing in Rome.

And I think it’s fair to say that we’re very much on the same page with the Turkish Government when it comes to Syria, and have been for some time, starting with the basic commitment of both countries to work towards the political transition and the departure of Assad. And I think Turkey welcomed the announcements that Secretary Kerry made on behalf of the President in Rome yesterday about new assistance to the Syrian opposition. Turkey is also doing its part in helping the Syrian opposition and doing more than its part in welcoming and supporting over 150,000 refugees at great cost. And we are going to continue to work very closely together to get them to that goal.

I mentioned counterterrorism cooperation already. And just to flag that again, at the – near the top of the list, not just in the wake of the February 1st bombing, but obviously, we face very common challenges in dealing with the PKK threat, which we’ve defined as a threat to both countries, the threat from al-Qaida, and other extremist groups. We cooperate well with Turkey, which is a co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum that Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Davutoglu launched a couple of years ago. And the Secretary will have a chance to discuss how we can better deal with what is a growing threat in the region in the world.

Israel – you know we have been working hard over the past couple of years to foster a better cooperation to restore what was once historic cooperation between Turkey and Israel. The Secretary will have a chance to express his concern over the remarks that Prime Minister Erdogan made in a – reportedly made in a speech yesterday equating Zionism with a crime against humanity. Obviously, we strongly disagree with that notion. You saw the statements out of Washington yesterday making clear that we felt that statement was both offensive and wrong, and I’m sure the Secretary will be able to convey that to the Prime Minister directly this afternoon.

We have regretted for some time that Turkey and Israel, which are both strong friends and partners of the United States and once cooperated extensively with each other in terms of trade and tourism and even military and strategic cooperation, that cooperation has broken down. Deeply unfortunate. And we’ll continue to urge Turkey and continue

to urge both countries to do what they can and normalize that important relationship.

So much else will be on the agenda. I don’t want to take too much time. We’re going to be called up forward in a minute. Iran, obviously; Turkey shares our goal dealing with Iranian nuclear challenge, and the Secretary can provide a readout of the Almaty talks. He’ll also address some regional issues that are important to us, including Armenia and the Caucasus and Nagorno-Karabakh, Cyprus in the wake of presidential election. Turkey, EU – so much more, but why don’t I end there and see what’s on your mind?

MODERATOR: Arshad. No? James.

QUESTION: Since he’s going to be providing a readout of the Almaty talks, perhaps you could do likewise for us.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think we have already on the ground in Almaty given a readout of the talks. We felt they were constructive. There was no breakthrough and we didn’t expect a breakthrough, but as you saw, the parties agreed to resume in the coming weeks both at a technical level and at a higher political level to see if we can make progress on the package that P-5+1 put on the table. And you’ve read about the elements of that package.

And again, I don’t want to overpromise, but we’re encouraged, at least, that these talks will begin in the near term, because we have long felt that we are proposing a way for Iran to meet its obligations to the international community, to respect UN Security Council resolutions, to take advantage of the possibility of having a civil nuclear energy program but without moving towards nuclear weapons capability, which the President has made absolutely clear is unacceptable.

QUESTION: What I don’t understand is why you consider these talks more encouraging, more – or useful, as the Secretary said, than previous talks that resulted in agreements to talk.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I wasn’t on the ground in Almaty, so I can’t give you a firsthand account of that. But our people who were there felt that the sanctions have gotten Iran’s attention, and they understand that a failure to respond to the constructive ideas we’re putting on the table will only lead to further international isolation and consequences. And they were responsive on that basis.

MODERATOR: But of course, the onus is on Iran, and we’ll see what they come back with when we meet again.

QUESTION: Just wanted to ask about Syria and Russia. Obviously, here you have the 11, and they’re cooperating. There’s a lot of talk about unity, being on the same page, and kind of a – the jobs that each of them have. Are – is the Secretary in any type of cooperation with the Russians as he goes along on this trip? You getting any feedback at all from them on what happened in Rome?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. You know the Secretary spent a good hour and a half with Lavrov on the eve of Rome, and we have been in touch with the Russians again both before and after Rome. We have never felt that dialogue with the Russians and what the countries that met in Rome are doing are mutually incompatible or inconsistent. The countries that met in Rome are determined to do everything they can to support the Syrian opposition in – with the objective of strengthening it, changing Assad’s calculation, and bringing about the political transition that we believe is – and the departure of Assad that we believe is absolutely essential. And they’re consulting together, they’re taking decisions together, and we made progress in moving on that agenda.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t continue to talk to Russia. As I think we discussed in this group the other day, we have long felt that this process would be facilitated if Russia would support it. We’ve been to the Security Council several times seeking Russia’s support and have failed to get it, but we will continue to try because we don’t believe that Russia has a magic wand here like anybody else does, but if Russia would make also clear that Assad needs to go, and if Russia would stop providing him both the political legitimacy and other support that it has been giving him, it would facilitate our task.

So we’re going to carry on with the partners we met in Rome in supporting the opposition and pressuring Assad, but we’re also going to carry on talking to the Russians. The French President Hollande was in Moscow the day after Secretary Kerry was in Paris, taking our common message to the Russians; that we want to see them join us in implementing what we – including the Russians, as Secretary Kerry has reminded everybody in the past couple of days – agreed to in Geneva, which is accepting a transitional body with full executive powers established on the basis of mutual consent, which we all know means that Assad cannot play a role.

QUESTION: Since the Patriot missile batteries have been deployed, how do you assess the comfort level of the Erdogan government about the Syrian border issues? And how much of his earlier concern and request for those Patriots do you think was real, and how much was he playing to the home constituents?

MODERATOR: The question was: Now that the Patriot batteries are in place, is Prime Minister Erdogan feeling more comfortable in terms of Turkish security?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I mean, I think the Patriot deployment was a good sign of our bilateral solidarity with Turkey, and general NATO solidarity with Turkey on the question of Syria. After some missiles and artillery had crossed the border, Turkey asked its NATO partners, including us, for help in bolstering its air defenses. And several NATO allies, those with a Patriot capability that can be deployed – the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands – agreed to do that, to deploy Patriots to Turkey, and to do it in a coordinated NATO fashion. Every member of NATO supported the decision and agreed to use NATO command and control. And we said we would do it, and we did it, and it’s now operational on the Turkish border. And I think Prime Minister Erdogan welcomes that, both to strengthen his air defenses against that air and missile threat, and also to demonstrate that we stand by Turkey.

Now, no one ever thought that this was a comprehensive solution to a problem. In the weeks following the declaration of an operational capability, you saw there was a bombing at the border. So there are other ways that Turkey’s borders can be threatened by the Syrians. Obviously, the refugee flow alone is a threat to Turkish borders. So there is great concern, and we continue to stand by Turkey. But the Patriot deployment was one positive element of how we can show our support and solidarity.

PARTICIPANT: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. The sort of comments that were attributed to Erdogan and other Turkish officials on Israel and Zionism are not really new. They seem to say – they’ve said these things periodically. And so they make these comments, the U.S. condemns them, and then things more or less continue. Is there any special urgency or point Secretary Kerry may make to drive the point home? Because over time, this pattern is likely to have a corrosive effect on American-Turkish relations.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, it does have a corrosive effect. I mean, yes, there have been comments in the past that we have taken issue with and we have raised and we’ve criticized both from Washington and directly with our Turkish counterparts. I mean, one thing you can say about this relationship is we do have a frank discussion. And the previous Secretary of State had multiple conversations, frank conversations with her counterpart. The President and Prime Minister Erdogan have as well. And so we have an ongoing and very transparent dialogue, and we’re close enough and friendly enough to say when we disagree, and we’ve strongly disagreed with comments in the past, and we strongly disagree with this one.

I don’t think that this particular comment has been made like this before. This was particularly offensive, frankly, to call Zionism a crime against humanity. I don’t think we’ve heard that before, and like I said, I’m sure the Secretary will be very clear about how dismayed we were to hear it. And I don’t want to get into speculation about the overall relationship, but just to state the obvious, that it complicates our ability to do all of the things that we want to do together when we have such a profound disagreement about such an important thing.

QUESTION: Can I just switch (inaudible)?

MODERATOR: One more question.

QUESTION: Just – it’s brief, but on that. So the Turks have – this is just about the Turkish-Israeli relationship, not about your relationship. How concerning – how bad is it, and how concerning is that to you? And are you still telling the Turks to stop preventing Israel from being invited to all sort of these different events and keeping them out of these NATO advisory councils and things?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You want to repeat the question?

MODERATOR: So, the question was: How bad is the Turkey-Israel relationship getting, and are we working on the issues like Israeli access to NATO programs, et cetera?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Turkey-Israel relationship is frozen. It’s not positive in the way that it used to be positive. And that’s deeply unfortunate. We want to see a normalization because – not just for the sake of the two countries, but for the sake of the region, and frankly for the symbolism of it. Not that long ago, you had these two countries –

PARTICIPANT: He’s ready for the briefing.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: — okay – demonstrating that a majority-Muslim country could have very positive and strong relations with a Jewish state. And that was a sign for the region of what was possible. As for the specific latter part of your question, yes, we continue to stand by the principle that Turkey shouldn’t block Israel’s participation in any multilateral activities. We found a way forward in the NATO context to allow exercises and partnership activities to move ahead. And we continue to take the view that if Turkey doesn’t want to participate in activities with Israel, that’s obviously its sovereign right. But we want to see – we don’t want to see Israel excluded from multilateral activities in which they also should have a sovereign right to participate.

MODERATOR: I apologize, guys. We have to cut this off. But the boss is looking to see us. Thanks.

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