American administration does not want a serious role in Iraq anymore, at least not under Obama’s leadership. The next president should volunteer to make serious political investments and be a sponsor for the political rapprochement in Iraq. Without a rapprochement in Iraq and Syria, the chaos will continue and ISIS will make use of it to last longer.
SETA DC General Coordinator Kadir Ustun made a detailed statement to Turkishny.com regarding the mission and activities of SETA, the foundation’s role in Turkish-American relations, Turkey and the latest developments in her region, current issues in the U.S. and the status of Turkey-U.S. relations.
*Could you inform us on SETA and SETA’s organization and structure in U.S.?
SETA Washington (SETA DC) operates as the Washington office of SETA (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research) which is based in Ankara. As a think tank organisation, SETA DC focuses on Turkey – U.S. relations and Turkish foreign policy. SETA Washington’s mission is to work for policies of Turkey to be correctly understood by the U.S. public and vice versa. We are achieving this mission through various conferences, panels and publications.
*Did you achieve your goals through the panels and meetings you have held up to now?
I can say that we have achieved our goal on a large scale through the panels and meetings we organised. It is a fact that some negative atmosphere dominates the air in Washington when the issue is Turkey. We may say that there are lots of reasons for that but actually there are several similar incidents in the past (for example the discussions about shift in Turkey’s axis). We may say that the fundamental reason is the differences of opinion between Turkey and the U.S. regarding regional politics. At this point, we consider that it is essential for both countries to rightfully understand each others regional politics. Keeping that in mind, in our activities we were attentive for discussions on politics to go deeper, more colourful and more serious. Thus, SETA Washington received very positive critics from the think-tank world and the press. So we think that we are achieving our goals but of course we are trying to do much better.
*Do you think that United States understands Turkey’s policies?
I do not think that U.S. and Turkey are having hard time to understand each other’s politics. Some might claim that Turkey’s politics are not being understood if you look at the articles that are written for daily consumption. But I think American policy makers understand Turkey’s policies in large measure. Yet, this does not mean that United States will move aside Turkey because there are serious differences when it comes to their interests and each country makes steps regarding its own interests. For example, there is a serious conflict about providing support to PYD and although both countries understand each other’s position on the issue they move in different directions. Yet, it is hard to say that United States understand Turkey in depth in domestic policy matters.
*How would you evaluate Turkey’s last 12 years?
Turkey passed through a very big transformation since the beginning of 2000’s due to several parameters including the post Cold War dynamics. That process has not ended and Turkey is still being rebuilt in some ways. We may say that the most important phases were experienced on the fields of civil politics, economics and opening to the outer world. We entered a new era in civil – military relations and military’s effect on politics got weaker. Yet, there is a lot of way to make for normalisation and institutionalisation of the civil – military relations. And this phase will not be completed without a completely civil constitution. Turkey made great strides in economics and reached to much more efficient positions at international platforms as G20, IMF and World Bank. In this area too, Turkey will have to compensate the slow economic growth in recent years and get over the trouble of middle income in long term. At this point, it seems very hard for Iraq and Syria to preserve their integrity and the instability of the region continues to deeply affect Turkey. Turkey may work hard to limit the effects of civil wars but Turkish leadership has to make progressive policies calculating that the instability may continue for several more years.
*What is the role of SETA DC in Turkish American relations?
SETA DC aims to locate the potential areas of cooperation during the times of crisis in Turkish American relations and also aims to contribute the development and intensification of this relations by cultivated and realistic analysis. When you remember that Turkey and US are NATO allies and two countries that need each other in many issues, continuation of bilateral relations in a sense of mutual trust is possible only with policies of two sides to be better understood by each other. What SETA DC is obliged to do here is to contribute to this process. Of course, the most fundamental and the most determinant dynamic will be the communication and cooperation between Turkish and American communities in different levels.
*We see that Obama’s foreign policy does not serve Turkey’s interests. What would you say about that?
From the very beginning, President Obama is trying to keep the promises he made to American public about withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and Iraq and also avoiding to go into a new war. He preferred to see the civil war in Syria as an ordinary one and he believed that there is not much to do about it. Moreover, he did not want for the U.S. to pay a political and military price. As a result of this policy, a serious vacuum of leadership has formed in Syria. Turkey has frequently warned the international community of this power vacuum being filled by terrorist organisations. Turkey has felt the reflections of the civil war in Syria through immigrant refugees and border security issues and these problems continue. Therefore, President Obama’s inactive policy on Syria is affecting Turkey negatively too. It should be known that Syria now is the main issue in the differences of opinions between two countries.
*How will the power balances change in Syria especially after the recent incidents and Russian intervention?
By keeping the Assad regime alive, Russia and Iran are making use of the vacuum that formed by American inactivity. They intend to strengthen the Assad regime and break the resistance of Syrian opposition under the colour of fighting against terrorism. There against, it is insufficient for Turkey to stand against that just with the allies like Saudi Arabia. Turkey needs to work with the U.S. within a plan but United States does not give an inch. United States is focused on the ISIS and considers Assad regime as a secondary problem. At this point, the difference in opinions will continue and the resolution of the problem will become harder as Turkey and U.S. do not meet on a common ground. By intervening in Syria, Russia’s goal is to have a say in the political transition process in Syria, besides strengthening its military and strategic existence in the Mediterranean. I do not believe that this will bear fruit in short term. We will have to wait and see what kind of policy the next American president will follow on Syria and how will the American interests be defined. But it seems certain that it will be more active than Obama’s policy on Syria. United States has to take its place in the equation so that the game can be played out of the parameters that are defined by Iran and Russia. Otherwise, Assad regime will continue to be a tiny state that consolidates the Russian and Iranian existence in Syria.
*Do you think Turkey’s security measures at the Syrian and Iraqi border are sufficient? How should NATO support Turkey on this issue?
Turkey has increased the security measures at Syrian border. Yet, as long as the civil war and chaos continues in Syria, its reflections will continue to pose various threats for Turkey. Previously, NATO has accepted to deploy Patriot air defence system at Turkish border. When Assad regime’s capacity got weaker, NATO countries withdrew Patriots. But Turkey may ask for deployment of Patriots again. NATO reiterated its support for Turkey recently when Russian jets violated Turkish air space. In case of any emergent threat about Turkey’s border security Turkey may ask NATO’s intervention but currently the most important topic on the agenda is creation of a consensus upon a political transition process in Syria so that the chaos and civil war conditions can end.
*Following the recent crisis, Turkey has become an irreplaceable partner for the EU on refugee politics. How should Turkey play its cards?
Turkey has been warning Europe about refugees for a long time. SETA DC also prepared a report about this issue and stressed that international community should support Turkey much more for achieving the solution of this problem. Turkey tried to manage the refugee crisis in the most humane way and paid a high price for it. With a humanistic approach to the issue, Turkey has showed that it is far more ahead of Europe on this issue. European approach to this issue centres around fears and problems of integration. Turkey should seek enhancing the living conditions of refugees by accepting material assistance from Europe. Other than that, Turkey should ask for establishment of cooperation mechanisms for enabling European NGO’s to focus on this issue so that this issue does not become a matter that Europe provides financial assistance and later forgets about. Turkey also needs economical and social policies regarding refugees as hundreds of thousands of them are going to stay in Turkey in long term.
*How long do you estimate that Assad regime will stay in power?
It is hard to guess how much more will the Assad regime stay. Nowadays, it is understood that parties are working on a political transition formula. Press reports suggest that Turkey’s demand is a 6 months transition process. I think it is hard to convince Russia on accepting a final date for Assad’s leaving but if U.S., Russia, Turkey and others can agree on a formula then a common ground can be found. It is not realistic to expect Assad to leave the government in short term.
*How can the World get rid of ISIS (DAESH)? What are your expectations from the U.S. about this? How will this affect Turkey in short and long term?
ISIS is the result of the chaos and civil war environment in Iraq and Syria. They split up with Al Qaeda due to strategic and tactical differences and they are supported and turned a blind eye on by Assad regime. ISIS is an organisation that exploited the power vacuum in the region and its administrative staff contains several former Ba’ath officers. Destroying ISIS will not be possible only with military measures. It is necessary for the political grounds both in Iraq and Syria to change and Sunnite groups should be given alternatives other than ISIS. American administration does not want a serious role in Iraq anymore, at least not under Obama’s leadership. The next president should volunteer to make serious political investments and be a sponsor for the political rapprochement in Iraq. Without a rapprochement in Iraq and Syria, the chaos will continue and ISIS will make use of it to last longer.
*As the President of SETA DC, what would you advise Turkish Americans about their engagement in US political system?
Turkish American community should engage more in American politics. Organising in local level is very important in American politics. Active and relatively small groups can be very effective especially on congressmen as they are very sensitive regarding demands of the voters in their polling district. Supporting the election campaigns of representatives and closely following their activities will help Turkish American community to attain more efficiency. This efficiency should not be considered as a lobbying activity. It is more like being active in American politics and therefore assisting a healthy development in Turkish-American relations.
*Do you see Democrats or Republicans more likely to win the presidential elections?
We witness that candidates with central tendencies are disadvantaged in both parties. In Democratic Party the leftist liberals are very powerful while rightist conservatives are prominent in the Republican Party. For Democrat Party, Hillary Clinton seems to have the highest chance to win. The picture is much more complicated when it comes to Republicans. If Republicans pick a candidate with no political experience, Donald Trump for instance, Clinton would have a bigger chance. But if they face Clinton with a candidate like Bush or Rubio, the chance of Republicans winning would be much higher. Republican Party is experiencing an identity crisis and Democrats have the advantage of holding the administration and being able to meet on a common platform. If Republicans can fix the image of conflict (for example if they can agree on selecting Paul Ryan as the speaker of House) their chances will be higher.
*How will US foreign policy be affected in case the Republicans win?
If republicans win the elections, American foreign policy will be more active and probably more focused on security and fight against terrorism. But they would not repeat large scale moves like occupation of Iraq. Republican foreign policy elites would assert that United States should lead and that would in any case result in a more active foreign policy. If Clinton wins the elections, we may again say that a Democratic president would still be more active than Obama when it comes to the foreign policy.
*What message would you give about the recent terror attack in Turkey which caused more than 100 civilian casualties?
This attack should be seen as a result of the failure of international community to form a mutual and strong political ground in Iraq and Syria and to bring the chaos to an end. The basis of the increasing problems of refugees, border security and terror is the regional earthquake we are experiencing. It was not inevitable to avoid a very huge chaos and instability during this regional transition and transformation. International community should stop turning a blind eye on the developments in Syria and Iraq.
Interview first published on Turkishny.com, October 23, 2015.
This interview has been translated from Turkish.