On Thursday, April 13, 2017, the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. hosted a keynote address by H.E. Fikri Işık, Defense Minister of Turkey, followed by a panel discussion, “U.S. Strikes Assad: Toward a New Syria Policy?” During the keynote address, H.E. Işık spoke about his recent meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the future of U.S.-Turkey relations. The panel discussion following the address focused on U.S. and Turkish actions in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, as well as what to expect from the Trump administration moving forward. Mr. Kilic B. Kanat of the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. moderated the discussion with H.E. Işık. Speakers for the panel discussion included Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, a defense consultant with MTK Defense Consultants; Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Mr. Kadir Ustun, the executive director of the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. The panel was moderated by Ms. Barbara Slavin, the acting director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative.
H.E. Işık opened the event by pointing out that today’s issues are becoming increasingly complicated in these turbulent times. Therefore, it is important that the U.S. and Turkey maintain friendly dialogues in order to maximize the effectiveness of their efforts. H.E. Işık spoke on three main points: the need for nations to protect their people against threats; the notion that no nation can cope with today’s challenges unilaterally; and that cooperative efforts must be made to address global challenges.
H.E. Işık explained that protecting Turkish citizens, and fighting against Daesh, is a priority for Turkey. That is why Turkey launched, and successfully competed, Operation Euphrates Shield. Tens of thousands of local Syrians have returned to their hometowns due to Turkish efforts, H.E. Işık noted. He pointed out that Turkey alone, or any nation acting unilaterally, cannot bring a solution to Syria. He explained the importance of nations acting in solidarity with one another, stating that cohesion is more important than ever. “NATO is not obsolete” asserted H.E. Işık. “Turkey and U.S. must improve their dialogue through consultations and should coordinate more on [their] respective positions,” H.E. Işık said in closing.
During the panel discussion, Ms. Barbara Slavin asked Mr. Kadir Ustun for his impression of the Turkish Defense Minister’s visit and whether or not it had helped address any of the tensions between the U.S. and Turkey.
Mr. Ustun suggested that Turkey had become some disenchanted with former U.S. President Barack Obama and his Syria policy. This led to disagreements about the PYD, among other things. Turkey sees the Trump administration as a new opportunity, he explained. When one examines Turkish statements after after President Trump’s response to the recent chemical attack, it is apparent that Turkey was not as excited as they were in 2013 when President Obama said he would respond. Turkey acknowledged that President Trump’s response was a good thing, but it needs to be built upon. Turkey sees an opportunity, said Mr. Ustun. “Where we go from here and whether or not we get a more comprehensive situation is key,” he stated. Turkey is trying to contribute to that conversation, but remains cautious because of past disappointment with the U.S.
Ms. Lesley Dudden from the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. asked the panel whether or not U.S.-Turkey relations could be bad enough to where Turkey would revoke U.S. access to Incirlik Air Base and how that would impact U.S. operations in the region.
Brig. Gen. Kimmitt explained that there are plenty of locations for U.S. air and naval forces to operate, providing the example of U.S. bases left in Saudi Arabia. “We want to be in Incirlik, but the U.S. Air Force is flexible and [Incirlik] isn’t a crown jewel [the U.S.] can’t live without.” Brig. Gen. Kimmitt said that it would be detrimental to lose access to the base, but that it would not end the mission. Amb. Jeffrey noted that Incirlik has always been an important logistical hub in the region, but access to Turkish airspace is what is truly vital.