Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat—It seems an age now since Turkey trumpeted its “zero problems” foreign policy, seeking more harmonious relations with its neighbors, especially the Arab states. But Turkey’s relations with its Arab neighbors have taken a sour turn recently, with Ankara seemingly at odds with its neighbors on a panoply of regional issues.
The country’s stance on the changes that swept Egypt in July 2013, when Islamist president Mohamed Mursi was ousted by the military following mass protests against his rule, is one of the major points of difference between it and the main regional players. Since then, and especially since former army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi took the reins of power in Egypt almost a year after Mursi’s ouster, comments and actions from officials in Ankara have angered not only Egypt, but also its Gulf backers Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait.
Turkey’s alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt as well as Gulf states, has also riled officials from Cairo and elsewhere, with Ankara accused of offering support to the organization and a safe haven for its exiled members. Cairo especially sees Turkey’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Brotherhood as boon companions, further fueling the animosity.
Turkey has also angered its neighbors, and those further away, through its alleged support for Islamist elements involved in the Syrian conflict, with some accusations leveled at Ankara even claiming the administration allowed fighters looking to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in both countries to freely cross its borders.
Ankara’s reluctance to join the international coalition against ISIS has also been problematic with neighbors seemingly more gung-ho about taking the fight to the extremist group. The Turkish position regarding the danger posed to the region by ISIS is further heightened by its sharing borders with both Syria and Iraq.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with the face of Turkish foreign policy, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, about possible solutions to the Syrian conflict, Turkey’s relationship with its Arab neighbors as well as Israel, and the threat of regional terror groups like ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What remains from Turkey’s “zero problems” foreign policy that was launched by former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu? Can this policy continue in light of Ankara’s current relations with neighboring states?
Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu: The region is full of major problems and crises, and we are trying to reach solutions to these issues. Therefore, during this difficult time, we must say what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong.
Our foreign policy principles and philosophies cannot be changed at all. [But] based on the current circumstances, and the regional problems, there could be some updates or changes to our foreign policy, but the principles and values remain the same. So, we must keep with the times.
Yes, there have been some changes; our relations with Iraq have changed. The policies of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki were leading Iraq to major problems and we rejected this, but the new Iraqi government has today turned over a new page and we are progressing and working together with them. We have not changed our view towards Iraq; our love of Iraq is constant and stable. However, due to the change in government, and its change in policies, we have acclimatized [to the new situation] and are continuing our relationship with them. So, if the question is about change such as this, then yes, there have been changes [in Turkish foreign policy].
Q: What is the future of your relations with Israel?
Our view [towards Israel] is constant, and there are some fundamental things that we want to see take place. In the event that this happens, our policy towards Israel could return to normal and how it was before. Our conditions are clear and, of course, related to Gaza and Palestine.
Q: What are these conditions?
We have put three basic conditions to improve our relations with Israel. Firstly, for Tel Aviv to apologize for the Mavi Marmara [Gaza flotilla] incident—and this is the most important of our conditions. We wanted a formal apology, and this has been achieved. We also wanted compensation for the families of those killed during this tragic incident, and that is currently under discussion. We are also, of course, calling for the lifting of the siege of Gaza and other Palestinian towns which are suffering tragic humanitarian conditions. So these are the three conditions that we have put forward, and we have told the Israelis that we are ready to work together to achieve this.
Q: Have there been any negotiations with Tel Aviv over these three conditions? Can we expect anything to be announced in the near future?
There were a lot of discussions over this issue between [Turkish and Israeli] bureaucrats and diplomats, but we have not heard anything from the Israeli government. Our conditions remain. As for whether we can expect anything, I think that the Israeli government is under pressure and preoccupied with other issues, particularly as the Israeli elections are fast approaching. I think, under the current circumstances, they will not take any steps.
Q: Let us return to your “zero problems” foreign policy. What is Ankara’s policy towards Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad now?
As you know, before all these problems, and before the Syrian revolution, our relations with Syria and President Assad were very good. However, Bashar Al-Assad is responsible for the unfortunate developments in Syria. Therefore, the current state of our relations with Syria is the result of Bashar Al-Assad’s actions. Our friendship towards Syria remains the same . . . but our relations have reached the current state due to his [Assad’s] actions.
Q: What about Ankara’s relations with Iran?
Iran and Turkey are historic friends and neighbors, but we are looking at Syria from different viewpoints. As for the issue of Gaza and Palestine, we have the same view. We also have the same view of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and this has not changed.
Q: How do you assess the situation in Syria?
The situation is Syria is getting worse day by day, and the country is edging towards the abyss. Unfortunately, the Syrian regime is continuing to kill its own people and carrying on with its brutal practices. Approximately 250,000 people have been killed as a result of its attacks, while there are also the ISIS and Al-Nusra Front terrorist groups and various militias also present on the scene.
Q: But how can we resolve this? Is there still, after all that has happened, a political solution to the Syrian crisis?
Yes, there could be a political solution to the Syrian crisis if firm and consistent decisions are taken to achieve this. First, we must see an immediate change in Syrian political leadership—or in other words, Bashar Al-Assad must leave power because he has completely lost all his legitimacy. Then we must cleanse Syria and Iraq from all these terrorist groups. So, there must be a political solution, and at the same time a military force capable of carrying out a military solution to cleanse the region from terrorist groups.
The Syrian government must be a comprehensive national government that embraces the entire spectrum of the Syrian people. So the most important thing is for political transition. And then to strengthen the entire military and security apparatus in Syria to cleanse Syrian territory from the terrorist groups that are currently present there.
Q: What “military and security apparatus” are you talking about precisely?
When a new national unity government is formed in Syria, it must have a military and security apparatus. At the moment, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the only [legitimate] force that is present on the ground. The FSA is affiliated to the Syrian National Coalition which is the legitimate authority in Syria and which all allied states have recognized. So, the FSA is the only force that can preserve the unity of Syria’s territory and Syrian security and stability. So we must strengthen the FSA as the official force that represents the Syrian people, which is something that everybody recognizes. Here I am of course talking logistical and humanitarian assistance. We have also spoken with the US about providing training for the FSA, which is something that we have done openly. If the regime views the FSA as a terrorist organization, we do not; while if, when it says “terrorists,” it means ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, then we also view them as terrorists and are fighting against them. But, initially, the Syrian regime did not consider them to be terrorists and in fact worked with them.
Q: What about accusations that Turkey initially backed ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front and other Islamist terrorist groups?
These are the claims of the Syrian regime, and it is only natural that the Assad regime would claim that we support terrorism after it fell into the quagmire. However, let me say once again that we do no support terrorism and do not allow terrorists to enter Syria from Turkey, or indeed enter our territory from Syria. We completely reject terrorism and have a clear and united view against the issue of foreign fighters who are coming here to fight. Ten thousand people have been banned from entering Turkey based on our position, and we have also captured approximately 100 people who sought to enter Syria from our territory. We in Turkey cannot deal with any terrorist party or even sit at the same table with them. We oppose all these terrorist forces.
Q: Do you fear terrorism spreading from neighboring countries into Turkey?
Turkey is adjacent to both Iraq and Syria, and we expect the problems in Syria to spread to Turkey. Over the years, we have suffered from a number of problems with regards to terrorism, and we know just how difficult this issue is, and that is why we have taken the necessary precautions to deal with this crisis. We know just how bitter this issue is, and that is why we oppose terrorism and must stand with our neighbors in the region in the fight against terrorism.
Q: Speaking of regional neighbors, Ankara’s relations with Arab states have also deteriorated in the recent period. What can you tell us about this?
The Arabs are our brothers; their fate is our fate, and our fate is theirs; Arab security and stability means Turkish security and stability, and vice versa. We always enjoyed close relations with the Arab states, but due to what happened in Egypt, and the “coup” against the legitimate government, this led to some differences of opinion with friendly Arab states. But we are not against Egypt; the Egyptian people are our brothers. However, we oppose the coup and the view of the current Egyptian government, as well as its view that it must execute people in the manner that it is doing. Egypt is a very important state for the Arab world, the Middle East, and Africa—so it is important for us for Egypt to be safe and stable. That is why we oppose the coup that destabilized Egypt’s security, but this position does not mean that we oppose the Egyptian people.
When we talk like this, openly and clearly, some people get annoyed at us. We do not have any problem with Egypt, or any other country, but to be frank, we are not with the Sisi government. There is no security or stability under Sisi, while the economy is also suffering. What would happen if there were political changes in the countries that are currently assisting Egypt and this assistance was cut off? What would happen to Egypt? Egypt is going through a difficult period and if you take power by force and do not give the people the change to solve their own problems themselves, then unfortunately this is the situation you end up in.
Q: But didn’t President Sisi come to power via the ballot box?
What ballot box did Sisi come out of? How many people were permitted to participate in this election, or even to vote? The voting took place openly, but the counting of the votes and the results of the election were secret. Were neutral parties or foreign observers permitted to come and observe the Egyptian elections? We have not heard that this took place at all. You cannot put half the Egyptian people on one side and not allow them to participate in the elections and then say that you were elected via the ballot box.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Turkish.