The Washington Diplomat / March 2015
By Larry Luxner
With his country’s two southern neighbors threatened by a horrific terrorist group, deepening ethnic unrest at home and a president who faces growing criticism for amassing political power at the expense of his opponents, Turkey’s envoy in Washington certainly has a lot on his plate these days.
On Jan. 26, Serdar Kiliç spoke to The Washington Diplomat at his elegant official residence off Massachusetts Avenue. It was the ambassador’s first interview with an American media outlet since presenting his credentials at the White House one year ago.
During our hour-long meeting, Kiliç (pronounced Kilich) said the Obama administration needs to get its priorities straight — namely by stepping up efforts to get rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad even as U.S. fighter jets bomb the strongholds of Islamic State extremists who already control sizeable chunks of Iraq and Syria.
“Are we going to fight only Daesh?” asked Kiliç, calling the group by its Arabic acronym because, he said, the terms Islamic State and ISIS offend the vast majority of Muslims who oppose its cult of bloodshed. “They are the end product of the current instability in Syria and Iraq. And as long as you don’t take care of this instability, you are going to have, in the long run, yet another terrorist organization with a different acronym. We had al-Qaeda, then al-Nusra, now Daesh. Tomorrow we’ll have another.”
But the White House has set its sights, and airstrikes, on Islamic State fighters rather than the regime in Damascus, infuriating Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who says the real target should be Assad.
The revolt against the Syrian president has killed more than 200,000 people since it began four years ago this month. It has also sent a mass exodus of refugees into Turkey, straining social services and threatening to stir sectarian tensions. Between that civil war and the Islamic State uprising in Iraq, some 2 million Syrians and Iraqis have fled across the border to Turkey; about 400,000 of them are living in camps. To date, said Kiliç, Erdoğan’s government has spent more than $5 billion to house and feed these refugees, with scant help from the international community.
To help alleviate the refugee crisis, Kiliç says the Erdoğan government supports the declaration of a no-fly zone in Syria and safe haven for refugees. But such buffer zones are always easier said than done and would certainly pull the U.S. into another full-scale Mideast war. Moreover, Turkey has faced criticism from the international community for allowing thousands of foreign fighters to stream across its porous border, essentially siding with the Islamic State in its single-minded quest to oust Assad.
Kiliç bristles at suggestions that Ankara is “turning a blind eye” to the flow of foreign fighters into Syria — thousands of whom have arrived from Western Europe to Turkey, then crossed overland into areas controlled by the Islamic State.
“More than 30 million tourists visit Turkey on a yearly basis. We cannot stop anyone with a valid U.S. or EU passport who declares he’s there for tourism,” the ambassador said, insisting that immigration officials need specific information that such people are either affiliated with terrorists or that they intend to continue on to Syria. “Without that intelligence, you cannot stop them.”
Kiliç added: “The United States, with all its capabilities, cannot control its border with Mexico. So how do you expect Turkey to control 100 percent of its 1,000-kilometer border with Syria? It’s rough terrain and almost impossible to monitor. If you want to kill the mosquito, you must first drain the swamp that generates the mosquitoes.”
And that swamp, suggests the ambassador, is the putrid leadership of Assad, who has been accused of widespread human rights abuses — including dropping cylinders full of chlorine gas on civilians — since trying to quash what had initially been a peaceful Arab Spring uprising against his dictatorship.
“When the crisis started, we had excellent relations with the Assad regime at all levels. The Syrian people made some democratic demands, and instead of meeting their legitimate demands as we advised him — so that the country would not be dragged into a civil war — he oppressed them, opting to use military force against his population.”
Kiliç, Turkey’s ambassador to Lebanon from 2008 to 2010, said his Ottoman predecessors were all too familiar with the Syrian ethnic powder keg, having ruled the Levant for centuries before Britain and France divvied up the region after World War I.
“We knew things were going to get out of control, because Syria’s demographic composition was fertile for a crisis — a Sunni majority oppressed by an Alawite minority. All the top government positions were occupied by Alawites,” he told us.
Yet ever since Islamic State’s ascendance, the White House has stopped explicitly calling for Assad’s removal; in fact, some foreign governments are no longer insisting that the president step down as a precondition for talks, which they say offer the only hope out of Syria’s military stalemate. On the contrary, many U.S. officials privately view Assad as the lesser of two evils in a murky conflict where moderate rebels are in short supply, the opposition is in disarray, hard-line Islamists are brutally effective and no one’s hands are completely clean.
Assad has capitalized on this chaos to present himself as a bulwark against Islamist jihadists who’d fill the power vacuum if his government were toppled.
In a Jan. 20 interview with Jonathan Tepperman of Foreign Affairs, Assad said the bulk of the so-called “moderate” rebels is actually made up of terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and the Islamic State. And in a Feb. 9 interview with the BBC, Syria’s indefatigable — and perhaps somewhat delusional — president dismissed U.S. efforts to train and equip a moderate rebel force to fight Islamic State militants as a “pipe dream” that has no chance of success.
That program, which aims to train 5,000 rebels per year, has struggled to get off the ground. In fact, the day we interviewed him, Kiliç had just attended a Pentagon briefing by retired Gen. John Allen on how the United States is training anti-Islamic State rebels in Syria.
“I listened very carefully and saw an excellent entry strategy to take care of Daesh,” he said, “but I did not see an exit strategy, which is most important for any military operation.”
What the region really needs, he insisted, is a “comprehensive strategy” that encompasses Iraq and Syria, with the objective being Assad’s removal as well as the preservation of Iraq’s territorial integrity.
He noted that the Islamic State — which rejoices in beheading its foreign hostages and most recently burned alive a captured Jordanian pilot — “emerged in Iraq, got its strength in Syria and returned to Iraq” in all its bloodthirsty fury.
“We have to take concerted action and an integrated strategy in order to fight Daesh. I’ve talked to some key senators. I feel we’re on the same page,” Kiliç said, declining to name those lawmakers. The envoy did say much of his job consists of “explaining to our American friends that Daesh is a symptom” of the root causes of the current violence rocking the Middle East.
“I will be very frank with you. Afghanistan was a remote country in the middle of Asia, but what started in Afghanistan ended up in the Twin Towers of Manhattan — and Boston, Frankfurt, Paris, Ottawa and the attack on a synagogue in Brussels,” he warned. “America is not safe. No country is safe anymore. If we are not going to coordinate and eradicate terrorism in all its forms, you are never going to be safe.”
Kiliç, who turns 57 this month, knows both Turkey and the U.S. well. Born and raised in Samsun — a Black Sea port city of 600,000 in north-central Turkey — he graduated from Ankara University’s political sciences department in 1980 and joined the Turkish Foreign Ministry four years later.
Kiliç’s first overseas posting was to Kuwait, and in 1989 he was named assistant consul-general in Los Angeles.
After serving as first secretary in the ministry’s Gulf and Muslim Countries Department, Kiliç occupied several important positions dealing with NATO, eventually ending up as the ministry’s deputy director-general of NATO and Euro-Atlantic security and defense affairs in 2006. He also previously served as Turkey’s ambassador to Japan from 2012 to 2014 and, prior to that, as secretary-general of the country’s National Security Council.
Kiliç told us that as Turkey’s envoy in Washington, he aims to “emphasize the points that bring us together, not what pulls us apart.”
“We have fought for the same values for almost 60 years now, in Korea, in the Middle East, and in Kosovo and Macedonia. We fought hard to bring peace and stability to areas in turmoil. Before the 1990s, it was difficult to find ordinary Americans who knew where Turkey is. After what happened in Iraq, that changed a lot.”
The Iraq War, in fact, marked a serious rupture in U.S.-Turkey relations, as Erdoğan began charting an assertive foreign policy that at times diverged from Washington’s agenda. To this day, the Turkish leader sees the war as a mistake that unleashed sectarian strife in the region. Likewise, Kiliç disparaged Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who was forced to resign last August after tenaciously holding onto power for years in the face of increasing resentment among both Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis.
“We asked the international community to stand against the atrocities [in Syria], but they turned a deaf ear to all our calls. Unfortunately, we had a similar problem in Iraq,” the ambassador said. “We tried to explain to our Western allies that Maliki’s sectarian policies would end up dividing the country into three parts. We were not listened to.”
Iraq’s territorial integrity is a key concern of Turkey, which fears the partition of its troubled neighbor into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite fiefdoms. That fear isn’t surprising, given that Turkey itself is home to a large Kurdish minority, most of which lives in southeastern and eastern Anatolia.
Ultimately, what most of Turkey’s 14 million Kurds want, and what they’ve wanted for more than a century, is their own nation — an unacceptable option for the Erdoğan regime. While Turkey has significantly improved ties with its Kurdish minority and maintains good relations with the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, independence would be a non-starter for Ankara.
“Once you start to divide countries, you don’t know where it will end up,” Kiliç warned.
In addition to worrying about its restive Kurdish population and the threat of homegrown radicalization spread by Islamic State extremists, Turkey is struggling to absorb the masses of people that have flocked to the country in recent years, many of whom have settled in cities like Istanbul.
“We have around 2 million refugees in Turkey, and the majority of them — 80 percent — escaped Syria not because of Daesh but because of the atrocities of the Assad regime,” the ambassador claimed. “Even if you eliminate Daesh, the majority of them will not go back as long as Assad is in power.”
Interestingly, Assad claims that he would win the war if Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, dropped their support of Islamic State fighters. In his Foreign Affairs interview, he pinned the blame for the Islamic State’s rise squarely on Erdoğan.
“Because he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, which is the base of al-Qaeda; it was the first political Islamic organization that promoted violent political Islam in the early 20th century. He belongs strongly and is a staunch believer in these values. He’s very fanatical, and that’s why he still supports ISIS. He is personally responsible for what happened,” Assad charged.
While the argument that Erdoğan is responsible for the atrocities in Syria is a tad far-fetched, the Turkish president is no longer as immune to criticism as he was when he first took power in 2003. Back then, the former Istanbul mayor was widely praised for ushering in a model of Islamic democracy after years of military coups.
Much of the praise was well earned. Erdoğan presided over a dramatic economic transformation and turned Turkey into a major global player. He granted greater religious freedom to the country’s conservative Muslims, ended the military’s interference in civilian affairs, launched a building boom in Istanbul and retains a strong base of support throughout the country.
After serving three terms as prime minister and handily winning another election last summer to become president, however, the Erdoğan glow has begun to fade. Opponents of the president say his rule has become increasingly authoritarian, and that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trampling on the rights of citizens via a crackdown on media freedom, a weakening of the rule of law and the erosion of the secularism on which the country was founded. New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a report issued last September, said Erdoğan has responded to dissent by “tearing up the rule book,” among other things.
“For the sake of Turkey’s future and the rights of its citizens, the government needs to change course and protect rights instead of attacking them,” said the report’s author, Emma Sinclair-Webb.
One of Erdoğan’s loudest detractors, and biggest headaches, is a man who once supported his party’s agenda. Fethullah Gülen, founder of the Gülen movement (Hizmet in Turkish), says things began going sour a few years ago, after he began speaking out against corruption by senior government officials. The enigmatic Muslim cleric boasts millions of devoted followers, including many from Turkey’s pious capitalist class, although his critics accuse him of running a shadowy cult whose members have infiltrated the ranks of the Turkish media, judiciary and police.
But Gülen claims that he and thousands of other Hizmet followers have become victims of a “witch hunt” by Turkey’s rulers, who have not only alienated the West but are also now losing credibility in the Middle East as well.
In mid-December, an Istanbul court issued an arrest warrant for the 73-year-old Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, accusing him of plotting to bring down the government by launching a series of corruption probes. The warrant, a symbolic move, did little to help the already strained U.S.-Turkish relationship.
Criticism of the Erdoğan government is also coming from the 28-member European Union, which Turkey has long sought to join. Following condemnation from Brussels over the recent Gülen crackdown, Erdoğan called the arrests a domestic security issue and said he didn’t care if the raids affect Turkey’s quixotic EU membership bid.
Asked to comment, Kiliç said he hears from critics on a daily basis.
“I ask them to bring me concrete evidence that the present Turkish government is authoritarian and trying to establish a dictatorship, or ban freedom of speech. I need concrete evidence, not hearsay,” he told The Diplomat, noting that only 10 journalists are in prison. “Seven of them do not have any credentials proving they’re journalists. The majority of them were engaged in armed attacks against police stations or supporting terrorist organizations. None are in prison because of their activities as journalists.” Kiliç also emphatically rejects suggestions that Erdoğan is trying to move Turkey toward an Islamic fundamentalist state patterned after Iran.
“Nobody’s forcing you to pray, or practice Islamic rituals, or not to drink. The government took the decision that after 10 p.m. or midnight, there will be a ban on alcohol sales. But you cannot sell alcohol after 1 a.m. in Los Angeles either,” he pointed out. “People should be able to practice or not practice, without interference from the government. My wife does not wear a headscarf, but if she wants to, she should be able to. That was not the case before. You could not go to university if you wore a headscarf.”
Erdoğan’s vocal support of Muslim rights has endeared him to many in the Islamic world, but also alienated him from an old friend: Israel. That relationship — which spawned military cooperation, multimillion-dollar business deals and planeloads of Israeli tourists visiting Turkish beach resorts — came to a screeching halt on May 31, 2010. On that day, Israeli commandos fired on the so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla in the Mediterranean Sea, killing nine Gaza-bound activists aboard the Turkish vessel MV Mavi Marmara.
“Before the attack on the Marmara, we had very good relations with Israel, but after that attack on the high seas took place, relations gravely deteriorated,” Kiliç said. “Thanks to the good offices of President Obama, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu apologized to Turkey and we were hoping things would get better.”
But then the war in Gaza broke out, infuriating Erdoğan, who openly supports Hamas and was also a key backer of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi until the Muslim Brotherhood leader was overthrown in July 2013 and replaced by a military regime.
Kiliç complained that Turkey’s rupture with Israel was “portrayed in a very negative sense” by the mainstream U.S. media and said he’s carefully following the current Israeli election campaign, in which Netanyahu is vying to keep his job.
“I hope that at the end of those elections [later this month], there will be a sensible leadership which will take into account the long-term benefits of the Israeli people — and not short-sighted, counterproductive policies,” he said. “Unfortunately, whenever you criticize the Israeli government, you are immediately labeled anti-Semitic. So if you’re talking about free speech, it should be valid across the spectrum. You have freedom of speech to criticize everybody but Israel.”
A month after the Israeli elections, another emotionally charged issue will resurface and most likely strain U.S. ties: Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the killing of up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
The G-word is sure to come up in the halls of American legislatures. To date, 43 states have recognized April 24, 2015, as the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide; an effort is now underway to have Congress commemorate the centenary as well. Yet Kiliç says the so-called genocide is a myth peddled by “single-agenda lobbies” seeking to perpetuate Turkey’s negative image in the media.
“They are asking one of the parties to accept that they have committed genocide, but this was a war. An equal number of Turks suffered,” he insisted. “This is an issue to be decided by historians, not the U.S. Congress.”
Despite the Armenian lobby’s influence on Capitol Hill and the drumbeat of criticism at Erdoğan’s heavy-handed rule, Kiliç remains focused on other areas of cooperation that have received far less media attention. To that end, he hopes the United States and Turkey will become better business partners and says the two countries must sign a free trade agreement — sooner rather than later.
“U.S. companies should see Turkey not only as the end target of their activities, but also as a springboard to Central Asia and the Middle East,” he said. “I’m trying to convince our friends on the Hill that we should have an FTA between Turkey and the United States, and that we should be a part of TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union]. Both of these would be to the benefit of the American business community, so why put it on the back burner?”