• By: Dan Donovan

Ottawa Life Magazine Exclusive Interview with Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu

Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu, was in Canada in January to attend The Vancouver Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula. In an exclusive interview, Cavusoglu shares his views with Ottawa Life Magazine Publisher & Managing Editor Dan Donovan about containing North Korea, Turkish relations with NATO and its Allies, Brexit, Jerusalem and Trump, The Kurdish Situation, Syrian Refugees, The Astana Talks, the Status of Jailed Journalists and Turkey's Important Tourism Sector.

Mevlut Cavusoglu

Ottawa Life Magazine: The Vancouver Conference’s stated objective was to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program. Does Turkey agree with this goal? Specifically, does Turkey agree with the premise of the conference – to force North Korea to the negotiating table and persuade it to denuclearize?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: Let me begin by congratulating Canada for hosting a very successful event.

The nuclear tests and missile launches conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are in violation of international law. We have consistently condemned these acts, and we strongly believe that international peace and security would be better served through the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. In any case, this challenge could and should be resolved through diplomatic means. This meeting was a display of international unity in recognizing the significance of this challenge. It also highlighted the need to continue implementing United Nations Security Council Resolutions and to demonstrate that there is an honorable and beneficial way out of the DPRK’s nuclear escalation through peaceful means.

Turkey has always called for a diplomatic solution to this problem, and we will continue to do our best to make this possible, together with our partners like Canada. This meeting has confirmed that this is an achievable outcome.

OLM: Can you provide a general comment on the Turkish government's position with regards to North Korea and their behavior generally in the past year?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: 2017 was a critical year. DPRK’s nuclear test and ballistic missile launches have caused a serious escalation and demonstrated how dangerous the situation has become on the Korean peninsula. All along, Turkey’s position on the nuclear and ballistic missile-related activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea has been very clear. As a party to the NPT and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Turkey totally rejects nuclear and ballistic missile activities. Turkey has always acted in unity with the international community in condemning the unlawful activities of the DPRK and demanding its respect and full compliance with the UN resolutions, all while fulfilling Turkey’s own responsibilities regarding UN Security Council sanctions. The current developments on the Korean peninsula clearly show that the threat posed by the DPRK nuclear armament program is a serious concern not only for regional but also for international peace and security. Therefore, the international community should continue to address the situation at all levels and with determination.

OLM: For the past twenty-five years, combinations of sanctions and policies have not worked as a method to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. Is it time to change course, or do you think it is better to keep on with more sanctions and more rigorous policies that isolate North Korea?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: For the past twenty-five years, the threat to international peace and security from North Korea has been gradually increasing. The UN Security Council and concerned countries exert enormous effort to deal with the nuclear danger. We are facing a very difficult and complex problem. Diplomatic efforts, coupled with UN Security Council resolutions, all aim at reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula. Turkey is looking forward to the launch of diplomatic efforts and continued cooperation. In the meantime, UN sanctions are essential to persuade the DPRK to refrain from escalating the situation and to ensure its interest in a comprehensive settlement. Through sanctions, UN Security Council resolutions send a clear message to North Korea. Subject to the compliance of the DPRK, the existing measures may be strengthened, modified, or suspended. So far, the pressure imposed by the international community unfortunately has not been effective. In the coming period, the actions of the DPRK will be a determining factor on the issue of sanctions.

OLM: Turkey was invited to this conference, yet China was not. Do you think China should be involved in helping to resolve the Korean peninsula problem?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: China is a great power with which we have good relations in many fields. We deeply value China’s role in both global and regional issues. The situation on the Korean peninsula represents one of the most dangerous and complex problems of our times. Several UN Security Council resolutions and the statements of many countries reflect this unacceptable situation. There is an urgent need to move forward in reducing tensions and starting a negotiation process for a comprehensive settlement. As has been the case in the past, I am confident that China will continue to assume a key role in facilitating a peaceful solution through dialogue on the Korean peninsula.

OLM: According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' June 2017 statistics, Turkey, for the third consecutive year, has hosted the largest number of Syrian refugees worldwide, a total of 3.2 million which accounts for approximately 45 percent of all Syrian refugees in the region. Turkey was also declared the world's largest refugee-hosting country on World Refugee Day this year. Many of the Foreign Ministers you are meeting with in Vancouver from European countries have committed aid via the EU to this crisis but have not delivered on this promise. Instead of fulfilling their promises to accept and relocate more Syrian and area refugees, they have done the reverse and reintroduced frontier checks and vetting processes. Can you comment on this?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: The number of Syrians in Turkey currently exceeds 3.4 million. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, we have acted in line with humanitarian considerations and accepted millions of Syrians into our country without any discrimination based on their religion, culture, or ethnicity. The Turkish state and people have opened their doors and hearts for Syrians who escaped war, bombs, terror, and violence. We continue to mobilize all of our resources in order to improve the living conditions and reduce the suffering of these people. Our expenditures for Syrians in a wide range of services, such as food aid, accommodation, education, health, access to the local labor market, and psychosocial support, have reached $30 billion US since the start of the crisis. Unfortunately, I have to express that the majority of countries have so far failed the test of responsibility sharing. Nonetheless, we appreciate the efforts of a limited number of countries, notably including Canada, that have opened resettlement paths and facilitated the resettlement of Syrians. Measures to counter migration, such as reinforcing border checks and building border barriers and walls, are useless. These measures do not match the realities of our globalized system, especially since the Syrian humanitarian crisis is a global phenomenon and concerns all humanity. On the other hand, we continue to carry out our commitments arising from the 18 March Agreement with the European Union. If Turkey puts aside its tremendous efforts in this regard, the Aegean Sea will once again become an irregular migration route. There are still some EU commitments to be implemented, such as visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, updating the custom union according to current needs, and the swift transfer of the first 3 billion Euros for the humanitarian needs of Syrians in Turkey. We also expect that procedures for the allocation of the second of 3 billion Euros for the period of 2018-2019 will start without delay.

OLM: How would you describe the current relations between Canada and Turkey?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Canada. The relations between our countries are based on common values and our solid alliance within the NATO framework, which dates back to the 1950s. Besides NATO, our countries have enjoyed close cooperation in many international organizations, such as the G20 and the UN. It was a great pleasure to host Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the G20 Antalya Summit, in what was his first overseas visit after taking office in November 2015. Turkey attaches the utmost importance to strengthening our bilateral relations. Considering the 75th anniversary of our diplomatic relations, it is high time that we start high-level bilateral visits to pave the way for increased cooperation between our countries. As part of my Vancouver trip (the Foreign Ministers Meeting on North Korea), I met with Turkish citizens and the Turkish-Canadian community, as well as business and academic circles. I also officially opened our Consulate General in Vancouver. It is a pleasure to see Canada’s growing economic and commercial interest in Turkey. Turkey and Canada are strong trading partners; we both support free trade and inclusive growth, which are essential to achieving sustainable, balanced, and strong economic growth. Considering this general framework, we believe that starting official Free Trade Agreement negotiations without delay would be beneficial for our countries.

OLM: How would you describe the current relationship between the United States and Turkey?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: It is not a secret that our relations with the US are going through a delicate period. We have differing views on important issues, such as US support to PYD/YPG terrorists in Syria and the presence of the FETÖ terrorist organization in the US. The ongoing US military support to PYD/YPG terrorists not only jeopardizes Turkey’s security but also poisons our long-standing partnership. As a NATO ally, Turkey rightly asks the US to prioritize Turkey’s vital security concerns over the US’ short-term tactical policy goals. However, Turkey and the US are long-standing allies, and our relations are time-tested. Turkish-American cooperation is vital for our bilateral relations and equally for the future of the region as well. With this in mind, we continue high-level contacts with the US, and we believe it is important to keep our channels of communication open. In Vancouver, I met with Secretary Tillerson and discussed current difficulties in our relations. I reiterated our sensitivities and expectations from the US side. We need to focus on a positive agenda from which both sides can benefit. Enhancing economic relations is also a priority for both sides. We would like to increase our bilateral trade volume (17.5 billion dollars in 2016) and encourage mutual investments.

OLM: How would you describe the current relationship between Russia and Turkey?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: 2017 was a fruitful year for Turkish-Russian relations. Our Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Ministers of Foreign Affairs, as well as related institutions, were constantly in touch about various bilateral and regional issues throughout 2017. This intensive dialogue has positively reflected on economic relations. Russia is currently our third-largest economic partner. However, this intensive dialogue does not mean we see everything eye-to-eye. We naturally have differences on some issues, but we think that despite such differences, cooperation where possible is needed. This dialogue and cooperation produces concrete and positive results. The best example is the Astana Process. We see anxiety in some circles regarding our relations with Russia. These concerns are unfounded: our relations with Russia and with our allies do not contradict but instead complement one another.

OLM: What is the Turkish view on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: Jerusalem is home to three monotheistic religions. Its preservation is the duty of all humankind. No one has the right to make unilateral or arbitrary decisions on the status of Jerusalem, which is one of the final status issues in negotiating peace between Palestinians and Israelis.US President Trump’s statement, which recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and aimed to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, is a dangerous violation of international law and fuel tensions in the region. Emboldened by the US Administration’s illegal decision, Israeli officials are announcing settlement plans one after another and taking their own steps to intensify the occupation of Palestinian lands. These acts imperil the viability of a two-state solution that is based on the 1967 lines. The US has been left alone in its decision, as the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly rejected Trump's decision on 21 December, despite US threats and blackmail to retaliate by cutting aid to countries voting against this decision. The vote showed once again that Palestine should enjoy international support and recognition of statehood. Now, it is essential for all countries to stand against efforts to create further fait accomplis concerning the status of Jerusalem. The current status quo is not sustainable. A new approach is needed to achieve comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East. We are ready to support all efforts to revive the peace process.

OLM: Can you advise what the current Turkish government policy is regarding the Kurdish situation today, taking into account the recent referendum and what appears to be the defeat of ISIS forces in Syria and the entire region?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: Preserving Iraq’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political unity is vital for Turkey. These principles are also critical for regional peace and stability. In line with this understanding, we opposed the KRG referendum, and the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court’s recent rulings have proven us right. In coordination with the Iraqi Federal Government, we adopted some measures against the KRG. However, we never targeted the Iraqi Kurdish population. From now on, the KRG leadership should unequivocally accept these rulings and act accordingly. If Baghdad and Erbil enter into negotiations, Turkey will be one of the strongest supporters of this process. DAESH has been militarily defeated in Iraq. Now it is time for the Iraqi government to defeat it ideologically by adopting inclusive policies, promoting a common Iraqi identity, and reconstructing liberated areas. Turkey will support its neighbor in these efforts.Vis-a-vis the Kurdish situation in Syria, the key defining factor will not be the defeat of DAESH on the ground through military means. A new social and political contract should be reached via a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned process, and it should determine the role of Syrian Kurds in Syria’s future. Our efforts aim at facilitating this process, be it in Astana, Geneva, or Sochi. The delegates of Syrian Kurds who chose to isolate themselves from terrorist organizations are well-represented in these fora. As for PYD/YPG, which is the Syrian extension of the PKK terrorist organization, it is destined to fail in its efforts to create fait accomplis on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism. We will continue to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people to live freely in a democratic Syria that maintains its territorial integrity and political unity.

Children attending school at the Gazientep refugee camp close to Syrian border. Photo by Dan Donovan 

OLM: It appears the carnage and war in Syria is coming to an end. Can Turkey have relations with a future Syria if Assad is still the Syrian President? How do you see things progressing in Syria in 2018?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: The future of Syria will be determined by Syrians themselves. During the last seven years of conflict, which started with peaceful protests and then flamed into a civil war, the people of Syria have made their choice clear. They aspire for democracy, freedom, equality, and rule of law. The record of Assad counters these aspirations. History tells us that the will of the people prevails eventually. With regard to the outlook for Syria in 2018, it is hard to make any definitive comment. On our part, we will continue our intense efforts to make sure that the talks in Astana, Sochi, and finally Geneva yield concrete results so that 2018 may become the final year of conflict. Once a lasting and credible political solution to the conflict is reached, the international community should prepare for yet another formidable challenge: help rebuilding the infrastructure of war-torn Syria, facilitating the return of refugees and IDPs, and providing economic aid.  In brief, the international community should contribute to saving the future generations of Syria.

OLM: How would you describe Turkey’s current relationship with its partners in NATO? Does Turkey plan to stay in NATO? Is NATO important to Turkey?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: NATO is central to Turkey’s defense and security plans. Turkey has historically shouldered its fair share of the burden, if not more, within NATO, and it continues to do so with equal determination. Our record of 66 years within the Alliance, including our current undertakings, speaks for itself. This history serves to prove that NATO is important for Turkey and that Turkey is a key member of the Alliance. In the recent words of the NATO Secretary General, “Turkey is a valued Ally making important contributions to the Alliance.” First and foremost, we are a frontline actor in the fight against terrorism, in particular against terrorist groups such as DAESH, as well as the PKK and its offshoots PYD/YPG. As one of the top-five contributors to NATO operations, we have been a consistent and significant contributor to NATO undertakings in Afghanistan, as is the case with the ongoing Resolute Support Mission. Turkey is currently the framework nation for the Kabul region, and is responsible for the management and security of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. We make substantial contributions to NATO’s ballistic missile defense system by hosting the AN/TPY-2 radar at Kürecik, Malatya. Turkey hosts the NATO Land Command Headquarters, LANDCOM, in ?zmir, and it is one of the few Allies that provides high-end capabilities to the Alliance. Turkey also plays a substantial role in forging closer ties between NATO and its partners, and it is a staunch supporter of NATO’s open-door policy. Turkey is a proud member of NATO and is particularly fond of its solemn partnership with Canada. Indeed, while there are some circles trying to cast doubt on Turkey’s commitment to NATO, the facts on the ground are clear. We are forthcoming in our commitments, and we greatly value Allied solidarity and cooperation. That said, we expect the same from our Allies. Any concern of ours should be a matter of concern for them. This is particularly true in the face of our longstanding fight against terrorism in our part of the world.

OLM: Is there still a pathway for Turkey to become part of the EU?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: You know what they say about history; “it does not repeat itself, but it does certainly rhyme.” Turkey and the EU have a long-standing relationship, and there have always been ups and downs. In the past, we have experienced far worse periods than the present one. Each time we were able to come out of the turbulence a little bit shaken but in one piece, and back on our accession path. At the moment, we need to remind ourselves and our EU counterparts that accession to the EU is a strategic goal for us and that it won’t be derailed by momentary problems. We are committed to our EU accession process, and we ask the EU to allow progress in this process by lifting the political and artificial blockages on negotiation chapters.

OLM: Does Turkey still want to become a member of the EU?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: EU membership is a strategic goal for us, and we continue to be committed to the accession process, as we have been from the beginning. However, currently we can talk about a confidence crisis between Turkey and the EU. We are determined to overcome it by maintaining open dialogue channels. In return, we expect the EU to drop its double standards toward us and to keep its promises. Polls in Turkey show that a majority of our people wants EU membership, but a big majority does not believe that it will happen. Unfortunately, this is due to the double standards we have faced and the EU’s failure to deliver on its side of the commitments made. Accession is a technical process, but it has been extremely politicized in our case. 14 out of 35 negotiation chapters have been blocked for political reasons. And now we are once again being offered a sort of “special partnership” instead of full membership, which we refuse even to discuss. This is frustrating and difficult for us, but I would like to emphasize once again that we will not give up on our European ideal.

OLM: Do you think that Brexit leaves an opportunity for Turkey to increase its economic and business relations with Great Britain?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: The UK is a very important trade and investment partner for Turkey. Therefore, we are pleased that Turkey and the UK are on the same page to maintain and further improve our current economic and trade relations after Brexit. Compared with other countries outside the EU, Turkey’s position is unique in Brexit talks due to its Customs Union with the EU. We wish to establish a new, more comprehensive economic model with the UK in the post-Brexit era.

OLM: Many Western analysts have expressed a concern that President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s warming ties with Russia provides prove that Turkey is looking away from Europe and its alliances in NATO and looking east. Please comment on this.

Mevlut Cavusoglu: It is not constructive to think in terms of “binary choices” like either Europe or Asia. For many centuries, Turkey has been an indispensable part of Europe. We are an inseparable part of Euro-Atlantic and European institutions. EU membership is our strategic goal, and we call for an unpoliticized process of accession negotiations. I have full confidence that Europe will leave the myopic vision adopted since the global financial crisis and see Turkey as a lasting bulwark for European peace, security, and prosperity. Russia is an important country in our region. We have comprehensive and multi-dimensional relations with Russia. These relations cannot be considered as an alternative to our NATO membership, our relations with our NATO allies, or our EU membership process. Today, we combine our efforts with Russia’s to resolve crises in our region. If there are issues of disagreement, we do and will continue to express our respective positions. That does not change the fact that Turkey is and will be a staunch NATO ally.

OLM: In North America and Europe, many governments have expressed a concern about jailed journalists who were arrested after the attempted coup of 15 July 2016. Can you tell us how many journalists were initially arrested, how many have been released and how many are still facing changes?

A particular concern in the broader journalism community and in Germany (and it has also been a matter raised in Canada in journalism schools and with media organization’s and NGO’s) is the jailing by Turkish authorities of German journalist Deniz Yücel in February 2017 (almost one year ago). Mr. Yücel is still being held without charge in a high-security Turkish prison and is accused of producing "terrorist propaganda" and "incitement of the population. Among those calling for his release under the #FreeDeniz online campaign are singers Bono and Sting, as well as Nobel Literature Prize winners Orhan Pamuk, Elfriede Jelinek, Svetlana Alexijevitsch, Herta Müller and J.M. Coetzee. DW's Editor-in-Chief Ines Pohl and others. Turkey is a democracy with a free press. In a previous interview on this subject you have stated (re: Yücel) that “I am also not very happy that the indictment is still not there. We can only encourage the judiciary to speed up the process. We have done that already. But they are telling us that it’s a very complex situation and that the investigation is still ongoing. Therefore it is taking some time. But this is nothing personal. The accusations against Deniz Yücel are very serious.”

Mevlut Cavusoglu: The FETÖ terrorist organization attempted to overthrow our democratic and constitutional order on 15 July 2016 by the use of force, killing hundreds of civilians in the process. In the face of harsh realities of the terrorist coup attempt, as well as other severe terrorist threats, we had to take swift and effective measures. In this context, our priority is to strike a proper balance between maintaining public order and security and protecting the freedom of expression and media. On the other hand, investigations against those who claim to be “journalists” are conducted due to their acts in support of and link to terrorist organizations. Unlike claimed in some media outlets, these “journalists” were not arrested for merely “doing journalism.” Journalism does not provide impunity for criminal activities. In fact, using any profession to engage in criminal activity is unacceptable. This is also against the principles of journalism. Their legal rights are under protection, and the judicial process is ongoing. As legal proceedings advance, certain detainees have been released pending their trials.

Deniz Yücel

OLM: Can you explain what the accusations are and what is very complex about this case? Mr. Yücel is a respected journalist. Are you not concerned that by arresting a journalist, the Turkish government is harming the image of the democratically elected Turkish government of President Erdo?an.

Mevlut Cavusoglu: Since 2015, Deniz Yücel has not had permanent press accreditation in Turkey. Therefore, he was not arrested for “doing journalism.” In Turkey, the judiciary is independent and impartial. All judicial proceedings are conducted in line with the principles of the rule of law. The judiciary decides when the legal process will come to end.

OLM: Is Turkey open for tourism, and would you encourage Canadian and others in North America to visit? (I was there in June and again in October 2017, and as you know it is one of the world’s great tourism gems. I was sad to learn that many of the major cruise lines stopped sailing to Turkey two years ago. This is especially a problem for the ?stanbul and ?zmir regions. However, I did notice a large numbers of Chinese and Asian visitors visiting Turkey).

Are the cruise ships coming back to Turkey soon, so that Europeans and North Americans will once again be able to visit Turkey on cruise ships and explore all the wonderful aspects of Turkey from ?stanbul to Cappadocia to ?zmir?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: North American tourists are always welcome to visit Turkey. However, some of the leading cruise companies from this region decided to exclude Turkey’s ports from their routes, based on unfounded security concerns. This decision of the companies deprived the tourists of North America from visiting the natural beauties of Turkey. In 2017, the number of foreign tourists who visited Turkey increased by 15 percent over 2016. The total number of foreign tourists in 2017 was around 32 million. This figure is proof that our country is safe and secure for foreign nationals. Turkey is still one of the most preferred tourist destinations among many European countries. Under these circumstances, we expect the cruise companies to revisit their decisions and to include Turkey in their destinations.

OLM: Does the current government see attracting North American and European tourism as an important part of the Turkish tourism business?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: Our government sees attracting North American and European tourists as an important part of the Turkish tourism business. In the first 11 months of 2017, 12.5 million Europeans visited Turkey, which is approximately 40 percent of the total number of foreign tourists who visited that year. We aim to have an increased number of Canadians visiting Turkey as well. Turkish companies attended the Fort Lauderdale Seatrade Cruise Fair in March 2017 in order to promote Turkey as a destination for American cruise companies. Since cruise companies plan their routes two years before they begin their voyages, we expect to see Turkish ports included in their cruise routes by 2020.The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism and other agencies are strengthening our cooperation in the international tourism business.

OLM: There is a strong Turkish diaspora in Canada who continually contributes to the great multicultural and diverse fabric that makes up Canada. Many of these Turkish-Canadians have watched events in Turkey in recent years from afar. Do you have anything you would like us to share or say to the Turkish Diaspora in Canada?

Mevlut Cavusoglu: There is a vibrant Turkish community in Canada. They have an important role for expanding the depth of our bilateral cooperation as valued political, commercial, strategic, and security partners. The Turkish community in Canada and Turkish-Canadians are staunch supporters of the Canadian ideal of multiculturalism and diversity, and they have made significant contributions to Canadian society and economy. In addition to Toronto, Turkish Consulates General in Vancouver and Montreal have been operating for almost two years. During my visit to Vancouver, I officially opened our Consulate General in Vancouver on 15 January.