Erdogan upbeat about Saudi-Turkish ties

Erdogan upbeat about Saudi-Turkish ties
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan being interviewed by Jamal Khashoggi at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on Friday. (AN photo)
Updated 30 October 2016

Erdogan upbeat about Saudi-Turkish ties

Erdogan upbeat about Saudi-Turkish ties

Following is the text of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s interview with Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The interview, conducted on Friday at the majestic Presidential Palace in Ankara, was aired in Arabic on Rotana Khalejia TV channel on Sunday night. The text below is a translation into English by Arab News:

Jamal Khashoggi: In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent and the Most Merciful. Mr. President, my first question is about your meetings with Saudi leaders. You hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif; one month ago, you met Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and then a month from now, you may meet Prince Mohammed bin Salman again. What is going on?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: I greet all our brothers who are watching us now on Rotana Khalejia TV. I salute them from my country: Peace be upon you. During the G20 summit, I met with Prince Mohammed bin Salman. We held a detailed meeting and discussed bilateral relations as well as our assessment of the situation and developments in the region. I met Prince Mohammed bin Naif on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Our meeting was very brief, but we said that we would meet in Turkey. I met His Royal Highness today and we found an opportunity to discuss in detail bilateral relations in addition to the latest developments in the region. We also enjoyed the opportunity today to award His Royal Highness the Order of the Republic of Turkey. This is an important symbol of the extent of the ties between the brotherly Turkish and Saudi peoples as well as the ties between our two countries. During our meeting we talked about the relations between the two countries and what will help promote our relations in military, cultural and other fields. And, of course, we talked about the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15. We were very happy with the firm position of Saudi Arabia at that time. We have expressed our pleasure and gratitude to the Kingdom. Then we talked about the unfortunate decision by the US Congress with regard to the 9/11 Bill (JASTA) and we expressed our sorrow and regret. I also mentioned this matter and our feelings when I met US Vice President Joe Biden in the US. You cannot criminalize an entire country because this violates the sovereign immunity. Of course, in the future we do not know what procedures will be taken, but we have taken necessary steps in this matter as we preside over the current session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The Turkish minister of foreign affairs and the minister of justice, under direct instructions, will take the necessary measures and make efforts to stand by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in order to correct this grave mistake.

Khashoggi: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif said in a statement to the Saudi newspapers that “we and Turkey are being targeted and we need each other.” I will ask the crown prince specifically when I meet him what he meant by that. But what I want to ask you is if you feel in Turkey that there are challenges and attacks on the nation through what you have been exposed to and through the risks that face the Kingdom? I ask you to comment on the crown prince’s statement that “Saudi Arabia and Turkey are being targeted and we need each other.”

Erdogan: First, I want to say that there are very brazen acts going on against the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are targeted. Also, if you look at developments in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Tunisia, these developments cannot be left aside nor can the developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan that are all related to each other. In fact, we find intrigues and plots being encouraged against the Islamic world, and so the countries of the Islamic world must stand in solidarity. But if that solidarity is not achieved, we will lose a great deal. There may be a lot of bloodshed. In Syria 600,000 people have so far been killed. In Aleppo, we see that many people have died in a short time with warplanes bombing civilians, innocents, children and the elderly. I spoke with Putin and Obama and also with Merkel. We talked but no progress was achieved. We must continue our discussions. A 14-year-old child was used as a suicide bomber and blew himself up at a wedding party in the city of Gaziantep. That killed 56 citizens and injured about 100 people. We have always been patient. But in the end, our patience ran out and then what did we do? We ordered an operation in Jarablus where we cooperated with the moderate opposition and therefore were able to rid Jarablus of Daesh. The area of Jarablus is for Arabs and its people are Arabs. The residents have begun to return to Jarablus. I think there are 30,000 to 40,000 of the population of Jarablus that have returned. We must also offer the necessary support to our Arab brothers. We cleansed the Syrian town of Al-Rai of Daesh militants. Residents of Al-Rai have begun to return to their homes. There is also the city of Manbej where Arabs represent about 85 percent of the population, but there was a plan to hand it over to terrorist groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units. We said we could not allow those terrorists to enter (the country) and that the people of the region must be allowed to return. And now the US makes promises and we wonder now whether it will fulfill these promises or not. We aim to cleanse a 5,000 sq. km. area in order to declare it a terror-free zone. We will help this area become inhabited again by its people. It will be a secure zone and a no-fly zone to help the people return and then form security forces from among them. We will begin building apartment blocks and houses as well as all social facilities and, thus we can stop these waves of refugees. We can help some of those refugees return and lead decent lives once again instead of existing in camps. I discussed this matter with Putin, Merkel, President Obama and with leaders of other countries as well. I spoke with brotherly and friendly countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. We have prepared preliminary moves. There is cooperation and communication now between us and Saudi Arabia. We want to carry out this project and to house people in these units. We can also give them Turkish nationality.

Khashoggi: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif’s visit to Turkey coincided with the intensity of the fighting in Aleppo and with the statements by US sources that the Gulf states planned to send ground-to-air missile to the moderate opposition in Syria. Did you discuss this matter? It is known that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are backing the moderate opposition. So, will you allow the passage of such weapons to the moderate opposition? Have the Americans lifted their veto on these weapons?

Erdogan: In fact, we did not discuss this matter, but in terms of supporting and backing the moderate opposition, we find strongly worded statements. From the beginning, we always supported the moderate opposition and we are very interested in the support that we expect from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. I will make a phone call to both Putin and Obama in this regard. Maybe I will discuss with them what the next plan is and if a truce could be achieved again.

Khashoggi: I will switch to Yemen. Saudi Arabia appreciated your Operation Euphrates Shield and you announced your support for the Saudi-led Decisive Storm in Yemen. Why do we not see Saudi forces fighting with you in the north of Syria and, in return, Turkish forces fighting along with Saudi Arabia to help the legitimate government in Yemen? Is such a scenario possible?

Erdogan: Of course, we hold intense communication with Saudi Arabia and we conduct joint evaluations. Each country has its agenda and plan of support. We know that Saudi Arabia has a plan in this matter. We also see and find important support from Qatar. I think that this support will continue because there is a perfect match of viewpoints between us. The next phase will probably be different in terms of dimensions and size as I think we will take firm steps.

Khashoggi: Turkish-Saudi relations are good but some Saudi intellectuals write articles expressing their fears that Turkey has expansionist aspirations in the region. I am sure that you have an answer to these concerns?

Erdogan: I am smiling as you see when I hear this because these statements or these positions just make me laugh or smile. It is impossible; Turkey does not have any such goals. Turkey does not want these waves of imperialism to spread in the region. These areas are the living examples of solidarity and brotherhood. Look at who lives in an area located between Muslim majorities in Iraq and in Syria. What one Muslim can ask from another is only brotherhood. Do we accept accounts of a Muslim who lives in one land and different accounts from other Muslim in the same land? On the contrary, Turkey hosts three million of our brothers and pays attention to all their needs, livelihoods, education, health and so on. So far we have spent $12.5 billion on our brother refugees and the same amount has been spent for civil society organizations. The amount of international aid to the refugees, as you know, is $25 million; moreover, we do this because it is our human, Islamic and ethical duty and we will move forward in order to achieve this. The West has denied its responsibility. They speak about 100, 500, or 1,000 people and when they find this number, they begin to erect barbed wire fences and close doors in their faces. We cannot close our doors in the faces of those who escape battle and flee death because of the bombing by aircraft. It is our human duty and it is our moral duty, and we are providing support to them and will continue to do so. We pay great importance to the solidarity of Saudi Arabia and Qatar on this subject. We see today the West is still providing support to terrorist organizations in the region, and when I say this, they become upset. Through this solidarity and the operations that we have with the moderate opposition now in the field of battle, we began to see Western weapons in the hands of the terrorists. We find the same thing; America is supplying terrorist organizations, such as the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and People’s Protection Units with weapons that are also transferred by US aircraft. When we question this, they begin justifications by saying they are fighting Daesh, but we say we are fighting Daesh together. No one has the right to deceive the other as the main objective is not to occupy these lands and then hand them over to terrorist organizations and make a passage in the north of Syria. This passage is for terrorists and we will not allow this; we will fight until the end. Also through our struggle we will maintain Turkey’s security. A safe zone in an area of 5,000 sq. km. should be established to accommodate our Arab brothers and eliminate this terrorist passage.

Khashoggi: It was said that after the failed coup, Turkey changed its allies. You just have shown the amicable relationship between the Russians and the Iranians. Is there any change in Turkish attitudes toward Iran and its interference in the region? And toward what Iran is doing in Syria?

Erdogan: As you know we have been neighbors of Iran for many years and a neighborly relationship still exists and in areas, such as energy and trade. We have relations with Iran and also when we mention Syrian issue, we always tell the Iranian officials what is happening. And also I met Mr. Rouhani at the United Nations. I said we have to solve this problem. There are also aspirations toward cooperation between Turkey and Iran to solve the Syrian crisis. The foreign ministers of the two countries discussed the matter. We should look at what Turkey and Iran can do in Syria and Iraq. We have an interest in this regard. Syria and Iraq should not be victims of sectarian and religious conflicts, because the losers will be Muslims. Muslims have to stay away from that because it will harm the Islamic nation. We must be cautious and careful and perform our humanitarian and brotherly duties to ensure security and stability. Our efforts in this direction will continue.

Khashoggi: Iranians now are fighting in Syria and this might mean that the Turkish forces and the moderate opposition are in direct conflict with the Iranians. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a strategic threat due to its intervention in the region. Are you annoyed by such Iranian intervention in the region? Do you feel concerned that Iran’s troops are fighting just south of your borders?

Erdogan: There are many Western foreign fighters who fight alongside Kurdistan Workers’ Party or (PKK), the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units. Perhaps there are other nationalities, but we do not know. The aim is to achieve the security, stability and welfare of Syria; we will do our best to achieve this goal. Our communication with Iran was at the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We told them we do not want to see you doing this. Does Iran have borders with Syria? No. But we do have borders with Syria for more than 900 km. Does the US have borders with Syria? No. Are there borders between Russia and Syria? No. The military intervention in these countries must be stopped. If there is a solution it will be by a political way which necessitates Assad, the killer, being removed from power. He is the person who killed 600,000 of Syria’s citizens and should not remain in office no matter what and who stand behind him. They would also be held to blame for this great injustice.

We find that there are some who want Assad to stay, and as long he exists, Syria will continue to pay a high price. We therefore exert our efforts in this direction and this is what I am saying to all leaders and heads of states with whom I meet. I say it and I tell them also why we are here. We are here in order to declare the truth. If we do not tell the truth, it still remains our duty and we will not abandon it.

Khashoggi: Concerning Egypt, what should be done to improve Turkish-Egyptian ties? Have you discussed this matter with Saudi officials or has anyone from Saudi Arabia or other countries requested you to improve relations with Egypt?

Erdogan: I have definitely talked to our Saudi and Qatari brothers about this issue and told them a regime that came through a coup is ruling Egypt now. This means there is no democratically elected government. I was elected president of the Republic of Turkey by 52 percent of the voters. But, in Egypt the ruling regime toppled a legitimate one, which goes against the principles of democracy. Therefore, I cannot accept it. If I had recognized it, I would have contradicted myself. The people’s will is very important and very sensitive to us, and if the will of the people is respected, progress can be achieved. First of all, a door should be opened for democracy in Egypt. President Mursi, as you know, was elected by a majority of 52 percent of the voters — but he is in prison now, as well as his friends and members of his government, with many of them being sentenced to death or prosecuted. If this problem is to be solved, those who have been imprisoned unjustly should be released. Only then can relations be normalized with Egypt. We have no problems with the Egyptian people whom we consider our brothers. If the Egyptian regime takes positive steps in this direction, we will do what should be done.

Khashoggi: But this does not exclude the possibility of developing at least trade relations between the two countries as Egyptian and Turkish foreign ministers met twice last month.

Erdogan: Of course, I always say that Turkish ministers can establish relations with their counterparts in Egypt. Likewise, businesses can continue to invest in projects there without any problem. In fact, I believe that maintaining such relations is very useful. But personally I cannot accept to have any contact (with the Egyptian regime). This is immoral.

Khashoggi: Concerning Syria and the buffer zone you are establishing as part of the ongoing Operation Euphrates Shield, why haven’t you entered Manbij yet? Will you proceed forward to Raqqa to eliminate Daesh?

Erdogan: This has nothing to do with Turkey and this is not our responsibility. We know that there is a joint action with the United States, as well as other parties. You know, we consider that Manbij belongs to the Arabs, and thus there should be no presence of the Democratic Union Party and People’s Protection Units in the Syrian city. We said that such forces must withdraw and the people of Manbij come back to dwell there. As for Raqqa, if we act cooperatively with the coalition forces, we can proceed forward. At the present, there are communications among security forces and I think a final decision will be taken after consultations.

Khashoggi: Was the Turkish Army, before the coup attempt of July15, obstructing your plans in Syria?

Erdogan: Of course, Turkey has had consultations with US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. We had to put a roadmap (in place) as a result of these discussions and communications. We always believed that it was not appropriate to do so, but we were taking some steps and we have been waiting for the other party to take the same steps too, which was not the case. We had already experienced attacks from Syrian territory and shelling from there to Calais and our border areas, but the suicide attack that took place in Gaziantep aggravated the problem. Therefore, we were obliged to enter into Syria and collaborate with the moderate opposition. We also have consultations with the coalition forces as well as the various security services.

Khashoggi: Is the post-coup situation reassuring? And do you now have a complete vision of the putsch attempt, especially regarding the involvement of external powers?

Erdogan: Those who engineered the coup are well known to us. Undoubtedly, it is the Gulenist terror organization. In fact, it is no different from other organizations like the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The Gulenist Organization is even more dangerous as they were planning to seize control of the state and its major institutions. Perhaps they were hasty to choose the July 15 date as it helped aborting their attempt. They were trying to take over the armed forces, the judiciary, then the police forces, but we were ready for this. I have served as the country’s prime minister for 12 years and as a president for two years, not to mention my previous experiences in other state positions. So, we are familiar with the Gulen group members and their ideology. At the beginning, we did not expect them to be traitors. But later, we came to discover their true designs, especially after the judicial coup on Dec. 17 and Dec. 25, 2013. Then we started taking precautionary measures against them like listing them as a terrorist organization. We also contacted all countries to warn them against this organization after its leader, or the so-called imam, himself announced that his organization is operating in 170 countries. In this context, we are urging our Arab brothers not be deceived by this organization’s disguise as pursuers of education and commerce. Currently, we are dismissing its followers from public posts to guarantee the government’s and people’s security because those elements are like cancer cells that could spread in the whole body of the state if they are spared.

Khashoggi: Finally, do think that the Iraqi city of Mosul can be liberated without Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s involvement?

Erdogan: I would like to make clear here that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Western coalition will not allow sectarian dominance. If the goal is to liberate Mosul from Daesh, we should collaborate to achieve it. But the question is: Who will remain in the city after that? Of course, the Sunni Arabs, the Sunni Turkmen and the Sunni Kurds. Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi (the notorious Shiite militia) should not be allowed to enter Mosul. Turkey and Saudi Arabia specifically must cooperate to prevent their entrance. The federal government in Baghdad was not upset with Turkey when we established the Basheeqa camp and when our officers were training the Peshmerga. We will continue to provide training to Peshmerga forces and will not let down our brothers who are seeking our assistance. We will not leave Mosul to fall in the hands of another terror group after Daesh. I believe that Iran will be cautious regarding Mosul because Mosul is for the people of Mosul and Tal Afar is for the people of Tal Afar. Therefore, nobody else should be allowed to enter into these areas.

Khashoggi: Thank you, Mr. President.
Erdogan: Thank you and please send my regards to your viewers on my behalf and on the behalf of the Turkish people.