Interview with Turkish Ambassador to Spain, Mr Ömer Önhon.
The interview took place at Madrid a week before June 24, 2018 Turkey general elections.
Thank you very much for your attention, Mr. Ambassador.
Your vision, your opinion and Turkey in general is a matter of great interest but with an opaque veil in the Western media.
To this day there are many controversies coming from Brussels, conflicts with the EU nature. There is a lot of reluctance from several countries regarding the loss of sovereignty, reticence with economic issues, immigration issues ... and Turkey still wants to join the EU. Is not Turkey afraid of losing sovereignty by joining the EU?
Turkey has been trying to become a member of the EU for many years, since before it was the EU, since 1973. We have trade agreements with the EU embryo since then. Since 2005 we have been admitted as candidates and have entered into negotiations to achieve this goal, unfortunately since 2005 until now we have not managed to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion. It is very frustrating for Turkey. Even so, in general terms, entry into the EU still being a strategic objective for Turkey, we want to be a member of the EU. Even in spite of the small differences in opinions in minutiae, when you enlarge the dimension, we believe that joining the EU will benefit Turkey and the EU. That is why we will continue with our ambition to enter the EU. Anyway, there are issues that frustrate us a little, for example, Croatia ran as a candidate in 2005 as well, they are already members for years now; we continue negotiating specific points. The question is why? And the answer should come from the EU, because we have been told that Turkey is very large, but we have always been a very large country in terms of population and more variables, I mean we were not a country of ten million inhabitants when we were accepted as a candidate and in this time we have grown to what we are now. The EU made a political commitment to the same country that we are now. We are the same country that according to the EU met the requirements to be a candidate. Now there are several countries in its midst trying to make Turkey not a member of the EU. It is a sad situation, but we will continue in the same direction in order to be a member state. We know that the EU is in the process of redrawing, reforming, but again in a broader dimension, Turkey is part of that space. Turkey cannot be excluded from the European political space. Doing that is a mistake in terms of geopolitics and in terms of International Relations, as well as erroneous in other areas. Therefore, we will continue in the direction of being a member of the EU.
Greece is within the EU. It is a country that has somewhat tense bilateral relations with Turkey. In fact, Greece has just released several soldiers involved in the coup d'état against Erdogan, even though they are being claimed by Turkey. How do you expect relations with Greece will be if Turkey joins the EU?
Greece is a neighbouring country. And Greece is a member country of NATO. Greece always claims that it is supporting Turkey to be a member of the EU. But some of the policies they develop are quite unproductive and unfriendly. The last issue was to set free the eight officers involved in the attempt to coup d'etat. These officers escaped to Greece, and Greece brought them to justice, they should have returned them to Turkey; they were officers involved in an attempted coup d'etat, nothing less! The Greeks not only did not return them, but they freed them and they will give them the right to reside in Greece. It is a very unfriendly gesture and also goes against all their international obligations. It can be clearly said; Greece has not fulfilled its international obligations. Of course, we cannot see this as a friendly act.
Does Turkey comply with all its international obligations?
Turkey complies with all its international obligations. If the UN, the Security Council, takes any decision on any country, Turkey complies with what Security Council demands. If a person breaks the obligations of the UN resolutions, he can be brought before any justice court in Turkey, regardless of whether they are Turkish or not, because the law is the law. But if there are countries that make embargoes on other countries, this involves nothing more than these two countries, it is not an international law that forces us to get involved with one or the other involved country.
There are several tensions, several conflicts, several concerns that people have in relation to Turkey's joining the EU. One of them is the Islamization of Europe. There are reliable voices standing that there is a plan to remove Christianity from European public life, and replace it with Islam. Which is Turkey's opinion about that?
I find that ridiculous idea. It is an idea maintained by groups that are extremely radical, very Islamophobic, very racist groups. I do not think you have to take those groups seriously. They are groups that if they are given pabulum can be a problem for international harmony. How can Islam expel Christianity? It's possible? It is not even possible. That idea tries to create fear in the minds and hearts of the population. These groups try to create Islam as an enemy, they try to create a clash of civilizations, a clash of beliefs. We are very much against this type of thinking that is brewing in Europe; It is not a vision of the world that is very different from the one that ISIS wants to impose on us. They are the same thing. Today in Europe there are more than twenty-five million European citizens who are Muslims. What do we do with them? We are concerned about this kind of ideas because we are committed to harmony and understanding between different cultures and religions. That is what we should promote. We must be strong against religious intolerance, regardless of where it comes from; Islamophobia, anti-Semitism ... all these social diseases have to be rejected.
Another concern that people have is the migratory weight that Turkey can have in the EU. Do you think that by entering the EU there can be large migrations to the member countries?
In fact, it may be the opposite. There was an immigration from Turkey to Europe in the 60s and 70s, because Germany and other countries after Second World War needed workers for their industrial complex. And there were people who went from Turkey. At that time Turkey was a underdeveloped country in economic terms, for that reason many people went abroad to live. But now Turkey is a country with one of the strongest economies in the world, with a dynamic economy, it is a developed country, people do not go away; There is full employment. The fear of a Turks massive migration to Europe is not a realistic vision with this new Turkey. We are part of the European economic region, we are part of its business region, the movement of Turkish people between Europe and Turkey is done within this framework of relationship.
Turkey has another special relationship with NATO, as always with NATO, seems that this is a relationship that overlaps with the relationship of NATO members with the US. To what extent is this true in relation to Turkey?
Not at all in the Turkish case. Turkey and the USA are NATO. We are members of NATO since 1952, we are one of the most important countries in NATO. We are a country on the NATO border, and we have the second largest army within NATO. Turkey has always been a country faithful to NATO, and we will continue to be a member country. Of course, we have disagreements on security issues, as well as on other matters, with member countries, but that also happens to other countries in the organization, but those disagreements are discussed and solutions are found.
There is a conflict in reference to a country that is not a member of NATO, but somehow always ends up involved in drills and exercises with the members of the organization. I speak of Israel. There were legitimate protests from Turkey against these joint drills. How are these tensions at this moment?
There are exercises and drills in which non-member countries are part of them. Israel was taking part in the exercises within the framework of cooperation in the Mediterranean. We opposed at first due to other issues, but the tension has passed. Turkey was the first Muslim country, and one of the first countries in the world to recognize the state of Israel. As you know Turkey was before the Ottoman Empire, it was the place where the Jews fled when they were expelled, like from Spain in 1492, for example. Turkey has always been very receptive to Jewish confession people. There is no anti-Semitism in Turkey, there is no conflict with the issue of Jewish confession or with the State of Israel. What we have a problem with is Israel's policies in relation to the Palestinians. We think that the Palestinian problem is the main problem in the Middle East. And we think that the solution lies in the creation of two states, as everyone seems to recognize. East Jerusalem must be the capital of Palestine. But Israel with its policies on Palestine dissociates itself from this implicit international agreement. The transfer of embassies to Jerusalem is a great provocation for peace, it is a threat to peace, and this policy endangers the peace processes, endangers the Palestinians, jeopardizes the Israelites, endangers stability, both in the region as outside the region. That is what we oppose. We see the Israeli Government's policies counterproductive to stability and peace.
In relation to the US, this country has made trade bans with Iran, and has imposed sanctions on countries that negotiate with the Persian country. They have prosecuted a Turkish businessman in the US for conducting business with Iran. How are they going to Is this an illegal measure?
As I have said, the restrictions that the US has imposed and brought to court are unilateral measures by the United States. All other countries, including of course Turkey, are involved with the resolutions of the UN Security Council. Unilateral sanctions involve the country itself, not the others. It's what I can tell you on that subject. I think it is an illegal act to involve other countries in unilateral sanctions.
There is a commercial flow that has led Turkey to buy S-400 missiles from Russia, and it seems that it comes from commercial tensions with the US in this same matter, in the purchase of fighter jets F-35 Is this a mismatch of relations with NATO or with the bilateral relationship with the US?
Nothing to do with NATO. The secretary general of the organization has made a statement saying that buying the S-400 missiles is not a problem for NATO, apart from being a decision that the country can take on its own, it has nothing to do with NATO, apart from we had said that we were not going to integrate this missile system into the NATO missile system. The purchase of the S-400 missiles arises from Turkey defensive needs. We previously asked the US, but we could not get that from them, in addition the conditions provided by the Russians were much better. We opted for the best option. In the background is that we were going to buy weapons from the Americans with our money, and everything was wrong for them; "you cannot do this" "you cannot do the other", then it is when you make the decision to acquire your needs from the source that offers the best agreement, the best qualities and best guarantees. That's why we acquired them from Russia.
There are several programs within Turkey related to the development of the military industry in the country. Rolls Royce is currently working with the Turkish Ministry of Defense to build the first Turkish fighter aircraft When do you expect this jet fighter to be ready?
I do not know the details of the project, but it is true that Turkey has been quite active in recent years in developing its defense industry. We have many agreements and many conversations about this with many countries and with the EU. This jet fighter project is one of them, but I do not know the details in relation to developments, deliveries or characteristics of the project.
Also, in relation to the USA, it seems that there have been agreements to fight against the Kurdish movement on the border. How was reached this agreement?
Well, the first thing I have to say is that we do not have a fight against the Kurds.
Against the PKK
It is very different. Turkey does not fight with the Kurds; the Kurds are a part of Turkey. I want to say that there are many Kurds who are our citizens, many others are Syrian citizens, or Iraqis. We have no problem with having Kurdish citizens in Turkey; We have problems with an organization that wants to take territory from Turkey and that is fighting against Turkey. And this organization is doing it with terror tools. This organization is called PKK, and YPG as a branch of the PKK. It is not the Kurdish people, it is a concrete organization. And yes, we have reached an agreement with the Americans. Our foreign minister was in Washington a few months ago, met with Mr. Pompeo, and reached an agreement whereby the YPG should leave various areas, and the administration of these Areas should be assigned to local councils formed by natives. We hope that these measures are completed in the coming months.
In order to make this agreement work Turkey has crossed the Syrian border, as this has been done in Afrin, and a few weeks ago it seems that it has entered Iraq too ...
Yes, we are in contact with the people of Iraq, with the Government of Iraq, because there is a mountain range, Qandil, where the PKK has set up its base from which they launch their attacks against Turkey. Our security forces are developing operations, in consultation with the countries involved, to clean up these areas of these terrorist organizations. This was also the case of Afrin, which was controlled by the PKK or YPG, and they were attacking Turkey, and we cleared that area, we started it a year before entering Afrin, we called it Euphrates operation, under which Turkish forces entered in Syria and cleaned out that area of ISIS.
Then the Turkish forces will leave the areas when the situation ends, when the terrain of terrorists is clean ...
Of course; Our army is not there to occupy land. We are not there to alter the territorial integrity of Syria, on the contrary, we are defending the territorial integrity of Syria, because the YPG wants to have its own territory at the expense of the Syrian country.
How does Turkey see the idea of the US, and others Western countries, giving weapons to ISIS, and then giving weapons to the YPG to fight ISIS? It seems that in the end no one knows where the weapons come from or who is fighting against whom ...
It's horrible. When there is a country occupied and there are hands of several actors in the country, unfortunately, everything seems to be mixed. Our desire is that political stability returns to Syria, and that the Syrian people find a system by which they can effectively govern the country. We hope that soon Syria will fully recover its borders and to be a stable country. Because as long as there is instability in Syria, it will not only affect this country, but the entire region, all of us.
How were relations with Syria before the conflict?
Very good, excellent, and I can assure you; I have been an ambassador to Syria. We had very good relations, but when the regime began to kill its own citizens, ignoring the legitimate demands of the population, and also using force, we cut off relations.
I was talking to the Syrian ambassador and he told me that the armed groups Fighting against Al Assad were financed by Qatar and trained in Turkey before being sent to fight in Syria. It seems that they had a lot of documentation about it. How many armed groups fighting against Al Assad are there with Turkish support? What logistics does Turkey provide?
Turkey does not support these groups, does not support them, but there are many Syrians in Turkey who oppose the Al Assad regime. The fact is that it has been Al Assad regime that has pushed these people to take up arms against him. Al Assad took jihadists out of jail and gave them weapons so they could say "look; we are not fighting against the population, we are fighting against terrorists. " The next time you see the Syrian ambassador, ask him how many jihadists he released from the Sednaya prison to put on the ground. The Syrian regime has made a big mistake; they have tried to silence the demands of the people by force, and doing that have destroyed their own country. And now they are blaming other people, and yes, there are many parts to blame, but I think the main fault lies with the Al Assad regime.
Now there are Turkish-Syrian forces opposed to the regime in Turkey. What is the relationship of the Turkish government with these forces?
We have relationships with people living on the border, with many groups on the border, with local councils ... But not only Turks; On the border we have people of Turkish ethnic origin, there are Arabs, there are Kurds, there are Assyrians, there are Armenians, and we have good relations with all of them. We support them in the local councils, the fact is that people talk about Turkey giving weapons, Turkey training armed groups ... but nobody talks about that Turkey is giving food to these people living in the border, nobody talks about the medicines that these people receive. No one talks about the infrastructure we are building, no one talks about humanitarian assistance ... for seven years we have taken care of four million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Add to that the millions of people living on the Syrian border who have been surviving thanks to the assistance that came to them from Turkey.
Yes, I have read that 65% of Syrian refugee children in Turkey are going to class normally, leading a normal life ...
Of course; they go to school, they go to hospitals, and all for free. We do not charge anything. The numbers are incredible; Syrian children born in Turkey amount to three hundred thousand.
These organizations are following their own agenda, and their own agenda is to create a Kurdish state in the field, they control their own administration. In order to achieve this, on one side they are negotiating with the Al Assad regime, on the other side, they are negotiating with ISIS, on the other side with the Americans, on the other side, they negotiate with the Russians; They are politically promiscuous.
A complex situation! On another issue; there are voices, and data, that say that NATO (at US request), is surrounding Russia. There are maps showing the bases of NATO surrounding Russia. Turkey is also Russia's neighbour How does being a member of NATO affect relations with Russia?
I do not think we should mix our NATO membership with our relations with Russia. We are committed to our agreements with NATO, we will do what we have to do as a NATO member country. But on the other hand, Russia is a neighbouring country; We get almost half of our natural resources from Russia, we have large trade agreements with Russia. There are many Russian tourists who come to Turkey every year, we have bilateral relations of great importance. We also have a relationship, fruitful one could say, with Russia in Syria in order to bring stability to this country again. But these good relations I have told you do not mean that we agree with Russia in all affairs, in fact, we have multiple issues in which we disagree with Russia. For example, we are totally against the annexation of Crimea by Russia, in fact, we do not recognize this annexation. For us Crimea belongs to Ukraine. There are many issues in which we do not agree, but it does not mean that we are not going to coincide in others that we have as good neighbours. Spain also has good relations with Russia, excellent relations, and it is a member country of NATO, the same with Greece and many other countries of the EU. In fact, if we look at the trade indices of some EU countries with Russia, we see that trade has increased with Russia during the years of sanctions to other countries. Let's be serious; our relations with Russia are relations with an important neighbouring country.
Recently Gazprom has signed agreements with the Turkish state in reference to gas transport, succulent discounts are established in the provision of gas to Turkey in exchange for the Russian gas passing through pipelines until Europe crossing the country, will this agreement strengthen relations between the two countries?
Of course, this is one of the great projects that the two countries are undertaking. Even more so when one part of the project is for the Turkish market and another part for the European market. The natural gas will pass through Turkey to go to Europe. It is a bilateral project that will be beneficial for many more parties.
What other important agreements do you have with Russia in these terms?
At this moment we are developing atomic power plants in the country and one of the plants is built entirely by the Russians.
Polarization in the region increase…What will be the Turkish policy in relation to Russia?
Turkey is a member of NATO. And the position of Turkey will be set by the UN Security Council. These are our guidelines for international relations.
In reference to the entry into Afrin, in Syria, it is assumed that there was prior agreement with the Russians, what was the agreement like?
It is correct to assume that Turkey had contacts with all the major players on stage. Turkey announced to these actors its intentions to enter Syria to maintain its internal security. These contacts are necessary in order to prevent accidents. When there are several actors on stage, it is prudent to announce what your movements are going to be and what plans to take. In that sense I am sure that Turkey made contact with all the main actors.
There are voices that suggest that the agreement involved the replacement of the Kurdish population by Arab population in the city of Afrin ...
Not at all. Unlike; The YGP has tried to do ethnic cleansing by taking ethnic Turks out of the city and leading there their own people. These Kurdish groups always try to blame Turkey for everything, even for what they themselves do. In the end it is they who are doing the ethnic cleansing.
There is another important actor in the region, it is Iran. How are Turkish relations with this country?
Iran is another neighbouring country. We have good relations with Iran even though it is not an easy neighbour. There are many issues with which we disagree with them, but that is why we do not believe it is right to marginalize the country and leave it in a corner. For example, we believe that it was a mistake Americans to stop the Nuclear Agreement. It was a complex agreement, but it was an agreement, and an agreement is better than a disagreement. There is no perfect agreement in the world. Turkey is willing to continue with the Nuclear Agreement, and to try to bring Iran to the international community again.
Do you think there is a proxy war against Iran in Syria?
There is a proxi-war against all. It cannot be guaranteed that it is against a specific part, but that we believe that the war in Syria is a proxi war, which is very dangerous.
With the Plan of Action, with the Nuclear Agreement, there were many countries that started to have good relations with Iran. What positive aspects did Turkey find in the relationship with Iran after this agreement?
Regarding the relationship has nothing changed, is the same. Anyway, as I said, the main line of our foreign policy with other countries is marked by the Security Council of the UN, not by unilateral decisions. Outside of that we are a sovereign country that can conduct its relations with other countries as best suits our preferences, at least until the Security Council tells us what to do or not to do it.
Recently, and based on the Palestinian conflict, Turkey has appealed to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. As always it seems that no decisions have been reach, but there has been a lot of ink on paper. What reasons prevent joint decisions in this issue?
I do not have the answer to that. Turkey is a member of the OIC too, we were the meeting organizers this time. After the Palestinian crisis made a call and organized it. Everything was prepared in just two days. The member countries came, we did what we had to do. A joint statement was made, but how to implement the content of the statement was a matter for each state how to do it. It is assumed that when you put something on paper and agree to accept it, it must be like that, but in the end the final responsibility lies with the states.
When the US decided to move its Tel Avid embassy to Jerusalem, Turkey appealed to the international community to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Nobody did, is Turkey willing to do it?
Of course, but the international community anyway does implicitly recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. It is a matter of substance in the peace agreement. What the US has done is to go backwards, and it has done so by paying attention to the current Government of Israel.
Finishing. we want to review relations with another neighbouring country of Turkey, I am talking about China. This country has a huge global project; one belt, one road. How has Turkey been involved with China in this global project?
Well, Turkey is in the old historic path called the "Silk Road". We are in the most important territory that unites the east with the west. For months we completed a project that consisted of a train line from Baqú to Tifris to Qaas. All these projects are basic to unite east and west in commercial terms, widening the commercial spectrum. On the other hand, not long ago we opened an underwater tunnel that crosses the Bosphorus strait joining the two continents. Turkey is a central element in the trajectory that unites the east and the west. It is really an important element in the trajectory.
There is another issue with China, is the region with which they share a border, for China Xi Yang, for Turkey East Turkestan. How is the relationship with the inhabitants of that region?
The inhabitants of that region are the Uyghurs, Uighur Turks. And they speak Turkish just like me. There are between twelve and thirteen million Uyghurs, we have many of them living in Turkey, since they emigrated to Turkey some time ago. Of course, we defend the territorial integrity of China, but this population is ethnically equal to us. We hope that they will live as good citizens of China, within the territory and the legal framework of China, but they should have some special agreement in that country.
There are voices suggesting that members of the Uyghur population are going to fight to Syria. Those voices say that they leave China to Thailand, that in Thailand they receive Turkish consular assistance, and that with Turkish documentation they end up entering Syria. Is it true what these voices are claiming, Has Turkey given documentation to members of this region China?
I do not know, but I really doubt it. There's no point in getting involved in such an affair. That there are Uighurs fighting in Syria of course, but that they have received consular assistance, I see it as implausible. There have been family reunifications in countries where heads of family had been established, then they took women and children, but that has been done under the legal framework of humanitarian assistance and the immigration laws of each country. It is very different from giving assistance to Uyghurs to go to fight in Syria. In fact, it is the first information that comes to me in this regard.
Ambassador, thank you very much for your attention. It has been a real journey through Turkey's international relations.