Vice President and Rafik Hariri Center Director Francis J. Ricciardone joins Voice of America to discuss the domestic and international implications of the recent Turkish elections:

Summary Transcript:

Carol Castiel (CC) introduces and welcomes Alp Esmer (AE) of VOA Turkish service and Ambassador Francis Ricciardone (FR):

CC: We will talk to Ricciardone about domestic, regional, and international implications of Turkish elections, the strategy to defeat ISIS, and other issues.

Let’s talk about the Turkish Election results.  Many are hailing them as a victory for democracy. Because AKP did not get a majority of the seats, parliament is the most diverse it’s been in decades, and it curtails Erdogan’s power. I would like to get your take on the elections, how would you characterize them?

FR: I characterize the elections as a positive outcome for Turkish democracy.  In a true sense, everybody won in Turkey. The ruling party won seats from across the country, so in that sense, it did win. It set a high standard for itself in getting 2/3 of the votes, and in that sense it disappointed itself. The participation rate was phenomenal, with little to no systematic irregularities, and civil society rising to the occasion in the Vote and Beyond (English for ‘Oy ve Otesi’). Turks cared about their democracy, turned out in great numbers, and gave an exemplary accounting for themselves. The results show great diversity not only politically, but a greater representation of women in parliament than we even have in Congress and a greater representation of minorities. In all aspects, this is a very happy outcome for Turkish democracy.

CC: On the other hand, it also ushers in a greater period of uncertainty than there has been in quite some time. What do you say about those who are worried about instability or the possible inability of forming a coalition government that could lead to fresh elections?

FR: Uncertainty is not the same as instability. Democracies face political questions in their constitutional structures. The constitutional structure of Turkey is certain and stable, although it is under debate and the Turks may decide in the course of a new government to make changes there. Yet, even changes will happen in accordance with the rules. The rule of law in Turkey is stable. There is uncertainty (conflict in the region, questions at home about national identity, the Kurdish peace process, and economic issues). These are questions that are inherent in any democracy.  If you have a democracy that works according to the rules to debate them, you have a success. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be a degree of uncertainty or instability there, but it’s not the same as instability that will lead to violence or breakdown of the state.

AE: Mr. Ambassador, I’d like to bring you to the freedoms issue. First of all, the government of AKP during their 12 ruling years started off very well in instituting reforms. As an Ambassador in Turkey you were more vocal about press freedoms and personal freedoms and were accused of meddling in Turkish domestic affairs eventually. Are you more hopeful about the political future (of Turkey) as far as those freedoms are concerned? 

FR: Yes, I am. Partly for the reasons I just mentioned. (The elections) were a very successful example of democracy.  There is greater representation than previously of the opposition parties. In a real sense, having a coalition means the opposition and the governing party are going to have to come to terms within their roles.  The role of media will be as vital as ever.  Parliamentary debates have been very lively and well covered, and Turks are watching in fascination these very days as they voted this past week on a new speaker and as the party chiefs negotiate to form coalitions. The role of the media is absolutely vital and Turks are glued to their main sources of information, including social media.

CC: Ambassador Ricciardone, you mentioned that there is a lot to deal with internally in Turkey as a result of the elections, but certainly there’s conflict and crisis in the region, and there is the Kurdish peace process. How do you think the election results will effect Turkey’s efforts in the region? Particularly as it tries to combat ISIL with the coalition. We also know that President Erdogan is determined to combat the most barbaric regime on his border, that of Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

FR: In crisis, there can also be opportunity. The dynamics of a situation can be reshuffled and re-openings can happen where new combinations of forces can result.  In the case of coalition politics that are lying in front of Turkey, possibly even a second set of elections, there will be a lot of focus on internal affairs. But that very focus on internal politics will also bring with it public attention to the big issues in foreign policy which very much include the civil war in Syria, the confrontation with Daesh, the role of the Kurds and resonance with the PKK, and the Iraqi Kurds.  All of that will get a lot of public examination that might not lead to rapid decisions but will lead to well informed ones that the Turkish government will feel confident in pursuing. Democracies are slow at times to come to decisions because public consensus has to be developed. It is certainly going to be the case in a period of coalition politics. With respect to conflicts raging around Turkey, in particular Daesh and the role of the different communities within Syria, it has put into sharper view than ever the powerful strategic national security interests of Turkey, US, and allies. I believe we want the same things. We want a secure Turkish border with Syria, for Syria to emerge from its civil war intact, and for all of the various communities, not just the Arab and Turkmen, the Christians, Druze, Kurds to live together in a united Syria. There is no daylight between the US and Turkey on that, from the statements of Turkish leaders, American officials.

CC: However, Mr. Ambassador, I think there is a bit of daylight on one particular issue and that is the cooperation between the US-led coalition combating ISIS and the Syrian Kurdish YPG. We’ve read in recent days about how the Syrian Kurds have become a significant US ally in the fight against Daesh. However, Ankara is upset about this development. President Erdogan feels threatened by the growing power of the Syrian Kurds and sees them as dangerous, if not more dangerous than ISIL.  What do you say to that?

FR: You would have to ask President Erdogan why he emphasizes the differences because the Turks (that I worked with) and the US government worked together with explicit common objectives. US officials emphasize the common purposes in defeating Daesh.  Turkish officials I knew and am still in touch with also emphasize the threat that Daesh and Al-Qaeda pose to Turkey.  I don’t understand why Erdogan emphasizes the differences and I think that it is something that he needs to explain to his people. I believe the Kurds have shown that they are very strongly opposed and committed to defending themselves and the area they live in from the attacks that Daesh poses on them.   

CC: Turkey is considering a buffer, security zone within Syrian territory to neutralize the threat against its borders. What about President Erdogan’s suggestion that we need to combat Assad’s barbarity in the dropping of barrel bombs on his own civilian population as much as fighting ISIL in a “two-front war”?

FR: Honestly, Erdogan is absolutely right. We need to do whatever we can from the outside to help the Syrians defend themselves against the barbaric attacks of Assad and we should do all we reasonably can to support that. On the question of the buffer zone, there is not enough detailed discussion. When you put out the phrase buffer zone, it’s easy to see all of the problems, risks, and costs of that. Secretary Kerry spoke very clearly on this issue the other day, showing the American government is not prepared at this time to support it. My view is that we really need to understand what the Turks are talking about here. If we are talking about areas in Syria where the Syrian people can establish safe places to live from Daesh, that is exactly what the US is trying to do, in working with local groups to protect them and keep them safe from other marauding groups, Daesh, or from the Syrian regime. That’s also what the United States is trying to do in equipping and training Syrian opposition forces. We need more clarity on what the Turkish government means when it says we should support a “no-fly zone” or a “secure zone”.  In a certain way, we’re doing elements of such a concept now. Obviously not satisfactory from a Turkish perspective and the kind of thing that diplomats and allied officers can work on.

CC: [Introduces FR again] And now a question from Alp.

AE: My question will be on the domestic issue but is very much related to the Syrian crisis. In the current Kobani clashes, the Kurds have felt alienated against the AKP government. Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu have left the issue of the Kurdish peace process. Whatever coalition that will be formed in Turkey is not eager about the peace process. How important is solving the Kurdish issue and do you see any future in it with the current political crisis in Turkey?

FR: I would use a different term for the issue. Looking at it as not so much the Kurdish issue, but as the democracy issue is vitally important for any society to solve and certainly for Turkey to do so. A society that has protections in place so that all citizens feel, no matter what their gender or ethnicity or religious beliefs, that they stand equal before the law. That’s what I see the struggle to be about within Turkey. Turkey has come a long way in securing all those things. I see Turks continuing that conversation on individual levels, within civil society, in the media, parliament, and political parties and I don’t think that’s over yet. The peace process may be suspended, it’s been very strident in recent times, but it isn’t over. Turks want to advance it and want to come to terms. Kurdish citizens of Turkey and Turkish citizens need each other and are intertwined. I believe the other Kurds of the region, the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, their futures very much depend on having a positive relationship with the republic of Turkey.

CC: Mr. Ambassador, I want to take you to a larger question concerning Daesh. We witnessed recently a string of attacks, in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France that have been attributed to Daesh.  How would you personally evaluate the US strategy so far? It seems to be very heavy on military efforts, but most regional observers say that the counterinsurgency, particularly in Iraq, requires much more than guns. It requires that the Prime Minister do more to reach out to Iraq’s Sunni community to address corruption in the military. Perhaps even jumpstart the formation of a Sunni national guard. What is your overall assessment of the US Strategy?

FR: The President has said we don’t have a complete strategy and he was speaking fact. My perspective is that what we are observing is a crisis of the regional order due to the failure of legitimacy of states in the post-Ottoman region. When WWI happened, it turned the world upside down for so many different people in that region. There was an order of governance that people understood. Whether it was good or bad or corrupt or benevolent, everyone understood the order of the world or the Ottoman world at least. When that was gone, and another order was imposed from outside rather than generated from within, that order more or less functioned through the rest of the 20th century but failed in many countries-Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen.  Palestine is still struggling to become a legitimate state. Legitimate in the eyes of its own people, legitimate in the eyes of the world. So that’s the big problem. At the Atlantic Council, we have a project that is co-chaired by a Republican, Steve Hadley, former National Security Advisor under President Bush and a Democrat, Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, to overcome the partisan issues in our politics as we look at this problem. We are breaking out the problem into several different aspects. The Security piece is one. There is an important military, law enforcement, and intelligence component that is vitally important.  We will have to collaborate to defeat Daesh that way. But the problem is that that would only defeat Daesh. There is a massive humanitarian catastrophe and we cannot turn our backs on the millions of people that are displaced across national borders. Turkey has shown exemplary generosity and compassion in hosting 2 million. But the Jordanians, the Lebanese, the Iraqis, are also hosting Syrians that are displaced from their country. So the second aspect is humanitarian. The third aspect is the role of religion in regenerating legitimate states and countering fanaticism and violence. A fourth aspect is governance.  It doesn’t have to be democracy. There are states that exist to serve and protect their people, and enable them to have economic activity and live in dignity. So governance is a fourth aspect that we and others in the region will have to work on.  Finally, economic regeneration and activity. It’s how to move from subsistence and even criminal activity to legitimate pro-growth activity that will provide jobs for a generation of people. Those five areas are the components that we need to address within a strategy and I’m very pleased that the Atlantic Council is leading a bi-partisan effort, not only in the United States but with friends in the region and Turkey, the Arab world, and Europe.

CC: Is the administration listening?

FR:The administration is involved in this conversation, we are in touch with administration officials, and we hope the future administration is listening.  We’re in touch with advisors to the declared and expected presidential candidates. We hope that this Atlantic Council project will inform the presidential debates over the next year.

CC: There is now a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government vis a vis its Sunni community and Iran backing the Shia-led government in Iraq. Which isn’t to say that the Iraqi Prime Minister isn’t doing his best to reach out to the Sunnis. But what about these underlying political problems that many say need to be addressed if the humanitarian catastrophe is ultimately addressed. Do you think that enough pressure is being applied, whether in Iraq, addressing Sunni grievances, which, to some extent, have led to the growth of Daesh?

FR: I don’t know if it’s a matter of pressure; it’s extreme pressure and in some cases outright violence. The problem of sectarianism is that there are limits on what we, from the outside, can do. It does need to be resolved from within the world of Islam. But I hope we on the outside can help in providing safe spaces for conflict negotiation and efforts. People tend to look to and trust the United States and in that way we may be able to play a role to provide a safe space for Shiites and Sunnis to live together and show that it can be done. And not only Shiites and Sunnis but Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Jews, Buddhists and everyone else. I hope the outcome of this conflict is going to be a situation in which states work together. If there is a deal between Iran and P5+1, where Iran becomes a member of the community of nations, perhaps Iran can help work on the problem instead of contributing to it.

CC: Of course pessimists would say, if a deal was struck, Iran may come into a lot financial support that they can then steer into their nefarious activities in the region, supporting the Assad regime, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and fueling the sectarian divide between Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf allies and Iran.  

FR: It’s true. If Iran continues on a hegemonistic course, and contributed additional resources to that, it would be dreadful and would only make things worse. I believe the machinery is in place to keep up the pressures, diplomatic pressures to contain, channel, prevent, and mitigate hegemonistic behavior on the part of Iran or any single player in the region.

AE: Is it only Iran contributing to the sectarianism in the region or are there any other countries that are trying to put fuel into the sectarian conflict in region?

FR: Well clearly there is a non-state actor doing exactly that and its one that dares to call itself a state, ISIS.  Beyond that I believe that there are sectors or elements of states that teach sectarianism or “otherization” and hate.  Some dare to do this in the name of religion. I don’t consider that enlightened. It stands against the rules-based order which promotes human rights.  If everyone would take another look at the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and live and teach to that, perhaps we could mitigate some of this horrible sectarianism that states and non-state actors are promoting.

CC: Do you have any state in mind?

FR: Any state that has public instruction that doesn’t emphasize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that teaches otherization, that stresses the superiority of this sect over another would fit that category. I’m not expert enough to know what different ones are doing but we can all guess from the political discourse on certain things which ones are more culpable.

CC: As we close, I wanted to go back to Turkey’s desire to eventually accede to the European Union.  I’d like to know where these talks stand particularly in light of Greece’s default. Some members of the European Union may be wondering why they didn’t accelerate talks with Turkey, which is still in a much better place than Greece.

FR: There are a lot of bad feelings on both sides. Turkish politics had taken a nationalistic turn and there have been terrible disappointments on both sides, both Turkish and European Union, over the past several years.  It remains the official policy of the Turkish government to work for accession with great sobriety about when that might happen and under what terms and conditions. One driver of this is the United States’ negotiation with the European Union about a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that is of great concern to Turkey and is putting pressure on Turkey. That may be an incentive for Turkey to fully accede to the European Union.  But there is a lot that Turkey has to do.

CC: Quickly before I go, Alp, what is your sense of the Turkish electorate, where do they stand vis a vis accession to the EU, is there a popular sentiment in favor still?

AE: We were very much disappointed but public opinion polls have increased a little bit towards the EU. But you can truly see the disappointment among the Turkish electorate about how promises were turned away and frustration towards Europe for turning its back on Turkey. Mr. Ambassador you’ve served in Turkey 3 times over a 20 year period, can you really tell that Turkey has westernized or has it moved backwards?

FR: Turkey has come a long way forwards. I don’t see any moving backwards on the part of Turkey. The pace of change accelerates or slows down, but the direction has stayed constant. It has moved towards greater education, greater prosperity, and much stronger institutions of democracy. The fact that civil society is strong enough to organize poll-watching wasn’t there in the past.  There was Turkish participation in this election, no one pays a fine for not voting, their were hearts dedicated to democracy. I’m very optimistic about Turkey’s future. There is great seriousness in parliamentary debate. There are fundamental, very well informed public debate on the constitution, identity of Turkish citizens, how to protect the rights of the citizen versus the state. Not how to strengthen the state against the citizens. It is more about the duties of the state to the citizen. There is a lot of very mature discourse. Of course, there is a lot of immature discourse and anger and screaming that’s always been there. Hopefully that will improve too.

CC: Thanks, Ambassador Ricciardone.

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