Turkey not making choice between Russia, US: Turkish FM

Turkey: Syria political transition to be goal in Geneva peace talks
Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu

‘Our goal is to bring political solution, peace in Syria,’ says Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu

Turkey is not taking sides between Russia and the U.S., Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday.

“We are not making a choice between Russia and America. We are also not making a choice between the [Bashar al-Assad] regime and America, France and Britain,” Cavusoglu told a crowd during the 5th ordinary congress of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party in Antalya’s Alanya district.

“Our goal is to bring a political solution to Syria, bring back peace and guarantee Syria’s stability, border and territorial unity; we are sincere on this issue,” he said.

Earlier on Saturday, Cavusoglu said the U.S.-led airstrikes was against the Assad regime that uses chemical weapons.

“We have to save Syria from this regime,” Cavusoglu said.

The U.S., U.K., and France jointly launched airstrikes on the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria earlier on Saturday.

The strikes came after the Assad regime was accused of carrying out a chemical attack in Syria’s Douma, which killed 78 civilians and injured hundreds of others.

Erdoğan discusses Syria with French, Russian leaders

In separate phone talks, Turkish president discuss US-led airstrikes on Syria, bilateral and regional issues

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Saturday spoke over the phone separately with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to presidential sources.

Erdogan discussed the U.S.-led airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria as well as bilateral and regional issues with the French and Russian leaders, said the sources on the condition of anonymity due to restrictions on talking to the media.

Erdogan highlighted the importance of working together with France and Russia to resolve Syrian crisis and importance of not escalating tensions in Syria, the sources added.

The French president shared information with Erdogan about the latest U.S.-led airstrikes on Syria.

Erdogan underlined that Assad regime’s attacks with both chemical and conventional weapons should end. He stressed that the political solution is necessary to bring peace in the country.

In their phone conversation, Erdogan and Putin confirmed resolution to continue joint effort to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis, and agreed to stay in close contact on bilateral and regional issues.

Earlier, the Turkish president also spoke with British Premier Theresa May.

The U.S., U.K., and France launched airstrikes on the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria earlier on Saturday.

The strikes came after the Assad regime was accused of carrying out a chemical attack in Syria’s Douma, which killed 78 civilians and injured hundreds of others.

NATO chief calls for providing more support to Turkey

Stoltenberg spoke to Anadolu Agency at NATO headquarters in Brussels ahead of his official visit to Turkey on April 16.

Commenting on a wide range of issues including the agenda of his visit, the Turkish-led Operation Olive Branch, the fight against terrorism, and Syria, Stoltenberg emphasized the importance of Turkey as a valuable strategic ally.

Below is a transcript of the AA conversation with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg:

– ‘Purpose of visit is to make preparation for Brussels summit’

Anadolu Agency: Mr. Secretary General, last time you visited Turkey was in September 2016, following the defeated coup attempt that July. What is the purpose of this visit? Who will you carry out official meetings with? What is the main message that you wish to convey to Turkish authorities?

Stoltenberg: The purpose is to prepare for the upcoming [NATO] summit in Brussels in July. I have visited Turkey many times since I became secretary general back in 2014. I will meet with President Erdogan, the defense minister, and the foreign minister.

I really look forward to my visit to Ankara because Turkey is a highly valued and key ally for many reasons, not just for its strategic location. This makes it important to sit down with Turkish leaders and discuss the preparations for the important summit where we will address issues like how we continue to adapt NATO to a more demanding security environment.

At the same time, we are now working on establishing a training mission in Iraq. We’re going to train Iraqi soldiers, help to build military academies and schools to help Iraqis stabilize their own country, fight terrorism and that is important for allies, including Turkey.

Q: Will Turkey be playing a special role with respect to the Iraqi training mission?

Stoltenberg: Turkey has been very supportive of the idea. Of course, Turkey is now part of the planning and decision-making process. I have discussed this before with Turkish authorities. It is too early to say what kind of role Turkey will play, but I hope that Turkey can contribute to the training activities.

– ‘I call on all allies to increase support to Turkey’

Q: The general perception of the Turkish public is that NATO doesn’t provide sufficient assistance to Turkey in the fight against terrorism. What does NATO actually do to contribute to Turkey in its fight against terrorism? What is NATO’s major contribution to Turkey as a military alliance?

Stoltenberg: We’re an alliance of 29 allies and we stand in solidarity, we support each other, and NATO stands in solidarity with Turkey. Turkey is important for NATO but NATO is also important for Turkey. The alliance is based on the core principle of “one for all and all for one.”

We provide support to Turkey. We have assurance measures, we have deployed missile batteries which are augmenting the missile air defenses of Turkey. We have Italy and Spain deploying Patriot batteries and also SAMP-T batteries, and we conduct surveillance flights with our AWACS planes over Turkey. We have also increased our naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. There are also other NATO activities, including infrastructure, exercises, and we have our land command in Izmir. There’s a lot of NATO presence in Turkey but I call on the allies to provide even more support.

We also provide political support, because Turkey is the NATO ally that has suffered the most from terrorist attacks. NATO immediately condemned the coup attempt that targeted Turkey’s democratic institutions.

– ‘Turkey plays key role in fight against Daesh’

Q: What is Turkey’s contribution to NATO?

Stoltenberg: Turkey contributes to our shared security and collective security in many ways. We are grateful for Turkish contributions to different NATO missions and operations, not the least, for instance, in Afghanistan and Kosovo.

The fact that Turkey provides infrastructure, air bases close to the border with Iraq and Syria has been key in the fight against Daesh. Turkey has played a significant role in the efforts of NATO allies and the global coalition against Daesh.

– ‘We welcome Turkey’s transparency’

Q: What is NATO’s approach to Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, northwestern Syria?

Stoltenberg: We’re part of the Global Coalition against Daesh, we provide support with AWACS but NATO isn’t present on the ground in northern Syria. Some NATO allies are. We’re aware that there are some challenges related to the situation in northern Syria and around Afrin. NATO has been a platform for direct dialogue between Turkey and the US. As NATO isn’t on the ground, we encourage dialogue between NATO allies present on the ground in and around Afrin.

We recognize Turkey’s legitimate security concerns, which we expect to be addressed in a proportionate and measured way. We all understand that Turkey has to address these threats.

We welcome that Turkey has been transparent and briefed NATO several times on the operation in Afrin, both the military operations and the humanitarian assistance.

– ‘All allies support Syria strikes ‘

Q: Secretary General, yesterday the North Atlantic Council met at NATO headquarters in Brussels to discuss the strikes in Syria. What was the purpose of the meeting and how can this military action in Syria be justified?

Stoltenberg: The United States, France and United Kingdom briefed allies on their joint military action in Syria. The three stressed that a significant body of information indicated that the Syrian regime was responsible for the horrendous chemical weapons attack against civilians in Douma. The allies made clear that their military action was limited to the Syrian regime’s facilities enabling the production and employment of chemical weapons.

They emphasized that there was no practicable alternative to the use of force, and all NATO allies expressed their full support for the action. NATO strongly condemns the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The strikes send a clear message that the international community will not stand by and tolerate the use of chemical weapons. NATO has consistently condemned Syria’s continued use of chemical weapons as a clear breach of international norms and agreements, and we call on those responsible to be held to account. The Alliance continues to follow developments very closely.

– ‘Buying S-400s is a national decision’

Q: As the war in Syria intensifies, Turkey is seeking to enhance its defense capacity in response to tension on its borders. How do you evaluate the reluctance of NATO allies to provide the required military weapons to Turkey at a time of heightened tension? In general, do you think the reluctance of NATO allies influences Turkey’s decision to obtain S-400 surface-to air missiles from Russia?

Stoltenberg: It is a national decision to acquire military equipment and capabilities and it is also a national decision to sell and to buy. So that is not decided by NATO, it is decided by allies.

I welcome the fact that Turkey has agreed with two NATO allies, Italy and France, in the EUROSAM consortium to start to develop missile and air defense systems. This is promising, it will also strengthen integration between NATO allies.

I’ve also seen reports that there are some contacts between Turkey and the U.S. on the possible acquisition of Patriot batteries. So, there are some contacts between Turkey and NATO allies on different types of air and missile defense systems.

– ‘NATO-EU cooperation should not create new barriers’

Q: The European Union has been taking steps to step up defense, whether it be with Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) or enhancing military mobility. You have also emphasized at different occasions that there is ample potential for cooperation between NATO and the EU. Do you foresee that non-EU allies, including Turkey, may be potentially subject to discrimination? If so, how would this influence NATO-EU cooperation? And how do you think this could be avoided?

Stoltenberg: I have welcomed increased EU efforts on defense because it can strengthen NATO, and the European pillar at NATO. But at the same time, I have underlined clearly that this has to be done in a transparent way, which includes as far as possible non-EU NATO allies and that capabilities developed under defense cooperation be available for NATO and its operations.

European leaders have clearly stated that this is not about creating an alternative to NATO. It is important that this is done in a way which does not create new barriers towards non-EU allies, such as Turkey. We have to remember that after Brexit, 80 percent of NATO’s defense expenditures will come from non-EU allies.

It isn’t possible to imagine the effective defense of Europe without non-EU countries. In the north you have countries like Norway, in the south you have Turkey, and in the west you have the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. So it’s obvious that a stronger EU defense is not an alternative to NATO.

– ‘Tension in Aegean should be resolved between Turkey, Greece’

Q: The tension between Turkey and Greece over the Aegean Sea continues to rise. There are reports that Greece has officially asked NATO to take a more active role in this context. What is NATO’s position on the rising tension between the two NATO allies?

Stoltenberg: Greece and Turkey are two highly valued NATO allies, they have been allies since 1952.

Both contribute to our collective defense. I expect that the differences we see on some issues are solved between Turkey and Greece in the spirit of good relations. In this context, I welcome that the PMs of both countries have recently held a phone conversation and that they have agreed to resolve these differences through dialogue.

Q: So, NATO does not foresee involvement?

Stoltenberg: No, it’s not an issue for NATO, this is something that has to be addressed between Turkey and Greece.

– ‘Dialogue with Russia is not easy, but necessary’

Q: NATO reacted to the poisoning of former Russian agent Skripal by withdrawing the accreditation of seven Russian diplomats while denying pending accreditation request for three others. Will NATO take additional steps?

Stoltenberg: This is the reaction we decided after the Salisbury attack as a proportionate and relevant response. We also reduced the ceiling to 20 from 30 diplomats. There are no further plans now. But, at the same time we will follow the situation and assess and do what is necessary.

Q: Staying with NATO-Russia relations, we know that NATO adopted a dual-track approach to its relations with Russia based on a balance between deterrence and dialogue. In light of recent developments, do you think this sensitive balance has been disrupted?

Stoltenberg: The dialogue with Russia is difficult but that is exactly why it is important. Russia will not go away, Russia will stay, it’s our neighbor. So, dialogue is partly about aspiring for a better relationship but also partly about managing the relationship we have. NATO remains open to maintain a meaningful dialogue with Russia.

– ‘NATO’s door is open’

Q: NATO has an open-door policy to enlargement. We know that Georgia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, and Macedonia are aspiring to become NATO members. Should we anticipate new NATO members in the near future?

Stoltenberg: NATO’s door is open and the best proof of that is we enlarged last year with Montenegro. We’re working with the Former Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia. We provide support to all three aspirant countries in different ways to help them move forward on the Euro-Atlantic aspirations. We help them with reforms, we help them with modernizing their defence and security structures, but it is too early to announce exact decisions.