Erdogan questions why U.S. has armed Syrian Kurdish 'terrorists,' disputes claims of dictatorship
JUDY WOODRUFF: Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led Turkey since 2003, first as prime minister, and since 2014 as president, an office he has remade into the nation's preeminent leader.
Turkey has been an ally of the U.S. for decades, but that alliance is now tense. A main source of division, U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, and its related organization, the PYD, which the U.S. is helping fight ISIS in Syria.
Both groups are allies of Erdogan's sworn enemy in Turkey, the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group. There are also concerns about the state of Turkish democracy, in the wake of last year's coup attempt. Erdogan says the FETO organization orchestrated it. That's his term for a group run by a former ally, Fethullah Gulen. He lives in Pennsylvania, another source of tension with the U.S.
Erdogan spoke today at the U.N., and he will meet President Trump on Thursday.
I sat down late yesterday afternoon with him in New York for an exclusive interview.
President Erdogan, thank you very much for talking with us.
You're here to speak to the United Nations and to an American audience.
What should the American people know about the state of Turkey-United States relations right now?
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey (through interpreter): Of course, Turkey's relations with the United States date back to a long time in history.
We have been enjoying very serious relations throughout history within the framework of this strategic partnership. And all throughout the years, this process successfully sustained our strategic partnership, peaking within NATO.
We are together. We're allies within NATO. And Turkey is one of the founding members of NATO. And the strategic partnership was then converted into a model partnership. And we have been enjoying the cooperation in that regard.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I ask this because there is some tension in the relationship right now. Just today, it's reported that the Trump administration has decided not to allow the sale of guns and other weapons to your presidential guards.
Is this a problem? What does it say about the relationship between Turkey and the U.S.?
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): This is a question that I will be talking about when I get together with President Trump on the 21st, and these are all rumors. There are no statements. And these rumors are not very healthy rumors.
I just want to address the audience and state the following openly. In Syria, the PYD terrorist organization is present, and the YPG is there as well. And they are extensions of the PKK separatist organization in Turkey. And we are all fighting these extensions of the PKK.
I know that the United States officially recognized the PKK as a terrorist organization. However, as long as that is the case, the PYD or YPG, which are extensions of the PKK, I don't think it is the right move to fight Da'esh in Raqqa with those groups. That fight can be conducted with us.
But I think it's wrong for the United States to fight terrorism with the YPG or PYD. This is something I have shared with the higher echelons of the United States. We need the fight these terrorists with the United States. And we are not able to acquire those weapons from the United States. Why are you giving weapons to those terrorists, is the question that we ask our friends in the United States.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The United States, as you know very well, has been saying it depends on the Syrian Kurds to lead the fight, be an important part of the fight against ISIS.
So, are you saying, unless the U.S. stops working with the Syrian Kurds, that is a deal-breaker in the relationship between Turkey and the U.S., or is there some accommodation here possible?
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): Well, we shouldn't mix one thing with another.
First and foremost, this issue has got nothing to do with Kurds. We're just talking about terrorist organizations. Some of the Kurds in the northern parts of Syria are involved in terrorism. And they are to be called terrorists.
And some of them are moderate, and they have positive relations with Turkey, and they defend to maintain those positive relations via Turkey. Both of them shouldn't be confused with another, or else we will have different interpretations of the issue in Turkey.
I want to highlight this fact, because we're not against the Kurds. We are against the terrorist organization, and Kurds are our friends.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying that there is an accommodation possible.
After Raqqa falls, which many expect it to do, after ISIS is driven out of Raqqa, is there an agreement, an understanding between Turkey and the United States about who will be in charge and what role will the YPG play, will other groups play in that area, the Syrian Democratic Forces?
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): Whatever the stance we had embraced via the terrorist organizations on a global scale will be exactly the same views of the YPG. And especially the name Da'esh shouldn't be confused with the others.
We are fighting Da'esh in a very committed fashion and very seriously. We have killed more than 3,000 Da'esh terrorists. But we are very saddened to see the following. We're trying to eradicate one terrorist organization using another terrorist organization as a vessel.
Right now, the United States is working with the YPG in order to eradicate Da'esh. The United States is using YPG as the land forces to fight Da'esh. But, instead, we said we could be of help there. We are Turkey, and we could do that. Let's walk hand in hand.
JUDY WOODRUFF: While we're talking about the Kurds, next door, in Iraq, there could be a time in the near future when there is a separate Kurdish state. There will be a referendum, it appears.
Can Turkey live with an independent Kurdish state in Iraq?
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): Well, let me be very clear in my remarks.
First and foremost, since day one, we have always defended the territorial integrity of Iraq, even though nobody else seems to be doing the same. This referendum shouldn't be conducted. How can we accept a referendum, as Turkey, when we have a border line of 350 kilometers of Iraq?
Iran doesn't seem to agree. The federal state doesn't seem to agree with the referendum, so how can you make a decision all by yourself as the northern part of Iraq? We do not accept this decision.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Syria. We were talking about Russia is a major player in Syria. Just last week, you announced a multibillion-dollar deal to buy surface-to-air missiles from Russia. Why? And is this a contravention of your commitment to NATO, which you're a longtime member of?
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter):We have asked for those weapons from many NATO allies, primarily the United States, but we were turned down.
That's why we have to resort to other means, because these systems are very important in terms of our defense. We have had discussions and deliberations with Russia, and Russia is willing to support us all the way to a possible joint manufacturing of these missiles.
It's quite natural for us to take decisions on our own self-defense mechanisms. The secretary-general of NATO officially declared that every country had the discretion to make up their own mind and take the necessary measures.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Does this mean that you cannot rely on NATO for your defense? And NATO was partly created to defend against Russia, in opposition to Russia. So, is Turkey now closer to Russia or closer to NATO? Where do you place Turkey in that divide?
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): Turkey is a very powerful member of NATO. And why are you standing against such a member of NATO as Turkey? We're going to pay for these weapons and acquire them.
But terrorists are being supplied these weapons free of charge; 3,000 trucks carrying these weapons were provided for these terrorists, and we, as a legitimate member, failed to acquire those weapons, and we had requested to acquire Predators or drones from the United States.
And, for many years, we have never received them. We were not supplied drones, but terrorists are being supplied all those drones and all those weapons. This is unacceptable, and we have to take care of ourselves.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Turkey has for many years sought membership in the European Union. Are you still interested in joining?
And I say so because there has been a dispute recently. Chancellor Merkel of Germany has said this shouldn't happen. Is Turkey still interested in being part of the E.U.?
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): Has the E.U. decided to admit Turkey as a full member? They should come up with a statement. Are they going to take us in or not? We are ready for everything and anything, so long as they tell us what they're going to do.
We are very sincere, and we expect the exact same from the E.U., to be sincere. But I don't know to what extent we will be able to tolerate this lingering on. But I think this can only be tolerated to a certain level, and after that threshold, I think Turkey will come to the point where we have to make our own decision.
JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the sources of tension, a great source of the tension between Turkey and the E.U., Turkey and the United States, has been the strength of the democracy in Turkey.
Your moves before and especially after the coup attempt in the summer of last year, many people in Turkey, in the government, in the military, in the journalism field, reporters, and others have either been — have either lost their jobs or have been imprisoned, in jail.
The question from the United States, from many in the U.S. and in Europe, is, is this the permanent course for Turkey, or is this temporary? You have said these people are terrorists, they were attempting to overthrow your government.
But many of them are schoolteachers, low-level government workers, news reporters. And I think it's hard for people in the West to understand why you believe so many of them are terrorists.
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): Why are you not calling terrorists what they are? That's what I'm curious about. Call terrorists terrorists.
And, secondly, in our country, a terror act involving many individuals with the eventual goal of toppling the government is subject to legal measures to be taken against them, to which we're committed to staying in the future, because these individuals have infiltrated into law enforcement, into the armed forces.
They were wearing their uniforms, but they had their terrorist agendas in their minds. And they have infiltrated into the police force, into the ministries of the state. There are many echelons within those institutions bearing titles, having different agendas.
All of these individuals are subject to prosecution. And their agendas are being identified as a result of the judicial process. The democracy is quite strong in Turkey. Looking at the number of votes cast throughout the elections, you will see that the turnout was around 80 to 85 percent, demonstrating that democracy is quite powerful in Turkey.
Tayyip Erdogan became the president of the Republic of Turkey with 52 percent of the public vote within the first round of the elections. I was elected as the president, and I'm being called a dictator. However many media outlets in the West, in the United States, I'm being defamed, and they are being very disrespectful.
We are receiving the full support of our people, and we are continuing down our path.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Under President Trump, this administration, there is — there have been charges filed against some of your presidential security detail because of an incident that happened in Washington last — this summer, when you were visiting, outside the residence of the ambassador.
You — you disagreed with these charges. You have said the U.S. judicial system is corrupt. Again, fundamental disagreement. Can you do — how can you get along with President Trump, how can you do business with President Trump when there is this fundamental disagreement over what happened that day?
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): I'm very sorry about that.
Actually, President Trump called me about a week ago about this issue. He said that he was sorry, and he told me that he was going to follow up on this issue when we come to the United States within the framework of an official visit.
The protesters were insulting us, and they were screaming and shouting. The police failed to intervene properly. And similar protests were seen around the White House as well when we were inside of the embassy residence. The protesters were very close to my car, to my vehicle.
The PKK terrorists and the FETO terrorists were protesting. These police officers were officers of the state, not the federal government, but they are in charge of maintaining safety around me and security. They failed to do that.
And, of course, that would be the moment when my personal security would come to my aid and make sure that everything was safe and secure around me.
I'm going to get together with President Trump on Thursday, and I'm going to talk about these developments in a very extensive fashion. I hope and pray that justice will be served as soon as possible, because I know that the United States is very sensitive in terms of judiciary and in terms of the rule of law and the legal aspects.
And there will be many other things that we will discuss with President Trump on Thursday.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, President Erdogan, I understand that a number of — there are many Turkish nationals living now in the United States. I think over a million live here in this country.
Do you have a message for them? Have they made the right decision to live in the United States, to work here?
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): I hope and pray that the U.S. administration and the Turkish descendants will build a bridge between us, and they should sustain this relationship on and on.
JUDY WOODRUFF: President Erdogan, thank you very much for talking with us.
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): Thank you.