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Erdogan: ‘Sad’ to see U.S. working with ‘terrorist’ Kurdish forces in Syria

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the United States for supplying weapons in the Syria conflict to offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which he considers terrorist organizations.

“Think of our strategic partner engaging in such acts,” he told PBS NewsHour correspondent Amna Nawaz on Wednesday. “That is sad for us to see. It’s wrong.”

The Turkish president said he still considered the U.S. a “strategic partner” within NATO, and that Turkey is fulfilling its duties as a partner.

Other highlights from the interview:

On avoiding conflict in Syria’s heavily populated Idlib province: Erdogan said the cease-fire he brokered with Russia is “progressing well.” He said they are working to remove heavy weaponry and have identified the groups of extremist fighters who must leave.

On allegations that he is purging his political opposition: Erdogan said he has detained tens of thousands of people following an attempted coup in 2016, but not the hundreds of thousands that his critics claim.

“Currently there are people behind bars, it’s true. There are 32,000 detained people who have been arrested. It’s not hundreds of thousands like you have put. Those trials must, and I hope, will be completed by the end of this year.”

He also said six or seven Americans are behind bars, not 15 to 20 as Amnesty International reported, and “maybe 20 or 30” journalists, instead of the 73 figure that advocates cite.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ties between the U.S. and Turkey, longtime NATO allies, are deeply strained.

    The U.S. hopes to get an American pastor out of jail in Turkey. The Turks accuse the U.S. of harboring Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric who Turkey blames for a fail coup. In addition, there are Syria, Russia and internal issues.

    Amna Nawaz spoke with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier today.

    But, first, she has some background.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The decades-old alliance is now under increasing tension.

    One flash point, the fate of American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, held for nearly two years in Turkey. He was swept up in the crackdown after the July 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan.

    Vice President Pence had this ultimatum for Erdogan in late July.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America. Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now, or be prepared to face the consequences.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Trump levied sanctions on Turkey, and Ankara responded in kind. The dispute accelerated the decline of the Turkish lira. It's lost 40 percent of its value this year.

    Yesterday, Erdogan clearly had Mr. Trump's economic policy front of mind.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    None of us can remain silent to the arbitrary cancellation of commercial agreements, the spreading prevalence of protectionism, and the use of economic sanctions as weapons, because the negative effects of these twisted developments will eventually affect all of us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Erdogan became prime minister in 2003. Then, in 2014 and again this year, he was elected president, a position he's converted into Turkey's preeminent power center.

    One major challenge to his government, the grinding war in Syria that has forced more than three million refugees across Turkey's southern border. Tens of thousands more were sure to follow if Syria's Assad regime, backed by Russia, made an all-out assault on Idlib province in Northwest Syria.

    It's the last major stronghold of Islamist and rebel fighters. But Erdogan struck a deal last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin to forestall that attack.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    We believe that Turkey cleared the way for peace and political solution in Syria, especially in the Idlib province. Our goal is to clear the Syrian territory all the way from Manbij to the Iraqi border from terrorist presence.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That broad reference to terrorist presence also refers to America's Kurdish allies in Syria, one more flash point between allies.

    Ankara considers the so-called YPG and its political wing, the PYD, to be terrorists allied to Turkish separatist Kurds. U.S. forces are training, equipping and fighting alongside the Syrian Kurds to defeat ISIS.

    I sat down with President Erdogan earlier this afternoon.

    Mr. President, thank you so much for making the time to speak with us.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to begin by asking you about Syria.

    Last week, you signed an agreement with Russia, specifically with regards to Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria. And, as part of that agreement, you pledged that all radical terrorist groups would be removed from Idlib by October 15.

    I wanted to ask you how you begin to figure out who is a radical terrorist.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    As to who those groups are, we had already identified those groups, together with Russia, anyways.

    We already know who they are. With our intelligence organization in Turkey, we are now working towards that. As we speak, things are progressing well. It is about removing heavy weapons from that region.

    As we do that, the people of Idlib, living in Idlib, will again have peace.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There was a time you advocated for regime change in Syria. And it's fair to say that you have had a bit of a policy shift when it comes to Syria.

    Last week, you signed this agreement with Russia. Yesterday, in your speech at the United Nations, you hailed the alliance with Russia and working towards efforts in Syria.

    Russia is the chief backer of Bashar al-Assad. So, is it fair to assume that you believe Bashar al-Assad has won the war in Syria?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    If we were to create such a suspicion against Russia, that would be a wrong thing to do.

    The Assad regime has never been an interlocutor for us, because, as Turkey, we don't recognize Assad. As Turkey, our interlocutor is the people of Syria. And they are our brothers and sisters.

    We have to come up to a result as soon as possible. We are now working on two things. First is preparation of the constitution. And second is a political process and opening up the political process to the people of Syria, because the people of Syria expect the political process to become functional as soon as possible.

    And for that process to be functional, a constitution is needed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I would like to ask you about the relationship between America and Turkey.

    This morning, you published a very strongly worded op-ed calling for a larger reform to take place at the United Nations. But in that piece, you named only the U.S. You said that this administration has undermined the world order.

    Do you still consider the U.S. to be an ally for Turkey?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    We are strategic partners with the U.S. within NATO. For any country that is our strategic partner, it wouldn't be suitable to talk about possible sanctions against one strategic partner.

    And, so far, Turkey has always fulfilled its duties of being the strategic partner. And we will continue to do so. We're together with them under NATO. We act with them under NATO. And Turkey has always been the country that has defended the outpost of NATO.

    And, interestingly, imagine you intervening in Raqqa, and, while doing that, imagine you don't work with your strategic partner, but with a terrorist organization instead.

    Who are those terrorist organizations? The PYD and YPG, who happen to be the extensions of the PKK terrorist organizations. This is what we told the U.S. We said, you're not doing the right thing. Now, seeing our strategic partner working hand in hand with those terrorist organizations is something we could not accept, we had a hard time accepting.

    And now, as far as the U.S. is concerned, do you know how much weapons the U.S. sent to the north of Syria? More than 18,000 big truckloads of ammunition and weapons were sent. Who will those weapons be used against? Because those are places which are closest to our border. And there was this terrorists corridor there, and we took it apart.

    Now, think of our strategic partner engaging in such acts. That is sad for us to see. It's wrong.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I would like to move on to another issue that's come up between the U.S. and Turkey.

    And that is the issue of Pastor Brunson, Andrew Brunson, who's been detained in Turkey since 2016 now. The U.S. has asked that he be released. He's been charged with terrorism and espionage.

    But, recently, Pastor Brunson was moved to house arrest. There was a new prosecutor appointed in the case as well. And he has a hearing coming up in October.

    The U.S. has signaled they would like him released by then. Would you intervene to release Pastor Brunson, an American citizen, back to the U.S.?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    Now, in international law, using political pressure to free those people who are convicted or detained, would that be possible under international law?

    As a journalist, have you ever seen this? You could have that only in totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. You wouldn't have it in a country like Turkey, where there is the rule of law.

    Now, as we speak, there Fethullah Gulen in the U.S. And he has been in this country since 1999. And he was head of an organization which attempted a coup in our country; 251 of our citizens became martyrs, and 2,193 of our people were injured. And he lives in Pennsylvania on 400 acres.

    Now, we asked for him. We asked for extradition. And we signed all the necessary documents and paperwork. They could have deported him with an administrative decision. But, unfortunately, the U.S. didn't extradite him.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Are you saying that, if the U.S. agrees to extradite Gulen back to Turkey, that you would then release the Americans who are in custody in Turkey right now?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    Now, I told you I'm not talking about any reciprocity. I'm talking about law, rather.

    Fethullah Gulen is not part of a judicial process right now. It's just that he's living like a sultan on 400 acres. Brunson, though, is an entirely different situation. He is being tried in court as we speak. And we sent all necessary documents about Fethullah Gulen to the necessary authorities.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amnesty International estimates Pastor Brunson is one of 15 to 20 American citizens currently in Turkish custody. Is that correct?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    The number cannot be that high.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you know how many American citizens are currently in Turkish custody?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    Currently, as far as I know, six or seven Americans either are in custody or are detained.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You yourself have come under heavy criticism from some human rights groups, particularly after, as you mentioned, that failed coup attempt in 2016.

    I have to put these numbers to you because they're striking. It's estimated 100,000 people were dismissed from public sector jobs, more than 50,000 arrested and imprisoned.

    Your critics have called it a purge of your political opposition. Are you purging your political opposition?

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    Now, one cannot accept such information, of course, because you talk based on the information you get from different press and media.

    Currently, there are people behind bars. It's true. Numerically, yes, there are high numbers of people behind bars. There are 32,000 detained people who have been arrested. It's not hundreds of thousands.

    Those trials must and I hope will be completed by the end of this year.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Setting aside your political opposition, specifically, when it comes to journalists in Turkey, Turkey has been called the biggest jailer of journalists.

    Back in December, you held 73 journalists in your…

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    How many? Can you give me the figure?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In December, the figure was 73 journalists who were held in prisons, which was more than any other country. That was according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    All of these things you have said are wrong. And the sources are not right.

    Those are lies. The number of people who are behind bars and who are journalists, real journalists, may be 20 or 30. Some of these people have committed terrorism crimes, but they have badges of journalists. We're not talking about actual and genuine journalists here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, thank you very much for your time and speaking with us.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan:

    Thank you. Thank you.

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