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Turkey doesn’t have to choose between U.S. and Russia, foreign minister says

Relations between the U.S. and Turkey have deteriorated amid deep divisions over the American backing of the Syrian Kurdish force YPG in the fight against ISIS. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu sits down with Judy Woodruff to discuss that rift, as well as questions about Turkey buying U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets and Russian surface-to-air missile systems.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Over the past several years, relations between the U.S. and Turkey have deteriorated amid deep divisions over which forces to support in Syria's civil war and the fight against ISIS.

    The U.S. backs a Kurdish force there, known as the YPG, but Turkey considers it a branch of the PKK, militant Turkish Kurds that both Ankara and Washington consider terrorists. Right now, the YPG controls the city of Manbij.

    Another flash point, Turkish plans to buy both anti-aircraft missiles from Russia and the American F-35 stealth fighter jet. U.S. officials are afraid the F-35's secret technology will be shared with the Russians.

    These were some of the items on the agenda when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met this morning with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

    Right afterwards, Judy Woodruff sat down with the foreign minister, and began by asking him about that sharp disagreement over America's backing of the Syrian Kurds.

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    It was a big mistake that U.S. prefer to work with a terrorist organization, because U.S. admits that YPG is the offshoot of PKK in Syria.

    Turkey itself actually eliminated more than 3,000 Da'esh elements through Operation Euphrates Shield. We could have easily done this together with our allies. We didn't need this terrorist organization.

    It has become also big trouble for United States, and it also affected our bilateral relations very badly. And, also, it increased anti-American sentiments in Turkey and elsewhere.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When will the YPG be gone from Manbij?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    In months, I can say, in not in one year, but in some months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I don't know if you discussed it today, but another issue between the U.S. and Turkey recently has been the — Turkey's desire to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets. There's been, as you know, opposition in the Congress for a number of reasons, including the fact that Turkey has said it wants to buy Russian surface-to-air missile systems.

    Did you discuss it with Secretary Pompeo?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Yes, we discussed all these issues as well.

    First of all, it is not a desire or Turkey's desire. It is a deal. It is an agreement. It is a multiparty program. And we have been in that program, including some joint production, production of the parts of F-35s in Turkey.

    So, Turkey has been paying in the installments on time, on due time. And Turkey have met all the requirements, but you cannot cancel this because of the S-400s that we are buying. It is a totally different issue. That is the air defense system.

    We have had urgent needs. We had to buy an air defense system. In last 10 years, we tried to buy from United States, which is our ally, but it didn't work. U.S. couldn't sell us Patriot batteries.

    But, in this case, I have to protect my airspace, and I had to buy from somebody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, right now, the Congress is saying, at this point, that the U.S. will not sell the F-35 to Turkey, that there are too many problems between the two countries.

    So, if Turkey has to choose between working with the U.S., working with NATO, or working with Russia, which will it be?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Why do I have to choose between? I don't have to choose between two sides or two countries.

    The countries like Turkey in such a geopolitical situation and — shouldn't actually ask to choose between this country or that country. We have good relations with Russia, but U.S. is our strategic ally. And my good relations or my cooperation with Russia is not an alternative.

    And we are member of NATO. We are member of OEC. We are member of Council of Europe. And we have been balancing our foreign policy, but nobody has the right to ask Turkey to choose between any countries or any sides.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does your government now consider Russia as close a friend as it does the United States?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Well, we have different relations, I can say. I cannot make such a comparison. And we have good relations with Russia. We disagree with Russia on many issues, like Crimea and Black Sea.

    And we — since we are NATO allies as well. And we have all said — even though we are cooperating Russia on Syria, like through Astana process, which has been a very actually helpful process to consolidate the cease-fire and de-escalation zone, even though there have been some violations, but we disagree with Russia on certain issues, like the Assad regime.

    They support the regime. We don't. And U.S. is on — strategic ally, but U.S. supported YPG-PKK terrorist organization, which is a big threat to us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Relations between the U.S. and Turkey have been more strained since the coup attempt in 2016. You and others in your government, including President Erdogan, have said Western countries, including the U.S., backed the coup.

    Is it your position today that the United States was backing the coup attempt against your president?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    We never said that U.S. supported the attempted coup in Turkey.

    Yes, there's a public opinion in Turkey since this — the terrorists — and there are many others that we requested from United States to extradite them — are still here and they have not been extradited. It's fueling the anti-American sentiments. And…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mr. Gulen?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Fethullah, yes.

    And also we officially requested from the United States to extradite him. Nothing happened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You talk about the perceptions of the Turkish people of the United States and the West.

    On the other hand, the U.S. looks at Turkey and sees over 100,000 arrests, thousands of people put in jail or in prison, journalists removed from their jobs, and — and the U.S. perception on the part of many in this country is that Turkey is cracking down beyond what was truly the cause of the coup attempt, and has — and has basically locked up a lot of civil servants in your country.

    I mentioned journalists and others. That you're moving more toward an authoritarian system…

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Not at all, no.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … and, with these elections coming, it will be even more so.

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    We are committed to democracy.

    And Turkish people cannot tolerate any anti-democratic policies. And it is Erdogan, President Erdogan, and his party that have reformed Turkey tremendously. And this reform process has been defined in United States and in Europe as silent revolution in Turkey, OK?

    If you look at the legislations and the reform that we made, there is no step back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you still welcome criticism in — from journalists?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    What do you mean? You don't need — don't you read media outlets in Turkey? It's not only criticism. Every day, they are attacking me. They are attacking president.

    There are many media outlets and TV channels very, very strongly criticizing us. This is democracy. Look, before we reform Turkey, no journalist can criticize anybody. Now journalists or anybody can attack each other.

    Of course, if you are offended, if you think that you are offended, you can go to the judiciary. That is different. But there is a freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of journalism in Turkey. And we brought all these freedoms to Turkey.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Thank you.

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