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Turkish foreign minister slams U.S. for having ‘no clear strategy’ on Syria

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu slammed the United States’ Syria strategy and Middle East peace plan, saying Wednesday that one was underdeveloped and the other might not exist.

“It seems that there is no clear strategy yet” by the U.S. to dial back its military presence in Syria, Cavusoglu said in an interview with PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff.

Cavusoglu said Turkey was getting different signals from President Donald Trump and other U.S. departments, including the military. Trump tweeted last December that the United States was withdrawing all of its troops from Syria, but since then he has gradually dialed back that declaration and committed to keeping a residual force in the country.

Turkey’s foreign minister also said he doubted the existence of a U.S. peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians — an effort that Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner has been leading for the U.S.. “Until today, there is no peace plan,” Cavusoglu said. “We are not sure whether there will be.”

He added that Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem showed the president’s bias towards Israel. Trump’s recent policy change recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the Six-Day war in 1967, was another decision that “everybody has been concerned about,” Cavusoglu said.

“Everybody believes the U.S. is no longer a balanced or objective” leader on the world stage, he said.

Other highlights from the interview:

  • Cavusoglu maintained that Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system, the S-400, was a “done deal.” But he also said a joint U.S.-Turkish committee of technical experts should examine the American claim that Turkey’s possession of the missile defense system would compromise the new technology in the F-35. The United States has announced that it would suspend sales of the F-35 fighter jet to Turkey in response to Turkey’s deal with Russia. American experts are concerned that if the S-400 missile system is in Turkey, the Russians will gain valuable information about the F-35. Asked if Turkey would abide by the committee if it decided the Americans were correct and that the missile defense system could compromise the F-35, the foreign minister said “of course, it is our proposal.”
  • The foreign minister said Turkey is still considering taking large-scale military action against the YPG, a Kurdish fighting force which has been leading the fight against ISIS in Syria but which Turkey views as a military wing of a terrorist group. “We are prepared for that option,” he said.
  • Cavusoglu said Turkey’s chief prosecutor has yet to make a decision as to whether or not to release any additional details about the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. One key piece of evidence is an audio recording of the events that transpired inside the building, which Turkey has shared with the CIA but not released to the public.
  • There are still key unanswered questions about the murder of Khashoggi, Cavusoglu said, including the whereabouts of his body and the identity of the mastermind of the plan. The U.S. intelligence community has identified Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman as the plan’s architect — an assessment Trump and his cabinet members have contradicted in public statements. Cavusoglu also noted that the Turks shared all of their findings with the Saudis, but that “in return we couldn’t get anything from them.”

 

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Foreign ministers from NATO countries are gathered this week in Washington, and one of the allies, Turkey, has come under sharp criticism for its dealing with the alliance's principal adversary, Russia.

    In a moment, you'll see my interview with Turkey's foreign minister, but first some background on an increasingly tense showdown between Turkey and the United States.

    It was all smiles last week, as Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hosted his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to reaffirm a major arms deal.

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu (through translator):

    We have made this deal with the Russian Federation, and we will honor it. We bought it out of necessity. Turkey is in need of an air defense system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But Turkey's decision to buy Russia's top-of-the-line S-400 surface-to-air missile system has angered Washington, because of a big arms deal of its own. The U.S. is selling F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, a NATO ally, and fears Russia would gain technical access or insight into the state-of-the art planes.

    This week, the Pentagon cut off planned F-35 deliveries to Ankara, while offering the Turks an American alternative to the Russian missile.

  • Patrick Shanahan:

    I am very confident in the Patriot proposal that we have delivered to Turkey.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan says, if Turkey instead buys the U.S.-made Patriot air defense system, then problem solved.

  • Patrick Shanahan:

    I really think we will resolve the situation, as we are strategic partners. I expect we will solve the problem, so that they have the right defense equipment, both in terms of Patriots and F-35s

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, in Washington today, at a NATO 70th anniversary event, Cavusoglu gave no ground and said the deal with Moscow would proceed.

    Vice President Mike Pence fired back in a speech to the NATO gathering.

  • Mike Pence:

    Turkey must choose. Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in the history of the world? Or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The verbal war over war machines is adding increased pressure to a relationship already rife with tension. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long condemned U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS, arguing they are allied with Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.

    The foreign minister followed up today, again accusing the U.S. of supporting a direct threat to Turkey.

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    We have been asking the United States to actually disengage, disengage with terrorist organization. But it seems that they still support this terrorist organization.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, local elections in Turkey this week showcased a different challenge to Erdogan. The opposition won control of Ankara and led in Istanbul's mayor's race.

    We explored most of this with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu earlier today.

    Minister Cavusoglu, very good to talk to you. Thank you for speaking with us.

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Thank you for the invitation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States, Turkey, longtime allies, but right now seem to be at an impasse.

    Your government has committed, it says, to buying the Russian air defense system, the S-400. However, the defense secretary says he doesn't think this is going to happen, that, instead, you're going to buy an American defense system, the Patriot.

    Which is it?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Well, we really value our relations.

    We are not only NATO allies, but our partnership has been actually very successful in many areas in our region, in Afghanistan and in Europe as well. And now we have some outstanding issues, but now S-400 is another issue.

    We wish we could have both Patriots — I mean, the Patriots from the United States, or other systems, defense systems from other allies. In last 10 years, we have tried, but we could not buy it from the United States.

    And now there is a proposal, but still there is no guarantee that the U.S. will be able to sell them to Turkey. We are negotiating the conditions and the terms. That's fine. But even President Trump cannot assure us that he will get the green light from the Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But do you understand why the U.S. opposes Turkey having the S-400, worried about the Russian defense authorities having access to American defense technology?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Well, this system — will not see F-35s or other NATO systems as an enemy.

    And we will make sure that it will not happen. And we propose the United States to form a technical working group and to examine this. This is our proposal. So we had to buy S-400s. And it was an urgent need. It was another choice for us, but we had to buy it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They're already purchased?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Yes. And it's a done deal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But are you saying, regardless of what happens with the Patriot American system, Turkey is committed to deploy the S-400, the Russian system?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    This is a done deal. We already bought — purchased…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Committed to deploy?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    We have purchased this, and it has to become…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has to be…

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    It has to…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Deployed?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    That is the reason that we bought — we spent a lot of money for this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even at the risk of a serious split with the United States over this?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Well, why we should have serious split?

    And Turkey is a NATO ally, and secretary-general of NATO made it very clear that any ally can purchase any system from other countries than allies. And there are some other NATO allies which have S-300s and also Russian systems.

    So why is that big a problem that Turkey had to buy this S-400, because she couldn't buy them from its allies, particularly mainly from the United States?

    So you don't want to sell it to Turkey, or you cannot sell them to Turkey, and then you insist Turkey not to buy from anybody else either. So this is actually unacceptable for us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. sees this as a direct threat to U.S. national security.

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Well, it is not a direct threat, neither to Turkey, nor to any other ally's national security.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How can you be sure?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    This will be fully under control of Turkey, this system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So the U.S. should trust?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to ask you about.

    You mentioned Syria. It was not very long ago that your President Erdogan said keeping Mr. Assad in power in Syria was unacceptable. Now it looks as if Mr. Assad is staying in power.

    Is Turkey prepared to accept this?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Well, we still believe that he cannot unite the country. This is the problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meanwhile, the U.S., as you know, President Trump saying the U.S. is pulling troops out, except for a very small group. Do you understand what the U.S.' overall strategy is now in Syria?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Well, it seems that there is no clear strategy yet.

    There are some decisions, decisions of Trump, to withdraw, and different statement — statements are coming from different institutions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Where are the different statements coming from?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    From the president himself, from different departments, from military, from CENTCOM, military on the ground.

    This is what we see from Turkey, actually. Probably, you see better here in the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So how do you who know what's going on?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Oh, that's why we have now a task force.

    We brought military and intelligence and minister of foreign affairs of both sides to coordinate it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's well-known what Turkey's government believes about the YPG operating in Northern Syria.

    Is your government at this point planning to attack? Is your posture that they cannot stay there, that they should be attacked and removed at some point?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Well, we are prepared for that option as well.

    But since Trump told Erdogan, President Erdogan, that U.S. is withdrawing from Syria, we actually started working together, coordinating the things together.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just a few other things I want to ask you about quickly.

    Number one is the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered at the Saudi consul in Istanbul. Why does your government not and do you plan to release the audio recording which you have of the murder and any other information you have about that?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Well, any information is no longer a secret. And we have shared all this informations with everybody, including CIA.

    It is up to, of course, now the chief prosecutor to make it public or not. But at this stage, I think…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In Saudi Arabia, but why does not…

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    No, in Turkey, I mean. It's up to our chief prosecutor in Istanbul actually to give such decisions.

    And there are still unanswered questions, and including whereabouts of Khashoggi's body and local collaborators, as well as masterminds. And we share also all the findings on our side with Saudi chief prosecutor, but, in return, we couldn't get anything from them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you are saying the Saudis are holding this up?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Question about the Trump administration's proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace, a Middle East peace plan.

    Do you have a view of this?

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Well, we don't have a view, because, until today, there is no peace plan. This is for sure.

    And we are not sure whether there will be a peace plan or not. Everybody is quite skeptical because of the decisions that the United States has taken so far. And decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem actually was a kind of turning point.

    So, the U.S. — everybody believes that the U.S. is no longer a balanced country, or objective. And to initiate a peace plan, first, you have to be an honest broker. And the last decision, for instance, of Trump, again, to recognize the Golan Heights as the territory of Israel is another, actually, decision that everybody has been very much concerned.

    So, U.S. first has to be an honest broker to initiate a peace plan on this issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

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

  • Mevlut Cavusoglu:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you just heard, the foreign minister said Turkey was prepared to take action against the Kurds in Northeastern Syria, the YPG.

    Late today, the State Department said Secretary of State Pompeo warned Cavusoglu this afternoon in Washington that any unilateral Turkish military action in Syria would hold — quote — "potentially devastating consequences."

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