‘Even if Mr Modi can bring half of the transformation RT Erdogan brought to Turkey, it would bring unprecedented prosperity to India’
Turkish Ambassador to India Burak Akcapar is a scholar, author and diplomat. Some observers call him one of the sharpest and most astute members of a new generation of Turkish diplomats. In an interview to Hardnews magazine, Akcapar talks about a range of issues, from the recently held Presidential elections in Turkey to the volatile neighbourhood and the unexplored potential of Indo-Turkish relations
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
After a tumultuous election campaign RT Erdogan has been elected as the new President. Does this signify change or continuity?
Turkish democracy has completed a successful presidential election. Until this year, Turkish presidents were elected by the Turkish Parliament. In the first direct elections, the Turkish people have chosen Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with an overwhelming margin as the 12th President of Turkey. Under his leadership the Justice and Development Party had already won three general elections and three local elections since 2002. Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, has been appointed the new Prime Minister of Turkey. Therefore, there is continuity in Turkey since 2002.
The elections have come in the backdrop of rapid changes in the neighbourhood: the rise of the Islamic State, collapse of the Iraqi nation state, the resilience of Syria, and the slow emergence of Kurdistan. How will the new government react to its neighbours?
Turkey follows a policy of peace at home and peace in the world which aims to develop a zone of stability, security and prosperity in the surrounding region, which is clearly the most volatile part of the world. We aim to engage all our troubled neighbours in a bid to forge zero problems with our neighbours without sacrificing our core human values, including fundamental respect of human rights. Turkey believes that Iraq’s and Syria’s stability, unity and integrity are vital for the security and stability of Western Asia and, indeed, beyond. We have long warned that the policies of Damascus and Baghdad would culminate in not only destroying their own countries but also unleashing extremist dynamics transcending borders. The growing extremism in Syria and Iraq constitutes a serious threat to the security and stability in the region and beyond. The recent developments in Iraq underline the need to develop a more holistic approach and a comprehensive strategy in confronting the deteriorating situation in Syria. The policies based on sectarianism and ethnic divisions trigger further instabilities and threats in the wider region. It is because of such policies that IS and other extremist groups have gained ground in Syria and Iraq. Turkey never supports policies based on sectarian or ethnic bias. We will continue as before in trying to bring some sense of peace, stability and development to a region which hasn’t seen any of that since the turn of the previous century when one order was forcefully destroyed and no credible alternative was instituted.
How does Turkey perceive Islamic State and the declaration of a Caliphate? Who are these people that comprise IS and do they constitute a threat to your country? Why the spurt in radical Islam?
Turkey faces a threat at its borders emanating from state collapse, morally bankrupt sectarian governments as well as growing extremism in Syria and Iraq. The IS is part and parcel of that grim picture. Turkey designated IS as a terrorist group on October 10, 2013 (as a matter of fact since 2005, under its previous names), long before some other members of the international community acknowledged the threat. In November 2013, then Prime Minister Erdoğan pledged a ‘no tolerance’ stance towards Al-Qaeda-linked groups and added that it was out of the question for Turkey to provide shelter for ISIS or any other extremist group.
The grave situation in Syria and increased presence of radical ISIS militants along Turkey’s 900 km border with Syria constitutes a direct and serious threat to Turkey’s national security and internal stability. Security risks from the ongoing violence in Syrian towns close to the Turkish border directly affect Turkish citizens. Throughout the Syrian crisis, a total of 77 Turkish citizens have lost their lives due to the mortar shells fired into Turkey from Syria during the fighting along the border, as well as terrorist attacks linked to the Syrian regime.
Regarding religious radicalism, we know that there is a multiplicity of radical groups that claim to act in the name of Islam. But their claim does not validate their assertion. The overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide remains opposed to radicalism, militarism and terrorism. The geographies within which such groups may be finding support are all beset by enduring political legitimacy crises, state failure, economic stagnation, repressive regimes. Some have been subject to military invasion with no successful post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation. In the specific case of Iraq and Syria and IS, everything that the Assad and Maliki regimes did directly played into the hands of extremists who have been feeding on the anguish of broader masses.
The United States has stepped in again in Iraq to fight the IS and there are reports that western powers are asking Turkey to close its borders so that the foreign jihadists do not enter Syria and Iraq. Would Turkey provide help to the US and other allies as it is a part of NATO?
The growing influence of extremist groups like IS in Syria and Iraq is a direct and serious threat to our national security. Turkey’s geographical location makes the country an ideal partner for counterterrorism initiatives. Foreign terrorists also attempt to use Turkey as a transit route to reach conflict areas such as Iraq or Syria. In order to prevent foreign terrorist fighters from reaching the conflict areas via Turkey, security measures have been reinforced, including new risk analysis units at the airports and enhanced passenger screening and security checks in regions adjacent to the Syrian and Iraqi border. Turkey’s border security and control measures along its border with Syria and Iraq focus on two main areas: Firstly, preventing foreign fighters from entering Turkey from source countries, and, secondly, preventing their access to and from Syria and Iraq. Turkey has been working actively to counter IS and similar groups along its border with Syria and Iraq. In response to IS’ advancement in towns along the Syrian border, Turkey has deployed additional army units at the border to prevent illegal border crossings. In addition, Turkey maintains a no-entry list compiled from information provided by source countries of individuals who may join extremists in Syria and Iraq. The number of individuals, who were denied entry due to the no-entry list was more than 4,000 in 2013. These measures by Turkish authorities were adopted long before many source countries of foreign terrorist fighters began to provide intelligence and information regularly.
However, we believe that it is not fair to expect Turkey alone to stop and intercept those individuals who had been allowed to travel from their countries of residence and through
other countries in transit with no restrictions. Extremism is a shared menace that we all need to confront collectively. We believe that such transnational threats require efficient international cooperation.
On the other hand, Turkey currently has a strong partnership with the US in counter-terrorism and honours her responsibilities as a member of NATO.
There have been interesting suggestions coming from some Western leaders that the EU should complete the negotiations with Turkey quickly so that it can become its member as it would help Europe fight off the radical Islamic threat. What is the status of these discussions and do you think becoming part of the EU would help in neutering the Islamic threat?
A religion cannot be a threat. Especially one that derives its name from peace. Radicalism and terrorism, throughout history, have been employed by various marginal groups belonging to different faiths and will always be the scourge of humanity. We see radicals of almost every religion actively undermining human civilisation in various corners of the world.
EU membership remains a strategic objective for Turkey. Most of the EU member countries seem to support Turkey’s membership. I hope the remaining ones also adopt a forward-looking approach and focus on what Turkey can contribute to the EU. To me, personally, the opposition to Turkish membership in various xenophobic constituencies in Europe is atavistic at best. Their divisive and exclusive worldview is one which human civilisation has been striving to overcome albeit apparently unsuccessfully for countless generations. It is not even in their self-interest given Turkey’s robust economic and political performance, capabilities, as well as potential, not to mention her enduring role as a bridge between the East and the West.
For quite some years Turkey followed its policy of friendship with neighbours with great vigour. Rupture in its ties with Syria, Egypt and even Israel have some political observers calling it the ‘lonely man of Middle East’. Is Turkey still pursuing this foreign policy or should we expect some changes?
If Turkey is lonely then it is lonely at the top, representing and leading by example the grand transformation that the region awaits towards democracy, peace and prosperity, stability at home and in the world. Turkey aims to eliminate all the problems in her relations with neighbours or at least to minimise them as much as possible. While resolutely pursuing this policy, we never put realism and morality aside and do not forget that the ‘zero problems’ approach represents an objective and an ideal, the achievement of which also depends on our counterparts.
In this regard, the setbacks in Turkey’s relations with some countries like Syria, Israel and Egypt have not been caused by Turkey. Turkey’s relations with Syria have entered into a new phase due to the relentless inhumanity of the Assad regime against its own people. In Egypt, a military coup toppled the first democratically elected President. Similarly, Turkish-Israeli bilateral relations have been damaged by the attack of Israel on May 31, 2010, on an international civil society humanitarian aid ship destined for Gaza killing 10 Turkish citizens. As the joke goes in Turkish, has the thief got nothing to do with the theft? The bonds uniting Turkey with all the peoples and countries in this region are deep and whatever temporary setbacks may occur, all due to our principled stances against wrongful acts, in the longer haul Turkey is part of the family and perhaps the most important one.
Turkey was one of the countries that had close ties with Israel, but despite efforts by US President Barack Obama to reset ties, they are not improving. During the run-up to the Presidential campaign, Erdogan was very critical of Israel’s attack of Gaza. Where does the relationship with Israel really stand?
Turkey is among the very first states that recognised Israel. However, bilateral relations have been adversely affected by Israel’s attack on the humanitarian aid ship. Turkey has put forward certain conditions in accordance with international law and custom in order to normalise its relations with Israel. In this framework, it demanded an official apology from the government of Israel and compensation for the families of the victims, as well as the lifting of the blockade of Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, during Obama’s visit to Israel on March22, 2013, telephoned Prime Minister Erdoğan and expressed Israel’s apology to the Turkish people for any mistakes that might have led to the loss of life or injury. On behalf of the Turkish people, Prime Minister Erdoğan accepted this apology. Israel also agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims. It also underscored that restrictions regarding the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, had been substantially lifted and pledged that this would continue as long as calm prevails.
As a result of the apology expressed by Netanyahu concerning the Mavi Marmara attack, a normalisation process has started in our relations. The talks on compensation have come to an advanced stage. However, Israel’s recent attacks on Gaza had an adverse impact on the normalisation process. Our relations cannot be normalised unless our demands for compensation and lifting the restrictions on Gaza
Your country’s stand on Gaza?
A human tragedy unfolds in Gaza before the eyes of the international community. Israel’s attacks since July 8 have caused more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths, among them many women and children. Almost 11,000 people are wounded in these attacks.
Turkey has strongly condemned Israeli aggression against Gaza which constitutes collective punishment of the Palestinian people. From the outset of the Israeli military operation we have made intensive efforts in collaboration with our international partners to stop the Israeli attacks and achieve a negotiated sustainable ceasefire. We launched initiatives to ensure the convening of the UN Security Council, the UN Human Rights Council and the OIC to discuss the matter.
Turkey welcomes the announcement of a permanent ceasefire between the parties. However, a sustainable ceasefire in the region has to take into account the legitimate demands and expectations of the Palestinian people. We all should recognise the fact that a sustainable ceasefire requires the lifting of all restrictions on Gaza once and for all. Turkey is determined to work with its international partners toward this end.
It is essential to exert efforts for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and supply of humanitarian assistance to the region. So far, Turkey has provided $10 million official humanitarian assistance to Gaza, including food, medicine and fuel. We have started to transfer the wounded from Gaza to Turkey
As in the past, Turkey will continue to defend the rights of the Palestinian people and to support international and regional efforts for a just, lasting and comprehensive solution based on a two-state vision to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Do you think India and Turkey can work together to stabilise Afghanistan? Anything happening on this front?
Within the framework of Turkey’s efforts to improve regional cooperation with Afghanistan at its core, the Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan was initiated by Turkey and Afghanistan at the Istanbul Conference on November 2, 2011. It comprises Afghanistan’s 13 immediate and regional neighbours, including India, referred to as “Heart of Asia Countries,” supported by major donor countries, as well as regional/international organisations. The Istanbul Process aims to enhance regional political dialogue, the implementation of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) (counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, disaster management, trade, commercial and investment opportunities, regional infrastructure, education) and strengthening regional cooperation in a result-oriented and practical framework.
Turkey participates in all of the CBMs and co-leads the “Counter-terrorism CBM, along with Afghanistan and UAE. As you would know, India co-leads the “Trade, Commercial and Investment Opportunities CBM. Turkey and India can cooperate in the framework of the Istanbul Process.
There are some commentators who feel that President Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have a lot in common. Both are dynamic, nationalistic and have a vision of their respective countries playing a larger role. Geopolitically, do you think there are areas of convergence? Any planned meetings?
The recent Indian general elections reminded me of the overflowing of positive energy at the 2002 general election in Turkey at which Erdoğan first came to power. Mr Erdoğan since then has tripled Turkey’s national income, elevated Turkey’s visibility, influence and stature in the world, consolidated Turkish democracy. He was rewarded by the Turkish people in every election he fought since then. Even if Mr Modi can do half of the transformation and development President Erdogan brought to Turkey, it would bring unprecedented prosperity to India. I would hope to be present at any conversation the two leaders might have in the future. An invitation has already been sent to Prime Minister Modi to visit Turkey. President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu would both be happy to exchange views with Prime Minister Modi. The last visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Turkey was in 2002. History shall record this as a major oversight, for sure.
Political visits are important instruments of statecraft and diplomacy. In this regard 2013 was a fruitful year as Pranab Mukherjee, President of India, paid a visit to Turkey, which was the first presidential visit from India in 15 years, and Salman Khurshid, as the Minister of External Affairs of India, visited Turkey after 10 years. The curtain was lifted by the Vice-President of India, Hamid Ansari who visited Turkey in 2011.
Turkey and India are marked by lasting friendship and historical depth, strategic value and great potential. The two countries share common values such as commitment to pluralistic parliamentary democracy and secularism, they are both members of the G-20. Turkey and India, as two centres of democratic stability in their regions, can act together to contribute to these conflicts.
During my tenure in India, Turkey has extended no less than 22 concrete proposals to elevate bilateral relations closer to their potential. These include an action plan for consultation and cooperation among the Ministers of External Affairs, a refurbished trade agreement, opening of a cultural centre, increasing air connectivity, sister city arrangements, rehabilitation of martyr memorials. All are pending on the Indian side. We are ready to do more in terms of consultations, trade and cooperation but are waiting, for India to walk with us. One should realise that there is significant goodwill on both sides which awaits political leadership and ownership to translate it into concrete and mutually beneficial outcomes. We are encouraged by the message of dynamic leadership coming from the top down.
Has there been any concrete manifestations of that so far in the bilateral ties?
Not yet. But I had briefly met Mr Modi before the elections and he told me that he wanted more trade and cooperation with Turkey. I reconfirmed our commitment. Thus, I’m hopeful.