Turkish top diplomat: Situation in Syria 'much better' than year ago

ANKARA, Can Merey and Shabtai Gold (dpa)- Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in an interview with dpa outlines regional issues, saying the situation in Syria is improving, despite disagreements with coalition partners Iran and Russia, and that the US Trump administration understands the importance of Turkey in the region.
Turkey saw its relations with the US deteriorate in 2017, amid a visa crisis, anger about Jerusalem and signs that Ankara was forming a closer relationship with Russia, including on Syria, where Washington is allied with a Turkish enemy.

In an interview with dpa, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu explains that if the Turkish-Iranian-Russian organized ceasefires in Syria break down, there will be renewed refugee outflows and more pressure on Europe.
dpa: Russian President Putin continues to support President Bashar al-Assad in Syria who is solidifying his grip on power. Does Russia’s support upset you?
Minister: We knew Russia’s position from the beginning. We have been trying to convince Russia to change its position and vice versa. But we understand it did not work. Of course, this difference between Russia and Turkey didn’t stop us from working together to consolidate a ceasefire.
For us, Assad cannot unite Syria. For us, such a regime should not stay even for the transition. This is our position. He should step down.
Q: There is now again violence in Idlib province in Syria, on your border, including airstrikes. Does it worry you that there could be new serious fighting, new refugee outflows to Turkey? If this happens would it mean the breakdown of the Astana process with Iran and Russia?
A: We are doing our best not to let the Astana process breakdown. Russia and Iran are the guarantors of the regime and they shouldn’t bomb the civilians. They shouldn’t bomb hospitals, schools or civilians to eliminate anyone they call a terrorist.
Of course if the war starts again in Syria, more refugees will be received in Turkey and more pressure will be on Europe.
I am hoping we can consolidate the ceasefires. I am quite optimistic. The situation in Syria on the ground is much better than it was last year. You cannot even compare. We have made a lot of progress. But, without a political solution, how can we consolidate further?
Q: The administration in the US has changed but the American relationship with the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia has remained consistent. Are you disappointed by President Trump?
A: I am convinced that President Trump understands the importance of Turkey for the region and also for the US. And he also respects Turkey and President Erdogan.
President Trump was against giving weapons to the YPG. The problem is the State Department is saying one thing, the Pentagon something else. The vision of the different departments in the United States, this is the problem.
But we are very much disappointed with Trump about al-Quds, Jerusalem. This is a very big mistake. I hope they will take the lesson of the latest General Assembly resolution and they will step back. Otherwise there will be chaos.
Q: The US reaction to the UN resolution was to push a budget reduction at the UN. They are not engaging with your criticism. Did this resolution backfire?
A: This has become a typical policy of the United States. I mean, threatening all the institutions, including NATO, with budget cuts. In the end, if the UN loses ground and its reputation, I think it will also undermine the role of the United States.
Q: What is the next step on Jerusalem? Will it be sanctions on Israel?
A: We should convince countries that have not recognized the state of Palestine to recognize it. And we need to actually play a more active role toward a Middle East peace settlement. European countries can help, and we can help.
Q: There was the US-Turkey visa crisis this year and you are moving ahead with the S-400 deal with Russia. Is Turkey moving away from the US?
A: No, we are not moving away and we don’t want to move away. But we need an air defence system. I needed it urgently. We wanted to buy from our NATO allies, but it did not work out. Russia gave me the best deal. And that is why I bought it from Russia.
Q: Will the Russians give you a technology transfer on the S-400?
A: They told us in principle that there would be joint production and also technology transfer. But this is an issue to negotiate in the medium-term and long-term.
Q: Are you worried this will affect your relationship with the US with regards to access to the F35 fighter jet?
A: We don’t like such threats. They also threaten everybody in the General Assembly. We don’t like threats and we won’t accept any threats like this. The US is our ally. And we need to be equal partners to each other, strategic partners. Partners should not threaten each other, they should support each other.
Q: Your government launched the peace process with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers' Party), which broke down in 2015. Could you imagine going back to a peace process?
A: We took tremendous risks to launch this peace process, even our supporters criticized us. But we had to try and we were so sincere. But the PKK and its supporters only took advantage of this process and the flexibility. They brought weapons into the city centres. They are not for peace. They didn’t lay down their weapons despite all the goodwill and positive steps coming from the state. This time they have to lay down their weapons first.
Q: What can you offer your Kurdish citizens in the meantime, barring a full peace process with the PKK?
A: I don’t have to promise anything to our Kurdish citizens. They are first class citizens. They enjoy full rights. We granted them all their rights, any rights that they needed. We admitted there were problems. We ended the state of emergency in the region. We have developed all these cities.
They are even begging us not to stop the operations against the PKK, not to stop until it is finished.

Tuesday, January 2nd 2018
Can Merey and Shabtai Gold

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