JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council it is my pleasure to welcome you back to the first program of the fall season. I hope you all had a good summer and are ready to learn more about the overwhelming challenges facing us both domestically and internationally.
To launch the fall program I am pleased to welcome back to the Carnegie Council a longtime friend, David Phillips. David will be discussing his book, entitled An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdoğan's Dictatorship.
While many of us may be focused on threats facing our democratic traditions here at home, there are similar trends playing out around the world, threats that are challenging the institutional framework and world order as we once knew it. On the global front, allies that America could once rely upon are no longer. Instead of the elections of pro-Western leaders, a wave of strongmen have come into power, many of whom do not identify with the West or its values. Turkey is a prime example.
But why does Turkey matter? For starters, Turkey's strategic position is pivotal. The Black Sea is to its north, flanking the Russian and Ukrainian coasts; Syria, Iraq, and Iran are to the south. It is a bridge between the West and Middle East and Central Asia. And, despite all the tensions, Turkey remains an indispensable frontline ally for NATO, and particularly for the United States.
When Erdoğan first came to national prominence, he was initially seen as someone who could personally bridge Islamism with liberal democracy while melding and embracing Western values. But this was not to be. In fact, he has been moving away from its secular past and making its Islamic identity more visible. While the country under his leadership and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) may have become economically more viable and more confident over the years, the party's iron grip, its erosion of Western values, abuses of human rights, and limits on press freedom are becoming counterproductive.
So how did Erdoğan, initially seen as a reformer, turn into this authoritarian, uncertain, unreliable ally of the West? In An Uncertain Ally David provides an informed understanding and lays the foundation for an inquiry about how this happened, and tackles the thorny questions about what values and standards should form the basis for action moving forward.
Please join me in welcoming a veteran watcher of Turkey politics, our guest today, David Phillips. Thank you, David.
DAVID PHILLIPS: Joanne, it is great to be back here at the Carnegie Council. You have been a very close personal and family friend for many years, so it is good to be in the room with you and so many other friends and colleagues.
Speaking about the topic, I want to say a special word of acknowledgement to Dr. Helena Finn. I have been to Turkey maybe 40 times, but perhaps the most eventful trip I took was when I met her when she was a Foreign Service officer at the U.S. Embassy. I don't think any person, Helena, has had a more formative part of my education about events in Turkey than you, so it's nice to see you here.
Turkey joined NATO in 1952. It served as the Eastern flank of NATO. It was crucial to controlling the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the 1990s, Turkey helped monitor Saddam Hussein and protect Iraqi Kurds by permitting U.S. warplanes to use its bases. Turkey was a secular Muslin country during that period and acted as a bridge to Central Asia. After 9/11, it was a staging area for coalition forces in Afghanistan and assumed overall command of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
NATO, however, is more than a security alliance. It is a coalition of countries with shared values. Given the trends in Turkey under President Erdoğan, which have made the country Islamist, anti-democratic, and anti-American, Erdoğan's support for jihadi groups has rendered Turkey an uncertain ally. If NATO were being established today, Turkey simply would not qualify as a member.
I am sure several of you noted two days ago that Turkey announced a contract with Russia to buy $2.6 billion worth of S-400 missiles. Not only does this undermine the interoperability principle of NATO, it raises serious questions about how Turkey would respond in the event of a crisis. If Russia were to take action in Ukraine or against NATO members in Poland or the Baltic States, can Turkey be counted on as a friend, or do we need a more steely-eyed assessment of Turkey and see it as a foe?
The Justice and Development Party of Tayyip Erdoğan won a smashing election in 2002. With only 34 percent of the vote, because of the way Turkey's electoral system is structured, it gained two-thirds of the seats in the Turkish Assembly. There were doubts about Erdoğan's commitment to secularism and democracy from the beginning, although I was among many who welcomed Erdoğan's election as a welcome reprise from the calcified politics of secular parties who had governed Turkey for many years.
When he won the mayoral election in 1994, Erdoğan declared himself the "Imam of Istanbul." He opened his first city council session with a chanting from the Quran, something that Mustafa Kemal Atatϋrk would seriously disapprove of. As mayor he condemned contraception, he banned the sale of alcohol in public places, he endorsed the renovation of mosques. At a 1998 rally in the Village of Siirt he said, "The mosques are our barracks, the minarets our spears, the faithful our soldiers." He was tried by a court and sentenced to six months for inciting social divisions.
His democracy credentials are also questionable. After the 2002 election, he famously said, "Democracy is like a streetcar; you get off when you have reached your destination."
In praise of Erdoğan we should be honest about his early successes. When he came into power, there was a lot of uncertainty about how he would comport himself in Turkey and toward the United States. Erdoğan reaffirmed his ties to the West by embracing Turkey's EU membership. He committed Turkey to play a constructive role in the Cyprus negotiations, of which I was a part, as you recall. He committed Turkey to the Copenhagen Criteria, which provided a roadmap for Turkey's EU membership, involving subordinating the National Security Council to civilian authorities and other rights-based reforms, and the EU's acquis communautaire.
He also implemented some dramatic economic reforms. In response to the financial crisis of 2001, Erdoğan imposed fiscal discipline. He reduced runaway inflation, sky-high interest rates, and he imposed curbs on an over-valued currency. He negotiated a $39.5 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue package and he used the IMF funds to shrink the pension system and downsize the bloated public sector. The runaway inflation was reduced to 13 percent in 2004, its lowest level in 30 years.
On the diplomatic front, he also undertook secret negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). These were based in Oslo and aimed at ending Turkey's civil war with its Kurdish citizens, numbering as many as 20 million. The civil war had cost the lives of 40,000 people and led to the displacement of millions over nearly 40 years.
Having gotten off to a good start, we can see over the years the increasing Islamism and anti-democratic behavior of Tayyip Erdoğan.
I think that 2013 can be looked at as a real turning point in the contemporary political trajectory for Turkey. Having ruled for a decade, single-party power distorted Erdoğan's views about accountability and democratic governance. After winning a smashing election in June of 2013 [Editor's note: We believe he means the general election of 2011], we see a dramatic backsliding on his performance with human rights. He curtailed freedom of expression, jailing journalists; he refused to reform Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Act and Article 301 of the Penal Code, which were used to prevent Kurds and others from expressing their democratic aspirations.
He also waged a systematic attack on Turkey's secular institutions, particularly its judiciary. When the Constitutional Court blocked government actions allowing Islamism and liberalizing the wearing of the hijab at public institutions, Erdoğan announced, "I do not respect and will not obey the court's decision." It sounds familiar; we have heard that from other Western leaders as of late.
He also conjured fantastical plots, Ergenekon and Operation Sledgehammer. These were plots to destabilize Turkey, to justify a coup to overthrow Erdoğan, and he jailed hundreds of retired and current military officers. These arrests sent shock waves through Turkey's security establishment, which had long been the rock bed and establishment of Atatϋrk's secularist values.
With the war in Syria escalating and President Obama failing to fulfill his pledge to enforce Syria's use of chemical weapons, Erdoğan took it upon his shoulders to expand support for jihadi groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Salafist groups, such Ahrar al-Sham, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There was a "jihadi highway" that was established with the National Intelligence Agency of Turkey as the primary executor, providing weapons, money, and logistics to radicals transiting through Turkey, foreign fighters from around the world going from Urfa to Raqqa. When wounded warriors appeared in Turkish hospitals, they needed no papers, they were given free care, and the Turkish government provided for their medical services.
When the deputy prime minister of Turkey announced that women should not be seen smiling in public because it was unbecoming, it sounds much more like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, than something you would expect from a well-placed Turkish politician.
Turkey sees itself as a primary leader in the Muslim and Arab world. From the East, however, Turkey looks less Middle Eastern and decidedly like a Western country. To ISIS, Turks are kafir, which means nonbelievers. A confidante in the National Intelligence Agency was extensively involved in the transfer of support to these jihadi groups.
Vice President Biden, in a slip of the tongue for which he was famous and did often, spoke at Harvard University in October of 2013, and he said, "Our biggest problem is our allies. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars, and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. President Erdoğan told me—and he's an old friend—'You were right. We let too many people through.'"
That same year, in 2013, Turks gathered in Gezi Park in downtown Istanbul to protest plans to turn a park and a green area into a neo-Ottoman-style shopping mall. Their movement of self-expression spread across the country, and in 70 cities you saw Turks gathering peacefully to demand environmental rights and human rights. Erdoğan ordered the police in. The police brutality that we saw in Gezi Park included mass arrests and water cannons. The protests in 70 cities were brutally suppressed.
We also saw in 2013 corruption scandals revealed. There were wiretaps of Erdoğan's phone calls, and on the 17th of December and on the 23rd of December revelations about Erdoğan's extensive involvement in corrupt activities. On the 17th of December there was a series of phone calls between himself and his son, Bilal Erdoğan. Bilal said in this series of phone calls, "Dad, what am I going to do with the tens of millions of euros in the house?" Well, his older sister was called in, trucks rolled up to the back of the house, and apparently $1.1 billion in Turkish lira were unloaded from the residence and put into the vehicles.
By the end of the day, there was another phone call between Bilal and his dad, Tayyip. "Dad, I still have 35 million euros that I can't get rid of. What should we do?" Well, they picked up a great idea: Let's buy some luxury villas on the Bosphorus. And sure enough, Erdoğan's son-in-law's name is on the deed for properties that were acquired as a result of this police crackdown.
There was another series of wiretaps on the 23rd of December. Those implicated Turkish ministers and prominent Turkish personalities in corruption activities. One of those personalities is a gentleman named Reza Zarrab, who is a dual Turkish and Iranian national, who showed up with his pop-star wife and his young daughter at the Miami airport and was arrested. It turns out that Zarrab is charged with evading U.S. sanctions and colluding with Iran to raise money to support Iran's nuclear activities and other nefarious projects.
While Zarrab is sitting in the Manhattan Correctional Center, I hope he is keeping his back to the wall. There is a trial date set for October 25. Zarrab, who was deeply involved with financial transactions and with Erdoğan's finances personally, has an awful lot to say about Erdoğan's criminality, probably the reason why Erdoğan repeatedly raises with U.S. officials his wish that they adjourn the proceedings and send Zarrab back to Turkey. They even hired our illustrious former mayor, Rudy Giuliani, a famous critic of Iran, and Michael Mukasey, to try to jump the queue and prevent these legal proceedings from going forward.
So corruption also became a hallmark of the Erdoğan administration with these spectacular revelations at the end of 2013.
The other setback that year involved Kurdish issues. Erdoğan had produced a democracy package providing additional rights to the Kurds, including Kurdish language education in private schools. Unfortunately, those provisions in the democracy package were never implemented, and as a result of that, the PKK withdrew its unilateral ceasefire on September 5, 2013, plunging the country back into its civil war, which had been so costly to so many.
I think on a psychological level we also need to take note of the fact of events in Egypt. Mohamed Morsi and Tayyip Erdoğan are kindred spirits. The AKP functions like a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. When Morsi was removed from power and put in jail, Erdoğan accused the United States and Israel of launching a Western and Zionist conspiracy to undermine Arab and Muslim leaders. What happened to Morsi set an example for what could happen to Erdoğan, and he dug his heels in to prevent any damage to his rule and his party.
Of course, the people of Turkey were witnesses to all of this. They were concerned by these negative developments. They also felt that the Turkish "economic miracle," which was entirely funded through credits and bank loans, was a bubble that could burst.
When Erdoğan called for elections on June 7, 2015, for the first time since 2002, support for the AKP actually decreased. The AKP only received 40.9 percent of the vote. This put a big damper on Erdoğan's plans to revise the constitution and establish an executive presidency, aggregating the rule of law and putting himself in a position where he would be untouchable.
On July 24, Erdoğan restarted the civil war with the PKK in a cynical ploy to gain nationalist votes. Turkish jets started leaving from Incirlik Air Force Base and attacked PKK bases in Northern Iraq. I remember Richard Holbrooke, with whom I worked in the U.S. government, telling me about Slobodan Milošević, that he would solve a problem by creating a bigger one. Well, it seems as though Tayyip Erdoğan took a page from Milošević's playbook, because he restarted a war that was entirely unnecessary, a war of choice.
But it had the desired effect. When there were new elections on November 1, the AKP received 49 percent of the vote. With this electoral support, Erdoğan took steps to consolidate his power, and as a result of that things have gone from bad to worse.
There was a coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016. But my question is, was there really a coup? Some people call it a "false coup" or a "controlled coup" which Erdoğan organized and ordered to justify a crackdown on the opposition.
The coup was undertaken by Turkey's military, and anyone who has ever interacted with Turkish officers know that they are brutally efficient. But for some reason, the Turkish military's coup d'état in July of 2016 was poorly considered and even more badly executed.
Erdoğan checked out of his hotel in Marmaris an hour before the coup plotters arrived to arrest him. Now, how could that be? Shouldn't they have known of his checkout plans?
The coup plotters possessed F-16 fighter jets, but they made no effort to intercept or shoot down Erdoğan's presidential plane. Members of the Turkish general staff were detained, but was their arrest part of the coup design or was it intended to prevent them from joining the ranks of the mutineers?
The plotters never presented themselves to the public, offering a personality and a platform as an alternative. There is actually a well-developed body of knowledge about how you plan and organize a coup d'état that exists not only among policymakers but in academic settings, and the coup plotters seemed to have broken every rule.
They took TRT and CNN Turk off the air, but these happened to be the least-watched television stations in Turkey. So why did they pick these two stations in order to suppress communication between Erdoğan and the polity?
And why did they allow social media to keep functioning? They could have jammed its coverage, but they didn't. It is ironic that Erdoğan, from his presidential plane, addressed the nation using FaceTime, which is a form of social media that he vowed to eliminate after the Gezi Park protest because it had been involved in organizing people in opposition to his rule.
There were reports about the Turkish Grand National Assembly being bombed by the coup plotters, but crater analysis suggests that the explosives were actually inside the building rather than from high-impact ordnance dropped by fighter jets.
So there are a lot of questions about was there really a coup. I have never, nor will I this evening, take a position on whether Erdoğan was behind the coup. I think that is probably not the case. But I do think it is quite clear that he was tipped off by a foreign power—probably Russia—or that he learned about the coup and he allowed it to go just far enough in order to justify a crackdown.
So the coup allowed Erdoğan to say what he had been thinking all along. He warned, "This latest action is an action of treason. They will pay a heavy price for this. This is a favor from God. Why? Because it will allow us to purge the armed forces, which need to be completely cleansed."
The coup gave license to Erdoğan to release his inner Stalin. He turned Turkey into a giant gulag. The Turkish government had already put together lists of opposionists, and the authorities moved immediately. Fifty thousand people were arrested, 150,000 people were removed from their jobs. These included teachers, judges, police, members of the military. Every university dean, more than 1,500, were forced to resign, and 15,000 educators, especially those in the Kurdish areas of Southeastern Turkey, were suspended.
People were prevented from leaving the country. No one with an official passport could travel, including friends of mine who I am still trying to rescue and bring to Columbia. Background checks are underway to investigate ties to Fethullah Gϋlen, a geriatric preacher in the Poconos, whom Erdoğan accused of being a terrorist and responsible for all this trouble. Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency, but after three months things were not returned to normal, the state of emergency was extended once, and then once again.
Erdoğan wanted to create conditions to legally consolidate his power, so he moved quickly toward a constitutional referendum to legally change the constitution and establish an executive presidency, essentially doing away with the role of the parliament and eliminating all checks and balances in Turkey's governance. There was a referendum that was held on April 15, 2017. The "Yes" campaign won 51.3 percent of the vote.
The big question is, why did they only win 51.3 percent of the vote when it was so clearly a sham election where votes were rigged? International monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe (CoE) issued scathing reports. The CoE said, "It lacks the legal framework adequate for any democratic referendum." It criticized the use of state resources in support of the "yes" campaign, their control of official media. "No" campaigners were threatened and called "terrorist sympathizers." Approximately a half-million Kurds in the Southeast were displaced as a result of the military action taken by Turkey against its Kurdish citizens, and since they had no place to live and no residence, they could not register to vote. So at least a half-million voters were disenfranchised as a result of the electoral procedure.
You would think as a result of this sham election that the U.S. government would have joined the world in condemning Turkey's democratic practices. But, no. Our president Donald Trump was the first to call Tayyip Erdoğan and to congratulate him on his victory. And not only did he offer congratulations, he invited him to come to the White House for an official meeting.
Well, he came on May 17, and in a meeting that only lasted 23 minutes Erdoğan drew some red lines and made some demands of President Trump. He demanded that the United States discontinue its support for the People's Protection Units (YPG) who were fighters of Kurdish origin in Syria. According to Erdoğan, the YPG and the PKK are one and the same. He wanted the United States to back off. He demanded that the United States extradite Fethullah Gϋlen to face terrorism charges in Turkey. Erdoğan also asked that the charges be dropped against Reza Zarrab, and I am sure he told Donald Trump that "there is a seat in the presidential plane for my good friend Reza if you allow him to come back with me."
He left that meeting and he went to the Turkish ambassador's residence for a session with prominent Americans—Madeleine Albright, William Cohen, David Petraeus—organized by the Atlantic Council, which, by the way, has received millions of dollars from the Turkish government and Turkish sources, maybe in violation of its 501(c)(3) status. As Erdoğan pulled up to the ambassador's residence, there was a small group of Yazidi women and Kurds and Armenians protesting outside. Erdoğan's personal security was given an order by Erdoğan to charge the demonstrators, and they were badly beaten. Many of you may have seen a woman in red pants named Lucy Usoyan, a Yazidi who is working for Yazidi rights and to provide services to rape victims, badly brutalized by Erdoğan's personal security.
Things went from bad to worse again. We thought it couldn't get any worse, but in fact it did. In March of 2017, the United Nations issued a report criticizing Turkey for the killing of hundreds of Kurdish civilians.
That same month the European Parliament voted to suspend negotiations on Turkey's EU membership. Jean-Claude Juncker issued a statement this morning in which he said, "The EU does not foresee Turkey's EU membership anytime soon." Turkey and Germany had a terrible falling out and their relations deteriorated dramatically. During the referendum campaign, Erdoğan called Angela Merkel a "Nazi" because she would not allow Turkish ministers to campaign with Turkish citizens living in Germany.
When German members of Parliament wanted to visit their troops at Incirlik Air Force Base, they were denied access. So Germany said, "We have a right to inspect our forces," and they pulled out their soldiers from Incirlik and from Turkey. Turkey revealed a list of 680 German firms that it said were suspect of financing terrorism, including German giants like Seimans, Daimler, and BASF. Germany issued a travel advisory in July after the arrest of German citizens in Turkey, including the head of Amnesty International.
So given this negative trend, how has the United States responded? Instead of complying with Erdoğan's demands, the United States determined that the YPG was essential to liberating Raqqa, and it expanded its military cooperation with Syrian Kurds fighting against the Islamic State. It expanded cooperation by providing heavy and offensive weapons, and though those weapons were nominally given to the Syrian democratic forces, they were, in fact, given by the U.S. Government to the YPG heroic Kurdish fighters.
No action has been taken against Fethullah Gϋlen. And even if the United States does decide to extradite, ultimately the extradition decision has to be reviewed by a U.S. court. One criterion for extradition is that the person can receive a free and fair trial in the country to which he is being extradited. And let's say that court does decide to extradite, then Gϋlen will have the right of appeal. And what he has revealed already about his long-term cooperation with Erdoğan may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Instead of dropping charges against Reza Zarrab, who is a holder of so many secrets of criminal and illicit activity of Tayyip Erdoğan and his family, the U.S. Justice Department doubled down. They indicted the international vice president of Halk Bank, an official Turkish bank in the Unites States, accusing him of complicity in a money-laundering scheme and helping Iran. And just last week, the United States indicted Zafer Caglayan, a former Turkish economy minister, for participating in a money-laundering scam.
Arrest warrants have been issued by a grand jury for 19 members of Erdoğan's personal security for beating the protesters outside the Turkish ambassador's residence.
It seems as though the attitude of the United States is shifting. And if the sale of S-400 missiles goes forward, as Erdoğan has promised it would, what is the Pentagon thinking about Turkey? Is the State Department so marginalized that it will not have views about Turkey's anti-democratic behavior, about its continuing support and sympathy of Islamists? And, having supported Islamic movements in Syria, when Raqqa is defeated, all of those Islamists are going to go back to their base of operations in Turkey and we are going to see an intensified conflict there.
So what should the United States do? We are at a critical moment. Everybody who knows me can attest that I am practical and proactive, so let me put forth some recommendations.
The United States should intensify its supply of military supplies to the YPG. The area in Northern Syria called Rojava, which are the cantons of Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira, will become contiguous, and the political party of the YPG has proposed a program for decentralizing power from Damascus to its regions. The United States should fully support decentralization as a way of fostering democracy and peace and stability in Syria during the transition from Assad's rule to some future governance.
The United States should delist the PKK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). I am not sure they should ever have been put on the FTO list, but surely delisting should be part of an effort to revitalize the peace talks between Ankara and the PKK. There is no military solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey.
The U.S. Congress should establish a group, the Friends of Selahattin Demirtas, who is the leader of the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the party in Turkey which represents Kurdish interests, in order to raise awareness of his detention and to highlight concerns about the collapse of democracy in Turkey. He was arrested in Turkey on November 5. I hope that his representatives here can organize activities on that occasion to launch the Friends of Demirtas and to convene meetings with opinion leaders and policymakers around the crisis of democracy in Turkey affecting all Turks, not only its Kurdish citizens.
If any of Erdoğan's personal security had the chutzpah to actually accompany him to New York for the UN General Assembly, I hope they end up in handcuffs at JFK and end up in the Manhattan Correctional Center alongside Reza Zarrab. Zarrab should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And when the trial begins on October 25, he should be given the opportunity to sing, to implicate colleagues in Turkey, including Erdoğan and his son, Bilal, in exchange for being able to retain some of his assets and for some leniency in a U.S. court.
Right now there is no U.S. ambassador in Ankara. John Bass finished his tour and he has not been replaced. The United States should not send an ambassador to Turkey until Turkey shows a genuine commitment to reform.
There is also a lot of talk about Turkey's suitability as a NATO member. But we have to remember that Turkey is not Erdoğan, that Turkey will exist long after Erdoğan is gone. So I have recommended that NATO set up a compliance review committee. This committee would evaluate the democracy criteria that has been used to admit members and would issue a scorecard on each NATO Member State annually assessing their democratic governance, and if a country like Turkey or Hungary receives a failing grade for two years in a row, put them in the penalty box, suspend them. There is no place in the North Atlantic Alliance for tyrants and dictators.
Having visited Turkey many times, having many Turkish friends who are suffering hardship, who have lost their jobs, who no longer have a newspaper column or can appear on television, I just feel it is time to stop the happy talk about Turkey as an indispensable NATO member or as a valued secular democracy. We need to face the fact that Turkey under Erdoğan has become a rogue regime. We have to see Turkey as it is, not as it was or how we wish it to be. Turkey used to be an important partner of the United States. Under Erdoğan it has become an uncertain ally, and now Turkey is a strategic adversary. U.S.-Turkish relations will never be restored as long as Erdoğan lives or stays in power. The U.S. policy should focus on regime change. No more kowtowing to dictatorship.
I am pleased to accept your questions.
QUESTION: Don Simmons is my name. I enjoyed your talk very much.
For decades Turkey was a secular democratic country. What do you think are the feelings of the Turkish people confronted now with Erdoğan, as far as you can judge?
DAVID PHILLIPS: Let me just correct one of your assumptions. Turkey was never a democracy. It looked like a democracy, and we called it a democracy, but it never functioned like a democracy. It committed terrible abuses in the name of secularism against minorities, especially the Kurds.
What is the view of Turks? The country is divided. Probably a majority of Turks, had their votes been counted, would have rejected an executive presidency with Erdoğan at its helm. The interior, the Anatolian heartland, remains strongly supportive of the AKP and of Erdoğan; they have profited enormously during his rule.
But as you all who have visited Istanbul know, there are streets in Istanbul that seem like the Champs Élysées—Westernized, modern, contemporary—and those Turks are looking at themselves, have self-censored themselves, are wondering what their role is going to be now and in the future. I feel such a sense of sympathy and solidarity for the many Turks that I worked with on so many issues over many years because I know they are sitting home cowering in fear of a knock on the door and Erdoğan's police coming to take them away.
QUESTION: John Hirsch from the International Peace Institute.
First of all, David, thank you very much. It is nice to see you again. I've got one or two points to make.
I wonder, first, whether you think the United States should be in the business of regime change—that is a general question—because you asserted that should be an American policy goal in Turkey right now.
Second, my question—and you have not mentioned it, although I came in a few minutes late, for which I apologize, so maybe you did before I got here—the question of all the refugees and the immigrants who are transiting through Turkey en route to Europe. This flow is not stopping, to my knowledge. To some extent it depends on the cooperation of the Turkish government. We have already had the situation with the Hungarian and the Polish governments trying to close the doors and so on, to prevent any of these immigrants from getting anywhere. A lot of these people are stuck in Lesbos right now—those of you who follow PBS Newshour see what is going on. What about all the refugees?
In other words, can the United States simply sort of brush all this off and say "He's a horrible man, he's a dictator, he's corrupt, he is all these terrible things that you just had to say, and we should find a way to get rid of him, and until that happens we should desist from any action with him, cooperation with him"? I really wonder whether that is feasible. So that's my second question.
DAVID PHILLIPS: Thank you, John.
I strongly believe that the United States should support Turks who are working towards the goal of regime change. That does not mean we send in our military to do it, but we use diplomatic, economic, and political pressure to tighten the noose around Erdoğan and give freedom-loving, progressive Turks a chance to change their government, hopefully peacefully, so they do not have to suffer these atrocities.
On the subject of refugees, so many of the refugees who fled Syria were victims of a Turkish policy of aggression that created the conflict in the first place. So it is hard for me to have sympathy for Turkey, which opened its doors to help so many refugees, when its policies of supporting jihadi groups was the root cause of the conflict.
Now, we know that the way to solve the refugee crisis is for there to be a sustainable peace agreement in Syria. We also know that the war in Syria is going to end sometime, and the deal is going to look a lot like the Dayton Peace Agreement, with power decentralized to Rojava in the North, to Alawite regions in the West, and in the East to Arab Sunni territories.
Why all of a sudden did refugees start their exodus from Turkey? Were they pushed out? Were conditions in Turkey so inhospitable—the lack of education, health care, job opportunities—that they just had to flee? And why did Turkey suddenly turn a humanitarian face to its refugee policy? Was it because the European Union offered them 7 billion euros to help?
So—pardon my cynicism—I view Turkey as a culprit in creating the crisis and a manipulator of events to profit from the crisis itself. And they just didn't want money; they insisted that the European Union expedite visa liberalization for Turkish passport holders, and—mark my words—that is not going forward. The European Union does not want to have 85 million Turks traveling to Brussels and Paris, especially given the problems that exist in Northern and Western Europe with radicalization.
Thanks for that good, important question.
QUESTION: I'm a student at Columbia University.
Could you speak about the Kurdish referendum later this month in Iraq and whether you think that will go forward, and what will happen with it, and how that could affect U.S.-Turkish relations, considering Turkey is against it and the United States wanted the vote delayed?
DAVID PHILLIPS: I am all for the referendum. I went to Halabja on the Iranian border in 1989. I saw firsthand the effects of chemical weapons attacks by Saddam Hussein against Iraq's Kurdish population.
In 1991, the Kurds started a democratic experiment by setting up a de facto state. There is no reason for Iraqi Kurds to stay a part of Iraq, which is dominated by Arabs, manipulated by Iran, where their political rights and their resource gains are constrained by a central government which does everything possible to limit them. So count my vote with the "yes" column.
Iraqi Kurdistan will conduct its referendum on September 25. The outcome of that referendum will be overwhelmingly in support of independence. I have recommended to Masoud Barzani, the president of the Krudistan Region of Iraq, that they allow one year from that date to negotiate the terms of a friendly divorce with Baghdad. Hopefully, that can be achieved. Hopefully, Iraqi Kurdistan's neighbors, including Turkey, will see their self-interest and support it. And if at the end of the year Baghdad is not on board, then they should go ahead and declare their independence.
Iraqi Kurds are America's best and only friends in the region. There is a Kurdish saying that says "The Kurds have no friend but the mountains." In Iraq the United States has no friend but the Kurds.
QUESTION: Ernestine Bradley, the New School.
My question has to do with Erdoğan's increasing turn toward autocracy and to Westernism, pro-Islamism. To what extent does that have to do with the increasing difficulties Turkey had until it has now abolished, as you say, the attempt to become a member of the European Union?
DAVID PHILLIPS: That is a very important question. Had Turkey been put on a fast-track for EU membership in the early 1990s, then a lot of what we see today might never have occurred and Turkey would be integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions and the country would be dramatically different. There wouldn't be a Tayyip Erdoğan or, if he did gain power, he would be governing in a dramatically different fashion.
I know from my own meetings with Ambassador Holbrooke and European officials that they never wanted Turkey in the European Union, they always were shifting the goalpost, so Turkey rightfully should feel scorned. But the Copenhagen Criteria should in fact become the Ankara Criteria, and in the interest of Turkish citizens and good governance, Turkish political leaders should embrace them and move forward with or without the EU incentive.
For the time being—let's be honest—Turkey's prospect of joining the European Union is dead on arrival. It just ain't gonna happen. Europe does not want it, and each country said they would submit the final outcome to a referendum. Think about what voters in the Netherlands or Germany or elsewhere would choose.
QUESTIONER [Ms. Bradley]: So basically Turkey was led to believe something where the conditions were then set up in such a way that Turkey could not meet them.
DAVID PHILLIPS: Let's not allow Turkey to be the victim here. Turkey was waging war against its Kurdish citizens, it displaced millions, tens of thousands of people were killed. It is not as though there was a strawman that we created and then we knocked down Turkey. Turkey knocked itself out of the prospect of EU membership because of its belligerent and militarist approach to governance and its Kurdish minority.
QUESTION: Helena Finn, former U.S. diplomat.
If I may add a footnote, also restoration of the death penalty with the European Union is just—that's the end, the absolute end.
David, you started out with Russia, and I think anybody who has followed Turkey for a long time was quite shocked about the arms deal. And of course we are talking about alliance. In the Cold War the alliance with Turkey was strongly a military alliance. It had other elements, but it was military.
What is your view about the extent of Russian interference? We know about Russian interference, for example, in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. How extensive is it, how far back does it go, and how significant is it? Because this is a big question when it comes to NATO.
DAVID PHILLIPS: Erdoğan did not need Putin's help to steal the election; he did that on his own. So I do not think that we can tar Russia with that brush.
But Russia clearly has interfered. From the moment that a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 was shot down, it looked as though Turkish-Russian relations were in the tank. Russia said, "We're not going to import any peaches. No tourists from Russia are going to the beautiful Blue Voyage." So economic relations pretty much stopped.
But then Erdoğan and Putin seemed to take a deep breath. They seemed to realize that they had a shared interest in rejoining their cooperation. And what is that shared interest? To undermine and delegitimize the United States in the region and around the world. Make no mistake about it, these two leaders are motivated by one and only one goal: their enrichment, staying in power, and undermining the United States. Those are three goals, but they sort of conflate.
So let's not allow Erdoğan to claim Russia's interference. They had plenty of work on their own, stuffing ballots and delegitimizing voters.
QUESTIONER [Ms. Finn]: I wasn't referring just to the election. I am referring more to NATO and the military alliance.
DAVID PHILLIPS: I am not a military analyst, so it's not in my sweet spot. But my worry is that if Russia aggresses in Ukraine or takes an action against Poland or the Baltic States, under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter we are obligated to defend our treaty allies, even though President Trump seems to have reluctantly read the Charter and agreed to implement Article 5.
In that case, NATO normally acts under consensus. What will Turkey do if NATO and Russia end up crossing swords? And in Brussels, don't they have the capacity to undermine an important alliance, which is about much more than security; it is about promoting democracy and free values and human rights.
QUESTION: John Richardson.
A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to read a book called The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, so I know a little bit about the Turkish history in the early 20th century and how Mustafa Kamal came to power, etc., but I have no understanding of the secularism that he created.
You made a remark early in your speech today about how essentially the secular parties became sclerotic and there was an opening for people like Erdoğan. So what caused this secularism to lose its attractiveness?
DAVID PHILLIPS: Let me say two things, one in direct response to your question.
Absolute power retained for too long always leads to corruption and inefficient governance. We saw that with Atatϋrk's party, with the Republican People's Party (CHP), with the Motherland and True Path parties, so I don't think it is unfair to say that the secular establishment in Turkey lost its way.
But I do want to say one important thing about history. When World War I ended, the Treaty of Sѐvres promised that the Kurds would have the option of a referendum to determine their future political status in 1920. In between that promise and Turkey's War of Liberation, the commitments made in Sѐvres seemed to have been forgotten. Sѐvres was renegotiated with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, and Lausanne made no mention anywhere of the words "Kurd" or "Kurdistan."
So the Kurds, who are the largest stateless people in the world—they number 40 million in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria—find themselves without a homeland. This represents an enormous historical injustice. The agreement of great powers that Sykes and Picot made in 1916 must not stand. It is time for the right to self-determination to prevail, as it did in East Timor and in Kosovo, and will in Iraqi Kurdistan.
QUESTION: Thank you. I'm Marina Belessis.
I would like to ask about Cyprus. You mentioned your work in the conflict in Cyprus with regard to the Turkish invasion and illegal occupation of Northern Cyprus. With the energy discoveries, specifically gas—and I know in Syria oil is an issue—what do you think it has done to destabilize that relationship, and also the region?
DAVID PHILLIPS: The solution to the problem in Cyprus is the same today as it was when I worked on it with Ambassador Holbrooke 15 years ago: a bizonal, federal community where power is decentralized and shared. Unfortunately the European Union made the mistake of admitting Cyprus as a member before there could be a full and final deal between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. For years, it was Turkish Cypriots who stood in the way. Most recently, we have seen Greek Cypriots beings obstructionist.
I fully support the Republic of Cyprus as a unitary state where rights are provided to all of its citizens, including those of ethnic Turkish origin. But the Turkish Cypriots that we knew are no longer. Anatolian Turks have moved in. Erdoğan is insisting that Turkey maintain its military bases. He says there is no intention of Turkey vacating. Just as he maintains bases in Qatar and in Syria and in Cyprus, Turkey has an insidious plan to project its influence and power across the region, and if we don't stop it now, we will lose the chance to save Turkey from his hegemonic rule.
I use the occasion of my book being published and invitations such as yours to share my views with friends. It has been a great pleasure for me to spend the evening with you. Thank you very much.
JOANNE MYERS: I think the feeling is mutual. Thank you. That was fabulous.