Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's Trip to D.C.

Special Briefing
Washington, DC
December 4, 2009

STAFF: Well, this briefing is dedicated to Janine Zachria – (laughter) – the one person who really wants to talk about Turkey. But we – as you know, the Prime Minister Erdogan is coming to Washington on Monday, will be meeting with President Obama and Secretary Clinton. And as we are kind of thinking about that, the only opportunity to give you kind of a perspective on Turkey came on this flight.

So, we have [Senior Administration Official One] and a special guest star, [Senior Administration Official Two].

The meeting on Monday – very important meeting with a very long agenda. But you saw today – you didn’t see it, but [Senior Administration Officials] were engaged heavily during the course of the day working with Turkey on how to characterize the process forward.

What? Speak up? Speak up. Okay, there we go.

But there were, a number of subjects today that involved Turkey, in terms of, obviously, the situation in Afghanistan, the situation in Iraq, Middle East peace. There is hardly a regional or global issue where Turkey is not playing an increasingly important role. So we thought we would take advantage of having [Senior Administration Officials] here, just to kind of tee up the Turkey visit for next week. But they will come to you as senior administration officials. We will turn it over to official number one.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, thanks. I hope people can hear me all right. Prime Minister Erdogan comes on Monday. And I think the essential thing to say is that we have an enormous agenda with Turkey.

You will remember when President Obama took his first trip to Europe in April earlier this year, he decided to go to Turkey also, as a reflection of the fact that with Turkey we deal with so many regional and global issues: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Middle East, Greece, European Union, energy, Cyprus. I could go on.

And this is an important opportunity for Prime Minister Erdogan to reciprocate the visit, and to go through this very, very big agenda. Turkey is a major player on so many of the fronts that we are dealing with. I think it’s fair to say it’s an increasingly major player. This Erdogan government is very active throughout the region and throughout the world.

They are a key partner in Afghanistan. Indeed, they stepped up their efforts in Afghanistan in April, at the time of the NATO summit and the President’s visit. And we have been engaged in very close and, indeed, special particular cooperation with Turkey on Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries in which they have a historic and extensive role.

We have been dealing with Turkey on the historic opportunity to normalize relations with Armenia. You will remember in Zurich, the signing that the Secretary participated in and helped close to bring about those historic protocols. Turkey is still an aspiring member of the European Union, an aspiration that we support and promote with Europeans where we can.

They are a key NATO ally, and as was just said, we work intensively with them on this full range of issues here at the NATO ministerial: the issue of (inaudible) for the Balkans, and missile defense, and so many others.

I think the most useful here would be to just take your questions. So I won’t go on further about the vast agenda we have. But I think the basic point I wanted to make is that it really is – there are few countries in the world with which we deal as intensively and extensively as with Turkey. And this is an opportunity for the President and Prime Minister Erdogan to go through that agenda and advance our common interests.

QUESTION: You said earlier today that Turkey was, if not the most influential player in Afghanistan, one of the most. And I didn’t sort of know why. So, just on a very simple level, what are the roots of the Turkish influence in Afghanistan? Why does it essentially play such a big role?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think it is a combination of historic ties and interests in the region. And, as I know – and with Pakistan. You know, you have historic parallels between Turkey and Pakistan out of (inaudible), creating a sort of secular governance in a largely Muslim country. And there was always a historic interest and parallel between the two. And I think that historical legacy goes on today.

And the current AKP Government, Development and Justice Party Government in Turkey, as I noted, is very interested in the full range of Middle Eastern and South Asian issues. And, as – from the start, Turkey was the first, if I’m not mistaken, ISAF commander in Kabul. And when NATO needed a command to take over, Turkey volunteered. And they are back in that role now.

And partly because of their great interest and their knowledge of the region, which is extensive, we have had a particular partnership with them. As I mentioned, the Turks sent over a team to Washington about a month ago to work intensively with Special Representative Holbrooke and his team, and that visit was just reciprocated with an American team going and meeting with the Turks in Turkey to advance this agenda.

QUESTION: Thank you. On two issues, Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict, do you see Turkey as being constructive or destructive on these two issues? Erdogan has been pretty publicly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program.

He has also been sort of one of the more critical voices in the Islamic world about Israel’s role in the Gaza conflict. And I know many Israelis feel that Erdogan is sort of turning, and is not playing a constructive role at all on the Arab-Israeli conflict. How do you view these two issues, and how do you think they will be sort of addressed when he meets with the President?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, to take them one at a time, on Iran, Turkey is an important player. And I don’t – if I heard you say that Turkey is, you know, sympathetic to or supportive of the Iranian nuclear program, I would say I don’t think that’s the case. Turkey makes it quite clear that they don’t want to see Iran have nuclear weapons.

Now, it is true that they have questions about sanctions, and certainly military force. And often they address those concerns. But they also make it very clear that they don’t want to see Iran develop nuclear weapons capability, and they want to be helpful in avoiding that scenario. And they have put themselves forward as a potential site to hold in escrow some of the low-enriched uranium that we are trying to get out of Iran.

Remember the deal on October 1st was to get the LEU out of the country, to which Iran agreed in principle, and then sort of got cold feet and didn’t execute that deal. Turkey has come forward and said they would be willing to do it. But even there we are not getting the cooperation from Iran. We said if Iran would ship the LEU to Turkey that would be okay with us. But Iran hasn’t even gone for that. So, in that sense, Turkey has been trying to be helpful. And we would have found that helpful.

And we continue to – and to get back to the question about the visit – the President will make clear our views on Iran, and will strongly encourage Turkey to join us and the other P-5 countries in doing everything we can to prevent Iran from developing that nuclear capability.
On the Israel part of your question, Turkey has long had a very important and positive relationship with Israel, and that’s one that we certainly want to continue. The Turks, and Prime Minister Erdogan in particular, have been critical of some Israeli actions recently, and in particular, Gaza. And there is no doubt about that. And we have said some different things about the situation in Israel. But they are a major player, and it’s very important to see such a key Middle East player, a predominantly Muslim country, have a strategic partnership with Israel, which they still do. And they do military exercises together, and they cooperate in the defense realm, and they have close relations. And that is something we are going to encourage them to continue to do.

QUESTION: Where do we stand on their aspirations for the EU? And what does the Prime Minister want from Obama?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: The United States, for years, or even decades, administrations of both stripes, have strongly supported Turkey’s EU aspirations. And that is also true of this administration.

President Obama has made clear he recognizes we are not a member of the EU; this is not a call for us to make. And we don’t tell other countries what to do. But we are a major player in Europe, and we believe that we share with our friends – and the President has made this clear with our key EU allies – that we believe that Europe would be stronger if Turkey was a member. And we believe it would be good for Turkey, as well, and that the incentive of joining the EU has been a positive factor in Turkey’s development, political reform, economic reform, in a very constructive way.

So, we continue to support that. The President will tell Prime Minister Erdogan that we support it and, as I noted, has made this point clear publicly and privately in Europe. And you will have to ask Prime Minister Erdogan what he will expect from the President. But the Turks, I think, appreciate our strong support on this issue.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Ultimately, we are not a member of the EU. And –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think that Prime Minister Erdogan is coming to establish himself as the player on the world stage that he is emerging to be. And this relationship with President Obama is important to him, because the Turks want to play a central role in all the issues on the global agenda.

As [Senior Administration Official One] said, whether it’s Middle East peace or Iran, Afghanistan, they want to be taken seriously. They want to be dealt in as we are making decisions about how we want to address issues. And so this dialogue with President Obama, which he began during our first trip to Europe in April, and which was continued at meetings over the course of the year, is very important to Erdogan, as well.

I think they also have made clear to us that they would very much like to have expanded economic cooperation between our two countries. And so one of the things that will be launched during this visit, as a result of a discussion that we had in Ankara in April, is a high-level economic cooperation framework between our two countries, to promote greater trade and investment.

QUESTION: If I could get back to the Afghanistan issue. As – Ambassador Holbrooke said that Turkey is very important and we all recognize that. Is there a specific – or is the U.S. really – how hard is the U.S. pressing them to come forward with combat troops? They don’t really want to do that, it seems. Is that something that the U.S. really feels would be a big help in developing this multi-national surge?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: You know, I think it’s a fallacy to say that we have pressed anybody hard. I don’t think that’s the way this whole discussion has unfolded. We’ve been involved in an ongoing consultation with our allies throughout the process of the view about how we see the situation in Afghanistan, how they assess it, and what we can do to be more effective in pursuing our shared goals. And in that context, as the review came to its conclusion, we had identified what needed to be done, and we’ve discussed with allies where they can contribute.

But in a fashion that is consistent with the overall approach to our relationships, we have said, “Look at what you think is required. Look at what you think you have the capability to do.” Our militaries have dialogues with one another in which they identify some of the capabilities that they have. And so that’s evident to us.

We know what a country like Turkey has the capacity to do. We know what a country like the United Kingdom has the capacity to do. We may say to them, “It’s evident to us you can, but it’s really up to you to decide what level of commitment you want to make at this point, recognizing that this is a shared effort, you have already expended a great deal. You’re very actively involved in the case of Turkey,” as [Senior Administration Official One] described.

And so, we’ve really asked each country to step forward to define for themselves what role they want to play. In the case of Turkey, I would add, they have already upped their commitment substantially, because they have responsibility for Kabul. They have already added – more than doubled their troop commitment in Kabul, and in this year, in order to support that mission.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: The question was how concerned we are about Iran, and?

QUESTION: Oh, sorry. How concerned are you about the signals that Turkey has been sending on Iran? And also, how key would Turkey be in any sanctions regime, sanctions policy? How key would they be?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Just to pick up on the last – how key they would be, I mean, we have always believed that sanctions are most effective when very broadly and multi-nationally imposed. And that’s why this has been such an intense international effort at the UN and elsewhere with our EU partners, because narrow sanctions applied by just a few countries are not effective. And so we want the widest possible support for any potential sanctions, as it’s necessary to go in that direction. So, Turkey would be an important player on this issue.

How concerned we are? This would be, no doubt, a subject discussed on Monday between the leaders. Turkey – we feel – we were very pleased with the result of the IAEA vote last week on Iran, where there really was a very strong international signal of dissatisfaction with Iran’s responses, and unwillingness to cooperate with UN Security Council resolutions and the IAEA. And Turkey abstained on that vote, which disappointed us, because we – as we noted, wanted to see the widest possible consensus. And we will continue to encourage Turkey to join with the EU 3+3 and P-5+1, and others, in what we hope will be a common line.

QUESTION: Another question about Turkey’s role in the region. Turkey has become very close to Syria in recent years. Do you see the Turks playing a constructive role in sort of wooing Syria away from the Iranian kind of orbit? Or is it – some people would argue the Turks are sort of sheltering Syria from international pressure through all this economic engagement.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I’m sure this will be another issue that the leaders will discuss. Turkey, in the past, has played a constructive role on this front, sponsoring and hosting talks between Israel and Syria, which is something that we support, and would like to see resumed.

Turkey, as it expressed displeasure with – its own view of Israel’s policy, sort of backed out of that role, and hasn’t resumed it. But we see the possibility, at least – again, because Turkey is a country that has historically had close ties to the Arab side and to the Israeli side – can potentially play that role.

And as for engaging Syria itself, this is something we will also – the leaders will need to discuss to make sure that we all want to move Syria in a direction away from Iran, which would help us on the nuclear issues and others, but not unconditionally. And we are going to have to try to line up our policies in that effort.

QUESTION: You mentioned that you wanted to see talks resumed between Syria and Israel via the Turks. What specifically can the Turks do to help facilitate that? Are they effective enough in bringing the two sides together?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, let me just clarify. I mean, this is not something – a current initiative, or on the table. I said in the past they’ve played a constructive role, and one could imagine such a role resuming. But right now this is not something that we are pushing, or actively putting on the table.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: If I can add one thing to that, what could they do to play a constructive role? They need to be seen by all relevant participants in such a dialogue as an honest broker.

And to the question about the deterioration of their relationship with Israel, to the extent that they return to the kind of relationship that they have previously had, which has been a very strong and cooperative relationship, they will be able to serve in the role that they seek to play in the region. If they don’t retain those ties, it’s going to be harder for them to lead in the way they would like to lead.

QUESTION: And I just had a couple of things that I wanted to clarify. It sounds like what you’re saying is that President Obama will try to clarify with Prime Minister Erdogan how he sees Iran and Iran’s nuclear program, and Turkey’s relationship with Iran. I just wanted to make sure I understood that properly.

Do you also, on the other hand, perhaps see Turkey as a possible interlocutor for the U.S. with Iran in any way? Is that something the President might raise?

And also, I wasn’t clear yet on what specifically the President will ask Turkey for on Afghanistan. That’s new. I know they added – I guess last month – a few hundred more troops.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I will start on Iran, and maybe my colleague will pick up the Afghanistan point.

What was –

QUESTION: It was – I’ve been thinking about this all day – two days now. Will President Obama ask them to clarify their relationship, specifically, on the nuclear program? And can they be an interlocutor –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Can they be – it was the interlocutor part, exactly. None of us have slept in the past 72 hours. So the – not a good idea.

On the interlocutor point, Turkey can potentially be an important interlocutor with Iran. Indeed, I think that that is a role they would like to play. One of the earlier questions about what do they want – I do see – think they see themselves having this potential role. They have played it before, as I noted, between Syria and Israel.

They see themselves – this Turkish government has a policy of zero problems with neighbors. That’s one of their sort of themes. And, in addition to serving their own interests with that, they argue that that enables them to play an honest broker. And they can talk to everyone, they have relations with everyone. And they would like to play that role with Iran.

We have no problem with Turkey reaching out to Iran, talking to Iran. But it is important to us that the message be the same. And they can only play that potential role, useful role, if their message is consistent with that of the rest of the international community and ours, which is that we want to engage Iran. We’ve put some things on the table that we think are an opportunity for Iran to engage with us, that would allow them to have a civil nuclear energy program, but would reassure the international community that they don’t have a nuclear weapons program, and that they’re abiding by UN Security Council resolutions.

Now, if Turkey will support that approach, and help convey to Iran that we’re serious about the engagement that we have proposed, and that we have put offers on the table that they should accept, then we believe that that intermediary role could be positive. If, on the other hand, they are not prepared to support that approach, which, as I noted, has widespread international support, then there is not going to be much of a (inaudible) for them to play that role.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: One point, as a date point for those of you who haven’t followed Turkey for a long time – I think some of you probably have in the previous administration – Turkey’s relations with its neighbors were a subject of great tension with Turkey, and the previous administration didn’t want Turkey to be engaging with Syria, engaging with Iran.

One of the ways in which this relationship has been transformed, in terms of the dialogue we have with the Turks, is we do appreciate the ties that Turkey has with its neighbors, and we want to work with Turkey, as [Senior Administration Official One] said, to pursue shared objectives in the region. But that has been a way of opening up a conversation with the Turks that previously wasn’t possible.

And so, this incredibly full agenda for the visit reflects, in part, a transformed dialogue, which we really are working together on this huge range of issues, and trying to build in a role for the Turks, as we think about our own approaches.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I said, “The previous administration.” The previous U.S. Administration, yes.

QUESTION: So, how do you see Turkey’s role changing, if it’s changing, as the U.S. pulls out of Iraq in the next year? Where does Turkey fit into that new scenario?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me answer that. We owe Janine an answer on Afghanistan, which can be brief.

As I think was already said, we are not pressing Turkey for specific things and expecting them to be making an announcement on Monday. In terms of the appeals to all of our allies to do as much as they can, we have said that there will be many opportunities, first of all, acknowledging what Turkey is already doing in Afghanistan, both in terms of its troops and the cooperation with us, politically.

But we have said all along that there are many opportunities in the wake of the President’s announcement of our approach, for allies to contribute more. We were very pleased at the reaction we got at this ministerial, just days after the President’s announcement with at least 7,000 new troops.

But we know that there is a force generation conference next week. There is a London conference in January. There are plenty of other opportunities for countries to do more. And we will continue to welcome anyone who wants to do more. So that is how we are looking at Turkey, and what they might do in Afghanistan.

On Iraq, I think it’s important to acknowledge something very important, and even historic that’s going on in the wake of our engagement in Iraq, which is Turkey’s relationship with Iraq, and particularly northern Iraq, which has been hugely problematic over the years, even hostile. And you had the whole issue of the PKK and safe havens in northern Iraq, and Turkey crossing the border, and military operations.

Well, over the past several years we’ve gone from that hostility to a really functioning relationship, and possibly even a particular special relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish citizens of northern Iraq. There have been Turkish trade delegations going in northern Iraq, political discussions between Kurdish-Iraqi leaders and the Turkish government in a way that was unimaginable several years ago.

So, that is a potentially historic and positive development, not just for the relations between those two countries, but because of the positive effect it has on Turkey’s struggle against PKK terrorism, which has killed more than 30,000 people over the decades, and on which we stand strongly with our Turkish friends.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Just to add on that point, this is another issue on which we are cooperating, which is the need to proceed forward in Iraq, get an election law and an election to take place that produces a country that functions, so that we can come home as we have planned to. And the Turks are very much engaged in that. They have a real stake, as you all know, in Iraq hanging together as a country. And so that’s an opportunity that we also have, now that they have made as – what [Senior Administration Official One] correctly described as a historic transition.

I would also add, just interesting for those of you who look at Turkey internally, is how dynamic Turkey is today, and how much is happening. And this opening on the part of Erdogan to his own Kurdish population inside Turkey is a radical departure, it’s something very courageous, and potentially transformational for the country, in terms of bringing this community into the fold and into the political process, and putting an end to the decades of violence that have resulted from their being in violent opposition – not “they,” not the Kurds, but the element of the Kurds that are – have chosen a terrorist route, the PKK.

QUESTION: I’ll make it the last question, don’t worry. But just a little thumbnail. You mentioned energy. Turkey is always so important with energy pipelines, et cetera. Anything we should be keeping our eyes on, as he is here, in that regard?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, in the longer term, yes. In the shorter term, I would (inaudible) this meeting is not about a decision or an announcement on the pipeline or an energy route. The broader point is that we have strongly supported the diversification of energy supplies to Europe. And that, almost inevitably, involves Turkey and the southern corridor.

And you have a number of different possibilities of increasing European energy security through Turkey. You have the Nabucco Pipeline, through which there was an intergovernmental agreement several months ago. Turkey and Azerbaijan are in discussions about a gas transit arrangement. These are – there is a Turkey-Greece-Italy inter-connector. These are all projects that we encourage, because we believe that as Europe can decrease its reliance on narrow energy supplies and diversify, that is in their interest, both economically and politically and strategically.
So, the President will no doubt talk about these energy issues with the Prime Minister. But we don’t expect any announcements or particular initiatives.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, he – I’m sure energy will come up. But we are not expecting any announcements out of the meeting.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: There is a lunch, but I can’t share the menu with you.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Janine asked whether I told Newsweek, as I was quoted, that there were more disagreements than agreements in U.S.-Turkish relations. And the answer is no. And a correction has been run – Newsweek got that from a Turkish website or something that misquoted the senior official who was in Turkey that week. And corrections have subsequently been published.

And the senior official who is speaking now would not concur with that. We have a lot in common with Turkey that we are working on together.

PRN: 2009/T16-7