Istanbul Press Roundtable

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Istanbul, Turkey
July 30, 2012

Date: 07/30/2012 Description: Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Gordon in Istanbul, Turkey.  - State Dept Image ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Thanks so much. Let me just start by saying it’s great to be back not just in Turkey, but in Istanbul.

I’ll just say a word about what I’m doing and maybe focusing on. It’s actually a quick trip to the region. I was last week in the Balkans, in Cyprus. I didn’t have a chance to visit Greece and wanted to pay a visit to Greece to see for the first time the new government there and to express to Greece our support for the difficult economic reforms that they’re undertaking. So I spent the end of last week in Greece, and then we have such a huge agenda with Turkey, I wanted to come, even if briefly, to Istanbul where I’ll have a chance to meet with senior Turkish officials during the day to cover the full range of issues that we deal with with Turkey, which, as always, is an enormous agenda. So I’ll do that throughout the day today. I’ll have a chance to visit the Halki Seminary this afternoon, and then for the first time to attend an iftar dinner tonight, which I very much look forward to.

When I say I’ll cover the full range of issues with our Turkish counterparts, as I say with Turkey that list is always very long and there’s never enough time, but we have a good and healthy discussion on all the critical issues of the day. Here I might just flag a few, and I would start with Syria given the dramatic situation unfolding there and the degree to which it’s a huge priority, both for Turkey and the United States, and I would simply say I think we are coordinating very well on the question of Syria. I think we have very similar interests -- both Turkey and the United States some time ago came to the conclusion that you could not have stability in Syria under the Assad regime, and that that regime needs to go. We are working very well together and with other members of the international community to increase pressure on the regime, to ensure a political transition, which is our objective, and to coordinate our efforts and assistance to the opposition so that when Assad does go -- and we’re confident that he will -- we can help ensure a stable and inclusive democratic Syria in its wake, and that’s one of our top priorities and something we’re coordinating very closely with the Turkish Government on.

I can also mention Iran, which has been another major area of coordination with Turkey. We appreciate the efforts Turkey has undertaken to enforce Security Council Resolution 1929 and other efforts to do what we believe is necessary to keep financial and diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime until it meets its obligations to the international community on the nuclear issue. You know we support a dual track policy: we’re pursuing the pressure, but we’re also pursuing the talks, and we believe this can be resolved and should be resolved diplomatically. But I think again, it’s fair to say that we share an interest with Turkey in ensuring that Iran does meet its obligations to the international community and does not develop nuclear weapons.

I’ll express my strong support for Turkey on the question of the PKK, another common challenge. The United States stands strongly with Turkey and works very closely with Turkey on counterterrorism efforts and specifically the challenge from the PKK. We’ll discuss how best to do that.

We’ll talk about regional issues. I mentioned I was just last week in the Balkans and Cyprus -- these are also issues that we speak regularly about, coordinate closely on; the Caucasus as well; Turkish-Armenian normalization, which is something that we’re interested in seeing advance; Turkey-Greece, again I was just in Greece. Again, as always, Turkey plays a major role throughout the region and this will be an opportunity to cover some of those issues. I’ll be interested in hearing more about constitutional developments and discussions in Turkey, both with private sector people that I will see on this short visit and also with the government.

Finally, let me just mention the question of the economy. It’s been a priority for leaders, I think, in Ankara and in Washington, to expand economic and commercial ties. Turkey is obviously one of the more rapidly growing economies in the world -- it’s a big economy, it’s an important partner of the United States. We have a strong trading and investment relationship, but we’re convinced it could be even stronger, and I always try to take the opportunity, especially in Istanbul, to think about and talk to people about ways we might strengthen that relationship.

So you can see: a short visit but a big agenda, as always. I’m sure the day will end with me being aware that there’s so much more to be said, but that will just give me an excuse to come back, hopefully in the near future. Why don’t I stop with that, and I look forward to any questions you might have.

QUESTION: Let’s start with Syria. I think a lot of people are curious to know how the U.S. explains its inaction in Syria compared to Libya. When I say that, of course, I’m aware of the complexities in the region. But the public, the operation in Libya was explained as a humanitarian one, and I have Obama’s speech from March 2011 saying that the United States couldn’t watch because [inaudible] only 8,000 people; here in Syria we have 20,000 people killed so far. So what’s the explanation for the U.S. inaction?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I wouldn’t accept the notion that there’s been inaction. In fact, we have been very active in doing what I described as the two main things, which is increasing financial and diplomatic pressure on the regime and enhancing our support for the opposition.

You know you can -- Every situation is different, and to simply say the international community did one thing in Libya and therefore why isn’t it doing exactly the same thing in Syria, I mean, the President was clear about why and how we intervened in Libya, and if you recall that series of developments, you had Qadhafi threatening to go in and kill, to be blunt about it, large numbers of people; you had the Arab League calling for an intervention, a no-fly zone; you had the UN Security Council passing a Chapter 7 Resolution calling for all necessary measures; and you had a NATO consensus that using military force would be effective and necessary in order to implement that UN Security Council Resolution. So you had regional support, you had international law, and you had a military assessment that the most effective way to deal with the challenge was through a NATO intervention.

The situation in Syria is just different, and so we continue to study the best and most effective ways to achieve our objectives -- which include seeing a political transition to get rid of Assad -- but you just can’t extrapolate and say that if in one case you use NATO military force, or any sort of military force, that every other conflict in the world lends itself to the same sort of solution.

QUESTION: Yeah, but it’s almost exactly the same situation. Look at it, except for the UN and NATO support. And there the U.S. enabled that support to begin with. So --


QUESTION: -- it’s almost exactly the same. You have –[inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Again, we don’t have the same view of whether it’s almost exactly the same. I think I’ve described a number of very significant differences ranging from the UN Security Council Resolution to the regional support to the military situation on the ground, to the assessment of military leaders as to what could be done at what cost. So again, I think it’s important not to assume that everything is exactly the same.

QUESTION: You just mentioned political transition in Syria. So what we understand is that the U.S. administration at the moment, as we speak, is not really considering a military action because of the conditions you just referred to, but more concentrating on assisting and strengthening the opposition.


QUESTION: Last week there were important guests in Ankara, and we understand the modalities of how that transition will be is being discussed in several places around the world. Do you consider having elements of the Assad regime, now we see them as a way to form this transition, collating with SNC and the Free Syrian Army on the ground. Are you discussing this modality with the elements of the regime who just turned their faces to Assad?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: You mean elements of the regime who have left, not the ones --

QUESTION: Exactly.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: There are two aspects to the role of elements of the regime. As you recall in the Geneva Action Group meeting, which was May 30th or June 30th, it was the end of -- June 30th, right? We supported Kofi Annan’s proposal and conclusion -- and the countries that were around the table which is the permanent members of the Security Council and critical neighbors -- that a transitional body could include members of the regime, members of the opposition, but it would have to be agreed by mutual consent and it was clear to us that there would not be mutual consent -- for example, Mr. Assad himself and those closest to him -- so that aspect of including elements of the regime remains on the table. The United States and other members of the Action Group supported that, again with the clear proviso that anyone participating would have to be acceptable to the opposition.

Now that wasn’t directly addressing those who have turned on the regime -- former members of the regime who turned on it -- but I think the same principle might be kept in mind of mutual consent. If there are people whose participation would undermine the credibility and practicality and effectiveness of any transitional regime, then it’s difficult to see how their inclusion could be successful. But ultimately, you know this will be not something for the United States to decide but for members of the Syrian opposition to decide what’s most effective and viable for them.

QUESTION: You mentioned about the Annan plan and the diplomatic efforts. Do you think the Annan plan is still on the table?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: The Annan plan is still on the table. It’s no secret that we’re disappointed about the lack of implementation, the most critical point of which, of course, is the cease-fire and the government ceasing to use its heavy weapons in attacks on civilians and cities, and so long as that piece of it is not being implemented, obviously we’re not getting to where we need to be. But the Annan plan is on the table, and we still look to the regime and the parties to implement it.

QUESTION: Could we have another one related to Syria? Actually I would like to put this question, because you also mentioned PKK in the long list of important topics. The developments in Syria, especially in the north of Syria, we know that in five or six cities now the control is with the Kurds, they are controlling the areas. They are not really fighting, but we know that they have, they are actually a branch of PKK as we know [inaudible]. They are talking about autonomy, and they are talking about a model similar to the Northern Iraq example. We know that this has caused concern and disturbance on this side of the border. I’m sure you’re going to discuss it with the Turkish authorities, but what is the U.S. stance on the Kurdish issue inside Syria? Do you find their position on autonomy acceptable?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think the United States can be clear on several things regarding the Kurds. When we say that the Syrian opposition needs to be inclusive, needs to give a voice to all of the groups in Syria that have a legitimate voice and are fighting against -- for a political transition against -- the Assad regime, and that includes Kurds. There’s no question about that, and as we seek to work with and coordinate the opposition, that includes Kurdish voices.

But we are equally clear that we don’t see for the future of Syria an autonomous Kurdish area or territory; we want to see a Syria that remains united. We’ve been clear both with the Kurds of Syria and our counterparts in Turkey that we don’t support any movement towards autonomy or separatism, which we think would be a slippery slope. So we’re very clear about that.

QUESTION: We’ve had a lot of debate about the recent [inaudible] in American [inaudible] in Washington. We hear that [inaudible] is not very happy about some of the recent leaks in Wall Street Journal and lately Reuters last week. He is saying apparently that it’s deliberate.


QUESTION: That it’s deliberate [inaudible] in the Obama administration are not happy with them, and they keep saying they are negative. Is that realistic? Is that true? And is it a coincidence that we have three major leaks in [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: As you might imagine, I don’t have any comments on leaks other than to say that we denounce them. To put it in context, who knows who these voices are -- when you read in the paper sometimes an administration official said this or that, what can we say? Who’s passing themselves off as an official, what the source is -- we don’t know anything about it. We do everything we can to prevent people from disclosing unauthorized things, but again, I would really encourage you not to take at face value some of the things you read because we just don’t know what the source is.

QUESTION: Yeah, but we had the Reuters article from the other day, we had the August 11th phone call between Obama and [inaudible] word by word almost. It has to be someone who is very familiar with the administration.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Again, I can’t give any credence to anything that you read based on these unofficial alleged sources -- again, it’s certainly not our policy -- we do everything we can to prevent it. I would encourage people not to take at face value everything that they read.

QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up on that one, but not about the leaks, actually about the Turkish plane which was hit in the Mediterranean? There is still not really a clear picture of what happened. We know that there is an investigation going on on the Turkish side, and the Turkish side has confirmed that the American side has shared information, all the information that you have. They are in parallel with the Turkish view that what they received from your side and from the British side and the Russians are confirming what they had, I don’t know the technical term, but what is coming from the radars, different radars. But what she was actually referring to, that one of the stories was about a U.S. official talking about yes, we know what happened but we are not going to talk about it publicly. Can you confirm that line, that you shared information with the Turkish side but you are not sharing it with the Turkish public?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: No, I wouldn’t put it that way at all. I can confirm that we’ve shared information with the Turkish side -- of course when we have a NATO ally involved in something like this it’s important to us to share views and information. I won’t comment on leaks about what people say we have and haven’t done. I’ve seen such contradictory things cited in the press that it’s almost proof that you can’t believe everything you read.

We’ve been pretty clear about this incident. I think it was just two days after the incident that Secretary Clinton put out a statement with what our view is, which is we stand by our NATO ally in solidarity. We denounced this act of the Syrian regime of shooting a plane down and killing two Turkish pilots. That’s that.

QUESTION: And do you have -- When you denounce it, it’s a violent act from the Syrian side. This is what you confirm?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Everything we know is that it was a violent act from the Syrian side -- Look, we’re never probably going to have 100 percent information about exactly what happened in a situation like this. What we do understand to be the case is that without warning Syria shot down a Turkish plane. That much we’re pretty clear about. That would be one more example of the regime’s disregard for human life and willingness to kill, and that’s why we were so clear in our statement of support for Turkey.

QUESTION: I want to change the subject. There are some cases about [inaudible] in Turkey. You may know about them, the Ergenekon case and some other cases. In this issue, the officials from the European Union made clear statements against those people who are planning to overthrow the government. But from the American side, we didn’t hear any sharp statement for supporting the cases and for denouncing the other groups. Do you agree with this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I won’t comment on specific pending court cases. I would just say as a general rule that we’ve encouraged our partners in Turkey, as anywhere, to make sure there is due process and transparency and rule of law. These are difficult, complicated cases. We don’t have full information, so I would stick to those basic principles.

QUESTION: For the last, until [inaudible] coup there was a general view in Turkey that the United States supported the generals during the coup [inaudible], so without making any comments about the last [inaudible], this is strengthening the idea of the Turkish people that the United States is not supporting Turkish democracy rights. Supporting the other side [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I’m not sure what you’re getting at with that, but again, we do strongly support Turkish democracy. Indeed, that was my very point: that we want to see transparency, accountability, rule of law, due process, and let the judicial system based on those principles, perform justice.

QUESTION: Every time there is the question of freedom of press in Turkey and [inaudible] we hear that Secretary Clinton is following very closely and that she is talking about it with her counterparts. What exactly is she saying? How exactly is the U.S. worried about the [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: She is following it very closely and I think she addressed it pretty clearly even when she was in Turkey. She has said publicly that Turkey, like any country, can’t fulfill its democratic promise unless there is free flow of information, that countries are stronger when there’s free expression, and both for the media and for individuals, that’s what the United States system is based on. We don’t always fulfill all of these ideals, but those are the principles that we like to believe in, and we encourage others and we believe that democracies are most successful, economies are most successful, when there’s full and free expression for individuals, business people and the media, and I think she was very clear about that in Turkey. She’s clear about it in private with Turkish counterparts, and it’s a strong belief of the U.S. administration and the U.S. public.

QUESTION: I have a question more related to your hot agenda today about the Halki and your trip to Greece. You just said it was about visiting Greece after the elections for the first time and having detailed conversation with your counterparts. Also I’m just wondering what really is being [inaudible] about Halki these days? I don’t imagine that your visit is just a coincidence. We know the U.S., the firm U.S. stance on this one already. But coming from Greece, and we know Turkey has been working on different formulas to open Halki. But that was always the notion of reciprocity with Greece on opening Halki. So what is the latest on that one? And can we take your visit as a signal that something is going to happen soon?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I would say a couple of things. The answer to most of your questions will come from the Turkish government and the Patriarchate. It’s certainly not for me to say under what laws different options might be considered for reopening Halki and the timetable as well. I’d defer to Turkish authorities and the Patriarchate.

The U.S. position has been consistent for quite some time, we’ve long advocated the opening of Halki. My visit, in some ways, is a personal one. I’ve been following this issue, interested in this issue for a very long time. I worked in the Clinton White House when Bill Clinton was interested in working with Turkey to open Halki, and he visited Halki himself, and I was with him on the trip to Istanbul in 1999. After all that work and following the issue for so long, I’ve never personally had the opportunity to go, so I very much look forward myself on this beautiful day to actually see what I understand is a beautiful site. But I wouldn’t read into it any more than that. I had the opportunity coming to Istanbul; I’ve long been interested in doing it.

It is true that there seems to be increasing discussion of opening Halki in Turkey, which we welcome and encourage, and we very much hope to see that come to fulfillment after all these years -- it would be a real positive gesture on religious tolerance and inclusion. So I very much would reiterate what we’ve said many times: We would very much like to see the school reopened. But the details that you asked about, that’s not for us -- that’s for the Turkish Government.

QUESTION: I want to ask about Iran. There is an economic embargo against Iran but they are still doing something. There was a report in the Israeli papers yesterday, the papers about the attack plan to Iran. Do you know about that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I’ve read the papers, but I don’t have any comments on other alleged comments by different officials that, according to my reading of the papers the next day, were then retracted by some of the same people, so I really don’t have a comment on that.

I think I already addressed what our policy on Iran is, and it’s clear and it’s important, because we believe that Iran is in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and in violation of its commitments to the international community. We believe an Iranian nuclear weapon would be destabilizing for the region. We believe that Iran has been involved in international acts of terrorism that are destabilizing and that’s why we are so committed with the rest of the international community. This is not some unilateral U.S. thing, but look at the global support for increasing pressure on Iran because of its violations of its international commitments. We think this is having an effect, the EU oil embargo, the increasing international pressure. It’s really a vote by the international community that says Iran really needs to come into compliance. That pressure will continue until Iran does fulfill its obligations.

We believe that this increasing pressure is responsible for getting Iran back to the table to talk about nuclear issues and so that’s why we’re convinced it needs to continue and we welcome Turkey’s support for that approach.

QUESTION: We don’t seem to find an answer to this one. Is [inaudible] an American air base? Well, not an air base [inaudible].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t have an answer for you.

QUESTION: [inaudible]