‘Turkey, US could widen cooperation to Africa, Asia’

We see that the new administration in the United States under Joe Biden is seeking better relations with Turkey, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated, indicating that talks continue to take place both under the umbrella of NATO and bilaterally.

Reiterating that two delegations came from the U.S. so far, Çavuşoğlu told journalists during his visit to Athens that either he would visit Washington or U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would come to Ankara in the near future. “We agreed to come together as two ministers,” he added, saying that the date is not set yet.

However, he said, differences remain with the U.S. “Aid to the PKK and (the Gülenist Terror Group) FETÖ and this year the additional Armenian ‘genocide’ issue affected relations negatively.”

Speaking on another issue that caused significant tension between the two countries and that led Washington to impose sanctions on its NATO ally – Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, Çavuşoğlu reiterated that Ankara’s proposal to establish a working group under the auspices of NATO was rejected by the former and current administration.

“We know why, because they know their claims (that the system is not compatible with the NATO systems) are not true,” he said. Çavuşoğlu also pointed out that Turkey told Russia the systems will be 100% controlled by Ankara. “Therefore, we sent many technicians to Russia. No Russian soldier will be in Turkey.”

Daily Sabah's Nur Özkan Erbay (L) and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu pose for a photo in Athens on May 31, 2021 (DS Photo)
Daily Sabah’s Nur Özkan Erbay (L) and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu pose for a photo in Athens on May 31, 2021 (DS Photo)

The issue of Afghanistan is another topic of bilateral relations between the two countries. Çavuşoğlu stated that with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, both countries are discussing how to move forward.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal for his part evaluated his recent meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, saying that all bilateral issues were discussed.

“They seem to be ready for engagement with us. They came new to the administration and move forward slowly,” Önal said, reiterating that the U.S. did not even appoint a special representative for Syria yet. He stated that Turkey underlined mostly the U.S.’ cooperation with terrorist organizations. “They cannot come up with an explanation to engage with a terrorist group. They say they fight Daesh and do not intend to create a security risk for Turkey.”

He said that Washington, on the other side, sees that there is cooperation potential in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. “We discussed that this could be extended to Africa and Asia. Developments in the Horn of Africa affect us and potential there has increased. In the upcoming period, we will enhance relations on a sectoral basis.”

Çavuşoğlu added that the U.S. has the desire to work closely with Turkey. “We want to overcome existing problems,” he said.

“On the other side, the U.S. administration has an engagement with the PKK in northern Syria. They did not give up on it,” he stated, indicating that the Donald Trump administration stayed in the region for oil but that “there is not enough oil that makes them worth stay there.”

Russia’s tourism policy not political

Çavuşoğlu also touched upon restrictions on flights imposed by Russia and drone sales to Ukraine.

A one-and-half-month ban on flights between Russia and Turkey will expire on June 1; yet uncertainty over whether Moscow will allow its citizens to travel is causing concerns among the industry as well as tourists.

“Russia told us that the decision is not political,” Çavuşoğlu stressed. He elaborated that it was made due to health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Russian tourists want to come to Turkey. There are many that have bought a house in Turkey. In the near future, our health ministers will have a meeting.”

Turkey welcomed 2.1 million Russians last year and some 6 million in the year before the pandemic.

“There is nothing new in our relations with Ukraine. Our stance regarding Crimea is clear. Russia must not be disturbed by our relations with Ukraine. We do not ask any country why they sell arms,” he stated.

Turkey’s top diplomat said that the agreement between Ankara and Kyiv was struck years ago and that any country can purchase drones.

“Russia must not be upset by this. This is trade,” he added, saying that Russia gives many countries, including Syria, missiles.

He mentioned that there is significant demand for Turkey’s drones and that Poland and Romania made a change in the purchases. “Previously there was a criterion that purchases could only be made from EU and NATO members.”

“Romania has a need for armed vehicles and transporters. Previously we could not participate in tenders, now we can.”

Poland’s purchase of Turkish armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) marks the first time a NATO or European Union member state acquired drones from Turkey. Poland will buy 24 Bayraktar TB2 drones from the private Baykar company, which has also exported the TB2 model to Ukraine, Qatar and Azerbaijan.

‘Egypt, key country in region’

Turkey’s top diplomat also spoke on relations with Egypt. Earlier this year, Turkey said it had resumed diplomatic contact with Egypt and that Turkey wanted to improve cooperation after years of tensions that began with the disruption of relations in 2013.

Relations between Turkey and Egypt deteriorated after Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi toppled the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in a coup after only a year in office. Ankara has maintained its position that a democratically elected president cannot be deposed by a military coup and thus, has voiced its criticism of el-Sissi and his backers, including the West and some of Ankara’s rivals in the Gulf region. The Egyptian government, on the other hand, urged Turkey not to intervene in an issue that it considers to be the country’s internal affairs. The dispute led to a deadlock in bilateral relations for many years.

Recently, however, signs of a possible reconciliation have come from both countries, particularly due to the changing dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Turkey-Greece crisis over the region’s energy resources. The two countries exchanged positive signals that pointed to establishing contact and dialogue, including the possibility of holding talks to demarcate their maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean.

“Egypt will have more maritime zones when it signs an agreement on maritime border demarcation with us. We will meet with the Egyptian foreign minister in the upcoming period,” he said.

Önal pointed out that Egypt is one of the key countries in Africa and the Middle East and one with which economic ties are the most advanced.

“Turkish investors there provide employment for thousands of people. These relations always continued and they continued not to disrupt this economic basis,” Önal stated.

He further said that there is political will on both sides for the normalization of relations as well as more coordination. “The Egyptian side has some expectations. Our joint view is that these cannot be taken forward outside the regional context.”

“There is agreement that coordination between Turkey and Egypt will affect Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria as well as Palestine.”

Speaking on relations with the United Arab Emirates, Çavuşoğlu said that positive messages are received from different channels.

Normalization with Israel

The Palestinian issue and Israeli attacks were also on the agenda of Turkey’s top diplomat. He stated that U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield will visit Turkey on Friday.

“The U.S., in the beginning, supported Israel openly but changed its policy when serious reactions came. While there were debates within the democrat party, serious reactions also came from the American people,” Çavuşoğlu said.

“Normalization with Israel depends on its policies and its will for this change,” he stated, “in either the Benjamin Netanyahu administration or another one, in order for our relations with Israel to be healthy, it has to end illegal settlements and attacks.”

Önal similarly pointed to Washington’s policy change saying that Turkey’s efforts were influential and gave the example of The New York Times publishing the photos of children that died in the Gaza Strip.

Since April 13, clashes erupted across the occupied territories because of Israeli attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque, restrictions on Palestinians in East Jerusalem and an Israeli court’s decision to evict 12 Palestinian families from their homes in favor of Israeli settlers.

Tensions moved to Gaza on May 10, leading to a military confrontation between Israeli forces and Palestinian resistance groups where Israeli warplanes caused an unprecedented scale of destruction in the occupied territory.

An Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took effect last Friday, putting an end to 11 days of the worst fighting in years. At least 279 Palestinians were killed, including 69 children and 40 women, and more than 1,900 others were injured in the Israeli onslaught on Gaza and the West Bank, according to Palestinian health officials.

On relations with the EU, Çavuşoğlu stated that all eyes were on the upcoming June summit. A summit on migration was already held, he stated and reiterated the need for visa liberalization and updating the customs union with the bloc. Çavuşoğlu said that the issue must be further discussed since migration will continue following the coronavirus pandemic.

Saying that the EU acts too slowly in this regard, Çavuşoğlu stated that Turkey has made its proposal of concrete steps on how to renew the migration deal. “Since then, there has been no concrete reply from the EU. There is uncertainty,” he added, highlighting that giving Turkey money for stopping migrants is no sustainable policy.