BY MAURIZIO MOLINARI
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told “La Stampa” he expects EU to admit Turkey, will focus on Jerusalem when he meets the Pope and will fight hard against “all our enemies” as his army in doing in the Afrin province in Syria. In the 19th century Beylerbeyi Palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in Istanbul he made it clear looking to his coming visit to Italy and the Holy See. Erdogan made his opinions clear speaking slowly and surely in a hall located at the second floor of the Ottoman residence where he spends much of his time in Istanbul, despite having built a gigantic Presidential Palace in the capital Ankara. During the interview he claimed to be doing “everything” faith in Islam directed him to.
President Erdogan, the upcoming six-month Presidency of the European Union is held by Bulgaria. You were invited to join European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Varna to discuss progress in accession talks. Do you still believe Turkey might get into the European Union?
Turkey has done everything it needed to do to fulfil criteria for entry into the European Union. Accession however is a bilateral process, and the EU needs to start keeping its promises too.
What do you mean?
The EU blocks the accession process and then blames Turkey for the lack of progress. This is unfair. Some European Union countries are also proposing to tailor alternatives to a full membership for Turkey, but this is also not fair.
Do you reject alternative solutions, such as finding a common position towards the European Union for Turkey and the UK after Brexit?
We want full membership of the EU. We won’t accept any other solution.
The EU often quotes emergency law as well as scant respect for human rights in Turkey to explain why things are moving on so slowly
I call on the EU to remove these artificial obstacles to our membership, and to be more constructive. Internal politics should not stand in the way of the accession process.
What do you expect from the Bulgaria meeting with top EU leaders?
Borisov, Juncker and Tusk are old friends. No one has been dealing with the EU for longer than me. I’m very disappointed to see that, even though most European states have labelled the PKK as a terrorist organisation, you often see MEPs in the Parliament in Brussels wearing PKK logos. This is unacceptable, such ambiguous behaviour must stop.
What is your top priority for the upcoming talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican?
My top priority is Jerusalem.
Why is that the case?
Following US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which violated international law, I immediately spoke to the Pope. After our phone call Pope Francis swiftly conveyed the right message on Jerusalem to all his Christian followers around the world, and I want to thank him for that. The status of Jerusalem is a central issue for both Muslims and Christians, both the Pope and myself are committed to protecting the status quo. No nation in the world has a right to take unilateral steps on a city, which is dear to billions of people, ignoring international laws. That’s why the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the Trump declaration on Jerusalem last December: only a few countries supported the US and Israel, and I was glad to see Italy voted against the US decision too.
What sort of joint initiative could you envisage with the Pope? The Palestinians are increasingly isolated.
We should take measures to preserve the status quo, ensure holy places in Jerusalem remain open to the three religions, and protect the rights of the Palestinians. It is important that the Pope keeps advocating for this.
How can the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be solved?
The only solution is the two States solution. That’s why all countries around the world should recognise the state of Palestine. I call on Italy to do it too.
The Turkish flag can be seen flying in places such as Qatar, Sudan and the Gaza Strip. You are becoming and important strategic actor in Middle East. What do you aim to achieve?
Turkey is increasingly able to exert influence around the world. It is a strong, trustworthy strategic partner not only in the Middle East but all around the world. Our role is crucial when it comes to stopping migrants heading to Europe from the East and preserving Europe’s stability and security. We invest energies in fighting terror groups such as the PKK, the YPG and ISIS.
The EU and the United States do not consider the YPG as a terrorist organisation. They actually supported them throughout their fight against ISIS.
Well, they are wrong. Considering the PKK and the YPG any different is misleading. You cannot fight a terrorist organization with another terrorist organization.
What is your take on popular revolts across the Arab world?
You need to ensure the political process is inclusive if you want to achieve peace and stability in the region. Nations must be politically united and their territorial integrity is to be preserved. When dealing with nations’ attempt to democratise you always need a principle based approach that does not discriminate between states and regions. Unfortunately, the international community has not been consistent with these principles lately and this must change.
Pope Francis has raised the issue of violence against Christians in the Middle East. What can be done about that?
People of different faiths have lived side by side for centuries in the Middle East, coexisting peacefully. The situation has now deteriorated because of external interventions, extremist ideologies as well as terror groups such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Terrorism in the Middle East is bad for Muslims and Christians alike. As a matter of fact, an overwhelming majority of those who fall victims to ISIS are Muslims. It is a mistake to focus on the suffering of one side only, and Pope Francis’ advocacy for the cause of the Rohingya Muslims is a great example of the right approach.
After the referendum on independence, Iraqi Kurdistan is now isolated. How can the stalemate be overcome?
The Kurdish regional government ignored calls from Turkey and the international community and carried out a referendum, which weakened the territorial integrity of Iraq. They must now make up for their mistake and convince the central government in Baghdad that they want to remain part of the country. I support dialogue between the two.
Do you think ISIS could rise again from its ashes after defeats in Raqqa and Mosul?
With Euphrates Shield Operation we neutralised 3000 Isis fighters, won back 2015 square kilometres and made it possible for 130.000 Syrians to go back to their homes. While the operation to liberate Raqqa was ongoing, the YPG allowed scores of ISIS fighters to run away from the siege. These fighters are now hiding in Afrin.
Turkish Army entered Afrin to fight Kurdish military groups. What are your objectives there?
Let me rephrase your question: we are not fighting Kurdish groups in Afrin, we are fighting terrorists. We don’t have any problems with Syrian Kurds per se. We have a right to fight terrorists. Operation “Olive Branch” aims at eliminating terrorists from the Afrin province, from which they launched more than 700 attacks against Turkish provinces of Kilis and Hatay.
You were accused of causing civilian casualties in Afrin.
Actually Turkey endured four civilian casualties in our provinces of Kilis and Hatay, and 90 people have been wounded from rocket fire from the YPG. YPG terrorists accuse us of killing civilians but they are the ones making use of human shields.
When will you put an end to the offensive?
We have no intentions of taking over territory. We want to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.
Your activities in Syria are closely coordinated with Russia, and you even bought S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries from Moscow. NATO did not appreciate the move. Why did you do that?
The increasing number of attacks threatening our territory from Syria forced us to modernise our surface-to-air defence systems. We have been conducting talks with many states on the issue, and our top priority has always been the price and the possibility to benefit from transfers of technologies. Russia satisfied our needs in terms of prices and was ready to allow for transfers of technology as well as production facilities. It is wrong to see our deal with Russia as related to our membership with NATO: Greece is also a member of NATO and still owes S-300 400 surface-to-air missile batteries. We are also negotiating deals with France and Italy on this.
Can you describe such deals?
The Turkish Corporation ASELSAN, as well as the Turkish weapons manufacturer Roketsan, are collaborating with the Italian-French Eurosam GIE on developing long-range anti-air and anti-missile defence systems. During my recent visit to France we reached an agreement to kick-start our work on this. We care a lot about our defence industry. We don’t want to rely on imports only in the sector.
What do you expect from meetings in Rome with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni?
We need to improve bilateral relations between our two countries. Former Prime Minister Berlusconi is a great friend of mine and relations between Turkey and Italy were at a heyday during his leadership. We need to restore that. I remember striking a great deal with Berlusconi on “Attack Agusta Westland” helicopters, for instance. We should do more of that. After meeting the Pope I will also have talks with Mattarella and Gentiloni, whom I respect a lot. I will also meet entrepreneurs and I hope this will be fruitful. Italy is our third commercial partner but there is a potential to do more. You are only the 11th when it comes to the number of Italian companies active in Turkey, we need to improve that. We built Osmangazi and Yavuz Sultan Selim bridges with Italian partners, and I’m sure companies of our two countries can still strike great deals.
Libya is a top priority for Italy, how can we keep it united?
We support the territorial integrity of Libya, and encourage dialogue since 2014. We support the efforts of the UN envoy Ghassan Salamé to bring about national and regional reconciliation, aiming for the adoption of a new Constitution and for fresh elections to take place soon.
Can Italy and Turkey cooperate on a joint action in Libya?
We both want peace and stability in the country and we both reopened our diplomatic missions in Tripoli. The more our two countries invest efforts in Libya, the more we will be able to cooperate. A working group to accommodate cooperation there will be operational soon.
Protests are scheduled to take place in Rome during your visit, people claim Turkey violates human rights. What would you tell demonstrators, if you were to address them?
I don’t speak to people who support terrorism. I only speak to those who fight it. I deal with terrorists like I’m dealing with them in Afrin; this is the only language they understand. What language did Italy speak with terrorists? And France, Great Britain, the United States, Russia, do they not speak this language to terrorists? I speak that language too.
You will meet the Pope, who is a man of faith. You are also a man of faith. Does it count a lot in defining your identity?
Religion and faith are everything for me. I cannot live without it. Everything faith tells me to do is a priority for me when I take action.
You are ruling this country since 15 years, what are your dreams for the future?
I dream to make Turkey one of the ten top developed countries in the world. Currently, we are 5th in Europe and 16th worldwide, but we want to be in the top ten.
Translated from Italian by Davide Lerner