Secretary’s Remarks: Press Availability With Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu

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Rex W. Tillerson 

Secretary of State

Ankara, Turkey

February 16, 2018

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: (Via interpreter) Distinguished members of the press, yesterday and today we have been hosting the United States Secretary of State, Mr. Rex Tillerson. We’re very glad to host him here. We pay great attention to this visit because we’re passing through a very critical timing in our bilateral relations, and therefore we do believe that this visit is of utmost importance.

Turkey and the United States of America have been continuing their strategic partnership over the course of the history, increasing its depth every day, and with the steps that have been taken on both sides, this strategic partnership has been extended into various spheres. And it does not just include the two countries, but in our region and beyond, it includes many countries as well as many states and many nations who are benefiting from this strategic partnership. The basis of this strategic partnership is actually the fight that we gave together in Korea.

In our past, we had some ups and downs in our relations. We even had times of crisis, but always and always, the strategic partnership vision was at the forefront in terms of its mid-term and long-term goals. When we started dialogue in a frank and sincere environment, we were able to overcome all these critical phases together.

Now, like I have said, we are passing through such a critical stage in our relations. Yesterday, we were received by the president of the republic, and we had a trilateral meeting, and we had the same sincere and frank atmosphere where both sides expected – expressed their thoughts, their expectations, and even their worries in a most sincere and frank manner. And the meeting, which took about three hours, was not just a meeting that we discussed our bilateral relations, but also our cooperation in regional issues as well as our mutual perspectives.

As I said before, our relations are at a critical turning point. We were either going to correct this and continue our relations or we were going to go into a much more worse position. But with the will that we put forward as of yesterday, we have taken an important turn in terms of normalizing our relations. We reached an agreement and an understanding.

Of course, there are certain steps that are needed to be taken to achieve this. There are expectations on both sides. We have certain worries about the Fethullahist terrorist organization and our fight against this FETO terrorist organization, and the support that is provided by the United States on YPG and similar organizations, and our expectations pertaining to PKK. Of course, these are very important security worries that are closely related to our existence, and we do want to believe that these are taken into consideration seriously.

But up to this point, there were certain promises that were made, there were certain topics that we discussed, there were certain promises that were not kept, and there were certain issues that we could not resolve. So from this point on, we wanted to focus as to how we can take solution-oriented steps so that the issues are not just on paper, and we wanted to talk about how we can implement this, how we can make sure that they are implemented. So we were able to talk about all of these, and we decided to create a mechanism or even mechanisms to be able to discuss these and resolve them.

One such mechanism, as you will see in the press declaration, is about the general issues: the consular issues, the issue regarding FETO, the Fethullahist terrorist organization, and some issues that the United States attaches importance to. Actually, we had a working group that we established after the visa crisis, but now we are going to extend the content of all of these and we will be talking about all of these together. For instance, on the FETO issue, do we have evidence or not? Do we need any additional evidence? Is the evidence that we have sent sufficient? Instead of discussing this in length before the public, we want to discuss this in the working – (break in audio) – because in order to reach any conclusion, any result, we need to work together and act together.

(Break in audio.)

On the Syria issue, we also talked about how we are going to overcome our worries regarding the Syrian issue: which steps are we going to take, how are we going to fight against terrorist organizations, how are we going to establish stability in those cities that have been cleared of terrorist attacks, how – who is going to do this, how are we going to respect the territorial integrity of Iraq, and most importantly, how are we going to work together to achieve a political resolution with the Geneva process. So we were able to talk about how we will take concrete steps with our experts so we’re not talking about promises or commitments any longer. We want to overcome all of these by working together, and I am sure that all of these will bring important results for us.

All these mechanisms are not kicking the ball off to the corner. They are not delaying the process. To the contrary, these are important aspects to get results and mechanisms that will achieve results that will meet the expectations of both sides. So we are not trying to gain time, and hopefully, the next meeting is going to take place before the middle of March. We have agreed on this aspect as well.

In the end, distinguished members of the press, the meetings that we had yesterday and today have been important in terms of the future of our bilateral relations, in terms of overcoming our mutual worries, and both on Syria, Iraq, and especially on the issue of the fight against terrorism. The cooperation with respect to regional issues were important, and this was a critical visit and a critical series of meetings. I do believe that once the relations are set into track again, what is important is as a result of all these visits and meetings to be able to take step towards the future jointly, commonly, in partnership, and get results. So we will work like two allies, establishing trust once again, and we will base our relations on this basis that have been strengthened by our partnership and alliance thoughts. With these opinions and thoughts, once again I would like to say welcome to our guest, Mr. Tillerson, and leave the floor to him, and then we will be answering questions from your side.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I want to thank Foreign Minister Cavusoglu for his hospitality during this visit, and I also want to express my appreciation to President Erdogan for the extensive amount of time he provided to me yesterday evening so we could have a very full discussion of both sides’ concerns but also a lot of discussion about the future and how we go forward from where we are today. I want to reaffirm the deep and important relationship between the United States and Turkey. Ours is not an alliance of convenience or of temporary interest. It is a time-tested alliance built on common interest and mutual respect.

Turkey was one of the first countries to join NATO. Turkish troops served alongside Americans in Korea, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo. We have made many shared sacrifices together. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Turkey against terrorist threats. Turkey is a critical partner in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Daesh. We’re grateful that Turkey has allowed the United States and other NATO countries to base forces in Incirlik, and Turkey is the linchpin of strategic stability at the crossroads of the three continents.

Our two countries share the same objectives in Syria: the defeat of ISIS, Daesh; secure and stable zones; an independent and unified Syria; and help chart a new democratic future for Syria under the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 process. We are hopeful that the Geneva process will produce a new constitution for the Syrian people and elections to be held under UN auspices. A democratic future for Syria is essential for preventing ISIS from re-emerging and from stopping the suffering that the Assad regime has inflicted on the Syrian people. The Turkish Government and people deserve the gratitude and recognition for the unprecedented hospitality they have displayed in hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees.

We recognize the legitimate right of Turkey to secure its borders. We take it seriously when our NATO ally Turkey says it has security concerns. As to Afrin, we call upon Turkey to show restraint in its operation to minimize the casualties to civilians and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in that area.

From the beginning, we’ve been transparent with Turkey regarding our objectives in Syria. Our relationship with our NATO ally Turkey is enduring and strategic. I again conveyed this message to President Erdogan and to the foreign minister today, as have many other U.S. officials. We have always been clear with Turkey that the weapons provided to the Syrian Democratic Forces would be limited, mission-specific, and provided on an incremental basis to achieve military objectives only.

We have long supported and will continue to support Turkish democracy. Respect for the rule of law, judicial independence, and an open press are a source of strength and stability. When Turkey maintains its commitment to these principles, it expands our potential partnership. We support the Government of Turkey’s right to bring the perpetrators of the 2016 coup to justice. It is important to handle these cases in a transparent and fair manner that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms. We continue to have serious concerns about the detention of local employees of our mission in Turkey and about cases against U.S. citizens who have been arrested under the state of emergency. We will continue to engage with our Turkish counterparts to seek a satisfactory resolution to these cases, and we call upon Turkey to release Pastor Andrew Brunson and other U.S. citizens whom we believe are being unjustly detained. With regard to Serkan Golge, we believe his release through the appeals process would be both just and appropriate.

I want to thank again President Erdogan and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu for the opportunity to discuss these and many other very, very important issues, and for the cooperation we both have been able to show one another and respect in charting a way forward in this relationship. The United States truly appreciates our long friendship with Turkey. We value it, and we look forward to strengthening it as we move forward. Thank you.

MODERATOR: (In Turkish.)

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Sevil Erkus from Hurriyet Daily. My first question will be to our guest, Secretary of State. Mr. Tillerson, we are actually passing one of the most critical stages of the Turkish-United States relations. In order to overcome these problematic aspects – the aspect pertaining to the assistance of military equipment to YPG and PYD – Ankara worries. In order to overcome all these worries, and also, in the context of Syria, to establish cooperation between Turkey and United States, do you have any proposals for solutions? Could you share these with you?

Also, if the Afrin operation is extended to Manbij, the fact that there are American soldiers there – do you have any plans to withdraw forces from that region, or the fact that they’re at harm?

My question to you, Mr. Foreign Minister —

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: (Via interpreter) So we said actually two questions each, but you have asked more than 10 now.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) My question to you: Before you said either these relations are going to go worse or going to be improved. You said today that you had taken a decision to normalize relations. Did you get the relevant warranties or safeguards from the United States that you were expecting from your side?

Another aspect: With respect to a news item that was reflected on the media, it was indicated that the troops on Manbij would be withdrawn to the eastern part of Euphrates and that this was a proposal that you brought. Did you make such a proposal indeed so that the American troops were withdrawn from that area, and how does American side resolve?

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: (Via interpreter) So this is actually a question for two hours.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: In our discussions last night with President Erdogan, we brought forward proposals on how we can address all of the critical issues that are standing between this relationship today. And those will be addressed – some will be addressed in the joint statement that we will be releasing following this press avail. But the foreign minister did touch on a few of those, and we want to work specifically on the issues that are standing between us.

What we have agreed is our objectives for Syria are precisely the same. There are – there’s no daylight between Turkey and the U.S. objectives: defeat ISIS, stabilize the country, create stabilization areas so eventually refugees and internally displaced persons can begin to return home, and support the political solution for Syria that will result in a whole, independent, democratic Syria with no special demarcations dividing Syria and with the Syrian people selecting their leadership through free and fair elections. And we all share that same objective.

And now, going from this point forward, we are going to closely coordinate our efforts against the final defeat of Daesh. We do not have them fully defeated today, but we’re going to coordinate our efforts against the final defeat of Daesh as well as other terrorist groups that are located inside of Syria. We want to coordinate how to stabilize areas together and who will occupy those areas. And the objective and intent is to return these villages, these cities back to the composition of people who were there before they were overrun by Daesh. So we’re going to address Manbij first. It’s one of the first areas we’re going to work on. The United States made commitments to Turkey previously. We’ve not completed fulfilling those commitments. Through the working group we’re going to address that, and Manbij is going to receive priority.

But it’s not just Manbij. We have to think about all of northern Syria, and we’ve agreed on certain areas we’re – we’ll continue to work together, and then we’re going to coordinate very closely on supporting the Geneva process, because ultimately, that is the pathway to a peaceful, stable Syria. That improves Turkey’s security as well on its border when we can achieve that final peace.

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: (Via interpreter) Thank you very much. At the beginning of my remarks, I said that this was a very critical visit for the future of our relations. It was a critical timing. Therefore, in the meetings that we held since yesterday evening, we talked about how our expectations were to be met, and there were other concerns of the United States on their citizens, about the local employees of the consulate. There were, of course, expectations on their side.

We’re already working on these consular issues, but our worries were in direct relation to the direct threats that we were receiving about the YPG attacking our citizens, because our people are dying. Up to this point, we had about 100 citizens, Turkish citizens, or Syrian-origin people coming from Afrin. They were killed by missiles or by arms that were coming from Afrin. They lost their lives because of this. So of course, undoubtfully, this working group which is going to meet our expectations and the concrete steps that we will take is crucial. This is important on YPG, on ISIS/ISIL, on FETO. These are important with relation to all of these aspects.

On the other hand, on Manbij, of course, Rex Tillerson gave the answer to your question. And in 2016, there were commitments of the United States to Turkey at every level, including President Obama, John Kerry, and Mr. (inaudible), who is still at his position, and by other people in high-level positions, but these promises were not kept. And even at one point, we were to send a delegation to tell that YPG was actually going to move to the eastern part of Euphrates, but from that visit we were not convinced and we learned later on that they had not moved. So in this process, we are going to start from Manbij, and we will be sure of the steps that we have taken.

We also need to ensure that YPG is going to move to the eastern part of the Euphrates. We need to see the implementation together, and Rex stated very clearly: For stability in these regions, we will talk about as to who is going to manage these cities and who is going to provide the security. If Manbij is 95 percent Arab town, it actually does not make any sense that YPG is going to provide security there, because that will mean that there will not be any stability there. So we will be talking with this understanding so that stability is attained and we will be rest assured of the security. It’s not just for Manbij, but we will start from there. And once YPG leaves that and after we have the trust established, we will be able to take steps together with the United States of America, but now YPG needs to leave that zone, and this is a commitment that the United States of America has made to us, and we will be talking about the implementation of how this promise will be kept. Thank you.

MODERATOR: (In Turkish.)

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, there seems to be a little short on specifics here. Do you agree that you are talking about what you’re going to do in the future and you have not agreed on specific steps that will begin starting today? And can you explain why it has taken so long for two allies to come together with an agreement on what seems to be a very basic principle, that two allies will not shoot at each other in Syria and one will not give the other an “Ottoman slap”? Are you confident that in the future some of the rhetoric will be turned down, and what has been the hang-up?

And Mr. Foreign Minister, I wanted to ask you if you agree that some of the rhetoric in recent weeks from yourself and your president has been overheated and unhelpful. And also, what will it take for your government to finally be confident enough to lift the state of emergency and release thousands of your own citizens, plus the American citizens and embassy employees who have been imprisoned on what much of the world considers to be very flimsy evidence? Thank you.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, with respect to how we’re going forward – and that’s what all of the discussion here was about, recognizing where we find ourselves. And I think as the foreign minister indicated, we find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship. And we could go back and revisit how we got here, but we don’t think that’s useful. We’ve decided and President Erdogan decided last night we needed to talk about how do we go forward. The relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies, it’s too valuable to the American people, it’s too valuable to the Turkish people for us to not do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.

And out of the meetings last night – and much of our staff was up through the night to memorialize how we’re going to go about this, and we’ll share a little bit of that in the joint statement. We’re going to reserve a lot of the details because there’s a lot of work yet to be done, and we – and our working teams need to be allowed to do that work in a very open, frank, honest way with one another so that we can chart the way forward together. And I think that’s the important point I want you to take away here, is we’re not going to act alone any longer. We’re not going to be U.S. doing one thing and Turkey doing another. We are going to act together from this point forward. We’re going to lock arms, we’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us, and we’re going to resolve them and we’re going to move forward with the future defeat of ISIS in terms of coordinating our efforts to complete this battle, which is not yet complete; to addressing other terrorist presence inside of Syria; to stabilizing areas and ensuring that the stability architecture, both security forces and governing councils, are representative of the conditions that existed in those cities before they were overrun by ISIS.

And we have good mechanisms on how we can achieve that, but there’s a lot of work to be done. People are going to have to roll their sleeves up. We’re going to get started very quickly. As the foreign minister said, we’re going to have the first round of these engagements before the middle of March. We know we need to move with some sense of urgency and promptness to address this, because we have a serious situation still inside of Syria, and we need to address that jointly together.

So I would say the specifics will emerge out of the work as we allow these groups to come together, but I think the objective, we’ve made clear as to what our objective is. So now we’re going to have a team of people working towards putting that in place and implementing it, and we’ve given you a little bit – just a little bit of a peek of some of the early priorities we’re going to place for these groups to work on.

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: (Via interpreter) Thank you very much for your question. Since last night, we have been talking about how we can overcome these problems, and these are not just explanations and announcements coming from our side. That will not be a realistic approach. Our declarations was not declarations of enmity. And of course, we were taking into consideration our worries and the realities that we show – show from our side.

Likewise, as politicians, sometimes we take certain steps, and by the steps that we take and by the commitments that we have paid, we might be guiding this popular sentiment with the positive inputs. But when it comes to a point – this is true for all political sphere, but in Turkey, the president of the republic and we as politicians, including me, we should be voicing the opinion of the Turkish public, because we are representing them. And the declarations that we made were just ramifications of the popular thought in Turkey.

Secondly, the detention or the prosecution that is taking place – this does not have anything to do with the state of emergency in Turkey, and this state of emergency is nothing to restrict the fundamental rights and freedoms of Turkish citizens or anybody living in Turkey. In 2003, one of the first steps that we took when we came to government was actually to remove the state of emergency in southeast part of Turkey. In some European countries, after one terrorist attack there is a state of emergency declared. But we, on the other hand, were – the leader of a terrorist organization who is residing in Pennsylvania attempted a coup in our country. So with the state of emergency, we needed to take rapid steps against this terrorist organization. This was the expectation of our people. So the prosecution that is continuing in Turkey has been in line with the EU, with the Council of Europe criteria, and in line with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the legislation which has been democratically enacted in Turkey in parallel with those standards.

So this prosecution within the state of emergency has nothing to do with any judicial proceeding that goes on in this period. Therefore, independent courts that have been established and that have been reformed with the legislation in parallel to the standards of the EU and the Council of Europe are conducted. It does not have any – does not receive any direction from any other third country or a political intervention from within. And the state of emergency does not have any connection to this. We do hope that within this whole process we would always have the following: that in terms of accelerating in the prosecution we might have certain recommendations, but in the end, the independent judiciary passes judgment. The appeal process is open. You can go all the way up to the constitutional court. We do have an individual application system to the constitutional court and even the European Court of Human Rights. So the remedies in terms of the legal sphere go all the way up to Strasbourg within that understanding.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Gonca Senay from TRT World. I have questions to both ministers. In terms of earning in the trust of the Turkish public, I think we listed the expectations on the Turkish side, but I do want to ask a question to Mr. Tillerson, especially reminding him of the budget drop that was proposed by Pentagon. Will the arms assistance provided to YPG by the United States of America – is it going to cease? And this morning, there was certain news that the Turkish soldiers would be acting together with the American soldiers in Manbij. Thirdly, will you take a step on the FETO issue?

Mr. Cavusoglu, my question to you is that you talked about certain mechanisms involving FETO, and you said that you were talking about the mid-March. Is there any timetable, or is this an agreement that both sides have reached? And what is going to be the level of this working group? What level in the administration? Thank you.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: With respect to DOD’s budget for the coming year, only sufficient funds have been included in their budget to continue the defeat of ISIS campaign, and this is to continue to supply the SDF forces primarily with ammunition, because this fight goes on. There’s no more being provided than we believe is necessary to complete the battle to defeat Daesh.

The question of Manbij is one that, as I said, is going to be given priority in our joint working group effort, and this is one of – as the foreign minister indicated, one of the issues for us to work together on is what kind of security should be provided. Manbij is strategically a very important city from the standpoint of our defeat of Daesh but also our containment and ensuring that they do not re-emerge. It’s geographically important. That’s why the U.S. has left a troop presence in Manbij to ensure that that city remains under control of our allied forces and does not fall into the hands of others. So that will be a topic for discussion in terms of how we go forward to ensure Manbij remains within our control because of its strategic importance.

And we did agree – we had a lot of conversation last night with President Erdogan regarding the concerns over Fethullah Gulen back in the United States as well as his organization, and we’ve agreed that we will continue to examine all the evidence that can be provided to us. We will continue our own efforts at our own independent investigations to ensure that we know when illegal activities are being carried out in the United States, and we remain open and anxious to receive any new information and evidence that the Turkish Government can provide us as well. So it remains an open investigation with the United States.

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: (Via interpreter) Thank you very much. As I have just mentioned and I – as I repeatedly say, the purpose of these mechanisms and working groups is to keep the promises that were not kept so far, and in order to take tangible and concrete steps. This is true for YPG; this is true for FETO as well. And in Syria, not only ISIS/ISIL, because we have achieved important results regarding ISIS/ISIL, and the Republic of Turkey has fighted more than everyone in this fight, and it just killed more than 3,000 Turks in just Syria. And as – in – with regards to foreign fighters, their extradition and their prevention in terms of entering in the country, we have taken important steps and we have also served as a co-chair as well in the council. But we need to fight against all types of terrorist organizations in order to achieve the political framework that we have just described with new constitution, with new laws. We want to take the country to an election.

Of course, these working groups will have different boards, and for example, in the first one, the ministry of foreign affairs will be the coordinator. However, there will be officers from the intelligence unit from the ministry of justice as well. And especially regarding financial crimes and regarding topics about the corruptions of FETO terrorist organizations, we will have representatives from the department of financial crimes. And as it was mentioned by Rex and by relevant authorities, recently there are investigations carried out regarding FETO schools in this United States, and it will bear us the results about the corruption taking place in the U.S. and how they achieve, how they earn these money for election. And with just simple investigations, we – they will see these results.

And again, regarding Syria, we will have our soldiers – I mean the ministry of defense – we will have intelligence units and other relevant authorities in these groups and in these wars. So we have identified the participants and we have agreed on the parties as well, and from now on we will try to come together and achieve results altogether.

QUESTION: Did you warn Turkey that they could be subject to sanctions under CAATSA legislation if they go ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system?

And for you, Mr. Foreign Minister, would the threat of U.S. sanctions stop you from going ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system? And if you do buy the system, do you still want to remain in NATO if you’re obtaining the weapons from Russia?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We did discuss the impact of the CAATSA law that was passed by the Congress last summer that deals with purchases of Russian military equipment. I discussed it last night with President Erdogan; we had further discussions this morning about it. And indeed, it’s in the first group of issues that the foreign minister is referring to. We need to put a group of experts together, and we’ll look at the circumstances around that, as we’ve done with governments all over the world, not just Turkey, because the intent of that legislation was not to harm our friends and allies. But it is directed at Russia for its interference in our elections. So we’ve been advising countries around the world as to what the impact on their relationship and purchases that they might be considering with Russia, and many have reconsidered those and have decided to not proceed with those discussions.

Every case is individual on its own. We want to consult with Turkey and at least ensure they understand what might be at risk in this particular transaction. We don’t have all the details yet, so I can’t give you any kind of a conclusion, but it’ll be given very careful scrutiny, obviously, and we’ll fully comply with the law. And we are – we are now implementing CAATSA and fully applying it around the world.

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: Thank you very much. First and foremost, I need to underline that I am against the terminology that you use. You used the threat terminology. That is not a correct terminology to be used because it is true for all countries and states. We never use the language of threat and we deny if it is used against us, because this is not correct.

But as Rex has also indicated, this was not something that we talked just yesterday and today. When we met in Vancouver, we talked about this, and from time to time when we have phone conversations, we talk about such issues. This was again brought to the agenda in one of those talks. Of course, there is a law that was enacted by the United States Congress, and they explained this legislation to us. But on the other hand, this is our national security, and it’s important for our national security. I have emergency need of an air defense system. We want to purchase this from our allies, but this does not exist. So even when we are purchasing small-scale arms, the Congress or some other European parliaments, we have – we have and we had difficulty in purchasing these because of these excuses, and I have an emergency need. And the Russian Federation came up with attractive proposals for us. We also talked to other countries, not just with Russia, but we talked about this issue of emergency need with many countries and we had bilateral talks.

Also, in the mid-term, we talked about joint production and technology transfer. We focused on this because this is important for Turkey. And lastly, during the Paris visit of our president – with Eurosam – this is a French-Italian partnership – there was a pre-agreement signed, a memorandum of understanding signed with these groups. So we do not have any problems with our allies. Why should we not meet this requirement with NATO? But, of course, when it is not met within this platform, we need to look for alternative resources. Otherwise, some batteries – some Patriot were withdrawn from our frontier. Some European allies withdrew them. We have (inaudible) of the Italians and Patriots of Spain, and we do not have any other air defense. And we need to meet this requirement as soon as possible. And when we talked to Russia, this was actually an agreement that we reached before the legislation in Congress was enacted. And the remaining part was about the details of loans, et cetera.

Of course, we talked about all of these, and we will take into consideration this – within this working group the commission, but all of us need to understand each other and respect each other. Thank you very much.