#DiplomaticCentennial Osman Koray Ertas: No other country bore burden of Syrian conflict as Turkey
Editor's note: A previous version of this interview contained minor spelling errors, now corrected
No other country has taken upon itself the burden of the Syrian conflict like Turkey did, Turkish ambassador in Bucharest Osman Koray Ertas said in an interview for AGERPRES, in which the diplomat talks about the development of the events in Syria, the refugee crisis and the financial accord which his country has with the European Union.
Concerning the Syrian conflict, Osman Koray Ertas points out that although his country supports the operations of allied nations, USA - the UK - France, he cannot exclude dialogue with the big powers in the region.
"On the other hand, we are working closely with Russia and Iran, two main actors who are present in the field, so any agreement or solution concerning this conflict should include these two very important parties. Iran is a country in the region, it is deeply involved in this crisis and everyone knows that Russia is a major player, with a strong presence there. For us there is no other option, to not cooperate with two important neighbors in the region," said the diplomat.
Also, Osman Koray Ertas talks about the perspectives of an economic cooperation between Turkey and Romania, mentioning that this year the embassy will organize, with the Turkish minority from Romania, special events dedicated to Romania's Centennial, and also the celebration of 140 years of diplomatic relationships with high ranking Turk officials that will visit Romania and with Romanian Ministers who will take part in meetings in Turkey.
AGERPRES: Turkey is one of the main actors of the Syrian crisis, if we can call it like that, and one of the first aspects of Turkey's involvement in the Syrian crisis is the summit that took place at the beginning of this month, that was the Iran - Russia - Turkey summit, which was hosted in Turkey, so can you say a few words about the outcome of the summit, because the Western media was talking about not quite a failure, but that the talks were not very successful in the matters.
Osman Koray Ertas: Unfortunately, the Syrian conflict is one of the most difficult crises, it is ongoing for about 7 years, as you know, and there is a big human carnage, millions of people flee their homes, a million people lost their lives, at the hands of the wrong regime and government. Turkey is an neigbouring country of Syria, we have a border of about 900 kilometers, so it's an existential issue for Turkey as well, it's not just a simple problem that is happening in a part of geography, for us. Inevitably we are involved from the very beginning with the repercussions of this huge crisis, be it in the sense of millions of refugees, that took refuge in Turkey, the exact number is about 3.5 million Syrians, and I am not talking about Iraqis. There are huge economic, social and security challenges, in relation to this fact, and obviously, we cannot remain indifferent to what is ongoing on our next door.
On the Syrian crisis, we are following a principled foreign policy, from the very beginning. First of all, it is the Assad regime that is responsible for the whole carnage now that we are seeing and we are taught that there is no final peace, so he has to leave the power. Secondly, we put the principle of territorial integrity, sovereignty, and unity of Syria. These are the principles with the utmost importance, that must be observed, and also the non-sectarian feature in Syria is important for us. Finally, we see no military solution to the ongoing conflict. It should be resolved through political means. Based on these principles, we do not support X country, or Y country, depending on our principles, we took action on our own. Obviously, Turkey is a NATO member, so whenever the issue comes within our own alliance, we have an equal voice, together with other 28 allies and we are behind all the decisions that NATO is taking. This is a natural thing.
When you look to the recent attack by the US, Britain and France, we made clear statements supporting the operation, we found that it is an appropriate response to the use of chemical weapons and we think that any use of weapons of mass destruction should be punished and the regime, who seems to be responsible for the last attack as well should also be held accountable for such crimes, because they have a very bad record of doing such attacks towards it own people. On the other hand, we are also working together with Russia and Iran, two important players, which are currently on the ground, so any deal or any solution in this increasing conflict, should involve these two major players. Iran is also a regional country, and heavily involved in the crisis and everyone knows that Russia is a major player, which is also strongly present there, so there is no other way, actually, to work with important neighbors of ours in the region. We started the process in Astana, together with these two countries, and also we had some meetings at Sochi as well. We do not see these processes as an alternative to the Geneva process.
The Geneva process is the main channel to resolve the crisis and we see this process complimentary to the Geneva process. As a matter of fact, after Sochi, we decided to create a constitutional committee, so there will be a committee which will have members from the opposition and regime. Upon that meeting it was actually Turkey who was presenting the opposition and we already gave a list of people who will participate on behalf of the opposition. We also decided on creating de-escalation zones, we know that the deal is not working effectively, because the regime does not respect these decisions of these three countries. On this we are constantly making calls to Iran and Russia, who has the influence over the regime to observe the decisions that we took and not take any actions in de-escalation zones. Unfortunately, we have not seen it in Eastern Ghouta, and Douma was also another nightmare. On our part, we already established nine military posts in Idlib, for example. Even this is a remarkable achievement, in the sense that there is no fight in this region, at this stage, so we are risking our own soldiers, the lives of our own citizens to de-escalate the situation. We are very firm in our talks with our partners, we do not have a direct channel, as you know, with the regime, and we are making it very clear that we never want the repetition of the events in Eastern Ghouta, and we are not only saying this, but we are putting our own soldiers on the ground to prevent it.
In the meantime, as you know, Turkey is the only NATO country that puts its own troops in the fights against terrorism in the region, maybe we will talk about this also. This is an existential issue for Turkey's national security, therefore we put our own soldiers on the ground and cleared an area of 4,000 square kilometers, which we declared as terror-free, and Syrians, from different backgrounds, are returning to this region. All in all, this is a very delicate and balanced policy that we are seeing in Syria, which is taking into account the concerns of all sides, and obviously putting our national security in front.
AGERPRES: It is even more delicate because Turkey is having high-level talks with Iran and with Russia, when it comes to Syria, but also Russia is kind of the opposite of the Allied Forces, that were responsible for the strikes, for the recent strikes in Syria, and at the same time Israel said that they will intervene in Syria, as long as Iran is behind operations in Syria, so actually Turkey is in the middle of a very complicated situation.
Osman Koray Ertas: Unfortunately, here we are seeing a very complex war, which involves many important players. The situation is so dangerous, so delicate, there are people who are talking about a war on a larger scale. We hope these predictions to not be true. There is not one, or two, or three elements on the ground, but at least ten major actors that are pursuing different agendas, so therefore dialogue is key. There should be a dialogue channel. Even in the recent crisis, where our three allies had these strikes, strikes that we supported. Even during that time we have been a very convenient partner in terms of communicating with the Russians, with the Iranians, with our allies as well. As you give the example of Israel, every country has huge stakes in what's going on in this country.
But I can confidently say that no other country than Turkey took the burden of the Syrian conflict, be it in the refugee format, or security format, we lost thousands of our civilians at the hands of terrorists that are emanating from Syria, in different forms, whether we are speaking of Daesh, PKK, PYD. There is a huge security burden and a huge economic burden. We spent billions of dollars and there are cities in Turkey who are hosting more refugees than its own residents, so I think we have every right to try to find balance between military solutions and also diplomacy and try to talk to all relevant actors, to try to find a solution for the crisis that we are having.
AGERPRES: You were talking about the refugees and the refugees' burden for Turkey. Could you talk a bit more about the refugees, the money that Turkey asked from the European countries and Western countries?
Osman Koray Ertas: In terms of finance?
AGERPRES: Yes, in terms of finance.
Osman Koray Ertas: According to the figures that they have, Turkey spent about 31 billion dollars. This includes Turkish civil society. The amount that we received before the EU was minimal, was less than 1 billion, it was some hundred million before. After the famous deal between Turkey and EU, that they signed, there was 3 + 3 billion, money that was supposed to be allocated for the Syrian refugees, and not for Turkey, there is a misperception to the public eye. The money is going to the Syrian refugees in Turkey. So, the first half of 6 billion is now allocated for the projects, almost half of it was spent, another half is now allocated for projects and these projects are done by some Turkish agencies and also by foreign agencies, so the money is going to foreign agencies, who are helping the refugees in terms of education and other sectors. The second instalment seems to be also be forwarded to Turkey, but the whole problem is coming too slow, (...).
The Syrian refugee crisis, is the biggest humanitarian problem, after the Second World War, that Europe is facing. It is not a crisis that one country, even in the magnitude of Turkey, can deal with alone, it is an international crisis and we need international solidarity and burden sharing on this, and that's why we continue to make calls to international communities, not only to our European partners, but to others in the Gulf, so that they can share this burden. Turkey is the largest refugee hosting country in the world, and the number already surpassed 4 million refugees. This is a very big number, for any country in the world, and the refugees in Turkey are provided free healthcare services, they are provided free schooling and the schooling rate is still below 70% , it's about 70%. There are 300,000 newborn babies in Turkey, Syrian babies. We are giving work permits to tens of thousands of Syrians living in Turkey and we do not force them to live in camps, only a small portion of the Syrian guests are staying at the camps. Less than 300,000. The rest are free in staying in Turkey, together with Turkish citizens. The international solidarity and support is a must, and the deal that we had with the EU in 2016 showed a remarkable success, the numbers fell from 70,000 a day to 80 a day, and Turkey spent huge efforts with its security forces, to crack down on the smuggling rings, which appear to be a very lucrative business.
AGERPRES: You said Syrian guests, when you were talking about the refugees. They are people who are treated as guests, because they have a hard time in their country, but then they will go back to their country. So, Turkey deals with these refugees in these terms, actually. There are children who came as refugees, and then they will grow up and they will go back to Syria, or will they?
Osman Koray Ertas: The basic thing on the refugee law, if someone escapes from violence from its own country, you have the obligation to receive her or him, and not to send them back to their country of origin, until the violence stops, or things get better. The principle is strictly observed by Turkey and we have an open door policy. Anyone who is coming from Syria to Turkey is welcomed by my country, and the figures speak for themselves. In the meantime we do not want these people to lose their hopes for the future. Obviously, now is not the time for them to return back to conflict zones, but when we find the solution, and when Syria once again reaches its good old days, people have the right to return back to their country, that's why we see them as our guests, but that doesn't mean that they have to go back to their own country before the conflict ends. As a matter of fact, as you know, Turkey had two military operations in Northern Syria. In the first one, in which we cleared a 2,000 square kilometers of territory from Daesh terrorists. About 130,000 Syrians returned back to those regions including al-Bab and Azez. Already people are returning to their homes, because it's very difficult for anyone to leave their houses and try to leave in difficult conditions in a different country. Now, the same will happen in Afrin, region liberated in our second operation, Operation Olive Branch. Already, people are starting to return to their lands as well. When you look to the figures, in Turkey, for example the number of Kurdish refugees are about 400,000 among 4 million, therefore when you are saying "guests," we have this understanding in our mind.
AGERPRES: Also, talking about the refugee crisis. In the early talks about Turkey's management of the refugee crisis, there were discussions about a promise from the EU of accession of Turkey to the EU. Now the case seems to be a little bit closed, because they were opting for including the Western Balkans in the future. How does Turkey, at a high level, feel about this? Does it feel left alone in the refugee question?
Osman Koray Ertas: The refugee deal that we signed in 2016 was actually a package. On our side we decided to take this huge risk, because imagine anyone going undocumented to Greek islands will have to come back to Turkey, so it's a big risk on the part of Turkey. On the other side there were three basic promises that were given to Turkey. One was the acceleration of visa liberalization process, the second was the start of the voluntary admission scheme of Syrian refugees from Turkey, and the third one is Turkey's own EU location. On the third one we decided to hasten the process, making high level meetings between Turkey and the EU, and also start opening chapters. As you know, it's been stalled for many years now. And, of course, there is also a financial deal as well, 3+3. Now, when you look back, only a tiny portion, which is the financial one, and half of it is being realized. The rest are stalled. The recent reports of the European Commission is quite disappointing for us. They were made public yesterday [e.n. - April 18] and today our Ministry made a statement in regards to this.
Whatever happens, full membership in the EU is our objective. We have difficulties, especially after the heinous coup attempt in Turkey, two years ago, and after the emergency rule that we declared in Turkey, we had serious misunderstandings in regards to our EU partners. Some of our allies and EU leaders failed to understand what happened in Turkey. They were unable to put themselves in our shoes, and many EU leaders, months after, confessed that they did not show the solidarity that was expected of them, it was a difficult moment, so the relationship is experiencing difficulties, it's obvious, but our resolve for a full membership is still there. We know where the problems are, we took note of the criticism. When it is well-intentioned criticism, obviously, we take them serious and do our homework. As you know, some of the criticism is coming in the terms of human rights, rule of law sector. However, despite the emergency rule, as we made public, which targets the terror elements, and FETO group, as we discussed, the so-called "gulenists" and the daily lives of individuals, foreigners, were not affected. We see it on the ground, the individual liberties, day-to-day life is not affected because of the emergency rule. Even with the emergency rule we continue our strong talks and contacts, especially with the Council of Europe experts and also with the EU experts, and moving forward in this period. Obviously this is a temporary period. Once, this huge threat to our national security, the FETO threat is eliminated, because every other day, the secret "gulenists" are being discovered, especially in the army, this is a great danger for any country, actually. Once this threat is eliminated, the emergency rule will be called off, but we are doing utmost, like France did for more than two years, that this emergency rule does not contradict the democratic rule in our country.
AGEPRRES: How did the coup attempt, or more specifically the image of the coup attempt, affect Turkeys' economy in the end? Because on one side there were Western countries who believed that the coup was orchestrated and people were afraid to even travel to Turkey, or to invest in Turkey, but on the other side there was Turkey's discourse about the coup attempt.
Osman Koray Ertas: Turkey and the Turkish society is resilient. I don't know if it should be something I should be proud of, because it also means that we have many problems as well, but this is a reality, and because of this resilience, whatever happens inside the country, there is this spirit of revitalizing yourself, re-energizing immediately, so yes, we had serious problems, just after the coup attempt, but then there was a strong comeback, especially in the economy, and our social fabric as well and the figures are quite promising. In 2017 the country recorded 7.1% of growth. It's a very high number, even higher than China's or India's. When you look at the figures in tourism, for example, we received about 32 million tourists, so 3 or 4 months after the coup attempt I can confidently say that we managed to leave these things behind us.
The suggestion that this is an orchestrated coup attempt is actually a gulenist black propaganda. They are doing this. We are following, as a nation, all the trials. There were people, on that particular night, in the main headquarters military base, and they had their CCTV footage, that they were walking alongside the generals. Normally, they have nothing to do with them, they are like simple businessmen, on paper, and in the trials, when the judges showed this footage, "what were you doing on that particular night in the base" they even denied that they are not themselves, and the footage is fake, so we are faced with a double faced group, whose basic tool is to lie. People understand, as time passes, that it was a very big danger for Turkish democracy. At the moment it's only a bunch of people who believe that it is an orchestrated thing. But now, because as evidence is pouring, and all these indictments are prepared, it's all transparent and all the Court rulings will be subjected to the European Court's review, so there is no question about that. I observed that our European friends also realized that things are getting normal in Turkey, so it's just a matter of time, that when we feel confident, the gulenist threat will be eliminated. Then we will call off the emergency rule.
AGERPRES: Could you talk, specifically, about the economic relation between Turkey in Romania, with also a little emphasis on what was affected by the coup attempt at that time?
Osman Koray Ertas: In 2014, our trade was 6.4 billion dollars. So it was a very good figure. The year that we had the coup attempt, literally not only with Romania, but with many countries, we lost a half year in 2016. 2016 was an important loss in trade figures as well, but this year we break this downfall, and the numbers are increasing again. In 2017, we reached 5.1 billion Euro, or 5.7 billion USD of trade, and this year the numbers seem to be very strong, when you look to the first two months, we see an increase of about 40%. Already we reached 1 billion, there's a huge rise now. On the investment front it did not affect the relationship. Turkish investments in Romania continue to increase, and it's not just mergers and acquisitions, but also as green field investments. Last year and the year before I attended many opening ceremonies [for businesses]. We also see a strong increase in the retail sector, big brands are entering Romanian markets, so on the economic front, we had a very brief period of stall, but then, because this is the nature of the relationship, we continue to see the normal trends of increasing. I think we will close the year with many positive figures.
AGERPRES: There were talks, two years ago, about the reach of 10 billion dollars, in commercial trades between Romania and Turkey.
Osman Koray Ertas: Yes, it is still a target that we are attached to. It is obtainable, it's not that much difficult. Remember the figure of 6.4 billion dollars. Even before we had about 8 billion dollars. It's the dynamic between the two countries' own economies. When we have issues in our economy, or Romania's, some issues with Romania's economy, then obviously trade is affected negatively, but 10 billion is not a target that is not attainable, and we are committed to that.
AGERPRES: Romanians choose Turkey as a tourism option. Can you talk about the way tourism expanded in Turkey?
Osman Koray Ertas: After the big blow in the second part of 2015, we had a slight decrease in 2016, but figures came back in 2017, as we can see in numbers. Last year there was an increase, as opposed to the previous year, of about 19%, and the number of Romanian tourists reached 423,000. This year, it seems that there is a strong increase as well, of about 40%, this is the feedback that we have from travel agencies. Some of them say that they are fully booked, so I guess if nothing unexpected happens, we will reach around half a million this year. Overall, the year 2014 was a very big one for Turkeys' economy. More than 40 million people visited Turkey, as tourists. Last year there were 32 million tourists. I guess this year we will reach the 2014 figures, we will pass again 40 million figures.
AGERPRES: In terms of Romanian tourists, they choose health tourism, to go into Turkish hospitals to take care of their health. Do you have figures that record this?
Osman Koray Ertas: Turkey is becoming increasingly important in terms of health tourism, not only for Romanians, but in general. There are some figures, there is a US-based agency, which is called Joint Commission International - JCI, and JCI is an accreditation institute. There are 54 private Turkish hospitals with some 150,000 health care professionals, which are accredited by JCI. This actually represents one-fifth of the JCI accredited hospitals in the world. In 2016 the number of international patients reached 600,000. This excludes about 100,000 people who came to Turkey for plastic surgery, so we are talking about 1 million potential there and we know Turkey is an attractive market for Romanian patients, because of the high quality of services and also in terms of costs as well and hospitality, services. It is an increasingly popular destination, not just for Romanians, but for Europeans, who choose Turkey for many things - from cancer treatments, to dental implants or plastic surgery.
AGERPRES: Going back to the bigger picture of Turkey's economy, Turkey is involved in a project called TurkStream, which is a gas link and it has a very closely-tied relationship with Russia, when it comes to this particular project. How will the political situation affect TurkStream, because now there are tensions between Russia and Turkey, because of the strikes in Syria.
Osman Koray Ertas: On natural gas, Turkey is fully dependent on imports, and about half of our imports are from Russia. Russia is also the major provider of gas to Europe, as well, as you know. Despite all the political problems that we had in the past as well, on the gas issue we didn't face any major problems, so Russia played a reliable source for Turkey, and Turkey also played a reliable customer for the Russian gas. Even during the difficult period that we had at the end of 2015, when we had the jet incident. Even during this time we didn't see any major issues regarding the transfer of gas, from Russia to Turkey. The TurkStream pipeline will actually replace the already existing pipeline that is going through the Balkans, so it will basically change nothing in terms of the amount that we are receiving from Russia. We will be receiving it directly, instead of the long route. We will receive it directly from the Black Sea, where we already have the Blue Stream pipeline, which we signed like two decades ago. So this will be a second line, that we get directly from Russia. We see now no delay in construction of this first instalment of the pipeline, and we plan to receive the gas in due time. There is also another line, in the Turkish Stream, this is supposed to carry gas from Russia to Europe, but this is something that will depend on the negotiations between the provider, Gazprom, and potential buyers in Europe, but the first pipeline, which Turkey is the recipient, we see no problem.
AGERPRES: Can you say if TurkStream will go through Romania, but I guess this is Russia's decision...
Osman Koray Ertas: The route and destination will be decided by the provider. When you say Romania and gas, we are also fully supporting the southern corridor and we have this TANAP pipeline, from Azerbaijan to Turkey, and the first phase of construction will be complete in a few months, and Turkey will start to get Azeri gas. TANAP is the backbone of the southern corridor. In the second phase of the southern corridor will reach Europe, it will pass Greece and Italy, and we are also in talks with our Romanian partners, which are working BRUA [e.n. - BRHA]. We plan to connect all these sources and recipient countries to each other.
AGERPRES: Turkey is a member of NATO and NATO puts a huge emphasis on the situation in the Black Sea region, and with the current political and military situation, what is Turkey's role in this specific area?
Osman Koray Ertas: Until 2014 the Black Sea was one of the most stable regions, as you know, but unfortunately, after the illegal annexation of Crimea, things changed in the region. Our stance is clear on that, we do not recognize this annexation, and we continue to hold our position strong. Obviously, as a NATO member, we are behind all the decisions that NATO are taking, because these things are not taken by outside powers, they are taken jointly, with our involvement and contribution. But also, the Black Sea has its own peculiarities, it is a closed sea and with very few number of littoral states. There are some mechanisms that we spearheaded, with the idea of regional ownership, some of these mechanisms are dormant, they're not working, but we still want to keep them there, so that once the conflicts in the region go back to normal, we could reuse them. On the economic front, the Black Sea Economic Council was spearheaded by Turkey, about three decades ago, and despite all the problems between member-states, and we can see it in different forms, this proved to be useful for dialogue, for the regional countries. Therefore, we continue to follow this two-pillar strategy of dialogue and deterrence, together with our partners and allies, and obviously dialogue with Russia is key in this region as well, as the largest power in the Black Sea. We will continue to follow this delicate policy of dialogue and deterrence, as well as continuing the importance of regional ownership, and obviously continue to underline the importance of observation of the Convention of Montreaux, which proved to be one of the most effective arrangements.
AGERPRES: Going back to Romania, because this is the last year for you, as an ambassador in Romania, could you have an overall look on your mandate? What were the challenges of your mandate, and what were your victories in Bucharest?
Osman Koray Ertas: Victories? There are no victories. (laughs)
AGERPRES: High points.
Osman Koray Ertas: It was quite a rewarding post, because unlike some other positions, where you spend your energy into problematic issues, problem solving, or even conflict management, we had the chance to spend our efforts to concrete projects, and it was so rewarding to see the end results, in the economic sector, or in trade, or investments, or cultural field, military side, we were delighted to see, as the embassy, to be part of tangible projects that are to the benefit of our two nations. And also this country is important, because it is all-inclusive in terms of the portfolio. This is a NATO ally, a EU country, it's a neighboring country, in the Black Sea we are neighbors, it's a major trading partner, it's an important hub for Turkish investors. There is a very vibrant Turkish-Tatar minority, we have a solid relationship, namely that we have successes, despite a difficult history. We have a close relationship currently, we have concrete partnerships in military and security sectors. There probably isn't a subject that an ambassador to not work in this beautiful country. Drawing a line, this post offered many joys, both professionally and personally. The most important are the Romanians from here, with high-ranking positions or not, people who were helpful and understood the bilateral issues. We will continue to cherish this wealth and potential.
AGERPRES: And the challenges? What was the most difficult thing to do, for you, to explain to Romanians, as an ambassador. Personally I'm thinking about the coup attempt.
Osman Koray Ertas: There were difficult times, right after the coup attempt. But I had been on TV and press so often, so that we were able to explain what happened, because the "gulenist" propaganda machine was so powerful in Turkey, in Europe, Romania as well, so it was not always easy, especially in the initial days, to try to explain what happened in my own country.
AGERPRES: This year Romania celebrates 100 years since the reunification. What do you think "unity" means, in international terms, at this point in time, in this situation?
Osman Koray Ertas: First of all, we congratulate the Centennial of Romania, this is a great historical day, Romanians should feel proud and we congratulate it. Together with the minority we will also work on some projects that will mark the Centennial. The idea of unity is getting more and more difficult to achieve. Unfortunately, people lost the optimism of the 1990's, when the idea of unity was somehow more clear, and now we focus on our own humanitarian diplomacy, so this might be the way to achieve unity in the world, to focus on humanitarian issues, without focusing on political or conjectural issues. Humanitarian perception and focus on humanitarian issues and needs could be a topic for unity. It is one of the most important priorities when it comes to foreign policy.
AGERPRES: Does Turkey feel alone in the humanitarian diplomacy engagement? Because when it comes to humanitarian diplomacy things cannot be put easily into numbers, like "this is the cost of the refugee crisis"...
Osman Koray Ertas: Yes, it is true that sometimes you cannot put things into figures, but there are some measurable things. For example, in terms of GDP, Turkey is the largest humanitarian donor in the world, as of last year's figures. If you do not take the GDP into account it is the second, after the US, who provide aid for the humanitarian causes, and we will continue this humanitarian diplomacy, actually, and we will like to see our neighbors, partners, allies, and other international actors, to work out and to share the burden, because it is an international issue.
AGERPRES: Could you define, in one word, Turkey's relationship with the EU?
Osman Koray Ertas: "never ending story".... AGERPRES (RO - author: Oana Ghita editor: Mirela Barbulescu; EN - author: Catalin Cristian Trandafir, editors: Adina Panaitescu, Rodica State, Razvan-Adrian Pandea)