By Mey Al Sayegh
When the mission of the Turkish Ambassador in Canada Cagatay Erciyes ended and he was appointed to Lebanon in 2015, his friends and colleagues felt sorry for him. But what Erciyes has seen in Lebanon so far was different from the expectations of his friends and colleagues in Canada ,and he will seek for attracting more Turkish tourists to a “wonderful” country that cannot be seen as a small country but as a “whole world”. At the same time, the Turkish ambassador with his soft diplomacy is trying to confront the “black propaganda” against his country which is fighting wars on both internal and external fronts after overcoming a failed coup attempt on 15 July and is restoring its relations with Moscow, which was about to be destabilised with the assassination of the Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara on January 19, who has footprints on the normalization of ties between the two countries.
Turkish Ambassador considers that “the terrorist act in Ankara did not target only Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov and Russia but also Turkey and the Turkish people.”An act that may have had negative impacts on the Turkish-Russian relations if Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin did not quickly contained it and agreed on a joint investigation.
Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Cagatay Erciyes said in an interview with AlJoumhouria newspaper at the Turkish embassy in Rabieh: “The first indications, evidence and the background of the perpetrator of the assassination show that he belongs to the terrorist group of Fethullah Gulen. President Erdogan said that the perpetrator of the assassination is a member of Gulen’s group but investigations are continuing to find out the truth”.
The Turkish ambassador added that investigators believe the assassin was not a lone wolf but likely was used by those who were targeting the Turkish-Russian relations. Erciyes refused to comment on whether there could be any country behind this assassination. He also denied the accusations against the Turkish authorities attempt to cover up the case. He said: “What is happening now is a joint investigation in which the Russians are taking part at all stages, and it is not fair to accuse the Turkish authorities on this matter”. In a reply to the question , why the perpetrator was not captured alive? Erciyes pointed out to the statements of the Turkish Authorities and said: ‘”the police gave enough time to Mert Altıntas to surrender. Yet he did not comply but returned fire. The police shot him in the foot twice. When he made an unexpected move, Police was afraid that he may be wearing an explosive belt and that moment he was shot to death “.
Erciyes prefers not to comment on speculations about who was really behind the assassination, but he believes that the goal is clear that some parties wanted to stop the normalization of relations between Ankara and Moscow. Regarding to speculations about Iran’s dissatisfaction due to the increasing level of Turkish-Russian coordination at its expense in Syria, Erciyes says:”I do not agree with these comments. Turkey has a good dialogue at the highest level with Iran. One should not forget that Iran is also a signatory to the Moscow Declaration signed on 20 December 2016. Iran, Turkey and Russian agreed to cooperate to resolve the Syrian crisis”.
Erciyes denies the existence of a division in the Turkish street regarding what is happening in Aleppo. He says: “What happened in Aleppo has moved our hearts. It is a stain on the conscience of the international community. We cannot tolerate the indifference of the international community towards the tragic humanitarian situation there. Thus the reaction of the Turks in the street was against what is happening in Aleppo and not against the Turkish government’s policy towards Syria which is engaged in a deep dialogue with Russia for a political solution”.
Fighting “Daesh” effectively
He reminds that Turkey is hosting about 3 million refugees and shares 911 km of common borders with Syria and what is happening in Syria affects directly the national security of Turkey. He says: “We are fighting Daesh and Al Nusra in the field”.
Erciyes adds:” In December 21, Turkish Armed Forces killed 128 Daesh terrorists and bombed 67 targets and lost about 14 of its soldiers at Al Bab area in Syria within the framework of Euphrates Shield Operation.”
He believes that talking about Turkey’s support for Daesh and Al Nusra is a black propaganda وstressing that his country is more effective than any other country in fighting Daesh in collaboration with the Free Syrian Army in the Menbej pocket( the area from Azez and Mare villages up to the Euphrates River) He says: “Turkey is fighting Daesh not only militarily but also ideologically, recalling the words of President Erdogan that Daesh has nothing to do with Islam, and it poses a great danger to Islam itself. Erciyes also underlines that his country is also against sectarian policies in the region by reminding of the words of President Erdoğan when he said “I am neither a Sunni nor a Shiite. My religion is Islam”.
Within this framework, talking about the possibility of Turkey’s support for Al Nusra in preparation for the upcoming battle in Idlib is “ridiculous”. He says: “Turkey considers Al Nusra and Daesh terrorist organizations and has just reiterated its determination in the Moscow Declaration together with Russia and Iran to fight jointly against them. So I do not agree with these allegations. Give us any evidence about such allegation, we are a country that stands against terrorists”, pointing out that “the circles that do not like the Turkish intervention in the Syrian crisis will continue their efforts to attack Turkey”.
Erciyes refuses to accuse Erdogan of betraying the Syrian opposition in Eastern Aleppo and forcing it to accept the evacuation operations. He says: “We do not accept these allegations. On the contrary Turkey has been most vocal country in all international meetings and tried to draw the attention of the international community to the humanitarian situation in Aleppo. One can remember that Turkey proposed to establish an international convoy to bring humanitarian assistance to Aleppo 2 months ago. We also brought opposition and Russia together. We exerted every effort and contributed to the current ceasefire in Aleppo and the current evacuation process. We will continue to advocate unhindered humanitarian assistance and ceasefire for whole Syria”. Turkish ambassador reiterated that his country did not change its position towards Syria and will spare no effort for a political solution.
“We clearly support the moderate opposition which is fighting terrorism. We differentiate between them and Daesh and Al Nusra ,and we believe that the moderate opposition will be part of a political solution in Syria as also confirmed in Moscow Declaration, and we will work to achieve that in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 2254”.
Erciyes reminds that Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed in “Moscow Declaration” on the need to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis and underline the importance of the unity and territorial integrity of Syria refusing its division.
Turkish Ambassador says: “The political solution must be achieved through a political process in accordance with R. 2254. To this end, Turkish, Russian and Iranian foreign ministers have agreed on the importance of a cease-fire not only in Aleppo but all over Syria and to facilitate the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid. If we do not stop the war, we cannot start the political process”.
He pointed out that Astana negotiations is not a replacement of Geneva path, but it aims at preparing the ground for the resumption of negotiations. He says: “We are trying to create favorable conditions, and the negotiations in Kazakhstan are not limited to Iran, Turkey and Russia, any state could contribute the negotiations as stated in Moscow Declaration, that it will allow the revival of Geneva negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations.”
On the local level and the constitutional debate, Erciyes refuses the presence of a polarization in the Turkish society because of Erdogan’s policies. He says: “There are four parties which agreed on the need to amend the 1980 constitution in their party programs which was written by the military after the coup in 1980.The Turkish Parliament is currently considering a proposal drafted by 2 parties (AKP-MHP) to amend the constitution which will be submitted to a popular referendum. At the end of the day, it will be the decision of the Turkish people to decide on that through democratic elections which everybody should respect”.
He also pointed to “the existence of a biased approach against Turkey and its President explaining that according to the current constitution, the president can only be sued in case of high treason, there is no accountability but the draft constitutional amendment now seem to make the president more accountable and responsible and not an authoritarian governor. In any case these draft amendments are being debated by the lawmakers and the final decision will be made by the Turkish people”.
Turkey’s future relationship with the United States will remain linked to two main issues.
Erciyes says: “We have asked for Gulen’s extradition as his group was behind the failed coup attempt, but they did not respond to our our request yet, and this may have negative repercussions on our strategic relationship”.
The second issue is related to America’s cooperation with PYD in Syria. PYD is a product of PKK. Turkey don’t make any difference between them, both are same terrorist organizations .They are both ruled from Qandil Mountains in Iraq where the PKK Headquarters are located.
He says: “We have informed our American friends that if they want soldiers in the field to fight against DAESH they can cooperate with the Free Syrian Army which is not a terrorist organization. The Euphrates Shield operation in Syria which is conducted in coordination with the Free Syrian Army has shown its effectiveness in the fight against Daesh”.
He continues: “We have made it clear to our American friends that the weapons that they provide to PYD are used against Turkey by PKK at the expense of our national security. We have evidence of this fact. You cannot use one terrorist organization against other. PKK is declared as a terrorist organization in Europe and the United States and that brings responsibility for these countries not to support PKK and PYD”.
Erciyes hopes that President Erdogan and President Donald Trump will succeed in developing relations between the two countries as the United States remains an ally and has a deep strategic relationship with Turkey.
Due to its geographical and strategic location, Turkey follows a multi-dimensional foreign policy and thus a good relationship with Russia is not at expenses of its relationship with the United States or Europe.
Erciyes stressed that Turkey is still interested in putting the free trade agreement with Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan into force. He says: “We have to create peace and a vision for the region to be able to achieve prosperity, and this is not possible as long as there is no solution to the Syrian crisis”.
Lebanon’s success is Turkey’s success
Erciyes evokes the phases of Turkey’s support for a consensus for the election of President Michel Aoun , the national dialogue between all political forces, and the letter of support of President Erdogan to his Lebanese counterpart to work together in order to strengthen relations in all fields and the visit of Turkish Foreign Minister to Beirut.
Erciyes seems optimistic regarding the positive political climate in Lebanon, hoping that the new government will prepare for legislative elections next year in light of the current atmosphere.
The Turkish ambassador hopes that the two countries could further develop economic relations. He says: “The success of Lebanon is Turkey’s success. We and Lebanon are in the same boat. We support all the Lebanese people; we don’t make a distinction between them. There are many social and development projects being implemented by TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency) in Lebanon aiming to reach all the Lebanese communities including all confessions and parties”.
He praised the enormous potentials in Lebanon saying:”We have received two days ago a delegation of Turkish businessmen and I told them that Lebanon is not just one state but a whole world due to the presence of the successful Lebanese diaspora all over the world .
Turkey seems interested in investing and cooperating with Lebanon in the field of construction as it ranks the second after China in this domain, without neglecting investing in the oil and gas and tourism sectors.
Erciyes says: “We can share joint business projects, rather than competing let’s work together. There are joint projects in Ankara and Istanbul, and others in Africa. Two Turkish companies have also submitted tenders to invest in the field of oil and gas in lebnaon”.
Since Erciyes impression toward Lebanon has changed after he discovered its cultural diversity and richness of tourism and the hospitality of its people, he will work hard to attract 500,000 Turks to come to Lebanon, especially since there are about 4 and a half million Turks who travel for tourism and they have spent about $ 5 billion in 2015.
He points at the negative security perception of Lebanon in the eyes of the Turkish people, especially after the kidnapping of the two Turkish pilots in 2013 and their exchange with the Lebanese pilgrim in Syria, but he will challenge this perception now, and believing that Lebanon can become a popular destination for Turkish tourists and can contribute to Lebanese economy. The Turkish ambassador promised at the end of the interview to balance tourism relations between the two countries with the help of the new Lebanese Government and to activate it in both ways, reminding that only 18,000 Turks visited Lebanon while Turkey was the destination for about 250,000 Lebanese in 2015.