‘Putin tried to downplay the shoot-down of Russian warplane’
*Turkey and the United States are strategic allies and Turkey is a member of the NATO and a candidate member of the EU. How is Turkey's step towards strategic relations with Russia and China and also the Shanghai Cooperation Organization seen in in the USA?
I think that, historically, Turkey has been an extremely important partner for the United States… There is no doubt about that. It's true that US-Turkish relations which have had their ups and downs in the past, have become –I would say– especially difficult over the past 13 or 14 years. You can start with –you know– the Turkish refusal to let us go through Turkey in the war in Iraq in 2003… That may have been a one off, but what we’ve seen over the past decade, or more, has been an assertion by the government in Turkey, a somewhat militant agenda with an Islamic focus, which has never been seen in Turkey before, which in some ways puts at odds with us. That’s point 1.
And point 2 is, which is separate from point 1. A clear interest in improving substantially relations with Russia, perhaps even at the cost of traditional relationship with the West in general, and the United States in particular. And of course Putin has been very very consistent in pursuing better relations with Turkey, with the one very important exception, of the constant violations of the Turkish airspace by Russian warplanes in the fall of 2015.
*And did Washington foresee such a close relationship between Ankara and Moscow, after all these bad incidents, the downing of the warplane, and assassination of the ambassador?
These incidents are very different and the responses have been quite different. When you look back at what happened with the shoot-down of the Russian plane, Moscow –again consistent with its policy under Putin– tried to downplay the shoot-down. The presidential spokesman Peskov, and the Minister of Defense Shoygu said that they did not know who shut it down. Whilst the Erdoğan government was quite angry about the constant intrusions into their airspace, so they said “we did it”. And that forced the Russians to react harshly.
But something happened in Ankara, so that, seven months later, in June 16, Erdoğan was willing to make a public apology, to restore relations with the Kremlin… I’m not Turkish but I follow Turkish politics some. And it’s something unusual for a Turkish president to make a public apology. So Erdoğan decided that he needed the Russian relationship again, and he was over his anger about the Russian violation of Turkish airspace. And he did what the Kremlin needed, to restore relations, to update it like before the shoot-down.
The assassination of the Russian ambassador –of course a tragedy, of course an act of terrorism– simply gave both sides, the Turkish and Russian governments, an opportunity to underscore the importance of the bilateral relationship. Now there is something you do not mention, which plays a role here too. And that of course was the attempted coup in July last year. The reaction of the government in Ankara, exacerbated relations with the West in general, United States in particular, in two ways: One of course, it was a Jacobian reaction, which raises civil rights concerns, which we often express.
The second point was the insistence of the Erdoğan government that it was Gülen and his people who were responsible. And then their demand of extradition, which of course they knew we would never do…
‘Turkish-Russian agreement in Syria, most extraordinary thing of all…’
*Based on your experiences, how do you evaluate Moscow's radical change towards Turkey, why would Russia swallow these assaults? They simply didn't refuse to take such insults lying down?
I don’t know if I would call it a radical change. I would say this; Moscow saw an opportunity in –what I would call– Erdoğan’s erratic foreign policy. They saw what he is doing the Middle East was not something welcomed in Washington, and for that matter in the European capitals, they saw that Erdoğan was unhappy with the Western criticisms of his autocratic policies. Erdoğan also was –I say– a little bit attracted to Putin, as an example of a clear authoritarian, who is able to achieve his objectives. And so Moscow saw an opportunity, and they pursuit it. And there was almost nothing they had to give up, because there was nothing that Turkey was doing that flew directly in the face of their interests, except of course in Syria. But even there the two sides have managed to reach an understanding over the past couple of months, which is actually the most extraordinary thing of all…
US concerned about Incirlik air base
*NATO member Turkey is discussing to close the Incirlik air base for the United States, because Turkey thinks that the coalition is not supporting Turkish forces in the war against IS. What does Washington think about these discussions in Turkey?
Well, clearly these are not welcomed in Washington. And I think this is one more step of Erdoğan, to sort of push-back the United States, given his unhappiness. I mean he does not like the fact that Gülen has been living here. And from here, he organized activities, which criticize the government in Ankara.
There's always been some tensions between the United States and Turkey, even when our relationship was closer, over Kurdish questions. And of course in Syria, the United States has relied on the Kurds, because they are the one part of –what we call– the “moderate opposition” that is militarily competent. Whereas the others that we support are actually pretty weak, and ineffective…
‘Washington is nervous that the Turkish Army will go after YPG’
*After the Turkish Army is fighting against IS in Syria, is the YGP still the only partner of the USA in Syria, against IS?
Clearly, clearly the Turkish Army is competent. There is no question about that. And so, their efforts in Syria, from the standpoint of the war against ISIS –in my mind a very good thing– and I don't think Washington thinks it’s a bad thing. But of course Washington is nervous that the Turkish Army is also interested in going after the Kurds…
‘We don't have complete influence over YPG’
*But when John Kerry visited Turkey on the 24th of August, he said that “US made it absolutely clear for the YPG, that they must move back across the Euphrates River. They cannot, will not and under no circumstances get American support, if they do not keep that commitment. Period!” But the YPG is still on the Western part of the River. Why is the YPG still on the Western part, in Manbij?
I would simply say that we don't have complete influence over the Kurds. We have some influence but not completely. You and I are talking about the limits of American influence in Turkey so sometimes the positions we advocate are not necessarily accepted by the parties… You know, we advocate those positions…
*So Washington is not able to influence the YPG…
We have influence but it's not always accepted. Sometimes they accept, sometimes not… I don't think we’re trying to position the Kurds against the Turks, that would a fools game.
*But Erdoğan said that the Turkish Army will fight against YPG, if they stay at the Western part of the river, so is Washington considering a solution for this?
Our view would be that to advise both sides to take steps to avoid conflict. In other words, so yes, the Kurds should move. And also, the Turks should not attack…
‘US preferred Turkey did not intervene in Syria’
*Did the Washington administration expect such an intervention of Turkey in Syria?
I think that we would prefer that they did not, generally speaking. But they understood that the Turks might go in. So I wouldn’t say it was a surprise…
*But the West and the US was always encouraging Turkey to be the ground force in Syria, especially in 2012. And today Turkey is fighting against IS on the ground, so what is the difference compared with 2012?
That’s a good question. But I don't think I could give you a good answer right now…
*If al-Bab is captured by the Turkish Army, and IS is eliminated in the region, how will this affect the war on IS and the current situation in Syria?
It would be one more step taken to weaken IS. I mean, a trend which receives very little attention –as everyone talks about the situation in Syria– has been in the sharply weakening position of IS, due mainly to allied attacks. And this could be one more indication of that, one more example of that. And the impact in Syria is, ultimately it strengthens the Assad regime, because IS, and IS’ allies are the most powerful factors in Syria, after the Assad regime.
*Why did the United States postpone the Raqqa operation? Isn't there enough force to attack Raqqa?
This is not certain
‘From NATO standpoint, Russian-Turkish military cooperation is not positive’
*What does Washington think about the current military cooperation between Russia and Turkey, since Turkey is a NATO member?
Washington believes correctly that Russia has done almost nothing against IS. So I'm not sure that there's much to Russian-Turkish cooperation against IS, except talk. But again it is true that the rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow is something that Washington looks at, and from the standpoint of the NATO it's not a particularly positive development.
‘If Ankara would be able to persuade Moscow about Assad...’
*How is the Russian-Turkish-Iranian initiative to help broker a peace deal, to end the almost 6 year old conflict in Syria, seen in Washington?
I think the Obama administration –which of course will be out of office in two weeks– on the one hand would like to see real peace in Syria, and on the other hand is skeptical that this will achieve it. I think that the belief here is that this is an agreement which will strengthen the Assad regime, and the Assad regime –well may be preferable to IS– is still going to be promoting instability, will not be able to end the Civil War, because of the brutality of its methods against its own citizens.
*And how do you personally evaluate this initiative?
The only way you could have some sort of peace in Syria –in the near or middle term– is a sort agreement with the Assad regime. I think Obama made a mistake by saying Assad was illegitimate and therefore had to go.
So in that sense, weakening IS, could set the stage for an agreement that might work... But Assad would have to demonstrate flexibility, which we have not seen so far. And we have also not seen a willingness on the part of our the Russians, or the Iranians, to push Assad to be sufficiently flexible, in terms the way he treats his people.
It's a good thing for IS to be weakened, but I'm not certain that that's going to lead to an end of the Syrian civil war. If there was a policy, a clear policy to insist on certain concessions from Assad, while his power is stabilizing in certain parts the country, that could be the basis for a deal. But we haven't seen that.
Now if Ankara would be able to persuade Moscow to pursue a policy like that, that’ll be a very positive effect.
‘People in Washington have concerns Russia is replacing US’
*The US was always a part of any development and solution process in the Middle East, but now, the US is a sideliner. And Russia even tries to engage Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar to the talks in Astana. How come that Washington is not in the game?
I think the Obama administration decided that the American intervention in the Middle East was a source of weakening of American power, and were failures. And therefore they were cautious to get involved. It looks now that there is increasing frustration in Washington about the active Russian role. And possibly under the new administration we may see a more active American profile in the Middle East. But I’m not certain about that because the Trump administration has not made his intentions clear at this point. I think we will know a lot more about the administration in about six or eight weeks.
*So is this the success of Moscow, or does it show that the Obama administration has failed in its policies?
Well I think people see it that way, but it's also true that Trump shares some of Obama's motivation. I mean Trump has said numerous times, “we should not do nation-building the Middle East. We should not be involved in the Middle East”, even as he promised to take down IS. But it's also true again –as I already said – that people in Washington have concerns about the active Russian rule, kind of replacing United States. So how will these things play out, it is hard to predict...
*How is Russia’s invitation to Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the talks in Astana, seen in Washington?
Russia is trying to increase its influence throughout the region, and it has used the success in Syria –as an advertisement you might say– for the other countries in the Middle East to engage with Moscow, the way they engaged with Washington. However, given the Saudis remain –I think – skeptical with the Russians. I mean, after all they were able to take out Assad, and Putin has strengthened Assad over the past 15 months.
‘Trump will not extradict Gülen’
*Do you see any possibility in the restoration of the US-Turkey relations? What could be done?
I think over time, the Turks will come back to recognizing that their interest lie much more with the United States, than with Russia. I mean, historically the Turkish and Russian peoples have been adversaries for 400-500 years. Certainly during the days of the Ottoman Empire. And I think geopolitics will reassert itself. I think in fact Mr. Erdoğan pursues somewhat erratic policies. That’s one reason for his flirtation with Putin.
*Do you think Trump would for example allow the extradition of Gülen, to make the relations better with Turkey, and to give a hand of peace?
No... If you think about Gülen, you could understand. There is illustrious clear evidence Gülen has committed crimes. The notion we will hand him over to Turkey –not Turkey– but Erdoğan, would be like surrendering American principles. It's a completely unacceptable demand of the part of Turkish government.
‘We try to avoid public clash with Erdoğan’
*Turkish Parliament is commencing discussions on government drafted constitutional amendments for Erdoğan’s presidential system. The opposition is very concerned that it will lead to an authoritarian rule. So the country is very divided on this subject. How is this process followed in Washington?
The Obama administration, and Turkish watchers are also concerned about this prospect, but I know the US government would not actually speak out against it... Because we do try to avoid –accept where it is absolutely necessary– a public clash with President Erdoğan.
‘Sure, there is dichotomy between the Pentagon and the White House’
*I also have questions on the Russia-United States relations. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said that Russia is the biggest threat for the US national security, is that the official position of Washington?
Well, the Obama administration contradicted him. Although he happened to be right...
*So the Obama administration did not share this view...
The Obama administration did not, but it is true that not only General Dunford, but other senior officials in the Obama administration saw it that way...
*Is the official position of the US government different from the position of the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
Well, in the Obama administration, obviously the policies were determined by the president... But President Obama did not necessarily insist that every statement made by senior officials be consistent with his own. That was the peculiarity of the administration. It is also true that Ash Carter(Secretary of Defense) saw Russia as one of the most important threats, and our military developed policies reflect that.
The decisions to greatly increase the NATO presence in the Baltic states, and in Poland and in Romania was a direct result of that understanding...
*Can we talk about a dichotomy between the Pentagon and the White House or the State Department?
*To what extent, is it affecting US interests?
Obama believed that Russia was a regional power, a declining power and again his White House contradicted Dunford, when Dunford made that statement. What that meant overall in terms of policy was that, on the one side Obama stayed away from, and prevented the United States from pursuing more active policies in support of Ukraine, specifically in providing Ukraine defensive lethal weapons, even though the Pentagon wanted that. But at the same time Obama agreed to the Pentagon in the preference to greatly strengthen NATO. So there is kind of a compromise.
‘Trump’s approach towards Russia is a reason to be concerned’
*Do you think this stance towards Russia will change under Trump's presidency?
This sort answers we don't know. The things Trump said during the campaign and things he has said since, for example regarding the hacking crises, suggest that he wants to greatly improve relations with Putin. And that he doesn't understand the dangers that Putin's policies present to the United States. But it's also true that his Secretary of Defense nominee Gen. James Mattis understands the dangers of Putin's policies, his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn also understands us. We don't know about his Secretary of State choice Rex Tillerson(chairman and CEO ExxonMobil), we’ll find out more in his hearings on Wednesday(11 January 2017). We also know Congress feels very strongly that Russia's policies are dangerous, and we need an appropriate response. So we will find out what Trump's policies towards Russia will be... But again, on the base of his statements, there is a reason to be concerned.
*Since Trump announced that he doesn't want to face any conflicts with Russia, do you foresee that US approach towards the Middle East might change, in a way that Washington withdraws from all these conflicts in the Middle East?
I think that highly unlikely. I think that Trump will be disappointed by the fact that the Russians aren’t doing things that he thinks they should do...
‘Russia is not going to join us in going after China’
*On the other hand what will Trump do in the Pacific region? Do you think it is likely that Trump would confront China to protect US interests in the Pacific region?
Well Trump is already confronting China. I’m not certain what his end game is. But he seems to be focusing more on economics and on security. But it is also true that the people he is appointing take tough positions on China. So we have to see...
*Do you think that this might be the reason why Trump is trying to avoid any conflict with Putin, to gain Russia as a possible partner, during any possible conflict with the Chinese?
I don’t think so. But here too he will be strongly disappointed. Russia is not going to join us in going after China. Putin’s objective is to weaken the United States, and the fastest way for him to fail in that, would be to antagonize China...
*The US national military strategy published last year calls for continued US military presence around the globe, to counter both Islamic state and countries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. So, will this strategy continue under Trump?
I think we know right now that Trump will continue that strategy vis-à-vis North-Korea, vis-à-vis Iran, and vis-à-vis on China. What we don't know is whether he continues the strategy vis-à-vis Russia, although again in his is administration the people he has hired understand the need to continue such policies vis-à-vis Russia...
‘Only China could do something against the Dollarization’
*Moscow was trying to take measures against the Dollarization for some time, and now, Ankara is also willing to take similar steps. How will this effect America?
I am skeptical that Ankara would actually do that. Because, by and large, the economic policies of the government there have been pretty good, and they know that’s a fool’s policy. Putin talks about this, but you know, the Russian economy –which before its war in Ukraine– was estimated to be like the sixth largest economy in the world, in dollar terms –or the seventh largest economy– is now the 14th, –or 15th or 16th– largest economy in Dollar terms. Their economy –while not small– is quite weak, and they could do very little against the Dollarization.
Now, the one country which could do something against the Dollarization, of course is China. But any steps China takes against Dollarization will lead to a great loss of assets. China has hundreds of millions, trillions of Dollars in assets. So for Putin talking about this, it's just talk. For Erdoğan talking about this, it’s just talk. And in fact he sound silly bullying, talking that way.
*Does Washington take counter measures against China, and the Russian-Chinese initiative against the Dollarization?
I'm sure Washington is paying attention to it. And they may even be talking to the Chinese about it, as part of our overall dialogue. But I suspect there is a lot more noise about this, than fact.
‘If the West becomes stronger in support of Ukraine, Russians will lose’
*Sen. John McCain and Hillary Clinton had visited the ultra-right wing opposition in Ukraine during the Maidan Movement...
What right wing opposition!.. Let me tell you something. I think you are partially a victim of Russian misinformation. The very question could have been written in Moscow.
Yes... There was no prominent right wing opposition on the Maidan. You had the Right Sector(Pravyi Sektor) which composed a tiny part of the Maidan. And a tiny part of Ukraine's political system. And so, McCain and Clinton and other senators went to the Maidan, not to meet with the ultra-right faction, but to support the people of Ukraine who were demonstrating against an authoritarian government.
*When the first Orange Revolution started in 2004 you were the US Ambassador in Ukraine, so were the groups on the Maidan in 2014 the same as in your time?
The right sector was truly insignificant. It even didn’t exist when I was in Ukraine. There were right wing nationalist of course, but they weren’t organized in the Right Sector in my time. They certainly were a group involved on the Maidan. They were not unimportant, but they were never major major players.
*So the Orange Revolution movements of 2004 and 2014 were basically the same...
Not the same, but similar. But the important difference was; the people who were involved in the Orange Revolution, basically stopped following politics after the Orange Revolution. And then, in the case of the Maidan, people realized that if they don't stay in politics after the changes –meaning Yanukovich’s disappearance– there are going to be the same old problems. So civil society in Ukraine has remained organized and activated. All because they don't completely trusted the President of Ukraine(Petro Poroshenko) who took Yanukovich’s place.
*Did Washington expect Putin's move to take Crimea from Ukraine?
No, no, Washington was surprised by the military aggression in Crimea, and then by Moscow's covert war in Ukraine’s east.
*And do you foresee any solution in Ukraine?
I think that a great deal depends upon both the Ukrainian people and the West. If the West remains strong in support of Ukraine, or becomes even stronger in support of Ukraine –I think that– the Russians will lose. Because Mr. Putin is not want in Ukraine. And he never came close to winning. He wanted to create this thing called “Novorossiya”, but It didn't work because people of Ukraine fought back against it. He is only been able to maintain the small enclaves in Luhansk and Donetsk, by sending in Russian troops to fight. And that’s something the Russian people do not want.
So if Ukrainian people continue fighting, if Western support remains, I think Putin will have to eventually make a serious compromise, which respects Ukraine's territorial integrity.
Ambassador John Herbst is an expert on International Security, Middle East Security, NATO and its Partners, US Foreign Policy. And his regions are Central Asia, Eurasia, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Russia, Ukraine.
Herbst joined the United States Foreign Service in 1979. He has worked as a political counselor at the U.S. embassies in Israel, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. He has also worked as the Director of Regional Affairs in the Near East Bureau of the United States State Department, as Director of the Office of Independent States and Commonwealth Affairs, as Principal Deputy to the Ambassador-at-large for the Newly Independent States, and as U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem. He was appointed Ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2000, and to Ukraine in 2003. In 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appointed Ambassador Herbst as Coordinator for the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization. He assumed the new position in the summer of that year.