As ResearchTurkey, we held an interview with Turkish retired ambassador, and former Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Yaşar Yakış. He is also a founding member of Ak Parti (Justice and Development Party). He is recorded as the Turkish ambassador, who had the longest experience in Turkish Embassies in several Middle Eastern countries. In this sense, with his own words, he beat the record of all time. He has many academic studies published in national and international journals. Apart from his lecturership career and scholarly works, he also served as an Ak Parti deputy in the Grand National Assembly of  Turkey during the 22nd and 23rd legislation periods. During the 58th Turkish government, he guided Turkish Foreign Policy with the title of Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2002 and 2003. Mr. Yakış, who spends his retirement by giving lectures on Turkish Foreign Policy and Water Issues in certain universities, continues to contribute to Turkish foreign and domestic politics by representing Turkey in different national and international platforms.

A Short Summary of the Interview:

UK is the optimal country that would diagnose and situate Turkey both its global role and its role in the European Union.

If we finalize this agreement on facilitating the visa application process, this means that we are taking a step back, because visa exemption is our right.

There is no sacrifice from the strategic decision on Turkey’s EU membership… The enthusiasm may have decreased but it is not at a point that we would give up.

Regarding Turkey’s bid for EU membership, in the future, we can put forward more achievements with fewer compromises.

Transformation of Turkish foreign policy in line with the concept of “soft power” would be quite appropriate and well- directed.

“I believe that the rejection of the bill to send troops to Iraq in 2003 was better to show that Turkey had a more honourable stance. So I am not standing by the ones who said, “I wish we had entered into Iraq.”

During the crisis of memorandum in 2003, US put pressure on Turkey

The story of horse trading: They really make a fine adjustment on Turkey like, ‘Let’s create an image that Turkey is after the money’. Plus the opposition party had a great opportunity and claimed that Turkey had been doing horse trading.

If it would be chaos for the country, after the Assad Regime the first country would suffer from this situation is Syria, and the second one is definitely Turkey.

The Full Text of the Interview:

A vision of Turkey which properly realizes the global and regional importance of the country is present’

You have been appointed as the co-chair of the Turkish-British Tatlıdil Forum. The first of these forums was at Oxford in 2011 and the second one was held recently in Turkey on 13-14 October, 2012. As a London based think tank, we would like to ask first about Turkish perception in the United Kingdom.

First of all, when you talk about the perception of Turkey in the UK, you should bear in mind that nothing is monolithic. There are certain people within the British society, parliament or public opinion that have a stance, which is aloof, concerning Turkey. There have been hot debates against Turkey both in the House of Lords and House of Commons. However, as an overall assessment-and you might be more familiar with the public opinion compared to me- there can be slight differences between various British governments, so as to say like the labours or the conservatives. Nonetheless, the UK is the optimal country that would diagnose and situate Turkey both its global role and its role in the European Union (EU) compared to the rest of the 26 EU member countries non-EU members and other non-European countries, I mean the United States in this instance. This can be a natural result of the sophisticated foreign policy culture of the UK. Another reason might be the imperial culture of the UK. The UK can look from a different perspective, an imperial perspective. I have experienced an example clarifying my point in Hungary. At that time, I was appointed as the chairman of the European Union Committee and I went to Hungary as the chairman of the European Committee. I explained Turkey’s strategic importance to my counterparts as well as its relations with the Middle East and the Muslim World. One of the Hungarian diplomats said: ‘Mr. President, I am really impressed by your speech however you should not tell these things to us. You can tell me about the Hungarian minority in Romania or Yugoslavia, these can be interesting. However, we are not interested in global politics; you should have told this to the Brits. Thus, you should tell this to the countries that are aware of the global agenda, the countries that can situate Turkey in this global agenda, namely to the British people. We do not understand these things; we are surrounded by  Hungarians. As Hungary is surrounded by its Hungarian neighbours, everywhere you can notice Hungarian minorities and we are interested in these issues. We will not get issues that concern the EU as a whole, especially issues beyond the EU”.

Therefore, as British people have a more global approach, they can better understand Turkey’s significance; it can more easily appreciate Turkey so the UK has been the most significant country that has positively and concretely supported Turkey in the EU process. Another example from my presidential term, is the fact that the UK spent thousands of pounds to finance public opinion awareness sessions in various cities to promote Turkey’s EU accession process. However, they could not find a counterpart in Turkey, we messed up, and so they could not carry on. So imagine a country is allocating money for another country’s accession to the EU. This shows how they place importance on Turkey. As a result, for the first part of the question, I do not know the public opinion side but for the official side, I can say that there is a vision of Turkey which properly realizes the global and regional importance of the country.

Visa exemption is our right’

In May 2012, Stefan Fuhle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy made statements such as, ‘the priority is to facilitate the visa issues’. This has been frequently uttered by the businessmen as well as the students. Do you find these statements towards a possible visa facilitation or visa exemption realistic? Is it possible to achieve such facilitations in the near future and what will be your advice on how to achieve it?

I will start my response by taking a few steps back. The visa facilitation, proposed by Turkey, has been a controversial issue.  There is an irreversibility clause in either 21st or 41st article of the Ankara Agreement. This principle suggests that there should be no irreversibility to any kind of advantages that Turkey receives from the EU. There has been a visa exemption with Germany and Belgium, when Turkey had signed an agreement in 1964. I think it has been valid since 1952 with Belgium and 1959 with Germany. Therefore, if we finalize this agreement on the facilitating visa application process, this means that we are taking a step back, because visa exemption is our right. So this should be our stance. This is our right, and if we take this case to the European Court of Justice, this right would be granted to us.

Also, someone – a Turkish businessman named Cahit Yılmaz- took this issue to the court and the Court granted this right. Turkish people now are able to benefit from this right. But in countries such as Germany, authorities demand a lot of paper work, so that benefiting from visa freedom is rather tough compared to the visa application procedure. So, visa exemption is our right. But this issue has been really complicated so we want at least some kind of visa facilitation in some categories. We question how easy would it be with respect to other European countries? We cannot benefit from the rights that for instance Ukraine- which is a country that does not have a membership perspective- can enjoy. Ukraine is neither a candidate country nor a negotiating country.  Ukraine is labelled as an aspiring country. The categories are as follows; aspiring country, candidate country, negotiating country and finally member country. What about Ukraine?  It is only an aspiring country. We cannot even benefit from the rights that an aspiring country can enjoy. If the conditions had been similar to the conditions two years ago, probably the EU would not even grant us visa facilitation. However, there has also been some type of a Turkey consciousness from the EU side as well. There have been some people, who claim that what has been done to Turkey is a shame, it should not have been done. After these types of claims, this visa facilitation process has been started by Fuhle. I do not think that it would be a visa exemption that would not scare the Europeans. Maybe, even if Turkey becomes a full member, they may still be demanding a visa from Turkish citizens in a different way and in different contexts.

Like a progressive transition?

I think they will not be able to obstruct free movement of people but they can obstruct right to labour. So when you get an EU ID, you will go through the EU citizens on your way through passport control. However, there might be some restrictions for the right to labour. They might include it as a part of the accession agreement, because there have been such exceptions before. For example in the Southern part of Denmark bordering Germany, Germans cannot own a second house. This means that Denmark does not want excessive amount of Germans to come and settle. Malta’s population is 360,000. But the climatic conditions are so nice that if you release Europeans, one in a thousand would want to buy a house. One in a thousand of 500 million is 50 million. 50 million people would own a house in Malta. This is impossible. Therefore, Malta has placed some restrictions on foreigners owning a house there. Those kinds of things can be done. So, once Turkey is a member country, Turkish people would of course have the freedom of movement, but there might be some restrictions for the right to labour. You asked what it will be in the future. Probably this facilitation would be possible for the academicians or for professional athletes. Furthermore, another example is if these people are travelling because they received a prize or are giving a presentation at a University. These are the categories that they treat as harmless. They do not think that these people would look for a job.

So can we expect it this year?

I feel disturbed to schedule these things. Because, if one of those countries says no due to some political reasons, then that will be the end. So, I do not want to say yes to the part on ‘would it be possible to expect these achievements this year’ but I think that these are predictable issues.

‘The enthusiasm for EU membership may have decreased but it is not at a point that we would give up’

You were the chairman for the EU Harmonization Committee between 2003 and 2011. We discovered that the impact of the Committee has significantly decreased and the experts only briefed the commission. Even the expert staffs were reduced from 6 to 3 and there were not any new post openings. However, in the beginning it was suggested that there should be separate working teams for every chapter that we have been negotiating. How would you evaluate the EU harmonization process? Do you think that there is a decrease in the interest/support of the parliament or political will to the EU harmonization process?

We have to divide the answer of this question into two parts. Maybe the will is not decreasing. This means that there is no sacrifice from the strategic decision on Turkey’s EU membership. The reason why the will might have been diminishing is because the European countries bring in issues that have nothing to do with this process. This is the first dimension. The second dimension is stemming from Turkey’s more active foreign policy out of the initiatives that it takes regionally and internationally. This leads to the emergence of a vision of Turkey in which it can assert more power, both at global and regional scales, compared to the current situation in the future. So what does this issue has to do with the current situation? It is because in the future we can put forward more achievements with fewer compromises compared to previous years. This means that they (EU members) would be the one who would be demanding Turkey full membership.

So, there is an upturn?

Turkey’s global importance has been felt more compared to, say, and the situation 10 years ago. Maybe if we utilize a better foreign policy and if we can carry out the current conditions in the economy… However, they should run parallel. If we perform better on both of them, then we will not be a burden on the EU but rather we will help in overcoming the burdens of EU. If the current Greek crisis continues and if some new crisis appears in Spain, Portugal or even Belgium and if Turkey performs well in economy, then the following situation will arise: ‘we have to enlarge our economies with Turkey’. Two days ago Soros stated that they will not be successful unless they [EU countries] foster their economies. If this perspective is true, how would an economy grow? Only if a dynamic economy such as Turkey would become a member.  Thus, Turkey will provide this opportunity. Formerly, the EU member states did not easily accept that Turkey had this potential. Only these statements were present in some reports written by farsighted people.

Lately, a report has been produced by the European Friends chaired by Martti Ahtisaari. At the end of the section on migration, it has been written as follows ‘ In the future not only the European countries will not need to take any measure to prevent Turkish workers to come to their country, but on the contrary they will have to take measures to encourage Turkish workers to come to their country.

Likewise Cem Behar has several articles on these claims.

Yes, in the future they will try to figure out how to attract these Turkish workers instead of blocking them. Slowly, this also makes sense in Turkey as well. So, at that point, Turkey will be tending to be more reluctant. That is why now we are not rushing into being a member; we are taking it slow instead of making any concessions. Taking it slowly does not mean that Turkey will give up from the EU process. For the current Turkish government, the only way to bring in the international values is through being a member of the EU. There is also another reason, apart from the religion or clothing rights. The reason is because every new government tends to have an instinct to run down everything that has been achieved prior to its governance. There are plenty of reforms that Turkey has achieved during the AKP government within the EU framework. I guess, it should be in 2003, EU Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen stated that Turkey has achieved more reforms in the past 18 months compared to the past 80 years. So if now Turkey does not become a member of the EU, than a new government may go back to square one. On the other hand, AKP will not let the reforms be spoiled. This is the second reason.  The enthusiasm may have decreased but it is not at a point that we would give up.

‘Armenian origin workers in Turkey may contribute to a positive change regarding the image of Turkey in Armenia’

Some of the media companies released your statements on sending Armenian origin workers back to their countries in the process by giving penalties to the denial of the so-called Armenian genocide in France in 2006. Why did you come up with this proposal, did your thoughts change?

No, this is not my proposal. They did not quote me with quotation marks and italics. When I was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, they asked what would happen if we insisted on our stance or if we insisted on our previous attitude. I said that the EU countries will continue to see Turkey as an occupying country. The opposition presented my response as ‘Yakış treats Turkish soldiers as occupiers’. On the other hand, I stated in italics -to refer it to the EU member states- that the European countries are saying this and will continue to present us as so. What I originally meant was the fact that there are a number of Turkish people who want theTurkish government to send the Armenian workers back to their home country. I did not claim that I want them to be sent back home.

One of the prominent figures was Şükrü Elekdağ. He pronounced it everywhere including the parliament, he also stated it abroad.  One can always abuse the statements. I do not think that it would be for Turkey’s best interest to head in this direction, we do not need that. However, there might be a reaction in the Turkish public opinion. They might claim that although we suffer from unemployment, Armenians are able to find jobs. Also, they send remittances to their home country. They might claim these. I do not think that these decisions should be taken at the expense of families’ daily bread. On the contrary, if the Armenians work in Turkey, they will suddenly realize that Turks are not like the bad people in their imagination. They can experience working with them and realize that they are not the kind of people that are pleased by drinking human blood.

Like a cultural dialogue…

Yes, maybe some of the prejudices may be softened.

‘It should swing, like a pendulum until the end before reverting in the other direction’

There might be some changes in Turkish-French relations after Hollande’s election as the French president. What are your comments on the future of the relations? Would there be a significant change compared to the Sarkozy period?

There is a Bektashi joke. They put two different glasses of wine in front of the Bektashi and they ask which one is better. Bektashi drank one of them and said the other one. When they asked how he could decide even if he did not give a try to the other one he says, ‘it cannot be worse than this one’. Based on the worst relations ever in the Sarkozy period, we can expect a progress in Turkish-French relations during Hollande’s presidency. Also, it should swing, like a pendulum until the end before reverting in the other direction. In this situation, it went from one extreme to another. This was revealed by the Constitutional Council of France, by the withdrawal of the legislation posing punishment on the denial of the so-called Armenian Genocide. Even the French people, who follow these issues closely, admitted that it went too far. The unfair treatment of Turkey may have been the idea that dominated the discussion.

However, we should not entertain hope from this decision. My counterparts like Michel Diefenbacher, strongly opposed this law but they did not oppose the idea that the Armenian Genocide did not happen. They admit that the Genocide has happened but they think that the sentence for the ones, who declare the opposite, is wrong. We should not begin to hope before understanding these nuances. It has been common within French public opinion that the 1915 incident is genocide. What is wrong according to France is to punish people opposing it. It is contrary to the freedom of speech and the Cartesian idea. They say that this decision is the only way to implement the freedom of speech which has been brought by the French Revolution. If you take a look at the annulment decision of the constitutional council, there are only one or two references to article 10 and 39 of the constitution. There are more frequent references to the 1789 Declaration on Human Rights and Freedom. They say that it is contrary to this declaration. At the end of the day it is a declaration, not a law. However, this declaration counts more than any other law. They mention that it is against the rights reflected in the declaration. So France is not against the idea that what had happened in 1915 is not genocide. They are against the punishment. This will proceed. Hollande explicitly told it just like Sarkozy. In the Sarkozy era, there were plenty of other non-Armenian issues. Sarkozy was against the idea of the possible accession of Turkey to the EU. There are no such objections in the Hollande case. So, there might be some progress but it is only due to the reasons in the Bektashi joke.

‘A transition to soft power policy is crucial for Turkey’ 

You frequently mention that cultural diplomacy is a more important interaction tool compared to classical democracy. Within this context, how would you evaluate Mr. Davutoğlu’s multi-dimensional foreign policy and the prominence of soft power?

I think it is an attitude that is on point. I think that once the transition to politics based on soft power is achieved, it would be easier to carry out. Especially in countries which have an imperial past. They have to be more careful in using hard power compared to other countries, which do not have this imperial past. This is because it may easily bring up past experiences. Transformation of Turkish foreign policy in line with the concept of “soft power” would be quite appropriate and well- directed.

We are taught in school that the Ottomans brought peace and stability to the Balkans and the Middle East. I was the only Turkish diplomat that has worked for such a long in the Middle East by chance. I beat the record. I worked 4 years in Syria, 4 years in Saudi Arabia and 4 years in Egypt. The Ottoman image in these areas is significantly different from what we have been taught in school. In those countries, The Ottoman era is the dark side of their history. Therefore it will be difficult to bring forth hard power on these countries. For example, today there will be a huge difference in perception, if the Turkish army would enter into Syria compared to the Bolivian army. Turkish soldiers will be reminiscent of the stories that their grandparents have told. Therefore, a transition to soft power is crucial for Turkey. The cultural dimension of this issue is really important, especially in terms of Ottoman geography because they have their mark on many cultural properties. There was a photo of Thessaloniki in between 1910-1912 in a book. There were 37-40 mosques seen the city of Thessaloniki. Today, there is only one mosque which is used as a club. Some of these monuments were destroyed after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and if they were not destroyed, then we should use them to rebuild relationships and regain them again. For example, one of the first targets of the Serbians in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been the mosques and the cemeteries, in order to rub out the traces of the Ottomans. If Turkey restores these places in a friendly manner with these countries, then our shared history will emerge. Therefore, the initiatives that Mr. Davutoğlu has taken are appropriate and should be supported.

‘During the crisis of memorandum in 2003, US put pressure on Turkey’ 

You were appointed as the Foreign Minister of Turkey in 2002 by AKP, in a crucial time. You were actively involved during the negotiation with the US in the Iraq intervention. Was there a strong restraint from abroad prior to the war in Iraq? What were the demands from Turkey?

There was no pressure with the exception of the US, but of course there were restraints from the US. In fact, recently in an article written by Chris Patton, he argues that US deputy minister of defence was sent to Turkey to reprehend the Turkish Army for rejecting the proposal of the new front from which the US soldiers would pass along Turkey to get into Northern Iraq. What I understand is that the Turkish army had given an impression as if they would allow it. The Americans took it for granted. However, as the decision was the other way round, there was a huge disappointment on the American side and there were statements such as ‘the military leadership did not play its leading role’ at that time. They thought that the Turkish military did not guide or dominate the civilian politics. This was the approach of the American side. Therefore, the pressure came from the US side and I was sent to the US to explain this situation. I contacted President Bush, Condoleezza Rice- who was the National Security Advisor to the President at that time-, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Colin Power.

I suggested that we should not bring this issue to the parliament right now, as the decisions would be against their interest because it was a period after the Ramadan holiday and the public opinion and the MPs were against entering Iraq with the US forces or allowing them to pass through the Turkish borders. The MPs recently came from their constituency area and they were much more affected by the speeches at the cafes. We told them that we should not bring this issue now, otherwise it would be rejected. We also told them what to do and what not to do, if they decided to enter to Iraq. For example, we said that they should not dismantle the structure of the Ba’ath Party because the structure and the establishment of the Ba’ath Party play an important role within the society. A lot of people were not involved in the Ba’ath Party just because they felt attracted to Saddam, but also worked because they had to bring home the bacon. There was no need to punish all these people. If you dismantle the structure of Ba’ath Party, then they will not be able to earn a living. They would be enemies to the Americans.

I stated all these facts; however, I see that the Americans ignored my statements. They only asked if we would permit the passage of the US soldiers though the Turkish borders. Yes or no? They were focused on this issue. Once Turkey said no, they could not open two of the fronts. Only after two years, the Minister of Defence admitted that the extension of the war was due to Turkey’s rejection. However, when we had rejected their passage, they claimed that they were not in need of Turkey; they could do the same thing from the Southern front. They identified the fact that if Turkey did allow the passage, this war would not have taken so long. So, were there any pressures? Yes there were, but only from the US. Once this bill was rejected by our parliament, some of the EU countries such as France and Germany supported Turkey. The UK was of course allies with the US so they did not support us. However, the UK did not create any pressure; on the contrary they even supported our rejection.

‘The reality behind the story of horse trading’

There was a great deal of assertion prior to the Iraq War on Turkey’s demands. US President Bush’s statements such as ‘Turkey is making a horse trade’ took place in the media. Also the opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party) claimed that Turkey demanded 1 million US dollars to open its land to the USA and was shown in a document to the public. What are your comments on these statements?

Let’s have a look, if I can find anything from my diary. I am trying to find in which context the horse trade claims took place. First of all, let me explain what our proposal was. We did not talk about money; however, the amount of loss was enumerated after the First Gulf War, which took around 18 months. According to our Secretariat of Foreign Trade, we had a loss of 18 million US$. We said, look, we had a loss of 18 million USD in one year. Now, if the Iraq War commences, it might take up to five years. Can you imagine our loss in 5 years? Multiply 18 by 5. It equals 90 million USD. This was the structure of our proposal. We tried to explain that the Turkish economy would not be able to get over this loss. For example, in order to show that we are not into the money issue I said, ‘Mr. President, we are not here to do horse trading, we did not come to make a trade’. President Bush replied to me with the following statement: ‘My friend, I’m from Texas. I know some people coming there and they say that they are not horse traders but they will strip you down to your underwear’. This is how the conversation occurred. I looked it up, if I had it in here[the diary].  The minutes of the meeting should be in here somewhere. At that time, Turkey was depicted as a belly dancer that has squeezed all her money into her bra. This was done to put Turkey through the hoops; meaning how much money you will squeeze into my bra, in order for Turkey to open its land. It was done on purpose to put Turkey through the hoops and the US was really successful on this issue. They really make a fine adjustment on Turkey like, ‘Let’s create the image that Turkey is after the money’. Plus the opposition party had a great opportunity and claimed that Turkey had been doing horse trading. This was the story of horse trading.

‘I am not standing by the ones who said, “I wish we had entered into Iraq”’

The AKP government made every effort to pass the bill on the opening of land to the US military in 2003, prior to the Iraq intervention. There were even rumours on intra-party troubles and separation. In the end, this law did not pass from the parliament. Looking back, what were the impacts of this decision? Can you say that it was right or wrong?

First of all, let me start with the first part. When we discussed this issue within the cabinet, some of the ministers said that they did not support it.One of them said,  after going out of the meeting,  that I said the same thing inside. After that, he left our party. The two of them opposed it inside and did not say anything after the meeting. Therefore, both from the government and the parliament there were opposing people. These were mostly coming from the South Eastern part of Turkey but not limited to it. In the vote, the bill was rejected. Have you got any idea on the numbers? 262 of them voted for opening up our land to the Americans, while 251 of them said no. 251 won. It was so interesting. Also, I can give some detail. After the announcement of this voting, the US ambassador was sitting at his terrace and he suddenly rushed inside because they told him that 262 of the MPs said yes while 251 said no. Afterwards, MPs from CHP said that this bill was rejected. How come it was rejected? Because 262 of them said yes? In reality if you say ‘no’ even if you have the right to participate to the voting, it counts as a ‘yes’. You do not use your right to say ‘no’ so it is counted as a ‘yes’. However in Turkey, if you do not participate, you say ‘no’. 19 MPs abstained so CHP said it was rejected. Then they looked it up some law books and asked to see a legal consultant. Following that, president made another speech and the bill was rejected.

The Americans had telegraphed a ‘yes’. It has a really interesting history. This is about the decision. After that, did it create a separation within the party? No, it did not. In other words, it did not count as a separation. Also, I want to mention another detail. Prior to the voting, the Prime Minister held a group meeting. He asked us to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, without mentioning our names. After that, everyone wrote something and placed it into the ballot box. Following this vote, we made an assessment with Abdullah Gül- Prime Minister at that time- in the corridors behind the presidency council. Mr. Erdoğan was not appointed as the Prime Minister at that time so he was not allowed to enter. Mr. Erdoğan said that it would be a strong margin of yes votes which means we were not in a crucial position, we were far ahead. Maybe 2 or 3 people may give up.  The lesson learned from this voting was the fact that it would most probably pass. He could calculate 19 abstainers. Secondly, he did not know that on the contrary to its world-wide implementation, that Turkey abstaining would mean a ‘no’. So we went to vote. Looking back… rewinding the film, was it a correct thing? Now plenty of things can be said but still the impression that the US had given at times was the following: our expectations were to be a part of the decision makers, we will be the pivots.

On the contrary, one of the points that was mentioned by the US during the negotiations was as follows: Turkey will not interpenetrate all over Iraq with the US. Turkish soldiers could have only gone 29 kilometres from the border. Secondly, there was some information provided by the Iraqi Turcomen population. All of them claimed that there was a decent amount of Iraqi Turcomen living in Iraq, however they gave the wrong figures. Americans said like if you support me, I can bring this amount of Turcoman people. It appeared that all these statements were wrong. When you see Turcomen voting at the ballot box, it appeared that apparently our news source over here was not reliable plus the figures were not correct on the support of these Turcomen. For example the Shiite Turcomen voted with other Shia party while the Sunni Turcomen voted with other Sunni parties in Iraq.

On the other hand, without separating them the Kurdish people voted side by side with both Shiite and Sunni Kurdish people in the case of Kurds. So the intelligence from the Turcomen was vastly different compared to what had happened in reality. So even if we were present in Iraq, we would not get what we have expected. Another important point is the fact that the Americans tried to restrict Turkey’s mobility. In the rules of engagement, when are you allowed to use weapons?  The Americans said we can go together to Iraq with Turkey but you should be authorized to fire only in self-defence. This means that you can only shoot if someone shoots at you. The Chairman of the Turkish Committee Mr. Deniz Bölükbaşı informed me, after the speech of the Chairman of the US delegation. I spoke with the chairman of the US delegation and asked whether he knew what he actually meant. Say for example, you get into Iraq and you saw Osama bin Laden there. Would you shoot him? Will you wait for him to shoot at you and would you do nothing if he does not? Is not PKK the same for us or even more dangerous? He said, okay, I understand what you mean. Then he withdrew his claims.

However, the only role that would have been given to Turkey was self-defence for the US. Not peace enforcement. Not keeping the PKK down. So, looking back, Turkey would go another step further even if she had gone into Iraq. I believe that it was better to reject the bill, because at least it was the way Turkish public opinion inclined and also it showed the Arab countries and to the Western countries that Turkey had a more honourable stance. So I am not standing by the ones who said, “I wish we had entered into Iraq.”

But just a moment ago you said that the Turkish Army was held responsible for the rejection of the bill…         

I do not mean “held responsible” for the rejection. I do not presume that any military official would give such a promise, because the military is very well disciplined in Turkey. They will not do that unless an explicit instruction comes from the top officials, but our military assumed that the bill would pass and they embarked on plenty of tasks in the field with the Americans. They created infrastructure together with the Americans close to Gaziantep or Mardin, I cannot remember exactly. They spent tones of money for the corps that will disembark at the Iskenderun harbour. So what will be the US impression for all this? It could be taken for granted. What was in the minds of the American leaders was the idea that in Turkey, Turkish military was -traditionally- the real policy maker. So now they thought, if the military acts as fait accompli, we can take it for granted. This was what I have been talking about, I did not claim that the military would have said ‘don’t worry, we will pass the bill’.

‘The US thinks as that if the military insists, the government would do so accordingly’

How will you comment on the statements that lots of operations were done because the Turkish military was held responsible for the rejection of the bill?

I do not presume that. There is no causal relationship within that region that we can directly hold responsible. I do not think that there is situation like the Turks did that, so we should do that reciprocally. I think you used an expression like the military tried to obstruct the bill. The US presented it as if the military did not spend every effort to pass the bill. The US thinks as that if the military insists, the government would do so accordingly. They accused the military for not doing that.

‘Moderate Islam has been seen as the antidote of Radical Islam’

Can we associate the rise of moderate Islam in Turkey with the propaganda US has performed after 9/11? How would you evaluate the presentation of Turkey as a ‘sample country’ for the Arab Spring?

The rise in the US or in Turkey? It can be possible in the US because Islam emerged as a fact of life. So the lesser evil is moderate Islam. It has been seen as the antidote of Radical Islam or extremist Islam or Islamic Fundamentalism. Perhaps the Americans might have made that kind of association.

‘I opposed to a possible combat mission’ 

How would you interpret Turkey sending military forces to Libya and Afghanistan within the framework of NATO?

I made my first solid contribution when the party was newly established. We were not even in power. It was around 2000-2001. Some of our delegates were in the parliament as previously elected MPs. I was appointed as the vice president of the party when Turkey was discussing sending troops to Afghanistan. I did not oppose sending troops to Afghanistan but what I was against was sending a moving force; if only it was not a combat mission. The reason is because the Americans or other countries will turn back to their home countries sooner or later. I did not imagine that it would be in 2014, but still they would return after some point. 14 years will have passed and they will have turned back. They will have returned but Turkey might have wanted to stay a bit longer because we have more profound relations. If Turkey enters into a combat mission, then the Turkish military can be seen as an enemy afterwards, once the other countries withdraw their forces. That’s why I have strongly opposed to a possible combat mission. Turkey still continues to have this attitude. So if you ask whether I have contributed to this issue, I would say I strongly opposed sending moving forces. The government did not send moving forces either at that time, I guess, but we did not send moving forces when we were in power.

‘If the wind blows from behind, you can gain an important status’

At a symposium in Paris on the 2 May 2012, you made a broad assessment on the events that took place in Syria. How do you find the impacts of the Syrian crisis on Turkey’s regional position? What will happen in the aftermath of this crisis to Turkey’s regional position?

Do you know how the word crisis is written in the Chinese alphabet? Crisis is written with two ideograms. When you write opportunities together with risks, these two ideograms would mean the word crisis. So in every crisis, there are risks/challenges and there are opportunities. It is the same for Turkey. If you take the wrong step, you can mess things up. If the wind blows from behind, you can gain an important status. If the fall of Bashar Assad would happen quickly and if there would be a smooth transition in the post-Assad period, then Turkey may reap the advantages of it. But if Assad does not go or alternatively his government falls but no one would stand in for him, then it would be chaos for the country and if the first country that would suffer from this situation is Syria, then the second one is definitely Turkey.

There was a meeting on 10 April  2012 in Amman on cooperation in the water policies of the Middle East. At the meeting, they decided to form a ‘wise men committee’ of three people. The chairman will be Prince Hassan and you took part along the former Lebanese Minister of Finance Muhammad Shata. What are your aims in this cooperation?

I do not think that it would be realistic to expect great deal of results from that cooperation. There are no direct benefits for Turkey. However in the international arena, Turkey is represented as the country which cuts the water supplies of Syria and Iraq. One of the reasons of these claims is because either Turkey’s absence in the international forums or because when Turkey realizes that these issues will be discussed in the forum, she does not go on purpose. That is why I always say that Turkey should not be absent in those kinds of forums. This would mean that you are leaving this forum to Syria, Iraq or other Arab countries. They will rule those areas. So how come a Jordanian accuses you of cutting the water of the Arab countries? Why? It is because Syria had gone to previous meeting and bluffed them and none of the Turks say anything contrary to that. So I believe that Turkey should be represented in all international mediums.

Although, Turkey should be one of the most crucial countries responsible for the water policies, currently, she is absent. Look at the World Water Forum or European Water Forum. Turkey is ignored. Who is present over there? Lebanese, Syrians, all those tiny little countries except Turkey. That was why I have written a letter to our universities when I was appointed as the deputy undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I told these are the reasons why Turkey needs a great amount of qualified people in water policies. So if you would like to establish a chair or department in your university, we will support you from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We will support you before the Ministry of Finance. We will actually support you everywhere. Only one of the universities wrote a response to my letter. Professor Ali İhsan Bağış from Hacettepe University. Now, he passed away. He established the department of hydro-politics. After my return from Vienna, he said, look, I opened this department because you wanted me to do so. Now you have to teach in this department. That is why I started giving lectures on water policy because I could not turn down his offer. Plus, I set up a new class of officers- water experts- within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These water experts have an engineering background and after working two years at the headquarters, we would send them to a country where they could be enrolled in graduate studies and they would work there for four years. For example you can send them to the States to Michigan University, they can do master’s at the water policy department. Then they will return to the headquarters and work for the same unit for two years. Then we can send them to a country with which Turkey has water disputes. Which countries are they? Syria, Iraq, Iran due to the Balik River, Georgia due to the Kura River, Armenia due to the Aras River, Greece and Bulgaria due to the Tundzha and Maritsa Rivers. They should try to find out how Turkey is perceived in those countries. Finally, after coming back and working another two years in the headquarters, they can now work freelance. You can even show a candidate for vice presidency to these water forums because did a PhD on water issues.

People I had hired were sent to the NATO department as an archivist following my post to Cairo because one of my friends called them to his department. Nowadays, I feel like things have changed a little bit. Therefore, as I have diagnosed Turkey’s absence in those areas, you have to be in those international arenas. If one of them says something on Turkey you would be able to object and say no, actually it is like that. That is why we wanted to be a part of this Wise Men Committee. Now, there is another invitation for July. They are organizing the Dead Sea Conference. It takes place in the Jordanian side of Dead Sea. You know there are the Jordanian and Israeli side of Dead Sea. They asked whether I would like to participate. I will meet with Şaban Dişli following our interview. He is Prime Minister’s advisor, an MP. We will discuss this invitation. In my opinion, we should be everywhere, whether related or not. For example, what does the Dead Sea have to do with us? We are neither an upstream nor a downstream country. However, we should tell the truth if there is a discussion on for example Tigris or Euphrates. So we need to participate.

Thank you very much for this interview Mr. Yakış. It was very informative and insightful.

I thank you very much. I wish success to ResearchTurkey.

© 2012 ResearchTurkey. All rights reserved. This publication cannot be printed, reproduced, or copied without referencing the original source.

Please cite this publication as follows:

ResearchTurkey (October, 2012), “Interview with Mr. Yaşar Yakış: From Iraq War to Syrian Crisis: Turkey’s Foreign Policy in Transition”, Vol. I, Issue 8, pp.33-46, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (



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3 thoughts on “Interview with Mr. Yaşar Yakış: From Iraq War to Syrian Crisis: Turkey’s Foreign Policy in Transition

  1. Ender

    I do not understand why AK Parti fought for helping the U.S. troops to use Turkey’s territory in 2003 if Mr. Yakış were against it as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. I was wondering whether AK Parti is thankful to the opposition for the rejection of U.S.’ request in 2003?

  2. Abdurrahim

    Very good interview! Mr. Yakış is a very rational, experienced diplomat, he should be directing Turkey’s foreign policy… I listened to him at Oxford Univesity, he was very open-minded and elegant.


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