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MEMO talks to Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey Numan Kurtulmus

Numan Kurtulmus, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]
Numan Kurtulmus, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

As Turkey grapples with a number of serious domestic and international crises, much has been made about its record vis a vis its troubled relationship with the European Union, its involvement in the Syrian civil war and Western perceptions that Turkey is discriminating against its Kurdish population. But do these gripes that appear in the press all too often hold any water? What does Turkey actually think?

Detractors say that Turkey is becoming increasingly authoritarian and not respecting international norms of human rights and democracy. However, those who defend Turkey’s record point to the West’s double-standards and hypocrisy, and the fact that Turkey is not only a leading economy and democracy in the Middle East, but also leads the way in humanitarian issues by hosting more than three million Syrian refugees fleeing the violence inflicted upon them by the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.

To clarify some of these issues, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus agreed to speak to MEMO exclusively last night at the Turkish Embassy in London.

Turkey in EU’s ‘waiting room for a long time’

In recent months, the European Union (EU) and its member states have frequently issued heated criticism of Turkey, particularly in the wake of the failed coup attempt last July. The botched putsch has been linked to the Hizmet Movement led by Fethullah Gulen, who is in self-imposed exile in the United States and who has now been designated a terrorist by Turkey.

Earlier this week, the EU Parliament voted to pass an “advisory” motion that called on the EU to freeze accession talks with Ankara, citing alleged abuses and suggesting that Turkey acted in a way that was incompatible with European values.

“This decision is an advisory decision…it has no political result,” Kurtulmus said. “It is unacceptable, it is unreasonable [and] so it has no value from Turkish perspective.”

Speaking about the EU’s perceived duplicitous nature, the Deputy Prime Minister also took aim at the fact that the EU had done very little in terms of honouring agreements with Turkey, including its accession talks that have been ongoing for decades.

“We have had relations with the European Union starting from 1963,” Kurtulmus said, lamenting the fact that Turkey had “waited in the waiting room for a long time.”

There was palpable disappointment in the fact that Turkey’s decades-old relationship with the EU was not seen as something worthwhile for European states to maintain, who give Turkey the impression that they feel themselves to be superior while Turkey is always made to feel that it is a supplicant.

Kurtulmus complained that Turkey’s good faith was rarely respected by European leaders in their agreements: “We always saw the dual faces…of the European policymakers [and] it reflects the double-standards of the European Union.”

One agreement that has garnered much in the way of international coverage was an agreement struck earlier this year regarding Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis. In the terms of the agreement, Turkey would better police its land and maritime borders, and would also receive financial assistance to take care of the millions of Syrian refugees living within its territory.

The deal has been hailed as a success for preventing mass migration to Europe. However, Turkey feels that the EU has reneged on its promises, and has therefore breached the terms of the deal.

“As the whole world knows, Turkey is a kind of barrier for illegal immigration [coming] from Asia, the Middle East, North Africa…actually Turkey is a kind of protector for…the European Union,” Kurtulmus explained.

“We made an agreement with the EU and we agreed…on liberalisation of visas for Turkish citizens and simultaneously to [prevent] illegal immigration from Turkey to [Europe]. We fulfilled our responsibilities but unfortunately the European side did not follow their promises.”

The risk of broken promises and the ire the EU’s advisory vote has drawn from Turkey could be dire. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reacted to the vote by threatening to open the gates for migrants and refugees to flood into Europe, suggesting that the EU ought to do more to respect its Turkish neighbour or else risk the consequences.

Aleppo an ‘emergency situation’

Moving on from the subject of Syrian refugees, Numan Kurtulmus addressed their homeland and the ongoing human tragedy there.

Since 2011, the Assad regime has been brutally slaughtering the Syrian population for daring to ask for freedom from his family’s near half century grip on power. Of particular concern these days is the city of Aleppo, whose eastern opposition-held quarter has been bombarded for months by the Assad regime.

“The people of Aleppo [live in] an emergency situation,” Kurtulmus said, highlighting the fact that a dearth of supplies may cause a potential catastrophe. “They need humanitarian aid, food, sanitary [supplies] and medicine.”

Turkey will also be working with one-time antagonist Russia in order to deliver these supplies. “We are working with the Russians to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Aleppo very soon…we are ready to cooperate with the Russians to provide this help to the people of Aleppo.”

Russia is one of the main backers of Syria’s Al-Assad, and has itself been accused of “war crimes” by the United States for bombing civilian targets across the length and breadth of Syria in its apparent war against “terrorism”.

Commenting on how Turkey’s own military intervention in Syria, dubbed “Euphrates Shield”, would contribute to the relief of civilians in the beleaguered northern Syrian city, Kurtulmus emphatically denied that his country had any intention of securing parts of Aleppo at present.

“This military operation is not aiming to secure some parts of Aleppo. That is another issue.”

“[The] operation is going very well, as planned at the beginning of the operation,” Kurtulmus told MEMO. So what does Turkey hope to achieve with Euphrates Shield?

“The main objectives of the Turkish military operation is to [clear] a 5,000 square kilometres [zone] from terrorist organisations, namely Daesh and PYD. The United States promised Turkey to force PYD forces to go to east of the Euphrates, so our aim is to [clear] this land from Daesh, from PYD.”

Turkey considers the PYD to be a sister organisation to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK. The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey to establish an independent Kurdish state, and has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union for using tactics that have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.

Turkey is the world’s ‘largest Kurdish state’

Despite the PKK’s activities, the bulk of the Western media’s opprobrium has been heaped squarely upon the shoulders of Turkey, and unfairly so according to Turkey’s deputy prime minister. The media and political establishment in the West suffer from “a kind of bias” according to Kurtulmus.

Acknowledging indications that the majority of Kurds living in Turkey tend to vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Kurtulmus went further and said that Turkey was the largest Kurdish state in the world.

“We are not against Kurdish people and also we are not against Kurds…in northern parts of Syria or Iraq,” the senior politician said by way of assuring the world of Turkey’s intent, adding: “In reality, Turkey is the largest Kurdish state in the world.”

According to Kurtulmus, Turkey was not fighting Kurds as a people, but was actually engaged in fighting “terrorist organisations” such as the PKK. In fact, the Turkish government enjoys business and political relations with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government headed by Masoud Barzani – a Kurdish insurgent turned politician.

Turkey is concerned that the PKK and the PYD may, however, be attempting to establish an autonomous and “new territory” across northern Syria, something that Ankara perceives as being a potentially racist entity led by ethno-nationalist militants.

Kurtulmus told MEMO that his government was opposed to the creation “of a new territory in northern Syria under the flag of PYD…Kurds, Turks, Turkmens, Arabs and others lived all together for so many centuries in the region.”

Indicating that the PYD and other Kurdish militants may ethnically cleanse areas, as reported by Amnesty International, Kurtulmus concluded by saying:

“Our main intention is to preserve the rights of different ethnic groups and different sectarian groups in the region…the people must live in their homeland…Our main responsibility as a neighbouring country is to provide a peaceful atmosphere for different ethnic and sectarian groups in the region.”

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