Over the past decade, Turkey has found itself at the fore in some major conflicts in the Middle East, causing it to bear the brunt of an international refugee crisis and a hostile EU foreign policy. The plans of its neighbours have also forced it to adapt in order to protect its interests in, for example, the eastern Mediterranean where energy resources are being exploited by Greece, Egypt and Israel.
Amid such pressing changes in the regional political landscape, Middle East Monitor spoke to the former Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Cevdet Yilmaz, last week in the headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Ankara, to get an insight into the country's direction and foreign policy goals.
The status of the Kurds
Yilmaz first addressed Turkey's relations with the Kurds, both within the country and abroad. He is of Kurdish descent, from the Zaza peoples of eastern Turkey, and insisted that Kurdish people are treated equally.
"In our legal system, the Kurds or any other ethnic group are not identified as minorities," he explained. "All ethnic groups in Turkey are first-class citizens of the Turkish Republic."
While Yilmaz acknowledged that in the past there were "some problems" about Kurdish people speaking their languages, and some other issues, "Over the 18 years of AK Party governments we have actually corrected these past mistakes." In the late Ottoman period and the early days of the newly-established Turkish Republic, for example, there were "trends to homogenise the people" based on a single Turkish national identity. This resulted in the Kurdish language and cultural practices being repressed and often banned.
These, Yilmaz told us, were "modernisation efforts" which were wrongly applied through a "top-down" method inspired by "westernisation." It was a result of "trying to adopt western ways of behaviour, music and culture… but, especially after the democratisation in Turkey… these different identities have re-emerged in Turkish politics, social life, [and] culture."
Since President – back then, Prime Minister – Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2003, he and his party have invested a lot in south-east and eastern Anatolia, where the majority of the country's Kurds reside. "Freedoms have been increased and the nonsense banning of the Kurdish language has been abolished." Such moves were necessary because the Kurds are "an integral part" of Turkey.
The former Deputy Prime Minister also clarified the fact that there is "a clear-cut distinction between Kurdish people and the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party]," an internationally-designated terrorist organisation which is "killing Kurdish people… hindering the economic and social development in the regions in which the Kurds live [with] aims which have nothing to do with the problems of the Kurdish people."
Libya: a political solution and the exploitation of resources
Turkey's regional interests have come into conflict with the interests of foreign powers in Libya, where renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army were defeated in the Tripoli region recently by forces loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Turkey supports the GNA.
"We basically defend a political solution," Yilmaz pointed out, referring to Turkey's military support for the GNA which was a major factor in Haftar's defeat. "[No state] can impose its will over Libya; we defend the political unity of Libya and the territorial integrity of Libya."
Turkey is, he noted, hoping for a political solution in the North African country. "We believe that without a strong legitimate government, the Haftar forces will not have any political solution, they will just impose a military one." For this, he added, the eastern part of Libya and the western part have to come together and agree on a political solution. "Turkey supports this political process wholeheartedly but does not believe that Haftar has a role in the future of Libya."
The main obstacle, however, is that the GNA has not yet managed to capture the strategic cities of Sirte and Jufra, which are critical for the Libyan people and important for the export of Libya's natural resources. According to Yilmaz, Libya's oil and natural gas reserves will be under the control of the Libyan government and not be taken over by Turkey. "We believe that the resources in Libya belong to the Libyan people, they don't belong to any external power… and we hope to see that the Libyan government controls this region and exports its oil to rebuild the country."
This is how Yilmaz explained Turkey's approach to foreign intervention compared with the classic European approach. "[European powers] use these resources for their own benefits without any benefit for African nations, whereas Turkey has always taken a win-win approach." In this, he believes, the government in Ankara has brought forward a new paradigm: "Turkish companies will work not only for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of the countries in which they operate. This is as true for Libya as it is for any other country in Africa."
The EU and the EastMed dispute
The proposed EastMed energy pipeline that would exploit natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean and transport it to Europe is another focus for Turkey which was addressed by Yilmaz. The project was put together by Greece, Israel and Egypt last year, but was "foiled" by Turkey's drilling operations in the waters around Cyprus and its agreements signed with the GNA, making it of key geopolitical importance for Ankara.
"We are just trying to defend our rights, and we will not let anybody harm our interests and the interests of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; that's why we signed an agreement with Libya," said Yilmaz. "We are ready to negotiate with all countries. We all calling on them to come and negotiate with us, but they cannot just impose something upon Turkey."
In fact, Ankara has been feeling particularly isolated by the planned EastMed pipeline, which appears to have ignored Turkey's importance as a major player in the region, both in terms of size and policy. "They are trying to exclude Turkey from EastMed, but Turkey has the longest coastline — around 1,800 km including the continental shelf — and is the biggest country in this region. We cannot accept being excluded from the region."
To involve Turkey would not only benefit its own interests, stressed Yilmaz, but would also benefit Egypt. "The agreement between Egypt and Greece was not in the best interests of Egypt. It is an opportunity now for Egypt to renegotiate the situation with Greece as well as Turkey."
The firm stand that Ankara has taken in the EastMed dispute has affected its relations with the EU as a whole, with member states such as Greece and France opposing Turkey's actions and independent foreign policy. The EU imposed sanctions on Turkey last year over the issue, so the prospects for its accession to the bloc have never looked bleaker.
Despite this setback, Yilmaz told us that becoming a member-state is still Turkey's strategic goal. "We know that it might not look very realistic nowadays, though. Unfortunately, there isn't a very a good atmosphere in the EU."
This is also apparently down to the bloc's own internal problems such as the rise of far-right populist movements with their Islamophobic and anti-Turkey worldview. "This is threatening the future of Europe as well and it is also harming Turkey-EU relations. But we believe that the EU is based on certain universal values. We share these values and believe that we can work together with common interests."
Syria and the refugee crisis
Syria is another major front where Turkey has intervened militarily in recent years, one that is much closer to home. Throughout the ongoing Syrian civil war, Turkey has conducted three major military operations to stabilise its border region and ensure its national security by pushing back the Kurdish militias which are allegedly linked to the PKK.
The latest was Operation Peace Spring in October last year, to clear the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from north-east Syria and establish a "safe zone" to which around 2 million displaced Syrians and refugees could return. Although the SDF was largely pushed back in the short operation, there remain some doubts about whether or not such a safe zone has been established successfully.
According to Yilmaz, "around 400,000" refugees went back. "We cannot say that nothing happened, but that figure is not enough, of course; we have to see more." The first task, he explained, is to prepare the environment for one million refugees to go back to their country, and that requires a lot of groundwork."
It is essential, he stressed, for the security situation to be stabilised so that people feel safe when they return, otherwise they will not return. "The refugees will not be forced to go there; it should be voluntary and dignified. We should not harm refugees."
Responsibility, however, also rests on the international community, which he said that Turkey is calling upon to build cities, the infrastructure, houses and the economic conditions for people to go back.
Responding to accusations that Turkey is weaponising the Syrian refugee crisis in order to blackmail Europe — by allowing many to cross the border with Greece earlier this year, for example — Yilmaz said that the allegation is "unfair". Turkey hosts around 4 million refugees – the largest refugee population within a single country anywhere in the world – while Europe has more resources. "Unfortunately, though, Europe doesn't sacrifice its resources for refugees." The clear implication is that Turkey does.
"The refugee crisis is a humanitarian and international issue. It is not just for one country to deal with. All countries should put their hands under the refugee burden; all should contribute." Countries across Europe, however, are trying to hide their "irresponsible" behaviour. "Instead of discussing Turkey's role negatively, they should be very thankful to Turkey."
Turkish relations with Russia and France
With its geopolitical moves and military interventions, Turkey has found itself at odds with two major foreign powers which also have stakes in the region: Russia and France.
With Turkey and Russia backing opposing sides in both Syria and Libya — Turkey supports the Syrian opposition and Libya's government, while Russia supports the Syrian regime and Khalifa Haftar — Yilmaz nevertheless stressed the dialogue between them.
Despite their inherent differences, Ankara and Moscow have not clashed directly. "We have had very good relations with Russia to continue with dialogue and diplomacy to find solutions for the Syrian people," he said. "Whenever there are differences we try to solve them by diplomacy, and that is also true for Libya."
With France, however, Yilmaz took a very different tone, not least due to the more aggressive moves by the government in Paris against Turkey in recent months. "[French President Emmanuel Macron] has applied very wrong policies just like he is applying wrong policies internally. France has been on the wrong side of this struggle."
While Macron administration is supporting an "illegitimate, vicious General [Haftar]", Turkey is on the right side and supporting the legitimate government in Libya. "We are expecting France to understand its mistake and return to the legitimate position that is in harmony with international law."
It is clear that Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is established as a major player in the region with influence and contacts further afield. The fact that campaigns have been launched to discredit the president and his country suggests that it also has the ability to upset the status quo with which the West in particular has been so comfortable and dominant. The big question is, can Turkey remain, as Cevdet Yilmaz insists it already is, on the right side?