Turkey’s supposed hesitancy to back the U.S.-led military offensive against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is simply a difference of opinion that has to be worked out among allies, the country’s consul general for the Southeast said in Atlanta yesterday.
“If we try to fix only the symptom of this tumor – it’s a cancer – it’s not going to work. It’s a more complicated problem which requires a more complicated approach,” said Özgür KÄ±vanç Altan, Turkey’s top diplomat in Miami.
Turkey seeks a “comprehensive solution” that takes into account complex regional factors that led to the militant group’s rise in the first place. Mr. Altan draws a direct line between the rise of ISIS and instability caused by the civil war in Syria. Turkey began sounded the alarm bells four years ago, when Bashar al-Assad began “to kill and torture his own people,” but those calls fell on deaf ears in the international community, Mr. Altan said.
“We warned, ‘This is going to get bad,’” he told Global Atlanta in an interview after a speech on the subject during Georgia State University’s International Education Week event series.
Turkey’s desired plan of action would include the immediate removal of al-Assad from power or real reforms that would lead to a peaceful transfer of power in Syria, Mr. Altan said.
Turkey and the U.S. – both key NATO members – have been at loggerheads over Turkey’s role in the military coalition fighting ISIS, which Mr. Altan refused to recognize by its desired “Islamic State” moniker.
“Neither are they Islamic, and they’re not a state,” he said, indicating that the group is damaging the global reputation of Islam. “We are not calling these guys what they want to be called.” Turkish leaders calling them “Daesh,” an Arabic acronym for the group that has been used as a derogatory term in Arabic and Iranian media.
“These guys are horrific terrorists, and we called them horrific terrorists in 2013, before anybody woke up to the horror of these people,” he said.
Instead of portraying Turkey as an intransigent and unreliable ally, the Western media should focus on the 1.5 million Syrian refugees that Turkey has hosted at considerable cost – both politically and economically – to its own government, Mr. Altan said. Not only do refugees receive credit cards with chips allowing the orderly distribution of rations, but as of last week, some will also be eligible for work permits, he said.
“From the Turkish point of view, this is the real story,” he said.
He noted that Turkey’s parliament has both allocated funds and approved the use of military force, but it’s waiting for an international consensus to emerge that will prevent the problem springing up again even after a limited victory is achieved, he told Global Atlanta in an interview.
“We think that it will be useless to use force to fix a certain portion of the problem without addressing the entirety of the issue,” he said.
Turkey has similarly been criticized for failing to step in during the fight with ISIS in Kobane, a strategic Syrian town close to the border under siege from ISIS. Analysts have said Turkey has hesitated because of its misgivings about allying with the Kurdish forces defending Kobane. The PYD is a sister group of the PKK, a separatist group operating in southeastern Turkey that has been responsible for thousands of deaths in the last few decades. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by the U.S.
While serious, the media obsession with Kobane detracts from the more serious and longstanding problem of the Syrian civil war, where a quarter-million people have already died in cities like Aleppo, which remains under siege, Mr. Altan said.
Besides, Turkey’s fight is not with ethnic Kurds, Mr. Altan said, only those that would seek to destabilize his country. As an illustration, Turkey allowed Kurdish forces from Iraq to use its territory to cross into Syria to fight ISIS.
To fend off another criticism – that Turkey is not doing enough to stem the flow of ISIS recruits into Syria – Mr. Altan said Turkey has deported hundreds, but some are bound to slip through the cracks without greater sharing of information between U.S. and Turkish intelligence agencies, which is “improving,” he said.
He was adamant that questions about Turkey’s commitment to NATO are misplaced.
““There’s a mis-reflection of the fact in terms of Turkey’s position: Is Turkey an ally of the U.S.? Is it an ally of NATO? Should it stay so? These questions, in my opinion, are irrelevant, because of course we are allies. The U.S. and Turkey have been allies for over 50 years now. Two allies, however, they may disagree on a given subject.”
On a lighter note, Mr. Altan has positive meetings with Atlanta’s Turkish community during his three-day visit. He visited CNN and the Coca-Cola Co., whose CEO, Muhtar Kent, and international unit president, Ahmet Bozer, are both Turkish natives. He also met with a group of Ahiska people, ethnic Turks who were expelled under Russian pressure from the nation of Georgia during World War II. A small community now lives in the state of Georgia.
One thread that ran through all the visits was the desire to see Istanbul and Atlanta linked through a nonstop Turkish Airlines flight.
“I say ‘Hi,’ they say ‘Turkish Airlines,’” he said of the enthusiasm in the community over the prospect of flights.
He also noted that he would soon recommend that his foreign ministry put a full consulate general in Atlanta.
“I think it is really time for it, so my advice will be that, but of course these things take planning, time and resources, so when it would happen I don’t know,” he said. As of now, the country is represented in Georgia by Honorary Consul Mona Diamond.
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