November 22, 2016
The Washington, DC-based think tank, The Turkish Heritage Organization (THO), hosted Turkey's 26th Chief of the General Staff, Gen. (Ret.) Ilker Basbug, for a discussion at the National Press Club where issues discussed included Turkey's national security and the future of U.S.-Turkey relations.
The public event was part of the General's week-long visit to the U.S. at THO's invitation in Washington DC and New York where several events were held.
During his remarks at the National Press Club, Gen. Basbug discussed the July 15th coup attempt and U.S.-Turkey relations. Throughout the discussion, Gen. Basbug drew upon his extensive military experience, which culminated in his service as Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) between 2008 and 2010. He emphasized that his views are solely his own and do not reflect those of any political party or organization.
July 15th and the Threat of FETO
The General told the audience that the target of the July 15th attempted coup was the Turkish nation and democracy and that there is no doubt that the coup attempt was organized by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric. The Turkish government has labeled this organization the Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization (FETO). Gen. Basbug emphasized that FETO is recognized as a terror organization on the basis of a legal decision.
He said that FETO has been working since the 1980s to infiltrate state institutions and eventually replace Turkey's secular government with one based upon religious rules. He noted that this assessment is supported by a 2005 ruling of a State Security Court. A decade later, the truth of this assessment became clear with the July 15th coup attempt.
For the General, one of the central questions following July 15th is how Turkey should respond to ensure that the threat from FETO is eradicated. He said that in order to prevent further threats from FETO, it is essential for Turkey to conduct a correct analysis of the organization regarding its composition and how it was formed. This would require a thorough social analysis.
Gen. Basbug also mentioned that views that the ruling party of Turkey are similar to the Gulen community are incorrect: one is a political party; the other is not. If the Turkish people do not favor the ruling party, they can vote them out. While there may be political responsibility for the infiltration of FETO into state institutions, the biggest responsibility lies with FETO. The organization still poses a serious threat to Turkey, and the state's response must be equally serious.
He noted that there is a crucial difference between Turkey's past military coups in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and the coup attempt of July 15th: the latter's goal was to change the secular structure of the Turkish government. The General emphasized that he does not see the events of July 15th as a military coup but as a violent, armed coup conducted by FETO.
U.S.-Turkey Relations: Current Issues and Possible Scenarios
The General expressed his belief in the importance of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. He noted that there are currently two main issues between the U.S. and Turkey that are affecting relations between both countries. The first is the U.S.'s support of the PYD in Syria, and the second is what the U.S. will do with regard to the requested extradition of Fethullah Gulen.
Gen. Basbug addressed the military-to-military relationship by drawing on his experiences in leadership positions in the TSK during the 2000s. He noted the difficult state of relations in 2003 following the Sulaymaniyah incident (during which Turkish military personnel were detained by U.S. soldiers and interrogated in northern Iraq). This incident significantly damaged military-to-military relations.
The General took over the position of Deputy Chief of the General Staff following this incident and worked over the course of the following years to bring military-to-military relations back to normal. By the time that he became Chief of the General Staff, the relations had healed, and during his tenure in that position, the foremost issue in military-to-military relations with the U.S. was Turkey's fight against the PKK.
Regarding U.S.-Turkey cooperation in Syria, the General emphasized that each country has its own national interests and that this is natural. Cooperation between militaries is not about giving up interests but instead about finding common ground. He said that current U.S. support of the PYD may fit within the U.S.'s short-term interests in Syria, and it is ultimately a tactical decision. However, the Turkish public is uncomfortable seeing its NATO ally supporting the PYD, as it is an organization that was founded by Abdullah Ocalan, making it effectively the Syrian wing of the PKK.
He noted that U.S. support of the PYD is destructive to U.S.-Turkey relations as well as to the U.S.'s long-term goals in the region. In the same way, he said that Turkey's decision to work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as part of Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria is also misguided. However, there are legitimate reasons as to why Turkey is conducting this current operation. According to Gen. Basbug, the U.S. did not listen to the many suggestions that Turkey has provided since the Syria conflict began, including suggestions for a no-fly zone and U.S.-Turkey military cooperation. As a result, Turkey was forced to act in northern Syria.
The General said that the U.S. should halt support to the PYD and expressed his hope that the administration of President-elect Trump will bring positive changes to the Syria situation. He noted that the U.S., Turkey, Iran, and Russia share the desire to see the preservation of Syria's territory. While it won't be easy, the only option to end this crisis is for these four countries to come together to resolve their differences.
On the current security situation in Iraq, he said that the demographic makeup of Mosul and Tel Afar must be preserved; he noted that there are already changes underway, especially in Mosul, and there is the danger of ethnic cleansing. Of special concern to Turkey are the Turkmen communities, and Turkey would not be able to turn a blind eye if there was a conflict between these communities and the Iraqi central government.
The other major issue for Turkey in Iraq is the presence of the PKK in northern Iraq. The General emphasized that Turkey needs the U.S. to stand by its side on this issue. The PKK is a terrorist organization that benefits from safe zones in northern Iraq, and these safe zones must be eradicated if Turkey is to solve its struggles with the PKK. He noted that throughout his service in leadership positions in the TSK, he expressed Turkey's need of U.S. support on this issue, but unfortunately it was not forthcoming.
Turkish Heritage Organization.