NEW YORK (A.W.)—Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan laid out his vision on the “New Turkey and the New Middle East” at an event in New York on Sept. 24, a day after the UN General Assembly had convened.
In his speech, Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s resolute stance vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians, reflected on the Arab Spring, invited states to follow “the Turkish model,” championed the Somali cause, and assured the audience that he had no hidden agendas and that his words were based in principles. He made no mention of Armenia or Azerbaijan.
Erdogan outlined his vision for a new Middle East, wherein Turkey holds a central role. We are witnessing the birth of a new Middle East, he began, and Turkey has refashioned itself to play a model role in the region. The post-Cold War world has seen political changes and developments, from terrorism and the global financial crisis, to cyber-attacks, weapons of mass destruction, and religious polarization. “New vectors of risks have emerged,” he continued, “with direct repercussions on countries in the region. In such a climate, international cooperation and solidarity are more important than ever before.”
“I don’t bear a hidden agenda,” he repeated. “Today we see hidden agendas in least developed and developing countries… All leaders must be open and frank. Nobody must pay a price for being frank.”
Erdogan spoke of shifting centers of power. “New borders of power are forming,” such as China, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia, he said, and there is a need for “more fair and just forums and platforms for discussion.” The G24 has been an “indispensible” move in that direction.
Referring to the uprisings in the Middle East, he said, “The mentality of administrating people with brute force is being toppled by public demand.” Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria are “all interpretations of this demand for change.”
Noting his trips to those countries, Erdogan said he took advantage of his position as a leader and as someone who had access to those places, and that his approach is based on his personal observations.
“The tides of change will continue, and they cannot be stopped,” although the process will not be easy, Erdogan said. “Libya showed that dictators cannot oppress their people, because people don’t fear oppression or buy suggestions of vague offers.”
Again, he reassured the audience of the sincerity of his words: “I’m speaking based on principles,” he said. “Rest assured, I’m not speaking based on personal relations… You need to be able to put aside personal relations in face of abuse of human rights.”
“Personal relations” include his relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with whom he had been on friendly terms, until very recently.
“Mr. Bashar al Assad and I had personal relations—family to family—but now we are adopting a new relationship based on principles,” he said. “We cannot speak of solidarity, fraternity…when you’re attacking people with tanks. When we ask you why you would level entire towns, you would say they were terrorists. Entire towns can’t be terrorists.” Erdogan added that his administration contacted the Syrian government, but “nothing changed.” Assad has lost all accountability, he declared, as his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, looked on from the audience.
“The movement, the Arab Spring, will stop by Syria sooner or later,” he said. “It’s like a mathematical equation. Turkey is calling on Syria to rise up to the needs of its people.”
“We aren’t trying to steal the spotlight,” he added, again reassuring his audience that Turkey had no hidden motives. He said if others want to replicate Turkish practices—for example, the way Turkey has diversified its economic structure—then they could go ahead and do just that. “These principles and models do not belong to us,” he said.
Erdogan also shared his plan to visit the Syrian refugee camp in Turkey upon his return to the country.
“Following the 1980’s, the scope of the region expanded, and instead of being on the farthest periphery of Asia or the Middle East, we became the epicenter,” said Erdogan, indulging the audience with a frank reflection of his worldview. “Turkey plays a significant role, in a strategic location, with a long history and kinship with neighboring countries.”
Erdogan then talked about the importance of economic cooperation, “reinforced relations,” and “mutual understanding and respect.” He listed Turkey’s recent economic successes, saying, “Fifteen years ago Turkey continuously received foreign aid. Now, we provide aid.”
Turkey’s outreach is not solely focused on its economic performance, however, but also on the development of democracy, he said. “The Turkish transformation scenario is a model to the world,” and Turkey today is in a position to draft roadmaps.
On Somalia and Darfur
“I’d like to accentuate this: Our efforts to eliminate tragedies unfolding in Somalia are very valuable,” Erdogan said. In an act of faith, his government mobilized the people of Turkey to extend a helping hand to the Somalis, he explainined, and noted the amount of aid Turkey had allocated for Somalia, providing food, field hospitals, roads, garbage trucks, and tractors—“all forms of aid under the sun.”
In Somalia, kids play with bones under the scorching sun, he said, and asked, “Why is the United States reluctant of extending a helping hand to Somalia?”
“When you see a person on the street, you can count their bones. And the children that you see on the street die instantaneously,” he went on. “Don’t you think administrators need to do something? We are all obliged.”
Erdogan visited the country with his family so that they could “witness the tragedy.” He brought along people from different walks of life, he said, including the media, intellectuals, artists, and generals, so that they could paint a complete picture of the tragedy unfolding there. “We did the same in Darfur,” he added.
Transitioning to the crisis in Darfur, Erdogan said the government there had revealed to his administration that no aid had arrived. “Darfur was all about tent cities,” and the aid the Bush Administration had allocated to the crisis had not reached the people.
On Israel and Palestine
Erdogan reiterated his points laid out a day earlier at the UN General Assembly meeting, harshly criticizing the government of Israel. “For the future of the world, the conflict between Israel and Palestinians must be resolved fast,” he said.
Reassuring the audience that his words were sincere, he said, “In my mind, I don’t have a hidden agenda.” The conflicts in the Middle East were bound to become more serious when “people” got into government, he said, adding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must not be “overshadowed” by the Arab Spring. “It is difficult to be optimistic.”
“Israel is ignoring the international calls—illegitimate settlements, embargo on Gaza. For heaven’s sake, think about a nation, a country, that is living in an open-air prison.” Erdogan then bitterly recounted being held at an Israeli border crossing for 30 minutes. “I never held an Israeli person in my country for security reasons,” he said.
“We must rejuvenate the peace process, for Palestinians to be recognized as a state.” He then briefly criticized Obama for failing to secure a Palestinian state. “Obama had said that by this year’s General Assembly he’d like there to be a state of Palestine,” he said. “It’s still being debated.”
His ire then turned to the UN and its Security Council. “The Security Council needs reform,” he said. “The five are not representing the world. They are representing themselves. That is not acceptable. While we’re saying democracy, they are ignoring the legitimate concerns of people.” His words were directed at the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that hold veto-power: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
“The two-state vision is an obligation!” he exclaimed. “Stop this irony! Stop this injustice! Turkey will support Gaza, and Turkey will provide humanitarian aid to Gaza and the Palestinians!”
Referring to the Israeli raid on the Turkish flotilla carrying aid to Gaza, in which nine Turks died, including a Turkish-American, Erdogan said, “Some people believe our attitude is based on that—yes, partly. We lost nine Turkish lives, including one Turkish-American. We demanded an apology, compensation, and the elimination of the embargo,” he said. But the current situation “has to do with the tyrannical behavior of Israel.”
As to the Jews living in Turkey, Erdogan said they have nothing to worry about. “I told them don’t worry,” he said. “I would never allow a single individual to harm them. They should not pay the price for the actions of Israel.”
He then remembered the Turkish-American who died during the flotilla attack and the silence on the part of the American government. “My Turkish citizen, who was also a citizen of the United States, Furkan Dogan, was killed aboard the flotilla,” he said. “I asked Obama why he wasn’t protecting the right of his Turkish-American citizen… But I will persevere.”
In his final words, Erdogan focused again on Gaza, saying, “I do not recognize the platform that was imposed on Gaza… I will raise my voice whenever I see injustice.” He said everyone must be involved in the molding of the future, and, in words reminiscent of Bob Marley, he finished with: “Please liberate yourselves from old perspectives.”
Most of the questions that followed his speech were on the Syrian issue, according to the moderator, and were compressed into three questions.
Asked whether he had a long-term strategy on Israel and whether he was worried that Turkey’s overall rhetoric would affect relations between the two people, Erdogan said he was talking to the Israeli government, and not the people. He said honesty lacked in the dialogue, evidently referring to the Israeli side. “We tried dialogue with Israel and at the end of it, Israel bombed Gaza. It’s very difficult to understand Israel,” he said, and brought up the flotilla incident.
Then, in a statement clearly made in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s earlier remarks—“We are both sons of Abraham…our destinies are intertwined”— at the UN General Assembly, directed towards Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Erdogan declared, “If we are children of Abraham, we are all children of Abraham, and children of Abraham do not kill.” The audience responded with applause.
Responding to a question on the Arab Spring and its effect on the region’s economy, Erdogan said that resources in Libya belong to the Libyans, and that the U.S. should not interfere simply because of the oil. For example, he said, in Iraq, less than 10 percent of the people control the oil; the rest is in the hands of the countries who have established a presence there. Once the Libyan finances are released—as they are currently frozen—the country will begin to spend its funds on its people’s needs. “Friends must always speak the truth,” he added.
In response to the final question on how the NATO radar system might affect the region, Erdogan assured the audience that the system was installed with no single country in mind. “It is a step taken within NATO,” he said. “There is no mention of Iran or any country in this agreement… This is not a missile ramp. It is a radar. It is a defense system. We are a member of NATO, and it is not threatening any country.”
The event, which was held at the University Club of New York, was organized by the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research, an Ankara-born think-tank with headquarters in Washington, D.C.
SETA’s executive director, Erol Cebeci, welcomed the guests and press. The foundation’s president, Taha Ozhan, followed with his remarks outlining Turkey’s achievements over the past decade. There are two options, he said: to support either old ways or new developments.
General Brent Scowcroft, the president of the Scowcroft Group, who served as national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, took to the podium. Scowcroft is also chairman of the American Turkish Council and has, in that capacity, spoken against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, arguing that Turkey has shown support for the secular order and the development of democratic society, apparent in its support of the Syrian revolt. That commitment is also apparent in its “quiet cooperation” and “persistence” on the war against al-Qaeda, he said. Scowcroft then noted the help the U.S. extended to Turkey to root out PKK hideouts in northern Iraq, and the cooperation between the two countries in the War on Terrorism. He acknowledged Turkey’s recent collaboration with NATO in installing an early-warning radar in Malatya, and added that Erdogan’s government has brought stability to the Balkans, citing Serbia as an example.
“A new Middle East will emerge with Turkish and American vision,” said Scowcroft, adding that “Turkey has access to the Middle East in a way that the U.S. does not.” He then rang a warning bell on the worsening Turkey-Israel relationship, noting that both countries were assets to the U.S. “[This] is bad for both countries,” he said, explaining that the situation will only bring instability and complications. “This is a statement of fact, not blame.”
The president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, Robert Wexler, then introduced Erdogan. After praising Kemal Ataturk, Wexler, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, highlighted the importance of Turkey’s geographic location. Referring to it as a “regional powerhouse” and “a crucial ally of the United States,” Wexler said Turkey had been an ally of the U.S. since the Korean War, and that it is an ally today in Afghanistan. He thanked Turkish cooperation on European defense, and declared, “America must stand with you as you combat PKK’s terrorist infrastructure.” Wexler also noted the value of both Turkey and Israel to the U.S., and said Erdogan and Netanyahu must “act with urgency” to mend fences. The U.S. needs to “protect and preserve our precious friendship,” he said.
Representatives of international and national media, including the Armenian Weekly, were present at the event.