Food for Thought
Excerpt from MİT Undersecretary (F) Ambassador Sönmez Köksal’s Interview with Daily Hürriyet

Food for Thought

Excerpt from MİT Undersecretary (F) Ambassador Sönmez Köksal’s Interview with Daily Hürriyet

GRF Member, MİT Undersecretary (F) Ambassador Sönmez Köksal’s Interview was published in the daily Hürriyet on October 16, 2017

Please find below the excerpt from MİT Undersecretary (F) Ambassador Sönmez Köksal’s interview with daily Hürriyet on Oct. 16, 2017.

 

Relations with the US is probably at an all-time low. Even though there will be official talks regarding the visa issue, the crisis is further escalating thanks to the political rhetoric. On the other hand, the operation in Idlib is continuing and the referendum in Northern Iraq remains a hot issue. In light of these developments, Sönmez Köksal, former MİT (National Intelligence Organization) Undersecretary and Ambassador to Iraq, is the right person to interview. Breaking his silence, Köksal made some striking remarks regarding FETÖ (Fethullahist Terror Organization), MİT and Northern Iraq…

You are an experienced diplomat and have served as the Undersecretary of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Does the latest crisis resemble previous ones in any way?

Taking into consideration how it emerged, triggering events and its probable objective, it is possible to say that this crisis is in no way similar to and much deeper and more complicated than previous ones.

How is it different?

For instance, we need to keep in mind that both İnönü’s Turkey’s Second President, İsmet İnönü remark that “a new world order will be established and Turkey shall find her place therein” and Ecevit’s former PM Bülent Ecevit statement on “jumping over the wall” were uttered in the Cold War era, in 1964 and 1974, respectively. Under the circumstances, putting such discourse into practice was quite difficult and neither leader insisted in his attempts. Meanwhile, the events that followed the mandate on March 1, 2003 which was introduced by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to allow the deployment of US troops on Turkish soil and Turkish troops in Iraq as part of the US-led military campaign against Iraq, but was rejected by the Turkish parliament came at a period of uncertainty in international relations. However, this period did not weaken Turkey’s geopolitical importance; on the contrary, Turkey’s role amplified as a result of the developments in the Middle East. At this point I must underline, and we must keep in mind at all times, the fact that our country’s geographical position is of utmost importance. This region has direct control over the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. The most succinct definition of geopolitics is developing and implementing those policies that are necessitated by a country’s geographical location, to ensure the security of the defined location as well as the prosperity of its inhabitants.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by "policies necessitated by a country’s geographical location"?

  As the Republican era has demonstrated, the principle of "peace at home, peace in the world" is the most suitable political framework for the Anatolian landscape. It involves developing friendly relations with all states and especially with surrounding states; non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states and never ever pursuing past imperial dreams. Turkey’s transition to a multi-party system in the post-1946 period in order to be qualified for United Nations’ membership, followed by its founding membership of the Council of Europe and NATO membership in 1952 have made it a member of the West or, in a wider sense, the Atlantic Community. Despite occasional crises and some rhetoric, Turkey has never seriously brought its loyalty up for discussion. This assertion is valid for the AKP era as well.

Until when?

Up until the Gezi Park events in 2013. Following these events, an increasing mistrust began to exert a negative pressure on our relations with the Western World. Meanwhile, our approach to the Syrian crisis led to a different interpretation of our “intentions”. Later on, especially after FETÖ’s July 15 coup attempt, Turkey’s mistrust towards the West and the US was further deepened. Other important developments that happened concurrently were the Russian Federation’s war against Georgia, its annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine. The former was followed by Russia’s pivot to the Middle East and adaptation of a strategic approach towards our country – with the exception of the jet crisis following Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane in the Turkey-Syria border on Nov. 24, 2015. Russia thereby increased its visibility to a significant extent. It is my opinion that a number of global changes, especially those within Turkey’s periphery, led to the suspicion that Turkey was alienating itself from the West and Western values. Incidents such as the developments in Iraq after the US invasion; the difference in approaches to the Syrian civil war; the impasse in Turkey’s “Kurdish opening” policy and the Turkish government’s rhetoric, created grave misgivings about Turkey in Washington, D.C. and other Western capitals.

Turkey’s detainment of a US consulate staff was dubbed the reason for the crisis. However, you seem convinced that the real reason runs much deeper...

What stand between Turkey and the US are the Turkish citizens arrested in the US, in addition to the leader of FETÖ Fethullah Gülen, who still lives in the US and his inner circle. For Washington, the problem is the arrested priest, who is attributed a great deal of importance, and some American citizens who are under arrest in Turkey. The final additions to this chain were the Metin Topuz the arrested consulate staff incident and another Turkish citizen who is said to be sheltering at the consulate. First of all, although Topuz works at a diplomatic mission, there are no obstacles to his arrest in terms of international law as he is a Turkish citizen. The Americans made statements alluding to Topuz not being able to benefit from his legal rights. The Ankara Attorney General’s Office claimed there were “no appeals by the family.” Such efforts to implicate Turkey for “unlawful practices” could have been rendered baseless by providing timely notifications on the processes – especially considering that these situations are cases of psychological warfare. The difference between our legal systems is also an issue. There, prosecutors make arrests after gathering evidence, whereas here, evidence is usually collected after suspects are arrested. There is of course the possibility that Washington wanted to strengthen her hand in the negotiations of a number of cases awaiting to be resolved. Whatever the reason, it is certain that this unprecedented measure which directly aggrieves Turkish citizens, constitutes a new fraction in the already distrustful and fragile state of our relations with the US.

Turkey will hold visa talks with a delegation from the US. Will there be a normalization in relations?

 Let us hope so. However, as I stated, our relations do not consist only of visas. Such talks, technical in nature, are helpful even if only for defining the issues with a common understanding. The best way to reach a shared understanding is to clear the area at the technical level. Otherwise, exchange of good words between leaders have limited impact, especially in states like the US where institutions are powerful and sometimes constitute barriers to politicians.

The US Ambassador said that "No terrorist attacks were seen in Turkey for 9.5 months, not because ISIS has given up but because of our cooperation." This statement has had far-reaching repercussions. What is your reaction?

The Ambassador may have wanted to emphasize the importance of intelligence sharing between the two services. Sustaining this cooperation is important to keep our relations under control. All the same, I don’t think this remark is befitting an experienced ambassador.

Is there a diplomatic explanation for coming to this point only three weeks after Trump’s statement that "we are closer than ever"?

Lately, the increasing preeminence of state and government heads in international affairs has started to transform the structure of diplomatic relations. It is almost like conventional diplomatic institutions have to run after the decisions and rhetoric of “Number 1”s. However, foreign policy decision-making and discourse are still being meticulously examined and settled by conventional diplomatic structures. To think otherwise would render state institutions dysfunctional and I don’t think any leader would be willing to assume such responsibility. It can also be seen that institutional decision-making mechanisms coordinated to assess the newly emerging situation immediately after Trump’s statement.

So, is it possible to determine who is right and who is wrong?

 This is an opportune moment for me to briefly talk about the extradition of the FETÖ leader. The extradition of criminals has two aspects of equal importance, namely, legal and formal, and political. Being politically strong requires the file to be impeccable in legal and formal terms. An incident I experienced while I was on duty in France is a testament to this. My colleagues, who have grappled with similar cases, and experienced bureaucrats at the Ministry of Justice are also very familiar with this. In this sense I don’t think that statements such as "so and so number of boxes containing documents were sent" could have been taken into consideration in the legal sense. What needs to be done is to complete the extradition file with the judiciary decisions and the evidence that forms the basis of these decisions. Washington would benefit hugely from such a file that is prepared in line with international legal norms, assuming it is politically resolved about the extradition. On the other hand, if it continues to drag its heels, then Turkey will have every right to draw a conclusion as she pleases. Surely, my words might irritate some. However, to be rightful in the political sense, one needs to keep in mind that international extradition is a long and tedious process that requires patience.

There is a certain belief that Americans were solely arrested as a bargaining chip for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen. Is that how things went out of control?

Trump, pragmatist as he is, may approve of such an exchange and, frankly, would be able to resolve the issue immediately. But interstate relations are not black and white. Besides, considering the complex nature of our current relationship, I am not convinced that the American state system would easily consent to such a solution. Such an exchange would imply the acknowledgement of the allegation that the priest was arrested solely on political grounds, which is the accusation being made against us. And this in turn would lend more support to the accusation that Turkey arrests foreign nationals -such as those of the US, Germany, France and Sweden- for purposes of extralegal and extrajudicial exchange and/or political gains.

A report from MİT dated Dec. 17, 1996 states: "It is thought that the allegations that the supporters of Fethullah Hodja are the CIA’s most significant civil society organization in the region shall be resolved as a result of coordinated activities between the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Foreign Affairs upon the evaluation of Gülen’s financial records by the of auditors of the Ministry of Finance." It is undersigned by yourself as the Undersecretary of MİT. Does this actually mean that "Gülen has long been under our radar and reported on but nothing’s been done"?

 My answer is a crystal-clear “yes” (…) First and foremost, MİT has been the most successful state body in terms of keeping itself away from the FETÖ malice. Those recently fired could only permeate the organization at a very late date – which can be called year zero – before them, the organization was unscathed. It’s a blessing that FETÖ supporters were swiftly eliminated. But it is crucial to monitor them for the rest of their lives as targets for counterespionage because they all received training and are able to carry out clandestine activities against the state or serve foreign intelligence agencies.

In his statement to the Parliamentary Commission, former MİT Undersecretary Emre Taner said: "During my term FETÖ infiltration to ranks was at a minimum." What happened afterwards?

I left my position as undersecretary in February 1998. Up until then, FETÖ activities were monitored closely, aided by visual material, by the human resources. However, soon after the government declared that FETÖ should not be considered a threat, the service had to sever ties with its hard-earned human information sources. Intelligence does not flow at the push of a button. Re-infiltrating an intricate organization which is being protected by certain segments of society is a burdensome task that will require a long time. It is unfair to neglect this fact and to suggest that MİT has been inadequate in gathering intelligence on FETÖ over the short period of time since FETÖ was declared a threat. All the while MİT’s relationship with the armed forces was constantly kept on the agenda. There were discussions regarding intelligence gathering inside and outside army barracks. The organization was made the object of unfair allegations. The truth is, upon seeing the level of unimaginable “contamination” within the armed forces, it is evident that the civilian undersecretaries of the organization – who were much criticized by some circles- were at least successful in keeping FETÖ out of MİT.

As you mentioned earlier, in response to the well-known letter by US President Johnson, the incumbent PM İnönü said, "A new world will be established and Turkey shall find her place therein". What will Turkey’s place be as part of the “new world order” today?

It is certain that the old world order is over. In Kissinger’s words, we are in a period of chaos. Although it is not possible to know for sure what the new world order will be, there are a number of important clues. I don’t want to delve into an academic debate. There were signs of it during Obama’s rule but it became clearer with Trump. Briefly put, US strategy is a voluntary retreat from global responsibility and leadership. There are no more permanent alliances. Instead, when a threat arises against the US or – though half-heartedly- against its allies, the US does not engage militarily but confronts the threat only by providing arms and training to a few volunteering local allies. This is mainly due to the trauma caused by the occupation of Iraq. In the decades to come, China will emerge as a significant actor by extending its influence from Shanghai to Eurasia, all the way to Europe through its “One Belt One Road” initiative. Against this stands the Russian Federation, which hopes to attain strategic gains through its petro-diplomacy and hybrid warfare. The EU seems to be a silent observer, without any strategy for the future, and having lost the UK – its only member with a global vision. Apart from these, significant regional powers of various sizes, such as Turkey, will be in the game.

In terms of power formation, do you think the chaotic nature of the global order will continue for a long time?

Probably so. There are no clues as to how such a world would be governed. In short, we are in a transition period. Obviously, such transition periods where stability is lost and alliance commitments are being reshaped, are full of danger. In this regard, three points are of significance to Turkey: Minimizing, if not totally eradicating, any internal fault lines of ideology, sectarianism and ethnicity; preserving existing alliances while encouraging new ones; and finally, preventing our territory from becoming an arena for power struggle between major powers. I think this last point is particularly important because there is the possibility of such a fight being ignited by the uncertainties regarding Turkey’s NATO membership, in case they are coupled with unforeseen developments. As Taha Akyol put very well in his Oct. 12 piece in daily Hürriyet; there are two sources that can offer an insight in such unstable times. The first is to own up to our democratic gains, hard-earned over a period of more than 70 years, and the second is to increase our number of allies using the means of conventional diplomacy.

You served as an ambassador in Iraq, how do you perceive the current state of affairs there considering the recent referendum and the operation in Idlib?

We have to be cautious in our assessments of Barzani’s former President of Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani; Barzani was still president at the time of this interview referendum. At the moment, our position is the same as that of Tehran and Baghdad. Let’s not forget that Baghdad is under Tehran’s control. The Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi otherwise known as the People Mobilization Forces (PMF) are freely moving all over Iraq and Syria. It is a known fact that Iran made a deal with the PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, recognized as the PKK’s Iranian offshoot), hence with the PKK, and made sure that the Revolutionary Guards and Hashd al-Shaabi forces left the PYD (Syrian Democratic Union Party) alone, in return for an end to terror attacks targeting Iran. Iran’s traditional policy towards the Kurds is to be friends and foes, simultaneously, with all Kurdish organizations. Just remember Zarifi’s Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif photo at Talabani’s former President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani funeral.

How would Northern Iraq look if Barzani weakens considerably?

 That would benefit the PKK a lot. Economic stresses may provide breeding ground for the PKK’s class-based ideology. It may replace tribe-based relations. Kirkuk is a much more troublesome matter. Baghdad’s full control over Kirkuk would imply Iran’s indirect control. Its multi-ethnic, autonomous status is crucial for Turkey. This should be viewed with the long-term in mind. The biggest challenge in Turkish-US relations is the future of Syria, the PYD’s role therein, and the latter’s 60,000 armed and trained militants. At its worst, this should be evaluated as a non-reversible information and fact. Turkey has to take this fact into account in her plans for the future.

Where are we headed, in your opinion?

In very broad terms, there seem to be two alternatives: Either a very bloody showdown or a rational, peaceful solution. A bloody showdown would tarnish Turkey’s future and it’s not possible to foresee how devastating the outcome would be. A peaceful solution is in no way an acquiescence on Turkey’s part. Turkey’s borders and territorial integrity is sacrosanct. In the near term, the boldest move in the history of the Republic was made on the Kurdish issue.

You are talking about the solution process.

Precisely. Developments beyond our borders are of no concern to us. Our historical unity is sacrosanct, provided it’s peaceful. The “safe conduct pass (pasavan)” was a common practice during the Republican era as well. People who owned land in Turkey would work their land in daytime and go home to the neighboring country at night, using the pass. It is very much possible to imagine the establishment of clusters/centers of attraction by combining Southern oil with Turkish business know-how. This would bring welfare to people living on both sides of the border.

You have brought up quite a controversial issue here...

 What I’ve said may come across as naive and fanciful. Broadening Turkey’s horizons, channeling its cumulated energy in a positive direction is the responsibility of all of us. We should avoid making enemies with our neighbors. This would enable foreign influence in those regions – preventing this should be a priority. In the year 2017, Turkey is capable of devising strategies toward this end.

 

Please visit (http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/mitten-atilan-fetoculer-hayat-boyu-izlenmeli-40611490) for the original interview.