Abdullah Gul has been president of Turkey since 2007. Somewhat overshadowed, at least abroad, by his longtime political partner Recep Tayyip Erdogan — Turkey’s prime minister and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — Gul has recently started to carve out a more independent political identity. While Erdogan has become increasingly strident and authoritarian since taking office in 2003, especially as the AKP’s parliamentary majorities have grown, Gul — although personally pious and traditional (he married his wife when she was 15 and he was 30) — has quietly pursued a more moderate and progressive path. A former foreign minister and prime minister himself, Turkey’s head of state and commander in chief has raised his stature (and popularity) by embracing seemingly contradictory principles: defending both Turkey’s Muslim identity and its pluralistic values, challenging his own government’s antidemocratic excesses, championing the rule of law, and helping reorient his country’s foreign policy eastward while remaining a forceful advocate of integration with Europe. We spoke in his Ankara office in October.
How do you think Americans and the West are getting Turkey wrong?Turkey is a bridge between Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the Caucasus. Each of our neighboring countries has a different government and administrative style. In Turkey, we have a vast majority-Muslim population along with democracy, human rights, and a free-market economy, and this makes us unique in the region. From a geographic and geopolitical point of view, Turkey belongs to this region, and we have historical relations with all our neighbors. But from a values point of view, we are with the West.
If we look at the future, it’s almost a mathematical fact that the world’s economic and power balance will shift toward Asia. So politics must shift, too. The United States and Europe must start recognizing Turkey and its importance. And Turkey must become more important for them.
Many outsiders fear that Turkey’s recent reorientation toward its own region means that Turkey is turning away from the West. Do you still see your future in Europe?That is an unfair criticism. On the one hand, we have an ongoing negotiation process for full accession to the European Union. We are forcing our way through each door en route to full membership. Turkey has a role, a place, in all European institutions and bodies. So the fact that we have become more active in our region, dealing with regional matters, should not be interpreted as Turkey’s reorientation or distancing itself from Europe. We are constantly adopting EU standards. I consider such remarks shallow and not well grounded, and I wonder if our friends from the EU might actually be using them as a pretext to escape from their responsibilities regarding Turkey’s membership.
With its not-so-warm welcome and its economic and political crisis, is Europe still a club that you want to join?I believe that the current circumstances for Europe are temporary; if you go back through history, no depression is endless. After each such depression in the past, countries and continents have come back even stronger. This goes for Europe as well. The Europeans made huge mistakes, but they will draw lessons from those mistakes and enter a new era. But if Europe wants to prevent long-term stagnation, the Europeans have to come up with a broad strategic vision, and they must not attempt to limit their territory, their borders.
Of course, the enlargement process can continue within a different structure. Currently, the existing EU composition is being questioned, so perhaps a new composition might be envisaged. The United Kingdom, for example, is not a member of the monetary union, and it doesn’t fall within certain other processes. Now there are talks about different forms of Europe for the future.
Did the downing by Turkey in mid-October of a plane suspected of carrying arms from Russia to Syria represent an escalation in tensions?The problem in Syria is not a bilateral issue between Turkey and Syria. There is no conflict of interest or settling of accounts between Turkey and Syria. The problem in Syria is the grave human rights violations being committed by the regime against the people, who have legitimate demands. This makes the matter something that relates to the whole international community.
Of course, with Turkey being a neighboring country and sharing a land border with Syria of 900 kilometers [about 560 miles], the repercussions for Turkey are different. For instance, we have 150,000 Syrians who have come to Turkey as a result of the problems [in Syria]. This has led to some security issues and border clashes — or clashes on the border between the regime forces and the opposition, which also affect us. From the very onset of the crisis, we’ve always opted for a controlled and orderly change in Syria. As a result of the escalation of events, we made it clear to everyone that Turkey, in unity with the free world, will support the Syrian people in their demands. But from the very beginning, I have argued that both Russia and Iran should be invited to engage with the transition in Syria to prevent further bloodshed. I believe that Russia in particular should be treated properly.
But how do you engage the Russians when they’re doing everything possible to keep Bashar al-Assad in power?Russia supported [the West] in Libya, but then the Russians were excluded from the transition process. So in Syria, Russia should be engaged, given a guarantee it will be made a part of the process and that its concerns will be taken into account.
Can Russia be induced to cooperate in building a free and democratic Syria?I think it is really worth giving it a try. Because after all, what we aim for eventually is to have a new administration in Syria that is representative of the whole Syrian people.
You have emphasized that a new Syrian government would have to take a strong position on the Palestinians. Why?The Palestinian issue was, for a long time, the most critical pillar used by the Syrian regime to legitimize its existence with its people. So the new regime in Syria will have to demonstrate links with Palestine to show that Syria is independent, sovereign, and acting in line with the demands of its own people. This will also send a message to countries such as Russia, Iran, and China that the new regime in Syria is not remote-controlled.
Are you frustrated that the United States and NATO are not doing more to help on Syria, especially on the military side?Unfortunately, Turkish citizens have been killed as a result of artillery fire from Syria. But after the incident [on October 3], we believe the solidarity displayed by the United States and NATO was sincere. And within the internal structures of NATO, the necessary technical efforts have already been made with regard to the possible use of chemical or other ballistic weapons. But we are not at war with Syria, so we don’t expect anything further from [the West].
On the other hand, if you compare the military power of Turkey and Syria, the results speak for themselves.
But does Turkey want a multilateral operation to end the fighting in the style of Libya or some other more limited measures, such as a no-fly zone, humanitarian corridors, or a buffer zone?We wouldn’t consider it right to have an explicit foreign intervention like the one in Libya.
No?No. But let me once again underline that the international community’s attitude toward Syria must go beyond simple rhetoric. A year and a half ago, during the outbreak of the crisis, we worked hard for an orderly change. We established contacts, we maintained our relations with the regime to urge it to change. And back then, I remember very well certain friends from the West were not willing to give us any time. So I urge them to act in a more meaningful manner now.
Is Turkey working now with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help arm the Syrian rebels?No. Since we are a neighboring country, our doors are open to the Syrian people. We are welcoming them, and we are providing them with all necessary humanitarian needs.
When the relationship between Israel and Turkey was good, it seemed that both countries profited from it. Now, the relationship is not so good, and it seems that both countries are suffering from it. And yet Turkey’s conditions for improving relations with Israel, especially lifting the Gaza blockade, seem to set the bar impossibly high. So what prospect for reconciliation with Israel do you see?First of all, the current situation between Turkey and Israel is the outcome of the Israelis’ own preferences and the mistakes they’ve made. The whole world knows this. Even the allies of Israel, who cannot express it directly to the Israelis, clearly say it to us. Second, the current situation in Turkish-Israeli relations has not impacted our military options or our armed forces. It’s true that we’ve procured drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, from them in the past, and some of them still do exist. Others were canceled or not bought. But I want everyone to clearly understand that the Turkish armed forces are in no way relying or dependent on Israel in that sense, or in any other sense. We have no weakness or lowered capability with regard to Syria because of the current level of relations with Israel.
With regard to Israel correcting and compensating for its errors against Turkey, it initiated a few attempts, but they were all left incomplete due to domestic political developments within Israel. And with regard to the Gaza blockade, it’s not something that relates only to Turkey. It is a matter that relates to everyone — the EU, the United Nations, the United States — because everyone knows that the embargo must be lifted.
But let me here reiterate and underscore that our country, Turkey, and myself personally, as the president of the Republic of Turkey, have been working hard and making every effort to contribute to the peacemaking process between the Israelis and the Arabs. But the Israeli administration has a very shortsighted strategic stance. What we want from the Israelis is to appreciate the friendship displayed by Turkey.
You have called for nuclear disarmament across the Middle East, but Turkey does not seem as concerned about the Iranian nuclear program as are other countries in the region and countries in the West. Why is that?Turkey does not want to see any neighboring country possess nuclear weapons. Turkey will not accept a neighboring country possessing weapons not possessed by Turkey herself. We are not underestimating this matter in any way.
But we are more realistic, and what we need is a more comprehensive solution and approach to this problem. What matters here is to guarantee the security of Israel in the region, and once that is guaranteed, then the next step must be to eradicate all such weapons from the region. This can be done only through peace.
Is this where the Arab Peace Initiative comes in?Of course. Because nowadays, there is no effort at all being put in place for peace.
But how would that address the Iranian nuclear program?Here what matters is to put yourself in the shoes of Iran and consider how the Iranians perceive the outside threat.
So you mean the key to stopping the Iranian nuclear program is Israeli disarmament? Is that the implication?That is the way I see it, because that route will help us solve the fundamental problems in the Middle East that affect the whole world.
Some foreign and Turkish observers have expressed concern that the Turkish government is backsliding on democracy. Does your recent criticism of the detention of journalists and the barring of Kurdish parliamentarians mean that you share this concern?It’s not true at all that democracy in Turkey is backsliding. On the contrary, we are moving forward, and we have many deep-rooted reforms put in place every day. Of course, there are certain wrong practices, and that’s why I have drawn attention to them. I talked about these wrong practices to make sure they would not cast a shadow on the whole reform and democratization process. I mean, you rightfully asked a question about these matters. That’s what I mean by a shadow cast on Turkey. It saddens me deeply, so that’s why whenever I observe such a wrong practice, I immediately issue a warning.
Turkey’s economy and population are growing even as many global powers are becoming weaker due to economic crises and political gridlock. As Turkey continues to rise, what kind of an increased international role do you see it playing?What matters is not to become a world power. What matters is for a country to have its own standards raised to the highest possible point, enabling the state to provide its citizens with prosperity and happiness. And when I say standards, I mean standards such as democracy and human rights. That is the ultimate objective for Turkey. When you raise your standards, your economy becomes much more powerful and you become a real soft power.
Once you accumulate all this know-how and once you succeed in raising and realizing your standards, then you start being followed very carefully by other countries; you become an inspiration for them. And once that happens, what matters is to combine your hard and soft power and translate it into virtuous power — for your immediate environment, for your region, and for the whole world.
You’ve used this term “virtuous power” before. What does it mean?A virtuous power is a power that is not ambitious or expansionist in any sense. On the contrary, it is a power where the priority lies with safeguarding the human rights and interests of all human beings in a manner that also entails the provision of aid to those in need without expecting anything in return. That’s what I mean by a virtuous power: a power that knows what’s wrong and what’s right and that is also powerful enough to stand behind what’s right.
Is this the role you’re now playing with the new Arab democracies in the Middle East?We’re not assuming any role at all in the Arab world. If others take us as an example or are inspired by us, it is their call. We act in solidarity with them because every nation experiences ups and downs over time. What matters is to display solidarity with those who are struggling with weakness. All countries are equal, and all nations have their dignity, and no one can write a script and assign roles to other countries. You do not prioritize, and you do not patronize.
But isn’t Turkey a good model for countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya to follow?Of course, we are happy with the fact that they take us as an example because we are a Muslim country, a democracy, and an economic success story. They believe that they can achieve the same things as well. As an act of solidarity, we help them and we share with them the reasons behind our success. But we have no intention to act as anyone’s big brother.