David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Phillips has served as Foreign Affairs Expert and as Senior Adviser to the U.S. Department of State during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Phillips has worked at academic institutions as Executive Director of Columbia University’s International Conflict Resolution Program, Director of American University’s Program on Conflict Prevention and Peace-building, Fellow at Harvard University’s Future of Diplomacy Project Fellow, Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle East Studies, and Professor of Preventive Diplomacy at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. Phillips is the author of The Kurdish Spring (A New Map of the Middle East) published in 2015 and newly- published An Uncertain Ally: Turkey under Erdogan’s Dictatorship (March 2017) books.
Agos interviewed Phillips to discuss Turkey’s current political situation and foreign policy approach, the US-Turkey relations under Trump administration, US security interests regarding Kurdish unity and the future of the Artsakh (Karabakh) conflict and Turkey-Armenia relations.
What are your thoughts regarding today’s Turkey? How would you explain what is happening in Turkey right now?
If NATO were being established today, Turkey would not be eligible to join. President Tayyip Erdogan has revealed his true face as an Islamist who is anti-American, anti-European and who undermines NATO. NATO is more than a security alliance. It is a coalition of countries with shared values. More journalists are jailed today in Turkey than any other country. Recent events during which legitimately- elected members of parliament were arrested, denied free speech, and deprived of other rights are indicators of Turkey’s departure from the democratic mainstream. Using ministers for partisan political lobbying is not welcome in Europe.
What was the motivation for the changes inside the AKP (after 2007)?
Erdogan used his electoral mandate from July 22, 2007 to consolidate his power, attack the judiciary and target Turkey’s secular elite. The election put Turkey on the path to the dictatorship it is today.
How would you describe the relations between US-Turkey today? What are your predictions about future relations?
US-Turkey relations are at a low point. Erdoğan demands that the US extradite Fethullah Gülen. This is a legal, not a political decision. Also, Turkey demands that the US abandons the Syrian Kurds who are proven fighters against ISIS. The Pentagon wants to continue US security cooperation with the Kurds over Erdoğan’s strident objections.
What kind of political changes should we expect from the Trump administration regarding Turkey?
It’s too soon to tell. When Trump and Erdoğan talked on February 8, they avoided contentious issues like Trump’s Muslim travel ban and Turkey’s crackdown after the coup. Vice President Mike Pence heralded a “new era” in US-Turkish relations. The rhetoric has changed, but substantive differences still exist.
Why has Turkey become “An Uncertain Ally” for America? Is the only reason Turkey’s Kurdish policy?
Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia raises concerns about its response in the event that Russia attacks Ukraine, Poland or the Baltic States. About 140,000 Turks have been arrested or dismissed after the failed coup of July 15, which gutted the Turkish Armed Forces. Targeting Kurdish civilians is a war crime for which Erdoğan should be held accountable. Armenians were victims of genocide. Armenians know better than anyone the wrath of Turkey and the duplicity of its leaders.
What about Kurds? You have spent time in Iraqi Kurdistan. What do they think and expect from Turkey?
Iraqi Kurds have extensive cooperation with Turkey, including energy transport from oil and gas fields in Kirkuk and Suleimania to the port of Ceyhan. Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan are both antagonistic towards the PKK. When it comes to fighting ISIS, Kurdish unity is critical.
How important are the Kurds and the “Kurdish Issue” for Turkey’s democratization process?
There are about 20 million Kurds in Turkey. However, their political and cultural rights are systematically denied. A dozen members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish HDP are in jail. Kurdish mayors have been arrested or fired. Local community leaders with the KCK [The Kurdistan Communities Union or KCK (Kurdish: Koma Civakên Kurdistan)] are targeted and imprisoned. Turkey cannot be a democracy unless Kurds are fully enfranchised. Instead, Kurds are victimized. A recent report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described mass killings and deportations, despite Turkey’s effort to cover up facts on the ground by denying access to UN investigators.
Do you have doubts about Turkey’s suitability as a NATO member?
I propose that the North Atlantic Council establish a Compliance Review Committee to evaluate the performance of NATO members when it comes to democracy and human rights. If a NATO member receive a failing grade two years consecutively, their membership should be suspended. In addition to Turkey, Hungary is also a country of concern.
What do you think will happen after the “April Referendum” in Turkey? In May, what kind of Turkey can we expect?
A majority of Turks will vote “no”, rejecting Erdoğan’s executive presidency. However, Erdoğan will steal the vote and declare victory. Constitutional reform establishing a dictatorship has been Erdoğan’s project for years. There is no way he will lose the vote. Instability and social conflict will ensue.
Turkey has been a geopolitically important country for both Europe and Caucasia. Turkey has a huge influence on Azerbaijan, and as you know, Azerbaijan continues to break the ceasefire agreement on a daily basis. How will Turkish political uncertainties affect the region, especially in regard to the Azerbaijan-Artsakh (Karabakh) conflict?
Turkey will seek to change the Minsk Group by insisting on an expanded role for itself or by trying to shift mediation from the OSCE to the UN. Turkey is a party to the conflict and cannot play a constructive role in mediation. The Minsk group has proven ineffective, but at least it has prevented a spiral of deadly violence from which Azerbaijan and Turkey would seek to benefit.
For many years, you made efforts for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and opening borders without pre-conditions. What do you forecast for future relations between Turkey and Armenia?
The Protocols provide a path forward. Turkey should ratify the Protocols, enabling normal travel and trade and enhanced diplomatic cooperation. Erdoğan does not share my view. His idea about reconciliation is to humiliate and abuse Armenians. Reconciliation is a process not an event. Turkish and Armenian civil society should expand their interaction and explore areas for cooperation. We have already seen progress when people get together and can relate in human terms, independent of their governments.