Remarks at 35th Annual Conference on U.S.-Turkey Relations
Deputy Secretary of State
Good evening. It is wonderful to be with all of you tonight. Eren [Ozmen], thank you for your wonderful remarks and especially for everything that you are doing for this invaluable relationship. Ambassadors—I see a number of you here—distinguished guests, thank you for welcoming me this evening. In particular, I want to recognize the Ambassador of Turkey to the United States, and our Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, who has been an extraordinary emissary for us… even if it seems, as I told him, that he has one of the easiest jobs in the world: no problems, no challenges.
I also want to thank a friend, a mentor, a colleague: General Jim Jones—a remarkable public servant for so many years. I had the privilege to work side-by-side with Jim at the beginning of the Obama Administration. I learned from him every day and he has been a great friend since then. Jim, to you and the entire leadership and staff of the American Turkish Council and the U.S.-Turkish Business Council, thank you for bringing us together today, and thank you for what you do every single day to bring our countries ever-closer together. It’s been more than three decades now that this conference—and your work more broadly—has helped to forge invaluable connections between our economies and between our people. In challenging times especially, it is these connections that anchor our close partnership and energize our work together.
Today, as I think General Jones will agree, we are operating in a strategic environment that is more fluid and fraught with complexity than ever before. In many ways, Turkey stands on the frontlines of this turbulence—in a neighborhood where violent extremism, democratic deficits, active conflict, and state aggression have come together with combustible consequences for the region and all of those living in it. And indeed, for so many of those living beyond.
Now in its sixth year, the conflict in Syria, to Turkey’s immediate south, has triggered the worst human displacement crisis since the end of World War II. It has strained the generosity of neighboring nations like Turkey, exacerbated regional tensions, and helped swell the ranks of violent extremist organizations, whose attacks have scarred communities from Istanbul to Dhaka to Nice.
To the north, across the Black Sea, Russia has violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent, democratic nation and challenged the basic international principle that borders cannot be changed by force and it is the inherent right of citizens to determine their own country’s future. Turkey’s support and contributions to the NATO Alliance have been critical in defending NATO allies and deterring further Russian aggression.
And of course from within, Turkey faces a serious terrorist threat from the PKK—attacks that only succeed in undermining the legitimate aspirations and rights of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. Violence against innocent civilians is never justified, and the United States has been and always will be unequivocal in our strong condemnation of the PKK’s horrific tactics.
In this dynamic environment, we also have to contend with the perception that the U.S. and Turkey are moving apart, pursuing dissimilar models of governance and leadership. In both of our countries, we are seeing citizens question the choices of the other. This is something that we have to contend with seriously.
Yes, we have our share of disagreements, but we discuss them openly, directly, and truthfully as friends and partners do. We stand by our friend and NATO ally Turkey in the defense of democratic principles and the fight against terror. And as a friend and ally, we also encourage the Government of Turkey to ensure that the rule of law and basic freedoms are protected, tenets as essential to the strength of the nation as they are to the health of its business environment.
Fundamentally, our people share an unwavering commitment to the principles of justice, dignity, and the rule of law. This was especially evident during July’s coup attempt, a deplorable affront to the Turkish people. By taking to the streets where they faced down tanks and evaded helicopters, ordinary citizens came to the defense of their nation and sent a powerful message to the world.
When I was in Ankara last month, I visited the Turkish Grand National Assembly, which as you all know withstood bombardment from the skies during the attempted coup. Rubble and debris covered the floor. Wrought-iron cables hung from shattered concrete pillars, just feet away from the central chamber. I have to tell you that this visit resonated deeply with me. I worked for a number of years in the United States Senate for six years, and few things are more chilling than that sight of the People’s House damaged so grievously in an attack. The truth is I don’t think that many of us fully understood—or maybe we didn’t communicate that we understood—the depth of feeling and emotion in Turkey for the events of July. This was a dagger aimed at the heart of the Turkish state—and at the Turkish people.
In the wake of these terrible events, I want to reiterate what Vice President Biden said during his recent visit to Ankara: Turkey has no greater friend than the United States. As a long-time ally, the United States remain steadfast in our support of Turkey’s democratically-elected government and institutions—institutions that are enshrined in Turkey’s constitution.
And as allies, we work side-by-side in confronting the serious challenges that face both of our nations. Let me just review a few of them tonight.
First, our primary task is to defeat Daesh, which poses the most immediate threat to our citizens and our countries. Two years ago, Daesh was expanding its territory, broadcasting a siren call to budding violent extremists, and threatening to overrun even Baghdad and Erbil.
Now, that momentum has shifted dramatically against Daesh, and in favor of freedom.
Supported by an international coalition of 67 partners, including Turkey, our comprehensive campaign is systemically liberating territory from Daesh and denying it its sanctuaries, cutting off its financing, stemming the flow of foreign fighters, combatting its narrative on social media, allowing citizens to return home, and gutting the twisted foundation on which Daesh’s global ambitions rest.
Together, we have eliminated tens of thousands of fighters and scores of mid-to-senior level leaders. We’ve destroyed thousands of pieces of equipment and weapons. We’ve deprived Daesh of more than 50 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and more than 25 percent in Syria.
We’ve largely cleared Daesh from the Syria-Turkey border. Earlier this month, Syrian opposition forces and Turkey together liberated Dabiq, a city with powerful symbolic importance to Daesh as the site of a final victory for the so-called caliphate.
Now, having accomplished so much, we stand at a moment of incredible opportunity, but also urgency.
The opportunity is this: to effectively extinguish Daesh’s self-proclaimed geographic caliphate by taking back the last major urban centers it holds: Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria.
Now, as we have seen in the beginning of the advance on Mosul, these campaigns will not be easy. The enemy is dug in and desperate—but we will succeed, and the consequences for Daesh of our ultimate success will be devastating, both practically and psychologically.
We are working incredibly closely with Turkey and our other Coalition partners on these operations, including visits that I have made with full U.S. delegations for intensive consultations in Turkey three times in just the last seven months.
The opportunity we have is matched by urgency.
As the noose around Daesh closes, we’ve seen them try to adapt by plotting or encouraging indiscriminate attacks in many places around the world. Potential recruits are being told to stay home and attack there. Surviving foreign fighters are being pushed out of Iraq and Syria back to where they came from.
Raqqa is Daesh’s central planning node for external operations against Turkey, against Europe, against the United States against the world. That makes it imperative that we begin now to isolate Raqqa—and then ultimately to liberate it.
We commend the steps that Turkey has taken to address this threat at its borders. Together, we have to continue to ensure that, collectively, we are doing everything we can to strengthen information sharing on foreign fighter identities and then make sure that information is getting into the hands of the border agents and law enforcement personnel.
Moreover, the fight to hold ground, rebuild cities, and restore services is only just beginning. It requires extraordinary coordination not just militarily, but also to ensure that we meet the humanitarian, stabilization and governance needs of newly liberated territory. It will be this effort—the work to provide for the basic needs of a nation—that will ensure that Daesh once defeated stays defeated.
Ultimately, we will not succeed in fully destroying Daesh until we resolve the civil war in Syria, which remains a powerful magnet for foreign terrorist organizations and fighters.
There is no way to look at what is happening on the ground in Syria and not feel profound grief, horror, and collective shame. In the midst of this tragedy, it is tempting to want a neat answer that ends the civil war and eases suffering overnight. But the challenges before us defy silver bullet solutions.
Here is what we know from history and experience: civil wars generally end in one of three ways. The first way is that one side wins on the battlefield. That is unlikely in Syria because as soon as one side gets the advantage, the patrons of the other side intensify their engagement to right the balance.
Second, the parties exhaust themselves. Typically, that takes a decade—or even longer when a multiplicity of actors are involved, as there are in Syria. The civil war in Syria is entering year six, and it features a broad array of internal and external actors with different priorities.
Third and finally, civil wars tend to end when external powers intervene either militarily or politically. But military intervention can actually add fuel to the fire, extending before ending the conflict and suffering. That leaves a political intervention, with key outside powers and patrons shaping, supporting, and imposing a resolution.
This is the effort we have been engaged in with Turkey and every other member of the International Syria Support Group—building on the foundation of the Geneva communiqués and U.N. Security Council resolutions. The objectives and the processes we agreed to were and are the right ones, namely a renewal of the cessation of hostilities, getting humanitarian assistance in, and then creating an environment in which Syrian-led negotiations toward a political transition can take place.
The actions of the Asad regime and Russia now risk fatally undermining these efforts, as they pursue the indiscriminate bombing of the Syrian people and stage horrific tactics of siege, starve, and surrender.
Every day that this conflict rages, the human and financial cost of the conflict rises—for Turkey, for the region, for Europe, but most of all, for the Syrian people.
Four-point-eight million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries—nearly three million alone to Turkey, where communities have generously opened their doors, shared their public services, and welcomed children into their classrooms.
We are incredibly grateful to our friends in Turkey for the leadership and compassion that they have shown. As Americans, sometimes it is hard for us to truly understand the magnitude of this crisis, to understand the lengths to which Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have gone to in order to accommodate and welcome refugees. But it bears notice and it bears admiration.
This school year, Turkey enrolled 468,000 refugee children—surpassing its goal and enrolling roughly 150,000 more children than last year. On one of my trips to Turkey I had the opportunity to visit a school in Adana, where exhausted but deeply committed teachers teach almost a second full day of school every afternoon and into the early evening. This is truly heroic work by Turkish teachers, administrators, and local and national officials, and it is helping to prevent a lost generation of Syrian children.
We know that education is only one piece of the equation. In January, Turkey passed legislation that grants Syrian refugees access to legal employment, and set up programs to incorporate Syrian doctors and nurses into the Turkish health care system and Syrian teachers into Turkish schools. Turkey wisely sees these skilled professionals as a resource, uniquely qualified to serve the needs of the 2.7 million refugees with whom they share a language and a culture.
Despite the generosity of Turkey and other countries of first asylum, the level of need still greatly outstrips available resources. In September, President Obama convened a summit on the margins of the UN General Assembly to enlist other countries and the private sector in a global response—to provide more humanitarian assistance, to resettle more refugees, and to assist countries like Turkey that have taken on so much.
Together, with UN agencies and NGOs, we support Turkish language training, including for Syrian doctors. We support vocational training to help refugees find jobs in labor markets with unmet demand, like welding and electrical work. We support women’s centers and community centers that offer safe spaces for refugees to gather, to learn, and to receive a variety of services—everything from vaccinations to legal information. In every instance, we ask our partners to work in close consultation with the Turkish government to ensure they’re complementing the extensive services that Turkey already provides.
Those of you here tonight know, more than most, that there is not only a humanitarian aspect to this. There’s a business case to be made for inclusion of refugees, who represent an incredibly creative, productive pool of talent—in Turkey, just as in the United States. No one has demonstrated this with greater results than Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of Chobani who arrived in the United States from Turkey as a student. He got a loan from the Small Business Administration and transformed a single shuttered factory into a yogurt empire, and made a point of hiring, training, and giving back to locally resettled refugees. In return, from some quarters of this country, he has been slammed with death threats, xenophobic vitriol, and outrages mistruths for his leadership on behalf of refugees.
Our response to this global refugee crisis must not only include helping children learn and helping parents work. It calls on us—it demands from us an obligation to stand up forcefully for others, to deny bigotry any oxygen in our discourse or hatred any space in our communities. I say thank God for Hamdi and the extraordinary example he has set for so many of us around the world.
The refugees that arrive in America—and those who seek shelter on our shores and other shores—are following the footsteps of generations before them, traveling along the very same paths that many of own parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents took to find sanctuary from war and a future for their children. That is true for me and my family. I’m sure it is true for many of us. Today, our inheritance of courage confers on us a greater responsibility and challenges all of us to live up to our common humanity.
It can be hard to look out at the landscape that I’ve just surveyed and look back on events in the region in the last few years and feel a great deal of optimism, but there exist rays of light, beams of hope that shine even brighter in the shadows.
Today, for example, the prospects for a lasting settlement on Cyprus are the best we have seen in many years, as its leaders work hard towards achieving a bizonal, bicommunal federation that advances the interests of all Cypriots.
A just, lasting, and comprehensive solution for Cyprus could have historic and far-reaching impact. It will improve economic opportunity for all the people of Cyprus and enhance energy security in the Mediterranean region and beyond. It will create opportunities not only for U.S. and Turkish business but also Israeli and Cypriot businesses—an alignment of interests that could help promote peace in the region. But in a sense perhaps even more important, it would demonstrate to the world today what can be achieved through dialogue, compromise, and diplomacy—a powerful and positive model for all.
Above all, Cyprus’s progress also underscores a singular and universal fact—that prosperity and growth thrive in transparent, predictable, stable environments where the rule-of-law protects individual rights and gives local entrepreneurs the confidence they need to grow and international businesses the sense of security they need to invest.
This is true for Cyprus. It’s true for Turkey. And it’s true for the United States.
When officials take actions or make statements that appear to threaten democratic institutions, we know that the business climate worsens. When the independence of the judiciary and regulatory agencies are comprised, investors tend to stay away. When standards of evidence are vague or non-transparent, all citizens lose faith in institutions of justice. When press outlets are shuttered and freedom of expression is conditional, the voices of the nation are stifled and so too is innovation.
A culture of entrepreneurship is almost unimaginable without a foundation of rights and freedoms upon which citizens feel fully able to pursue their ambitions, to express their opinions, and to bring their ideas to life. We have urged and will continue to urge the Turkish government to respond to the failed coup in ways that reinforce public confidence in the rule-of-law and Turkey’s traditions of freedom of expression and pluralism, the very principles and institutions that the Turkish people so courageously defended in that time of crisis.
Here in the United States, we are reminded on almost a daily basis that the results of our own efforts do not meet our expectations and that the voices that prevail are often the loudest, not necessarily the wisest.
But the measure of our courage as citizens, the measure of our resilience as governments, the measure of our strength as nations is how we face these tests—whether we retreat to practices of repression and intimidation or whether we confront our own imperfections with honesty, with openness, with transparency.
The consequences of this choice are playing out in the Middle East and across the world today, and the results could not be clearer. Governments including my own are working overtime to eliminate terrorist organizations—from Daesh, to Boko Haram, to the PKK—and delegitimize the use of terror as a means to achieve distorted religious or political ends. But what we have collectively learned is that these groups rely on governments to overreach, to curb rights, to ignore distinctions between civilians and combatants, and to blur the essential ethical and legal boundaries between the rule of law and the rule of the gun. Such actions form the basis of grievances and act as a magnet to lure new adherents.
Advancing human rights and fundamental freedoms is not a cause for vulnerability or insecurity. To the contrary, it is our greatest reservoir of strength and our greatest guarantor of stability as free and innovative nations.
For over six decades, the U.S.-Turkish alliance has overcome all of the challenges it has faced. Now, together, we must continue to stand—as trusted friends, allies, and fellow democracies committed to the security of our nations and to the dignity of all of our people.
Thank you very much.