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Senior Turkish Official Discusses Dispute With Trump Administration Over Military Deal


We're going to hear now from a senior Turkish official at a time when his country is in the middle of a dispute with the Trump administration over a military deal. Ibrahim Kalin is a senior adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kalin and I spoke yesterday, and I started by bringing up his country's plans to buy a hundred F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. American officials say the sale cannot go through as long as Turkey also plans to buy a Russian air defense system which is called the S-400. There are concerns that the Russian system could allow Moscow to learn how to attack U.S. fighter jets. I asked Kalin about concerns that Turkey could be undermining the defenses of its NATO allies.

IBRAHIM KALIN: Well, as a key member in the NATO alliance, of course we wouldn't want to see anything like that. That's why we have proposed to establish a technical committee to address any concerns that our American colleagues may have about this. Also I think I need to point out that the decision to buy S-400 was not made overnight. It has a little history. But we understand the concerns, therefore we proposed to establish this committee looking to...

CHANG: But whatever the committee finds, the U.S. feels resolved on this issue. U.S. officials, lawmakers from both parties have made it clear that if Turkey does purchase the Russian S-400 system, Turkey will not be able to buy F-35 jets from the U.S. So what is your plan if the U.S. doesn't sell you any F-35 jets?

KALIN: Well, first of all, the language of threat and sanctions will be counterproductive vis-a-vis Turkey. That's really not the way to conduct business with a country like Turkey. We hope it will not come to that point. I understand the position of the Congress on this issue. But president of the United States has also some leeway there to find a way. And we are willing to...

CHANG: You're hoping President Trump will go a different direction from what U.S. officials and lawmakers from both parties have made clear.

KALIN: Our presidents have spoken about this, and we are looking for ways to avoid any kind of sanctions. And we do not want this to cloud in any way U.S.-Turkish relationship.

CHANG: Is Turkey worried about upsetting the Russians? Is that the issue here? Why insist on purchasing the Russian system?

KALIN: This decision was not made overnight? It has a little history. You may remember here that in the middle of the Syrian war about 3 1/2 years ago, the U.S. withdrew Patriot missile batteries from Turkey when we were facing security challenges from the PKK in Syria from Daish or ISIS as well as from the Syrian regime. And then the Germans pulled out. The only Patriot missile batteries we have right now are the ones owned and lent to us by Spain and Italy. So that all has created a sense of consternation in Ankara as to why our allies are withdrawing their Patriot missile systems when we need them the most. And that all has led to Turkey looking for alternatives.

CHANG: Turkey has also had a dispute with the U.S. over the U.S.'s support of Kurdish militants in Syria. Turkey views them as terrorists because of their links to militants who commit attacks in Turkey. But the U.S. has partnered with these groups to fight ISIS. What is Turkey looking for the U.S. to agree to?

KALIN: Well, first of all, everybody knows that PYD-YPG, with which the U.S. has worked in the fight against Daish, is related directly to the PKK terrorist organization, an organization listed as a terrorist organization in the U.S. as well. So that is a direct national security threat to us. We cannot take that lightly. And we have raised this issue many times and especially at a time when U.S. officials have said at the highest level, by the president of the United States, that the fight against ISIS is over; it's been - the caliphate has been destroyed, et cetera. Then why does support for PYD-YPG continue? It's very difficult for us to understand.

CHANG: Your country hosts at least 3 million Syrian refugees, which is more than any other country. The U.S. has nearly closed off its resettlement of Syrians. The Trump administration says it sends money to countries hosting these refugees. Have those funds from the Trump administration been enough, or would you like to see the U.S. resettle more Syrian refugees?

KALIN: Well, not only the U.S., but also the international community has largely unfortunately failed to address the crisis of Syrian refugees. And we have spent over $40 billion so far for their safety, for their basic needs. But the international community has provided very little help not only in Turkey but also in Jordan, Lebanon and other places.

CHANG: I want to move on now to the state of Turkey's democracy. There is a concern by people in the West, people who recognize the important role Turkey plays in the world that its democracy is in decline. President Erdogan has been in power 16 years. His powers are expanding. Is Turkey's democracy being taken over by one man?

KALIN: No. Turkey is a vibrant democracy. We just had local elections - free and fair elections as observed by all international observers. We have opposition parties.

CHANG: Well, some would argue that with each election, it becomes harder and harder for opposition candidates to campaign, to get access to the media.

KALIN: Well, that's really not true. I mean, if you look at the most recent election, for example, they have - you know, their campaigns are reported in the media, in their own outlets and other places. In fact, to claim that since President Erdogan has been in power for 16 years is a sign of the decline of democracy I think will go against the common sense that you'll have other presidents or prime ministers who rule their countries if they are re-elected. Like in Germany, Chancellor Merkel, you know, was re-elected for...

CHANG: Sure, but it's not the length...

KALIN: ...Three or four times.

CHANG: ...Of Erdogan's tenure that's the only thing people are pointing to. Human rights groups say Turkey ranks first in the world when it comes to prosecuting journalists, some from major newspapers. Let me ask you. How is that necessary - cracking down on journalists?

KALIN: Well, you'll have to see what happened in Turkey especially after the July 15 coup attempt when the Gulenist or the FETO terrorists carried out this killing of 251 people. Of course you have to take measures to protect public order and national security. This is one set of challenges. The other one is the fight that Turkey has been giving against the PKK for the last 40 years. And you'll have to take those measures to make sure that, you know, people who support terrorism do not use the system to their advantage. You wouldn't allow the terrorists to have propaganda. You have laws in the U.K., for example, against the glorification of terrorism. In the United States, you wouldn't allow al-Qaida or ISIS terrorists to run freely.

CHANG: As you may know, now there are more than two dozen Turkish military officers including some senior officers who are seeking asylum in the U.S. They are afraid to go home. They fear that they will be imprisoned if they go home because of allegations that they were involved in the military coup two years ago, allegations that these officers strongly deny. What if the U.S. does grant these officers asylum?

KALIN: Well, it will be a problem. It will be a blocking of judicial process. These people should be tried in Turkey. If they are not guilty of anything, then they shall not fear. But if they are involved in the coup attempt, then obviously they shall be tried, and the truth shall come out.

CHANG: All right, I want to turn now to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey was the driving force in getting the world to pay attention to this. Are you satisfied with the extent to which the Saudi Kingdom has investigated the death of Khashoggi?

KALIN: Well, there is a court case going on at the moment. They are trying a number of people in Riyadh right now. I don't have access to, you know, what's happening inside the courtroom. I don't know if other countries have been given access. And we've tried our best to shed light on what really happened, who's responsible, what happened to the body. We owe it to Jamal Khashoggi and also to the world of journalism and of course to his family and friends - and I happen to be one of them - that, you know, the truth come out fully. And it's up to the Saudis to do this in a very transparent way that will satisfy the international community as well.

CHANG: Ibrahim Kalin is a senior adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Thank you very much for joining us today.

KALIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.