In this episode of Battlegrounds, H.R. McMaster and Ahmet Üzümcü discuss the vital role of Turkey in advancing peace and prosperity in a time of economic distress; strained relations between Ankara and Washington over Turkey’s acquisition of Russian air defense systems; disagreements over US support for Syrian Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS in Syria; and concerns about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies and his support for the terrorist organization Hamas, on Wednesday June 26, 2024.

Join former director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Ahmet Üzümcü, and Hoover senior fellow H.R. McMaster in a deep dive into the current state of US-Turkey (Türkiye) and NATO-Turkey relations. In this episode of Battlegrounds, Ambassador Üzümcü, who has previously served as Turkey’s permanent representative to the United Nations and NATO, Turkish ambassador to Israel, and deputy undersecretary of state for bilateral political affairs, shares his expert insights on the evolving dynamics between Ankara and Washington, Turkey’s controversial acquisition of Russian air defense systems, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian policies and support for Hamas, and the broader implications of all these aspects for NATO and stability in the Middle East.


Ahmet Üzümcü

Ahmet Üzümcü served as director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) from 2010 to 2018. Ambassador Üzümcü accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 on behalf of the OPCW for the organization’s extensive work toward eliminating chemical weapons. Prior to serving this role he was Turkey’s (Türkiye’s) permanent representative to the United Nations, its permanent representative to NATO, Turkish ambassador to Israel, and deputy undersecretary of state for bilateral political affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ambassador Üzümcü holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Ankara University. He currently serves as a senior network member for the European Leadership Network and as a senior advisor for the Council on Strategic Risks.


hrmcmaster px image

H.R. McMaster is the Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is also the Bernard and Susan Liautaud Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. He was the 25th assistant to the president for National Security Affairs. Upon graduation from the United States Military Academy in 1984, McMaster served as a commissioned officer in the United States Army for thirty-four years before retiring as a Lieutenant General in June 2018.

H.R. McMaster:

America and other free and open societies face crucial challenges and opportunities abroad that affect security and prosperity at home. This is a series of conversations with guests who bring deep understanding of today's battlegrounds and creative ideas about how to compete, overcome challenges, capitalize on opportunities, and secure a better future. I am H.R McMaster. This is Battlegrounds.


On today's episode of Battlegrounds. Our focus is on the country of Turkey, a long-time U.S. ally and NATO member. Our guest is Ahmet Üzümcü, the former Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW from 2010 to 2018. Ambassador Üzümcü accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 on behalf of the OPCW for the organization's extensive work toward eliminating chemical weapons.

Prior to this role, he served as Turkey's permanent representative to the United Nations, Turkey's permanent representative to NATO, Turkish Ambassador to Israel and Deputy Undersecretary of State for Bilateral Political Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ambassador Üzümcü holds a bachelor's degree in International Relations from Ankara University. He currently serves as a senior network member for the European Leadership Network and as a senior advisor for the Council on Strategic Risks.

Ambassador Üzümcü's Homeland Turkey is a young country for people with a long and rich history. The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, a multi-ethnic state ruled by a Turkish dynasty for over 600 years.

The Ottomans, like the Seljuks and a dozen other Turkic state builders before them, had moved westward from an original homeland on the borders of China over the course of several centuries. The Oghuz tribal confederation from which the Seljuks and Ottomans both stemmed, conquered Anatolia, displacing the Byzantine Empire, beginning with the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 A.D. and culminating with the capture of Constantinople in 1453.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottomans expanded their empire into parts of Asia, Africa and Europe before their borders began shrinking after their failed efforts to capture Vienna in 1683. The Ottomans sided with Germany in World War I, and after the Allied victory, the vast conglomeration of territories and peoples that comprised the Ottoman Empire was divided into several new states and concessions that favored Greece, Italy, Britain and France.

The dissolution of the empire prompted the establishment of a Turkish national movement led by military commander Mustafa Kemal, known as Atakürk, who declared Turkey a Republic on October 29th, 1923, with himself as the first president. During his autocratic rule, Atakürk instituted various reforms to modernize the country grounded in secularism, nationalism and modernization.

Turkey remained neutral during World War II before joining the Allied Powers in February, 1945, right before the war's end. The country experienced the tensions of the Cold War and sought and received aid from the United States, which began in 1947 under the Truman Doctrine.

Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and became an associate member of the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union In 1963. It applied to fully join the EEC in 1987 and was declared eligible to join the EU in 1999, but accession negotiations have stalled due to European concerns over the Turkish democratic norms, and to Turkish observers, reticence to have such a large Muslim majority population inside the union.

In 2002, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party, AKP, won a landslide victory. With the country's current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, winning a parliamentary seat in early 2003 and quickly being named Prime Minister. In 2017, the Turkish people voted in favor of a constitutional referendum that replaced the country's parliamentary system of government with a presidential one, consolidating additional power in the office of the president.

Turkey and the United States have a strong history of partnership following World War II. The country remains a NATO ally in a vital geostrategic location straddling Europe and Asia and controlling critical maritime choke points, including the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. Its dual identity as both a European and Asian state contributes to its influence and importance within international organizations.

Turkey has become a vital member of the Defeat ISIS Coalition, opening its military bases in 2015 to coalition members for their efforts to destroy the terrorist organization in Syria and Iraq. Turkey has deployed military trainers and equipment including advanced unmanned aerial vehicles to support Ukraine and has been influential on the ground and at the negotiating table in conflicts from Libya and Syria to Africa and the Caucasus.

We welcome Ambassador Üzümcü to discuss Turkey's vital role in peace and prosperity at a time of economic distress in Turkey and strained relations between Ankara and Washington over Turkey's acquisition of Russian air defense systems, disagreements over U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS in Syria and concerns about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authoritarian tendencies and his support for the terrorist organization, Hamas.

H.R. McMaster:

Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, welcome to Battlegrounds. It's great to see you again. Thank you for joining us.

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Thank you very much. Thank you for this opportunity.

H.R. McMaster:

Well, Ambassador, there's so much for us to talk about, but what I'd like to begin is when we've worked together years ago, 2017 into 2018, when you were doing a fantastic job leading the OPCW, you had already years earlier, accepted the Nobel Prize for the great work the organization was doing almost a hundred years after World War One to eliminate some of the most heinous weapons on earth. And then we came together when we saw the murderous Assad regime use nerve agent to murder hundreds of people in Syria including children. Could you maybe describe to our viewers just your work that you did over so many years to ensure that those heinous weapons didn't return to use or certainly routine use and what the state of play is today in terms of limiting those weapons?

Ahmet Üzümcü:

All right. I took over the director general position of the OPCW in 2010 and the main task of that organization at that time was the elimination of existing stockpiles in the United States, in Russia and in a few other countries. And the OPCW was mandated, in fact to verify this destruction activities and report back to the membership.

In 2013, actually, we departed from these routine activities quite considerably when we witnessed that chemical weapons were used in Syria. So a civil war erupted in March, 2011 in that country and there were reports and allegations of use of chemical weapons in this country. And the main, actually the incident took place in August, 2013 in Ghouta near Damascus. So sarin was used and 1,400 people, civilians, were killed in a few hours. OPCW took part in a U.N investigation mission because the Syrian Arab Republic was not yet a member of the OPCW.

Later on the Russian Federation and the United States get together in Geneva and worked out a framework document on which basis, Syrian Arab Republic agreed to eliminate its chemical weapons program under the verification of the OPCW. This changed in fact the priorities of the organization. We verified the destruction of chemical weapons and we also saw that the Syria actually had a quite sophisticated chemical weapons program, I should say, and quite large quantities of toxic chemicals that were used to produce chemical weapons.

The United States played a significant role in all of this. Cape Ray, a cargo ship was used as a platform to neutralize the most toxic chemical weapons while sailing on the Mediterranean and we assured the riparian states that no toxic residue would be in fact released to the sea. I went to the Italian Parliament, I went to other countries, saw that they should be comfortable with all this and this was a huge success for the organization. And as you mentioned, actually we were rewarded, the OPCW was rewarded with Nobel Peace Prize in December, 2013, and I had the honor to receive it on behalf of the organization.

THe priorities have changed, but the reports of allegations of use unfortunately continued in this country. We had to establish a new mechanism to verify those allegations. The UN Security Council established another joint investigative mechanism, another mechanism to identify the perpetrators of the attacks in 2015. In 2017, the mandate of this mechanism was not extended because of the Russian opposition. Russia was quite helpful at the beginning as of 2013, and also during the investigations of allegations of use. But their position has changed significantly at the end of 2015, in October 2015 when Russia became literally involved in Syria. So, it provided-

H.R. McMaster:

[inaudible 00:11:20], Ahmet, just to catch our viewers up, our viewers might think of this as the unenforced red line in 2013, after which the Obama administration invited Russia into Syria to help with the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpiles. Russia then subsequently intervenes in the Syrian Civil War, essentially gets Assad's regime off the ropes and with this military support, enables really the serial episodes of mass homicide in the Syrian civil war, which ensue including the use again of chemical weapons. This is what you're referring to in terms of the investigation mechanism. You try to get re-established in 2015 now with the Russians obstructing that mechanism.

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Actually, that's correct, but Russia, as I saw it, actually the Russians were militarily present in Syria already in Tartus. They had the naval base over there and so on, and they wanted to enhance their military presence in Syria, through which they wanted to in fact to wield a greater influence in the Mediterranean. So they saw it as an opportunity. They wanted to help Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria in fighting against the opposition and so on.

So although they were helpful in the elimination of chemical weapons program, I think more generally speaking, their main priority was in fact to support the regime and to ensure its survival. So that's how it happened as I see it.

But as to the investigation, you're right. I mean in 2017, in Khan Shaykhun, there was a reported incident of the use of sarin. And this was the first time since Ghouta since 2013 that sarin was reportedly used. That was something which we took seriously and we tried to send a team, which was not possible at that time.

Then we actually, the FFM was able to identify, determine the use of this nerve agent, although the FFM did not have a mandate to identify the perpetrators. Later on the JIM, actually, investigated it and identified the Syrian Arab Republic as the perpetrator, as the actor, which used this agent.

H.R. McMaster:

And we declassified a lot of intelligence from the United States, France, others who had received soil samples, did the investigations and we worked together closely. I know you were under a lot of duress from the Russians and you stood up to that and I really appreciated your strength of character at this critical moment when it was really important I think to reestablish a form of deterrence in using these weapons.

Our viewers might know that that sarin is a nerve agent that inflicts horrible suffering and a horrible death on its victims.

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Thank you, H.R. Actually, as you said at the very beginning, the chemical agents were massively during the first World War. In April, 2015, it was chloropicrin and later on, there was phosgene and in 2017, sulfur mustard was discovered by a German scientist. The nerve agents came later, but they're the most little actually, VX, sarin and others nerve agents in fact, the most little toxic chemicals that the humanity has.

So fortunately, those agents were not used, those chemical weapons were not used during the second World War. There are speculations why they were not and so on. There are several arguments on this, but I'll just avoid getting into this, but it was very fortunate that they were not used. Otherwise, millions of people could have died because of that, including civilians.

I've seen the stockpiles of Russia, I've seen the stockpiles of the United States, and these were really sophisticated weapons and the delivery means that were very sophisticated. Therefore, I was really pleased, happy that the humanity was fortunate that they didn't see the use of such WMDs during the Second World War.

H.R. McMaster:

And in April of 2017, when we brought options to President Trump, that was one of our critical objectives was, to restore deterrence so that the use of these heinous weapons don't again become routine. Viewers might remember that the United States conducted a strike with 59 cruise missiles aimed at the Khan Shaykhun air base and the aircraft that were complicit in delivering that heinous attack against Syrian civilians.

What do you think the state of play is now? I mean, I'd like to really get your perspective on so much that's going in the Middle East. I mean, you know the Middle East so well as a representative of the Turkish government. You were the ambassador to Israel. We've seen the Syrian Civil War continue, right, and we are at a situation now where half the Syrian population is dead wounded or displaced that were still ongoing. We have a number of sectarian civil wars going on across the region.

And of course, since the heinous Hamas attacks of October 7th of last year, we've had a major war between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas in Gaza. So could you just maybe summarize for our viewers, your perspective on the wars across the Middle East and what the prospects are for peace in the future?

Ahmet Üzümcü:

If you allow me, I'll finish with Syria first, then I'll-

H.R. McMaster:

[inaudible 00:17:47].

Ahmet Üzümcü:

... switch to Gaza. Actually, as far as the chemical weapons are concerned, the Syrian government in fact was found responsible by the existing mechanisms that the government didn't declare whatever it possessed. So there are some hidden capabilities in terms of chemical weapons in this country, which need to be declared. That's why some of the privileges and rights of that country were suspended by the Conference of States parties at the OPCW.

The joint investigative mechanism, in short, JIM< JIM's mandate was not extended, but another mechanism actually was established by the OPCW itself, by the member states. Russia Syria and Iran declined to cooperate with this mechanism. They think that it's illegal, whereas all existing procedures were followed. So this mechanism was established just before my departure from the OPCW in July, 2018. It was in June, and it's called Investigation and Identification Team, IIT.

This mechanism continues to investigate further the previous allegations of use. There are no reported new incidents, I should say, fortunately not, but the aim effect is to prevent impunity. So the OPCW and the international community in general do not want that culture of impunity to flourish around the use of chemical weapons, because it's seen that the chemical weapons convention is one of the pillars of the rules-based international order. And we must uphold its integrity and credibility so that the only way to do it is in fact to find out who used chemical weapons, prosecute them and punish them. We are not yet there, but hopefully, the international community will be able to do it in the near future. So that's all those efforts are aiming at.

As to the region in general, unfortunately, the Middle East is very unpredictable and always prone to new conflicts. When I was ambassador from '99 till 2002 in Israel, the situation was relatively stable at that time, but suddenly the second Intifada began in 2000 and both the Israeli people and as diplomats, we and our families were actually very... felt the tension of it and somehow, we thought that we could be also victims in one way or another to those attacks.

But still the situation, in fact, the prospects at that time were more, I should say, optimistic. Unfortunately, over the past 20 plus years, nothing special was done in order to resolve the existing conflict. I won't call it Israeli-Arab conflict because with Jordan and Egypt, as you know, there have been peace agreements which are in place and with the GCC countries, Gulf Cooperation Council countries., I think the relationship is not that bad between Israel and those countries. And some of them actually did establish diplomatic relations already, and the next one was Saudi Arabia if the conflict didn't erupt.

But the Gaza situation was quite explosive in my view. There are more than 2 million people who live there and the humanitarian aid was not flowing as expected and so on. But this doesn't mean that Hamas was popular among the Palestinians. According to surveys, just prior to 7th October, I looked at them, in Gaza, only 15% of the Palestinians were supportive of the Hamas regime which was governing this region at that time. And-

H.R. McMaster:

Just for our viewers on it, Hamas takes over after Israel withdraws from Gaza in 2005 and then-

Ahmet Üzümcü:

That's correct. Yeah.

H.R. McMaster:

... Hamas is in power and has suppressed any kind of opposition to Hamas since that time?

Ahmet Üzümcü:

That's correct. And in the West Bank in, let's say, Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority over there is not popular either. So more or less the same percentage of the people living in the West Bank continued to support the current administration.

So the 7th October attack came as a surprise to the Israeli government and to all of us, I suppose. This was a terrorist attack and more than 1000 civilians were killed and so on. It's a horrific actually incident.

Then the Israeli retaliation did begin and now it's pupported that more than 36,000 people were killed. Many of them are civilians. I think there's a need to do something actually. This situation is not tenable and I don't think it should continue like that.

There is now an attempt, as I understand in fact, to implement a incremental peace kind of roadmap I should say, which may culminate in a permanent settlement. As to the permanent settlement as to the prospects, [inaudible 00:24:24] the prospect, I am one of those who believe that there is only one solution. It's the two-state solution.

When I was representing my country in Israel, we have been also promoting this solution. I think this is in the interest of the Israeli people, Israeli government, state of Israel. And if they want really to live in peace, I think that's the only way out.

But I know that the Israeli people at present are not supportive of it. So I think the Israeli politicians, I'm not talking about the current government, but Israeli politicians who are in opposition now will have to make an extra effort to convince their own people that a permanent settlement could be based and should be based on a two-state solution.

H.R. McMaster:

Ahmet, one of the things that concerns me is, when we hear discussions about the future and a two-state solution, some people are not making the connection that a precondition, I believe, for any kind of a progress toward a two-state solution is the destruction of Hamas who is the ultimate rejector of a two-state solution, because they're determined to destroy Israel and kill all the Jews. I mean, it's in their charter.

So I think one of the aspects, one of the areas of tension I think that we have with Ankara at this time, with President Erdogan and his government is, the degree to which they have been almost supportive of Hamas in the wake of this, describing Hamas not as a terrorist organization, which is determined to kill all the Jews, which they are, but talking about that organization as if they are liberators rather than the principle oppressors of the Palestinian people in Gaza.

Can you maybe explain how you've seen Turkey's really difficult relationship with Israel evolve since you've departed? And is there a prospect for Turkey to have a better relationship maybe with Israel in the wake of this and maybe begin to patch up some of the relationship with the United States, which I think has suffered from Turkey's position after October 7th?

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Just prior to October 7th, actually, the relationship between Turkey and Israel had improved a lot. The Turkish ambassador was sent to Tel Aviv and Israel sent their ambassador to Ankara and there was more or less a normalization of this relations.

Actually, the trade and people-to-people contacts over the years has continually increased. Although the diplomatic relations or political relations had some peaks and valleys or ups and downs, from time to time they were strained, but the economic relations did improve over the years. When I left, there were three flights by Turkish Airlines to Tel Aviv, and I heard later that this number has increased to six or seven flights per day. So that shows that the relations were growing in spite of the political policy.

This current government in Turkey chose in fact to support Hamas and although they maintained their relations with Palestinian Authority in Ramallah too, but, for I believe ideological reasons rather, they had also very close contacts with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. So did it affect the relations with Israel? I think it did, because Hamas had also a representation in Istanbul as I understand. They had an office there and so on. This undermined, I believe the relations between the two countries.

More recently, just after the attacks, I was also surprised that the Hamas leader was received in fact at the highest level level in Turkey. Although Mahmoud Abbas also came to Ankara just a few months, two months ago, I suppose, so a kind of, I should say on the part of Ankara, a balanced approach towards both Hamas and Palestinian Authority is maintained. But the same balance unfortunately doesn't exist with the Israeli government.

So I'm not representing the government, so it's quite a long time now that I'm retired. I retired from the Turkish Foreign office in 2010. So I've been critical of current policies on a few occasions. I think the partnership between Israel and Turkey is not only in the interest of the two countries, but it's in the interest of the whole region. So these are two democratic countries in the Middle East and I think they could contribute much more if they become real partners, to the peace and security and stability in the whole region.

So the 7th October and Israeli-Hamas war is a serious blow to the peace in the region, but it needs to be overcome. And I think for the future, if the government changes in Israel as well as in the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, the only way to actually keep Hamas in control is to empower the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah further, to support them and actually ask them through the Arab countries, I suppose, to change their leadership. I don't think an 87-years-old political leader can really ensure a peaceful outcome in this.

H.R. McMaster:

Abu Mazen, this is Mahmoud Abbas the head of the [inaudible 00:31:47].

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Mahmoud Abbas who is 87 years old now. I think he needs to be replaced by someone who can really represent the Palestinian people, but also who would be able to control Hamas. I don't think Hamas, to be honest, can be eliminated through military means. I don't think it's going to happen. Therefore, they need to somehow disqualify them politically and through empowerment of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and also, I believe through the support of the Gaza people.

As I understood, the people in Gaza are very critical of Hamas. They have been critical before 7th October and they continue to be so. Therefore, this momentum needs to be kept and a new administration which is capable of controlling both sides, Gaza as well as West Bank, should take over.

H.R. McMaster:

Ahmet, the only thing I would add to this is that the problem of course is Hamas still has the guns in Gaza and anybody who raises their hand to be the mayor of Gaza is going to get a bullet in the head, right, if they're not under the control of Hamas. So I think you're absolutely right in terms of the only really kind of political path forward you can imagine. But obviously, there's going to have to be, as you're alluding to, a very significant peace enforcement effort as well to ensure that Hamas can't re-exert control over the population in Gaza.

Ahmet Üzümcü:

You're absolutely right. I think a multinational military presence would be required in order to ensure transition in Gaza. I don't think really the administration in Ramallah can do it on its own. That's out of question. They don't possess these capabilities, therefore a multinational military force from Arab countries as well as from some Western countries should do the job both for reconstruction in Gaza as well as for the control of Hamas.

I don't know what can be done with the Hamas leadership, maybe they should be sent somewhere else, but it's not up to me to decide upon it. But they built as, you know, more than 300 miles of tunnels in Gaza in a very, very small land, and they were able to hide themselves within those tunnels and they were able to survive so far.

H.R. McMaster:

Ahmet, I'd like to just kind of zoom out a little bit and look at how critical Turkey is to the region. Obviously, this is a region that I think, you could make an argument was better off under the Ottoman Empire, but of course it's an area that Turkey understands very well and has tremendous influence.

WHen I look at the region today, it seems to me like a competition almost between three revanchist powers, right, an effort to maybe reestablish the Persian Empire. When we look at what's happening across the region with these fitness or sectarian civil wars, Iran is behind this, I think in perpetuating these cycles of violence and supporting terrorist organizations and militia groups that are outside of government's control and perpetuate state weakness across the region.

You have the Russian Empire, which I think of Vladimir Putin as Catherine the Great without the hoop skirt. And I think he's in many ways trying to reestablish Russian influence across the region, in part by posing both as the arsonist and the fireman in the region.

Then of course you have Turkey who is in some ways accommodating both Tehran and Moscow and seems to be hedging kind of on all fronts. Can you maybe describe the view from Ankara's perspective, not that you speak for the government at all, but what role can Turkey play in the region? What role is Turkey playing now and how do you maybe hope that Turkey's role may evolve in the future?

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, that means for the past 72 years. And I think it's played a significant role within the alliance and it provided support to all operations conducted by NATO. It participated in all training activities and so on.

So it has been considered, in fact, for decades as a staunch ally by other members of NATO including the United States. I think this hasn't changed, fortunately, not changed in spite of changes in governments in Turkey.

In its own region, Turkey being somehow a bridge between the Middle East and Europe, between Asia and European continent, it has been quite a stable country and was able to contribute to peace and stability in its region and beyond. So that role has changed a little, I should say, since 2010, maybe a little earlier. Unfortunately, the relationship between Turkey and the neighboring countries did deteriorate, both with Greece and some other Arab countries in the region, which was not really helpful because the country was no more able to play the role I just described.

As to the relations with Tehran or Iran, they have been very stable for centuries actually. The border has not changed since I guess since the 17th century between the two countries. And there has been always a competition between Iran and Turkey more from the Iranian side than Turkish side. So they saw as a main competitor, the Iranian people as well as the governments, even during the Shah time as the main competitor with them, but the relations were peaceful, I should say.

You're right. I mean Iran unfortunately, is playing a destabilizing role in the region through its proxies, both in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen, and in Lebanon. So it has been supporting Hamas for years, Hezbollah and so on. And the GCC countries are very nervous about these subversive activities, and they see for them Iran as the main threat to their countries. That's why I suppose also one of the reasons that the rapprochement between Israel and the GCC countries did materialize, because of this perception of common threat.

Would Iran change its position in the near future? I don't think so. Their president was killed as a result of an accident, but I don't see really any prospect of significant change on the part of the Iranian government, even if the spiritual leader has changed, I don't know when.

Anyhow, this-

H.R. McMaster:

And so, Khamenei, for our viewers is Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader who's what? 85 years old now, I think and could not be in great health..

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Yes, and actually, Raisi, let's say the former president was seen as a heir to Khamenei and now they are talking about Khamenei's own son who could replace him. We'll see.

What changed in Iran, I should add, during the first years and perhaps decade of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, they were aiming at exporting their revolution. So you could have seen pictures of Khamenei in many parts of Turkey at that time. So they were really engaged in a very intensive activity of promoting their own revolution, not only in their own country but abroad. So they abandoned us, but they abandoned of the activity, the aim of exporting their own revolution, but they continue, as I mentioned, and which is well known actually, they don't deny it, their military activities through proxies in Iraq Syria and elsewhere. so I don't think it's going to change into the future.

Coming to Russia, Russian aggression against Ukraine was not a surprise to me. It was a surprise to many of my friends, both Turkish and foreigners. Actually, looking at what happened in 2018 in Georgia, in 2013 in Crimea, annexation of Crimea, then in 2022 in Ukraine, so I believe that-

H.R. McMaster:

20124 in Ukraine. 2014 in Ukraine, yes, yeah.

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Also, in Ukraine, in Eastern Ukraine, but annexation of Crimea the same year. I think the international community failed to show the necessary reaction in 2014. We should have been more determined, more, I should say stronger. The reaction was not strong enough at that time.

And unfortunately, Putin was, I believe somehow encouraged to pursue its goal of annexing not only Eastern Ukraine. I think his main goal was controlling the whole of Ukraine. So he was hoping that the Ukrainian government, Zelensky, the president would leave the country when they built up militarily near Kiev.

It didn't happen. Zelensky wanted to stay and he was offered to go abroad, but he didn't want. And I see him as a hero actually, as a really a historic leader who is fighting against foreign country, whose aim is fact to occupy and to control, I should say, the whole country.

So I mean I know that one of the Putin's arguments or his regime's argument was NATO expansion. I don't think it's true. So first of all, there was no evidence of any promise to not to expand NATO eastward. So there is no evidence of it at all. So maybe there were some conversations we don't know.

But secondly, in 2021, he published an article, long article in fact and in that he explained that Ukraine should be part of Russia historically, according to him. So it's absolutely a revisionist in fact perspective and he pursued this. And according to some observers, he wanted to restore the Russian Empire emulating somehow Peter the Great or the former Soviet Union.

We don't know, but I believe it was a serious strategic mistake on the part of Putin. I think he made a serious miscalculation. I think Russia is losing a lot out of this aggression, not only economically because of sanctions, but also because of its stature internationally.

Now, there is a conference for instance, scheduled in Switzerland in Birkenstock, which is going to take place during this month. Now, apparently Russia is pressuring those countries which are invited to this conference because they're not invited or they didn't want to participate, I don't know, to dissuade them from participating in the conference. So that kind of thing actually shouldn't have happened to a country like Russia.

I have nothing against Russian people. I know some of the Russian diplomats who are excellent actually professionals. I sympathize with them and I think Russia could have been a major player if they did contribute to peace and stability worldwide and they could have done it. They're a permanent member of the Security Council and so on. And it's really unfortunate that they chose not only to undermine the peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic area because this is a messy situation now. We don't know where it's going to lead. There might be escalation, because now United States has allowed in fact Ukraine to use some weapons into Russian targets. So there are risks of escalation and all this is because Putin chose to invade a neighboring country.

H.R. McMaster:

Ahmet, I'd like to ask you even a broader question. You have such an invaluable perspective and of course Turkey is so central to the geostrategic competitions that are going on in the world today. I mean, our viewers only need to look at the map to understand how strategic and important Turkey is to all these competitions.

Of course, Russia's revanchist agenda is aided and abetted by China and Xi Jinping. I think it is worth noting that it was just before the massive reinvasion of Ukraine that they declared their partnership with no limits. They've met again recently talking about chaos in the world and then talking about how that chaos is driving changes that the world has not seen in the last century, changes that they believe is in their favor as they attempt to, I think replace the existing international order, the rules of international discourse with new rules and a new order that's sympathetic to their interests and sympathetic to their authoritarian systems.

Turkey's going to play a huge role obviously in this competition and a huge role. And I think what all of us ought to be concerned about is to ensure that the conflicts we've been talking about in Europe and in the Middle East don't cascade further into the Indo-Pacific. How do you see the competition with these two revanchist powers, revisionist powers on the Eurasian landmass, and what role can Turkey play in maybe helping to restore peace and preventing a broader and what would be a disastrous really World War?

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Turkey actually did play some role on Russia-Ukraine to achieve the grain deal, as you'll remember at the initial stage of the war. So the government was able to bring together Russians and Ukrainians in order to enable Ukraine to export, excuse me, the grain it produces, which was I believe very positive. Also, according to the Montreux Convention, the government decided to close the straits to the passage of warships, which was also, I believe a positive step in terms of preventing further escalation in the war.

But all this is not sufficient. I think Turkey as the capacity to play a more significant role, but this requires some changes within the country too. So Turkey has been quite a respected country over the decades. Unfortunately, its relationship with the West, not only with its neighbors that I touched upon earlier, with the West also, has deteriorated. So President Erdogan is not invited to any European country other than multilateral meetings, NATO or others. So for bilateral visits, he's not invited.

And I know that consultations at high level, I should say, are not really in course. So at technical level, of course, relations continue because the Europeans, whom I had talked to earlier, do acknowledge the importance of the Turkey geostrategic location as well as its political power and military power, economic growing economy and so on. It's important market for other countries.

And also exporting to the EU, for instance, it's the main exporting destination for Turkey. In view of all this, I believe that Turkey could have played a more significant role in all these endeavors provided that it can show to the outside world that this decline in democracy is now being somehow addressed and the rule of law is somehow, I should say assured and so on. So there are things that Turkey should should remedy actually within the country before it's able to play a major role in the international arena. So we have to restore, I should say, our stature internationally, both in our relations with the foreign countries, but also by somehow addressing our internal problems more efficient and more effectively.

As to China, China claims as you know, that it doesn't support militarily Russia in the war against Ukraine. I think as NATO actually in its strategy concept identifies Russia as the main threat, but China is a major competitor rather than an enemy or adversary. I do agree with that, but it's very important that Russia does not become a victor in the war against Ukraine, because this may encourage in fact China in its own region to become even more assertive. And also it's as we are all worried against Taiwan so that, I think.

Now, I don't believe that Russia and China are the closest allies as some see it, but they actually more than military, in political terms, they are supportive of each other. And China actually sees itself as the leader of the global south and I think they are quite influential in Africa and in Asia, maybe in Asia less because the Asian countries, especially ASEAN countries, are worried about the Chinese threat, but in Africa they are very influential. Yeah,

H.R. McMaster:

Ahmet, you've really given us such a valuable perspective on so many [inaudible 00:54:56] conflicts and aspects of geostrategic competition. I'd like to end with really a question about Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish relationship. I think I told you when I interacted with my counterparts, Ibrahim Kali and Mr. Fidan, who is now the foreign minister, I lamented the drift, regretted the drift in the relationship, the drift in my view, of Turkey away from the United States and Europe, especially given Turkey's position on a lot of these issues. We had some significant irritants in our relationship for example, the presence of Mr. Gulen here, for example, in the United States, and also the S-300 sale of a Russian air defense weapon system to Turkey, S-400. And then also U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces in Eastern Syria, an organization that is tied to the YPG, which is a Kurdish separatist movement.

So we wanted to manage these issues, but overall, I was deeply concerned about the direction that President Erdogan and the AKP had taken, not only in terms of what you alluded to earlier, which is that, you could call it the consolidation of power, you could call it really trying to gain dominance over institutions, including the press, the educational institutions, the judiciary, the police, and the military after the coup attempt especially. What do you see the trajectory of the AKP and internal Turkish politics? There were some gains by the opposition in recent elections. And what would you like to see? How would you like to see Turkish policy and Turkish-U.S. relations evolve regardless of what political party is in power in Turkey?

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Actually, when I was in the Turkish foreign service, and as I said, I left in 2010, and by that time I thought that our relationship with both United States and the Western countries in general, would not really be affected by changes of government in Turkey. Unfortunately, it didn't happen. So we must admit that over the past 10 years plus, the relations have considerably deteriorated and the decision to purchase the S-400 was I believe, a strategic mistake and it shouldn't have happened.

And the problem is that in Turkey now, the decisions are made at the highest level without proper consultations with the relevant institutions, I should say, with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and others, therefore mistakes can be made. It doesn't mean that they cannot be rectified and they cannot be reversed. I think they could.

So the results of elections at the end of March this year have been well-received among the Turkish people. For the first time, an opposition party, in fact, did have the highest percent of votes. Would it mean that in four years time when we will have the presidential elections as well as parliamentary elections, this momentum could be kept or not? I don't know.

The economic situation is not good at present, especially the retired people are suffering a lot. And this was actually the results of March elections, local elections, I should say, were somehow attributed to this economic administration more than anything else. So it doesn't mean that no change can happen without a change in the government. It can. Also, somehow we see every day some messages from the part of government or political leaders that there will be a reform movement, but I don't know whether the separation of powers, which is a must in every democracy, will be somehow reinstated because we did have quite strong institutions until 10 years ago. So unfortunately there was a significant erosion of this.

So I very much care the relations between Turkey and the United States. The U.S. is the leader of NATO Alliance. I hope it'll continue to play that role in the future. We don't know what will happen in November in your country, but I think NATO cannot survive without the U.S. leadership, I should say.

And NATO is the strongest alliance and the longest alliance in the history of the humankind. I think we should really uphold it. And it's good that no one questions somehow Turkey's membership within NATO so far. I think there would be a strong opposition to it, not only from the opposition parties, but also from the people in general. And so I believe that the relationship... I should add that AKP also does attach significant importance to this relations with the United States that, I mean, they were somehow affected by some downs, by some problems, I should say the F-35 as a result of the purchase of the S-400s.

H.R. McMaster:

Just the discontinuation of co-production of the F-35 aircraft in response to the S-400 sales-

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Exactly. Exactly.

H.R. McMaster:

... so Russian S-400 hundred sales, just to let our viewers know. Yes.

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Actually, as you know, Turkey was one of those countries which were involved in the project and they were manufacturing. Some Turkish companies were manufacturing parts of F-35. And this was an equal partner somehow. And Turkey lost all this, and for nothing, I should say.

Now, the F-16 purchase is approved, which is good and there are some people who think that there might be a return to the F-35 project, which if it happens, it'll be very good. But I know that the government will have to make extra efforts in that direction.

But I should again say the government and the governing party in Turkey is caring also. Probably you heard the same when you met some of their representatives, that they care about good relations with the United States more than Europe, I should say.

H.R. McMaster:

Of course, our economics between Europe and Turkey and the United States is really vital. I think it's something like 80% of the trade with Turkey is with Europe and the United States. So I just think the future of our countries and our relationship is so important to the world.

And Ambassador, I can't thank you enough for joining us at Battlegrounds. On behalf of the Hoover Institution, thank you for this tremendous wide-ranging discussion about our world today, Turkey's role in the world, and the future of the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Thank you. It's wonderful to be with you again. Thank you for joining us.

Ahmet Üzümcü:

Thank you to you, General McMaster, and I thank also the Hoover Institute for this opportunity.

H.R. McMaster:

Thank you.


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