STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have a senior adviser to Turkey's president on the line. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered troops into neighboring Syria in recent days. He did that after President Trump ordered U.S. forces out of the way. Yet President Trump then urged Turkey to show restraint. And a delegation led by Vice President Pence is urging Turkey to cease fire. President Erdogan's senior advisers include Gulnur Aybet, who is on the line. Welcome to the program.
GULNUR AYBET: Good morning. Hello.
INSKEEP: Is there any circumstance in which Turkey would agree to that ceasefire?
AYBET: Look. I mean, there's reason why we started this operation. It's very clear. We've made it very clear that we are undertaking this operation to clear this area from all terrorist groups. That includes YPG, which is equivalent to the PKK, which is a terrorist organization recognized by the U.S. and the EU, and also ISIS. And our second objective is to create a safe zone so that at least 1 to 2 million refugees - Syrian refugees - can return here to their homes. And we're already hosting 4 million. So the request for a ceasefire is not realistic in this - at this stage. But we have - the president made a statement yesterday that if all terrorist groups are cleared from the area, then the operation will have reached its objective.
INSKEEP: I want to acknowledge your viewpoint here. You've said that the Kurdish groups in Syria are linked to Kurdish groups in Turkey. The Kurdish groups in Turkey are labeled terrorists. But let me put the other view to you, which is that Kurdish groups in Syria fought and died by the thousands alongside the United States to defeat ISIS. Did they not do a service to Turkey and the world by doing that?
AYBET: Well, look. I mean we actually said to the Americans from the very beginning that this is a very erroneous policy of arming one terrorist group to fight another terrorist group.
INSKEEP: Let me just - I understand that you felt it was an erroneous policy. But they did it that way. And they fought and died by the thousands and crushed ISIS.
AYBET: Well, that's because the Americans gave them so many weapons, which they're now using against us. They're attacking all our towns in the southeast and - with these weapons. And, you know, so many of our civilians have already died since this operation started, including children.
INSKEEP: I just need to...
AYBET: They're firing indiscriminately.
INSKEEP: I just need to stop there for a second. You are correct - our correspondents have said that on the Turkish side of the border, mortar shells are coming over from Syria and so forth.
INSKEEP: But as you just acknowledged, that fire was after Turkey invaded Syria. You started this, right?
AYBET: No, no. They've been actually launching terrorist attacks - suicide bombs, attacks against our civilians and also our armed forces using roadside bombs against them for a very long time now.
INSKEEP: But again, just to be clear...
AYBET: Just let me just finish this. They exacerbated their terrorist attacks in our country since the Syrian war began because they were utilizing that vacuum there.
INSKEEP: That's the Syrian Kurds - or rather, that's the Kurds on the Turkish side - have increased their terrorist attacks, right?
AYBET: No, these...
INSKEEP: Are you able to say that these Syrian Kurds...
AYBET: No, these were also people coming in from Syria and also their affiliates in Turkey. They work together. There are YPG terrorists that we've caught in acts here, as well. They're one and the same.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about this...
AYBET: Acknowledged by your former defense minister Ash Carter, as well, in a Senate hearing that they're one and the same.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about this letter that we now know that President Trump sent to President Erdogan. It's dated October 9. And President Trump, in rather memorable language for a presidential letter, said to your president, President Erdogan, don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool - and warned that he would be seen forever as the devil if there were extreme measures, if humanitarian norms were violated in Turkey. First, what do you make of that warning?
AYBET: Look. It was a leaked, old letter which was not taken seriously at the time, especially given its lack of diplomatic finesse. And the response to that letter was the start of the operation. And now the U.S. delegation that came to Ankara yesterday and the ones that are here today are addressing the situation one week after we started the operation. So we've really moved on considerably since this letter was said. It's absolutely irrelevant.
INSKEEP: I just want to make sure I'm clear on this. The letter's October 9. The invasion came after that. You're saying you did not take the president at the United States seriously at all because of the way that he worded that letter.
AYBET: Yeah, I mean, the way the letter was worded - what it was expecting us to do to actually, you know, take account of a terrorist leader almost like an equal party to a NATO ally was ridiculous. So no, we started the operation after it. I mean, you can see how irrelevant the letter is because we moved on so much from there now because this delegation is not addressing that issue. They're addressing the situation as it stands since we started the operation.
INSKEEP: Now, as this operation goes on, U.S. forces have been trying to move out of the way and trying desperately to keep munitions stores from falling into the wrong hands, trying to keep ISIS prisoners from getting away. A U.S. official tells NPR that on Tuesday, Turkish forces came close enough to threaten an American base. There were nearby artillery strikes. You had to know U.S. troops were there. Why would Turkey have risked a confrontation in that way?
AYBET: Well, basically, we were not actually firing into that area to start with, but the YPG - the terrorist organization - started firing at us, and then we returned their fire. We know where the American observation post was. We did not hit the observation post. We did not deliberately target it. But while we were returning fire to the terrorists, some shells fell nearby the American base. That's true.
INSKEEP: Are you...
AYBET: But nobody was hurt.
INSKEEP: Is Turkey intending a long-term presence on the Syrian side of that border?
AYBET: Look. I mean, our objective is very clear until the area is cleared from terrorists, our objective will not be fulfilled. When that objective is fulfilled, the operation will be over. So it all depends how soon these terrorist groups actually move away from our border, which is a serious national security threat to us.
INSKEEP: In the longer term, doesn't this end up, though, with Syria's central government in control of a lot of that area or all of it, along with greater power for Syria's allies Iran and Russia? Is that useful to Turkey?
AYBET: Look. We're also not only in the field in Syria, but we're also at the negotiating table in several fora. So we are one of the partner countries in Astana process, which includes Russia and Iran. And the Astana process feeds into the Geneva process. And it was only through the Astana process that a constitutional committee was actually agreed to. So what we would like to see is a Syria which is whole, where the people are going to elect their own government and where the territorial integrity is intact.
AYBET: But we want the Geneva process to be successful.
AYBET: So that's our objective.
INSKEEP: Just a few seconds - this is bringing Turkey into conflict and tension with NATO allies. In about 20 seconds, does Turkey see a future for itself inside NATO?
AYBET: Of course. We're one of the most important aspects of NATO. We're already involved in so many operations, from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. And we've been an erstwhile ally. And also, NATO's been very good in providing us air defense with our border. But we do expect more sympathy and empathy from our NATO allies when we're fighting terrorism.
INSKEEP: Gulnur Aybet, senior adviser to Turkey's president - thanks so much.
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