US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Derek Chollet has said Washington attaches great importance to freedom of the press, stressing that it is a fundamental right for the people.
“Obviously, these press freedoms matter tremendously to the United States; it’s a fundamental right that we believe people should have,” he told a group of Turkish reporters in Ankara on Tuesday night in response to a question on growing concerns about Turkey’s commitment to NATO values in the rule of law and fundamental rights including press freedom.
Chollet underlined that the Pentagon has very clear views on press freedoms, although he acknowledged the issue did not come up specifically in the meetings he held with Turkish officials.
Chollet has traveled to Turkey with his boss, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who paid a visit to Turkey on Monday to talk about the possible ways that Turkey can contribute as a member of a 10-nation core coalition in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Following the NATO summit, Hagel visited Georgia before arriving in Turkey. On Monday he met with Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz.
Chollet said he was left behind to work out technical details on cooperation with Turkey, saying that Secretary Hagel asked him to stay behind for an extra day to follow up on earlier discussions and get into greater detail.
“We wanted to come to Turkey, and Secretary Hagel wanted to come to Turkey because Turkey is an indispensable ally of the United States on so many challenges we are facing in the world whether it would be the threat from ISIS [another acronym for ISIL] in Iraq and Syria or the broader regional issues going on in the Middle East,” he said.
The coalition against ISIL — which calls itself the “Islamic State” — is initially planned to comprise 10 countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Italy, Poland and Denmark, as well as the US and Turkey. This decision came during the NATO summit held in Wales last week. Turkey is the only Muslim nation in this coalition, which is planned to be expanded in the near future.
The US-led coalition will pursue ISIL in Iraq militarily as well as financially, with the hope of building a plan by the time the UN General Assembly meets in New York in about two weeks. Many countries are not willing to engage in military strikes, but they are expected to provide intelligence, equipment, ammunition or weapons.
Pentagon official Chollet declined to reveal the specific nature of Turkey’s contribution to the alliance battle against ISIL or whether the US will use İncirlik Air Base in Turkey for air strikes. “The Defense Department doesn’t comment on where we conduct our operations,” he said, adding, “We did not come with specific requests on this trip.”
Chollet’s comments were in line with those of Hagel, who told US journalists on Monday he did not come to Turkey to ask for specific missions that Turkey would take on.
“That’s up to every country to decide what’s in their interests, as well as the collective interests of the region and, in Turkey’s case, NATO,” Hagel said, stressing that his mandate was “to start coordinating with the leaders of Turkey on working through some of these challenges as we go forward and think through how we are going to deal with ISIL.”
The assistant secretary of defense underlined that ISIL, refugees and what is happening in Iraq and Syria are central security issues for Turkey, noting that there are no short-term fixes to these problems. “Our president [Barack Obama] has said over and over this is going to require a long-term effort with many countries contributing their resources and efforts,” Chollet emphasized.
Asked about the repercussions for Turkey — a key transit country for foreign fighters — when the UN Security Council adopts a resolution demanding member countries to prevent and suppress the recruitment and travel of foreign fighters to join extremist militant groups like ISIL by ensuring that it is considered a serious criminal offence under domestic laws, Chollet said the US is trying to find ways that all countries can work together in the Middle East, Europe as a whole, and throughout the world on this issue.
The US circulated a draft resolution late on Monday to the 15-member Security Council and hopes it can be unanimously adopted at a high-level meeting chaired by US President Obama on Sept. 24.
Chollet admitted that there is not 100 percent convergence of Turkish and US views on security threats originating in the Middle East, but stressed there is a “shared perspective.”
“No one sees everything 100 percent. But the US and Turkey see very much the same threats in this region and have a shared perspective,” he stated.
In terms of the 46 Turkish nationals who are being kept as hostages by ISIL in Iraq, Chollet remarked that the US is aware of the situation and has great sympathy for them.
“This is something that we fully understand the urgency of the situation,” he said in response to concerns expressed by Turkish officials, who have been wary of saying anything in support of the US air strikes on ISIL targets that started last month because of a possible backlash on hostages.
Cholet also announced for the first time that the US offered support to Turkey on the hostages as well as border control management.
“I can’t get into specifics on what that support might be,” he quickly noted.
The ISIL terrorists kidnapped the group of Turks, including diplomatic staff, special forces members and their dependents, from the Turkish Consulate General in Mosul on June 11. Turkish government officials have avoided doing or saying anything that might put the hostages’ lives at risk.
Chollet said US and Turkish officials have discussed how they can work together to help strengthen border security of Turkey.
Worry over Russia and China
The US assistant secretary of defense also underlined that the US is extremely worried about Russia’s behavior in Ukraine. “We condemn Russia’s occupation of Crimea, its illegal annexation, we condemn its support for separatists and its direct action in eastern Ukraine,” he said, and added that all 28 members of the NATO have the same view on the situation, stressing that the NATO allies have contributed to reassuring their European partners who feel threatened by Russia’s behavior.
As for Turkey’s purchase of a long-range missile defense system that was originally awarded to a Chinese company which is under US sanctions for violations of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Non-proliferation Act, the US Defense official reaffirmed Washington’s position to oppose such a deal with China.
“We, the US, and others have made very clear our concerns about the possible acquisition of a Chinese-sourced missile defense system because of the issues that would bring in terms of NATO interoperability and also effectiveness,” Chollet said.
The issue has been discussed with Hagel’s talks with Turkish officials as well.
“We are very committed to Turkey’s missile defense. We have a Patriot battery as part of a NATO mission that is here helping protect Turkey from the threats emanating from Syria. So this issue is something we very much understand and we did talk about it,” he explained.
President Erdoğan said last week that Turkey was in talks with France on the purchase of a missile defense system after disagreements with China.
Chollet also confirmed that the US and other countries have been working over the last several weeks to give assistance to the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces by providing weapons and other supplies to shore up capabilities against ISIL.
He said the US is very careful not to let these weapons land in the wrong hands. Turkey expressed its concerns that the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a separatist war against Turkey for three decades, may obtain deadly weapons.
“The last thing we want is for weapons that we are supplying to groups that we want to enhance the capability of, to end up in the wrong hands,” Chollet said.