ISTANBUL — Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a historic visit to Rome on Monday, the first time a Turkish leader has met the Pope at the Vatican in nearly six decades. But the visit to Italy, which included meetings with top Italian leaders, comes as Turkey's military is engaged in heavy conflict with Kurdish forces in the Afrin province in Syria. Meanwhile, major questions linger over Turkey's tense relationship with the West, and particularly the longstanding negotiations for Turkey to enter the European Union.
On the eve of the visit to Italy, Erdogan spoke exclusively with La Stampa editor-in-chief Maurizio Molinari. Here are excerpts from the interview, which took place in Istanbul's Beylerbeyi Palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus:
LA STAMPA: President Erdogan, the upcoming six-month Presidency of the European Union is held by Bulgaria. You were invited to join European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Varna to discuss progress in accession talks. Do you still believe Turkey may gain entry into the European Union?
ERDOGAN: Turkey has done everything it needed to do to fulfill criteria for entry into the European Union. Accession however is a bilateral process, and the EU needs to start keeping its promises too.
What do you mean?
The EU blocks the accession process and then blames Turkey for the lack of progress. This is unfair. Some European Union countries are also proposing to tailor alternatives to a full membership for Turkey, but this is also not fair.
Do you reject alternative solutions, such as finding a common position towards the European Union for Turkey and the UK after Brexit?
We want full membership of the EU. We won't accept any other solution.
The EU often quotes emergency law as well as scant respect for human rights in Turkey to explain why things are moving on so slowly.
I call on the EU to remove these artificial obstacles to our membership, and to be more constructive. Internal politics should not stand in the way of the accession process.
What do you expect from the Bulgaria meeting with top EU leaders?
(Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko) Borisov, (European Commission Jean-Claude) Juncker and (European Council President Donald) Tusk are old friends. No one has been dealing with the EU longer than me. I'm very disappointed to see that, even though most European states have labeled the PKK as a terrorist organization, you often see European Parliament members wearing PKK logos. This is unacceptable, such ambiguous behavior must end.
What is your top priority for the talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican?
My top priority is Jerusalem.
Why is that the case?
Following (US President Donald) Trump"s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, which violated international law, I immediately spoke to the Pope. After our phone call, Pope Francis swiftly conveyed the right message on Jerusalem to all his Christian followers around the world, and I want to thank him for that. The status of Jerusalem is a central issue for both Muslims and Christians, both the Pope and myself are committed to protecting the status quo. No nation in the world has a right to take unilateral steps on a city that is dear to billions of people, ignoring international laws. That's why the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the Trump declaration on Jerusalem last December: only a few countries supported the US and Israel, and I was glad to see Italy voted against the US decision too.
How can the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be solved?
The only solution is the two-state solution. That's why all countries around the world should recognize the state of Palestine. I call on Italy to do it too.
The Turkish flag can be seen flying in places such as Qatar, Sudan and the Gaza Strip. You are becoming and important strategic actor in Middle East. What do you aim to achieve?
Turkey is increasingly able to exert influence around the world. It is a trustworthy and strategic partner not only in the Middle East but all around the world. Our role is crucial when it comes to stopping migrants heading to Europe from the East and preserving Europe's stability and security. We invest energies in fighting terror groups such as the PKK, the YPG and ISIS.
The EU and the United States do not consider the YPG as a terrorist organization. They actually supported them throughout their fight against ISIS.
Well, they are wrong. Seeing any difference between the PKK and the YPG is misleading. You cannot fight a terrorist organization with another terrorist organization.
What is your take on popular revolts across the Arab world?
You need to ensure the political process is inclusive if you want to achieve peace and stability in the region. Nations must be politically united and their territorial integrity must be preserved. When dealing with nations' attempts to democratize you always need a principle based approach that does not discriminate between states and regions. Unfortunately, the international community has not been consistent with these principles lately and this must change.
Pope Francis has raised the issue of violence against Christians in the Middle East. What can be done about that?
People of different faiths have lived side-by-side for centuries in the Middle East, coexisting peacefully. The situation has now deteriorated because of external interventions, extremist ideologies as well as terror groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Terrorism in the Middle East is bad for Muslims and Christians alike. As a matter of fact, an overwhelming majority of those who fall victims to ISIS are Muslims. It is a mistake to focus on the suffering of one side only, and Pope Francis' advocacy for the cause of the Rohingya Muslims is a great example of the right approach.
Do you think ISIS could rise again from its ashes after defeats in Raqqa and Mosul?
With Euphrates Shield Operation we neutralized 3,000 Isis fighters, won back 2,015 square kilometers and made it possible for 130,000 Syrians to go back to their homes. While the operation to liberate Raqqa was ongoing, the YPG allowed scores of ISIS fighters to run away from the siege. These fighters are now hiding in Afrin.
The Turkish Army entered Afrin to fight Kurdish military groups. What are your objectives there?
Let me rephrase your question: we are not fighting Kurdish groups in Afrin, we are fighting terrorists. We don't have any problems with Syrian Kurds per se. We have a right to fight terrorists. Operation "Olive Branch" aims at eliminating terrorists from the Afrin province, from which they launched more than 700 attacks against Turkish provinces of Kilis and Hatay.
You were accused of causing civilian casualties in Afrin.
Actually Turkey endured four civilian casualties in our provinces of Kilis and Hatay, and 90 people have been wounded from rocket fire from the YPG. YPG terrorists accuse us of killing civilians but they are the ones making use of human shields.
When will you put an end to the offensive?
We have no intentions of taking over territory. We want to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.
Your activities in Syria are closely coordinated with Russia, and you even bought S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries from Moscow. NATO did not appreciate the move. Why did you do that?
The increasing number of attacks threatening our territory from Syria forced us to modernize our surface-to-air defense systems. We have been conducting talks with many states on the issue, and our top priority has always been the price and the possibility to benefit from transfers of technologies. Russia satisfied our needs in terms of prices and was ready to allow for transfers of technology as well as production facilities. It is wrong to see our deal with Russia as related to our membership with NATO: Greece is also a member of NATO and still owes S-300 400 surface-to-air missile batteries. We are also negotiating deals with France and Italy on this.
Libya is a top priority for Italy, how can we keep it united?
We support the territorial integrity of Libya, and have encouraged dialogue since 2014. We support the efforts of the UN envoy Ghassan Salamé to bring about national and regional reconciliation, aiming for the adoption of a new Constitution and for fresh elections to take place soon.
Protests are scheduled to take place in Rome during your visit, people claim Turkey violates human rights. What would you tell demonstrators, if you were to address them?
I don't speak to people who support terrorism. I only speak to those who fight it. I deal with terrorists like I'm dealing with them in Afrin; this is the only language they understand. What language did Italy speak with terrorists? And France, Great Britain, the United States, Russia, do they not speak this language to terrorists? I speak that language too.
You will meet the Pope, who is a man of faith. You are also a man of faith. Does it count a lot in defining your identity?
Religion and faith are everything for me. I cannot live without it. Everything faith tells me to do is a priority for me when I take action.
You have been ruling this country for the past 15 years. What are your dreams for the future?
My dream is to make Turkey one of the ten top developed countries in the world. Currently, we are 5th in Europe and 16th worldwide, but we want to be in the top ten.
Translated by Davide Lerner
Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.
[*Zdravo - Macedonian]
Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:
The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
🌎 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW
• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.
• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".
• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.
• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.
• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.
• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.
• Aye aye, CAP'n: HAPPY CAPS LOCK DAY, FOLKS!
🗞️ FRONT PAGE
Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.
📰 STORY OF THE DAY
The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in
In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:
🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.
🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.
🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
#️⃣ BY THE NUMBERS
The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.
👮🎮 IN OTHER NEWS
Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games
Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.
A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.
Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.
The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."
— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.
📸 PHOTO DU JOUR
Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA
✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger
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