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