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Prepared Remarks from President Abdullah Gul for CFR

Speaker: Abdullah Gul, President of Turkey
September 26, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

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President Haass,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is always a great pleasure to talk to the Council on Foreign Relations. This prominent institution draws together a rich range of expertise. It is a forum of ideas for a better future.

This distinguished audience is particularly representative of the council's deep knowledge and experience in global affairs.

Today, I would like to share my views on the broad transformations taking place in Middle East and wider region.

I will particularly focus on the recent developments in Egypt and the ongoing situation in Syria.

I will conclude with some brief remarks about the Turkey-US relationship. It will be a pleasure for me to respond to questions from the audience in the Q&A session.

Distinguished Guests,

Today, the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab World are going through crises that are challenging the very fundamentals of the regional status quo.

These transformations are also challenging the ways we have usually seen and understood this region. We must therefore review our familiar assumptions and traditional patterns of analysis.

We can no longer comprehend regional outlook only through the parameters of the Palestinian question.

Most importantly, we can no longer continue to simplify intra-regional balance or hostilities as existing only between different state actors.

Following the Iraq War in 2003, a new range of dynamics unfolded.

Iraq as we knew it has simply disappeared, along with its perceived role in the regional balance of power.

For the first time in history, Iraq's demographics have prevailed in the political system. This has led both to a new internal balance, and new foreign policy priorities.

It created a geopolitical shift in the region. Baghdad is now much closer to Tehran than to Cairo or Riyadh.

Equally important is the growing influence of ethnic, religious, and sectarian identities across the Middle East.

Traditional identities predate and were long suppressed by the modern state systems in the region.

Consciousness of this has now evolved into ethno-sectarian-driven identity politics.

The new emphasis on identity politics does not imply a threat in itself. It does suggest, however, that factional identities are being consolidated at the expense of national ones.

The replacement of national power centers with sub-state actors poses unexpected challenges for regional nation-states. When identity politics wield power across national borders, there are implications for regional stability.

Likewise, the transformation of domestic political systems does not necessarily result in ethnic and sectarian harmony.

Once competition for power becomes an uncompromising, winner-takes-all struggle, factional identities come to define the political sphere.

As we have seen, these heightened ethno-sectarian tensions eventually result in violence, both internally and externally.

Let me analyze the three interdependent dynamics that are shaping Middle Eastern politics today:

First, a common sectarian consciousness is uniting groups across national boundaries. The gap between Arab and Persian Shiites is closing fast, suggesting the emergence of a single bloc.

Second, there is no longer a monolithic Arab bloc. Regional governments are increasingly challenged by ethno-sectarian driven identity politics. Certain non-state actors have increasingly become key regional players, with cross-border continuity and influence.

Third, an unspoken geopolitical rivalry is emerging among both governments and sub-state actors for national and regional influence and power.

As a result, a broader understanding of the impact of pan-national and cross-border identities would enable us to connect and respond to developments from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.

At the same time, we must consider that the pressures that regional states face are largely driven by the problem of political legitimacy.

We know that when the governed withhold their consent, maintaining domestic order by suppression and violence becomes self-defeating.

This is what lit the fuse of the popular uprisings for change in the region, which many used to define as an "Arab Awakening."

Of course, it would be unwise to try and prophesy the future course of events in the region. Yet, reason dictates that the region's new dynamics will shape our response to the transformations.

We must adapt our conventional thinking and perceptions of the Middle East to new realities. We need to view recent developments as interconnected.

Debates over the future of Iraq, the situations in Syria and Lebanon, and developments in Egypt all require such a fresh assessment.

Yet another challenge is how the changes in the region are perceived. Many people, and especially statesmen, are wary of change, and may be tempted to work against it.

When the Arab people took to the streets against their regimes, we extended strong international support to their cause.

However, as the transformation in the region unfolded, there again surfaced outdated fears about the nature and ideology of the newly emerging political actors.

I do not suggest that such concerns are irrelevant. But I have a few important points to make.

First, neither the development and consolidation of democracy nor the foundation of democratic culture can be achieved overnight.

Second, governments rise to power through elections, but maintain it only through the consent of the people.

The key to staying in power is popular legitimacy. It requires dealing with social and economic problems effectively while sustaining political stability and the rule of law.

Thus, governments are accountable to voters, who have the right to punish their leaders and oust governments from power through elections.

Third, the ideology of any government matters, but so much that it does not contradict public reason. When the ideology of political powers clashes with the common sense of the people, the winner is always the latter.

Fourth, working against these transformations will not result in a genuinely stable and secure Middle East.

Sacrificing freedom and democracy in order to ensure predictability and stability only invites greater peril. When people lose faith in mainstream politics and democracy, what follows is extremism and radicalization.

Against the backdrop of this analysis, I would like to share with you my deep conviction that democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental freedoms are the strongest guarantee of long-term stability.

It is only through due democratic process that the free will of the people will be respected, and accountability and legitimacy established.

The fact that transition in the region has become mired in difficulties should not cloud our judgment. We must take sides with this regional transformation. The fragile progress in the region, including in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, must be defended.

We should remember that it takes time for all newly emerging political systems to transform into mature democracies. Yet, they deserve our unhesitating support.

Distinguished Guests,

Of all regional countries, Egypt perhaps best demonstrates the dynamics I have been describing.

In the aftermath of the revolution in 2011, Turkey immediately extended its support to the Egyptian people in their pursuit of democracy and freedom.

Unfortunately, Egypt's historic voyage towards democracy has foundered in less than two years.

There remain, however, more fundamental questions. No one will win if Egypt at large loses.

The democratic process must be restored to represent the free will of the Egyptian people. This can only be done through free and fair elections in which all political parties and groups can participate.

The arbitrary detentions of politicians and disbanding the political parties will offer no solution but invite only greater chaos. Release of all politicians detained, including President Mursi, will help return normalcy to Egypt.

There is a need for all parties to be resourceful and pragmatic, and exercise restraint in moving forward.

Egypt lies at the heart of the Arab and Muslim world. The way in which Egypt now moves forward will affect the entire Middle East and North Africa.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is little left unsaid about the current situation in Syria.

I will therefore refrain from making comments on how the situation got to this point, or on the failures of the international community to prevent or stop the most significant crisis of the 21st century.

Surely, we can discuss many aspects of the situation in Syria. Let me now make some brief remarks.

The US-Russian agreement to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal under international control is a welcome development.

The complete, final, and verifiable destruction of such weapons in Syria will be a relief to all nations in the region.

Yet the civil war in Syria did not start with the use of these weapons, and will not end with their elimination.

Should the international community allow this conflict to drag on, we will soon be talking about the killing of many thousands more people and the displacement of millions more refugees.

Most importantly, the continuation of the conflict creates such an environment that an ordinary citizen is transformed into a radical extremist.

Thus, it is the conditions of the civil war that paves the way for all sorts of radical and extremist groups to take hold in the country.

These will eventually turn into autonomous structures that will pose a vital security threat not only to Syria, but also to regional countries.

In the end, we will all have to contain and dissolve a cross-border and region-wide threat.

We all know by now that the indefinite continuation of the civil war serves no one's interests. Allowing the fighting to continue will ultimately pose the greatest threat to Syria and the wider region.

Yet there are legitimate questions: What should our strategy to end the civil war be? Can diplomacy work or will the use of force be necessary?

There is a conventional line that the Geneva Process offers the firmest basis for a political exit strategy.

The Geneva Process, however, was destined to fail from the outset for two reasons. First, it provided no enforcement mechanism to oblige the Syrian regime to comply. It had never received official endorsement as a UN Security Council resolution. Second, the Accord called for transition but failed to set out tangible modalities or a definite timeframe.

We all strive for and support a new round of peace talks through the Geneva-II process. However, we must leave no room for diplomatic ambiguities. We should refrain from repeating the mistakes of the first round. Otherwise, we will only worsen the tragedy in Syria.

Let me briefly touch on the debate about the use of force. The decision to use force is a momentous one for any nation. It raises broader issues of international legitimacy and legality.

In any democracy, public sensitivities must be considered when justifying military intervention. Yet it cannot be rushed into as an end in itself. Any use of force must simply be the means to achieve a clear-cut political strategy; one that must have well-defined and well-calculated objectives.

We urgently need a game-changer to break through unfortunate gridlock in the UN Security Council. The US-Russian engagement on chemical weapons was a terrific example of last-ditch diplomacy.

However, that engagement will prove of limited value unless it is followed by a unified strategy to end the civil war, ensure the safety and security of the Syrian people, and effect a smooth political transition.

The international community, led by P5 and Syria's neighbors, including Iran, must work to devise and enforce such a strategy. It is our human duty to do so with the greatest resolve, commitment, and engagement.

Distinguished Guests,

Let me conclude with some remarks on Turkey's relations with the US. Over the last five decades or more, a rich terminology has been used to describe the Turkey-US relationship, the last of which is 'model partnership.'

The richness of terminology indicates the enduring yet dynamic nature of Turkey-US relations. They also suggest the convergence of our foreign policy, security, and national interests on many regional and international issues.

I strongly believe that Turkey and the US must work side by side to address all the issues I have touched upon here.

I am equally optimistic about the prospect of even stronger ties between Turkey and the United States in the future.

That said, Turkish-American relations need constant attention. In truth, we have not always seen eye-to-eye on every foreign policy issue.

In fact, it is natural for allies to sometimes have no identical interests in a given case, or to occasionally follow contradictory impulses.

Yet we must remember that our ultimate goals remain the same. We want to maintain peace and stability in our regions and in the world. This is what makes our partnership and friendship valuable and relevant.

I have full confidence that the strong, model partnership that Turkey and the US have developed and sustained over the years will endure all tests and challenges. It will continue for generations to come.

Finally, I believe the Council on Foreign Relations will continue to contribute to the depth and intellectual richness of this relationship.

Thank you.

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