Home More News As Russia rips apart Ukraine, NATO member Turkey forced to take sides

As Russia rips apart Ukraine, NATO member Turkey forced to take sides

As Russia rips apart Ukraine, NATO member Turkey forced to take sides
Hasan Murat Mercan is Turkey's ambassador to the United States. (Photo by Victor Shiblie)

As much as Turkey would like to stay out of the current Russian bloodbath engulfing Ukraine, this nation of 85 million can no longer remain neutral—a geopolitical reality acknowledged by Ankara’s ambassador in Washington, Hasan Murat Mercan.

“We are tired of military conflicts in our region,” Mercan told the Washington Diplomat in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview a few days before Vladimir Putin’s vicious Feb. 24 assault on Ukraine shocked millions around the world—including many Russians. “Back in the early 2000s, the conflict in Iraq resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees moving into our country. And we never wanted any military conflict in Ukraine either, because it would have very negative repercussions. We have economic ties with Ukraine and Russia, and a lot of tourists come from both countries.”

Mercan, who took up his post in March 2021, said that Turkey has offered numerous times to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, given its generally warm relations with both former Soviet republics.

“At the same time, we respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea. And we have a considerable amount of military cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine,” he said. “We’ve sold a number of drones to Ukraine, and we’ve recently signed free trade agreements with them.”

Within hours of Putin’s invasion, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called Russia’s assault on Ukraine “unacceptable,” saying it was “contrary to international law.”

Besides Erdoğan’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he assured the besieged leader of his support, Ukraine’s ambassador in Ankara urged the Erdoğan government to keep Russian vessels out of Turkish waters.

A Liberian-flag cargo ship passes through the Bosphorus dividing European and Asian Turkey. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“We are calling for the airspace, Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits to be closed,” said Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar during an Ankara news conference.

As the Washington Post reported, “in recent weeks, Turkish officials have reiterated the government’s adherence to the 1936 Montreux Convention in what was seen as an effort to assuage Russia, which sees the pact as a way to limit the number of NATO warships in the Black Sea and the duration of time they spend there.”

Turkey now hosts more refugees than any country on Earth

During our interview, Mercan chose his words carefully, well aware of Turkey’s sensitive efforts to balance its sometimes contradicting loyalties.

“I always tell my friends that if Turkey had borders with countries like Switzerland or Norway, then we’d be in a different position,” he said. “But we are living in a neighborhood where every now and then, we face a crisis.”

He added that Turkey—a NATO member since 1952—has the second-largest army within the alliance after the US itself, and that it’s the fifth-largest contributor to NATO financially.

Turkish Ambassador Hasan Murat Mercan

“We have always worked together with NATO side-by-side with the Americans, whether it was in Kosovo, Afghanistan or elsewhere. So yes, we are a NATO member but at the same time, we live in a very delicate region. So our relations vis-à-vis our neighbors must be viewed from that perspective.”

Turkey is currently home to some 3.5 million Syrian refugees—a problem that has only worsened since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011. It currently hosts the world’s largest refugee population—a group that also includes Iraqis and, more recently, Afghanis. Anti-immigrant sentiment is at an all-time high.

“Can you imagine three and a half million refugees? You have to provide them all with shelter, food, basic infrastructure, eventually education and health care. That is an extremely big burden on a society like Turkey, whose per-capita GDP is around $10,000—not $60,000 like in the United States. But for many of them, returning to Syria is very difficult, if not impossible, due to the war that’s still going on there. Some try to go to Europe, but Europe has never been very friendly to them. We didn’t have the choice of selecting refugees. They came all of a sudden,” he said, noting that in some cities along the Turkish-Syrian border, refugees outnumber native Turks by five to one.

In November 2021 alone, the Turkish lira lost 30% of its value against the US dollar, sparking anti-government riots even as the economy grew by 7.4% in the third quarter of 2021.

Brushing away speculation about which way Turkey’s economy is headed, the ambassador said that any administration, no matter how stable their economy is, has great concerns about inflation.

“We have not lived through this kind of economic environment for quite a long time. It’s because of the pandemic, supply chain routes, lockdowns, many things. The dynamics have changed, and even developed countries are trying to adjust to these dynamics.”

Fighting terrorism and fending off criticism

Mercan, a founding member of Turkey’s ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degree in industrial engineering (1981 and 1984) from Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, and a PhD in decision and information sciences in 1989 from the University of Florida in Gainesville.

In the past, he’s been an assistant professor of management at several institutions including Anadolu University in Eskişehir, Bilkent University in Ankara, and Ohio’s Cleveland State University.

From 2007 to 2011, Mercan was a deputy for Eskişehir and chairman of the Turkish Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (2007-11). He went to become deputy minister of energy (2012-14); chairman of the World Energy Council’s Turkish National Committee (2014-17) and Turkey’s ambassador to Japan (2017-21) before arriving in Washington for his current job last March at the height of the pandemic.

Hasan Murat Mercan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States. (Photo by Victor Shiblie)

Mercan said that since he arrived following President Joe Biden’s inauguration, he couldn’t comment on how the US-Turkish relationship was before.

“I was appointed after Trump lost, so I cannot compare the two relationships. But I can say that the level of interaction when it comes to addressing issues of concern in both countries, in my opinion, is satisfactory,” he said. “Can it be more? Of course, it can always be more.”

Mercan said one area of mutual cooperation is the fight against regional terrorism. He asserted, for example, that Turkey is the only country capable of fighting ISIS “because we have been fighting terrorists for 40 years.”

“One of the misunderstandings of the United States is that they think that, together with a small group in Syria, they can fight Daesh, or ISIS,” he said. “But without Turkey actively involved, I don’t think any country from a distance can fight Daesh. If there’s one entity who can fight with Daesh, it’s Turkey—no one else.”

Asked about US criticism of Turkey’s restrictions on press freedoms and alleged human rights abuses, he said such attacks are generally counterproductive.

“There was an obvious coup attempt in Turkey back in 2016, and this obvious coup attempt involved bombing civilians and the Turkish Parliament. Can there be anything more dangerous and disturbing than bombing Parliament?” he asked. “Parliament is the house of democracy of any country.”

“Not only as an ambassador, but also as a Turkish citizen who has a lot of friends in this country, I would expect mutual respect and sincerity—and understanding each other’s concern seriously and acting accordingly. And let’s talk about this not to the press or openly, but among ourselves, among politicians and decision-makers. The objective is to get results rather than criticize each other. If that were the case, it would be easy. There is always something to criticize.”

He added: “We should never forget that Turkey and the United States are both NATO members. I’ve heard Secretary [Antony] Blinken say several times that Turkey is a transatlantic partner and a friend—and partners and friends speak directly. So they don’t need to speak, you know, in front of others.”

Dialogue with Armenia, rapprochement with Israel

In April 2021, a month after Mercan’s arrival, Biden formally recognized the 1915 killings of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide—becoming the first US president to use the word “genocide” to describe those long-ago events and handing Armenia and its extensive worldwide diaspora a major victory.

“Look, I don’t want to categorize the issues. All I’m saying is that the United States has a strategic interest which should not be jeopardized by local issues,” he said. “Of course, I expect Congress to focus on the strategic importance of Turkey and the United States because Turkey is going to be here for hundreds of years to come, and Turkish and US interests will continue. But if we misjudge about a country that is pretty much locally domestically oriented—ignoring the importance of strategic alliances between the two countries—that might have long-term repercussions on bilateral relations, which I don’t think anyone wants.”

An Armenian girl protests Turkey’s role in the 1915 killing of some 1.5 million people of Armenian descent in front of the Turkish Embassy fronting Massachusetts Avenue NW. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

To that end, Mercan said, he’s met with nearly 70 members of Congress.

“Rather than magnifying and emphasizing the differences, I try to focus on long-term objectives and benefits,” he said. “Turkey and Armenia have initiated a dialogue to improve bilateral relations. A special envoy has been appointed, and this special envoy’s mission is to close this gap between Armenia and Turkey, and to normalize relations over time. This is even more important for Armenia than for Turkey.”

He urged the powerful Armenian diaspora lobby in the United States not to block or resist such a dialogue, but rather contribute to it.

“With all respect, if Congress wants to help the Armenian diaspora here, they should support dialogue and rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, because an American citizen of Armenian origin will never feel comfortable and happy if their countrymen in Armenia suffers economically. So I expect the diaspora to be more constructive here, to be more encouraging of this process.”

The Turkish Embassy on Tel Aviv. Despite its often tense relationship with Israel under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has never broken ties with the Jewish state. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Israel is another country with which Turkey has had a troubled relationship. Ever since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident—in which Israeli naval forces attempted to stop a flotilla of ships from breaking Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, leading to the death of nine Turks—relations have been on a downward trajectory.

Yet as Iran threatens Western shipping interests in the Persian Gulf and Lebanon’s economy teeters on the brink of collapse and COVID-19 kills thousands every day throughout the Middle East, Turkey under Erdoğan has gradually sought a rapprochement with the Jewish state.

It’s a development that could open up huge opportunities in energy, trade and even defense, say analysts. In early March, Israeli President Isaac Herzog will make a landmark visit to Turkey, in a move seen by analysts as a careful first step in restoring full diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Ankara.

The visit—the first high-level trip to Turkey by an Israeli official since 2016—comes amid warming ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco under the Abraham Accords inaugurated by the Trump administration.

Yet again, Mercan declined to comment on what is obviously a highly sensitive topic in both countries.

“Look, you know, Turkey is a major player in the Middle East and has always been. We want peace and stability in the Middle East,” said Mercan. “Regarding the Abraham Accords, of course, I’m not in a position to say anything. But I can tell you that the current rapprochement of my government to enhance relationships is commendable. Hopefully, it will help stability and prosperity throughout the region.”

Victor Shiblie contributed to this report.

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.