Neighbourhood watch

“The one constant in foreign policy is geography,” smiles Abdurrahman Bilgic, Turkey’s Ambassador to the UK – and when it comes to neighbourhoods, they don’t come much tougher than Turkey’s.

The Ambassador has hardly paused since his arrival, just before the NATO summit in Wales. Topping that agenda was the ISIL insurgency which had encroached to within a few miles of the Turkish border.

Bilgic has a better understanding than most of the security threats in the region. Prior to his posting to London, he served in a new role as Deputy Undersecretary focusing on foreign intelligence.

“It was 2011 at the time of the Arab Spring and tectonic shifts were taking place in the region so this was in response to the challenging security situation,” explains Bilgic, who cut his posting in Tokyo short to oversee the reorganisation of foreign intelligence.

Syria was a particular worry, he says. “The people’s humble demand for freedom and democracy was met with more oppression. This put stress on the fragile historic faultlines between Sunni and Shia and it revitalised the old hatreds.” Removing the Assad regime, which the Ambassador claims is the root cause of extremism, should have been a priority but the international response was fragmented and driven by national interests, he says.

Managing the monster
“There was a lack of comprehensive strategy and leadership and a genuine coalition of the willing in the international community. Now a monster has emerged and what we are doing is ‘conflict management’ while fighters on the ground become more and more radicalised.”

Bilgic remains doubtful that air strikes alone can end the conflict. “Without ground operations they cannot be effective,” he says adding that Turkey cannot engage in a ground war unilaterally. “We need to act, but we must act together.”

The situation is not only a concern for Turkey. Returning foreign jihadis pose a security threat to Britain too. Turkey has already deported suspected extremists confirms the Ambassador. Enhancing ways to manage this threat was high on the agenda during Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent visit to Turkey.

Meanwhile, the conflict has generated a humanitarian crisis, as refugees have streamed over the border. “We have over 1.6 million refugees from Syria,” says Bilgic. “We have spent over $4.5bn providing assistance while international support so far amounts to $265m so this is a huge burden for us.”

The Turkish government has repeatedly urged its allies in NATO and coalition partners to consider creating a safe haven in Syria for displaced civilians, protected by a no-fly zone but this has met a muted response by allies.

The Syrian conflict has not only taken a financial toll on Turkey, but it has also had a political cost, raising tensions within Turkey’s Kurdish community which demanded intervention to assist Syrian Kurds.

But the Ambassador says the government will not let this derail the Turkish-Kurdish peace process which is part of a broader programme of democratic, economic and human rights reforms, encouraged by Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU. (Bilgic himself worked on liberalising the media when he was Government spokesman in Prime Minister’s office).

The Ambassador regards the latest EU progress report on Turkey’s accession as “constructive”, apart from the words over relations with Cyprus. The two neighbours have come to a head over hydrocarbon drilling in the East Mediterranean.

“The Greek Cypriots claim the international community recognises the Greek half of the island as the sole legitimate authority, so they feel they have the right to drill in those waters, but this is not the case. The oil or gas is a resource for the whole island and the Turkish Cypriots have a right to decide on those resources too,” argues the Ambassador.

Turkey has warned it will take action against any drilling activity. “The Greek Cypriots see this as a provocation and are using this as a pretext to leave the negotiating table. We say, first let’s reach a settlement, then the people on the island will decide on the drill. ”

The UK is a fellow guarantor power so the Cyprus question is likely to demand some of the Ambassador’s attention. He will also be monitoring the run-up to the British General Election with interest, especially the rise in anti-European sentiment which may translate into an in-out referendum.

“We would like the UK to remain in the EU,” says Bilgic who regards Britain as a champion for Turkey joining the club, as Prime Minister Cameron emphasized during his visit. But he admits there is more to be done to convince the EU public what Turkey has to offer, from a growing economy and market of 74 million people, to a rich cultural heritage.

As a former Consul General to Munich (2005-07), he knows the value of building a “human bridge” between countries by growing academic, cultural and economic ties. Boosting British-Turkish trade and investment was also high on Prime Minister Cameron’s visit agenda and there are many opportunities for British investors as Turkey positions itself as an energy, transport and logistics hub, adds the Ambassador.

Trade and defence first brought Elizabeth I and Murat III into an alliance almost 500 years ago and Ambassador Bilgic is just the diplomat to help ensure they remain strong for the next 500.

Elizabeth Stewart, the editor of Embassy Magazine, interviewed the Ambassador of Turkey on 15 October, updated on 13 January