Diplomatic Connections Articles

Ambassador Serdar Kiliç Brings Turkey's Insights to the Diplomacy of Global Security

By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

The question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” always brings interesting responses from children. Many imagine growing up to be sports stars or superheroes, princesses or pilots, doctors or firefighters. And children’s imaginings go through many possibilities in the course of growing up. But ask Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to the United States H.E. Serdar Kiliç (pronounced Kuh-lich) how he entered his diplomatic career, and he’ll tell you, “I decided to become a diplomat when I was in primary school.”

“I was 12 years old,” Kiliç recalls, “when a retired Turkish ambassador came to speak to an assembly at our school. He shared his experience and his lifestyle with us,” says Kiliç, “and that was the moment I fell in love with this job.” Far from being the charming fantasies of a 12-year-old, Kiliç’s imagination became a blueprint for his professional life.

Ambassador Kiliç is a graduate of Ankara University’s Faculty of Political Sciences, a highly respected institution whose roots lie in the training of Ottoman Empire public administrators. It was incorporated into Ankara University by the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in 1936. Kiliç worked for the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture during his student years and was briefly employed in the private sector before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1984.

Following an initial three-year appointment as Assistant Attaché in the Eastern Europe and Asia Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kiliç’s first overseas assignment was as Third Secretary at the Turkish Embassy in Kuwait. This was followed by assignment as Deputy Consul General at the Turkish Consulate General in Los Angeles. He returned to Ankara from the United States to take up an appointment in the Gulf and Muslim Countries Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Beginning in 1993, and no longer a young diplomat in training, Kiliç entered an extraordinary 10-year period of deep involvement with Turkey’s NATO membership and the security commitments flowing from Turkey’s role as NATO’s southern flank. Initially named First Secretary in the Permanent Delegation of Turkey to NATO, Kiliç served in Brussels for four years. He then returned to Ankara as Chief of Section and Acting Department Head in the Deputy General Directorate of NATO and Euro-Atlantic Security and Defense Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Subsequently he was named Counselor to the Permanent Delegation of Turkey to NATO and served a second extended period in Brussels (1999 – 2003).

Returning to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara in 2003, Kiliç took up a role as Head of Department in the Deputy Directorate for the Balkans and Central Europe. Following this appointment he was named Minister-Plenipotentiary and Deputy General Director in the General Directorate of NATO and Euro-Atlantic Security and Defense Affairs.

Serdar Kiliç’s first ambassadorial appointment came in 2008 when he was named Ambassador to Lebanon, a strife torn country where his NATO experience in the Balkans proved useful in preparing him for what became a mediating role between conflicting parties. Returning to Ankara after two years in Beirut, Ambassador Kiliç became Secretary General of MGK, Turkey’s National Security Council.

In 2012, Ambassador Kiliç was named Ambassador to Japan, a post he held until his appointment as Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States in April 2014. He notes that President Obama elevated relations between Turkey and the United States to the level of a “model partnership” during his presidential visit to Turkey in 2009. That “model partnership,” Ambassador Kiliç observes, “draws its strength from our [shared] commitment to universal values, common strategic interests and strong bonds of alliance spanning over six decades.”

A Note on Terminology: Throughout this interview Ambassador Kiliç uses the term DAESH (pronounced dash or d’ah-ish) to refer to the Islamic extremist group more frequently referred to as ISIL by American diplomats or simply as IS by much of the media. DAESH is controlling territory and using deadly hostage-taking tactics with the announced goal of establishing a new caliphate to rule over believing Muslims. DAESH is an acronym derived from the Arabic original “al-dowla al-islaamiyya fii-il-i’raaq wa-ash-shaam,” which translates as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

As Ambassador Kiliç explains, the term DAESH “excludes any reference to the Islamic State [IS]. This terrorist organization is neither Islamic nor a state. It is just a terrorist organization. I am a Muslim, and they don’t represent me.” He continues, “They do not have the right and the authority to claim that they are an Islamic State. I deplore them in the strongest terms possible.”

Here are edited excerpts from our extended interview.

Diplomatic Connections: How has the practice of diplomacy changed over the course of your 30-year career in your country’s foreign service?

Ambassador Kiliç: Quite dramatic changes have taken place. In the political field there were several strategic earthquakes: the dissolution of the Soviet Union; the shift of NATO from a defensive alliance to a framework for strategic cooperation and, in some cases, direct peacemaking action; more recently the Arab Spring.

Were we ready as an international community for those changes? I do not think so. We were not ready for the shift from a bipolar world to multilateral diplomacy with a wide range of multinational actors, many of them not traditional states at all. That is why we are faced with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and elsewhere on Russia’s borders as well as the ongoing crises in Syria, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Diplomatic Connections: How would you characterize the relationship between Turkey and the United States today? There have been times when the United States and Turkey, for example regarding the use of Incirlik Airbase, have collaborated very closely and other times when there have been differences of opinion.

Ambassador Kiliç: There is no perfect marriage. Even between perfect couples there might be some differences of opinion. We are strategic partners because we have common strategic interests. The relationship between Turkey and the United States is a time-tested relationship.

Take the areas of shared commitment between us. It started with the Korean War where we fought for a common cause. Both of us gave huge numbers of martyrs in that conflict. Then we were together in Bosnia. We were together in Kosovo. We were together in Macedonia. We were together in Iraq. We are together in Syria now. And, we were together in Libya to encourage the downfall of the Qaddafi regime. Wherever there is a crisis that has the potential of bringing about negative impacts on our strategic interests, we have been together.

Diplomatic Connections: You’ve spent a good deal of your career working either at NATO headquarters or on NATO-related issues. From Turkey’s point of view how should NATO be responding to the Russian actions in Ukraine?

Ambassador Kiliç: We have been very vocal in that regard since the initial phases of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. We have stated that we are not going to recognize the annexation of Crimea and that we support the preservation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The response should not be limited only to NATO but should include the broader international community. NATO alone cannot bring about the desired outcome to the crisis in Ukraine or in the Middle East. Neither can the European Union nor the United Nations bring about the desired goal acting alone. There must be a concerted action by all the actors of the international community. There must be coordinated political, economic and military measures.

Diplomatic Connections: How has your NATO experience impacted your subsequent diplomatic career?

Ambassador Kiliç: In all I have devoted 15 years, nearly half my career, to NATO issues. During those periods I witnessed the crises in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. I developed some sense of the intricacies of conflict resolution as well as of the mechanics of peacekeeping operations, and the complexities of peacemaking.

As a result, when I was assigned to Beirut, I had all of that baggage with me. When a miniscule civil war erupted in Beirut, I was in a unique position. Turkey was not aligned to any political grouping in Lebanon at that time. We were at equal distance from all parties: the Phalangists, the Christians, even the Armenians, as well as between Shi’a and Sunni. That meant that I had the luxury of being able to talk to each and every party. I visited all of them, and I tried to broker a ceasefire under the instructions of my government. And we were successful in that regard.

Diplomatic Connections: Does that NATO experience now spillover to your current assignment as ambassador in Washington, D.C.?

Ambassador Kiliç: As far as my work in the United States is concerned, being a staunch NATO worker means that I have had close contact with my American colleagues serving and visiting in Brussels or in Ankara. I have a full and nuanced understanding of the United States’ policies because of the lengthy, in-depth discussions we continually had on NATO-related issues. During the three years I was assigned to the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles as Deputy Consul General, I had the opportunity to live with the American people, learning their customs and traditions as well as their mentality and their approaches to different kinds of world events. Now, I’m making use of that experience and expertise in Washington, D.C.

Diplomatic Connections: Could we speak a bit about Turkey’s role as a kind of communications link, a mediator, a critical bridge between the West and the Islamic world . . . and as a channel of contact between states within the Islamic community? What special burdens does that “bridging” role place on Turkish diplomacy? What special opportunities does it present?

Ambassador Kiliç: Turkey is not a bridge. We belong to the East as much as we belong to the West. As a developing country and acknowledging our leadership this year of the G20 group of leading economic states, Turkey is as much a Southern country as a Northern country. We are at the crossroads not only of East and West but South and North as well.

Diplomatic Connections: You prefer that we use the term “crossroads” rather than “bridge.”

Ambassador Kiliç: Yes, I believe the crossroads is a more apt description of Turkey’s unique position, not only geographically but, more consequentially, geopolitically. It points more clearly to the potential and the special role of Turkish diplomacy.

If you take a look at recent developments in the world, most of the crises— 90 percent of them — are either in areas neighboring Turkey or in areas that are in geographic proximity to Turkey: Ukraine, Russia, the Caucasus, the Armenian-Azeri conflict, Abkhazia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of them are located in or around our area.

That brings us the responsibility to contribute to the resolution of those conflicts because they are threats to the security and stability of all of us. Frequently the effects of this discord spillover to the surrounding area and quite often to Turkey directly. You cannot dissociate Turkey from the events that are taking place in Syria and Iraq, especially along the Turkish border.

Diplomatic Connections: Speaking of borders, could you tell us some of the specifics of the refugee flows into your country?

Ambassador Kiliç: Turkey has received two million refugees. Just to give you a sense of the gravity of this matter, the United States takes only 70,000 a year. So, within three years Turkey has accepted as many refugees as the United States takes in 30 years. The situation is that grave. Turkey assumes its responsibility in regard to these refugees, but there is no denying that it has been an enormous drain on our country.

Diplomatic Connections: Is Turkey receiving the international assistance that it needs to deal with this massive influx of refugees? Or is there a risk that the influx of refugees will destabilize your country?

Ambassador Kiliç: I will be very frank, the brief answer is, “no.” We are not receiving adequate assistance from our friends. We have spent US$5.5 billion so far. The assistance that we have received from the international community is only US$250 million. Negligible.

The amount that I have given is only spent on the refugees that are in the camps in Turkey. We are talking about 300,000 refugees that are in the camps. The rest — 1.7 million — are living in the cities and urban areas. We are spending a great deal of money for them as well. They have free education, free health services. We want to help but there is no question that these refugees are a drain on Turkey’s resources. There is no full account of the overall impact of the refugees on the Turkish economy.

Diplomatic Connections: Islam is a deep part of Turkey’s cultural and national identity. At the same time, the modern history of Turkey, dating back to Atatürk, has been that Turkey is a secular state. How has Turkey tried to balance these elements, recognizing religious toleration and secularism and at the same time recognizing the deep-rooted role of Islam in Turkish culture?

Ambassador Kiliç: The Turkish Republic is not an Islamic Republic. It is a secular republic. It is, was and will be a secular republic. The decisions taken by the government do not put the secular nature of the state in jeopardy. Actually, recent government decisions solidify that secular commitment.

We have to agree on the definition of secularism. Secularism is a regime where the religious beliefs of the people are not imposed by the government. For example, a woman wearing a head scarf according to her religious beliefs was not able to attend a university or to enroll in classes. She was not allowed to enter the university. So this was not truly secularism because people were not permitted freely to act on their religious beliefs. In essence, the state was imposing a ban on a religious action that was part of that woman’s faith and that was an expression of her identity.

Diplomatic Connections: There is a Directorate for Religious Affairs within the structure of the Turkish government, is there not? For example, the state does provide subsidies to religious schools. Is that correct?

Ambassador Kiliç: Not religious schools per se but the Religious Affairs Administration does monitor and provide guidance to the activities of the mosques as well as to the educational programs the mosques provide. You need a body to regulate the functioning of the religious services.

Religion is very important. You cannot leave religion or religious duties to irresponsible people, under-educated people. This is the very reason that we are faced with DAESH right now. If the people are not educated enough as to what Islam is, what the Qur’an stands for and what are the messages of the Qur’an, they will be following terrorist organizations and the leaders of those organizations.

Diplomatic Connections: May we turn to the situation in Syria? You mentioned the conflicts in that country and the damage inflicted by President Bashar al-Assad on the Syrian people. What would be Turkey’s suggested formula for dealing with Syria and ending the violence there?

Ambassador Kiliç: If you are going to deal with the crisis in Syria and Iraq, you have to have a comprehensive, integrated strategy that covers Syria and Iraq, both of them. You cannot differentiate between the two. DAESH emerged in Iraq. It went to Syria and got its strength there with the help of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and it went back to Iraq. Now it occupies large territories in both of those countries.

They are already deploying forces in Libya, in Yemen . . . deploying forces as if they are a strategic player among the established nation states of the region. Those foreign fighters who have come to Syria will one day return home. And when they come back, they will bring their ill effects. So, we have to go there before they come to us.

Diplomatic Connections: Mr. Ambassador, are you suggesting that Turkey would be in support of a concerted ground effort in Syria?

Ambassador Kiliç: You cannot subcontract this fight to a single country or to a group of countries. We have to be in together. And, we have to agree on the modalities of the action that we are going to take. When we propose a no-fly zone and a safe haven, they do not come out of the blue. There is a clear rationale behind those proposals and a requirement for that matter.

In concert with the United States, we have concluded a train and equip program to support opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime. But, if you do not provide them with an area in which they can operate free from the attacks of Bashar al-Assad’s air forces, how are they going to be successful? We are going to send moderate elements into Syria, and then Bashar al-Assad is going to use his air power and DAESH will take care of them. That has been the case in Syria for a long time now.

And, as for the safe haven, if we do not provide a safe haven to those people in Syria, how are the refugees going to return to their country? How are the Free Syrian Army elements going to be able to operate in Syria? Are we going to send them to die, or are we going to send them to Syria to build their country? If the real purpose is the second one, then we have to provide the necessary environment for them so that they will be able to successfully conduct their duties.

A no-fly zone and a safe haven — that was what we did in Bosnia. There were safe havens where the people could take refuge and at least survive the crisis. That was the case in Kosovo as well. Turkey and the United States have the experience. We were NATO members, and we have established those safe havens and no-fly zones in Bosnia. If we display the necessary determination, we can do that again. It is achievable. Beyond being achievable, these things are musts.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador. We deeply appreciate the time you have given us. You have helped us to understand Turkey’s points of view and to see the complex neighborhood in which you live through the eyes of the Turkish government.

FREE Digital Edition
See and read Diplomatic Connections Magazine
View Archived Digital Editions