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Remarks by Secretary Cohen Enroute to Turkey, April 16, 1998

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
April 16, 1998

Cohen: This is a brief, but a very important trip for me. It's my first trip as Secretary of Defense to the Middle East. I will, of course, be stopping and visiting with all the officials in Turkey initially, to talk about our relationship with them, we have a number of issues to discuss, and then on to Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Greece. So it's one in which we have a lot of security issues to talk to Turkey about. They have been very helpful as far as our policy in dealing with Iraq. Operation Northern Watch—I'll be going up to Incirlik, to visit with our troops there, to reaffirm the strong relationship we have with Turkey, their importance, to NATO, their strategic location geographically and a number of mutual issues that we have to discuss. It's a trip I'm looking forward to…in fact, my first trip to Turkey.

Q: …arms sales to Turkey and other countries?

A: Well, we will take up the issue of arms sales on a case by case basis, and we will see what requests will be in order for their defensive needs, and consider it on the merits and that's something I will obviously take up with each individual country.

Q: For instance, we know that Greece is interested in F-15s and F-16s…

A: Well, we have provided information pertaining to the F-15, and again, this is simply informational at this point, and we will see what the needs of each county may be and what the requirements are, what the cost factors involved, what the political considerations involved would be in dealing with Capitol Hill and other issues. We will look at all of that in each individual country.

Q: How will the peace process in Middle East…I mean, Egypt, for instance, is getting very impatient; are you going, aside from assuring them of US support for the peace process, are you going to try to twist any arms anywhere?

A: No, I'm not going to twist any arms. I'm there to obviously express support for President Clinton's initiatives and that of Secretary of State Albright, to stress the importance of the peace process. We'd like to see some movement and I will try to reinforce that effort on the President's part. But I'm not there to twist arms, but rather to, hopefully, encourage all parties concerned to be as reasonable as possible, to seek a solution, one that would bring about the kind of good will that would we have seen generated in other parts of the world.

Q: In the recent confrontation with Iraq, Turkey seemed to be somewhat of a reluctant ally in terms of supporting the U.S. military. Is that going to be a topic of discussion?

A: To the contrary, Turkey was very helpful with respect to their support for United States objectives. They share the concern about Saddam Hussein and they were very helpful to us and Northern Watch and I intend to express my thanks and gratitude for their support. I think they recognize that he continues to be a threat to the region, that the crisis may have eased but it is not over, and we will continue to call upon Turkey and other countries in the region to support US policy.

Q: What about the situation within the Turkish government. The split between the military and some of the civilian groups…the disagreement about the fundamental Islamic movement in the country…does that kind of internal problem make Turkey a less dependable ally?

A: First of all, Turkey is a very dependable ally. They have a constitution, they have the rule of law, they have a democratic system and we support that. To the extent that there's any internal division in Turkey or in any other country, obviously that's something for the Turkish government to resolve with its military. That's not something we would seek to interfere with. We respect their constitution and their democratic system and we also respect their right to resolve these differences within their constitutional system. But they are a very reliable ally.

Q: …service people, the Howards, I think you are familiar with that case, who say they have been discriminated against, religious persecution, and also four airmen at Incirlik, where we will be going, who were arrested and the charges were dropped. Can you talk a little bit about how you balance the situation in Turkey with our forces there, and are you going to meet with those airmen? I know they have written to you and asked for that.

A: First of all, with respect to the Turkish government and our airmen and others, service men and women who are stationed there in Turkish territory; we try to take into account the laws and customs of any country where we have our men and women who are stationed on the sovereign soil of other countries. We try to take that into account, we try to balance, obviously, our own rules and needs with those of the local government. In this particular case, that issue, the charge of discrimination, is under investigation by the IG and I can't comment any more about that. With respect to the four individuals who have written to me, they really do need to follow the chain of command so that their complaints….I have no basis for making any judgment as to the merit or lack of merit on it, but they need to go up through the chain of command in terms of making this kind of a charge, rather than bringing it to my attention and having a particular session with me at this time. I have only a few hours in which to carry on a lot of discussions with Turkish officials, but I'm sure that they'll have every opportunity to convey their factual allegations about the matter that is under investigation as well. But I don't at this point plan to have a separate meeting with them.

Q: Mr. Secretary, there have been growing tensions over Cyprus. Just a couple days ago, maybe it was yesterday, Turkey warned that it would destroy these Russian surface-to-air missiles that were installed. What will you be telling the Turks concerning the U.S. position on that, and also the Greeks?

A: I will be telling them both the same message, and that is we hope that each will exercise restraint, that those present something of a flash point in their relations with each other. In fact, I think it's just the contrary. There has been a reduction in the tensions with respect to Cyprus. There seems to be some willingness at least to discuss this matter. We would like to see the Greek authorities, the Greek Cypriots, not acquire the Russian missile. We have encouraged the Turkish government to at least restrain the rhetoric with respect to what action they may take. And I think both countries now realize there is a danger in allowing the rhetoric to get too escalated and they're trying to turn it down. So I would try to urge that they exercise restraint, seek some kind of mediation on this, and I urge them to try to find a way to resolve these differences over Cyprus. I will be carrying the same message to the Turkish government as I will to the Greeks.

Q: Mr. Secretary, both the Turks and the Greeks are shopping for weapons. The Turks apparently have been shopping for tanks, the Greeks for air defense as well as…Does this give you any concern? Does this give you some leverage in discussions?

A: Well, each country obviously has it own security interests they are entitled and need to protect. Our position is that we will always be willing to evaluate what those needs are. We certainly don't wish to contribute to any kind of an arms escalation in the region, but a valid requirement of the part of either government would certainly be evaluated by the United States. We're hoping that we can prevail upon both countries to really try find some solution to Cyprus and to the conflict in the tensions and issues affecting the Aegean. That's something I will be raising with both countries.

Q: …arms sales and the resolution of Cyprus, at least, be conflicting in that situation?

A: There's no specific linkage on that. I think that everyone would like to see a reduction in the tensions. By the same token, there's a recognition that each country has a legitimate right for either modernizing or upgrading it's defensive requirements. But I think that in terms of linking the increase in modernization to the tensions, then obviously there is a nexus there that should not exist. So I think what we have to do is take a look at each country's requirement, but at the same time urge them to exercise restraint and urge them to really come to the bargaining table, the negotiating table. Ambassador Holbroke has been very energetically involved in the Cyprus issue. We're hoping to urge both parties to seek some kind of reconciliation on that issue. I think that we can separate out the arms issue from the issues involving both the Aegean and Cyprus.

Q: You wouldn't necessarily oppose arms sales, even if tensions remain completely the same?

A: I think it's premature for me to discuss whether or not there would be any receptivity on the arms issues. There are requests I'm sure that the Turkish government might make, that the Greek government might make, and then we will review that on the merits. They obviously will turn to other countries as well for their supply. What we will seek to do first of all is urge them to try to reconcile their differences. They're both members of NATO—it's important that we have comity and agreement and consensus within NATO, and so I will use this opportunity to encourage that type of remedial action as far as lowering the tensions, seeking some kind of consensus, finding ways to resolve this in a peaceful fashion, lowering the rhetoric, and then, to the extent that we evaluate what they may need in the way of their defensive requirements, we will do that as well.

Q: You will be visiting troops in the Sinai and the MFO. We've had troops there now for sixteen years, we're coming up on the anniversary. Some people are wondering whether or not we need to have this MFO anymore. There hasn't been any hostilities, any major violations, plus there's a great scuba diving resort now…because it's so peaceful. Should we think about looking at this again, and how would Egypt and Israel feel?

A: I will discuss that with both the Egyptians and the Israelis…I will certainly see how things are going, whether they think it's important they remain there. It may be that they find this to be a very stabilizing factor, that's it's symbolic perhaps, more than anything else at this point, but an important symbol; so we will talk about it, I'm sure. It hasn't been on my agenda. Now that you've raised it…(laughter). I don't think that anyone's been up to visit the troops in several years, so one of the reasons for me to go out and see them and thank them for the contribution they're making -- it's been successful, and again, it's an important symbol in terms of the good relations now between Egypt and Israel. Israel would like it to be better, the Egyptians would like it to be better, but that's an important symbol I think that the troops provide. But I have not seen any new tensions that would…

Q: There are so many more missions on your plate around the world and the military is so much smaller that it was when you first had troops there. It's seems you use those troops someplace else?

A: I think that, obviously, we try to be very selective where we deploy peace keeping troops. It's an issue that I've been concerned about and will continue to be concerned about in terms of how we deploy them, how many places and how long. But I think it's an issue we're raising and it may be that both the Israelis and Egyptians think it's important. And if it's important, and the Middle East is still one of the most important areas that we have to try to find reconciliation on, and to the extent that that peacekeeping force provides some measure of symbolic importance to the area, then it may be necessary to continue to keep them there, but that's something I will be discussing. As a result of your initiative…