November 17, 2011 — Turkey's ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, gave a wide-ranging talk at the University of Virginia Monday, touching on regional security issues concerning Syria and Iraq and his country's quest to join the European Union.
Tan told a large audience in the Nau Hall auditorium that he is envious of the United States' geographical location. "I admire you. Canada in the north, Mexico to the south and two oceans," he said.
By contrast, he said, Turkey shares borders with the volatile countries of Iraq, Iran and Syria. "The entire Middle East, Lebanon, the Palestinian conflict, north Africa, the Caucasus, the Balkans, the fight against terrorism, Afghanistan, energy security, Pakistan. It goes on and on and on," he said.
"Imagine Richmond is Syria. … Going to bed at night, you will be terrified," said Tan. "We live in one of the most turbulent areas of the world."
Tan's appearance was part of the Ambassador Speaker's Forum, sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Programs and the Center for International Studies.
Asked if Turkey is considering sanctions against Syria, where a government crackdown has killed more than 3,500 anti-government supporters in eight months, the ambassador said his country has no easy answers.
"We are making very strong calls to the present administration of Syria to stop attacking its own people and to be inclusive and embracing," he said, adding that Ankara is working very closely with Washington to deliver that message. In a rare move, the League of Arab States last week voted to expel Syria because of the violence. Turkey, not a League member, applauded the move, greatly angering Syrian leaders.
Tan said the world should speak with a unified voice against the unrest and urged the United Nations to issue a resolution calling for an end to the upheaval. "We are for peace and stability in that country. If something happens in Syria, we will feel it first," he added.
The ambassador also addressed questions about Turkey's aspiration to join the European Union. The finances of two EU member states, Greece and Italy, are in a shambles and threaten greater economic instability in the region.
Tan said the economic turmoil has not dissuaded Turkey from pursuing membership.
"There is no other candidate on the face of the Earth than Turkey to give diversity to the Union," said Tan, whose country's economy is the second-fastest-growing in the world after China.
He rejected the idea that Turkey wants to take advantage of the perks of EU membership while offering nothing in return. "They think we will go there and get our share from an existing cake," he said. "This is not the case. We go there, make the cake bigger and then get our share."
Tan defended his country's incursions into northern Iraq, where members of a separatist group take refuge. "We cannot tolerate our citizens being attacked by a neighboring country. Try to empathize," he said. "Think of Richmond being Iraq and some people are attacking Charlottesville. What would you think?"
He said Turkey has been forced to take this approach because Iraq has refused to rein in the Kurdistan People's Party, or PKK. The group has been fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey since 1984 and is labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S., the European Union, NATO and several other countries.
He rejected the suggestion that Turkey is violating Iraq's national sovereignty. "If it is self-defense it is not a violation," he said.
The University's Ambassadors Speaker's Forum will continue Nov. 28 when Switzerland's Guillaume Scheurer, deputy chief of mission in the Swiss embassy, speaks from 5 to 6 p.m. in the Dome Room of the Rotunda. He will discuss his country's role as the United States' representative in Iran for the past 30 years, as well as the impact of sanctions on trade, business and banking.
Ghana's ambassador to the U.S., Daniel Ohene Agyekum, will come to the University Dec. 6. He will talk about Ghana's emerging market, how the Ghanaian diaspora can contribute and the country's role in the African Union. The talk is scheduled from 5 to 6 p.m., also in the Dome Room.
Ambassadors' Speaker's Forum events are free and open to the public.