Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s address to the 77th U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Tuesday was largely dedicated to his contention that nearly all problems can be solved through “dialogue,” and Turkey is indispensable to every dialogue in the Middle East and Asia.
Erdogan declared Islamophobia “equal to anti-Semitism as a crime against humanity” and demanded a U.N.-recognized “Fight Against Islamophobia” day every year, to be held on the anniversary of the deadly attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019.
Erdogan spoke at great length about the importance of diplomacy, the contributions that could be made to various debates by the United Nations, and above all Turkey’s pivotal position at the nexus of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
“We are the Asian on the western coast of Europe,” he said of Turkey’s role in everything from the Syrian civil war to the ongoing crisis in fragmented Libya and the Iran nuclear deal.
As the Turkish president pointed out, his country has been involved in the Syrian civil war and its humanitarian fallout from the beginning, and to this day hosts a large number of Syrian refugees — 4 million, by his count.
Erdogan called for a “peaceful settlement” to the decidedly not peaceful decade-old Syrian conflict and urged the U.N. to provide more assistance with repatriating Syrian refugees. He touted Turkey’s effort to help them go home by building thousands of housing units on Syrian soil that is currently controlled by Turkish and allied forces, holding up a photo of a rather drab housing compound and boasting 200,000 more housing units are under construction. It was one of several awkward moments when Erdogan held up a photo to illustrate his points.
“Irregular migration, refugee crisis, is not to be solved by leaving them to demise, through building walls on the border, through collecting them in refugee camps,” he said, although his photo suggested he is effectively “solving” the Syrian refugee crisis by moving them into slightly-better-constructed refugee camps in Syria instead of Turkey.
Erdogan called for more “diplomacy and dialogue” to settle issues such as Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, the suffering of the Afghan people, Libya’s political instability, the long struggle between India and Pakistan for control of Kashmir, and the territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia — although in the latter case, he came down very strongly on the side of “our Azerbaijani brothers and sisters,” whose struggle to “free occupied lands once and for all” he saluted.
Erdogan’s enthusiasm for resolving all disputes with diplomacy had a few notable limits. Most strikingly, he was viciously critical of Greece, denouncing its government as “tyrants” and accusing it of “crimes against humanity” for refusing to accept migrants.
“Greece is unfortunately pushing back these refugees in an illegal fashion, turning the Aegean into a graveyard for refugees,” he declared, holding up a photo of two drowned children whose boat he accused the Greek coast guard of sinking.
Erdogan came back to Greece again later in his speech, when he angrily defended Turkey’s interests on the divided island of Cyprus and accused the Greeks of violating Turkish territorial rights in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.
“We will never yield to the escalation strategies of other countries,” he declared, asking the United Nations to intervene against Greece.
The Turkish president also evinced no interest in negotiating with the PKK, the militant Kurdish separatist group he accuses of having its tentacles wrapped around every Kurdish armed force in the Middle East, including those supported by the United States as allies against the Islamic State.
Erdogan defiantly insisted Turkey had every right to bomb the PKK and its putative allies wherever it finds them, including the sovereign territory of Syria and Iraq. He described the PKK as a chameleonic terrorist organization that is “changing its name on a continuous basis” to hoodwink sympathetic Western powers into providing it with arms and economic support.
Erdogan also blasted the PKK’s “offspring” and other “terrorist organizations” for “abusing instability in Iraq” and using Iraqi soil to threaten Turkish security. He accused the Western world of making a grave mistake by hesitating to accept Turkey’s claims against these threatening groups.
“We want you to cooperate with us instead of terrorist organizations and tyrant regimes,” he said.
Erdogan also did not appear to think the Palestinians needed to do much more negotiating to get their own independent state from Israel, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
“We have to stop the illegal settlements in the occupied regions through establishing security for the lives and the commodities of the Palestinians,” he declared.
The Turkish president tossed out two brief criticisms of the Western world’s adversaries, in the first case by urging Russia to negotiate an end to its invasion of Ukraine.
“We think the war will never have a triumph. A fair peace process will not have a loser,” he said, but then demanded restoration of “the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” an outcome Russian leader Vladimir Putin would certainly regard as a defeat.
Erdogan was very proud of Turkey’s role in negotiating the export of Ukrainian grain to global markets through Russia’s Black Sea blockade, and also hailed it as “one of the greatest accomplishments of the United Nations in recent decades.”
In the other noteworthy instance, Erdogan very gently criticized China for abusing the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang province, who he noted are a Turkic people – their own preferred name for their homeland is “East Turkestan.” China is currently committing what human rights experts and multiple free nations, including the United States, agree is a genocide against Turkic people in the occupied region.
Erdogan called for “protection of the fundamental rights and liberty of the Muslim Uyghur Turks, in a way that will never threaten the territorial integrity and security of China.” The regime in Beijing justifies its abuse of the Uyghurs by claiming they are a security threat and separatist movement, on par with the PKK threat to Turkey.
Despite spending so much more of his long speech castigating Western nations and their allies, and so little on chastising Russia and China, Erdogan insisted “solidarity between Turkey and the European Union is very significant,” saluted the 17th anniversary of Turkey joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and pledged Turkey’s cooperation with climate change efforts.