ANKARA, Turkey, Dec. 16, 2011 — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta praised Turkish leaders today for their leadership in the region at a time of sweeping change, including its efforts to quell the Syrian government’s violent crackdown and to prevent Iran from tampering that could prevent progress.
During what he called “very comprehensive” meetings here today with President Abdullah Gul, Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz… and Chief of the General Staff Gen. Necdet Ozel…, the secretary said they also reaffirmed the importance the U.S.-Turkey relationship in confronting other pressing security challenges in the region and the world.
“Turkey is a key NATO ally and a very critical security partner for the United States, Panetta told reporters following today’s meetings.
Panetta commended Turkey for providing security in Kabul as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan, an effort he said that with Turkey’s help has now reached “an important turning point.”
The secretary also expressed solidarity with Turkey in its fight at home against the terrorist PKK organization. “My discussions here in Ankara made very clear that the United States will continue to assist Turkey in confronting this threat,” Panetta told reporters, including providing technology to assist them in the effort.
“We are prepared to discuss further efforts to try to improve the technology and those capabilities,” he said. “We continue to explore other steps that can be taken to assist Turkey in the effort to deal with the PKK.”
Panetta also noted Turkey’s role in preparing NATO to deal with emerging threats, including its decision to host a forward-based radar for the NATO missile defense system.
“I think Turkey recognizes that it is important for this country to be a part of that defense shield,” he said.
Recognizing objection to the system, most vocally from Russia, the secretary emphasized that the system is designed to protect NATO countries, including Turkey, from attack.
“These are steps being taken in the defense of NATO,” he said. “Ultimately, other countries whether they like it or don’t like it, are going to have to accept that fact.”
Panetta emphasized during today’s meetings the importance of Turkey and Israel resolving their differences so they can work together as in the past to promote regional security and stability. “I believe that it is Turkey’s interest and in Israel’s interest for the two to move forward” in their relationship so they are better able to deal with the difficult issues confronting the region, he said, expressing confidence that they will.
Meanwhile, the secretary lauded Turkey’s leadership during “Arab Spring” transitions in the region.
“Turkey and the United States share the goal that hopefully these changes can produce positive results in the future for the people and the nations that have gone through this turmoil,” Panetta said. “I think this represents a time of tremendous opportunity” in terms of advancing rights and opening doors for the people of the region, he said.
Panetta praised Turkey for its leadership in calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, and said he believes he believes it’s inevitable that it will happen, particularly if international pressure continues.
“We have seen what has happened elsewhere, and I believe that at some point it is going to happen in Syria as well,” he said. “But in order for that to happen, I think it is important, not only for Turkey and the United States, but the international community to continue to bring pressure on Syria, on the Assad regime to do the right thing.”
Panetta said he is encouraged that the United Nations, including Russia, as well as other Arab nations and the Arab League have joined the effort to pressure Syria.
“The best thing right now is the unity of the international community in delivering that message,” he said. “That kind of unified effort, … [and] unified pressure, I think, is ultimately going to pay off.”
Panetta also called Turkey an important partner in reining in Iranian tampering during this period of transition in the region.
“We have urged Iran to join the family of nations, not to isolate itself from the rest of the world,” he said. “And I think Turkey agrees that we should do everything possible to try to urge Iran to be a member of the family of nations, as opposed to trying to undermine progress that is being made in this region.”
Noting that he laid a wreath today at the Anitkabir Ataturk Mausoleum, the secretary praised Turkey for “the modern and vibrant democracy” it has become, calling it “a testament to the vision and the strength of the Turkish people.”
Looking to the future, Panetta promised that the United States will remain true to its partnership with Turkey. “The Turkish people should know that they have a committed friend and a committed ally in the United States,” he concluded.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)