Matthew Bryza, perhaps, remains the most recognizable US diplomat in South Caucasus, nonetheless he has departed from State Department long ago. In Armenia and Azerbaijan he’s remembered, because while holding the office of US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia he also co-chaired in Minsk Group. After Bryza no other US co-chair in Minsk Group held that high ranking status. He hardly will be forgotten also in Georgia, as in August 2008, that was he who welcomed the arriving US militaries to Georgia . Now Mr. Bryza is at Atlantic Council and it’s pretty interesting what does he think about the developments in US, Near East and South Caucasus. We are utmost grateful to him for finding wish and time to grant us this interview.
- Matthew, despite you’ve left the State Department some five years ago, you still remain pretty recognizable in Armenia and across the South Caucasus. Therefore may I ask first about your engagement at Atlantic Council and current public activities in general? May it happen that you return to active diplomatic service again, as usually the US diplomats move back and forth between the State Department and think-tanks all along their career?
- I loved my diplomatic career, and may one day return to diplomacy or even electoral politics. I also remain deeply interested in the South Caucasus and care profoundly about the people and geopolitics of the region.
But, right now, I am absolutely thrilled by my business career. Two years ago, I launched a start-up company based in Istanbul involving green technologies, meaning, technologies that improve the efficiency of industrial processes while reducing or repairing environmental damage. This is an international joint venture involving partners from Finland, Israel, Greece, and Turkey. Meanwhile, I keep one foot in foreign policy through my senior fellowship at the Atlantic Council and my membership on the advisory boards of the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC, and the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn, Estonia, (of which I was the director for three years).
I also enjoy a wonderful work/life balance, with plenty of time for my six-year old daughter as well as exercise. It would be painful to give up all of this right now to return to the Washington bureaucracy. On the other hand, public service is at the center of my being and I wish to avoid focusing too much inwardly rather than on important global challenges. It remains to be seen whether I will feel a need to return to diplomatic life or to politics to help address those challenges, or whether I can do so through business and think-tank work.
- How did you personally accept the outcome of US Presidential elections and Mr. Trump’s victory? May it drastically influence or change the US foreign policy? Henry Kissinger had once said, that every new US administration for the first 1.5 years of its office reviews the decisions of the previous administration and usually concludes that the predecessors had done whatever was possible in given circumstances;. How much would you expect this rule to work now?
- I was surprised that Donald Trump’s campaign did not collapse months before the election, given that any other U.S. Presidential candidate would have been destroyed by some of Mr. Trump’s statements. But, as the campaign continued, I realized Mr. Trump is a unique communicator who deeply understands the common American in a way no recent U.S. politician has. While I profoundly disagreed with many of Mr Trump’s statements about women, Muslims, Mexicans, and other minorities during the campaign, I realized during the final weeks before the election that he was likely to win. That was because Mr. Trump was polling just a little behind Secretary Clinton, while many U.S. voters were afraid to state openly they supported Mr. Trump because they knew they would be attacked by intellectual elites. And, it was precisely to oppose these elites that so many Americans voted for Mr. Trump.
I agree with Dr. Kissinger’s assessment, especially with regard to U.S. policy toward Russia. Virtually all U.S. Presidents in my professional lifetime began their time in office believing they were the magical communicator who possessed the secret to forging a new and positive relationship with Moscow; and every one has ultimately failed, eventually realizing that Russian and U.S. interests fundamentally diverge because Moscow’s main foreign policy driver is its jealously of the superior power of the United States.
At the same time, an individual leader can have a significant impact on major events in U.S. foreign policy. Imagine, for example, what would have happened if Al Gore was declared the winner of the ultra-close 2000 Presidential election rather than George W. Bush: the second Iraq War almost certainly never would have happened, and the trajectory of the Middle East, including the Arab Spring, would have been dramatically different.
- Is there a probability or ground for more close US military engagement in Near East when Trump becomes the US Commander-in-chief? Still even with larger US involvement is there a path to defeating terror in Near East, if most terrorists on ground are religious fanatics – associated either with Shea or Sunni preachers and teachings. Isn’t this kind of inter-confessional war within Muslim world that we witness? And what worries me most - what should be done to protect the Christians and Christian heritage in that war?
- It is highly unlikely that the level of U.S. military engagement in the Near East will increase dramatically under President Trump. Mr. Trump has never advocated large-scale U.S. troop deployments to the Near East. On the contrary, he now claims he opposed President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. My sense is, in keeping with his identity as a businessman, a President Trump will rationally assess costs and benefits and conclude the cost of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers’ lives is not required to achieve the benefit of defeating ISIS or Islamist extremism. He will want to rely on the Iraqi Army and local militia’s to defeat ISIS fanatics in Iraq and Syria.
He will also launch a new and needed effort at ideological warfare to expose Islamist extremism for what it is: a hateful manipulation of one of the world’s great religions into a political ideology that narrowly interprets Islamic jurisprudence and rejects a thousand years of Islamic scholarship that embrace tolerant faith and rational thought. A Trump Administration will thus likely try to defeat the fanatical ideology of ISIS by empowering Muslims who embrace these sorts of tolerant interpretations of Islam, and comprise the vast majority of today’s Muslims around the world. Such an approach stands the best chance to protect the lives and heritage not only of Christians, but also of Jews and of the Muslims who comprise the largest group of ISIS’s victims.
- What do you think about the Turkey’s involvement in Near East? May Turkey’s confrontation with Syrian Kurds’ PYD and YPG units - whom Turkey considers to be terrorists, yet the US calls them best allies in fight against ISIS - sooner or later strike back and turn into large scale warlike clashes between the Turks and Kurds within Turkey’s borders? How real is the probability of civil clashes and wars in Turkey between the Turks and Kurds, Erdoganists and Gulenists, seculars and islamistsm and how it may be avoided?
- It seems clear that the PYD and YPG are affiliates of the PKK, and that the United States and EU recognize as a terrorist organization. The U.S. military’s partnership with the YPG has thus led to a fundamental contradiction in Washington’s Syria policy: on the one hand, Vice President Biden declared on August 24 that the YPG would have to leave Syria in deference to the terrorism concerns of the U.S.’s NATO Ally, Turkey; on the other hand, the U.S. Defense Department has welcomed the leading role played in Syria by YPG fighters, who have crushed ISIS on the battlefield while sparing the lives of U.S. soldiers.
While this dilemma has generated serious tension in U.S.-Turkey relations, it is unlikely to lead to renewed large-scale clashes between Turks and members of Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. The military clashes that raged in southeast Turkey during the second half of last year and first half of this year are finished and were contained to a limited geographic area, though they did produce tragic consequences in Diyarbakir and other towns in Turkey’s Southeast. Small-scale clashes, however, are likely to continue indefinitely, along with isolated terrorist attacks.
Civil clashes between Gulenists and President Erdogan and his supporters are now unlikely. The big clash already took place this past July 15, and the Gulenists’ coup attempt was crushed, not only by Turkish military and police, but largely by common Turkish citizens who took to the streets in massive numbers to support their democratically elected government. Many of these common Turkish citizens do not support Erdogan, and even dislike him. But, their passion for their democratic system, flawed as it may be, proved to be much stronger than their dislike of Erdogan and his AK Party. This is a positive development, which reflects a wave of national unity that swept Turkey during and after July 15.
Of course, that unity has now evaporated due to the Turkish Government’s large-scale crackdown following the coup attempt. But, civil conflict in Turkey has become overwhelmingly political and legal rather than violent. Moreover, the vast majority of Turks have come to accept that President Erdogan will now achieve the goal that has topped is political agenda since 2007: the transformation of Turkey’s governing system from a parliamentary to a presidential republic.
- Last year I visited Turkey to cover the Armenian Genocide Centennial events and met some Turkish people, whom I liked and respected pretty much. However the visit didn’t change much my perception of Turkey and belief that it has nothing common with Europe. Now an apparent deterioration of Turkey’s relations with EU and US is underway – neither Turkish membership to EU seems possible any more, nor Turkey’s exclusion from CoE or OSCE will come to surprise, if country restores death penalty. Where all this may lead Turkey?
- In practical terms, Turkey’s EU accession bid lost its practical meaning several years ago. Turks across the political spectrum came to believe the EU was not serious about offering Turkey full membership, and at best, might eventually offer some sort of privileged partnership.
EU accession has thus become more a matter of national pride than a strategic objective for Turkey. Thus, I believe that what is most important to President Erdogan and his team is to be able to decide for themselves whether to implement EU-mandated reforms, knowing the chances of ever completing the accession process are extremely remote, but without the EU formally deciding to close the door on Turkey. That said, millions of Turks sincerely dream of EU membership for Turkey at some point in the future; many travel regularly to EU member states for vacations and have investments there. But, they, too, seem to have lost hope in Turkey actually becoming a member of the EU, at least in their lifetimes.
- Matthew, you personally were involved in US policy formation towards South Caucasus in early years of Obama administration. Eight years later it looks nothing has changed much - the Armenian-Turkish border remains closed, Aliev is as despotic and aggressive as always, Georgia unsuccessfully tries to join Euro-Atlantic structures and Armenia equally unsuccessfully tries to address its security and economic concerns maneuvering between the Russia and West? Do you expect the Trump presidency may impact this situation?
- I was deeply frustrated by the Obama Administration’s lack of strategic vision with regard to the South Caucasus and to the world in general. This is a key reason why I decided to resign from the Foreign Service in January 2012.
The consequences for the South Caucasus of this lack of strategic ambition in Washington have been severe. President Obama’s violation of his own redline in Syria (meaning his threat to use force against Syrian President Assad if Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians) and his “Russia Reset” policy emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin, demonstrating that there would be no practical consequences for foes of Washington who defy the U.S. President’s stern warnings. What followed was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Russia’s military adventurism in Syria and war crimes in Aleppo, and an intensified politico-military activism in the South Caucasus.
Moscow subsequently tightened its embrace of Georgia, much of whose territory it militarily occupies and whose unelected leader made his enormous fortune in Moscow. In Armenia, Russia has absorbed your country’s airspace into its own, engineered Armenia’s strategic choice of the Eurasian Economic Union over the European Union, and is stationing Iskender missiles on your territory. In Azerbaijan, Moscow is using the Turkish Stream pipeline project to try to block the Southern Corridor and deter private investment in Azerbaijan’s natural gas fields, and thereby pull Azerbaijan into Russia’s orbit.
In addition, Russia has augmented its naval and air defense assets in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions, seeking an ability to raise significantly the perceived costs to the U.S. and its NATO Allies of countering another round of military aggression in Georgia. Meanwhile, Russia has been pursuing new north-south axes of strategic partnership with Iran, with the countries of the South Caucasus and Turkey in between.
And, Washington’s relations with Ankara are as strained as they have ever been.
I hope that President Trump’s Administration will develop a strategic vision that recognizes the dangers of the above developments and then take steps to counter them. Indeed, it is strategically and morally curial for President Trump to re-embrace President George W. Bush’s deep conviction that the countries of the South Caucasus deserve the right to determine their own strategic destinies, free from Russia’s pressure. At this point, it is too early to tell whether this will indeed be the case. The appointment of retired General James Mattis as Trump’s candidate for Secretary of Defense suggests the President-elect is indeed developing such a strategic vision. The next big clue will be whom Mr. Trump selects to be nominated as his Secretary of State.
- And one last question about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, nonetheless I don’t like that theme and don’t ask about it. Simply you’re that well-informed about this conflict that I can’t resist to ask just one thing. It long seems to me that President Aliev’s ultimate motivation and goal is to damage Armenia and the NK problem is just tool that brilliantly caters that goal. As long as the tool works resulting in blockade, sealed Turkish border, etc. hardly Aliev will give it up. Would you agree with me? Still if you won’t, then why?
- I believe President Aliyev’s ultimate goal is to reincorporate Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding regions into Azerbaijan. Armenia is relevant to Azerbaijan primarily in this context, rather than as a discrete matter of its own.
In my experience, President Aliyev has shown a realistic approach to the conflict, as has President Sargsian. Both leaders realize their maximal objectives are unattainable, and thus have been willing to explore a compromise, even before their respective citizenries are ready to accept any compromise at all. Thus, we saw both presidents apparently accept, at least in principle, President Putin’s constructive proposal last June at the St. Petersburg Summit that Armenia would return two of the seven surrounding territories to Azerbaijan in exchange for Azerbaijan restoring transit links with Armenia. While I have not had a chance to visit Yerevan recently, I do know from my personal discussions with top-level Azerbaijani officials in Baku last summer that Azerbaijan viewed Putin’s proposal as helpful.
Hurting Armenia is therefore not a strategic objective for President Aiiyev; it is a tactic used to advance Azerbaijan’s strategic objectives with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh.
- Putin’s proposal could well be Russian-Azerbaijani desire and effort; still I highly doubt that President Sargsyan would positively respond to it. If in course of Turkish-Armenian 2008-10 rapprochement process - at least according to former Turkish FM and PM Davutoglu - Armenia didn’t agree to return any NKR controlled territory in exchange to opening of Armenian-Turkish border, then what Azerbaijan may suggest now, except the recognition of NKR independence, that would motivate Armenia, moreover NKR to discuss the issue of returning any territories? Simply Azerbaijan doesn’t possess any transportation link, openness or closeness of which matters to Armenia. The principal rout that matters Armenia lies through today Turkey’s territory providing exit to Armenian Cilicia, or today East-Mediterranean seashores of Turkey. Still even that only rout isn’t so valuable for last year or two because of total insecurity reigning in South-East Turkey, regular Turkish-Kurdish clashes and explosions on highways. So Putin’s proposal may be joint Russian-Azerbaijani desire, but hardly more than that. Do you see the things otherwise?
- On the one hand, it is true that Azerbaijan has long expressed support for the general approach embodied by President Putin’s proposal, though Azerbaijan has usually sought the return of more than two territories in exchange for reopening transit routes.
The restoration of road, rail, air, and potentially energy transit links between Armenia and Azerbaijan would actually be a dramatic and positive development for both countries. This would generate a wide range of new trade and investment opportunities, which, in turn, could lead to a softening of political differences and thereby help clear the way for further mutual understandings with regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
It does not require a great leap of logic to recognize that such a softening could have led to a reopening of Armenia’s border with Turkey.
Clearly, certain powerful people in Armenia feared that President Putin’s proposal was being taken seriously by the Armenian Government, as evidenced by the Erebuni hostage crisis just three weeks after Putin made his proposal. During that crisis, the hostage-takers demanded the release of a right-wing politician who is a longtime critic of President Sargsian’s handling of Minsk Group negotiations.
- Matthew, endless thanks for the interview. Of course, neither the Azerbaijan with its communications matter to many in Armenia, nor Sefilyan is a politician, not those who captured the police compound in Erebuni knew even the names of the negotiators in Minsk group. Still it’s natural for you not to be aware of these details of Armenian reality. Far more important was your interesting, deep and valuable interview, for which I convey my sincere gratitude once again.