Obama’s Double Game on Turkey

Does the annual U.S. Human Rights Report about Turkey have any meaning for U.S. foreign policy? If Obama and Western allies want to turn blind eyes to use of the report as leverage to get more military and political concessions from the Erdoğan government, that is indeed bad news for the Turkish people.

Posted on 03/2/14
By Murat Yetkin | Via Hurriyet Daily News
An anto government protest in Istanbul in June 2013. (Photo by eser.karadag, Creative Commons License)
An anto government protest in Istanbul in June 2013. (Photo by eser.karadag, Creative Commons License)

It may be interesting for many to observe that there is no improvement in Turkey mentioned on the 2013 Human Rights Report from the U.S. Department of State.

Who is Who in the Current War

By Mustafa Akyol

Via Hurriyet Daily News

Turkey’s political war is getting only more intense every week, as more ammunition is being fired by the warring sides. The latest and the greatest of them are the alleged phone conversations between the prime minister and his son. Exposed on the web earlier this week, these wiretapped audio recordings, if they are proven to be authentic rather than fake, may well bring the PM down. But it is more likely that both sides will simply keep believing in their own version of events and the polarization will only deepen.

 

On the other hand, the latest ammunition of the pro-government camp is the list of wiretapped phones that were exposed by pro-government newspapers again earlier this week. Accordingly, certain policemen have wiretapped thousands of prominent Turks for years, with a seemingly legal but quite absurd justification – that they all belonged to a terrorist organization called “Salam and Tawhid,” which nobody knows. (For more on this, see the piece, “The eavesdropping scandal” by Taha Özhan)

 

The two sides in this war are also clear to most observers: On the one side, there is the governing party, and especially its leader, Tayyip Erdoğan. On the other side, there is the Fethullah Gülen movement, which, according to Erdoğan, has created a “parallel state” within the state. But what about other political actors? Where do they stand? One key actor is President Abdullah Gül. He has made it obvious several times that he disapproves of the authoritarian ambitions of Erdoğan, but on this issue, he seems to be much closer to Erdoğan than his adversaries. My impression is that Gül is only trying to contain the government’s furious battle with the “parallel state” within the rule of law as much as he can.

 

The two main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) are no fans of “the parallel state” – they were complaining about it until very recently – but their main target is now Erdoğan. That is why the CHP’s leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, uses the alleged wiretapped phone conversations of the prime minister and openly blames him for “theft.” Erdoğan, in return, condemns the “CHP-parallel state alliance.”

 

The fourth political party, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) has appeared a bit closer to Erdoğan since the beginning of this crisis. The reason is simple: Erdoğan is the “peacemaker” with the Kurdish militants that the BDP implicitly represents.

 

However, BDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş recently said on CNNTürk, “The peace process is important, but we cannot head toward peace by disregarding the corruption and bribery operations.” What about the liberals? Well, that is not a monolithic group. Still, it can be said that many of the liberals, including the supporters of the Gezi Park Movement, are clearly against Erdoğan and seem happy to see that “the parallel state” is exposing his wrongdoings. Other liberals, however, see Erdoğan as the lesser of two evils, and even still support him for the sake of his peace deal with Kurdish nationalists.

 

The Islamic camp itself is bitterly divided. Most communities support Erdoğan against the greatest community, the Gülen movement, which has a few Islamic allies as well. Then there are a few non-aligned individual voices, criticizing the excesses of both sides and advising them restraint. They are marginal now, but perhaps they hold the key for a post-war reconciliation. The writer can be reached at akyol@mustafaakyol.org.

On the contrary, from freedom of the press to the freedom of non-violent assembly, from arbitrary arrests and long detention periods to police brutality, there are areas where the rights situation in Turkey has deteriorated over the last year, according to the critical report, released Feb. 27.

 

As one can imagine, on top of the usual violations in the country’s pre-dominantly Kurdish regions, this year, the Gezi protests and the government’s use of police force to suppress them received special emphasis.

 

In addition to that, in this year’s report there is a new chapter. A new concept on “human rights violations” in Turkey has been added. According to the U.S. Department of State, corruption has reached a level of a “violation of human rights.”

 

The title of Section 4 of the report on Turkey is “Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government.” The section begins with the sentence, “While the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and some officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.”

 

The Dec. 17, 2013 graft probe and developments afterward are highlighted with a particular mention of “family and/or business ties to the AKP’s top echelons,” pointing at the acclaimed place of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) in the whole affair. The corruption allegations are also mentioned in the section “Denial of Fair Public Trial,” quoting reactions from the European Union, of which Turkey aspires to be a member, and “obstruction” of independent judicial proceedings.

 

At the release of the report, Hürriyet’s correspondent in Washington D.C., Tolga Tanış, asked the following questions to State Department officials: “The report clearly emphasizes that the law enforcement and judiciary are subject to executive influence in Turkey. So why is this not mentioned publicly? What is the influence of these reports on the administration’s policies toward other countries?”

 

The question is right. Does the annual U.S. Human Rights Report have any meaning for U.S. foreign policy, other than being used as leverage to take more for U.S. national interests from the countries in question?

 

Eight days after the report was released, a telephone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish PM Tayyip Erdoğan took place. That was the first phone call since Aug. 7, 2013, a long period of time for a leader who was named among Obama’s “five friendliest leaders” in the world a year ago.

 

The reason why Obama did not want to talk to Erdoğan as frequently as before was not the police brutality during the Gezi protests. Criticism was made at that time by the U.S. Department of State. The breeze was mainly because of Erdoğan’s stance regarding the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, and Erdoğan’s blaming of Israel for the coup in Egypt. Earlier in the year, it was Obama who twisted the arm of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize to Erdoğan over the 2010 Mavi Marmara boat tragedy, in which nine Turks were killed by Israeli commandos on their way to Gaza under the blockade, and it is known that Obama is not happy with not seeing any improvement since then, despite promises from both sides.

 

The call was on Feb. 19, a day after the U.S. company Boeing delivered the first of intelligence airplanes (project Peace Eagle) to Turkey. They talked about issues like Syria, Iraq, including the Kurdish oil and gas there, and relations with Israel and Cyprus, as the latest move for all parties involved, who are desperately in need of diplomatic success.

 

According to the White House read-out after the call, Obama said that “Turkey can demonstrate leadership in the world through positive engagement,” implying the usual strategic importance theme.

 

The same day, Obama said in Mexico that he did not “see disagreements with Russia over conflicts in Syria and Ukraine as a revival of competition on ‘some Cold War chessboard.’” A comparison of Ukraine and Syria – both civil conflict-hit northern and southern neighbors of Turkey under Russian influence – within the framework of the Cold War could mean bad news for Turkey.

 

There have already been enough signs of a “New Cold War” with new actors since the rise and fall of the Arab Spring.

 

The U.S. had no difficulties during the Cold War to get almost whatever it needed in military and diplomatic terms from Turkey, without much consideration about the quality of democracy and economy for the Turkish people. Turkey suffered three military coups during the Cold War as American administrations (as well as other NATO allies) turned a blind eye to serious violations in Turkey. When the quality of democracy started to improve, U.S. military interests received a big blow from Turkey, as in the case of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

 

If Turkish-U.S. relations retreat to a new kind of Cold War setting and those human rights reports are not to encourage the improvement of democracy and economy in this “strategic” ally, that may not be worrying. But if Obama and Western allies want to turn blind eyes to use as leverage to get more military and political concessions from the Erdoğan government, that is indeed bad news for the Turkish people.

 

The writer can be reached at murat.yetkin@hurriyet.com.tr. This article first appeared in Hurriyet Daily News, a leading Turkish newspaper.

 

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