Time to Get Tough on Turkey

Turkish president President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Reuters photo: Sergei Karpukhin)
The Erdoğan government is no longer a reliable Western ally, and its behavior grows more troubling by the day.

Turkey has now been a candidate for membership in the European Union longer than any other country in the history of the European integration process. It submitted its application to the European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessor, in 1987. Twelve years later, in 1999, it was formally recognized as a candidate, and six years after that, it was finally allowed to begin accession negotiations with the EU.

In all, then, Turkey has waited almost 30 years to be welcomed into Europe. Yet in 2016, when Ankara finally seemed on the verge of getting what it wants the most, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, apparently frustrated with the pace of the negotiations, began openly blackmailing EU leaders, European nations, and European citizens.

Under the terms of an agreement reached in March to stem the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe, Turkey has been promised EU-visa liberalization for 75 million of its citizens if it fulfills certain conditions set out by the EU. But it still has five conditions left to satisfy relating to data protection and anti-terror laws, and Erdoğan is putting huge pressure on the European community to let those five conditions slide. This is causing serious fear among European leaders that the refugee deal, which has been effective in slowing the growth of the European migrant crisis, might fall apart.

All signals from Ankara suggest that this fear is well justified. In August, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned that Turkey could walk away from its promise to stem the flow of illegal migrants to Europe if the EU failed to grant Turks visa-free travel to the bloc by October. That deadline — and the original, June deadline for visa liberalization — have come and gone without any movement on either side, but it would be foolish for European leaders to overlook the threat posed by Erdoğan’s regime.

Indeed, it is unprecedented for the EU to consider welcoming into its ranks such an authoritarian state. In addition to Erdoğan’s well-documented and ever-expanding crackdown on dissent, legitimate concerns have been expressed by Austrian, German, and Dutch politicians that Turkish authorities are spying on exiled Turkish dissidents in Europe.

According to Hans-Christian Ströbel, a Green-party member of the German Bundestag, Turkey’s intelligence agency MIT has around 6,000 informants in Germany alone. These informants reportedly pass the names of dissidents to the MIT, which adds them to the government’s blacklist of people it wishes to arrest in the future. Intelligence expert and author Erich Schmidt-Eenboom explained in an interview with The Local that each informant could be responsible for monitoring 500 people with Turkish roots in Germany, which is a home to around 3 million Turks. This would also mean that these spies are each monitoring more people than the Stasi did in West Germany during the Cold War.

The main difference between the MIT and the Stasi, according to Schmidt-Eenboom, is that the later engaged primarily in gathering military, political, and economic intelligence in West Germany, rather than targeting former citizens. “This is no longer about intelligence reconnaissance, but rather this is increasingly being used for intelligence repression,” he warned.

In fact, these Turkish spies have bullied Kurds, Gülen supporters, and others perceived as opponents of the current regime in Ankara on German soil, violating the European values Turkey would be asked to uphold as a member of the EU. Dissidents within Germany have been written about negatively in Turkish media outlets, seen calls for boycotts of their businesses, and even fielded threats against their families.

“They can go to the regular German police to complain about it, but this is difficult to do in this kind of parallel society,” Schmidt-Eenboom said.

The number and illiberal influence of Ankara’s spies in Germany, many of them working “out of a sense of patriotism,” according to Schmidt-Eenboom, should give pause to leaders throughout Europe: How many more spies will flood Europe’s borders if 79 million Turks are granted visa-free travel to the EU, let alone if Turkey is granted full membership in the bloc?

But why should any of this matter to the new administration in Washington and the millions of American voters it will be charged with representing? Well, Erdoğan has of late been just as arrogant in his behavior toward the U.S. as in his behavior toward Europe.

It is unprecedented for the EU to consider welcoming into its ranks such an authoritarian state.

“I’m calling on the United States: What kind of strategic partners are we, that you can still host someone whose extradition I have asked for?” Erdoğan asked a few months ago in a speech to local representatives of multinational firms operating in Turkey. He was referring to the 75-year-old Turkish Islamic theologian and preacher Fethullah Gülen, who currently lives in self-imposed exile in in Saylorsburg, Pa., and whom Erdoğan accuses (without any concrete evidence) of having orchestrated a failed coup against his government in July. “This coup attempt has actors inside Turkey, but its script was written outside. Unfortunately, the West is supporting terrorism and stands by coup plotters.”

To put additional pressure on the U.S. to extradite Gülen, Turkey has filed a criminal complaint against the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and General Joseph Votel, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, accusing them of backing Gülen. Elsewhere, pro-Erdoğan media outlets have gone to work making unsubstantiated claims of U.S. involvement in the coup. The newspaper Yeni Şafak named the former NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John F. Campbell, as the plot’s mastermind. Other Turkish media outlets have accused the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a prominent think tank that is formally affiliated with and funded by the U.S. government, of being involved in the coup. Henri J. Barkey, who is the director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center, went so far as to address the allegations in the New York Times:

Soon after the coup was defeated, my colleagues and I became the targets of sensationalist conspiracy theories promulgated by Turkey’s pro-government press. The accusations ranged from organizing the coup on behalf of the C.I.A. to setting up communication links for the plotters and, most implausibly, bringing a convicted murderer from California into Turkey to engage in evil deeds. . . . United States–Turkey relations are among the failed coup’s casualties. . . . 

Turkish society has long been steeped in conspiracy theories, but the widespread stoking of anti-Americanism today is unprecedented. The accusations leveled at me and the other participants in our workshop — in the absence of any evidence — are cynical attempts to blame Washington and bully the United States into extraditing Mr. Gulen, and maybe even force it to abandon its support for the Kurds in Syria in the fight against the Islamic State.

Gülen, for his part, has already replied to the public attacks by openly accusing Erdoğan, an erstwhile ally, of “blackmailing” the U.S. into extraditing him from his current place of residence, and urged Washington to not back down in the talks with his home country’s officials. “His goal: to ensure my extradition, despite a lack of credible evidence and virtually no prospect for a fair trial,” Gülen wrote in the New York Times Magazine. “The temptation to give Mr. Erdoğan whatever he wants is understandable. But the United States must resist it.”

It’s well known that the West would like to maintain a good relationship with Turkey, which is NATO’s second biggest military power, as the country is a key partner in several important military operations, including NATO’s ballistic-missile-defense program and the fight against ISIS. Unfortunately, the Turkish government no longer seems to feel the same way: Following the failed coup, it returned home hundreds of its senior military staff members serving NATO in Europe and the U.S. Upon their arrival in Turkey, many of them were dismissed from service, arrested, and put in prison. When it was over, only nine out of 50 Turkish military staff still remained at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, which forced Turkish military representatives to be absent from recent NATO meetings.

#related#What is even more astonishing about this bold move from the government in Ankara is that all of the returned people were picked because of their exposure to Western values during their time in Europe and America — the same values Turkey claims to want to uphold as a member of the EU. This was confirmed by one of the targeted military members, Colonel Aziz Erdoğan, who wrote the following in his letter to punished colleagues from Brussels: “The common denominator of these victims is that all of them have a . . . Western educational background and secular mindset.”

Like many of my European contemporaries, I believe that Turkey is not a solution but a problem, and if President-elect Trump is serious about shaking up the foreign-policy status quo and aggressively confronting the threat posed by Islamist ideology, he would be well advised to start by taking a tougher stance toward Erdoğan’s increasingly dictatorial regime. It is about time that leaders in the West make clear who is on our side, and impose clear punishments on those who are not.


The Latest