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Put the Brakes on Any Rebound of the U.S.–Turkey Relationship

President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
We should not let recent news distract us from Ankara’s record of human-rights abuses or from its descent into outright authoritarianism.

Is Turkey America’s friend or foe? In recent years, the answer has been far from clear, and that should have a bearing on how we view two recent events. The first is the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. And the second is a court ruling that resulted in the release of U.S. citizen and Protestant preacher Andrew Brunson after nearly two years of detention.

The two events reflect the first positive high-level bilateral cooperation between the countries in recent memory, after years of a slowly declining relationship. Our ties with Ankara reached a crisis point earlier this year when the Trump administration imposed sanctions on two Turkish government officials in response to Brunson’s imprisonment. It was the first time that the U.S. Treasury Department had sanctioned a NATO ally. This unprecedented event finally triggered the collapse of an already weak Turkish lira. But do recent events reflect structural changes in Turkey that should merit a shift in our strategic relationship?

The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has put Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a particularly tight spot. He lacks Middle Eastern partners as well as major international allies to push back against what increasingly appears to be a serious transgression of Turkish sovereignty. Erdogan’s regional alliances lie in tatters after his gamble on building a coalition around Muslim Brotherhood governments in Egypt and Tunisia went awry as the Arab Spring soured. In Europe, the Turkish government’s scapegoating of Germany and the U.S. for domestic gain has strained relations with NATO partners. Given Turkey’s isolation, it’s no surprise that over the past two weeks Ankara has been cautious in its official declarations against Saudi Arabia, looking for whatever international partnerships might allow Erdogan to escape this mess domestically unscathed.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, has aptly noted that this is exactly the thought process that has inspired Ankara’s systematic leaking of new details regarding Khashoggi’s apparent death and dismemberment. The Turks have likely been hoping that steady pressure might cause a U.S. realignment, without forcing the Turks to commit in advance to a head-on conflict with a regionally powerful Saudi Arabia.

That many of these leaks have appeared in newspapers such as the Daily Sabah, which is little more than a mouthpiece for the ruling Justice and Development Party, should give us pause. I do not mean to suggest that the less than independent Turkish media are necessarily wrong about Khashoggi’s fate, only that these reports have been employed by Erdogan, who is not a well-known supporter of free expression, for unsavory political gain.

Over the past two weeks Erdogan has manipulated the Khashoggi story for exactly these reasons. A week and a half after Kashoggi’s disappearance, Yasin Aktay, Erdogan’s adviser, first began publicly suggesting that Khashoggi’s murder was the result of a conspiracy by the Saudi deep state. This shift in narrative culminated in a phone call between Erdogan and Saudi’s King Salman last Sunday, with Erdogan likely providing the Saudis a face-saving off-ramp in return for economic concessions and a serious shakeup of the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia has now accepted responsibility for the killing, claiming that it had occurred without the knowledge of the Crown Prince. Between autocrats, it seems, anything can be forgiven for the right price.

Over the past week, Trump shamefully embraced this manipulation of the facts repeatedly postulating that “rogue elements” within the Saudi government were responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. At best, this was the result of a major miscalculation of the strength of the U.S. negotiating position with both nations. Erdogan already faced a fragile domestic situation, given the ongoing economic downturn. That he has frequently blamed the economic crisis on a global conspiracy against Turkey means that the Saudi violation of Ankara’s sovereignty elicited great public disquiet, even in conservative corners of Turkish society. In ignoring domestic discontent, the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to capitalize on Erdogan’s isolation and domestic anxiety to take the moral high ground by demanding that the Turks release the incontrovertible evidence they claim to have of Khashoggi’s murder. Instead, if the tapes are released on Tuesday, as Erdogan has threatened, it will likely be perceived as a public-relations coup for Turkey’s new sultan.

By promoting the ridiculous narrative that supports a potential agreement between Erdogan and the Saudi royal family, Trump has demonstrated that in the face of a major violation of international norms, he cares solely about maintaining a profitable status quo. In taking such a position, he risks frittering away what little reputation the U.S. retains as a global promoter of democracy and liberalism.

Domestic support for a change in U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia already exists. A bipartisan group of 22 U.S. senators, including Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, have swiftly triggered an investigation into whether Saudi officials must be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. This is far closer to the right approach on Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration can do better than simply buying into Turkish or Saudi schemes.

Despite this lost opportunity, other signs of a rebound in U.S.–Turkish ties are evident. On Saturday, after insisting that there had been no deal for Brunson’s return home, President Trump tweeted that there was “great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!” Without significant concessions, such an improvement in our relations with Erdogan’s Turkey seems extraordinarily foolhardy.

Since the attempted coup in July 2016, Erdogan has rapidly guided Turkey’s descent from illiberal democracy into full-blown autocracy. For the last two and a half years he has ruled the nation through a series of extraordinary emergency laws, which have allowed him to purge much of Turkish civil society. Among other measures, he removed 107,000 people from public-sector jobs and imprisoned another 50,000 individuals on dubious terrorism charges. In 2017, for the second year in a row, Turkey was the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists. Caught up in these human-rights abuses and bogus trials are other U.S. citizens and three U.S. foreign-service nationals. That these men aren’t “great Christians” seems to mean that their plight has largely been overlooked by both the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration. It shouldn’t be.

Serkan Golge is a NASA scientist and senior researcher at the University of Huston. In his work on radiation in space he sought to make it safer for astronauts on the International Space Station. Already imprisoned for two years, he has been sentenced to serve an additional five, after a trial that lacked credible evidence. Metin Topuz and Hamza Ulucay, both facing pre-trial detention, are locally employed staff who have served the U.S. mission in Turkey with dedication for 20 and 37 years, respectively. It is the linguistic, cultural, and political knowledge of such local people that makes our international diplomacy possible. Their confidence in the U.S. must not be betrayed by our apathy for their fate. According to ABC News, Trump was prepared to play hardball for Pastor Brunson’s release, shuttering the American Embassy if necessary. The administration has yet to exhibit the same outrage over the mistreatment of Golge, a U.S. citizen, and the harassment of our local staff.

We must also not reward Erdogan’s unrepentant excision of free thinkers from every corner of Turkey’s public discourse. He has created a culture of fear, with the country’s own share of journalists living in Khashoggi-like self-imposed exile. What’s more, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization stands accused of actions not dissimilar to those of the Saudis. It has abducted over 80 Turkish citizens living abroad, to make them stand trial for their association with the Gulenist movement, a religious organization that Turkey blames for orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt.

Further, in contemplating the direction of our relationship with Turkey, U.S. policymakers must pursue a coherent regional strategy. We should be deeply concerned by the damage any secret deal made by the Trump administration for Brunson’s release would have on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, there almost certainly was a quid pro quo for Brunson, as was reported in the days running up to his departure from Turkey. Although the specifics of a deal have yet to emerge, we have some clue as to what it might include, given a similar agreement that fell through in August.

That deal would have let the highest levels of the Turkish government, and its banking system, off the hook for aiding Iran. This would be a particularly bad precedent to set at a time when the U.S. is attempting to re-impose sanctions on Iran. If the sanctions are to work, it is essential that Iran not have access to friendly banks — in Turkey, Lebanon, or Syria — that would help its financial system replenish quickly depleting U.S. dollar reserves or that would assist in illicit oil sales.

The danger of any U.S. embrace of Erdogan’s Turkey is obvious. We would risk overlooking serious human-rights violations, undermining U.S. promotion of liberal and democratic values abroad, and compromising any semblance of a coherent regional policy. Rather than emboldening Erdogan through friendly rhetoric and appeasement, the president should seek to secure the freedom of unjustly imprisoned U.S. citizens and consular staff who have not yet been championed by his tough talk.

Theo Knights — Theo Knights is a graduate of the University of Chicago and holds a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, with a focus on modern Turkey.

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