Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Rough patch in US-Ankara relations

US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Turkey stirred much resentment among the ruling Erdogan clique, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Turkey is a country ruled by law and it has a constitutional system. People residing on its territory should keep this in mind,” declared Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Among the intended recipients of this message are a number of foreign ambassadors to Ankara who refuse to turn a blind eye to practices they regard as undemocratic and at odds with the prevailing principles in their own countries, which Turkey ostensibly seeks to emulate.

Chief among these ambassadors is Francis Ricciardone’s successor as US ambassador to Ankara, John Bass, who has frequently levelled harsh criticism against the Turkish government’s increasing restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression, the siege against journalists and intellectuals, and the wrongful imprisonment of the same.

Were it not for the trouble it would cause, Erdogan would probably have expanded the recipient list for his message to include official guests who, during their visits, should respect protocols and keep their noses out of his country’s business. The guest he had foremost in mind recently was none other than US Vice President Joe Biden, who dropped by on Friday and Saturday two weeks ago.

It must have warmed the hearts of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) snubbed an invitation to attend a meeting between Biden and members of Turkish civil society groups and opposition parties because prominent Kurdish figures would be present.

The meeting had AKP leaders seething. For one, top officials from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) were there. In the currently standard lexicon and literature of the ruling AKP and its media machine, this pro-Kurdish party has now become a synonym for treason, incitement to strife, secessionism and every nasty name in the book that can be dredged up from the not-so-distant past.

The powers that be in Ankara are determined to create a pretext for closing the HDP down or — at the very least — trim it down to a more convenient size by having the parliamentary immunity of its leaders lifted (with obvious consequences). This way, the HDP can be pushed back below the 10 per cent parliamentary threshold in time for the next general elections that are in the works, despite all the AKP protestations to the contrary, for next autumn, according to the predictions of many sources, all for the purpose of realising Erdogan’s vision of a new Turkey and presidential system.

As though Biden had not sufficiently crossed the red line by also meeting with journalists who are in the government’s black book, he also met with key opposition figures, most notably the well-known Kurdish political and human rights activist Leyla Zana. Zana caused a scandal when she was sworn in as a parliamentary deputy years ago by modifying the oath of office to call for Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood and delivering the last sentence in Kurdish.

By the time that Biden made a phone call to the family of the imprisoned editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dündar, AKP officials and their leader began to see red. Dündar’s newspaper ran an expose on the involvement of Turkish intelligence in illegal deliveries of truckloads of weapons, disguised as medical relief, to Syrian “opposition factions”. After the edition hit the stands, Erdogan vowed that Dündar would pay the price and, sure enough, within days, the journalist was carted off to prison.

During the phone call, Biden praised Dündar’s courage. True, he did not intervene in Turkey’s domestic affairs, but the message was clear enough. The Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief, the head of the newspaper’s Ankara office, and dozens of other imprisoned journalists should be immediately and unconditionally released.

Those who were present at that meeting with the US vice president quoted him as saying that freedoms of expression and the press were values that did not apply to the US alone, but were shared aspirations common to all of mankind. He was also cited as saying that when “more than 1,000 academics are accused of treason simply by signing a petition, that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set”.

Biden referred, here, to the arrest of more than a dozen academics and the investigation proceedings that have been initiated against over a thousand others for having signed a petition calling for peace in southeast Anatolia.

Biden’s meeting and remarks testified to what the Cumhuriyet describes as a clear divergence in views and attitudes between the White House and President Erdogan. The former, although it officially brands the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist organisation and stresses the need for it to lay down arms and halt acts of violence, has shown very little enthusiasm for Ankara’s move to halt the dialogue that it initiated two years ago to reach a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.

In fact, Biden criticised the interruption in the peace process as a mistake in his talks with Erdogan who, for his part, ruled out the inclusion of both the HDP and the PKK in peace talks, begging the question as to who exactly Ankara would talk to?

Another central issue has contributed to the growing distance between Washington and Ankara: the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Contrary to Ankara, the Obama administration does not consider the party to be an extension of the PKK. Rather, it is a party that has been successfully fighting the Islamic State (IS) group, which poses the greatest danger — not to Turkey and the US alone, but to the entire world.

Evidently, Biden was on a roll in the expression of his views, which extended to another feather-ruffler, namely Turkey’s large Alevi minority, which has complained of government discrimination. Biden suggested that firm and rapid measures are needed to remedy this problem.

“The US rejects the policies of Erdogan and his government,” proclaimed a headline in the Sözcü. This was the first time a senior official in the US administration criticised domestic Turkish affairs in such a manner, the newspaper observed. More amazingly, this occurred in advance of his talks with both the president and the prime minister.

The Sözcü went on observe that Biden urged the continuation of the parliamentary system in Turkey, as opposed to the presidential system that Erdogan seeks, because he, too, is aware that Erdogan has already managed to assert his control over all institutions of government, especially the security agencies and public education. All these institutions now operate in accordance with his directives.

As a result, Turkey now stands on the brink of a dictatorship ready to resort to all means of repression, a condition that will become entrenched in the event that the current system of government is changed to a presidential one. At that point, Turkey will have become a bad model for all other countries in the region, a development that would be dangerous for Turkey and for its allies, particularly the US.

Summing up the situation, Haydar Çakmak, professor of international relations at Gazi University, observed that Erdogan’s policies at home and abroad are simply wrong. Day after day, they are driving the country into the danger zone. Freedom of expression and the press do exist, he said, but only for the pro-Erdogan, pro-government media.

The moment that a writer or journalist levels criticism against the president or his government they will find themselves dragged before the courts and facing prison sentences. As the famous Turkish novelist Elif Safak put it, anyone who criticises the president is branded a “traitor” and “enemy”.

Professor Çakmak added that Turkey is moving in a direction opposite to that which the US and EU would like to see. This is the main cause for Turkey’s mounting isolation. Already, it no longer has a friend left in the Middle East and, if it continues as is, it will face a very bleak future.

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