Navigating the US collision course with Turkey

In a rare public policy speech in mid-December, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster singled out Turkey as one of the two leading state sponsors (alongside Qatar) of “radical Islamist ideology.” The Turkish government protested the statement as “astonishing, baseless and unacceptable,” which means it was a pretty good start. McMaster’s speech highlighted the emergence of the pernicious threat in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey.

Since McMaster’s speech, Erdoğan invaded Afrin (controlled by a U.S. ally) in Syria, resulting in the massacre of women, children and the elderly; promoted the use of child soldiers in his fight against the Kurds; and was found to have undermined U.S. sanctions against Iran. Largely missing from this discussion is why the United States continues to allow Erdoğan’s malign behavior in the region, and more important, what policymakers should do about it.

A Manhattan Federal District Court guilty verdict against a Turkish banker accused of helping Iran evade sanctions speaks volumes about the growing threat posed by Erdoğan’s Turkey. Although Erdoğan was not charged in the case, “testimony suggested he had approved the [defendant’s] sanctions-busting scheme” to launder billions of dollars for Iran beginning in 2012, according to the New York Times.

That Erdoğan was secretly weakening U.S. sanctions right when Iran was feeling the pinch should come as no surprise. He has been repositioning Turkey as an adversary of the United States for years — covertly aiding ISIS in Syria (before switching sides on a dime to align with Russian forces), overtly embracing Hamas terrorists, flooding Europe with migrants, and hosting an international summitcondemning U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to name just a few of the lowlights.

While wishful thinkers still hold out hope that U.S.-Turkish relations are strained by short-term concerns and eventually will rebound, a growing chorus of voices led by Daniel Pipes believes that “Erdoğan’s hostile dictatorship” has passed the point of no return and cannot be reconciled with American interests and values. Erdoğan’s increasingly brutal methods of governance, particularly since a July 2016 failed coup attempt against his regime, is wholly unbecoming of a NATO ally. In late December, he issued an emergency decree that effectively legalizes politically-motivated lynching.

For Washington, it is time to both up the ante in seeking a course correction by Erdoğan and to prepare for the worst. This path forward should be guided by the following basic principles.

No more silence

Since Erdoğan goes out of his way to lambaste the United States at every turn, Washington should make a practice of not holding back when it disapproves of his behavior.

The United States should speak out against Erdoğan’s continuing oppression of minority Kurds, in Turkey and in neighboring Syria and Iraq. In particular, it should call for the release of Kurdish political leaders jailed by Erdoğan, such as Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). It should invite Kurdish representatives to visit Washington for high-profile meetings at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.

No more favors

Last June, the United States International Trade Commission issued a report finding that Turkey has been subsidizing the sale of steel reinforcing bars (rebars) in the United States, a judgment that ordinarily leads to the imposition of anti-dumping tariffs. As of yet this hasn’t happened, but it must.

More serious penalties await Turkey for purchasing the S-400 missile system from Russia last year, which clearly ran afoul of new U.S. sanctions on Russia (the manufacturer has been explicitly blacklisted by the State Department). The White House should immediately put to rest speculation that it intends to waive these penalties.

No more trust

Whichever direction Erdoğan’s ambitions take Turkey, one thing is certain — his regime cannot be trusted with sensitive military technology and intelligence. The United States should expel Turkey from the nine-nation consortium producing the next-generation F-35 fighter jet. The risk that the plane’s technological secrets will find their way from Turkey to Russia or Iran is too great.

The United States should remove dozens of nuclear weapons presently stored at Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. Although adequate safeguards are in place, these weapons serve no practical purpose (aircraft stationed at the base cannot load them) and their continued presence might be misconstrued as a U.S. endorsement of Erdoğan’s reliability as an ally.

No more second chances

Erdoğan’s government arrested more than a dozen American citizens of Turkish descent (along with tens of thousands of its own subjects) in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt — including a NASA scientist who happened to be visiting family — on unspecified suspicion of involvement. Most were denied consular access until recently and at least seven are still being held — as hostages, more or less, with Erdoğan offering to trade them for the extradition of a political rival living in the United States.

While on a May 2017 visit to Washington, Erdoğan ordered his security detail to viciously attack peaceful protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence. A similar, equally appalling episode happened when he visited in 2016.

Washington must make it crystal clear to Erdoğan that egregiously violating the laws of the United States, the sanctity of its soil, or the rights of its citizens one more time will result in immediate sanctions banning him and his lieutenants from stepping foot in this country (or inside one of its embassies) ever again.

In conclusion, while Turkey’s relative political stability, economic strength and military power make it a desirable ally, they also make it a formidable enemy. Now is the time to make it clear to Erdoğan and his subjects that America no longer plays nice with its enemies.

Originally published on Middle East Forum:

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Gregg Roman is an investigative journalist and Director of the Middle East Forum.

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