US President Barack Obama criticized Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over an ongoing media crackdown and the dismal state of democracy in Turkey, and reminded that democracy is not just about elections, in what seemed to be sharp criticism of the Turkish leader ahead of a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in China on Sunday.
Speaking to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria at an interview to broadcast Sunday evening, Obama spoke about political affairs in Turkey — a key US ally in the fight against the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — since a botched coup attempt on July 15.
In the strongest words yet from the Oval Office, Obama said Turkey is going through a political and civil earthquake and that how the country rebuilds itself is very important.
His comments reflect the anxiety in Washington as Turkey’s entire state structure has been reshaped by Erdoğan through massive purges never before seen in republican history. As of today, nearly 150,000 public servants, judges, generals, police officers, teachers and all kinds of officials from every state institution have either been dismissed, detained or arrested.
More than 40,000 officials have been detained while half of them have been arrested and jailed pending trial.
“… Erdoğan began his career as a democrat and a reformist. The danger for any leader is that the longer you stay in power, you have to constantly remind yourself of the values you came in with,” he told Zakaria, in a veiled reference to Erdoğan’s long time in power. “If Turkey cracks down on journalists … if dissident voices, civil society lose more and more space … the mere act of voting is not the only part of democracy.”
“The rule of law, the freedoms of the press and assembly — those are part of democracy as well,” Obama said.
Despite Ankara’s uneasiness over its ally’s critical views about Turkey’s domestic affairs, Obama underlined that giving honest feedback is important as a friend. “… [W]e want to give them honest feedback if we think the steps they are taking are going to be contrary to their long-term interests and our partnership,” Obama said.
His sharp criticism directed at Erdoğan’s handling of the press comes at a time when more than 100 journalists have been put in jail on what critics say are politically motivated charges, while scores of media outlets have been shut down and the press credentials of 115 journalists have been canceled.
The scale of the crackdown is unprecedented and so enormous that critics say Erdoğan has destroyed the very foundation of press freedom.
While the US expresses dismay at the highest level, with Obama pointing to the deteriorating state of the media and democracy in Turkey ahead of a meeting with Erdoğan, the American president, however, said there has been no diminishing effect on security relations.
He stressed that Turkey is a strong NATO ally against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The US offered support for the Turkish incursion into Syria to clear its border of ISIL elements. While Washington is wary of Turkey’s potential clash with US-allied Kurdish militia in northern Syria, it expressed unwavering backing for the campaign against the extremists.
“US forces struck ISIL targets near Turkey’s border in Syria last night via newly deployed HIMARS system,” Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the coalition fighting ISIL, said on his Twitter account.
HIMARS refers to a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System.
The deployment of HIMARS in southern Turkey in late August came after a contingent of Turkish forces and tanks rolled into Syria in a joint operation with Ankara-backed rebel groups to take control of Jarabulus and to seal the border from extremists.