The fundamentals of the security cooperation between Turkey and the United States have been seriously challenged and undermined by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which deliberately and systematically has driven quite a wedge between the long-time allies. As a result, tactical maneuvers and interim deals that were worked out after intensive talks are not able to heal the wounds that keep infecting bilateral ties. Rather, US engagement with Turkish officials is often abused by Erdoğan to justify his massive crackdown on rights and freedoms and legitimize his government’s actions that threaten stability not only in Turkey but also in its neighborhood.
The track record of the former US ambassador to Turkey, now ambassador in Afghanistan, John Bass, is a good example of how the appeasement of Erdoğan failed to ease the tremendous stress on frayed ties between the two countries. Going after US Ambassador Frank Ricciardone, who was viciously vilified and demonized by the regime in the aftermath of major corruption probes in 2013 that incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and business and political associates. Erdoğan even publicly threatened to expel him and targeted the embassy in public speeches.
With the approval of the State Department, Bass changed tack and tried to maintain a low profile. His public comments were reserved and at times appeared to have played lip service to the host government while the silencing of the media and stifling of free speech were escalated further. The US ambassador even distanced himself from Erdoğan’s foes with a view to softening Turkish officials’ anti-US rhetoric and gaining more access to Turkish leadership. Yet none of this worked to stabilize the ties. He not only shared the fate of his predecessor when his pictures were plastered all over the front pages of newspapers controlled by Erdoğan, but he also witnessed one of the worst moments in US-Turkish relations when local employees of US diplomatic missions were detained on dubious charges.
Bass may be in Kabul now, but Erdoğan’s shadow looms large over him, and his cronies continue to haunt the American envoy in Afghanistan. Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu leveled serious allegations against Bass during his testimony to the Planning and Budgetary Commission in Parliament. “We not only have the Syrian problem but also another problem, which is irregular migration that originates in Afghanistan. Let me tell you this clearly and openly. Here the United States is coming out with a new game [against us]. Who is the American ambassador in Afghanistan? He was the ambassador [in Turkey] during the July 15 coup [attempt]. Now, when did hashish production increase the most? After he [Bass] went there. Here is another question: When did irregular migration from Afghanistan increase? After that man went there. As if they [Americans] brought peace to Afghanistan. Turkey is under intense pressure from migration on its eastern front, and the Americans are behind it. This is very clear, I’m telling you quite openly. Who is governing Afghanistan? Who is administering it? We all know who.”
The Turkish minister then bragged about how his government had managed to deport some 26,000 Afghan migrants by putting them on planes in 2018 and said irregular migrants reached 90,334 this year compared to 45,259 last year. He also highlighted figures on hashish production in Afghanistan, which climbed to 900,000 tons in 2017 from 200,000 in 2002, when the Americans occupied the country. The increase between 2016 and 2017 was 63 percent, corresponding the transfer of Bass from Turkey to Afghanistan. The Turkish interior minister also accused the US of using terrorist organizations including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as proxies to wage a battle against Turkey. Most of these allegations had been raised by Soylu on various platforms including TV interviews before, but this one represents by far the most comprehensive and direct targeting of the US government.
Most importantly, both Erdoğan and his ministers really believe in these conspiracy theories, some of which are of their own making, although at times they deliberately promote these stories to scapegoat the United States for the shortcomings in their own administration. In many cases these false stories were incorporated in politically motivated indictments against US interests, and judges often approve baseless allegations in the form of legal verdicts. Almost all media outlets under the control of the regime echo similar sentiments and amplify for the Turkish public what Erdoğan and his cronies like Soylu are saying in their speeches. This divergence in the narratives coming out of Washington and Ankara represents the real barrier standing in the way of normalizing and stabilizing US-Turkish relations, which are poisoned every day by Erdoğan and his gang.
This narrative and conviction that the US aims to harm Turkey takes its toll on policy actions as well. Erdoğan is openly defying the US on Iranian sanctions, engineering mechanisms to pivot Turkey to the Russian and Iran axis and undermine the fight against ISIL, al-Qaeda and other violent jihadist groups in Turkey’s neighborhood. It is time to stop the policy of appeasement and put some real pressure on Erdoğan and his coalition partners in neo-nationalist groups, one that will secure results, limit the damage to Turkey’s relations with the US and put the country back on the right track. That can only happen with a containment policy, followed by targeted sanctions that will undermine the inner circle of his regime and dismantle his patronage system that enriches political and business cronies.
What the Trump administration appears to be signaling is a “one step forward and two steps back” policy when it comes to Turkey. In fact, when the United States imposed sanctions on Soylu in August 2018 over the case of detained American pastor Andrew Brunson, followed by limited economic measures, it secured the release of Brunson in October. Then the US de-listed the Turkish minister at a time when there are still several American citizens unjustly kept in Turkish jails and tens of thousands of Turks are behind bars on dubious charges. Commenting on the removal of his name from the sanction list, Soylu said it was part of yet another American plot and that the Turkish government sees clearly what the Americans are up to. He said the award announced by the US for the capture of three top Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) commanders effectively means that the US equates Turkish ministers with terrorists.
As one can see, there is no winning the hearts and minds of the current Turkish leadership no matter what when they are totally blinded by ideological zealotry, captives of their own fears and prejudices and continue to engage in a blame game to deflect criticism of their own actions. It is high time to play hardball and keep playing until the end.