Could U.S. force regime change in Turkey?

The United States should launch a series of policy moves that could help oust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to a former top U.S. official who sees Turkey’s longtime leader as a despot under whom Washington’s relations are unlikely to improve. 

U.S. President Donald Trump and Erdoğan met at the White House on Wednesday, after which Trump declared the Turkish leader “my dear friend” and said a $100 billion trade deal was still possible, but conditioned good U.S.-Turkey relations on resolving the issue of Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 are defence missiles.  

Since Turkey’s northeast Syria offensive began Oct. 9, hundreds of people have been killed and more than 300,000 displaced. Erdoğan’s plan to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees in what he calls the safe zone he hopes to carve out have led to accusations of an attempt at ethnic cleansing. 

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. military officials saw on video Turkey-backed rebels targeting civilians in northeast Syria, which the officials reported as possible war crimes. This followed earlier reports of roadside executions and white phosphorous use by Syrian jihadists backed by Turkey.

Yet the Wednesday talks and press conference in Washington passed with Erdoğan receiving no censure or sanctions for Syria and facing minimal criticism.

“Trump is weak and easily manipulated. Erdoğan has found a way of doing that,” David L. Phillips, director of Columbia University’s Program on Peace-building and Rights, told Ahval in a podcast. Phillips served as a senior adviser at the State Department under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. 

In an opinion piece on Tuesday, Phillips called Erdoğan a despot and detailed crimes committed by Turkey-backed rebels against Kurdish civilians in the northwest Syrian district of Afrin last year and argued that last month Trump essentially endorsed a Turkish pogrom against the Kurds. 

“There’s a pattern of atrocities that has existed for some time,” said Phillips. “Crimes that his Free Syrian Army mercenaries commit in his name are Erdoğan’s responsibility, the FSA is under Turkey’s command.” 

Phillips outlined a series of policy moves that would effectively marginalise the Turkish government and potentially lead to a regime change there. Firstly, the United Nations or other independent body should be urged to hold Erdoğan to account. 

“Erdoğan shouldn’t be in the White House, he should be in The Hague facing judges for the crimes he’s committed,” said Phillips, adding that he and others are gathering data on war crimes in Syria.

Secondly, the U.S. Congress should move forward with measures against Turkey for its S-400 purchase under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, and a second sanctions bill for its Syria offensive. 

“Both of those should be moving forward. Turkey only responds under duress,” said Phillips. “Right now Turkey is no friend of the United States; we should stop pretending it is. The only way to move Turkey’s behaviour is to get tough with Erdoğan. I just don’t think Trump has the character to make that happen.” 

A third step would be for the United States to get its nuclear weapons out of the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey. 

“We shouldn’t have 50 nuclear weapons on Turkish soil, and Incirlik has already become redundant,” said Phillips, pointing to U.S. bases in Jordan and the Gulf. “I don’t think we lose much if Incirlik shutters its doors and the U.S. discontinues its cooperation there.” 

This might be a relief for Turkey’s NATO allies in Europe, for whom the threats coming from Turkey are clear. On Tuesday, Erdoğan warned the European Union about its plan to sanction Turkey for its drilling in eastern Mediterranean waters claimed by Cyprus. “Beware,” Erdoğan said, “we have 4 million refugees, we have ISIS terrorists in custody.”

Phillips described that threat as “disgusting” and said the fourth step would be moving Turkey’s EU accession talks from suspended to terminated. 

“Losing Turkey is not such a big deal,” he said. “We’re prepared to bear that cost, in order to galvanise the public in Turkey in service of an alternate regime.”

Phillips is confident that principled Turks would express their disdain for Erdoğan even in the face of government pressure. Though he did express concern that Erdoğan would expand his purge, which has led to the dismissal of some 130,000 public servants and placed more than 50,000 people in prison, and his assault on free speech, which has left hundreds of journalists, activists, and opposition politicians imprisoned or on trial.  

On Wednesday, Erdoğan’s government dismissed four more mayors of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), bringing the total number of the pro-Kurdish party’s mayors dismissed since the March local elections to 20.

“Since the so-called coup of 2016, Erdoğan has turned Turkey into a giant gulag,” said Phillips. “It’s time to see Turkey as it is, not as it used to be or how we wish it were.” 

One risk of this U.S. policy, mentioned by Senator Mitch McConnell and others, is that punishments like harsh sanctions and expelling Turkey from the programme to build F-35 fighter jets drive Ankara into the arms of Moscow and leave the U.S. in a weaker position in the region. 

“Turkey is already embraced by Russia,” said Phillips, pointing to Moscow and Ankara working together in Syria, the S-400 deal and conducting talks on Turkey buying Russian Su-35 fighter jets. 

Others fear that U.S. opposition to and punishment of Ankara would play into Erdoğan’s political narrative that the West has it in for Turkey, which could boost his support and help keep him in office, potentially making Turkey less democratic. 

“Turkish politicians have always played this card, they conjure up adversaries both at home and abroad in order to marshal nationalist support,” said Phillips. “I don’t buy the argument that Turks will rally around Erdoğan if we get tough with Turkey. I think the exact opposite is true.”

Might Turkey’s leader of more than 16 years be vulnerable? “His power at home is diminishing as new generations of Turks demand more freedoms and splinter groups from his own party are entering politics,” Aslı Aydıntaşbaş wrote in the Washington Post on Tuesday. 

Erdoğan’s likeliest challenger, Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, takes his first steps onto the world stage this week, visiting London on Thursday and Friday to meet top officials including the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, and finance executives from the likes of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Barclays, and sitting down for a high-profile interview with Bloomberg. 

A survey published last week found Erdoğan’s support at 48 percent, its highest since mid-2018. But a survey out this week found a significant drop in support for Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), with 32 percent of those polled saying they would vote AKP, down from the 42 percent that voted for the party in 2018. 

“We’ve already lost Turkey, and as long as Erdoğan stays as head of government the prospect for U.S.-Turkey relations to improve will remain limited,” said Phillips. “We need a regime change, not only in Turkey, but in the United States, to put this relationship back on track.”