Erdoğan represents a villain for Biden and team, says D.C. scholar

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “represents the villain” for U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden in his classification of world leaders, Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Merve Tahiroğlu told Ahval’s Yavuz Baydar in an interview.

The Biden administration is likely to resemble that of former U.S. president Barack Obama in seeing “the world in terms of ‘democrats and autocrats’: People who commit human rights abuses with impunity, and people who try to govern better and more democratically,” Tahiroğlu said, a stark contrast from President Donald Trump’s administration.

Biden’s December interview with the New York Times editorial board riled up a storm in Turkey, with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) circles blasting Biden’s comments as putschism, and the opposition, for the most part, reacting strongly against Biden’s remarks that he would support the opposition against Erdoğan. Many opposition figures came out declaring Biden’s comments foreign interference, and denounced his support.

“This is a really strange reaction coming from the Turkish opposition,” Tahiroğlu said, “to act as if Joe Biden was suggesting that he was trying to do a regime change in Turkey, given that the opposition had not seen any kind of support or even acknowledgement from the Trump administration for the last four years.”

Throughout his presidency Trump, in contrast, has been “completely appeasing authoritarian leaders, like Erdoğan but also like Vladimir Putin of Russia,” Tahiroğlu said, as he “self-declaredly does not care about the democratic process or governance around the world, or human rights abuses.”

Leaders like Erdoğan “have been able to sort of get away with all their transgressions, their power grabs and human rights abuses,” due to Trump’s attitude, she continued.

Biden’s interview resurfacing after months and dominating the agenda in Turkey “bears the hallmarks of a typical misinformation campaign to change the narrative,” away from the economic and diplomatic crises the country is currently facing, according to Tahiroğlu.

The case against Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank will be one of the key topics in United States-Turkey relations if Biden is elected, as the lawsuit against a sanctions busting scheme with Iran is set to continue in March.

Turkey could make a moral case regarding Halkbank, but not a legal one, Tahiroğlu said, adding, “At the end of the day, Halkbank did circumvent and evade U.S. sanctions, and it did it through money laundering and bank fraud, using U.S. banks and jurisdiction.”

The case “is a national security concern for the United States, and it will be tried as such,” she said, adding that Turkey “should really try to come up with a legal argument,” instead of trying to discredit the judge, jury and prosecutors involved with it.

“That is just not a good look – it’s unprofessional and conspiratorial,” Tahiroğlu added.

In terms of foreign policy, Turkey’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean are not solely about the country’s need for natural gas, Tahiroğlu said. If that were the case, the recent discovery in the Black Sea would have calmed down the tense situation. “There almost was a military confrontation last week,” between Greece and Turkey, she added.

Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, like its actions in Syria, have perpetuated “a particular threat” and “the potential conflict” in the eyes of Greece and the United States respectively – “Just like Turkey’s actions in Syria creating a constant threat of an accidental or planned clash between Turkish and U.S. soldiers.”

Stoking the flames of the Mediterranean crisis is also “a really good distraction from what is actually happening inside Turkey right now,” Tahiroğlu said, referring to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has seen a new surge in daily cases, and Turkey’s economy with Fitch downgrading Turkey’s outlook last week.

“The Turkish economy is not going to recover with these kinds of short-lived good news declarations,” she said. “It may save the particular day, but it is not necessarily clear that it’s going to save the week.”

The newly discovered natural gas generating enough revenue to cover Turkey’s current account deficit, as Finance Minister Berat Albayrak said it would, “is simply not true,” Tahiroğlu added.

Turkey has been holding talks with Russia and China for coronavirus vaccine trials, with Russia exclusively for the next delivery of S-400 missile defence systems, which has already created serious tensions between Turkey, the United States and NATO.

“Then Erdoğan brings in the leadership of Hamas,” Tahiroğlu said.

Among the Hamas leadership visiting Turkey was Saleh Al Arouri, “a man that the United States government has a bounty on and is looking for,” she continued.

“Just looking at these headlines,” she said, “really gives an indication where Erdoğan is trying to take Turkey geopolitically.”

Turkey is building new friendships -with Hamas, Venezuela, and Iran- that will cost Erdoğan “the trust of the transatlantic community,” she said. Such a shift causes Turkey’s old allies to congregate around its rival in case of a dispute, and because Western leaders “know how aggressive Erdoğan can be,” they discuss how to prevent the Turkish president from causing more destruction.

Turkey’s recent stance has been a wish for true independency,

“They want Turkey to be able to pursue its own interests and whatever strategy it wants in the world without any strings attached,” Tahiroğlu said.

Due to Turkey’s position between Europe, Russia and the Middle East, a shift away from NATO “really means more dependence on Russia. And Turkey has become more dependent on Russia,” Tahiroğlu said.

“But you can’t be truly independent, and be in a military alliance with the United States and Europe, with NATO,” she said.

For Turkey to “chart a truly independent policy is a fantasy,’’ she said. “Turkey is not becoming more independent, it is just becoming more dependent on worse actors on the international stage.”