Turkey’s opposition presidential candidates and their views on the future of Turkish-US relations
Ankara-Washington relations have been going through a rough patch lately. There are several issues that pose critical challenges including Syria, Fetullah Gulen, Iran and future of NATO among others. Here is what Turkey’s opposition presidential candidates think about the future of the US-Turkish relations.
Muharrem Ince, the firebrand opposition candidate of the center left who is a former physics teacher has mostly focused on the repatriation of cleric Fetullah Gulen back to Turkey in his criticism of the United State. Gulen has been charged of conspiracy to overthrow an elected government in the July 15th, 2016 failed coup attempt by building parallel state structures in the military and judiciary. Ever since, Turkey has repeatedly called for the U.S. federal authorities to hand Gulen back to Ankara with no result.
Ince claims that Erdogan is not serious about his intentions to have the cleric back in Turkey as Gulen would then reveal his contacts in Erdogan’s regime whom he collaborated with while establishing universities, setting up financial institutions and appointment of state governors along with promotion of pro-Gulen generals in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). Ince pledges that once elected as president, in the case of continued non-cooperation from the U.S. over the subject of Gulen extradition, he will give an ultimatum to Washington, DC and that Ankara may as well give a nice Christmas gift to Washington so that the U.S. troops stationed in the Incirlik Air Base can spend their winter holidays with their families back in the States. Ince, later on in another interview, denied the claims that he suggested the closure of the U.S. Incirlik base, in Adana, a south city of Turkey.
Another issue where Ince diverges from the NATO line is Ankara’s recent deal with Moscow to purchase of S-400 Missile Defense System that has caused friction between Turkey and the United States. It is rumored that the U.S. Congress may actually block the delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Ankara in retaliation. Ince pledges his commitment to the contract with Moscow, citing his trust to the chiefs of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces as they have decided on the necessity of the missile defense system to bolster Turkish national security. Ince also disagrees with the U.S. policy on Iran on grounds of maintaining the balance of power in the Middle East. He claims that the U.S. will not be able to manage the conflicts in the region by weakening Iran, Turkey and Syria. Mr. Ince argues that for the resolution of conflicts in the region, Middle Eastern countries need stability, not U.S. intervention.
Muharrem Ince, during a live interview on FOX TV in May, said “Turkey’s direction will be pointed to the West,” when asked if he will take the side of Eurasia and Russia over NATO and the West.
Meral Aksener, the experienced female leader of the center right nationalist Iyi Parti, on the other hand, explicitly commits to Turkey’s continued NATO membership. Akşener's party program cites NATO as a necessary security umbrella Turkey joined in the aftermath of the second world war and that the NATO membership does not weaken Ankara’s national security.
On the closure of the U.S. Incirlik Airbase, Aksener is open to negotiation with Washington. However, Aksener argues it’s not clear whether U.S. and Turkey are on friendly terms or not. She is not happy about the lack of transparency and how the future of US-Turkish relations are negotiated currently beyond close doors and away from public scrutiny. She questions the promises made by Ankara to attain U.S. support for its policies in Syria and elsewhere and asks if the future status of the divided island of Cyprus was on the negotiation table or what promises have been made to the American Agro-Business giant Cargill about the privatization of Turkey's state-owned sugar industry. Aksener is openly criticalof Erdogan regime’s hypocrisy in criticizing Washington for domestic audience while shaking hands behind closed doors. On the issue of repatriation of cleric Gulen back to Turkey, Aksener argues that “Uncle Sam” is not going to hand him back to Turkey as the shelf life of Gulen is not over yet.
Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-chairperson of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is currently in prison. Demirtas visited Washington, DC frequently before his arrest in November 2016. During his visits to the U.S. capital, Demirtas met with former State Department Counselor Ms. Kristie Kenney and current Chargé d’ Affaires at US Embassy in Turkey Phil Kosnett.
At the time, when asked about his visits to Washington, Demirtas had responded that it was a much better idea that the U.S. listens to HDP’s side of the story when it comes to the resolution of the Kurdish conflict than that of Erdogan regime, while emphasizing that they don’t mean to task Washington with the resolution of the Kurdish conflict nor ask for support for the democratic transformation of Turkey. It’s also important to note that in his election manifesto that he penned in his prison cell, Demirtas pledged to keep global and regional powers away from interfering in the Middle East political affairs. Demirtas is very critical of the unwavering U.S. support to the Israeli policies in the region, of what he calls practically the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and defends Palestinians’ right for an independent Palestinian state. Demirtas is also the only pro-unification presidential candidate on the future status of divided Cyprus.
Temel Karamollaoglu, (77) is the oldest among the presidential candidates and openly rejects the Islamist policies of the Erdogan regime, which he calls corrupt and hypocritical and instead prefers to call himself a plain Muslim. Karamollaoglu questions the relevance of Turkey’s membership to NATO, arguing that the NATO has to redefine its mandate in the 21st century if it’s sincere about Turkey’s continued membership. The veteran Muslim politician underscores that the NATO declared Islam as its enemy after 9/11, undoing its original mandate to build peace in the free world.
Karamollaoglu questions how Turkey could still be in a member of a security organization which constantly targets Muslim countries. He suggests to re-negotiate Turkey’s membership terms with NATO rather than leaving the organization altogether. Karamollaoglu is not shy about criticizing U.S. President Trump, calling him a trouble-maker for world politics after he pulled the U.S. out of a number of international agreements, particularly Washington's decision to pull out of the JCPAO with Iran, calling it an unprecedented dangerous development for world peace.
Dogu Perincek, the former Maoist, current neo-nationalist Eurasianist fringe presidential candidate, is a vocal supporter of the Erdogan regime’s recent foreign policy choices. Perincek argues that once he is elected president he will reject the U.S. sanctions on Iran and further improve the cultural and trade relations between the two countries.
Perincek argues that the U.S. will not be able to harm the strong relations Ankara is building with Russia, China, Iran, Central Asian countries and India. Perincek argues that despite U.S. opposition, growing relations with Asia will culminate into Turkey’s full membership into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Perincek suggests that Ankara’s Eurasianist path is firmly set, and for that matter no U.S. conspiracy will be able to change its direction. Perincek criticizes NATO for putting Turkey on its target, and claims that under his presidency Turkey will leave NATO and take control of the Incirlik Airbase and other U.S. military bases on Turkish soil.
It’s not hard to see growing skepticism about the future of Turkish-American relations across Turkey’s center and fringe presidential candidates. One needs to keep in mind that the Erdogan regime’s non-transparent negotiation style with Washington further contributes to this growing sentiment in Turkish politics. Regardless of who is elected as Turkey's next president, U.S. relations need to be re-evaluated on different platforms.