Turkey's combative ambassador to Washington is reassigned

The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced a reshuffle of its ambassadors abroad, and one of those being replaced is Turkey’s ambassador to the United States Serdar Kılıç. His successor was announced to be Murat Mercan, the current Turkish ambassador to Japan. 

Kılıç has served in Washington since 2014, where his tenure became defined by his combativeness against critics of Turkey. In a sense, he grew into a fitting frontman for the new, tenser U.S.-Turkish relations that marked the past few years.

“As ambassador, Kılıç was well suited to an era in which Ankara wasn’t trying too hard to make any friends in Washington,” said Nicholas Danforth, an expert on Turkey and senior visiting fellow at the U.S. German Marshall Fund.

During his tenure as ambassador, U.S.-Turkish relations reached a series of new nadirs. The list of crises included American support to Syrian Kurdish combatants considered terrorists by Turkey, Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system and the unwillingness of U.S. authorities to extradite Fethullah Gülen, a self-exiled Islamist preacher the Turkish government accuses of instigating a failed coup in 2016.

Beyond policy differences, Turkey’s reputation in the United States has plummeted dramatically. The country and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have become shorthand for authoritarianism to many in Congress and the Beltway foreign policy community. Serving in a deeply polarised period of U.S. domestic politics exacerbated this perception, owing to President Donald Trump’s perceived catering to Erdoğan’s demands even at the expense of American interests. 

In this environment, Kılıç has been a ready executor and defender of Erdoğan’s agenda in the United States. 

To compensate for Turkey’s bad image in Washington, the embassy under Kılıç built up its network of well-connected D.C. lobbyists to advocate for its interests. At times, the lobbying campaign has involved working with questionable individuals including Imaad Zuberi, a venture capitalist and political insider with a vast network of contacts in Congress.

In 2015, Kılıç asked Zuberi for help in killing a resolution condemning media censorship in Turkey. The resolution, H.Res.279, ultimately died in the House Foreign Affairs Committee without getting a vote after Zuberi convinced one of its sponsors to turn against it.

In October 2019, the venture capitalist was indicted by federal prosecutors on charges of tax evasion, obstruction of justice and concealing his lobbying work. There was no mention of any work for Turkey in the indictment.

Kılıç was in many ways representative in this new environment, which may in part explain why the usual three-year tenure for ambassadors was extended to six. His combativeness however has not been productive in improving U.S.-Turkish relations than it has been in alienating his country further. 

The former head of the Turkish Heritage Organisation (THO), Halil İbrahim Danışmaz, complained to Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s finance minister at the time and Erdoğan’s son-in-law, about Kılıç’s behaviour and how ineffective the ambassador's service was, according to a set of leaked emails from Albayrak's inbox. The THO is a U.S.-based think tank accused of being very close to the Turkish government.

The embassy serves Turkey’s main conduit for understanding its most important ally, but it only grew more insular under Kılıç. In part, this reflected the Erdoğan government’s disdain for contact with any experts or officials it deemed too critical of it in Washington, a number that only increased as relations soured.

To this end, the embassy restricted who its diplomats were allowed to interact with, leaving it only with insights from pro-Erdoğan organisations and experts in the United States, according to Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

With Trump’s defeat in November, Turkey has shown signs of concern ahead of President-elect Joe Biden being sworn into office in January. Biden has been a vocal critic of Turkish foreign policy, and he is expected to ground relations with Turkey back on an institutional level, away from the personal level that defined them during the Trump era. 

Mercan, Kılıç’s slated replacement, is Turkey's first political appointee to assume the ambassadorship in Washington. Unlike Kılıç who served in the Turkish Foreign Ministry for decades, Mercan was a founding member of the ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) and a close ally of former Turkish President Abdullah Gül.

However, Mercan has experience and connections in Washington from his time as the head of the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee and as deputy energy minister. He has been described as almost an opposite of Kılıç: a moderate and disciplined politician, both online and offline.

Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), described Mercan’s appointment as a sign that Erdoğan is looking to reset relations with the incoming Biden administration.

“As Erdoğan can no longer rely on Trump to shield Turkey from U.S. sanctions, litigation and expects stronger pushback from the Biden administration, he is hoping can ameliorate the growing anti-Turkish sentiment in the U.S. capital,” Erdemir said. 

Erdemir noted that Mercan’s appointment is in some ways a continuation of Erdoğan’s preference for allies he trusts over career diplomats.

“He continues to consolidate foreign and security policymaking at the presidential palace and rely on a narrowing circle of loyal party members to determine Turkey’s course.”