U.S. steps on partner Turkey’s toes in their complicated dance

The United States has made a few unnecessary missteps in its ongoing diplomatic dance with NATO partner Turkey in the last few days.

The first was the Feb. 9 open letter to U.S. President Joe Biden signed by 54 of 100 senators calling on Biden to press human rights issues with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The letter was drafted by Republican Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, with Wyden appearing to be the lead in this effort. Although more Democrats than Republican senators signed the letter, the undersigned reflected a truly bi-partisan mix.

Wyden’s office summarised the letter citing Erdoğan for “marginalising domestic opposition, silencing or co-opting critical media outlets, purging independent judges and replacing them with party loyalists, and jailing scores of journalists”. In this way, it echoed many of the complaints of Turkish citizens and foreign human rights groups who decry the security measures imposed by Erdoğan since a failed coup in 2016 as having undermined respect for the rule of law and civil and political rights. But in the details, we find the reason for a rather testy reaction from the Turkish government, and a misstep.

The letter notes that “Erdoğan has also attempted to pressure the U.S. and other countries into extraditing Turkish nationals, whom he blames for the failed coup in 2016. The Erdoğan government has sought to silence critics in the United States like Enes Kanter, an NBA player and human rights advocate, by going after his family in Turkey and placing an Interpol red notice on him”.

Left unsaid is the name of one of those Turkish nationals that the government of Turkey is seeking to extradite from the United States - Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen - and Kanter’s public affirmation that he is a member of Gülen’s Hizmet organisation, which Turkey considers as a terrorist group.

Many if not most Turks agree with their government that Gülen masterminded the July 2016 coup attempt (unlikely from my point of view) and that many of his pious followers were involved in the failed putsch (a well-established fact).

The continuing U.S. refusal to extradite Gülen from his Pennsylvania residence and not to designate Hizmet members as criminals or terrorists rankles the Turkish government. For some Turks, it is akin to the Turkish parliament praising the Proud Boys and other rioters who broke into and vandalised the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Subsequently, on Sunday, the State Department released a statement regarding Turkish hostages held by the PKK in northern Iraq that were killed during a Turkish operation to rescue them. It makes an oblique reference to the possibility that the Turks died not at the hands of the PKK, but otherwise, that is, by gunfire from the weapons of their would-be rescuers. It implied that the PKK does not bear full responsibility for the death of the Turkish hostages it held. This reference was unnecessary and foolish - one can only hope that it was composed by ill-informed and inexperienced State Department staff still grappling with the transition from Team Pompeo to Team Blinken. In response, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry for a standard diplomatic ‘tongue-lashing’.

Whether in response to these missteps (likely) or because it was previously planned (unlikely), Secretary of State Blinken spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Monday. Given the geo-strategic importance of Turkey and its status as a NATO ally, and the many contentious issues roiling the relationship, this phone call almost four weeks into the Biden administration seemed a bit overdue.

In an effort at damage control, the State Department’s press spokesman noted that Secretary Blinken “…affirmed our view that PKK terrorists bear responsibility”. This is correct. Even if the hostages were killed by so-called friendly fire from those trying to rescue them, the PKK terrorists bear full responsibility for their deaths. Also, the earlier statement had stated that the PKK was “a designated terrorist organisation”, a rather limp phrasing. Blinken calling the hostage takers “PKK terrorists” is much stronger, and appropriate, leaving no doubt that the United States agrees with Turkey that PKK members are terrorists and should be treated as such.

The other points mentioned in the statement reflect the ongoing issues - Syria, the S-400 missile system, democratic institutions, human rights - without going into details. It ended on a positive note by voicing support for exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece.

The Biden administration has no control over U.S. senators, and the meaning of Hizmet, Fethullah Gülen, and efforts to extradite Gülenists to Turkey are likely lost on most of them. Sadly, few of them appreciate the real and deep trauma on the psyche of Turks exacted by the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, which included bombing parliament, quite a bit more violence than that visited upon the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

But the Biden administration does control the statements of State Department press spokesmen. Fully aware that there are contentious issues between the United States and Turkey, care must be taken to avoid unnecessarily offending a geostrategic NATO ally at the crossroads of democratic governance and authoritarianism lest we push them along the wrong pathway. Also, as the United States and Turkey continue their complicated dance with each other, stepping on the partner’s toes does not help, and could lead to a new dance partner taking the floor.