What Biden must tell Erdoğan at next month's NATO summit

There have been strong words coming out of Turkey ahead of a planned bilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. Last week, a senior adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to “cut off the heads” of Turkey’s challengers and warned Biden: “This June’s (NATO summit) meeting is the last chance for our beloved ally, America.”

Erdoğan went even further, accusing Biden of having “blood on his hands” for supporting Israel. Any other world leader would simply cancel the talks, scheduled on the margins of the NATO summit on June 14.

Biden and Erdoğan are sure to have a contentious conversation. The Turkish premier is still fuming over Biden’s recent statement affirming the Armenian genocide. The NATO meeting is still, however, an opportunity to discuss the rules-based international order. But as well as expressing U.S. concerns over Turkey’s aggressive behaviour in the region, Biden should also highlight Erdoğan’s poor human rights record at home.

For example, Turkey should repeal Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Act and Article 301 of the Penal Code, which make it a crime to “denigrate Turkishness” and are used to target political opponents.

Turkey should also release Osman Kavala, the chair of Anadolu Kultur, a nonprofit arts and cultural organisation, who has been charged with espionage and a growing number of other offenses since 2017. Releasing Kavala and other political prisoners would boost confidence within Turkish civil society, which is increasingly disillusioned under the Erdoğan government. 

Erdoğan may try to establish a link between the issues and the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, whom he blames for the failed coup in July 2016. Gulen, who has lived in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania since 1999, must not be extradited without irrefutable evidence linking him to the coup.

Turkish state-owned lender Halkbank, which ran a scheme to circumvent sanctions on Iran, is another sticking point. Erdoğan wants to influence the trial so Halkbank can avoid a big financial penalty. However, the case is being held in the Southern District of New York, where judges will determine Halkbank's guilt or innocence.

Treatment of the Kurds is another major concern. Since 1980, Turkey has banned five major Kurdish political parties. It is currently exploring a new closure case against the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Turkey should release HDP leaders including former co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. Over 150 elected HDP officials, removed from local government and replaced by government “trustees”, should also be reinstated.

More than 40,000 people have died during conflict between the state and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which aspires to greater political and cultural rights for Kurds within Turkey. There is no military solution to the Kurdish question. Instead, Erdoğan should renew the peace process with international mediation.

Erdoğan’s former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, espoused a policy of “zero problems with neighbours”. But today, Turkey finds itself in conflict on all sides. In the eastern Mediterranean, Turkish warships challenge claims by Greece, Cyprus and Israel to natural gas reserves. Biden should urge Turkey to avoid confrontation, respect the territorial integrity of neighbouring countries and cease destabilising cross-border military operations.

In Syria, Turkey has imposed a 20km ‘security buffer’, where its jihadi mercenaries continue to attack the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the United States’ boots-on-the-ground. Similarly, the 2018 Turkish invasion and occupation of the neighbouring Afrin region killed hundreds and reduced Kurds from 90 percent to less than 35 percent of the local population.

An accountability mechanism is urgently needed for jihadist mercenaries – Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Syrian National Army (Hamzat, Sultan Murad, and Al-Amshat divisions), and Samarkand – who loot, extort, rape and commit murder. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry reports more than 150 cases of abduction, rape and/or murder in Afrin, including the rape of 30 women in February 2020.

Turkey blocks humanitarian aid to northern Syria and disrupts water and electricity supplies to the local population. It is also pushing for the SDF to be excluded from international peace negotiations, including the U.N.-led Constitutional Committee. And at the same time, Turkey is discouraging U.S.-backed unity talks involving the SDF and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria.

In Iraq, 41 Turkish military bases have been set up and 50 local villages destroyed under the pretext of fighting the PKK. Turkish warplanes have targeted the U.N. refugee camp at Makhmour, home to about 13,000 Kurds. Turkish F-16s and drones have also attacked the Sinjar region, the historic home of the Yazidi minority, which is still struggling to recover from genocide at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Biden should tell Erdoğan that if Turkey continues bombing, the United States will enforce a no-fly zone in the skies above Iraqi Kurdistan. He should also warn Erdoğan to stop supporting proxies such as Sunni Turkmen militias in Kirkuk Province and Sunni Arab militia forces in Ninewa.

The transfer of drone technology from Turkey to Azerbaijan also needs to be halted. Turkish drones have been increasingly used by Azerbaijan since it invaded the ethnic-Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh on Sept. 27, 2020.

Russian meditation helped bring an end to the conflict, with a statement that included a call for all prisoners of war and affected people to be able to return to the region. Instead of complying, Azerbaijan has invaded Armenia itself. Last week, it penetrated 3.5km into Armenian territory, displacing more of the local population.  

Russia’s problematic intervention sidelined the OSCE Minsk Group, the traditional international forum for resolving the conflict, and marginalised the United States. Meanwhile, Russian “peacekeepers” continue to tolerate Syrian and Libyan mercenary forces deployed by Turkey alongside Azerbaijan.

Turkey uses NATO membership to excuse its bad and bellicose behaviour. To suppress U.S. criticism, it threatens to revoke access to Incirlik air base in southeast Turkey, a major staging ground for counter-terrorism operations.

Upping the ante, Erdoğan has threatened to seize fifty tactical nuclear weapons stored at Incirlik. The United States has alternatives to Incirlik, such as facilities in Cyprus, Jordan, Romania, and aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, which must be considered with growing urgency.

NATO is more than a security alliance. It is a coalition of countries with shared values. Biden must make this clear when he meets Erdoğan, whose government is Islamist, supports terror groups, violates human rights, and shows contempt for the West.

If Turkey applied for NATO membership today, its application wouldn’t even be considered.

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.)