An anti-Erdogan storm is brewing in Washington
“My way or no way.” That is perceived to be the brand of politics pursued by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Or so many of Turkey’s Western allies believe.
It’s true that Erdogan has seen international relations as an area in which he could test his will and has resorted to extreme measures when his assertive approach didn’t work.
A report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think-tank, is relevant in this regard.
Titled “Erdogan’s Hostage Diplomacy: Western Nationals in Turkish Prisons,” the report is written by senior analyst Aykan Erdemir and a former US Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman. The 36-page document is a chilling read. It dwells on the threat to solutions-oriented international diplomacy, especially when staunch allies are at odds.
The disarray caused by Turkey in recent years has had almost entirely to do with Erdogan’s “My way or no way” attitude. It has blurred NATO’s modus operandi and affected the battle against jihadism. By manifesting increasing hostility towards the West, Erdogan found new allies within Turkey’s old order. That is the group of Eurasianist ex-officials and Kurdophobic, militarist civilian politicians on the far-right. They have long been sceptical of the United States and the European Union. As far as they are concerned, Erdogan’s push away from Western norms is fine.
The report sheds light on the darkest aspect of these policies: the Western nationals thrown into Turkish prisons for charges that law experts find ridiculous, kept as potential swap elements, whom Erdogan hopes will “soften and tame” those governments he sees as messing with him and his close circles. The FDD report makes a key point about the unexpected fallout of Erdogan’s “My way or no way” approach. It became a trap for some Western capitals that chose a policy of appeasement because of Turkey’s strategic position.
At least two American citizens are now in Turkish jails, both detained on sensational charges. Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor from North Carolina, tended a tiny congregation in Turkey for more than 20 years. He was arrested in the fall of 2016, months after the attempted coup. Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American physicist who worked for NASA’s Mars programme, was also detained in 2016.
The minister is accused of being a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the armed Kurdish group that Turkey regards as a terrorist group. The charges say Brunson wanted to establish a “Christian state under the PKK.”
As for Golge, those who know the scientist say he was sentenced to nearly eight years in prison for plotting to overthrow the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
It’s not only about American citizens. “More than 30 Western nationals have been jailed in Turkey following the coup attempt and at least nine remain in prison as of June 1, 2018,” the report stated.
“Under the state of emergency, they could be legally held up to seven years in pretrial detention, with limited access to legal or consular support and are not entitled to attorney-client privilege… Increasingly, another aspect of these mass arrests has emerged: Since last summer, American and European officials have on several occasions condemned Turkey’s ‘hostage diplomacy’ — efforts by the Turkish government to make political bargaining chips out of Western prisoners arrested in Turkey since the coup.”
The report is a reminder that those arrested since the failed coup, many of them political prisoners, number more than 100,000. It seeks to answer the “What to do now?” question. As it says, this hostage diplomacy is not only hurting Turkey’s global standing but also propelling its transatlantic partners to consider sanctions against Ankara. More and more understand that discreet talks at a bilateral level and “appeasement” do not work.
Erdemir and Edelman note: “The Turkish president has chosen to bargain with each country according to his agenda, using his hostages as leverage to gain concessions. The United States and the European Union need a coherent, transatlantic strategy to counter Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy, not only to ensure the release of Western nationals in prison but also to prevent other incidents in the future.”
Edelman is a powerful figure in Washington’s inner circles. He is at the forefront of promoting tit-for-tat policies and he is not alone. Almost the entire US Congress is up in arms. It’s worth noting that Brunson is from the same religious denomination as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
I spoke to the report’s other author, Erdemir, a secular young Turkish politician declared persona non grata in Turkey, and it’s clear that a storm is brewing in Washington. In the US capital, Erdogan and his aides are seen as delusional about the effects of targeted sanctions via the Magnitsky Act on high-level AKP figures and their families.
The question, however, remains: What will happen if Erdogan and the AKP win the elections on June 24?
There are no easy answers.