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The chasm between Washington and Ankara grows wider by the day. President Biden’s decision to keep a campaign promise that his predecessors made and then ignored — namely, to recognize the Armenian genocide that took place during World War I — is only the latest source of tension between the two governments. Ankara still plans to deploy the Russian-built S-400 air defence systems. As a result, the United States has sanctioned Turkey and booted it from the F-35 consortium that is producing the fifth-generation fighter.

The influence of human rights advocates within both the Biden administration and the Democratic Party, especially on Capitol Hill, promises to further inflame the U.S.-Turkey relationship. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once seen as the embodiment of moderate Islam, has transmogrified into an autocratic nationalist, very much in the mould of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he now consorts. 

According to the State Department’s 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, released in March, Erdoğan has jailed tens of thousands of purported political enemies, including journalists, civil servants, lawyers and human rights advocates. He has undermined the country’s judicial system. His military operates inside Iraq and Syria with impunity. And he has cleansed that military of suspected oppositionists, jailing hundreds of active and retired officers.

Indeed, in April, the government detained 10 retired admirals for allegedly organizing a statement signed by 103 retired naval officers that underscored the importance of the 1936 Montreux Convention regulating the passage of commercial and military ships through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus. The signatories were writing in reaction both to Erdoğan’s plan to build an alternative waterway to the north of Istanbul that would bypass the Bosporus, and to his musings about withdrawing from the Montreux Convention. The government’s response was to assert that the nature of the statement was similar to statements the military issued in the past prior to attempting a coup.

Erdoğan’s behaviour forced even the Trump administration to comply with the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act and ban on all U.S. export licenses and authorizations to the Republic of Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries. Former President Trump, true to his predilection for cosseting autocrats, maintained decent relations with Erdoğan and stalled for some time before implementing the congressionally-mandated legislation.

Reflecting his administration’s emphasis on human rights, Biden held off speaking to Erdogan until last week. Nor has Biden given any indication that Washington will ease the sanctions that are further weakening a Turkish economy that is in free fall because of the impact of COVID-19 and Erdoğan’s mismanagement of the country’s economic and monetary policy. Indeed, whereas Biden has promised to send vaccines to India, he has said little about assisting Turkey, which on April 28 announced that it would receive 50 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine.

The Biden administration’s focus on human rights is a throwback to the Obama years, and perhaps even more so to the policies that the Carter administration advocated in the late 1970s. Many Biden nominees — most notably Samantha Power, who will lead the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) — are Obama veterans with strong records of human rights advocacy. Democrats in Congress — Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who was Obama’s assistant secretary of state for human rights and democracy, and others — likewise have criticized Erdoğan’s human rights record.

Republicans have not challenged Democrats’ criticism of Erdoğan because they resent his cozy relations with Putin, his support of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and his hostility toward Israel. Indeed, Jewish groups have vocally criticized Erdoğan not only because of his Middle Eastern policies but also because of his occasional anti-Semitic remarks. Fear pervades the country’s small Jewish community, much as it does for Jews in Iran.

In spite of Erdoğan’s record, Turkey remains an important ally of the United States. It is a key member of NATO, having its second largest military (after the U.S.) and a maritime border with Russia. Somehow, Washington and Ankara must find a modus vivendi. Erdoğan has begun to soften his Middle Eastern stance by reaching out, albeit tentatively, to Israel and Egypt, which shares Jerusalem’s resentment of his support of Hamas and the Brotherhood. The key to any American rapprochement with Ankara, however, would have to be some sort of arrangement regarding the S-400s, as well as Erdoğan’s initiating a process of releasing journalists, military officers and civil servants from jail.

Solving the S-400 challenge may prove less difficult than satisfying American human rights concerns. Erdoğan could disarm the air defence system and guarantee that no Russian personnel would maintain it. On the other hand, a release of prisoners would require Erdoğan to step back from his iron-fisted rule — a dim prospect indeed. Yet, if he does not do something about his abominable human rights record, even an agreement regarding the S-400s will not resolve the friction with the Biden administration.

As long as human rights are a policy priority for the White House, Turkey will remain in Biden’s bad books until Erdoğan cleans up his act.

Note:  This article was originally published in The Hill on 30 April 2021 and has been reproduced with the permission of the author. Web Link

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy