Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during a rally in Gaziantep, eastern Turkey, on Thursday.
The Trump administration is turning a blind eye as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidates his dictatorship. Appeasing Turkey will backfire. Appeasement will embolden Erdogan’s crackdown on human rights, undermine the US-led fight against ISIS, while pushing Russia and Turkey closer together.
In April 2017, Erdogan rigged Turkey’s constitutional referendum to establish an executive presidency and eliminate checks and balances. Erdogan is likely to prevail in Sunday's snap elections for the presidency and parliament. Elections will be held under a state of emergency. The leading Kurdish candidate for president is in jail. More than 60,000 oppositionists are detained and 150,000 civil servants fired from their jobs. Erdogan loyalists control the media. More journalists are jailed in Turkey than any other country.
US citizens have also been imprisoned. Pastor Andrew Brunson and US consular officials are held hostage as Turkey intensifies demands of the Trump administration to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher in the Poconos whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding the so-called coup of July 2016.
Erdogan is a wily and manipulative politician. He shrewdly plays Russia off against the United States. Erdogan recently announced the purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia for $2.5 billion, ignoring the Pentagon’s objections. Buying Russian missiles violates a core NATO principle – the interoperability of weapons systems between members of the Alliance.
Turkey has joined Russia and Iran in the “Astana process,” rogue diplomacy to contain Syria’s conflict that excludes the United States. Moreover, the Astana process undermines US-backed UN talks in Geneva aimed at ending Syria’s civil war and facilitating a political transition. Russia’s motivation is to preserve its bases in Latakia and Tartous. It also seeks to drive a wedge between NATO members and weaken Euro-Atlantic institutions.
Turkey and Washington are also at odds over US support for Syria Kurdish fighters, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), which have served as America’s boots on the ground fighting ISIS. More than 650 Syria Kurds died liberating Raqqa, the self-declared ISIS caliphate. According to a Pentagon spokesman, “[The YPG] fought tenaciously and with courage against an unprincipled enemy.”
Erdogan demands that the US abandon the YPG, whom he calls “terrorists.” Trump is bending over backwards to placate Erdogan. According to a recent White House statement, “US military cooperation with the YPG was a temporary, tactical arrangement aimed entirely at combating ISIS.”
Trump is an unwitting co-conspirator with Turkey and Russia, acceding to their efforts aimed at shaping the battlefield. In January 2018, the Turkish officials visited Moscow to clear the way for Turkish warplanes to enter Russian-controlled air space over Afrin, a haven for Kurds and displaced Arabs in northwestern Syria. Turkey’s relentless air strikes killed more than 1,000 YPG members. Hundreds of civilians were also killed and nearly 300,000 people displaced.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), Turkey’s proxy and an ISIS offshoot, committed war crimes, beheading Kurds, mutilating Kurdish female fighters and looting Afrin. Since “liberating” Afrin, Turkey has imposed a Taliban-like regime, requiring all women to wear a hijab.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington. Cavusoglu announced a deal to evict YPG fighters from Manbij, a YPG hub and Pentagon training base. Turkey’s demands don’t stop there. It wants the US to sanction a security belt 30 kilometers inside Syrian territory, stretching from Afrin all the way to Syria’s border with Iraq.
YPG fighters are not terrorists. Turkey is the terror state, which provided weapons, money and logistical support to thousands of jihadis who transited through Turkey to Syria beginning in 2012. Vice President Joe Biden confirmed Turkey’s role. Biden asserted, “ISIS was armed by our friends and allies,” naming Turkey.
Willfully ignorant, US officials refuse to acknowledge Erdogan’s cooperation with jihadists or criticize Erdogan’s authoritarianism. Trump and Erdogan are kindred spirits. Trump will be one of the first world leaders to call and congratulate Erdogan for stolen elections Sunday.
Erdogan plays the Russia card to leverage concessions from the United States. Washington’s acquiescence is weakness. Placating Erdogan exacerbates his anti-democratic and anti-American tendencies, undermining NATO and US strategic interests.
* David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University and a former senior adviser to both the UN Secretariat and the US Department of State.