Noah Ente: A time for reckoning on Turkey

Sunday, November 3, 2019 - 11:57am

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In the last few weeks, there’s been an appropriate uproar in reaction to President Donald Trump’s misguided decision to withdraw American military personnel from Syria. After years of combating the Islamic State and fulfilling our promise to the Kurdish people in the region, the president engaged in the same failed duck-and-run Middle East policy that has failed in the past few years. It is a decision that has rightfully been condemned by Republicans and Democrats and should be reversed before it’s too late.

Yet, a recognition of Turkey’s newly revealed true colors has ultimately been lost amid considerations of the current state of affairs in the conflict-filled corridor of northeastern Syria. Often considered a long-time ally of the U.S., Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were eager to cross the Syrian border and begin to sow chaos at the whim of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Amid analysis of these new facts on the ground, we must reconsider American-Turkish relations and where the two countries truly stand today.

Toward the beginning of the Cold War and with the creation of the Marshall Plan, U.S. President Harry Truman offered military and economic assistance to Turkey, as well as other countries that America saw as being at risk of falling behind the Iron Curtain. In 1952, Turkey was voted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to further protect it from Soviet interference. At the time, it appeared that once Turkey had entered NATO, it would operate as NATO states did: Turkey would support the will of the U.S. and the West in rhetoric and policy, and remain a loyal ally.

For much of the next few decades, Turkey did just that. For instance, Turkey provided logistical support to the U.S. in their military efforts during the Gulf War. In a region that has been among the most unstable in the world, Turkey served as a model of consistency and Western-style democracy, which a previous defense chief in Ankara once called a “universal value.” 

In the last few years, however, Turkey has failed to live up to its purported code of ethics. For two years, Erdoğan kept Turkey under a national state of emergency, in which the military took control of the state, and human rights abuses were rampant. Dissidents were jailed and anyone deemed hostile to Erdoğan and his rule were censored, or worse, after a failed coup against the president. The state of emergency ended in July 2018, but the government has not changed its ways. A 2018 report by the U.S. State Department detailed the ongoing issues in Turkey with regard to their treatment of political dissent, and it painted a bleak picture for a country that was once seemingly a home for democratic values.

Erdoğan’s totalitarian, abusive leadership has also created direct issues with the U.S. In 2016, Turkish authorities arrested American Pastor Andrew Brunson on charges of espionage and for allegedly playing a role in a failed coup in July. Just last October, Brunson was released from prison and allowed to return to the U.S. In efforts to free Brunson, Trump threatened sanctions against Turkey. Eventually, Turkey obliged and sent Brunson home. This exchange was just one instance in which the U.S. and Turkey have been at odds in the last few years.

Erdoğan often challenges the international order by saying that “the world is bigger than five,” insinuating that he should have influence equal to that of U.N. Security Council members. In his quest to gain this influence, he has been unafraid to befriend U.S. opponents. With Turkey appearing to get closer to Iran and Russia, Ankara is once again proving that, when given the chance, it will only make life harder for U.S. officials in Syria. The Kurds — a people whom the U.S. had relied on for military support against Islamic State fighters — are Erdoğan’s main target due to his claims that they have links to opposition forces in Turkey. With the U.S. out of the picture, Erdoğan’s units are preparing to carry out attacks against these American-friendly fighters.

It is time that the U.S. and the rest of NATO begin to honestly evaluate the actions of Turkey and its pivot toward embracing forces hostile to the international order. While Turkey remained an important strategic partner for some time, it is now taking advantage of its past graces and the U.S.'s goodwill. At home, Erdoğan has consistently failed to govern according to the values Ankara once claimed to hold dear. Abroad, the Turkish government has ceased to be an effective and loyal ally and has proved that Turkey will only look out for its own interests.

Such a country is dangerous to have as an enemy, but it is arguably more frightening to have as an ally. If NATO members cannot count on their fellow countries to promote peace and prosperity, who can they confidently trust? It is vital that the NATO community holds Turkey and its power-hungry leader accountable and, if necessary, provide consequences for their behavior. If Ankara and Erdoğan are to become bigger players in global affairs, they must play by the rules.

Noah Ente can be reached at noahente@umich.edu.