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Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Turkey-US tunnel

Erdogan had hoped for some congratulatory words from Washington when he won the recent presidential elections. It was not to be

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Friday 13 Jul 2018
Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: Reuters)
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When his victory was announced, crowning him chief of a type of presidential system never before seen in the democratic world, his media prepared for the congratulations that would flood in from the four corners of the earth. Instead, there came a dribble. European institutions, moreover, continued to slam the general and presidential elections as “unfree and unfair.”

Erdogan and his entourage must have anticipated the cold European reception of his “feat” of beating an opposition in such an uneven contest that one of its candidates had to run his campaign from jail, but they were more interested in the reaction from the White House.

Despite recent rough patches with Washington, they felt that they had cause for hope there. After all, Erdogan stood up against the tide of opinion in his country and elsewhere, and said, “Donald Trump is not a dictator.” And did not Trump deafen his ears to those spurious claims of electoral rigging and congratulate him for his success in the April 2017 referendum that narrowly passed constitutional amendments that would grant him sweeping powers?

Yet here, too, they were in for disappointment. Rather than something eloquent to flaunt in the face of Erdogan’s detractors, they got a crisp sentence or two from the White House press secretary: “We respect the decision of Turkish voters and look forward to a constructive relationship with President Erdogan.” Then, both she and the State Department pointedly called on him “to strengthen Turkey’s democracy”.

Still, Ankara appears to hope for more from the transatlantic partner. Erdogan on the campaign trail might proclaim “we will not bow to dictates.

There is no turning back on the Russian missile deal!” But secretly his government, as has recently come to light, has been funnelling hundreds of thousands of dollars into PR firms and think tanks in New York and California in order to improve his image and win the hearts of folks in Congress.

Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations could not help but to remark a striking irony: “I’m surprised how closely the efforts of the Turkish government to influence discussion in Washington resemble the methods used by the Gülen movement,” he said, referring to the Pennsylvania recluse and Islamist preacher, Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding the “failed coup attempt” in July 2016.

It appears that these efforts have not paid off yet.

“Personally, I’ve been a little surprised at some of the search for silver linings in the conduct of the election,” said Nate Schenkkan, a project director at the democracy watchdog, Freedom House, at a panel discussion hosted by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington in late June.

At the same event, Sinan Ciddi, a professor at Georgetown University, said that the Supreme Electoral Board had been “compromised” and the election was an “engineered process” intended to legitimate and consolidate one-man rule.

Ciddi held that even if Erdogan fulfilled his pledge to lift the state of emergency he could “continue doing all the things under [that] name” because of his vastly expanded powers under the new executive/presidential system.

With regard to the Turkish-US relationship, Senator James Lankford, another guest on the panel, had the following to say: “Turkey is a long-time NATO ally and a friend that we don’t recognise anymore.

And, that’s been the challenge that we have as the United States. We have an ally that we no longer know and we no longer recognise. This is not an open, free government anymore and it’s someone that we have an increasingly difficult time recognising who they are.”

Lankford also spoke out against Erdogan’s “hostage diplomacy” in connection with the story of Dr Andrew Brunson.

A US citizen who had been doing missionary and humanitarian work in Turkey for 20 years, Brunson was suddenly arrested and accused of being a Gülenist — “and as a Christian pastor that was a mystery to him, how he was suddenly getting involved with the Muslim mystic”.

Brunson “has been in prison now since October of 2016, and Erdogan has made public statements that you have our holy man, we have yours. That’s not how you treat an ally.”

Five days after that electoral marathon, Erdogan met privately for over an hour with a US senatorial delegation. His guests aired their well-known concerns, but they did not receive clear answers.

Not only were congratulatory messages not forthcoming, two senators paid a visit to Manbij and were given a tour of the northern Syrian city by members of the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, the mere name of which makes Erdogan see red.

Clearly, the millions of liras of Turkish taxpayers’ money that Ankara has spent in over the past six months in the US have failed to bring around an influential segment of Congress.

They will not back down on demands for the immediate and unconditional release of Brunson and will continue to press the cancellation of the Turkish deal to purchase Russian S-400 missiles which will jeopardise Ankara’s acquisition of F-35s it ordered from Lockheed Martin to the tune of $800 million.

It therefore looks like Turkish-US relations are about to plunge into another dark tunnel. The majority of Turks may not want this, but they will have even less say in their country’s fate now that it is in the hands of a single man.

Turkey is mired in a war abroad, it lacks political stability at home and the economy is reeling. Heavily dependent on external sources of energy, it imported 3,077 million tons of oil — about 55 per cent of its oil imports — from Iran, but is preparing to look for alternatives in order to avoid unsustainable sanctions.

Some sources in the Kremlin believe that Erdogan might cave into Washington’s demands and reduce his ties with Moscow. With Erdogan, you never know.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Turkey-US tunnel

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