Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut will meet Secretary Antony Blinken today to discuss worsening relations between Turkey and the United States. Over three decades of interacting with Turkish officials, I have seen how Turkey deftly feigns cooperation to maintain its corrupt autocratic regime. No beating around the bush with Cavusoglu. Bilateral relations require transparency, especially when addressing sensitive subjects.
Turkey was historically a trusted and pivotal ally. US and Turkish troops fought side-by-side in the Korean conflict. Turkey was the eastern flank of NATO during the Cold War. It rescued Kurds from Saddam’s chemical weapons attacks in the 1990s.
Since 2005, however, Turkey has become an adversary – more foe than friend. Erdogan is focused on staying in power. He wants Washington to adopt policies he can present to Turkish voters as an endorsement of his rule. Blinken must not mince words with Cavusoglu. Turkey can only redeem its relations with the US by restoring cooperation and adhering to democratic practices worthy of a NATO ally.
There is no shortage of contested topics:
Turkey should stop backing radical Islamist entities in Syria, such as Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also known as the Levant Liberation Committee, a Sunni Islamist political and armed organization known for its atrocities against Kurds and Alawites. HTS was designated a terror group by the US in 2017 and continues to cooperate with other designated terror groups such as the Nusra Front and al-Qaeda.
Ankara threatens a third land invasion of North and East Syria, targeting Syrian Kurds affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Despite Erdogan’s specious claims, the SDF is not a terror group. It is America’s valued ally in ongoing efforts to eradicate ISIS.
Turkey should publicly demand that Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev, a close confidant of Tayyip Erdogan, lift Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor which connects Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and Armenia. Azerbaijan has cut off food, fuel, and medical supplies through Lachin, as well as the Internet and electricity. Turkey has the clout to ensure that the Lachin Corridor is opened and stays open. The November 2020 ceasefire that ended the Karabakh war, also established a joint Russian-Turkish military outpost that has failed dismally to bring peace. As the perpetrator of the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century, Turkey has a responsibility to prevent a second Armenian genocide in Artsakh where 120,000 Armenians are subject to crimes and killings.
The Biden administration has issued a waiver of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which bans all direct aid by the United States to Azerbaijan. Section 907 makes Azerbaijan the only post-Soviet state not to receive direct aid from the US. Biden’s waiver of 907 should be rescinded if Azerbaijan continues to block the corridor. (And by the way, the waiver should never have been issued in the first place).
Hamas benefits from close relations with Turkey, which provides sanctuary inside Turkey, office space, passports, and access to Erdogan. Turkey should designate Hamas as a terrorist entity and expel Hamas members. Until Turkey repudiates Hamas and stops supporting terror groups in Northeast Syria, Turkey will stay on the “gray list” because of its money laundering and financial support for terrorism.
Turkey has become an uncertain NATO ally. With Erdogan’s support, Turkey’s Grand National Assembly is stalling ratification of Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership, which is critical to countering Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. While the US proceeds with the delivery of the F-35 stealth warplane to Greece, it mustn’t offer Turkey upgraded F-16s until Turkey abandons plans to purchase more S-400 missiles from Russia. If Turkey continues security cooperation with Russia, the US must impose sanctions as required by the Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), adopted by Congress in 2017.
Russia and Ukraine
Erdogan has cleverly positioned himself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. While Turkey deserves credit for negotiations on grain exports, Turkey cannot have it both ways. Turkey should join international sanctions on Russia, targeting Russian oligarchs who shelter their assets in Turkey, including superyachts in Gocuk. Turkey should transfer its NATO-grade weapons so Ukraine can more effectively defend itself against Russia’s aggression.
The state-owned Halkbank was convicted by the US District Court of the Southern District of New York of fraud, money laundering, and circumventing US sanctions on Iran. Turkish officials demand that the US drop escalating sanctions against the state-owned bank. The Department of Justice (DoJ) is not a grand bazaar where criminal offenses can be bartered. Blinken should make it clear that the US will not interfere in the case against Halkbank. Instead of whining about the penalty, Erdogan should admit his government’s complicity and pay the multibillion-dollar fine.
Turkey must stop threatening Greece and Cyprus. Blinken should reaffirm US support for the EastMed pipeline and the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, a trilateral partnership between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, which has expanded to include Egypt and Jordan. Blinken should also reaffirm Washington’s support for the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, which was passed in December 2019. Moreover, Blinken should warn that the US will expand penalties if Turkey continues to threaten military action in the Eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan must also stop threatening to unilaterally discard the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which defined the borders of modern Greece, Turkey, and other countries emerging from the Ottoman Empire.
Erdogan has turned Turkey into a giant gulag, detaining journalists, security officials, and public sector employees whom he accuses of complicity in the so-called coup of 2015. Article 301 of the Anti-Terror Act, which Erdogan uses to crack down on dissent by criminalizing criticism of “Turkishness” should be rescinded. Charges against opposition politicians such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, should be dropped. If Turkey is to regain its place as a trusted western ally, Ankara must guarantee a free and fair national election in July 2023.
Blinken can maintain US credibility by rejecting transactional diplomacy. Bargaining with Turkey would be a disaster for those directly affected while undermining US interests. It is a fine line, but Blinken is more than capable of talking tough and advancing conciliation.
(David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations)