Washington stands "shoulder-to-shoulder" with the students

"The U.S. prioritises the protection of human rights and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with all those fighting for their democratic freedoms," said a government spokesman in Washington with a beady eye on the repression of student protests. Just a short time later, the State Department issued a written statement demanding the "immediate release" of Osman Kavala.

The philanthropist and activist has been in detention since 2017 on a number of spurious charges including being one of the masterminds behind the Gezi protests. Kavala is one of the most prominent figureheads of Turkish civil society; known for many years far beyond the country’s borders as a symbol of the peaceful resistance against a government that behaves in an increasingly authoritarian manner.   

Ankara’s response to the American appeal was abrupt: "Turkey is a state of law. No state can give orders to Turkish courts on judicial proceedings," was the statement issued by the Turkish foreign ministry. The president’s response was even more drastic and bereft of any diplomatic consideration.

In comments aimed squarely at Washington, Erdogan said: "Do you not feel any shame in the name of democracy over the events that took place in the U.S. before the elections? You hit a record high in racism. How are you going to explain this?" the president fumed in typical style, responding to criticism of Turkey by hurling counter accusations and sometimes even insults at the opposing side.

In a tit-for-tat response – diplomats would call it reciprocity – Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu chose this precise moment to dust off the old accusation that Washington was behind the failed coup attempt of July 2016. These "unfounded and irresponsible" claims are not consistent with Turkey’s status as NATO member and strategic partner of the U.S., was Washington’s immediate rejoinder.

Police presence in front of Bogazici University (photo: Fatima Celik/DW)
Police presence in front of Bogazici University in Istanbul: students protested after the appointment of an Islamic conservative AKP man as the new rector of the university in January 2021. The Turkish state reacted with arrests, raids and police violence. The new U.S. administration backed the students, signalling a new tone towards Ankara. "The U.S. prioritises the protection of human rights and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with all those fighting for their democratic freedoms," said a government spokesperson in Washington, referring to the repression of the student protests

Red rag: missiles from Moscow

The war of words between the two government documents the decline in bilateral relations. A point of contention that radiates beyond the interstate level and generally overshadows Turkey’s relationship with the western defence alliance is the Russian S 400 missile defence system. In defiance of the Americans, Ankara acquired the modern weapons system and put it into operation last October.

For Washington, Erdogan’s arms deal with Putin was a red rag from the outset. The Americans fear that commissioning the missiles may grant Moscow insights into western military technology. During the final days of the Trump administration, Congress imposed economic sanctions on Ankara in response.

In the sum of all parts, the row over the S 400 probably weighs most heavily on an already strained relationship. "We continue to urge Turkey not to retain the system," a U.S. government spokesman insisted. The Americans were swift to reject a Turkish proposal to set up a working group to consider a compromise.

The S 400 episode is emblematic of the advanced stages of estrangement between Ankara and Washington. The Americans view the weapons acquisition in Moscow as a serious blunder that must be addressed before normal business can be resumed. The Turks say they bought the Russian weapons because the West prevented them from acquiring similarly powerful military equipment – or in other words Patriot missiles.

At the present time, it remains to be seen how Ankara will react to Washington’s tougher stance. What is apparent is that the Turkish government aims to steer its equally strained relationship with the European Union into calmer waters with a diplomatic "charm offensive".

Erdogan is also in the Europeans’ bad books – not least because of Ankara’s aggressive policies in the eastern Mediterranean. Under threat of sanctions, the situation on Europe’s southeastern border has now eased. The Greeks and the Turks are back at the negotiating table largely due to mediation by the German government.

While Ankara can prepare for a more conciliatory stance from the Europeans in the coming weeks and months, a significantly brusquer tone must be expected in interactions with Washington.

But whether Biden’s new policy approach will induce a political change of heart in Turkey, is an entirely different matter. A retrospective appraisal of the Obama years shows that Ankara is fully able to resist western pressure.

Moreover, President Erdogan can also reap positive benefits from the looming political confrontation with Biden. It first and foremost bolsters his ambitions to present Turkey as emergent independent regional power. The row with Washington fits nicely into the friend-foe mindset prevalent in Turkey. A recent opinion poll showed that more than 60 per cent of Turks view the U.S. as the most dangerous threat to their nation.

Crossing swords with Washington brings domestic policy advantages.

Ronald Meinardus

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

More on this topic