The detention of 11 members of parliament from an opposition political party last week marked the latest step in Turkey’s transformation into a de facto dictatorship. For years, the United States has been equivocating about the consequences of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on his political opponents. Washington calculated that the destruction of Turkey’s democracy was worth ignoring to ensure Ankara’s support in the fight against the Islamic State. But last week’s arrests are a stark demonstration that this calculated risk has failed in spectacular fashion. The U.S. has no choice now but to take a more active stance on Turkey’s “internal” problems — precisely because they are not internal at all.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to which the arrested legislators belonged, is the perfect vehicle for understanding why Turkey’s political problems reach far beyond its borders. The party is the latest attempt by some representatives of Turkey’s restive Kurdish minority to press for their rights through democratic politics. But the HDP is closely tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group based across the border in Iraq that has fought the Turkish state since the 1980s. The HDP’s leaders have tried to walk a careful line of condemning some PKK attacks to establish credibility with the Turkish public, but also appearing at public rallies with PKK images, and at funerals for PKK fighters, to maintain the support of their Kurdish constituents.
The U.S. has considered the PKK a terrorist organization since 1997. In 1999, it captured its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and sent him to Turkey, where he is still imprisoned. But when the Islamic State charged across Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014, Washington found itself in need of friends on the ground. As it turns out, some of the forces best poised to challenge the Islamic State in northern Syria were Kurdish militias, known as the Self Protection Forces (YPG), that belonged to a Syrian PKK affiliate. Since October 2014, the U.S. has been trying to thread the needle of supporting the YPG in their fight against the Islamic State without alienating Turkey. It’s a tough balance, since this group, which is Turkey’s sworn enemy, is now the backbone of the United States’ anti-Islamic State strategy in northern Syria.
Washington has given Erdogan a pass on his anti-democratic crackdown to ensure his acquiescence. The United States shrugged when he closed media outlets, arrested journalists, fired hundreds of judges, squelched a corruption investigation, and blocked social media. In July 2015, it looked the other way when he trashed the peace negotiations and then re-started the war with the PKK, laying waste to cities in southeastern Turkey in a blatant bid to shore up his political standing.
But for all of Washington’s restraint, its relationship with Ankara has only deteriorated. Especially since this summer’s coup attempt, hardline nationalists skeptical of NATO and the West have been on the rise in Turkey’s security establishment. And the United States’ support of the YPG is a key reason for their skepticism, and that of the Turkish public as a whole. After quashing the coup, Erdogan felt no compunction unloading on the United States. To this day, amplified by a fierce pro-government media, senior officials accuse the U.S. of being behind the plot. Washington’s fear that criticizing Erdogan’s crackdown would alienate him proved misplaced — the U.S. is losing Turkey anyway.
The United States’ top short-term priority, the fight against the Islamic State, is also facing blowback. The U.S. is counting on the Kurds to lead an urgent effort to dislodge the Islamic State from its capital, Raqqa. Instead, Turkey has launched its own incursion into Syria, seizing a key border crossing and backing its own favored militias. Turkey’s military now threatens the YPG from the north and may cause it to hesitate in pursuing its drive against the Islamic State. Last week’s arrests are part an escalating drive by Ankara to, in its view, restore Turkey’s national security against Kurdish nationalism on both sides of the border. The eventual conclusion will be the closure of the HDP as a political party, as pro-government papers are already urging.
In sum, it has proven impossible to separate Erdogan’s drive for one-man rule from Turkey’s role in fighting the Islamic State — the United States’ top priority. The two are sides of the same coin.
So what can the U.S. do? With a new administration about to enter the White House, it is high time for a major rethink of the relationship. The idea that Turkey is a flawed but basically stable allied democracy in a “tough region” is outdated. Turkey is headed towards dictatorship under a charismatic and unpredictable leader who is willing to exploit his country’s divisions — up to and beyond the point of civil conflict — to get his way.
Erdogan will remain in power for the foreseeable future, and probably for his entire life. With this in mind, Washington needs to inject some honesty into its relationship with Turkey. The first step is to stop holding its tongue about the crackdown. The United States’ muted protests about the imprisonment of 142 journalists, the closure of independent media outlets, and the arrest of the opposition leaders are insufficient. The silence undermines its credibility in Turkey, in Europe, and in the Middle East — and it isn’t buying goodwill anyway.
The second step is on the strategic level, where the U.S. needs to make its endgame for the region clear, including its position on Kurdish rights and autonomy. Turks of all political stripes who see the United States collaborating with the YPG do not understand what the U.S. wants, and Turkish politicians and media have filled that vacuum by claiming that the American goal is to dismember Turkey. The United States should articulate a clear plan for what it thinks Kurdish autonomy should look like. It is already deeply involved in this question by supporting the YPG: It should do so honestly instead of pretending it is not a participant. The bedrock of any U.S. plan should be a durable peace agreement between Turkey and the PKK. Washington must engage with both Ankara and the PKK to try to get them back to the negotiating table and provide diplomatic and financial guarantees for a comprehensive peace plan. If the United States cannot convince Ankara that it is not conspiring to split up Turkey, it will continue to drift away from NATO.
Lastly, in the longer term, Washington needs to build its Turkey policy on the recognition that it is no longer a democracy. Its civil society, its independent journalists, and its other pro-democracy activists need real assistance which the United States should provide through its largest instruments, including USAID. Erdogan’s authoritarianism has real roots in Turkish society, and it can only be beaten back by a strengthened civil society and independent press. If the United States wants a secure and stable ally in a difficult region — one that is capable of making peace with the Kurds and of assisting in the fight against the Islamic State — it must work over the long-term to ensure these institutions develop.
Opponents to this approach will say that it means too much involvement in Turkey’s internal affairs. But this is exactly what Erdogan accuses the U.S. of already. Others will argue that the U.S. should not be taking on the responsibility for sorting out the Middle East’s tangled borders and ethnic divisions. But even if it won’t admit it, Washington is already doing that through leading the fight against the Islamic State. And even if the Islamic State is defeated, the U.S. will still be responsible for sorting out how to preserve the peace in the territory it abandons. The Turks and the Kurds will still be there. Washington is in too deep to go back now.
Nate Schenkkan is project director of the Nations in Transit publication at Freedom House.