Why did the US vice president kiss the Turkish dissidents?

Why did the US vice president kiss the Turkish dissidents?

There is a Turkish saying that goes “There is no religious holiday or any similar occasion; why did my brother-in-law kiss me?”

Turks use it when faced with an unexpected positive gesture that they have difficulty understanding the purpose of. 

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s meeting with the representatives of “dissidents” Jan. 22 in Istanbul ahead of his talks with Turkish leadership was unprecedented.

Biden had previously met representatives of the NGOs on his previous visits but they would not be defined as “dissidents.” This was not just a routine, occasional exchange of views with a host country’s civil society representatives. The U.S. administration wanted to make sure that Turkey’s rulers get the message right. 

Biden met journalists who were fired because of their critical views of the government. He also met the son and wife of journalist Can Dündar, who is in jail together with Erdem Gül. Both are facing life in prison since the indictment made public yesterday accused them of “deliberate support for a terrorist organization without being a member,” among other charges.

In addition to meeting the wives of slain journalist Hrant Dink and activist Tahir Elçi, he also talked to Yaman Akdeniz who, together with Kerem Altıparmak, is providing legal support to the academics who signed a petition that attracted the wrath of the government. For the eyes that did not want to see, the U.S. vice president used strong wording in his statements. 

“When the media is intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting, when internet freedom is curtailed and social media sites...are shut down and more than 1,000 academics are accused of treason simply by signing a petition, that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set,” said Biden.

So it was clear that the U.S. administration wanted no ambiguity in the message, for the eyes that did not want to see and ears that did not want to hear.

According to Soli Özel from Kadir Has University, U.S. foreign policy often prioritizes its strategic interests over its principles and values in its relations with Turkey and other countries; this is not a surprising phenomenon in international relations. “In this case, the meaning of the meetings that endorse such clear messages about the nature of Turkey’s democracy must be to remind Turkey that their strategic importance does not only stem from geopolitical position but the democratic nature of politics,” wrote Özel in his article published by daily Haber Türk.

The fact, however, that Turkey can only be a “useful” ally to Washington because of its geopolitical position and its strong democracy has been ignored for a long time by the Obama administration. Had Washington grasped the importance of democracy in Turkey, it would not have remained inactive ever since Turkey started sliding into authoritarian rule in 2010.  

The only explanation about this recent change that I can find is again based on national interests. Turkey’s democratic backpedalling, especially on the Kurdish issue, has started to become costly to the U.S.

Before the Kurdish peace process was frozen following the Nov. 7 elections, while Turkey was not fond of the PYD, it did not demonize it as it is doing today. Otherwise, PYD leader Saleh Muslim would not have been invited to Ankara on several occasions. In addition, I have heard with my own ears, along with other colleagues, a high level Turkish official calling the PYD a “meaningful” interlocutor as long as they remained within the red lines of the Turkish government. If the Kurdish peace process was on track, would we have faced the current crisis created by Turkey’s objection to the PYD’s participation in the Geneva talks?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sacrificed the peace process to enable the AKP to win the elections and thus consolidate his one-man rule. Would the West jeopardize the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) where the PYD plays an important role for the sake of consolidating Erdoğan’s grip on power?

Would the West sacrifice the already shaky peace process in Syria so that Erdoğan can continue his politics of fear over the issue of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism?

Turkey succeeded in blocking the PYD’s presence in Geneva talks but this policy is not sustainable.

It is therefore not surprising to see the U.S. and the EU voicing concern for the violence in the southeast, calling for a ceasefire and expressing support for dissidents who have been critical of government policies on the Kurdish issue. This is not being done to secure the rights of Turkey’s Kurds but rather to force Turkey to change its attitude towards the PYD.