Serious problems in Turkey’s image abroad

Serious problems in Turkey’s image abroad

There is just one good piece of news regarding Turkish foreign policy nowadays, but there are many bad ones that have stained the outlook on Turkey when evaluated from abroad.

That single good piece of news is that Turkey’s relations with the European Union have been given another chance after President Tayyip Erdoğan’s discussions in Brussels on May 25 both with the top EU officials and leaders of influential European countries like Germany, France and Britain, on the sidelines of the NATO summit there.

The fact that the European leaders have had meetings with Erdoğan was a relief for all; a breakup could have had disastrous consequences both for Turkey and the EU as Turkey’s southern borders with Iraq and Syria are in flames, while a spillover into Turkey could have huge effects on terrorism and migration. 

On the other hand, it is possible to conclude from the words of Erdoğan (please read Fikret Bila’s report in the HDN’s top story) that none of those talks occurred in a comfortable atmosphere. It seem that they were dominated by European criticism over the deterioration of rights and freedoms in Turkey under the state of emergency and Turkish criticism over the lack of solidarity against terrorism.

The 12-month plan that European leaders have given Erdoğan and which will be examined by the Turkish government is likely to contain not only the steps that the EU has to take to honor the migration agreement (like visa flexibilities and opening up new accession chapters) but also steps that Turkey has to take, especially in the area of rights and freedoms. Those steps could be interpreted as improvements in the state of emergency like mass detentions, mass dismissals from public jobs, judicial independence and media freedom.

The fact that Erdoğan has said the incidents before the April 16 referendum (with Germany, Austria and the worst taking place in the Netherlands) could be forgotten is an indication that his strong stance against the EU has changed after winning the referendum.

What will happen if that 12-month plan fails? Nobody can guess now, but at least we have a year of hope to improve the rights and freedoms situation in Turkey together with the ties with the EU.

So even in that rare piece of good news in Turkish foreign policy, there are a number of serious problems.

The problems with the EU are of a chronic nature; at least now we are talking about a 12-month plan.
But the ones with the U.S. are both chronic and acute.

Before President Erdoğan’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on May 16, there were already two serious problems. One of them was the U.S. partnership with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and their ground force, the YPG, against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Turkey has been opposing the alliance because the YPG is the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The other problem was Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist preacher who is believed to be behind the July 2016 military coup attempt, and his continued presence and network in the U.S.

But on May 16, an inflammable problem was added to the mix after Erdoğan’s bodyguards dispersed protesters in front of the Turkish Embassy’s residence in Washington with force. The U.S. government protested to the Turkish ambassador to Washington because Turkish bodyguards used force against American citizens on American soil, while the Turkish government protested the American ambassador to Ankara because of the temporary detention of two bodyguards protecting Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

The tension escalated as the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs approved a non-binding resolution condemning the violence by Turkish security forces in the incident on May 25, the same day as NATO meetings were going on in Brussels, prompting a strong rebuttal by the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Dana Tyrone Rohrabacher, the Republican head of the European, Eurasian and Emerging Threats Subcommittee, went further, saying Erdoğan did nothing to stop this “fascistic attack” and should not be invited to the U.S. again, displaying an arrogant language which has not been used against any Turkish president before. The mainstream American media published and broadcast footage of Turkish bodyguards as they were obstructing the demonstrators using force in rarely seen campaign-like coverage.

On an official level, Erdoğan’s meeting with Trump could perhaps be seen as a good sign of ongoing relations, but it seems it does not reflect the real political atmosphere in Washington, especially when considered in connection with the loss of credibility by Trump in the U.S. media and even in Congress.

As they accumulate, such problems will not help Turkey improve either its perception or its relations with the Western world it wants to belong to. Turkish foreign policy, now directly under Erdoğan, has to make a review and take new measures to properly answer the unfair treatment of the Turkish nation abroad due to such crises.