US and Europe mull ways to bring Turkey into line

US and Europe mull ways to bring Turkey into line

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Sept. 11 that his government has put all major arms exports to Turkey on hold due to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country and the escalating tension between the two NATO allies. Chancellor Angela Merkel later said this does not mean a total ban on exports.

German military cooperation with Turkey involves a number of important items, including main battle tanks, joint frigate and submarine production, and automatic rifles for the security forces. 

Gabriel’s statement shows how far the tension has risen as Germany heads for elections on Sept. 24. The restriction on arms exports is seemingly part of German efforts to pressure Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan to ease the tough measures of the state of emergency declared after the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt - including the release of German citizens arrested in Turkey on terrorism and espionage accusations. 

On the other hand, Turkey has demanded the extradition of former Turkish military officers seeking political asylum from Germany after the failed coup attempt. Ankara alleges that these officers have links to the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the coup attempt. 

Amid these contrasting demands, both the German government and the Turkish government say they cannot intervene in the rulings of their independent courts.

There is no guarantee that military pressure will convince Erdoğan and the Turkish government to change its attitude. What’s more, such restrictions may weaken the defense capacities of both Turkey and NATO, and their capacity to fight the terrorism of the outlawed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

A similar debate is going on in the U.S. During a session of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations on Sept. 6, Steven Cook of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations said “remonstrating with Turkish officials in private and publicly praising them” has little effect on Ankara’s policies. Citing the example of Russian sanctions on Turkey following the downing of a Russian plane in November 2015 after it crossed the border to Syria, saying “Turkey’s leader responded positively,” Cook suggested a number of economic, military and political pressure methods to bring Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government into line. 

The measures that Cook suggested to the Senate included a study of the costs and modalities of leaving Turkey’s strategic Incirlik air base, or shifting some of its operations to other facilities in the region; restricting “Turkey’s participation in big-ticket, high-tech weapons development and procurement” (like the F-35 jets and possibly the Patriot air defense system); and requiring the State Department to review its travel advise for Turkey.

Another participant at the same Senate session, Amanda Sloat of Harvard University, who served as deputy undersecretary of the State Department in the Barack Obama administration, suggested that “the only people who would benefit from the U.S. curbing ties significantly are those who don’t want Turkey to face West.” Pointing to the April 16 referendum - in which almost half of Turkish voters refused to endorse an enhancing of President Erdoğan’s powers - as well as the hundreds and thousands of people who joined main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s “Justice March,” Sloat said such examples show that “Turkish civil society is not dead.” She also said that “if the EU [European Union] and the U.S. abandon Turkey, Ankara will seek partners elsewhere - as demonstrated by its recent interactions with Russia and Iran.”

Sloat concluded her suggestions to the U.S. Senate by saying that continued engagement “remains the only way forward … including honest discussion with the government and expanded outreach to business and civil society.”

Before his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the United Nations General Assembly meetings later this month, it would be helpful for Erdoğan and his team to carefully examine the contours of ongoing debates in the West about policies on Turkey.