Erdoğan’s US visit highlights Turkey’s isolation

Erdoğan’s US visit highlights Turkey’s isolation

It is not possible to consider President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Washington as a success by any count. The “strategic partnership” between the two countries continues but it is clear that relations are currently very tense. 

Two topics are overshadowing ties. The first of these is the question of the alliance between the U.S. and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, which Ankara sees as a Kurdish terrorist organization. The second is the deteriorating state of democracy in Turkey, especially with regard to freedom of the press.

We can start with the latter since this is what effectively ruined the atmosphere of Erdoğan’s visit. The U.S. side was already displeased by the dressing down Erdoğan gave, shortly before travelling to the U.S., to Western diplomats in Turkey for following the trails of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, two prominent journalists being tried for espionage.

Washington, whose diplomats are also following this trial - which has become a litmus test case for the free media in Turkey - had made it known, through its state department spokesman John Kirby, that its ambassador acted within the rules and that they would continue monitoring such trials in Turkey.

As matters stand, the topic of the free press in Turkey has become a set agenda item in Washington’s ties with Ankara. This is why Vice President Joe Biden met with Can Dündar’s family, as well as other opposition journalists, while visiting Turkey in January.

The physically abusive behavior of Erdoğan’s Turkish security guards in Washington, outside the Brookings Institute, towards Turkish journalists critical of Erdoğan also ensured that the press freedom issue loomed large during the president’s visit. 

Not only was this incident covered by the U.S. media, but the National Press Club in Washington issued a harsh condemnation after it. U.S. officials were clearly angered by the behavior of Erdoğan’s security guards and this was also reflected in the answer President Barack Obama gave to a question on press freedoms in Turkey.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, not long after his talks with Erdoğan, Obama said he was troubled by trends in Turkey against the free press, adding that he had urged Erdoğan not to pursue a repressive strategy. 

“I think the approach they’ve been taking towards the press is one that could lead Turkey down a path that would be very troubling,” Obama said. 

Erdoğan was clearly shaken by these remarks because he said later he was saddened that Obama has spoken in his absence like this. But Obama’s words and Erdoğan’s response were enough to highlight how tense Turkish-U.S. ties are over the press freedom issue.

Ties are also strained due to Washington’s continuing alliance with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Ankara has failed in its attempts to get the U.S. to distance itself from the PYD and its military wing the Peoples Protection Units (YPG).

There are also reports that the U.S. wants the PYD to take control of a region in northern Syria recently wrested from ISIL. This is a region that Ankara does not want to see any Syrian Kurdish control in, but appears to have little in its hand to prevent it from happening if that is what Washington decides should happen.  

No wonder then that Erdoğan emphasized while in Washington that Turkey feels it has been left alone in the world. That is true of course, as everyone knows. Turkey has hardly any neighbors left that it is on good terms with, and is also at odds with its “strategic partner.”

But countries do not end up in this situation without a reason. As long as Turkey’s focus remains on trying to implement “Erdoğan’s vision,” which is clearly out of tune with the developed world, it seems there could be more isolation up ahead for Turkey. 

Erdoğan’s visit to Washington also served to underline this very real possibility.