Turkey continues to lose the publicity war

Turkey continues to lose the publicity war

Turkey is its own worst enemy when it comes to public diplomacy. Ankara was angered, for example, by the slow way the United States and Europe reacted to the July 15 coup attempt. It showed little interest, however, in questioning why this was so. 

Instead, it was back to the simplest of arguments, with the idea that “the West will not rest until it destroys Turkey” being the usual springboard. It’s almost as if the Turkish psyche needs to believe this, in order to avoid looking in the mirror; until, that is, it has no choice left but to do so.

It was, after all, precisely because Turkey could no longer carry its international isolation that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan replaced Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu with Binali Yıldırım, who, as soon as he assumed power, unveiled a more realistic approach to foreign policy.

But, as we see, Yıldırım’s “realism” has its limits when it comes to Turkey’s growing war with the Kurds. The usual official reaction here is to say “Turkey has no issue with the Kurds, but with terrorist organizations who use the Kurds.” 

That, however, is not how the world sees it. International sympathy for the Kurds remains the most effective weapon for groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which is also considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., NATO and European Union – and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, which no one but Turkey defines as a terrorist organization.

We saw this in the massive rally that PKK supporters held recently in Cologne to protest Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria, even though Germany has listed the PKK as a terrorist organization. 

The same happened in March when Davutoğlu, who hadn’t been fired yet, was negotiating the migration deal with the EU. The PKK opened a stand outside the European Commission building, with the blessing of Belgium, as negotiations with Turkey were taking place inside.

The PYD, on the other hand, had a high profile public diplomacy moment recently during the Venice Film Festival, where a new film about three Westerners who join the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), the PYD’s military wing, made its debut. 

PYD supporters did not have much difficulty in turning the event into an anti-Turkish, anti-Erdoğan show of force, with the blessing of the festival’s organizers.

The government’s attempt to incarcerate elected Kurdish deputies and local administrators, and the massive and indiscriminate purge it unleashed after the failed coup attempt, are also increasing international sympathy toward anyone or any group – even Fethullah Gülen, as we saw in a recent panel discussion held in the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee – who is considered to be a “victim of Erdoğan.”

Belatedly realizing the importance of public diplomacy, Ankara is now sending delegations to the West to explain the situation in Turkey with regard to the PKK and the Gülen group. Visits by U.S. and European politicians to Turkey after the failed coup attempt appear also to have brought a slightly better understanding of what happened on July 15, and what the risks were. 

But strong criticism of Ankara over the ongoing purge and its Kurdish policy is still continuing. Unless the government can return to the rule of law in this regard, and also to the “Settlement Process” with a view to disarming the PKK politically, as well as the dialogue with the PYD, it will continue to lose the publicity war.
Given how it behaves in such cases, opting for the “everyone is against us” argument rather than realistic appraisals, Ankara’s reactions will continue to aggravate the situation, leaving it isolated once again internationally on issues of vital interest to its security.

The government has to break this poisonous cycle for the sake of the “peace at home and peace abroad” legacy that Atatürk, our founding father, left as something to be aspired to. To achieve this, though, those running the country have to first understand the wisdom of Atatürk, and how this made Turkey one of the respected nations of his day.