The Turkish President’s New Lifeline: President-elect Donald J. Trump

Originally published for The Penn Spectrum

ARTICLE BY HALIS YAKA

On November 8th, American voters made their choice and picked the Republican candidate Donald Trump as their next president. The divisive campaign process and the unexpected victory shocked the United States. Americans, however, were not alone on election night. Millions of Turkish citizens and many of their government officials closely monitored the election results. The #Election2016 hashtag trended on Turkish Twitter for approximately 36 hours before disappearing from the trends list. While progressive factions of the Turkish society rooted for Hillary Clinton, supporters of President Erdogan and pro-government media prayed for a Trump presidency. The conservative voter base of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, united around Erdogan and attributed divinity to his leadership. Hence, the Obama administration’s condemnation of Erdogan’s authoritarian politics has deeply offended the conservative majority in Turkey over the past few years.

Though President-elect Donald Trump’s policies are hard to discern and they can at best be summarized as unknown, it is highly probable that the Trump administration will not be overly concerned about human rights violations committed by the Erdogan regime. Earlier this year, when asked about Erdogan’s post-coup purge of hundreds of thousands of people, “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries” said Donald Trump. If this reserved attitude becomes the new administration’s general stance on Erdogan, complete deterioration of Turkish democracy will be inevitable. Donald Trump’s presidency will enable Erdogan to crackdown on the opposition with less international backlash, attack Kurdish groups in Turkey and Iraq, and use refugees as a tool for political bartering.

Since 2012, the Obama administration has held Erdogan at arm’s length with a plethora of press releases condemning the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of Erdogan and his former party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The United States, on its quest to promote democratic principles around the world, has rightfully criticized Turkey’s democratic downfall along with the European Union. According to Freedom House’s “Freedom In the World 2016” report, Turkey’s aggregate liberty score decreased dramatically from 63 points in 2011 to 53 points in 2016. Turkey is now classified as “partly free” among countries like Morocco, Bangladesh, and Honduras. Turkey’s press freedom, on the other hand, is “not free” and Turkey is ranked 151st among 180 countries in this year’s Press Freedom Index prepared by the Reporters Without Borders group. Rather than utilizing sophisticated methods of censorship, the Turkish government has shut down more than 180 media outlets including newspapers, magazines, publishers, and distribution companies. There are now 144 journalists in Turkish prisons — more than China, Iran, and Egypt combined. These blatant attacks on liberties have expanded to the civil society at large. After the coup attempt orchestrated by a small faction within the Turkish military, the current administration sacked 105,097 civil servants including military personnel and high-profile bureaucrats. Given the spike in detentions and the arrest of 35 thousand civilians, the Turkish Department of Justice released 38 thousand prisoners jailed before the coup in order to make room for thousands of people accused of conspiring against the state. While due process and fair trials, cornerstones of democracies, are put aside by Turkish officials and reports of torture are coming out of prisons on a daily basis, Donald Trump has commended Erdogan for “turning it around” referring to the coup attempt.

It appears that the Trump administration has no interest in opposing President Erdogan’s human rights abuses. On the contrary, a think piece penned by retired Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, one of the top contenders for either defense secretary or national security advisor positions in the Trump administration argued that “our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support” in fighting a social movement known as the Gulen Movement. The founder of this movement, Fethullah Gulen is a self-exiled cleric who resides in Saylorsurg, Pennsylvania. His movement has been vilified by President Erdogan and thousands of its affiliates are now behind bars despite the lack of incriminating evidence. In addition to this movement, Turkey has jailed Chairman Selahattin Demirtas, Chairwoman Figen Yuksekdag and five other MPs of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the second largest opposition party in Turkey known colloquially as the Kurdish party. Despite these recent developments, the willingness of Mr. Flynn to overlook Turkey’s crackdown on the free press, the Gulen Movement, HDP, and leftist elements of society is concerning for the stability of Turkey and its neighbors. Flynn’s attitude is highly concerning at a time when many oppressed minorities within Turkey look to the West for moral and diplomatic support.

Speaking of Turkey’s neighbors, it is likely that Trump’s presidency will focus on easing the tensions in Syria and fighting ISIS. When asked about the conflict in Syria where Bashar Assad’s forces, Russia, Turkey, and a variety of rebel groups are fighting each other and Daesh, “I wouldn’t have fought so much against Assad”, “we are supposed to fight ISIS” said Mr. Trump. When this is combined with Donald Trump’s admiration for the Russian President Vladimir Putin, it seems likely that the United States will stop assisting rebel groups in the region. Although there are a plethora of rebel groups involved in the conflict, People’s Protection Units or YPG stands to lose more than others. YPG, a predominantly Kurdish group, has been a crucial ally for the US in fighting Daesh, especially during the Kobani siege of 2014. However, Turkey recognizes YPG as a branch of PKK and classifies them as terrorist organizations. Even under the current American administration, YPG has been subject to assaults by Turkish military forces. Despite varying reports, approximately 200 YPG fighters are thought to have been killed by Turkish jets in Aleppo up until now. Turkey aims to push YPG away from its borders and continues to fight PKK domestically in order to eliminate what President Erdogan has called a “terrorist corridor” in Northern Syria. If the Trump administration moves forward with rapprochement, Erdogan, Assad, and Putin will find themselves in a new order where there is little to no direct American involvement. Erdogan, on his part, will be able to confront Syrian Kurds freely without Washington’s close supervision.

Turkey has been heavily invested in Syrian affairs due to the on-going civil war and the refugee crisis. According to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, there are 2.7 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey. This number, however, is believed to be much higher because many refugees choose not to register to be able to freely travel around the country rather than being immobile at refugee camps where quality of living has been worsening due to lack of sufficient resources. Nevertheless, President Erdogan’s open border policy, a stark contrast to Mr. Trump’s promised wall, has become an effective tool of political bargaining for Turkey. Since Mr. Trump has called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the country”, Syrian refugees will have to remain in Turkey until new opportunities of asylum emerge. In exchange for providing a safe haven to Syrians, President Erdogan will be able to ask for humanitarian assistance or worse, threaten to oust refugees if he faces international backlash for his unlawful domestic governance. For instance, when France granted asylum to several Turkish journalists wanted by the Erdogan regime last month, President Erdogan lashed out at the European Union: “If your have space for terrorists then come and do something charitable instead, embrace these Syrian [refugees] who have been suffering for the past six years” he said. The Turkish President is not afraid to use his ‘refugee card’ whenever his oppressive tactics are challenged by Western democracies and Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim policies, if implemented, will play right into his hands.

The lack of substantial policy proposals by Mr. Trump has forced me to write this piece based on what is available, interviews and sound bites from rallies. His contempt for immigrants, attitude towards Assad, and willingness to overlook human rights abuses, however, will most likely prove me right and lead to implementation of many policies which will provide a new lifeline to Turkey’s Erdogan who is desperate to prove to his voters that the world takes him seriously. The bilateral relationship between the United States and Turkey may be repaired during the next four years but a Trump presidency will irreparably damage what is left of the Turkish democracy.