COMMENTARY — The US State Department is still confused about Turkey

Wess Mitchell

By Abdullah Bozkurt

The US State Department appears to have not fully grasped the gravity of the situation in Turkey in the face of a troubling disengagement of a critical NATO member from the Western alliance and the re-orbiting of the nation of 81 million towards Iran and Russia under the stewardship of autocratic leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

At least that is how the testimony of Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell sounded during a hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on April 18. He stated that “Turkey has a vested strategic interest in checking the spread of Russian and especially Iranian influence” but lamented that “Turkey lately has increased its engagement with Russia and Iran.”

“Ankara should be mindful of the risks in making strategic concessions to Moscow in order to achieve its tactical objectives in Syria,” he underlined, adding that “it is in the American national interest to see Turkey remain strategically and politically aligned with the West, and we believe it is also in Turkey’s interests.”

These are nice talking points from a diplomat and in fact are self-explanatory in terms of the clear contradictions we see in the pattern of behavior of the current Turkish government. Nevertheless, I get the feeling that Mitchell is missing a major underlying challenge when it comes to understanding how Turkey is currently ruled by a man whose own interests do not necessarily overlap with Turkey’s long-term national security interests. Erdoğan, who has secretly worked with Iranian operatives including a senior general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, is willing to risk any and every thing Turkey has achieved in its 66-year membership in the NATO alliance. The line between tactical choices and strategic interests was blurred long ago when Erdoğan found himself in a sea of legal troubles in 2013 and 2014 stemming from massive corruption investigations as well as the aiding and abetting of jihadist groups in Syria.

Perhaps Mitchell is still trying to figure out whether outstanding differences between Turkey and the US can be resolved if standard operating procedures (SOPs) in decision making processes within the Turkish civil service are allowed to operate normally. The assumption that these processes are still functional in the Turkish government and that technocrats/bureaucrats may very well filter, limit or narrow the choices of a leader is based on false premises in the current governance of Turkey. I may be wrong, but if that is what Mitchell is trying to get, my answer would be he is dead wrong in diagnosing the main problem in ties with Turkey. Incidentally, I still remember how by Richard K. Betts, the director of the International Security Policy Program of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, was trying to explain these SOPs in lectures when I was attending his class in the mid-’90s. Though it still confuses me, SOPs in the general sense do not function as they are supposed to in the Turkish context, at least not anymore.

Why? For one thing, Erdoğan has turned the civil service upside down with the mass dismissals of some 150,000 people, most with high qualifications, without any justification or individual responsibility for any alleged crime and certainly without any effective administrative or judicial investigation. For example, the State Department’s counterpart in Turkey, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was gutted when 30 percent of its diplomatic staff (nearly 500 diplomats) including ambassadors was declared terrorist overnight. They were either dismissed or in some cases jailed, with many seeking asylum in Western democracies. Those who remain on the job are terrified of the same fate and busy doing Erdoğan’s dirty bidding in harassing and hunting down critics abroad, although they know what they are ordered to do is illegal under international law. The ministry is led by Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu, a lackey of Erdoğan who does not have the support of a robust constituency to rely on. He owes his seat to Erdoğan and is completely dependent on the president to keep his job. That explains how he often goes overboard in insulting his counterparts, destroying bridges and making a mess in diplomatic engagement.

Therefore, the main interest of diplomats and other bureaucrats in the Turkish government is to keep the chief, Erdoğan, happy and play along with the anti-Western conspiracy even though they may not believe in Erdoğan’s Islamist vision for Turkey. They have stopped providing an array of options for him to make an informed decision but are rather trying to accomplish what he asks them to do even if that goal might be an elusive one. The engagement and prioritizing of some messages in diplomatic exchanges Mitchell was referring to during the hearing is not likely to secure a successful result. It will fill cables and generate some traffic back and forth without achieving anything substantial. That is why he and his colleague, David M. Satterfield, acting assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, who sat next to him in the hearing, had difficulty convincing members of Congress about obtaining results in Turkey.

The unresolved case of jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been held in a Turkish prison on what Mitchell described as “laughable” charges and the Turkish government’s persistence in finalizing the purchase of Russian S-400 long-range missiles are only some of the outstanding challenges that prevent Turkish-American relations from returning to business as usual. The failure of the State Department in grasping the severity of the situation in Turkey has pushed Congress to take the lead in adopting measures that will hopefully stimulate a change of behavior in the Erdoğan government. The Turkish autocrat understands the game of hardball as we learned during the tension with Russia in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian warplane on the Syrian border. He tried to bully his way out but succumbed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wishes after he was made aware of the terrible consequences for him and his family members.

Looks like Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the US House of Representatives, understands Erdoğan better. He said: “Our relationship with NATO ally Turkey is strained as never before. Its military offensive against the Kurds in Syria has benefited ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]. The Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces we back now have to divert their operations from offensives against ISIL to defensive actions against Turkish military attacks. Turkey’s increasing engagement with Russia and Iran is very concerning.”

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who calls Erdoğan a fascist and Islamist dictator, has never hidden his utter distaste for Erdoğan. At the hearing he raised the illegal abduction of six Gülen-linked Turks from Kosovo by Turkish intelligence agency MİT and asked Mitchell if the State Department had raised the issue with Turkish authorities. As he was turning up the heat on State for not being tough on Turkey, Mitchell only said US diplomats had taken up the issue with the Kosovo authorities, implying that nothing has been done on the Turkish front.

The continuation of Brunson’s unlawful imprisonment past the first hearing in his trial this week in Turkey’s western province of İzmir apparently angered people in both houses of Congress. Representative Chris Smith was asking whether the time has come to designate Turkey as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), while US Senators James Lankford and Jeanne Shaheen issued a statement this week saying they have decided to pursue targeted sanctions against Turkish officials in this year’s Fiscal Year 2019 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs spending bill in response to the unjust imprisonment of Brunson. Appearing on Fox News, Sen. Lankford expanded on this, warning that sanctions against the judge, prosecutor and other government officials involved in taking Brunson hostage should be considered.

Other measures in the pipeline include disqualifying Turkey from the fast track review process for US arms procurement, which was provided for NATO allies as Congressman Brad Sherman suggested during the hearing in the House of Representatives. Turkey would most likely face stiff sanctions if it goes ahead with the missile purchase from Russia, which would trigger Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The measure was first raised by Sen. Ben Cardin, who made a powerful case during a hearing on Turkey in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Sept. 7, 2017. The State Department repeatedly said it would comply with the law and was in the process of assessing the details of the purchase.

I repeat what I have said before: I still think the Pentagon has a better reading of Erdoğan and how his government acts under his leadership and what transformations are taking place in the Turkish military, NATO’s second largest army in terms of manpower. Some 5,000 officers including 150 generals were dismissed, and most are jailed or facing criminal prosecution with little or no evidence on alleged terrorism or coup plotting charges. They were replaced by Erdoğan cronies and neo-nationalists, who despise the West and advocate closer ties with Russia and Iran. My sources are telling me that the US generals concluded long ago that despite engagement with their Turkish counterparts, it would be difficult for the top brass in the Turkish military to deliver what was expected of them within the spirit of the transatlantic alliance. Working with Kurdish fighters in Syria in the fight against ISIS was done out of necessity rather than choice because Erdoğan was dragging his feet and running his own side show with jihadist factions to undermine the US and NATO’s goals for the region.

In any case, it seems the State Department is continuing to mishandle the Turkey file and is appeasing the Erdoğan government in the name of engagement with the hope of getting better results. This is not new, actually. I remember the working lunch I had with a visiting US diplomat in my office at the Zaman daily’s bureau in Ankara before the March 2014 local elections. He was arguing that Erdoğan’s poisonous anti-US narrative would fade away after the elections if he were to secure a win. I disagreed and told him that it would actually escalate further because Erdoğan’s anti-Western attitude is motivated mainly by the ideological underpinnings of the conviction he had been able to hide in the first and second terms of his rule, until he solidified his position in the 2011 elections with 50 percent of the vote. Moreover, just like Venezuela’s Chavez, he could not find a better scapegoat than the US for convincing his Islamist constituency, which is already predisposed against the US. I have heard the same nonsense arguments before each election cycle, when Erdoğan’s diatribe only got worse. Today, he openly bashes the US, ramping up his anti-US slurs, slamming the US president in public speeches and calling ISIS a hoax terror organization that was engineered by the US.

Where are the roots of his utter dislike of the West in general and the US in particular? The confidential investigation into IRGC Quds Force activities in Turkey that was hushed up by Erdoğan in 2014 helps us understand the mindset of Turkish Islamists and sheds light on what Erdoğan thinks of NATO. A document discovered by the investigators from an Iranian operative’s archive cache that included secret military maps of the southeastern provinces of Adana and Gaziantep tells quite a story. The document covered notes about the conversation this Iranian operative, named Hüseyin Avni Yazıcıoğlu, had with two deputies from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The meeting was held on Oct. 19, 2010 on Istanbul’s Çamlıca Hill, which overlooks the Bosporus, and attended by Seracettin Karayağız, a deputy from Muş province, and Hayrettin Çakmak, a deputy from Bursa. The conversation was about the NATO early radar warning system to be deployed in Malatya’s Kürecik district as part of NATO’s missile defense system. Karayağız said Erdoğan was no longer allowing the Iranian border to be used as a garrison for the US, Israel and Europe and was resisting efforts to that end by Turkey’s allies. He said Erdoğan was really strengthening political, economic and military ties with Iran and saw the radar system as a trap to derail that process. The other lawmaker, Çakmak, recalled a private conversation he had recently had with Erdoğan, who said: “When I get a chance, I know what to do with NATO, Europe and Israel. I’m going to f..k their mothers. NATO and the US are as terrorist as Israel.”

It looks like Erdoğan is delivering on past promises made to his cronies, and things are set to escalate further. Jailing US nationals and local staff members of the US diplomatic missions are not isolated incidents but rather a systematic and deliberate pattern of government behavior under the leadership of Erdoğan to disengage Turkey from the Western alliance, a partnership that has benefited Turkey for nearly seven decades. It would be catastrophic if Turkey’s allies and partners were to let this happen. (

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