Biden risking impression he has chosen Kabul’s airport over Turkish democracy

There is a growing sense in Turkey that the United States has chosen to put the future of Afghanistan’s international airport above Turkish democracy, according to political scientist and Ahval contributor Gökhan Bacık.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held face to face talks with his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden at the sidlelines of the NATO summit on June 14, in what was billed as a potential showdown over differences including respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. But largely conducted in the absence of other U.S. or Turkish officials, the meeting remains shrouded in secrecy even by the standards of top-level diplomatic discussions.   

Speaking afterwards to the press, Biden refused to comment on the talks, saying: “I’ll let the Turks tell you about it.” No read-out was subsequently released by the White House.

Erdoğan, meanwhile, offered some indication, declaring Turkey's readiness to assume security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport after the United States completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan in September.

Security at the airport is seen as a key to guaranteeing continued engagement by international diplomats and aid organisations in Afghanistan as the Taliban recaptures major population centres, with impacts for both Turkey and the United States.   

Growing violence has seen thousands of Afghans flee the country, many of them travelling to Turkey on foot. Videos circulating on social media show large groups of refugees walking through eastern Turkey’s cities, provoking a hostile local response.    

Bacık told Ahval Editor-in-Chief Yavuz Baydar that, in the absence of clarity over Biden and Erdoğan’s meeting, many in Turkey had assumed that accepting an influx of Afghan refugees was part of a wider deal.  

This was the accusation made by main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in a series of social media posts last week.

"I call on to the U.S: As a member of the alliance that will govern Turkey in the future, we do not accept those deals that you made with Erdoğan," Kılıçdaroğlu said. "Whatever you have said or relayed to Erdoğan are binding only for him, not for the Republic of Turkey.

Erdoğan appears to be envisaging an agreement with the United States on the model of the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal, Bacık said.

The controversial agreement saw Turkey take responsibility for stopping Syrian refugees from travelling onwards to Europe in return for financial support, and has provided to the basis for a tense but working relationship between Ankara and Brussels.   

Erdoğan had tested the new U.S. administration and concluded that, even if Biden remained personally opposed to his leadership, there was similar scope for cooperation, Bacık said.

However, this had left the impression in Turkey that Biden was choosing the future of Kabul’s airport over Turkish democracy, with the main opposition parties becoming increasingly anti-American as they challenge Erdoğan over the issue of refugees, he added.   

Anti-refugee sentiment is on the rise across Turkey. Mobs attacked Syrian homes and businesses for a second consecutive day in the capital Ankara on Wednesday after an 18-year-old Turkish man was allegedly killed in a confrontation 24 hours earlier.      

Reports of similar incidents, often fake or misrepresented, circulate daily on social media. In one video, a group of young men march gather in the streets, allegedly looking for Syrians, amid chants of Allah-u Akbar.

Bacık said the scale of recent migration to Turkey was likely to have a profound impact, changing the country from its post-Ottoman social structure of a predominantly Turkish and Kurdish population.

"The demography is changing very quickly, and normally these kinds of changes happen much slower," he said. "We don’t know what the implications of this change will be in the future. It will also change the country's institutions."  

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