In search of unicorns

In his pre-election pitch, President Joe Biden proclaimed the role of the United States is to champion freedom and democracy and that NATO is the bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal: an alliance of values.

This was clearly demonstrated by two events. First, when the United States took the lead at the recent meeting of NATO and non-NATO countries at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Second, when Congress overwhelmingly voted in favour of the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 and Biden signed it into law.

Against this backdrop, Turkey, formerly a staunch NATO member, is the odd man out. In fact, when Biden held his Summit for Democracy in December, Turkey was excluded.

Biden has made no bones about it. Much to Turkey’s chagrin, on Armenian Remembrance Day (April 24), Biden commemorated the one and a half million Armenians who were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the Ottoman-era genocide.

In April, the State Department published a comprehensive ninety-three-page report on human rights abuses in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the subjugation of the rule of law to politics.

Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act sanctions have already been imposed on Turkey because of its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system and it has been removed from the F-35 joint strike fighter program for the same reason. Therefore, it is incomprehensible that the State Department should argue that there are compelling long-term NATO interests that support the sale of 40 F-16 fighter jets and nearly 80 modernisation kits to Turkey.

Such a move flies in the face of U.S. strategy in the region. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls for the sale to be expedited, the confusion is complete. The United States has already thanked Turkey for its role in the prisoner swap of Trevor Reed, but there is no need to get carried away in the afterglow.

With regard to Ukraine, Turkey has tried to have its cake and eat it too. It voted for the U.N. resolution condemning the Russian invasion and has blocked the Bosporus apart from the return of Russian warships to the Black Sea. It has also closed its airspace for military transports to Syria. But Turkey’s attempts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine have not been successful.

However, the idea by some members of Congress of making the F-16 sale contingent on Turkey’s support for Ukraine belongs to the realm of wishful thinking. As the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, has made clear: “I think the administration has to stop seeing from the aspirational part of what we would like Turkey to be and realise what Turkey is under Erdoğan.”

Turkey is dependent on Russia for trade, natural gas, the construction of a nuclear power plant, and for its occupation of various areas of Syria. It also bases its hope for a record tourist season on the influx of Russian tourists. For example, Turkish Airlines has allocated 1.5 million seats for Russians. At the same time, Russian oligarchs flock to Turkey to fill its depleted coffers.

So, it is unlikely Turkey will rock this boat.

Facing next year’s elections, Erdoğan is groggy and a man on the ropes. His approval rating has dropped to 42 percent, and 59 percent of Turks don’t think he can fix the country’s financial woes. This rises to over 90 percent among supporters of the opposition parties.

Erdoğan’s troubles have resulted in conciliatory moves towards former rivals such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. For example, on a visit to Riyadh, Erdoğan embraced Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom he had accused of being behind the butchering of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018.

Steven A. Cook in a trenchant analysis of the Middle East’s “kumbaya moment” found the visit “the geopolitical version of going hat in hand hoping for some investment from enormous Gulf sovereign wealth funds.”

Nor are the Israelis easily fooled. Herb Keinon has called for the “real Erdoğan to please stand up.”

But what does Congress think these fighter jets will be used for? On Friday U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland found Turkey’s violations and flights over Greek islands “provocative.” Athens registered 168 airspace violations and forty-two illegal overflights on a single day in April.

Also in April, Turkey carried out manoeuvres involving 122 ships and 41 aircraft in support of its “Blue Homeland” maritime doctrine. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar addressed commanders and stated that Turkey was always in favour of good neighborly relations and wished to solve current disputes through peaceful means and methods.

Akar also claimed that Greece had armed 16 of its 23 Aegean islands in violation of international agreements and called for dialogue. “Our goal is to share all the riches of the Aegean Sea fairly, and the Aegean Sea is a sea of friendship.”

In a comment in 2015 on Washington’s “crackpot” deal with Turkey to fight ISIS, columnist Conn Hallinan concluded, “Anyone who believes the “moderates” will take over should consider unicorn hunting as a profession.” The same applies to anyone who thinks that Turkey will abandon its close relations with Russia in favour of toeing the NATO line.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this also includes Joe Biden, who is prepared to upgrade Turkey’s fleet of F-16s in the hope of a change of heart.

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