As the protests continue across Turkey, so does the government’s crackdown. The unrest enters into its fourth week with no sign of abating, further destabilizing an already fragile region. The U.S. finds itself in a familiar position having been an ardent supporter of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On President Obama’s first trip to Turkey after taking office in 2009 he said: “It’s a country that possesses an extraordinarily rich heritage but also represents a blend of those ancient traditions with a modern nation state that respects democracy, respects rule of law, and is striving toward a modern economy.”
The U.S. administration has held up Turkey as a model for the Middle East, but the current Turkish government has veered away from its pro-democratic beginnings. Protesters have flooded the streets for the last three weeks to air their frustrations with the increasingly authoritarian practices of their government. The U.S. government has avoided directly criticizing the Turkish prime minister, who has dealt harshly with his critics. Instead, in a press statement, the White House expressed general concerns about the police crackdown and urged “all parties to refrain from provoking violence.”
Obama’s approach to the current situation in Turkey is consistent with America’s past contradictory policies in the region, i.e. supporting the U.S.’s allies until no longer tenable as in Tunisia and Egypt. Likewise, Obama called for America’s adversaries to step down in Syria and Libya and has taken direct action to influence the outcome. The U.S. views Turkey as a strategic ally in several key areas such as coordinating counter-terrorism efforts, limiting Iran’s nuclear program, and navigating the Syrian civil war. The White House will be hesitant to put that partnership in jeopardy by denouncing the Turkish government’s actions against protesters.
In order to understand the contradictions inherent in U.S. foreign policy, one only needs to turn to the case in Bahrain. The US government continues normal relations with the Al-Khalifa ruling family despite the monarchy’s brutal repression of protests and continued violations of human rights due to the nation’s military significance to the U.S. Similarly, during the February 2011 popular uprising in Egypt calling for the end of the Mubarak regime, Obama’s position supporting an immediate transition came only after President Mubarak resigned.
In contrast, Obama condemned the violent suppression of protests in Syria, a perceived enemy, and called for President Bashar Al-Assad to step down. Recently, the U.S. government began directly providing military aid to the Syrian rebels, a precarious move that may further escalate the situation. Evidence from reports suggest that no side is innocent, as both the government and some groups within the opposition have committed atrocities. Lebanon’s lengthy and violent civil war provides a grim picture of what could become of Syria, and that war was ended by a political solution, not a military one.
It is important to note that Turkey’s case is unique compared to others in the Middle East. Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) were democratically elected and hailed as proponents of democracy for curtailing the power of the military. Under the AKP’s leadership, the military’s influence was weakened, the economy grew, and “revolutionary” democratic reforms were passed. However, the ruling party’s approach has increasingly reverted to the authoritarian tendencies repeated throughout Turkey’s history such as the suppression of the press and violations of human rights. Erdogan has gone as far as to characterize the protesters as terrorists, a tactic frequently used to silence legitimate political dissent.
How will recent events affect U.S. policy in the region? The impact will depend on the outcome of the current protests. Either Erdogan’s suppression will succeed and Turkey will continue its descent into authoritarianism or the protests will continue, and possibly escalate, into calls for new elections or the resignation of the present government. It seems unlikely at this point that an agreement can be reached that satisfies the protesters. These protests are indicative of the dissatisfaction many Turkish citizens feel with Erdogan’s leadership, yet their exact demands, beyond saving Gezi Park, remain unclear. For now, the U.S. administration will not sacrifice an important ally, especially during the ongoing Syrian conflict, and will support Erdogan until it is no longer tenable, thus indirectly stifling the voice of the Turkish people.