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Turkey is a country at a crossroads. Its moderate Islamic government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially held the promise of a “model” Middle East democracy. While Turkey has experienced an economic boom over the last half decade and has made some reforms to break with the repressive tactics of its past, its deteriorating relationship with its neighbors and its increasingly brazen abuse of human rights has revealed that the promise of a “Turkish model” for the Middle East is broken. As Turkey’s human rights abuses skyrocket and as its behavior towards Israel and Cyprus has become more belligerent, the relationship between the United States and Turkey is troublingly closer than it has ever been.

TURKEY’S TURN AWAY FROM THE WEST

The 2013 protests in Turkey and the government’s deadly response is the latest evidence of Turkey’s turn away from Western democratic ideals. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, previously heralded on the world stage as a moderate Islamic leader keen on modernizing Turkey, has over the last several years laid waste to any theory that Turkey is still a model for moderate, stable Middle Eastern democracies.

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In the spring of 2013, what began as a small, peaceful protest against the government’s razing of Gezi Park in Istanbul exploded into a massive, anti-government movement after the Turkish government employed heavy-handed tactics against citizens exercising their freedom of speech and assembly. Some 2.5 million Turkish citizens across party lines and socioeconomic status flooded the streets of Istanbul and other cities as the protest blossomed into a larger indictment of the Erdogan government and its policies.  The government’s use of water cannons, tear gas and other brutal response actions injured thousands and led to several deaths. Many of the injured were blinded or suffered critical injuries as a result of the government’s draconian actions.  Turkey’s handling of the protestors prompted international outcry from governments and non-governmental organizations alike.

The Turkish government’s attitude toward the protestors was one of absolute disdain. Prime Minister Erdogan called the protestors “looters,” “terrorists,” “bums,” and “drunks.” Turkey’s EU minister, Egemis Bagis, declared the Gezi Park protestors “terrorists” and some party officials hinted that those arrested for their protest should be jailed for life. Thousands of protestors were detained or arrested during the height of the crisis. Lawyers and journalists also were unable to escape the government’s crackdown, with dozens being arrested or assaulted by police officers.

 Turkey’s Human Rights Problem: “Worst Offender,” Violations Under Erdogan Skyrocket

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In its 2012 report, Human Rights Watch noted the goverment-sanctioned violation of free speech: “Prosecutors frequently prosecute individuals for non-violent speeches and writings. Politicians sue their critics for criminal defamation. Courts convict with insufficient consideration for the obligation to protect freedom of expression. A comprehensive review of all existing laws that restrict freedom of expression is overdue.”-(Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012, p. 4).

In its own investigation, the Council of Europe’s reached a similar conclusion in its 2011 report on Turkey,  finding that Turkish courts have a “precedence to the protection of the state over the protection of human rights. ”

In 2010, Turkey was the worst humans rights violator among the 47 signatory states of the European Convention on Human Rights. In terms of complaints filed, Turkey ranked second only to Russia (a country with twice the population).

Turkey also censors the internet, banning Turkish citizens from accessing some 5,000 websites. The government blocked YouTube for two years (2008-2010) because it believed videos posted there “insulted Turkishness.”

Turkey’s Human Rights Problem: Denying Religious Freedom to the Ecumenical Patriarch

Prime Minister Erdogan has enjoyed a relatively positive reputation on the international stage, due in no small part to the fact that Turkey actively suppresses freedom of the press and free speech. As Steven Kinzer reported in his book, Crescent and star: Turkey between two worlds, Mr. Erdogan has compared democracy to a streetcar: “you ride it until you reach your destination, then you step off.” This philosophy is painfully evidence in Turkey’s treatment of its minorities, its increased crackdown on the press and on opposition parties during Mr. Erdogan’s tenure and its restrictions on free speech.

The most heinous of Turkey’s human rights crimes is the policies of the Turkish government which pose a grave threat to the future of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the spiritual home of the world’s second largest Christian Church.  The Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, Turkey is the spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, including millions of American citizens, and one of the great moral leaders in the world today. To learn more about Turkey’s violation of religious freedom, click here.

Turkey’s Increased Belligerence Towards Israel and Cyprus

Ever since May 2010, when a raid by Israeli troops of a flotilla resulted in the death of nine Turkish activists and the injury of eight Israeli soldiers, bilateral relations between Turkey and Israel have collapsed. Although Israel-Turkey relations were somewhat strained before the flotilla incident, the incident caused Turkey to severe diplomatic ties with Israel and to heighten its rhetoric against Israel and its leaders. President Obama and Secretary of State have called on Turkey to resolve the diplomatic crisis.

Meanwhile, Turkey is also single-handedly exacerbating tensions in the Southeastern Mediterranean by refusing to recognize Cyprus’s right to exploit natural gas reserves in Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone. A Texas-based company, Noble Energy, is tasked with exploration of the area and has discovered 3.5 trillion cubic feet of gas in the deposit — a find, as Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias has said, “that will result in key changes in both geo-strategic and economic levels.” Turkey — which invaded Cyprus in 1974 and continues to occupy the northern third of the island (see: Cyprus) — has threatened to send warships to the EEZ to prevent Cyprus from exercising its sovereign right to exploit its natural resources.

THE UNITED STATES MUST RE-EXAMINE ITS RELATIONSHIP WITH TURKEY

Turkey is a long-time United States ally and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The strength of the relationship between the United States and Turkey has ebbed and flowed over time, but the two countries are now closer than they have ever been, despite the fact that Turkey continues to undertake actions that are directly against the best interests of the United States.

History is rife with instances where Turkey has, by acts of commission or omission, negatively impacted American interests in the region. For example, as the American Hellenic Institute reports:

  • Turkey refused to allow the United States to use bases in Turkey to open a northern front against the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Turkey’s reasoning was that it wanted $6 billion more — in addition to $26 billion irresponsibly offered by the Bush administration through then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz — for a total of $32 billion. A former Bush administration official called Turkey’s negotiating tactics “extortion in the name of alliance.”
  • In 1979 Turkey refused to allow the United States to send 69 U.S. marines and six helicopters to American military facilities at Incirlik in Turkey for possible use in evacuating Americans from Iran and protecting the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
  • Turkey voted against sanctions on Iran by the UN Security Council and publically supports its dictator Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
  • Turkey continues to publically support the genocidal-denying President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, and
  • Turkey continues to publically attack Israel for its actions in Gaza, including the flotilla incident, which has lent instability to the Middle East.
  • During the Cold War, Turkey actively aided the Soviet military to the serious detriment of the United States

President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in the Oval Office, Dec. 7, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

Over the last several years, however, Turkey has positioned itself as a key ally of the United States in a region upended by political and social revolutions. As regimes around the Turkish state have crumbed, Prime Minister Erdogan has emerged as leading voice not just for Turkey but for Muslims across the Middle East. Consequently, the United States has drawn closer with what it sees as a stable, moderate Islamic ally. Prime Minister Erdogan is one of President Barack Obama’s closest international allies (indeed, the president called Mr. Edrogan more times than any other leader except Prime Minister Cameron). The relationship between the United States and Turkey is so close, in fact, that in December 2011, the United States approved of what the press called an “unusual” and “extremely rare” arms deal transferring attack helicopters from the military’s current reserve to Turkey.

The Arab Spring has presented the United States with a paradox: it has drifted closer with Turkey in order to promote democracy and security in the region but Turkey acts against those very interests.

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