Back in 2015, when Turkey downed a Russian jet on the Syrian border, relations with Moscow nosedived. Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey, and its government-controlled media laid bare financial and military links between radical groups in Syria and high-level Turkish government officials. Russian pressure on Turkey was so crippling that Erdogan had to write a letter to Russian president Vladimir Putin to apologize.
Putin knows how to handle bullies — because he is one. Not only did Russia’s pressure force Turkey to toe line, but it also turned Turkey into one of Russia’s biggest allies. Ankara even purchased S-400 Russian anti-air defense systems at the expense of alienating its Nato allies. This is a clear response to arguments by some in the US State Department and White House that putting more pressure on Turkey will only push it away towards Russia and China.
The US is good at spearheading international efforts to impose sanctions on its adversaries — but it has yet to learn really how to discipline allies that have gone rogue. Turkey is a textbook example. Washington should brandish more sticks, not bestow Turkey with more carrots in the hope that it will behave.
Autocrats like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, are calculating pragmatists. Surviving extraordinary international pressure and national discontent are what they do best. They always test the limits to see how far they can go. A failure for countries like the US to take these violations seriously makes these aggressions a new norm — and there is nothing more dangerous than a dictator acting with impunity.
The gruesome killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a mild critic of Saudi Arabia and Washington Post columnist, had little, if any, negative impact on the Saudi government. It was a green light for other dictators to follow suit. No wonder Belarus hijacked a Lithuania-bound plane and whisked away an outspoken journalist last month. And it is no surprise that Turkish intelligence agents recently kidnapped Turkish educator Orhan Inandi in Kyrgyzstan, a man Ankara considers as a dissident.
Four US presidents have come and gone since Erdogan came to power. Every time a new US president is sworn in, he thinks he can handle Erdogan better than his predecessor. Every time it gets worse.
The Turkish president has not always been this bad. Back when he came to power in the early 2000s, he wanted to reform Turkey in line with European standards. His leadership was often touted as a model for other despotic Arab countries. He needed the West’s alliance to fight against the hostile military and eliminate anti-democratic forces at home. Now that he has consolidated his power at home, including putting the military under his tight control, he no longer needs to continue his alliance with the US and Europe.
As Erdogan started displaying authoritarian tendencies, every US president delayed confronting him, arguing that Turkey was instrumental in regional cooperation. The outcome has been disastrous. Turkey is more a liability today than a reliable ally.
Putin has the recipe that worked: stand up against a bully. The more America tolerates Erdogan’s aggression both at home and abroad, the more it is giving him a green light to behave worse. No dictator in history has gotten better.
The US must ensure that talks between Biden and Erdogan this week, which the US president described as ‘productive’ shouldn’t be construed by Ankara as a blessing of Turkey’s many transgressions. A democratic Turkey that knows its limits in the international arena, and respects human rights at home, is a better and a more reliable ally.