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Get tough with Erdogan at the NATO Summit

Turkey’s opposition hoped to force a second round in voting for president on June 24 and gain a majority in Turkey’s parliament. However, their efforts were doomed from the start. Erdogan’s victory was ensured by his control of the media and voter intimidation. The opposition may be defeated and demoralized, but the struggle against Erdogan’s dictatorship will continue. Advocacy should focus on limiting weapons sales to Turkey and conditioning international financial assistance.

The upcoming NATO summit is an ideal forum for member states to raise concerns.

Members of the US Congress want to condition the sale of F-35A stealth war planes to Turkey. They demand that Turkey abandon plans to purchase Russian S-400 surface to air missiles before allowing the sale of sophisticated F-35 technology, which they fear would be transferred to Russia. Inter-operability is a core principle of NATO countries, which Turkey would undermine by purchasing Russian missiles.

In response to Congressional pressure, Erdogan has doubled down threatening to abandon the F-35s and buy Russian Sukhoi-57 planes instead. Turkey is already an outlier in NATO. Beginning in 2012, it sponsored jihadi groups in Syria. Today, Turkey is expanding its support to the Free Syrian Army, an al-Qaeda proxy.

Turkey used to be a valuable member of the North Atlantic Alliance. If it applied for membership today, Turkey would not even be considered because of Erdogan’s dictatorial rule. Rather than the West, Erdogan has made Russia and Iran his primary strategic and commercial partners.

If Turkey insists on buying S-400s, the Pentagon must not hesitate to cancel the sale of F-35s. If Erdogan treats his business with the Defense Department like a Turkish bazaar, the Pentagon should respond in kind. Let Erdogan purchase Sukhoi-57 planes from Putin if he wishes. He’ll be buying an inferior and expensive technology.

The US can ratchet up the pressure by suspending all weapons sales to Turkey. Washington has a legal obligation to enforce the Leahy Amendment, which prohibits military assistance to foreign security forces that violate human rights. Washington cannot tolerate US weapons being used to kill Kurdish civilians, nor should it countenance Turkey’s aggression against the Syrian Democratic Forces, America’s ally in Syria, who are also supported by France.

The Pentagon can show seriousness by withdrawing from Incirlik Air Force Base in southeast Turkey near Adana. Air operations against ISIS in Syria would be based out of Cyprus, Jordan, or aircraft carriers in the Gulf. Germany has already withdrawn its troops from Incirlik to protest Turkey’s non-cooperation.

Not only is Turkey an unreliable ally, it is a bad investment. Erdogan called snap elections to get ahead of Turkey’s imminent economic collapse. Turkey has crushing debt and capital flight as investors move their money out of the country, seeking safer investments.

European banks are especially exposed. Private lenders should be wary about refinancing Turkey’s debt, adhering to the axiom: “When you’re digging a hole; stop digging.” Throwing good money after bad makes no economic sense.

When Erdogan is unable to secure a lifeline from private lenders, he will try to bail out Turkey’s troubled economy with a stand-by agreement from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF should condition financing on strict human rights and democracy criteria, demanding repeal of Article 301 of the Penal Code and Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Act that suppresses dissent by criminalizing freedom of expression.

Western allies muted their criticism of Erdogan prior to Turkey’s election. They feared he would manipulate condemnation in order to enhance his appeal among nationalist voters.

Now that Erdogan is ensconced in office for the next 5 years, the Allies must be steely-eyed. They must see Turkey as it is, not as they hoped it would be. Simply put: Erdogan’s Turkey is anti-American, anti-European, and anti-NATO.

Western leaders should have a frank discussion about Turkey when they meet at the NATO Summit in Brussels on July 11-12.

They must make every effort to bring Turkey back in the tent. But if Turkey continues its current course, they should limit security cooperation and uphold financial integrity.

If Erdogan plays games with the Alliance, he must know that Turkey will pay a steep price.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Her served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert, working on US-Turkey relations at the State Department during the Clinton and Bush administrations. His latest book is An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.

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David L. Phillips
David L. Phillips
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Advisor to the UN Secretariat and as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.

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