Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, upon returning from the United Nations Food Systems Summit on Sept. 23, 2021, described to the press his relationship with U.S. presidents past and present, saying, “I worked well with George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, but I cannot say we started well with Joe Biden. After 19 years in office, I can’t say that we have reached a good position with the U.S.” From that statement, it is clear that Biden does not support Erdogan’s domestic and foreign politics. The relationship between the two countries has not improved since then and begs the question: Why is the relationship between the two leaders so strained?
Democracy in Turkey was challenged by coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997 but managed to survive intact each time. So successful was Turkey’s experiment with democracy in a Muslim country that it became a model for other countries in the region to emulate. On July 15, 2016, however, a coup on that day dealt democracy in Turkey a fatal blow. Democracy in Turkey died under the darkness of Erdogan’s authoritarian regime, facilitated by incompetent and weak opposition political parties.
Turkish citizens from all walks of life are fearful of being jailed when they speak aloud about the government’s wrongdoings. The legislative, judicial, and executive branches do not function independently and are under the absolute control of Erdogan’s regime. Turkey’s interests have been replaced with those of Erdogan and his family. The regime no longer adheres to Western values and has distanced itself from the Western world, marking a distinct break from a history of supporting the Western world and Western values that goes back to the early years of the Cold War. That long history started to crumble in the early 2010s when the regime-controlled media poisoned Turkish citizens’ positive perception of the Western world.
Attempts by Erdogan to leverage his authoritarian grip on power for his own self-interests has harmed Turkey’s relations with the European Union. One of his trump cards is Syrian refugees. Whenever relations between Turkey and the EU become tense, Erdogan threatens to allow more Syrian refugees to European countries that already have taken in thousands of the displaced people. The tactic has worked in Erdogan’s favor repeatedly. The Europeans back off their criticism of the Erdogan regime and their political stance against the authoritarian ruler. Attempts at leverage with the United States, however, have not worked and only created more problems between the two countries – until Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.
Erdogan enjoyed his good relations with the former president who, incomprehensibly, praised Erdogan and his regime. The honeymoon was short-lived, ending when Joe Biden was elected president in 2020. Erdogan is decidedly unhappy with the Biden administration, and the feeling is mutual. When Biden held his first democracy summit in December 2021, he did not invite Erdogan to participate in the event. It is believed that Biden based his decision on Erdogan’s poor performance in three areas necessary for a thriving democracy: (a) fighting corruption, (b) bolstering democratic reformers, and (c) defending free and fair elections and political processes.
Persistent and Challenging Issues
Authoritarian leaders thrive on their power to oppress the governed, denying them the rights and freedoms that democracies enjoy. Such leaders believe that they are invincible and that no one can successfully challenge their authority without serious repercussions. When the tables are turned and it is the authoritarian leaders who are being investigated for alleged wrongdoing – be it graft, bribery, general corruption, or human rights violations – and those wrongdoings are proved true and exposed to the public, authoritarian leaders do whatever they must to protect their grip on absolute power. Whoever gets in their way is expendable and must, and will, pay a harsh price. Erdogan is a prime example of what can happen when an authoritarian leader is challenged and confronted by the country’s citizens.
Corruption and Halk Bank Investigation
Corruption has been a persistent issue in Turkey that has only worsened during Erdogan’s tenure. The country has morphed into a kleptocracy on par with authoritarian countries, such as Russia. For example, one out of four rubles in Russia goes into the pockets of corrupt government officials. The scale of corruption in Turkey is unknown, but it is fair to say that corrupt officials and bureaucrats siphon off money from almost all government contracts. For example, a member of the People’s Republican Party (also known as the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP) said in 2016 that the amount of money acquired by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (also known as the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) was around $1 trillion. According to the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, which calculates each country’s score based on the perceived level of public-sector corruption on a scale of 0 to 100 (where 0 means highly corrupt and 100 means very clean) and each country’s ranking relative to other countries in the index (where the higher the ranking number, the greater the corruption), corruption in Turkey worsened between 2012 and 2021. In 2012, Turkey ranked 54th of 176 countries; by 2021, it ranked 96th of 180 countries (see Figure 1).
The AKP under Erdogan is a continuation of the Islamist political parties that were banned under Turkey’s system of constitutional secularism, a system that banned headscarves at universities and restrained the future careers of students at religious vocational high schools. Erdogan’s popularity rose on the shoulders of these bans, and he opportunistically exploited the religious expectations of these people who saw Erdogan as a hero who protects Islam. Even today this community gives Erdogan a sacred identity and believes that if there is no Erdogan, then there is no Islamic freedom in Turkey.
Though banned, Islamist political parties in Turkey were not inactive. The Welfare Party (Refah Partisi, or RP), for example, was engaged in politics at the local level after it emerged from the banned National Order Party (MNP) and National Salvation Party (MSP). In 1994, the Welfare Party fielded Erdogan as its candidate for mayor of Istanbul; Erdogan won by a landslide. During the election campaign, Erdogan liked to tell the voters that he only had his ring as his fortune. However, Erdogan’s assets skyrocketed exponentially every year since then. As president, for example, Erdogan required that the holders of large-scale government contracts transfer some amount of money to him rather than to the government. The long-standing practice was revealed in wiretappings that were part of the Dec. 25, 2013, government-corruption investigation. According to some calculations, Erdogan is one of the wealthiest leaders in the world. It appears that he would do whatever is necessary to safeguard that fortune. The morning that the Dec. 17, 2013, government-corruption investigation was announced, for example, Erdogan transferred around $1.5 billion from his home in Istanbul.
Erdogan amassed his wealth not only by demanding kickbacks from government contractors but also by creating a loyal entourage for himself, just as Russian President Vladimir Putin did to fill his own coffers. Even the ministers responsible for providing government contracts and controlling the flow of money in the country dip their hands in the money pot with impunity. Erdogan turns a blind eye to the corruption and refuses to allow the judiciary to investigate the corrupt ministers.
Rumors and anecdotes about the looting of government money circulated through the Turkish population, but proving that the stories were true remained elusive – until the Dec. 17 and 25, 2013, government-corruption scandals proved that Erdogan, his family members, and his cabinet took millions of dollars from government contracts. The evidence in both investigations was solid. The December 17 investigation, for example, proved that Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman and gold trader, evaded U.S. nuclear sanctions on Iran while circulating billions of euros and opening escrow accounts in Turkey’s state bank, Halk Bank, in return for giving millions of dollars in bribes to government ministers. Acting on a court order, Zarrab arrested on Dec. 21, 2013, and incarcerated. The Dec. 25, 2013, investigation hit a little closer to home when it proved that Erdogan’s son was in charge of his father’s corrupt activities. Erdogan, of course, was furious about the revelations. He immediately shut down both investigations, released Zarrab from prison, and sent all investigators to jail along with their family members (including even children). Most of the imprisoned investigators have been in solitary confinement since their arrest in early 2014.
Zarrab remained free for about two years. In a surprise move, Zarrab traveled to the United States and was arrested by FBI agents when he arrived in March 2016. The U.S. prosecutor assigned to the Zarrab case used evidence from the 2013 corruption probes and testimony from one of the former Turkish police investigators at Zarrab’s trial. Evidence and testimony presented at the trial showed that the scheme to avoid U.S. sanctions on Iran continued until Zarrab’s arrest in 2016 and that the operation was under the control of Erdogan and his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. Before the trial concluded, Zarrab pled guilty and testified before the jury, providing details about the corrupt schemes.
The case, however, has not been closed. Erdogan knows that he remains at risk, particularly after having reviewed some of details in the U.S. prosecutor’s indictment of Zarrab. Erdogan has made many attempts to shut down the investigation in the United States, as he did in Turkey, and to have Zarrab released from U.S. custody. Erdogan’s wife, Emine, also sought to intervene in efforts to free Zarrab. In 2016, for example, Emine Erdogan pleaded with Jill Biden, wife of then-Vice President Joe Biden, that Zarrab be released. President Erdogan, however, was undeterred. Two years later, according to John Bolton, national security advisor to President Trump from 2018 to 2019 and author of The Room Where It Happened (published in 2020), Erdogan tried to get federal prosecutors to back off the Halk Bank investigation. Bolton also claims that former President Trump agreed to help Erdogan by intervening in a federal investigation into a Turkish state-owned bank, which Bolton did not name.
Trump’s willingness to help Erdogan with the Halk Bank case is one of the reasons why Turkish media supported Trump and criticized Biden during the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign. For example, the media highlighted a quotation from a speech about Turkey that Biden gave on Dec. 16, 2019 – 10 months before the 2020 election – in which Biden said, “What I think we should be doing is taking a very different approach to him now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership.” The Turkish media humiliated Biden afterward but said nothing about Trump who sent an insulting letter to Erdogan on Oct. 9, 2019, before Erdogan had attempted to use military power in northern Syria. Trump was quoted as saying, “It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”
Erdogan saw the re-election of Trump as vital for his personal interests. Turkish media aired live programs on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020, and supported Trump. At the same time, religious centers and some mosques in the United States supported by the Diyanet Center of America carried out a campaign for Trump’s re-election. These efforts, however, had nothing to do with support for the Republican Party on the part of Erdogan or the Turkish people. It simply was a matter of Erdogan and Trump looking out for their own self-interests. For example, during an interview on Breitbart News in 2015, Trump said, “I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major building in Istanbul. It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers – two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.” Erdogan used those same towers in an effort to influence Trump’s foreign policy and was happy when he got some guarantees on the Halk Bank investigation from the U.S. president.
Allegations of Linkages with Jihadist Groups in Syria
Thousands of ISIS militants have crossed Turkey’s borders to join ISIS and al Qaeda groups in Syria, making Turkey one of the main source countries of foreign fighters in that country and the subject of criticism for poor performance in the fight against ISIS. Allegations also have arisen that Erdogan, along with his son-in-law and government bureaucrats, has been involved in the smuggling of arms, explosives, and oil from Syria to Turkey. In 2015, for example, Russia’s defense ministry said that Erdogan and his family were benefiting from the smuggling of oil from the territories in Syria that were controlled by ISIS. According to Nuri Gokhan Bozkir, a former military captain in Turkey’s Special Forces Command, Turkey served as the intermediary for transferring arms and explosives to Syria, tens of such arms shipments were made, and Qatar sent millions of dollars to Turkey in exchange for those arms shipments. Sedat Peker, a mafia leader who had dark relations with the Turkish government and fled to Dubai for his safety, alleged that SADAT, a private Turkish security contractor under the control of the government, transferred weapons to Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda-affiliated group, with the approval of personnel in Erdogan’s office. Peker’s allegations about weapons transfers, however, should not be dismissed outright. In early 2014, for example, Turkish police received a tip that weapons bound for Syria were being transported to that country over a land route in two trucks. When they located the trucks, the investigating officers frisked the drivers and searched the contents of both trucks. As expected, weapons were found. News of the raid did not sit well with the Erdogan government. The investigators who apprehended the trucks were sent to jail and placed in solitary confinement. Some of them remain in solitary confinement to this day.
July 15, 2016, Coup Attempt
The Turkish government’s version of the circumstances of the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, is both absurd and full of lies. Anyone in the country who has spoken out against the government’s theory has been jailed. The government continues to insist that Gulenists and the United States were behind the coup attempt, adding that the United States also plotted coups to overthrow the Turkish government in 1960, 1971, and 1980. After the most recent coup attempt, members of Erdogan’s cabinet parroted the government line that the United States was behind the July 15 coup attempt, even though they likely knew that their words were nothing but lies. One of the most vocal of these cabinet members was Minister of the Interior Suleyman Soylu.
Two Americans who just happened to be in Turkey at the time of the coup also were charged, on the basis of fabricated evidence, with involvement in the uprising. Some Turkish columnists even alleged that then-Vice President Biden knew about the coup before it happened and that the U.S. administration was behind the uprising; however, scholars who have studied the coup attempt have concluded that the Turkish government’s accusations are not credible.
Opposition leaders in Turkey and countries in the Western world found Erdogan’s theory weak and suspicious. For example, People’s Republican Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu described the coup attempt as a “controlled military coup,” meaning that Erdogan and his government knew about the coup attempt before it happened. Then-Vice President Biden had a similar impression of the event, saying that it was like watching a video game. When an editor from Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency asked then-Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, “Did there ever be any project that challenged you so much that you said, ‘We hadn’t gotten into this job?’,” Yıldırım said sarcastically, “The project I don’t like, July 15.” In a speech immediately after the coup attempt, the now-jailed former leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtaş stated that Erdogan was well-prepared for the coup attempt and positioned himself to benefit from its results. Some scholars have concluded that Erdogan used the December 17 and 25 anti-corruption scandals as a pretext to justify purging the police and the judiciary and the July 15 coup attempt to solidify his control of the entire country. His plan worked. Erdogan consolidated power, purged more than 150,000 opposition members (including Gulenists, Kurds, and Secularists) from the government, and assumed full control over the media.
Erdogan’s Domestic and Foreign Politics
Erdogan’s domestic and foreign politics are designed to protect himself and his family members from anyone who might oppose or even question his position of power over the country. His main strategy is to jail and intimidate the opposition with fabricated and nonexistent evidence. Truth and justice are nowhere in the equation – only self-preservation.
Opposition leaders in Turkey, however, are aware of Erdogan’s machinations and know that he will do whatever it takes to prevent members of the opposition parties from getting a foothold in the government through the presidential election process. For example, if an election is held and the results show that Erdogan is trailing an opposition candidate, Good Party leader Meral Aksener argues that Erdogan will order SADAT to foment trouble among the Turkish people by telling them that some votes, which would have gone to Erdogan, were intentionally omitted from the vote totals. Some pundits, however, argue that if Erdogan believes he will do poorly in an election, he will just cancel the election and create a false-flag operation, such as a terrorist bombing or an assassination threat, to provide a seemingly legitimate cover for his self-serving action.
Through his actions, Erdogan is sending a message not only to the Turkish people but also to the world outside the country’s borders. The message is simple yet multifaceted: Erdogan is irreplaceable, no alternative powerful government exists in Turkey, the opposition is too feeble to rule such a polarized country, and with anyone else in power the country would be fighting a civil war, and European countries would be flooded with Turkish refugees. When tensions flare up between Turkey and the EU, Erdogan is quick to play his trump card: Syrian refugees and the prospect of allowing the more than 5 million unvetted Syrians in Turkey to cross its borders and settle in the EU country of their choice. Make no mistake, though: Erdogan is not acting out of any sense of altruism, mercy, or generosity. The goal is to get what he wants, what serves his self-interests, through wily blackmail.
Erdogan Seeking Leverage Against the United States
U.S. policy toward Syria has evolved since the early years of that country’s civil war. The original priority was to overthrow the government of President Bashar al Assad by supporting opposition groups in the country that had the same objective. Then, the priority changed to defeating ISIS and al Qaeda groups operating in Syria and doing so with the help of Kurdish groups, which the United States sees as its only reliable ally, in northern Syria. Turkey, however, views the Kurdish groups in the border region as a terrorist organization and has accused the United States of providing the Kurds with logistics and weapons.
Erdogan is fully aware of what the ongoing counterterrorism operations in Syria mean for the United States and has sought to use that knowledge to his advantage. For example, Erdogan directed the Turkish army to conduct a military operation, code-named Operation Peace Spring, in Syria in 2019, after he was denied a one-on-one meeting with then-President Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting.
Erdogan also has used politics as a bargaining chip to affect U.S. policies he does not like. For example, when Turkish police arrested pastor Andrew Brunson for his alleged relationship with the PKK terrorist organization and Gulenists in Turkey, Erdogan demanded that the United States extradite Fethullah Gulen and pressured it to drop the Halk Bank investigation. Erdogan also sought to arrest Turkish Americans in Turkey, including Metin Topuz, a U.S. consulate employee who had been jailed on terrorism charges that were based on weak and scant evidence.
Turkey’s relationship with Russia vis-à-vis the United States also has been used as leverage against the United States. In 2017, for example, Erdogan used several billion dollars in Turkey’s modest budget to purchase S-400 missile defense systems from Russia – despite objections from the U.S. governments. Erdogan’s ploy is clear. Turkey is not facing an urgent security threat, and Erdogan knows that, as a member of NATO, he could use NATO’s missiles if needed. Erdogan’s message to the Western world is equally clear: If you are against my politics, I can turn steer Turkey toward Russia.
How to Fix the U.S.-Turkey Relationship
Given the conflicting priorities of Biden (i.e. promotion of democracy and human rights) and Erdogan (i.e. self-preservation and the retention of power through any means necessary), fixing the relationship between the countries will be difficult.
Erdogan wants guarantees that the Biden administration will:
- shut down the Halk Bank investigation immediately and extradite the main suspect, Reza Zarrab, to Turkey.
- not criticize Erdogan’s authoritarianism in official U.S. reports.
- approve Turkey’s theory of and the accusations of Gulenists and U.S.’s involvement in the July15, 2016, coup attempt.
- treat Erdogan as an important player in the region and meet with him one-on-one at international summits.
- turn a blind eye to the closure of media outlets and to the hundreds of thousands of opposition individuals who have been tortured and held in the jail on the basis of scant evidence.
- approve Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems.
- not provide logistics and weapons to Kurdish groups operating in northern Syria.
Even if the Biden administration were to agree to Erdogan’s demands, Erdogan will continue to be a corrupt ruler who forbids freedom of the press and freedom of speech and jails members of the opposition despite scant evidence of guilt. Erdogan will never mend his ways and will continue to seek ways to leverage his influence on U.S. politics and policies. He will continue to use the trump cards that have proved to be effective in the past: Russia, Iran, military intervention in Syria, lobbying the Biden administration and Congress, and forging close relationships with Americans who may be able to influence the Biden administration in favor of Erdogan’s interests.
Erdogan should instead ensure that Turkey remains a critical ally for the United States in a world where authoritarianism continues to be a threat to regional and global security. Erdogan, however, has stolen 20 years from Turkey, destroyed all of its democratic gains, and has harmed – perhaps irreparably – the positive relationship that had existed between Turkey and the Western world. If Erdogan were wise, he would recognize the importance of Western values, which are based on a system of checks and balances, good governance, accountability, freedom of speech and human rights and would restore the values of democratic governance and repair Turkey’s relationship with the United States.