If Trump Won't Step Up to Turkey's Tyrannical Leader, Congress Must | Opinion

With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visiting Washington Wednesday, he should expect a cool reception. While President Donald Trump seems poised to welcome the Turkish strongman with open arms, Erdogan has few other friends left in the capital.

Congress, in particular, is furious with Erdogan for his purchase of a missile system from Russia this summer and for his incursion into Syria last month. In recent weeks, legislators have proposed a slew of bills to punish Turkey for these moves. Anger has swelled beyond traditional critics to include key allies of Trump, like Senator Lindsey Graham, as well as longtime supporters of Turkey, like Representative Steve Cohen. And the House of Representatives even passed a resolution condemning Turkey's 1915 genocide of Armenians, a major step it had long avoided out of deference to Ankara.

Lawmakers are right to oppose Erdogan's offensive in Syria and his turn toward Russia. But they should also speak out about Turkey's democratic backsliding.

Over the past decade, Erdogan has transformed Turkey from an imperfect democracy into something closer to an authoritarian state, including through his successful 2017 campaign to rewrite the Constitution, turning parliament into a rubber stamp for his rule. Turkey's once relatively independent judiciary now functions as a tool of presidential power, wielded against Erdogan's opponents and critics. In the past four years, Turkish authorities have detained more than 100,000 under trumped-up terrorism charges. Those behind bars include lawmakers, journalists, artists, academics and civil society leaders—the very people who had been instrumental to Turkey's important progress in democratization. The independent media has also been crushed. Today, nearly all media outlets in the country are owned by conglomerates beholden to Erdogan, and more journalists are in jail than in any other country.

This repression not only offends American values but also enables the very foreign policy moves that antagonize Congress, while undermining the bilateral relationship in other ways.

Erdogan's crackdown has resulted in tight government control over the narratives on Syria, Russia and the United States, making Turkish public opinion more susceptible to disinformation. Those who question Erdogan's foreign policy orientation or propose alternative courses of action are silenced. Since the beginning of October, hundreds have been taken into custody for publishing social media posts critical of the military operation in Syria.

Public debate in Turkey is stifled further by the targeting of political opposition. The Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the second largest opposition group in parliament, is the only Turkish party that advocates for an alternative policy toward Syrian Kurds. But Erdogan has stripped the party's ability to promote its agenda. The party's two co-chairs have been in jail since 2016, and nearly all other HDP lawmakers face prosecution based on speeches they have made about Turkey's relationship with Kurds.

Recept Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the press after meeting with Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orbán for discussions on Syria and migration on November 7 in Budapest, Hungary. Laszlo Balogh/Getty

Erdogan's government also actively promotes conspiracy theories about the United States to delegitimize indigenous resistance to his growing authoritarianism. A prime example is the Gezi Park trial, in which 16 Turkish citizens—philanthropists, architects and NGO workers—face life sentences for absurd charges of "conspiring to overthrow the government" on behalf of foreign actors. The case's Kafka-esque indictment seeks to pin the mass anti-government "Gezi" protests of 2013, in which millions of people across Turkey participated, on a Western-led plot against Erdogan. Erdogan raises the specter of an external enemy to justify his authoritarian tactics to a domestic audience. Such narratives deepen suspicion and mistrust among the Turkish public toward the United States, exacerbating bilateral tensions.

These and other steps Erdogan has taken should be a wake-up call to Congress that Turkish repression cannot be ignored. Erdogan's authoritarianism is inextricably intertwined with his aggressive moves abroad and his distancing of Turkey from the transatlantic alliance. Turkey's turn toward Russia is a natural outgrowth of Erdogan's dismantling of democracy.

Like all authoritarian leaders who visit the White House, Erdogan seeks to exclude his repressive domestic policies from bilateral discussions, and Trump seems happy to comply. But if Trump won't take Erdogan to task for his authoritarian moves, then congressional leaders must step up and make clear that a strong Turkish democracy is vital to U.S. interests.

Only a more democratic Turkey can be a true U.S. ally and partner. It is up to Congress to deliver that message.

Merve Tahiroglu is the Turkey program coordinator and Stephen McInerney the executive director of POMED, Project on Middle East Democracy.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.