WASHINGTON ― Rising American criticism of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spurred hopes that the U.S. will take a tougher line against his repression, according to a top opposition Turkish lawmaker.
“They can do more,” Hişyar Özsoy, a parliamentarian associated with Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, known as HDP, told HuffPost recently during a stateside visit to meet with members of Congress and Trump administration officials.
Powerful Republicans and Democrats criticized an attack by Erdogan’s security personnel on protesters during his visit to the U.S. in May. U.S. authorities have since taken the unusual step of announcing criminal charges against the foreign officials. This month, the House passed a unanimous resolution condemning the guards’ behavior.
“Every single one of them voted for it,” Özsoy said of the House resolution. (More than 30 members of the House did not vote; no lawmakers voted against the resolution.)
“For quite some time, the U.S. administration as well as politicians have been trying to somehow manage Erdogan, to ease his anxiety,” Özsoy continued. “But it seems that they are fed up, I think, and this was, they’re angry not simply because of this attack, but this was kind of a tipping point, and it seems that they are saying enough is enough, we are not going to tolerate you and manage your anxieties anymore, and you need to behave.”
Some Turkish officials believe the U.S., their ally in the NATO alliance, has underestimated their concerns about an attempted coup against Erdogan last year, and the growing power of a Kurdish militant group called the YPG, which is working with the U.S. against the Islamic State in Syria.
Erdogan sees the YPG as an extension of a movement called the PKK ― a Kurdish organization responsible for hundreds of deaths within Turkey and still engaged in conflict with the government. Both Turkey and the U.S. list the PKK as a terror group.
But U.S. officials say they’re confident the YPG will not threaten Turkey with its new American weaponry. And compassion regarding the coup has waned because of Erdogan’s response ― fresh attacks on the press (Turkey is the world’s most prodigious jailer of journalists) the firing of tens of thousands of ordinary people, and assaults on opposition politicians.
Erdogan’s post-coup state of emergency seems to “target criticism, not terrorism,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said in March. Humanitarian groups say the government overreach exacerbates problems caused by a brutal years-long crackdown in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish southeastern regions.
Erdogan has responded to international criticism with anger. “What kind of a rule, what kind of a law is this?” he said in reaction to the charges against his bodyguards. The Turkish leader has also grown closer to Russia, a move analysts say is meant to signal that he does not necessarily need Washington’s support.
American decision-makers should see that there is now no value in compromising to soothe Erdogan, Özsoy said. He wants U.S. officials to step up criticism of heavy-handed Turkish government actions, like the imprisonment of his party’s leaders, and challenge talking points from Turkey’s lobbyists, like the claim that Erdogan is open to peace with the PKK after having consolidated his power as president in a controversial recent referendum.
“At best, they can be forced to have some kind of negotiations,” the lawmaker said, referring to Erdogan and the ultra-nationalist, anti-Kurdish factions in Turkey’s military and politics, with whom the president has aligned in recent years.
The harsh rhetoric about Erdogan and broad support for the Kurds on both sides of the aisle suggests that more Capitol Hill pressure may well be possible.
Asked whether he believes President Donald Trump’s stated admiration for Erdogan will make it hard for the U.S. to challenge Turkey, Özsoy said he believes the president’s domestic troubles over Russia will make it hard for him to truly shape U.S. foreign policy.
“Even in the U.S. where the president is so powerful, foreign policy decisions are not based on whether the presidents like each other personally or not,” he added. “If Erdogan is investing in the Trump administration, I can say that he will be disappointed.”
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