A sun-filled, blue sky hung over the stately brownstone residence of the Turkish Ambassador where Erdoğan had stopped after meeting earlier that day with President Trump. A small, organized crowd had gathered about a few hundred yards from the home's front door. They were there to demonstrate against the Turkish President. With just a few words to his bodyguards, Erdoğan seemingly unleashed them; they set upon the crowd, shoving and beating the peaceful protesters. Those protesters who had fallen to the pavement were viciously kicked. One man lay in a fetal position as the President's bodyguard savagely beat him.
This scene witnessed in 2017 isn’t an unusual occurrence coming from Erdoğan's police force: a group with access to military-grade weapons and resources which has become well known for their suppression of dissent over recent years. This violent crackdown against those who disagree with Erdoğan has become an anticipated response towards protesters.
When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949, its stated goal was to create a robust military alliance among western nations to counteract Soviet influence in Europe. Once the Cold War ended, NATO's goals shifted from previously being a force existing solely to counteract the now-collapsed Soviet Union to being an alliance aiming to protect democracy and stability in Europe and abroad. Since establishing these new goals, NATO has found itself involved in the Yugoslav wars, the ongoing Ukraine conflict, and the civil war in Syria. Over the past 20 years, Turkey has been diverting immensely from the common path of democracy and stability.
Modern day Turkey, under President Recep Erdoğan, is an example of a violent, authoritarian state. Freedom House has rated Turkey a mere 16/40 in political rights and civil liberties. This low score is in line with other authoritarian nations such as Pakistan and Myanmar. Human Rights Watch described Turkey as having a "dramatic erosion of its rule of law and democracy framework." The nation has become an authoritarian state where fundamental rights like freedom of speech and assembly are constantly threatened and suppressed. Specifically, Turkey's sizable Kurdish population has faced extensive discrimination, and Kurdish members of parliament who speak out against Turkish policies find themselves out of a job or in jail.
In recent times, Erdoğan has acted increasingly hostile to his own allies within NATO. Turkey has called for boycotts of French products, condemned the United States on several occasions, and even made agreements with Russia behind NATO's back. This sort of aggression is not something to be expected from an ally of the United States, let alone a member of NATO as a whole.
Erdoğan's declarations and finger-pointing actions are mild compared to his brutal use of military force to pursue foreign policy objectives. Turkey has a powerful position in the Syrian Civil War. By both bordering Syria, and having a modern and professional army, the country has been able to spread its influence in the region. Turkey backs the Syrian National Army (TFSA) in the conflict, a group with many ties to Islamist terrorist organizations and oppression in the region, and as the war in Syria raged on, the TFSA and Turkey went head to head with American backed forces in Syria - the YPG.
The YPG is a primarily Kurdish militia based in Northern Syria that, with the outbreak of war in Syria, pledged itself to fight for democracy and to protect the rights of the Syrian people. When ISIS declared it’s so-called caliphate in 2014, the YPG was pushed to the frontlines. With American support, the YPG endured many casualties in their fight to destroy ISIS and in 2016, they finally captured ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital city, Al-Raqqa. Since then, Turkey has done everything it can to destroy the YPG’s progress. In two separate invasions, Turkey has used the TFSA and their own forces to take land from the YPG and occupy it under "safe zones." During the Turkish invasion of Northern Syria in October of 2019, Turkey was accused of war crimes, including use of chemical weapons and ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish population. The Turkish-backed army was caught dragging female politician Hevrin Khalaf onto a road, viciously beating her and then summarily executing her by gunshot.
All but one nation of NATO's 29 members at the time condemned the invasion, showing that there is a common consensus among NATO members to actively oppose Turkey’s actions, yet no real action was taken to stop it.
It is clear Turkey has shown no signs of stopping its cruel expansionism. In late September of 2020, with Turkey's support, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive into Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that has endured war crimes and ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh war was a victory for Azerbaijan, and the region's Armenian population was forced to leave in an exodus to Armenia proper. Azerbaijan is no ally of liberty, rated as "Not Free" by Freedom House and scoring worse than Turkey on both civil liberties and political rights; Azerbaijan is a ruthless dictatorship. Yet, Turkey is actively supporting it’s regime.
So why is Turkey still in NATO? They have shown themselves to be an unreliable ally and clearly don't share the alliance's values regarding human rights and liberal democracy. A primary reason for their continued inclusion in NATO is Turkey’s strategic, geopolitical location. Turkey controls access to the Black Sea, and in the case of any conflict with Russia, Turkey would likely offer a military staging ground. Turkey also is one of the highest contributors to their military in the alliance, spending 2.7% of their GDP on defence.
When the United States government and NATO leadership think about Turkey’s strategic and military importance in the alliance, they find themselves blind to the reality of harshness of the Turkish regime. The brutality of the Turkish regime was brought into focus for the American public on that day in May 2017.
The police were called in to quell the skirmish in front of the residence and people were taken to the hospital with serious injuries. Arrests were made, but before they were sentenced in court, the violent perpetrators had fled the country. What made this day in May different from others was that the violence instigated by Erdoğan’s forces didn't take place in Ankara or Istanbul, but in Washington DC.
Not only has Erdoğan shown a lack of regard for the fundamental human right of assembly in his own nation, but Erdoğan has also bluntly disrespected these rights on American soil. Erdoğan has shown us that he has no respect for the values that NATO and the United States claim to espouse. There is no denying the strategic importance of Turkish land and military contributions but these material benefits of Turkey do not and cannot outweigh the moral questions as they pertain to NATO’s goal of protecting democracy. As long as the United States and NATO are allied with the current Turkish regime, we will continue to be corrupted by the stain of tyranny on our so-called alliance of liberty.
Caden Umansky is a first year International Studies student in the School of International Service. He is a Staff Writer at American Agora.
Photo Credit: NATO