Why does the U.S. tolerate Turkey putting American citizens in prison?

Turkey’s President Erdoğan has cracked down on the opposition.
Turkey’s President Erdoğan has cracked down on the opposition. AP

The U.S. visit of Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım hardly made news in the national media, not only because of notorious parochial nature of news in the United States, but also because even the people of Turkey know that he is the lowest profile premier in the country.

It is an open secret that premiers are installed and removed by despotic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in “modern” Turkey.

In a matter of years, Turkey has turned into the largest jailer of journalists. One could argue that it is only one of many oppressor states in the world. Why care about the slide of a long-term ally into a dictatorship?

One could also argue that other countries work with dictators everywhere as long as their fundamental interests are not hurt. But Turkey is not any dictatorship. It has been a NATO member for more than half a century. It is supposed to respect values of the Western world and have cordial relations with other allies. However, there is evidence that Turkey has becoming closer to Russia as it moves away from democracy.

Turkey’s relations with the United States could be termed as “hostage diplomacy.” Turkey not only is conducting a brutal and massive purge against its own citizens. It is targeting foreign nationals, including Americans.

The most prominent of a dozen American hostages is pastor and missionary Andrew Brunson who was imprisoned in after the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Like the more than 150,000 political prisoners, he is accused of ties to Gülen movement. Without evidence, Erdoğan accuses Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen for orchestrating the coup attempt, and wants him extradited from his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

Turkey’s increasingly despotic president publicly stated that he is ready to trade Gülen for the Brunson, proof enough of Turkey’s hostage diplomacy. Turkey also recently detained three staff members of U.S. diplomatic missions. As a result, the United States suspended visas from Turkey, its harshest response yet. Negotiations to resolve the visa crisis continue.

While it’s easy to assume that Erdoğan’s goal is to get Gülen back, the one he really wants is Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, jailed in the United States since March 2016 on charges of evading U.S. sanctions against Iran. Zarrab, also a Turkish citizen, was acquitted of all charges of corruption implicating the Erdoğan family in Turkey in 2014 thanks to an unprecedented purge of the judiciary.

Indeed, Erdoğan has a difficult time hiding his real concern. Referring to Zarrab, he has been accusing of the United States of turning a citizen of Turkey into an informant. Turkey’s prime minister visited Washington just ahead of a critical court hearing while reports signal that Zarrab could plead guilty and cooperate with U.S. courts. Nobody will be surprised if Turkey’s first family is implicated by this case. Unfortunately, U.S.-Turkey have been hijacked by the fears of one man.

It would be naïve to expect the United States to put aside its interests and long-term military cooperation in a strategically located country. Yet, a destabilized and unpredictable Turkey will be more costly for the people of Turkey — and also the region.

It is hard to buy the argument that the United States has limited leverage in Turkey. Germany, which suffers from a similar breakdown with Turkey, at least has been applying more pressure to release German citizens in Turkey’s prisons. The release of Human Rights Watch team, including a German national, was made possible by negotiations between Erdoğan and Germany. The release of foreigners and well-connected political prisoners might result in indifference to the remaining less-connected purge victims, but international pressure on Turkey would send the message that arbitrary measures of a NATO ally might — and should — have consequences.

So far, the international pressure on Turkey that is being lost to ‘collective lunacy’ has not been enough to slow down the purge. Yet, non-action by Western allies would only embolden oppression in Turkey. Tolerating ‘hostage diplomacy’ will be nothing more than appeasement. It was high time that the US sends a stronger message to Turkey to reverse its self-destructing path.

Sevgi Akarçeşme is a journalist in exile. Her newspaper was seized by the Turkish government.