How Erdoğan became the Middle East’s favourite human rights abuser – analyst
Turkey’s human rights abuses as listed in the annual report by the U.S. State Department did not raise much alarm among its allies, as Ankara is working to improve long-fraught relations with Egypt, Israel and Gulf states, analyst Zvi Bar’el wrote in an article for Haaretz.
The abuses included in the report would be “familiar to anyone following regular reports on this in the media … but compiling them in one volume makes a difference”, he said.
The article was penned ahead of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s statement on the matter, where the ministry said the report was “unfortunate” and based on “unfounded allegations about our country”.
A version of the article follows below:
The U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights in Turkey, which was issued this week, mentioned nothing surprising. Its 93 pages contained more horrifying reports on Turkey’s tens of thousands of political prisoners, the harassment of journalists, torture, the ongoing repression of freedom of expression, violations of the law and distortion of the term democracy, based on its Turkish interpretation.
The report also recounts violence directed at minority groups, homosexuals, transgender individuals and women. Its content is familiar to anyone following regular reports on this in the media – and on social media in Turkey. But compiling them in one volume makes a difference.
Turkey still hasn’t officially responded to the allegations. As usual, it’s expected to claim that the report is designed to undermine the legitimacy of the regime, to defame Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and that the report provides backing for terrorists. That’s how Turkey has responded to similar reports issued about it by the European Union – and it will reply as such to Washington, too.
But when State Department spokesman Ned Price was asked how the Biden administration viewed Turkey’s decision not to participate in the sanctions against Russia, he said: “The Turks have also played a very significant diplomat role seeking to … see if … any diplomatic progress can be achieved” between Russia and Ukraine.
The distinction being made between American anger over Turkey’s violations of human rights and democratic values, and Turkey’s role as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine and its diplomatic standing in the region, is obliterating the narrative that the Biden administration is plying about the primacy of human rights. And it doesn’t only pertain to Turkey.
Biden, who is yet to have a direct conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has sent high-level envoys to him to convince him to boost his country’s oil production – in order to lower the price of oil and help Europe in the process. For a moment, the fact that Saudi Arabia is up top on the list of countries violating human rights has been ignored. Just last month, it executed 81 people, the highest number at one time in years.
For its part, Turkey hasn’t carried out an execution since 1984 and it repealed capital punishment in 2004. But since 2016, the year in which there was an attempted military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime, it has invested about $1.5 billion in new prison construction, and it now has 384 prisons housing about 315,000 prisoners – the second highest for a country in Europe – after Russia.
It’s not polite to speak about such injustices when Turkey is close to renewing its ties with Israel. Indeed, not everything that Biden is allowed is also permitted to Israeli President Isaac Herzog. In Herzog’s historic and important visit to Turkey in March, not a word was uttered about Turkey’s human rights situation. After all, he who lives in a glass house can’t throw stones.
Herzog, who was received in Turkey with exceptional honours, including a 21-gun salute, also received a gift from the Turkish Jewish community when he visited the Neveh Shalom synagogue in Istanbul – a copy of an order from Sultan Abdulaziz to the head of his judiciary ordering that the Jews be protected from blood libel.
Protecting Jews, since the time of receiving the exiles from Spain all the way through to granting shelter to those who were persecuted and fled the Nazi regime, is a fundamental part of Turkish rhetoric used to reject the claims that its opposition to and harsh criticism of the policy of Israel’s governments is anti-Semitism. This rhetoric was also the central argument of an article by Hasan Murat Mercan in Turkeyscope, published by the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Mercan is not a researcher or commentator, even though he has a doctorate in information engineering from Miami University. Mercan is the Turkish ambassador to Washington, a job he was surprisingly appointed to a year ago – as the first political appointment of a Turkish ambassador to the United States. He devotes most of his article to the history of the relations between the Jews and the Ottoman Empire, and after that between the Jews and the Turkish governments.
“Today, Turkey's Jewish citizens continue to enrich and contribute to the Turkish Republic, as it approaches its centenary. Throughout our history, Turkey has never been, nor would it ever be a source of expulsion of Jews from their homes. In no period of Turkish history, there existed a so-called “Jewish question”. Neither anti-Semitism, nor bigotry of any kind against Jews have ever found roots in Anatolia,” wrote Mercan. He also mentions how Turkey recognised the State of Israel in 1949.
Mercan is one of the founders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and he has been involved for years in diplomacy and works as a strategic adviser to Erdoğan. In 2003, when Erdoğan was appointed for the first time as prime minister, and when the Israeli fears of a change in Turkish policy were at their peak – it was Mercan who rushed to calm things down. In an interview with Haaretz, he made it clear at the time that “we don’t intend on deviating from Turkey’s traditional foreign policy toward Israel, not even by an inch. We were always friends, and Turkey always defended the Jews, even back as far as the expulsion from Spain. We accept the road map [for a solution for the Israeli – Palestinian conflict], as you do, and our connections with Arab countries like Syria or with the Palestinians shouldn’t worry you, they in no way come at your expense … Will the Turkey of the Justice and Development Party continue its good relations with Israel? Do you have any doubt?”
Five years later, when he visited Israel and even went out of his way to go to Sderot in southern Israel to see up close the damage to communities from Hamas rocket attacks, he told Haaretz: “I visited Sderot and saw the attacks on its civilians, but I also know very well the tragedy and sadness in Gaza. I advise Hamas to stop attacking civilians and recommend that Israel stop the sanctions on Gaza.”
Ten years after that, when the Marmara affair occurred, many doubted whether Turkey and Israel could still be allies, or at the very least, friendly. After all, Hamas has no closer friend than Turkey, argued Israel. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates shared this view. Indeed, the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, described Turkey a few years ago as “the greatest threat to the Middle East, even more than Iran.” Since then, such statements have become nothing more than water under the bridge.
In November 2021, the leader of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, visited Turkey – the very same Turkey that threatened to end its diplomatic relations with Abu Dhabi because of the signing of the Abraham Accords peace agreement with Israel – and promised to invest $10 billion there. In February, Erdogan landed in Abu Dhabi and signed 13 cooperation agreements.
Between Turkey and Egypt, another fierce rival, negotiations are progressing on re-establishing diplomatic relations that were cut in 2013 – and reports say there is already a candidate for the position of Turkey’s ambassador in Cairo. This month, Erdoğan is expected to be hosted for the first time since the break in relations by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for an iftar meal, and next month two very senior Turkish officials will visit Israel to agree on the appointment of ambassadors and rebuilding relations. The two are Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Defence Minister Hulusi Akar. If everything goes as planned, it is expected that a few weeks later the Turkish national anthem will be played in Jerusalem in honour of a visit by Erdogan.
While Çavuşoğlu’s visit is the obvious and necessary thing to do when the renewal of diplomatic relations is under discussion, Akar joining him is something exceptional and has caused a great deal of interest. It could mean that Turkey is hoping not only to renew diplomatic ties and military cooperation on the tactical level, along with mutual procurement of military equipment – but also regional and international strategic coordination.
“The reality in the Middle East and beyond it requires the countries of the region to cooperate and build a major bloc with influence and power,” a senior official in Turkey’s Foreign Ministry told Haaretz. “Turkish, Israeli and Arab cooperation is an essential step to face these challenges.”
The same things were expressed Mercan’s article: “Turkish-Israeli interaction offers more than a conventional regional partnership in the face of malign actors and trends. Conventional partnerships are for a particular issue, be it against a threat or for an objective. Conventional partnerships have expiration dates. Turkey and Israel, on the other hand, share a common neighbourhood, heritage, and not least, a common future … In addition, we should not lose sight over the potential gains a structured Turkish-Israeli partnership would bring about to the regions beyond MENA, such as the Caucasus, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa,” he wrote.
Such a partnership has already come about in the aid Israel and Turkey have given to Azerbaijan in its war in Nagorno-Karabakh and the intelligence cooperation that never ceased during the periods of the crises in relations.
Çavuşoğlu, who has been in his post since 2015, is the strategist behind the diplomatic turning point Erdogan has come to with the countries of the region. His colleague Akar, who was the commander of the ground forces and chief of staff before being appointed to his present position in 2018, is the architect behind the revival of Turkey’s military power and its defence strategy, which has been required now to deal not only with the war in Syria – but also with the military and economic implications of the war in Ukraine: first and foremost the intentions of European countries to free themselves of their dependence on Russian gas and oil.
Turkey’s calculations to become the centre of supply for energy resources from Russia to Europe have now been disrupted and it needs new suppliers to provide oil and gas through Turkey’s pipelines — thus preserving its status as a regional hub, which is expected to generate enormous profits.
Egypt and Israel can be strategic partners, as well as Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states. When these are the considerations, there no place for deep discussions about human rights. It seems both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood will be forced to find themselves an alternative refuge.
(The original version of the article can be found here.),