Erdoğan’s threat to U.S. envoy hands early test for Biden nominee Jeff Flake

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced his intent to declare the United States’ ambassador to Ankara persona non-grata after lending his name to a statement calling for the release of Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala. 

Speaking on Saturday from the Turkish city of Eskisehir, Erdoğan said he gave the order to Turkey's foreign ministry to deliver this message to the U.S. ambassador as well as nine other foreign envoys who joined the call to release Kavala. 

"They will recognize, understand and know Turkey. The day they don’t know or understand Turkey, they will leave,” said Erdoğan. 

On Monday, U.S. ambassador David Satterfield, a holdover from former President Donald Trump’s administration, joined colleagues from Canada, Norway and seven European Union states in a statement acknowledging the four years since Kavala was first imprisoned. In it, they called on Turkey to bring forth a "just and speedy resolution to his case" in line with "Turkey’s international obligations and domestic laws." Kavala, a civil society activist and a supporter of the 2013 Gezi Park protests against Erdogan, was ordered to be released by the European Court of Human Rights in 2019 but this has been rejected by Erdoğan as interference in Turkish domestic affairs.

It is unclear when, or if, Erdoğan’s order will be carried out against the foreign envoys, but the timing of the move prevents an immediate question for U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee for Ambassador to Turkey, Jeff Flake. 

Just a day after the statement on Kavala’s detention, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved of Flake’s nomination, moving him one step closer to receiving a confirmation hearing in the full Senate. If confirmed, Flake, a former Republican senator from Arizona, will be joining an administration that has been less restrained than its predecessor in criticizing the state of human rights under Erdogan. 

In a break from the Trump administration, Biden’s State Department has been less shy about issuing statements critical of Erdoğan’s record on human rights. In January, after only being sworn into office three days earlier, the State Department called for Turkey to release Kavala as well as the leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas. President Biden himself also lamented Erdogan’s exit from the Istanbul Convention in March, a treaty designed to confront gender based violence. 

In its most significant break from precedent, Biden announced the U.S.’ recognition of the Armenian genocide on April 24, the 106th anniversary of the Ottoman-era killings. During his time as a lawmaker, Flake was criticized by Armenian diaspora groups for voting against previous moves by Congress to recognise the genocide. Flake later said that he supports the administration’s decision to recognise the Armenian genocide during his nomination hearing.

During his nomination hearing on September 28, Flake made known his concerns over authoritarianism in Turkey and promised to press it to “uphold its domestic and international human rights commitments.”

“I am troubled by Ankara’s democratic backsliding and the negative trajectory in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of association, and peaceful assembly in Turkey. Restoring the full freedoms of the Turkish people is a good in itself,” said Flake.

If confirmed, Flake will arrive in Ankara with the expectation that he will make good on this promise while at the same time navigating other difficult issues in the broader relationship. 

In September, Erdoğan described his relationship with Biden the worst he has had with any U.S. president to date. Days after those remarks, he mused about the potential purchase of new military equipment from Russia in a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. 

The U.S. already slapped sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of the S-400 missile defense system last year, and it has warned that it is ready to add more if more Russian arms are purchased. In his nomination hearing, Flake said that he would continue to warn Turkey about the costs of any more purchases from Russia. 

Erdoğan has also signaled recently that he may resume Turkish military operations in Syria against Kurdish militants that the U.S. counts as allies against the Islamic State. Turkey considers these fighters, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist organisation that has waged a violent insurgency against Ankara since 1984 for "autonomous rights" for Kurds in the country.

Both the U.S. and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist group, but Washington asserts that it has worked to separate the YPG from it since forming their partnership.


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