Explainer: What caused the strain in US-Turkey relations?

Turkey’s President Erdogan announced on Tuesday that his government would work towards improving its human rights record, just days after 170 lawmakers from both major parties in the US Congress signed a letter urging President Joe Biden to pressure the Turkish leader over past abuses.

But what caused the strain between these two NATO allies?

Human rights

Erdogan’s government has taken steps to sideline opposition parties and remove institutional checks on power, in what New York-headquartered NGO Human Rights Watch calls an “assault on human rights and the rule of law”.

Journalists, activists, and opposition politicians are targeted by the authorities under wide-ranging anti-terrorism laws – particularly those linked to the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the Gülen movement, the latter blamed by the government for a 2016 coup attempt. The US has since given refuge to Fethullah Gülen, the movement’s leader.

Turkey is also one of the world’s worst offenders for persecuting and imprisoning journalists, according to US non-profit Committee for Protecting Journalists (CPJ). The CPJ counts more than 100 news organizations as having been shut down by the government, and 37 journalists jailed in 2020.

Erdogan’s government cracked down on student protests in early February over the appointment of Melih Bulu, an academic and former political candidate, as rector of Istanbul’s Bogazici University.

Authorities detained at least 165 protesters, with several jailed pending charges, prompting concern from the US.

Weapons purchase

Turkey raised the ire of the US in 2019 when it purchased an S-400 missile defense system from Russia, after failing to agree to terms with the Obama administration over the purchase of US Patriot air defense system usually favored by NATO member states.

The US eventually sanctioned Turkey in December 2020 over the purchase after kicking Ankara out of its F-35 joint strike fighter program.

Going back on the deal would be “problematic,” said Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in January. He added: ”We invite (the US) to distance themselves from threatening language such as sanctions.”

Pressure from Congress

A letter made public on Monday revealed that 170 US congressmen and women urged Biden to pressure Erdogan over Turkey’s human rights record.

“We ask that you aim to address the troubling human rights abuses taking place under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has long been a key US ally. Unfortunately, President Erdogan has strained the relationship between our nations,” said the letter, dated February 26.

On Wednesday, Erdogan put forward an “action plan” saying that his government would strengthen rights to a fair trial and freedom of expression.

The plan would improve Turkey’s judicial system, which has been criticized its lack of independence, and form the first step towards a new constitution, he said.

Biden administration

The Biden administration has signaled its commitment to maintaining a tough stance on Turkey’s weapons purchase.

“Our position has not changed,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters in early February. “We urge Turkey not to retain the S-400 system.”

Erdogan appeared willing to mend relations with the US on February 20, saying: “We want to strengthen our cooperation with the new US administration in the long-term on a win-win basis.”

But Biden has not contacted his Turkish counterpart yet, nor has Secretary of State Antony Blinken reached out to Turkey’s foreign minister since taking office.

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