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Turkey rejects US call to free jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala

Turkey on Thursday rejected a call by the United States to release jailed civil society leader and human rights activist Osman Kavala.

Turkey rebuffed on Feb. 11 a US call to free Osman Kavala, a Turkish businessman and philanthropist, saying the United States had no right to tell the Turkish judiciary how to conduct its affairs. But amid all the bluster, Ankara’s nerves are growing increasingly frayed in the face of the frosty tone espoused by the newly installed Joe Biden administration. A senior Turkish official told Al-Monitor, “We are feeling increasingly squeezed.” He declined to elaborate.

The State Department called the charges against Kavala “specious” in an unprompted and standalone Feb. 10 statement crafted to convey its seriousness. The statement referred to the European Court of Human Rights’ rulings calling for Kavala’s immediate release.

It also mentioned US academic Henri Barkey, who along with Kavala has been indicted on bogus charges of espionage and conspiring to overthrow the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Barkey is in the United States and is being tried in absentia.

“Taken with the other public statements, this administration is sending a clear signal about the need for Turkey to address rule of law issues. It's challenging Turkey to return to being the kind of country that the United States wants to work with,” said a Western diplomat speaking not for attribution.

“The No. 1 priority issue for this administration is rebuilding its alliances and partnerships that it felt were undermined by the last one. That will mean a more coherent and consistent approach between the US and its European allies toward Turkey,” the diplomat added.

The tougher approach has manifested itself in multiple ways. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has yet to call his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu. Erdogan’s entourage is frantically lobbying the White House for a call with Biden. The highest level contact between Ankara and Washington so far was between national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin. The White House’s readout of the exchange was hardly effusive.

The State Department has rebuked Turkey twice already — once over the government’s brutal repression of protestors at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, and over its anti-LGBT rhetoric surrounding the demonstrations. On Feb. 4, State Department spokesman Ned Price took aim at Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu over his assertion that the United States was behind the July 2016 attempt to overthrow Erdogan. “These remarks and other unfounded and irresponsible claims of US responsibility for events in Turkey are inconsistent with Turkey’s status as a NATO ally and strategic partner of the United States,” he said.

While Ankara was bracing for change after four years of being coddled by Donald Trump, the alacrity with which the Biden administration has shifted course appears to have caught Erdogan and his lieutenants off guard. “Erdogan was hoping to make some kind of a deal with the Biden administration whereby he would act more dovish internationally and continue to get away with democratic backsliding at home,” said Berk Esen, an assistant professor of political science at Sabanci University. “It won’t happen.” The government’s recent maneuvers include ill-received overtures to Israel. It’s also talking of reopening borders and establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia after helping Azerbaijan clobber its eastern neighbor with the help of Syrian mercenaries in Nagorno- Karabakh.

Turkey’s main opposition parties have yet to comment on Washington’s new language. The Kurds, however, have aired dismay at the Biden administration’s failure to address the plight of the ever-swelling population of Kurdish politicians and activists who are behind bars.

Giran Ozcan, the Washington representative of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third-largest party in parliament, conceded that “the strength of its statement on Kavala was very good.” However, “It fails to mention democratically elected officials who have been imprisoned and deprived of their right to represent their constituents. It seems the State Department is intentionally disregarding Kurdish elected officials,” Ozcan told Al-Monitor. “They have completely neglected Demirtas and have never mentioned him at all.” Ozcan was referring to former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas who has been in prison since October 2016 in yet another example of politically motivated charges. In December, the European Court of Human Rights, whose rulings are binding for Turkey, called for his immediate release. Turkey refused to comply and has brought a fresh case against him.

“The administration has set a tone of being interested in such issues. The Kurds should feel encouraged. The administration has only been in office for three weeks,” the Western diplomat said in response to Ozcan’s comments.

The Biden administration’s most immediate demand is for Turkey to get rid of its newly acquired Russian S-400 missiles. Should it fail to do so, further sanctions may follow those that were slapped on Turkey’s state defense procurement agency in December under the Countering America’s Adversaries Act.

After months of grandstanding, Ankara is starting to blink. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar signaled in an interview with the daily Hurriyet that Turkey could cede ground if Washington were to ax its partnership with a Syrian Kurdish militia that has links to Kurdish rebels fighting Turkey.

But Washington is in no mood for compromise. US forces will remain in northeast Syria to counter the Islamic State and effectively serve as a shield for the Kurds.

Price said in a Feb. 10 news briefing, “We have and continue to urge Turkey not to retain this [S-400] system. They threaten the security of NATO technology, and they’re inconsistent with Turkey’s commitment as a NATO ally.”

It will not have gone unnoticed in Ankara that Saudi Arabia freed female activist Loujain al-Hathloul after the Biden administration withdrew its support for the kingdom’s military campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Earlier this month, the White House said the US president expected Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record.

Erdogan has bowed to US pressure in the past. In October 2018, Turkey freed North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson, who was being held on a cocktail of outlandish terror charges, after Trump threatened “large sanctions.” Similarly, Turkey freed Turkish German journalist Deniz Yucel in 2018 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened similar punishment.

A federal case against Turkey’s state lender Halkbank for helping Iran evade billions of dollars in US economic sanctions is set to resume next month, creating further pressure on Ankara to redress its behavior. Will it?

Former Syria envoy Jim Jeffrey contended in an interview with Al-Monitor that “when pressed, Erdogan is a rational actor.” Jeffrey added, “Erdogan will not back down until you show him teeth. You have to be willing, when Erdogan goes too far, to really clamp down on him and make sure he understands this in advance.”