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Turkey's Future and the U.S. Election

The World Policy blog is hosting a weekly series of articles featuring global perspectives on the U.S. presidential election, the effects of which extend beyond partisanship and beyond our borders. Read previous articles addressing U.S.-African trade, similarities between the Trump and Brexit campaigns, and Singapore's policy priorities. Stay tuned for commentary from Israel, France, India, and more!

By Oset Babur

It’s often par for the course that elections in the Middle East are fraught with reports of voter fraud, scandals among elected officials, and alarming political rhetoric. Perhaps so many Americans are balking at the 2016 United States election cycle because the setting seems all wrong: this radicalism, this breed of intolerance, is what we expect from the mullahs of the Middle East, not a nation claiming to be the cornerstone of Western democracy.

But the tone and issues of this general election have serious implications, both for the MENA region in general and for Turkey in particular. Turkey has been host to over 2.7 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world. Its major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, have been the targets of numerous terrorist attacks within this past year alone; just last week, Istanbul’s largest airport was the scene of a mass suicide bombing. Still, Turkey faces the challenge of being a country torn between Western and anti-secular values.  

In recent years, just as in the United States, issues of income inequality and human rights for minority groups have risen to the forefront of Turkish news coverage. A notable recent pro-minority victory came from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which made increased rights for the LGBT community, along with women’s rights, a cornerstone of its 2014 platform. Given these foundations, it’s possible that a Democratic, progressive administration in the U.S. focused on climate change or equal pay for women in the workforce would resonate with Turkish voters—particularly with educated, middle-class Turks disillusioned with the reigning conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP).

As former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton’s expertise when it comes to foreign policy is indisputable. In this election cycle, containing the terrorist activity of Islamic State operatives has become a core topic of discussion. But while the Islamic State has executed terrorist attacks on Turkish soil, the country is embroiled in an arguably greater conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Previously, Clinton has opposed Turkish bombardment of the Kurds and accused the Turkish government of spending more on its efforts to combat PKK operatives than on the Islamic State. She has also stated that she is open to a Turkey-backed no-fly zone in Syria to protect the region’s Kurdish population. Senator Bernie Sanders has had less to say about Turkey in particular, but has suggested building a coalition of Muslim nations to fight the Islamic State. It’s unclear whether or not Turkey would be a part of this coalition, but if it were, this could be a serious drain on the country’s military resources. Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the Islamic State has been aggressive, to say the least, and dangerously provocative. It’s easy to see how a Trump administration consistent with the campaign’s current rhetoric would make sweeping generalizations about Islam and terror. For a country like Turkey, these kinds of generalizations could prove especially troubling, since not all (or even the vast majority) of terror attacks on Turkish soil are the work of the Islamic State.

Turkey’s fate is inexorably tied to U.S. policy in Syria. The European Union has been finding ways to help Turkey deal with the massive influx of Syrian migrants, but in the meantime the U.S. will continue to face critical decisions about its level of involvement with the refugee crisis. Immigration has been a particularly sensitive topic in recent months, as evidenced by the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union, a decision in part intended to curtail the number of immigrants within British borders. Currently, Turkey receives about 3 billion euros in aid from the European Commission and its member states. This money is earmarked for projects in 2016 and 2017, but the need for external support to help Syrian migrants integrate into Turkey’s workforce and society will likely continue far beyond then. Ultimately, a U.S. administration that is on the right side of history in terms of finding humane, permanent solutions for Syrian refugees to resettle, either in Syria or throughout the rest of the world, is likely to have positive implications for Turkey.

The steps that the next U.S. administration needs to take in order to further develop relations with Turkey are threefold. First, it is vital that the U.S. avoid generalizations like “Islamic terror,” as President Obama has done throughout his time in office, even when confronted with the most horrific of attacks. Second, the U.S. needs to assume an active role in working with the rest of Europe—especially now that the EU has its own internal quagmire to deal with—to support Turkey’s status as the single largest destination for Syrian refugees. Finally, the U.S. must continue to protect the kinds of social liberties it prides itself upon as a democracy, from reducing the gender wage gap to passing legislation in support of the transgender community. If the next U.S administration rejects the notion that violence and intolerance are just part of the way of life in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, real, lasting progress can be made for both regions.

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Oset Babur is a copywriter at an American political nonprofit organization. She graduated from Wellesley College in 2015 with degrees in political science and economics.

[Image courtesy of Daniel McRae]

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