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Biden’s Turkey Visit: Stalemate on Syria, Step Forward on Democracy

Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent visit to Turkey revealed that the tension in the U.S.-Turkey relationship has not abated and showed a new willingness by the U.S. administration to take Turkey to task for dramatically declining press freedom.

It was the most recent attempt by U.S. officials to secure greater cooperation from Turkey in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS)—namely, closing the Syrian-Turkish border to the flow of foreign fighters and supplies. However, despite Biden’s assertions that “we are increasingly making progress,” his visit was plagued by the same divisions that have prevented effective cooperation between Turkey and the United States against ISIS: disagreements over the role of the Syrian Kurds.

The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing have proven to the United States that they are its most valuable partners on the ground against ISIS. Turkey, however, fears that Kurdish successes in Syria may have a negative impact on its fragile peace process with its own Kurdish population, and has vocally condemned the PYD—an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—as a terrorist group.

The United States, to Turkey’s great frustration, has maintained a distinction between the PKK and the PYD, asserting that the United States has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization, but not the PYD—allowing the United States to state its support for Turkey’s battle against the PKK while collaborating with the Syrian Kurds against ISIS.

As world leaders prepare for a third round of talks in Geneva to attempt to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis, Turkey strongly expressed its opposition to participation by the PYD, and went as far as to accuse Kurdish forces of collaborating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, threatening to boycott should they attend.

In the short-term, Turkey appears to have won: invitations to Geneva did not include the PYD, but did include Turkey at the highest level—a fact which the Turkish government is presenting as a major victory. However, with the U.S.-Turkey conversation dominated by disagreements over the Kurds, Washington and Ankara’s failure to see eye-to-eye will likely hamper attempts in the longer-term both to degrade and destroy ISIS and reach a peaceful transition in Syria.

While ISIS dominated the agenda, Biden raised another contentious issue during his visit: deteriorating domestic freedoms in Turkey—a topic that has been largely left out of high-level U.S.-Turkey dialogue.

During his visit, Biden met with a group of journalists and academics, sending a clear message to the Turkish government, which has struck an increasingly hostile tone towards critical media and academics, targeting them for arrests and denouncing them as “traitors” to the Turkish state. “If you don’t have an ability to express your opinion, to criticize a policy, to offer competing ideas without fear of intimidation or retribution, the country is robbed of opportunity and the country is being robbed of possibilities,” Biden said, adding that freedom of expression and democracy matter “not only to Turks but to America.”

In its response, the Turkish government followed its well-established playbook. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu criticized Biden for only meeting with opposition journalists, saying that whoever prepared his schedule “did not want him to see the full picture of what is happening in Turkey.” Yet the government’s response, alongside its apparently last-minute decision to cancel a joint press conference with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Biden, offers a reminder that criticism by the United States is still taken seriously in Turkey.

In its 2013 report, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Task Force argued that declining democratic freedoms in Turkey should be of great concern to the United States. “Which direction Turkey’s domestic political development follows is an increasing concern not just for Turks but also for the United States. Practically, this means that Washington should be open with Ankara about its concerns about issues like press freedom, freedom of assembly, rule of law, and the Turkish government’s increasing sectarianism,” they wrote.

However, with the emergence of ISIS and the continuing Syrian conflict, regional considerations have dominated the U.S.-Turkey discussion, while worsening conditions within Turkey on issues such as press freedom and judicial independence have been largely sidelined. Biden’s comments mark a positive step forward in the relationship between Ankara and Washington, where frank assessment of the state of democratic freedoms in Turkey have a place in the conversation, and repressive practices such as the jailing of journalists and prosecution of academics do not appear to go unnoticed.

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