Working to find actionable solutions to the nation's key challenges.

Talking Points for the President at the Turkey G20 Summit

By Jessica Michek

Friday, November 13, 2015

The G20 Leaders Summit on November 15-16 in Antalya, Turkey, offers President Barack Obama an opportunity to engage Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on a number of issues relevant to the U.S.-Turkey relationship, which has become shaky in recent years.

Turkey currently holds the rotating presidency of the Group of Twenty, which is comprised of 20 of the world’s largest and emerging economies, including 19 individual nations and the European Union—which together represent 85 percent of global GDP. In that role, Turkey sets the agenda for the summit, which will reportedly include: boosting global economic growth, reducing climate change, addressing the refugee crisis and Syrian civil war, and confronting terrorism.

The summit will also offer the United States an opportunity to address outstanding issues of concern in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, an opportunity that President Obama should seize.

Coming on the heels of a difficult and contentious election campaign in Turkey that has received scrutiny from the U.S. government, this summit promises to produce an awkward, at best, encounter between Obama and Erdoğan. While President Obama described then-Prime Minister Erdoğan as one of the world leaders with which he shared the greatest “friendships and bonds of trust” in 2012, their relationship has notably cooled since then. At last year’s G20 meeting in Brisbane, Obama appeared to go to great lengths to avoid speaking to Erdoğan. However, with Turkey holding the presidency and hosting this year’s G20 summit, that will be difficult this time around.

Instead, Obama should use the G20 summit as an opportunity to engage Erdoğan on a number of issues as they relate to the themes of the summit.

While the G20 as an organization is largely focused on economic issues, Turkey is using it to address political concerns—namely, the ongoing conflict in Syria. A spokesman for the Turkish presidency described the reasoning behind the political and economic agenda for the summit, saying: “The G20’s main agenda is the global economy. But it is not possible to think in terms of economic development as distinct from political issues. Inevitably, there are also significant political topics to be discussed at the G20 summit.”

Indeed, there are a number of political concerns that Obama should raise with Erdoğan, and they all have impacts on Turkey’s economy. In a report released earlier this year, the Bipartisan Policy Center identified political risk as the greatest threat to Turkey’s economy. Turkish government actions that diminish the rule of law undermine both the foundations of liberal democracy and a free market economy, and they drive away the foreign investors that the Turkish economy relies on.

In his discussions with Erdoğan, Obama should emphasize the following issues:

Press freedom

In Turkey, press freedom has steadily declined over the past few years. Turkish press was demoted from “partly free” to “not free” on Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press index in 2013, following Turkey’s harsh response to the Gezi Park protests. Ahead of the November election, press intimidation reached a fever pitch: the government seized the Koza İpek Media Group, which owns several critical media outlets, and dismissed nearly 100 of its employees. Even after the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) victory at the polls, media intimidation has continued—the post-election issue of Nokta magazine was pulled from shelves and its editors detained.

Now, ahead of the G20 summit, the government has refused to give press accreditation to critical media outlets, preventing them from reporting on the summit. While the State Department and White House have spoken out on recent restrictions on the media, Obama should personally reiterate those concerns to Erdoğan. Failing to address this issue while it has strong attention both in Turkey and abroad would be a grave error.

Kurdish peace process

Ahead of the November vote, the AKP used the renewed conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to its political advantage, wooing back Turkish nationalists that had abandoned the party in June. The Turkish government has been unable to subdue the PKK by military means, and more than two decades of armed conflict has cost over 40,000 lives and greatly destabilized the country. Initiating a peace process with the PKK was one of the highlights of the AKP’s first years in power, and the AKP should be encouraged to return to it. If Turkey were to further devolve into civil conflict, it would serve to destabilize the economy and risk undoing the economic progress the AKP has made during its tenure.

Furthermore, with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) represented as a party in parliament for the first time, having secured 59 parliamentary seats in the November election, the AKP now has a historic opportunity to advance Kurdish and minority rights in cooperation with Kurdish political representation in parliament.

Rule of law as sound economic management

Turkey’s fragile economy places it at risk of falling out of the G20 altogether. With the economy a prominent topic for the G20, the Antalya meeting is a prime opportunity for Obama to draw attention to Turkish government interventions in independent financial institutions that decrease investor confidence in the Turkish economy. For example, Turkish government pressure on the central bank and its seizure of Islamic lender Bank Asya, a move which has been widely decried as politically motivated.

Coping with the refugee crisis

The G20 gathering would be a good forum for leaders to develop solutions to this critical issue, including how to relieve the burden on Turkey, which is currently hosting over 2 million registered Syrian refugees. With Turkey reporting that it has spent over $7.6 billion hosting Syrian refugees since 2011, the worsening refugee crisis is an economic concern as well as a humanitarian one.

European countries have offered Turkey up to $3.4 billion in assistance, and reportedly offered to trade accelerated EU accession negotiations for Turkey taking further measures to stem the entry of migrants from Syria into Europe. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, however, has said that is not a viable option for Turkey, which will “not accept an understanding like ‘give us money and [the refugees] stay in Turkey.’”

While there are many areas of concern that Obama can raise with Erdoğan, Turkey’s response to the refugee crisis should be commended, and G20 leaders should discuss ways to help Turkey deal with the destabilizing effects of the refugee influx.

Threats in Syria

While nominally partners in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), Turkey and the United States have thus far had very different threat perceptions of the conflict in Syria. While the United States is focused on its mission to degrade and defeat ISIS, for Turkey, ISIS takes a backseat to the government’s renewed war with the PKK. And, while the United States has partnered with the Syrian Kurds, for Turkey, the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) is considered an offshoot of the PKK and has been the targets of Turkish military strikes.

The G20 Summit, where Turkey intends to press its long-held position that international efforts should be focused on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, presents an opportunity for Obama to have a serious discussion with Erdoğan about Turkey’s prioritization of threats and targets in Syria and Iraq. Turkey is a significant and important player in the region and a NATO ally of the United States. With aligned interests and objectives, Washington and Ankara could do much to ameliorate the situation, but the growing chasm between them can no longer be ignored or papered over.

KEYWORDS: AKP, BASHAR AL-ASSAD, DEPARTMENT OF STATE, EUROPEAN UNION, G20, HDP, IRAQ, ISIS, PKK, PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, REFUGEES, SYRIA, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY, YPG