Last month, more than 1,200 Turkish and foreign academics signed a petition calling attention to the continuing humanitarian crisis in many Kurdish-majority towns in southeastern Turkey, which are the site of fighting between the Turkish Army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K. The petition decried the Army’s shelling of urban areas and the imposition of weekslong, 24-hour curfews, which have left many civilians unable to bury their dead or even obtain food. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly denounced the signers as “so-called intellectuals” and “traitors.” Within days, antiterror police had detained and harassed dozens of the signatories.
Mr. Erdogan’s actions shouldn’t have been surprising. The president has a history of jailing journalists and cracking down on media companies critical of his policies. And yet this time the response from his supporters was exceptionally chilling: A pro-Erdogan organized crime boss proclaimed, “We will take a shower in your blood,” while the office doors of some of the academics were ominously marked with red crosses.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who as a former academic might have been expected to come to his colleagues’ defense, announced that he “did not regard the petition as falling under the rubric of free speech.” He then set out on a trip to several European countries in order to encourage foreign investment in Turkey’s foundering economy. In Britain and Germany, Mr. Davutoglu received a warm welcome from Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel. The European Union’s response to the latest crackdown on dissent in Turkey amounted to little more than a statement calling the persecution of the academics “extremely worrying.”
Many prominent Western academics and non-governmental organizations have been vocal in censuring the persecution suffered by their Turkish counterparts. The European Union’s lack of action on Turkey’s crackdown on academic freedom and human rights would therefore be inexplicable but for one crucial detail: As the European Union faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II, the 2.5 million Syrians currently in Turkey are a huge bargaining chip for Ankara. Europe’s leaders are well aware of this.
Just weeks before Turkey’s early elections on Nov. 1 , Ms. Merkel came to Istanbul to meet with Mr. Erdogan and strike a deal: If Turkey helped stem the flow of refugees into Europe, Germany would help push forward talks on Turkey’s membership in the European Union. Many people fear that Ms. Merkel offered another compensation in exchange for help on the refugee issues: The European Union would tolerate Turkey’s human rights violations and its reckless handling of the Kurdish conflict.
The United States, which has crucial air bases in Turkey, cannot afford to alienate the Erdogan government, either. When Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. visited Turkey recently, he made a point of meeting with journalists who had been fired under government pressure. But afterward, Mr. Biden declared that the Turkish government was the United States’ “strategic partner” — an apparent gesture of reconciliation by Washington. Like many Western governments, the Obama administration has distanced itself from Mr. Erdogan since his suppression of the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
The diplomatic balancing act cannot go on indefinitely. The Syrian Kurdish group known as the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., a branch of the P.K.K., is an American ally on the ground against the Islamic State and has received American military aid. Meanwhile, Turkey continues its attempt to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad by supporting Jaish al-Fatah, a Syrian rebel group that includes the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch.
Turkey and the United States also do not see eye to eye when it comes to the Islamic State. Washington views the group as a high-priority threat and is pressuring Turkey to build a wall along its 60-mile border with the territory the jihadist group controls. Ankara, by contrast, sees the Islamic State as a symptom of a larger problem — Bashar al-Assad’s continued presence in Damascus — and is entreating Washington to back an Islamist-dominated rebel group. The United States is ill at ease about this state of affairs, yet believes it has no choice but to stand behind Mr. Erdogan.
Turkey and the European Union are in a more complex entanglement. At present, the European Union wields considerable leverage over Turkey, both as the market for more than 40 percent of its exports and as the arbiter of its long-stalled membership bid. Europe’s current strategy of placating Mr. Erdogan for the sake of its own short-term interests is misguided. As the Paris and Istanbul attacks have shown, Europe and the Middle East are part of one open system: Chaos and conflict in one region is sure to have repercussions in another. The millions of Syrians seeking refuge in the West, as well as the thousands of jihadists going to Syria from Europe, are now Europe’s problem — a problem that cannot be solved by building walls.
With the Middle East ravaged by religious radicalism and sectarianism, the European Union and the United States can’t afford the Turkish government’s brutal military efforts against the Kurds or its undemocratic war on academics and journalists. Only a secular, democratic Turkey that can provide a regional bulwark against radical groups will bring stability to both the Middle East and Europe. As Mr. Erdogan seeks to eliminate all opposition and create a single-party regime, the European Union and the United States must cease their policy of appeasement and ineffectual disapproval and frankly inform him that this is a dead end.
Behlul Ozkan is an assistant professor at Marmara University in Istanbul and the author of From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan: The Making of a National Homeland in Turkey.