Turkey today: Scholars facing prison time for signing a petition

It’s been a little while since we checked in on the Tyrant of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Most of the international news about him of late has involved the border war he has going on with the Kurds in Syria. It’s easy to become confused with all that’s going on in that region because the Americans are aiding the Kurds, but fighting the Syrian government forces of Assad. Russia is helping Turkey and Assad, but trying not to look like they’re fighting us. Iraq is caught between their new friends in Iran and the Kurds who they don’t like and the Americans who they need. And the remaining fragments of ISIS are fighting everyone.

But back inside of Turkey, things are even more dismal in some ways. Erdogan is still locking up people with abandon, imprisoning anyone who disagrees with him on vague charges of seeking to aid the Kurds or being in league with Fethullah Gulen. If they get bored with those types of accusations, the Turkish government is simply making new things illegal, such as speaking out or assembling to discuss matters of policy.

At USA Today, David Redlawsk, Masi Noor and Stephen Reicher tell the story of some university students, professors and other academics who have been arrested and are facing the prospect of lengthy prison sentences for a terrible crime against the state. They signed a petition urging peace with the Kurds.

We had come to the courtroom to support the next defendant in the dock, a young academic psychologist. She had been indicted after signing the petition. Her signature is the only evidence against her. But the specific charges were not confirmed until her initial hearing, the one we were there to witness. Once informed she would be tried for supporting terrorists, she was given only three weeks to prepare her defense. She will be back in court Friday. If found guilty, she faces over seven years in prison. For signing a petition.

The Turkish government’s agenda is clear: Deprive critics of their livelihood. Deprive them of solidarity with peers by trying them individually. Ensure that they remain on edge, uncertain as to what will happen next. And deprive them of their personhood. As academics, our professional identity defines us most prominently; it is who we are. Removal of this identity by force creates a sense of meaninglessness in their lives, as well as trapping people in poverty, unable to care for their loved ones.

So the oppression of the people of Turkey who are not in good with the ruling party continues. But at the same time, the United States still can’t seem to figure out what to do about Erdogan. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting report the other day of how both Trump and Rex Tillerson are grappling with a new strategy to get Turkey to come around. Here’s a sample.

As the Trump administration sees it, the main issue dividing the U.S. and Turkey is America’s support for Kurdish fighters in Syria. For its meetings with Turkey, the U.S. created a busy Venn diagram to highlight this point. U.S. officials are trying to find a way to address Turkey’s concerns, but have yet to find a way to balance what seem like irreconcilable differences.

U.S. officials are offering to set up joint military observation posts in Syria with Turkey to ensure that Kurdish fighters in northern Syria don’t attack neighboring Turkey. And they are looking for ways to dilute the power of the Kurdish fighters that the U.S. helped strengthen by providing them with money, weapons and direct support from elite U.S. forces.

But the Trump administration isn’t willing to meet Turkey’s public demand that it stop working with the Kurdish militant force known as the YPG that Turkey sees as terrorists.

The anonymous U.S. officials interviewed for the report indicate that the United States is asking Turkey to differentiate between the rank and file Kurds living in Turkey and the members of the actual YPG (the Kurdish terrorist group, at least as defined by Turkey). They’re asking Erdogan which Kurdish leaders are acceptable to the Turks? The problem is, that’s like asking which Palestinian leaders are acceptable to Israel or the U.S. when it’s so hard to sort them out from Hamas and Hezbollah.

So far, it doesn’t look like we have anything really interesting to put on the table that would bring Erdoan around to a reasonable compromise. He still clearly feels like he holds all the cards and his new relationships with Russia and Iran may serve him better. Nothing has improved in this situation over the past year as far as U.S. goals in our relationship with Turkey and that doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.