'Not an issue to be solved in a tricky or cute fashion'

The nature of our meeting with Ambassador Satterfield and his unusually open and on-the-record warnings regarding the S-400s crisis, made me think that the Biden administration might be contemplating a change to its Ambassador in Ankara very soon. You may call it "just a journalistic hunch," whereas, policymakers in Washington are well aware that President Erdoğan does not like ambassadors who talk this openly. 

We, a group of Turkish journalists, met the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, last Friday on March 19 about 45 minutes after two catastrophic developments in Turkish politics hit the news: First, that HDP opposition deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, who is known for his dedicated work on human rights abuses, was to be stripped of his parliamentary status and the second, the closure of his party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was sought via a lawsuit filed by the Office of the Chief Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals to the Constitutional Court. At that time, we did not yet know, that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had officially decided to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and that Central Bank Governor Naci Ağbal was about to be removed from office.

When I received a phone call invitation on March 16 to meet with Ambassador Satterfield, I was told that he is prepared to give some on-the-record remarks, thus, I could bring my recorder. Hearing this made me think that this meeting was planned in coordination with the White House. Ambassador Satterfield has kept his contact with the Turkish media to a minimum since he was appointed to the position in the summer of 2019 and has often been criticized for it. Perhaps his superiors in Washington are now telling him to come out and talk as loudly as possible.

After arriving at the Istanbul residence of the U.S. Consul General, and seeing the other 9 journalists invited, I became absolutely certain that the Biden administration wanted Satterfield’s words in this meeting to reach the widest possible audience.

Before delving into Satterfield’s messages, I want to share another critical detail which speaks volumes. Those journalists invited to the meeting were from the following media outlets: Duvar English, Diken, T24, Cumhuriyet, Fox, NTV, Habertürk, CNNTürk, Hürriyet, and Milliyet. It was obvious that there was a very intentional balance among the independent and pro-government papers; however, instead of those sworn-in propaganda tools of the government such as Sabah, Yeni Şafak and aHaber, other outlets which try to remain mainstream despite heavy government controls were selected.

Satterfield started with the preface he gives in all conversations whether with journalists, government officials, or foreign diplomats who ask the basic question; “How does the U.S. look at Turkey?”

Listening to him was almost a reassurance that after the four-year Donald Trump interval, the U.S. was back with the strategy of a strong alliance with the EU. What is more, he put Turkey at the center of this approach. The Ambassador did not refer at all to the “full membership” debate, which is far from reality at the moment, but declared that Washington has now returned to the strategic target of anchoring Turkey in the European direction. His words were a clear indicator that the Biden administration would encourage the EU not to burn bridges with Ankara despite the challenges and perhaps even take initiatives to help European leaders to articulate a new relationship to keep the country on board no matter what: 

“This administration looks at Turkey through the prism of a strategic ally, NATO partner and an important state in its region and beyond. That is not so different from the approach followed by the preceding administration. But there are differences with President Biden and the new team. And the differences are not so much specific to Turkey as they are to the context in which we view and value the relationship with Turkey. The administration strongly supports transatlantic ties, the institutions of the transatlantic relationship, NATO, individual ties with states in Europe and the EU.”

“A functioning, vital and vigorous EU is of strategic importance to the citizens of the United States and also to the citizens of Turkey. The U.S. will do everything that it can, is actively engaged in doing all it can to encourage the strongest possible relations between Europe and Turkey. That is important for economic and commercial reasons. It is important for the security reasons, not just in a NATO context to have close ties. And it is important in terms of encouraging, shaping, advancing shared values in democratic institutions and democratic and civil society principles. It is a good thing for all involved.”

“In that regard, while we are certainly keenly aware of the long road Turkey and the EU each followed over the course of the last 20 years, we do believe that substantive and serious engagement between Brussels and Ankara on key agenda items, the customs union modernization and the migration agreement are very important. They are not easy.”

“[The EU] has concerns over democracy and governance. We share them as well. There are concerns over outlier actions undertaken by Turkey. East Mediterranean and elsewhere that affect the character of the relationship. But our view is clear; substantive dialogue and structured relationships are important for both sides. We don’t believe that exclusion, withholding dialogue and suspending exchanging on the substantive issues and differences serve any positive purpose.”

It was quite striking to see that the second point in Ambassador Satterfield's preface was the state of the Turkish economy. He made sure to note the previous steps which the government had taken as a positive intervention in the right direction. In doing so he specifically said "since last November," but nothing more. However, it was clear that he was talking about the last four-five months following the departure of Erdoğan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak from his ministerial post. Furthermore, the Ambassador frequently referred to the statements and institutional frameworks of Naci Ağbal, who was removed from his post only hours later.

Therefore, it may seem like Satterfield’s statements have now lost their significance because the Central Bank governor he acknowledged was sacked by Erdoğan just like a number of other governors who failed or refused to implement the President's orders. As a matter of fact, when Satterfield’s words are read backward, one can easily see that the U.S. approach to the Erdoğan government’s economic reform pledges was already nothing more than cautious optimism: 

“We are encouraged by the measures which the Turkish government has taken since November of last year to address first and foremost the critical problems confronting the economy. In the words of the new governor of the CB and the minister of finance [old as of March 20 - CÇ] there is a commitment or recognition that there must be a sustained commitment to transparency and predictability in fiscal and monetary policy. That is extremely important. But it is going to have to be sustained. The problems in Turkish economy are nearly a decade old. They will not be resolved in a quarter or two. It will take a sustained demonstration that in fact CB is independent. It is not easy but we have the upmost confidence that the Turkish economy remains extremely strong as a strong engine of growth and prosperity if it is allowed to function in a predictable, transparent and credible fashion. The alternative will not be something which serves the interests of encouraging business, investment and trade.”

After underlining the importance of a renewal of the transatlantic alliance and the health of the Turkish economy, Satterfield dove into the very issue which still carries the potential to block progress in other areas of bilateral ties between Turkey and the United States. He opened the subject by saying "not the elephant in the room":

“We very much have wished to have seen a resolution of the S-400 issue during the course of the preceding year and a half. That was not possible and sanctions were imposed by the preceding administration mid-December of last year. We would still like to see whether a resolution can be achieved. But I have to note; we the US government are under additional (as of end of January) new legal constraints with respect to the character of a resolution. The NDAA 2021 which entered into force at the end of January, requires that Turkey not be in possession of S-400s.”

“I want to underscore here; this is not an issue which can be resolved in a tricky or cute fashion. We have the U.S. law, which we would have to defend to the U.S Congress, that any resolution [that includes Turkey] is ‘not in possession of the system.’ Talk about working groups, any other forms of dialogue have to address the question of ‘not in possession of the system.’ So, I just want to be clear here. It is not that we have not turned our back to dialogue on clarifications [about] what our requirements are but they are legal requirements, they are not personal. They are not something that can be managed in a clever fashion. We have to justify openly to the Congress that we are abiding by the U.S. law in whatever resolution may be proposed here.”

“There are things obviously which the government of Turkey would like to see from the United States in terms of the F-35 program and potentially acquisition of Patriots. All those things can be discussed. But all of them are absolutely conditioned on the resolution of the S-400s acquisition itself. And we will have to be able to say Turkey is not in possession of that system. And I know I will be questioned in 20 different directions ‘what about the discussions if they are compatible with F35s.’ We are beyond that issue. We have a law. The law must be addressed. We will do our best on this one. And I do not wish to express either optimism or pessimism.”

“We have been quite clear. If there is a further, significant military transaction with Russia, whether it is for another battery of S-400 or some entirely different system, that will with absolute predictability trigger likely additional and more serious sanctions. We have advised the Turkish government, ‘Don’t make the situation worse by another significant transaction.’ The response of the Hill will be serious in such a case. If the executive branch did not act, I have every confidence that with an overwhelming veto-proof congressional majority, the Congress would mandate that we respond. That is not only true of Turkey, it is true of all of the other states who are contemplating or beyond contemplating significant acquisitions from Russia. It is a U.S.-Turkey issue but it is also a Russia-U.S. strategic issue.”

“I underscore the seriousness of the caution here; if there are further significant transactions, there will be a response and the response will be more serious than the very tightly-focused sanctions which we chose to impose under CAATSA in mid-December of last year.”

When Satterfield reached the final point of his remarks - the area of most concern for people like myself as a Turkish citizens - his tone notably shifted to a dry diplomatic language rather than the bold warnings he uttered regarding the S-400s. It was understandable that, as a veteran diplomat, he was taking his guard against a possible reaction from Ankara of “do not interfere with our domestic affairs,” however, I still felt that his words did not truly reflect the importance the Biden team has been pledging to attach to human rights and democracy. 

“You have seen from the administration over the course of the last 60 days a number of statements with respect to salient events that have taken place here. The hostile, hateful comments about the LGBTQI community, the failure to abide by the ECHR judgment on Mr. Kavala, most recently the actions taken or the threatened to be taken or in the process of being considered to the suspension of immunities for HDP parliamentarians and now the case brought to the Constitutional Court by the chief prosecutor for the elimination of the HDP as a party and the theoretical banning from politics of some 600 plus individuals. These are steps which resonate negatively in the U.S. and EU capitals, in Brussels and elsewhere. They are further causes for concern regarding suppression, movement against basic freedoms, civil liberties in the name of political goals. We are, in the U.S., deeply sensitive to failures and flaws in our own system, but we must draw attention to the issues when they occur elsewhere. We try to do so in a carefully structured and crafted fashion. Our intend is not to slash but rather to be specific where we see problematic actions.” 

The nature of our meeting with Ambassador Satterfield and his unusually open and on-the-record warnings regarding the S-400s crisis - with each carefully selected word - made me think that the Biden administration might be contemplating a change to its Ambassador in Ankara very soon. You may call it "just a journalistic hunch," whereas, policymakers in Washington are well aware that President Erdoğan does not like ambassadors who talk this openly. It is evident that from the Biden administration's point of view some kind of need arose that the red lines in the S-400 negotiations had to be publicly expressed and they preferred to do it via Satterfield.

I wondered whether the restrained reaction Satterfield gave regarding fatal steps the Erdoğan government recently took which, to me feels like they are determined to end whatever is left of democracy in Turkey, was a strategic choice of the White House or Ambassador Satterfield's personal preference. When the U.S. Ambassador decides to go on the record in a country at the end of a week when the government has ordered its prosecutors to go after a political party elected to the parliament with almost 6 million votes and only labels this as some kind of problematic action, it does not feel that the new team at the White House is doing enough to dramatically distance itself from the self-serving approach that Donald Trump had demonstrated.