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When silence is the best diplomacy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey on 16 October 2021 [Serhat Çağdaş/Anadolu Agency]
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey on 16 October 2021 [Serhat Çağdaş/Anadolu Agency]

If you poke a stick in a hornets' nest then the results will become painfully obvious very quickly, which is why I am surprised at the headlines expressing shock at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to expel ten ambassadors from his country. His declaration that the ambassadors from ten Western states are persona non grata follows a joint statement on 18 October from the top diplomats of the US, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden in which they called for a "just and speedy" resolution to the Osman Kavala case and his "urgent release".

Philanthropist Kavala has been in prison for four years, charged with financing nationwide protests in 2013 and involvement in the failed coup in 2016 in which scores of Turkish citizens were killed and 1,400 were injured. Although Kavala was acquitted last year of charges relating to the protests, the ruling was overturned and combined with charges in another case related to the coup attempt which will be heard next month.

Until there is a trial it's difficult to make any sort of judgment. One thing we can say, though, is that Europe and North America — plus New Zealand in this case — have got to stop interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries, especially when they're so blind to their own faults at home. The Guantanamo Bay gulag is a prime example; it remains open in a US-occupied part of Cuba, and men are still being denied the right to trial by jury after nearly 20 years behind bars. And we can't overlook the fact that America's global "War on Terror" saw the US use European air space and territory for kidnapping, extraordinary rendition and torture. Europe's governments largely turned a blind eye.

Meddling in another country's judicial system is fraught with problems. What on earth were the group of ten hoping to achieve with their less than diplomatic approach to Turkey? During his two decades at the helm in Ankara, Erdogan has displayed many characteristics ranging from compassion and generosity to a short fuse and intolerance. He is, indeed, many things to many people, but he's certainly no pushover.

READ: Disinformation on social media threatens democracy: Turkish president

The Turkish president's military response in Syria and Libya has been muscular and swift, and when the long-simmering conflict in the South Caucasus erupted into open warfare in September 2020, he did not hesitate to help his country's Turkic allies in Azerbaijan. His military engagements have stretched across the Mediterranean as well as expanded operations against the Kurdish PKK in northern Iraq and the deployment of military reinforcements to Syria's last rebel-held province of Idlib. Turkey also has a military presence in Qatar, Somalia and Afghanistan and maintains peacekeeping troops in the Balkans. Its global military footprint is the most expansive since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Clearly, the Turkish leader makes a loyal friend and a fearsome enemy. In fact, the term "velvet-gloved diplomacy" could have been created with Erdogan in mind. Exactly why, in a world of increasing soft-power, this group of key ambassadors — seven of them from NATO countries — opted for blunt coercion, group bullying and the language of uncompromising manipulation is thus a mystery that even Machiavelli might have had some difficulty in understanding.

The Biden administration in Washington has made it abundantly clear that the US is winding down its aggressive foreign footprint. French leader Emmanuel Macron, who faces a presidential election in April next year, has already experienced several humiliating tongue-lashings from Erdogan over Islamophobia and the legacy of French colonialism, especially in Algeria. Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not want to clash with Erdogan when he's keen for more investment in Turkey, which is seen as an emerging market of broad interest in terms of bilateral trade, defence and education. Germany is consumed with forming a new government, so outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel would be reluctant to take a parting shot at the Turkish leader.

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) shake hands at the end of a joint press conference in Istanbul, Turkey on 24 January 2020 [Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency]

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) shake hands at the end of a joint press conference in Istanbul, Turkey on 24 January 2020 [Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency]

The remaining countries in the list of ten have no real history of international aggression and generally opt for soft power and gentle pressure when the need arises. So the burning question has to be, what was this letter really about? Who or what was behind it? The British government is certainly conspicuous by its absence from the list of signatories, despite its well-known proclivity for tagging along in coalitions and partnerships, especially when America, France and Germany are involved.

READ: Turkish lira plummets to new low after central bank slashes rates

However, it seems that Britain and Turkey have more in common than most of the other European countries would like after they signed a bombshell deal in December last year. The deal is one of the most crucial for the post-Brexit UK. Trade valued at £18.6 billion in 2019 makes Britain Turkey's second-largest export market after Germany. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also said to be "very interested" in buying Turkish-made military drones, so the British ambassador in Ankara was probably told to keep well away from the inflammatory letter.

I believe that a climb down will be in the offing this week, after Erdogan announced the diplomatic expulsions. I also think that the signatories will quietly get postings elsewhere before the year is out. Erdogan is not a man known for making idle threats, but for some bizarre reason the ten ambassadors decided to test him. With the G20 and the UN climate summits in Glasgow starting at the end of this month, the timing of the diplomats' letter is extremely puzzling.

Turkey's cabinet meets on Mondays, and so far the governments of those ambassadors who signed the letter are maintaining a discrete, diplomatic silence, which is often the best thing to do, even at the best of times. There's a lesson in there somewhere for the ethnocentric West.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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