Taksim Square Protests: Could Obama End Turkish Police Brutality?


Demonstrators have taken to the streets of Turkey to protest Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Justice and Development Party (AKP), and his government. There has been growing popular discontent with the AKP's political and economic policies, culminating in the current struggle that has provoked a fierce police response. This places Obama in the difficult situation of needing to condemn the government's brutality while maintaining the strategic economic and military U.S.-Turkey alliance.

One of Barack Obama's first overseas trips as president was to Turkey to reaffirm what he called a "model partnership." Speaking to the Turkish parliament during that trip, he said: "Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together."

The U.S.-Turkey relationship has grown in the last decade as Turkey's economy has emerged. In 2011, bilateral trade between the two allies reached a record $20 billion, with U.S. FDI of $5 billion into Turkey, and $1 billion of Turkish FDI into the U.S.

The security relationship between the U.S. and Turkey has also grown as Turkey's geopolitical significance has become clearer. The relationship has been shaped by the crises in the Middle East. With its borders to Syria, Iran, and Iraq, Turkey is a key NATO ally.

Turkey is also dependent on the U.S. for security reasons. The Turkish government fears that the Syrian conflict could easily spread within its borders, and so has been pushing for U.S. involvement. In fact, just last moth Erdogan was at the White House to discuss the issue of Syria. Having cut all ties with the Assad regime, Erdogan is aware that securing greater American support for the rebels is critical. 

Washington has been parading Turkey as a model for the Arab world, in part because of their efforts to place the military and judicial systems under civilian control. Politically, however, the AKP has been slowly transforming Turkey into a single-party state. Particularly since 2007, the government has been jailing journalists on questionable grounds, punishing businesses whose owners disagree with the government, and slowly cutting down on freedoms of expression. Most recently, the protests of the last week have shown the police to be unrelenting in their response to the demonstrations, where protesters have been beaten and fired at with tear gas and water cannons.

Recognizing that President Obama will soon be forced to comment on the protests across Turkey, Erdogan will have to tread carefully in the days and weeks to come and temper police action if he hopes to avoid a reprimand that would taint Turkey's mutually beneficial relationship with the U.S.