Ally Turkey comes under increasing criticism from some lawmakers

A U.S. military ally has come under increasingly withering criticism from Capitol Hill due to its role in the flare-up over the Gaza aid flotilla.

Turkey was the country from which the flotilla left, and a charitable organization based there helped organize the relief aid trip to Gaza. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Sunday on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" that there were about 75 "mercenaries" on the one ship that resisted efforts to be taken to shore, adding that "they were associated with al Qaeda and other terror organizations."

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Lawmakers have vigorously defended Israel after that one ship — out of the six in the flotilla — was raided by Israeli commandos on May 31, resulting in the death of nine activists and several injured soldiers. 

In turn, Turkey, often lauded for its Western-style democracy and strong military ties to the United States, has come under attack from members of Congress. Many have suggested that the country is not the strong U.S. ally that they expected, even implying it may be America’s enemy now.

It is a marked shift from months ago, when several lawmakers came to the defense of Turkey when they were lobbying against a non-binding congressional resolution that would recognize the Ottoman Empire’s World War I-era killing of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide. The flotilla incident, along with Turkey’s vote last week against a new round of United Nations sanctions against Iran, has many in Congress moving against Turkey.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) did not mince words when he discussed the flotilla’s supporters on the House floor Wednesday.

“It had an enormous amount of support by some of the worst enemies of peace in that region, and some of the worst enemies, quite literally, not only of Israel, but of the United States as well. And I mean Turkey, Iran, Hamas. These are not entities that were looking for some peaceful resolution here,” Weiner said.

In a statement last week, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) suggested Turkey should share some of the blame for the skirmish between the Israeli commandos and the activists.

“Some have expressed the view that Israel alone should account for this incident. That perspective neglects the role that Turkey played in staging the flotilla and Turkey’s readiness to condone this kind of brinksmanship,” Sarbanes said. 

Criticism of Turkey has been bipartisan as well, and from self-proclaimed Turkish supporters in the past.

“The complicity of Turkey in launching a flotilla to challenge the blockade in Gaza, the ensuing violence that occurred, the grievous loss of life is deeply troubling to those of us who have supported the U.S.-Turkish alliance in the past,” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said on the House floor Wednesday. “Turkey needs to decide whether its present course is in its long-term interests, but America will stand with Israel.”

U.S.-based Jewish lobby groups, traditionally supportive of Turkey during its congressional battles over the Armenian genocide resolution, have begun to distance themselves. For example, the Anti-Defamation League has called for the State Department to designate the Humanitarian Relief Foundation — the Turkish-based charity group that helped to organize the flotilla — as a terrorist group.

Turkey’s government has reacted harshly to Israel’s Gaza flotilla raid. They have recalled their ambassador from Tel Aviv, and Abdullah Gul — Turkey’s president — has said relations with Israel would “never be the same.” 

But Turkey has defended their relations with the West, saying they are not at risk due to their criticism of Israel.

“Those who say that Turkey has broken away from the West are the intermediaries of an ill-intentioned propaganda,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday, according to Agence France-Presse.


Turkey’s American defenders have taken on a more measured tone than the prime minister and other Turkish government officials. A spokeswoman for Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), a co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations, said there should be “no question” that Israel has a right to defend itself.

“That said, it should come as no surprise that the Turkish government would have a strong reaction to an incident where nine of its citizens were killed, one of whom, a teenager shot four times in the head and chest, also held American citizenship. It is important to note that the Turkish organizations who organized the flotilla did so without any official support from the Turkish government,” said Kristin Walker, Whitfield’s spokeswoman. She added the United States should encourage the two U.S. allies “to resolve this dispute with an open and honest dialogue.”

Walker also said Whitfield believes that “it is time to revisit certain aspects of the blockade” to better secure Israel and provide aid to Palestinians. She noted that several businesses in Gaza have closed down and ordinary citizens there have suffered.

The Turkish Coalition of America also is taking a calmer tone than the Turkish government, saying the bond between Israel and Turkey “runs deep.”

“Turkey is a democratic country, and its people are freely expressing a number of different views about the flotilla aid tragedy. The friendship between Turkish and Jewish people runs deep and we are hopeful that cooler heads will prevail. It is clear that Turkey and its institutions share our values and want them to be uniformly applied in the whole region,” G. Lincoln McCurdy, president of the Turkish Coalition of America, said in a statement.