The State Department should rethink its Turkey policy

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The disparity between Congress and State Department on Turkey policy is the worst-kept secret in Washington foreign policy circles. While Congress has shown deep bipartisan concern for Turkey’s role in many regional and international flashpoints, the State Department continues to turn a blind eye to many of the NATO stalwart’s misdeeds. 

On July 21, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened a hearing on Turkey to explore the State Department’s Turkey policy through the testimony of Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. Committee members pulled no punches in questioning Nuland on the American ally’s growing antagonist role in contravening U.S. and NATO interests, its domestic war on democracy, and deteriorating human rights record.

To be sure, the hearing highlighted some laudable aspects of the Biden administration’s Turkey policy. But the many examples of misguided perspectives, incongruent with reality on the ground, are cause for concern.

Nuland caveated her testimony by qualifying the U.S.-Turkey relationship as “multifaceted and complex” in an apparent attempt to grasp at a political fig leaf. While “multifaceted and complex” is, on its face, an accurate assessment of the relationship, its “complexity” can be credited to Turkey’s duplicity as ally and antagonist.

Committee Chair Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) pressed hard on Turkey’s undeterred acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, despite Turkey having been offered numerous “off ramps.” Nuland affirmed that the administration is committed to maintaining CAATSA sanctions against Turkey and continuing to exclude it from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. She said the administration would press for more sanctions should Turkey purchase additional Russian weapon systems.

A day before the hearing, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited northern Cyprus, illegally occupied by Turkey since 1974, to announce plans to redevelop Varosha — a symbolic Cypriot resort town, in the eastern buffer zone, shuttered since the Turkish invasion — in brazen disregard for United Nations Security Council Resolutions 550 and 789. The plan underscores Erdoğan’s vision for a separate Turkish state on the island, as an apparent test of U.S. and international resolve.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken swiftly condemned Turkey’s announcement. Nuland reaffirmed that the administration rejects the two-state solution on Cyprus proposed by Erdoğan, stating that the only acceptable way forward is to reunify the island as a bizonal, bicommunal federation.

Menendez, however, expressed concern over reports of Turkey’s establishment of a drone base in northern Cyprus, on which Nuland declined to comment. Turkey has deployed drones against Christians in northern Syria and northern Iraq, among others, and Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) have asked the State Department to investigate the development, deployment and proliferation of Turkish drones as an international menace.

Among Nuland’s most troubling statements was her assertion that Turkey’s presence in northern Syria “protects Syrians from indiscriminate targeting by the Assad regime.” While Bashar al-Assad’s government is indeed responsible for untold human suffering, to classify Turkey as the savior of the Syrian people — particularly, Kurds, Syriacs and Yezidis in the north — is misguided and dangerously tone deaf. In May 2020, Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad charged that “Turkish-backed militias are silently carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Yazidis in Afrin, Syria. They are kidnapping women, killing civilians, and destroying houses and shrines.” And, Yazidi women kidnapped in northern Syria continue to surface in Eastern Turkey.

Since 2016, Turkey and Turkish-backed Islamist militias have been fixated on destroying the democratic Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES), which is the region’s only successful experiment in ethno-religious freedom. Amy Austin Holmes, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, exposed more than 800 Turkish violations of the U.S.-brokered ceasefire in northeast Syria, through kinetic Turkish military strikes, in a one-year period.

Since October 2019, Turkey and its proxy militias reportedly have kidnapped more than 200 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, including Christian Syriac Military Council soldiers — critical U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS. The captives were illegally transferred into Turkey, in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, then reportedly tortured, illegally tried and sentenced to life in Turkish prison.

Menendez challenged the administration to provide Congress with greater clarity on how it is addressing Turkey’s role in the numerous human rights violations committed in northern Syria.

Senate committee members, however, failed to question Nuland on Turkish provocation in Lebanon. Reports indicate that Turkey is capitalizing on Lebanon’s influx of Syrian and Palestinian refugees by importing weapons and radical ideology in Sunni-concentrated areas in northwest Lebanon, as a counterweight to Hezbollah in the south and east. In light of Lebanon’s tragic history of devastation by proxy actors, Turkish involvement in Lebanon could have disastrous effects.

In a pivot from Turkey’s international provocation, Menendez and Van Hollen expressed deep concern for Turkey’s domestic democratic backsliding. This accelerating trend of illiberalization, they noted, can be witnessed through the weaponization of the Turkish legal system against journalists, public thinkers, political opposition and ethno-religious minorities.

“Erdoğan has made it clear that he doesn’t care what we say. So, it’s not enough to make statements,” said Van Hollen. “Turkey is an unfaithful ally and will only respond when there’s a price to be paid. So, what are we going to do in response to Erdoğan thumbing his nose to the international community?”  

When pressed again by Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), Nuland described the administration’s approach to strategic dialogue with Turkey as “engage, engage, engage on every level — but be frank when we disagree.” On its face, this seems to be a good approach, but the material concern exists in the details and definitions. What constitutes a “frank” response, and with which Turkish actions will the administration disagree?   

The Senate hearing clearly underscored the need for Congress to continue to hold the Biden administration responsible for establishing and implementing a sober, less ambiguous — and, yes, tougher — approach to addressing the Erdoğan government’s transgressions. If Turkey remains unchecked on its dangerous trajectory, U.S. regional interests will suffer.

Richard Ghazal is executive director at In Defense of Christians. He is a retired U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate and intelligence officer with Levant and Turkey subject matter expertise.

Tags Antony Blinken Bob Menendez David Cicilline Drone Northern Cyprus Turkish offensive into north-eastern Syria US-Turkey relations Victoria Nuland

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