On April 24, the White House issued a statement that included a dialogue between Biden and Ankara’s militant far-right authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. To understand the significance of the US vote, one must first understand how Turkey has ignored opponents and bullied citizens and countries all over the world.
UNDER ERDOGAN, Turkey has been the world’s leading jailer of journalists, suppressed almost all critical media, imprisoned students, attacked gay rights activists, hunted down and murdered women activists abroad, illegally renditioned people from third countries, crushed refugees and critics, arrested people for tweeting, purged over 200,000 people from various government roles, and launched invasions.
Under the ruling AKP party, Turkey has threatened most of the countries in the Middle East and the region, including Egypt, Israel, the UAE, Greece, Armenia and others. It has established increasing military bases abroad, developed armed drones, threatened to attack Greece in 2020, compared Israel to Nazi Germany and accused numerous European states of being like Nazis, demanded to have political rallies in Europe, radicalized far-right Islamists to carry out attacks in France, slandered the French President, Israel’s president, Greek leaders and many other world leaders, including Biden, and threatened wars and attacks against critics.All this has happened as Turkey has purchased Russia’s S-400, drifted away from NATO, used claims of mythical “terrorism” to justify attacks, and worked closely with the Iranian regime and Russia to try to remove US forces from Syria.
Turkey’s AKP ruling party ability to influence US foreign policy goes back decades. Turkey became a close western ally partly at the behest of the US in the 1950s. At the time the country was a populist secular republic that suppressed what remained of its Greek and Armenian minorities, most of whom had been expelled and genocided between 1850 and 1950.Even in 1955 more attacks on Greeks would occur in Turkey. Armenians who remained in Turkey, such as Hrant Dink, would be hunted down by extremists. Turkey’s secular extremist mentality nevertheless worked well alongside western countries that needed a more right-leaning Turkey that would be a block against the Soviets.Turkey was an early country to recognize Israel and Turkey and Israel grew closer up into the 1990s. However, Turkey’s secular and ethnic nationalism changed when the AKP came to power. The right-leaning Islamic party had roots in the Muslim Brotherhood but promised Turkey democratic changes. Under the guise of those changes it radically reshaped Turkey.Soon Islamist views, chauvinism, attacks on women and homosexuals and even the removal of things like smoking from television shows were occurring. Journalists like Can Dundar had to flee or face prison. Most free thinkers in Turkey, from academics to fashion people, were silenced.
THE HIGH hopes for a new Turkey that once existed in the 1990s and early 2000s vanished. Turkey joined a growing wave of authoritarian regimes, from Russia to China and Iran, as well as a growing wave of far-right Islamic politics from Pakistan to Malaysia. There would be no democratic spring, the kind US officials might have envisioned in the 1990s.None of George Bush’s “new world order” of 1991 would come to pass and none of the humanitarian liberal world order Bill Clinton had promised would happen. Instead Turkey turned inward and then began projecting religious far-right views abroad.
US appeasement of Turkey is founded on several pillars. There is one argument that sees Turkey as an important “geopolitical” asset and a “NATO ally.” This view is rooted in the Cold War and argues that Turkey can be a buffer against Russia.However, Turkey has grown closer to Russia and US administrations never demanded Turkey be close to the West. Instead Turkey did what it wanted and played US policymakers like a fiddle, pretending to confront Russia. Turkey would even bring this up to encourage US support for Azerbaijan against Armenia, even though it didn’t actually roll back Russian influence.In fact Russia’s role in Syria grew alongside Turkey’s role as they carved up Syria for influence and signed deals at Astana and then in 2018 and early 2020.
THE NEXT theory is that Turkey must be appeased or it will get worse. This theory is used by US policy makers, often at the State Department and in think tanks, to argue that if the US offends Turkey’s increasing dictatorship, the country might become even more extreme. This was the same logic that underpinned appeasement of Fascism and Hitler.It has led to the same thing in Turkey: Increasing attacks on minorities and rights activists, with western silence.
A last pillar of Turkey’s influence in the US relied on its lobbying arm and recruitment of US officials inside and out of government, sometimes at think tanks. It even operationalized pro-Israel voices in the early 2000s to get them to deny the Armenian genocide under the auspices that Turkey was close to Israel and denying genocide would “help Israel.”The ADL in the US finally recognized the Armenian genocide in 2016 after years in which its previous leader Abe Foxman had not. Ankara’s influence peddlers sought to use pro-Israel groups, it took years for their efforts to be reduced. It didn’t help Israel in the long run. Turkey ended up hosting Hamas terrorists who applaud the murder of Israelis.Turkey launched the IHH activists on the Mavi Marmara in 2010 to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, sending hundreds of far-right male activists to Gaza. Israel had to stop them and ten were killed in clashes with Israelis who raided the ship.
Turkey’s regime gambled on Donald Trump in 2016. The New York Times reported on November 19, 2016 that “Ankara has paid attention to General Flynn’s full-throated support for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, and its desire to extradite Fethullah Gulen.”The ‘Times’ claimed in March 217 that “Michael T. Flynn, who went from the campaign trail to the White House as President Trump’s first national security adviser, filed papers” that showed he was “paid to represent Turkey’s interests.” NBC later reported in 2018 that “prosecutors for special counsel Robert Mueller say that Flynn’s lies ‘impeded the ability of the public’ to know the extent of Turkey’s efforts to influence public opinion.”
TURKEY, like Russia, had sought to influence the 2016 US election and leverage it to play a leading role in Trump circles. Trump was a “big fan” of Erdogan’s authoritarian style, reports indicated. “Frankly, he’s getting very high marks. He’s also been working with the United States. We have a great friendship and the countries—I think we’re right now as close as we’ve ever been…a lot of that has to do with a personal relationship,” Trump said in September 2017.
This was after Erdogan had been invited to Washington and on May 16, 2017 Turkish presidential bodyguards and far-right supporters of Erdogan attacked peaceful protesters in Washington D.C. Their message was that they controlled Washington and they would do to the US what was done to critics in Ankara.Under the US administration’s appeasement, US officials went to bat for Turkey to get charges quietly dropped. It was now legal for Turkey to assault and attack Americans on US soil. The US State Department denied any role in the decision to drop the charges.
Erdogan used his Washington power to begin calling Trump on speed dial. Reports emerged later in 2020 that Erdogan was calling the US president sometimes twice a week, as if the US worked for Ankara. Turkey was bolstered also by key support among policymakers, including US Syria envoy James Jeffrey, and Joel Rayburn as well as others.Jeffrey would fly frequently to Turkey to express support, even as Ankara’s anti-American attacks grew. Turkey’s right wing pro-government media would herald these trips, noting that “accompanying Jeffrey, the ambassador’s senior adviser, Rich Outzen, said the US ‘strongly condemned the attacks of the Damascus regime.’ Stressing the importance of solidarity, Outzen said his country will continue to be in close contact with Turkey.”
The problem was that the same Turkey that kept demanding concessions from the Trump administration was also accusing the US of training “terrorists” in Syria. In January 2018 Turkey accused the US of training a “terror army” in Syria. This was the Syrian Democratic Forces who were fighting ISIS and never carried out any terror attacks. Nevertheless pro-Ankara writers tended to sympathize more with ISIS than the SDF.They claimed that Kurds defending themselves from ISIS genocide in Kobani in 2014 had used “suicide bombers” against ISIS. The same Ankara voices never condemned ISIS attacks. Turkey enabled some 50,000 people to cross into Syria and join ISIS and only closed its border with Syria when Kurdish forces liberated the area from ISIS. For Turkey ISIS was not the problem, in fact its leader was found living near Turkey’s border in Idlib in 2019.For Turkey the Kurds were the problem. In January 2018 Turkey invaded Kurdish Afrin in Syria to ethnically cleansed it of 170,000 people. It used its links to the US to enable this attack, even as US officials like William Roebuck tried desperately to assure Kurds in eastern Syria where US troops were located that they would not be abandoned.
Turkey was pleased to see US envoys distance themselves from the SDF in 2018, declaring US support for the anti-ISIS fighters as “temporary, tactical and transactional.” In short, the US said it shared Turkey’s views on Syria. Meanwhile Turkey was arming jihadist-extremist groups and hiring mercenaries to fight Kurds.Turkey demanded the US leave Syria in late 2018 and Trump consented, not even informing his advisors or officials that the US would leave. This caused a chaos and Brett McGurk and defense secretary Jim Mattis resigned. But this was good news for pro-Ankara voices in the US. They argued that McGurk was “pro-Iran” and now they could bring in the pro-Turkey team.For a long time in the US, pro-Turkey voices had argued that US support for the SDF was actually support for Iran and the Damascus regime and the PKK. They wanted a pivot back to the “NATO ally.”
THROUGHOUT 2019 Turkey increasingly pressured the US to leave Syria. It got the US to send John Bolton, the national security advisor, to Ankara to seemingly beg Turkey not to invade Syria. Turkey presented a map of areas it demanded as a “safe zone.” Turkey wanted to ethnically cleanse more Kurds and demanded the US help it accomplish that. Ankara didn’t hide this demand, it said it would move several million, mostly-Arab refugees, to depopulate Kurdish areas like Kobani and Qamishli that had resisted ISIS. Not since the Balkan wars had ethnic cleansing been so openly proposed.Yet US officials didn’t push back, instead they appeared to approve the plan, even bringing maps to Ankara to partition part of northern Syria the US had helped liberate from ISIS. Interviews would later show how far the US went to support Ankara’s authoritarianism and brutal actions in 2019, emboldening Ankara to then host Hamas with a red carpet in 2019 and 2020, treating blood drenched Hamas leaders as if they were rock stars and world leaders.Soon an emboldened Ankara would be threatening NATO members Greece and France and calling Israel a “Nazi” country. Ankara would also begin snubbing any US critics, like Bolton, indicating it now controlled US policy. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State who was among Trump’s longest serving officials, was snubbed in 2020 and he made his views clear by increasing US ties to Greece and Cyprus.
The US decision to withdraw from Syria was the biggest appeasement of Erdogan. Never in history had the US been ordered to withdraw by an “ally” with threats that Turkish tanks would roll over US troops. But Erdogan felt he ran the Trump administration and could get the US to leave Syria. He accomplished this through a phone call in December 2018 for the first time and then again in October 2019. He would call Trump and Trump wouldn’t even consult with key advisors before ordering US withdrawals.Jared Szuba, who interviewed Jeffrey after the Trump administration left office, noted that “opposition from European allies eventually convinced the president to reverse the order, Jeffrey said. But less than a year later, as Turkish forces built up on the Syrian border in October of 2019, Jeffrey and other officials arranged yet another call between Trump and Erdogan.”Jeffrey later praised Erdogan in an interview with Al-Monitor. “Erdogan is a great power thinker. Where he sees vacuums, he moves. The other thing about Erdogan is he’s maddeningly arrogant, unpredictable and simply will not accept a win-win solution. But when pressed — and I’ve negotiated with him — he’s a rational actor.”The same Erdogan called Israel a “Nazi” country and hosted Hamas terrorists. Under the Obama admin the US had critiqued Turkey-Hamas ties in 2015, but it took the Trump administration until August 2020 to critique Hamas red carpet meetings in Ankara.
THE OCTOBER 2019 demand got US troops to leave parts of Syria, to be replaced by Russian, pro-Iranian and Turkish forces. The anti-Iran voices who claimed that if the US only worked with Turkey then Russia and Iran would be rolled back were wrong. Turkey, Iran and Russia were working to remove the US.
Turkey also arrested more than 20 Americans, including a Turkish employee of the US consulate. It detained a US pastor to blackmail the US administration. It harassed US journalists to get positive coverage or get them expelled from Turkey. It assassinated Hevrin Khalaf using Syrian mercenary extremists. She was a young Syrian woman in Syria who had been working with the US.Turkey was so abusive of the US, and likely using US intelligence sharing to target innocent people, that the US ended a secretive drone program with Turkey in February 2020. The US also removed Turkey from the F-35 program. But the US also did other things to appease Turkey, putting millions in bounties on PKK leaders in November 2018.
Murky stories about Turkey’s influence and threats continue to remain. In early April Politico reported that “a top aide to the U.S. envoy to the United Nations has stepped aside after her security clearance was revoked, according to two people familiar with the matter. Jennifer Davis, the de facto chief of staff to Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is a career Foreign Service officer who has worked at the State Department for 18 years, with previous postings in Colombia, Mexico and Turkey.”It was unclear what role the Turkey posting or Ankara may have had. But “the investigation concerned Davis’s tenure as consul general of the US consulate in Istanbul, where she served from August 2016 to August 2019. In that role, she had a conversation with a reporter, Amberin Zaman of the Middle Eastern-focused news outlet Al-Monitor, about the problem of local staff being hassled and detained by Turkish authorities, according to the person close to her.”
This shows how Turkey was able to hassle US officials and staff in Turkey and how it had the former US president on speed dial, literally calling the White House to order US troops around. No other US ally is able to do this, and only some US adversaries such as China or Russia, harass US diplomatic staff the way Turkey did.
It’s unclear if the Biden administration has put an end to all of Turkey’s influence in US official circles. Decades of cultivating ties has given Ankara a lot of power in Washington, power it used to target journalists, protesters, and innocent people like Hevrin Khalaf. The full details about Ankara’s role may never be known. What is known is that Biden has recognized the Armenian genocide despite Turkey’s threats.