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December 24, 2019 11:50 am

Talking Turkey, Islamism, and Genocide on Capitol Hill

avatar by Winfield Myers

Opinion

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City, New York, US, September 24, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri.

Will Turkey’s current hostility towards the West be long-lived, as is post-revolutionary Iran’s — or will it fade with the inevitable demise of its mercurial president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Is its 21st century embrace of nationalism and Islamism primarily cultural in nature, or does it spring from Erdogan’s policies and personality? What, if anything, can Washington do to mitigate these dangerous developments?

An audience recently gathered in the Rayburn Office Building at the US Capitol to hear participants from the think tank and advocacy/education sectors discuss these fundamental questions during “Is Turkey Coming Back? Updating US Policy,” a December 9 Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by the Middle East Forum (MEF).

The discussion exposed a rift among American opinion and policymakers regarding the depth and duration of Turkey’s antipathy towards the West. In his opening remarks, the MEF’s Daniel Pipes noted that Erdogan’s reign initially sparked debate over Turkey’s trustworthiness as an ally. Its ceaseless belligerence toward former friends ended that dispute; today’s principal arguments surround the causes and likely duration of Turkey’s transformation from the pillar of NATO’s southeastern flank to a newfound “Thuringian bulge” into the soft underbelly of Europe.

Pipes, along with many members of Congress and non-governmental regional experts, sees these shifts as socio-cultural, and thus unlikely to change in the near term. They are reflected in the collapse of formerly widespread goodwill toward the US among the Turkish people: where over half viewed America favorably before 2000, today that figure has plummeted to 18 percent.

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This pessimism by experts about Turkey is at odds with the policies of the last three presidential administrations, Western businesses, and the foreign policy bureaucracy at the State Department. From Bush to Obama to Trump, the executive branch is a font of optimism — some might say willful blindness — that Erdogan’s instincts for self-preservation, if not his affection for his erstwhile allies, will keep him in the Western fold. Boeing, meanwhile, has recently inked a $1.2 billion deal with Antalya Airlines, dictatorship be damned.

The heads of three ethnic advocacy organizations representing the Kurdish, Hellenic, and Armenian communities — all historic victims of Turkish/Ottoman aggression — expressed similar frustrations with short-sighted Western opportunism. They argued that Turkey’s contemporary difficulties reflect systemic problems in Turkish culture.

Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, said such policies make Erdogan want to “issue a bill of indictment against Washington.” Turkey’s current position was enabled because of decades of “appeasement,” according to Zemenides. “We kept coming up with new excuses” for not mentioning the Armenian genocide or other violence against Turkey’s religious and ethnic minorities, he complained.

Diliman Abdulkader, spokesperson and co-founder of American Friends of Kurdistan, noted that Kurdish issues with Turkey date to the founding of the modern Turkish state in 1923. Since then, Turkish aggression, whether in Syria in 1925, Northern Cyprus in 1974, or Syria again today, has been ignored by the West. Today’s neo-Ottoman policy, which seeks to expand Turkish territory and Islamize the region, isn’t going away, Abdulkader said, adding that it risks destabilizing the Eastern Mediterranean.

In response to Erdogan’s more recent hostility, countries in the area have changed their policies towards Turkey, he noted, but the Trump administration has not. As a result, Kurdish peoples throughout the region remain threatened.

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, charged the State Department with taking a “delusional approach” to Turkey and “living in the past.” Regarding the Armenian genocide, which most Western powers have until recently refused to address, a “truthful policy” should be possible, Hamparian said, since within any alliance, such as NATO, “there’s plenty of room … for the truth.”

Putting current regional struggles in historical perspective, Zemenides warned that the consequences of ignoring inconvenient truths manifest themselves in unexpected ways. He described a recent scheme by Russian operatives to leverage internal Turkish politics in order to undermine the beleaguered Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Following the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan, a widely circulated article purportedly by the former US ambassador to Yemen labeled the Patriarch a Gülenist — which was an effort to facilitate his downfall, since Erdogan blames his former ally Fethullah Gülen for the coup.

The real source for the article was in fact Russia, which sought the permanent removal of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s office to allow the Russian Orthodox Church to proclaim supremacy in worldwide Orthodoxy.

Briefing participants agreed that solutions to the Turkish problem illustrated by such international skullduggery should be long-term, since Erdogan’s removal, though welcome, would not solve problems deeply ingrained in Turkish society. Pipes’s recommendations were the most direct, and included expelling Turkey from NATO under the Geneva Conventions, closing the American air base at Incirlik and removing its nuclear weapons, sanctions for Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, and removing all American military forces from the country.

Hamparian advocated moving ahead with Congressional condemnation of the Armenian genocide (which now rests in the hands of President Trump), as did Abdulkader.

Decades of malpractice by America and the West won’t be remedied quickly, but the briefing demonstrated that diverse interest groups and policy experts recognize the nature of Turkey’s myriad threats. As some participants stated, an umbrella organization capable of expanding the anti-Erdogan lobby, including Turkish dissidents, is needed to coordinate actions and educate policymakers and politicians. American bases can be moved elsewhere, while US financial support could go directly to Kurdish political parties in Turkey itself. And Erdogan should be on watch that anyone who associates with him will be ostracized by the international community.

Determination, organization, and action will be necessary to accomplish these goals — but if there is truly a changing mood toward Turkey, new possibilities for change abound.

Winfield Myers is director of academic affairs at the Middle East Forum and director of its Campus Watch project.

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