On September 19, 2017, a Turkish delegation stormed out of a NATO Parliamentary Assembly meeting held on Philadelphia’s historic Independence Mall. The delegates were outraged when the hosting Middle East Forum refused to honor their distant leader’s request to disinvite from the conference a regime dissident.
More than two years later, the Forum convened a Capitol Hill briefing to examine the prospects for normalized relations with Ankara, asking “Is Turkey Coming Back?” and offering a much-needed update on U.S. policy.
Held on December 9, 2019, the conference brought together foreign policy experts and a panel of representatives from the communities most affected by Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions. Pipes’ opening remarks were followed by comments from Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.
Panelists included Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA); Diliman Abdulkader, co-founder and spokesperson for American Friends of Kurdistan; and Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council. Middle East Forum executive director Gregg Roman moderated the panel discussion and read closing remarks.
Each of the speakers agreed that Turkey under Erdogan has presented massive problems for America and the West. There is no shortage of indictments against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“Drilling in the Cypriot Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ),” “invading a neighbor in Syria” and “meddling in Libya” are among the foreign policy failures that isolate Turkey and leave Erdogan “highly exposed,” according to Pipes.
Berman emphasized Turkey’s “tilt to the East” and its “relationship with rogue actors.” Indeed, Erdogan has undermined the interoperability of the NATO alliance by purchasing Russian S-400 anti-aircraft batteries, supporting terrorist factions such as Hamas and Hezbollah and looking the other way as ISIS jihadists used his country as a springboard to launch terrorist operations in Iraq and Syria.
On the domestic front, “countless violations of human rights atrocities” continue to occur under Erdogan, said Abdulkader. “Turkey continues to be the largest jailer of journalists, surpassing China,” he continued.
In the most recent example of Erdogan’s unending campaign to eliminate political opposition and consolidate power, Roman pointed to dozens of “mayors rounded up in the southeast of the country, almost all from Kurdish-majority towns.”
However, all of these problems are merely symptomatic of political conditions within Turkey. The challenge facing the speakers and panelists was to determine if the country’s rampant anti-Western attitudes will outlast the current regime. Can Turkey return to the “neat 50 years” between its NATO accession and Erdogan’s 2002 election when, as Pipes explained, “Washington led, Ankara followed”?
With the possible exception of Berman, the speakers agreed that Turkey’s animosity would outlive Erdogan.
“There is no way that American foreign policy should be based on the assumption that we can bring Turkey back. It is gone as Iran is gone,” said Pipes. “Not forever, but for the duration. We need to prepare for a rogue Ankara over the long term.”
Zemenides agreed, declaring that there is “not a chance” of “Turkey coming back” if “Washington continues its dysfunction in U.S.-Turkey policy.” He pointed to decades of “appeasement” driven by hope that Turkey could serve as a model to other countries in the region.
Speaking for the Kurdish community, Abdulkader said, “We don’t see what’s happening in Turkey as an Erdogan problem. We see this as a Turkey problem. Turkey’s policies aren’t changing any time soon,” he added.
Berman was the only speaker to see an alternative path forward for U.S.-Turkey relations. “Given the current trajectory, I think it’s difficult to be optimistic.” However, he believes that policymakers can still affect change by shaping “Turkey’s foreign policy and identity in a more constructive way.”
Pipes is not optimistic for a brighter, post-Erdogan future in Turkey. “The nationalists and the leftists are even more hostile than Erdogan’s Islamist party,” argued the Forum president.“So no — there’s not reason to think that when he goes we will find a friendlier face in Ankara.”.
Looking at Turkey as an intractable, long-term threat, each participant offered a way forward for American policymakers.
Pipes proposed an eight-point escalating policy prescription that starts with smaller diplomatic gestures and ends with wholesale isolation of the Turkish regime. If “permanently rejecting the extradition request” for Turkish opposition figure Fethullah Gullen fails to produce results, Pipes suggests inviting “opposition figures” to Washington, applying broad sanctions and eventually expelling Turkey from NATO.
Hamparian called on Congress to ratify a bill that would formally recognize the Armenian Genocide. Just days later, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution that recognizes the Ottoman Empire’s systematic killing of over 1.5 million unarmed Christian Armenians. Until then, as Hamparian noted, US policy regarding the genocide was “set in Ankara, exported to Washington, and enforced by U.S. presidents — Democrat and Republican.”
Abdulkader lobbied for Washington to “strengthen the Kurdish position” and “approach the Kurds inside Turkey.” For his part, Zemenides believes that the international community must deny Erdogan any “leverage” it might obtain if policymakers want to realize change, including inviting Turkey back to the International Monetary Fund.
“We still resist using the sticks,” Zemenides said.
Although the other speakers believe that lawmakers should consider Turkey’s de-accession from NATO, Berman insisted that a more “fruitful line of inquiry” would be to find a “clear path for exacting penalties on Turkey” within NATO.
Although there have been efforts to take on Erdogan and Turkey from affected minority groups, such as Armenian-Kurdish protests against pro-Erdogan Islamist organizations inside the U.S., these have been localized and piecemail. All three panelists endorsed the idea of a national coalition that can combine the resources of communities affected by Turkey’s geopolitical aspirations.
This is already happening informally, said Zemenides, “and is really responsible for a lot of the movement on Capitol Hill.” He referenced cooperation between groups such as Christians United for Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and representatives from the Armenian-Kurdish-Greek bloc which have formed a united front against Turkey.
Conditions have changed since the 2017 NATO conference, when all of the European parliamentarians supported the Turkish delegation’s impromptu decision to boycott the meeting. “But now the situation is very different. Maybe he’s pushed it too far,” Roman predicted, referring to Turkey’s dictator.
Still, there is no reason to suspect that Turkey will suddenly come around. The nationalist parties trending to replace the Islamist AKP appear to be the greater of two evils, and Washington continues to be hampered by bureaucratic inertia.
Therefore, the way forward is clear. “There should be a united umbrella organization to tackle the problems associated with modern Turkey,” Roman said in his closing remarks, calling for coalition which includes “everyone in the eastern Mediterranean, and also those disaffected dissident Turks who are now living in exile.”
“We must have a united front against this aggression,” Roman insisted.