Domestic concerns push Washington to act against Ankara

Published 15.12.2019 15:13
Updated 20.12.2019 02:23
President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an shakes hand with the U.S. President Donald Trump during a joint news conference at the White House in Washington D.C., Nov. 13, 2019. REUTERS Photo
President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an shakes hand with the U.S. President Donald Trump during a joint news conference at the White House in Washington D.C., Nov. 13, 2019. (REUTERS Photo)

Recent moves of the U.S. Senate to pass bills with anti-Turkey stance are the result of domestic challanges of the country rather than a reflection of disagreements with the NATO ally, experts said

The U.S. Senate’s recent decisions regarding Turkey constitute political moves mainly reflecting the domestic situation in Washington, experts say. The biggest reason behind the recent stance of U.S. Congress all falls down to current domestic politics coinciding with the lobbying work of anti-Turkish groups, Ali Demirdas, a political analyst, told Daily Sabah.

“Democrats want to punish President Donald Trump by using his positive stance on Turkey. Democrats see how this attitude peaked with Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria before the beginning of Operation Peace Spring. On the other hand, the Republicans’ biggest concern is Israel, who perceives Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring as a move against Israel’s interests and national security,” he explained.

The U.S. Senate has also unanimously passed a resolution on Thursday that recognizes the alleged Armenian genocide. The resolution had been blocked several times in the Senate, even though the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed the resolution by an overwhelming 405-11 late October.

The resolution asserts that it is U.S. policy to refer to the 1915 events as a "genocide." In his statement about the events of 1915, which was issued on April 24, Trump did not use the term “genocide,” rather preferring the Armenian term “Meds Yeghern” – which means “Great Disaster.”

Turkey's position on the events of 1915 is that the deaths of Armenians in eastern Anatolia took place when some sided with the invading Russians and revolted against Ottoman forces. A subsequent relocation of Armenians resulted in numerous casualties. Turkey objects to the presentation of the incidents as "genocide," but describes the events as a tragedy in which both sides suffered a calamity. Ankara has repeatedly proposed the creation of a joint commission of historians from Turkey and Armenia as well as international experts to examine the issue.

Recognition of the 1915 events as a "genocide" had for decades stalled in Congress, stymied by concerns about relations with Turkey.

Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring on Oct. 9 to eliminate the PKK terrorist group’s Syrian wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG) terrorist organization, from the area east of the Euphrates in northern Syria to secure the Turkish border, allow for the safe return of Syrian refugees and ensure Syria's territorial integrity.

Under two separate deals with the U.S. and Russia, Turkey paused the operation to allow the withdrawal of YPG terrorists from a planned Syrian safe zone.

Ankara wants the YPG terrorist group to withdraw from the region so that a safe zone can be created to pave the way for the safe return of some 2 million refugees.

In its more than 30-year terror campaign against Turkey, the PKK – listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU – has been responsible for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people, including women, children and infants.

When we look at U.S. public opinion on the issue, there is a negative atmosphere against Turkey in Washington, said Ali Çınar, the president of U.S.-based Turkish Heritage Organization.

“If we combine the reactions against Trump with anti-Turkish hostility in general, it seems like President Trump was left alone regarding the issue of Turkey. There is a certain segment of Washington that tries everything possible to damage bilateral relations between the two countries,” he explained.

Dildar Baykan, Anadolu Agency’s Washington reporter, also underlined a similar point.

“For now, the U.S. public opinion sees Turkey as an ally that can be sacrificed due to the impression fueled by Congress and the media. There are even some sections who defend the idea that Turkey is not an ally anymore,” she said.

Baykan added that the liberal media, including CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, have taken against Turkey. She explained that Trump’s indirect approval of Operation Peace Spring would be an important factor contributing to their anti-Turkey stance because of their opposition to Trump.

“In the process of Trump’s impeachment, they sometimes slam Turkey in order to create an impression that Trump has taken bad decisions. Therefore, the liberal media and democrats believe that Turkey should be punished because of Operation Peace Spring. The conservative media, led by Fox News, also abandoned Trump over the courses of Operation Peace Spring,” she added.

“On the other hand, figures from a number of reasonable think tanks, such as Michael Doran and Luke Coffey, understand Turkey’s national security concerns and clearly stated that there is no difference between the YPG and PKK. Therefore, they opposed the sanctions and unilateral U.S. moves that damaged bilateral relations,” she further said.

Turkey and the U.S. have recently had their relationship rocked over a range of issues, including Washington’s support for the YPG terror group in northern Syria, inaction against the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and anti-Turkish legislation.

The Republican-led U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week voted 18-4 on the sanctions bill against Turkey’s S-400 purchase and Operation Peace Spring. Another bill proposing levying sanctions on Turkey was approved in the House of Representatives on Oct. 29. The legislation will have to be approved by the House of Representatives and signed by President Donald Trump to become law.

In terms of public opinion, most media outlets have pro-Democrat Party tendencies, said political analyst Demirdas, adding, “Therefore, they use Trump’s indirect approval of Operation Peace Spring as a foreign policy disaster against him. Some have made fake news and false footage to give the impression that Turkey has slaughtered civilians due to Trump’s decision.”

“Also, my observation is that most Americans do not care about foreign politics. However, they defend causes imposed on them by third parties. Exposed to dark propaganda on social media, most Americans embraced the idea that Turkey slaughtered Kurds in Syria and further spread these claims. This also affects politicians in Congress,” Demirdas explained.

Looking ahead, legislation on sanctions is expected to be voted in the Senate this week. There is, however, no exact date. If legislation is approved by the Senate, it will need President Donald Trump’s signature to be ratified. There will be a single proposal to be submitted to President Trump and this proposal will be joint legislation composed of ones approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate.

“When we look at the current situation, it is highly possible that Trump will veto the proposal. Despite Trump making harsh statements sometimes, he has been one of the major figures to support Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during Operation Peace Spring. That’s why, it is not likely for him to approve such a legislation,” Baykan explained.

If Trump vetoes the proposal, it will go back to Congress. If it gets two-thirds of votes both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, it will then constitute “veto-proof legislation” and become law without the president's approval.

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s stance will be decisive. As someone close to President Trump, McConnell may delay the proposal,” said Çınar.

Baykan, for his part, added that “Despite all these negative factors, Trump’s individual efforts might be enough to save bilateral relations without major damage. Holding off [Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act] CAATSA sanctions is an example of it.”

Ankara and Washington have been at loggerheads over NATO ally Turkey's purchase of the Russian S-400 system, which Washington says is not compatible with NATO defenses and poses a threat to its F-35 stealth fighter jets, which Lockheed Martin Corp. is developing.

Turkey, however, emphasized that the S-400s would not be integrated into NATO systems and would pose no threat to the alliance, rejecting calls to back out of the deal. Ankara also stressed it was the U.S.' refusal to sell it Patriots that led it to seek out other sellers, adding that Russia had offered it a better deal, including technology transfers.

Turkish officials have also proposed setting up a commission to study the issue, but it has yet to get a positive response from the U.S.

The acquisition of the Russian system prompted the Trump administration in July to remove Turkey from the F-35 fifth-generation joint strike fighter program, which Ankara was a major buyer and parts manufacturer. Tensions deepened soon after when Turkey received its first shipment of the Russian equipment.

The Trump administration has held off on levying sanctions, despite Trump having signed a sweeping sanctions law – namely CAATSA, in 2017, mandating sanctions for countries who do business with the Russian military.

Certain U.S. lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, ramped up efforts to impose measures against Ankara in October when Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring in an attempt to clear northern Syria of YPG terrorists. Normally an ardent defender of fellow-Republican Trump, Graham and some others in his party have been harshly critical of Trump's decision to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria ahead of the Turkish counterterror operation.

A final issue needs to be discussed after that and what would be the possible results of these sanctions and legislations.

“I do not think that these legislations will be put into action. If the U.S. loses Turkey, it will lose the Middle East and the Mediterranean. This is about nothing but satisfying the demands of domestic politics,” said Demirdas, adding that the U.S. needed Turkey.

“If Trump is elected for the second term, I think that bilateral relations will recover. If [Benjamin] Netanyahu goes and [Benny] Gantz comes, Turkey-Israel relations will improve and this will be reflected in Turkey-U.S. relations, too,” he further said.

Meanwhile, Çınar said that tension between the two allies would not serve anyone’s interests.

“If Turkey distances itself from the U.S., it will not be good for NATO either. That’s why, it is very important for the two countries to maintain dialogue, and keep diplomatic channels open,” he explained, underlining that it would be impossible to find solutions in the Middle East without the contribution of Turkey.

“Threats to punish Turkey would step back. Because there is unity above domestic politics in Turkey regarding foreign policy issues. Of course, I want U.S.-Turkey relations to recover as they always acted together in the past,” he further said.

Underlining that the ratification of sanctions has the potential to seriously damage Turkey-U.S. relations, Baykan said it is very important that reasonable figures and politicians, who think bilateral relations, especially in the context of NATO alliance, should reverse the existing rhetoric that affects public opinion negatively.

“As always said, as much as Turkey needs the U.S., the U.S. needs Turkey,” she concluded.

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