Will the US Congress Sway the Trump Administration Against Turkey?

June 11, 2019

Anti-Turkey sentiment in the U.S. Congress is high. Within the last three months, seven bills directly concerning Turkey were introduced, all with the support of both Democrat and Republican representatives.
US President Donald Trump speaks during the State of the Union Address before a Joint Session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 30, 2018. Getty Images

The year of 2019, and especially its first half, will go into the history of Turkey-U.S. relations as a critical turning point. At no point during the 70 years of bilateral relations, there existed such a strong opposition towards Turkey in Washington, as there is today. Within the first five months of the year, almost 10 bills and resolutions regarding Turkey were introduced in the U.S. Congress. Turkey’s plan to purchase the S-400 air defense systems has brought all groups in the U.S. opposing Turkey together, with Congress coming first. From the Armenian lobby to the Greek lobby, from the Jewish lobby to Neo-con think-tanks and the Central Command (CENTCOM), a wide range of actors are working to block progress in politics and diplomacy by using anti-Turkish propaganda. Statements made and the bills that are introduced show that the common point of all this propaganda is Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 systems.

Upon a brief examination of the latest developments in relations between Turkey and the U.S., a difference in discourse between Ankara and Washington on the subject of the S-400 can be clearly observed. Turkey defines the S-400 agreement as one that is complete and finalized. It must be noted that despite this, statements made by U.S. authorities portray the situation regarding the S-400 systems as one where Ankara can still be convinced. Within the last few weeks, reports citing anonymous sources emerged in the U.S. stating that Turkey was offered to indefinitely delay the purchase of the S-400s and that Ankara was evaluating this option. But these claims were dismissed by Turkish authorities.

At no point during the 70 years of bilateral relations, there existed such a strong opposition towards Turkey in Washington, as there is today.

A statement pushing the boundaries of diplomacy regarding the Istanbul elections was published by the U.S. Department of State. The expression in the statement that the U.S. “took note” of the decision to cancel the election is one that is hard to understand diplomatically. On the other hand, it has been expressed that regarding Syria, the meetings between the two countries are positively progressing. The 50% tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum exports to the U.S. introduced during the Brunson crisis were also reduced to 25%. Beyond these topics, anti-Turkey propaganda and the pressure applied on the administration in regards to the S-400 issue continues.

Anti-Turkish sentiment in the U.S. Congress

On the subject of Turkey, most of the pressure applied on the administration comes from Congress. It’s no secret that whenever Trump closes his doors and starts engaging with Turkey, members of Congress come forward with statements, bills and resolutions opposing Turkey. It must be emphasized that this anti-Turkish sentiment in Congress causes great damage to bilateral relations. Attempting to keep Ankara on Washington’s side by applying pressure on the subject of defense while Turkey is trying to overcome national security matters is not an attitude that is possible to explain in strategic terms. Due to the fact that there is a “diffusion of power” in the global arena against the U.S., the administration is planning a national security strategy that prioritizes rivalry between great powers. In such a situation, the approach of applying pressure on an actor, especially one that has played a critical role during the Cold War era, should not be expected to serve the interests of the U.S. in any way.

Within the last three months, seven bills directly concerning Turkey were introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. All these bills had both Democrat and Republican representatives as their sponsors. This is important in illustrating the scale of anti-Turkish sentiment in the U.S. Congress. It is also worth mentioning that almost all of these bills referred to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s. In other words, seven bills opposing Turkey were introduced to the U.S. Congress within a span of three months, of which all were supported by both Republican and Democrat representatives, and all of these bills included opposition to the purchase of S-400 air defense systems, whether relevant to the bill or not.

Anti-Turkey sentiment in the U.S. Congress is high. Within the last three months, seven bills directly concerning Turkey were introduced, all with the support of both Democrat and Republican representatives.

The first of these bills is the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019. This act is also known as the defense budgeting bill. While its general purpose is drawing the limits of Pentagon’s budget, it also contains many sections regarding foreign policy. Parts of this bill are dedicated to Turkey and request a report from the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense regarding Ankara’s purchase of the S-400s. The National Defense Authorization Act of the previous year also requested a report on the same subject and this was presented to Congress in November. However, this time it was requested for the report to be updated and that until this report was submitted, the delivery of F-35s to Turkey to be stopped. Prior to this bill, the temporary spending bill that ended the temporary spending crisis between Trump and Congress and allowed the Federal Government to reopen also requested the U.S. Department of Defense, in consultation with the State Department, to submit a report regarding the status of the Turkish-American alliance and Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s. Until the report is submitted, or until November 1, 2019, the transfer of any F-35 aircraft or equipment to Turkey has thus been banned.

The first bill that directly concerned Turkey was introduced on March 28, 2019, by Republican Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, Democratic New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Republican North Carolina Senator Thamos Tillis and Democratic Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen. The bill titled “Protecting NATO Skies Act” states that no F-35 aircraft should be transferred to Turkey until the U.S. government confirms that Turkey will not receive any S-400 air defense systems. The bill also states that no intellectual property and data regarding the maintenance of F-35s must be transferred to Turkey and that no storage facilities for these aircrafts should be established in the country.

The bill also emphasizes that Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 systems is within the scope of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and states that “such a purchase would endanger the integrity of the NATO alliance, would adversely affect ongoing operations of the United States Armed Forces, including coalition operations in which the United States Armed Forces participate, would result in a significant impact to defense cooperation between the United States and Turkey, and would significantly increase the risk of compromising United States defense systems and operational capabilities.” A similar bill was also introduced to the House of Representatives. Of course, it must be expressed that the points of whether these bills will be considered alone or appended to another bill, or whether they’ll undergo changes, are not clear but they are important in reflecting the opinions of Congress.

Other bills suggesting to call the events of 1915 a so-called “Armenian Genocide” were introduced to the Senate and House of Representatives in April. These bills are non-binding. But the fact that Rashida Tlaib, a Muslim U.S. representative who is of Palestinian origin, was among the sponsors of one of these bills presents a situation that must be carefully considered. Another bill introduced to the U.S. Senate was titled “Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act.” This bill directly targeted Turkey and was aimed at Turkish citizens working at U.S. diplomatic missions who have been found to be in contact with the Gulenist Terror Group, also known as FETO. But in this bill as well in the section regarding the outlook of Congress towards Turkey, it was stated that an agreement between Turkey and Russia regarding the S-400s would negatively impact relations between Turkey and the U.S.

There is also another bill that deserves special attention due to the potential it carries of creating many serious strategic consequences if passed into law. This is the bill titled “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act” introduced by Democratic representative Bob Menendez and Republican representative Marco Rubio, both of whom are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the section titled “Findings”, the bill emphasizes the importance of cooperation with the Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus (GCASC), Israel and Greece, and states that it opposes behaviors and attitudes in the Mediterranean, Aegean and the Middle East (all but naming Turkey) that are one-sided, in violation of international law and against the principle of maintaining good relations with neighboring countries. It also draws attention to the statement made during the trilateral meeting held between Israel, GCASC and Greece on March 21 that any “ill-intentioned activities” would be defended against, and supports this sentiment. The same section also mentions that Turkey has purchased S-400 systems from Russia and could be subjected to CAATSA sanctions due to this.

The bill emphasizes that the U.S. must ensure energy supply security between its allies. In this section, which expresses that energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean will lead to the economic benefit of Europe, the importance of building the Southern Gas Corridor and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline in reducing Europe’s energy dependency on Russia is stressed. The bill suggests removing the arms embargo on the GCASC, the creation of a U.S. Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center to help energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean between Israel, GCASC, Greece and the U.S., providing Greece with 3 million dollars of foreign military financing assistance, and providing Greece with 2 million dollars and GCASC with 2 million dollars of funding for international military education and training support.

If the Menendez & Rubio bill on the Eastern Mediterranean passes, it will change the existing military status quo in the region.

There are two points that deserve extra attention in the Eastern Mediterranean bill: First, if the bill passes, the U.S. will have officially interfered on the matter of energy resources in the E. Mediterranean in favor of the interests of Israel, Greece and GCASC. Secondly, the U.S. will change the existing military status quo in the region by removing the arms embargo on the GCASC. The U.S. also enforced an arms embargo on Turkey following the Cyprus Peace Operation, but removed this without Ankara hanging its Cyprus policy. The arms embargo on GCASC was kept in place. Despite the fact that many bills put forward with pressure of the Greek lobby recommended the removal of the embargo, these attempts failed. The difference in this case is that alongside the subject of energy in the Eastern Mediterranean, this bill also mentions reducing Europe’s energy dependency on Russia and blocking the transfer of F-35 aircrafts to Turkey until it abandons its plans on the S-400s. This greatly increases the chances that Congress will pass this bill into law. Moreover, the fact that the main sponsors of the bill are Rubio and Menendez, two influential representatives from both sides of the aisle, shows the gravity of the situation.

It can be said that the Greek, Armenian, Jewish and all other anti-Turkish lobbies have found an opportunity to employ all their strategies against Turkey in Congress. There are almost no representatives with a favorable attitude towards Turkey, including Muslim representatives as well. The efforts of Congress to oppose Turkey today are severe enough to cause strategic cracks in relations between the two countries. And the subject of S-400s has been transformed from a technical matter to a political problem between Turkey and the U.S.

Turkey and F-35 

Turkey has repeated the same statements since the day it signed the S-400 agreement. Turkish authorities expressed that this was a finalized agreement and that Ankara urgently needed air defense systems. The administration also added that a joint technical study on the S-400 systems could be conducted with the U.S. in terms of assessing its risks. However, the discourse on the subject changed as the issue became more politicized in the U.S. The U.S. expected this issue to be resolved by Turkey accepting not to activate these systems. Concerns regarding the deployment and activation of these systems were being voiced, but with pressure from the Congress on the administration, the completion of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 systems have become unacceptable. During budget meetings in Congress, both U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan stated that in the case of Turkey completing the purchase of S-400 systems, the transfer of F-35s will not be allowed. The nuance in the discourse shows how political pressure has affected the administration.

In addition to this, the U.S. has prepared steps that will be taken against Turkey, meaning, the plan to exclude Ankara from the F-35 program. Shanahan confirmed that they met with partners of the F-35 program regarding Ankara’s exclusion from the program after Pentagon stopped the transfer concerning F-35s to Turkey and the manufacture of F-35 parts by Turkish firms. However, the details of this process are even more interesting. In the report presented by the Pentagon to Congress in November, possible complications that may occur in Ankara’s exclusion and legal and judicial concerns along with all precautions that will be taken regarding these concerns are evaluated and plans for all possible scenarios on this subject are clearly described.

An official from the Pentagon stated, “In a letter on July, Secretary Mattis voiced the complications that may occur if Turkey is excluded. And following this the Congress told us to go and take all precautions for the possible situation. And that is what we worked on.” Talks are being held with partnering countries on this subject and strangely enough, more than whether Turkey should be excluded or not, these meetings focus on who will take on the business and production parts that the Turkish defense industry handles, along with where and how this production can be done, meaning its feasibility in the event that Turkey is excluded. In other words, the only worry for partners regarding Turkey’s exclusion is how countries and shareholders remaining in the project will slice up the pie of work that will be created.

One of the most important aspects of the S-400 crisis that must be emphasized is that for the U.S., this subject is no longer a technical matter that can be overcome, but one that is very much a political matter. The perception created in the U.S. is on such a level that it’s being said in meetings of the U.S. National Security Council that Turkey has purchased the S-400 systems especially to operate outside of NATO and that it intends to use these systems against the alliance.

The U.S. expected the S-400 issue to be resolved by Turkey accepting not to activate these systems. 

In meetings concerning national security, it is being discussed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes the U.S. and NATO countries supported FETO’s failed coup attempt and that in case there is another coup attempt and NATO supports this, S-400s could be used against the alliance. The biggest factor in the creation of this perception has been the propaganda from think tanks known for their support for FETO and other terror groups such as the PKK/YPG and names that are well-respected in the U.S. with no tolerance against Turkey. For example, Turkey’s expectation towards Trump bringing sanity back to the U.S.’ Turkey policy by handling the S-400 crisis together with President Erdogan is being attempted to be nullified.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), Eric Edelman, who is known for his close relations with FETO and FDD Vice President Jonathan Schanzer discussed this subject in an article published in the Wall Street Journal. Both stated that Trump must not show any tolerance towards Turkey. The article is carefully written and penned as if to constitute a briefing for Trump, and describes Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 systems as a “serious national security threat for the U.S.” The article is almost an attempt to block any moves Trump can make on the subject of the S-400s. At the same time, propaganda about removing U.S. nuclear weapons under the authority of NATO from Turkey is being brought into public discussion by similar organizations and media institutions. Thus, it seems very difficult for the U.S. administration to escape this torrent of manufactured perceptions and focus on the long-term strategic interests of the U.S. These manufactured perceptions also make it impossible for Turkey to express its anxieties regarding its national security and explain its commitment to multinational partnerships such as NATO.

What in the aftermath?

It is not in the interests of the U.S. to pressure Turkey through its national security. Turkey lies in a circle of fire. There’s Russia on one end of the circle and the U.S. on the other. In an environment where global politics is evolving towards such a multipolar order, U.S. pressuring Turkey as if it is the absolute hegemon will not yield any results. Let alone an ally that has thousands of years of state tradition, the U.S. can no longer exert authority on small states such as Venezuela, Cuba, or North Korea, or a state that has been under embargos for years, such as Iran. Russians have taken the Assad regime in Syria at the verge of death from the hands of the U.S. and has revived it. It is unknown why the U.S., seeing Russia and China in every corner in international politics, expects the pressure policy that it engages in at the risk of alienating an actor such as Turkey to yield results.

It is not in the interests of the U.S. to pressure Turkey through its national security. Turkey lies in a circle of fire. There’s Russia on one end of the circle and the U.S. on the other.

Turkey may have economic vulnerabilities and this pressure policy of the U.S. may have an effect on the economy to a certain point, but it will not lead to changes in Turkey’s national security strategy. This is because Turkey is not an actor that can easily be overcome in the region. Second, its national security strategy is based on the security balances and the threats in the region, and it will not negotiate on these points. Third, the acceleration of its national defense industry initiative is another goal that will be executed in parallel to its national security strategy. Turkey has long expressed that it no longer wishes to be exclusively a buyer of military equipment and that it is making investments and engaging in programs towards this goal. Thus, its national defense industry initiative is directly related to the security balances and threats in the region. Turning Turkey back from this point will interfere with the future prosperity of the country.

There is currently a diffusion of power in the global arena. There is no longer a singular hegemon, but regional hegemons. The U.S. is part of this hegemony in every region. It has updated its strategy for the “new cold war” that it has entered with China and Russia according to the principles of competition with great powers and in every region, even in space, is attempting to decrease the influence and presence of Russia and China. Losing Turkey in such an environment would lead to a great loss for the U.S. and Europe in the long run. Whether this policy of pressure will help solve problems between the U.S. and Turkey is still being discussed, but what is obvious is that it is leading to a level of distrust that has never been seen before between the two governments.