Biden Should Heed Senate’s Call for Tougher Action Against Erdogan
Fifty-four U.S. senators signed a bipartisan letter Tuesday urging President Joe Biden to press the Turkish government to improve its troubling human rights record. The letter calls on the Biden administration to hold NATO-member Turkey “to a higher standard” and to “speak frankly” with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about Ankara’s alarming democratic backsliding and hostile behavior.
Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism under Erdogan and belligerent rhetoric and posturing against the United States and other NATO members were also bipartisan concerns for the U.S. Congress under the Trump administration. In April 2018, 66 senators sent a letter to Erdogan accusing Ankara of using unjustly detained U.S. nationals and Turkish employees of U.S. consulates as “political pawns.” Two weeks later, a bipartisan group of 154 House members joined the call with a similar letter.
These bipartisan efforts led the U.S. Treasury Department to issue Global Magnitsky sanctions in August 2018 against two Turkish ministers for their “leading roles” in the “unjust detention and continued prosecution” of North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson.
In October 2019, House members voted 403-16 to impose sweeping sanctions on Turkey for its military offensive targeting Washington’s Syrian Kurdish partners in the fight against the Islamic State. That same month, the House voted 405-11 in favor of a resolution recognizing the mass killings of Armenians a century ago as a genocide. Ankara denies that the killings were systematically orchestrated or constituted a genocide. Two weeks later, the Senate voted unanimously for a similar resolution.
Last December, congressional leaders ensured that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021 included a provision requiring the imposition of sanctions on Turkey – pursuant to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which targets significant transactions with the Russian defense or intelligence sectors, – for Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia. After the Senate and House of Representatives passed the NDAA with veto-proof majorities, President Donald Trump imposed the CAATSA sanctions.
The Biden administration appears cognizant of the bipartisan sentiment about Erdogan and has shown signs of pushing back against the Islamist strongman’s transgressions. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner of ours” and criticized Ankara for aligning “with one of our biggest strategic competitors” through its S-400 purchase from Russia.
Likewise, during a February 2 call with Erdogan’s spokesperson, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan expressed concern that “Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system undermines alliance cohesion and effectiveness.”
When Turkey’s interior minister accused the United States two days later of being behind the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey, the State Department immediately responded with a statement calling the minister’s remarks “unfounded and irresponsible claims” that are “inconsistent with Turkey’s status as a NATO Ally and strategic partner of the United States.”
On February 10, the State Department issued another statement, criticizing baseless charges against Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala and former State Department Policy Planning staff member Henri Barkey. The statement called on Ankara to “immediately release Osman Kavala from detention” and to resolve Barkey’s “case in a just, transparent, and rapid manner.”
The Biden administration’s frequent calling out of the Erdogan government for its adversarial rhetoric and actions is a welcome development. President Joe Biden should heed the Senate’s latest call and build on the bipartisan congressional momentum to hold Turkey’s strongman accountable and end the impunity he has enjoyed. Issuing Global Magnitsky sanctions without further delay against Turkey’s most egregious human rights violators would be a good start.
By: Aykan Erdemir
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.