By any reasonable metric, Turkey is a rogue regime. Put aside the 46-year occupation of northern Cyprus with its ethnic cleansing and open theft of resources. Ignore also the ethnic cleansing of Turkey’s own Kurdish population. The world rightly condemned Syrian President Bashar Assad for his deliberate targeting of civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo, but the Turkish army did the same in Nusaybin, Cizre, and Sur.
Turkey’s track record of terror support
Instead, consider President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s broader record:
- Turkey apparently supplied weaponry to Boko Haram in Nigeria.
- He brushed aside the International Criminal Court indictment against Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and hundreds of thousands of dead in Darfur because “no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide,” a sentiment which also makes a mockery of the Armenian genocide.
- When al Qaeda briefly took over northern Mali, Ahmet Kavas, an Erdogan-appointee, defended al Qaeda.
- Erdogan not only embraced Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group fighting not only Israel but also the Palestinian Authority, but SADAT (a private Islamist paramilitary group run by one of his top former advisers) also allegedly helped the terrorist group launder money.
- Erdogan masterminded a scheme to allow Iran to bypass sanctions, exposed spies monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, and according to a Hamas representative, even met the late Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani in Ankara.
Turkey’s behavior vis-a-vis the Islamic State crossed the line into terror sponsorship. Erdogan not only enabled the group with logistical support, weaponry, and providing a safe haven, but leaked emails show his family also profited from it. For Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to be found within 3 miles of the Turkish border in an area dominated by Turkish forces is as much evidence of Turkey’s double-game as discovering Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad was of Pakistan’s duplicity.
Islamic State veterans on the Turkish payroll
Since the defeat of the Islamic State, Turkey’s complicity has only become more obvious. Offered a green light by U.S. Special Envoy James Jeffery, a former ambassador to Turkey, Turkish forces and their proxies invaded Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria and almost immediately began ethnically cleansing them. The U.S. military has concluded that Turkey “actively supports several hardline Islamist militias and groups ‘engaged in violent criminal activities.’” While the world laments and pays lip service to Yezidi women and children enslaved, raped, and otherwise victimized by the Islamic State, Yezidi slaves remain in bondage in both Turkey and areas of Syria controlled by Turkish proxies. Turkish-backed forces kidnap and rape women with impunity in areas of Syria they now occupy. A fatwa governing the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army allows them to seize property from their opponents, that is, the U.S.-allied Syrian Defense Forces. In effect, it provides religious cover for the ethnic cleansing in which the Turkish-backed groups engage.
Erdogan’s insincerity about the Islamic State is evidenced by the numbers of Islamic State veterans now fighting with Turkish-backed proxy forces in Syria and elsewhere. One year ago, the Rojava Information Center (a research institution whose careful research Turkey has never been able to dispute) released a database of 40 Islamic State veterans; they and other members of Turkish-backed groups are essentially agents of Turkey and are on the payrolls of either Turkey’s Ministry of Defense or its intelligence service.
Consider, for example, Saed al Shahed al Antare. Today, he works as a translator for Turkish forces in Tel Abyad. When the Islamic State controlled the area, he worked in its intelligence service. Abdullah Ahmed al Abdullah likewise worked for Islamic State intelligence but today is working for Turkish forces at the looted grain silos at Sere Kaniye. Faiz al Aqal, the Islamic State’s governor of Raqqa, was present for meetings with Turkish officials in Tel Abyad where he reportedly sought to negotiate a deal to put his family in charge of a local militia with Turkish support. Turkey could have arrested al Aqal but did not do so; a U.S. drone strike two months ago, however, permanently removed him from the battlefield.
The list goes on. Khosayi Said al Aziz fought in the Damascus countryside and Homs for the Islamic State; he subsequently participated in Afrin’s ethnic cleansing on behalf of Turkey. Nor are Islamic State veterans only fighting for Turkey in Syria; Erdogan has transferred other al Qaeda and Islamic State loyalists to Libya to fight for his proxies there.
Not only do these cases (and these are just a few of the dozens which have emerged) expose Turkey’s counter-terror justification for the invasion of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria as a lie, but it also shows where Erdogan’s ideological sympathies lie. When the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army went into Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria, they did so under a fatwa declaring their reason not to be counterterrorism, but rather “jihad for the sake of Allah” against “separatists … [and] atheists who mock religion.”
Within the United States, Turkey has activated a plan to conduct espionage through what appears to be a network of undeclared foreign agents, such as the Turkish Heritage Organization and the SETA Foundation. Its efforts to subvert U.S. law with regard to the Halkbank case are an affront to Congress and the U.S. judiciary. And the attack on peaceful protesters in the heart of Washington, D.C., is a tactic undertaken previously only by regimes such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.
The State Department’s soft spot for Turkey
This brings us back to the State Department. While the Pentagon, the vast majority of congressmen from both parties, the Treasury Department, and the intelligence community recognize the reality of Turkey’s transformation under Erdogan, a core group of U.S. diplomats and State Department appointees continue to apologize for and rationalize Turkish behavior and dilute measures to hold Turkey to account.
According to U.S. officials, longtime State Department employees, as well as foreign diplomats and leaders, Special Envoy James Jeffrey (and behind the scenes, his deputy Richard Outzen) regularly raised eyebrows with his advocacy for Turkey’s positions, defense of Erdogan’s narratives, and denial of evidence about Turkey’s regional malfeasance. The end result was not simply a robust policy debate but that it hemorrhaged U.S. credibility among other states in the region. Rather than strengthen American diplomacy, Jeffrey and Outzen weakened it to the benefit not only of Turkey, but also Russia and Assad’s Syria.
Syria, however, is not the only file where the State Department’s Turkey lobby has undercut policy implementation. During three crises (the Evros crisis in which Turkey sought to weaponize migrants to overwhelm Greek borders, Turkey’s incursions in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, and the recent Turkish military challenge to Greece’s exclusive economic zone and sovereignty over Kastelorizo island), a small cadre of Turkey-centered diplomats appears to have watered down the initial State Department reaction so that subsequent statements were noticeably weaker than even European Union statements. Whereas European diplomats are not afraid to assign responsibility, too often, the State Department infuses its statements with moral equivalence when, in reality, Turkey is the aggressor or the only party to dispute territory. This was clearly seen recently when the State Department called on Turkey to refrain from conducting a seismic survey in “disputed waters” when referring to Greek waters disputed alone and without any legal basis by Turkey.
The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, signed into law last December, requires the State Department to deliver three unclassified reports to Congress that would highlight Turkish violations in the Aegean Sea, incursions into Cypriot waters and exclusive economic zone, and other malign influences in the region. The due date for these reports has passed, but the State Department’s pro-Turkey diplomats appear to be dragging their feet finalizing them and obstructing their delivery in violation of U.S. law. This obfuscation appears par for the course since former Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell returned to the think-tank world last year and left career State Department official Philip Reeker, the principal deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, in charge of the broader portfolio.
Matt Palmer, deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, has reportedly sought to compel the Cypriot government to strike an energy bargain with Turkish Cyprus even without resolving the underlying problem of Turkey’s occupation and control of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In effect, this undermines longstanding U.S. policy, runs contrary to international law, and sets back peace by convincing Turkey that with enough patience, the State Department will support a solution that justifies its past and current aggression.
The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, passed overwhelmingly by both the House of Representatives and Senate, imposed sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Turkey fell afoul of the sanction when it purchased the S-400 from Russia and allegedly tested the S-400 radar by tracking American-built F-16s previously provided to Turkey. Despite such clear violations, the State Department continues to undermine the law’s implementation out of deference to Turkey.
There is no dispute that Turkey has become a source of instability in the Eastern Mediterranean. Evidence is not overwhelming that Turkey has become a terror sponsor on a global scale. It occupies chunks of three countries and covets even more as Erdogan openly questions the Lausanne Treaty. Perhaps some U.S. diplomats, charmed by their time in Ankara and Istanbul, imagine that by acquiescing to Turkish grievances, no matter how outlandish and unjustified they may be, they can restore the U.S.-Turkey partnership.
Jeffrey may sincerely think that by bending to almost every Erdogan demand or betraying the Kurds who fought side-by-side with the U.S. to defeat Turkish-backed Islamic State fighters, he can somehow check Russia’s influence in Syria. In reality, however, Jeffrey’s actions were a gift not only to Erdogan but to Russian President Vladimir Putin as well.
Rather than bolster security in the Eastern Mediterranean, State Department equivocation has undermined it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may slow-roll Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act implementation out of deference to President Trump, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The State Department has a huge Turkey problem, and until it begins operating in conformity to U.S. law and congressional intent, for a single purpose and as part of a coherent national strategy, and in conformity to U.S. interests, the national security of the U.S. will suffer.
Michael Rubin is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.