By Seth J. Frantzman*
When US President Donald Trump won the election in 2016, many foreign countries wondered what kind of US foreign policy might be crafted by the new US administration. One country had already begun to put its eggs in the Trump basket.
Ankara’s regime led by the AKP Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw Trump’s isolationism as a means to an end. Turkey would seek a blank check from friends in Washington to begin a massive campaign of militarism, aggression and ethnic cleansing of opponents in Syria and across the region.
Now things may be changing. US officials such as James Jeffrey and Joel Rayburn have departed their roles with the US State Department, signaling that key figures of the last years are gone. Turkey’s leader counted on having unfettered access to the Trump administration. Now there are shifting policies in DC.
Over the last four years Turkey was allowed, often with approval from the Trump administration, to attack protesters in Washington, invade Afrin in Syria, threaten NATO partners, host Hamas, recruit poverty-stricken Syrians as mercenaries, encourage a war against Armenians and even threaten US troops in Syria. Now Turkey’s key allies in Washington are leaving office, including envoys and friends in the State Department that empowered Ankara’s authoritarianism and aggression.
Turkey fears that President-elect Joe Biden and his incoming team may not take orders from Ankara and may not welcome its threats. Turkey has stopped its aggressive behavior since learning of Biden’s victory, sensing the blank check to attack others has been reduced.
For years, Turkey had been shifting from its interest in joining the European Union, which would require it having a free press and respecting human rights, to becoming a more authoritarian state. Ankara is the largest jailor of journalists in the world today.
Up until 2016 regarding foreign policy, Turkey had been reticent to use force, preferring to have no enemies and work with countries across the region. Turkey’s AKP had even come to power seeking reconciliation with the country’s Kurdish minority and with Armenia. Turkey had worked with Israel on discussions with Syria.
To get to Trump, Turkey operationalized its lobbyists in Washington and worked with key voices, from think tanks to right-wing friends, to get an invitation to DC. Erdogan arrived in May 2017. He felt so empowered by the White House that he sent presidential security to attack peaceful US protesters near the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
This was unprecedented in American history. Usually protests may be banned abroad, but protesters have a right to peacefully assemble in the US and protest foreign leaders. Now the message was that in the heart of Washington, Turkey had the run of things. Charges were dropped.
Meanwhile, a referendum in Turkey also gave the presidency more power. Ankara sought immediate access to Trump, first via his original National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and then direct access. US National Security Advisor John Bolton would later reveal how the US administration appeared to take orders from Erdogan’s regime, including to drop a case against Turkey’s large, state-owned Halkbank. These revelations alleged corruption and other elements at work, according to reports at the Washington Post, ABC and other news outlets.
In DC, the Turkish lobby claimed that Ankara was a bulwark against Russia and confronting Iran. To Trump, Turkey had a different message: It would save the US money by dealing with ISIS. In fact, Ankara’s regime was dealing with ISIS by letting ISIS fighters transit through Turkey to Idlib in Syria, where Turkish-backed extremists operated.
Then Turkey prodded Azerbaijan to attack Armenians in Nagorna-Karabakh. Under Turkey’s rampaging foreign policy at least 300,000 people have been ethnically cleansed in Syria in areas under Ankara’s occupation, and tens of thousands of Armenians have been ethnically cleansed in Nagorna-Karabakh. Kurds and Armenians have been murdered, beheaded and kidnapped. Ankara even fueled terror attacks in France by pushing incitement against Paris. It also accused Israel of being similar to Nazi Germany, and threatened to “liberate” Jerusalem from Israel’s control.
Historically, US policymakers don’t work to undermine America’s own policies, remove US leverage and destroy a successful campaign, like the one in Syria. But Turkey’s ability to get the White House to do its bidding led to a strange era between 2017 and 2019.
What Central Command didn’t know was that in the State Department and White House, work with Ankara was ongoing to invade Syria. Central Command was duped along with the SDF into believing that if they just removed some bunkers, this would build confidence with Turkey. Erdogan called Trump in October 2019 and the US ordered Central Command to move its forces to make way for Turkey. 200,000 Kurds fled the Turkish attack.
The US political appointees dealing with US Syrian policy continued trying to provoke a showdown between Turkey and Russia in Idlib, hoping their theory that Turkey would obstruct Russia would play out. Instead Ankara and Moscow signed deals and the Syrian regime got more territory as Russia’s S-400 systems flowed to Turkey.
Russia was empowered. Azerbaijan and Armenia’s leaders went to Moscow on January 11, 2021; they didn’t go to Washington. Russia gained influence. Turkey and Russia now work together in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus. The US role has been sidelined in each conflict, partly because Turkey got the US to outsource conflicts to Ankara.
For the 350,000 people who were driven from their homes by Ankara’s invasion; the 200,000 or so purged and some imprisoned in Turkey; the journalists like Can Dundar who have been persecuted and driven into exile; the Kurdish women forced from office and replaced by extremists; the HDP mayors thrown out; and the politicians taken to prison on trumped-up “terror” charges, the last few years have been a nightmare.