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Senator Menendez in Historic Remarks on US Senate Floor Makes Case for Recalibrating U.S.-Turkey Relationship Under Erdogan
On November 6, Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered a speech on the Senate Floor making the case for a recalibration of the U.S.-Turkey relationship based on its aggressive behavior in the region and the dramatic backsliding of democracy under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“Our strongest allies should be those in NATO, those who have made a treaty commitment to mutual defense. Those who share our values. Those who work in concert with us to face the threat from countries like Russia and Iran with common cause,” said the Senator. “Unfortunately, Turkey under Erdogan embodies none of those things… Turkey under Erdogan should not and cannot be seen as an ally.”
The Senator laid out specific actions that the U.S. must take in order to protect our national security interests and those of our true allies in the region. Specifically, Menendez announced he will soon invoke a rare provision under the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) to force the Trump Administration to provide Congress a report on Turkey’s human rights abuses in Syria. Such a Resolution of Request receives expedited consideration in the Senate; if it passes the Senate with a simple majority, the Secretary of State is then required to produce said report in 30 days. The resolution also calls for a determination of whether Turkey’s actions have resulted in the release of ISIS or other extremists inside of Syria.
Menendez also called on the Senate to adopt his bipartisan Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 to support the trilateral partnership of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, and the bipartisan Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act of 2019, which would impose targeted sanctions on Turkey for its actions in Syria. Lastly, Menendez called on President Trump to cancel any invitation to Turkish President Erdogan to the White House until he recommits himself to upholding democratic values.
“It’s time to challenge Erdogan to live up to NATO’s values and to respect the international order. It is time to stop enabling Turkey to be a bad actor. It is time for the Senate to act,” concluded Menendez.
Below are the Senator’s remarks as delivered:
“Mr. President I come to the floor today to talk about the United States’ relationship with Turkey and certain actions that the U.S. must consider in order to protect our national security interests and those of our true allies in the region.
Today more than ever, we need strong allies and partners in Europe.
As the Trump Administration does nearly everything in its power to erode our alliances and denigrate our closest friends, we find increasingly emboldened regimes in Russia and China. The U.S. cannot stand up to them alone. Throughout the Cold War, our diplomats worked assiduously to build strong bonds with allies, knowing that having close partners was better than having enemies on the world stage.
Our strongest allies should be those in NATO, those who have made a treaty commitment to mutual defense. Those who share our values. Those who work in concert with us to face the threat from countries like Russia and Iran with common cause.
Unfortunately, Turkey under Erdogan embodies none of those things. Today, I would like to lay out a fact pattern that so many of my colleagues have come to see in recent weeks, that Turkey under Erdogan should not, Turkey under Erdogan cannot be seen as an ally.
How many more times do we need to see Turkey betray the values upon which NATO was established?
How many times do we need to see President Erdogan visit Moscow, Sochi, or any other Russian city to kiss Putin’s ring?
How many more journalists need to be locked up by Erdogan before we stop calling Turkey a democracy?
Mr. President, enough is enough.
Over my 27 years in the House and the Senate, I have followed developments in the Eastern Mediterranean quite closely. Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 was a shocking attempt to redraw borders in Europe in the wake of World War II. And to this day, Turkey’s invasion of the north of Cyprus must be seen for what it is – an illegal occupation that must end. Turkey’s actions over those days in 1974 were not the actions of a democratic country. They were not the actions of a reliable ally. They were not the actions of a responsible actor on the world stage.
But the events of 1974 would only presage Turkey’s aggressive posture in the eastern Mediterranean in the years to come. To this day, Turkey under Erdogan continues to aggressively bully international energy companies, including US companies, and the Republic of Cyprus. Their sin? Conducting completely legitimate exploration in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone. This is not territory under dispute. This is not an issue for debate. Turkey’s hostility towards these companies is the kind of gunboat diplomacy that belongs to eras past. And it has no place in today’s world.
Examples abound where Turkey continues to operate in bad faith when it comes to Cyprus. It could abide by UN Security Council resolutions to transfer the fenced area of Varosha, Famagusta to the administration of the United Nations. These calls to return this area to its original inhabitants, which Turkey ejected during the 1974 invasion, have gone unheeded. Instead, several Turkish ministers have recently visited and threatened to move forward with commercial development, a true affront to those forced from their land more than 40 years ago as well as to the UN Security Council resolution.
In the eastern Mediterranean, for years Turkey has also aggressively violated the airspace of neighboring Greece, also a NATO ally. These dangerous maneuvers have threatened the lives and safety of Greek pilots as well as civilians living on the islands below. Greece wants a good neighbor in Turkey and has sought to find common ground upon a constructive relationship. But with these airspace violations, Turkey has shown its true colors. And the international community must come to terms with this.
We have seen Turkey’s belligerence abroad manifest itself even here in the United States. Who can forget when President Erdogan’s bodyguards attacked U.S. citizens in a Washington park peacefully demonstrating as is their constitutional right? And as momentum builds following the passage of the Armenian genocide resolution in the House of Representatives, Turkey and its lobbyists are working overtime to block it in the Senate. Because they know that if this resolution, which both I, Senator Cruz, and bipartisan members on both sides have sponsored, were to come to the floor for a vote, it would pass resoundingly and send a clarion message that recognizes the truth. The Armenian genocide happened, it was a monstrous act and those who deny it are complicit in a terrible lie. Genocide is genocide. The Senate should not bow to this pressure, it cannot bow to this pressure. Let’s pass this resolution today.
Erdogan’s behavior abroad has roots inside of Turkey where the democratic process has significantly eroded and religious freedom is under sustained pressure. In particular, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church and its community faces dire consequences as the spiritual head of the world’s second largest Christian Church. His church properties have been confiscated and President Erdogan restricts his religious freedom. This is wrong and his All-Holiness deserves our attention and our ongoing support. For those who speak about religious freedom in this chamber, and I admire many who have, as well as on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this is also an issue of religious freedom.
Of course, Erdogan’s repression of his own citizens does not stop with restricting religious freedom. Following its emergency decree after a failed coup attempt, Turkish authorities engaged in a draconian crack down and round up of citizens across the country – the UN reports that close to 160,000 people were arrested in an 18 month period, including over 100 women who were pregnant or had just given birth, often on grounds of nothing more than they were “associated” with their husbands, many of whom were suspects on trumped-up charges. As we examine Turkey’s increasingly destructive role in the world, we must never turn a blind eye from those Turkish citizens who want a more democratic future for themselves and their families.
Mr. President, in July, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed my Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act with a strong bipartisan vote. We are working for full passage here in the Senate and I understand that the House Foreign Affairs Committee will mark up the legislation soon. I traveled to Greece and Cyprus in the spring and told leaders in both places that this was not, not, an anti-Turkey bill and that we all wanted to Turkey to be a constructive and democratic partner in the region. At the time, this vision seemed a long ways off. But now, given Erdogan’s recent choice, it has become virtually impossible.
Let’s review events since my visit to the region in the spring of this year.
First, Erdogan took delivery of the S400 system air defense system from Russia. Let me repeat – Turkey, a supposed NATO ally, purchased an air defense system from NATO’s main adversary. The reason that NATO largely came to be. This choice endangered the security of U.S. and other NATO partners. The U.S. made a good offer of the Patriot missile system, an offer that would have maintained the security equilibrium in the region and enabled Turkey to remain a NATO member in good standing. That offer was rejected.
The Trump Administration did the right thing in removing Turkey from the F35 program. It was clear to all involved that the S400 could not be parked next to an F35. After all it’s meant and it’s intended to be able to shoot down an F35, this from a NATO ally. But the administration has fallen well short of its obligations under the law.
Under the CAATSA law, which I helped write, the administration is required to sanction any entity that conducts a significant transaction with the Russian military or intelligence sectors. The provision of law is not permissive. It is not optional. Under no credible definition would the purchase of an S400 Russian system not be considered significant. The administration is breaking the law by ignoring this provision and kowtowing to Ankara. According to U.S. law, Turkey must be sanctioned for the S400 system. And it should happen today. Otherwise it will send a global message that we are not serious about sanction significant transactions with the Russia military.
Some have said that such an approach is unwarranted and unwise lest we push Erdogan into Putin’s arms. But, M. President, he is already there. He clearly is already there.
In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria, I held up this poster and I asked that Secretary of State what is wrong with this picture? I argued, this is a picture of President Erdogan, President Putin, and President Rouhani of Iran. Says everything. Says everything. Two of our biggest foreign policy challenges and who’s there with them? Erdogan. I argued that we were ceding American leadership in Syria and the region to leaders and countries whose policies were intrinsically at odds with our own. Unfortunately today, we are seeing the terrible consequences of this abdication of leadership.
Erdogan’s warm relationship with Putin should ring alarm bells across the NATO alliance, raising concerns about NATO’s exposure at Incirlik and intelligence vulnerabilities with respect to the Alliance’s presence in Turkey. It raises concerns about how Erdogan and Putin may be working together to counter U.S. interests across the Middle East, in the Balkans, and around the world. NATO is an alliance of shared values. None of those values are respected – none of them—by the current occupant of the Kremlin or in Incirlik.
Second, provided with a green light from Trump administration, President Erdogan’s invasion of Syria to attack our Kurdish partners is an unconscionable act of brutality that has caused death and untold suffering among our Kurdish friends and partners. Tens of thousands have fled the area, creating an even greater problem of refugees in that war-torn region. The consequences of these actions by Turkey and its proxies will persist for years to come.
Turkey’s incursion poses a direct threat to U.S. national security interests in the region, not the least of which by facilitating Russian foreign policy ambitions in the region, and opening the door for ISIS to reconstitute.
At its inception, Turkey did not take the threat of ISIS seriously enough, and in the early days, ISIS’ ability to easily traverse the Turkish-Syrian border bolstered its ability to grow in strength and numbers. Turkey did nothing, nothing to stop them, did nothing to stop foreign fighters going into Syria.
While Turkey has legitimate security concerns from the PKK, its singular focus on extending this feat to the whole Kurdish population risks its ability to effectively confront other terrorist organizations including ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
There must be a full accounting by Turkey of these atrocities. That is why I am today introducing an expedited resolution of request for the Secretary of State to inform the Senate in 30 days of the extent of Turkey’s human rights abuses in Syria.
This resolution invokes statutory authority under the Foreign Assistance Act to require the Secretary of State to assess and report to Congress on Turkey’s human rights abuses in Syria. This resolution calls for the administration to provide all available information concerning alleged violations of internationally recognized human rights by Turkey, its armed forces, and associated groups in Syria. It calls for a description of the steps the U.S. has taken to promote Turkey’s respect of human rights in its Syria operations. The resolution also calls for a determination of whether Turkey’s actions have resulted in the release of ISIS or other extremists inside of Syria.
I am also working closely with Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Risch on the Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act of 2019, which would impose targeted sanctions on Turkey for its actions in Syria. A similar bipartisan measure passed the House last week and I urge the Senate to deliberate on the measure. Based on changing circumstances on the ground, we are updating the language to conditions sanctions based on Turkey’s actions and I hope that it will be marked up in the coming days.
Mr. President, for years the world held out hope that Turkey the bridge between the east and west, could be a democracy in Europe and a responsible actor on the world stage. I for one was always skeptical, but certainly supported the sentiment. Today we are furthest from that dream that we’ve ever been. The most imprisoned journalists in the world are not in North Korea, they are not in Russia, they are not in Iran, they languish in Turkish prisons.
This doesn’t happen in a democracy.
As international pressure mounted following Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, Erdogan threatened to unleash thousands of refugees onto the EU’s shores, a wave like we saw in 2015.
These aren’t the statements of a rational, responsible actor.
Yet where is U.S. policy? The Trump Administration was its normal erratic self in recent weeks as it flailed from sanctions on Turkey to claiming victory. And the Kurds who emerged as the clear loser. Erdogan was eager to sign onto the Pence/Pompeo plan because it gave him all he wanted. Full control of the Kurdish areas of Syria and carte blanche to wipe out swathes of the community.
In addition to claiming victory, Trump now wants to invite Erdogan to Washington with open arms. Stunning. Stunning. The photo of Trump and Erdogan in the Oval Office will not only be the nail in the coffin for any Kurdish aspirations to live in peace and security – it will also be the death knell for any credibility the U.S. hopes to maintain with any combat partners in the future.
President Trump, I urge you to cancel this invitation and side with the bipartisan consensus in the Senate and House that Turkey under Erdogan is no friend to the United States. Do not ruin our reputation further by fawning over yet another authoritarian leader. You want to repair the damage that’s been done? Show our commitment to our allies by inviting the Syrian Kurdish leadership to the Oval Office for a meeting on how we prevent a resurgent of ISIS. That’s how you protect our interests. That’s how you protect our national security. It’s time to challenge Erdogan to live up to NATO’s values and to respect the international order. It’s time to stop enabling Turkey to be a bad actor. It’s time for the Senate to act.”