HFAC Hearing Notes – Turkey: Political Trends in 2016

On Wednesday, February 3, 2016, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats met for a hearing titled “Turkey: Political Trends 2016.” Witnesses included Mr. Narte Schenkkan, Project Director of “Nations in Transit” at Freedom House; Dr. Gonul Tul, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute; and Mr. Ali Cinar, President of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations.

To watch a webcast of the hearing, click here.

Nate Schenkkan opened his testimony by describing how “the situation for democracy and for freedom of expression in Turkey has grown even more dire” due to the ongoing conflict between PM Erdogan’s government and the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party).” He pressed the urgent need for action as “the conflict is taking a devastating toll on Turkey’s civilians” and “destroying a decade of progress on relations with the Kurdish minority inside Turkey.” He recommended bringing about a cease-fire and peace process between the Turkish government and Kurdish movement to not only bring stability and political/humanitarian reform within Turkey, but to help end the crises in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, Schenkkan described the EU’s deal with Turkey (a “reinvigorated” accession process for Turkey into the EU in exchange for stopping refugee flow), despite EU membership requirements for high standards in the areas of human rights and rule of law, as cynical and shortsighted.

Ali Cinar gave his testimony about the unrelenting commitment and friendship between Turkey and the United States, and their partnership in bringing about an end to the Islamic State. Cinar described the PKK as a “militant, terrorist group” that has claimed the lives of 40,000 Turks. Despite Turkey’s worsening record on rights and press freedoms, Cinar underlined Turkey’s commitment to freedom of expression and media as an “important pillar of human rights priorities for Turkey.” He also emphasized Turkey’s role as the “Lone Gatekeeper” and in protecting its 511-mile border from IS. In direct contradiction to Schenkkan’s testimony, Cinar stated, “Some are attempting to mischaracterize recent events as Turkish hostility towards all Kurds. However, the reality is far different. Ethnic Kurdish citizens of Turkey are an integral part of the nation.” Cinar concluded by urging for a continued strong, united friendship between the U.S. and Turkey and to continue working together to eliminate IS.

Dr. Gonul Tol then testified that Turkey considers the PKK (and their representatives in government, the PYD) a more serious threat to stability and security than the Islamic State. She attributed Ankara’s reluctance in fighting IS to this mindset, citing this as a reason that Turkey’s actions have fallen short of American expectations and even actively hindered U.S. efforts by targeting the PYD. The ongoing conflict between the government and the PKK will continue to undermine Turkey’s democratic process, she said, a fact that has been overlooked by the United States. “Without a rapid political solution to the Kurdish problem, Turkey will remain an ineffective partner in the fight against ISIS, derail future efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict, and fail to play a constructive role in Iraq and the region…To secure Turkey’s full cooperation in Syria, Iraq, and the fight against ISIS, the United States must use its leverage to push both parties to return to the negotiating table.” If Washington can convince the PYD to take a stronger stance against Assad, it would make it easier for Ankara to drop its opposition to the PYD’s involvement in the political process, she suggested.

Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) opened the Q&A session by asking if the situation in Turkey is of greater concern now than it was a year ago. Schenkkan responded that the situation is much worse as there has been increased tension, killing, and violence (as Erdogan reneged on a peace process that was set to begin in March 2015). Cinar said that the situation is improving significantly as negotiations have ensued between Kurds and Erdogan’s government, while Dr. Tol agreed with Schenkkan, stating the situation is “certainly worse” and the Turkish government is providing weapons to radical groups in places like Syria (in the name of stopping Assad) and Libya.

Rohrabacher then asked Tol to suggest U.S. policy options regarding its influence on the Kurdish movement. She suggested that United States put pressure the PYD to take a clearer stance against the Assad regime, using its leverage over the PKK and PYD in Syria to convince them to help topple the Assad regime (this suggestion was then refuted by Rohrabacher who referred to American intervention in Hussein’s Iraq and now in Assad’s Syria is a large mistake as “Assad might be killing people, but he is killing people who are trying to kill us”).
Cinar asserted that Turkey is against the PYD because right now they are encouraging Turkish citizens to declare autonomy. Schenkkan brought up the political processes in Turkey and described how there had been a road map for peace and attempts at a cease-fire, however once Erdogan realized he would not have PKK’s support in an election, he continued to manipulate the system.

Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA) asked Schenkkan to discuss the relationship between Turkey and Hamas, and questioned whether the fact that Hamas individuals have been allowed to reside in Turkey contributes to a tense relationship with Israel. Schenkkan relayed that President Erdogan and his government have pursued a strategy in Syria to empower some Islamist factions in Syria, and it probably does contribute.

In response to a question regarding the persecution of Christians, Schenkkan said that Turkey has an officially recognized Christian community but there is a very tense and unpleasant relationship.

Cook directed a question to Dr. Tol about Turkey’s efforts to seal its border to stem the flow of IS fighters, as well as its role in Libya. Dr. Tol said that Turkey recently stepped up border control but it has proved ineffective because of illegal crossing along the porous border. Regarding Libya she suggested that Turkey is supporting some local Islamist groups.
Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) then described Turkey as an enigma and said they are constantly taking “one step forward and two steps backward.”

Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) brought up Turkish restrictions on U.S. military personnel, and its bilateral relations with the U.S. as well as Russia. Turkey is very reliant on Russian energy, Tol said, and the main concern for the United States should be Russia’s actions in Syria. Cinar suggested that Russian airstrikes are not targeting the Islamic State but rather that most of them are targeting Assad’s opponents. Schenkkan said that Russia defines it interest in terms of its opposition to the west, given that it is impossible for those interests to converge with the United States.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) suggested that Turkey is in a “bad neighborhood” and that while Turkey deserves credit for its intake of refugees, the United States must get involved in Turkey in a meaningful way. It is in U.S. interests to have European integration with Turkey and to see a stable democracy. He asked how worried the United States should be about Turkey’s undemocratic trajectory, to which Schenkkan responded that he found it “alarming” and said that the United States should be very worried. There are major concerns about the media environment that the United States must watch closely.

Cinar countered that, while there are some issues in Turkey, there are many improvements. Freedom of expression is safeguarded in Turkey’s constitution, and any crackdown is a result of journalists sharing national security information. Tol concluded that Turkey will not be stable until it is democratic.