BY ZEYNEP GURCANLI
The long-waited phone call from President Joe Biden to Erdogan still frames the debate over U.S.-Turkey relations. It’s understandable, of course: Turkey is traditionally one of the first countries an in-coming U.S. president calls but Biden seems to have abandoned this tradition. However, the missing phone call is just the tip of the iceberg. There other machinations at work in the U.S. Congress.
FIVE LETTERS IN TWO MONTHS
Since Biden took the oath of office on January 20, five letters concerning Turkey have been written by the two branches of the U.S. Congress to the executive branch. The first came in February with the signatures of 54 out 100 Senators addressing Biden directly. The number 54 is significant: in recent years, such a clear majority could not even be mustered for the approving the federal budget, leading to a U.S. government shutdown. But when it comes to Turkey, a bi-partisan majority seems possible. As for the content of the letter, it touched on everything from human rights violations to Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy posturing, including cross-border operations in Syria and the purchase of the -400 missile defense system from Russia. The Senators demanded that the president confront Turkey on these issues.
On February 26, the other wing of the Congress, the House of Representatives, drafted its own ‘Turkey letter’ signed by 185 members and addressed to the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Like their counterparts in the Senate, the representatives demanded that human rights violations and democratic backsliding should be kept on the agenda.
Erdogan’s bodyguards The third letter came with the signatures of leading members of the foreign relations committees in both the Senate and the House. That letter was addressed to Blinken, and signed by Democrat Senator Robert Menendez and Republican Senator James Risch as well as the leaders of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House of Representatives, Democrat Gregory Meeks and Republican Michael McCaul. It demanded that the actions taken by Erdogan’s security personnel against demonstrators in Washington in 2017 should be considered a crime. Since the letter was delivered, the judge hearing the case against the guards requested an opinion from the U.S. administration on whether the Turkish bodyguards should benefit from the right of diplomatic immunity. The message from the State and Justice departments was that the use of force by foreign security personnel against civilians within U.S. borders is not protected by immunity unless it is intended to prevent physical harm.
AND THE HALKBANK LETTERS…
The last two letters written by Congress to the U.S. administration was about the Halkbank trial. Democrat Senator Ron Wyden requested official information on the former U.S. President Donald Trump’s ‘interventions’ in the Halkbank trial in two letters, addressing the U.S. Secretary of Treasury Yellen and Attorney General Merrick Garland. The 5-page letters demanded to know the “promises” given by Trump during his Presidential term to both President Erdogan and Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law and Minister of Treasury at the time. The letters also demanded information on who was instructed to ensure Trump’s promises were kept and what has been done so far, including any intervention in the judicial process. A show of hands not valid in the U.S.
On the domestic front, it seems things work a little differently than in the U.S. When it comes to stripping the legislative immunities of some deputies in the Parliament, a hotly-debated topic in Turkey, the President says the process is straightforward. “Whatever the process needs, it will be done,” Erdogan said. “Committees relevant to these issues will discuss it. Then it comes to the General Assembly. Hands are instantly raised and lowered in the General Assembly.” However, it’s obvious from the letters that things don’t work the same way in the U.S. Congress. The atmosphere against Turkey has soured, regardless of which party is in power. Indeed, the relationship feels so disjointed now that it’s doubtful a phone call can fix it.