A bad time for Turkey advocates to lose in Washington
The resilience of Turkey-U.S. relations has been tested recently. Further troubles are in store in the coming weeks as the Reza Zarrab case continues to unfold in Manhattan. Almost one month has passed since the U.S. suspended non-immigrant visa services to Turkish nationals after local staff members in the U.S. consulate in Ankara were arrested on terror charges.
Although ongoing diplomatic efforts hope to resolve the visa spat, with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım due to visit the U.S. capital next week, a huge gap lingers between the perceptions of the two governments.
Even if diplomats on both sides manage to pull a rabbit out of the hat - despite the unyielding positions of their respective politicians - restoring trust between the two NATO allies will remain an uphill battle.
First, the U.S. partnership in Syria with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is here to stay in the short- and medium-term.
Second, there is no indication that requests for the extradition of Fetullah Gülen have met U.S. standards and will come into effect any time soon.
Third, from the American perspective, Turkey’s declared intention to finalize the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles signals a break with the spirit of the transatlantic alliance.
Anger towards Turkey in Washington has become one of few unifying topics between the highly polarized Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. Memories of the infamous Sheridan Circle brawl between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s security detail and protestors in May are still fresh. The U.S. Congress is waiting for a second Sheridan-like mistake to push through what Ankara may deem anti-Turkish proposals.
Meanwhile, the latest resolution to recognize Armenian genocide claims was introduced at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives in March. The number of signatures on the resolution reached 106 signatures in the months following the Sheridan Circle brawl. What distinguishes this latest resolution from previous similar proposals at the U.S. Congress are references to crimes against humanity and recent “genocides” against Christians, Yezidis, Muslims and Kurds in the Middle East.
At a time when Turkey most needs friends and allies in Washington, one of the most effective organizations that advocates for Turkish interests at the U.S. Congress is in dire straits. The charitable organization Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), which was founded by Turkish-American businessman Yalçın Ayaslı 10 years ago, is worried about Ayaslı’s commercial dispute over the sale of his airline company Borajet to SBK Holding in Turkey in 2016. Turkey has issued an arrest warrant for Ayaslı, who has been living in Boston for 43 years. Rumors say that both sides are preparing to file suits against each other in the United States.
Although the TCA receives donations from other Turkish-Americans, Ayaslı has been their main sponsor. It is unclear whether they will survive if Ayaslı drops his support. TCA President Lincoln McCurdy, who I came across recently, confirmed the charitable organization’s financial insecurity, expressing worries that any additional publicity concerning a lack of rule of law would further harm Turkey’s image, at a time when the country already suffers from negative attitudes in Washington.
There is a further downside for Ankara in all this. Turkey’s efforts in recent years to polish its image in the U.S. have mostly failed, despite the millions of dollars that the Turkish Embassy in Washington has paid to several American lobbying firms.
The most powerful voices for Turkey at Capitol Hill remain the TCA and the Gülenists. Although Gülenists have been trying to re-brand themselves as “opposition to the repressive policies of Erdoğan’s government,” their actions mostly constitute running Turkey-bashing campaigns, which play into the hands of anti-Turkey lobbies in Washington. If the TCA falls apart, the Gülenists will be left to rule the roost single-handedly.