WASHINGTON ― Frayed relations between NATO allies Turkey and the U.S. were on full display Wednesday as Turkey condemned two resolutions passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, one which would bar most American weapons sales to Turkey.
U.S. lawmakers said Wednesday that U.S.-Turkey ties, strained over the Turkish attacks on America’s Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State group, had been going downhill for months over Turkey’s growing relationship with Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s agreement to buy the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which triggered Ankara’s suspension from the F-35 fighter jet program in July, was the tipping point.
U.S. President Donald Trump this week thanked Turkey for its role in the recent U.S. special forces operation that killed the head of ISIS, and has held open an invitation for Erdogan to visit Washington. But the goodwill in the White House has not translated to Capitol Hill.
In harsh remarks to reporters Wednesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said Erdogan is the biggest obstacle to positive U.S.-Turkish relations. “I think the minute Erdogan’s gone, I think this thing turns around,” Risch said.
“We would love to [improve relations], but our concern is Erdogan has shown absolutely no indication of any kind that that feeling is mutual,” Risch added. “Indeed, every move he makes, every sentence he utters, points us in a different direction. The Turkish people have been wonderful allies for decades with the United States, and it’s gone upside down because of one person in one administration.”
On Tuesday, the House passed a nonbinding resolution to recognize the century-old mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide. It passed another bill, 403-16, to sanction senior Turkish officials and its Army for Turkey’s military incursion into northeastern Syria.
Practically, the latter measure would bar most U.S. weapons sales to Turkey and slaps sanctions on foreigners attempting to send the Turks military equipment. It would also block high-ranking Turkish officials from their assets in the U.S. and restrict their travel.
In response, the Turkish parliament condemned the bills, and Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it summoned U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield on Wednesday. “Undoubtedly, this [Armenian genocide] resolution will negatively affect the image of the U.S. before the public opinion of Turkey," the ministry said.
The House sanctions bill was seen not only as a rebuke to Turkey, but also of Trump, who suspended his own sanctions amid a Moscow-brokered cease-fire between Turkish and Kurdish forces. While Republicans have largely focused blame for the situation on Erdogan alone, Democrats have more openly criticized Trump for giving Erdogan the green light to invade Syria by withdrawing U.S. troops from the region.
In House floor remarks Tuesday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said Trump had failed to punish the “authoritarian thug” Erdogan.
"His rule has left a glaring black mark on Turkey’s historic secular, democratic traditions,” Engel said in a House floor speech. “We need to pressure him while ramping up diplomacy in the hopes of getting Turkey back on the right track as a NATO ally. That’s one of the goals of this measure.”
There have been several proposals in the House and Senate aimed at sending a message that Turkey’s incursion into Syria was wrong and that the American presence there was valid. With the House’s passage of its sanctions bill, the focus shifts to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has expressed a wariness of sanctions against Turkey and is the gatekeeper for what legislation receives a vote in the upper chamber.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the sponsor of one sanctions bill with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said he planned Wednesday to ask McConnell to take up the House bill, which can be expedited to the Senate floor. Graham is the Senate’s lead appropriator for the U.S. State Department.
“Awesome bipartisan takedown of Turkey’s invasion just occurred in the House with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans — 403-16,” Graham said Tuesday on Twitter. “I expect the Senate will take up this cause and let Turkey unequivocally know that the United States will not sit on the sidelines as they create problems for us and our allies.”
While relations could get worse, experts say Ankara and the West need each other too much to fully split.
For the U.S. and NATO, Turkey controls crucial international waterways that connect the Aegean and Mediterranean seas to the Black Sea. Turkey has the second-largest military in the NATO alliance and is home to U.S. nuclear warheads at its Incirlik Air Base.
For Erdogan, NATO is critical to his aspiration to make Turkey an important international player.
“If you’re not in NATO, your wings will have been clipped,” Henri Barkey, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said at his think tank’s forum on Turkey last week. “He’s playing this game, he gets the S-400, but he’s never going to leave NATO. He keeps pushing the envelope.”
The partnership between Ankara and Washington has survived other crises, but it’s entering what some see as its most turbulent period yet, marked now by Turkey hedging on its NATO membership and some America lawmakers questioning whether that membership can be revoked.
That was a sign to Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 2007, that the relationship is in a crisis.
“There’s been comment in the American political system that we should be rethinking this,” he said. "But don’t get me wrong, the mainstream believes we want Turkey to remain in NATO — that’s in our national security interest. We have an incredible presence in Turkey today, so we don’t want to lose that. But it’s a pretty serious situation, the most serious I’ve seen.”
In Turkey, the alliance between the U.S. and Syrian Kurds has driven fears it will lead to an autonomous Kurdish region. Turkey views the forces allied with the U.S. as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is seeking Kurdish independence and which Turkey regards as a terrorist group.
Following a 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish government blamed a U.S.-based Muslim cleric, and Erdogan blasted the West for “supporting terrorism and taking sides with coups.” Erdogan has continued to operate under martial law ever since.
In the U.S., Turkey's participation in the F-35 program came into question amid several tense episodes and what then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called Turkey’s “authoritarian drift.” Turkey held an American pastor, Andrew Craig Brunson, on terrorism charges from 2016 to 2018. In 2017, Turkish government employees beat protesters outside the Turkish ambassador's residence in Washington.
In addition, Turkey rejected a U.S. offer of Raytheon’s Patriot surface-to-air missile system in favor of the S-400, which Washington said would expose important intelligence about the sophisticated and stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Russian government advisers.
“Those of us who deal with this sat down regularly with everyone from the top down in Turkey, and they all said: ‘Oh, we can’t do anything because you’ve refused to sell us Patriots,’ ” said Risch, the senator from Idaho. “I said: ‘That is a lie.’ And the reason I know that’s a lie is because I hand-delivered a letter in October 2012 to the foreign minister in Ankara that said: ‘Buy Patriots.’ It was a bipartisan letter.”
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord recently told reporters that Turkey’s suspension of the F-35 remained in effect and that she expects Turkey’s S-400 to be operational before the end of the year.
As of last week, Turkey was still making nearly 1,000 parts for the aircraft and is “an excellent supplier,” but it will transfer those responsibilities in March, she said.
For years, Congress had been willing to defer to the executive branch, which was wary of pushing Turkey further away, but no more, said Naz Durakoglu, staff director for Congress’ NATO Observer Group and an adviser to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
“There has been a tangible change,” Durakoglu said at last week’s forum at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think what you will see is both Republicans and Democrats take a very stern turn and look at their own authorities to address some of the issues they feel are not being addressed by the administration."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.