Two blows to Erdoğan by U.S. Congress on Oct. 29

U.S. Congress lands dual blow against Erdoğan as House vote raises chance of sanctions

On Oct. 29, a resolution and a draft law that many see as a blow directed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration were quickly brought down to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

One of them was the decision to recognise the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War One as a genocide, while the other one contained a sanctions package against Turkey.

The first decision amounts to official recognition by Congress that the Ottoman Empire's policy towards its Armenian minority, which led to massacres and forced displacement starting from 1915, was genocide. Although it does not foresee sanctions, it holds a significant symbolic value.

Turkey has poured tens of millions of dollars into Washington, sent delegations and formed special teams in order to prevent such a decision by Congress.

Until a few years ago, Erdoğan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)'s good relations with Washington made it extremely unlikely that such a bill would be passed. Even in 2015, which coincided with the 100th anniversary of the events now recognised as genocide, Obama did not change his wording and Congress did not pass the resolution to recognise it.

However, the wave of resentment against Erdoğan growing in Washington has dispersed decades of Turkish efforts and lobbying.

The huge majority of votes in favour of the bill showed the magnitude of the opposition against the Turkish president. This last storm of enmity was undoubtedly triggered by Turkey's military operation east of the River Euphrates in Syria, targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

According to figures published by the Washington Post, the lobbying company founded by former Democratic Congress leader Dick Gephardt alone received $8 million from the AKP government to prevent Armenian genocide decisions between 2008 and 2015.

The former Republican Congress leader, Dennis Hastert, worked with a monthly contract of $35,000. Tens of millions of dollars have been paid to many other lobbying companies. The final result is total failure.

With the sanctions package that was approved on Oct. 29, spearheaded by Foreign Affairs Committee's Democrat chairman Eliot Engel and Republican ranking member Mike McCaul, the United States called Turkey to account for "committing massacres against Kurds", according to Engel.

In short, the bills approved by the House of Representatives both recognise the Armenian Genocide and include a sanctions package on Turkey to stop perpetrating "massacres against Kurds." Both were passed as Turkey celebrated its Republic Day, the 96th anniversary of its founding.

Similar processes in the Senate will be laid out by Senate leader Republican Mitch McConnell. The overwhelming votes in favour of the bill in the House of Representatives will undoubtedly place pressure on the Senate. The anger towards Erdoğan has not fizzled out since the conflict is still ongoing in northeast Syria, and the disturbing images of Turkey’s offensive are still reaching U.S. officials through Twitter and other channels.

Senior Senate staff who have worked on these bills told me there was a possibility that a genocide resolution and a sanctions package against Turkey could be coming within the next two weeks.

However, there appears to be little interest in the genocide recognition proposal in the Senate, since officials told me it was seen primarily as a way to send a message to Erdoğan and that they were not sure it was the right way.

So far, McConnell has not put any Armenian Genocide motion or sanctions draft bills on the agenda.

Both the Senate sanctions package and the one already passed by the House of Representatives demanded a report on assets of Erdoğan and his family members.

A senior official who had worked on one of these bills in the Senate told me the report was requested due to suspicions the Turkish president had been involved in corrupt activites.

"You find a number of previous legislations, for other foreign leaders, there is a question of money. Whether it is money laundering or other corruption … you see any time you deal with the Russians, a lot of money is certainly passing under the table," the official said.

He said such a provision for Erdoğan had been included in this draft bill because "we are just trying to get a sense of the kind of under-the-table corruption that may or may not exist. But we don’t know the answer to it till get a better understanding of what is out there. That’s the idea behind such a provision itself.”

In other words, U.S. intelligence agencies, the State Department and other responsible authorities will be able to legally trace assets of Erdoğan if a version of the sanctions package in the House of Representatives passes the Senate with a veto-proof majority.

The possibility of enacting such a sanctions package in the Senate has become higher due to the large margin in the vote in the House of Representatives.

But still, McConnell would need to take a step against U.S. President Donald Trump's desires. It is clear that Trump does not want to impose sanctions on Erdoğan. But it still remains to be seen how much of his political capital Trump is willing to expend to fight against such pressure while under the pressure of an impeachment inquiry.

The Congress, which was very tense and polarised due to the impeachment process against Trump, was able to unite in the anti-Erdoğan bill.

Under these conditions, Erdoğan’s planned visit to Washington on Nov. 13 has been cast into doubt. As the date of the visit approaches, more reactions should be expected from Washington, and Erdoğan himself told reporters on Wednesday. there were “still question marks” over the trip.

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.