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US senators criticized the Turkish government’s policies in a hearing on Wednesday and demanded more action from the Biden administration.
Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen from Maryland said the United Stations must take action when it comes to human rights issues in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, insinuates that the Biden administration has only issued a condemnation.
“Erdogan doesn’t care what we say,” said Van Hollen. “It is up to us to take action, defend the rule of law, defend democracy so that Turkey does not set an example for others to be unfaithful NATO allies.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on US policy towards Turkey on Wednesday. Victoria Nuland, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, testified before the influential committee. Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States, although relations are soured in recent years, especially in the US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria that Ankara conflicts with.
Lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, strongly opposed a number of Turkish policies. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey referenced reports that Turkey build a drone base in disputed Cyprus by the start of the hearing.
“Is Turkey setting up a drone base in occupied Cyprus? My information is that they are,” Menendez, who heads the commission, told Nuland.
Nuland did not confirm that the government was aware of the drone base, but said such a base would be “clearly destabilizing”.
Cyprus is divided between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, with the latter being recognized only by Turkey. Menendez too condemned Turkey’s development plans in Northern Cyprus for trial.
Menendez is a critic of the Turkish government. He also spoke Turkish offshore drilling activity in the Eastern Mediterranean in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus. Menendez said the Biden administration was illogical in advocates for both sides negotiate and accuse Turkey of being the sole “aggressor” in this matter.
“We cannot call on both sides to negotiate in good faith if one is the aggressor,” he said. “We’re making a big mistake if we don’t recognize who the aggressor is.”
Menendez and other senators also expressed concern about the Turkish government attempts to ban the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The opposition party supports the rights of the Kurdish minority in Turkey. The chairman said the 2023 elections in Turkey would be illegal if the HDP is banned.
“Those elections cannot be valid,” he said. “That’s as if President Biden banned the Republican party from participating. Come on.”
Ankara accuses the HDP of ties to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States. Nuland acknowledged Turkey’s legitimate concerns about the PKK, but said Turkey’s efforts to ban the HDP are part of the Biden administration’s “greater concern” over democracy in Turkey.
“It is quite another matter to use terrorism as an excuse to stamp out political pluralism or ban individual parties,” she said.
Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy spoke about the ongoing crackdown following the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, which Erdogan blame it on supporters of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen.
Turkey has at least hundreds sent of arrest requests to the international police organisation Interpol for alleged coup participants, and has successfully held such individuals around the world. Murphy accused Turkey of “overusing” Interpol’s resources in the matter.
Nuland agreed with the senator.
“You’re not wrong,” she told Murphy. “If the Interpol system is flooded with non-standard cases, it costs time, energy and money.”
Many observers expected Biden to usher in a cooler era of US-Turkey relations, partly as a result of Biden’s criticism of the NATO ally when he was still run for president. Turkey against Biden’s April recognition of the Armenian Genocide. The relationship seemed to improve somewhat after Biden and Erdogan meet in person in June.
Nuland was at times somewhat optimistic about US-Turkey ties during the hearing. She called the Turkish ambassador in Washington, Murat Mercan, “very engaging” and praised his efforts to mend the “clearly deteriorating” relationship.
The hearing covered a host of other issues, including US opposition to the Turkish government purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the highest-ranking committee member, called the deal “deeply disturbing.” Nuland assured the senator that the government would continue exclude Turkey in response to the F-35 fighter jet program.
Nuland did not provide updates on the imprisonment of Turkish workers of the US diplomatic mission in Turkey, but said their release is a “top concern” of the government.
She also declined to speak at the hearing on Turkey’s sending of Syrian rebels troops to Azerbaijan last year during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, and promised to discuss the issue in a separate session.
On US support for Kurdish troops fighting Islamic State in northeastern Syria being the target of Turkey, Nuland said: “At this stage, we have agreed to disagree.” She specifically referred to the People’s Protection Units, also known as YPG, and the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
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