Why did the US senators bypass Ankara in their Turkey visit?

The five-person U.S. congressional delegation led by Kansas Senator Jerry Morgan visited the NATO Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) headquarters in the Aegean city of Izmir and the head of the prestigious Turkish business association TÜSİAD. More important than asking why such a delegation made up of these names came to Turkey at this point in time would be the question of why they have bypassed the capital of Ankara while they were in the country.

While the Turkish media caused quite a stir over the RAND Corporation report, which was somehow discovered about a month after it was published, because it had an extremely vague mention of a possible coup attempt, a group of U.S. senators quietly visited our country last week and returned to Washington.

I had heard from a source in Washington a couple of weeks ago that a group of senators would pay a visit to Turkey in February. Moreover, the group would not go to the capital city Ankara but keep their visit limited to Istanbul and İzmir. I was not able to confirm the visit until the senators arrived here. Under normal circumstances, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations would be involved with the bureaucratic circle planning this visit, but my two chief sources within the committee were not informed.

After I learned that a group of U.S. senators were in town, I contacted the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul officially asking for an interview. Only then the visit was confirmed. 

The senators were not willing to give interviews. Let alone giving an interview, it was as if they didn’t even want any journalists coming near them. Under normal circumstances, the senators would love to post every step they take on their social media accounts, but they shared nothing while they were in Turkey, marking another peculiarity of this visit. 

The first announcement of the visit was made on February 20 through the official Twitter account of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. The five-person congressional delegation led by Kansas Senator Jerry Morgan visited the NATO Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) headquarters in the Aegean city of Izmir. They met the LANDCOM commander, Lieutenant General J.T. Thomson, and received an intelligence briefing. While in Izmir, they also “toured the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus.” 

In Istanbul, they met Simone Kaslowski, the President of TÜSİAD, Turkey’s prestigious business association, as well as a delegation from the Turkey Office of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). According to the Embassy’s statement, the congressional delegation also met with civil society leaders; however, the only two names mentioned were TÜSİAD and AmCham. After the embassy posted this, TÜSİAD also posted a photograph of Kaslowski with the delegation on its Twitter account. 

The youngest and the most famous of the five Republican senators in the delegation was U.S. Senator for Florida, Marco Rubio. After his return, he wrote on Feb. 22 that he was on an official trip to conduct oversight of United States government programs and discuss regional issues in the Czech Republic, Poland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. Especially emphasizing their tour of the LANDCOM facility in Turkey, Rubio said the visit to the NATO headquarters in Turkey was a reminder of the importance of U.S. membership in NATO: “The transatlantic alliance remains more critical than ever as we work together to counter Russia’s malign activities in Europe and in our own hemisphere.” 

Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has a hawkish tone in leading foreign policy dossiers. For instance, he does not refrain from using harsh words for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who President Trump seems to be very fond of, saying that he is “basically an organized crime figure” running a country, a “gangster.” 

US Senators Deb Fischer (left), Marco Rubio (center) and Jerry Moran (right), receiving a briefing at the NATO Headquarters in Izmir. 

Rubio was one of the Republican presidential hopefuls in the 2016 presidential elections. He may be remembered by his words in July 2018 about how the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) was behaving like an insurgent group in Syria. Since it is generally impossible to hear anything close to Ankara's narrative from members of the U.S. Congress, pro-government Turkish newspapers just could not get enough of publishing Rubio’s comments. 

However, it was the same Rubio, along with other Republicans, who strongly opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria last October, clearing the way for President Erdoğan’s launch of the “Peace Spring” operation. Moreover, when the Iraqi Parliament decided to expel U.S. troops from the country last month, Rubio stirred up trouble with a single tweet: “Maybe it’s time for a fully independent Kurdistan in what is currently Northern Iraq?”

He was one of the strongest supporters of the Armenian genocide bill that passed the U.S. Senate on Dec. 12. Last year, he also made a call to Turkey to not to help Maduro steal gold from Venezuela. 

Even though the most publicly known name in the U.S. delegation visiting Turkey last week was Marco Rubio, the actual big gun was the head of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, Richard Burr. He was the center of attention when he issued a subpoena to Donald Trump Jr. in the investigation involving Russia’s interference in 2016 elections. However, Burr remained silent during the Trump impeachment investigation and did not oppose the Republicans acquitting the President. Burr is known for his mild manners in highly publicized controversial domestic topics in the US.

After Turkey started the “Peace Spring Operation,” just like Marco Rubio, Burr also railed against the decision, demanding that President Erdoğan immediately withdraw Turkish troops from the north of Syria. 

The other three names of the delegation apart from Rubio and Burr were Jerry Moran, Deb Fischer, John Thune, who are not much known for their involvement in foreign policy debates. Besides, they are not among the U.S. lawmakers who have shown any special interest in Turkey affairs. 

More important than asking why such a delegation made up of these names came to Turkey at this point in time would be the question of why they have bypassed the capital of Ankara while they were in the country. There could be two answers to this question: either they did not feel the need to contact anybody from the Erdoğan government, or nobody in Ankara agreed to see them. I don’t think the second option is very likely because I know that Ankara’s effective lobbyists in Washington have been trying to have a congressional delegation visit Turkey for a long time. I had heard it through several sources that President Tayyip Erdoğan, when he was in New York for the UN General Assembly back in September, in private meetings with certain individuals asked them for help in persuading those congress members active in Syrian matters to pay a visit to Turkey. 

Clearly, the U.S. senators thought it was sufficient to visit the LANDCOM and talk to TÜSİAD Chairman Kaslowski to gear up for the next political battle over Turkey which is likely to take place in the next coming weeks in Washington.

The timing is critical because the sanctions bill, which calls for imposing sanctions on Turkey both for its purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia and for its military offensive in Northeast Syria, passed separately in the Senate and the House of Representatives. In both chambers, there are at least five other bills in some stage of development. It is up to the members of the Congress how and when to reconcile those bills. Rumor says there is an effort at the Hill to send a reconciled text to President Trump's desk fairly soon.

President Trump has been able to keep the sanctions in a deep freeze for almost seven months, since the first deployment of S-400s on Turkish soil in July 2019. Turkey’s Defense Ministry announced five months ago that the S-400s would be activated in April 2020. Unless there has been a rescheduling in the activation calendar of the S-400s due to the crisis experienced in Idlib with Moscow, the scenario expected from the U.S. Congress is to set the sanctions clock for the end of March. If once again Trump decides to defer imposing sanctions on Turkey, this time he will have to justify why he has chosen to do so. According to the law, he can insist on his decision only if he has concrete data that Turkey has taken steps back in its defense industry cooperation with Russia. And we all know what it means! 

Perhaps we should not brush aside Erdoğan's potential of leveraging the Idlib negotiations with Moscow to persuade President Trump once again. Although a train crash between Ankara and Washington seems inevitable at some point, the game ain't over until it is over.

October 21, 2021 It was too good to be true