Congress Rebukes Erdogan, Defies Trump

Q1: How did the House of Representatives act against Turkey?
A1: On October 29, 2019, the ninety-sixth anniversary of the Turkish Republic, the House of Representatives adopted two bills targeting Turkey. It first passed the Affirming the United States record on the Armenian Genocide by an overwhelming vote of 405-11. It then approved in an equally lop-sided manner, 403-16, the Protect Against Conflict with Turkey (PACT) bill in reaction to Turkey’s military action in northern Syria. The bipartisan congressional moves against Turkey tapped into sentiment that had been building up in Congress for some time against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan because of such actions as the purchase of a Russian missile system over U.S. objections. They were also an act of defiance against President Donald Trump and his ongoing close relationship with the Turkish president.
Immediate attention will focus on PACT and, in particular, its sanctions provisions—which include visa restrictions for Turkish defense, treasury, and finance ministers, prohibition on arms sales to Turkey, and the blocking of U.S. based property of Halkbank along with investigation of Erdogan’s finances—likely to be included in Senate bills that are set to be voted on in the near future and eventually incorporated in joint congressional legislation. However, it is also important to note that while the genocide bill only reflects the sense of the House with respect to commemoration and does not mandate additional action, it illustrates even more vividly the deterioration of Turkey’s position on Capitol Hill and the willingness of Congress to reassert itself into the U.S.-Turkish relationship.
Q2: What is the significance of the congressional action?
A2: Through its action, the House of Representatives broke with its practice since 1984 of refraining from characterizing the events of 1915 as genocide due to the implacable opposition of Turkey to the official use of the word, as well as the resistance of successive administrations intent on protecting the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Notwithstanding the fact that President Ronald Reagan had issued a little-noticed proclamation in 1981 acknowledging the 1915 events as genocide, all his successors chose to refrain from using the word in order to avoid offending Turkey. They also used national security arguments relating to Turkey’s strategic importance as an ally to effectively frustrate congressional initiatives on this matter.
In 1990, for example, President George H. W. Bush came out strongly against an effort led by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Democratic president Bill Clinton prevented a vote on the House floor through a last-minute intervention with Republican House speaker Dennis Hastert in 2000. In a reversal of roles, Republican president George W. Bush successfully persuaded Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi not to proceed with a vote in 2007.
President Barack Obama, who had been vociferous in his genocide advocacy prior to his election, did not only refrain from using the word even on the centenary of the events of 1915 but also lobbied successfully against congressional moves during his two terms in office, most notably in 2010 when he convinced House Speaker Pelosi not to allow a bill approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee to proceed further. Like his immediate predecessors, Obama also avoided using the word genocide in his April 24 commemorative statements, preferring instead to use “Meds Yeghern,” its Armenian equivalent, a practice followed by President Donald Trump during the past three years he has been in office.
The procedural road to quick action was cleared the night before the vote by House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern who obviated discussion in House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) with the willing acquiescence of HFAC Chairman Eliot Engel. It is noteworthy that the bill was cosponsored by Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who is also spearheading the current effort to impeach Trump under House Speaker Pelosi’s direction. There is little doubt that Schiff’s bill, introduced back in April, would not have been able to move to a floor vote without Pelosi’s backing. It is also clear that Pelosi, who had always supported acknowledgment and reaffirmed her stance passionately during the debate, was willing to take advantage of the current political impasse, effectively neutralizing the ability of the president to influence the process.
The absence of any perceptible effort on the part of Trump or his administration to prevent or delay congressional action on this controversial issue or the other bill, both with serious implications for relations with Ankara, spoke volumes about the deteriorating influence on Capitol Hill of a president facing seemingly imminent impeachment by the House. The success of the congressional moves was also due to the unusual bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill, which had built up against Trump’s impulsive decision on October 6 during his telephone conversation with Erdogan to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria and the Turkish military operation three days later against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). It is significant that the PACT bill was jointly introduced by HFAC Chairman Engel and Ranking Member Michael McCaul on October 17, one day after a sense of the House vote 354 to 60 confirming the willingness of the majority of Republican House members to defy Trump on this issue.   
Q3: What is the likely impact on U.S.-Turkey relations?
A3: Having maintained complete silence on Turkey related developments in Congress throughout the day, the normally voluble Trump and his administration also refrained from comment after the adoption of the two bills. For his part, Erdogan, along with his government and the Turkish media, ignored the debate and votes in Congress as he focused on the anniversary celebrations and touted successes of the ongoing military operation in northern Syria. Interestingly, Erdogan also did not immediately recall the Turkish ambassador in Washington for “consultations,” unlike in 2010, the last time where there was an attempt to bring the genocide issue to a vote on the House floor.
However, after having U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield summoned to the Foreign Ministry for a verbal demarche the next morning, Erdogan proceeded to vent his anger over the congressional action in a fiery address to his party colleagues in the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA). Declaring the genocide resolution “null and void” while characterizing it as “slander,” Erdogan said that those who voted for it were “only dancing to their own tune.” Arguing that “a country which has a history thoroughly stained with genocide, slavery, and exploitation, cannot lecture Turkey,” Erdogan warned that the TGNA would “duly respond ” by “unanimously adopting an appropriate declaration that would be sent to the U.S.” Erdogan added that he would “personally follow the issue in the days ahead to make sure that necessary steps are taken and necessary responses are delivered.”
Erdogan said that the resolutions were the result of “the impact on domestic politics of the U.S. as well as on its security policies and diplomatic relations” of Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria. He “forcefully rejected” the second resolution that “requested sanctions against me, my family and my ministers in accordance with absurd allegations.” Erdogan also argued that “persistence in this approach would only harm the U.S.”  while expressing the hope that they would “rectify their mistake as soon as possible.”
Erdogan is still hoping that his friendship with Trump will continue to carry the relationship despite the congressional moves. However, in an indirect confirmation of the greater obstacles ahead of the two men, Erdogan said that he had “not yet decided” whether to go through with his scheduled trip to meet with Trump at the White House on November 13 as there were “question marks.”
In view of the demand in PACT for Turkey to “immediately cease attacks . . . and recall its forces back to Turkey,” which Erdogan is almost certain not to comply with, it seems inevitable that Congress will step up its own reaction. This will, in turn, provoke Erdogan into additional retaliation, thus making it even more difficult for Trump to balance his relationships with Erdogan and the congressional Republicans whose help he needs more than ever as the impeachment process gathers speed.
Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program