Capitol Hill doors reopened to Turkey after Erdogan’s victory, new lobbyists

Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
6 min read

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s envoy to the US was being turned away by lawmakers for months despite seeking meetings on Capitol Hill. So, Ankara turned to new lobbyists as it sought to salvage what was left of Turkey’s reputation in the US capital, according to Congressional aides and public records.

“They [Turkey] had been asking to meet us for almost two years now,” said one senior Congressional aide, a Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

For the latest headlines, follow our Google News channel online or via the app.

But frustration with Turkey is a rare case where Republicans and Democrats agree in a divided Capitol Hill.

Head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat, has repeatedly vowed not to allow weapons sales to Turkey.

Turkey has been asking to buy F-16 fighter jets from the US, but the bipartisan opposition to this sale continues despite the Biden administration supporting the deal.

Earlier this month, the top US diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, said the Biden administration “very much supports” providing F-16s to Turkey or upgrading the F-16s that it has, “just as we very much and very strongly support Sweden’s immediate accession to NATO.” He added: “But these are two distinct issues. They’re not related to each other.”

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also urged his new Turkish counterpart, Yasar Guler, to push for Sweden’s NATO membership.

A shift in attitude appears to be on the horizon, however, as the Turkish ambassador to the US has been seen in House and Senate offices following the re-election of Erdogan.

Ambassador Murat Mercan has had separate meetings with Republican Congressman Nathaniel Moran, Democratic Congressman John Garamendi, Republican Congressman Joe Wilson and Republican Congressman Clay Higgins this month.

These were meetings the Turkish embassy in Washington disclosed on its official Twitter account. A review of similar posts shows the last such engagement between Mercan and a US lawmaker on the Hill appeared to take place in January.

Turkish officials say there was little time for these types of engagements in the run-up to Turkey’s presidential election.

Mercan has also met with Senator Chris Coons in recent days, one of President Joe Biden’s closest Senate allies.

Meanwhile, sources familiar with US-Turkey relations anticipate increased engagement with Biden administration officials and US lawmakers in the coming weeks and months.

A high-level Congressional delegation is expected to visit Ankara later this month and could meet with new members of Erdogan’s new cabinet. Erdogan appointed new individuals to lead the foreign ministry and defense ministry in what observers believe could be a sign of the Turkish president’s willingness to ease tensions with much of the West and other countries he had issues with in recent years.

US frustration with Turkey

Anger with the NATO-ally increased under the Trump administration after they issued sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made missile defense systems.

The Biden administration did not ease pressure, and then came the Erdogan government’s crackdown on journalists, increased provocative behavior against Greece and the blocking of Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership.

“[If] they don’t let them into NATO, the attitude towards Turkey is not going to change,” another senior Congressional aide said.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two Nordic countries expressed their desire to join NATO.

Erdogan said he would not lift his veto unless Finland and Sweden agreed to demands, including handing over wanted individuals that Turkey has accused of terrorism.

Turkey has since accepted Finland, but Sweden’s bid is still being held up.

Sources familiar with the matter believe Ankara could lift its veto by the upcoming NATO Summit in July.

Another point of conflict between Washington and its NATO ally is Syria, where the US continues to back Kurdish fighters helping its mission to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. Turkey says the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group. The US repeatedly warned Turkey against pushing ahead with its threats to launch a ground operation to drive out the SDF from the area.

Also in Syria, the Pentagon has accused Ankara of endangering American troops through its air raids and expressed “deep concern” over Turkey’s actions.

Turkey’s new top diplomat Hakan Fidan, formerly the head of the country’s intel agency, was the subject of secret peace talks with the PKK almost a decade ago. And the new defense minister, Yasar Guler, was a top military general during Turkey’s military operations inside Syria in 2019 and 2020.

Lobbying efforts

According to the US Justice Department, Turkey hired Ezra Friedlander last year to lobby on its behalf, paying him $35,000 monthly.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) says the services Friedlander was to provide included: arranging speaking engagements and meetings locally and nationally for the ambassador; engaging with members of Congress and the Administration on issues of importance to Turkey; and proposing and pursuing passage of legislation and other US government action that promotes Turkey’s interests… and provides a positive image of Turkey.

Another lobbyist hired by Turkey as of late was Kalman Chaim Sporn. He was paid $50,000 for “strategic consulting services” from October to November last year.

Sporn and Friedlander are both Jewish and are said to have strong ties with influential officials on the Hill.

Friedlander was also hired this year by the government of Azerbaijan to “enhance US-Azerbaijan relations.”

Turkey and Israel have embarked on a path of rapprochement after years of animosity between the two regional powers. That, coupled with relations Sporn and Friedlander have on the Hill, is among the reasons Ankara turned to the lobbyists.

Read more: Blinken says Turkey getting F-16s ‘totally unrelated’ to veto on Sweden’s NATO bid

Top Content Trending