Biden and Trump Must Confront Erdoğan in Their Final Presidential Debate

Erdoğan is threatening America’s national security, and the US is letting it happen

This article was originally published by Providence Magazine on 21 October 2020. The original can be found here.

By Richard Ghazal and Steven Howard In Defense of Christians

For decades, America has tolerated genocide denial and dhimmitude toward the indigenous Christian population of Turkey. This was done, so the logic went, in accordance with the US Cold War strategy and preserving the alliance between the two NATO allies. It is high time for US foreign policy to reflect a saner strategy in dealing with Turkish aggression. The Trump-Biden contest, just two weeks away, is an opportunity for Americans to signal to their elected leaders that the détente approach to relations with Turkey will no longer work.

In 2020, the world has witnessed, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan espouses a dangerous vision for Turkish politics and foreign policy.

Erdoğanism encompasses a Neo-Ottoman, pan-Turkic irredentist vision that leverages an insidious combination of soft power and military adventurism to expand Turkish hegemony throughout the Middle East, into the Caucasus, the Balkans, and North Africa. Erdoğan’s means to this desired end starts with the manufacture and injection of conflict into nations within Turkey’s desired sphere of influence. Conflict, Erdoğan reasons, necessitates Turkish regional intervention and influence. Once comfortably within the Turkish sphere of influence, the blueprint culminates with Turkey’s purge of non-Turkic ethnic and national groups. Erdoğanism also selectively plays to jihadism, commissioning Islamist militias to carry out its dirty work.

The US allowing Turkey and its proxies to expel entire populations based on ethnicity and religion is morally inexcusable. America permitting an “ally” to directly attack US-led coalition forces is disgraceful. Washington’s military cooperation with a country that employs jihadist forces poses a direct threat to US national security. This is simply illogical.

Turkey’s recent affronts to the West have rendered America’s relationship with Ankara outdated and perplexing, and its continuation in the status quo would be out of touch with reality. The US must rise to the occasion and stand up to Erdoğan before his forces do any more damage to regional stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and US interests globally.

Turkey’s long-time denial of the Armenian Genocide remains disgraceful and shameful. Its closure of the Greek Orthodox Halki seminary is a well-known injustice.

While Erdoğan’s conversion of the Hagia Sophia and Chora Church into mosques was rightfully condemned throughout the international community, his inflammatory and alarming rhetoric regarding those actions has gone largely unaddressed, and seemingly unnoticed.

According to Erdoğan, Turkey’s right to culturally appropriate the Hagia Sophia “dates back exactly 567 years ago to the conquest of Istanbul.” He nostalgically claimed that gruesome episode to be among “the most glorious chapters in Turkish history.” The Turkish strongman has also referred to Turkey’s Christian population, the few survivors of the Ottoman genocide and subsequent state-sponsored persecution, as “remnants of the sword.”

According to Erdoğan, places of worship are prizes of war, and religious minorities are conquered people who should be grateful for second-class citizenship.

As Garo Paylan, an Armenian Christian Member of the Turkish Parliament, recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “Turkey’s involvement in regional conflicts has whipped up nationalist fervor, obliterated space for advocates of peace and democracy and deepened a sense of fear and precarity among the minority populations.”

In other words, Turkey’s historic discrimination against its Christians at home is inextricably linked with its persecution against the same ethno-religious communities abroad. It should not be surprising that Turkish foreign policy has targeted—either directly or by proxy—Arameans, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Greeks, Maronites, and Syriacs through discriminatory policies, at the least, and outright persecution and violence, at the worst.

While Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle provides Americans with a frightening perspective into an alternative history where the Nazis prevailed in World War II, Christians of the Caucuses, Eastern Mediterranean, and Middle East indeed live in a reality where the primary antagonist of the genocide committed against their not-so-distant forefathers continues to enforce a revisionist history, while actively continuing the same persecution it also claims “never happened.”

Imagine a Germany that not only denied the Holocaust, but continued to discriminate against its Jewish citizens, while supporting antisemitic militias globally.

This last year has witnessed an emboldened Erdoğan who, absent from accountability, has become an increasingly aggressive and destructive global actor.

While US presence in northern Syria is critical, the American response to Turkish provocation, invasion, and occupation in northern Syria has been faulty, even incoherent at times. Following the US-led coalition’s territorial defeat of the ISIS Caliphate, Turkey’s invasion has sparked a resurgence in jihadist activity. Christians have paid the price.

Amy Austin Holmes, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, has found that there have been over 800 violations by Turkey of the US-brokered ceasefire in northeastern Syria over the last year. While President Donald J. Trump initially sanctioned Turkey after its October 9, 2019, invasion, those sanctions were lifted a mere nine days later by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin as a result of Turkey’s false assurances to cease combat operations. Holmes found that there were 138 violations alone in Tel Tamer, a historically Christian region of the northeast that also lies outside of the area where Turkey is “allowed” to occupy. Many of these communities, descendants of Ottoman genocide survivors, are displaced once more because of Turkey.

The latest conflict in historically Christian Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) reflects not only the immorality of Turkish foreign policy, but also its direct opposition to US national security interests. Not only must the US develop a response to Turkish and Azerbaijani bombing of Armenian schools and churches, but it must also respond to Turkey’s recruitment and movement of jihadists from Syria to Azerbaijan.

As Michael Rubin and Toufic Baaklini recently noted, this is not merely an issue of restriction from the free practice of one’s religion. This is a matter of persecution in the form of crimes against humanity, both state-sponsored and via terrorist proxies. Religious freedom violations are only the beginning of Turkey’s antagonistic behavior. An American ally is a state sponsor of terrorism, and the US must not hesitate to respond.

The reality that the US continues to permit decades of Turkish genocide denial, and the subjugation of its Christian citizens, is a mark on US foreign policy. Failure to confront a rogue actor employing jihadists who threaten US forces and interests abroad carries great consequences. The issue of US-Turkey relations, in light of its increasingly aggressive posture on the world stage, should be a topic squarely addressed on Thursday’s presidential debate, on the national stage.

Richard Ghazal and Steven Howard advocate for the rights of Christians in the Middle East with In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization.