Prominent neoconservatives and other hawks have set their sights on Turkey, announcing a new Washington-based group “in response to Turkey’s recent turn away from democracy and toward authoritarianism” on Thursday.
The Turkey Democracy Project states that its mission is to “inform a policy towards Turkey that opposes its destabilizing behavior, supports genuine democratic reform, and holds the forces of corruption and oppression within Turkey to account.”
“For the better part of the last century, Turkey was a reliable ally and a model in the region of liberal ideals and cultural freedom,” the group says on its website. “But in recent years, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dramatically altered Turkey’s position in the international community and its status as a free and liberal democracy.”
Turkey has been a U.S. ally since the end of World War II, but its democratic record is spotty. The Turkish military has overthrown several democratically-elected governments, and parts of the country have been under on-and-off martial law since the Kurdish uprising of the 1980s.
The Turkey Democracy Project includes several prominent members of United Against Nuclear Iran, a group whose members have called for the U.S.-led overthrow of the Iranian government, as well as the hawkish former White House national security adviser John Bolton.
The new anti-Turkey group is headed by UANI chief executive Mark Wallace. Its members include UANI chairman Joe Lieberman, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, retired Bush administration counterterrorism official Frances Townsend, career U.S. diplomat Alejandro Wolff, retired CIA officer Robert Richer and former UANI senior advisor Norman Roule.
UANI megadonor Thomas Kaplan helped co-found Justice for Kurds, another group dedicated to pushing back on Turkey’s influence. Kaplan is not listed as a member of the Turkey Democracy Project.
The creation of the Turkey Democracy Project is the latest sign that Ankara has shifted from a favored ally of U.S. hawks to one of their major bugbears. It would not be the first time American hawks turned on a former U.S. sidekick; in the 1980s and 1990s, Republican administrations went from backing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran to pushing for a U.S.-led regime change campaign against him.
Turkey had long served as the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a key outpost for U.S. operations in the Middle East. The Turkish military purchased $16.6 billion in American weapons from the end of the Cold War to 2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute arms trade database.
But the Erdoğan government has run afoul of Washington in recent years. It has picked fights with European allies over energy resources, bought Russian missiles, taken a hardline stance against Israel, and allowed U.S. rivals to evade economic sanctions.
The most dramatic confrontation took place in October 2019. While the Trump administration had hoped to enlist Turkey as a partner in the Syrian civil war, Turkey instead attacked U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, creating a humanitarian crisis and embarrassing the United States.
Bolton, who left the White House shortly before the crisis unfolded, had taken an antagonistic stance towards both Turkey and the Kurds. In his memoirs, he compared Erdoğan to Italian fascist leader Benito “Mussolini speaking from his Rome balcony,” but also called left-wing Kurdish fighters a “terrorist group.”
With his new Turkey-focused group, Bolton is softening his tone on the Turkish state’s opponents.
“In addition to persecuting those Kurds who live within Turkey’s borders, Erdogan has attacked Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq,” the Turkey Democracy Project states. “Turkey is also targeting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — the United States’ most reliable partner in Syria and the coalition most responsible for the demise of ISIS.”