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Rep. John Sarbanes Headshot

Can America Rely on Turkey?

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Turkey has been getting a lot of attention recently. American foreign policymakers, among others, are beginning to realize that the United States cannot count on its ally Turkey in a pinch. But American surprise and dismay at Turkey's increasing petulance on the world stage and among its NATO peers reflects just how naive the U.S. has been in its interpretation of Turkish behavior over many decades. Turkey's unreliability as a NATO ally and its incompatibility with Western democratic values is well understood by those who have long suffered Turkish aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey's failure to genuinely uphold the shared values of NATO makes it a weak link in the alliance. By design, NATO originated as a defensive political and military alliance for those countries engaged in the hostilities of WWII. Turkey, the largest NATO member not to have fought in WWII, was enlisted to reinforce defenses against the Soviet Union. Yet, in the summer of 1974, NATO member Turkey invaded and occupied more than one third of the island Republic of Cyprus. Coming at the height of the Cold War, and at a time of delicate relations between Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and the NATO alliance, Turkey's invasion of Cyprus risked war with NATO member Greece and a resultant rupturing of the NATO alliance.

Adding insult to injury, the weapons used by the Turkish military to invade Cyprus were those of its NATO benefactors, principally the United States. In 1975, the Congress imposed an arms embargo on Turkey for its offensive use of American weapons. Rather than fulfill its NATO obligations, or follow its legal obligations as demanded by Congress, Turkey retaliated by closing all American military installations on Turkish soil, and by severely restricting American access at two NATO bases. At that time, military installations in Turkey were deemed essential surveillance posts in the Cold War fight against the Soviet Union. Turkey refused to reopen these facilities until the U.S. lifted the arms embargo, signaling that its relationship with the United States was never more than a transactional one, rather than one rooted in a shared commitment to the rule of law, individual liberties, democracy, and collective Western security.

July 20th marks 36 years that the Turkish military has occupied Cyprus. In that time, neither the Republic of Cyprus nor its people have directed any aggression towards Turkey. In stark contrast, Turkey maintains an active colonization program where it is illegally resettling some 180,000 Anatolian Turks into the homes and possessions of the 200,000 Greek Cypriots it evicted from the occupied territories. The Turkish military is also systematically eradicating the Hellenic and Christian heritage from the occupied territories. All but five of the 500 Greek Orthodox Churches in the occupied territories have been looted, desecrated, or destroyed. To no avail, the international community, including the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice have all called on Turkey to honor its international obligations and cease and desist from these hostilities against the people of Cyprus.

The Republic of Cyprus is a full-fledged member of the European Union. Turkey seeks that status as well, but as a NATO member illegally occupying European Union soil, Turkey puts NATO and the EU at loggerheads. The result is that the EU and NATO are unable to cooperate in the consolidation of their economic and strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey's ongoing occupation of Cyprus is compelling evidence that it has little interest in meeting the standards of individual liberties, human rights and religious tolerance shared by America and other democratic nations. Lacking the ties that bind, Turkey is apparently quite willing to jeopardize relations with its long-time allies. Witness its 2003 denial of the deployment of US forces along the Northern Iraq border and its recent vote in the U.N. against Iran sanctions.

The United States and its allies must call upon Turkey to abide by international law and meet its responsibilities as a dependable NATO partner. And on this, the 36th anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Cyprus, the United States should demand an immediate withdrawal of the 45,000 Turkish soldiers now occupying northern Cyprus. Until that occurs, policymakers in the White House and in the Congress must press the issue in every conversation with their Turkish counterparts. In this way, the United States can work towards establishing a strong, enduring, and values-based alliance with Turkey that will serve to bring justice to the people of Cyprus, strengthen NATO, and reinforce collective Western security.

-- Congressman John P. Sarbanes