Making Sense of Ilhan Omar’s Connection to Recep Tayyip Erdogan 

by Barbara Kelemen

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On October 29, 2019, the US House of Representatives passed the Protect Against Turkey (PACT) Act, which holds the government of Turkey responsible for the invasion of northern Syria and imposes targeted sanctions against the country’s government and Turkish banks. While the bill was passed with a strong bipartisan vote, one Democrat refused to back the PACT and joined 15 Republicans who voted against it.

Since then, Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has been accused of an affinity for ‘Turkish tyrant’ Recep Tayyip Erdogan and criticized for her refusal to support the House vote on recognizing the Armenian genocide. Omar has tried to defend her decision in an op-ed published in TheWashington Post and through her official statement sent to CNN. 

Omar argues that her refusal to support both seemingly critical moves against Turkey results from her personal belief in the fundamental flaws of the way in which US foreign policy is currently executed.

With the case of Syria, Omar criticizes sanctions as a policy tool and cites the examples of Iran and Venezuela to prove her point. While she does address some of the problems associated with the use of sanctions, she fails to point out what exactly she takes issue with regarding the sanctions as established by the PACT act. This is especially important since she admits that in some cases, such as with South Africa or the Global Magnitsky Act, such an approach can deliver on some of its objectives. After having a closer look at the bill itself, one can easily identify that the approved sanctions are targeting mainly individuals and two banks closely associated with the Turkish government. In addition, the bill also addresses the arms transfers that Omar herself brings up as an argument in her op-ed. In light of this, it is not difficult to see that her actions constitute an empty gesture, which ultimately sends the wrong message. If anything, Ilhan Omar provided the Turkish regime with an example of a Democrat at whom they can point their finger and say that yes, Turkey is unfairly singled out by the US. 

What has been less discussed and, in some cases, not mentioned, was Omar’s decision to not vote for the resolution condemning the US decision to end efforts preventing Turkey’s operations against the Kurdish forces in Syria (H.J.Res. 77) passed on October 17, 2019. 

Her statement to clarify her move in regard to the Armenian genocide resolution has been met with even stronger blowback. The discussion surrounding the bill has always been around its symbolic value rather than its level of effectiveness. The timing of it, however, was meant to call attention to the striking resemblance between the genocide in Armenia and current actions by Turkish-backed militias. Omar’s statement, then, seems rather cynical, as she presents the argument that, unless every cruel action is condemned, condemning a single act is not a true acknowledgement of historical crimes against humanity. In short, if we cannot get everyone to stand for everything, we should not even try. Matters become even more problematic as the leader of the group that has waged the PR campaign against the resolution, the Turkish American Steering Company (TASC), Halil Mutlu, has been identified as one of the donors to Omar’s campaign.

All of these actions could be merely seen as a simple matter of difference in opinions. Nonetheless, the case with Omar is more complicated, given her unusually close ties to Erdogan himself. 

As reports slowly emerge about alleged donations by an Erdogan ally to Omar’s campaign, it is important to remind ourselves of the general context and the 2017 controversial closed-door meeting between Omar and Erdogan that sparked the entire controversy. The details of that meeting are still widely unknown and puzzling, considering that, back then, Omar had a rather low-profile, yet met with the President of Turkey behind closed doors. Since then, the Turkish-state run media channel TRT World has run a suspicious number of stories in support of Omar, while also urging readers to donate to her campaign.

While none of this provides solid evidence that Ilhan Omar is Edrogan’s ‘‘agent’’ or anything of that nature, as some of the overtly partisan outlets often claim, it does pose a number of difficult questions for Omar to answer. More than anything, it casts a dubious shadow on all of her previous statements in regards to human rights and ‘universal values’ that should be upheld unconditionally and without any strings attached. As in every democratic society, the issue should not become a partisan battle between Democrats and Republicans but should be discussed and evaluated as a part of an open discourse. That is especially the case now, when allegations against President Trump colluding with foreign governments undermine the resilience of the US political system. Rather than staying silent and waiting for the storm to pass, Omar should address the worries of many citizens who agree with her views in other domains but feel disappointed by her recent actions. That is the only way forward in order to build a strong democracy, which can eventually condemn all historical abuses against human rights.

Barbara Kelemen is a non-resident research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS). Her research focuses on Chinese counter-terrorism strategy and China-Middle East relations. She is also a research associate at a London-based risk and political consultancy.

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