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New US lobby group targets Turkey's Erdogan, calls for major reform

Turkish Democracy Project launches with John Bolton, Joe Leiberman, Jeb Bush and a list of right-wing figures on its roster
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a press conference after the Nato summit in Brussels on 14 June (AFP/File photo)

Some of the United States' most prominent neoconservatives have launched a lobby group aimed at challenging the Turkish government, in response to what they described as its "recent turn away from democracy and toward authoritarianism".  

Already garnering criticism, the Turkish Democracy Project (TDP) has dubbed itself "a nonprofit, non-partisan, international policy organization," according to its website, which went live this week. 

The group says its mission is to push for policy that "opposes its destabilizing behavior, supports genuine democratic reform, and holds the forces of corruption and oppression within Turkey to account". 

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"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, a Nato member, has challenged Washington in recent years as it refuses to take a strong stance with the US against Russian and Chinese attempts to solidify their influence in the region. 

Some of the issues currently testing Turkish-US relations are Ankara's purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, which triggered US sanctions; Washington's support for Syrian Kurds; the Eastern Mediterranean crisis; and President Joe Biden's criticism of human rights issues in Turkey.

While focusing much of its attention on Turkish human rights and its domestic issues, the TDP also breaks down these regional issues on its website as proof of the Turkish government's need for reform.

Middle East Eye reached out to Turkey's embassy in Washington about the launch of TDP but did not receive a response by the time of this article's publication. 

'It's time to sound the alarm'

Led by Mark Wallace, US ambassador to the UN under former president George W Bush, the organisation says it aims to "provide a clear path forward by encouraging democratic reform through dialogue and advocacy". 

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Wallace also heads the right-wing lobby groups United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a organisation whose members have called for the US-led overthrow of the Iranian government, and the Counter Extremism Project. 

While not explicitly calling for regime change, that is the understood goal, its critics say, particularly given some of the other members of the group's advisory board who are considered among policy circles to be "war hawks".

In addition to Wallace, former Senator and UANI chairman Joe Leiberman; former president Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton; former Florida governor Jeb Bush; ex-Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser to president George W Bush, Frances Townsend; retired CIA officer Robert Richer; and former UANI intelligence chief Norman Roule are some of the high-profile members of the new group.

"It's time to sound the alarm on #Turkey," Bolton tweeted, announcing the group's launch on Wednesday. 

"Under an authoritarian leader, a once-reliable NATO ally is turning its back on democracy and embracing #Russia. I'm pleased to join the [Turkish Democracy Project's] advisory council to shine a light on the darkening situation," Bolton said.

Jeb Bush echoed similar messages shared by his new colleagues, tweeting on Wednesday: "A democratic Turkey is essential to our security, but Turkish freedom and liberty is fading away. Turkey's authoritarian leader is intent on silencing pro-freedom voices." 

In the name of Gulen?

Meanwhile, critics of the group have accused it of being part of an alleged opposition movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric and a former Erdogan ally, who the Turkish government says attempted to orchestrate a coup in 2016 - an allegation he denies. 

Resul Kurt, a central executive board member of Erdogan's AK party, accused the US group of partnering with "FETO," an acronym for "Fethullah Terrorist Organisation," as the Gulen movement is described in Turkey, where it is designated as a terrorist group. 

"The warmonger Bolton, the incompetent brother of Bush and the remnants of the FETÖ terrorist organization, are supposed to bring democracy to Turkey by holding with the YPG/PKK terrorists," Kurt said, referring to armed Kurdish forces in the region. 

"Come on, the blood of millions of innocents is dripping from your hands," he continued, addressing Bolton. 

Turkey's Daily Sabah newspaper called the TDP a "platform for anti-Turkey propaganda" and reported that two of the group's board members, Aykan Erdemir and Suleyman Ozeren, were wanted in Turkey in connection with the failed 2016 coup.

Oznur Kucuker Sirene, a Turkish foreign policy expert and a contributor to the state-owned TRT news agency, made a similar accusation. 

"Former US President George W. Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, ex-US National Security Advisor John Bolton and so on, joined hands with FETO and they developed a project called the 'Turkish Democracy Project' to bring so-called 'democracy' to Turkey," Sirene said in a tweet. "Wait, we will bring you democracy."

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), suggested that the group was being hypocritical for singling out Turkey and not other hardline governments in the region that Republicans have generally aligned with. 

"No worries folks: these neocons who've set up 'Turkey Democracy Project' will soon be setting up a 'Saudi Democracy Project' 'UAE Democracy Project' 'Bahrain Democracy Project' to follow an 'Israel/Palestine Democracy Project' right?," Whitson tweeted.

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