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Senator Lankford Discusses Syria, Turkey on Senate Floor

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s remarks on the Senate floor.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today spoke on the Senate floor to discuss the current situation in Syria and Turkey, specifically as it relates to US military operations in the region to fight ISIS, the Kurdish people, and our precarious NATO alliance with Turkey.

Yesterday, Lankford issued a statement supporting President Trump’s announcement to issue sanctions on Turkey amid the aggression in the region and Turkey’s increasingly troubling relationship with Russia, particularly with regard to its acquisition of the S-400 missile system from the Russian government. Lankford and a bipartisan group of Senators, who have been engaged in the F-35/S-400 foreign policy conversation, welcomed the news in July 2019 that President Trump blocked the sale of the F-35 to Turkey, about which the senators introduced a bill earlier this year.

Lankford is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.


Mr. President, let me take you back to December 2016. We’re all getting ready for Christmas. It’s a month before President Trump is elected—he won’t take his office for another month after that. But in Turkey they’re reeling from a coup attempt that happened in October. Hundreds of people were killed, chaos. Turkish President Erdo?an, overreacted, locking up hundreds of thousands of people, including one of our pastors, Pastor Andrew Brunson, implemented martial law, which he kept in place for years after that, rapidly changing the constitution. He’s transitioned himself from a president duly elected and operating free democracy that has been Turkey, to radically changing the direction of the country and its future. A long-term NATO ally is going through real turmoil.

In October that coup happens and all the transitions occurring. But by December, as I mentioned before, they’re rocked again. December 17, 2016, a bus was stopped at a red light near a campus in Turkey when a car bomb explodes killing members of Turkey’s military. Thirteen people were killed, Fifty-five were wounded in that blast. Forty-eight of those killed and wounded were off-duty military personnel, most of them privates and corporals. This same day in another location in a different part of that community, still in Turkey, there was a soccer stadium attack that happened. In that attack, 44 people died, and more than 150 people were wounded.

Three days later, actually two days after that, December 19, 2016, the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in Ankara while he was giving a public speech. Most Americans don’t know this because we were getting ready for Christmas, and we were watching the transition of President Obama to President Trump, but there was a lot of chaos that was happening in that part of the region at that period of time. I happened to be in Turkey when all that was going on, meeting with Turkish officials, trying to negotiate for the release of Andrew Brunson, working towards our ongoing relationship and trying to figure out what direction Turkey was going to go, because they have been a long-standing ally to the United States and a NATO partner, but they certainly were not acting like it in 2016. And now in 2019, they are certainly not acting like it.

The car bombs that I mentioned and the terrorist actions that happened might surprise some Americans to know they weren’t led by ISIS fighters fighting in Turkey. The innocents that were killed that day were killed by Kurdish terrorists. Kurdish folks that had enlisted in the United States listing of official terrorist organizations, a group called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or what is affectionately known as the PKK, the abbreviation in that language. The PKK has been listed as a terror organization by the United States for decades.

Let me give some context though, because in the course of the dialogue I’ve heard over the last couple of weeks about the Kurds and about the Turks, everyone seems to want to oversimplify this issue. Everyone wants to say good guys, bad guys, and they’re missing the point in the history of what’s happened in that region. The Kurds have about 25 million people in their people group. It’s the fourth-largest people group in the middle east. They live mostly in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Armenia. They have all different political parties. They have all different backgrounds. For over a century they’ve worked to have their own nation. Interestingly enough, after World War I and all the changes in the map in World War I, the Kurds had been promised their own country, a country of Kurdistan, because they had been a minority population for a long time in that region. So they had worked for and pressed for their own country during that time period. But when the boundaries were drawn at the end of World War I and after they had been promised they would have their own homeland, they were instead a larger Turkey was drawn and the Kurds were just listed as a ‘minority group’ inside of Turkey. They faced incredible persecution within Turkey. They are not allowed to be able to call themselves Kurds. Instead they are called Mountain Turks in that area. They are not allowed to wear certain garb, they are not allowed to practice their customs. They are pressed in every area and they have worked for a long time to say, ‘How can we have a free people’s area?’

For the Kurds that live in northern Iraq, it’s one of the freest areas in all of the Middle East. They have freedom of religion, they have a free capitalist economy that’s there that’s a thriving economy in northern Iraq, they have democratically led elections, they have worked with us to be able to have the overthrow of Saddam Hussein after Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds to death in that Kurdish region of Iraq. They’ve been gassed by Saddam Hussein, they’ve been forced out of their homes, they’ve been isolated, and for decades, they have worked to have a free country.

Interestingly enough in just 2017, the Kurds that are in northern Iraq had their own referendum to establish their own place. They took a bold move to say, ‘The world will not acknowledge us, we will acknowledge ourselves.’ And in a bold referendum in September of 2017, the Kurds voted 90 percent to form their own country out of northern Iraq. Quickly the Iraqi government moved into that zone and squashed them. In the middle of the conflict that we talked about before with ISIS, ISIS moved into areas in Syria and into Iraq, and pressed in against the Kurds to be able to attack them, and what the Kurds were not able to do to establish their homeland, ISIS was determined to be able to establish their own caliphate and their own land by beheading people and by murdering thousands of people. As they moved into the Kurdish area, the Turks on the other side of the border simply watched the refugees flee across the border because ISIS was not killing Turks, they were killing Kurds and they didn’t care. They would handle the refugees as long as ISIS was doing their bidding in Syria.

You see, this is a complicated issue for us because there’s sections of the Kurds that have fought for democracy for decades. Many of them doing it exactly the right way, having referendums, organizing, working with UN officials, working with the countries around them to democratically establish an area where they would be free to live, and to worship, and to be able to function in a capitalistic economy. That’s been their desire. But there’s also been an offshoot of the Kurds called the PKK that have now for decades carried out car bombs and attacks, many of them in Turkey, where hundreds of civilians have been killed.

President Erdo?an, of Turkey is determined that all Kurds are the same, and he ruthlessly lashes out on them. Now I think about how we operated in Afghanistan and how different the United States really thinks about military warfare, as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda rose up in Afghanistan, we engaged in the most surgical way we could possibly do it to be able to engage with violent Taliban members and with members of Al-Qaeda to be able to take the battle specifically to them, while establishing a friendship and a longstanding partnership with the Afghan people. We don’t look at all Afghans the same in some blanket declaration. We understand there is a violent faction that has to be addressed for world peace and that there are others that just want their children to grow up and go to school.

We’ve engaged them in a way that’s very different than how Turkey is currently engaging with the Kurdish population. Everyone knew, everyone knew, as the battle raged in Syria, that when the battle finished out with the civil war in Syria and the fight with ISIS, often the Kurdish areas, everyone knew when this calmed down at some future date, the Turks would start coming after the Kurds. It’s been known for years. In fact, in 2016 when I was in Turkey in Ankara at that point in December watching all of this chaos occur, that was the ongoing dialogue among Turkish leaders at that time is that, ‘We are going to come after the Kurds.’ This has been the repetitive statement over and over and over again to the Administration and quite frankly, to the previous Administration.

In a series of phone calls where President Erdo?an talks to President Trump and says, ‘We are crossing the border and coming in.’ It left President Trump in a very difficult situation: Does he leave our American men and women in a very small number in a forward operating base to sit there while tanks roll by and the battle rages between the Kurds and Turks, do we use them as some kind of tool to try to be able to stop this or do we get out of harm’s way? Secretary Esper just made a statement last weekend that was very clear: the Turks didn’t ask permission to cross the border, they said, ‘We’re coming,’ and notified us in advance, so if we wanted to move out of the way, we could, but either way, they were coming. We’ve moved our forces into other areas and combined them into bases and just recently within the last couple of days when the Turks started getting closer to our combined forces in northern Syria, we responded by putting up apache helicopters and F-16s to be able to fly by the Turks to say, ‘Don’t you dare come near American forces.’ But at the same time we’re trying to do everything that we can and should to be able to stop the bloodshed between two allies.

Now I’ve been amazed at the number of people that have stepped up and said that President Trump is all to blame for what’s happening with the Kurdish people and the Turks. They ignore the basic history of what’s happened in that region for a very long time. In the ongoing battle between the Kurds and the Turks now for over a century, but we should do everything we can to be able to push back on this because for a large group of the Kurdish population, especially those in northern Iraq, they have been very close allies and friends and tenacious fighters against Saddam Hussein and they left their own place of safety in northern Iraq to come help us fight the fight in Syria, to be able to protect other Kurdish people, yes, but to also to help protect the entire world from the ruthless nature of ISIS. We should engage to be able to do what we can to help stop the bloodshed. And as I mentioned before when we moved into Afghanistan, we did it as surgical as we can. When Turkey moved into Kurdish regions, they unleashed artillery fire against civilians, pummeling homes and businesses in Kurdish towns that meant them no harm as they crossed the border into Syria.

So what do we do? How do we respond in the days ahead? Well, a few things that I would bring up. One is the what I wish.

I wish the Administration had been more clear with Turkey and her leaders to say, ‘If you do this, here’s not that we will do sanctions, here’s exactly what the sanctions will be, and you didn’t know it, and it’s going to happen as rapidly as possible.’

I wish that we would have moved all the ISIS fighters out of the region because there are ISIS fighters that are currently in prisons in northern Syria waiting to return back to their home countries because many of them are foreign fighters from other places that the home country is not willing to take them back, so they are currently imprisoned in Syria.

I wish that we would have done more before the Turks crossed the border to be able to protect those prisoners and to make sure they didn’t get freed, but many of them did get free and the entire region will suffer the consequences of some very bad actors getting back on the battlefield again because of that.

I wish that there had actually been coordination. The Administration clearly did not coordinate with the State Department, with the Department of Defense, with what was happening in the region, with other Kurdish leaders to be able to make sure we were securing those fighters and preparing for that moment. Instead it was a rapid transition in a hurried process to be able to move Americans out of harm’s way in between two allies that were now fighting each other and to try to shift them to other places and then to be able to stabilize in those locations. There’s a lot of hurried response that could have been done different but was not.

The now what’s though are pretty clear. President Trump has launched out and stated very clearly that there will be strong sanctions beginning on military leaders within the Turkish army. The key leaders in the government and try to put sanctions down as rapidly as possible on those individuals. He has also announced a 50 percent steel tariff on Turkey, and you may say that is no big deal, except for the fact that steel is a major export for Turkey and it’s a punishing tariff on them as a country. He’s also started to lay down additional sanctions on Turkey and has said all the trade agreements and conversations are currently at a standstill. Turkey’s economy is on the razor’s edge because of how Erdo?an has so mismanaged the economy for so many years. We have no beef with the Turkish people, but currently Turkey is being led by a leader that is leading their country into economic ruin and leading their military across foreign borders to be able to haphazardly kill civilians.

We should not tolerate that and we should engage. We should make it very clear there will be consequences. We should work with the UN, as we already have started, to be more aggressive that if there’s someone to be able to stand between two warring parties, it’s UN peacekeepers that are doing that, not American men or women that are in that process sitting out there at a forward operating base. We should continue to be able to sanction Turkish banks, those banks that did business with Iran when Iran was sanctioned, Turkey continued to do business with some of those banks. We should increase our sanctions there, and we should be extremely clear that Turkey will not get access to the F-35. I cannot imagine the response of the American people, how much stronger it would be right now, if it was American F-35s that were flying across the Turkish-Syria border to bomb our own allies, the Kurds.

We should make it very clear there is no foreign military sales to Turkey and continue to be able to cut them off. We’ve got to be clear in the consequences. We’ve got to be rapid in the response because right now people are dying in northern Syria, that those same families and those same individuals put their own life on the line to be able to stand up against ISIS. They stood with us in multiple areas and they have a great propensity toward freedom and toward democracy which desperately needs to grow in the Middle East. The chaos that’s ensuing is the chaos of war, and it’s the pain of over a century of mismanagement of this entire region. We need to stop the bloodshed first and to continue to be able to negotiate with every possible lever that we can, to be to make sure we can bring a sense of calm to the chaos that is, starting with our greatest pressure on the Turks and on President Erdo?an who clearly hasn’t got the message yet, what the will of the American people, and what the will of this Congress really involves.

This is a changing situation, and it’s not simple. But it’s one I’ll try to come back and be able to help to inform in every way I can and to encourage this body to smartly and quickly engage in what we can do to be able to help press the Turks to be able to back off the bloodshed and to be able to bring war crimes against any Turk that is killing prisoners, that is attacking civilians, and any individual that we can identify to bring to justice in due process.