(CNSNews.com) – The people of Turkey voting in a referendum this month will be deciding whether they want a radical, Islamic and “terrorist-oriented government” or whether they want to remain the friends of the United States, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said at a House subcommittee hearing this week.
“We’re on the side of the people of Turkey. Please – I would hope that they hear out plea – remain our friend,” he said. “Don’t, don’t go to the polls and then basically join in this negation of a friendship that has lasted so long,” to the benefit of the American and Turkish people.
Rohrabacher, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats, was referring to an April 16 vote on constitutional changes that will give Turkey’s president, already accused of increasingly autocratic behavior, greater powers.
Rohrabacher recalled that the Turkish people were the friends of the U.S. during the Cold War.
“We could count on them,” he said. “They fought in Korea. They were part of the deterrent that prevented the Soviet Union from thinking they could come down and attack all of Europe.”
Now, he suggested the Turks were going to the polls to decide whether they want to maintain that friendship.
“Will they have the government— a radical-oriented government, an Islamic-oriented government, a terrorist-oriented government in power in Turkey, or will they be friends of the United States and have more of a democratic future?”
Wednesday’s hearing heard sharp criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government from witnesses including David Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.
“By November of 2016, Turkey has more journalists in jail than any country in the world,” he told the panel. “In fact a third of all journalist that are jailed come from Turkey.”
Phillips also cited reports that the Erdogan family in past years collaborated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), buying oil from the terrorist group in Syria.
Payment for the oil, he alleged, “went to ISIS to support its caliphate operations, it was used to kill people and to target Westerners.”
Phillips challenged what he called two “falsehoods” about the U-S-Turkey relationship – that Turkey is a secular democracy, and that it is an important member of NATO.
He said Turkey under Erdogan was neither secular nor a democracy. And while Turkey may once have been an important NATO ally, “given the close collusion between Turkey and jihadists including [ISIS], beginning in 2013, there’s serious cause for concern.”
He added that NATO was a coalition of nations with shared values. If the alliance was being established today, Turkey under Erdogan “simply wouldn’t qualify as a member.”
‘Few checks and balances’
Atlantic Council senior fellow Naz Durakoglu said the referendum comes at a time of tension and trauma, after last July’ failed coup and a subsequent purge of institutions across the nation.
If the referendum is passed, she said, Turkey would move to a presidential system “with few checks and balances.”
“The new president would exercise almost complete executive control, with the ability to appoint and dismiss all ministers with no legislative buy-in.”
The proposed changes also weaken the judiciary, Durakoglu said, giving the president power to appoint two-thirds of the country’s senior judges.
Erdogan has been embroiled in a fierce row with some European Union countries over their refusal to allow his surrogates to address rallies to encourage members of large ethnic Turkish communities there to vote “yes” in the referendum. He has accused his European detractors of Nazi-like conduct, drawing an angry response from Germany in particular.
Durakoglu said the tensions between Turkey and the E.U. – “two critical partners of the U.S.” – could damage both NATO’s common defense community and Turkey’s prospects of accession to the E.U.
“If emboldened by a victory [in the referendum] President Erdogan may seek to test Europe’s limits further, and bring Turkey’s E.U. candidacy to a halt.”
On the other hand, she said, “a loss in the referendum, fueled by conspiracies about European intervention, may be just as detrimental.”
Erdogan did have one defender among the witnesses. Turkish Heritage Organization president Ali Cinar argued that journalists who have been detained had links to Kurdish terrorists or to those implicated in last summer’s failed coup attempt.
Cinar disputed claims of collusion between the Turkish government and ISIS. He said that 72 Turkish security personnel had been killed fighting ISIS, and that 1,000 terrorist fighters had been killed by the Turkish army in Syria.