Turkey launched its long-planned military operation on Wednesday to wipe out the Kurdish militia along its southern border with Syria, following a White House announcement on Sunday that the U.S. would step aside by withdrawing all its troops from the region.
The decision quickly drew criticism, with some of President Donald Trump’s fiercest allies condemning him for leaving behind Kurdish forces who helped fight against the Islamic State. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) swiftly proposed legislation within hours of the attack to sanction Turkey for invading northern Syria.
Trump’s sudden shift in the U.S. foreign policy in the region comes amid controversy over his business connections with Turkey and aligns with the president’s pledge to stay out of foreign conflicts. It also takes place at a time when Turkish interests hired an army of lobbyists to sway U.S. politics.
The administration’s decision to pull out of northern Syria, which came shortly after a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made way for Turkey to launch the Wednesday attack. Trump threatened on Twitter to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy, but his Wednesday statement that called the Turkish offensive “a bad idea” stopped short of taking action to sanction the foreign government.
The Turkish government has long considered the Syrian Kurdish forces as terrorists allied with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The two sides had multiple bloody conflicts in recent years. Touting the “defeat” of ISIS, Trump defended his decision to withdraw troops despite warnings from congressional Republicans about the rise of terrorist forces in the region.
Trump ran on his promise of less interference in foreign wars during the 2016 presidential campaign. The president announced his plan last December to pull the troops from Syria due to a largely diminished Islamic State force, but eventually left behind 400 troops in the Kurdish-held region due to backlash from his Republican allies in Congress.
The Turkish government has alone spent roughly $12.3 million hiring high-profile Washington lobbying firms — including one with close ties to the Trump administration — to influence the U.S. government since 2017. Turkish government-linked entities, such as Halkbank, Turkish Exporters’ Assembly and Turkey-US Business Council, combined to spend another $4.3 million in U.S. lobbying. Together, Turkish interests have doled out more than 20 times what major pro-Kurdish groups in Turkey and Syria have collectively spent during the same period.
The U.S. Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, has spent just $112,000 on lobbying since 2018. The council lobbied Trump, lawmakers and administration officials earlier this year against the U.S. troop withdrawal. Syrian-Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed also met with Trump at the president’s Washington hotel in January to discuss U.S. military presence in Syria and the fight against ISIS.
The Kurdish effort was nonetheless diminished by heavy spending from Turkish interests. The Turkish government entered a $1.5 million contract this year with lobbying powerhouse Greenberg Traurig to promote its image and agenda in the U.S., Foreign Agents Registration Act filings show. OpenSecrets previously reported that the firm helped shape Turkey’s response to sanction threats from the U.S. earlier this year over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile system.
Greenberg Traurig is also, however, representing the Kurdistan Regional Government, an autonomous Kurdish-held region in Iraq that Turkey said was linked to the PKK. The KRG pays the lobbying firm a monthly fee of $20,000 to elevate the group’s profile and help gather support from the U.S., records show.
The KRG released a statement Tuesday expressing concerns about the Turkish offensive following the U.S. troop withdrawal. The Iraqi Kurdish group has spent more than $7.5 million on its foreign influence campaign since 2017, inking high-dollar contracts with lobbying firms such as the BGR Group to garner U.S. support for the Kurds. Paul Manafort, former chairman of the Trump campaign, helped the group promote a referendum in 2017 that called for Kurdish independence from Iraq.
Other Kurdish groups have spent significantly less on foreign lobbying. The Republican People’s Party in Turkey, which advocates for the Kurdish independence, has spent around $650,000 on foreign influence operations as it lobbies State Department officials and think tanks.
Meanwhile, some Turkish interest groups are the top clients of several prominent Washington lobbying firms, including Ballard Partners and Mercury Public Affairs. Both firms have retained multiple revolving-door lobbyists, including one foreign agent that represented Turkey’s interests while serving as a Trump White House appointee. Starting in 2017, Ballard Partners received $1.5 million from Halkbank and $750,000 from the Turkish government each year. Brian Ballard, the firm’s president, was a top fundraiser for Trump’s 2016 presidential bid and the vice chair for the president’s inaugural committee.
Mercury Public Affairs, which received almost $650,000 from the Turkish government in 2018, circulated an article earlier this year by Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, calling the PKK a terrorist organization that NATO should help Turkey fight against. The firm received $970,044 from the government-tied Turkey-US Business Council in 2018, and also represents the American-Turkish Council on a $50,000 agreement.
Several early members of the Trump administration had ties with the Turkish government.
Before he became the national security adviser to Trump, Michael Flynn supported Erdogan in a 2016 op-ed after the Turkish president imprisoned thousands following a military coup. Flynn and his associates were later indicted for secretly lobbying on behalf of Turkey. A district court judge last month tossed out the case on Flynn’s business partner Bijan Kian, saying there wasn’t evidence to prove Kian was acting as an undisclosed lobbyist for Turkey.
The abrupt troop withdrawal also put a spotlight on Trump’s business interests in Turkey, which allowed him to rake in between $100,001 and $1,000,000 last year on Trump-licensed hotel towers in Istanbul. The Turkish-US Business Council has also held major conferences at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, featuring top Turkish officials such as Turkey’s Minister of Treasury and Finance Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Researcher Anna Massoglia contributed to this report.