Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has dominated his country’s politics since 2003. He has transformed the state from a relatively democratic parliamentary system to a centralized presidential one, purged 130,000 people from the government, harshly cracked down on journalists, violently stifled dissent and waged a brutal war on his own people—all while enjoying staunch support from the U.S. government and its allies.
President Erdogan met President Donald Trump on May 17. Immediately after the head-to-head, Erdogan was shuttled to the Turkish ambassador’s residence to meet with a group of prominent former U.S. foreign policy officials. The meeting was arranged by the Atlantic Council, one of Washington’s most influential think tanks and one of its most heavily funded, thanks in part to large donations from Turkish Petroleum and the Turkey Army College.
On his way into the meeting, Erdogan watched as his burly bodyguards and pumped-up supporters attacked dozens of protesters in broad daylight. Many of the demonstrators were from ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey like the Kurds and Yazidis. At least 11 people were injured and nine were hospitalized.
The symbolism of the attack was striking, perfectly encapsulating the impunity Erdogan’s Turkey enjoys as a member of NATO.
This was not the first time Erdogan’s security detail has roughed up critics in the U.S. In March 2016, Erdogan spoke at another influential Washington think tank, the Brookings Institution, which also enjoys generous funding from Western governments and their allies. Outside the event, his bodyguards roughed up journalists and menaced protesters.
Shilling for Erdogan
Located just blocks from the White House, the influential Atlantic Council is a key component of the whitewashing of Erdogan and his government’s repressive policies. At the same time, the think tank has focused heavily on exposing human rights abuses and pushing for regime change in countries like Syria that have resisted alignment with the West.
On the eve of Erdogan’s visit, Al Monitor published an exposé on the “Atlantic Council’s alleged cozying up to the Erdogan regime.”
Among those invited to the closed session the Atlantic Council co-hosted for Erdogan were ex-CIA director David Petraeus and former Secretaries of Defense William Cohen and Chuck Hagel, the latter of whom previously served as the chairman of the think tank. Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State who co-chairs the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, was also in the room.
In April, the Atlantic Council held its annual energy summit in Istanbul. Al Monitor’s Amberin Zaman cited four sources who alleged “that the Atlantic Council had bowed to Turkish pressure and excluded speakers, including a member of its own staff.” (Atlantic Council president and CEO Fred Kempe denied the allegations.) The summit, titled “Strengthening Transatlantic Engagement with a Turbulent Region,” featured officials from the Turkish government and state-linked institutions, along with Erdogan himself.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry also spoke at the Istanbul summit.
Attendees recalled that “there was no discussion throughout the summit about Turkey’s unchecked descent into one-man rule,” according to Al Monitor.
At his widely read Angry Arab blog, the academic and Middle East commentator As’ad AbuKhalil joked, “By the way, did Atlantic Council pundits participate in beating up protesters the other day?”
Government Funding for an ‘NGO’
The Atlantic Council is sometimes described as a “non-governmental organization,” and is registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. In reality, it is funded by the U.S. government and its allies, and essentially acts as an unofficial arm of NATO. Its list of donors is a who’s who of prominent governments and corporations. In 2015, top financial contributors—at the price of more than $1 million—included the United Arab Emirates and Lebanese billionaire Bahaa Hariri.
Other significant funders were the U.S. State Department and the Bahraini monarchy, along with weapons manufacturers Lockheed Martin and Raytheon and oil giant Chevron.
The European Union; the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Army and Marines; ExxonMobil, and the foundation of Syrian-British billionaire Ayman Asfari, a top financier of the Syrian opposition’s public relations apparatus, have also funded the think tank.
Atlantic Council fellows and panelists at its events have explicitly and persistently called for U.S.-led regime change in Syria, even while conceding that the armed opposition is dominated by al-Qaeda.
A letter released by the Atlantic Council in 2013, following pressure for transparency, showed that the think tank had in the previous five years received funding from NATO, the European Commission and the U.K. government, as well as the Western-backed monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The think tank’s ties to the Turkish government, particularly its energy sector, have received less scrutiny. Various Turkish state institutions, including Turkey Army College and the Turkish Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, have provided financial support to the think tank.
In fact, of the eight institutions listed in the 2013 Atlantic Council document disclosing foreign government entity funding, five were Turkish. Four were Turkish fossil fuel companies, including the state-owned Petroleum Pipeline Corporation (BOTAS), the national Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO), the Istanbul Natural Gas Distribution Company (IGDAS) and the Electricity Generation Company.
Considering its sources of funding, it is easy to understand why the Atlantic Council held its annual energy summit in Istanbul.
Turkey’s Oil from ISIS Scheme
The Turkish energy sector’s links to ISIS are noteworthy as well.
Before the Atlantic Council summit in Istanbul, Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s energy minister (and President Erdogan’s son-in-law), allegedly criticized speakers who were banned, Al Monitor noted in its report. The publication did not explore the accusations that Albayrak has facilitated oil deals with the genocidal extremist group ISIS, however.
In December 2016, WikiLeaks published thousands of personal emails showing how Albayrak was effectively running the fossil fuel company Powertrans, which transferred oil from ISIS-held territory to Turkey.
Ahmet S. Yayla, a former counterterrorism police chief in Turkey and senior research fellow at the NATO-linked International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, published an article in October 2016 detailing the allegations that the Turkish government was indirectly buying oil from ISIS.
Yayla cited a report by Rystad Energy, which had been commissioned by the Norwegian government and which found that the majority of the oil sold by ISIS went to Turkey.
For years, Turkey’s right-wing Islamist government played a double game with the self-declared Islamic State, allowing thousands of extremists from around the world to cross its border to join the jihadist group and allegedly even supporting ISIS directly.
This did not damage Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. and European countries, which remain close allies.