How Biden’s possible cabinet picks see Turkey and the SDF

Meghan Bodette

With Democratic nominee Joe Biden now set to become the 46th president of the United States, attention has turned to his choice of appointees for key foreign policy positions.

Most of the names who have been proposed for cabinet-level posts have been critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, supportive of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and opposed to Turkish military intervention against the SDF in North and East Syria.

Some served in some capacity in the Obama administration, when the United States first decided to support the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Kobani—though some also provided aid to the extremist rebels that now make up the Turkish-backed opposition. Others have had longer careers as members of Congress, which has been the branch of government most willing to impose consequences on Erdogan for his actions.

Michele Flournoy, one of the top contenders to be Biden’s Secretary of Defense, served as the US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 2012. In August 2014, she expressed support for aid for “Kurdish fighters,” though she did not specify whether she was referring to Iraq or Syria. “Yes, the US should supply Kurds with what they need to defend key territory and thwart ISIS,” she stated in a Tweet.

In a 2019 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on NATO, Flournoy raised concerns about democracy in Turkey in discussions of the challenges posed by Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system, and suggested that this should be connected to security cooperation.

“I think the backsliding on democracy needs to be part of the conversation” she stated. “We have not been raising that issue enough with our Turkish counterparts. We need to press them on this issue. We need to connect what goes on in that sphere with…the degree to which we can cooperate in the security sphere.”

Former US Army officer and Senator Jack Reed, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also been named as a potential nominee to lead the Defense Department. He is a harsh Erdogan critic who has been broadly supportive of active Kurdish and Armenian constituencies in the state he represents.

In 2019, Reed spoke out strongly against the Turkish invasion of North and East Syria. He has sponsored legislation calling for stronger US action on human rights in Turkey throughout his legislative career, dating back to a 1996 bill that called on the United States to end all aid to Turkey until it “recognizes the civil, cultural, and human rights of its Kurdish citizens, ceases its military operations against Kurdish civilians, and takes demonstrable steps toward a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue.”

Former military veteran and Senator Tammy Duckworth is another possible choice for the position. She was also an outspoken opponent of the attacks on Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad, referring to Trump’s decision to greenlight the invasion as an “atrocity.”

Duckworth has sponsored legislation condemning Erdogan’s crackdown on individuals and organizations that have called for a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish question, supported sanctions on senior Turkish officials, and expressed support for a stronger US role in mediating a political solution between Turkey and the SDF.

Antony Blinken, a close Biden advisor and a possible candidate to serve as Secretary of State, is the most traditionally pro-Turkish of Biden’s likely cabinet picks.

Blinken has held various national security posts dating back to the Clinton administration—and was involved to some degree with that administration’s most destructive policies of appeasement. In 2001, he gave an interview with Turkish television where he defended the US role in the capture of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan.

In a January 2017 editorial, he argued that the United States should support the SDF in their campaign to liberate the self-declared ISIS capital Raqqa from the group, while simultaneously helping Turkey establish a presence in Bab city, on the border with Turkey.

Blinken has claimed that Trump should establish a personal relationship with Erdogan to make tough diplomacy with Turkey work, and has made the same recommendation for Biden.

Susan Rice, who served as US Ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013 and National Security Advisor from 2013 to 2017, is also a potential nominee for the State Department.

During the October 2019 invasion, Rice repeatedly criticized both Trump and Erdogan for their actions, and expressed concern that Turkey could not effectively fight ISIS. “We have not viewed these elements of the Kurdish SDF…as people that we believed posed a terrorist threat to us or others. They were, on the contrary, fighting ISIS when the Turks wouldn’t,” she said in an interview with PBS NewsHour.

“The Turks allowed thousands of ISIS fighters to flow through Turkey into Syria. And now to hand over the fight to the Turks and pretend they’re going to take it to ISIS and secure those prisoners is — it’s just not credible.”

Notably, when Trump equated the PKK to ISIS, Rice stated that the comparison was “among [his] most dishonest, craven statements ever.”

Senator Chris Coons, a co-founder of the Senate Human Rights Caucus, is also a potential choice for the State Department. He has supported targeted sanctions against Turkey for its actions in Syria, stating that the US “cannot ignore the actions of Turkey and President Erdogan to further de-stabilize Syria and the entire Middle East.” He also called on the White House to release transcripts of Trump’s phone calls with Erdogan.

Another Senator whose name has been proposed for the Department of State, Chris Murphy, has a similarly strong record. Murphy recently sponsored legislation demanding a report on Turkey’s human rights practices. He referred to Turkish attacks on the SDF as “a humanitarian and national security disaster,” and called on Trump to rescind his invitation for Erdogan’s November 2019 White House visit.

While cautious about imposing sanctions on Turkish officials, Murphy claimed that they could be effective if they were targeted to deter war crimes or counter Turkish support for ISIS.

Nominees for cabinet posts will not be named until after Biden takes office in January. All will require 50 or more Senators to vote to confirm them, which could be a difficult process in a polarized Senate where Republicans will likely hold a majority. But whoever is chosen is likely to view Turkey, the SDF, and Kurdish issues differently than their Democratic and Republican predecessors—which could suggest favorable policy shifts.