The Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2012, H.R. 6649, would grant Turkey two U.S. Navy frigates without any assurance that these vessels would not be used against American, Greek, Cypriot and Israeli interests in the region. HALC mobilized its national network of citizen advocates who made calls and wrote letters to Congress demanding that the bill not be passed as written. Their efforts helped to ensure that, while the bill passed in the House by a voice vote over the strenuous objections of several members, it then stalled in the Senate. HALC has learned that this bill will be reintroduced at the beginning of the 113th Congress. Be on the lookout for a further call to action. Let’s keep making our voice heard on this bill.
Several members of the Congress took the floor and laid out in detail why this bill is bad policy. Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel (NY-17), the ranking minority member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, spoke out first:
Congressman Eliot Engel
Mr. Speaker, I rise in opposition to this bill, H.R. 6649, as amended, and yield myself as much time as I may consume.
Mr. Speaker, this bill authorizes the transfer of decommissioned frigates to four foreign countries. The governments of Turkey, Mexico, and Thailand would each receive by grant two Perry class frigates. That means for free. Taiwan would be authorized to purchase four of the same class of frigates, which they clearly need to protect their territorial waters.
I object to this bill primarily because of Turkey. While I recognize that Turkey is an important NATO ally, I regret that I have to oppose this bill in light of Turkey’s problematic behavior and disturbing rhetoric regarding Israel and Cyprus over the past year and a half. For example, in May, with no apparent justification, Turkey sent combat aircraft to intercept an Israeli aircraft that was flying near Cyprus. This could have turned into a significant confrontation between a U.S. NATO ally and the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East. Fortunately, it did not.
In September 2011, Turkey announced that it would send warships to escort aid convoys to Gaza. It has not followed through with this threat, but nor has it rescinded it.
Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu have been famously competing to see who can issue the most vile denunciations of Israel, as we saw, once again, during the recent Gaza crisis. Indeed, their allegations of “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity,” quotes from them, topped even the claims of Hamas for stridency and falsehood. Of course, the prime minister called Israel a “terrorist state.” Is that the kind of rhetoric we should expect from a NATO ally?
Some people say this should continue because, after all, Turkey is an ally and we need to help them. Well, I look at it the other way. They’re a NATO ally, so they have responsibility. And the way they’re acting has been anything but responsible. This is not an inconsequential or trivial matter. As many public opinion surveys show, and as is widely acknowledged, Turkey wields enormous influence among Middle Easterners, with the sway to exacerbate or tamp down tensions as it sees fit. For too long, it has been exacerbating these tensions, particularly since the new government–well, it’s not new anymore–a government for several years with an Islamist bent has been in.
Moreover, Turkey’s longstanding recognition of Hamas has done nothing to moderate that group. It has merely lent legitimacy to a terrorist group and undermined the standing of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Gaza hostilities, Turkey’s extreme rhetoric and one-sided approach to Israel’s conflict with Hamas disqualified it from playing the useful mediating role which should be its natural vocation.
Turkey’s unnecessarily harsh anti-Israel rhetoric over the last several years actually did cost the Turks the support of Congress to authorize the transfer of two decommissioned U.S. frigates in the last Congress. It should have that result again in this Congress, and it should be denied.
But Turkey’s poisonous rhetoric and menacing behavior towards Israel is not the only reason to oppose this ship transfer, and perhaps not even the most potentially explosive. To cite the other important reason: Turkey has repeatedly threatened Cyprus and its energy explorations. One year ago, Turkey used its naval forces–and, by the way, the very naval forces this bill would enhance–in an effort to harass and intimidate Cyprus and workers employed by the Houston-based Noble Energy company as they sought to explore for offshore natural gas in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone. Prime Minister Erdogan also threatened that Turkey would use force to stop these explorations. Probably because of U.S. opposition, it has not done so, but, again, Turkey has never rescinded the threat. Almost exactly 1 year ago, Turkey conducted a dangerous live-firenaval exercise in the vicinity of both the Cypriot and Israeli offshore natural gas explorations, which Cyprus and Israel are doing jointly.
The Turkish attitude is epitomized by Turkey’s Minister for European Union Affairs, Egemen Bagis, who addressed the issue of Cypriot natural gas exploration last year. This was his warning, and I quote:
This is what we have a navy for. We have trained our marines for this. We have equipped the navy for this. All options are on the table. Anything can be done.
And I want to remind my colleagues that Turkey has continued to occupy the northern part of Cyprus since the 1970s. It’s just unacceptable.
Mr. Speaker, I realize that Turkey is an important member of NATO. It accepted radar emplacements for NATO’s missile defense initiative, and it is an important element of the solution to several regional problems–notably, Syria–but it has become a major problem for U.S. interests in terms of its relations with Israel and the inflammatory and distinctly unhelpful role it has assumed in the Palestinian issue, as well as its threats against Cyprus.
In the last several years, the once warm relationship between Israel and Turkey has unfortunately frozen over. We would truly like to see a thaw in that relationship, just as we would like to see Turkey respect the sovereign right of every country in the region, like Cyprus, to utilize their natural resources. Until then, I believe we should hold off on sending powerful warships to Turkey and encourage the government in Ankara to take a less belligerent approach to their neighbors.
Early in the next Congress, I would look forward to working with my colleagues on a new ship transfer bill that excludes Turkey, if we can defeat this bill, or appropriately conditions our ship transfer so that the government in Ankara gets the right message.
So I urge my colleagues to reject this bill, and I reserve the balance of my time. [Congressional Record, 12/31/12, pp. H7509 - H7510]
Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman (CA-30):
Congressman Brad Sherman
Woodrow Wilson noted that Congress in committee is Congress at work. Congress ignoring the committee process is a Congress that doesn’t work.
This bill has not been the subject of hearing and, more importantly, a markup in the Foreign Affairs Committee. And in the dead of night, provisions to transfer two frigates to Turkey, a controversial provision, was added to this otherwise innocuous bill.
There are arguments on both sides of the issue: Should we transfer the frigates to Turkey at no cost, a gift from the American taxpayer? Should we condition that transfer? Should we limit it to perhaps only one ship?
I’d like to have hearings. I’d like Congress to work its will. Instead, a bill is brought to the floor on a day we were not scheduled to be in session for a last-minute discussion and a last-minute vote.
In prior discussions in our committee dealing with providing frigates to Turkey, we’ve been told that Turkey lives in a dangerous neighborhood, that it shares a border with Iran. I would ask: Where on the Turkish-Iranian border will these frigates be deployed? The last time an oceangoing vessel has been seen in eastern Anatolia, it was Noah’s Ark.
Now these frigates will be deployed in the Mediterranean, and we’ve seen what the Turkish navy does in the Mediterranean. In 1974, there was the invasion of Cyprus. More recently, there are the actions taken against Israel and in support of Hamas. In June of 2010, after a Gaza flotilla attempted to aid the terrorist group Hamas with supplies, Turkey threatened to send armed naval escorts to back another aid convoy to Hamas. The Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan, called for Israel to be punished for interfering with the previous effort to aid Hamas with the flotilla. In September 2011, after a U.N. report on the Gaza flotilla was released, Turkey threatened to send an armed naval presence to the eastern Mediterranean to confront Israel, and Prime Minister Erdogan said that Israel should expect more naval presence from Turkey in the area, and I quote:
“Turkish warships will be tasked with protecting the Turkish boats” bringing aid to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The gentleman from New York pointed out how the Turkish navy has interfered with both the Cypriot and Israeli efforts to exploit natural gas deposits on the seabed between those two countries. This is particularly outrageous when you realize that the Cypriot natural gas fields are off the shores of South Cyprus, an area where Turkey has not tried to assert its military presence. And they’ve gone further and even interfered with Israel exploiting its own natural gas fields off of its coast.
This is the action of the Turkish navy in the Mediterranean. Is this something that we should be furthering by two free frigates? I don’t know. We haven’t had hearings. We haven’t had a markup. We haven’t had a discussion on what limitations, what conditions, and what quantity of ships should be transferred.
I’ve come to this floor on over 100 occasions to vote on suspension bills renaming post offices. Most of those bills were subject to a markup in the appropriate committee. Shouldn’t we give that same level of attention to the transfer of frigates to Turkey?
Send this bill back to committee. Let us have a real discussion. Let us follow the rules, not suspend the rules, when we’re dealing with a matter of this importance to our foreign policy in the eastern Mediterranean. [Congressional Record, 12/31/12, p. H7510]
Democratic Congressman John Sarbanes (MA-03):
Congressman John Sarbanes
Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the soon-to-be ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Engel, for yielding this time, and I want to thank him for his eloquent opposition to H.R. 6649.
This is not a noncontroversial bill. I know it’s being brought here on suspension as though it is, and I’m sure in the past when we’ve had these transfers of vessels, excess defense materials and so forth, often that is a noncontroversial action to take. In this case, it’s anything but noncontroversial, and I’m surprised, frankly, that the majority would bring the bill to the floor in this form.
Turkey is the problem here. There are vessels that are being transferred to Turkey. These are vessels that apparently are obsolete from our standpoint, surplus material that can go to them. And, yes, Turkey is a NATO ally, but it’s a problematic ally at best.
At critical moments over a period of many years, when the United States has looked to its ally Turkey for assistance for some critical support, Turkey has been absent. You’ve heard already, discussed at length here, the unlawful occupation of Cyprus. We’re talking about 38 years of unlawful occupation of our ally Cyprus. The adventurism of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and its recent conduct towards Israel has been detailed here at length.
So what you have is, yes, an American ally but one that has created some real problems for us and is a destabilizing actor in the eastern Mediterranean.
You can only characterize Turkey’s behavior in that region as gunboat diplomacy. When you look at its conduct towards Cyprus, towards Israel, its interference with American commercial interests that are trying to operate in the exclusive economic zone of these two nations that are critical to U.S. national security, Turkey has threatened to use force to stop Texas-based Noble Energy from drilling for oil and gas off the shores of Cyprus and Israel. Texas-based Noble Energy is an American company, and yet we are now going to transfer these vessels to Turkey for further adventurism on the high seas. You’ve heard this now detailed on both sides. At one point in the last year and a half, Turkey threatened to mobilize its air and naval assets to escort ships to Gaza.
As Congressman Engel says, we’re about to enhance those naval assets, with high anxiety on my part and, I think, on the part of other Members that they’ll be used in furtherance of this same kind of provocative behavior. If we are going transfer these things, at the very least we ought to be putting some conditions on this transfer–that no offensive use of these vessels can be made and that they can’t be used to traverse these exclusive economic zones that we’ve talked about. But this is going free of any conditions, and it’s why I have severe reservations about it.
This could be an opportunity to step back and think about how we conduct our foreign policy. Every bill we pass here matters. It all makes a difference. This may be on suspension, and it may be getting rid of excess material, but it’s a chance for us to send a powerful message in terms of the kind of foreign policy that the United States is going to exercise. Frankly, I don’t think that Turkey should be a beneficiary of this bill given its conduct over many years, but particularly over the last couple of years. It sends the wrong message. It rewards bad behavior. For that reason, I oppose it. [Congressional Record, 12/31/12, pp. H7510 - H7511]
Republican Congressman Gus Bilirakis (FL-12):
Congressman Gus Bilirakis
Mr. Speaker, I rise in opposition to H.R. 6649, the Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2012. As part of this legislation before us, the United States would transfer two Oliver Hazard Perry class guided missile frigates to the Government of Turkey.
I have serious concerns, and I oppose this military transfer, Mr. Speaker, because the Turkish navy, as recently as last year, held naval live-fire exercises in the eastern Mediterranean. These provocative exercises took place near the natural gas fields of Israel and the Republic of Cyprus and threatened to disrupt peaceful and productive economic activity. Instead, Mr. Speaker, it is my hope that, in the eastern Mediterranean, Congress will continue to work to foster the relationships between the United States, Greece, Israel, and Cyprus in order to promote and foster issues of mutual, economic, and diplomatic importance.
For those reasons, Mr. Speaker, I oppose the bill. [Congressional Record, 12/31/12, p. H7510]
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