Turkish democracy project linked to anti-Iranian and pro-Israel network

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The Turkish Democracy Project, a political advocacy group launched this summer with the stated aim of promoting democracy in Turkey, has the surprising characteristic of having no Turkish member on its governing board. In a press release announcing its establishment, the organization said it was “committed to encouraging Turkey to adopt more democratic policies”. The two Turks publicly involved in the project – former Turkish politician Aykan Erdemir and academic Suleyman Ozeren – were removed from its website advisory board membership list shortly after its launch.

The Turkish Democracy Project boasts a heavy roster of former US officials and hawkish diplomats with close ties to Israel and the Arab Gulf states.

Although there are no Turks publicly affiliated with the group, the Turkish Democracy Project has a hefty list of hawkish former US officials and diplomats with close ties to Israel and the Arab Gulf states, including the former Bush administration counterterrorism official Frances Townsend, former US Senator Joseph Lieberman, and John Bolton, the notorious aggressive national security adviser to former President Donald Trump. “It’s time to sound the alarm bells on Turkey,” Bolton, best known for his advocacy for the US confrontation with Iran, said on Twitter as the Turkey Democracy Project launched.

Democracy in Turkey under its authoritarian ruling AK party has suffered serious setbacks in recent years, but what the Turkish Democracy Project does specifically to address this issue is unclear. The organization, however, has ties to a network of well-funded black money groups promoting U.S. foreign policy positions in the Middle East that align with Saudi, Emirati and Israeli security interests.

At the center of it all is Mark Wallace, former Ambassador of the George W. Bush administration to the United Nations. Wallace is currently the head of not only the Turkish Democracy Project, but also the anti-Iranian organization United Against Nuclear Iran, or UANI; the counterterrorism group Counter Extremism Project, or CEP; and even an arts-focused, human rights-focused nonprofit in Iran called PaykanArtCar. Eight of the 11 senior leadership and advisory board of the Turkish Democracy Project hold positions in UANI, CEP, or both.

UANI and CEP had questions raised on their objectives and sources of funding, including whether they receive financial support from foreign governments and politicians. The Turkish Democracy Project did not respond to a request for comment on its own funding and sources of support.

Network of pressure groups

The Turkish democracy project has not yet released information on its funding. But the closely related organizations UANI and CEP both report to an umbrella organization known as the Counter Extremism Project United. Although it does not disclose any of its funding sources, this network of organizations grossed over $ 101 million between 2009 and 2019, according to a review of tax returns, making it one of the largest networks pressure on US foreign policy regarding black money in operation today.

July 2021 item on corporate and government news site Intelligence Online about the creation of the Turkish Democracy Project, noted Wallace’s close ties to Thomas Kaplan, a billionaire investor known to be a funder and a staunch supporter of Wallace’s defense linked to Iran.

Kaplan also employs Wallace as a senior advisor to his Electrum Group, a company that invests in “public metals and mining stocks” – commodities that Kaplan and Wallace both own marketed to investors like holding on to or increasing in value in the event of political instability in the Middle East.

The Intelligence Online article also referred to Kaplan’s close ties to the Arab Gulf Royal Family, which he referred to. with enthusiasm in past public appearances. In particular, Kaplan maintains extensive business and philanthropic relationships with the United Arab Emirates.

Efforts to scrutinize the finances behind the web of Kaplan-linked foreign policy lobby groups found an unusual hurdle: the US government, which canceled a 2013 lawsuit against Kaplan and UANI. The lawsuit claimed Kaplan and UANI were funded by undisclosed foreign interests. The government, in an unusual invocation of state secrets as a third party intervening in a civil action, has cryptically claimed that allowing the case to move forward would endanger US national security .

Despite the availability of public documents providing total figures on funding for this network of Wallace-led organizations, specific information on donors remains opaque. There have been periodic clues, however, indicating a generous role for Kaplan in funding these activities. List of UANI donors published in 2015 on the investigative information site LobeLog revealed that Kaplan-controlled trusts contributed $ 843,000 to UANI in 2013, accounting for about half of the organization’s income that year.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Environmentalist, philanthropist, and investor Dr. Thomas S. Kaplan speaks on stage at the 2018 Concordia Annual Summit - Day 1 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 24, 2018 in New York City.  (Photo by Riccardo Savi / Getty Images for The Concordia Summit)

Billionaire investor Thomas Kaplan speaks on stage at the 2018 Concordia Annual Summit on September 24, 2018 in New York City.

Photo: Riccardo Savi / Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Financing from abroad

In 2015, Wallace filed a “truth by testimony” disclosure with the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs before serving as a witness in his capacity as leader of the counter-extremism project. Wallace wrote: “We have only received individual and private contributions to date. CEP has not received any money from foreign governments. We have discussed CEP funding with the US government (State Department) and various foreign governments in the future.

A mine of emails leaked several years ago – believed to be from the account of UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al Otaiba – seemed to show research through the network for foreign funding, particularly from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. An email from Wallace to Otaiba on September 3, 2014 referred to “cost estimates” for an upcoming “forum”, although it was not clear whether the referenced event was a UANI event or the launch. of the CEP, which took place later in the month.

Another leaked email exchange in January 2015 mentioned UAE support for the CEP, with Townsend requesting Otaiba’s help in arranging meetings with Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Townsend concluded his email by thanking Otaiba for his “support of the CEP effort!” “

Also in August 2016, former Republican Senator Norm Coleman, now a Saudi lobbyist, wrote to Otaiba under the leadership of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir to provide the tax status of the CEP. As Coleman wrote to the UAE Ambassador: “Foreign Minister Al Jubeir recommended that I follow up with you on the attached matter. The Counter Extremism Project is a 501c4. Let me know if you have any questions. “

“You can do all of these types of work if you are a US citizen and funded by US citizens, but FARA comes into play if you are funded or if you take action at the request of a government or foreign entity. . “

If the CEP and UANI receive foreign funding, their activities may require registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, a law requiring registration for entities in the United States that engage in “political activities.

None of the groups registered with FARA, although, despite suggestions, no hard evidence emerged of foreign funding.

“These groups are all engaged in activities that would qualify under FARA’s definition of political activities,” said Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, of the ‘UANI, CEP and Turkish Democracy Project. “They have very explicit goals related to US foreign policy, and they actively try to influence sections of the public – and in some cases policy makers themselves – toward those policy goals.”

“You can do all of these types of work if you are a US citizen and funded by US citizens, but FARA comes into play if you are funded or if you take action at the request of a government or foreign entity. “, added Freeman.

Aligned interests

The launch of the Turkish democracy project this summer has predictably infuriated pro-government media in Turkey, who called the organization a conspiracy of an array of enemies of the country to undermine its stability.

For the past decade, Turkey has been locked in an internal struggle between supporters of the ruling AK party and the Gülen Movement, a banned political network that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accuses of organizing an attempted coup. State in 2016. Turkey has also maintained hostile relations in recent years with Arab Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as with Israel.

For their part, Wallace and Kaplan remain at the center of a growing network of well-funded organizations whose foreign policy goals coincide with the stated security interests of the governments of Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv. Despite noble words in his mission statements, observers said the launch of the Turkish Democracy Project appears to be more about promoting the interests of Turkey’s regional rivals than defending liberal democracy.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, also known as DAWN, a Middle East-focused, Washington-based think tank established in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, said that the track record of those behind the organization indicates a political rather than a humanitarian purpose.

“Targeting a flawed democracy in the Middle East,” said Whitson, “while members of its board defend and promote the absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the apartheid state of Israel and the dictatorship in Egypt suggest that this group’s focus is political rather than values-based.


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