WASHINGTON -- A lobbying firm that's a registered agent of the Turkish government is trying out a new argument during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to the U.S. this week: the Russians are coming, and Armenia is helping them.
Representatives from Mercury LLC have contacted multiple congressional offices to argue that Russia's presence in Armenia, a small country on Turkey's border that has tensions with the Turks lingering from the 1915 genocide of Armenian Christians, makes it important for the U.S. to close ranks with fellow NATO member Turkey, according to two Capitol Hill aides.
Mercury, which registered to work on behalf of Turkey last month, hopes to convince lawmakers to attach their names to two separate documents, an aide told The Huffington Post.
One is a letter addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry that focuses on the "growing military alliance between Russia and Armenia" -- citing the flow of Russian fighter jets, helicopters gunships and drones to Armenia. It calls the Russia-Armenia relationship "deeply concerning."
The other is what's called a "Dear Colleague" letter, intended to be passed from one member of Congress to others to drum up congressional interest. The "Dear Colleague" missive is to be sent April 4, when NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will be in Washington.
The document doesn't mention Turkey by name, but states, "The time to stand with our allies is now." It also encourages recipients to read an op-ed by James Foley, a former deputy chief of staff to the NATO secretary-general. The copy of the letter seen by HuffPost does not include a link to that op-ed, but one of the aides said Mercury on Thursday sent his office a Time magazine piece by Foley that highlights Russian aggression against NATO and says Turkey is more important to the security alliance than ever. Foley served as U.S. ambassador to Croatia from 2009 to 2012, and was a Bush administration senior coordinator on the Iraqi refugee issue.
Asked for comment, Mercury shared a statement from an organization called the Turkish Institute for Progress.
"The Turkish Institute for Progress along with U.S. security experts and officials are calling on Armenia to expel the two Russian bases in Armenia and to sever its military ties with [President Vladimir] Putin's Russia. The close relationship between Russia and Armenia speaks for itself," said Derya Taskin, the institute's president.
Mercury's work "is on behalf of TIP," which is not government-funded, Mercury's John Cpin said in an email. "We have consistently been educating congress about the concerns surrounding Putin's influence in Armenia and the threat to NATO that influence represents," he added.
It's too soon to predict the impact of the lobbying effort. Many lawmakers are skeptical of Putin because of his aggressions against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. But it's hardly news for most national experts that Putin is close with Armenia, and Turkey's military dispute with Russia over an alleged airspace violation late last year prompted little U.S. reaction.
Meanwhile, Erdogan and Turkey are fairly toxic in Washington. Experts on Turkey and human rights groups have blasted the Turkish government’s brutal treatment of civilian members of its Kurdish minority as part of its fight against Kurdish militants. That heavy-handedness is consistent with Erdogan's general repression of civil society, which includes the targeting of journalists.
At the same time, Kurdish forces in Syria, which see Turkey as an enabler of the so-called Islamic State, have been heroes in the West since their triumphs against ISIS in 2015. Those Syrian Kurds have cooperated with Putin without any significant effect on their popularity in Washington -- something Turkey's messaging machine may want to keep in mind.
Erdogan's visit this week has done little to improve his image in the U.S. Scores of protesters showed up to his address at the Brookings Institution on Thursday, and Turkish security officers tackled journalists trying to cover it, calling one "a PKK whore." (The PKK is the primary Kurdish militant group battling the Turkish state and is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S., and the European Union. Turkey distrusts the Syrian Kurdish militia battling ISIS, the YPG, because it sees that group as an extension of the PKK.)
President Barack Obama only agreed to meet with Erdogan Thursday night after initially declining to do so. The two leaders clearly do not see eye to eye: Erdogan doubled down on his criticism of the Obama administration's outreach to the Syrian Kurds in his Brookings Institution speech. Obama, for his part, considers Erdogan "a failure and an authoritarian," according to a detailed Atlantic magazine report on the president's thinking about world politics.