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Turkish groups looking for influence in New York found a new target: Jamaal Bowman

NEW YORK — Turkish groups tied to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been looking to expand their influence in New York. One of their latest targets is Jamaal Bowman, a two-term House incumbent facing a tough reelection campaign north of New York City.

Members of the Turkish American Steering Committee — an organization representing the interests of the Turkish government and parts of its American diaspora — have visited Bowman in Washington, hosted a food distribution event attended by the two-term lawmaker and thrown a fundraiser for him.

The organization’s affiliation with Bowman appears to have been borne out of its fierce opposition to his predecessor, former Rep. Eliot Engel, who as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee had taken several stances in opposition to the Turkish government.

The pro-Turkey group had at least one reason to be happy with its overtures. While Bowman’s progressive politics do not comport with the authoritarian bent of the Erdoğan regime, he pursued legislation three years ago that would have forced U.S. troops out of northeast Syria — a policy long coveted by Erdoğan’s government. The measure garnered support from a bipartisan group of legislators in Congress.

Though the contributions to Bowman only total nearly $40,000 from 16 donors — a small fraction of his haul this cycle — they are another example of Turkey’s effort to expand its reach in the world of U.S. politics.

Mayor Eric Adams’ 2021 campaign is under federal investigation over potential collusion with the Turkish government. A grand jury is mulling the case and at least one person close to the mayor has received a subpoena. And the TASC, which is closely associated with Erdoğan, has given to elected officials who span the political spectrum, including Brooklyn Democrat Yvette Clarke and Republican Lee Zeldin. It has also donated to Bowman’s fellow members of the Squad and sought alliances with other politicians around the country.

“It is quite possible that anyone with [Bowman’s] profile will be an easy target for the likes of TASC, who will be very well aware [of the common policy positions] on the progressive side of the left and the isolationist side of the right,” the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister, who focuses on Syria and counterterrorism, said in an interview.

In June 2021, during Bowman’s first term, the New York representative for TASC, Erol Akyurek, posted contribution links to the freshman lawmaker’s campaign on Akyurek’s Facebook page. And two months later, figures tied to the organization hosted a fundraiser for Bowman at a Turkish restaurant in Clifton, New Jersey, according to a Facebook post advertising the event.

The soiree was outside Bowman’s district straddling Westchester and the Bronx, near one of the largest Turkish American communities in the country. Israfil Demir, who would go on to become a TASC co-chair, co-hosted the event.

Donations from individuals tied to TASC on the day Bowman was feted at Toros Restaurant — which also catered a fundraiser for the New York City mayor — totaled nearly $10,000, according to records from the Federal Election Commission.

In 2021, one month after the New Jersey fundraiser, Bowman sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have pulled American forces out of northeast Syria. In explaining his measure, Bowman said he was trying to end excessive deployment of the U.S. military abroad and bring war authorization back to Congress — a stance Bowman’s campaign said was born out of discussions with antiwar groups and and is consistent with a pledge during his first campaign to curtail long term military engagements abroad.

“For too long, our nation’s spending priorities have been out of whack, and I believe this White House understands that it’s past time for Americans’ money to be spent building roads, schools, and businesses here at home instead of destroying them overseas,” Bowman said in a statement at the time. “Too many Syrian lives have been lost as a result of disastrous U.S. policy, but President Biden has an incredible opportunity to demonstrate leadership once again on the global stage.”

The U.S. military presence in Syria constitutes a fraction of overseas deployment and expenses — fewer than 1,000 troops are stationed there — but is strongly opposed by Turkey, according to Lister, the Middle East Institute fellow.

“Turkey has long had an interest in seeing the U.S. withdraw from northeast Syria because they don’t like who we are partnering with there,” he said, referring to Kurdish militants who had been helping the U.S. fight against ISIS, but who are also locked in a protracted conflict with Turkey.

Bowman’s amendment aligned not only with the interests of Turkey, but in a rare political overlap, with stateside Republicans who have also pursued efforts to shrink the U.S. footprint in Syria. Trump ordered a pullback of troops there in 2019 — a decision he quickly reversed — and last year, Rep. Matt Gaetz introduced a measure nearly identical to Bowman’s.

The TASC, which did not respond to a request for comment, has engaged in multiple public relations campaigns on behalf of Turkey.

The organization has been in a bitter feud with former NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom, an outspoken critic of Erdoğan. It has expressed support for the Biden Administration selling F-16 fighter jets to the nation. And it has advocated for a Disney show about the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

But one of its prime goals is to push back against any person or organization who recognizes the Armenian Genocide, a 1915 episode in which troops from the now-defunct Ottoman Empire killed or deported more than 1 million Armenians.

Bowman’s campaign spokesperson, Gabe Tobias, said Bowman has taken positions antithetical to the organization’s goals, such as calling for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Tobias pointed to Bowman’s membership in the Congressional Armenian Issues Caucus — which explicitly states that recognition as one of its goals — and his attendance at events commemorating the incident this year and last.

Bowman was a co-sponsor of the Armenian Genocide Education Act during his first term, and became a cosponsor of the current version of the bill on the same day POLITICO inquired about the legislation last week, congressional records show.

“Congressman Bowman’s commitment to recognizing genocides in both Armenia and Palestine, ending forever wars and rejecting the influence of rightwing special interest groups is clear,” Tobias said in a statement, noting that Bowman meets with multiple advocacy groups weekly, and the interactions with TASC have been minimal.

“His commitment to those principles is exactly why he’s facing an unprecedented $10 million dollar smear campaign from a right wing special interest group,” he added, referencing spending by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee against Bowman in his primary against Westchester County Executive George Latimer.

Tobias also noted the Congress member returned donations in April from Halil Mutlu — a cousin of Erdoğan and onetime board member of the TASC — after learning he had registered with the federal government as a Turkish citizen engaged in political activity.