Obama’s Job Now: Fight ISIS All-In as Turkey Plays Both Sides
Turkey’s stunningly rash decision last week to down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet flying an anti-terrorist mission near the Turkish-Syrian border alters the calculus in the Syria crisis at least as much as the ISIS ’s November 13 attacks in Paris did. It’s time to hold the government of Recip Tayyip Erdoğan up to the light and see it as it is.
The blunt, ugly truth is that Turkey is part of the problem in Syria, not the solution. It’s urgent now that the powers attempting to defeat ISIS face this and force Erdoğan to clean up his duplicitous act.
For the Obama administration, it’s also a question of ’fessing up. What is the U.S. doing in an alliance with a government whose active support for ISIS is now embarrassingly plain? Why, after nearly 18 months of bombing sorties against ISIS, has progress proven negligible at best?
Sigmar Gabriel, vice-chancellor in Angela Merkel’s coalition government, said as news of the air-to-air attack echoed around the world last Tuesday, “This incident shows for the first time that we are dealing with an actor who is unpredictable according to statements from various parts of the region. This is not Russia. This is Turkey.”
NATO appears to know this already. When it convened at Ankara’s request last week, it declined to do so under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Instead, the session was downgraded to a consultation as required under the milder Article 4. NATO, you may have noticed, has since stayed well clear of the mess other than urging Moscow and Ankara to de-escalate.
The Russians know the score, too. After meeting with French President François Hollande last Wednesday, President Putin described Turkey’s act as “a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists.” It doesn’t get any plainer.
Russian Premier Dmitry Medvedev later alleged the most craven of motives, citing “the direct financial interest of some Turkish officials relating to the supply of oil products refined by plants controlled by ISIS.” Russian jets had begun bombing truck convoys headed for Turkey from ISIS-controlled refineries and storage tanks in the days prior to the attack.
In his not-much-covered press conference with Putin after their talks at the Kremlin last Thursday, Hollande joined the Russian leader in calling for the Syrian-Turkish border to be sealed. In my read, a prominent Western leader just put his name on the allegations Russia has advanced since its fighter jet went down in Syrian territory. All such assertions deserve to be investigated.
On Saturday, Putin approved of an array of sanctions against Turkey, and more appear to be on the way. This is right, and while the air attack is a bilateral matter, the Western powers should take the cue at this point.
That’s not happening, however. A well-placed source in Europe wrote Sunday and quoted “a very senior European diplomat” as complaining, “Europe and U.S. are courting Turkey while they should ostracize it.”
That’s what’s happening. And it’s wrong.
The Obama administration’s recent alliance with Turkey, made official in August, was a crackpot’s move from the first. Erdoğan instantly took it as license to extend his animosities toward Kurds into Syria and Iraq. As Turkish jets bomb Kurdish militias in both countries—leaving ISIS forces more or less to themselves—they attack the most effective troops now active against the ISIS.
Obama’s policy people have had virtually nothing to say about this. Nor have they said anything as Erdoğan, a Sunni Muslim, proceeds apace to erase Turkey’s honorable secular tradition in favor of a politically opportunistic Islamization project.
Erdoğan’s our guy? Disgraceful.
In another round of his usual catch-up, Obama announced Saturday that he would press Turkey to close a 60-mile stretch of its frontier with Syria through which weapons and extremist fighters pass routinely. It’s weak, per usual. One, Obama is two days behind Hollande and Putin on this point. Two, the entire border needs to be shut, whatever the troop count has to be.
It’s obvious what unites Washington and Ankara is a shared obsession with ousting the Assad government in Damascus. Consequently, the view of ISIS is ambiguous at best. Wrong again.
Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq veteran and a rising star on the Democratic side of the House, joined forces with a Republican colleague 10 days ago to table legislation defunding Pentagon and CIA arms and training to anti-Assad Islamic militias. This should be taken seriously. Obama’s imperative now is to explain his alliance with the objectionable Erdoğan and clarify just what his intentions are in Syria.
Time’s up, Mr. President. You’re fighting the danger of terrorism or you’re fighting for strategic advantage in the Middle East. Which, please?
The Europeans could use some intellectual discipline, too. Sigmar Gabriel’s remark and NATO’s lukewarm response to Turkey’s presentation in Brussels last week are evidence enough they’ve had their fill of Turkey’s machinations.
But the immigration crisis has fogged their minds. Desperate to stem the flow, the E.U. signed a deal on Sunday wherein Ankara is to get $3.2 billion, in return for turning down the faucet. (Erdoğan demanded an extortionate $6.4 billion, sources tell me, and the agreement therefore includes a clause providing for upward adjustments in the aid.)
Turkey deserves assistance, but loyalty isn’t quite loyalty if it comes with a price tag. Emphatically, the E.U. is wrong to recommence talks on Turkey’s accession to the union—another enticement included in the pact.
Bottom line: The fox is among the chickens, and between the Paris attacks and the downed Su-24, it’s time to get him out.