Obama Paid a High Price to Get Turkey to Fight ISIS

Obama Paid a High Price to Get Turkey to Fight ISIS

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The war against the Islamic State just widened to include Turkey as a combatant. The Obama administration has long tried to persuade the Islamic government of RecipTayip Erdoğan to get into the fray, but the vital question still needs to be asked: Is this “game-changer,” as one U.S. official calls it, a good thing or a bad thing?

There’s no simple answer, but on balance, this development offers a little short-term good and a lot of long-term bad.  

There is no question that ISIS threatens everyone, including most Muslims, and is now destabilizing Turkey’s southern provinces. Countering this menace is an urgent task.

Related: Turkey Denies Turning Blind Eye to Islamic State

If you applaud the spread of what American colonel-turned-scholar Andrew Bacevich terms “the War for the Greater Middle East,” you’ll have to do so without me. The history books are going to call this the war in which more or less everybody fought more or less everybody.

For the Obama administration, the conflict that now runs from Iraq through Syria and (effectively) across the latter’s border with Turkey shapes up as a quagmire at least as bad as the Vietnam mess of the Kennedy and Johnson years. Now as then, a one-dimensional military response is doomed to fail, in the view of some very thoughtful heads.  

At least in the Vietnam War, one could distinguish allies from adversaries. In the Middle East war, a friend in one theater is an enemy in another. Turkey just made things still more complicated in this regard.

President Obama got Erdoğan’s consent to allow American fighter jets to launch missions into Syria from two Turkish bases in a telephone call last Wednesday. The next day Turkish tank and artillery units fought ISIS militants for the first time; early Friday, Turkish F-16s bombed at least eight targets inside Syria and Iraq.

From the Ankara government: “The terrorist organization represents a national security threat to Turkey, and we are working closely with our allies, including the United States, to combat terrorism.” Boilerplate.

Related: Turkey Approves Use of Air-Bases Against ISIS

From Washington: Regarding the U.S. and Turkey, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said, “We have decided to further deepen our cooperation in the fight against ISIL....” as State calls the Islamic State. That’s it. More boilerplate.

As a tactical expedient, there’s obvious advantage for the Pentagon in this pact. U.S. warplanes can now take off and land much closer to the Syrian border than they can from bases in Iraq, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf.

O.K., but that’s a purely military consideration. And no surprise, the agreement was negotiated by John R. Allen, a retired marine general who acts as Obama’s special envoy for the campaign against ISIS.

Here’s the reality: Gaining the use of two Turkish bases is nothing like the sum of what Obama and Erdoğan just signed off on. Behind the sparse accounts of the agreement we’ve had so far, it looks like we’ve just been served another bowl of that too-familiar dish, spaghetti a la Obama.  

Related: Turkey Hits Kurdish Militant Camps in Northern Iraq

One, the Erdoğan government views the Middle East war through the lens of the Shia-Sunni conflict for regional primacy. Being Sunni, its priority has been to topple the Assad government in Damascus, which is Alawite, a Shia sect.

Don’t wonder why so many arms and foreign fighters have until now flowed through Turkey to “the Islamic State’s power base in Syria,” as The New York Times put it last week. This is why.

One reason Erdoğan previously declined to cooperate with Washington is that he insisted the Pentagon accept a no-fly zone in northern Syria, wherein anti-Assad militias—some very unsavory types—can train. Did Obama, who wants to defeat ISIS at this point, not topple Assad, just consent to this?

Allen, in an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum Thursday, said simply, “No. It was not part of the discussion.” Maybe not, but Mark Lowen, the BBC’s Turkey correspondent, said the U.S. did accept a “safe area,” and it takes a fine eye indeed to distinguish one from the other.

Related: Germany Urges Turkey to Respect Proportionality in Fight Against PKK

In sum, the Obama administration appears to have waded yet further into the mangrove swamp of regional rivalries—a place from which no profit will be realized, and it will have a hard time getting out if or when it decides to.

Which leads to the second unstated point behind this agreement.

Erdoğan isn’t bombing ISIS alone. He instantly took the new pact as license to resume Turkey’s long campaign against the Kurds—within and beyond its borders.

Turkish authorities have arrested hundreds of “extremist militants” in the past few days, nearly 600 by the government’s count. From a well placed source in Istanbul: “About 20 supporters of Daesh [the Arabic for ISIS] were taken in and about 200 were Kurdish militants.”

As to the Turkish F-16s airborne since Friday, three were raids against ISIS, at least five against Kurdish camps in Iraq. “The Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq were much heavier and more numerous than on the Daesh positions in Syria,” my Istanbul source confirmed Sunday.

Apart from whatever carrots Washington just fed Erdoğan, Ankara was catalyzed into action by an ISIS bomb attack in Suruc, a town in southern Turkey, where 32 people were killed. Note: Suruc is Kurdish. PKK, the militant Kurdish party, now accuses the Erdoğan government of colluding in the attack, breaking a ceasefire that had suspended PKK’s 30-year fight for Kurdish rights in Turkey two years ago.

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“Could Washington's tacit toleration of the PKK strikes have been the price of Ankara's involvement against ISIS?” the BBC’s Mark Lowen asks. In the question lies the answer.

Ankara called Sunday for a meeting of NATO ambassadors to consider its new activity against ISIS and the Kurds. Presumably, it wants approval from the military alliance, of which it’s a member. The meeting is on for Tuesday and it will probably get it, given Washington’s longstanding influence over NATO’s policy positions.  

You must know the punch line here: The Kurds are key allies in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS in Iraq, especially in the northern regions of the country.

We’re strangling ourselves in the Middle East’s “ropes of sand,” as the scholar Gary Sick termed the region’s ever-shifting web of tactical alliances. How did it come to this?

I count two explanations.

One, the Middle East is a classic case of a foreign policy framework that is simply too militarized. Why, to take the most available indicator, was the deal with Erdoğan negotiated by a four-star general with training in military strategy and intelligence but absolutely none in international relations or any other relevant field?

Two, the Obama administration gives no indication of a long-term strategy to stabilize the Middle East’s arc of crisis. Where is the rounded thinking, the blueprint for “a new security regime in the Middle East,” as Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University development economist, put it last week?

Short-term gain, long-term loss: This is the fruit of Washington’s recruitment of Turkey into the Middle East’s widening war.