When the heedless Recip Tayyip Erdoğan ordered Turkish jets to bomb Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq this week—ignoring vigorous American objections—he faced the Trump administration with a question it can’t flinch from much longer: Is Turkey turning from a longtime ally into adversary?
Erdoğan’s repeated betrayals can no longer be shrugged off, given the key role Kurdish forces play in the anti–ISIS alliance. As Team Trump accelerates the fight against the Islamic State, who’s going to take over in Mosul and Syria when ISIS is finally defeated?
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Americans know Kurdish militias are the most effective fighters in the war against the Islamic State. Erdoğan’s Turkey knows them as terrorists and has just made its priority perfectly clear: The 40 million Kurds are Erdoğan’s No. 1 fear; ISIS and everything else comes second. There are a few basics to keep in mind. One, the Kurds have been fighting for “Kurdistan,” a separate nation since the 1920s. Their goal now is to carve this out across northern Syria, just below the Turkish border, from the Mediterranean eastward.
Two, a federated Syria that accommodates its population of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Kurds is the single most promising way out of the Syrian crisis. The Kurdish agenda is in line with it. Three, Erdoğan is determined to block any such solution. That’s why he doesn’t want Kurds around when the anti–ISIS alliance takes Mosul, why he’s desperate to keep them from liberating Raqaa, the Islamic State’s stronghold—and why he just bombed Kurdish forces fighting alongside American advisers in both battles.
A Turkish referendum earlier this month drastically shifted power to the Turkish presidency. This makes the autocracy Erdoğan has sought since moving from prime minister to president three years ago a constitutional legality.
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Most of the world shakes its head as the Sunni nationalist Erdoğan turns a nation with a long secular tradition built on the rule of law into a dictatorship run by fiat. After the April 15 referendum—a circus of ballot stuffing, according to a Wall Street Journal report—President Trump was practically alone when he telephoned his congratulations.
Yes, Turkey became an important U.S. ally during the Cold War decades. But staying on autopilot as Erdoğan pursues his dream of a sectarian empire modeled on the Ottomans’ isn’t going to pull Trump through this time.
Erdoğan, loyal to only himself, has scoffed at the Western alliance for years even as he sometimes seeks to consolidate his position in it. It was an open secret that he let ISIS run supply lines across Turkey’s southern border until the terror group turned on him. He’s now in a tentative but stabilizing alliance with Russia. When Ankara cut a $6 billion deal with the European Union two years ago to cooperate in managing the migrant crisis, Erdoğan insisted that restarting stalled talks on Turkey’s accession to the union be part of the deal.
He’s been picking fights with Europe ever since—notably with Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria. Johannes Hahn, the E.U.’s enlargement director, began preparing this week to declare accession talks officially suspended. Europe has troubles enough without Turkey adding to them on its eastern flank.
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Turkey has been a wobbly mess since an apparent coup attempt last summer, which Erdoğan still blames on the U.S. Since declaring a state of emergency, the Erdoğan government has fired 130,000 civil servants, jailed 45,000 other Turks, and shut down 175 media outlets.
Although some analysts thought Erdoğan might calm down after the referendum, he has done just the opposite. While Trump congratulated the Turkish leader, the E.U.’s human-rights authorities just restarted “full monitoring procedures” for the first time since 2004.
Setting aside the insults and embarrassments, Erdoğan seems to delight in serving the Western alliance, this is not a stable leader, and Turkey’s not a stable nation. Erdoğan’s intentions shift like ocean squalls: He’s O.K. or out for the Assad government in Syria, he’s behind or working against U.S. interests, he’s shooting down a Russian jet on a bombing mission or making common cause with Moscow.
Apart from geography, it’s time to ask, what’s left of the longstanding U.S.–Turkey alliance and where it’s supposed to go from here? Trump’s foreign policy people, primarily military men, are likely to say, “the Incirlik air base.”
They are right: The base in southern Turkey has been essential to the U.S. bombing campaign in Syria since Washington made a deal to use it in 2015. But is this enough?
As of Erdoğan’s open betrayal of Washington this week, the liabilities in this alliance begin to outweigh the assets.