The Danger of Depending on Turkey
JNS.org – Here’s the good news: the Obama administration has finally grasped that the onslaught of the Islamic State terror group through Iraq and Syria needs to be defeated and destroyed. Sixty-one percent of Americans, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, agree with the president. At a time when much of the world believes, not unreasonably, that America is in retreat, the administration’s willingness to pursue military options and its almost George W. Bush-esque rhetoric regarding the “evil” of Islamic State, as Secretary of State John Kerry put it, is most welcome.
Even so, the issue of which states to involve in the battle against Islamic State should leave us less sanguine about where this battle might lead. Yes, yes, I know: This is the Middle East, and we are therefore compelled to work with distasteful regimes, such as the Saudis, in accomplishing strategic goals like the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. This time, however, we need to avoid an outcome that strengthens Iranian influence in the region, which means that we cannot indefinitely postpone the discussion over what to do about the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
By the same token, there’s another discussion that we cannot indefinitely postpone. That one concerns the role of Turkey—a country described by a senior Obama administration official, in an interview with the New York Times that coincided with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s visit to Ankara, as “absolutely indispensable” to the struggle against Islamic State.
There is, of course, a great deal of merit behind that statement. Turkey is historically an ally of the U.S. and a member of NATO. The airbase which the Americans maintain at Incirlik has been operationally critical to our military engagements in the region over the last quarter of a century, including the present fight against the terrorists of Islamic State.
At the same time, there are three key reasons why we should question whether the Turks can continue to be a pillar of an American-led alliance. Firstly, the Turkish government’s pursuit of political outcomes that undermine American interests. Secondly, the murky relationship between the Turks and the various terrorist groups in the region. Thirdly, the growing intolerance that stains Turkish politics, and particularly the nakedly anti-Semitic rhetoric directed towards Israel by Turkey’s former prime minister and newly elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Let’s start with the first reason. The recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza could have been ended much earlier had an Egyptian truce proposal, agreed to by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, been implemented. But the Egyptian initiative was derailed by a rival proposal from Turkey and Qatar, the two main patrons of Hamas. The Turkish-Qatari proposal temporarily seduced the U.S. State Department and resulted in the continuation of hostilities for several more days.
The issue of Turkish trustworthiness is equally alive in the context of Iraq and Syria. Turkey has expressed concern that weapons will fall into the hands of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a left-wing nationalist organization designated by the Americans and the Europeans as a terrorist group.
What this overlooks is the fact that the PKK, along with its Syrian offshoot, the PYD, has already played an “indispensable role” in the fight against Islamic State when, moreover, the rest of the world was looking the other way. PKK and PYD fighters go into combat alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq. They are also instrumental to the current offensive against Islamic State in the area around Shingal, where tens of thousands of Yazidis, an ancient religious minority regarded as “unbelievers” by the Islamists, have endured a savage genocide.
Given American reluctance to deploy ground troops, and the recognition that the fight against Islamic State will be measured in years rather than months, it is legitimate to ask whether Turkish worries about the PKK should be elevated above other considerations. It can even be argued that there is little justification for maintaining the PKK’s “terrorist” designation. As Gülistan Gürbey, a political scientist based in Berlin, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the PKK is “deeply rooted in the Kurdish diaspora” and is “fighting against an existential threat in the region” in the form of Islamic State.
This brings us to the second reason. Turkey is hardly in a position to complain about Kurdish “terrorism” when it provides financial and political support to other terrorist groups in the Middle East, notably Hamas. In a recent article for The Tower magazine, foreign policy analyst Jonathan Schanzer observed that “it is decidedly awkward for a NATO ally to be so outwardly supportive of Hamas in light of the group’s grisly record of violence against civilian targets since its inception in 1987.” Just as awkward, Schanzer pointed out, is Turkey’s involvement in sanctions-busting operations with Iran, as well as Erdogan’s relations with dubious individuals like Yasin al-Qadi, a Saudi businessman who was designated as a “terrorist financier” shortly after the Al-Qaeda atrocities of September 11, 2001.
Which brings us to reason number three. States that support terrorist organizations abroad frequently have woeful records of suppression and intolerance at home. What was true of Saddam’s Iraq remains true of Assad’s Syria—and of Turkey, whose president is still to be confronted with the contradiction of membership in a democratic alliance like NATO and support for jihadist organizations like Hamas. Obama has delicately raised the issue with Erdogan—”The President and President Erdogan discussed the importance of building tolerant and inclusive societies and combating the scourge of anti-Semitism,” said a White House statement after the two leaders met at the last NATO Summit—but this assumes that a “tolerant and inclusive society” is what Erdogan wants. When you have a store in downtown Istanbul refusing entry to “Jew Dogs” at the same time that Erdogan lambasts Israel as “worse” than Adolf Hitler, that’s a misguided and even dangerous assumption.
Ultimately, the war against Islamic State is a war against the philosophy of jihad. As with any war involving multiple parties fighting on the same side, an overarching political vision is nearly impossible to achieve. During the Second World War, the U.S. and Britain had few illusions about the Soviet Union, even as they allied with it. Similar cynicism is warranted now when it comes to Turkey.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism“ (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon.