U.S.-Turkish War on ISIS: Disaster in the Making
The recent agreement between Turkey and the U.S. to cooperate against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria brings to mind the sociologist C. Wright Mills description of those who make American foreign policy as “crackpot realists”: realists about advancing their careers, crackpots about the policies they pursue.
The plan will allow the U.S. to use Turkish airbases to bomb the IS in exchange for Washington’s support for Ankara re-igniting its 40 year old war with the Kurds. The U.S. will also buy in to creating a “buffer zone” on Syria’s northern border that, according to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, will allow “Moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army…to take control of areas freed from the ISIL,” or IS. One U.S. official describe the agreement as “a game changer.”
In reality it will entangle the U.S. more deeply in the Syrian civil war and give cover to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’ gambit to deepen ethnic divisions in Turkey as part of a strategy to bring his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) back into power.
The “plan” will also toss the Kurds, one of Washington’s most reliable allies in the fight against the Islamic State, under a bus. “The Americans are not very clever in calculating this sort of thing,” Kamran Karadaghi, former chief of staff to Iraqi President and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, told the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn. “Maybe they calculate that with Turkey on their side, they don’t need the Kurds.”
While Turkey is also bombing the IS, the major focus of its attacks have been the Kurds. On July 23 a few Turkish F-16s bombed a handful of IS targets in Northern Syria. In contrast, 75 Turkish F-16s and F-4Es pounded the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) with 300 smart bombs, striking hundreds of targets.
Asked about the bombings, U.S. State Department official Brett McGurk said that Washington recognized Turkey’s “right to self-defense.”
The massive bombing attack on the PKK in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains shatters a two-year truce in a four-decade old war that has killed more than 40,000 people. The ostensible reason for re-starting a war with the Kurds was a PKK assassination of two Turkish policemen following an Islamic State bombing that killed 31 young Kurdish activists in the Turkish border town of Suruc July 20. The Kurds have long complained that the Erdogan government has encouraged the Syrian insurgents, including turning a blind eye to the activities of the IS.
First, there are no “moderate” forces in the Syrian civil war. The Free Syrian Army is, at best, a marginal player. The major antagonists of the Assad regime are Islamic extremists, the al-Qaeda associated Nusra Front , Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamic State. Indeed, one reason why the Turkish Army is so wary of getting involved in Syria is because it doesn’t want to be allied with the groups leading the fighting. A “buffer” zone will allow those extremist groups to take refuge in a zone protected by Turkish air power.
Erdogan is fixated on overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, arguing that a regime change in Damascus will weaken the IS. But many analysts think the exact opposite and cite the Libya experience as an example. If the Assad regime falls, the extremists, not the moderates, will fill the vacuum. A spillover of violence into Jordan and Lebanon is almost guaranteed, just as the Libya debacle has spread unrest throughout Central Africa.
The “buffer” is also directed at the Kurdish forces that have been so effective in fighting the IS, successfully defending the city of Kobani and liberating several other towns.
Bombing is only effective if it is coordinated with ground forces, and right now the only effective ground forces fighting the IS are the Kurds, the ones we just threw under a bus. Bombing by itself has never worked, as the Saudis are rapidly finding out in Yemen.
As for the Kurds, a little history.
One of Erdogan’s major accomplishments as prime minister was a 2012 ceasefire with the PKK and a promise to deliver more autonomy to Turkey’s 25 million Kurds. Erdogan saw the ceasefire as a way to bring the Kurds on board in his campaign to change the Turkish constitution and create a centralized and powerful presidency. With this in mind, he successfully ran for President in 2014.
But the promised reforms in governance, education and language rights—the Kurds speak several dialects, none of them Turkish—never came through, because the AKP also wanted to attract rightwing nationalist voters who were deeply hostile to anything that smacked of Kurdish autonomy.
Nor is the Kurdish community monolithic. Many Kurds—most of them older, rural, and deeply religious—supported the AKP because for them Islam trumped Kurdish nationalism.
But then AKP made a major mistake.
When the Islamic State besieged the town of Kobani, Turkey refused to help the Kurdish defenders. Indeed, Erdogan equated “Kurdish terrorists” with the IS. Demonstrations demanding that Turkey come to Kurds’ aid were brutally suppressed by the police, and scores of Kurds were killed. Kobani and the police attacks shifted sentiment in the Kurdish community and former AKP backers transferred their support to the left wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
The HDP also transformed itself from a Kurdish-based party to a national organization, winning 1.1 million non-Kurdish votes and 80 seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections, effectively denying the AKP its majority and derailing Erdogan’s drive to create a powerful executive.
The rightwing nationalist Nation Action Party (MHP) also did well in those elections, winning 80 seats.
Erdogan has maneuvered ever since to force new elections. By attacking the Kurds, he hopes to make the HDP once again into a Kurdish party by forcing it to choose between its base and the rest of Turkey. And he is gambling that the assault on the Kurds will rally right-wing nationalists to abandon the MHP and move to the AKP. If a lot of Kurds and Turks die because of this cynical stratagem, so be it.
Why is the White House going along with this madness?
In part, because a number of U.S. State Department officials have the same obsession with overthrowing Assad as Erdogan does. In part because the U.S. military generally manages to convince civilians that dropping a lot of bombs will work, all experience to the contrary. And partly that crackpot thing.
As Hugh Roberts points out in his excellent analysis of Syria in the London Review of Books, there is a possible path out, but it is almost exactly the opposite of the one Turkey and the U.S. are pursuing.
To begin with, the primary demand that Assad has to go before there can be serious talks is aimed at torpedoing any prospect of negotiations. No one—least of all Assad—is going to negotiate his own demise, and the Syrian Army and the country’s Alawite, Christian and Druze minorities know exactly what will happen to them if the Damascus regime collapses. The Nusra Front may not as brutal as the IS, but al-Qaeda only looks good if your standard of comparison is the Islamic State. Anyone who believes the “moderates” will take over should consider unicorn hunting as a profession.
In the long run Assad should go, and one suspects that Syrians will vote him out at some point. But the “out first” demand is just a way to continue the war. The only real hope is a ceasefire and a national unity government representative of Syria’s enormously diverse population. An arms embargo on all parties, and a commitment to block fighters infiltrating the country would encourage the parties to step back from the current stalemate and consider negotiations.
Will that get rid of IS? Nope. The Islamic State is an actual state, with a large population, a lot of whom are not just waiting to rise against their Islamic captors. The IS is brutal—though the Arabs suffered far more deaths in the invasion of Iraq—but it is not corrupt. To imagine that the inept and corruption-riddled Iraqi Army is up for a serious scrap is delusional.
The Shiite militias are tough and capable, but also very sectarian, and many Sunnis simply don’t trust them.
The Turkish Army does not want to go into Syria, and there is zero support in any Western country for a replay of Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of which, a U.S. or NATO invasion is exactly what the IS would like to provoke. Ironically, the only force that could possibility defeat the Islamic State is the Syrian Army. Getting from here to there, however, will require a diplomatic sea change in the region. But one thing is certain: the current U.S.-Turkish “plan” will make everything worse.
How do these crackpots come up with this stuff?