Turkish Troops in Syria Deepen America’s Quandary

by Robert E. Hunter

The Turkish military incursion into Syria is yet another chapter in the continuing tragedy for that country, for Syrians of all confessions and ethnicities, and indeed for most of the Middle East. Ankara is acting, it says, because of a threat from Kurdish fighters (which has a long history) and forces of the so-called Islamic State (a relatively new phenomenon). “Enough is enough,” Turkey seems to be saying. Unfortunately for just about everyone of good will, ample evidence of “enough” has not produced means for ending the Syrian bloodbath, finding a way out of the mess in the region and, in the process, preventing more damage farther afield.

The Turkish attack comes only days after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden went to Turkey, in major part to reassure its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that the United States stands foursquare behind that allied country in the aftermath of the July 15 attempted coup. The fallout from that coup attempt has surely not ended, in terms of purged institutions, persons detained, and increased powers for the Turkish president. “The people of Turkey have no greater friend than the United States of America,” Mr. Biden said while in Ankara.

Now, only a few days later, Turkey has launched attacks in Syria that the United States has found it necessary to characterize as “unacceptable.” But the U.S. call for Turkey to stop is not likely to have much impact, if any, in Ankara. Part of the problem for U.S. influence, after all, is the presence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, of Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses, rightly or wrongly, of being behind the attempted coup. He has asked that Gulen be extradited to Turkey; for its part, the US has asked for the proofs that, under US law, are required in such circumstances. This leads one to counsel, “Get on with it, fish or cut bait – whatever the US legal process decides.” Delay, here, can only mean that US-Turkish relations will continue to fester.

This latest round in the regional crisis has implications far beyond Turkey’s immediate military actions. Internally, it is further evidence that it is moving further from its democratic moorings and that the on-again, off-again attempts to find a viable role for Turkey’s sizeable Kurdish population (at least 18 percent) in the broader Turkish society yet again will be put off. Assigning blame for the attempted coup has little value; the important fact is that Turkey will keep failing to reconcile its various ethnic groups, which challenges the Turkish state just as Erdogan’s brand of Islam is challenging the secular basis of Turkey’s constitution, a key legacy of the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The current crisis also underscores continuing failures by virtually all and sundry to find some way out of the suffering, tragedy, and dilemmas of Syria and the broader struggles for influence within the Middle East. Everyone seems to have a stake, and there are no “white hats” in the region who are working just for a resolution of conflict. As happens so often when chaos rises, everyone seeks a share of the spoils. Syria has become the dumping ground for Middle East ills in this generation just as Lebanon was for the last. Sunnis and Shiites face off against one another while nations compete for power in the region and all look to take advantage, from Turkey and Israel in the West to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and most of the Persian Gulf emirates in the East. In the process, the promoters of Islamist radicalism, notably Saudi Arabia, continue to run amok, providing the inspiration and funding that help keep IS going.

Meanwhile, Russia is also meddling, for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, it faces a genuine domestic threat from Islamist terrorism which is spilling over into Russia; on the other hand, its president, Vladimir Putin, is showing that, in spite of sanctions imposed over Russian actions in Ukraine, it can act in an area where the West and especially the United States thought it had a monopoly on the capacity for engagement by outsiders. Russia is also seeing whether it can build a relationship with Iran, which is increasingly irritated by the failure of the United States, under pressure from Israel, Gulf Arabs, and their supporters in US politics, to honor the spirit, if not the letter, of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that has sequestered any possibility that Iran could obtain nuclear weapons. In a similar vein, Putin is showing that, if Erdogan cannot get all he wants from Washington, he might find a friend-of-convenience in Moscow.

At this point, any U.S. president would like to wash his (or her) hands of the whole mess. But that cannot be done. Whatever the merits, in terms of U.S. interests, to be deeply engaged in trying to sort all this out, the United States really has no choice. While American military attacks on IS have severely hampered its potential for acting against things that matter to the United States, and while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely faded from U.S. public attention, Washington still cannot slough off responsibilities within the region. It is expected, both within the region and without, to act; it is so deeply mired in regional politics and diplomacy that it could not easily extricate itself; and there is no one else in the West prepared to step in to fill the void if the United States were to want to retreat – whether now or under the president who takes office next January. That option was foreclosed a long time ago, certainly with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq which, more than anything else, lit the fuses of a series of powder trains that continue to produce explosions all over the region.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has still not sorted out the different components of a coherent policy. All elements of it are fraught with difficulty. To reduce Iran’s negative role, it would have to be willing to try building a relationship with that country beyond that which US domestic politics will permit. It would have to tell Saudi Arabia to stop its invasion of Yemen and its support (some tacit, some explicit) for Wahhabi-inspired terrorism, as the price of continued close relations with the United States. Washington would also have to start, finally, formulating a plan for ensuring that all elements of Syrian society would have some chance of living in peace and safety if and when that war could ever be brought to a halt. That would have to include the administration’s abandoning the demand that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, leave office, before the broader framework for peace – assuming one is possible – were put in place. Having been burned politically by drawing a red line over Syria’s use of chemical weapons and then not attacking these weapons militarily – though they were removed by Russian-American diplomacy – there is a natural but counter-productive desire not to be seen as abandoning another demand, however much that demand gets in the way of a genuine push for peace.

Turkey’s military intervention in Syria is also another example of the way the festering Syrian conflict, along with other strife in the region, has spilled over into Europe, with no end in sight. Because of not-well-thought-through Western military invasions to depose undesirable leaders in Iraq and Libya, Europe now has to cope with a flood of Middle Eastern and North African refugees that dwarfs any other transfer of peoples to the Continent since the early years after the Second World War. Coming at the time of Britain’s feckless referendum on Brexit and the continuing aftermath of the global 2007-8 financial crisis, the refugee flow is posing the worst challenge to the European Union’s continued existence since it was founded.

Internal political, social, ethnic, and cultural turmoil in Turkey, which helps to explain its current military incursion in Syria, has combined with its thwarted ambitions to become a true European country, certainly to join the European Union as a full member. Its application is now 29 years old and is going nowhere. Indeed, it is obvious that it will never be accepted as a member, so long as the EU has any significance other than as a customs union (a fate that Brussels now must contemplate). The whole process of dealing with Turkey’s application has been a cynical European exercise to pacify Turkey, even though the eventual result – a “Not welcome” – has never been in doubt.

Turkey, especially under President Erdogan, has been the author of most its own problems, but, be that as it may, its government is clearly not confident in relations with almost all of the Europeans and now also the United States. (The latter challenge of confidence is not new: at the time of the 2003 Iraq war, Turkey denied the use of its military bases to the United States, and US standing in Turkish opinion polls fell to just 9 percent).

Obviously, these developments pose problems for NATO, complicating those it already has–especially the concerns of its Eastern members with the possibility of threats from Russia, either overt (military) or covert (cyber, energy, psychological). For some time, there has been quiet discussion at NATO about what might happen if Turkey were attacked militarily by Syrian government forces or in a significant way by IS. Under Article 5 of the Treaty of Washington, “an armed attack against one or more of [the allies] …shall be considered an attack against them all,” but there is no binding requirement for any ally actually to do anything about it. Nevertheless, there has been worry in allied capitals that Turkey might do something in Syria or Iraq to provoke an attack against it, thus posing a dilemma for the Alliance on whether to support Turkey militarily

What is happening now with Turkey, as well as what is happening now with regard to Russian pressures on the Central European allies, demonstrates serious problems of adaptation by the NATO alliance to the world of today. Regarding its internal strength, unfortunately at the time when the first three Central European countries (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) were admitted to membership after the end of the Cold War, the United States rejected a sensible idea of creating a formal mechanism within the Alliance for helping to keep the new allies on the “straight and narrow” regarding democratic institutions. Such a mechanism is needed now in regard to Poland and Hungary, which are drifting from the path of democracy; and it could be useful in helping in Turkey, as well. Instead, NATO has no formal mandate for counseling the Turkish government, and that task has been left to the United States.

There is something almost 19th and early 20th century about current developments, encapsulated in Turkey’s crisis both domestically and externally in its relationships both to the East (Syria and the Middle East in general) and to the West (NATO and the EU). Imperfect solutions to historic problems are rising again. These notably include Russia’s relationship both to Europe and the Middle East; the territorial arrangements that came out of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – including Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine; the balance between Sunni and Shia; the failures of political modernization in most of the regional Arab states; and Iran’s position between Russia and Central Asia/the Caucasus, on the one side, and the Arab world and Turkey on the other side.

Like it or not, in its own interests, the United States cannot divest its responsibilities to at least try sorting all of this out, to the extent that it can be sorted out at all. The Obama administration has made progress in some areas but not in others, but it has especially failed to develop a strategically-coherent package of policies toward the region. The next president has to pick up where President Obama leaves off, and trying to pull these various strands together is the place to start.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


One Comment

  1. Ah, the burdens of hegemony.

    Washington insists upon exercising US “leadership” because exceptionalism and manifest destiny – or because of the belief that the world would go to hell in a handbasket if the US stopped running everything. Hey, Obama, look around: is the world just humming along happily under your benevolent guidance?

    Except for maybe Canada (gotta be careful when you share a very long border with the most paranoid state and the most hysteria-prone nation on the planet), Washington’s vassal states rarely offer any assistance or pay enough for the convenience of leaving it all up to the US – gee, why not try asking them why they persist in doing that? Or is it just more convenient to believe it’s because they’re selfish and thoughtless or maybe just unaware?

    Then there’s NATO, which is becoming more trouble than it’s worth. Maybe the habit of snatching up dodgy democracies and foisting them on the EU just so that the US can have more places on the border for nuclear weapons pointing at Putin’s head wasn’t such a good idea after all. Or? Are you dreaming of somehow snatching away all the Stans next – indeed, how else to really “contain” that evil Russia, who, like China, has the audacity to believe that it’s legitimate for any large state but the US to have a sphere of influence?

    Such are the trials and tribulations of unappreciated Washington.

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