The Turkish-American Alliance Heads Toward a Cliff

The long alliance between Turkey and the United States has been heading toward a cliff for years now, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan using razor-thin electoral majorities to consolidate dictatorial powers for himself at home and using his muscle abroad to thwart Western interests. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have barely reacted or even seem to have noticed, but with uber-hawk John Bolton coming into the White House as President Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, that may be about to change.

We’re approaching a potential tipping point now regardless of what’s going on in the White House. Earlier this month, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) withdrew from the fight against the last dregs of ISIS in Deir al-Zour, Syria, to defend the Kurdish enclave of Afrin from a far-more formidable Turkish army invasion.

The SDF is a secular pro-Western militia that has done nearly all the heavy fighting against ISIS in Syria. They are America’s only true friends in that country, but the Turkish government libels them as terrorists and has spent the past two months invading and carving up Afrin, killing thousands and displacing more than 100,000. Looters pillaged the city, stripping businesses, political offices, military bases, farms and houses of TVs, cars, food, cases of soda and even livestock. Erdogan followed up his rampage with threats to move into northeastern Syria where American soldiers are based, risking a direct military confrontation with the United States.

The decision to fight a NATO member rather than ISIS was “painful,” according to an SDF statement, but necessary. “We would not have taken such a decision today had it not been for the failure of the international community to curb the Turkish aggression and put real pressure on the Erdogan government to stop its insane frenzy within our Syrian borders under the pretext of protecting Turkey’s national security.”

“We are allies,” senior Kurdish official Aldar Xelil told the Washington Post in a Skype interview. “The Americans should have helped us. We were allies for a very long time…For one and a half months we have been under attack by Turkey. Turkey is using NATO weapons to attack an American ally. We were partners in the fight against [ISIS], and they did not do anything to help us.”

On the contrary. To this day, the Trump administration has done virtually everything it can to appease Erdogan.

It started with the president’s disgraced former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. He was on Erdogan’s payroll at the same time he campaigned for Trump and (briefly) worked in the White House before the president wised up and fired him, ostensibly for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with Russian officials. In the meantime, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller. Prior to copping his plea, he faced possible charges for money laundering, failing to declare himself a foreign agent of Turkey, and not paying taxes on the $530,000 the Turkish government gave him.

Erdogan burrowed his way into the White House with his very own bought and paid for American agent. Kicking Flynn out was necessary. It was not, however, sufficient. As recently as last September, Trump described Erdogan as his “friend.” “He’s running a very difficult part of the world,” the president said. “He’s involved very, very strongly and, frankly, he’s getting very high marks.”

Erdogan is indeed involved “very, very strongly” in the Middle East. He implicitly backed ISIS in the Syrian civil war, seized assets from more than 1,000 companies and purged more than 100,000 civil servants, judges, military officers in a Stalinist-style liquidation of the “deep state,” arranged sweeping new dictatorial powers for himself last year, joined the likes of Iran and North Korea by taking American citizens hostage, forged closer links with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and even purchased an S-400 missile system from Moscow, and now he’s at war with America’s only true allies in Syria and one of the precious few armed groups that can’t be plausibly accused of committing terrorism and war crimes.

The now also-fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was no better. In February, he flew to Ankara, described Turkey as an “enduring ally,” and—contrary to protocol—met Erdogan without his own translator, aides, or note-takers. "That Mr. Tillerson eschewed this sort of support in what he knew would be a tense and critical meeting with President Erdogan smacks of either poor staff work or dangerous naïveté on his part," former State Department spokesman Admiral John Kirby said at the time.

Outside the Trump administration, Erdogan is getting the same kind of “high marks” Nikolas Maduro’s socialist regime gets nowadays in Venezuela. “Turkey is out of control,” write Eric Edelman and Jake Sullivan in Politico. “Time for the US to say so.” Edelman is a former US ambassador to Turkey and Sullivan was a national security advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden.

“We fought for our democracy,” reads a New York Times headline on the opinion page. “Now Turkey wants to destroy it.” “If [Erdogan] continues on his present, reckless path,” writes the Washington Post editorial board, “a rupture in the alliance is inevitable, sooner or later. Syria’s Kurds should not be sacrificed to prevent it.”

The supposed peddlers of “fake news” have a much better understanding of what’s what over there than the Trump administration does. We’ll see what happens, though, now that John Bolton is replacing H.R. McMaster as the president’s national security advisor. On Turkey, he’s the diametric opposite of Mike Flynn.

“If [Erdogan] goes down,” Bolton said when a faction in the Turkish military attempted to remove him in a coup d’état in 2016, “I'm not shedding any tears. I do not believe he is a friend to the United States.” "If Erdogan wins,” he later added, “then he would follow up with an extensive purge, a real authoritarian acceleration and crackdown.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

Bolton is not only a staunch opponent of Erdogan. He’s a much better friend of the Kurds than anyone else in the administration. “I think it’s time for the Kurdish people in Iraq to give a voice to their aspirations,” he said in an interview with Kurdistan 24 when Iraqi Kurdistan defied both Erdogan and Trump and went ahead with a referendum on seceding from Iraq. “I think the Kurdish people are de facto independent already.”

“Erdogan’s increasingly dictatorial approach to governance has in recent years become ever clearer internationally,” Bolton wrote in the New York Post in 2016, “epitomized by his arrests and harassment of both foreign and domestic journalists he deemed critical of his regime. In earlier days, serving as mayor of Istanbul, he said publicly: ‘Democracy is like a street car. You ride it to the stop you want, and then you get off.’”

Bolton is being hammered from both the right and the left, and a lot of that hammering is entirely justified. The upside is that he’s one of the few at the top who consistently recognizes a bad guy when he sees one.

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