Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furious that the Kurds in Syria are advancing against ISIS.
Ponder the ramifications of that sentence.
Turkey is a member of NATO. On paper, at least, it’s one of America’s greatest allies. ISIS, meanwhile, is the world’s most deranged army of psychopaths. Even Al Qaeda disowns it. The Kurds, though, are America’s most reliable allies in the Middle East alongside the Israelis.
So our nominal ally thinks it’s a problem when one of our real allies makes gains against the most vicious terrorist army on the planet.
We’ve been arguing amongst ourselves here in America about which is worse, the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis or ISIS. I can make a case either way. Iran is the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, but ISIS is more barbaric than any of Iran’s proxies. ISIS is more likely to kill Americans in America, but it may not be possible to defeat them until after the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is defanged because a substantial percentage of the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs see it as the only thing standing between them and Iranian overlordship.
There’s no obvious answer. We can have a healthy, reasonable, civil debate about how to proceed.
In Turkey, however, the conversation is different. The question over there is whether ISIS or the Kurds are the lesser of evils.
Twenty five percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish, and Erdogan—like most of his ethnic Turkish countrymen—are terrified that Turkey may lose a huge swath of its territory if Syrian Kurdistan liberates itself alongside Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish Kurdistan could very well be the next domino.
They are not crazy to fear this.
But they’re reacting by treating as ISIS the lesser of evils. If ISIS can keep the Kurds down, Turkey’s territorial integrity is more secure.
“ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all,” a former ISIS communications technician told Newsweek, “because there was full cooperation with the Turks and they reassured us that nothing will happen…ISIS saw the Turkish army as its ally especially when it came to attacking the Kurds in Syria. The Kurds were the common enemy for both ISIS and Turkey.”
President Barack Obama recently complained that Turkey could be doing “more” to stop the influx of “militants” into Syria. Turkey certainly could! Turkey has a long border with Syria, but it’s sealed. I’ve driven alongside it. In some areas, there are minefields everywhere.
Turkey has a world-class army—the second-largest in NATO—and could obliterate ISIS from the face of the earth if it wanted. If Syria’s Kurds can make headway into ISIS-held territory with just a ragtag militia, Turkey could liberate the Syrian population from Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and ISIS simultaneously.
We should not expect Turkey to do this, but Erdogan won’t even shore up that border.
“You should understand something,” a Turkish smuggler said to Jamie Dettmer at the Daily Beast. “It isn’t hard to cross into the caliphate [ISIS-held territory], but go further west or east into Kurdish territory, then it gets much harder to evade the Turkish military and cross the border. Even the birds can’t come from there; and our birds can’t go there.”
Turkey is not Iraq. It is 1,000 years ahead of Iraq. It is a serious and capable nation, the opposite of incompetent. It’s not an accident or a coincidence that ISIS can replenish its ranks over the Turkish border while the Kurds can’t. If Erdogan can stop Kurds from the crossing that border, he can stop ISIS from crossing that border. Refusing to do so is a choice.
He is not a state sponsor of terrorism. He is not championing ISIS, nor is he on side with them ideologically. He is not their patron or armorer. But he is letting one of our worst enemies grow stronger while stomping on one of our greatest allies.
We seem to be reaching the end of a road.
NATO was formed as an anti-Russian bulwark during the Cold War, and ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union many have wondered if the alliance has outlived its usefulness. That question has been put to bed to an extent with Russian malfeasance in Georgia and Ukraine, but it’s becoming clearer by the year that Turkey’s membership in NATO is a vestige of an era that expired a long time ago.
Diplomats and heads of state are often to last to notice tectonic geopolitical shifts. They’ve spent years, even decades, forming relationships with their foreign counterparts. Institutions are cumbersome, bureaucratic, slow. They cruise on inertia. They have invested so much for so long. But we are where we are.
When the White House, Congress, the State Department, and our genuine allies in Europe are finally willing to face this—and they will be—Turkey should expect to be treated accordingly.