NATO members are concerned about Iran’s ballistic missile program and the pro-Iranian militia known as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Turkey’s role in ISIS and Al Qaeda and the Kurdish independence movement; other experts are fretting about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan siding with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a United Nations summit of world leaders in New York.
It turns out that there is reason to worry. At the London meeting of defense ministers from NATO member states last week, Erdogan was the only one of the 36 NATO defense ministers present to speak of solidarity with the “sovereign nations” of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as Pakistan and India. He was the only one to believe that Washington’s campaign to oust Iran’s mullahs is the wrong policy.
The ignorance is concerning enough that the White House has taken note, and no doubt will be embarrassed. On Thursday night, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, was blunt about Erdogan’s “personality cult.” O’Shaughnessy was concerned that Turkish soldiers in Syria are “being used against their own country,” while “our efforts are causing a backlash and propping up jihadists and terrorists,” he said.
Erdogan’s Russian-backed incursion into the northern Syrian city of Afrin had caused the Syrian Kurds to link up with the Syrian army, he said. Yet Erdogan still refuses to engage in coalition peace talks on Syria. The Turks went so far as to expel 26,000 Syrian Kurds from towns and villages in the country’s southeast, adding to chaos as Turkish-backed militias engaged in fighting with the Syrian Kurds, whose forces Ankara considers terrorists. It was their invasion of Afrin last month that prompted the Kurds to begin attacking their foes in Idlib province, and their advance there continues.
Erdogan thinks he can position himself as a global player by helping support the Islamic State, or “Daesh,” with weapons and training for years to come. Some 20,000 men have been killed by the war in Syria, among them 40,000 civilians. What’s more, once Turkish soldiers cease firing, they have been “switched off” by Syrian and Russian forces – meaning, as Washington has long feared, that Russia and Iran could also flood this area with fighters.
Washington’s poor judgment in lifting its sanctions on Iran – sending a message to Iran that “you’ve got the United States on your side” – has set the stage for the Chinese and Russians to step in and rein in Iranian forces. It has also aggravated Erdogan.
Alas, it will take more than Erdogan’s trip to Turkey to shake things up. There is no American war against Iran, so Erdogan believes he has more to gain by striking deals with Tehran. Already, Turkey is letting several Iranian air bases operate, meaning that Iran has access to as many as 100,000 square miles of Turkish territory. Today, around half of Turkey’s long-range rockets are Iranian made. There is no credible evidence that Turkey gave Iran launch codes for missiles or that it supplied military equipment for Tehran’s nuclear program. But this is not the point. Tehran is now Turkey’s ally, and that has Turkey’s security officials worried.
Once the American bases start shutting down, the Russian air bases, long subject to NATO sanctions, will come into play. Once Moscow’s planes and bases are in place, the Turkish border with Syria will be a battleground between the Russians and the Turks – something that will worry Turkey’s NATO allies. If, for example, the Russians were to commit a raid at Dimas, Turkey’s military air base, that would be a mortal blow to Ankara’s U.S.-backed ally, the Syrian Kurdish YPG. But there is no sign that Erdogan, as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu have vowed, wants to kill the YPG. He wants to dump them to make way for the Syrian Arabs, who are seen as a permanent fixture in the region.
The Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Joseph Dunford, noted this week that even NATO allies like Turkey and Greece have troops stationed in Syria supporting the Russian-Iranian-Turkish-Kurdish axis. No wonder New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has been warned about the uptick in extremist activity in New York and Washington in the past several months, from the increased number of hate crimes to protests fueled by pro-ISIS groups.
Erdogan has always been one of Washington’s staunchest Arab allies, usually at the cost of Turkey’s own security. He’s lost a lot of favor, but the crown prince should work harder to convince America that it doesn’t want to leave him out in the cold.
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