Commentary Magazine


Topic: Turkey

Turkish Islamists Train Snipers in Syria

That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hostile toward social media, and harbors special animus for Twitter, is becoming conventional wisdom. But perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong. After all, Erdoğan seems far more concerned with the content of tweets and Facebook posts than he sometimes is with the actual platforms. Case in point is this recent tweet from Ribat Medya, a Turkish Islamist outlet. It shows sniper training on behalf of radical Islamist forces inside Syria, and directs users to this photo essay.

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That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hostile toward social media, and harbors special animus for Twitter, is becoming conventional wisdom. But perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong. After all, Erdoğan seems far more concerned with the content of tweets and Facebook posts than he sometimes is with the actual platforms. Case in point is this recent tweet from Ribat Medya, a Turkish Islamist outlet. It shows sniper training on behalf of radical Islamist forces inside Syria, and directs users to this photo essay.

So what to make from this? Firstly, it’s an open secret that Turkey passively if not actively supports radical Islamist factions inside Syria, up to and including ISIS, whose members it has allowed to transit Turkish territory. Secondly, Erdoğan has assumed the power to shut down websites and Twitter feeds without so much as a court order. And yet, sites depicting the training of terrorist snipers inside Syria by Turks remain up. But should an environmentalist condemn the cutting down of trees in an urban park, Erdoğan labels him a terrorist and demands stiff jail terms.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that for Erdoğan, the problem isn’t Twitter any more than the problem is newspapers or television stations. Rather, the issue is whether or not such technology adheres to Erdoğan’s agenda. And by nature of his silence on these tweets, it is clear once again that Erdoğan does not consider ISIS, Jebhat al-Nusra, or the İnsani Yardım Vakfı to be terrorist groups or feeders, but rather honorable organizations to allow to operate unmolested.

Welcome to the reality of the new Turkey, same as the old Saudi Arabia.

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Turks Again Attack American Sailors

Two years ago, I wrote about an attack on American sailors at a port call in Turkey. At the time, some in the Pentagon tried to sweep the incident under the rug, all the better to maintain the fiction that Turkey wasn’t as anti-American as it has become. Well, it’s happened again. Just after Veteran’s Day, how sad it is to see a video like this. Turkish protestors have attacked American sailors from the USS Ross which had made a port call inside Turkey. The American sailors did everything right: they had dressed down to be surreptitious, they sought to avoid conflict, and they sought to leave the area when confronted, all to no avail.

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Two years ago, I wrote about an attack on American sailors at a port call in Turkey. At the time, some in the Pentagon tried to sweep the incident under the rug, all the better to maintain the fiction that Turkey wasn’t as anti-American as it has become. Well, it’s happened again. Just after Veteran’s Day, how sad it is to see a video like this. Turkish protestors have attacked American sailors from the USS Ross which had made a port call inside Turkey. The American sailors did everything right: they had dressed down to be surreptitious, they sought to avoid conflict, and they sought to leave the area when confronted, all to no avail.

It’s time to recognize reality: Turkey may be a NATO member, but it is no ally. And while anti-NATO protests can happen in any NATO member, few members would tolerate violence or the targeting of individual American servicemen. The problem with Turkey, however, is that Turkey’s current regime has long promoted such anti-Americanism, as have other Turkish political parties, like the opposition National Movement Party (MHP) and even the left-leaning secularist Republican Peoples Party (CHP). There is an atmosphere of impunity inside Turkey that violence in pursuit of certain causes is acceptable (see my previous posts about the plight of Turkish women, in this regard).

So what should the United States do?

Firstly, it’s well past time the U.S. Navy stop making port calls in Turkey. Port calls are a reward not only for sailors, but also for the countries which host the port call and derive significant financial benefit for doing so. There are many other countries and cities which would bend over backwards to host American sailors. Haifa, in Israel, is one. Various ports in Croatia and Montenegro are another. In recent years, Greece, too, has rolled out the red carpet for American ships.

Secondly, it is counterproductive and embarrassing that American congressmen lend their support to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime and agenda by signing up to be part of the Congressional Turkey Caucus. It is time to leave and treat Turkey as the regional pariah it has become, at least in any official capacity.

Thirdly, Erdoğan is fond of demanding apologies. Well, it’s our turn now. Erdoğan should personally apologize for the attacks on American servicemen and offer compensation to a charity of their choice. Let’s put aside the nonsense that the United States “started it” with the hooding of Turkish soldiers in Iraq on July 4, 2003 in Iraqi Kurdistan. As Turkish journalists have quietly pointed out, despite protestations of their innocence, none of those Turks was ever subsequently promoted, and most were quietly retired, as good a sign as any that they truly had gone rogue and were planning to assassinate public officials in Iraqi Kurdistan, as the information passed by Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan indicated.

Lastly, it’s well past time that the United States and other NATO members come up with contingencies for Turkey’s exit from the alliance. NATO is governed by consensus, and so a hostile Turkey—its past contributions notwithstanding—can undercut NATO’s governance and effectiveness. To keep Turkey inside the alliance is to condemn NATO to paralysis and irrelevance.

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How Lobbyists Reflect Countries They Support

In certain corridors of Washington, in smug discussions in university faculty lounges, and in the fevered conspiracies of the Middle East and Turkey, much is made of the “Israel lobby.” While broadly speaking, figures such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, or former diplomat Chas Freeman use the term broadly in order to suggest dual loyalty on the part of those with whom they disagree in the policy debate, more narrowly, the idea of an Israel lobby usually surrounds the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which operates under the slogan, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

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In certain corridors of Washington, in smug discussions in university faculty lounges, and in the fevered conspiracies of the Middle East and Turkey, much is made of the “Israel lobby.” While broadly speaking, figures such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, or former diplomat Chas Freeman use the term broadly in order to suggest dual loyalty on the part of those with whom they disagree in the policy debate, more narrowly, the idea of an Israel lobby usually surrounds the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which operates under the slogan, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

But AIPAC is hardly the only lobby in Washington. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the de facto lobby of the Islamic Republic of Iran, works tirelessly to reduce sanctions and alleviate pressure on the Iranian regime. Saudi Arabia and Qatar spread money around and successfully tempt many former ambassadors with lucrative golden parachutes. Turkey supports a multitude of organizations such as the American Turkish Council or the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD).

It is easy to demonize lobbying in Washington, but it is not simply about money: many lobbyists truly believe in the cause they espouse and argue, and they advocate for those causes just the same as a paid member of Greenpeace, the Audubon Society, or the Human Rights Campaign might. If someone believes that a strong U.S.-Israel relationship benefits American national security and reflects American values more than, say, a strong U.S.-Iranian relationship or any U.S. relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah, than it makes sense to support AIPAC. If one would rather see normalized ties between Washington and Tehran, regardless of the Islamic Republic’s ideology and sponsorship of insurgencies and militias, then it makes sense to support a group like NIAC.

What is truly interesting about these foreign-policy lobbies, however, is just how much they have come to reflect the countries with which they seek greater U.S. strategic alignment.

Take AIPAC: At present, its president is Bob Cohen, elected in 2013. Before him, it has had well over a dozen presidents and executive directors, most serving just two or three years before the membership elected a new leader. As such, AIPAC has very much reflected the democratic nature of both the United States and Israel. As in Israel and the United States, its audience actively debates issues—there is seldom an easy consensus in AIPAC circles and contrary to the caricatures put out by some in more fringe circles, AIPAC remains a big tent, with its rank-and-file actually leaning toward the liberal and progressive within the American political context.

NIAC is a different animal entirely. Since its inception more than a decade ago, it has been led by a single leader, Trita Parsi, a dual Swedish-Iranian citizen permanently residing in the United States. NIAC has no regularly scheduled elections and so Parsi seems intent to remain his organization’s leader for life. Indeed, it’s a parallel not lost on Iranian-Americans, who often mock Parsi as the “rahbar,” or supreme leader. NIAC reflects Iranian political culture in other ways as well. While AIPAC tends to ignore criticism or simply argue back, NIAC has responded to criticism with ad hominem attack or by seeking to silence those it dislikes. Hence, it sued an Iranian-American journalist for defamation, a suit it ended up losing after also being sanctioned for seeking to surreptitiously alter its record and for failing to uphold discovery orders.

NIAC also reflects the Islamic Republic’s tendency toward conspiracy theories. The group has been fundraising off a non-existent threat of war with Iran for more than a decade, often aligning with fringe groups like Code Pink, Daily Kos, the Institute for Policy Studies, and WarIsACrime.org in joint letters or actions. While Parsi tones down his public rhetoric, his private writing embraces conspiracies. Hence, his comment “It is not unusual that Israelis run their business under the safety of an American flag.” At a time when it is now agreed that Iran was working on nuclear-weapons components, Parsi sought to defend the regime, answering one person raising concerns regarding Iranian activities, “There is no proof what so ever for Iran’s nuclear ambition. the IAEA just cleared Iran’s nuclear programme for the third time this decade last week. You have been reading too much AIPAC propaganda!” And while both members and leaders of AIPAC take pride in their assimilation into the United States, Parsi denigrates those who leave the Islamic Republic’s interests behind:

Our brothers and sisters did not die for us so we could marry an American and call our child Betty-Sue or Joey, they did not die so we could speak English to our children. WE OWE IRAN OUR LIVES…. There is no substitute for Iran!

The Saudi lobby, of course, like the monarchy itself, likes to operate in the shadows. Whereas AIPAC and NIAC seek to influence ordinary constituents, hence their frequent forums in cities across the country, Saudi lobbyists concentrate on those in the White House and Congress or by seeking to buy the support of prominent universities. Saudi lobbyists would no more hold a public forum in Indianapolis than would Saudi royals hold a public forum in Dhahran: The public is something to be tolerated and imposed upon, but not engaged. Those whose influence Saudi Arabia seeks can expect beneficence beyond their wildest imagination; those who Saudi Arabia deems independent or not useful are ignored.

Turkey may once have been an aspiring democracy, but in recent years, it has become hostile to political pluralism. The Turkish embassy in the United States has moved from representing all of Turkish society to instead substituting as an office for President Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and, according to former Turkish diplomats stationed there, actively maintains a blacklist of those critical of the AKP. Such blacklisting—which has become the norm inside Turkey—extends to the Turkish lobby. Groups like the American Turkish Council understand their access depends on the AKP, and so will seek to limit their interactions to those who embrace the AKP. When they cross the line, they know Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leaders will have no forgiveness. Hence, former Ambassador James Holmes, after long seeking to cozy up to the AKP and downplay changes inside Turkey, found himself ousted merely for the sin of including articles in a regular news roundup from a newspaper associated with groups disliked by Erdoğan. Such behavior has led to greater fracturing: just as Turkish society has divided along political and religious lines, so too have Turkey’s various lobby and business groups to the point where Turkey has dozens of lobbies, each ineffective, with only the president back in Ankara able to speak on Turkey’s behalf.

In recent years, paranoia about various foreign-policy lobbies has grown. And while pay-to-play is always wrong and should certainly be disclosed, many of the actual lobby groups for various countries do less to whitewash the nature of countries with which they wish the United States to partner, and far more to reflect those countries, whether open or closed, tolerant or intolerant, realistic or conspiratorial.

Lobbying will never go away, but let’s hope that one day all lobbies will be open, transparent, and governed democratically. That would be a sure sign that, finally, principle has triumphed over cash, and democracy really has taken root in the dark corners of the world.

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Erdoğan Aspires to Be Sultan Not a Putin

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has transformed Turkey from an aspiring democracy into the world’s largest prison for journalists, a graveyard for women, and an incubator for terrorism, has decided to take his personality cult to a new level by inaugurating a huge new palace that dwarfs the White House (see the side-by-side satellite photos provided by the Washington Post to see the relative scale). From the New York Times’s description:

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has transformed Turkey from an aspiring democracy into the world’s largest prison for journalists, a graveyard for women, and an incubator for terrorism, has decided to take his personality cult to a new level by inaugurating a huge new palace that dwarfs the White House (see the side-by-side satellite photos provided by the Washington Post to see the relative scale). From the New York Times’s description:

Sprawling over nearly 50 acres of forest land that was once the private estate of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a new presidential compound has nearly 1,000 rooms, an underground tunnel system and the latest in anti-espionage technology. It is larger than the White House, the Kremlin and Buckingham Palace. The reported price: nearly $350 million. Then there is a new high-tech presidential jet (estimated price, $200 million), not to mention the new presidential office in a restored Ottoman-era mansion overlooking the Bosporus, all of which have been acquired to serve the outsized ambitions of one man: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There is little doubt that Erdoğan is both an ideologue and autocrat, and sees himself above the law. He targets those who vote against him, run against him, and criticize him. In Erdoğan’s mind, environmentalists who protest the cutting down of trees in one of central Istanbul’s last green spaces are “terrorists,” but those who place bombs on buses or behead journalists and aid workers in Syria are not.

The New York Times proceeds to compare Erdoğan to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, a comparison I made in the Wall Street Journal several years ago. At the time, it looked like that was what Erdoğan wanted, but the Turkish leader may actually want more. Much more. Despite a foreign policy which has managed to make Erdoğan persona non grata across much of the Middle East (Israel, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, anywhere Hamas does not control in the Palestinian territories, and perhaps Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well), the Turkish leader still sees himself as a regional and Islamic leader. He is a Sunni sectarian to the core. He has declared his intention to remake Turkey along religious lines, and has pledged to “raise a religious generation.” And he is very astute with regard to symbolism.

Back in 2005, during his monthly television address, Erdoğan replaced the traditional backdrop of the Turkish flag and a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with a photo of Atatürk’s mausoleum and a mosque. Turks understood the symbolism: Atatürk is dead, but Islam is the future.

By building his Versailles over Atatürk’s private estate, he is doing the same thing. Atatürk was the symbol of secularism, and Erdoğan seeks to bury secularism. If Erdoğan was not content to simply be prime minister, and is not content to be merely the president of Turkey, then to what else could he aspire? While it may once have seemed farfetched that anyone could aspire to revive the Ottoman sultanate and the caliphate which Atatürk ended, Erdoğan seeks to do just this. He differs less in ideology with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi than in tactics and ambition. For all his talk of restoring a pan-Islamic caliphate, al-Baghdadi concentrates on the Arab world; Erdoğan’s goals are broader. The Turkish leader may or may not succeed, but he likely believes God is on his side: After all, how else could anyone explain the meteoric rise of a relatively uneducated (at least in secular terms) former street vendor to the height of political power.

The United States and the West are in denial, much as too many left-liberal Turks were until recently. Erdoğan can rest assured, however. He can play his cards deliberately, for Western diplomats and journalists will as always ignore his game until it is too late.

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Democracy in Tunisia

This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

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This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

And what of Tunisia? That’s where I spent the last few days serving as an election observer for the International Republican Institute, a foundation supported by the U.S. government (along with the National Democratic Institute and others) to promote democracy. I was heartened to see how free and fair Tunisia’s election was–the second held by that country since longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in 2011.

It was actually his overthrow which triggered what became the Arab Spring and which elsewhere has turned into the winter of our discontent. Tunisia, along among the states in the region, has continued to make democratic progress even though it faces big problems from a stagnant economy and a worrisome security situation–a Salafist terrorist group known as Ansar al-Sharia has been held responsible for storming the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in 2012 and assassinating a couple of leftist politicians in 2013.

From what I could tell, as I visited polling places in the northwest of the country, Tunisia’s voting was transparent and honest. The problem is that voting is only one stage toward the blooming of liberal democracy. You also need a free press, freedom of assembly, free speech, an independent judiciary, an active opposition, and a general climate of peaceful resolution of differences. Tunisia has made some progress toward the independent press, free speech, and freedom of assembly–it is now possible to vent one’s public views without fear of a visit from the secret police. But much of the old corrupt bureaucracy which once served Ben Ali remains on the job, serving as a bar to further progress and stifling economic development with its heavy-handed, French-style socialism and cronyism.

Interestingly enough, the Islamist party, known as Ennahda, is more committed to free-market reforms than the big secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), which bested it in Sunday’s voting. Ennahda shares this characteristic with the Turkish AKP party which, while Islamist, has also been more free-market oriented than most of its secular predecessors. And indeed Ennahda is trying to position itself as the “moderate” face of Islam, claiming it is committed both to Islam and to pluralistic democracy.

It tried to prove its bona fides by avoiding the kind of power grab that characterized Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After winning power in the first post-Ben Ali election in 2011, Ennahda governed in cooperation with secular parties and gave up power altogether when it was criticized for not doing more to crack down on Salafist terrorists. But most secularists are not convinced–they think Ennahda is pursuing a policy of dissimulation and that, if granted power, it would try to create an Islamist dictatorship.

Now Ennahda won’t take power except possible as part of a ruling coalition and it will be up to Nidaa Tounes to reform a moribund bureaucracy and get the economy moving again. There is little reason to expect that Nidaa Tounes will be up to the task; its leaders appear to be united by little more than their opposition to Ennahda. Many of them have backgrounds in the Ben Ali administration, which they tout as evidence of their managerial experience–but keep in mind that it was the very stagnation of the country in those years that led to the revolution that toppled Ben Ali.

I came away from Tunisia cheered that democracy is functioning and happy that it is not leading automatically in an Islamist direction, but I also came away skeptical about the ability of Tunisia’s political class to address its deep-seated malaise. It tells you something that hope for change rests with the frontrunner for president in next month’s elections, the leader of Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, who happens to be 87 years old. Can an octogenarian really shake a country out of its lethargy? We are about to find out.

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Connections Between Turkey’s AKP and ISIS?

When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

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When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

Alas, if recent reports out of Turkey are true, then the relationship between Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and ISIS are closer than previously known. There is a Turkish website called “Takva Haber” which Turks say serves as the mouthpiece for ISIS. It has been crucial in pushing out ISIS propaganda, and it has also helped ISIS recruit Turks to the degree that Turkey will be facing blowback from the radicals it has spawned long after Erdoğan is dead or in prison.

According to Turkish interlocutors, it now appears that the website is published from “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” or “Foundation for the Spread of Science [i.e. Islamic Theology].” For years, this foundation simply spread Islamist propaganda. What’s interesting, however, are its founders, among whose names can be found Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his son Bilal, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, who serves as Erdoğan’s Medvedev.

How strange it is that the organization which these AKP luminaries—and dozens of others founded—now seems to be working unabashedly for ISIS. Perhaps this explains why Erdoğan has been so reticent to call ISIS a terrorist organization in his various speeches.

Then, of course, there is this photo which appeared yesterday in the Sozcu newspaper and which purports to show prominent AKP figure Suat Kılıç having dinner with ISIS supporters in Germany. A witness to the gathering said they jointly handed out Korans before beginning dinner.

Given the trajectory of Turkey—a state which has now reportedly fired more than 1,800 journalists for insufficient political loyalty to Erdoğan—and the willingness of Erdoğan to use security forces and vigilante gangs against those who provoke his ire, perhaps the time is not long coming before Erdoğan decides to unleash his ISIS supporters in Turkey in a deadly show of force to demonstrate what happens when the sultan is disobeyed.

When it comes to Turkey in 2014, nothing can any more surprise—other than, perhaps, that so many congressmen, among them otherwise responsible and serious Democrats and Republicans—would lend their names to the regime Erdoğan dominates and the agenda he pushes.

UPDATE: The “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” has published a response to the original Turkish article in Sözcü Gazetesi whose report was cited in this blog post in which Ilim Yayma Vakfı deny any links between the foundation and the ISIS website. I will take them at their word. What is striking, however, is that the religious foundation founded by Islamist luminaries including now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu rushed to demand Sözcü Gazetesi take down its article, but the Turkish government which Erdoğan dominates and which has assumed the power to shut down websites refuses to touch the website of “Takva Haber” which continues to publish al-Qaeda and ISIS propaganda. So is Erdoğan serious about countering ISIS? I’d submit Turkey is as serious about shutting down the ISIS as Pakistan is about shutting down the Taliban.

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Has Obama Realized the PKK Can Be Allies?

Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The problem is this: While to most American audiences the Kurds might simply be the Kurds, they are divided politically, linguistically, and culturally. In short, the United States now works closely with Iraqi Kurds, but labels the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group. Herein lies the problem: Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, may depict himself and may be considered by some American officials to be a Kurdish nationalist leader, but his popularity is largely limited to two Iraqi provinces: Duhok and Erbil. And even in Erbil, his popularity is tenuous.

The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan remains the most popular figure among Turkey’s Kurds, enjoying the support of perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds, whereas Barzani barely musters 10 percent popularity there. Whereas Turkey long sought to declare Öcalan irrelevant, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reconfirmed Öcalan as the paramount Kurdish leader in Turkey when he had his administration negotiate a ceasefire with the imprisoned Kurdish leader. This may not have been Erdoğan’s intention, but it was the result. The irony here for Turkish nationalists is that Erdoğan was likely never sincere about achieving peace with the Kurds, or at least with those Kurds who continued to embrace ethnicity rather than Sunni Islam as their predominant identity. After all, every Erdoğan outreach to the Kurds occurred in the months before elections, and was abandoned in the weeks following them, when Erdoğan no longer needed Kurdish electoral support.

Even as Erdoğan now acquiesces to some support for the besieged Kurds of Kobane, he seeks to limit the provision of that support to his allies among Barzani’s peshmerga, never mind that KDP peshmerga would be out of place in Syria and do not have the skill or dedication that the PKK’s Syrian peshmerga, the YPG, have exhibited. If Erdoğan thinks Barzani’s peshmerga can save him, he is kidding himself: As soon as those Kurdish fighters enter Syria, they will subordinate themselves to the YPG which know the ground and are, at this point, better motivated and more skilled.

Erdoğan continues to insist that there is no difference in his mind between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK: To the Turkish President, they’re all terrorists. Evidently, however, the American position is shifting. Obama has insisted that he approve every military operation in Syria. This is why the recent airdrop of supplies to Kobane is so important: That airdrop directly assists the PYD, YPG, and the PKK. In effect, Obama is now aiding a group that his State Department still designates a terrorist group.

In reality, that designation is probably long overdue for a review if not elimination. The PYD governs Syrian Kurdistan better than any other group which holds territory runs its government. Nowhere else in Syria can girls walk to school without escort (let alone attend school) or is there regularly scheduled municipal trash pick up. And the YPG, meanwhile, has been the most effective force fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front. Given a choice between ISIS and the PKK, the United States should choose the PKK. The group may not be perfect—it retains too much of a personality cult around Öcalan and internally could become more transparent and democratic—but in this, it is no different than Barzani’s KDP. Indeed, the only difference between the two is that the PKK has not indulged in the same sort of corruption that has transformed Barzani and his sons into billionaires.

The most interesting aspect of the U.S. airdrop to the Kurds of Kobane is how muted the reaction has been. Turkey might like to think the nearly 150 members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus would hold water for Ankara and object to the provision of arms and aid to a group Turkey’s president considers to be a terrorist entity, but its members recognize that most American officials now consider the Hamas-loving Erdoğan to be more of a threat to peace than the PKK. Indeed, perhaps with this airdrop, the change so long denied by diplomats is now apparent: The Emperor Erdoğan has no clothes. It is too early to suggest that Öcalan trumps Erdoğan in the American mind but thanks to more than a decade of Erdoğan’s rule, when deciding between Turkey and the PKK, American officials no longer will automatically side with Turkey.

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Criticism to Become Crime in Turkey

I have written here many times about Turkey and its war on the media and free speech. Turkey is already “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. President Erdoğan has, in recent months, been on the war path since Turks used online news portals and social media to report on and discuss tapes which suggest that he and his family had embezzled money to the tune of over one billion dollars. Alas, with Erdoğan secure in the presidency and the opposition largely cowed into submission, Erdoğan is now taking his campaign against media and free thought to the next level. As “the Radical Democrat,” a blog which follows press freedom in Turkey closely and often breaks news about new and real threats to free expression in that country, writes:

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I have written here many times about Turkey and its war on the media and free speech. Turkey is already “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. President Erdoğan has, in recent months, been on the war path since Turks used online news portals and social media to report on and discuss tapes which suggest that he and his family had embezzled money to the tune of over one billion dollars. Alas, with Erdoğan secure in the presidency and the opposition largely cowed into submission, Erdoğan is now taking his campaign against media and free thought to the next level. As “the Radical Democrat,” a blog which follows press freedom in Turkey closely and often breaks news about new and real threats to free expression in that country, writes:

Draconian internet laws in Turkey are deepening yet once again with a new reform package that will bring by new measures against freedom of speech in Turkey. Previously, the government has already tried to silence masses through censorship measures, surveillance of netizens, blocking access to web sites, or even raids on online news portals’ headquarters. The most recent “development” on the laws against online free speech is the most recent law draft that foresees up to 5 years of imprisonment for tweeps that criticize the government online.

The issue goes beyond simply social media or print criticism, but rather will extend to slogans during street protests:

The new bill’s scope is not limited to digital public spaces but also makes opposition movements’ visibility on streets problematic. The slogans that have been adopted by critical groups on street protests had already drawn many frowning faces so far, and with the new bill they will be considered a crime. New law also breaches the diplomatic immunity of politicians, allowing them to be put on trial as well, in case of threats against public-officers, soldiers, police, governors etc. The prison sentence will possibly go up to 5 years depending on the intensity of the “criminal activity.”

To make matters worse, the new law restricts the ability of lawyers to defend those accused of criticizing the government. Welcome to the new Turkey, a country intent on falling below even Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain in press freedom rankings.

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Turkey Demonstrates Why It Does Not Belong in Europe

It’s been the age-old dream of liberal Turks to join the European Union, and many American diplomats still repeat the mantra that Turkey as a member of Europe would be a good thing for both Turkey and for Europe. A decade ago, I certainly would have agreed with them. The thinking was that the Turkish workforce could have jump started Europe’s anemic economy, while European membership might have given Turkey that final shove into the liberal democratic camp.

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It’s been the age-old dream of liberal Turks to join the European Union, and many American diplomats still repeat the mantra that Turkey as a member of Europe would be a good thing for both Turkey and for Europe. A decade ago, I certainly would have agreed with them. The thinking was that the Turkish workforce could have jump started Europe’s anemic economy, while European membership might have given Turkey that final shove into the liberal democratic camp.

While many Europeans saw the Turkish military as the impediment to Turkey’s democracy—and, to some extent, it was—undercutting its power also eviscerated the only check-and-balance the country had. Because Western diplomats and NGOs cheering the weakening of military influence did not simultaneously insist on building an alternate check to dictatorship,  President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was given an opportunity. “Democracy is like a street car,” he once quipped. “You ride it as far as you need, and then you step off.” European and American policy simply stopped the streetcar, so that rather than jump off onto hard tarmac, Erdoğan could step daintily onto goose-down pillows, his ego stroked, as he abandoned democracy.

But, however corrupt he appears, Erdoğan isn’t simply a megalomaniac motivated by greed: He is an ideologue. “We will raise a religious generation,” he declared. He is an unabashed Islamist, intent on imposing his interpretation and embrace of his religion upon others. Muslims—or at least Sunni Muslims—can do no wrong in his fevered mind. That is why he sought to exculpate Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s genocidal campaign in Darfur, and why he has embraced and defended Hamas and even those associated with al-Qaeda. For Erdoğan, there simply is no such thing as terrorism if the terrorist is a Muslim and the victim is not.

The latest example shows that if Erdoğan has a choice between law-and-order and religious solidarity, he’ll choose the latter.

Back in 2013, a young Danish citizen of Lebanese background attempted to murder Lars Hedegaard, a newspaper columnist who had been very critical of Islam. He subsequently fled Denmark for Syria, but was arrested in Turkey six months ago. Denmark had been seeking his return to face charges. Now, it seems, he has “gone missing” in Turkish custody. Rather than allow him to face charges in Denmark, it appears Erdoğan simply let him go, perhaps as part of the “prisoner swap” that Turkey pursued to win the release of Turks held by the Islamic State in Mosul. Here’s the story from Reuters. The British government has also indicated that Turkey has freed extremists wanted in the United Kingdom.

All of these extremists will kill again. Turkey’s apologists—or perhaps those who shift positions to maintain their access to Turkey—might say that Turkey was simply acting in its interests by making a prisoner exchange. This is nonsense: Turkey might have returned these extremists long before its hostages had been taken in the first place. For example, the man wanted for attempted murder in Denmark had been in Turkish custody for two months before the Islamic State seized the Turkish hostages in the first place. Erdoğan has, on several occasions, faced a choice—one without any cost to himself or Turkey: He could have upheld the rule of law or he could have shielded violent extremists bent on murder. He chose the latter. Turkey’s subordination of the law to a sectarian agenda should end forever the idea of the country as a member of the European Union.

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First Rule of the Anti-ISIS Club Is: You Do Not Talk About the Anti-ISIS Club

President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

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President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

It was not too surprising that Obama’s highly-touted “broad coalition” was in fact far less than meets the eye. After all, among Obama’s many weaknesses in foreign affairs, international diplomacy is arguably at the top of the list. And that’s how Obama has not only put together a coalition that has thus far struggled against ISIS but also bungled the coalition’s cohesion. In wanting to prove he wrangled a broad coalition of allies his administration has forgotten the first rule of the Anti-ISIS Club: Don’t talk about the Anti-ISIS Club.

As Foreign Policy reports:

The latest row concerns the key question of whether Turkey, which hosts a sprawling American air base, will let U.S. warcraft fly from it into Iraq and Syria to batter the militant group. U.S. officials said Sunday that Ankara had given the green light. Less than a day later, Turkish officials categorically denied that they’d agreed to allow their bases to be used against the terror group.

The conflicting versions of events from the two allies have one of two causes. One is political: The White House is eager to show a war-weary American public that the United States won’t be fighting alone, but many Middle Eastern countries don’t want to rile up their own populations by advertising their roles in the coalition. The other is a more basic and troubling one: that Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight.

Turkey’s behavior has been the subject of much debate. If they are an ally, they have an awfully funny way of showing it. As Jonathan Schanzer wrote in Politico Magazine last week, it may be time to kick Turkey out of NATO. Aside from Ankara’s unhelpful attitude toward the anti-ISIS effort, Schanzer notes that Turkey supports the Hamas terrorists of Gaza and even allows leaders of the group to operate out of Turkey; it has refused to take antiterrorism seriously, undermining NATO’s global efforts as well as regional stability; and it has helped Iran evade sanctions intended to curb its illicit nuclear program.

In addition, after waffling on the anti-ISIS coalition Turkey turned around and resumed bombing Kurdish militant positions, the first such strikes since the two-year-old peace process began in earnest. This comes after Kurds in Turkey protested Ankara’s refusal to help aid the anti-ISIS effort (thus further endangering their Syrian Kurdish brethren), resulting in riots and the deaths of more than thirty people.

As with the possible fall of Kobani to ISIS, which Max Boot wrote about yesterday, Turkey’s behavior is reprehensible but no excuse for American incompetence. Turkey may have had a more extreme reaction, but it is not the first country to be “outed” as part of Obama’s broad coalition that didn’t want to be identified as such. As the Foreign Policy report pointed out:

In September, when Foreign Policy reported details of a secret offer by the nation of Georgia to host a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters, the story prompted a strong public backlash in Tbilisi due to security concerns for the tiny Caucasian nation of 4.5 million. Within 24 hours, Georgian officials denied having made any such offer.

“I categorically rule out any military participation or training base in Georgia,” Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said.

Last month, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said his government opposed terrorism, but expressed annoyance that his country was included in the U.S. government’s official list of anti-ISIS partners without being informed.

“I am bothered by the fact that we have been placed on the list without the government’s knowledge,” he said. “We will have to voice some sort of protest; it is not appropriate to consent to our country being placed anywhere without our knowledge and consensus.”

Placing European countries on an anti-ISIS list and hoping they wouldn’t notice is truly amateurish behavior. But it also demonstrates a recurring problem for this administration, which I’ve written about before: President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the rest of those responsible for the conduct of American foreign policy simply don’t listen.

And they are far more interested in the sloganeering of bumper-sticker diplomacy and vapid politics than in actually accomplishing what they’re supposed to, causing an already shaky coalition to crumble further.

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Obama’s Strategy to Defeat ISIS Collides with Reality

In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

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In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

More than a month after the president’s pronouncement that our strategy is to destroy ISIS, and more than two months after the first American air strikes against ISIS militants in Iraq, it’s worth assessing how the Obama strategy is faring and to review what leading military figures who served under President Obama are saying about it.

ISIS’s Military Gains Since the U.S. Air Campaign Began

“Islamic State militants have gained territory in Iraq and Syria despite weeks of bombing by the U.S. and its allies, raising questions about the coalition’s strategy of trying to blunt the jihadists’ advance while local forces are being trained to meet the threat on the ground. In Syria, fighters from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have taken large sections of the city of Kobani in recent days… This comes despite a week of heavy airstrikes around the city to help local Syrian Kurdish fighters keep Islamic State forces from the city center. In Iraq, militant forces operating in a swath of territory the size of California have extended their control of the roads and commercial routes in strategically vital Anbar Province, which connects the capital Baghdad to Jordan and Syria.” – “Militants Advance Despite Airstrikes”, Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2014.

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“Islamic State militants are threatening to overrun a key province in western Iraq in what would be a major victory for the jihadists and an embarrassing setback for the U.S.-led coalition targeting the group. A win for the Islamic State in Anbar province would give the militants control of one of the country’s most important dams and several large army installations, potentially adding to their abundant stockpile of weapons. It would also allow them to establish a supply line from Syria almost to Baghdad and give them a valuable position from which to launch attacks on the Iraqi capital.” – “Islamic State fighters are threatening to overrun Iraq’s Anbar province”, Washington Post, October 9, 2014.

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“Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged the Syrian border town could fall to the militants despite the bombings. ‘Air power alone is not going to be enough to save Kobani,’ he said Wednesday. The fighting in Kobani comes amid mounting worries about the effectiveness of the U.S.-led air campaign, which has failed to loosen the militants’ hold on territory in Iraq and Syria or prevent the Islamic State from taking new areas.” – “U.S. steps up airstrikes as Kurds cling to Syrian town”, USA Today, October 7, 2014.

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“U.S.-led airstrikes designed to serve notice on Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria have also delivered a sobering message to Washington and its allies: Breaking the militants’ grip will be every bit as difficult as they feared…. Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began. ‘The strikes are useless so far,’ said Mohammad Hassan, an activist in eastern Syria battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. ‘Most of the training camps and the bases were empty when the coalition hit them.’” — “U.S.-led Airstrikes Disrupt Islamic State, But Extremists Hold Territory”, Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2014.

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“After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.” – “Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq”, New York Times, September 22, 2014.

What Military Experts Are Saying About the Obama Strategy

“Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and U.S. military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship… a series of military leaders have criticized the president’s approach against the Islamic State militant group.” – “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State”, Washington Post, September 18, 2014.

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“I don’t think the president’s plan has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding.” — Retired Marine General James Conway, who served as commandant of the Marine Corps under President Obama, September 19, 2014.

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“You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do … Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility. We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.” – Retired Marine General James Mattis, who served as commander of United States Central Command under President Obama, September 18, 2014.

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“Responding to a White House request for options to confront the Islamic State, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said that his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants, according to two U.S. military officials. The recommendation, conveyed to the White House by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve U.S. ground forces in a front-line role, a step adamantly opposed by the White House.” – “Countering Islamic State will be hard in Iraq and harder in Syria, officials say”Washington Post, September 10, 2014.

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“The reality is, they’re not going to be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces or the Peshmerga or the Sunni tribes acting on their own. So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [there won’t be troops on the ground], the president in effect traps himself.” – Robert Gates, secretary of defense under President Obama, September 17, 2014.

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“No, Chuck. This is very early days of the strategy. The strategy’s very clear. We’ll do what we can from the air…. But we are not going to be in a ground war again in Iraq. It’s not what is required by the circumstances that we face and even if one were to take that step, which the president has made clear we’re not going to do, it wouldn’t be sustainable. We’ve got to do this in a sustainable way.” – Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, responding to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on whether the administration is reassessing its strategy against ISIS, October 12, 2014. (On the same program Ms. Rice declared that Turkey had made a commitment to allow the United States to use its bases for operations against ISIS. Turkey immediate contradicted Ms. Rice and denied such a deal had been made. This comes a week after Vice President Biden apologized to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey for comments he made that Middle Eastern allies are partly to blame for the strengthening of ISIS.)

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“We don’t do stupid [stuff]” – President Obama describing his foreign policy doctrine in private conversations to reporters, “Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats”, New York Times, May 28, 2014.

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Turkey, Kobani, and American Excuses

American officials are in high dudgeon about Turkey’s inaction to prevent the imminent fall of Kobani, a Kurdish-populated town in northern Syria, to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS. Given that Kobani is right across the border with Turkey, Ankara could presumably save the town simply by rolling its army across the frontier. But this President Erdogan refuses to do, even as ISIS edges closer to the center of town.

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American officials are in high dudgeon about Turkey’s inaction to prevent the imminent fall of Kobani, a Kurdish-populated town in northern Syria, to the black-clad fanatics of ISIS. Given that Kobani is right across the border with Turkey, Ankara could presumably save the town simply by rolling its army across the frontier. But this President Erdogan refuses to do, even as ISIS edges closer to the center of town.

Why isn’t he doing more? Partly it’s because he doesn’t want to collaborate with the Syrian version of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group which has battled the Turkish state for years. But partly it’s also because he doesn’t think there is any point in intervening against ISIS as long as President Obama isn’t willing to attack the root cause of the Syrian civil war–the Bashar Assad regime.

Erdogan deserves all the opprobrium he is getting for his inaction but, as the Washington Post editorialists astutely note, the U.S. doesn’t have the high moral ground here. The U.S., they write, “is poorly placed to pass judgment, having stood aside for more than three years while 200,000 Syrians died, most at the hands of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Another 3 million have become refugees, including 1 million who have alighted in Turkey — which, adjusting for population, would be the equivalent for the United States of more than 4 million Mexicans streaming across the border.”

Moreover, the Obama administration is still refusing to create a no-fly zone over Syria as Erdogan and the moderate Syrian opposition are urging. This American failure is allowing Assad to take advantage of the anti-ISIS campaign the U.S. is conducting to focus his attacks on western parts of Syria which are held by the moderate opposition.

Instead of pointing fingers at Erdogan, American policymakers would be better advised to act on his advice to stop Assad as well as ISIS.

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Is Kobane 2014 Warsaw 1944?

This summer, after a lecture at Poland’s National Defense University, I was treated to a tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The museum, which commemorated not the Jewish ghetto uprising but rather the uprising of the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation two years later, should be a mandatory stop on any visit to Warsaw. The story is well-known but, for those who have forgotten, my colleague Marc Thiessen wrote about it here.

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This summer, after a lecture at Poland’s National Defense University, I was treated to a tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The museum, which commemorated not the Jewish ghetto uprising but rather the uprising of the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation two years later, should be a mandatory stop on any visit to Warsaw. The story is well-known but, for those who have forgotten, my colleague Marc Thiessen wrote about it here.

When the Polish partisans rose up, they expected the Red Army to sweep into the city and liberate it from the Nazis. Instead, the Red Army stayed put while the Nazis gained the upper hand, slaughtered the Polish nationalists, and then razed the city. While the United States embraced Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as an ally in the realpolitik world of World War II, too often whitewashing his racist and murderous proclivities, Stalin himself had a plan for post-World War II Europe, and strong Polish nationalism had no place in it. What I had not known until I had visited the museum was the multiple requests to the United States and its allies to provide air support or airdrop supplies to the partisans who were slowly being starved between Nazis and the Red Army. No air support was forthcoming; the allies did not want to irk Stalin. When it came to other supplies, what came was too little, and much too late.

Fast forward 70 years. The Islamic State (ISIS) is surrounding the majority Kurdish town of Kobane, an enclave which has also taken in thousands of displaced Christians and Arabs. The United States has for months ignored the advance, and only in recent days provided some aerial assistance. Those fighting in Kobane are wedged between ISIS and, just a kilometer away, the Turkish Army. The Turks refuse to provide assistance to the Kurdish defenders, even as they watch hundreds of thousands flee, and thousands killed or wounded.

Many Turkish citizens—both ethnic Turks and Kurds—recognize the cynicism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for whom outreach toward Kurds is consistently just a pre-election ploy. This is why, as the fall of Kobane to ISIS has neared, Kurds have taken to the streets inside Turkey to protest. In the last couple days, this has led to more than a dozen deaths inside Turkey and the Turkish government imposing curfew on six cities. The analysis and observations of “the radical democrat” are well worth reading.

The Kurdish resistance first toward sl-Qaeda and then toward ISIS started out strong. But, as ISIS has enriched itself through the seizure of equipment and a flow of foreign militants and, perhaps, some support for Turkey as well, it has grown strong. At the same time, Turkey, the Syrian regime, and ISIS have blockaded the Syrian Kurds. The State Department demand that the Syrian Kurds forfeit their claim to federalism and subordinate themselves both to the Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups of the official opposition who live in Istanbul and control nothing on the ground and to Iraqi Kurdish leaders who, because of corruption and the antics of their sons, are hugely unpopular is short-sighted and ridiculous. That Secretary of State John Kerry is prepared to watch thousands slaughtered, raped, or enslaved in order to drive this point home is a poor reflection on what America stands for.

How sad it is that history is repeating, with the Syrian Kurds playing the part of the Warsaw partisans and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan playing the part of Stalin. The Americans, alas, are once again recognizing pending tragedy but refusing out of cynicism, misplaced diplomacy, or simple incompetence to do anything about it. The freedom-seeking world should be better than it was in 1944, as the freedom fighters of Warsaw perished. Unfortunately, events are showing it is not.

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Obama Should Apologize, Not Biden

For most casual observers, it will be filed under the category of “Biden being Biden.” But the story of the apology to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tells us more about the Obama administration’s dysfunctional foreign policy than it does about the vice president’s predilection for saying embarrassing things. But rather than apologizing to Erdoğan for telling the truth about the Turks facilitating the rise of ISIS by letting Islamists enter Syria, it is Biden’s boss, President Obama, who should admit that it was his foolish decisions that did more to create the disaster in Iraq and Syria that allowed the rise of Islamist terrorists.

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For most casual observers, it will be filed under the category of “Biden being Biden.” But the story of the apology to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tells us more about the Obama administration’s dysfunctional foreign policy than it does about the vice president’s predilection for saying embarrassing things. But rather than apologizing to Erdoğan for telling the truth about the Turks facilitating the rise of ISIS by letting Islamists enter Syria, it is Biden’s boss, President Obama, who should admit that it was his foolish decisions that did more to create the disaster in Iraq and Syria that allowed the rise of Islamist terrorists.

Biden’s statement at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government was the textbook definition of a gaffe: telling an embarrassing truth. He was quoted as saying that Erdoğan admitted to him that Turkey had erred by letting Islamists flood over the border when it was aiding Syrian rebels against the Assad regime and that they are now trying to be more selective about the people that are allowed to cross into the war zone. Since Turkey was willing to aid anyone who said they were willing to fight Assad, they deserve some blame for allowing ISIS to be armed and giving them the time and the space needed to begin their offensive that ultimately brought much of Syria and Iraq under the control.

That hit a little too close to the truth for Erdoğan, who demanded an apology and the always biddable Biden complied even though he also wrongly praised the Turks for their belated decision to join the anti-ISIS alliance, something that our Michael Rubin pointed out didn’t mean exactly what Biden thought it did.

Turkey’s status as a NATO ally and their geo-strategic position means that Washington will always need to tread carefully around Ankara’s interests even though it is clear that the goals of Erdoğan’s Islamist government are antithetical to those of the United States.

But if high-ranking Obama administration officials are so eager to apportion blame for ISIS’s ongoing strength they should look at a mirror rather than at Turkey.

Erdoğan’s desire to overthrow the Assad regime was no secret and led Turkey to make common cause with many undesirable elements. Indeed, as Michael Rubin noted, the authorization of the use of force in Syria by Turkey is about their desire to suppress Kurds, not to battle ISIS.

But Turkey’s unchecked mischief making in Syria was only made possible by Erdoğan’s erstwhile best buddy Barack Obama, who stood by and did nothing about Syria when U.S. intervention early on would have toppled Assad more easily while also making it far less likely that ISIS would have arisen in this fashion.

More to the point, while the president blamed U.S. intelligence for failing to anticipate ISIS gaining strength—something that is a blatant lie since it warned Obama of the dangers of the course he was following—it is more than obvious that the administration chose to let the Turks run amok because of its reluctance to face up to the need for America to lead in the region. By ignoring the advice of his more sober senior advisers like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, and pulling out of Iraq and dithering on Syria while he was cozying up to Erdoğan, it was Obama who created the power vacuum that gave ISIS its opportunity.

But as we survey the unfolding tragicomedy of the administration’s relations with Turkey, we’d also do well to ponder what the loose-lipped vice president will be saying about our current problems a year or two from now. If President Obama sticks to his current policy of desultory bombing of ISIS with no effective ground forces opposing the Islamists, the threat from these terrorists will grow rather than recede. Since the president is still more interested in withdrawing from the region and striking deals with its more dangerous actors such as Iran rather than in backing our endangered moderate Arab allies or Israel, before too long it will be necessary to construct another cover story to account for the disasters that will follow.

When Biden is asked in late 2015 or in 2016 who or what created the disaster in Iraq and Syria or the next domino to fall, there’s no telling who the scapegoat will be. But no matter which country receives the veep’s inevitable apology, the real answer will always be Barack Obama.

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Turkish Vote Less than Meets the Eye

CNN is reporting that the Turkish parliament has approved military action against the Islamic State (ISIS). This may be the headline that Turkey wants, but it is not actually what the Turkish parliament has done. The Turkish parliament has instead voted to authorize its army to operate in Iraq and Syria. This extends a mandate that was approved two years ago but was about to expire. Hence, had Turkey previously wanted to operate against ISIS, it could have. More importantly, the Turkish motion did not specify a target. This means that the Turkish authorization could just as readily allow operation against Syrian Kurds who are fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups, or against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

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CNN is reporting that the Turkish parliament has approved military action against the Islamic State (ISIS). This may be the headline that Turkey wants, but it is not actually what the Turkish parliament has done. The Turkish parliament has instead voted to authorize its army to operate in Iraq and Syria. This extends a mandate that was approved two years ago but was about to expire. Hence, had Turkey previously wanted to operate against ISIS, it could have. More importantly, the Turkish motion did not specify a target. This means that the Turkish authorization could just as readily allow operation against Syrian Kurds who are fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups, or against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The Turkish vote means that Ankara could be helpful should it so choose, but it might simply stop at the appearance of being helpful, especially if American reporters and news organizations like CNN transpose their own goals onto a Turkish government which too often in recent years has operated against Western interests rather than in their favor.

Only the coming days will tell. But let us hope that neither the Pentagon nor the State Department let Turkey off the hook or accept pretend partnership rather than substantive cooperation.

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Turkey’s Jihad Against Online News Portals

In 2002, Reporters without Frontiers ranked Turkey 99th in the world in terms of press freedom. That was a poor showing for a country aspiring to join the European Union, but it still placed Turkey well above countries like Burma, Russia, Ethiopia, and Iraq. No longer. Over his more than decade-long premiership, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used a number of tools to constrain press freedom.

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In 2002, Reporters without Frontiers ranked Turkey 99th in the world in terms of press freedom. That was a poor showing for a country aspiring to join the European Union, but it still placed Turkey well above countries like Burma, Russia, Ethiopia, and Iraq. No longer. Over his more than decade-long premiership, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used a number of tools to constrain press freedom.

After replacing technocrats on Turkey’s banking and tax boards with political loyalists, Erdoğan levelled ever-increasing tax liens against media organizations that criticized him or his agenda. If his targets did not forfeit their media outlets, Erdoğan would confiscate them. While, in theory, these media companies would come up for auction, Erdoğan would ensure that the only permissible bidders would be loyalists to his political party and, preferably, members of his own family.

Erdoğan would simultaneously employ other strategies as well. Turkey imprisons more journalists than Iran and China. It harasses female journalists and has recently begun targeting journalists working for foreign outlets as well. (I have not been immune; after I criticized Turkish corruption, Erdoğan aide Cuneyd Zapsu and (now disgraced and fired) EU Minister Egemen Bağış sued me in a Turkish court). He targeted authors to confiscate unpublished manuscripts; Turkey now prosecutes thought-crime rather than actual crime.

Now, alas, Turkey is no longer willing to simply go after traditional outlets. While Erdoğan’s jihad against social media is long standing, Erdoğan increasingly seeks to control what can be published online. Quite simply, the Internet—and, more broadly, free discourse—frustrates Erdoğan, who would much rather crush dissent than accept the accountability and transparency a free media encourages or address the merits of his opponents’ arguments. As journalists have moved to online outlets to escape Erdoğan’s authoritarian ambitions, the number of Turkish news portals has exploded online.

It is these that Erdoğan now targets. According to “the radical democrat,” a Turkish blog which closely follows free speech, Internet freedom, and individual liberty issues in Turkey:

Today, surprisingly access to Karsi‘s newsportal online was blocked… The portal continues to use a proxy newsportal for now “uncensored news” (sansursuz haber) until it also gets subjected to same treatment. Another surprise news of the day is that newly established “Gri Hat” (Grey Line) newsportal is also taken to court and blocking access is declared, for potential to distribute critical news material which has published the corruption records on the newsportal. Gri Hat was established not more than a month ago by unemployed/fired journalists and it was going to leak more news pieces regarding all kinds of corruption… If alternative/opposed news portals continue getting raided or subjected to threats and give in to such pressure, the future of democracy hangs on spikes in Turkey.

Turkey was never a beacon of freedom. But with Erdoğan’s latest move against Internet portals, it seems determined to fall further in international press freedom rankings, below even Iran, Belarus, and China.

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What Obama Left Unsaid

A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

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A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

The Free Syrian Army forces have no love lost for ISIS and they have fought against its fanatical fighters whose activities have been largely focused not on resisting the Assad regime but on consolidating control of rebel-held areas. But the Free Syrian Army has worked with Nusra against the Assad regime and its leaders are understandably perplexed by the U.S. failure to target Assad.

McClatchy reports from Turkey: “By focusing exclusively on Islamic State insurgents and al Qaida figures associated with the Khorasan unit of the Nusra Front, and bypassing installations associated with the government of President Bashar Assad, the airstrikes infuriated anti-regime Syrians and hurt the standing of moderate rebel groups that are receiving arms and cash as part of a covert CIA operation based in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli.”

It is hard to figure out if Obama, who has publicly been on record as demanding Assad’s departure from power since 2011, is even interested in hastening regime change anymore. Anyone listening to his United Nations speech today would have been left perplexed. While Obama had a long and fiery denunciation of ISIS’s “network of death,” he mentioned Assad only once: “Together with our partners, America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime,” he said. “But the only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political – an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed.”

That’s a long way from Obama’s statement in August 2011: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Nor, it should be noted, did Obama have any harsh words for Iran, which is sponsoring Assad’s murderous attacks on his own people. Rather than denouncing Iran (whose support for terrorism went unmentioned), he offered the mullahs yet another olive branch: “My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: do not let this opportunity pass. We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.”

The fact that Obama is no longer demanding Assad’s resignation and that U.S. aircraft are not targeting any regime installations suggests that Obama may view Assad and his Iranian patrons as de facto allies against ISIS. This, sadly, is more evidence of the theory that Michael Doran and I have previously advanced that Obama is trying to engineer an entente with Tehran that would turn Iran into America’s partner in the Middle East. He may even be going easy on Assad to win Iranian support for a nuclear deal.

If so, this is a tragically misguided policy that will make the U.S. complicit in Iranian-sponsored war crimes while actually undermining our goal of turning Sunni tribes in both Iraq and Syria against ISIS: The Sunnis will not fight if they perceive the opposition to ISIS as being dominated by Iran and Assad. The president would be better advised to pursue a more evenhanded strategy of bombing both ISIS and the Assad regime. Otherwise we risk “degrading” one group of violent, anti-American fanatics while empowering a competing group of violent, anti-American fanatics.

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Islamist Atrocities and the End of Outrage

When Islamist terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, just over a decade ago, not only Russians and the West were aghast, but so too were many Ossetians, Chechens, and, more generally, Islamists otherwise supportive of militancy and violence. The victimization of the children was too great to bare for many, and led them to question just what it meant to put the rhetoric they once embraced into action. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, radicalism did not diminish, but the Chechen and Ossetian ability to fundraise and recruit did and, for a moment at least, men and women of all religions stood against Islamist radicalism.

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When Islamist terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, just over a decade ago, not only Russians and the West were aghast, but so too were many Ossetians, Chechens, and, more generally, Islamists otherwise supportive of militancy and violence. The victimization of the children was too great to bare for many, and led them to question just what it meant to put the rhetoric they once embraced into action. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, radicalism did not diminish, but the Chechen and Ossetian ability to fundraise and recruit did and, for a moment at least, men and women of all religions stood against Islamist radicalism.

There were the beginnings of a similar moment when terrorists from Boko Haram, a radical Nigerian group, abducted hundreds of school girls, most of whom remain missing. Even al-Qaeda criticized Boko Haram’s action as destructive to the overall cause which al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists embrace.

Alas, it seems that the public—and Islamists—are becoming accustomed to such brutality and are no longer willing to condemn it on such a broad scale. Cases in point are the capture and enslavement of Yezidi girls and the systematic execution of journalists and aid workers by proponents of ISIS. Now certainly, these have been subject to the usual rote condemnations by governments and by groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) that have taken Saudi and Qatari money and often associate with more radical Islamist movements like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But, when push comes to shove, many Islamists and the groups and countries which support them are not putting their money where their mouth is. Arab countries—the same countries whose citizens often donated to ISIS and associated charities—have been reluctant to help. Turkey’s excuse—that it is afraid for hostages held in Mosul—does not pass the smell test given that Turkey has not hesitated to wage war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) even when that group has held Turks hostage. That President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refuses to label ISIS as terrorists simply reinforces the issue.

It’s all well and good to dismiss ISIS actions as “un-Islamic” as CAIR has done or, for that matter, as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have done. But the truth is that to millions of Muslims, they are very Islamic. To deny the religious component of “Jihad John” or ISIS’s actions is to deny that there is an exegesis within Islamic thought that not only allows but blesses such actions. It is to deny that there is a battle of interpretation which must be won. Nor is it logical to embrace a politically correct and scrubbed 21st century definition of jihad when ISIS reaches back to interpretations of a millennium and more ago when jihad was understood by Islamic theologians to mean an often offensive holy war.

The fact that the visceral outrage which confronted the Beslan murders has now been replaced by pro-forma but ultimately meaningless condemnations of Islamic terror by Muslim majority states and Islamic advocacy organizations suggests that far from rising up with righteous outrage against the actions of the latest Islamist group, the broader Islamic world has become inured to such actions conducted in its name and unwilling to recoil and shame its proponents and supporters in the same way.

Indeed, the thousands of foreign terrorists which now flock to Syria and Iraq did not radicalize in the last two months, nor did they embrace the most radical interpretations of Islam simply because they disliked former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Rather, they were instructed in hundreds of mosques scattered across Europe, North Africa, South Asia, and Turkey. They were taught the Koran and its meaning by thousands of teachers and imams funded by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. These mosques were protected from criticism by so-called Islamic civil-rights and advocacy groups who conflated any criticism of radical Islamist ideology with Islamophobia. If only the same organizations instead began to name and publicly shame the extremists who preach in American, European, or Middle Eastern mosques.

Press releases won’t cut it, nor diplomatic handshakes and symbolic press conferences. The problem lies deeper, and ultimately boils down to the tolerance for extremism in so many European, American, and Middle Eastern mosques upon which ISIS recruiters rely.

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Obama’s Coalition of the Unwilling

After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

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After President Obama rallied the nation to an effort to destroy the ISIS terrorist group, Secretary of State John Kerry headed straight to the Middle East to solidify the coalition of allies that his boss had said was necessary to conduct the conflict in a manner that would not be confused for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging by the initial reactions of the nations Obama is counting on to help, the war isn’t going so well.

Under Obama’s formulation, the fight against ISIS would not involve U.S. ground troops but would rather than be a joint effort in which the U.S. would facilitate a broad alliance of nations, to eliminate a threat to the security of the region as well as to the United States. But the joint communiqué issued by the U.S. and ten Arab nations whose representatives met with Kerry today in Jidda, Saudi Arabia produced nothing resembling the alliance Obama envisaged. While George W. Bush characterized the nations that he led to war in Iraq as a “coalition of the willing,” the one that Obama will lead against ISIS is very a “coalition of the unwilling.”

The Jidda meeting made clear that while Obama would like the Arab and Muslim worlds to take an active, if not leading role in the struggle against ISIS, they have no such intentions. Though the countries in attendance at the meeting said they would “do their share,” they clearly have a rather limited definition of that expression. None said what they would do to aid the cause and it has yet to be seen whether any of them would join the U.S. in deploying air power against ISIS. Even worse, Turkey, a key neighboring country, wouldn’t even sign the communiqué because it feared to anger ISIS, lest Turkish hostages in their hands be harmed. But, as Michael Rubin wrote here earlier, the Turks may be more worried about any arms coming in to help those fighting ISIS will eventually wind up in the hands of Syrian Kurds who are aligned with the PKK group that fights for Kurdish rights in Turkey.

The Turks are, however, just one problem. A bigger obstacle to the construction of the kind of fighting alliance that Obama spoke of is the fact that most of these nations simply do not trust the president. Egypt is clearly one such nation. The Egyptians military government has had some bad experiences with the Obama administration and is convinced that if the president had his way, the Muslim Brotherhood would still be ruling in Cairo. Others, including some Iraqi Sunnis who remain in harm’s way if ISIS isn’t stopped, simply don’t identify with the battle against the terror group in the way that Obama envisaged.

This is in part the fruit of Obama’s lead from behind strategy in the last six years. But it is also evidence that the president’s faith in multilateralism and belief that wars can be won on the cheap is a tragic mistake.

The problem here is more than Obama’s unrealistic notions of how wars can be successfully fought or one more instance of Kerry’s inept diplomacy. The most disturbing news out of the conflict isn’t just the reluctance of Arab nations to take the ISIS threat as seriously as Americans do even though the terrorist army poses a direct threat to the future of those governments. It is that ISIS is clearly perceived by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds as winning. As long as the terrorists are perceived as “the strong horse,” to use the title of Lee Smith’s valuable book about the Middle East, they are going to be able to attract recruits and more cash. The brutal murders of two American journalists horrified Westerners but were also perceived by some Muslims, both in the region and in the countries now being asked to fight ISIS, as ideal recruiting videos. Mere statements of support from Arab governments or even some Muslim clerics won’t alter that view of what ISIS considers a war, even if Kerry doesn’t.

While some writers like David Ignatius of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times, think the president’s “reluctant warrior” approach is useful, the Muslim world seems to have a different opinion. If Obama is going to do something to reverse these perceptions, it is going to take more than the halfway measures he spoke of on Wednesday or a coalition in which America is not prepared to do more than bomb from afar.

The basic problem remains a terrorist threat that Obama considers serious enough to justify a major effort by the United States but which he expects to be defeat by troops from other nations that may not be quite so eager to engage the enemy. Until the administration figures out a strategy that will make it clear that it is America that remains the strong horse in the region — something that Obama specifically seems uninterested in doing — expecting a good outcome from any of this for the United States may be wishful thinking.

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Tell Turkey: Counterterror Goes Both Ways

The Turkish government has decided that it will not allow its airbases to be used to support military action against ISIS. Turkey explained its decision, which surprised no one but perhaps Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama, in the fact that ISIS holds more than 40 Turks hostage in Mosul.

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The Turkish government has decided that it will not allow its airbases to be used to support military action against ISIS. Turkey explained its decision, which surprised no one but perhaps Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama, in the fact that ISIS holds more than 40 Turks hostage in Mosul.

Some Turks may be held hostage, although if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu were truly worried about ISIS terrorism, they likely would not have forbidden the Turkish press from reporting on it nor would they have encouraged ISIS in the first place nor would they have opened their borders to provide medical treatment for ISIS leaders.

The problem with American diplomacy today is, when it comes to important issues, there is no consequence for those who would thumb their nose at American priorities. In the wake of Hagel’s visit to Ankara, Hürriyet Daily News interviewed Derek Chollet, an assistant secretary for defense. Despite the Turkish refusal, Chollet’s talk was full of the usual platitudes:

  • “The U.S. and Turkey see very much the same threats in this region and have a shared perspective.” (Really? So we share Turkey’s views on Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and al-Qaeda?)
  • “Secretary Hagel wanted to come to Turkey because Turkey is an indispensable ally of the United States on many challenges we face in the world, whether it be the threat from ISIL or broader regional issues happening in the Middle East.” (Never mind that Turkey just slapped the United States down on ISIS.)
  • “One of the conversations we had was about how we can work together to help strengthen border security. That’s not a unique conversation between the U.S. and Turkey at all; it’s something we have talked about with many partners around the world.” (Yet it is a unique problem when it comes to Turkey, as the Turkish border is the main mechanism of ingress for foreign jihadis joining ISIS.)

His last one was the real whopper, however. According to the Hürriyet Daily News:

Another concern that Turkey has is that weapons to be provided to the groups fighting ISIL may end up in the wrong hands, such as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Chollet said this worry was also being taken seriously “because it is the last thing we want.”

Why should arms leaking to Syrian Kurdistan be “the last thing we want?” The Syrian Kurds are the only group to have defeated both the Syrian regime and ISIS. They have established a secular, autonomous region and given shelter and protection to hundreds of thousands regardless of their religion or ethnicity. When I went to “Rojava” earlier this year, girls walked to school unescorted and without fear of violence, municipalities collected trash on regular schedules, and women and men worked and shopped together in the markets. The weaponry of the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish peshmerga, did not leak to Turkey.

The United States has long supported Turkey’s fight against the PKK. Whatever one’s views regarding the PKK and whether or not they are a terrorist group (here are three views, including my own, ranging across the spectrum arguing that the PKK should be de-listed as a terrorist group), it’s long past time the United States embrace reciprocity. Fighting terrorism is never easy. It’s always inconvenient, and there can always be complications. Rightly or wrongly, America (and Israel) bent over backwards to support the Turkish fight against the PKK because Turkey was an aspiring democracy and because it took terrorism seriously. But today Turkey does not reciprocate counter-terrorism assistance; indeed, more often than not, whether with regard to Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah, it undercuts it. There should be absolutely zero assistance to Turkey in what it perceives as its counter-terror fight until such a time that Turkey realizes that alliances go both ways.

Indeed, just as the United States should support India and Afghanistan without apology in their war against terrorism and ensure India, at least, receives a qualitative military edge over terror-sponsors like Pakistan, it would be just as wise to support actively Syrian Kurds and perhaps even the PKK so long as they continue to take their fight to ISIS. Turkey has chosen its side; let it face the consequence of its decision. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that, given Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s actions and position, Turkey was the past and, for the United States, Kurdistan is the future.

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