In an astonishingly short time, the ill-considered decision of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ambush a Russian jet has had far reaching consequence far beyond those apparent in the initial days following the fatal attack. (For the situation in the immediate aftermath of the Su-24 downing, see my “‘With Us or with the Terrorists’: It’s Clear Which Side Turkey Is On”.)
The fundamental problem with U.S. policy in seeking to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq (let’s remember that ISIS was originally just an al-Qaeda offshoot) and other jhadists is that the US is still taking its cues from regional allies who are essentially on the other side: with the terrorists, not against them. (Combining journalism and analysis with political activism, on December 2 I launched on the White House site a petition to “LIST ERDOGAN’S TURKEY AS STATE SPONSOR OF TERRORISM; VOID US ALLIANCE WITH TURKEY”. In only one day, the petition collected well over 100 signatures. This is more than two thirds of the number needed in the first month to keep this petition as a publicly posted black eye for Turkey on the official White House website.)
This means above all Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and significantly Qatar and other Gulf States (United Arab Emirates, Kuwait). As long as they are willing to dump money and weapons into the hands of jihadists in the hope of overthrowing the secular, nationalist Syrian government and replace it with a sectarian, Sunni, Sharia-ruled state – and the US (that is, the Obama administration) is unwilling to break with them and tell them to stop it – it’s hard to see how this conflict can be resolved by negotiation.
So far, the Obama Administration has not been willing to break with our supposed “allies,” and by extension their jihadist assets. This week, in Belgrade, Secretary Kerry reiterated once again his view that the war can end only with Assad’s departure.
Trouble for NATO
Erdogan has walked into a confluence of circumstances where his and his allies’ pro-terror mask has fallen off. At this point, it is apparent to everyone that the Turkish-Syria border has become the tipping point for whether the upper hand in the Syria war goes to the jihadists supported by the West (US, NATO), Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc., or to Damascus and its supporters, notably Russia and Iran.
Reportedly, both the US and France have asked Erdogan to close the border with Syria. It’s highly unlikely he will do that(though he might eventually say he will, but for now the answer is No). Turkey’s doing so would cripple, perhaps kill, ISIS while empowering Turkey’s main enemies: Assad (supported by Russia) and even more so the Kurds (who are supported by both the US and Russia). Even more than for facilitation of their mutually lucrative oil trade, both Erdogan and the jihadists need to keep open transit for fighters from around the world into and out of Syria.
Conversely, Assad’s forces, with the Russian support and working in loose coordination with the Kurds, are moving methodically to close the border themselves. If they succeed in doing so, that’s “game over” for Turkey’s policy. Deployment of the S-400 antiaircraft system allows Moscow to impose a de facto no-fly zone in Syria, limiting Turkey’s options.
Meanwhile, in order to keep open the lifeline to his terrorist clients, Erdogan (who is progressively re-Islamizing once-secular Turkey) is seeking to turn his confrontation with Russia into one between Russia and NATO. It is clear that beyond pro forma pledges of solidarity most NATO members don’t want to take the bait. The Turkey-Russia confrontation could become a potential flashpoint for World War III if Erdogan’s dirty game goes wrong (or in some warped minds, “right”), and it’s hardly likely our European allies would be any more enthusiastic for that possibility than they were when the Ukraine conflict appeared to be escalating uncontrollably. Indeed, Erodgan’s adventurism in support of ISIS and other jihadists raises the question: Why we are allied with Turkey in the first place? (examples: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Chairman of House Subcommittee on Europe; “Turkey is now a huge liability for NATO — and America”; “Turkey Downs Russian Plane, Joins With Islamic State: US Should Drop New Ottoman Empire As Ally”; “Time Has Passed the Turkish Alliance By”).
Never has Turkey’s stock in Washington been as low as it is now. Conversely, never have so many voices not usually friendly to Russia or President Vladimir Putin now taken a pro-Moscow stance.
The Obama Administration foolishly is telling Moscow they can only play a constructive role if they tailor their policy to that of the “U.S.-led coalition.” What a joke. The US started hitting ISIS oil convoys (with 45 minutes’ warning) only after Moscow exposed that traffic and Russian planes started bombing it. Putin knows what he wants in Syria: save the Syrian government and state, defeat the terrorists (who are a days’ drive from Russian territory, protect Syria’s Christians. There’s no mystery.
It’s probably a mystery to Obama himself to try to figure out what he wants: (a) Destroy ISIS but stay in sync with ISIS-sponsors Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar; (b) Get rid of ISIS and Assad, with no idea who or what would come next (either Libya-style chaos care of Obama and Hillary, or more likely a jihad terror state based in Damascus); (c) Secure “democracy” and “human rights” for Syrians while condemning huge swathes of the Syrian population to the jihadists’ knife (Alawites, Christians, Shia, secular Sunnis). In a word, it’s irrational.
Presidential Contenders Divide
Now even the Republican Party is conflicted. Some of the GOP contenders (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham) advocate a policy essentially the same as Obama’s and Hillary’s – just more of it. All the clichés are trotted out: lead from the front, not behind; strong not weak – but pursue the same goals. Their recommended course would resolve none of the contradictions of the Obama/Hillary policy and in fact would exacerbate them while putting the US on the front line.
Conversely, Donald Trump, Rand Paul, and lately Ted Cruz favor a nuanced policy that recognizes, correctly, that removing Assad is a bad idea: just look at Libya. Most interesting is Cruz, who up to now had been pretty firmly rooted on the neoconservative plantation but now is tacking to realism. Specifically, he says that overthrowing Qaddafi was a mistake and that we “don’t have a dog in the fight” in Syria, i.e., overthrowing Assad is a bad idea and would lead to ISIS in Damascus (true!). His fire is aimed mainly at fellow Cuban-American Rubio, whom he accuses of sharing Hillary’s policy (also true).
Cruz describes himself as occupying the “middle ground” between Paul’s supposed “isolationism” and Clinton’s and Rubio’s profligate interventionism. (In fact, Cruz’s position sounds almost indistinguishable from Paul’s.) Also of note is his selection for his Virginia co-chair my friend State Senator Richard Black, a very solid conservative who has spoken out strongly in support of Assad for helping Syrian Christians.
The fact that Cruz – who has an accurate gut sense of where to place himself in the GOP field, hence his sticking so close to Trump the latter mentioned him as a possible Vice Presidential pick (which he wisely rejected) – sees foreign policy realism as the right line to take at this point in the GOP race speaks volumes about not only the country’s center of gravity, but where Republican primary voters are. (The GOP establishment is another story).
It’s far, far too soon to say that the neocons’ domination of what passes for foreign policy thinking in the “Stupid Party” is over. They will not go away quietly and no doubt have a few tricks up their sleeves. But Cruz’s apparent heresy from what has become GOP orthodoxy is a welcome sign. Given Cruz’s evident political acumen, it’s a smart money place.
We need to get away from the knee-jerk one-dimensionality of strong vs. weak, American leadership from the front vs. from behind and start talking about smart vs. dumb. Calling for US strength and leadership is one thing but applying them in pursuit of ill-defined goals – like support for Christian-killing jihadists in Syria – don’t serve our country’s interests or reflect our American values.
We have to starting thinking, not just reciting slogans.
Jim Jatras, a former US diplomat and foreign policy adviser to the Senate GOP leadership, currently is the only announced prospect for the Republican vice presidential nomination.