Turkish obstructionism in Syrian crisis amounts to criminal neglect

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan  has continued to predicate the objective of ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State.


Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has continued to predicate the objective of ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State.

A humanitarian nightmare is unfolding in the besieged Kurdish majority  town of Kobane in northern Syria, where American air strikes and Kurdish ground forces are barely holding Islamic State militants back from overrunning the area and its vulnerable minority populations. The grim futility of these limited defensive measures, however, has been made clear by military experts including Rear Admiral John Kirby, who recently anticipated in a statement for the Pentagon that Kobane will soon fall. “We’ve been very honest about the limits of air power,” he said. “We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria right now— it’s just a fact.”

A fact it may be, but the lack of strong ground protection for Kobane is certainly puzzling—puzzling because there are NATO-affiliated armored divisions no more than a few hundred yards away.   Perched in the hills along the Syrian border, Turkish tanks and troops have watched the battle turn against the town’s beleaguered defenders without firing a shot.

“They’re inventing reasons not to act to avoid another catastrophe,” an anonymous senior administration official told the New York Times. “This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw away from their border.” A Guardian article published Oct. 8 observes that, beyond simply declining to commit ground forces to protect Syrian border towns, the Turkish government “has refused to provide even basic logistical assistance to the US-led coalition.” Another piece from the Guardian notes that Turkish forces have even prevented Kurdish fighters and supplies from crossing into Syria to bolster the town’s defenses, and prevented some Kurdish refugees from escaping across the border into Turkey. In response to their government’s obstructive stance, Turkey’s Kurds have begun clashing with police and nationalist Islamists in violent encounters that have left as many as 15 dead, according to the Chicago Tribune.

So what could possibly prompt such a level of neglect, especially from a nation that is ostensibly a cornerstone of NATO’s presence in the Middle East? There are two apparent reasons why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government have stood by idly as Kobane begins to burn, despite the ethnic tensions that this policy is exacerbating within their own nation.

First, Erdogan has continued to prioritize the objective of ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State. The Turks’ expressed rationale for delaying action has been their desire for a full no-fly zone over northern Syria, so that any troops they commit will be safe from Syrian government air strikes.  However, as officials cited by the New York Times point out, the Arab-American coalition’s vast air superiority over the area means that an attack on NATO forces there by Assad’s jets is a practical impossibility—assuming, that is, that the Syrian government would even consider attacking forces deployed against the common enemy. This thin pretext reflects a greater underlying theme in Turkish policy with regards to the Syrian Civil War—they have attempted to undermine Assad’s (admittedly brutal) regime at every turn, even where that means enabling extremists or leaving minority populations vulnerable. Vice President Joe Biden recently was pressured into apologizing for statements he made last week at Harvard University, where he indicated that Turkey had provided weapons and funding into extremist opposition forces, and allowed anti-Assad fighters of all kinds to flood across their border.

Secondly, the Turkish government has been apparently using the crisis as a wedge against Kurdish political opposition groups. A recent New York Times piece observes that, according to many analysts, “Kobani’s Kurds are being held hostage as Mr. Erdogan seeks to wrest concessions not only from the United States but also from Kurdish leaders, his longtime domestic foes.” Erdogan’s government is currently engaged in negotiations with the presently outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and some have observed that the threat to Kobane provides him with leverage in those talks, and counters the growing autonomy that Kurds have gained in the vacuum left by the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

There is little President Obama’s administration can do to push the Turks into line without jeopardizing his precarious coalition of Arab states. But Turkey’s criminal neglect in the present crisis should indicate two things to American policymakers. First, there is little hope that Turkey, and other Sunni nations with a stake against Assad like Saudi Arabia, can be made to live up to their promises and substantively commit themselves to combating ISIS. In the absence of this prospect, upon which Obama’s present Syria-Iraq policy is largely predicated, the case for American troop deployment grows stronger. Second, the United States must wake up to the reality that Turkey, our supposed ally, has an abysmal humanitarian and democratic record. If we continue to trust them and rely on them as we have, we will continue to be disappointed.