Once upon a time, I posted pro-Turkish comments here. Well before Erdogan’s mask slipped and his totalitarian nature was revealed.
It’s still my hope that as a highly educated nation, young Turks my age will reclaim their democracy. That they will become an economic powerhouse. That they will use that economic strength to help stabilize the middle east with economic aid and trade. That as a democratic nation, they will act as diplomatic brokers of peace. But those hopes have been frustrated by Erdogan, as have the hopes of many younger Turks.
Power doesn’t necessarily corrupt, but it does reveal. Once you have the power to do whatever you really wanted to do to begin with, you tend to do it. I was never a fan of Erdogan, but it’s clear now he was always a ruthless authoritarian, who paid lip-service to democracy. As Abdullah II, the King of Jordan said, Erdogan sees democracy as a bus ride. It’s how you get to power, not something worthy of respect. Erdogan, like all strongmen, is temporary. As is Trump. But the damage they do might not be.
In the complex mess that is the Syrian Civil War, Daesh (ISIS/ISIL/IS) is fighting a three way war against the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and Assad’s Ba’athist regime. For the SDF, the presence of the US, our air power, and our special forces was the glue that held everything together. Rojava and Turkey made a number of security agreements, all of them brokered by the US. Our presence convinced both sides that the other would keep up their end of the bargain. Thus Syria avoided becoming what it is now, a four-way war.
The Turks, even some of the moderates I’ve spoken with, absolutely do not trust the SDF. They see the YPG, the People’s Protection Units that are the backbone in many ways of the SDF, as essentially the same thing as the PKK, which both the US and Turkey recognize as a terrorist organization, and which has carried out attacks in Turkey.
The SDF is operating a military campaign just south of the Turkish Border. On the northern side of that border is the Kurdish population of Turkey, some of whom support the PKK, and believe in armed resistance to Turkish rule. When the US began supporting the Kurds south of that Border, the Turks were extremely displeased.
When the fighting began in Northern Syria, Turkey immediately moved large numbers of troops to that border. Military fetishists declared that Turkey was about to invade Syria and clean up the mess that was Daesh. But Turkey had no desire to get itself bogged down in a Syrian quagmire. The purpose of those forces was to secure their own border when a war started just south of it. Their biggest fear was weapons shipments to the PKK.
The SDF thus made a number of security agreements with Turkey. These involved removing defenses and military positions from the Turkey/Syrian border, so that the Turks could relax about whether the SDF was smuggling arms to the PKK. In return, Kurdish civilians in that area would be free from Turkish artillery and air strikes. The SDF kept all of these agreements.
Turkey as a key US ally trusted the US to guarantee that the SDF kept its agreements. Without a US presence in Northern Syria, even just a token force of Special Forces to monitor the situation, the Turks were never going to keep the peace.
Some have argued that the US forces were a human shield, and that the Turks were desperate to attack and wipe out the Kurds. If that was the case, they would not have allowed the US to use Incirlik airbase as its main staging ground for air strikes in northern Syria. They would have done what they could to frustrate US Support of the Kurds, and make it more difficult for US forces to operate in the area. They actually assisted us in strikes against Daesh because it was in their interests to see the Islamic State destroyed.
The American presence in Northern Syria brought calm. Turkey trusts the United States.
There was a real chance here to build trust between Turkey and the Kurds. There was a chance to slowly wait things out between the two, to move towards a peaceful settlement of the borders drawn by empires in this region. As a nation that both sides of the Turkish/Kurdish conflict trusted, we had a chance to help secure peace.
But Turkey is still Turkey. And Erdogan is Erdogan. And without our special forces in Rojava, this was never going to go any other way. At least not until some level of trust in the long term could be built between the Kurds and the Turks.
The Turkish response, while brutal, while a betrayal of their agreements with the Kurds, isn’t irrational. It’s so obvious a response that anyone who understands Turkey and their views of Rojava and the SDF should have expected it.
Turkey shouldn’t be in Rojava. But they wouldn’t be there if we still were.
For us, our betrayal of the SDF was also in some ways a betrayal of Turkey. From their perspective, we armed their enemies, and then left them unsupervised on Turkey’s border. The Turks didn’t trust the Kurds when those agreements were signed, and we were acting as the guarantor of those agreements. Now that we’re gone, the Turks aren’t going to wait and see whether the Kurds, people they already don’t trust, people they see as the Syrian branch of a terrorist group operating in their own country, can be trusted.
This is how Turkey has always behaved. Turkish rules of engagement and military strategy does not generally involve a wait-and-see approach. When a Russian fighter entered their airspace recently, they didn’t wait to see if it was slightly off course and trying to land at Latakia. They shot it down.
And of course, the Russians are playing games with this situation too. As relationships with the US become strained after a 2016 coup, the Russians are trying to strengthen their relationship with Turkey. Some wonder whether the Turkish purchase of the S-400 missile system signals a Turkish move away from NATO, from peace with Greece over the Aegean Dispute, and an alignment with Russian Authoritarianism and Russian-style “managed democracy” under Erdogan.
Now that Russia isn’t trying to reconquer eastern Turkey on behalf of Soviet Georgia, there’s room for Russian/Turkish relationships to warm. And Putin doesn’t particularly care if his soldiers die, which is why he’s been find sending them into a Ukrainian meat grinder, or having them attack American positions in Syria just to test the American military response. He doesn’t care about a single lost fighter, when he has an option to potentially carve Turkey away from NATO.
There’s the rest of NATO to consider as well. Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, and other NATO allies have invested millions in Turkey and Jordan and deployed significant manpower with an aim to fighting ISIS and helping Turkey and Jordan with the refugee crisis. After brow-beating them for years over increasing their military expenditures, they’re taking their commitments to NATO extremely seriously and defending our Turkish and Jordanian allies from the chaos on their borders, and the refugee crisis it created. (Chaos, we should note, which was the direct result of a catastrophically stupid war that was waged with catastrophic stupidity.)
Trump’s comment, then, that the Kurds didn’t help at Normandy is even more damaging than it appears on first reading. The Kurds may not have stormed the beaches at Normandy but the Brits did. The Dutch resistance saved American lives during the Market Garden disaster. And what could the Germans, who we were fighting that day, possibly make of such a statement about our commitments to defend our allies?
Erdogan may be temporary. And young Turks may be my hope for the region, as are young Jordanians, and Egyptians, and Iraqis. But young Turks will still be Turks, and like their parents they’ll have long memories.
I hope they’ll think that Trump was an aberration like Erdogan. A stain on our democracy as Erdogan is a stain on theirs.
I hope Younger Kurds will see things the same way, but many of them are fighting IS, and what they’ll remember about October of 2019 is that the Americans betrayed them, and the Turks rolled in.
We had a chance for peace. We had a chance to do something right for once in this region. Our soldiers, who relished the unequivocal moral high ground they held in this conflict, a rare thing in 21st century warfare, are telling us that they are ashamed of our betrayal.
I still have a hope for peace. But with the destruction of the security deals between Kurds and Turks which were built on their mutual trust of the United States, with the depth of our betrayal of both of our allies, I fear that a realistic hope has become forlorn.
In many ways we’re the worst thing to happen to this region since the British, French, and Ottoman empires, since the Fascist invasions by Italy and Germany, and since the Soviets too with their imperialism-by-any-other-name.
But for once, we had a real chance to do the right thing, and support two allies along a path that might have led to trust, which itself could have led to peace.
For once, we were doing the right thing.
And then we betrayed everyone.