In a shocking breach of international law, and a betrayal of assurances given to President Donald Trump, Turkey continues with its plans to attack, invade and occupy portions of northern Syria. Before last week’s tentative ceasefire began, Turkey shelled and bombed civilian population centers in northeastern Syria, including firing on a civilian hospital. A humanitarian convoy enroute to assist in the humanitarian crisis created by Turkey was recently turned back by Turkish airstrikes. Turkey now patrols the northern border of Syria alongside Russian troops. Turkey is also now utilizing Islamist Jihad militias to carry out continued attacks on the Kurds—giving Turkey’s President Erdogan plausible deniability that he is violating the terms of the permanent ceasefire. However, the indiscriminate attacks on civilians are a blatant violation of the laws of war.
The case was legitimately made by President Trump that the Kurds and other religious minorities in the area must make their own arrangements with Turkey. There is merit in backing away from portions of the region where no U.S. strategic interests are at risk. We are not the world’s police force. However, many think the actions of President Erdogan and the Turkish forces are indefensible.
Turkey’s President Erdogan is unrepentant. His attack is displacing thousands of Kurds and Christians from their homes in northeastern Syria where many have lived for generations. An Islamist strongman himself, Erdogan plans to repopulate the area with Syrian Arabs and other allies. There is the potential that these actions may facilitate the escape of many ISIS fighters and could possibly reignite ISIS’s claims to a geographical caliphate. A true humanitarian crisis has been created by Turkey. What is tantamount to ethnic cleansing is being committed by a NATO ally, something unheard of and unimaginable.
The Kurdish people, who live in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran are something of a lost nation, a historically displaced people. They are a disenfranchised and often persecuted population. This even though, other than Israel, they are the only true geo-political entity in the Middle East which supports democracy in the regions they control. They are diverse: Muslims, Christians, Jews and Yazidis are protected and live in relative harmony in what is loosely referred to as “Kurdistan.” While the PKK, a Kurdish group in Turkey, is rightly deemed a terrorist organization—Erdogan considers all Kurds everywhere as terrorists, including the YPG who are allies of the United States and were critical players in the fight against ISIS. This is a grave and unfair assessment on the part of Erdogan.
In addition to all this, Erdogan has positioned himself as de facto dictator in Turkey. His Islamist ambitions are obvious as he purged the Turkish military, restricted freedom of the press, violated the rule of law, and imprisoned political enemies. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently placed Turkey on a watchlist due to Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Many believe it his intent to fashion Turkey after the Ottoman Empire, seeing himself as something of a new caliph. Over the objections of the NATO member states, he purchased the Russian S-400 missile system, a weapons platform designed to shoot down NATO (and United States) aircraft. Erdogan threatened U.S. troops in Syria if they did not leave. And last week, Erdogan revealed that he is considering developing nuclear weapons. He has contracted with Russia to build several nuclear power plants, whose waste material is a key ingredient in nuclear bombs.
Turkey’s attacks in northern Syria have further destabilized the region. The removal of U.S. control of the airspace over the area means that Assad’s Syrian air force and the Russians will control the airspace and provide close air support in battle. We must be mindful of the potential impact on Israel’s security—as Israel has flown multiple sorties over the last two years attacking Iranian and Iranian-backed militants in Syria who threaten Israeli security. Thankfully, Russia has coordinated thus far with Israel to deconflict the airspace.
Is Turkey really an ally of the United States? That is a difficult question to answer. The relationship between the United States and Turkey is complicated. Turkey joined NATO in 1952, a move championed by the United States at the time. However, NATO was created to deter, and if necessary, fight the Soviet Union. It now exists to counter the malign ambitions of Russia. This makes Erdogan’s increasingly close relationship with Russia all the more curious and troubling. While NATO countries field weapons systems that are interoperable with each other, Turkey’s purchase of a Russian weapon system flies in the face of this intentional security practice.
The U.S. relationship with Turkey is further complicated by the long-standing close relationship of the Pentagon with Turkey’s military. This friendly and much-celebrated relationship has been severely diminished by Erdogan. However, we still have U.S. troops stationed in Turkey and have a large airbase at Incirlik. We still use Turkey as a center for military flight operations in that region of the world. And, of strategic importance, we have scores of tactical nuclear weapons prepositioned in Turkey. The presence of these weapons in Turkey is now under review by the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy, in light of our tensions with Turkey. While the relationship is strained, it is not one from which we can just walk away.
What to do? Some think that Turkey should be expelled from NATO. However, out of the many provisions in the NATO charter—there is no section that provides for expulsion. This is because it was inconceivable at NATO’s founding that any member would become a strategic partner with Russia, or commit acts that counter justice and freedom, or threaten a fellow member of the alliance. Theoretically, the other member nations could create a provision that outlines how a nation could be removed, though this is highly unlikely to happen.
What must be done is to denounce the actions of Turkey’s President Erdogan. The other 28 members of NATO must keep a wary eye on Turkey and the Islamist designs of President Erdogan, as well as the expansionist propensities of both Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Turkey is a key bridge between the West and the Middle East. We need them as an ally. However, truth and integrity demand that the member states of NATO condemn Turkey when it violates the principles on which the organization was founded; that the sharing of highly classified and sensitive information and weapons systems be appropriately limited, as the risk of Erdogan sharing this with his new Russian partners is a legitimate concern; and that the world not pretend that Erdogan is a reliable ally of the West when his actions say otherwise.
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