As we now begin to narrow in on party nominations for the upcoming presidential election, an important issue (almost entirely ignored in the Democratic debates) is foreign policy. The American foreign policy pursued during the post-war period up to the present can be described in one word: consequential. In the context of today’s global developments this cannot be overstated. The United States has been put into a particularly indeterminate situation with the unimpeded and reckless actions of NATO-ally Turkey.
The military had begun to have internal disagreements about the current policy in Syria, that Turkey had been the keystone state in facilitating, during the summer of 2013. Analogous at this time was the open concession that, in fact, an al-Qaeda affiliate called al-Nusra had found a home in Syria fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the opposition to President Assad. Prior to this, any talk of al-Qaeda in Syria had been branded a conspiracy theory, a fact that we take for granted today. Famed journalist, Seymour Hersh, wrote in the London Review of Books in January that the driving factor for resistance within the military was a classified document released by the Defense Intelligence Agency. He writes:
“The new intelligence estimate singled out Turkey as a major impediment to Obama’s Syria policy. The document showed, the adviser said, ‘that what was started as a covert US programme to arm and support the moderate rebels fighting Assad had been co-opted by Turkey, and had morphed into an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State. The so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey.’ The assessment was bleak: there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the US was arming extremists.”
The traditional ‘moderate’ opposition has been essentially abandoned by the Pentagon, the media, and has had a very marginal mention during presidential debates for the upcoming election.
A key piece in the Washington-Ankara relationship, that has only been forwarded by the abandonment of the U.S.-backed moderates, is the ongoing conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish government that has caused deep tensions. Whereas the United States has lined up with the Kurds to combat ISIS and other radical jihadi groups, Turkey has denounced the Kurds and lead a vicious campaign against them. Even so, the Obama administration has been careful (likely disingenuous) in its support for the Kurds, instead openly supporting Kurdish groups such as the YPG (People’s Protection Unit), PYD (Democratic Union Party), and Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurds) while designating PKK (Kurdish Worker’s Party) a terrorist organization. YPG’s alleged involvement in a bombing carried out by the PKK has lead Ankara to question Washington’s unconditional loyalty; a loyalty seemingly pledged by being bound to NATO.
In December of 2015, Professor Noam Chomsky, arguably the world’s leading critic of American foreign policy, had this to say during our correspondence about Turkey:
“[Turkey] is playing a very dangerous game in Syria, tacitly supporting ISIS by allowing the borders to stay open, openly supporting the al-Qaeda affiliate (al-Nusra), attacking the Kurds who are the main ground force combating ISIS and defending their own territories and more. Not a pretty picture.”
Whether or not we choose to believe the testimony of Chomsky or Hersh, there is evidence to this claim floating around social media which has been a persistent hub of narrative-shift. More importantly, we can see the relevance in these claims and their sensitivity in relation to the Turkish administration by how the government treats their press. According to Reporters Without Borders’ most recent index, Turkey ranks 149th out of 180 for press freedom. Unfortunately, there is no clear end in sight for the terrible crackdown on free speech, as can be seen in the unfolding situation where “the state seized Koza Ipek and its media outlets, including the newspaper Bugun and television station Kanalturk, in October on suspicion of financial irregularities, prompting criticism from rights groups in Turkey and abroad.” Chomsky and other academics who denounced Turkish President Erdogan and his democratic regress in a petition earned a remark from Erdogan in which he called them “dark, nefarious, and brutal.”
Chomsky goes on to say in our correspondence to say that “so far, NATO has been silent or supportive of Turkish actions.” A few weeks before this correspondence in late November, Turkey had downed a Russian jet (an incredibly irresponsible if not totally imbecilic move) and sparked further tensions between Russia and NATO. The United States at the time had remarkably little to say about the exchange, and this event (which could have very well triggered direct conflict between the United States and Russia) has been pretty much forgotten by the press. While we can see that this compliance was a matter of political expedience in the way Chomsky described, the current ceasefire in Syria as well as the continuing and lauded diplomatic success of John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov continue to be an annoyance to Erdogan and Ankara. No doubt the next administration will have to face a consequential choice in continuing strong ties to Ankara or not, and certainly Ankara is attempting to force this decision.