Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has big ambitions. He wants to become an Imam Ataturk, a leader who replaces Turkey’s national secularism with autocratic political Islam.
But this week, by claiming the United States supports ISIS, Erdogan crossed a line. In doing so, he showed that he’ll make any move he likes, even if it seriously harms obvious American interests. The stakes are significant, and come January 20th, President Trump will have to respond.
This is a problem for the United States in specific ways. For one, Erdogan’s shift in allegiance means he is likely to help Putin suffocate Syria’s Sunni rebellion against Assad. Erdogan once fastidiously supported that rebellion (though he sometimes also helped extremist groups fighting against Assad), but today his priorities have shifted. In return for Russian pressure on the Kurds and a long term (albeit unenforceable) Russian commitment to Assad’s transition out of power, Erdogan will take Putin’s orders.
And if Trump thinks this is a good thing, he’s in for a bad surprise. After all, if the moderate Sunni rebellion is crushed, its fighting elements (and the Sunni-Arab monarchies) won’t just return to civilian life. Instead, they will throw their support to Salafi jihadists such as ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Remember, the great lie of Russia’s campaign in Syria is the notion that it targets ISIS. In reality, Russia supports ISIS’s empowerment so as to destabilize Europe and pressure the west to accept Assad as the lesser of two evils. Erdogan, because he is so obsessively opposed to Kurdish empowerment, has become an easy mark for Putin’s manipulation.
While Erdogan rails against U.S. foreign policy, the Turkish defense establishment is heavily reliant on American support.
He has good options. First off, he can rebuild America’s old balance-of-power-based alliances. Made paranoid by Iran’s empowerment under the Obama administration, the U.S.’s traditional Sunni-Arab allies are now doubling down on sectarianism. But if Trump challenges Iran’s nuclear-deal cheating, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Co. will quickly step into America’s corner. In turn, Trump can utilize that new influence to pressure Erdogan. If they sense serious U.S. leadership against Iran, the Sunni monarchies will be happy to deprioritize their diplomatic and economic ties with Turkey. Trump’s budding friendship with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi offers a template here. Erdogan and el-Sisi already hate each other. Erdogan’s unyielding desire for international prestige is Trump’s means of pressuring him. Sensing isolation, he will alter course.
The Kurdish question offers another opportunity to Trump. Erdogan is deeply concerned by the rise of Kurdish territorial interests in northern Syria and Iraq. But while he’s relying on the Russians to check these ambitions, he must know that only the United States has the multi-spectrum Kurdish relationships to address his concerns. All three parties have long benefited from America’s role as an interlocutor between Turkey and Kurdish political groups. So Trump should warn Erdogan that if he continues degrading U.S. interests, the U.S. will support greater Kurdish empowerment. It will infuriate Erdogan and much of the Turkish establishment, but they’ll get the message.
Trump could also pressure Erdogan by cutting American intelligence and military support for the Turkish government. While Erdogan rails against U.S. foreign policy, the Turkish defense establishment is heavily reliant on American support. This support is especially important today because Erdogan has neglected Turkey’s military’s capabilities. Defense spending is low and politicization in the officer corps is rampant. Erdogan has weakened his nation. The cracks are simply papered over.As a last resort, Trump could even move to expel Turkey from NATO as part of his broader efforts to reform that alliance. Yes, it would be a significant step with unpredictable consequences. But if Erdogan wants to continue putting American-trained Turkish military officers in prison and serving as Russia’s puppet, he has no place in NATO anyway.
For a time, the United States was right to tolerate Erdogan’s eccentricity. In his early years, he balanced political Islam with an outstretched hand toward the West. But that time has now passed. Erdogan has gone off the deep end, and Trump must alter his perception of depth.
— Tom Rogan writes for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives. A former panelist on The McLaughlin Group, he is a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRTweets and his homepage is www.tomroganthinks.com.