Politics & Policy

Erdogan’s Double Game

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Our “ally” Turkey supports jihadists while joining the U.S.-led coalition against them.

During the 1944 Warsaw uprising, Stalin ordered the advancing Red Army to stop at the outskirts of the city while the Nazis, for 63 days, annihilated the non-Communist Polish partisans. Only then did Stalin take Warsaw.

No one can match Stalin for merciless cynicism, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is offering a determined echo by ordering Turkish tanks massed on the Syrian border, within sight of the besieged Syrian town of Kobani, to sit and do nothing.

For almost a month, Kobani Kurds have been trying to hold off Islamic State fighters. Outgunned, outmanned, and surrounded on three sides, the defending Kurds have begged Turkey to allow weapons and reinforcements through the border. Erdogan has refused even that, let alone intervening directly. Infuriated Kurds have launched demonstrations throughout Turkey protesting Erdogan’s deadly callousness. At least 21 demonstrators have been killed.

Because Turkey has its own Kurdish problem — battling a Kurdish insurgency on and off for decades — Erdogan appears to prefer letting the Islamic State destroy the Kurdish enclave on the Syrian side of the border rather than lift a finger to save it. Perhaps later he will move in to occupy the rubble.

Moreover, Erdogan entertains a larger vision: making Turkey the hegemonic power over the Sunni Arabs, as in Ottoman times. The Islamic State is too radical and uncontrollable to be an ally in that mission. But it is Sunni. And it fights Shiites, Alawites, and Kurds. Erdogan’s main regional adversary is the Shiite-dominated rule of Syria’s Bashar Assad. Erdogan demands that the U.S. take the fight to Assad before Turkey will join the fight against the Islamic State.

It took Vice President Biden to accidentally blurt out the truth when he accused our alleged allies in the region of playing a double game — supporting the jihadists in Syria and Iraq, then joining the U.S.-led coalition against them. His abject apologies to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey notwithstanding, Biden was right.

The vaunted coalition that President Obama touts remains mostly fictional. Yes, it puts a Sunni face on the war. Which is important for show. But everyone knows that in real terms the operation remains almost exclusively American.

As designed, the outer limit of its objective is to roll back the Islamic State in Iraq and contain it in Syria. It is doing neither. Despite State Department happy talk about advances in Iraq, our side is suffering serious reverses near Baghdad and throughout Anbar province, which is reportedly near collapse. Baghdad itself is ripe for infiltration for a Tet-like offensive aimed at demoralizing both Iraq and the U.S.

As for Syria, what is Obama doing? First, he gives the enemy twelve days of warning about impending air attacks. We end up hitting empty buildings and evacuated training camps.

Next, we impose rules of engagement so rigid that we can’t make tactical adjustments. Our most reliable, friendly, battle-hardened “boots on the ground” in the region are the Kurds. So what have we done to relieve Kobani? About twenty airstrikes in a little more than ten days, says CENTCOM.

That’s barely two a day. On the day after the Islamic State entered Kobani, we launched five airstrikes. Result? We hit three vehicles, one artillery piece, and one military “unit.” And damaged a tank. This, against perhaps 9,000 heavily armed Islamic State fighters. If this were not so tragic, it would be farcical.

No one is asking for U.S. ground troops. But even as an air campaign, this is astonishingly unserious. As former E.U. ambassador to Turkey Marc Pierini told the Wall Street Journal, “It [the siege] could have been meaningfully acted upon two weeks ago or so” — when Islamic State reinforcements were streaming in the open toward Kobani. “Now it is almost too late.”

Obama has committed the U.S. to war on the Islamic State. To then allow within a month an allied enclave to be overrun — and perhaps annihilated — would be a major blow.

Guerrilla war is a test of wills. Obama’s actual objectives — rollback in Iraq, containment in Syria — are not unreasonable. But they require commitment and determination. In other words, will. You can’t just make one speech declaring war, then disappear and go fundraising.

The indecisiveness and ambivalence so devastatingly described by both of Obama’s previous secretaries of defense, Leon Panetta and Bob Gates, are already beginning to characterize the Syria campaign.

The Iraqis can see it. The Kurds can feel it. The jihadists are counting on it.

— Charles Krauthammer is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2014 The Washington Post Writers Group

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