The Corner


Former Anti-ISIS Envoy Talks Turkey

U.S. envoy to the coalition against Islamic State Brett McGurk (Stephanie McGehee/Reuters)

Brett McGurk, the former special envoy for countering ISIS, made an interesting distinction in a newly relevant essay on Syria policy from the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. Turkey has been a treaty ally of the United States since it (along with Greece) joined NATO in 1952. But, McGurk wrote, that doesn’t make Turkey a reliable partner of the United States:

U.S. diplomats continue to hope that by working with Turkey on Syria, they can break Ankara’s drift toward authoritarianism and a foreign policy that works against U.S interests. They cannot. Turkey was a problematic ally well before any disagreement over Syria. Over the past decade, Ankara has helped Iran avoid U.S. sanctions, held U.S. citizens hostage, and used migration as a tool to blackmail Europe. More recently, it has begun to purchase Russian anti-aircraft systems over the objections of NATO and has actively supported — along with China, Iran, and Russia — President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime in Venezuela.

Turkey’s anti-Semitic authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has exploited his country’s ally status to shield himself from repercussions for his misbehavior. When it comes to the Middle East, Erdogan is less a partner of the U.S. than an antagonist. Expect him to continue his anti-democratic, anti-Western turn as America exits the region. Not only is Turkey preparing a ground offensive against Kurds inside Syria. In recent months Erdogan has been polishing his migration weapon, threatening to increase refugee flows to Europe if European leaders do not provide Turkey financial assistance.

When does a misbegotten partnership endanger a nation’s identification as an ally? It would be good to draw a line somewhere. Most of the debate over NATO concerns the alliance’s strategic purpose and the lack of burden sharing among its members. If only more attention was paid to the fact that the alliance includes a nation-state whose leadership and interests do not align with our own.


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