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National Security & Defense

Understanding the Situation between Turkey and the Kurds — and the U.S.

U.S. and Turkish military forces conduct a joint ground patrol inside the security mechanism area in northeast, Syria, October 4, 2019. Picture taken October 4, 2019. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Goedl/Handout via REUTERS)

Making the click-through worthwhile: a deep dive on how the United States got into this mess with Turkey and the Kurds, and the limited options for trying to get to a better place than where we are; the NBA keeps digging in deeper, with a famous coach choosing to denounce only convenient targets and the league barring press access to the players entirely during their China trips.

How Do We Fix a Bad Decision on Turkey and the Kurds?

Reuters: “Turkish warplanes and artillery hit Kurdish militia targets in northeast Syria on the third day of an offensive that has killed hundreds of people, forced tens of thousands to flee and turned Washington’s establishment against President Donald Trump.”

(I can hear a lot of people asking, “what you mean, ‘turned’? Washington’s establishment was already against him!”)

Reuters continues, “Overnight, clashes erupted at different points along the border from Ain Diwar at the Iraqi frontier to Kobani, more than 400 km to the west. Turkish and SDF forces exchanged shelling in Qamishli among other places,  [Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Marvan] Qamishlo said. ‘The whole border was on fire,’ he said.”

Even before Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to power in Ankara, Turkey was an odd and sometimes challenging ally. What attracted Turks to the NATO alliance was the relative closeness of the Soviet Union and the notion that NATO would help ensure a bulwark against Godless Communism. Back when I was living in Turkey — 2005 to 2007, so I try not to exaggerate the relevance or recency of my experience — a Turkish official who had visited the United States told me during his visit he was struck by how many churches there were in American communities, and how that reassured him as a Muslim. “Even though our religions are different, you guys recognize a power higher than the state.” Turkey is (was?) a secular country, but that didn’t mean that Islam wasn’t extremely important to many Turks.

With the end of the Cold War and the threat of the Soviets trying to take over and establish an atheist regime gone, perhaps Turkey was destined to have a little more friction in its relationship with the United States. Turkey lives in a dangerous neighborhood; the southern and western neighbors are Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Turkish government was usually a little warmer or open-minded towards the Assad regime, Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the Iranian mullahs than U.S. foreign policy preferred. Some of this was simple proximity, as they weren’t interested in stirring up a hornet’s nest with the brutal or fundamentalist regimes next door.

But the bigger issue for Turkish government was always how to deal with the cross-border population of Kurds. The Kurds are this giant ethnic community with their own language, culture, traditions. Draw a circle around the spots where the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran meet, and that’s pretty much “Kurdistan.” After World War I, the Kurds were supposed to get their own country, but . . . the treaties after the war left the Kurds out. Unsurprisingly, this set off a long and violent period of ethnic tensions in all of those countries.

The Turkish government does not deal with its Kurdish minority with a light touch. Following a 1980 military coup — Turkey has military coups roughly once a decade, as sort of a control-alt-delete of resetting the government when things go really wrong — the Turkish government banned the Kurdish language entirely. Since 1984, the Turks and Kurds have fought a low-level terror campaign/counterterror campaign, with roughly 40,000 dead, most of them civilians.

It is hard to overstate how much the Turkish government and the average Turk loathe the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, the main pro-Kurdish terrorist group that tries to blow people up around Turkey in the name of Kurdish independence. Turks over there kept insisting to me that the PKK were their al-Qaeda, and they hated the PKK the way Americans hated al-Qaeda for 9/11.

This is the backdrop between the current confrontation between the Turks and the Kurds in Syria. We, the United States, are in an awkward spot. The PKK are irredeemable terrorists, no two ways about it, and we can and should cooperate when possible with the Turkish government to put PKK terrorists behind bars. But the Kurdish forces in Syria are the ones who stepped up to fight ISIS. Our traditional but recently difficult ally is determined to smash our more recent and helpful ally.

A week ago, President Trump gave the Turks the green light to move into Syria and try to beat the hell out of Kurds who were, up until a week ago, key allies in ensuring the Islamic State stayed defeated. The editors of National Review denouncing the decision. My colleague Andy McCarthy dissented, and as we would expect from Andy, he makes a lot of fair, not easily dismissed points in his dissent.

But a lot of it amounts to, “we shouldn’t have made the decisions we made that brought us here.” Andy’s right; the entrance of U.S. military forces into Syria was half-hearted and sloppy, with contradictory goals. At heart, Obama didn’t want to do anything with Syria. The thinking of both the president and Ben Rhodes was so craven and reflexively attuned to seeing things through the lens of partisan advantage that they rarely saw the forest for the trees. In his memoir, Rhodes wrote that in August 2013, after Bashar al-Assad killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons, Obama was comfortable if Congress wouldn’t approve the use of force in response.  “The thing is,” he said, “if we lose this vote, it will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism — everyone will see they have no votes.” Of course, a lot of innocent Syrian civilian men, women, and children had to die painful deaths in order to prove that point against those oh-so-terrible neocons.

But we are where we are. The relevant question is not what we should have done back then; we can’t change the past. The question is what is the best course of action now?

Andy writes, “the American people’s representatives never endorsed combat operations in Syria, and the president is right that the public wants out.” But the American people did elect a president who throughout the campaign promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” and “knock the hell out of ISIS” and various other four-letter variations. It is fair to say the president’s plans for ISIS were not particularly specific, and in fact the president insisted his plan had to remain secret: “We’re gonna beat ISIS very, very quickly, folks. It’s gonna be fast. I have a great plan. It’s going to be great. They ask, ‘What is it?’ Well, I’d rather not say.” The problem with a president who makes vague and often contradictory promises is that it’s difficult to argue that the American people rejected any particular course of action.

Andy argues that “our arming of the Kurds has already exposed our allies in Turkey to unacceptable risk.” Eh, let’s not overstate this. We supplied the the Kurdish forces with“mortar shells, nothing heavier. No missiles, no anti-aircraft weapons, no anti-tank.” We’ve sold the Turks all of their fighter planes, transport aircraft, most of their tanks and two-thirds of their armored personnel carriers.

Yesterday afternoon, Trump tweeted, “We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!” We’re obviously not pursuing option one. Option two would at least demonstrate our objection to Turkey’s action — whether or not Trump intended to give Erdogan the green light to invade, that certainly is how Erdogan interpreted it. While the odds are long on option three, it would be the best one for our interests. Maybe the U.S. could persuade Erdogan with the message: “You’ve proved your point, the Kurds know you can beat them on the battlefield, now head to the negotiating table and let’s hammer out a deal that ensures your country’s security for the long term.”

The NBA Just Keeps Digging in Deeper

Golden State Warrior coach Steve Kerr was in China and he said that during his visit to that country, no one had asked him about Chinese human rights abuses . . . nor “our record of human rights abuses”, either, referring to the United States.

“As far as North Korea, I don’t know much about North Korea. As far as the Ukraine situation, I don’t know much about the Ukraine situation. We could just go around the world and maybe I can pinpoint a couple others I’m comfortable about, but this whole thing is so ridiculous. Again, we’re fortunate in this country to have free speech. I exercise that. But part of having free speech is also electing not to speak if you don’t feel comfortable about something.”

“It has not come up in terms of people asking about it, people discussing it,” Kerr said. “Nor has our record of human rights abuses come up, either. Things that our country needs to look at and resolve. That hasn’t come up either. None of us are perfect. We all have different issues we have to get to. Saying that is my right as an American. It doesn’t mean that I hate my country. It means I want to address the issue. But people in China didn’t ask me about, you know, people owning AR-15s and mowing each other down in a mall. I wasn’t asked that question.”

“Generally, my feeling is the things that I’m going to comment on are the things that I feel comfortable speaking about, things I feel well versed about,” he said. “I comment a lot about gun safety. It’s a cause that’s very near and dear to my heart. It’s very crucial for our country for our future. We face mass shootings literally every day. So I’m involved with four or five different gun safety groups. It’s my pet cause. So I’m going to comment on it. It’s my right. That’s why I love being an American and love my country. I’m able to channel my energy and my resources to places where I want it to go. I feel really comfortable with that. There are places where I don’t feel as comfortable. This would be one of them.

It’s astoundingly convenient that Kerr feels comfortable denouncing American gun owners and American “human rights abuses” but he just doesn’t feel “comfortable” saying anything about the regime running concentration camps, with whom he and his league have arranged lucrative deals.

In other news, the NBA has canceled all media access for the remainder of its visit to China as it puts players in a ‘complicated’ and ‘unfair’ situation, it said. The NBA’s way of dealing with difficult questions is to bar the press entirely. Once again, we’re not exporting our values to them; we’re importing their values to us.

ADDENDA: Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve nagged anyone to buy Between Two Scorpions. Book Two is now written and it’s in that unnerving having-friends-read-it-to-give-initial-feedback stage. When writing a sequel, the challenge is to be similar enough to what people liked about the first one, but not so similar that it feels like a rehash or predictable. (Looking at you, Season Two of Stranger Things.) I’ve ripped plenty of bad sequels over the years; now I get to see if I can get the formula right.

The Amazon reviews continue to be great: “A fun read with great pop culture references that broke the tension. A very entertaining tale.” “Good tale, fast paced and lots of interesting references to current tensions.” “Fast moving, funny, suspenseful. It has it all.” “Clever page-turner that’s part post-9/11 terror thriller, part X-Files, and part screwball comedy. Geraghty handles his antic crew of leads, the Dangerous Clique of the subtitle, entertainingly, handling the married couple at its heart with particular deftness.” Columbus Day is coming, enjoy that three-day weekend (for some) with a book!

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