Talking Turkey.

To rehash the well-known, the Islamic State (ISIS) seized a lot of territory in eastern Syria, then broke out into western Iraq several years ago.  This encumbered the fair hopes of the Obama administration to beat a dignified retreat from the Iraq mess.  Destroying ISIS at minimal costs in American lives became the policy choice of the Obama and Trump Administrations.  That grinding effort, which has involved a lot of work by both the Kurds and the Iranians, looks about ready to pay-off with the Iraqi capture of Mosul and the Syrian Kurds’ capture of Raqqa (the capital of the ISIS caliphate).

To rehash more of the well-known, the Kurds are a Muslim ethnic group divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and—fatally—Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism threatens to disrupt these countries.  The Turks, in particular, see their own Kurdish political party (PKK) linked to the Syrian Kurdish political party (PDK) and to its American-armed militia (YPG).[1]  They’re probably right.[2]  Iraq’s wing of the PKK has attacked Turkey in support of its Turkish partners.  Hoping to earn American patronage for their ambitions, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have done much of the heavy lifting in the fight against the Islamic State.  So, it is important to keep the Kurds happy.

To rehash still more of the well-known, the president of Turkey—Recep Tayyip Erdogan—is a moderate Islamist head-case who is bent on turning the country into a Sunni version of Iran.  He barely scratched out a majority in a referendum on super-charged presidential powers in April 2017, yet he sees the vote as an endorsement of his ambitions.

This puts the United States in a bit of a quandary.[3]  Over the short-run, who cares what the Turks want?  The militia of the Syrian Kurds, the YPG, is seen by American military leaders as the best bet to capture Raqqa.  American military leaders also see Turkey as having no real alternative strategy.  So when Turkey bombed several YPG positions and threatened land forces incursions, the US military began running convoys of American military vehicles flying large American flags through the target area as a warning to Turkey.

Over the long-run, many people should care what the Turks want.  On the one hand, Erdogan is an anti-Western Islamist.  He is aiming at a dictatorship.  His victory in the referendum on expanded presidential powers fell far short of the expected majority and is dogged by charges of fraud.  Political turmoil seems the likely future for Turkey.[4]

On the other hand, Turkey is a member of NATO (brought in to the alliance, in part, because Greeks won’t fight).  Turkey has the second largest army in NATO; it is an industrializing country; it has sought membership in the European Union (EU), and the Turks have been extending their cultural influence through the southern tier of states liberated by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Erdogan has battered Europe with an engineered refugee crisis.  The European Union is never going to admit Turkey to its ranks, even if it has to soak up huge numbers of outsiders without Emma Lazarus to provide a moral justification.[5]  He has both barked at and cowered before Vladimir Putin.  He is afraid that the U.S. has struck a bargain with the Kurds.  And he will visit Washington in May 2017.  The regional implications of Turkey’s course matter far more than do the headlines about ISIS.

[1] If the Kurds get Russian military assistance, maybe they could be re-branded as the RPG?

[2] The Americans engage in a lot of hair-splitting over this issue.  The U.S. government insists that Turkey’s PKK is a terrorist organization, while Syria’s PYD and—even more—the YPG are not terrorists.  Instead, they are “partner forces.”  Which people can read as “allies” or “hired guns” as is their wont.

[3] Yarolslav Trofimov, “In Syria, U.S. Is Caught Between Ally Turkey and Kurds,” WSJ, 5 May 2017.

[4] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Erdogan’s Narrow Win Could End Up Undermining Him,” WSJ, 17 April 2017.

[5] A “wall” is more likely.

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