By Jay Holmes
As we looked at last Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Turkey highlights the tensions between our two countries. (See Turkey–America’s Special Frenemy) In the long history of our “frenemy” relationship, the Kurds represent an interesting point of conflict. In fact, it’s played out like an Italian opera, minus the great singing. I’ll give you the short version.
Iraq oppressed the Kurds, even striking them with chemical weapons. Some of those Iraqi chemical weapons that many Westerners claim were all a figment of Bush’s imagination were manufactured by Iraqis in Republican Guards-controlled areas in the Iraqi Kurdish homeland. Saddam hated the Kurds so we liked them. Americans—the kind that also don’t officially exist—made friends with the Kurds. “Friends” as in the sort of friends who go shooting with you and agree to shoot at the same people you are shooting at. Good friends.
The Turks didn’t like that much, but they understood the “shooting at Saddam’s pals and destroying his chemical weapons” part of the equation. What the Turks did not want was an autonomous Kurdish state in the post-Saddam Iraq.
At that time, a Kurdish group known as the PKK had been carrying out terrorist strikes against the Turkish government and Turkey did not want those attacks to continue or increase. The PKK assured the US that such attacks would cease, and the US generously passed on those assurances to Turkey. Those assurances were roughly as solid as assurances by Hamas that they won’t attack Israel any more. Ah, well. The best operas do include some comedy.
When it came time for the US to invade Iraq and depose Saddam, Turkey reversed itself at the last minute and refused to allow US troops, welcomed to Turkey as part of the pending invasion, to launch any attacks from Turkey. That decision left the US-led coalition without almost half of the forces that they had intended to use in the invasion. A back stabbing by Erdogan that some politicians in the US seemed to quickly forget.
Thanks to a vast superiority in equipment, quality of troops, and military leadership, the coalition still performed very well against Saddam’s forces and defeated his regime. Unfortunately, it took longer and cost more coalition lives than it would have had the coalition been able to use all of its assembled forces.
Then, something interesting happened. Turkey looked at the rising cost of oil and realized that there are sizeable untapped reserves underneath those quaint Kurdish mud hut villages. Turkey then did what Western oil companies and governments had already done. They started salivating over the idea of Kurdish oil flowing into the West via Turkey. In the Turkish version of the fantasy, less of that Kurdish oil flows out of Turkey into Europe, but what’s a few billion barrels of petroleum between old friends? The petroleum worked its old black magic and Turks and Kurds started getting along.
The US’s primary concern in Iraq was the survival of a central government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Importantly, during Maliki’s tenure, Iraq has doubled its oil exports. The West understands Maliki is a less than ideal leader. From the Saudi king’s point of view, Maliki is an “Iranian agent.” Unfortunately, most of the idealists in Iraq were long dead when Maliki came to power, and in a nation full of intolerable political candidates, he was tolerable from the point of view of the present and previous US administrations.
As part of the reconstruction of Iraq, the Iraqi Interim Government responded to coalition pressure and gave Kurds semi-autonomous status in the north. The Turkish government was dead set against it at the time. Then, Turkey followed the example of US and Western oil companies and negotiated oil deals with the Kurds. Unfortunately for the Iraqi government in Baghdad, Turkey did not include them in their wheeling and dealing with the Kurds.
This presents a problem or two for the US. The obvious problem is that the Iraqi national government is being badly undermined. If the Baghdad government collapses, its replacement may be much worse. The second possible issue is that the US government may, for many rea$ons, have its own strong feelings about precisely who should be scarfing up that Kurdish oil. From the Kurdish point of view, it’s great to have multiple suitors.
Springtime always makes for a great setting in any opera. Ah, yes. The Arab Spring. Is that freedom that I smell in Syria? Some of the Syrians think so. But not all Syrians agree on what “freedom” should look like or who should be in charge of it.
In the political vision shared by Erdogan and Obama, the US would support Turkey in helping Syrians to oust Assad from Syria. The US would maintain the smallest possible visible profile in the conflict, and Erdogan would provide the locals leadership in helping the Syrians to form a united democratic front in Syria. Assad would depart as a passenger in a plane or in a box on a truck, and all would be well. That vision has not become reality.
What was to be a momentous coming of age for Erdogan and Turkey has become an embarrassment. Erdogan sponsored purges of Turkey’s military and intelligence leaders, and now he is handicapped by that. His military and intelligence services still have well trained troops, but their leadership was badly damaged. Some of the very people who could help subtly bring to bear Turkish influence in Syria are rotting away in Turkish prisons for imaginary crimes.
Turkey now houses thousands of Syrian refugees, and they can’t be sure how many of them are terrorists that might soon turn on Turkey. Erdogan’s attempts at rallying the various Syrian factions to cooperation and victory have been a complete failure. That helps explain his cliché anti-Israeli act at the recent Arab summit. He plays to a tough audience at Arab summits and they were not impressed this week. Just as Erdogan gained a position of eminence among the Middle Eastern Islamic nations, his stardom is quickly fading.
In yet one more political irony, Erdogan is now quietly begging the US to “take a more active role in bringing about change in Syria.” The same man that back-stabbed the US lead coalition because he supposedly could not bring himself to attack another Islamic nation now desperately wants the US to send its military to clean up the problem in his front yard. If you laughed as you read that, don’t feel bad. It’s okay. If you can’t laugh a bit when you consider foreign affairs you should avoid foreign affairs altogether or you might find yourself suicidal or in need of medication.
Erdogan’s quiet but desperate whispers to John Kerry were likely answered with charming and not very reassuring platitudes. I can just imagine Kerry smiling as he told Erdogan, “You have our full confidence. You know we’ll do everything we can to help you.” The entire time, Kerry had to be wondering what in the world the US could do to turn Syria into a happy and peaceful place without committing the US to yet another unpopular war.
As a NATO member, the US has sent Patriot air-defense missiles to protect the Turkish border, but it seems unlikely to me that the White House would be willing to get any more involved than that in Syria. After all, we are still busy building the world’s best disguised “democracy” in Afghanistan, listening to that ridiculous toad in North Korea threaten us with nuclear annihilation, and contemplating a possible war with Iran.
In less than four years, we will have a new administration in the White House. Erdogan might manage to stay in power beyond that in spite of growing opposition from many of his once staunch friends. Two things that won’t change by then are the geography or the West’s need for oil. Turkey remains the best route to the West for Central Asian oil. Our overriding need for oil combined with the fact that Turkey is in a rough neighborhood and needs friends means the Turkish-American Opera will be playing more acts for a long time to come. Turn up the music. It might drown out the rhetoric.