On Tuesday, the 96th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic, the U.S. House expressed its rancor toward America’s NATO ally by passing legislation to sanction Ankara’s leaders and recognize the Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire more than 100 years ago.
The recent uproar against Turkey has been brewing for several years and spilled over because of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which resulted in a Turkish operation against the group in northern Syria. The decision has been mischaracterized repeatedly by the very people in Washington who should know better, and the response in Congress could do permanent damage to U.S.-Turkey relations. To be clear, the president’s handling of the matter was abysmal. He exposed an untold number of U.S. partners and innocent civilians to grievous harm that could have been avoided. But his critics’ charge that he abandoned U.S. “allies” is backward.
Turkey has been America’s ally under the North Atlantic Treaty since 1952. It has the second-largest military in NATO and hosts American military service members, aircraft and nuclear weapons at bases that allow the U.S. to project force in the Middle East. It is also an unquestionably difficult partner. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fundamentally transformed the secular, democratic state that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established in 1923 into an illiberal democracy. Erdogan’s repression of basic democratic rights might be easier for Washington to overlook if he weren’t simultaneously putting the longstanding U.S.-Turkey strategic defense relationship at jeopardy, such as by procuring a Russian-made missile defense system designed to shoot down NATO aircraft.
President Barack Obama found Turkey to be especially prickly and unhelpful in addressing the rise of ISIS. By many accounts, Erdogan turned a blind eye to the flow of jihadists into Syria through Turkey’s southern border. Ankara was more concerned about bringing down Bashar Assad and fighting the Syrian Kurds than it was with threat of ISIS.
Turkey’s concern over the Kurds is not unfounded, however. The Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) has killed nearly 40,000 people in Turkey since the 1980s, when that Kurdish Marxist-Leninist group began its guerrilla war against the Turkish state. Both Turkey and the U.S. have designated the PKK a terrorist organization. The Syrian YPG is an offshoot of the PKK, from which it receives training, arms, funding and other support.
The Obama administration chose to partner with the YPG, despite Turkey’s legitimate security concerns, in what it dubbed a short-term, tactical relationship to root out ISIS. In so doing, the U.S. abandoned its ally, the Turks, in favor of a group practically indistinguishable from the PPK, which Washington and Ankara deem a terrorist group. It is therefore troubling — and entirely hypocritical — to hear politicians like U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., say that the decision to abandon the Kurds is a betrayal of our allies. On the contrary, our long-term strategic ally, Turkey, was abandoned when we worked with the Kurds in Syria.
Turkey provides more long-term value to U.S. interests than the Syrian Kurds ever could, absent a nation-state. Unless, and until, Washington is prepared to stand up for Kurdish statehood, the Kurds cannot offer anything more than the partnership and bravery they have provided to the U.S. in their fight against ISIS. Turkey, although a difficult partner, must therefore be constantly cultivated to get the most out of our alliance.
Turkey is a critical ally but a challenging partner, as we were reminded this week when it assisted the U.S. in killing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Meanwhile, the Kurds have been a critical partner but are not a U.S. ally. Washington’s so-called national security experts should wake up to this reality and think carefully about America’s long-term interests. A NATO member of 80 million people that provides the U.S. access to the most critical real estate in the world is more important to long-term U.S. security strategy than two and a half million Kurds in Syria who are now working with the Assad regime.
Again, this is not to suggest that President Trump was justified in how he handled his decision to pull troops from Syria. He not only failed to notify the Kurds, but he also did not inform our British and French allies who have troops in the region. His own Defense Department appears to have been caught off-guard. Whether he explicitly told Erdogan that Turkey had a “green light” to attack the Kurds in Syria, it is hard to imagine how his decision to withdraw troops could have been understood any other way by the Turks.
The president was not wrong to disentangle from the Syrian Kurds. His failure was to create a perilous situation without any effort to thwart foreseeable harm.
Andy Taylor is a student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and worked in the U.S. House from 2010 to 2019, including on the Foreign Affairs Committee.