After almost a week of exchanging fire with Syrian troops across its southern border, Turkey finds itself embroiled on another, albeit related, international front. Wednesday the Turkish air force scrambled two jets to intercept a Syrian passenger jet flying from Moscow to Damascus. The plane, said Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was carrying “ammunition, and defense equipment," presumably intended for Bashar al-Assad’s troops in their 20-month-long attempt to crush the uprising against the Syrian regime. Turkey’s foreign ministry explained that the pilot had been warned of Turkey’s intention to ground the plane, but he continued on his course, the F-16s forced the plane to land in Ankara, and now both Damascus and Moscow are demanding answers.
The question is, in the parlance of the White House, does Obama have Erdogan’s back? After all, the Turkish premier is said to be one of the international leaders closest to the president. Moreover, the White House once seems to have perceived this NATO ally as a strategic partner, one it has sometimes sided with against Israel, and to whom it subcontracted much of its Arab Spring policy. And yet over the last two years, Turkey has shown that its ability to project power in the Middle East is extremely limited. Nonetheless, the administration’s blandishments and encouragements, and later its reproaches and betrayals, have pushed Turkey out on a ledge, apparently alone. If some are gloating that a boastful Erdogan is finally getting his comeuppance with his troubles on the Syrian border, the fact is that the administration has let an ally, albeit a troublesome one, expose its weaknesses, a posture dangerous both to itself and American interests.
It should hardly come as a surprise that Erdogan’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy has backfired. After all, Turkey’s neighborhood is the Middle East, which means that there are going to be problems everywhere with everyone regardless of your own cheerful disposition. Before Erdogan’s Freedom and Justice party (AKP) came to power in 2003, Turkish governments looked the West, especially toward Europe where they had hoped to win Turkey membership in the European Union. The Turks were so little concerned with neighborly relations that when Assad’s father hosted Kurdish terrorist Abdullah Ocalan on Syrian soil, Ankara simply massed troops on the border in 1998 and demanded Damascus expel him. Today, however, Ankara finds itself in the middle of a much more complicated, and consequential, game than the backstabbing nepotism of European bureaucracy. Erdogan’s Middle East policy has managed to align some very dangerous characters, including Syria, Iran, and Russia, against it.
Erdogan’s shift to the Middle East seems to have been precipitated by two factors. First, the likely realization that the EU was still a long way off from accepting Ankara, if ever; second, the conviction that Turkey’s Ottoman legacy enabled it to play a leading role in a resource-rich, and increasingly religious, region where Washington was eager to find competent interlocutors. Both the Bush and Obama administrations flattered Erdogan’s self-image.
The Bush White House saw an AKP-governed Turkey as a model Islamist state—moderate, democratic, and with a booming economy—for other Islamist parties in the region to follow. The Obama administration would come to collect on that bet during the course of the Arab Spring uprisings, but not before Erdogan had shown the region that he was prepared to lead by proving his pan-Islamic credentials. He galvanized support across the Middle East, from Cairo to Tehran, by using the standard method known to all Middle East rulers for the last eighty or so years—turn on the Zionists.
Erdogan’s performance at Davos in 2009, where he insulted Israeli president Simon Peres and then stormed off the stage, should have alerted Obama officials that the talented Turkish politician was also a volatile personality who could prove dangerous if not kept on a tight rein. Instead, the Obama administration coddled Erdogan. After Israeli navy commandos killed nine terrorists (eight Turkish nationals and one American) aboard the Turkish-sponsored Mavi Marmara when it attempted to run the naval blockade of Gaza, the administration requested that the Netanyahu government apologize to Turkey.
If Erdogan had brought the strategic alliance with Israel to an end, the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 offered him a chance to show his real usefulness—as a conduit to Muslim Brotherhood parties in Egypt and Tunisia and as an important partner in the NATO campaign to bring down Muammar Qaddafi. When the uprising against Assad erupted, the White House tasked its Syria policy out to Erdogan, who had only recently described the Syrian president as a friend. However, Erdogan’s entreaties proved ineffective, largely because the soft power that he thought he exercised over Syria, especially regarding trade, was negligible.
Here again the Obama administration had miscalculated on Turkey, overestimating Erdogan, or taking his bluster at face value, and handing off a sensitive job to an easily excitable ally. When Erdogan backed himself into a corner, the White House let him languish there alone. After the Turkish prime minister had called for Assad to step down, Ankara approached the administration with several “forward-leaning” options, including creation of “a buffer zone and/or a humanitarian corridor, as well as organizing and equipping the Free Syrian Army.” According to reports, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rebuffed Ankara’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, telling him, “we are not there yet.” Instead, the administration sided with Russia, which proposed a political solution to the crisis that was only intended to ensure the survival of the Assad regime.
The administration also took sides against Turkey in June, after a Turkish plane was shot down and Ankara charged that the Syrians had fired on the jet without warning in international airspace. The Syrians claimed that the plane was inside Syrian airspace, brought down by anti-aircraft gunfire. The account that U.S. officials gave to reporters, backed the Syrian story. It seems, however, that Turkey’s narrative was accurate. According to news reports and recently leaked Syrian government documents, the plane was downed by a Russian-made heat-seeking missile, an attack allegedly ordered by the Russians that may have been conducted by Russian technicians. Russian intelligence also may have directed the execution of the two Turkish pilots.
It’s unclear if this episode informed Ankara’s decision to ground the Syrian Air flight Wednesday. The reality is that Turkey is hemmed in with very few options. And Assad knows it.
In a NATO meeting last week convened under article 4 of the NATO treaty, “asserting the integrity of the 28 members,” the alliance condemned the Syrian shelling across the Turkish border that killed 5 people. But should the exchange escalate, if Syrian artillery were to hit a schoolhouse full of children, what then? It is unlikely that the Obama administration will at this point, or perhaps ever, come to Turkey’s aid should it get entangled in a conflict that is partly of the administration’s own making.
The issue here is not simply that White House has failed to pursue American interests and assist U.S. allies in letting the Syrian conflict run now for more than a year and a half with a death toll closing in on 30,000. Rather it is a picture of a foreign policy without principle or prudence. The White House sided with Turkey against Israel, but for what purpose—in order to side with Assad against Erdogan? In failing to manage a useful, if difficult ally, the White House has helped make it vulnerable to its adversaries and ours.