Turkey: The Key To Defeating ISIS

With the Leader of the Free World focused on restructuring the international economic model to stop global warming, the task of defeating ISIS has fallen to a weak Iraqi government, numerous uncoordinated militias, and several external powers each of which is pursuing its own interests while limiting its exposure.  It is perhaps inevitable that Turkey, given its history and geographic position, would emerge as the central player in our absence. Fortunately, each country acts in its own national self interest, and Turkey’s align pretty well with ours.

A brief history

At least since 1453 when the Sunni Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, vanquishing the Russian-allied Orthodox Christian Byzantines, the Turks and the Russians have been at odds. For centuries, much of the Russian psyche and military strategy has been determined by Turkish control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles which connect the Russian Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The underbelly of the former Soviet Union – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kirghistan, and Turkmenistan – has ethnic and linguistic ties to Turkey, which was aggressive in recognizing their independence and establishing business ties. This rivalry is deeper than the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Russia and Turkey both endured the messy loss of empires in the 20th century. As new borders were drawn, many loyal citizens were caught in the “near abroad” which Vladimir Putin calls Russia’s legitimate “sphere of influence” – including concentrations in the Ukraine and Georgia; Turkey feels a similar patronage for the ethnic Turkmen in Iraq and Syria. Both have enclaves of disenfranchised supporters in the Balkans. As the Turks look north across the Black Sea to see the Russians incorporating the Crimea, they look south to see them establishing bases in Syria. Putin and Erdogan understand strong leadership.

Since World War II, Turkey has been solidly committed to the West – joining NATO in 1952; contributing a brigade to the Allies in the Korean War; providing forces for the conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan; housing an American nuclear force at Incerlik Air Base; maintaining a standing military of 639,000 – second only to the US in NATO; and joining only the US, the UK, Greece, Poland, and Estonia of the 28 NATO members in meeting the commitment tospend at least 2% of GDP on defense. For a over half century they have done their part.

The Turks were early participants in Europe’s post-WW II economic groupings, formally applied for membership in the European Union in 1999, and have subsequently restructured much of their legal and economic system (taxation; intellectual property; financial services; energy; justice system; etc.) to comply with EU standards, but accession has never been favored by most Europeans – particularly the French, Germans, and Austrians. With growing skepticism about the centralization of power in Brussels and the reaction to millions of Muslim refugees flooding into Europe, the most reasonable outcome is probably Angela Merkel’s proposal of a “privileged partnership, but no full membership.”

And a current perspective

        A couple of positives:

1. Europe is apparently willing to bribe the Turks to put a cork in the bottle of refugees. Turkey is the main path for Syrian immigrants – either across to Greek Islands, or north to Bulgaria – and currently houses over 2 million Syrian refugees in camps. The European Union has agreed to pay some $3 billion to upgrade and support the camps; the Turks have agreed to use best efforts to stop the flow, and to accept back “economic migrants” who have joined the true “refugees” transiting Turkey. We’ll see – it’s a start.

2. The Turks – who are strongly in the “Assad must go” camp – are on board for a buffer in Syria along their border where internal Syrian refugees can stay, protected from Assad and ISIS by the Turkmen minority and the Kurds. The Russian fighter jet shot down on November may have briefly violated Turkish airspace, but it appears that it was actually shot down over Syria and its real offense was in attacking the Turkmen militia opposing Assad. The American media has referred to general discussions between the United States and Russia about the need for the Russians to focus on ISIS, and the risk of clashes between allied and Russian aircraft. Erdogan made the point more forcefully.

And two negatives:

1. The 550 mile border between Syria and Turkey cannot be sealed. The 60 mile stretch along the area in Syria controlled by ISIS is mountainous, and has a centuries-long tradition of smuggling. Refugees pass going north; ISIS recruits from outside pass going south. As some have noted, it might be better for President Obama to focus on his border with Mexico, and let the Turks do what they can.

2. The Kurds. Ah, the Kurds – our most capable allies in Iraq and Syria; proponents of an independent state spanning parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran; the Turk’s longstanding PKK guerrilla insurgency.  A cynic might see some connection between improved relations with the PKK from 2010 to 2014, a surprising national election in 2014 in which millions of Turks voted for PKK candidates as a protest against Erdogan’s consolidation of power, and a renewal of the government’s campaign against the PKK which has spilled over into attacks on Kurdish positions in Syria.

It is a sign of our myopia that the Paris bombing which killed 129 is seen as a “wake up call” for the West, whiletwin ISIS bombings in Ankara in October didn’t make their way into the American mindset.  The Turks are as upset as the French; the difference is that they are on the front line, they have a strong leader, and they have a strong incentive to restore order in their neighborhood.


This week’s bonus video is fawning Barbara Walters interview with Melania and Donald Trump. Like it or not, it is helpful to make him more personable.

www.RightinSanFrancisco.com – 12/4/15