EDITORIAL: Turkey is the wrong ally at the wrong time in the fight against ISIS
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Sometimes when there’s bad news you just have to grit your teeth and bear it. Unfortunately, that’s what the U.S. has to do when it comes to the Syrian intervention underway from our erstwhile NATO ally Turkey.
The good news is, Turkey’s meddlesome ambitions are sharply constrained — not just by the U.S. and its allies, but by America’s adversaries, too.
Turkey, which continues to lurch further into authoritarianism and nostalgia for its bygone Ottoman Empire, recently chose to exploit the messy situation in Syria in hopes of gaining a big military advantage. The Kurds, who alone managed to break the back of the Islamic State in Syria, recently gained enough territory along the border to prompt an open-ended incursion against them by the Turks. That’s clearly bad news for the U.S. Open conflict between a non-NATO ally and a NATO ally is perilous enough. But Turkey has moved sharply away from the liberal West, growing closer to the likes of Russia, which is also now deeply enmeshed in Syria. Beyond the challenges involved in trying to “deconflict” American and Turkish forces, despite both sharing a formal military alliance, the U.S. faces the embarrassing prospect of having to array its military strategy against that of a NATO member army.
Unfortunately, there’s little the U.S. can do to stop the Turks — at least until, and if, the Turks come up against U.S. forces themselves. Ankara talks a big game, confident that its campaign against the Kurds will retain enough legitimacy because of its longstanding internal conflict with Kurdish guerillas and terrorists. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently made a show of demanding that American troops leave the strategic town of Manbij, and the U.S. won’t back down, with brass on the ground insisting the city must be held to keep ISIS from coming back.
Although superficially an awkward and dangerous situation, the fact is that nobody can dislodge the U.S. from Manbij, and nobody wants to. Turkey won’t fight for it. Russia doesn’t want to become the only major power responsible for restoring Syrian security. Russia doesn’t even want Syria to become a Lebanon-like puppet regime of Iran and Hezbollah.
And, importantly, even Iran doesn’t want Turkey to continue its push into Syria. Instead, the mullahs have pointedly expressed a wish that the Turks, with whom they have decent relations, end their incursion at the earliest possible moment. Any Turkish expansionism competes with Iran’s own — not just in Syria, but in Iraq, which Tehran surely expects Erdogan to eye if things go too well against the Syrian Kurds.
Although the crazy quilt of militias and armies in Syria seems like more than enough to touch off a general war no side can control, the strange truth is that the jumble of forces is more balanced than it appears, because no side has the strength or the interest necessary to, in effect, conquer and govern the whole of Syria.
As a result of that dispersal of power, Turkey has jumped into the mix with an unwise and ill-conceived attack. Although, in a different world, the engagement in Syria of a large NATO member army would be great news for the U.S., regrettably, Turkey is the wrong ally at the wrong time for bringing the conflict against ISIS to a lasting end — and for restoring a durable, legitimate measure of peace and security to the people of Syria.
Late to the party, the Turks are likely to be the first to leave. ___
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