Sunday, August 23, 2015

Missiles of August

Global diplomacy is divided into four basic categories: what you are told, what you know or what you think you know, what the diplomats think is happening and the truth. In August of 2012, after a Turkish jet was downed and Syrian forces shelled Turkish towns with armaments that included Scud missiles, the United States (with Germany, Netherlands & Spain) responded to this NATO ally’s request and supplied (in 2013) a system of Patriot anti-missile batteries in Southern Turkey. OK, got it. We are also the largest part of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket/missile system.
As ISIS rolled forward, taking huge chunks of land in Syria and Iraq, even battling Turkish Kurds on the Syrian border, Turkey sat back. Kurdish independence/separatist groups, lodged in these border towns, were just as much an enemy to Turkey as was ISIS, and so, wink-wink, Turkey became a passageway for foreign ISIS recruits enroute to the battleground to the south. As ISIS later unleased some of its bombing activities against Turkish civilian targets, Turkey finally joined the anti-ISIS fray, or so it seemed. At first, it was just enabling US Air Force jets and drones to operate from within Turkey (from an airbase at Incirlik). Then it seemed as if Turkish forces themselves were joining the offensive against ISIS… except it soon became clear that the offensive was more directed at Kurds, who had been so effective against ISIS.
Turkey had long prioritized taking down the Shiite Assad regime. Turkey’s rather strident President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an uber-conservative who had been moving his secular nation increasingly towards Sunni values, was watching his power erode despite a recent victory at the polls. Kurds were a big part of the problem. With his nasty parliamentary coalition falling apart, Erdogan needed a miracle. You see, “Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which has shaped Turkish politics for more than a decade, was stunned in a June 7 election, losing a parliamentary majority partly because of gains by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party.” New York Times, August 18th. Problems with Kurds, eh? The United States was flummoxed.
Turkey’s direct involvement against ISIS seemed to suggest a large local Sunni power with the wherewithal to make a big difference. As Turkey instead focused on its Kurds, however, it was unclear how without the potential of their boots on the ground – or at least a containment of ISIS gains – anything local could stop ISIS.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s hold on his own government was getting even worse. “Lengthy negotiations by Mr. Erdogan’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, ended without an agreement for a [new, going-forward] coalition, first with the largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, then with a smaller, far-right nationalist party.” NY Times. It was all but certain that another parliamentary election had to be called and that Erdogan’s efforts to kill the ascension of Kurdish votes might just back fire. Instability rising. Were Turkish boots on the ground against ISIS simply an unrealistic expectation?
Iranian and Iraqi troops, Shiites feared by regional Sunnis often more that ISIS, were the only significant “other” available troops capable of providing the volume of soldiers required. Were the United States and its allies being drawn back into a massive military presence in the Middle East, despite pledges to the contrary? Was Turkey really in the battle against ISIS or was Erdogan simply crushing Kurdish separatists to strengthen his dwindling hand within his own country? Would Erdogan even remain in power?
“Internationally, the decision by Turkey and the United States to work together was hailed as a critical rapprochement between allies who had long disagreed on an approach to the civil war in Syria. The new mission is to clear the Islamic State from a 60-mile-long area along the Turkish border in Aleppo Province and from territory about 30 miles south. But now, two weeks after the plan was announced, it is unclear which forces will fight the militants on the ground, what support they will receive and how long it will take, Turkish officials and Syrian rebel leaders say.” New York Times, August 16th.
U.S.-Turkish relations frayed again. The Turkish offensive against Kurds seemed to be a betrayal of Erdogan’s commitments against ISIS. Claiming that the decision was joint, the United States just announced that it was withdrawing its Patriot Missiles from Turkey for much-needed “updating,” signaling to the world that the risk of attacks against Turkey from the Assad regime in Turkey were now materially reduced. American diplomats suggested that such anti-missile defense systems might be redeployed, but more likely against potential Iranian and North Korean threats. US military spokespeople also noted that it would only take a week to drop Patriots back into Turkey if needed.
On the surface, it seemed that Turkey understood the changed circumstances. After all, the Patriots were never really used, and with American super jets stationed and operating from Incirlik, that would seem protection enough. So much for logic; symbolism was rising in significance. “Four American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a diplomatic issue, said [August 16th] that Turkish officials were livid when told two weeks ago that the United States was withdrawing the Patriots. Patriot systems have been stationed just north of the Syrian border since January 2013.” NY Times. Turkey would be hard-pressed to withdraw its permission for US aircraft from Turkish bases, since Erdogan announced to the world he was fighting ISIS now. But expecting Turkey to up its direct role against ISIS… yeah right…
What’s really going on seems to be a continuation of our basic failure to understand Middle Eastern geopolitics and that ISIS is reconfiguring regional borders whether we like it or not. Unless the 50,000 (and growing) ISIS forces are countered by more than airstrikes and threats to destroy their oil fields, ISIS is digging in, building local administrative capacities and taking deeper control of conquered territories. Nothing is really going the way US policy-makers have intended. The clock is ticking, and ISIS is growing.
I’m Peter Dekom, and American foreign policies needs to be fabricated based on more than our hopes, dreams and abysmally failed schemes.

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