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Is Erdogan an Ally or a Rival?
Are his actions those of a U.S. ally?
By Joseph Puder
Turkey’s President Erdogan ordered the bombing of targets in Iraq and Syria, allegedly to punish Kurdish “terrorists” as retribution for a November 2022 bomb attack in Istanbul. The American allied Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) vehemently denied Erdogan’s charges. The indiscriminate bombing of Kurdish targets that often kills innocent Kurdish civilians reflects Erdogan’s hypocrisy. For years now he has been blasting Israel for its defensive retaliatory attacks against Hamas in Gaza. Erdogan has even rallied the Sunni-Muslim world to declare Jihad on Israel, accusing the Jewish state of being a “terrorist state.” Yet, Erdogan has waged an unrelenting genocidal campaign against the Kurds in Syria.
It is not however, Erdogan’s hypocrisy vis-vis-Israel alone, it is his duplicity vis-à-vis the US as well. While pretending to be a US ally and a NATO member, his Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood beliefs have made him support, albeit, clandestinely the ISIS fighters, allowing them to transit through Turkey to Syria.
The US is once again taking issue with Erdogan, a NATO member whose close engagement with Putin’s Russia and his purchasing of the S-400 missile system instead of the American Patriot Missiles sparked the ire of the US and its NATO allies. It resulted in Washington booting Turkey out of the F-35 fighter-jet program and imposed sanctions on the Turkish military. Now, the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, Air Force Brig. General Pat Ryder, issued a statement following Turkey’s bombing of Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq, stating that Turkey is endangering US troops based in Syria. The Turkish air strikes targeted bases used by American forces and US-backed Kurdish fighters. Ryder pointed out that the “Recent air strikes in Syria directly threatened the safety of US personnel who are working in Syria with local partners to defeat ISIS and maintain custody of more than ten thousand ISIS detainees.”
Brig. Gen. Ryder maintained that Turkey’s attacks threatened the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS‘s yearlong progress to degrade and defeat ISIS. Ryder also mentioned that US officials including US President Joe Biden have accused Recep Tayyip Erdogan of undermining the fight against ISIS by virtue of their military campaigns against the US-backed Kurdish forces. Reports have revealed that the Turkish air strikes have destroyed a hospital, a power grid, and grain silos in Syria. A land operation that Erdogan threatened to use will likely cause many Kurdish civilian casualties.
From the very beginning of the civil war in Syria, the US and its allies were on opposite sides with Turkey. While Erdogan and Turkey sought to use the war in Syria as an opportunity to destroy the Kurdish forces in Syria, the US and its allies focused on fighting ISIS with help from Kurdish forces. Erdogan viewed the American backing of the SDF and the Kurds in general as an obstacle to his ambition to wipe out the Kurds. He would like to get rid of the US presence in Syria, and he wants to be able to have a deal with the Syrian regime and cooperate with Iran and Russia in controlling Syria. Erdogan’s major fear is that an independent Kurdish entity in Syria will drive his own large Kurdish minority in Turkey to be part of an independent Kurdish state. Iran, along with Turkey, have long conspired to prevent Kurdish self-determination, and have violently suppressed their Kurdish citizens.
Thus far, President Biden and the Pentagon have not issued clear directives as to how to respond to Turkey’s aggression. It is high time for the Biden administration to warn Erdogan that US personnel will respond with fire on future attacks that might endanger Americans. US Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asserted that Turkey’s attacks in Iraq and Syria, including against US partner forces in the SDF have already killed civilians and destroyed critical civilian infrastructure while undermining the fight against ISIS. He said that “These are not the actions of an ally.”
The CENTCOM (Central Command) chief, Gen. Erik Kurilla warned that a Turkish land operation against the SDF might result in thousands of ISIS fighters and sympathizers fleeing the prisons currently guarded by the Kurds. The Kurdish forces, including those manning the prison camps, will be compelled to join the fight against the Turkish invaders. The escaped prisoners would more than likely revive the fortunes of ISIS.
For electoral reasons and ethnic hatred, Erdogan has been clamoring for ethnic cleansing of the Kurds. For months now, he has been urging the invasion of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, known as Rojava. The US has been trying to delay Erdogan’s plans. The Istanbul bombing has given Erdogan the pretext to go after the Kurds.
A crackdown on the Kurds in Turkey is a core component of Erdogan’s political agenda. In recent years he has expanded his campaign against the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, Erdogan launched in 2018 and 2019 operations “Olive Branch” and “Peace Spring” respectively to eliminate the Kurds who defeated ISIS along the border region between Syria and Turkey. Thousands of Kurdish fighters gave their lives for this purpose. Moreover, the Kurdish forces never attacked Turkey. Still, Erdogan and his AKP party branded the Kurds as “terrorists.”
Erdogan has been obsessed with the Kurds and Israel. His antisemitic rants have become well known. More recently however, feeling constrained by a failing economy, relative isolation in the region, and receding public support in Turkey, he has launched a “charm offensive” toward Israel. Erdogan has made overtures toward Israel, hoping to carry Israeli gas to Europe. He has hosted Israel’s President Herzog and allowed closer intelligence cooperation with Israel. But a leopard cannot change its spots! Erdogan presented Turkey as the sole defender of the Palestinians and has lambasted the West and some of the Arab states for encouraging “Israel’s brutality,” and called on his Muslim brothers and sisters to unite and confront the West and Israel.
It isn’t only the Kurds and Israel that Erdogan loathes, he has “no love lost” for America. He promotes conspiracy theories against the US and openly blames the US for many of Turkey’s problems. He is responsible for the democratic backsliding in Turkey and has imprisoned American citizens. Erdogan has helped Iran with selling its oil despite UN sanctions, and his coziness with the Ayatollahs of Iran and Putin’s Russia makes him a questionable US ally if not a downright enemy.