Obama's Turkey Policy Is Proving to Be a Turkey
President Obama has held Turkey up as a model of a moderate, democratic Muslim country. He even made Ankara his first stop in the Muslim world after taking office. The State Department welcomed Turkey's decision to host a NATO missile defense radar and "appreciates this significant Turkish contribution to a vital NATO mission. We are proud to work with Turkey on the deployment of this important asset." Turkey is supplied by the United States with F-35 jets, Predator drones, and now Super Cobra helicopters -- front-line, first-class military equipment.
But America's NATO ally Turkey has also announced open military cooperation with America's adversary Iran against America's friends the Kurds of northern Iraq. After a period of side-by-side and sequential operations inside Iraq, Prime Minister Erdoğan announced a joint offensive against Kurdish rebels. "Turkey and Iran are working together" and are "determined."
Even before, but especially since the demise of Saddam, the Kurds of northern Iraq have been American allies despite the fact that the Kurdistan Regional Government has been unable -- and sometimes unwilling -- to control PKK and other military organizations in the mountains of northern Iraq and close-by Iran, as well as in Turkey. Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, urged Turkey and Iran to stop bombing northern Iraqi Kurds, but the United States has provided his government with little political support. The U.S. is pulling out of Iraq politically and emotionally as well as militarily, and Iran's influence is growing, to the detriment of the Kurds and the notion of a unitary Iraq.
It is a poor legacy for the U.S. in Iraq compounded by an American failure to understand a Turkish bid for leadership in the wider Middle East that should worry us and our allies.
The Turkish and Chinese Air Forces joined together last October in the first ever military exercises involving Beijing and a NATO country; Chinese planes refueled in Iran on the way home. After welcoming Hamas leaders to Ankara despite the U.S. and Europe determination of Hamas as a terrorist organization, Turkey supported the participation of a violent Islamist group in the 2010 Gaza flotilla and threatened to send warships to escort more ships to Gaza. Turkey vehemently rejected the summer 2011 U.N. Report that laid most of the blame for flotilla violence at Ankara's feet and noted that Israel's maintenance of the Gaza blockade was legal. More recently, Turkey threatened to send warships to Cyprus to halt natural gas exploration off its coast. Backing off slightly, Ankara instead sent a survey ship to claim natural gas rights for the TRNC, the Turkish-occupied area of northern Cyprus.
To many Arabs, non-Arab Turkey's assertions of self look like the return of despised Ottoman rule, and the strong political and energy relationship -- and new security relationship -- with non-Arab Iran enhances their concerns. So to mitigate Arab concerns and straddle the Arab/non-Arab divide, Turkey has ratcheted up its verbal, political, and economic assault on Israel, a friend and ally of the United States, and also the lowest common denominator of Middle Eastern politics.
Turkey's claim to the West's attention had traditionally been that it served and could serve as a bridge between European/Western/NATO/American interests and the Middle East/Arab/Muslim world. To maintain that posture, Turkey would actually have to align with it interests in both places. For the time being, however, Turkey has aligned itself primarily with Iran and Hamas against the interests of Israel, the Kurds, Cyprus, NATO, and the United States.
For the U.S. to continue to view Turkey as an ally, and continue to supply front-line weapons that my find themselves in service of American adversaries is foolish in the extreme.
Shoshana Bryen has more than 30 years' experience as a defense policy analyst and has been taking American military officers and defense professionals to Israel since 1982.