It’s like it just happened yesterday. US President Barack Obama and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister, held a joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden in May 2013. Promising to help Turkey shoulder the burden of Syrian refugees, Obama reiterated that Bashar al-Assad needed to go as this was the only way to resolve the crisis. That view was and still is the same view Ankara held since the day it became crystal-clear that Assad had no intention to stop killing his own people.
When the Ghouta chemical massacre was perpetrated and Assad crossed Obama’s “red-line” in August 2013, the US quickly planned to launch up to 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian army. Obama was on TV every day talking about military intervention. But then, for some reason he threw the ball to Congress. The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations approved the military use against the Syrian government. But somehow the US and Russia reached an agreement to disarm Syria of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Assad continued to shell, starve and find other ways to systematically murder Syrian people.
The US succeeded in sweeping the issue under the carpet, but another problem was at the door which Turkey had already warned about many times: the threat posed by extremism. In his speech at West Point last May, Obama admitted the severity of the issue by saying: “As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.”
Words come easy
It’s a shame, then, that he did little to bolster US partners in the region such as Turkey, let alone move towards finding a solution for the Syrian crisis. For Obama, the words come easy but action does not. He has abandoned the Syrian opposition and has disappointed his allies.
|Turkey remains reluctant on fight against ISIL|
Similar to its warnings with respect to Syria, Turkey also warned the US and the international community regarding the rising chaos in Iraq many times. The Maliki government’s sectarian approach was clearly producing anarchy and violence. When Mosul fell to ISIL in June, the US finally understood. It was a blood bath, and Obama didn’t yet have a strategy against ISIL in August.
When a strategy was finally found, it was wrong. There was again no clear road map for Syria. ISIL made its way to Kurdish regions in Syria in days. The US efforts were too little, too late as the US’ partners were weakened on the ground and the Assad regime was emboldened thanks to Obama’s unkept promises.
After giving no significant support to the Syrian opposition groups fighting ISIL (as well as Assad’s forces and Hezbollah), the US now lacks partners in Syria. With neither a dedicated plan nor real willingness, it was obvious that only Assad and ISIL would benefit from the resulting quagmire.
Obama’s willingness to give promises but not to take action has jeopardised and even contradicted US desire to stabilise the region. Without a motivated and adequately armed force on the ground, air strikes won’t stop ISIL. The Pentagon admitted as much.
Now the US is trying to keep its soldiers out of the chaos and find people to serve as its proxy army. The lucky candidates are the Turkish army and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. The US is also eyeing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syrian wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The US State Department blatantly states that the PYD is not considered to be a terrorist organisation under US law but it is a well known fact that the PYD is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK. The gawkish US stance can only be compared to a presumption that al-Nusra should not be considered an al-Qaeda affiliate.
Aside from this, it is easily seen that Ankara views the PYD attempts to establish a foothold in Syria as a risk which can fuel separatism in Turkey. Considering the mobilisation of Kurdish separatists in Turkey’s southeastern region after hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds had fled to Turkey from ISIL attacks, and the violence that followed, the Turkish government has a right – and a duty – to think thoroughly, to discuss the possible scenarios with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Ankara must come up with an independent approach to the situation that preserves Turkey’s national and the regional security, as the US has proven itself unreliable in forming a coherent plan for the region.
Without its international media power, US clumsiness, short-sightedness and failures would be far more glaring. The news media that whitewashed the recklessness of the Obama administration and the insensitivity of the international community, are now trying to dress up Turkey as the country that blows hot and cold, drags her feet and prevents intervention in the mess. But in fact, it is Obama who has been dragging his feet, and in doing so has taken the whole region to the edge of a cliff. How can Turkey allow its security and future to depend on his vacillating and erratic approach to the crises that have engulfed the region? Just because the US changed its mind once again doesn’t mean that Turkey has to rise to the bait.
After all, Turkey is looking for ways to drain the swamp rather than kill the mosquitoes, which is the only way to resolve the crisis in the long term.
The genie is already out of bottle. Over 10.8 million Syrians, roughly half of the entire population, are in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria where over 150,000 have died thanks to Washington’s negligence regarding the crisis, while 6.4 million have been internally displaced and around 3 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries. The entire region is now at the risk of Lebanonisation as the crisis spreads. You can’t just look at the part of the picture you want to see and ignore the rest. Otherwise, the chaos will swallow all of us.
Merve Sebnem Oruc is a managing editor in online journalism and a commentator in Turkey. She is a columnist with Turkish dailies Yeni Safak and Daily Sabah and the editor of Turkey Agenda. She focuses on Turkish politics and diplomacy, Arab-Israeli relations, Islamic Society and Culture as well as the Middle East politics.