Turkey has made the headlines in the last weeks for refusing to enter the fight against the Islamic State, a threat, we argue, to virtually the entire world.
Our rhetoric may be a trifle overblown but nonetheless we do have a solid case that the new Caliphate threatens the stability of a region of great economic importance. (The region is also exquisitely important to American elections.)
The Obama Administration has made no secret of its annoyance with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s demand that the US establish a buffer zone along Turkey’s border with Syria and destroy the Syrian Air Force before Turkey deigns to get involved.
This has brought out all the old neoconservative interventionists and their liberal allies (the Washington Post, for example) drooling at the possibility that the Turks can stampede the U.S. into another ground war in the Middle East.
One would think that Turkey – with the new threat sitting literally on its borders – has a vital national security interest in bringing down the Islamic State.
Turkey, alone among the regional actors, has the military and political capacity to turn the tide, with or without American help. Ankara’s apologists in the United States constantly remind us that we have no more valuable ally in the region and thus we must accommodate every Turkish whim.
At first, Erdogan excused Turkey’s absence because ISIL held 49 Turkish diplomats hostage and he lacked Parliamentary authority to act. These excuses have been resolved, but now he has new conditions.
Before Turkey will act, Mr. Erdogan wants the U.S. to establish buffer zones and make the overthrow of Syria’s Bashar Assad the principle objective of the operation.
His demands are all the more outrageous because the Turkish military on its own is perfectly capable of establishing the buffer zone and even decisively attacking Syria’s hard-pressed military forces.
He thus avoids taking either blame or responsibility. By stalling, he also achieves another Turkish policy objective; he enables the jihadists to destroy the Syrian Kurds. One can infer that Mr. Erdogan really prefers the Islamic State and not the Kurds controlling the border areas.
Turkey is not the only American ally whose actions undermine U.S. policy. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has used the crisis to decimate Gaza for no discernible military objective. By this action, he deepens hatred for America (as Israel’s patron) in the Arab and Muslim world.
He has taken it several steps further by gratuitously announcing new settlements on Palestinian territory, encouraging his Ministers to publicly insult senior American officials and reviving the bogeyman of Iran as the principle threat to the region.
In fact, virtually every step he has taken seems carefully calculated to destroy America’s influence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sent Israel’s Air Force to attack Syrian and Lebanese forces fighting against the Jihadists. Then, Netanyahu proclaimed at the UN General Assembly that by attacking Gaza, Israel has joined the fight against ISIL.
Like Erdogan, Netanyahu leaves one with the impression that allowing the Islamic State to expand its control over large parts of Syria and Iraq suits Israel’s national security objectives.
This is not to say that we would like to see Israeli aircraft joining the fight. It would, however, behoove an “ally” not to systematically sabotage his very generous financial and military patron and protector.
Saudi Arabia’s actions also raise doubts as to their ultimate objectives. Saudi Arabia has yet to make it clear whether or not they believe the Shiite rulers of Iran – and their co-religionists in Iraq – are a greater threat than the Islamic State.
Riyadh clearly does not want to get more deeply involved in fighting the Islamic State beyond a few symbolic air raids. We may agree. Many observers harbor deep doubts about the fighting qualities of the Saudi ground forces and some fear that the Saudi Royal Family actually doubts their Army’s loyalty would survive an armed clash with ISIL.
After all, Saudi Arabia has, as a state religion, the peculiar religious ideology that motivates the fighters of the Islamic State and is known throughout the Islamic world as its principal proponent.
Most astonishing, Saudi Arabia picked this perilous moment to divert attention away from the Islamic State to its century-old feud with Qatar, a country with one-tenth its population.
Saudi Arabia withdrew its Ambassador and demanded Qatar close down its free press and expel two prestigious American think tanks. This action directly threatens American interests in the region by imperiling the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council States and labeling American institutions and American values as subversive.
To recap: Turkey’s President uses the Islamic State to achieve a Turkish objective by destroying Kurdish power in Syria and demands that the US take military actions that Turkey has the capacity to do on its own.
Israel’s Prime Minister has systematically undermined American prestige at this crucial moment in history, making it more difficult for the US Government to chart its way through the storms besetting the region.
Saudi Arabia, at best, has shown great ambivalence in deciding whether ISIL is really the most important enemy. The challenges facing American policy makers have a complexity not seen for more than a century.
The Obama Administration stumbled badly in the beginning but seems to be regaining its footing. One would expect three countries whose independence the United States guaranteed against strong predatory neighbors in the past to help rather than hinder us. Otherwise, one could conclude that all three countries find the Islamic State to be serving their own narrow interests.