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  1. Opinion

Turkey, the Kurds, NATO and what comes next?

From Russia to refugees to shifting alliances, a lot could go wrong, writes a former Naval War College professor.
Syria's opposition flag flies on a pole in Tal Abyad, Syria, as seen from the town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to meet Tuesday with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds is expected to be the focus of their discussions. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) [LEFTERIS PITARAKIS | AP]
Published Oct. 21
Jim Miskel [Provided]

While Turkey has agreed to a cease-fire in the Kurdish areas of northern Syria, don’t be surprised if it fails to permanently end the fighting. Turkey’s invasion may soon resume, or the fighting may transition to unconventional warfare between the Kurds and militias sponsored by Turkey. Whatever the eventual outcome, Turkey’s relations with the United States and the other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have been damaged.

From the Turkish perspective, it must seem like the Kurds are not the only ones who made a bad bet when they believed what our president said. First the Trump administration gave Turkey the green light to invade by agreeing to precipitously withdraw American troops from an area where we knew the Turks wanted to take military action. Next, the administration sent a letter asking Turkey to restrain itself. When that had no effect, the administration threatened to destroy the Turkish economy via sanctions when the Turks did what we knew they would: Invade northern Syria. Then, we sent a high-level delegation to arm-twist Turkey into agreeing to what our government calls a cease-fire, which Turkey’s foreign minister says is only a “pause” in the fighting, not really a cease-fire. The foreign minister’s statement came almost immediately after Vice President Mike Pence’s press conference touting the cease-fire.

Notwithstanding our government’s diplomatic boilerplate about interests still shared by the United States and Turkey and President Donald Trump’s boasting about his bromance with Turkey’s president, this episode must have created doubts in Ankara (and likely elsewhere) about the credibility of American commitments. Turkey may also resent our sanction threats and public pressure. Still, the United States has the world’s strongest military and largest economy, so it ought to be in Turkey’s interest to eventually patch things up with Washington.

Turkey’s relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, may be harder to repair. NATO is a mutual defense organization. It is based on the Three Musketeers’ principle: all for one, one for all. An attack on one NATO member is an attack on all NATO members. It is not designed to support aggressive behavior by its members.

Turkey may have good reasons for wanting to stabilize the Kurdish areas in Syria, but the path it has chosen is aggressive and may lead to friction with Russia which could, in turn, involve NATO. Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria has driven the Kurds into the arms of the Syrian government and into Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia is one of Syria’s few allies in the world. It has long had territorial designs on Turkey and its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire. Russia even has a history of meddling in the domestic affairs of the Ottomans/Turks by supporting agitation by minorities – a strategy Vladimir Putin’s regime has used in the Baltic States and Ukraine. If Turkey is not careful in dealing with Russia’s new Kurdish friends Syria, it could provoke Russian retaliation in Syria. Or, Russian meddling with Turkey’s own Kurdish population.

Then there is Turkey’s threat to send millions of Syrian refugees north into NATO countries in Europe. The threat did more than suggest a blatant disregard for human rights. (Imagine herding up millions of refugees and forcibly transporting them to its borders with Greece and Bulgaria.) It antagonized the Europeans because it played directly into Europe’s fears about immigration and Islamist terrorism.

Jim Miskel is a former professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He lives in Vero Beach.

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