President Obama likes to list “our friends and partners” who have signed up for his military campaign in Iraq and Syria. If only he knew how to lead such a wartime coalition. This week’s handling of the crisis on the Syrian-Turkish border is a case study in mismanagement.
True to a tragic pattern throughout the Syria war, the U.S. woke up late to the imminent collapse of Kobani. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, on Wednesday continued to advance on the strategic city, despite intensifying if still limited American airstrikes. And if Kobani falls, the White House is already blaming “our partner and friend” Turkey.
A senior Obama Administration official headlined a leading story in Wednesday’s New York Times about American frustration with Turkish “inaction” in Syria. “There’s growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet to act to prevent a massacre less than a mile from its border,” this anonymous official said. “This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border.” The charge was repeated in other media outlets.
President Obama and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a bilateral meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit in September. ENLARGE
President Obama and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a bilateral meeting on the second day of the NATO 2014 Summit in September. AFP/GETTY IMAGES
It’d be nice to know why the White House thinks a public spat with a crucial NATO and Middle Eastern partner helps the war against ISIS. The U.S. “angst” over “dragging its feet” applies far better to what the French and British, the Arab Gulf allies, Jordan and above all Turkey have thought about American inaction on Syria while hundreds of thousands died and an Islamist ISIS army emerged to take huge chunks of territory.
If “hell is unfolding” in a place that the President has committed the force of the U.S. military to stop, the allies naturally expect the undisputed leader of NATO to step up. Instead the Obama Administration passes the buck to a smaller and less powerful country.
The Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a popular but authoritarian neo-Islamist, has conflicting interests. As much as the Sunni Muslim extremists in ISIS pose a threat, the government in Ankara also wants to topple the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, an Alawite Muslim allied with Shiite Iran. The U.S. once also wanted to depose Assad but has dropped this as a goal of the anti-ISIS campaign—to Turkey’s and the Gulf Arabs’ annoyance.
Syrian Kurds once sided with Assad and are close to Turkey’s Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK, which also explains Ankara’s reluctance to help. Yet Mr. Erdogan also faces growing domestic pressure to act. At least 21 people died in the last two days in Turkish protests calling for intervention. Turkey also doesn’t want ISIS to control most of its southern border.
Mr. Erdogan has called for ground forces but isn’t willing to go it alone. That would mean taking on the risks of fighting ISIS, as well as the backlash from Iran and Russia for violating Syria’s “sovereignty.”
As a superpower, the U.S. is the only country that can transcend such parochial considerations. If Mr. Obama wants Turkey to help avoid a massacre, he should get on the phone and press for a joint military operation, reassuring Mr. Erdogan that the U.S. military will back up Turkish forces against ISIS, even if it means ground forces. This is what real wartime leadership would look like.