Hard choices in Mideast policy face the U.S., which is currently skating on very thin ice with its internally inconsistent Mideast policy of simultaneously encouraging and fighting Salafi extremism. As the U.S. waffles through, the situation is getting worse. Obama’s position in history will depend greatly on whether or not he can create, in his final year, a Mideast policy that serves the interests of the American public.
The Russian news program RT claims Turkey is arming al Nusra and al Qua’ida-linked factions in Syria generally. This report should be read as an effort by Moscow to justify a Russian attack on al Nusra, regardless of how closely its troops snuggle up to the Turkish border or how many Turks are in those Syrian border areas. In case this implicit warning to Turkey might be too subtle, Russian spokespeople are openly accusing Ankara of continuing to support the Salafi extremist groups despite the Syrian ceasefire.
The Russian Defense Ministry is openly stating that it is continuing to bomb al Nusra, which is permitted by the ceasefire terms, and RT quoted General Kuralenko as accusing Ankara of “provocative” behavior:
There were reports of dozens of Turkish military vehicles crossing into Kurdish northern Syria, with servicemen digging trenches in the area. Turkey’s“”provocative” military buildup on the border and shelling of the Syrian territory could thwart the fragile truce and disrupt the peace process in the Arab Republic, the head of the Russian ceasefire monitoring center Lt. Gen. Sergey Kuralenko said this week. [https://www.rt.com/news/334483-turkey-nusra-ypg-exclusive/]
Moscow is laying out a legal justification in public for attacking Salafi positions and any Turks who may be present on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. This public justification in advance will facilitate Moscow arguing that any attack it conducts is simply defending the agreed ceasefire. However acceptable that proves to be in Washington, it is hard to imagine Erdogan failing to react.
At least two obvious possibilities exist for which Americans may hope Washington is planning in advance its response. One possibility is a Turkish-Russian aerial clash, involving missiles and aircraft. The other is a Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurds allied with the U.S.
A Turkish-Russian firefight would put Washington in a very awkward position, given that Turkey is a formal ally now effectively working with the other side (the Salafis). Of course, Washington has for a generation played with the Salafis and certainly has yet to cure itself of this addiction, so my calling the Salafis the “other” side reflects my own understanding of genuine U.S. national security interests, which have no necessary link to the policies certain factions of the U.S. ruling elite impose upon the nation. Such factions would assert that a distinction exists between Riyadh and such Salafi factions as al Qua’ida or the Islamic State; my excuse for ignoring these alleged distinctions is that Riyadh itself has very carefully avoided since the founding of the Saudi regime clarifying what such distinctions might be. If Riyadh cannot or will not make that distinction clear, then I will continue to assert that, in the end, the distinction does not exist: when push comes to shove, in a face-down with the West, all Salafi factions will stick together. Even if, by some miracle, they do not, for Washington to insist on continuing to base national security policy on the assumption that it can accurately differentiate “good Salafi militant factions” from “bad” ones would, let us phrase this politely, “demonstrate a lack of professionalism.” The rise in the power of both al Qua’ida and the Islamic State in Yemen under (literally) the year-long Saudi bombardment (with U.S. bombs) is hardly the only evidence for the defense but serves to make the point. It is very hard to imagine the U.S. benefiting either from helping Turkey to impose a Salafi regime on Syria or from watching the Russians defeat and humiliate NATO ally Turkey.
A major Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurds would directly challenge Washington’s last claim to being a player in the Syrian conflict. Walking away may be an option worth Washington’s consideration; pretending to stay while being rendered visibly ineffective is not. And, specifically, watching while Turkey sabotages the Kurds and humiliates the U.S., leaving the Kurds with no option but joining the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow alliance constitutes a mess perhaps as bad as the one made of Iraq.
The current dynamics of the Syrian ceasefire are threatening to put Washington in the position where it must choose either to cede the region to Moscow or fight against its longtime Turkish ally. Ankara has stood as the West’s last best hope of Muslim democracy for a generation. To see that hope crumble in combat between U.S. and Turkish forces or even their proxies would be an ominous failure for all who aspire to see a world in which responsible, democratic Muslim states can arise and be successful in cooperation with the West. Such a failure would empower warmongers on all sides, given the many who argue that force is the only answer to Muslim-Western discord.
But Washington’s moral stature (whatever moral stature it still has) in the region has for the last year, since the bitter defense of Kobani, rested on the integrity of its support for Syrian Kurds. If Ankara insists on standing in the way of the one regional, sectarian group successfully resisting Salafi extremism, then Washington will have to reconsider its assumptions in a zero-based reevaluation of its policy stance toward the Mideast.
“Giving” to Putin what he is in any case taking may not be an unreasonable option. Considering the difficulty of accomplishing anything in the region, as Washington has learned in such costly fashion over the past generation, letting Moscow “carry the burden” may not be the worst outcome. Indeed, this sounds, from the perspective of long-term U.S. national security, far better than continuing to pander to false allies who shake the hand of the West firmly with one hand while holding the hand of Salafi extremists behind their back with the other.
The logic of the situation, then, is that to defend its position in the central Mideast, it is incumbent upon the U.S. to recognize and address the inconsistency in its stance toward the whole region: arming Riyadh to turn Yemen into a heavily Salafi-oriented protectorate while leading a campaign against the Salafi Islamic State featuring Kurds and Iranians will achieve nothing. U.S. Mideast policy is a beast eating its own tail.
A Salafi crusade is taking shape in the Mideast, and the West is arming it even as it fights against it. Western tactics are not serving presumed Western goals. This qualifies as rational foreign policy only in the minds of war profiteers.
The implication of these last two paragraphs is not that the U.S. should “switch sides” but that it should refrain from taking sides. The U.S. has no dog in Mideast sectarian fights. It should not favor groups because of their sect or religion but because of their behavior. If Washington policy-makers cannot adhere to this standard, then perhaps they should walk away: to do no harm would have been far preferable to the recent historical record.
Difficult choices may well be forced upon Washington in the very near future. Let us hope that Washington decision-makers are appropriately focusing their attention. Time is, after all, of the essence: the likelihood of a more rational and thoughtful leadership from the White House after Obama retires now appears essentially nil. Obama—self-professed agent of change–needs to make his last year count.