Western policy toward the Mideast is replete with contradictions that undermine Western goals by preventing the West from making any progress: violent regime change leads to chaos which leads to the empowerment of autocrats claiming to be pro-West and jihadis searching for ways to attack the West. Both Moscow’s intervention in Syria and Ankara’s turn toward repression first of the civil liberties of Kurds and then also the civil liberties of all Turkey’s citizens appear at first glance to constitute a new and serious pair of additional obstacles for Western interest, with the new rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara only seeming to make things worse…but the clouds on the strategic horizon may hide an opportunity.
The fool’s game of stimulating Sunni extremists by destabilizing Mideast regimes and leaving a power vacuum for jihadis to fill or by actually supporting jihadis is a practice that the West needs to abandon. Easier said than done, but perhaps the Turkish situation presents an opportunity. Stopping the global Islamic State menace is more important than regime change within Syria, especially since the only approach anyone seems able to come up with for that regime change is endless chaos for Syrians and the empowerment of Sunni extremists. Hence the double attraction of a Western deal with Moscow to oppose jihadis in Syria and negotiate the details of who rules in Damascus and how far the rule of Damascus extends with Putin. This approach seems likely to further reduce Turkey’s role in Syria, a plus for both Moscow and Washington, while leaving the door open to improved US-Russian coordination against the Islamic State and, perhaps, in support of the stateless Kurds. With the international emphasis thus shifted to focus on the Islamic State, quiet efforts to encourage Ankara to start moving back toward the protection of civil liberties for all its citizens, from ethnic Turkish journalists to ethnic Kurdish voters might make some slow headway as time passes and Erdogan begins to reflect on the costs of rising repression. Pressure on Ankara right now is likely to be counterproductive; for the West to clean up its own foreign policy stance vis-a-vis the broader Mideast first would put the West in a stronger negotiating position for the difficult conversation about Turkey’s future that lies ahead.
Trying to march in every direction simultaneously results in tripping over one’s own feet. The priority goal for Western Mideast policy should be to stop doing harm, i.e., to stop facilitating the rising jihadi menace. Aiding a badly compromised Syrian revolt against Assad and enticing Ankara to return to moderation and democratization can take second place. As for ensuring American mastery of the sands of Araby, well, that was always the chasing of a mirage.