The events surrounding the war in Syria and global terrorism unfolded last week as if they had been choreographed. French President Hollande announced that he was visiting Washington to consult with President Obama and then would visit Moscow to see Putin, in an effort to create a united front against ISIS. Just hours before the Hollande Obama meeting, two Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian fighter jet, and Turkey claimed it had violated Turkish airspace – for 17 seconds. Hollande and Obama emerged from their meeting at the White House to announce their support of Turkey, a NATO ally, and reiterate their opposition to Syrian President Assad. Putin condemned Turkey and decried a “stab in the back.” So much for any alliance with the Russians. Hollande shoved off for Moscow, nevertheless…good luck with that.
The Russians claim that Turkey’s military action was planned in advance and carefully calculated to upset the possibility of Western cooperation with the Russians and Assad. They could be right. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leads the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a social conservative party with Islamist roots. Erdogan and AKP won a snap Turkish parliamentary election in early November – a surprise victory fueled by Turkish fears of terrorism and Erdogan’s hard line against Kurdish separatists and in opposition to Assad. Most Turks are Sunni and Assad is an Alawite, a Shiite. Erdogan also supports a small population of ethnically related Turkmen in northwestern Syria, one of the many groups that are fighting Assad (the Russian fighter that was shot down was bombing Turkmen positions). When Erdogan spoke publicly to defend the shoot-down, he cited the defense of Turkish airspace and support for his “brothers” in Syria, meaning the Turkmen. Erdogan’s political power is premised, in part, on his version of Turkish nationalism, a nationalism that opposes the Kurds and Assad.
Turkey’s interests in Syria are becoming clearer: support Sunnis and Turkmen and oppose the Kurds, Russia and Assad. From the point of view of Erdogan and his party, the AKP, this policy is paying off. They won a big election. For the Russians, the Syrian strategy has been to support an ally, Assad, and become a leader in combatting terrorism. The strategy is paying off for Putin as well. Russia is now an important power once again, its isolation is ending and Putin is highly popular domestically. Iran supports Assad and expands its influence. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States oppose Assad in an attempt to counter Iranian influence. But what of the West? For the US and its European allies, Syria is nothing but a tangle of bad choices. The West is being sucked into the Syrian conflict by the spread of terrorism, sponsored by ISIS, and the threat to Iraq, still a state we feel responsible for. In addition, many in the West feel a humanitarian obligation to depose ISIS and Assad. Syria has become a major issue in the US presidential campaign.
Expect American politicians of both parties to be bellicose. The atrocities committed in Paris and the fear of more terrorist attacks will push them in that direction. Obama will lean against this tendency, but the preponderance of elite opinion will drag him towards greater military involvement in Syria. It will be interesting to see if any of the mainstream candidates can articulate a policy that strongly combats terrorism without injecting us further into the Syrian civil war.