Even a kerfuffle can reveal a strategic blunder. In December 2019, the New York Times editorial board taped an interview with former Vice President Joe Biden. A segment dealing with US-Turkish relations did not make the final cut, but eight months later, on August 15, 2020, it surfaced on the internet and sparked outrage in Turkey. Biden was especially critical of Turkey’s policies towards the Kurds and Russia, for which, he insisted, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan must “pay a price.” The United States, he continued, should cultivate “elements of the Turkish leadership” in order to “embolden them…to take on and defeat Erdoğan.” Biden’s words evoked images of an American-sponsored coup d’etat, though he hastened to clarify that he was calling for the Turks to remove their president through an “electoral process.”
İbrahim Kalın, Erdoğan’s spokesman, responded to Biden directly. “The days of ordering Turkey around are over,” he wrote on social media. “But if you still think you can try, be our guest. You will pay the price.” Prominent opposition figures echoed Kalın’s sentiments. These included, most notably, Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul, whom Biden had singled out as the kind of rival to Erdoğan that America should “embolden.” The era of foreign meddling in Turkey’s democracy had ended, İmamoğlu said. “We condemn it.”
Lining up Erdoğan’s greatest rivals in support of him is no mean feat. Turkey is as polarized as America, and Erdoğan’s approval rating is low, hovering just above thirty percent. Still, Biden’s achievement, though impressive, is not unprecedented. Time and again over the last five years, American leaders have demonstrated a talent for unifying the Turks in opposition to the United States while remaining blissfully unaware of the impact of their words. What accounts for this Magoo-like obliviousness?
The answer: a pervasive misdiagnosis of the problem. For years now, the national security community in Washington has told itself a story that, by exaggerating the personal responsibility of Erdoğan for the crisis in US-Turkish relations, blinds it to the truly important factors. The story is laden with moralizing buzzwords: Erdoğan is the new “caliph,” and his “neo-Ottoman” and “Islamist” ambitions, to say nothing of his “authoritarian” and “kleptocratic” character, have set Turkey on a collision course with the United States. Regardless of what one thinks of Erdoğan, his policies that have most enraged Washington—such as launching a military offensive last fall to drive American forces away from the Turkish border or buying the S-400 anti-aircraft system from Russia—have enjoyed very broad domestic support, precisely because the Turkish public reviles the policies of the United States.
In short, America does not have an Erdoğan problem; it has a Turkey problem. And that is a problem largely of its own making.
The prolonged crisis in US-Turkish relations intensified significantly in the fall of 2015, against the backdrop of the Russian-Iranian military offensive in Syria. The primary aim of the campaign was to retake Aleppo, located just forty miles south of the Turkish border. Standing between the Russian-Iranian alliance and its strategic target was Erdoğan, the main foreign backer of the anti-Assad rebels. Which side was the United States on?
Without admitting it publicly, President Obama had long been tilting toward Russia and Iran. Negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal ended in July 2015. “Implementation Day,” on which the agreement came into full effect, was scheduled for January 16, 2016. Obama regarded this deal as a dramatic new opening to Moscow and Tehran, an initiative that he hoped would grow into a broad strategic accommodation, including cooperation on regional security matters. He intended Syria to be the proving ground of his new style of diplomacy. Turkey’s support for the anti-Assad rebels, however, was pulling the United States in the direction of enmity with the Russian-Iranian alliance. In Syria, Biden had said in 2014 to a group of Harvard students, “our biggest problem [is] our allies.” He explicitly identified Turkey as a problematic actor.
Obama zealously avoided any action that would impede the march of the Russians and the Iranians on Aleppo. Thus, when a Turkish pilot downed a Russian fighter bomber on November 25, Obama did not support Turkey as a NATO ally struggling to contain Russia. Instead, he adopted the pose of a neutral mediator, seeking to help third parties sort out their differences. This impartiality contrasted sharply with the unwavering support that Russian leader Vladimir Putin was giving to his Syrian ally.
At the same time, Washington began to pressure Ankara to seal Turkey’s border with Syria, a step that would cut the supply lines to the rebels in Aleppo. The horrific terrorist attacks carried out by the Islamic State in Paris on November 13 offered Obama an opportunity to twist Erdoğan’s arm. The attacks, which killed some 130 people, generated outrage throughout Europe. In an interview for the Wall Street Journal two weeks after the Paris attack, a senior American official described the message that Obama’s team was sending to the Turkish government. “The game has changed. Enough is enough,” the official said. “The border needs to be sealed. This is an international threat, and it’s all coming out of Syria and it’s coming through Turkish territory.” The official publicly warned Ankara of “significant blowback” from European powers if Turkey failed to close its border entirely.
This public shaming of Turkey helped fix in the European and American mind the image of Erdoğan as a stealthy patron of the Islamic State. To be sure, Erdoğan did not regard the defeat of the Islamic State as a top priority, but that was a mistake that many other leaders had also made—including Obama himself, who once famously dismissed the terrorist organization as “the JV team.” Nevertheless, for Erdoğan and the entire Turkish national-security community in Ankara, Turkey had a different overriding priority in the Syrian civil war: namely, to prevent the rise of Rojava, an autonomous Kurdish statelet run by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).
Abdullah Öcalan founded the PKK in 1978. Six years later, he launched a terrorist insurgency with the goal of turning Eastern Turkey into an independent Kurdish state. In the 1980s, Öcalan partnered with the Soviet Union and Syria, which offered him sanctuary and a base from which to harass Turkey. In the late 1990s, the Turks captured and imprisoned Öcalan, who, thanks to the cultish reverence that his followers accord him, continues to function even from his prison cell as the PKK’s ideological guide. The character of Öcalan’s movement has shifted over the years, but in one form or another his war has continued down to this day. In total, approximately 40,000 people have died in the conflict.
The disintegration of the Syrian state offered the PKK a new opportunity. Throughout 2013 and 2014, the PKK’s Syrian arm, “the Peoples Protection Units,” or YPG, established control of the Kurdish cantons all along the Turkish border, proclaiming an autonomous political unit with its capital in Qamishli. Ankara, for its part, regarded this development as profoundly threatening to the territorial integrity of Turkey—and with good reason. The PKK openly presents Rojava as the southern part of a much larger polity that will encompass all of Eastern Turkey. As Kurdish autonomous regions sprang up in Syria, a number of Kurdish towns in Turkey also proclaimed their autonomy.
Historically, the United States has respected the Turkish assessment of the threat. But as Obama negotiated his way through the labyrinth of the Syrian civil war, he broke with precedent and allied the United States with the PKK, by selecting the YPG has as its main partner for combating the Islamic State. American airstrikes in support of YPG operations began in Fall 2014; by early 2015, American special forces were embedded with YPG units. This choice enraged virtually all Turks and sowed the seeds of a future Turkish-PKK conflict.
To understand how and why Obama did this, a brief examination of relations between the PKK and the Assad regime is warranted. By the end of 2011, the civil war in Syria had generated conditions favoring a renewal and updating of the historical partnership between the PKK and Damascus. As the power of Damascus swiftly deteriorated, Bashar al-Assad sought to marshal all available forces to preserve his positions of strength in what his supporters were now calling “vital Syria,” the spine of Sunni Arab cities in the western part of the country: Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Damascus, and Deraa.
Saving vital Syria required abandoning all other areas—a strategy that risked losing the north and east of the country to the anti-Assad rebels and to Turkey. But the PKK’s Rojava project offered an alternative. What if Assad were instead to facilitate PKK dominance over them? In principle, he was no lover of Kurdish autonomy schemes, but he was weak and desperate, and the PKK had several attractive characteristics: it was anti-Turkish; it did not seek the total destruction of his regime; and it would prevent territory under its control from serving as a safe haven for anti-regime rebels.
Sometime at the end of 2011, Assad reached an agreement with the PKK over a loose alliance. According to some sources, Qassem Soleimani, the former head of the Qods Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, played a role in brokering the deal. However it came about, the PKK created a Syrian militia, the aforementioned “Peoples Protection Units,” or YPG, in order to carry it out on the ground. In sum, the PKK entered the Syrian civil war in alignment with Damascus—and by extension, with Tehran and Moscow. In late 2015 and early 2016, Russia and Iran worked with the YPG, operating out of Afrin, northwest of Aleppo, to cut the rebels’ lifeline to Turkey. Aleppo was now besieged on all sides.
For Ankara, this was a double blow. Not only did it presage the ultimate fall of Aleppo, but it raised the prospect that the Kurdish cantons in Eastern Syria might link up, in a geographically contiguous fashion, with the cantons in the West. That prospect grew all the more real because, while the Russians and Iranians were working with the YPG in the West, the Americans were expanding its power and geographic reach in the East.
Obama’s embrace of the Syrian arm of the PKK had all the makings of a major political scandal, not least because the United States government designates the PKK as a terrorist organization. To cover its tracks, Washington rebranded the YPG, calling it now the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). To be sure, the SDF also included Arab elements, but its hardcore fighting units came directly from the YPG, as did its leadership. The commander of the SDF goes by the alias of General Mazloum Abdi. His real name is Ferhat Abdi Şahin: a lifelong member of the PKK and a close personal associate of Abdullah Öcalan. In the Kurdish areas under his control, he uses the SDF to impose a PKK monopoly over Kurdish political life.
By giving the PKK a fake identity, Obama successfully fostered the impression in the United States that the American-led campaign against the Islamic State was completely independent of the Russian-Iranian campaign to shore up Assad. In truth, however, a key attraction of the YPG was its status as a Russian-Iranian proxy. Obama’s partnership with it assured Moscow and Tehran that the United States was solely interested in destroying the Islamic State and harbored no intention to support those, like Turkey, who sought to block the Russian-Iranian march on Aleppo. Even more, Obama was effectively shutting the Turks out of the Syrian game, thus giving Russia and Iran a free hand.
Seen from Ankara, therefore, Obama’s embrace of the YPG was ominous. Who would ever have predicted that Washington would assist, in parallel with Tehran and Moscow, the PKK’s Rojava project? The Turks complained often and loudly to the Americans, who fobbed them off with the meaningless assurance that America’s relationship with the YPG was “temporary, tactical, and transactional.”
But the permanent consequences were obvious to the Turks. Ankara was particularly concerned lest the United States assist the YPG in establishing a presence west of the Euphrates, where it could establish a land bridge between the Kurdish cantons of Eastern and Western Syria, which are otherwise separated by long distances and significant Arab areas of settlement. The United States first promised not to deploy the YPG west of the Euphrates, then broke the promise in the spring of 2016, by facilitating the YPG conquest of Manbij. To assuage Turkish anger, Vice President Joe Biden flew to Ankara and delivered a public guarantee that YPG forces would not remain in Manbij. “We have made it clear to Kurdish forces that they must move back across the river,” Biden said. “They cannot and will not get American support if they do not keep that commitment. Period.”
Biden made that promise in August 2016. A year and a half later, the New York Times reported that the local governing body in Manbij, which was established with the indispensable aid of American military power, “is modeled on principles of the Kurdish separatist leader, Abdullah Öcalan,” whose photograph is prominently displayed in the office of the council’s spokesman. Under Washington’s “temporary” protective umbrella, the PKK has increased its military might and expanded its geographical reach beyond its wildest imagination.
And it has also gained in international legitimacy. For the first time ever, the PKK now enjoys, through its YPG and SDF personas, support both in the American military and in Congress. As a result, each of the several Turkish military interventions in Syria have been met with a chorus of condemnation on Capitol Hill based on the absurd notion that the bogeyman Erdoğan is pursuing an “Islamist” and “neo-Ottoman” agenda characterized by hatred of “the Kurds.” In fact, these Turkish military operations have been limited in scope, designed purely to prevent the PKK from establishing a contiguous statelet, and have enjoyed the support of a broad spectrum of Turkish public opinion, including secularists.
Biden’s December 2019 remarks to the New York Times editorial board signalled that the bogeyman analysis of Turkish foreign policy has now found its way into the domestic American debate during this season’s contest for the presidency. The exaggerated focus on Erdoğan is politically useful to Democrats because it places Erdoğan alongside Hungary’s Victor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu as a member in a fictive coalition of dangerous authoritarian leaders supposedly led by President Donald Trump.
This development is regrettable. When Biden talked of encouraging “elements” to unseat Erdoğan, Turks immediately recalled that the last such attempt was led from a command center in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, where Fethullah Gülen, the guru-like leader of a religious movement, has been residing since 1999. A majority of Turks hold Gülen responsible for the July 2016 coup attempt that killed 251 people. Before taking up his current position as the State Department’s point man on Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey stated that it is “embarrassing” that Mr. Gülen “is sitting here in the United States.” Is it an accident, many Turks ask, that the United States both supports the PKK and refuses to extradite a coup plotter whose cultish followers were embedded in the Turkish military? Is the United States secretly seeking to crack Turkey apart?
Biden’s remarks validate such queries. They sow deep distrust of American motives and set the United States at odds with the sentiments of most if not all of Turkey’s national security experts, to say nothing of public opinion, thereby imperilling the search for a strategic accommodation with Ankara. But arriving at such an accommodation should be seen instead as a top priority of American foreign policy—as the key to managing the central contradiction in American policy toward the Middle East. On the one hand, talk of withdrawing from the Middle East is rife on both sides of the political aisle, and the American public has no tolerance for significant military commitments. On the other hand, if the United States leaves the region, Russia, China and Iran will fill the ensuing vacuum. America is thus betwixt and between.
Obama’s answer to this dilemma was to attempt to co-opt Russia and Iran—on the theory that Tehran and Moscow shared with the United States a large number of interests, first and foremost being the desire to contain radical Islamic movements like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. That effort, however, was misguided, because both Russia and Iran are opposed to the American security system.
If America is to build an order that will safeguard its interests on the ground, it must work with countries that are stable, self-confident, and capable of projecting power. Turkey is at the top of the very short list of states that meet those criteria. Working with it productively requires respecting its own understanding of its greatest security threat, the PKK. America’s failure to do so has done untold damage to the US-Turkey partnership, with adverse consequence that extend far beyond Syria.
Michael Doran is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.