Talking Turkey in Syria
Definition: “Talk turkey–Informal. to talk frankly; mean business.”
Indeed, talking Turkey is one thing that the Obama Administration has been doing a lot of recently. On October 2nd, Vice President Joe Biden talked turkey about Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan in a speech given at Harvard University, stating that Erdogan told him, ‘You were right. We let too many people through.’ Biden also took the pleasure to state with regards to the Syrian Civil War that “our biggest problem is our allies…The Turks, who are great friends — I have a great relationship with Erdogan, whom I spend a lot of time with — the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. They were so determined to take down (Syrian President Bashar) Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war…What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaida and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
First of all, not only does Biden state that the “biggest problem” in Syria are American allies, instead of, for example, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, or the Islamic State, but suggests they knowingly armed extremist groups. While it is true that Turkey and some of the Gulf states have armed the Syrian opposition, this aid has been directed towards the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, not towards the al-Nusra Front and certainly not towards the IS. Granted, surely some of the aid given to the FSA and the Islamic Front ended up in extremist hands (al-Nusra is in an alliance with the Islamic Front). However, to imply in his blanket statement that the Turks, Saudis, and Emiratis knowingly supplied the weapons to al-Nusra and other extremist forces is at best a manipulation of the truth.
Yet, we must remember that Biden is not the most restrained member of the United States government and tends to speak truthfully and purposefully about what he believes. Therefore, let us assume that what he said about American allies and what Erdogan said is completely true: assume that Turkey knowingly allowed extremist fighters (specifically IS terrorists) to cross into Syria, and also assume that America’s vital allies intentionally supplied “anyone who would fight against Assad” and that “hundreds of millions of dollars” of aid went to al-Nusra and extremists. Even if this is true, why would the #2 member of the Obama Administration publically say this? If there was one thing in Biden’s power to ensure that Turkey does not cozy up to American requests, it was what he said on October 2nd. The coalition against the IS is fragile and Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, must be offended by Biden’s statements. Currently, the United States is trying to get Turkey on board with the coalition, at least to open up its air force basis for coalition airstrikes, and possibly, committing its ground and air forces to defeat the IS. These statements run counter to the Administration’s goals and Biden, likely due to pressure from the White House, apologized on the 4th.
In another example of the communication skills of the Obama Administration, on October 12th, Susan Rice claimed that “in the last several days, [Turkey] made a commitment that they will in the first instance allow the United States and our partners to use Turkish bases and territory to train…moderate Syrian opposition forces.” The following day Turkey refuted the claims made as false, thereby embarrassing the Obama Administration once again.
Regardless of one’s views on the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy, this is a simple matter of communication. If high-level members of the Obama Administration continue to criticize and spread misinformation about Turkey and other American allies, American allies will be quick to drop support for the already tenuous coalition. Blaming Turkey for the Administration’s failures in Syria is neither correct nor intelligent, especially when trying to get the Turks to join the coalition. President Obama needs to get control of his subordinates quickly, otherwise officials like Joe Biden and Susan Rice will continue to imperil the Administration’s strategy to fight the IS.