Turkey, Syria and the U.S.: Bad alliances and bad foreign policy

A policy of making alliances with one villain to pursue another rarely works out well, as we are demonstrating yet again in Syria. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2013 ― The Obama administration’s forays into Wilsonian missionary diplomacy in the Middle East have so far been disastrous. Their approach of soft and supportive low impact interventionism has been meddlesome and ineffective and has led to predictably negative outcomes in Egypt, Libya and most likely Syria as well.

With the conflict in Syria spilling over into Turkey and the Turkish government dealing with refugees, unpredictable conditions on its southern and eastern borders, riots in the major cities and widespread discontent with government policies from urban renewal to crackdowns on free speech, Turkey looks like fertile ground for the some of the ham-handed diplomatic incompetence the Obama administration seems to excel in.


SEE RELATED: DE GRACIA: President Obama shouldn’t intervene in Syria


It starts with the usual two-faced diplomacy of mixed messages. A week ago President Obama was enthusiastic with support for hard-line Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; today Secretary of State John Kerry is issuing veiled threats and orders to the Turkish government, saying “We are concerned by the reports of excessive use of force by police. We obviously hope that there will be a full investigation of those incidents and full restraint from the police force.”

There is nothing worse in diplomacy than blowing hot one day and cold the next.  Mixed messaging from the president and the secretary of state when it comes to supporting an ally rarely works out well. If we’re in with the Turks for their help in Syria, they have a right to expect us to back their domestic policies. If we’re not comfortable with that, then we should have thought about the consequences of the relationship before entering into it.

By providing financial and material support, and now American arms to the rebels in Syria, the Obama administration has effectively opened up a surrogate war with Iran. In doing this they had little choice but to take on Turkey as our primary ally, with the Turks supporting the rebels and providing them with a safe haven for launching incursions into Syria. This means the administration has taken on responsibility for various consequences of the war which they have every reason to be uncomfortable with. 

They have thrown in with religious extremists and as a result have enabled the current persecution of religious and ethnic minorities within Syria, including the massacre of a Christian village last week. By making use of the Turks in this effort, they also have to take some responsibility for the policies of the Turkish administration.


SEE RELATED: Security implications of the EU arms ban repeal against Syrian rebels


It’s no surprise that the Turks are taking advantage of the situation to expand their territorial control over the unstable regions on their borders. The harsh domestic policies of the Turkish administration are also not news. Prime Minister Erdogan’s crackdowns on the media and free speech and his paranoia about plots against the government go back years.  In fact, Turkey has more journalists in jail than China and Iran combined.

As with all of our recent interventions, the real question is what pressing necessity was there for the United States to become involved in Syria at all?  We have no people or property or business interests to protect there. At least in Afghanistan Americans had been harmed and in Iraq the oil industry had interests to protect. All we get out of Syria is leverage against Iran, where we also have no pressing national interests.

We have a long history of overcommitment and picking the wrong allies in the Middle East.  With so many past examples of how to go wrong in that region, why would the Obama administration be so arrogant as to think that they could intervene in one of the most complex situations there without unintended consequences?

Getting in bed with the Turks and their authoritarianism and expansionist ambitions may turn out to be the least of the mistakes being made in Syria, but it was certainly one of the most avoidable.  We have also ended up in an alliance with the Free Syrian Army and the al-Nusra Brigade, groups associated with al-Qaeda and basically operating as surrogates for extremist factions in Saudi Arabia.


SEE RELATED: Government of Turkey moves to end protests and retake Taksim Square


As Senator John McCain and many Democratic leaders push to step-up our involvement, we stand on the brink of being drawn even deeper into a conflict which makes the long slow struggle between Israel and its Arab neighbors look like a mild by comparison. Aligning with Turkey and Saudi Arabia against Iran puts us in the middle of what may turn into open sectarian warfare between the two major branches of Islam, a conflict with the potential to become a true world war.

In Syria we have inserted ourselves into a conflict which we are helping to escalate and we have picked sides in a fight in which there are no “good guys” to ally with. How do you choose which group of murderers and tyrants to back? How can there be any right choice in a situation like this? In a fight between two packs of wild dogs, picking sides just means choosing which pack will turn on you and tear you apart later.

The administration’s foreign policy in this region is characterized by a lack of any clear purpose. Like the Wilson administration many years ago, they assume that the ability to act and influence events justifies the decision to take action. This is a fundamental fallacy.

The first priority in foreign policy should always be the national interest. That interest is not served by advancing one group of murderers over another or meddling in the self-determination of other nations based on ill-informed assumptions about the character and intentions of rebels or the tyrants they oppose.


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Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle has been writing political analysis since the 1980s for newspapers, magazines and now online journals. He is currently Execitive Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Priorities, is on the board of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, and served four years as National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

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