Less than a week after a bomb exploded on an Istanbul pedestrian mall, Turkish warplanes struck across northern Syria in towns and cities governed by Syrian Kurds. While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his aides justify the attacks in counterterrorism, there is no indication that Syrian Kurds were responsible for the terror attack. Turkey has a long history of corrupting, if not fabricating, evidence, and its interior ministry regularly politicizes its investigations. This is why in the aftermath of the alleged 2016 coup attempt, for example, neither the Trump nor Biden administrations found credible the evidence their Turkish counterparts provided fingering Erdogan-ally-turned-adversary Fethullah Gülen.
Turkey proceeded to parade the suspect, a Syrian woman Ahlam Albashir, before the press in a “New York” sweatshirt. While Turkish officials said Albashir confessed that she was a Kurdish agent who took orders from the Kurdish-run Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, she appears instead to have links to the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army. In effect, the attack appears to be blowback similar to the 2016 assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara by a Turkish policeman. While Turkey claimed absent evidence that the assassin was a Gülen acolyte, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, an Al Qaeda-affiliated, Turkish-backed group in northern Syria, claimed responsibility. Erdogan used his monopoly over Turkish media to shut out discussion of evidence and demanded the press only finger suspects he found politically convenient.
The reality that Erdogan seeks to impose for Turks inside Turkey is often at dissonance with the evidence-based reality the rest of the world knows. Erdogan has created a bubble in Turkey not unlike that which exists in Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, Azerbaijan, and Eritrea. As with these countries, the international community is under no obligation to bow to fiction.
The likely truth is that Turkey used the Istanbul bomb as a pretext to attack Syrian Kurds. This is tragic. The Syrian Kurds were the frontline of international defense against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State at a time when Turkey was complicit in their support if not directly in their armament.
Many of those who amplify Turkey’s talking points in Washington, DC make two arguments to rationalize siding with Turkey. The first is that the Syrian Kurds are the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and are therefore terrorists. This is wrong for two reasons. The PKK has evolved with time. The world has changed since 1982. Research, at least in academe and the think tank world, should not simply be retweeting government arguments for access or favor. Rather, it requires visiting and interviewing both parties. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is accessible. It is telling that almost every scholar who has visited both northeastern Syria and Turkey—including those like myself once highly critical of the PKK—have changed their mind when they see what Syrian Kurds have achieved and how they act. While I still have many criticisms of the PKK, Turkish characterizations are simply not congruent with reality. If those who fully embrace Erdogan’s accusations really were confident in the truth of their position, they would not be afraid to visit the other side and face challenges to their narratives.
Second is the realist argument: Turkey is an important NATO member and has the second-largest army in the alliance. The United States must recognize Turkey’s concerns and, when necessary, defer to them. Such an argument is divorced from reality, however. Turkey’s behavior for the past two decades shows it to be a liability to NATO and, more broadly, the rules-based order.
Policymakers should learn from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s experience. In 1956, he sided with Egypt against Israel and NATO members France and the United Kingdom when the three invaded the Sinai following Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalization of the Suez Canal. Eisenhower’s logic was that Egypt, home to one-in-five Arabs, was too important to antagonize. By recognizing and affirming Cairo’s narrative, Eisenhower believed he could win the Arab world’s diplomatic support. It didn’t work, as the Lebanon crisis showed just two years later. By the end of his term, Eisenhower realized that it was better to ally with Israel, a democratic, progressive, Western-oriented state than it was to make a dispassionate calculation over troop numbers. Quality trumped quantity. Against the State Department’s wishes, Eisenhower and his successors doubled down on the special relationship with Israel that persists to the present day.
President Joe Biden should, like Eisenhower, recognize the quality of partners matters more than just a dispassionate balance sheet tally of troops, tanks, and jet fighters. Ideology should matter. For this reason, now is the time to side unequivocally with Syrian Kurds, even to the extent of giving them the means to defend themselves against the Turkish onslaught. Rather than try to convince Congress that it should greenlight F-16 sales to Turkey, the White House should instead provide the means for Syrian Kurds to defend themselves against the F-16s. If Biden will not, the United States should do nothing to prevent other states threatened by Turkey—Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example—from providing Syrian Kurds with such capability. Morality matters.
Expert Author Biography: Dr. Michael Rubin, a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units. Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005). Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.