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.
November 21, 2022 at 12:47 pm
So exactly what america did when it was attacked in 2001. Destroyed an entire region for a terror attack, millions of innocent lives destroyed. Now when turkey does it, we need to arm the opposition.
November 21, 2022 at 4:53 pm
Well said. USA has to stop playing all sides, Turkiye is not the Turkiye of 1980s and USA is not the USA of 1990s. USA needs Turkiye more than Turkiye needs USA. Remember Turkiye is always willing to put boots on the ground.
November 21, 2022 at 7:42 pm
America should leave NATO, and just be allied to those countries it deems worthy. America should not be allied with the Islamic Dictatorship of Turkey. Most NATO members are parasitic leeches which aren’t holding up their end of the alliance, and Turkey went full Islamic authoritarian 30 years ago.
The Kurds are just another Muslim tribe like the Taliban, and America should stop thinking there are democracy loving people hiding inside them. Cultures change at glacial speeds, and Authoritarian Islamic culture is highly resistant to Western Democratic Culture. America needs to stop trying to uplift Islamic Cultures, it hasn’t been successful anywhere. Let them wallow in Authoritarian 3rd world poverty and squalor, for however long it takes for them to realize the truth.
Remember in the 80’s when dozens of Countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and around the world all became democratic, and Islamic Countries didn’t?
November 21, 2022 at 11:03 pm
Perhaps it is time for US to stop arming & using terrorists as a tool of convenience. The terrorists did not get rid of I they stole land from Isis to create a terrorist state for themself. It is Turkey’s right to protect Turkey. Time for US to choose between Nato ally or a terrorist state.
November 21, 2022 at 11:10 pm
Oh the old line lets give terrorists more weapons? We brought so much joy and all kinds of stuff to that region. Good old imperialism. If all fails as it always does when good old USA and the the thinkers like Michael Rubin have a say.
November 23, 2022 at 5:05 am
It is one sided story! I want to ask Mr Rubin whom he really thinks donated all those weapons to Isis? Then they have fabricated those Kurds are finishing Isis story.
Bottom line is this; Both Isis and Kurds have been used from same power. Turkey has seen that.
What I do not understand is why not US government work with Turkey instead of those couple of Kurds.
Us politics in Middle East is failing. They need a big change. Working with Greeks against Turkey is also backfiring.
No one will kick out Turkey from NATO. Whom we will replace Turkey with? Saudi Arabia?? There is no better army than Turkey
I hope and I believe that Yale grad people will see that. Remember 500 years ago your ancestors were saved by Turks.
November 28, 2022 at 12:50 pm
So according to what your writer, Turkey is saying. If the Kurds [who they see as a terrorist organisation] plants a bomb in Istanbul, then the Turkish air force can bomb the Kurds.
So to use the same logic, when the IRA planted bombs in London it would be perfectly acceptable for the RAF to bomb Dublin in retaliation.
I think not the UK is a responsible member of NATO and the civilisation.
Turkey, whilst a member of NATO as its own Agenda and NATO should beware Turkey, think of it as a Trojan Horse. Its long term aims is to establish a new Ottoman Empire, it already is a large player in Libya [an ex-Ottoman province. It also as many links with what the west would sea as terrorists, who could be useful to expand Turkey’s long term aims.
Istanbul to the horn of Africa and Istanbul to Morocco at a stroke it will sit across two strategic sea ways. Suez canal and the Gibraltar straights
December 13, 2022 at 3:59 am
Usa has given weapon and military training to pkk and vpg. Neither pkk nor vpg is protecting Kurdish people. Pkk and vpg is working for themselves always. first usa has to give our F35s. We give money to this project. And we are in the partnership of f35s that we produced some parts of f35s. We dont want f16s. If usa will contunie to give weapins to pkk, they will hit you again like in 11 july. think logicly if you create terror in ine they terror will hit you.