(Bloomberg View) -- The U.S. needs to start imagining NATO without Turkey. The latest reason is Turkey’s assault against the Syrian Kurds. The same Kurds who, with U.S. training and support, have borne the brunt of the fighting against Islamic State. Turkey is coordinating its attacks with Iran and Russia -- the very countries the North Atlantic Treaty Organization exists to oppose. U.S. interests appear nowhere in the equation. That’s a long-term strategic problem, which goes beyond the moral outrage every American should feel as our Kurdish allies are murdered from the air by F-16s we sold to Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly thinks he can contravene U.S. interests without consequence. His insurance policy is the country’s geographical location. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey’s proximity to the Soviet Union made it a great base for NATO troops and missiles. The later U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan assured that the air base at Incirlik remained crucial to American military efforts.
Turkey is still a nice place to have a troop presence. But there must be some limit to what a supposed treaty ally can do to flout the U.S.
Last May in Washington, Erdogan showed his contempt for the Donald Trump administration and the U.S. by allowing (or perhaps directing) his security guards to attack peaceful protesters in a public park across from the Turkish Embassy in Washington. That was an ugly incident, but its full significance can only be appreciated when juxtaposed with Erdogan’s broader regional policies.
It was no accident that Erdogan was treating sovereign U.S. territory as though it were his personal fiefdom. As far as he’s concerned, Trump works for him -- because Trump lacks any recourse against his conduct.
Now Erdogan is engaged in the historic betrayal of American allies who have done the dirty work that no one else in the world wanted to do. Let’s be very clear: Turkey did not send troops to fight Islamic State in Syria. Neither did neighboring Arab states. The U.S. sent military trainers, who could not have won the war on their own. Islamic State could not be defeated entirely from the air, as the experience of the Syrian civil war showed.
There’s only one reason Islamic State has now been all but defeated on the ground in Syria: the YPG Kurdish militia.
In exchange, the Kurds wanted something very simple: somewhere to live where they wouldn’t be massacred by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army or bombed by Assad’s Russian allies. Sure, they may have hoped for a quasi-autonomous region near the Turkish border, not totally unlike what their Kurdish counterparts have in Iraq. But they are realists, and they would’ve settled for not dying or being forced to flee as refugees.
Now Turkey is bombing them, and Erdogan has declared that Turkey will establish a 30 kilometer “safe zone” where the Kurds may not be -- on the Syrian side of the border, mind you, not the Turkish.
No one knows how many Kurds have died so far in and around Afrin, where the YPG is said to have between 8,000 and 10,000 fighters. No one knows how many Kurdish civilians will be killed, either.
What’s clear is that no one is doing anything to stop it.
That’s not in U.S. interests, to put it mildly. Abandoning allies so publicly and so fast is a great way to make sure no one trusts you in the future. When the reckoning comes for the abandonment of the Syrian Kurds, as it eventually will, the Kurds will hold the U.S. responsible for betraying them.
The Kurds know perfectly well -- and have known all along -- that Turkey doesn’t want them to have even a toehold near Turkish border. But they relied on their close alliance with the U.S. to protect them.
That was perfectly rational. The U.S. has protected and remained allied with the Iraqi Kurds since it first established a no-fly zone in 1991 to stop them from being killed by Saddam Hussein. The U.S. doesn’t want Iraqi Kurdistan to declare independence, but it has accepted and helped sustain the Kurds’ de facto autonomy -- despite many years of opposition by Turkey.
Turkey under Erdogan is now moving inexorably closer to Iran and Russia. The Iranians, whose concern about Kurds living within their territory is comparable to the Turks’, are thrilled to see the Kurds being put down.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin couldn’t care less about the Kurds, provided Turkey respects Assad’s questionable sovereignty over Syria. For Putin, the long game is pulling Turkey into the Russian camp of nations that act against U.S. interests with impunity.
It would be nice to look beyond Erdogan to a future Turkish government that better appreciates its relationship with the U.S. But given Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule, that can’t be counted on in the foreseeable future.
The ultimate takeaway here is that Turkey fully understands that the U.S. will pay the political price for its bombing of the Syrian Kurds.
When Americans ask, “Why do they hate us?” episodes like the betrayal of the Syrian Kurds are a big part of the answer.
Everyone understands that self-interest dictates foreign policy. But the U.S. always takes the moral high ground in describing its objectives, such as defeating Islamic State.
So when the U.S. blatantly allows its NATO ally to destroy the people who did it, the hypocrisy is particularly horrible. And when the moral calculus is drawn, it won’t be an excuse that there was no way to stop Erdogan.
All alliances have their natural end. Unless Erdogan stops spitting in Trump’s face, the U.S.-Turkey alliance is heading for its expiration date.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His seven books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President” and “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.”
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