Even before Vice President Joe Biden met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara last week, the Turks were displeased. The day before, Biden had granted interviews only to opposition media and slammed the government for stepping on freedom of speech. “That's not the kind of example that needs to be set [for the rest of the region]," said Biden. He was referring to, among other issues, the arrest of two Turkish journalists who published information, almost certainly false, claiming that Ankara sends arms across the Syrian border to the Islamic State. He was also referring to the detention of 15 academics for signing a petition denouncing Erdogan's counterinsurgency against the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK).
The Turkish government overreacted in both cases, and under normal circumstances, it would have been unexceptional for a visiting American vice president to make remarks like Biden's. But circumstances aren't normal. The Obama White House has been putting regional allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and now Turkey in the deep freeze. At the same time, it has excused Iran for setting fire to Saudi diplomatic missions and taking American sailors hostage. The Turks understood Biden's remarks—and were likely correct in doing so—as being aimed less at free speech than at bullying them into following the administration's lead on regional policies, especially on Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry's peace talks in Geneva are about one big thing: ending the war against Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Iran and Russia are in full agreement—indeed, it is they who dictated the terms that Kerry delivered last week to the Syrian opposition. Instead of a transitional governing body that would ease the Syrian dictator out, Kerry explained, there will be a national unity government—in other words, Assad stays.
Turkey is opposed to the plan, and has threatened to boycott Geneva. Erdogan's defiance is not simply a matter of protecting the prestige he staked when he demanded that Assad step down more than four years ago. The Syrian conflict has created a domestic crisis, leaving Turkey to care for, by some estimates, nearly two million Syrian refugees. Many of them are here in Istanbul, where they have better chances of finding work but are competing for jobs and services with Turks in a difficult economy. If Assad stays in power, few of the refugees will return to be ruled by a man who has waged war against them. Turkey will be saddled with millions of refugees for the foreseeable future, maybe permanently, as much of Europe is starting to shut its doors.
Administration officials say they want Turkey to close its border with Syria to stop ISIS, but that's code, which the Turks have no problem understanding. It's meant to implicate the Turks as supporters of ISIS and embarrass them into doing what the White House really wants, which is to stop providing logistical support to anti-Assad fighters. Without Turkey, the rebels would no longer be able to mount a fight against Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies.
The way the administration sees it, with the war against Assad over, the war against ISIS can continue. To that end, the Syrian Kurds of the Democratic Union party (PYD), who have proven themselves the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State, will continue to campaign against ISIS. This is fine with Iran and Russia. "As for specific ways of sealing the border between Turkey and Syria," Russian foreign minister Segei Lavrov has said, "Kurdish militia forces . . . could be used."
But the plan is anathema to Turkey. The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK—the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that broke a ceasefire in June to resume its three-decades-long war against Turkey. In short, Biden was in Turkey to strongarm a longstanding ally into letting a deadly enemy control its long border with Syria.
Biden insisted that the White House is not partnered with the PKK. "The PKK is internationally accepted as a terror organization and will remain to be so," he said here last week. He also recited the administration's familiar talking points—that there's a big difference between the PKK and the PYD. But that's not how Turkey sees it.
As Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the U.N. in October, "We consider the PYD the same way we consider the PKK." Yes, said Davutoglu, PYD is part of the fight against ISIS, but from Ankara's perspective that hardly makes them benign. "Fighting against [ISIS] does not make PYD a legitimate organization." In this case, the PKK agrees with Turkey—they and the PYD are the same thing. As one PKK fighter told the Wall Street Journal, "It's all PKK but different branches." Indeed, just last week, it was the PYD, ostensibly distinct from the PKK, that called for attacks on "the institutions of the Turkish state all over the world."
So why does the White House want to empower a terrorist group targeting a fellow NATO member? The ostensible reason is that the United States will work with anyone to crush ISIS, even another terrorist group like the PKK. But that's not the whole story. The fundamental requirement of any successful anti-ISIS campaign would be to get the region's Sunni Arab majority on board. But that won't happen so long as Washington is indulging the Iranian axis, including Assad.
The surge in Iraq is the model. Al Qaeda was finally turned back there when the Sunni Arab tribes agreed to join Americans in fighting them. The tribes turned on al Qaeda only because the Bush White House resolved to simultaneously fight the tribes' other enemy, the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias.
The path to defeating ISIS is hardly shrouded in mystery—Obama knows it as well as anyone in the field and all the other actors in the region. It would require empowering the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq. But there is no way to do this without a U.S. turn against Iran, the opposite of Obama's policy. He gives every sign of sticking by Iran, even if it means undoing the alliance system in the Middle East built by Washington over more than half a century. The Obama pattern is more than clear: To secure his deal with Iran, he has been more than willing to downgrade allies and upgrade adversaries.
To be fair, Obama doesn't exactly see the world in terms of allies and adversaries. Sure, Iran misbehaves, as he's told many interviewers, but Saudi Arabia is no great shakes either. The problems of our friends in the Gulf Arab states, as Obama has said, come from among their own populations, not Iranian terrorism. The Israelis, from his perspective, won't grow up and make peace with the Palestinians, or with Iran for that matter. And Turkey, as Biden said last week here in Istanbul, doesn't set a good example.
There are no allies or enemies, as Obama sees it, just forces that he will bring into balance with each other. Bring some in closer, like Iran or the PKK, and push some a little further away, like Israel and Turkey. Obama couldn't be clearer: It's time for everyone in the Middle East to learn how to live with each other, or at least find ways to deter each other, without having to call in America all the time to solve their problems.
It's a nice academic theory but riddled with problems in the real world. Foremost among them: Iran is a revolutionary regime, a destabilizing force that seeks to overturn the status quo. Then there's the fact of the increasingly large and calamitous war in the middle of the region, which continues to pull all its neighbors into its gravitational field. There's no way around it: For the sake of theory, Obama is endangering U.S. allies and interests and putting millions of lives at risk.