It’s a trick for which the State Department constantly falls: Adversaries feign grievance in order to win concessions. It is also a strategy Turkey has mastered. Rather than be held to account for its support for al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, for turning a blind eye to the flow of foreign fighters across its border, and for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s own family profiting off the Islamic State oil trade, U.S. diplomats have treated with credulousness supposed Turkish fears about Kurdish terrorism originating in Syria, never mind that Turkish authorities have been unable to present any intelligence showing Kurdish terrorism originating from the Kurdish-controlled Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.
Nevertheless, U.S. Special Envoy James Jeffrey and his team have acquiesced to Turkish bluster and have agreed, at least preliminarily, to a Turkish demand for a buffer zone, although the details remain unclear. The Kurds, who currently oversee Syria’s most peaceful and secure region, are loath to trust American interlocutors when they say that Turkish forces entering their region will abide by carefully negotiated redlines. First, there is the precedent of Afrin, a district in Syria that the Turkish Army entered and proceeded to ethnically cleanse, even bulldozing cemeteries, knocking down statues, and insisting that women veil and utilize Arabic names.
Such activities have been the rule rather than the exception for years. Two and a half years after diplomats hashed out an agreement to end the Turkish military occupation of Bashiqa, in northern Iraq, Turkish forces remain. Years before, a Turkish-led “Peace Monitoring Force” occupied key posts in Iraqi Kurdistan long after all parties to the conflict precipitating the intervention made peace and asked the Turks to depart.
The problem is not simply Turkey, its leadership’s racism toward Kurdish cultural expression and antipathy toward Kurdish political aspirations, or Erdoğan’s imperial impulse. Rather, it’s the Turkish way of diplomacy itself.
Consider Turkish efforts to mediate the Somalia dispute. In 1991, former British Somaliland withdrew from its union with Somalia and reasserted its independence, a move the Somali government in Mogadishu does not recognize. Mogadishu has become, in recent years, a Turkish client if not colony, but Turkey maintains a consulate in the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa and has taken itself to mediate the intra-Somali dispute.
Accepting Turkish mediation, however, has been a mistake because of Ankara’s repeated bad faith. Somaliland’s borders, for example, were a product of the late 19th century as British diplomats struck a series of treaties with local clan leaders, ultimately forming a protectorate. In 1960, when the United Kingdom offered British Somaliland its full independence, it and all other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council recognized its existing borders.
The Somali state of Puntland, however, formed only in 1998 has disputed Somaliland’s border. Much of their grievance is contrived, a way in which Somalia (ironically funded by Western donors) can try to undermine Somaliland, both for revanchist reasons and to distract from Somalia’s own corruption and state failure.
Last February, however, as Turkish diplomats pretended to mediate between Mogadishu and Hargeisa, Turkey distributed aid into portions of Somaliland claimed by Somalia, stamped with both the Turkish flag and that of Somalia (rather than Somaliland), thereby signaling to the local population both support for the Somalia-sponsored insurgency and linking aid and assistance to undermining Somaliland. Turkey’s problem, it seems, is that while Somalia accepts Turkey’s desire for bolstering religious extremism, Somaliland remains largely moderate and pro-Western in its outlook. This is the main reason why Somaliland today seeks broader mediation involving the United States, Great Britain, and a number of European and African partners, rather than sole reliance on Turkey.
Then, there is the issue of overflights. Passengers on international flights seldom think about the logistics necessary to fly over other countries. When aircraft enter another country’s airspace, there are both payments due and coordination necessary with regard to air traffic control. State recognition is not a predicate for overflight agreements. When I first visited Kabul in March 2000 at a time when the Taliban controlled the capital but were unrecognized, for example, I met officials from the International Air Transport Association who were engaging with the Taliban about overflights, communications, and emergency procedures.
Turkish diplomats likewise have mediated between Mogadishu and Hargeisa on overflights of Somaliland, an increasingly important topic given how major commercial carriers from Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, and Djibouti utilize the Hargeisa airport. Despite the agreements which Turkey brokered between Mogadishu and Hargeisa, the Somali government in Mogadishu unilaterally abrogated its arrangements and claimed full authority over Somaliland airspace and in Somaliland facilities. When Somaliland officials complained to Turkey, the Turkish foreign ministry changed its position and said they were merely facilitators rather than guarantors.
In other words, Turkey refused to abide by agreements its own diplomat had negotiated. Such dishonesty has real-world ramifications. According to one senior Somaliland official, there have been a proliferation of small, unknown aircraft now traversing Somaliland skies and landing at small strips suspected of ferrying weaponry to extremists to which Erdoğan is sympathetic.
The Trump administration may want to believe Turkey’s complaints are legitimate and that they should open a diplomatic door for a greater Turkish presence in northern Syria. Special Envoy James Jeffrey may honestly believe that Turkey will abide by diplomatic commitments he negotiates. But, Turkey’s recent practice in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia suggests the opposite: Ankara has no intention to abide by its agreements, and any commitment to leave Kurdish self-governance alone, refrain from ethnic cleansing, or to prevent the infiltration of Islamist extremists and foreign fighters are without meaning. Any broad understanding of Turkish diplomatic practice today suggests that a U.S. agreement to a so-called safe-haven is to greenlight a permanent Turkish occupation and ethnic and sectarian cleansing among the region’s Kurdish, Yezidi, and Christian populations. It is not only immoral from a humanitarian viewpoint, but it is also bad policy from a security standpoint as its undercuts stability and moderation and instead sows the seeds of radicalism and terror.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches Arab politics, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds, terrorism, and Turkey. He concurrently teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion, and history for US and NATO military units.
A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq, and he spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. He is the author, co-author, and co-editor of several books exploring Iranian history, American diplomacy, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “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 M.A. in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a B.S. in biology.
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