Four years ago, Turkey’s ruling party gambled. They had tried to frustrate the Obama administration’s efforts to bring stability to eastern Syria, and they were nonplussed seeing ISIS defeated by US-led partners called the Syrian Democratic Forces. This group, they claimed, was linked to “terrorists” among Kurdish groups in Turkey. There was no evidence that the SDF was involved in “terrorism”; in fact, it had spent years fighting the ISIS terrorists who included some 50,000 fighters that flowed through Turkey. But Turkey believed that US President Donald Trump might assist Ankara in handing over Syria policy to Turkey.To engineer the US into a Turkish-first policy would require appealing to Trump’s ego and circle of friends. Towards that end, the Ankara lobby was put into motion in DC, with key elements in think tanks and media operationalized to talk about a new page in US-Turkey relations. Four years later, Ankara’s efforts have sunk in the mud as those around Trump realized Ankara is hosting Hamas terrorists, having pleasant meetings with Iranian officials and working with Russia against US interests. This has come to a head in the fall and winter as the State Department finally condemned Turkey for giving a red carpet to Hamas terrorists and US sanctions have kicked in after Turkey acquired Russia’s S-400.
How did it all go so wrong? Turkey’s ruling party is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and is increasingly one of the most far-right extremist ruling parties in the world. People in Turkey are imprisoned at an alarming rate for tweets and protests going back years. Turkey has rapidly changed in the last four years to be a country that more resembles Iran’s dictatorship than a member of NATO. Several factors came together to cause this. First was the breakdown in peace between the Kurdistan Workers Party and the government in 2015. This came about because the opposition HDP party, which is a leftist party, did well in elections and Turkey’s ruling AKP decided that it would increase the conflict with the PKK to ramp up populist anti-Kurdish sentiment. The HDP is a party that attracts many Kurdish voters so the concept was to break both the PKK and HDP at the same time, one on the battlefield, one in the voting booth, by calling them both “terrorists,” even though the era of PKK terror had ended. Turkey’s army invaded Kurdish cities, razed neighborhoods and crushed the PKK. Then the government decided to expand that campaign to invading every Kurdish area in Syria and Iraq, a process that would continue between 2016 and 2020.In May 2016, Turkey passed a law to end immunity from prosecution for members of parliament. Soon the opposition HDP members were being rounded up and imprisoned on charges that had no merit. A July 2016 coup attempt gave Ankara more reasons to expand the crackdown on all dissidents, with some 150,000 fired or jailed for connections to largely mythical “FETO terrorist” groups. In April 2017, Turkey’s ruling party passed a referendum to make the country a presidential republic, increasing the authoritarian one-party rule of the AKP. Turkey still had elections in June and November 2015 and June 2018 for parliament. The HDP, despite its members being in prison, still got ten percent of the vote. Despite winning the mayor’s office in 65 cities, Turkey dismissed the HDP mayors and replaced them with government officials. By this time in 2018, there was almost no opposition media in Turkey. The country was effectively a dictatorship similar to the Chavez-Maduro regime in Venezuela, a once-thriving democracy with diversity destroyed by a power-hungry extremist regime. Worse was to come. Turkey expanded its wars in Syria, first invading northern Syria in August 2016 to stop the US advance against ISIS in Manbij. US commanders had plans to take Raqqa and Turkey pretended they could help but the US CENTCOM brass and Pentagon head Ash Carter affirmed that Turkey never put forward a real proposal. Ankara’s goal was to stall for time. Having enabled 50,000 people to join ISIS, many ISIS members were not transiting Turkey to Idlib province. Turkey sent forces into Idlib as well in 2017 to shield the area from a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive. Next, Turkey’s regime set its eyes on peaceful Afrin, a Kurdish agricultural area with Christians and Yazidis and diversity. 167,000 Kurds and Yazidis and minorities were ethnically cleansed in January 2018 by Turkey’s army and Syrian rebels it had recruited to fight Kurds. Turkey’s goal now in 2018 was to refashion the remnants of the Free Syrian Army into a mercenary army for Ankara to be used as shock troops against Kurds and then later in Libya and Azerbaijan to behead Armenians and attack enemies of Ankara. Poor Syrians would be armed and turned into cannon fodder. Turkey’s increasing role in Syria led to Ankara threatening the US. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had high hopes for US President Donald Trump. In May 2017 Erdogan went to meet Trump. When protesters assembled outside the Turkish embassy, expecting that their right to protest on US soil was still permissible, Turkish presidential security attacked them. Members of a US think tank meeting with Erdogan toasted the success inside the embassy as the peaceful protesters and US police were attacked. Turkey felt it ran Washington and would bring its brand of justice to the US. According to accounts by US National Security Advisor John Bolton, this kind of brash thuggishness appealed to Trump. Turkey spoke Trump’s language, offering him a transaction: Give us Syria, the Kurds are a waste of your time, we will deal with them, and your troops can go home. This led the White House to say it would leave Syria in December 2018. The US brought in new envoys known to be pro-Ankara, James Jeffrey and Joel Rayburn. Turkey would come first. It would run the Middle East as the new cop in the region for America. Those who had fought and died alongside Americans, the Kurds in eastern Syria, would have to be jettisoned or killed.