It may not have been such a good idea for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to snub U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in his own capital of Ankara by not only refusing to meet him, but also letting him leave without even saying goodbye after he sat in the waiting room outside his office.
It goes without saying that it’s counterproductive for two countries that have recently renewed cordial telephone conversations between their prime ministers, and who are both are members of NATO’s great alliance, to be slamming doors in each other’s faces while the Middle East is going through a difficult period that more than anything else requires clarity.
Erdoğan couldn’t accept three things: the first was that a few hours before Bolton visited Turkey, he had embarked upon an extremely friendly and productive visit to Israel (which the Turkish president hates), where he conveyed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States will always be committed to ensuring the Jewish state’s security. That’s simply unbearable for a man with a collection of anti-Semites rants in his curricula. Secondly, during that visit to Israel—after Trump had announced on Dec. 19 that U.S. troops would be leaving Syria—Bolton proceeded to reaffirm, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also done in recent days, that America was, in fact, in no hurry to leave, and that their withdrawal would will take place according to whenever Trump “sees fit.” Last, but not least—and it’s here where Erdoğan went into a tizzy—was when the United States unequivocally demanded guarantees that Turkey would not attack Kurdish forces in northern Syria, and moreover, that Erdoğan, who according to Bolton but not to the Turkish president himself, had promised Trump that he would protect them.
When Erdoğan hears the Kurds mentioned, he loses his compass. That’s why he has been unleashing bold statements that will not hinder Trump’s positive shift vis-à-vis the Kurds, but could instead damage a newly reconstructed relationship with the United States, accompanied by his request for the extradition of his worst enemy, former Turkish citizen and now dissident Muhammad Fethullah Gülen, who currently resides in Pennsylvania. Erdoğan has faith in the once widely spread idea that America has confidence that Turkey can act as a bridge to the Muslim world. Erdoğan, however, is no bridge to anyone. His alliance with Iran and Shi’ite Hezbollah, seems to exclude him from the American strategy that aims, with the anticipated withdrawal from Syria, to entrust the West’s defense to the traditional Sunni world.
This is also the point, at this time, of Pompeo’s trip to eight Middle Eastern countries. Erdoğan said that Kurdish groups and ISIS are for him one and the same enemy, and that his valiant fighters must be rewarded because they are fighting against both. But herein lies the risk that history contradicts him because while the Kurds have fought ISIS without respite alongside the Americans, Erdoğan’s position is very dubious: since March 2011, about 12,000 of ISIS’s “foreign fighters” have been allowed to enter Syria via Turkey. According to a research paper done by Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, which was published in September 2016, Turkey has collaborated with Islamic State on the military level, through weapons transfers, logistical support and the provision of medical services. There are countless instances of such.
A September agreement with Russia to create a buffer zone in Syria in has led Turkey to take a more cautious approach, but in exchange for a free hand against the Kurds. And thus from the north to Afrin in the northwest and Manbji in the northeast, Turkey has aimed to drive out the Kurds in a ruthless effort. Now, some of them appear in harsh opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad; he is not at all happy about this and has recently opposed them militarily, facing with weapons the friends of his friends the Turks.
In short, Erdoğan’s Turkey has great ambitions that by now the omnipotent leader showcases with excessive security; even his strong popular support, however, is changing. This is also shown by his necessary alliance with the leader of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Devlet Bahcevi, who had severely criticized him in the past.
Bolton is a kind and polite man, but he’s an iron hand in a velvet glove. Pompeo has consistently repeated that the goal of the United States is to ramp up pressure on Iran—a main Middle Eastern strategy on the part of America. Even the European Union took a good step in this direction by enacting sanctions against Iran’s intelligence agency for its assassination plots on European soil.
Erdoğan’s friends right now seem to be stuck in the crosshairs.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Translation by Amy Rosenthal.