Trump administration took 4 years to tire of Turkey’s anti-Americanism

Turkey has rapidly changed in the last four years to be a country that more resembles Iran’s dictatorship than a member of NATO.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leave the stage after family photo during the annual NATO heads of government summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford, Britain December 4, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/PETER NICHOLLS)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leave the stage after family photo during the annual NATO heads of government summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford, Britain December 4, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/PETER NICHOLLS)
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.
The brutish policy went well for a while, from the perspective of the pro-Ankara lobby in Washington. Ethnically-cleansed Kurds were pushed into freezing cold, muddy refugee camps. Jihadists who call Jews “dogs” and vow to behead the “infidel pigs” were recruited by Ankara to kill Kurds, Armenians and eventually Jews, if they could find them. Soon Hamas terror leaders were getting the red carpet in Ankara. Media reports suggested Hamas planned terror attacks from Turkey, set up cyber warfare facilities and operated freely. Ankara, which claimed to be “fighting terror” seemed to have a lot of known terrorists freely operating inside Turkey. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s family travelled through Turkey, and he set up a villa within a few kilometers of the Turkish border in Idlib.  
Bolton was called upon to appease Turkey in January 2019 and the appeasement continued the whole year until Bolton finally left the Trump administration in dismay. Pompeo, Trump’s long-serving Secretary of State, also had to watch the appeasement of Ankara. It was disheartening. Not only were US partner forces betrayed, but US envoys appeared to purposely take Ankara’s side against the US and US allies. US CENTCOM commanders and special forces were left in the lurch in Syria, training and working closely with the SDF to defeat ISIS in Raqqa and then Baghuz in March 2019, making promises to comrades in arms, while the US envoy was sidelining the SDF. In fact US envoys worked with Turkey to make sure no US partners from eastern Syria were allowed to even participate in discussions in Geneva about the future of Syria. Jeffrey told the SDF their future was in Damascus. Then Turkish lobbyists were sent to the White House to say that the “SDF is working with Russia and Iran and Damascus,” after US officials had told them to work with Damascus. The whole system involved a carefully orchestrated process from Ankara to both pet the US President’s ego and also bully the US when necessary.
Meanwhile, Ankara was buying Russia’s S-400 system in a deal cemented between 2016 and 2017. The Pentagon was outraged and so were members of Congress. After the betrayal of the SDF in October 2019, when Turkey was allowed to bomb US partners, US politicians had had enough. How could the US train 80,000 members of the US and then work with Turkey to attack America’s allies? Why was the US tolerating Turkey buying Russia’s S-400 and working with Iran in Syria against US interests? What was going on.  
Those questions congealed in 2020 as Turkey continued to operate and take delivery of the Russian system. Turkey’s last bizarre manipulation was to even tell US Senators in June that the US should buy the Russian weapon system to appease Turkey. By this time the US was done taking orders from Ankara. In August the State Department finally condemned Turkey’s president for hosting Hamas terror leaders. Pompeo travelled to Greece and expressed concern about Turkey’s threats to Greece and Cyprus in September and October. He shunned Turkey on subsequent trips. The appeasement had ended. Turkey hoped Trump would win the election, bashing Biden prior to the vote, but it didn’t work. Biden won. Jeffrey left his post directly after the election. Turkey had no more use it appears for the US officials it had sought to use or work with.
Jeffrey has been on the lecture circuit since. In mid-November, it was revealed by Jeffrey that the US had kept Trump in the dark about US troop levels in Syria. It’s not normal for the US to hide troop levels from the President so the revelation to the press may have been designed to get Trump to pull them out.  
America’s envoys on Syria policy wanted to hand Syria to Turkey. The ethnic cleansing in Afrin was accepted. “Turkey was so important, and we couldn’t do this strategy without Turkey,” Jeffrey told Al-Monitor. The envoys claim Turkey did a “lot of help.” The US misled their own partners and told them to dismantle defenses along the border with Turkey so that they could also be ethnically cleansed in Tel Abyad in October 2019. It’s not usual that the US misleads its own military partners. Hevrin Khalaf, an unarmed innocent woman who had worked with SU officials was hunted down by Ankara’s mercenaries in Syria and beaten to death. This was apparently the “help” that Turkey was doing, the “important” work in Syria. Turkey empowered extremists, its gangs of mercenaries kidnapped, tortured, raped and disappeared women and forced all the minority Christians and Yazidis in Turkish-occupied northern Syria to flee. This was sold to the US public as being an anti-Iran policy, but in no case did Turkey confront Iran. Turkey worked with Iran and Russia at the Astana peace process, while US officials worked to keep US partners from any role in post-war discussions of Syria. This odd policy ended up being the US appeasing Turkey and Turkey working with Iran and Russia.  
The US actively worked against itself in Syria. While some at the US State department admired Erdogan as a “great power thinking” and someone who was “moving” into vacuums, a euphemism for ethnic cleansing, the US military was working with partners on the ground. Some in policy circles in the US wanted to defeat the US military and its counter-terrorism approach by using Turkey against the US military in Syria. The idea was to use Turkish-trained Syrian proxies against US-trained Syrian proxies and see who would win, the US State Department and its Turkish friends, or the US military. After several years of this bizarre set-up, the Trump administration and its mini-war between its own envoys and soldiers, is wrapping up its time in office.  
The final days of the administration appear to have ended the appeasement. But much as been lost on the ground. Half a million people have been ethnically-cleansed or forced to flee Turkey’s invasions of northern Syria. Russia and Iran and Turkey have worked against the US in Syria. Turkey wove a myth to US envoys about confronting Iran, when it was working with Iran. Turkey hosted Hamas terrorists and became increasingly hostile to Israel during the last four years. The myth spun by pro-Turkey members of the State Department and policy circles was that Turkey is a bulwark against Iran, when in fact it is not. This Cold War-era reading of the map of the Middle East sacrificed US policy and lives on the ground.
Now in its final dénouement there are some in the US, that cheer the destruction of Armenian villages in Nagorno-Karabakh and want to see Turkey attack Greece as well. They sell this as Turkey being “against Iran,” even though the only people being threatened are Greeks, Armenians, Kurds and also in the long-term Israel. In the name of empowering Turkey to confront Iran everyone except Iran was threatened. Turkey has also become fundamentally a one-party authoritarian state opposed to the US and US interests and values. Much of this empowered by a US administration that was bullied, threatened, misled and intimidated by Ankara. It took four years for the administration to tire of the late night calls from Ankara demanding the US do this or that, while Ankara hosted Iranian and Russian officials and laughed about how it could get the White House to do its bidding.


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