Is Triple Containment possible?
It is not clearly termed or defined, but the idea of a “triple containment” policy is being floated in the international media. Recently a report published by a think tank in Israel reflected the idea with some details.
Triple containment implies containing Russia, Iran and Turkey at the same time, pushing them back to their borders, keeping them away from the Gulf region. The idea is that policy will enhance Israel’s security.
“Security of Israel,” of course, is a euphemism for the “security of Israel’s recent expansionist policies” in the region. Because neither Turkey nor Russia has a problem with Israel’s right to exist in the region in peace, side by side with her Arab neighbors. Israel’s concerns about Iran, on the other hand, can be understood.
Although Turkey has been portrayed as a revisionist actor in some international media outlets, this argument does not match reality in the region. Meanwhile, Israel in the past has taken steps to annex Golan Heights, to determine the status of Jerusalem unilaterally, and according to Prime Minister Netanyahu, is planning to annex the West Bank. The Trump administration is supporting these expansionist policies and recognizing, legitimizing these bold moves, breaching international rules and decisions. The real threat that needs to be contained in the Middle East is this expansionism.
In the Cold War, the United States and its allies implemented a containment policy against the Soviet Union with great success. This containment was built by the cumulative military force of strong allies, political leadership and economic partnership. One of the major instruments of this policy was NATO and Turkey’s participation in the alliance.
During Clinton’s presidency, you may remember another attempt at containment. The U.S. pursued a policy of dual containment against Iran and Iraq. But the instability in Afghanistan and lack of coordination among regional powers led to the failure of this policy, and the U.S. decided to intervene directly and militarily in Iraq.
Again in the early 2000s, Western leaders wanted to isolate Syria, due to the Syrian regime’s alleged roles in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the July War of 2006, the Palestinian intifada and the insurgency in Iraq against the U.S. But Turkey was pursuing a new opening in the Middle East. Turkey saw Syria as the gateway to the region and helped Assad to break this isolation. At the end of this failed containment, Syria descended into chaos in 2011 and created grave security problems, which have been felt as far away as in Paris.
Decision makers and strategists must understand how hard it is to get a result from assertive policies without convincing Turkey. Pushing Turkey away from the West produces heavy consequences for everyone.
Today, it should be taken into consideration that the elements which made U.S. containment policy successful during the Cold War do not exist even if used against only Iran and Russia, leaving Turkey aside. Even in the West, there is no consensus about expanding sanctions against Iran.
It seems that the idea of triple containment is based on combining forces from Israel, Gulf countries and Iraqi and Syrian Kurds against Turkey, Iran and Russia. Containing 300 million people, having strong armies and sources, by using small tactical organizations and holding AK-47s does not seem wise and realistic.
The problem here is not brainstorming about these ideas but taking them seriously.
Today we observe an idea-pollution among some experts due to their ideological stands. Brett McGurk’s words in his Foreign Affairs article this month (Hard Truths in Syria) is a good example of that. Talking about Turkey’s Olive Branch Operation in Afrin, Syria, last year against the PKK terrorist organization, Mr. McGurk says: “This operation was not a response to any genuine threat but a product of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambition to extend Turkey’s borders, which he feels were unfairly drawn by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.” This is underestimating the threats that Turkey faced especially between 2015 and 2018 due to terror attacks and manipulating the situation for those who don’t have enough information about the issue. It portrays Turkey as a revisionist country that is trying to “revive the Ottoman Empire.” But the tunnels (much more sophisticated than the ones Israel uncovered at the Gaza border), military equipment that Turkish forces uncovered and the existence of PKK members who infiltrated Turkey’s Amanos Mountains showed the kind of threat Turkey faced if it had not intervened. The memory of the death of 17-year-old Fatma Avlar in her home in Turkey’s Reyhanli district on January 31, 2018, by a YPG missile from Afrin, is still fresh.
Framing Turkish anti-terror operations as neo-Ottomanism and expansionism is malevolent behavior.
The chance of success of a triple containment based on such propaganda is slim. Of course, Turkey has many disagreements with the U.S. and Israel.
For the good of all people in the region and its environment, the best approach is to search for peaceful and realistic solutions to the problems without prejudices. Otherwise, as the wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya, the terror attacks across the world, the most recent in Sri Lanka, showed everybody will pay the price.