American regret, Russian advance
During a Fox TV interview on Dec. 21, retired Gen. Raymond Odierno said that because of the “passive” strategy of U.S. President Barack Obama against terrorism, Russia had gained leadership in the Middle East.
The former U.S. Army Chief of Staff said it was “time for” the U.S. “to lead from the front, be aggressive at bringing nations together, be aggressive in our own policies and bring the capabilities of our government together to take action” and “reassert leadership.”
“I believe this is a time of proactive leadership,” Odierno, a commander who previously served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Central Command, said in an indirect call on the new administration to be led by President-elect Donald Trump. Turkish people know his name from two occasions. He was the commander in charge of the troops who detained Turkish Special Forces in 2003 who were in Iraq as part of an international agreement, throwing hoods over them in a humiliating way. And in 2015 he was the army chief who gave a medal of merit to then-Turkish Army Chief and current Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar for his military cooperative leadership in the Syrian theater.
Odierno made the remarks in the wake of the Berlin attack, which killed 12 people and was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which has its roots in Iraq during the U.S.-led occupation – when Odierno was a part of it – but emerged in 2013 during the civil war in Syria.
One of the most important remarks in the interview with Odierno were the notion of “bringing nations together.”
Former President George W. Bush could not manage to bring nations together; could not get the full support of its NATO ally Turkey, which borders Iraq; and applied more sanctions on Iran, which also borders Iraq.
Today that country is unfortunately in no better shape than it was under Saddam Hussein. Bush used the massive power of the American military in Iraq and faced consequences; after him Barack Obama, decided to pull troops back, leaving a power vacuum behind which has been filled by pro-Iranian groups, pro-Saudi groups, Kurds in the north and finally ISIL.
But at least Bush didn’t choose his partners in Syria from the enemies of its NATO ally Turkey because of his no-boots-on-the ground policy on one hand and his attempt to fight against ISIL on the other. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are the Syria extensions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Despite successive suggestions by President Tayyip Erdoğan offering Turkish military cooperation in Syria against ISIL, Obama did not change his policy.
In the meantime, with the persistent suggestions of Iran, Russia entered the Syria stage in September 2015 with its air force and advisors, in addition to its navy base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. That changed the entire picture in a short time. The downing of a Russian plane by Turkish jets as they violated the border with Syria, killing two pilots, sent Turkish-Russian relations plummeting, further restricted Turkish moves in Syria and enhanced Russia’s military and political position in Syria.
Despite Erdoğan’s repeated offer, Obama decided not to work with Turkish troops and stayed loyal to the American Central Command’s (CENTCOM) plans with the PYD or the PKK.
A deal to renew Turkish-Russian ties with the mediation of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and a Turkish businessman, Cavit Çağlar, in June 2016 changed the course of events. Despite a failed military coup attempt on July 15, believed to be masterminded by U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan sent the Turkish military into Syria to seal the border from ISIL but, more importantly, to put a wedge into the PKK forces trying to form an autonomous region for themselves. That spoiled all the PKK plans and thus delayed Obama’s. In the meantime, Trump won the elections. And while the NATO allies lacked harmony because of an armed organization considered as a terrorist by both of them and an Islamist leader Turkey accused of plotting a coup attempt, Russia gained ground.
Now it is a fact that nothing that Russia doesn’t want is possible in the Syrian theater.
It is Russian President Vladimir Putin who decided to keep the plans of pursuing an initiative with Iran and Turkey despite the assassination of his ambassador to Ankara, Andrey Karlov, by a Turkish police officer under heavy suspicion of being manipulated by Gülen’s secret network. It was Putin who convinced Erdoğan to drop the top demand Bashar al-Assad step down, and it was Putin who convinced al-Assad to welcome the Moscow agreement which NATO member Turkey is also part of.
And it should be noted that without Putin’s (and al-Assad’s) consent, it would not be possible for Turkish army to conduct a full-scale military operation to take the Syrian town of al-Bab from ISIL hands and also prevent it from being taken by the PYD/PKK.
It is for sure that Obama has lost Erdoğan. But it is not true that the U.S. and NATO have lost Turkey. The course of events from now will depend on the actions to be taken by Trump. If Trump takes the advice of Odierno, decides to bring nations together starting with Turkey and its 910 km border with Syria, as well as neighboring Russia and Ukraine across the Black Sea, he could simply start by ending cooperation with the PKK in Syria. Opening up an investigation against Gülen, not even extraditing him, would be the cherry on the top of the cake to win Turkey back.
On the Russian advance, one has to examine the expression on the face of Putin before the coffin of Karlov at the Moscow funeral ceremony on Dec. 22. He is biding his time to act in a patient fury.
It’s not just Trump; Erdoğan will also have lessons to draw from that expression and exercise caution.