The next Oliver North

The next Oliver North

Oliver North was the U.S. military officer involved in the Iran-Contra scandal of the CIA back in the 1980s. 
The idea was to secretly finance an armed movement against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua by secretly selling arms to Iran, which was at the time under embargo. 

It was the idea of Duane Clarridge, then the Latin America chief of the CIA and it found support in right-wing politics. But it ended up blowing up and turning into an embarrassment for Ronald Reagan. A congressional commission was established to probe the case, which went on for years. In the end all the senior officers responsible find their way out with minor charges, which were pardoned by the president – apart from North. It was as if this marine corps lieutenant colonel had done all the planning and implementation of this secret international arms deal by himself.

It is possible that the American system might produce another North in relation to recent developments in Turkey and their links with the Kurdish problem and the Syrian civil war.

The Obama administration did not want to repeat what its predecessor George Bush did in Iraq in the Syrian civil war. Obama was reluctant to let G.I. Joes die in faraway territories, especially when he found convenient partners on the ground who were ready to cooperate and fight for the U.S., even if for their own agenda. After the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in early 2013 started to threaten the northern regions next to the Turkish border, the Kurdish militia under the Democratic Union Party (PYD) was extremely disturbed. The U.S. then started to back them in their fight against ISIL. In return the PYD and its militia force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), acted like the ground forces of the U.S.-led airstrikes. This cooperation started in the PYD’s Kobane resistance against ISIL in 2014.

But the PYD was simply the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a fight against Turkey, the NATO ally of the U.S., and is also on Washington’s official terror list. It was the CIA that had helped Turkish intelligence arrest PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. 

But the U.S. needed PYD cooperation for practical reasons, it ignored the fact that the PYD and the PKK were essentially the same. It ignored, for example, statements made by PYD leader Salih Muslim, who openly says his leader is Öcalan. If the U.S. acknowledges that connection between the PYD and the PKK, the Obama administration would have to answer to Congress about cooperating with a terrorist organization, besides perhaps sending troops to Syria.

There is another important detail. The U.S. cooperation with the PYD/PKK forces in Syria (and Iraq) is under the command and control of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). For CENTCOM, which aims to finish ISIL off, using any means necessary - including the PKK - is permissible. 

But the U.S. military presence in Turkey within NATO or bilaterally is linked to the European Command (EUCOM). That includes the strategic İncirlik Air Base, which was opened to U.S.-led coalition flights against ISIL, and similarly the Diyarbakır Air Base and the radar site of the Missile Shield project near eastern Malatya. For EUCOM, the PKK with all its extensions is a terrorist organization and should not be dealt with. The boss of both the CENTCOM and EUCOM commanders is U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and his superior is U.S. President Barack Obama.

Apart from that, there was a bloody coup attempt in Turkey on July 15 by a junta within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) which failed. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, as well as the opposition leaders, had no doubt pointing at one person and his network as being behind the coup attempt: Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher who has been living in the U.S. since 1999. Turkey wants the extradition of Gülen in order to try him on charges of trying to overthrow the government by force.

The U.S. administration says it is a legal issue, not a political one, but given the circumstances it seems that it is both legal and political. 

The Gülen case is closely related to the Kurdish problem in Turkey. The government suspects that it was Gülenists in the ranks of military, police, judiciary and intelligence who twice spoiled the dialogue with the PKK for a political settlement and benefited from the PKK gaining support. Similar to during the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. in 2003, the Syrian civil war has also served the PKK to regain power and capacity when they were in decline.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to carry out important talks in Ankara on Aug. 24. They will include Syria, ISIL, the Kurdish issue, Iraq and of course the Gülen case. 

But Turkish-U.S. relations are not limited to Syria, the PKK, and Gülen. If those relations could shoo two “black cats” in between the ISIL and Gülen issues, both capitals would be more relaxed and could cooperate deeper on other issues.

It is not certain how the Gülen issue and the ISIL-PYD issue will be solved. But it should not be a surprise if the next Oliver North is blamed by a future commission probing any future scandal.