In an interview with Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offers a devastating critique of President Obama’s Syria policy. Turkey, of course, has its own interests, and on some matters they diverge sharply from America’s.
However, Turkey has a strong interest in (1) a stable Syria, or at least a Syria whose refugees don’t pour into Turkey by the tens of thousands, (2) a Syria not dominated by Iran, and (3) the defeat of ISIS, a revolutionary force that doesn’t recognize regional borders. There is, or at least should be, no divergence between these interests and those of the U.S.
Accordingly, Davutoglu’s critique is worthy of our attention. Here he is on how Obama’s longstanding unwillingness to institute a no-fly zone in Syria paved the way for the rise of ISIS:
In a potential crisis, if you don’t take necessary measures at the early stage, at a later stage you face much bigger problems. Yes, two years ago we were asking to have a no-fly zone . . . to allow the moderate Syrian opposition to have control in the north of Syria. If the opposition had been supported, there wouldn’t be the threat of ISIS.
Since we didn’t protect civilians or help the opposition, there was a tactical cooperation between the Assad regime and ISIS. When the Assad regime attacked opposition positions, [rebel] forces had to leave those towns and cities. The ISIS forces then occupied these towns. There was no fighting between the regime and ISIS until last summer. The presence of ISIS helped Assad to stay in power because everyone said there was a terrorist treat — it helped Assad legitimize himself in the eyes of the international community.
Here he is on Obama’s plan to train members of the moderate opposition to Assad and deploying them in the spring:
That is too late. We should not allow the Syrian people to be under two pressures — the regime and ISIS. A third option is needed — the moderate opposition.
Turkey has been criticized for its unwillingness to help in the fight against ISIS. It doesn’t even permit the U.S. to use its air bases. Davutogulu attributes this unwillingness to Obama’s failure to develop an integrated Syrian strategy — one that defends Syrians from Assad and robustly supports the moderate opposition, thereby depriving ISIS of its oxygen:
There was almost an agreement [with the U.S. on air bases], and there is still a possible agreement. What we want is simple — we don’t want to see any refugee flow or air bombardment by the Syrian regime. We don’t want to see the presence of terrorist groups. . . .
We say both threats should be taken care of simultaneously. We have to have a strategy to defend the Syrian people against ISIS and the Assad regime simultaneously.
When it comes to Obama’s refusal to enforce his “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Davutoglu can barely conceal his contempt, a contempt that no doubt informs Turkey’s general approach to the U.S. under Obama:
Drawing a red line and not committing to it gives more courage to the aggressor. In those days when the U.S. administration requested our support to join the coalition of the willing against chemical weapons, we joined immediately.
But the Syrian regime misused good intentions. Still they have a chemical weapons capacity. Nothing has changed. They killed 300,000 people, and there are [millions of internally displaced people as well as millions of refugees].
Still, Assad is in power. There are people who think he may remain in power after so many crimes against humanity. This is unacceptable.
Unfortunately, it is acceptable to Obama.
The Middle East is the world’s toughest neighborhood. To survive in it, leaders must be clear-eyed and clear-headed.
Turkey’s leaders, for all of their many faults, answer to this description. So do the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and (now that the dust has cleared) Egypt.
All of these leaders are now at serious odds with Obama.
It’s conceivable that Obama, sitting in Washington, D.C. and relying on his his left-wing preconceptions, sees the Middle East more clearly than those whose survival depends on understanding the region. But it would take an extraordinarily prescient American president to pull that off.
The past six years teach us that, except as to matters of his own political survival, Barack Obama is not that president.