The New York Times Editorial Board
The Turkish military incursion into Syria that started Wednesday with American air support is about as good an illustration as there is of the exasperating complexity of Washington’s foreign affairs.
The stated purpose of the offensive is to clear Islamic State militants from one of their last remaining strongholds and supply lines on the Syrian-Turkish border. That goal, and getting Turkey more involved in the fight against the Islamic State, is obviously in America’s interest. But it also adds more complications.
A major Turkish priority through much of the Syrian conflict has been to keep Syrian Kurds away from its borders for fear that they will bolster Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. So in addition to pushing the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, back from its borders, Turkey’s drive to clear the militants from the border town of Jarabulus is intended to prevent Syrian Kurds, who are America’s most reliable allies in Syria, from moving into the town.
The competing goals in Syria are only one source of tension that has driven Turkish-American relations to a new low. The growing authoritarianism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has aroused considerable unease in Washington and other Western capitals, as has his far-reaching crackdown on political foes after the failed coup last month. Washington’s slow response to Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric, who now lives in Pennsylvania and is regarded by Ankara as the mastermind of the plot, has only heightened anti-American feelings in Turkey.
In this welter of conflicting interests, the Obama administration is right to focus on combating ISIS and on trying to keep relations with Turkey from deteriorating further. Turkey is home to the Incirlik Air Base, which is critical to American air operations in Syria. Moreover, Turkey, along with Russia and Iran, has to be part of any solution to the Syrian civil war.
Vice President Joseph Biden Jr.’s visit to Turkey on Wednesday, coinciding with the start of the ground operation, was intended to smooth the troubled relationship. He struck a conciliatory tone by apologizing to Mr. Erdogan for not visiting after the failed coup attempt, saying nothing in public about the government’s crackdown, maintaining that the United States took seriously Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Mr. Gulen and endorsing Turkey’s insistence that the Kurds stay east of the Euphrates River.
There are those who may have preferred that Mr. Biden say what most American officials really think: that Mr. Erdogan’s roundup of coup plotters looks like an attempt to silence any opposition, that Turkey has behaved outrageously in failing to stop conspiracy theories depicting the United States as a co-conspirator in the coup attempt, that Turkey has produced little evidence to warrant Mr. Gulen’s extradition and that Mr. Erdogan’s autocratic behavior is making him an unreliable ally.
The Obama administration is right to make efforts to keep relations with Turkey from worsening. Turkey is an important NATO ally in one of the most volatile corners of the world, and a repository for allied nuclear weapons. Washington has made clear how highly it regards its alliance with Turkey. But that should not give Mr. Erdogan carte blanche to violate human rights or suppress his political foes.
Published on The New York Times, 25 August 2016, Thursday