Waiting for Joe

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden faces a formidable task: he must try to bring together a divided society, while at the same time repairing the damage done by his predecessor abroad.

Take Syria, for example. Not that the U.S. track record in the region is particularly impressive. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 helped give rise to the Islamic State (ISIS), an organisation rooted in former Baathist officers.

In August 2012, the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency circulated a memo stating that Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey all supported the possibility of establishing a Salafist principality in eastern Syria to isolate the Syrian regime. This is what they got. 

That same month, Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed that he would soon pray in the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. Encouraged by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Erdoğan intended to see the same fate befall the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. His optimism proved unfounded.

Initially, the U.S. went along with Erdoğan’s plans and, together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, shipped weapons to Syria’s Sunni opposition. However, it quickly became apparent that they were falling into the wrong hands.

Speaking at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in October 2014, then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said:

“Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. They were so determined to take down Assad, and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad - except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.”

The U.S. changed tack and poured $500 million into a train-and-equip programme for the moderate opposition to Assad. The first group of 54 fighters to graduate were wiped out by the al-Nusra in July 2015. A second group that went into battle September surrendered their pick-up trucks and equipment in return for safe passage. The venture was abandoned.

As Conn Hallinan remarked: “Anyone who believes the ‘moderates’ will take over should consider unicorn hunting as a profession.”

With growing support from Russian, Assad proved too hard a nut to crack. Instead, the United States shifted focus, and in September 2014 became the driving force behind the global coalition to defeat ISIS.

In cooperation with the Kurdish peshmerga fighters and the Iraqi army, ISIS was driven from Mosul, its Iraqi capital. And in October 2017, with the support of U.S. special forces and air support, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured ISIS’ Syrian stronghold in Raqqa.

It was the most successful and cost-effective U.S. operation in Syria, only to be undermined by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and allow Turkey to launch a military operation against the SDF in October 2019.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey, who served as Trump’s Special Envoy to Syria, has defended his own role in this shameful betrayal in a lengthy apologia, describing the SDF as “really phenomenal”. Nevertheless, he admits that Trump changed position after a conversation with Erdoğan, whom Jeffrey describes as “pretty persuasive.”        

Despite being a draft dodger, Trump is said to consider himself a potentially “good general”, describing the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as “strategically brilliant”. But as Metin Gürcan has pointed out: “To hold a place at the table to discuss Syria’s future, one must have a significant presence on the ground.”   

With the U.S. having abdicated its role in Syria, Biden faces a new set of problems with Ankara. Congress recently mandated sanctions against Turkey for purchasing the Russian-made S-400 missile system. Turkey has already been blocked from the receiving U.S. next-generation F-35 fighter jets over the deal, and the situation could be further aggravated if Ankara seeks the delivery of Russian SU-35 and SU-57 aircraft instead.  

Then there is the case pending against Turkish lender Halkbank for its role in channelling more than $20 billion to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.

Turkey’s maritime expansion in the eastern Mediterranean has also brought it into conflict with European Union members, Greece and Cyprus. But as a recent Congress motion underlined, the U.S. sees Greece as a valuable member of NATO and a key pillar of stability in the region, and Cyprus as a key strategic partner in the eastern Mediterranean,

Eurasianism, a school of thought hostile to the West, now plays a leading role in determining Turkish foreign policy. As Erdoğan’s former head of foreign relations explained: “Turkey no longer sees its foreign policy within the framework of the Cold War or East vs. West alliances.”

While Europe vacillates and Turkey prevaricates, a strong argument has been made for the U.S. to strategically pivot to Greece and Cyprus. It is now up to the new Biden administration to draw the necessary conclusions.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.