In late 1494, the young and ambitious French king, Charles VIII, brought an army of more than 30,000 men across the Alps into Italy. His aim was to assert a claim to the Kingdom of Naples, but to do that, he had to march the length of the peninsula.
When Charles arrived in Tuscany, the equally young but incompetent son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero, capitulated the Florentine Republic to the French without displaying any resistance. For this shameful surrender, he was hounded from Florence, forced to flee the city at night taking what valuables he could carry with him. Charles subsequently marched his army into Florence, where nearly half of the French soldiers would be billeted at Florence’s expense.
When the terms of a treaty had been worked out between Florence and the French after difficult negotiations, and the French prepared to move southwards, Charles met with Florentine officials to finalize their agreement. On the topic of Florence’s payment to the French, the previously agreed-upon sum was smaller than the king expected; angrily he threatened to have his trumpeters summon his soldiers, which would mean unleashing the French forces upon the city.
In response, a leading member of Florence’s Signoria and former Florentine ambassador in France, Piero Capponi, tore the treaty into pieces and declared, “If you sound your trumpets, we shall toll our bells.” He meant Florence’s Vacca bell, which was a call to arms that would result in street fighting between the Florentines and the French.
Charles quickly realized that his aims would not be served by resorting to violence over such a relatively small issue, and acquiesced to the Florentines. Florence preserved its dignity and Capponi’s words became a Florentine proverb.
(The foregoing information was summarized from Christopher Hibbert’s The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici.)
The current trajectory in Turkish-American relations
In the past 15 years, Turkey has witnessed a political era every bit as fascinating and fraught as that of the Renaissance Italian city states. But whereas the Italian peninsula’s alliances were notoriously subject to lightning-quick shifts, Turkey’s most important ally has been the United States for more than 70 years.
Recently, however, Turkish-American relations experienced an unprecedented and dismal string of misfortunes. President Obama’s second term, and the egregious mistakes his administration made in regard to Syria, turned the positive atmosphere established after his 2009 inauguration into thinly camouflaged discord.
President Trump’s single year in power has done nothing to mitigate the wrongheaded American attitude towards Turkey established in the previous four years. On the contrary, relations have continued to deteriorate as Trump purposely eviscerated the State Department, leaving the Pentagon brass in charge of U.S. foreign policy in Turkey’s region. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson surfaces occasionally to smile and glad-hand regional officials, but he is forgotten as soon as he departs. Developments in the past year made clear to everyone that the State Department now had little role in developing and implementing U.S. foreign policy.
President Trump, for his part, has demonstrated no comprehension whatsoever of the many problems gripping the Eastern Mediterranean, and no attention span that would enable him to gain some proficiency. As a result, the worst mistakes of the Obama Administration have only been amplified, tension has increased, and distrust intensified.
The wider reality of current Turkey-U.S. affairs is that the U.S. is no longer the global leviathan. Whether this heralds greater global political equality or, as many political scientists would suggest, international chaos and war, will only become clear in the coming decades. For Turkey’s region, the decline in U.S. influence means that the U.S. no longer has the capacity to determine outcomes. But the situation is unlike that of February 1947, when the British unilaterally handed security responsibilities in the Eastern Mediterranean to the U.S.
Rather, the disintegration of U.S. power in Turkey’s region has been an extended affair that can be traced back to the George W. Bush Administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. That incursion was evil, murderous, and rapacious from its inception. All knowledgeable actors were aware that Saddam Hussein had no WMDs, but U.S. power made the invasion possible. Afterwards, the U.S. struggled to establish political order in the country, and Iraq’s internal politics remain tenuous even today. And Iraq’s disorder began to seep into other regional states.
Barack Obama swerved U.S. policy to the exact opposite course of his predecessor. Stung by the death of a U.S. ambassador in Libya, Obama chose not to involve the U.S. in Syria when that was exactly the type of situation that U.S. power should have been exercised in: an authoritarian leader massacring his own citizens when they took to the streets to demand their democratic rights.
President Obama declined to establish a no-fly zone or engage in a serious train-and-equip program for the moderate Syrian opposition, instead opting to join forces with the Syrian branch of the PKK, known as the PYD. The first U.S. weapons and supplies were delivered to the PYD in late 2014, and relations between a Marxist-Leninist militant organization and the U.S. government blossomed into open collaboration.
Meanwhile, Russia took advantage of Syria’s internal disorder to enhance its regional clout, which the Obama Administration did nothing to prevent. The combination of increased Russian influence and U.S. collaboration with the PKK/PYD meant two trends, coming on the heels of the disastrous Iraq invasion, that worked to further erode regional U.S. standing.
But that was not all. The Obama Administration also attempted to create a new working relationship with Iran while backhanding traditional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia. Regional politics were thrown into turmoil.
When Trump occupied the White House, his administration immediately attempted to reestablish the U.S.’s traditional working relationships in Turkey’s region. This meant overtures to Israel and Saudi Arabia as soon as Trump took office. But the region had changed since George W. Bush departed the White House in 2009. Russia was now the power broker in Syria; Iran, in addition to collaboration with Russia in Syria, now had more influence and leverage in Washington because of the nuclear deal; in Saudi Arabia, power was shifting to a young, untested prince; Egypt had gone through a revolution, a brief period of democracy, then a bloody coup which reinstalled Egypt’s traditional military dictators; tensions among the Gulf States were on the rise. The amount of knowledge that anyone attempting to formulate official policy for the region needed to master ballooned to even greater proportions, and that is far beyond the Trump Administration’s apparent capacities.
So, might the U.S. regain the ability to act decisively in the Eastern Mediterranean sometime in the future? Power needs more than just military might to act. Political vision, organization, and knowledgeable officials, among other factors, are necessary to devise and carry out effective foreign policy. That is, both political will and ability must be present. Currently, the U.S. possesses neither of those elements in regard to Turkey’s region. Certainly, during the Trump Administration’s remainder, and probably even afterwards, the U.S. will have greatly reduced capacity to influence events in Turkey’s region. The more perceptive regional actors have already understood the admonishment directed by the Fool at the Earl of Kent in Shakespeare’s King Lear:
“We'll set thee to school to an ant, to teach thee
there's no labouring i' the winter. …
Let go thy hold when a great wheel
runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with
following it: but the great one that goes up the
hill, let him draw thee after.”
All of the realities described above are what make the U.S. administration’s behavior, both current and previous, all the more frustrating, agonizing even. Isn’t the situation that has unfolded in Syria over the past seven years exactly what an ally is for? Isn’t this sort of regional distress a perfect scenario in which NATO could turn to Turkey for its regional expertise and leadership, to enable the alliance to adapt and create better policy? Turkey’s performance under the NATO aegis in Afghanistan has been, by all accounts, excellent. Syria even borders Turkey, but the U.S. and NATO, for unknown reasons, have never seen Turkey’s proficiency and regional knowledge as a vital aspect of dealing with the Syrian conflict.
On top of all of the regional crises, Turkey went through its own serious political disturbances in 2013-2016, culminating in the July 2016 coup attempt. Turkey is the region’s only large democracy, but throughout that four-year period, Turkey did not receive the moral support from the U.S. that would normally be expected from an ally. In fact, exactly the opposite of what would be expected occurred as a mounting chorus of both official and civilian voices -- notable mostly for their weak knowledge of Turkish politics, society, and events -- emerged to relentlessly excoriate the Turkish government.
To distill the situation to its essence, we can take this perspective: in 2014 the U.S. began a partnership with a violent militant organization, designated by the U.S. government as “terrorist,” that has been targeting the Turkish state and Turkish society for 30 years, and has caused around 40,000 deaths; since the 2016 coup attempt, the U.S. government has made no overt steps to extradite its instigator to Turkey. In the same time frame, the U.S. government and various civilian actors, such as think tanks and journalists, directed harsh, often irrational and mis-/uninformed criticism towards the Turkish government, its elected officials, and Turkish state institutions.
Operation Olive Branch
Those developments, plus other incidents in the recent past, have pushed Turkish officials to act on their own. Several weeks ago, when the U.S. announced the formation of a 30,000-man “border force” in north Syria, the foundations and leadership of which would be provided by the PYD/PKK, the Turkish leadership responded as Piero Capponi responded to King Charles. In this case, however, U.S. decision-makers have displayed neither the prudence nor the humility to see their mistakes, and the past five years have taught the Turkish leadership to distrust U.S. intentions. Russia was also obviously disturbed by the U.S. step. With Russian doubts evaporating, the campaign to expel the PYD/PKK from Afrin was given an almost immediate go-ahead.
Operation Olive Branch had been in the works since the conclusion of Operation Euphrates Shield one year ago. For the past several years, the PYD/PKK has used Afrin as a staging region for slipping militants into Turkey along the Amanos Mountains. From time to time, they also lobbed missiles into the Turkish towns bordering Afrin, especially Kilis and Reyhanli, Hatay.
Most of last summer passed with the expectation that the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) would enter Afrin. Russian opposition seemed to avert the operation at that point, but Turkish forces did move into the Idlib province, south of Afrin and already controlled by Syrian opposition forces, several months ago. That established a southern front.
Operation Olive Branch’s first week went slowly due to rainy weather, but once the clouds lifted, and the Turkish Air Force and its drones were free to roam, the Free Syrian Army began to move forward more steadily. As during the Euphrates Shield operation, the offensive is planned and coordinated carefully, and civilian casualties are extremely rare, providing a stark contrast to the U.S.’s military efforts in a number of places stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan.
As regions are cleared of PYD/PKK elements, Turkish aid workers move in to provide basic necessities to the local inhabitants. Usually within weeks, sometimes sooner, local residents who have fled the past seven years’ fighting are able to return and begin rebuilding their lives and communities. Earlier in January, school children in the Euphrates Shield region received their report cards after finishing a school term free of the violence that had blighted their communities in the past years.
Once Operation Olive Branch reaches its conclusion, not only will Afrin’s residents finally be in safe hands, but Turkish society will be correspondingly more secure. The next target will apparently be the region on the Euphrates River’s west bank, around Manbij, concerning which the Obama Administration broke promises made to the Turkish government.
Before Turkish forces and the Free Syrian Army turn their attention to Manbij, one hopes that U.S. officials will come to their senses, withdraw U.S. soldiers from that region, and cease providing support to the PKK’s Syrian arm. U.S. officials have already proclaimed that the struggle against Daesh in Syria has only weeks to go before its conclusion, so the excuse for maintaining ties with the PYD, flimsy even in the best circumstances, is about to disappear altogether.
But if the U.S. attempts to switch the rationale for the U.S. presence in Syria, and to continue collaborating with the PYD/PKK, then we should expect tensions to continue, and for Turkey to proceed unilaterally in defense of its interests and security. For like Piero Capponi and the Florentine citizenry, the Turkish Republic’s officials and citizens are proud of their liberty, and determined to meet threats to their security, no matter the source.
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