What political choices can the United States make in the Middle East? Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria and subsequent attacks on Rojava—the three autonomous cantons set up by Syrian Kurds—raise this question, but so far the answer has been framed only in terms of military alliances and realpolitik. But as many have said, the appeal of ISIS and Al Qaeda has to be countered ideologically, not just militarily. This cannot happen without a compelling alternative model. Rojava, with its vision of egalitarian democratic inclusivity, is trying to establish a new paradigm for the Middle East—but so far Washington has seen the Syrian Kurds only in military terms and is short-changing future possibilities because of a misplaced deference to zero-sum ethnic rivalries and the so-called “moderate Islamism” of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On August 24, Turkey invaded Jarabulus, a Syrian border town held by ISIS, with great fanfare: several hundred Turkish soldiers, twenty tanks, and 1,500 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters from Islamist militias. In reality, the whole battle was a fake. ISIS had quietly left town several days before, and the difference between this and their usual behavior convinced some observers, particularly the Kurds, that their exit was coordinated with Ankara.
While the mainstream media saw that Erdogan’s real purpose was to go after the Kurds, and noted that it is problematic for the United States to be allied with two parties that are fighting each other, US coverage of Syria has overwhelmingly focused on either the war or state politics. It has thus failed to look hard at the Erdogan government’s support of jihadis, or to ask what they have in common—whether or not Turkey is a NATO member.
A lot of the mainstream media covered “Operation Euphrates Shield” as if Turkey were actually fighting ISIS. Echoing Turkish press releases, CNN said, “Turkey sends tanks into Syria against ISIS; rebels reportedly capture town.” The made-for-TV battle had been scripted down to camera angles (pool reporters were confined to one hill): bombs dropping, puffs of smoke in the distance, even footage of scouts peering into living rooms, searching for the enemy. Few seemed to notice that not a shot was fired. Operation Euphrates Shield was thus a startling contrast to earlier battles fought by the Kurdish and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Kobane and Manbij, where combat went house to house, deadly and prolonged, and hundreds of lives were lost to ISIS snipers, booby traps, mines, incendiary bombs, and suicide attacks.
The BBC did say that the Turkish invaders met “little resistance,” but it was left to the Voice of America News to express surprise that ISIS had “essentially conceded one of its last strategic border towns,” quoting former intelligence officer Michael Pregent to the effect that the Turkish takeover had been too easy and would end up benefiting ISIS: “What Turkey has done is give ISIS the space to regroup. They basically halted the Kurdish forces from destroying ISIS.”