ISTANBUL — The United States is the target of tough criticisms for making a mess of the Middle East, then simply up and leaving — chiefly in Iraq. But at the same time, the U.S. is castigated for not caring enough about the Middle East during President Barack Obama's administration and failing to provide necessary leadership.
What the president of the world's "sole superpower country," the "leader" at the center of the "one axis" international system says at this moment — what he thinks and how he perceives the future of the Middle East — is very important. This is true despite the fact that the American military is returning to Iraq just for airstrikes and not for ground combat.
So The New York Times' recent interview with President Barack Obama holds serious significance. “We do have a strategic interest in pushing back ISIL," the president said, referring to the terrorist organization also known as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
"We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq, but we can only do that if we know that we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void," the president said. "So if we’re going to reach out to Sunni tribes, if we’re going to reach out to local governors and leaders, they’ve got to have some sense that they’re fighting for something.” Otherwise, Obama said, “We can run [ISIS] off for a certain period of time, but as soon as our planes are gone, they’re coming right back in.”
The president also said he doesn't want to be “in the business of being the Iraqi air force” or the Kurdish air force either. But it's worth noting that this return to Iraq happened after developments such as ISIS becoming a risk for Erbil, the Kurdish Iraqi oil fields also being in danger, and the threat of genocide against the Christians and the Yazidi people.
So here is what we know: The security of Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan is now in the hands of the U.S. Washington will not allow the creation of an "Islamic State" on Syrian and Iraqi soil. The U.S. would try to act together with the Iraqi Sunnis, Shias and Kurds to fill the vacuum ISIS would leave behind. Regarding Syria, the stances of Russia and Iran would be closely monitored.
But where is Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, in this picture?
We don't seem to be on its radar. Turkey was against American airstrikes against ISIS while the terrorists have Turkish diplomats as hostages. Ankara didn't want an operation that could endanger the hostages, but the U.S. proceeded anyway.
Moreover, Ankara was reportedly not even briefed about the attacks in detail. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at a late hour on the eve of the actions. Foreign diplomatic sources say that Kerry did not offer any detailed information at that time.
That night, Iraq and the ISIS advance was discussed at two meetings held at the Foreign Ministry Residence and the Prime Minister's Residence. “The operation orders mentioned in Obama's statements would be limited to defending the American diplomats and civilians and distributing humanitarian aid,” a high-ranking government official told the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. But this prediction proved to be wrong.
Our neighborhood, meaning the Middle East, is obviously chaotic and troubled. Turkey has undergone a tough period already, and is transitioning to a new kind of leadership with the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as president. Unfortunately, Turkey cannot fulfill the role that is expected of it in the Middle East.
In order to determine its Middle East policy, Turkey needs to clarify its position on ISIS. Of course, Turkey needs to understand and communicate its own identity before doing so. If Turkey doesn't do what's necessary, the already tough coming days may be even more agonizing for the country.