Welcome to TIME Subscriber Q&A, with TIME’s Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Michael Crowley, who has spent the week traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry to Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The logistical challenges that resulted from his travels prevented this post from being published at 1 p.m. as scheduled.
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yogi asks, Turkey has reportedly refused to allow US to use their airbases to attack ISIS. Why does Turkey feel they don’t need to be apart of the fight against ISIS when they have been one of the countries leading the charge against Assad and support of rebels in the Syrian civil war?
Hello and thanks for the question. I am actually in Ankara right now with Secretary of State John Kerry, who has come here for meetings on this issue. This is a delicate situation for Turkey. You may also have noticed that Turkey attended the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting led by John Kerry in Jeddah yesterday — but that it did not sign the group’s communiqué pledging a unified effort against ISIS. Administration officials insist that Turkey is helping, although they’d like to see more progress. Why so delicate? Primarily because ISIS is holding 49 Turkish diplomats and security officers hostage — all captured when the group stormed the Iraqi city of Mosul in June and overran the Turkish consulate. The Turks obviously hope to get the hostages back alive and are trying not to provoke ISIS in a way that might lead to their harm. Officials say that Turkey has taken steps to stop foreign fighters from flying into the country and crossing the border into Syria. Six thousand have been denied entry to the country and another thousand have been deported, according to a State Department official. But Washington wants to see more progress on that front. The U.S. is also asking Turkey to crack down on ISIS oil smuggling over its borders which is bringing the group significant revenue. How much the hostage situation will complicate those efforts remains to be seen. In fact, just as I was about to send this, John Kerry visited the press here to make a statement. He is standing ten feet away from me now, declaring that “Turkey and the United States will stand together against any challenges within the region — including all terrorism.”
deconstructiva asks, Michael, do you see Kurdistan going independent soon? (I asked Jay Newton-Small a similar question during her Q+A, now it’s your turn!) I think they will thanks to growing differences with Iraq and better relations with Turkey, not to mention their oil. It is interesting that oil can play a key role in a region’s potential independence, in this case for both Kurdistan and Scotland.
I don’t see an independent Kurdistan emerging soon. But the Kurds have made progress on this front. Relations between Turkey and the Kurds have greatly improved in recent years, and the United States is very grateful for the role Kurdish peshmerga fighters have played — in coordination with U.S. air strikes — in driving back ISIS in northern Iraq. (You can read my recent TIME story on America’s inglorious history and new alliance with the Kurds here.) That said, too many powerful actors remain opposed to an independent Kurdish state. Ankara still isn’t comfortable with the idea. And Washington strongly believes that Iraq should remain whole —that any partition would lead to more chaos and bloodshed. And although the Kurds have lots of oil, U.S. officials say they stand to lose $10 billion in annual revenues from Baghdad if they go on their own.
DonQuixotic asks, Do you believe that the intention of groups like ISIS are similar to that of Al Qaeda? That is, to draw us into a quagmire that severely depletes our resources, diminishes our standing around the world, and puts our soldiers in a positions where they can be readily attacked?
I don’t think ISIS set out to draw the U.S. into a quagmire. The group’s main goal is the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and the Levant, which includes Syria and Lebanon. ISIS has secondary goals like crushing Shiite power in the region — ISIS is a Sunni Muslim group that considers Shiite Muslims like those who dominate Iran to be heretics — and toppling Sunni regimes that the group considers pro-Western and inauthentically Muslim, like those in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Obviously ISIS hates America and is happy to kill Americans but it does not appear to be laying a quicksand trap. Indeed, if you take the verbal messages from the horrible Foley and Sotloff execution videos at face value, ISIS is warning Barack Obama not to meddle with its quest for a caliphate.
yogi asks, How long does the US government give Abadi to form a unity government? If he turns into no different than Maliki does the US apply pressure on getting a new prime minister?
John Kerry called this week’s creation of a new government in Baghdad, including the choice of Haider al-Abadi to replace Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a “major milestone” for the country. Barack Obama says the new government was a key trigger for the escalation of his fight against ISIS. As I wrote this week, however, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that Iraq has truly turned a corner. A key problem is that two very important cabinet posts remain unfilled — the ministers of interior and defense. Both jobs are sensitive because they involve state security. On the plane to Ankara today, I asked a State Department official about the timeline for filling those posts. He said the defense ministry position is all but settled, interior remains a point of dispute, but he expects both will be filled next week. It’s hard to predict what will happen if Abadi shows the repressive sectarian tendencies of his predecessor, Maliki. Obama tolerated Maliki’s repression for years, but the stakes are much higher now.
outsider asks, Given how the US is perceived internationally, as the unwanted police force of the world, which may or may not be accurate depending on your point of view – do you think the wisest course of action is military action?
I’m not going to take a position on the wisdom of military action. I will say the question of whether America is an “unwanted” policeman — or at least power — is a complicated one. Some of our allies have been unhappy for months and years that Barack Obama has not intervened more forcefully in Syria’s civil war. The Saudis for instance were particularly dismayed that Obama backed away from his planned air strikes against the Assad regime a year ago. And allies in the Middle East and Europe are glad to see Obama leading an international coalition against ISIS. That said, there remain plenty of governments and people around the world who believe the U.S. throws around its power too casually and aren’t happy to see American bombs falling in the Middle East again.
deconstructiva asks, Michael, do you think Obama should do a “Nixon goes to China” moment and go to Iran to try to break the ice?
Obama very much wants a nuclear deal with Iran. But even that has proved difficult and may not be possible. The odds of a Nixon-to-China breakthrough are even smaller — pretty much zero. The substantive and psychological gaps between the countries are just too wide. The U.S. has tremendous differences with Iran on everything from state-sponsored terrorism to Israel human rights. The Iranian regime, meanwhile, is deeply hostile towards the U.S. for reasons that extend back generations. Anti-Americanism was a founding tenet of the Islamic revolution and, in my recent reporting about Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, it is clear to me that he does not believe the U.S. can ever be trusted. Finally, a rapprochement with Iran would provoke an absolute freakout on the part of America’s important Sunni allies, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which consider Shiite Iran a mortal foe. Given that Obama and Kerry have worked furiously to build a Sunni Arab coalition in support of the campaign against ISIS, it’s very difficult to see a breakthrough in Washington-Tehran relations now. Some expert observers doubt Obama will even be able to reach a nuclear deal by the November deadline.
Eveliina111 asks, Will Muslim countries like Iran and Turkey join forces with the US? If not why is that?
As noted above, Turkey is playing a role — albeit a limited one — in the anti-ISIS coalition. And so are many other Muslim nations, including all the significant Sunni-led powers of the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Iran is a very special case, however. As I mentioned in another answer, the regime in Tehran feels greatly threatened by America. Iran’s leaders, who don’t discount the possibility of an attack by the U.S., don’t like seeing American military action in their neighborhood. (Indeed, Iran’s media are rife with conspiracy theories that America created ISIS.) But ISIS has created strange bedfellows here. The Sunni radical group despises Shiites, and Iran is an overwhelmingly Shiite nation. Iran has been supporting Iraq’s fight against ISIS for weeks already; there have been reports of top Iranian military commanders on the ground in Iraq. Does that mean the U.S. and Iran are cooperating against ISIS? No. Top Obama officials repeatedly say there’s no coordination. In at least one case, however, U.S. airstrikes appeared to allow Iranian-backed fighters to clear ISIS fighters from territory in northern Iraq. And with thousands of Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria, it’s possible that in the months to come there will be more such instances of mutually beneficial proximity, if not outright coordination.
DonQuixotic asks, Do you think it’s a reasonable or even feasible goal to try and “defeat ISIS”? How can a terrorist network ever be effectively engaged with physical force when gains you make against them only turn more radicals to their cause?
This is an important and difficult question. We know from the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere that military action against radical Islamists inevitably kills innocent civilians, engendering hatred for America among people who may then turn to radicalism themselves. The mere presence of America’s military can become a recruiting tool for terrorist groups. (Osama bin Laden was outraged at the presence of U.S. troops in the holy land of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, for instance.) In recent years terrorism experts and top government officials have debated this question specifically in relation to American drone strikes, with some influential voices — including Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander in Afghanistan — warning of the risk of blowback. All that said, I suspect Obama officials would tell you that the U.S. simply cannot allow a group like ISIS to fester because there are downsides to the use of American power. An interesting question is exactly how we will define “defeat.”
nflfoghorn asks, When will the Saudi kingdom be held accountable for its role in 9/11/01, especially when many of the perps were paid to come over here?
As it happens, I was briefly in the room during John Kerry’s meeting with Saudi King Abdullah last night. This gave me a glimpse at Abdullah’s massive and opulent royal palace in Jeddah — his summer home — which is fortified by at least three security checkpoints and four armored personnel carriers, along with countless black-uniformed security troops. I can report that the elderly King appeared to be in good health, although he did not stand from his chair to greet Kerry. Though it may disappoint many people, I think we are long past the time when Saudi Arabia will be “held accountable” for the events of September 11. There’s plenty of evidence that the Saudis at minimum turned a blind eye to al Qaeda’s activities, and did little to prevent support and financing for bin Laden from within the Saudi kingdom. However, the U.S. now sees Saudi Arabia as a crucial partner in the fight against terror — and not without reason: Not long after 9/11, the Saudis suffered a serious of internal terrorist attacks which sharply focused their attention on the al Qaeda threat, and produced very close cooperation with the U.S. Saudi intelligence tips have helped America break up very serious plots against the homeland, notably by al Qaeda’s branch in neighboring Yemen. And see the discussion above about the important Saudi role in the new anti-ISIS coalition. On Secretary Kerry’s trip through the region this week, State Department officials have said that the Saudi government is already pressuring influential clerics to speak out against ISIS’s radical ideology.