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Examining Turkey, Russia, and Iran through the Lens of Modern Warfare and Terrorism

On January 22, 2024, Paula Doyle, Former Associate Deputy Director of the CIA for Operations Technology, spoke at IWP on the topic of “Examining Turkey, Russia, and Iran through the Lens of Modern Warfare and Terrorism.” Below is the text of her remarks.

I wish to thank The Institute of World Politics for asking me to speak today about issues I worked on as a Foreign Service Officer and a CIA officer for over 30 years.  I then turned my experience and energy towards teaching and studying these issues as an Adjunct Professor of Practice at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service’s Security Studies Program for the past seven years.  The views I present here are my own – not those of the CIA, State Department, or the broader Intelligence Community – although I hope my former colleagues will find them to be helpful in the conduct of their very challenging and dangerous jobs as they work at home and abroad to protect and defend the U.S. and our allies.

From the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, wars and counterterrorism operations define this century’s threats to U.S. and allied national and economic security interests.  Russia, Syria, and Iran have consistently targeted unarmed civilians, hospitals, schools, and food supplies.  Modern warfare tactics and counterterrorism operations implore us to take a hard look at the laws of modern warfare and the ethical principles that guide the sanctity of fighting wars only when they adhere to the principles of just war.

As I look at the vast and interconnected region between the Black Sea, the Eastern Med, and the Persian Gulf, the threats and risks to us are unambiguous, and the trends are worsening.  Let’s examine the facts, beginning with Russia.

  • First, in response to NATO’s April 2008 announcement that we would welcome Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO and that they eventually would become members of NATO, Russia quickly created a self-serving propaganda campaign that claimed that ethnic Russians were being repressed in South Ossetia, Georgia. In August, it illegally invaded South Ossetia, and continues to occupy it.  Letting Russia illegally occupy a neighboring country was our first fatal error.
  • Second, facing no credible repercussions for its actions in Georgia, Moscow created an equally indefensible propaganda campaign about allegedly repressed ethnic Russians in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. It swooped into and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. Facing no credible repercussions from the west, it waged an unprovoked and unjustified war against Eastern Ukraine beginning in 2015. Not arming Ukraine as a swift means to force Russia to leave Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in the 2014-2015 timeframe was our second fatal error.
  • Third, undeterred by the west’s sanctions, protestations, and isolation tactics, Putin crafted what can only be described as a deranged letter to Ukraine, in which he outlined outrageous conspiratorial Nazi concerns about the Ukrainian government, argued that there was no such historical place as Ukraine, and that Moscow needed to “save and protect” the religious home of Saint Vlad, the founder of Russian Orthodoxy (in reality – St. Vlad founded the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – which preceded the Russian Orthodox Church). Putin then mounted a highly visible, full-on invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In the past 23 months, he has waged war against Ukrainian military targets and untold tens of thousands of noncombatant civilians.  Galvanizing the NATO alliance and sending arms and military advisors to Kyiv was the right decision; the painfully slow manner in which the arms arrived in Ukraine – with no air power – was our third fatal error.  The Ukrainian people will live with the consequences of errors 1, 2, and 3 for a very long time.
    • – There is no evidence that Russia will withdraw from Georgia or Ukraine. In fact, if I were advising Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia, I would do everything in my power to persuade NATO to allow them to join as soon as possible because Russia has shown no enthusiasm for taking on the NATO alliance.
    • – It instead has shown a history of bullying non-NATO members – and for threatening to brandish its nuclear weapons.
    • – In my experience of working closely with Perm 5 members on the world’s most serious nuclear weapons matters, I am not persuaded that Putin or his generals will launch nuclear weapons against Ukraine. I do not believe Putin or his generals have a death wish.
  • Fourth, as ISIS emerged and Bashar al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons (CW) on civilian populations in Syria, the U.S. took two actions that emboldened Russia – and deeply offended and alienated Turkey.
    • – In 2013, the U.S. backed away from enforcing President Obama’s “red line” threat after Bashar kept using barbaric chemical weapons against his own people. The U.S. opted instead to work with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to remove Syria’s CW stockpiles.  Bashar – with the help of Russia – secretly withheld some of his chlorine gas and sarin.  Bashar resumed using chlorine gas in August 2014.  Other than lodging protests, the U.S. took no credible actions against Syria’s CW program until President Trump ordered a tomahawk attack in April 2017 that destroyed a known CW facility. Between 2013 and 2017, Russia clearly gained the upper hand in propping up Bashar – frustrating the U.S., Turkey, and most of Europe.
    • – The second U.S. action took place in 2014, when Washington formed a highly controversial partnership with the Syrian YPG to fight ISIS – a decision that drew immediate objections from Turkey due to the YPG’s undisputed associations with the PKK. Turkey watchers know that no single other issue unifies the Turkish people more than the PKK, a terrorist group that has been on the State Department’s FTO list since 1997.

Context here is useful.  As the Syrian Civil War entered its second year in 2012, Russia remained an occupier in Georgia, and Iran became a more forceful presence in Iraq, Turkey asked for U.S. Patriot anti-aircraft missile defense systems. Washington said no. This would prove to be a grave and stubborn error.

  • Turkey kept asking for Patriots in response to growing CW use in 2013 and 2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Washington kept saying no.
  • Turkey made grievous errors in the early days of ISIS and enabled new recruits and Caliphate seekers to travel between Turkey and Raqqa. These actions undermined NATO and caused great tensions between the U.S. and Ankara.  But by mid-to-late 2014, the Turks understood their error and were supporting and leading various operations against ISIS.  They also were keeping close tabs on PKK camps and personnel in Syria and Iraq.
    • – Turkish operations against the PKK in Iraq and Syria sometimes put ordinance in direct or close range of U.S. and YPG forces. In this difficult climate, the U.S. kept declining to sell the Patriots.
    • – After the failed 2016 coup – which Turkey blamed squarely on U.S.-based permanent resident Fethullah Gülen – Turkey gave up on the Patriots and went shopping for its air defense needs in China and Russia.

Putin took full advantage of the chaos.  He offered to sell Ankara Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems (which target NATO, not Russian or Iranian, aircraft) and made generous energy deals. He doubled down on support to Bashar al-Assad, and in 2015, he secured permission to establish long-term Russian naval and air bases in Syria.

Putin’s actions in Syria were incredibly meaningful to Moscow.  From the time of Catherine the Great’s victorious march to Crimea in 1774, Russian and Soviet leaders had sought unfettered access to the Eastern Med.  From 1774 to 2015, great power alliances in Europe and NATO had contained the Russian Black Sea Fleet to the Black Sea.  Given America’s vast investments in defense, intelligence, and alliances throughout the 21st century – how did Putin pull this off?  This continues to trouble me.  Was our intelligence so bad that Putin genuinely surprised us?  Or were we complicit in looking the other way or optimistically underestimating Putin’s goals?

While Russia and Syria had a right to establish these bilateral defense agreements, Russia’s new force posture in the Eastern Med posed immediate and enduring lethal threats to U.S. and coalition forces.  Russia quickly used its bases in Syria to violate Turkish air space and to mount lethal attacks against U.S. and coalition forces.  Compounding America’s challenges, Iran also established bases in Syria and eventually began supplying drones for Russia to use against Ukraine.

The cadence of these events shows that Russia’s plans and intentions for this vast region were not and are not complicated; its expansionist actions and intentions to remain an occupier are abundantly clear.

They also show that U.S. and UN sanctions and political isolation tactics have been necessary, but ineffective. In my experience, Russia only responds to power and the threat of power; it will send endless numbers of young men to die in war; it will find ways around sanctions; it will not yield to diplomatic and trade pressures, isolation, and tough financial times.

If Russia is not forced to return to its borders, it will not give up seized territories in Georgia or Ukraine; it will not stop targeting U.S. and coalition forces in Northeast Syria (NE Syria) and Iraq; it will not stop planning to intimidate and/or invade other countries; and it will not stop flirting with Turkey by offering it impossible air defense systems and the appearance of enduring cheap energy deals.

I do not mean to suggest that we must provoke a war with Russia. I do mean that it is well overdue for NATO to base far more combined combat forces, far more fighter aircraft, far more naval capabilities, and far more language-qualified military attachés, political military officers, and intelligence officers in all NATO states that border on Ukraine, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the Sea of Finland.

The visible projection of hard U.S./NATO power and deepening of credible personal relationships have had and will continue to have genuine impact; Washington and Brussels need to fill these gaps quickly and keep sending Ukraine badly needed arms, fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft batteries, and tank busters.

Let’s now turn to Iran.  I had the honor and privilege of learning about Iran as an undergraduate during the Revolution and applying everything I learned during meetings with brave and cunning Iranian sources as I worked my way up the chain at CIA to become the Chief of Operations for the Iran Operations Division.

We can never undo what the Eisenhower Administration did to instigate the coup that brough Shah Pahlavi and SAVAK to power, but we can vow to try to make things better now and going forward. I love the Iranian people and hope that one day my friends there will have an opportunity to live, learn, and work as they wish – wearing what they wish – under a more tolerant regime.  That said – here is my stark assessment of the Iranian regime.

  • First, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Supreme Leader Khomeini and his proxies killed and injured hundreds of U.S. and coalition diplomats and forces in Lebanon in 1983. His successor Khamenei perpetrated the attack that killed and injured several hundred U.S. and coalition forces at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and sustained lethal operations against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq since at least 2005, in Syria since at least 2015, and in Yemen since at least 2014.  Khamenei and his closest guardians have repeatedly demonstrated that they unequivocally hate us and want us out of the Middle East.
  • Second, the regime has expansionist ambitions. After centuries of contracting from the once great Persian Empire – and even from the more recent Qajar Empire – Iran now enjoys defensible combat-ready bases in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan.  It does not plan to pack up its troops and proxies and go home.
  • Third, Tehran has funded, trained, equipped, and provided lethal targeting support to the militant wing of Hizballah since the 1980s and to the Houthis since 2014. These militant groups are no longer “terrorist” proxies or “rebels” – they are professionalized Iran-backed armies that do two things: they terrorize and wage war. They do not nation build, and they do not fight for the purposes of negotiating cease-fire arrangements.
  • Fourth, adding to this threat picture, Hamas brutally attacked Israel on 7 October, and Israel has taken steps to defend its sovereignty, negotiate the return of international hostages, and destroy Hamas’ abilities to mount future terrorist attacks – resulting in untold thousands of noncombatant Palestinian deaths and injuries.
    • – Iran has been Hamas’ preferred ally – on and off – since the early 2000s. Turkey and Qatar entered the Hamas friendship fray in 2009 – thus irritating Washington and NATO.  From 2015 to today, however, Hamas has relied primarily on Iran and Hizballah for its arms, training, and funding.  I remind you – Iran does not train its proxies to negotiate; it trains and equips them to wage war.  Do not expect Iran to play a productive role in helping Hamas negotiate a cease-fire or the release of hostages.
  • Finally – let us not forget that Iran is inching towards becoming a nuclear weapons power.
    • – I know more than the average bear about nuclear weapons programs. Without a doubt, and in large part thanks to JCPOA’s rather generous terms, Tehran made out because it retained access to its nuclear materiel and centrifuges. When the U.S. pulled out of the agreement in 2018, Iran resumed enriching uranium; they had and still have the means, expertise, and determination to produce nuclear weapons.
    • – The Iranians also have the means to mount warheads on several delivery systems.
    • – Given its record of projecting lethal power outside its borders and its growing alliance with Russia, the thought of an inexperienced nuclear armed Iran is terrifying.

Additional context is helpful here. Washington’s approach to Syria, ISIS, and Russia’s war against Eastern Ukraine in 2015 coincided with international JCPOA negotiations and contributed to what I call stalemate diplomacy.  Diplomatic efforts established awkward Rules of Engagement (ROEs) that left Iran, Hizballah, and Russia in the region – within very close range of U.S. and coalition forces and the Turkish border.

  • Under the ROEs, Russia and Iran pretended to mount operations against ISIS, but the unclassified record is clear – most of their operations targeted U.S. and coalition forces not areas anywhere close to ISIS locations.
  • Stalemate diplomacy may have created an atmosphere to complete the JCPOA agreement and it may have “kept the peace” for a wee bit between rival interests in the region, but it left Iran with the wherewithal to restart its weapons program, it left Turkey to protect its border without the benefit of “big NATO,” and it left U.S. servicemen, women, contractors, and civilians who worked in remote locations in austere parts of NE Syria and western Iraq in greater harm’s way. Several U.S. personnel were injured and killed. Turkey eventually conducted independent and, at times, counterproductive cross-border operations. This period was dangerous and messy.

In 2018, the Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA agreement, and the world watched Iran march swiftly towards enriching uranium at increasingly higher levels.  The world also watched unprecedented Iranian attacks against U.S. personnel in Syria and Iraq.  In response, President Trump in January 2021 authorized a retaliatory attack against the Iranian base in Iraq in which former Qods Force commander Soleimani was killed.  Despite the resulting rage in Tehran, Iran-based attacks against U.S. bases in NE Syria and western Iraq immediately subsided.

We now see evidence of Iranian aggression against U.S. and coalition forces in the news almost every week.  Between October and December 2023, U.S. bases, housing facilities, and troops in Iraq and Syria were subjected to at least 102 attacks.  Only recently did the U.S. resume retaliatory bombing of Iranian facilities in Iraq and Houthi targets in Yemen.  We do not yet know if the U.S. strikes will quell future Iranian attacks.

In my view, the stationing of about 900 U.S. forces on small bases in NE Syria and remote areas of Iraq has more than achieved the goal of “defeating ISIS” and getting it “under control.”  U.S. forces are now sitting ducks in remote, indefensible areas that are well known to Russian and Iranian forces who aim to undermine our mission, our credibility, and our security.  We no longer need the fig leaf of “stalemate” ROEs with Russia and Iran.  We need instead to focus on:

  • returning Russian troops back inside its borders;
  • containing Iran’s expansionist ambitions across the Levant and Afghanistan;
  • developing arms control agreements for the day Iran becomes a nuclear weapons holder;
  • resetting our relationship with Turkey so that we can more credibly and quickly fortify NATO’s southeastern flank; and
  • turning the counter ISIS mission over to a competent partner that is motivated and able to keep ISIS “under control.”

As we wrap up this examination of Russia and Iran, I would add that in my view, it would be most unwise to underestimate the extent to which Moscow, Tehran, and Iran-backed proxies are collecting and coordinating intelligence, sharing targeting information, and supporting each other’s lethal operations against U.S. and coalition forces in any location between the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf.  We cannot afford to make mistakes in judging the trajectory of their relationship and the impacts on the region.

Let us now turn to Turkey, another country I have worked on for many years and for which I have a deep and abiding respect and affection.  Let’s begin with some background.

  • Turkey joined NATO in 1952 because it faced three considerable external threats that were of equal concern to the alliance. First, Turkey shared a long and hostile border and sea with nuclear-armed USSR.  Second, it confronted a Pan-Arab movement that was increasingly tilting pro-Soviet in Syria.  And third, it faced unstable rival Arab and Kurdish factions that were vying for control over Iraq in ways that impacted Turkey’s economic and national security.
  • History also guided Turkey’s decisions to join NATO.
    • – It had learned throughout the waning years of the Ottoman Empire that without the support of western allies it was weak and isolated and unable to successfully confront Imperial Russia – to say nothing of post-WWII Soviets.
    • – It had learned that Ottoman tactics had failed to predict or manage Arab Revolts that emerged during WWI and that Ankara remained ill-positioned after WWII to confront increasingly Pan-Arab nationalist movements on its border that were tilting pro-Soviet.
    • – And third, it had learned the hard way that when the Ottoman Empire was isolated from the west, it repeatedly flirted with Moscow in search of loans, arms, and “friendship” agreements – only to be grossly disappointed each time.
  • Turkey’s situation in 1952 was remarkably similar to today. The U.S. and Ankara have worked hard since 2014 to distance themselves just when they needed each other most – as Russia annexed Crimea, invaded Eastern Ukraine, established naval and air bases in Syria, and mounted a full invasion of Ukraine.  Ankara knows it is isolated today; history reinforces that it needs good strategic friends – not just transactional partners.
  • So, if we want Turkey to tip more authoritarian and keep seeking to balance relations between NATO and China, Russia, and Iran, keep the same policies and expect the same outcomes.
  • If we want, however, to maximize Turkey’s unique geography, 86 million Turks, and capacity to transport energy from the Middle Corridor and Azerbaijan to Europe – thus further lowering demand for Russian and Iranian oil – we must be willing to re-set relations with Turkey.
  • This means re-thinking which partner is best positioned to keep the lid on ISIS and stabilize the southeastern flank – not just along the Turkish border, but also in the southern, eastern, and northern Black Sea.
    • – The only NATO partner that has a contiguous border with ISIS and Iran and that shares a sea with Russia is Turkey. This is not hard, ladies and gentlemen.  This is not hard.

Given the layers of grievances that have developed and festered between the U.S. and Turkey since 2014 – we need to be honest with ourselves, with Brussels, and with Ankara as we reassess the CT and war roles Turkey is uniquely positioned to lead and support against threats all along its nearest abroad region.

  • If we agree that ISIS is “mostly destroyed,” it is time to ask the Peshmerga, Ankara, or another NATO ally to lead CT efforts against ISIS. In doing so, we must be willing to break ties with the YPG and tell Ankara it may resume CT operations against the PKK in Syria and Iraq.  There is no way around this issue.  We must simply tackle it head on and move forward.
  • In exchange for breaking relations with the YPG, the U.S. should ask Turkey to mothball its S-400 systems so that we may restore NATO-consistent arms sales, including U.S. Patriots, F-16 Vipers, and the F-35 program.
  • This does not mean abandoning our pressure on Turkey to restore the independence of its judiciary and releasing political prisoners.  We are America; we can – and must – do both at the same time.
  • We can then tackle these goals:
    • – We can confront Russia and Iran more successfully by positioning more combined combat forces in Turkey along its shared Black Sea with Russia and along its shared borders with Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
    • – We can confront Russia and Iran more successfully by creating sustainable oil markets in Europe and Asia with the help of Turkey’s vast pipelines to transport oil coming from the Middle Corridor, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.
    • – We can help Turkey modernize and expand the capacity of its defense industries so that we can more successfully burden share the NATO compatible arms requirements for Ukraine and other hot spots.

We must avoid “losing” Turkey.  Given threats facing NATO’s southeastern flank, I argue that we need to reset our relations with Turkey – and soon.  If we don’t reassess and realign soon, we risk “losing Turkey” much like we “lost” Iran.  And yes, there are several reasons we could still “lose” Turkey. Here are three:

  • First, the Turks were far more impacted by the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the Syrian Civil War than any other partner. They have borne the brunt of destabilized oil markets, refugees, Kurdish quests for autonomy and independence, and the rise of Shia-led governments along Turkey’s southern border.  They feel encircled, and we need to acknowledge their concerns.
  • Second, when Ankara bought Russian S-400 anti-aircraft defense systems and signed lucrative energy deals with Russia and Iran, the U.S. imposed stiff sanctions on Turkey. In my view, U.S. sanctions are blunt instruments that aim to change, slow, or stop various enemy behaviors.  They are not appropriate tools for use against allies.  Arms embargoes are also difficult to manage.  Each time the U.S. has imposed arms embargoes against Turkey, it has come back to haunt us because we have needed Turkey’s help to confront and/or contain Russia, Iran, or terrorism.  Today is no different.
    • – Turkey’s region is a rough one – Iran and Russia play hard ball; terrorists thrive in the chaos of unstable governing bodies in Baghdad, Beirut, and Damascus; and Kurdish separatists and autonomy seekers in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran are growing bolder with each decade.
    • – Alliances are hard work; countries often disagree. That is why we have skilled diplomats, military attachés, congressional committees, blue ribbon commissions, and statecraft practitioners.  They should be called upon to find solutions to U.S. and broader NATO disagreements with Turkey.
  • Third, beginning in 2009, Turkey sharply pivoted away from Israel and towards Hamas and Qatari partners. While this turnabout caused great consternation in Washington and Tel Aviv, we must remember that Turkey is a Muslim nation; beneath the shroud of Atatürk’s long and strict secular code there were always millions of pious Turks.
    • – The good news about Turkey is that it recognized Israel in 1949; for most of their history, they have been strong partners. This means that with strong efforts by skilled diplomats, military attachés, intelligence officers, and politicians, the U.S. can work to encourage Turkey and Israel to rebuild trust and programs.

Concluding Observations

  • Stovepiped U.S. policies and strategies pertaining to Russia, Turkey, and Iran are failing the U.S., NATO and the vast region between the Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf. The U.S. must instead treat this vast area as one big interconnected political-economic-geostrategic-energy system.
  • What would U.S. policies look like under such a framework?
    • – First, we unambiguously know that Russia and Iran have expansionist ambitions.
    • – If we don’t mind them expanding into other sovereign areas and occupying territories – keep the same policies and expect the same outcomes.
    • – If we think expansion into other national sovereign spaces is verboten, either from a values perspective or from a hard national interest perspective, we must be willing to credibly confront them – not just isolate and contain them through the application of economic sanctions and political pressure.
  • Second, we also know that Turkey is isolated from NATO and treated like a pawn on a three-dimensional chessboard by Moscow and Tehran. This trajectory must change.  The U.S. can reset the chess clock fairly quickly by:
    • – picking a new ally to counter ISIS and breaking ties with the YPG;
    • – urging Turkey to mothball the S-400 in exchange for the resumption of U.S. arms sales; and,
    • – mounting unified NATO campaigns that privately and publicly reassure Turks of their rightful and welcome place in NATO.
  • Third, Washington and Brussels can then finally begin the hard work of re-negotiating new force posture terms with the Turks in ways that more credibly project NATO power against Russia and Iran and deepen relationships all along NATO’s southeastern flank. We can create sustainable oil markets in Europe and Asia with the help of Turkey’s vast pipelines to transport oil coming from the Middle Corridor, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.  We can help Turkey modernize and expand the capacity of its defense industries so that we can more successfully burden share the NATO compatible arms requirements for Ukraine and other hot spots.

In my view, we must tackle all these objectives at one time and sustain each effort all the time.  Beyond improving the national and economic security of the U.S. and our allies in this region, we must take these steps because China is watching. Time in this unstable region is precious.  So let us act boldly, decisively, and quickly.

Glenn Corn, Aldona Wos, Paula Doyle
Prof. Glenn Corn, Amb. Aldona Wos, Paula Doyle