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Opinion

Editorials of The Times

Posted January 31, 2018 11:44 p.m. EST
Updated January 31, 2018 11:46 p.m. EST

U.S. Allies’ Conflict Is Islamic State’s Gain

Desperate for a strong regional ally in the fight against the Islamic State, both the Trump and Obama administrations eagerly worked with Kurdish forces in Syria, even though allies of those forces were waging an insurgency across the border in Turkey, a NATO ally.

Now, U.S. successes against the Islamic State are threatened by Turkish attacks on the Syrian Kurds. The clash, long feared, could provoke a wider war and a division of Syria into zones of influence. But stopping it would require a diplomatic commitment on all sides that has so far been lacking.

The confrontation began last week when Turkish forces crossed the border into Syria and attacked Kurdish troops, who control the northwestern town of Afrin. Since then, events have escalated, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey threatening to take the fight to the Kurdish-controlled town of Manbij, where U.S. Special Operations forces are based. He is also talking about expelling the Kurds and resettling the area with Syrian refugees.

The Kurds, known as the People’s Protection Units, dominate the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella organization that receives U.S. training, weapons and air support. The Turks consider them terrorists, indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has waged a separatist war in Turkey for more than 30 years. While the Syrian group plays down its ties to the organization in Turkey, and there are differences, links do exist. The two groups have common roots, but experts say the Syrian contingent has largely kept a 2012 promise not to provide material support to the Turkish Kurds, who are formally recognized as a terrorist group by the United States and Europe.

Despite the complications of Americans working with one Kurdish group while another group waged an insurgency against a NATO ally, the decision made sense. Turkey was so focused on overthrowing President Bashar Assad of Syria that it refused to help America fight the Islamic State group. It left its border wide open, enabling foreign fighters to swell Islamic State ranks. The Kurds, on the other hand, wanted to fight the Islamic State group, which threatened their forces, and they were good at it.

Still, the United States should have done more to prevent the two parties from going to war with each other even before the Islamic State threat receded.

Turkey had grown alarmed about U.S. collaboration with Kurdish forces after 2012, when those forces created an autonomous semi-state in northeastern Syria. The Turks now want to prevent the Kurds from linking three enclaves along the border into a unified Kurdish region. They worry that such a consolidation would embolden Kurdish fighters in Syria to aid the Kurdish party within Turkey.

Those fears are understandable, but Erdogan is making things worse by attacking the Kurds in Syria, which could provoke a surge of Kurdish nationalism in the region. The offensive is part of his long-planned strategy to rally domestic support before the 2019 elections, which relies heavily on portraying the United States as an enemy. It began after the Pentagon revealed plans for a new U.S.-backed, 30,000-member border force in Syria that Turkey views as an attempt to create an autonomous Kurdish enclave.

When Turkey reacted angrily, the White House disavowed the plans and hinted it was easing support for the Kurds, but the Pentagon said a Kurdish-led force was still in the works.

To placate Turkey, Washington gave a green light to its offensive against Afrin, claiming that the Kurds in that area were not U.S. allies. But it warned against an incursion into Manbij, where the Turks could come into direct contact with U.S. forces.

Such mixed messages sow confusion and do little to prevent further conflict, reassure the Turks or support the Kurds. Under the authoritarian Erdogan, Turkey has become an unreliable ally that stokes anti-Americanism at home and draws closer to Russia. But, with a major economy, a large army and a vital military base at Incirlik, it needs to be drawn closer to the West, not jettisoned.

Still, the administration needs the Kurds. Both the Trump and Obama administrations always assumed that if they gave Erdogan a free hand to wage war against the Kurds in Turkey, he would give America a free hand to work with the Kurds in Syria. That assumption was blindly optimistic, and it has left Washington with two allies at war — to the benefit of Assad and his enablers, Russia and Iran, as well as the remnants of the Islamic State.

The United States and NATO need to push Erdogan to resume peace talks with Turkish Kurds that were suspended in 2015. The Turkish president needs to be assured that a semi-autonomous region for Syrian Kurds, a long-marginalized minority, would not threaten his country and would not collude with the Turkish Kurds. Kurds need to agree to those terms, promise to observe human rights norms, allow non-Kurds to live in their region and accept that the region will not become an independent state.

As the Turks and Kurds face off, Assad is pushing to reassert control over Syria, while Russia and Iran maneuver to ensure they will have a permanent presence and influence in the country. Meanwhile, despite its military commitment, the United States is shirking its responsibility for Syria’s political future. Syria’s long agony will never end as long as leaders who should see a value in fostering regional stability keep tearing the country apart.

Michigan State’s Remedial Education

Larry Nassar had a day of reckoning last week for his years of molesting young gymnasts and other athletes, and he will spend the rest of his life in prison. But the leaders of Michigan State University, where he worked, have yet to take full responsibility for their failures to protect those girls, or to even learn what went wrong and regain the trust of the public.

To ensure real accountability, members of the university’s Board of Trustees, which picks the university’s president, oversees the administration and sets policy, should resign to make way for new leadership unencumbered by the Nassar scandal and the recent report by ESPN that the university concealed allegations of sexual violence by members of its prized football and basketball programs. If the trustees refuse to do so, Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, and its Legislature ought to remove them.

For about two decades, university officials — administrators, coaches, trainers, even police officers — either dismissed or silenced Nassar’s victims, allowing him to abuse several generations of athletes at the university and USA Gymnastics. When one victim filed a complaint with MSU in 2014, an inquiry said the doctor’s action was medically appropriate. So officials continued to let him treat young women, even while the campus police followed up on the complaint.

Separately, ESPN quoted a former sexual-assault counselor at Michigan State who described a pattern of disturbing behavior in which senior university officials hid information about sexual-assault complaints against student-athletes and protected them from punishment.

What is particularly distressing about all of this is that Michigan State’s leaders seem to have learned little from the abysmal response by universities like Penn State and Baylor to reports of sexual abuse in sports programs. Its eight trustees stood behind its embattled president, Lou Anna Simon — who was aware of the 2014 complaint — until just before her resignation last week. She was embattled because she did not appear to take the Nassar scandal seriously and seemed callous toward the victims.

Even her resignation letter struck a tone of defensiveness. “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable,” she wrote. The board’s vice chairman, Joel Ferguson, defended Simon on a radio show last week by arguing, among other things, that she was a great fundraiser and that “there’s so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.”

The university resisted commissioning an independent investigation and gave the public the impression that it had hired Patrick Fitzgerald, a respected former U.S. attorney, to run one. It turned out that Fitzgerald was representing, not investigating, the school. Belatedly, on Friday, the board said it would “bring in an independent third party to perform a top-to-bottom review of all our processes relating to health and safety.”

But the term “health and safety” suggests that this inquiry may not be as comprehensive as the one Penn State commissioned from Louis Freeh, the former FBI director, after the university failed to stop the abuse of boys by Jerry Sandusky, the assistant football coach.

Michigan State’s board on Wednesday appointed John Engler, a former Republican governor, as interim president. Many faculty members and students, angered at not being consulted, opposed the move, and some disrupted a board meeting where the decision was made.

The first thing the board ought to do is commission a thorough and impartial investigation by someone of Freeh’s stature. The university cannot outsource its responsibility to the state attorney general, the federal Department of Education and the National Collegiate Athletic Association — all of which have said they are investigating the university.

While the state attorney general can bring criminal charges, and the Education Department and NCAA can demand policy changes, only Michigan State’s leaders can make far-reaching changes to the university’s culture and practices.

University trustees, who are elected to staggered eight-year terms, have no credibility to help the university regain trust. Snyder could remove the trustees by conducting a public inquiry, while the Legislature could do so after impeachment proceedings. Both could take months. The two trustees who are up for re-election this year have said they will not run again, but all of them should leave.

Many young Americans probably cannot remember a time when sports did not play an outsize role in campus life and university administration. But the federal and state governments created Michigan State, Penn State and other land grant universities more than a century ago to extend higher education to more Americans. Now more than ever, the leaders of these universities need to place that core mission at the top of their priority list, above winning championships and signing lucrative TV contracts.

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