Hard Truths

10.05.14 12:37 PM ET

VP Biden Apologizes for Telling Truth About Turkey, Saudi and ISIS

The vice president’s remarks last week provoked a diplomatic firestorm among key Sunni allies in the region. But he was just telling it like it is.

Vice President Joe Biden is apologizing again for speaking the truth. After talking for an hour and a half at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Forum last Thursday, he took a question from a student who asked a wise question: “In retrospect do you believe the United States should have acted earlier in Syria, and if not, why is now the right moment?"

Biden, predictably, said “the answer is ‘no’ for two reasons.” The first being the unreliability, incompetence and radicalism of the forces the United States would have been supporting on the ground. No real surprise there. But then he said what everyone in the region knows and The Daily Beast has reported extensively:

“My constant cry was that our biggest problem is our allies — our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria,” Biden told his listeners in remarks subsequently posted on the White House YouTube channel (go to 1:32:00 if you want to skip the earlier speech). 

 “The Turks were great friends,” he notes, adding that he recently spent considerable time with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and they have “a great relationship.” Ditto the Saudis and the Emiratis. But when it came to Syria and the effort to bring down President Bashar Assad there, those allies’ policies wound up helping to arm and build allies of al Qaeda and eventually the terrorist “Islamic State.”

“What were they doing?” Biden asked rhetorically. “They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied were al Nusra and al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

Note that Biden did not say the intent of any of these allies was to supply terrorists, only that a hell of a lot of the arms and the money wound up in the hands of people who are sworn enemies of the West as well as of Assad.

“Now you think I’m exaggerating,” said Biden. “Take a look! Where did all of this go?”

The point he wanted to make, in a very Bidenesque way, was that over the summer things changed.

“All of a sudden everybody’s awakened because [of] this outfit called ISIL [or ISIS], which was Al Qaeda in Iraq,” said Biden. He sketched the organization’s history: it was “essentially thrown out of Iraq” but “found open space in territory in eastern Syria,” then it worked with the al Qaeda subsidiary al Nusra, which the United States “declared a terrorist group early on.” And, still, according to Biden, “we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them. So what happened? Now all of a sudden — I don’t want to be too facetious — but they have seen the Lord, [and] the President’s been able to put together a coalition of our Sunni neighbors, because America can’t once again go into a Muslim nation and be seen as the aggressor. It has to be led by Sunnis to go and attack a Sunni organization. So what do we have for the first time …” At that point the recording ends.

As blogger Sharmine Narwani pointed out on Saturday, news of these remarks was first headlined by the Kremlin’s mischievous English language news channel Russia Today, while the American news networks ignored them and highlighted the utterly trivial remark by Biden that being VP is “a bitch.” 

Narwani also pointed out past reports that the CIA was involved in channeling arms to groups in Syria now deemed terrorist targets — which suggests just how poisonous any relationship on the ground there can be. The Obama administration finds itself condemned for what it has done and what it has not done, when the real problem is that nothing has worked to bring peace or strengthen a moderate rebel leadership.

Whatever the CIA did, in any case, was very small potatoes compared to the massive flow of fighters and to some extent materiel through Turkey that allowed ISIS to take major cities in Syria and Iraq and eventually become self sufficient — with help from millions of dollars a day earned by smuggling diesel fuel, again, through Turkey.

Biden was quoted in the Turkish press going so far as to tell the audience at Harvard, "President Erdogan told me, he is an old friend, said you were right, we let too many people through, now we are trying to seal the border.”

In any case, diplomacy being diplomacy, Biden is now saying he didn’t mean what he said about America’s problematic Sunni allies.

The reaction of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has been slow, since the news broke in the middle of the great Eid al-Adha holiday that ends Sunday night. But the reaction of Ankara was incandescent. "If Biden said these words, then he will be history for me. I never uttered such remarks," Erdogan declared after the morning prayer for Eid on Saturday.

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So, Biden set about trying to restore that “great relationship,” calling President Erdogan that same day to “clarify recent comments made at Harvard University,” according to a statement released by the U.S. embassy in Ankara. “The Vice President apologized for any implication that Turkey or other Allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIL or other violent extremists in Syria.”

(Notice the weasel word “intentionally.”)

“The Vice President made clear that the United States greatly values the commitments and sacrifices made by our Allies and partners from around the world to combat the scourge of ISIL, including Turkey,” said the U.S. read-out on the phone call. “The two leaders reaffirmed the importance of Turkey and the United States working closely together to confront ISIL,” it concluded.

Yeah, it’s a bitch being Joe Biden. But somebody’s got to try to tell the truth sometime.