Former House Intel chair: Turkey can't have it both ways in NATO

Mike Rogers, former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also sees economic pressure on Russia as presenting a “unique opportunity” for Moscow’s help in Syria.

al-monitor Committee Chairman US Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., (foreground) listens to testimony at the House Intelligence Committee on worldwide threats, in Washington, Feb. 4, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Gary Cameron.

Topics covered

turkey, syria, security, russia, nato, islamic state, iran, cyberattack

Jan 14, 2015

WASHINGTON — Mike Rogers, who chaired the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2011-2014, said this week that “we have to have a public discussion about Turkey’s role in NATO.”

In an exclusive telephone interview on Jan. 13, Rogers expressed dissatisfaction with Turkey’s unwillingness so far to allow the use of the Incirlik air base for US-led coalition airstrikes against terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, saying that Turkey wants “all the benefits of NATO but they want none of the responsibility. I am very, very concerned that they’re trying to have it both ways. So we need to have that discussion.”

Rogers, who retired this month after representing Michigan’s 8th District in the House of Representatives since 2001, was “extremely cautious” about any positive shift in Iranian behavior, describing Iran as the “No. 1 malign influence in the region.”

“You get in bed with Iran and somebody’s not going to get a good night’s sleep,” he said. “Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is still your enemy. Iran has no interest in turning a new leaf.”

Rogers said current pressures on Russia as a result of falling oil prices presents a great opportunity to “leverage the Russians to provide an internationally supported plan for transition in Syria where the United States could help, and more importantly, the Arab League nations could help bring the opposition to a point for transition.”

“If Russia backs away from [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, he’s done. They know it, we know it,” Rogers said. “It’s a very delicate dance because you don’t want Assad to go too quickly, candidly, because of the sheer chaos that would ensue, and it would make Libya look like an antique gun show with the kind of weapons that would fall in the hands of terrorists and others in a place like Syria. So, I think we have a window here, but this takes serious negotiations and you have to be firm with Russia. You cannot give them an inch or they’ll take four miles.”

Rogers, who was a leader in the Congress on cybersecurity legislation, described an “unfortunate trend” in the expanding threat of cyberattacks from both hostile states and criminal organizations.

“If a relatively unsophisticated nation-state like North Korea can pull this off, even by contracting it out and sending its people outside its own borders to even have the capability to perform the attack, now you have a real problem because we have international criminal organizations that will also have this capability. So this ends up into a whole new business.”

“You’ll continue to get more sophisticated intellectual property thefts. That’s devastating to the future of the economy. You’ll continue to get the one-off criminal threats where they steal credit cards and sell them and steal money that way. You have now this new level of destructive cyberattack that will become more available to more non-rational actors in cyberspace, and that’s my concern,” he said.

Rogers is expected to be a leader in shaping the national security debate in the 2016 presidential elections. He hosts a nationally syndicated radio show, “Something to Think About” on the Cumulus Westwood One network and is a national security commentator on CNN.

Rogers describes himself as an internationalist and is concerned about an isolationist trend in both parties. “There’s been this notion of isolationism creeping into the Republican Party for sure, and it’s always been there in the Democrat Party, and it seems to be getting steam there as well,” he said.

“I think, this is an important election when it comes to understanding America’s role in the world. We have lots of problems we need to deal with in the United States clearly,” he said. ”We have economic challenges we need to deal with here clearly. We have economic challenges and opportunity to grow, for every American to work their way up through the economic ladder here in the country clearly.

“But at the same time, none of that can work if we don’t ensure that we are still the world’s leader when it comes to our military presence and our engagement in the world.”

A transcript of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Andrew Parker, director-general of the UK’s MI5 Security Service said last week that a group of core al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria is planning mass casualty attacks against the West.” Is this a realistic concern? What more should the US be doing in light of this warning, and the terrorist attacks in France last week?

Rogers:  Well, yes it should be a concern, and if we look at the makeup of Syria right now with al-Qaeda affiliate [Ahrar] al-Sham, al-Qaeda affiliate [Jabhat] al-Nusra; you have Hezbollah operating there; and, you have this group that the press termed the Khorasan group, which was basically a senior-leadership, al-Qaeda-affiliated, veteran organization, and by veteran I mean experienced, been around the al-Qaeda operation for some time.

We also saw at one point, and this was months ago, that there was some connection between AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] and al-Qaeda groups in Syria, some kind of conversations.

I don’t think it was very clear if it was training opportunities, people-recruiting opportunities, or it was sharing of bomb-making. I don’t think that was made very clear, certainly it wasn’t clear to me. But when you look at all of that, you look at the fact that al-Qaeda is clearly trying to get some points on the board so that IS [the Islamic State] is not the only jihadist game in town. I think you have to be concerned, and I think France was just certainly a part of that.

Al-Monitor:  What more should the US be doing to meet this threat?

Rogers:  I believe today, like I have believed for the last three years, that we have to have a more robust plan to deal with IS in Syria. So, you have not only the IS problem in Syria, but you have now huge swaths of safe haven that not only house IS, or “Daesh,” and they’re not only using it for propaganda purposes, which unfortunately people believe they’re winning, even with US attacks to kind of hold them or contain them.

You also have now huge swaths of safe havens that would allow [Jabhat] al-Nusra, this al-Qaeda al-Khorasan group affiliate, to operate. The fact that you could have someone from Yemen visiting in Syria, and then probably returning safely and, you know, some of this is a little speculation but it’s well-placed speculation, if I may say so. It means that we have an area of safe haven, which was again the stated goal after 9/11 is not to allow areas of safe haven to develop so that they could train, recruit, finance and plan operations. Well, this is the mother of all safe havens. So, you have all of those groups operating there, including Hezbollah by the way, which also has its own al-Quds force connections that are very, very concerning.

So, I think you have to disrupt and you have to degrade their capabilities to have safe haven in Syria and Iraq, and I just don’t know any other way around it. And that means there’s a whole host of ways to do it. I don’t believe you need the 101st Airborne Division, but I do believe you need our special capability forces engaged with Sunni Arab nation forces, and other coalition partners, to diminish their ability to operate in those areas.

Al-Monitor:  You were a leader in Congress in addressing the cyberthreats to the US. In the past month, we have had the cyberattacks on both Sony and the CENTCOM social media accounts. How would you characterize the cyberthreats in the coming years — both commercial and national security threats? What more can the US do to stay ahead of the cyber challenge?

Rogers:  Well, you know, the Sony event was in my mind a big game-changer. It’s the first time that you had at least complicity of a nation-state engaged in attacking an American business for the purposes of destroying data, … stealing intellectual property and destroying data, and when they did that, they crossed a threshold.

We’ve seen this before. We saw Iran do it to Saudi Aramco, the company in Saudi Arabia; RasGas in Qatar, I believe it was. So we’ve seen it before and its sole purpose is to shut that thing down and cause severe economic distress and create some chaos and debilitate their ability to recover.

We saw that in Sony, and unfortunately I think that most of the public saw tantalizing emails from very wealthy Sony executives to very wealthy stars about each other that the public found something snicker-worthy. Unfortunately, we missed the point on that, and that is really, really dangerous. Imagine if that had happened to a financial institution and now they don’t know how much money you have in the bank and you can’t tell them how much money you have in the bank. We have got a huge problem.

So if a relatively unsophisticated nation-state like North Korea can pull this off even by contracting it out and sending its people outside its own borders to even have the capability to perform the attack, now you have a real problem because we have international criminal organizations that will also have this capability. So this ends up into a whole new business.

If Iran decides it’s going to continue this probing action, [as] according to public reports they did with US financial institutions, that’s a problem. If international organized crime groups decide that they want to go the way of extortion by picking up, sending an email saying, “Were in your system: I can either destroy your data in a few minutes or you can wire transfer me some money,” we’re going to have a huge problem here.

And I think that’s the new unfortunate trend we’re going to deal with. So, you’ll continue to get more sophisticated intellectual property thefts. That’s devastating to the future of the economy. You’ll continue to get the one-off criminal threats where they steal credit cards and sell them and steal money that way. You have now this new level of destructive cyberattack that will become more available to more nonrational actors in cyberspace, and that’s my concern.

Al-Monitor:  Let me turn to Russia. In December 2013 you were a keynote speaker at a conference on “The US, Russia and the Middle East” sponsored by Al-Monitor and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Since then, Russia has seized Crimea and been subject to US and EU sanctions, and declining oil prices. But Russia has also continued to back the P5+1 [the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany] talks and is seeking to organize a meeting between the Syrian government and opposition figures later this month. How should the US manage the relationship with Russia over the next two years?

Rogers:  Well, I mean, firm and foremost. So, you need to be firm with Russia. We’re in a very unique spot because of falling oil prices. We knew once it got below $100 [per barrel], they would be nervous. Once it got below $80, they were in some trouble. So, they’re in some trouble financially and they’ve got a lot they bit off in Crimea cost-wise. They have a lot that is going out in their efforts to destabilize Eastern Ukraine.

Their efforts in Syria, I do think, present a unique opportunity to try to reel them back in. Early on, I always said Russia could be very, very helpful in a peaceful transition in Syria that might be acceptable to opposition groups. Unfortunately, for a whole host of reasons, the administration I think kind of swung and missed at this opportunity early on, and Russia became empowered, and of course that’s when oil was flowing and cash was coming in and they had re-established their pre-eminence there with the chemical weapons deal that allowed them to keep Assad in, make no concessions, they cut a deal outside of the P5+1 with Iran during the discussions of the P5+1, which tells you everything you need to know about the way Russia will handle its own perceived interests in the region.

So, this presents us a great opportunity to actually, I think, leverage the Russians to provide an internationally supported plan for transition in Syria where the United States could help, and more importantly, the Arab League nations could help bring the opposition to a point for transition .

If Russia backs away from Assad, he’s done. They know it, we know it. It’s a very delicate dance, because you don’t want Assad to go too quickly, candidly, because of the sheer chaos that would ensue, and it would make Libya look like an antique gun show with the kind of weapons that would fall in the hands of terrorists and others in a place like Syria. So, I think we have a window here but this takes serious negotiations, and you have to be firm with Russia. You cannot give them an inch or they’ll take four miles.

Al-Monitor:  Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that Iran’s influence in Iraq might be “positive,” if Iran supports an inclusive Iraqi political process. Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry referred to reported attacks on Islamic State forces in Iraq as “positive.” Iran and the P5+1 resume negotiations on Jan. 18 on a nuclear agreement. Is it fair to say the US and Iran share an interest in combatting the Islamic State? Would a nuclear agreement allow even further opportunities for defusing regional tensions?

Rogers:  Well, I would be extremely cautious. You get in bed with Iran and somebody’s not going to get a good night’s sleep. They are the No. 1 malign influence in the region. So, they have destabilized Yemen with support of the Houthis. They have been destabilizing efforts in Iraq to undermine both US interests and Sunni-led nation interests in the region and I would argue they’re undermining the interests of all of Iraq and the Kurds in the north and certainly the Sunni tribal areas. They’ve caused more damage than they have done good.

We know that they’ve done a great job about agreeing and committing to more meetings; not such a great job of weighing in on serious issues that would dismantle their nuclear capabilities or their nuclear intentions.

So, I would be incredibly cautious. Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is still your enemy.

Iran has no interest in turning a new leaf. They do have an interest in trying to secure themselves as the region’s leader through strength and disruption activities. Again, I’ve seen no slowdown of the Quds force activities in the region. I’ve seen no slowdown of their support for Hezbollah.

We even watch them support groups like Hamas, which would almost be counterintuitive other than it served their political purpose of trying to put pressure on Israel and the United States. So, none of that has stopped during any of the small things that people have been able to find to say, “Well, this is a positive thing.”

Al-Monitor:  Turkey is a NATO member and a critical US ally, but has so far been unwilling to allow the US to use the Incirlik air base in support of military action against the Islamic State. Turkey seems more preoccupied with removing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rather than battling the IS terrorists. This is in addition to Turkey’s pressure and restrictions on the media, which Al-Monitor has well covered. Are you content with the content and direction of Turkish policy in the Middle East?

Rogers:  No. And I think that we have to have a public discussion about Turkey’s role in NATO. They certainly want all the benefits of NATO but they want none of the responsibility. I am very, very concerned that they’re trying to have it both ways. So we need to have that discussion. It doesn’t mean we ought to say, “We ought to throw them out,” it just means we’re going to have to have a hard discussion with Turkey. Currently, people say, “Well, it’s Turkey and that’s just the way it is.” Well, when you take on the role and responsibility of a NATO partner, if NATO is going to survive as an institution for peace, then we can no longer accept this notion that countries get to say, “Well, I’m for it as long as you’re giving me something and I’m not for it when you’re asking.”

That is an unacceptable place to be and Turkey is going to have to decide which way they want to lean. Do they want to lean towards a more isolated Islamic state, or do they want to be a republic that can embrace the tenets of NATO and the security in the Middle East.

Al-Monitor:  I expect you will be active in setting the national security agenda for the 2016 elections, and after. How do you see the role of national security in the coming campaign? What should be at the top of the national security agenda?

Rogers:  We need to make sure that national security is an agenda item into 2016. It really had fallen away. There has been no serious national security discussion, no serious at the administration level. No discussion about America’s role in the world and the importance of America’s engagement in the world and as such. There’s been this notion of isolationism creeping in to the Republican Party for sure, and it’s always been there in the Democrat Party, and it seems to be getting steam there as well.

I think this is an important election when it comes to understanding America’s role in the world. We have lots of problems we need to deal with in the United States clearly. We have economic challenges we need to deal with here clearly. We have economic challenges and opportunity to grow, for every American to work their way up through the economic ladder here in the country clearly.

But at the same time, none of that can work if we don’t ensure that we are still the world’s leader when it comes to our military presence and our engagement in the world. That means better commerce and better stability in the world.

So, I look at 2016 as an incredibly important election for the national security discussion. So, yes, I’ll be engaged in that discussion in a very significant way. I’ll be engaged in that discussion in places like Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina in a way that’s productive to having the discussion. Candidates need to understand they’re going to have to talk about this in their cycles in order to, I think, bring the electorate along to understand how important this is, as well and all of these issues. So, everything from terrorism to …

You know the president just announced 15 base closings in Europe over the Christmas holidays and nobody said a word. You know, when you think about it, [Russian Federation President Vladimir] Putin just annexed Crimea, he’s been threatening the Baltics, France just underwent their version of 9/11, a very significant attack that brought out 3 million people to the streets of Paris, and we announce that we’re just backing down in our presence in Europe.

There are consequences to that kind of action and the fact that nobody has seemed to have noticed I think is a huge problem, and I hope that I can help at least re-engage people of America in the importance of maintaining America’s status as that shining city on the hill.