Small wars and demolition.

North Korea has developed nuclear weapons.  Not really a problem.  FedEx doesn’t pick up in North Korea and the North Koreans don’t have a delivery system (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, ICBM).  Oh, wait, they just tested an intermediate range missile.  Well, that couldn’t reach the United States.  So, not really a problem, yet.  It could reach South Korea or Japan, however, and both are American allies.[1]  So, that’s a problem.

North Korea has been “carpet sanctioned” by the United Nations (U.N.) for its nuclear program and other things.[2]  Chinese support is North Korea’s only lifeline.  It seems to be widely agreed that Chinese pressure could bring an end to the regime.  According to President Trump, “China has control, absolute control, over North Korea.”  So, why doesn’t China topple the North Korean psychocracy?  It could be that North Korea isn’t any more trusting of China than it is of anyone else.  Perhaps lots of Chinese agents of influence and spies within the North Korean government keep ending up dead?  That could cut down the scope for action short of war.

Or, perhaps China sees North Korea as a desirable destabilizing force in the region.  China, The Peoples Republic, of has been intruding aggressively into the non-state waters of the South China Sea.  This program of reef-claiming, reef-enhancing, and reef-arming has put China at odds with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.  In these alarming circumstances, North Korean aggression and the perception that China has a leash on North Korea may work to enhance China’s bargaining power.  In this context, China’s Foreigners Ministry has argued that the Americans should deal directly with North Korea.[3]

Meanwhile, the United States is at war with radical Islam.  In Afghanistan, the Taliban use safe-havens in Pakistan from which to wage war in their own country.  According to the local American military commander, the war is a “stalemate.”  A mere 8,400 American soldiers are trying to brace-up and train the Afghan army and police.  The Taliban seem able to learn how to fight a war without such trainers.

In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been battered into fragments.  Again, a small number of American troops are serving as trainers and advisers for Syrian and Iraqi troops, and as spotters for air strikes.  Still, several political problems remain on front-burners.  First, ISIS will not long survive as an organized military force or a political community.  What will become of the survivors as they flee the cauldron?  Will they attempt to return home, there to continue the struggle?[4]  Then, the defeat of ISIS is a long way from the defeat of radical Islam.  What new insurgency will pop up, either immediately or in the future?

Second, much of the heavy lifting in both Syria and Iraq has been done by Kurds.  Over the long-term, American support for the Kurds challenges the national integrity of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.  The Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria may be in no position—or no mood—to carry the fight to ISIS.  An Iraq riven by sectarian conflicts may find itself in the same boat.  That would leave Turkey—a NATO ally of the United States—as the chief opponent of Kurdish nationalism.  That, in turn, will create a dilemma for American diplomacy.  Will America back the Kurds[5] or the Turks?  In either case, the Russians will find an opening.

[1] “America’s Military Challenges,” The Week, 3 March 2017, p. 11.

[2] That doesn’t seem to have done the trick.

[3] The sloppy murder of the half-brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un in a Kuala Lumpur airport and the subsequent hasty execution of five North Korean intelligence officers may complicate matters for China.

[4] Or, alternatively, take up the rocker and thrill younger generations with their tales of daring-do?

[5] “Gratitude has a short half-life”—Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs.

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The end of Sykes-Picot 1.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret agreement made between France and Britain during the First World War. It laid the foundation for the states of the modern Middle East.[1] The Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire were carved up into British and French spheres of influence. Soon thereafter, these spheres were re-labeled League of Nations “Mandates” out of deference to the self-righteous scold, Woodrow Wilson. Later, the British area got independence as Jordan, Iraq, and Israel; while the French area got independence as Syria and Lebanon. Events triggered by the American invasion of Iraq (2003) have now called into question the survival of some of these states.

First in line for the chopping block is Syria.[2] The Russians intervened to save their client Assad from defeat at the hands of his American-associated enemies. President Obama warned that the Russians were headed into another quagmire like Afghanistan. It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way so far. War in eastern Syria might be just such a quagmire. Vladimir Putin might just decide that half a loaf is better than none and also better than trying to get the whole loaf. That half a loaf is likely to include Aleppo. An Assadist state in western Syria seems an increasingly likely outcome.

There doesn’t seem to be any plan yet to settle the fighting in Western Syria so that everyone can turn their guns on ISIS. Also, it’s pretty hard to imagine the former foes in the civil war just deciding to let bygones be bygones. How would they co-operate with one another? It isn’t clear that the Russians have any interest in a longer war in eastern Syria. In any joint struggle against ISIS the Assad government would have the upper hand over the non-ISIS forces provided that the Russians continued to provide air support. Government territorial gains and the accumulation of captured arms would further shift the balance in favor of the government. All sides must be pretty war-weary at this point. Again, half a loaf is better than none.

The Syrian Kurds represent another problem. Fighting ISIS when lots of Sunni Arabs would not has won them the favor and military assistance of the United States. However, Kurdish nationalism, rather than a principled opposition to ISIS, has motivated the Kurdish fight. Both the Sunni Arabs and the Turks recognize this reality. An autonomous or independent Kurdistan poses a serious threat to Turkey. The Turks—rightly—do not accept a distinction between Kurdish groups fighting in Syria or Iraq and Kurdish groups fighting inside Turkey. The recent suicide bombing of a military convoy in Ankara just turned up the heat in this conflict.[3] The United States has been trying to square this circle (just as it tried to reconcile Saudi Arabian and Iranian conflicts in the Iranian nuclear deal). The Russians have no such problem. The Turks shot down a Russian jet on a thin excuse. Putin will be happy to encourage the Kurds. The Syrian Kurds objectively allied themselves with the Russians and the Assad regime in recent attacks on Sunni Arab rebel forces. This may reduce American leverage on the Kurds.

For the moment, this part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement seems headed toward an Assad state in western Syria, a Kurdish state in northern Syria, and the ISIS Caliphate in eastern Syria. That’s unlikely to be the final word on the issue.

Then there is Iraq and Lebanon.

[1] To the extent that a place where ISIS can flourish can be called “modern.” This isn’t a permanent condition. Any culture can go through a bad patch. Mark Mazower called his history of 20th Century Europe The Dark Continent.

[2] Jaroslav Trofimov, “Prospect of Syria’s Partition Looms Despite Cease-Fire,” WSJ, 4 March 2016.

[3] “How they see us: Fighting against Turkey’s interests,”, The Week, 4 March 2016, p. 17.

CrISIS 6.

The Turks want the Assad regime gone as a first order of business, and they are attacking Kurdish forces as a second order target. The Saudis want the Assad regime gone and they are attacking Houthis in Yemen as a second order target. The Russians want the Assad regime to remain in place and they are attacking non-ISIS opponents of the regime. The Iranians want the Assad regime to remain in place and they have committed both their own military advisers and client Hezbollah forces from Lebanon to that end. The Shi’ite government if Iraq isn’t making any concessions to the Sunnis of Iraq in order to win them away from ISIS. In the past year, Germany has received about a million refugees from the Syrian civil war. The Kurds are fighting ISIS, even if the rest of the Iraqis are making a half-hearted effort, but that’s because they are trying to establish the territorial basis for an independent Kurdistan. Germans are more concerned about the behavior of Muslim hicks toward European women than they are about the undoubted dangers of terrorist wolves hiding among the refugee sheep. In short, nobody—except American politicians—seems very concerned about ISIS these days.

The common assumption on the Potomac seems to be that ISIS has gigantic ambitions and will seek to wreak havoc in Western countries through terrorism. However, ISIS has little chance of expanding its territory. It made big gains in areas where the opposing forces were rotted by demoralization or were pre-occupied with other conflicts. There is little chance that it can make similar progress against the armies of Turkey, Iran, and Israel. It may not even want to make huge gains. In the words of one observer, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “wanted to create an Islamic state in Syria—sacred land that, according to Islamic prophecy, was to be the site of the apocalypse.”[1] (See: Islamism as a Story.) That’s not quite the same as conquering the whole of the Middle East.

Heightened security in Western countries can limit the danger of ISIS terrorism, even if it cannot totally prevent it. The Israelis have lived with this danger for decades. OK, it hasn’t done their society and politics a lot of good. Still, Israel is still there. ISIS poses no existential threat to Western countries.

That isn’t the same as saying that ISIS hasn’t created problems. The European vulnerability to the flood of Syrian (and other) refugees has opened a means for other states to pressure the Europeans. Turkey started the process, but the Russians are in a position to either add to or to reduce the flood. What would the West give Russia to get it to play ball in Syria? Probably it will not be much fun to be a Ukrainian.[2] Probably it will involve a climb-down on sanctions. Probably it will involve letting the Assad regime survive or transition out on Russian and Iranian terms.

[1] Sohrab Amari, WSJ, 9 February 2016, p. A11.

[2] At the same time, Western democracies already seem to be experiencing buyer’s remorse over their support for Ukraine. Pervasive corruption and a very halting program of economic modernization are angering many people who didn’t look closely at the Ukraine or at its quarrels with Russia before the most recent revolution.

The Kurdish Serbia.

Arab historians like Ibn Khaldun noted the tension between the simple, tough, and often war-like people of the mountains and deserts, on the one hand, and the refined, soft, and often feckless people of the towns and plains, on the other hand.[1] It’s not bad as an organizing principle, but in fact the silk slipper was often on the other foot. The Kurds offer a good example of this truth. Their hopes for a nation of their own were frustrated by the nationalism of other peoples. After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the Sunni Muslim, non-Arab Kurds found themselves divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. All of these governments repressed the Kurds. Iraq draws most of the attention for this, but all the governments did it.

Saddam Hussein found the Iraqi Kurds disloyal during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1989), so he used poison gas to slaughter some and then had many of the male survivors shot. The Americans encouraged and then betrayed a Kurdish revolt at the time of the First Iraq War (1990-1991). To show remorse, the Americans then fostered a semi-autonomous Kurdish area in Iraq through a no-fly zone and humanitarian aid. This potential nation cooked along better than the rest of Iraq for a dozen years.

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 greatly stimulated Kurdish separatism. Elections in 2005 made the Kurds the second largest group in Iraq’s parliament. More adept at bargaining than their Arab compatriots, the Kurds wrestled-away ever greater degrees of autonomy from Baghdad. The American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 allowed the Shi’ite government to run amok at the expense of the Sunni Arabs. Again, the Kurds were better able to defend themselves. They built an oil pipeline to Turkey to gain a greater degree of economic freedom from the central government. The crISIS of 2014 then provided the Kurds with yet another opportunity to loosen the bonds between themselves and the failing Iraq state. Kurdish troops took advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi army in the north to expand their territory to include the city of Kirkuk. Similarly, the Kurds of Syria have looked to their fellow Kurds in Iraq and Turkey for aid against ISIS. Regardless of how the crISIS ends, it will be hard for Baghdad to corral the Kurds. The shattering of Syria and Iraq could lead to an enlarged Kurdistan on its way to statehood.

This will have long-term consequences. For one thing, it will be harder to hold Iraq together if it is merely a federation of mutually-hostile Shi’ite Arabs and Sunni Arabs. Kurdistan’s wresting-away of much of Iraq’s oil will leave Baghdad with fewer resources with which to buy-off opponents. For another thing, the majority of Kurds live inside Turkey. The Turks have fought a long struggle to repress separatism among the Kurds. For the moment, they seem willing to have the Iraqi Kurds serve as a bulwark against ISIS. However, an independent Kurdistan will again come to be a magnet for Turkish Kurds. This will threaten Turkish territorial integrity. The Turks might be well-advised to concede this demand ahead of time. They’re not likely to do so. The artist formerly known as Yugoslavia grew out of the Serbian desire to gather all the South Slavs in one state. The Austro-Hungarian Empire might have been well advised to concede this demand ahead of time.   Vienna preferred war.

“The other Iraq,” The Week, 25 July 2014, p. 9.

[1] European Orientalist art of the 19th Century adopted the same perspective as a way of introducing some adventure and soft-core pornography into the lives of highly inhibited European bourgeois gentlemen. See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Orientalist+art&client=firefox-a&hs=i1a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&channel=sb&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=Hg0oVPhByoHKBKe4gKAL&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=1150&bih=657