Turkey and the Kurds.

Turkey’s stance on the Syrian civil war has grown complicated.[1]  There are Kurds in Syria, in Iraq, and in Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism has threatened the territorial integrity of all three countries.[2]  If the Kurds can establish a Kurdish state in Syria and/or Iraq, then they will have a base for supporting rebellion by Kurds in Turkey.[3]  The civil war in Syria caused a collapse of authority by the Assad regime in many parts of the country.  Since 2012, in the northern part of the country, along the border with Turkey, Syrian Kurds established their power in a number of enclaves.  The first Kurdish troops joined up, at least in part, to oppose ISIS on its own demerits.

Then, in 2015, ISIS reared its ugly head as a threat to Iraq.  The army of Iraq collapsed.  Shi’ite militias, armed by Iran and led by Iranian generals, rose up to resist ISIS.  The United States sought to counter two enemies—ISIS and Iran, which were themselves enemies—by mobilizing Kurdish troops against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.  The Americans tried to put a veneer of we’re-not-only-Kurds on this by recruiting some Arab fighters for what is called the Syrian Democratic Forces.  This hasn’t fooled anyone.

By mid-2016, Kurdish forces seemed intent on linking-up several of their enclaves along the border with Turkey.  In August 2016, the Turks launched a major attack on ISIS forces across the border to pre-empt a Kurdish conquest.  As the ISIS caliphate began to crumble, it became a matter of time until the Turks, Kurds, and Americans would have to decide on next steps.  In late January 2018, Turkey—an American ally in NATO—attacked Kurdish troops—American allies in Syria.

Meanwhile, Turkish-American relations have continued to sour.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led Turkey since 2003.  In July 2016, opponents of Erdogan tried to overthrow him in a coup.  They missed their punch.  Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen for organizing the coup.  Gulen lives in the United States and the U.S. refuses to extradite him to Turkey.  In 2016, Erdogan began building links to Iran and Russia.

Sometimes, there aren’t good solutions to problems.  If you wanted someone to fight ISIS and if you didn’t want it to be only Iran and its Iraqi clients, then either the Kurds or the Turks were going to have to do it.  The Turks showed no interest in a major intervention.  That left the Kurds, with all the baggage that choice would carry.  Similarly, should the United States now choose Turkey or the Kurds?  Erdogan seems bound away from a Western orientation.  The Kurds have proved themselves valuable allies at a time when the Syrian civil war continues down an uncertain path.  Perhaps there is a way to compose the differences between Turkey and the Kurds, at least over the longer term.  Or perhaps not.  Won’t know until we try.

[1] Sewell Chan, “What’s Behind Turkey’s Attack on American-Allied Kurds in Syria,” NYT, 23 January 2018.

[2] The Assad family allowed one Turkish Kurdish leader to operate from Syria for a long time.

[3] This is the same reason that Israel will never accept the creation of a Palestinian state.  Doesn’t matter what commitments they may have made in earlier and different times.  For that matter, this is the same reason that there isn’t a Confederate States of America.  Before we start preaching to others.

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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.

The Next Step in Syria.

The two current centers of resistance by the Islamic State’s caliphate are in the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa.[1]  Both cities have been heavily fortified by ISIS.  Coalitions of opposition forces are advancing on both cities.  Iraqi Kurds are important for the siege of Mosul and Syrian Kurds are important for the siege of Raqqa.

Of the two coalitions, the Syrian one is the more problematic.  Raqqa holds particular importance as the capital city of the caliphate.  President Obama has committed substantial military resources to the struggle: American planes are bombing; 400 Special Forces troops have been sent to Syria to serve as spotters for air strikes and to train local fighters; and Apache helicopter gunships have been used against Mosul’s defenses.  However, in both countries, the brunt of the fighting has and will fall on local forces.

As an American military problem, this is simple enough.  The Americans hope that the final attack on Raqqa can begin in February 2017.  The core of the anti-ISIS force laying siege to Raqqa is Syrian Kurds.  Around this core have been arrayed (or cajoled) loose groups of Syrian Arabs.  The Syrian Arabs have much less experience with war than do the Kurds.  This means that the Kurds will have to do most of the heavy lifting in the assault on Raqqa.  The Defense Department believes that the Syrian Kurds need to be supplied with better weapons for an urban assault than those that have served them on open battlefields.  These weapons would include rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and armored vehicles.  Furthermore, the Defense Department has recommended that Apache gunships be used against Raqqa.

As an American diplomatic problem, this is less simple.  Neighboring Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd political group (the Y.P.G.) as terrorists.  If the Syrian Kurds succeed in carving out an autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria they will have expanded the proto-state that is being created in neighboring Iraq.  From this proto-state, at some point, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds can begin to work to liberate the Turkish Kurds.  Arming up the Syrian Kurds poses a future danger to Turkey.  Turkey is a member of NATO and the United States is bound by treaty to defend it against outside attack.

The Turkish government has begun delaying approval of American air attacks launched from Incirlik air base and hampering the flow of supplies into the base.  American diplomats suspect that Erdogan might respond to an increased armament for the Syrian Kurds by attacking Kurdish enclaved along the Syrian-Turkish border.  This might compel the Kurds to divert forces from the attack on Raqqa.  Worse still, Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has begun to lean toward Russia.  Already prone to blame the United States for many untoward events within Turkey and the region, Erdogan might contemplate disrupting the NATO alliance in the same fashion as did France’s Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s.  A pessimist might see one possible outcome of arming the Kurds to be the weakening of NATO’s southeastern flank at a time when Vladimir Putin is on the watch for opportunities to extend Russian influence.

Grasping at straws, the Americans have contemplated promising the Turks that close monitoring of any weapons will prevent their use against Turkey.  This is hardly credible given the failures to control weapons supplied to Syrian “moderate” forces.  This leaves President Obama with no easy choices.  Perhaps he’ll leave the decision to President Trump.  The new president would be torn between the devil of improving relations with Russia and the deep blue sea of destroying ISIS.

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Obama’s Syrian Options: Arm Kurds or Let Trump Decide,” NYT, 18 January 2017.

Peace Negotiations.

Except for a lot of killing, the civil war in western Syria is over.[1]  Backed by Russia, the Assad regime has defeated the rebel forces in the western part of the country.[2]  The siege of the eastern third of the city of Aleppo will grind on.  Horror stories will continue to turn the stomachs of readers of the New York Times.  Still, the die is cast.  Some of the states which have used Syria as a battlefield in larger struggles have now turned to settling the peace terms in this conflict while preparing for the next conflict.

Religion-based alliances have been the common basis of coalitions in the Middle East for a long time now.  During the Syrian civil war, Iran, the majority Shi’a government of Iraq, the minority Alawite government of Syria, and Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon all joined forces to fight the Sunni insurgency.  Conversely, Sunni Turkey and Sunni Saudi Arabia long co-operated against the Assad regime.  Russia gained influence in the region by choosing the Shi’ite side.  The United States may have lost some influence by its unwillingness to choose sides.

However, it appears that identities other than religion offer the basis for alignment.  The Saudis seem to have taken Turkish support as a given in the continuing struggle against Iran.  Iran and Turkey have been backing opposing sides in the civil war, so they should be at daggers drawn for years to come.  In practice, this is not so.  Iran and Turkey both are non-Arab states.  During the 20th Century, both did a better job at fending off direct Western domination than did any of the Arab states.  Beyond this “usable past” (if they care to invoke it for practical reasons of state) the two countries have a problem with the Kurds.

Iran and Turkey (and the soon-to-be-victorious Assad regime) all fear the next problem on the horizon, Kurdish nationalism.   First came the protected zone for Iraqi Kurds created by the US after the First Gulf War.  Then came the near-autonomous region created after the 2003 invasion which gave birth to a proto-Kurdistan in northern Iraq.  Over the last several years, Kurdish militias from Iraq and Syria have done much of the heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS.  Along the way, Syrian Kurds have carved out an enclave along Syria’s border with Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism is burning in Turkey.

Saudi Arabia fears its neighbor across the Persian Gulf, but Turkey feels no real danger from Iran.  Erdogan’s allegations of U.S. involvement in the recent attempt to overthrow him might be taken as window-dressing meant to justify his shift toward reconciliation with Iran.

All this is speculation, not prophecy.  Yet one speculation leads to other speculations.  If the Syrian civil war is winding down and the Kurdish issue is winding up, will all the major players take a moment to concentrate on destroying ISIS?  If the Assad regime and its patrons have won the civil war, then will Turkey close the border to both the inflow of aid to the rebels and any flight by anti-Assad refugees?  If Turkey, Syria, and Iran are about to turn on the Kurds, will Saudi Arabia shift its support to the Kurds as a way of pressuring Iraq, Iran, and Turkey?  If the Kurds see the coalition gathering against them, will they shorten their reach in an effort to hold onto the core of what they have already obtained?  Having been so continually frustrated of late by developments in the Middle East, will American diplomacy profit from the experience and seek new means to achieve American goals?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Turkey, Iran Get Friendly, Despite War,” WSJ, 7 October 2016.

[2] Whether it will now turn to defeating the Islamic State in the eastern part of the country remains an open question.

A Turk’s Head Knot.

After years of keeping hundreds of thousands of refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria within its borders, Turkey has been allowing many of them (and from other troubled places) to leave for Europe. How can we explain this sudden shift in Turkish policy?

In the June 2015 elections, long-time ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority to a coalition of Kurds, leftists, secularists, and young people under the umbrella of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).[1] The defeat, however, did not create a clear majority for Erdogan’s opponents. Instead, it created a “hung parliament” that made new elections necessary on 1 November 2015. One key element in the popular estrangement from Erdogan had been his increasingly autocratic tendencies and his desire to revise the Turkish constitution to grant more power to the executive. The frustrated Erdogan cast about for some means of regaining the lost voters before the looming election.

One answer came in an attack on the Kurds. The First Gulf War (1990-1991) resulted in a protected area for Kurds in northern Iraq. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the creation of a nascent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Since Summer 2014, the war against ISIS has bolstered American support for the Kurds. A Kurdish state has been rising on Turkey’s southern border for some time. However, Erdogan’s government had been engaged in peace-talks with the Kurds. Suddenly, after the June elections, Erdogan lashed out. Turkey belatedly joined the air war against ISIS, but its attacks have mostly targeted Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Syria. These attacks struck groups purportedly linked to the Kurdish autonomist (i.e independence) group, the PKK. Nationalist mobs attacked Kurdo-phile[2] sites in Turkey.[3] In mid-October 2015, two suicide bombers killed about 100 people at an anti-government rally in the capital city of Ankara. Although police already had discovered suicide vests in raids on ISIS hide-outs in turkey, security at the rally appears to have been very lax.[4]

Another answer came in an attack on the European Union. Although the EU seems to have been content to ignore the increasing authoritarianism in the leader of a country seeking EU membership, this hasn’t satisfied Erdogan. Suddenly, huge numbers of Syrian (and other) refugees in Turkey began to flood westward.   Most of them departed from a narrow section of the Turkish coast adjacent to the Greek island of Lesbos. Recently, the over-whelmed European Union (EU) sent German Chancellor Angela Merkel to try to negotiate a solution with President Erdogan. The Turkish president opened the conference by demanding $3 billion in EU aid for the 2 million refugees currently in Turkey. However, he extended the deal beyond just the refugee crisis. Erdogan asked for an end to the requirement that Turks entering the EU obtain a visa and for revival of and progress on Turkey’s application for membership in the European Union. In return, Turkey would halt the flow of refugees out of the country. Merkel could make no firm response to Erdogan’s proposal because any change in policy would have to be approved by the EU member nations. Thus, it is clear that Turkey is manipulating the refugee crisis to advance other policies.

How did this strategy pan-out for Erdogan and the AKP? In the 1 November elections, the AKP won 49.5 percent of the vote and 317 legislative seats, giving it majority of 84. The question now is whether Erdogan has poisoned one or more wells in his quest for a majority.

[1] “Turkey: Onslaught against Kurds as election nears,” The Week, 25 September 2015, p. 15.

[2] Is this a real term?

[3] While the cops stood around with their hands in their pockets.

[4] “Turkey: Who benefits from a gruesome attack?” The Week, 23 October 2015, p. 14.

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