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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Talking Turkey.

To rehash the well-known, the Islamic State (ISIS) seized a lot of territory in eastern Syria, then broke out into western Iraq several years ago.  This encumbered the fair hopes of the Obama administration to beat a dignified retreat from the Iraq mess.  Destroying ISIS at minimal costs in American lives became the policy choice of the Obama and Trump Administrations.  That grinding effort, which has involved a lot of work by both the Kurds and the Iranians, looks about ready to pay-off with the Iraqi capture of Mosul and the Syrian Kurds’ capture of Raqqa (the capital of the ISIS caliphate).

To rehash more of the well-known, the Kurds are a Muslim ethnic group divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and—fatally—Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism threatens to disrupt these countries.  The Turks, in particular, see their own Kurdish political party (PKK) linked to the Syrian Kurdish political party (PDK) and to its American-armed militia (YPG).[1]  They’re probably right.[2]  Iraq’s wing of the PKK has attacked Turkey in support of its Turkish partners.  Hoping to earn American patronage for their ambitions, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have done much of the heavy lifting in the fight against the Islamic State.  So, it is important to keep the Kurds happy.

To rehash still more of the well-known, the president of Turkey—Recep Tayyip Erdogan—is a moderate Islamist head-case who is bent on turning the country into a Sunni version of Iran.  He barely scratched out a majority in a referendum on super-charged presidential powers in April 2017, yet he sees the vote as an endorsement of his ambitions.

This puts the United States in a bit of a quandary.[3]  Over the short-run, who cares what the Turks want?  The militia of the Syrian Kurds, the YPG, is seen by American military leaders as the best bet to capture Raqqa.  American military leaders also see Turkey as having no real alternative strategy.  So when Turkey bombed several YPG positions and threatened land forces incursions, the US military began running convoys of American military vehicles flying large American flags through the target area as a warning to Turkey.

Over the long-run, many people should care what the Turks want.  On the one hand, Erdogan is an anti-Western Islamist.  He is aiming at a dictatorship.  His victory in the referendum on expanded presidential powers fell far short of the expected majority and is dogged by charges of fraud.  Political turmoil seems the likely future for Turkey.[4]

On the other hand, Turkey is a member of NATO (brought in to the alliance, in part, because Greeks won’t fight).  Turkey has the second largest army in NATO; it is an industrializing country; it has sought membership in the European Union (EU), and the Turks have been extending their cultural influence through the southern tier of states liberated by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Erdogan has battered Europe with an engineered refugee crisis.  The European Union is never going to admit Turkey to its ranks, even if it has to soak up huge numbers of outsiders without Emma Lazarus to provide a moral justification.[5]  He has both barked at and cowered before Vladimir Putin.  He is afraid that the U.S. has struck a bargain with the Kurds.  And he will visit Washington in May 2017.  The regional implications of Turkey’s course matter far more than do the headlines about ISIS.

[1] If the Kurds get Russian military assistance, maybe they could be re-branded as the RPG?

[2] The Americans engage in a lot of hair-splitting over this issue.  The U.S. government insists that Turkey’s PKK is a terrorist organization, while Syria’s PYD and—even more—the YPG are not terrorists.  Instead, they are “partner forces.”  Which people can read as “allies” or “hired guns” as is their wont.

[3] Yarolslav Trofimov, “In Syria, U.S. Is Caught Between Ally Turkey and Kurds,” WSJ, 5 May 2017.

[4] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Erdogan’s Narrow Win Could End Up Undermining Him,” WSJ, 17 April 2017.

[5] A “wall” is more likely.

Erdogan.

Since 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics.  That isn’t to say that he has met no opposition.  In 2015, Erdogan’s party lost its majority in parliament.  Erdogan responded with an anti-Kurdish offensive that led to new elections in November 2015 that recovered the majority.   In July 2016, a bunch of soldiers tried to overthrow Erdogan.  They missed their punch, not least because a lot of Turks hold fast to the idea of democracy.  Erdogan responded with a state of emergency that allowed him to purge the military, the bureaucracy, and civil society.  Now he is campaigning to change the constitution to gain great new powers that might threaten the survival of Turkish democracy.  This challenges many Turks.[1]

It challenges others as well.  Since the time of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk,” Turkey has sought to balance Westernization against its Turkish identity.  Membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a desire to join the European Union (EU) formed hall-marks of this effort.  Erdogan has broken with that policy.  On the one hand, he took advantage of the Syrian crisis to deluge Europe with refugees in order to extract promises of aid and accelerated consideration of Turkish membership in the EU.[2]  On the other hand, Turkey has been tilting toward Russia in the latest phase of the Syrian struggle while NATO’s members have been agog at Russian behavior.  Then, Erdogan has been campaigning for support among the Turkish diaspora in Europe.  Germany and Holland blocked the attempts by Turkish officials to address Turkish voters in those countries.  Erdogan’s savage response pandered to Turkish nationalism.

Historians inevitably think in analogies.[3]  Among historians, Italy long has been a historical laughing-stock.  French armies won its independence.  It then paid shipping companies to take away Neapolitans and Sicilians to foreign lands.  It only granted the vote to all men the in 1907, then rigged the election results.  In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes regrets having been grievously wounded on “a joke front” during the First World War.  Then it wound up with Benito Mussolini and a Fascist dictatorship that eventually got the country creamed in the Second World War.

There is a photograph of the Fascist Party headquarters building in Rome in 1934.  The four-story façade is covered in in propaganda: at the center of a black background is a silver image of Mussolini’s face (looking rather like a cat) surrounded by rows of “SI” (“Yes”).[4]

Without in any way wishing to suggest a parallel, the current referendum campaign on extending the powers of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is marked by huge bill-boards bearing pictures of Erdogan and the message “Yes.”[5]  The “Or Else” part of the message comes from Erdogan’s surrogates who suggest than anyone who opposes Erdogan is a terrorist (read: Kurd) or traitor (read: Euro-Kurd).  Erdogan’s party (AKP) expects a landslide victory.

Will they get it?  That is—suddenly, surprisingly—less clear.  Erdogan needs the support of a right-wing party, but opinion polls suggest that its members are much less enthusiastic than are its leaders.  If Erdogan loses the vote in the referendum on 16 April 2017, how will he respond?  Observers think that “when faced with challenges to his authority,” Erdogan “escalates[s] crises and creates new ones.”  So, many things could go wrong after 16 April 2017.

[1] See: “The Devil and the Deep, Blue Sea.”

[2] In the cases of Portugal, Spain, Greece, and all the post-Soviet Eastern European countries, the creation of democratic political systems was a prerequisite for membership.  It isn’t clear that Turkey could meet that standard.

[3] They are not alone.  See: Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton University Press, 1992).

[4] See: http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/headquarters-fascist-party-1934/

[5] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Stakes Are High in Turkish Referendum on Erdogan’s Power,” WSJ, 24 March 2017.

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.

Erdogan in 2017.

Donald Trump is not a fascist, but there is good reason to think that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, is a fascist.  He became prime minister as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002; then became president; then campaigned for much stronger powers for the president; then, in June 2015, saw the AKP blocked from winning an outright majority for the first time; then played the anti-Kurdish/antiterrorism card to regain a majority for the AKP in November 2015 elections; then ruthlessly exploited a failed in July 2016 to purge Turkey’s civil and military institutions of purported supporters of the coup; and then proposed a referendum on greater powers and time in office for the president.

One of Erdogan’s closest advisers told the Wall Street Journal that “In these lands [i.e. the Middle East], if you need to survive, you need a very strong system.”  The proposed constitutional changes include getting rid of the prime minister and transferring powers from parliament to the president.  If the voters in the referendum–tentatively scheduled for June 2016–approve his plan, Erdogan could remain president until 2029—or until the cows come home.[1]

The AKP has 316 seats in the legislature.  It needs 14 more have number required to win parliamentary approval for the referendum.  Where will Erdogan find the votes he needs?  One theory is that the conservative MHP party will support the legislation in hopes of gaining a voice in the new government.  However, between May and November 2015, Erdogan refused to form a coalition government when his party lacked a majority.  Why would the MHP view the offer of a vice-presidency in the new government for its leader as anything other than a short-lived transaction to get the referendum approved?  The MHP would soon find itself discarded.  Erdogan seems more likely to use national security issues to stampede support.

In the mellow, holiday-induced state of mind, it might be possible to view the prospects for the Middle East in 2017 with a certain optimism.  The horrible Syrian civil war appears to be grinding to an end with an Assad victory in western Syria.  In Iraq, the Shi’ite majority, with the backing of Iran and a lot of American airpower, are battering at the eastern borders of the ISIS caliphate.  The caliphate seems likely to collapse entirely in the coming year.[2]  The Iranian nuclear agreement has muted the drum-beat for a new war for the time being.

However, Erdogan’s justification for strengthening the powers of the president rests on a belief that things are going to get worse, not better in the Middle East.  First, there is the Kurdish problem.  With American backing, the Kurds of Iraq created an autonomous proto-state in northern Iraq.  With American backing, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have played an important part in the containment of ISIS.  Turkey sees Kurdish nationalism as a grave threat to its national existence.  The Shi’ite majority in Iraq takes a similar view.  The Kurds are likely to rise to the top of their opponents’ To Do list once the fate of the Assad regime is settled and ISIS is defeated.  Attacks on the Kurds will pose problems for American diplomacy.

Second, there is the problem of Turkey’s future orientation.  Will Turkey remain in NATO and continue to press for membership in the European Union (EU)?  In 2016, Erdogan unleashed a flood of refugees and economic migrants on the EU in a bid to extort financial aid and revived negotiation on Turkish entry into the EU.  On the other hand, recently Turkey has patched up its several quarrels with Russia.  What real inducements can Vladimir Putin offer Turkey to shift its alliance?  Aside from the psychological affinity of two authoritarian leaders?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Violence Bolsters Erdogan’s Power Play,” WSJ, 23 December 2016.

[2] Surviving fighters are likely to flee abroad.  Many of these refugees will become a counter-terrorist policing problem in Europe and elsewhere in Arab countries.  ISIS itself will cease being a military problem.

Turk’s Head Knot 2.

Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic by Mustapha Kemal, the military has been the guardian of the secular, Western-oriented policy laid down by “Ataturk.”  On many occasions, most recently in 1997, this has led to military coups against elected leaders.  When Recep Tayyip Erdogan first came to power in Turkey in 2003, he presented himself as the champion of a democratic Islamism.[1]  However, he took care to cripple the ability of the military to intervene in politics.  His efforts included what is now recognized to have been a faked prosecution of military leaders for planning a supposed coup in 2008.  After 2011, je also supported the Egyptian Islamist Mohammad Morsi of Egypt, another democratically elected leader.  Morsi had faced down Egypt’s military dictatorship for a time.  When, in 2013, the Egyptian generals overthrew Morsi, Erdogan had to give thought to his own desperate position.  Since 2013, Erdogan has been on a rampage as he sought to shore up his claim on power.

In mid-July 2015, some members of the military of the Turkish Republic got fed up with President Erdogan and tried to overthrow him.  They missed their punch.  Not the least part of the key to Erdogan’s survival came in the support he received from pro-democracy opposition parties.  Ever since, there has been Hell to pay.

The failed coup will have a tremendous impact within Turkey.  Erdogan has launched a sweeping purge that targets the military, the bureaucracy, the schools, and the kinda-free media.  Alleging involvement in the coup, Erdogan has either dismissed from employment or arrested thousands of people.  He has bruited it about that his one-time ally Fethullah Gulen conspired in the coup.  The American reluctance to extradite Gulen on what may well be specious charges adds fuel to the fire of Erdogan’s rising hostility to the United States.  Turkey is in danger of becoming a “normal” Middle Eastern country.

What impact will these events have in the region?  Since 2011, Erdogan has opposed Bashar al-Assad of Syria.[2]  Turkey has provided the chief conduit for foreign-fighters of all ideological commitments to reach Syria.  Turkey has provided the main road for supplies from elsewhere (i.e. Saudi Arabia) to reach those who are willing to fight against Assad.  This seems to have included many people bound for the ISIS caliphate.

Erdogan has turned even more emphatically against Turkey’s Western allies.  He had already unleashed a tidal wave of Syrian (and other) refugees on Western Europe in order to extract various concessions from the Europeans.  Even more dramatically, Erdogan’s government has accused the United States of complicity in the failed coup.

Furthermore, Erdogan has shifted his stance on the civil war in Syria.  He has sought to mend fences with the Russians.  The Turkish air force pilots who shot down a Russian strike-fighter over a penny-ante invasion of Turkish air space in November 2015 have suddenly found themselves accused of involvement in the coup.  Erdogan’s sweeping purge of the military leadership has dragged down the commander of the Second Army, which controls the border with Syria and Iraq, along with many of his subordinates.

The Assad government might hope that the Turkish supply route for fighters may be closed, while the anti-Assad government might fear that their main supply route would be cut.  So, the Russo-Assad alliance took heart.  They launched a long-prepared assault to cut the last life-lines into Aleppo.  In desperation, many of the rebel groups combined to launch their own counter-attack.  It continues, with little chance of success.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Political Foes Stood by Leader,” WSJ, 18 July 2016.

[2] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Upheavals in Turkey Threatens Rebels in Syria,” WSJ, 5 August 2016.

The Great Game.

Under the tsars of the 19th Century, Russia greatly extended its territories.[1]  Some incidents in this expansion caught the attention of Westerners: the “Great Game” played between Britain and Russia in Afghanistan and Persia (now Iran); Japan’s humiliating defeat of Russia in 1905; and the rivalry in the Balkans between Russia and Austria-Hungary that helped bring on the First World War.  Less noticed, at the time and since, Tsarist Russia conquered many small Muslim states in Central Asia.  This gave Russia, and later the Soviet Union, a huge Muslim population.  What was to become of these people if Russia, and later the Soviet Union, broke up?  As with Russia’s original expansion into the region, recent events here have not been much noticed by Western media or much discussed by Western officials.  For both the Russkies and the local peoples, however, the issues are important.

One example comes from the Turkic region.  Back in the First World War, the Ottoman Government had vast visions of a central Asian Empire that encompassed the Turkic people inside the Russian Empire.  Defeat in war and the victory of the Communists in the Russian Civil War put paid to that fantasy.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the Turkic peoples created various “stans” as independent states.  Turkey revived its dreams of extending its influence throughout the region.  Turkey spread its influence by fostering cultural, educational (lots of exchange students), and business connections (investment).[2]

However, the particular emphasis—“pro-Muslim Brotherhood, rather than pan-Turkic”—given to this long-term effort by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began to rankle.  Russia remains far more important the region than is Turkey.  The attitudes toward Islam are more varied among the Turkic peoples than Mr. Erdogan’s own preference.

So problems had been developing.  Then the Turks—foolishly—shot down a Russkie fighter-jet that had briefly over-flown Turkish territory while attacking Syrian rebels.  The Russkies weren’t too pleased.  They slammed on all sorts of sanctions.  Russian police and immigration officials continually harass Turks working in or visiting business in Russia itself.  Turkic Russians resist burning bridges.

Another example comes from Chechnya.[3]  Russia fought several gory wars to retain possession of the little territory in the North Caucasus, then put in a former rebel, Ramzan Kadyrov, as the ruler.  Since then, the government has “Islamized” Chechnya.  It’s almost impossible to buy alcohol, women wear the hijab, and the mosques are packed.  However, Chechnya’s Islamists are Sufis, rather than Wahhabists.  Saudi Arabian-sponsored Wahhabism is what inspires ISIS and similar movements.  Among those similar movements were the jihadis who initially fought for Chechen independence from Russia.[4]

There are two points worth pondering.

First, Turkey is a member of NATO.  Do the Russians have a right to think of Erdogan’s forward policy among the Turkic people—like tighter links between the European Union (EU) and Georgia or Ukraine—as a hostile act?

Second, have the Russians found a means of defusing radical Islam by embracing an equally intense, but less radical, version?

[1] There is a greater similarity here to the simultaneous expansion of the British Empire and to American “Manifest Destiny” than English-speaking peoples like to admit.

[2] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Turkey’s Rift With Russia Frays Ties With Turkic Kin,” WSJ, 24 June 2016.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Under Putin Ally, Chechnya Islamizes,” WSJ, 3 June 2016.

[4] See, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamil_Basayev and  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_al-Khattab