Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Kurdish Awakening

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Original article:

Turkey and the United States have agreed in general terms on a plan that envisions American warplanes, Syrian insurgents and Turkish forces working together to sweep Islamic State militants from a 60-mile-long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border, American and Turkish officials say.

The plan would create what officials from both countries are calling an Islamic State-free zone controlled by relatively moderate Syrian insurgents, which the Turks say could also be a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians.

And with only 60 Syrian insurgents having been formally vetted and trained by the United States under a Pentagon program, questions also remain about which Syrian insurgents and how many will be involved in the new operation. A larger number of rebels that American officials deem relatively moderate have been trained in a covert C.I.A. program, but on the battlefield they are often enmeshed or working in concert with more hard-line Islamist insurgents.

Such Syrian Arab insurgents would gain at the expense of the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia known by the initials Y.P.G. that is seeking to take the same territory from the east. While the United States views the group as one of its best partners on the ground, Turkey sees it as a threat; it is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group whose longstanding conflict with Turkey has flared anew in recent days.

The plan does not envision Turkish ground troops entering Syria, although long-range artillery could be used across the border. Turkish ground forces would work on their side of the border to stem the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters and supplies into Syria.

Awakening–an act or moment of becoming suddenly aware of something. Awakening is the word used to describe the coming together of disparate Sunni tribes and U.S. coalition forces to fight and defeat al Qeada in Iraq–the “Sunni Awakening”.

But there was another “awakening” for these factions–a rude awakening. After doing the heavy lifting on the front lines, these Sunni factions were largely shut-out of the political reunification of Iraq. This was not only unjust, it contributed to the government ineptitude and subsequent power-vacuum that has helped fuel ISIL’s rapid advance across Iraq.

There is a parallel in the fights against ISIS and Assad. This time, the YPG and PKK Kurdish forces are playing the front-line role. Furthermore, the Kurds are far more ideologically aligned with “Western values” than the Sunni Awakening tribes ever were.

My first thought when I heard Turkey was stepping up its fight against ISIS was “about time”. But my enthusiasm was quickly tempered as it became clear that Turkey’s plan is more about fighting the PKK and Turkish politics than the fights against ISIS and Assad. Turkey has the capacity to play a very important role in the fights against Assad and ISIL–this plan does not fulfill that role, and will likely be a net-negative.

The Kurdish pesh merga is a capable military with boots on the ground. Kurdish political leadership is stable and able to balance security and human rights better than any Middle-Eastern government aside from Turkey, Israel, and Tunisia. For a fraction of the financial and moral support sunk into failed ME regimes, Kurdistan could probably now be a fully functioning democratic state by now–I reiterate my support for an independent Kurdistan (although not on Turkish land, but in parts of Syria and Iraq).

For its part, Kurdish political leadership must denounce terrorist attacks against the Turkish government, and distance itself from any radical elements of their parties. Such terrorist attacks are counter productive–they cost the Kurdish statehood movement public support (which is a necessary element for ever becoming an internationally recognized state) and provide Turkey with legitimate reasons to attack Kurdish positions.

The Kurds should also expand their security mandate from solidifying their borders, to actively engaging and degrading ISIL. Backed by coalition airstrikes, boots on the ground are exactly what the fight against ISIL is most lacking. Despite war at it’s front door, Turkey will still not provide ground troops. The Kurds can use this cowardly position to their advantage, juxtaposing the importance of its ground troops against moderately useful Turkish air bases (yes they allow coalition airstrikes to get to positions faster, but without boots on the ground acting in concert with these airstrikes, they are largely ineffective in the fight against ISIL).

If the Turks want to stay out of the fight against ISIL and Assad, that is its prerogative as a sovereign nation. But the U.S. government and NATO should not sanction Turkey using this fight as a cover to degrade the one capable force on the ground fighting both ISIL and Assad. There is no longer a moderate Syrian opposition without the pesh merga. We should heed the lessons of abandoning our front-line allies after they have done “the dirty work” of war. The Kurds will not remain our allies if we abandon them at the first hint of Turkish intervention in the fight against ISIL.

(Update: In a further blow to the moderate Syrian rebels who figure so prominently in Turkey’s plan to fight ISIS and Assad, the leader of the only U.S. vetted force, Nadeem Hassan, was kidnapped along with 6 other rebels. This puts the number of vetted moderate Syrian rebels somewhere between 53 and 47, a reasonably large college lecture class, but not an army capable of fighting ISIS or Assad, regardless of the level of aerial support.)

Assad and ISIL cannot last indefinitely. The question is what morning-after do we want the Kurdish people to awaken to? The one where we stood by them as partners? Or the one where we gave the thumbs up for Turkey to bomb them after months of doing the world’s dirty work fighting ISIL? 

The Obama administration misplayed its hands in Syria and Egypt. Over time, what began as legitimate democratic movements became exactly what the Assad and Sisi wanted–a fight between “strong men” and radical extremists. We cannot let Kurdistan, a budding “Island of Decency” (in the words of Thomas Friedman), become another example of a failed democratic movement in the Middle East.

Some countries are truly not ripe for democratic modernization–it is a process. Failure to realize this can lead to costly wars and greater instability than before said interventions started. This is not to say the international community cannot or should not use it’s intelligence and resources to identify and support the civil elements within a country that are laying the socioeconomic and ideological groundwork for future democratic movements–we should. But we must be realistic when considering our willingness to dedicate resources and our partners capacities when determining whether direct intervention is a pragmatic decision; moving too fast is as bad as not moving at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, failure to support movements that have the capacity to solidify universal aspirations of freedom into sustainable political infrastructure and government administration–such as Kurdish leadership–should not be an option either. Not only does this go against “Western values”, it is geopolitically short-sighted. Furthermore, continuing to make this mistake makes the “democracy cannot exist in the middle east” narrative self-fulfilling.

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One thought on “Conflict Watch: Kurdish Awakening

  1. Pingback: Turkey, Kurdistan and ISIL: The Case for Partitioning Iraq and Syria | Normative Narratives

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