Normative Narratives


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The First Casualty of “America First”: The Kurds

A member of Iraqi federal forces holds the Kurdish flag upside down in Kirkuk, Iraq on October 16, 2017.REUTERS/Stringer

Remember when the fate of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was uncertain, the country mired in a horrific Civil War with no end in sight while the IS was rapidly gaining ground? Remember when Iraqi forces fled IS advances, abandoning Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city? You should remember both, they were only a few years ago…

You should also remember how, in both cases, the Kurds proved themselves to be capable, brave fighters. They were and continue to be a stable faction in a volatile region–native boots on the ground that the U.S. can rely on. But facts on the ground can change quickly, especially when external powers intervene decisively in a conflict.

Seemingly a victory, a referendum for Kurdish independence quickly soured when the Iraqi military retook the Kirkuik oil field (backed by Iranian proxies). Yes, the same Iraqi military that melted away in the face of IS fighters and needed the Kurds to help clean up their mess, turned their guns on the Kurds for exercising self-determination.

In Syria, Russia and Iran helped Assad turn the tide of the Civil War decisively in his favor. Now that he appears to be firmly in power, Assad has set his sights on retaking Syria’s Kurdish regions.

In addition to being capable fighters, the Kurds have a penchant for democratic governance and women’s rights. In terms of a Middle Eastern partner, they are a dream match for the U.S.. We always lament the fact that we do have not enough true, democratic allies in the region, but I fear we are now abandoning one because supporting them doesn’t fits into Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

In Iraq, we stood by as the Iraqi military and Iranian militias ripped away the would-be heart of any future Kurdish state. But the U.S. has invested a ton of resources into maintaining a unified Iraq; while I cannot agree with America’s inaction here, it is somewhat understandable.

What about in Syria, where this is not the case? Here too we are failing to protect our ally. In order to appease Turkish President Erdogan, President Trump has said he will stop arming the Kurds.

This is the problem with Trump’s “America First” foreign policy–it is inherently short-sighted. Is it in America’s short term interests to defend the Kurds now? Probably not–we used em’ and now we could lose em’. Turkey is stronger than the Kurds; it is easier to give in to our more powerful “ally’s” wishes here regardless what is “right”, even as President Erdogan continues to turn Turkey into an authoritarian, non-secular country.

Turkey does have some legitimate concerns about its territorial integrity when it comes to Kurdish statehood. Despite the erosion of Turkish democracy, Turkey is far from a “failed state” (as Iraq was and Syria still is), making the case for appropriating Turkish land for a Kurdish state much weaker. Mechanisms could be set up to protect Turkish sovereignty and borders alongside the introduction of a Kurdish state, which I have outlined in a previous blog post.

More pointedly, if Turkey didn’t want the Kurds to have a much stronger claim to their own state, it should have acted more decisively in the Syrian Civil War and in the fight against the IS. Instead Turkey, like the rest of the global and regional powers, let the Kurds do the heavy lifting. Now, understandably, the Kurds want their just deserts.

Would continuing to decisively back the Kurds upset some powerful players? Yes. What meaningful change does not? What happened to Trump’s supposed bravado? Risk aversion will only reaffirm to the status-quo in the Middle East–picking the least bad autocrats to be our allies, while the region remains mired in conflict and stalled development. Building true democratic allies in the Middle East will not be quick or easy, but it is important work nonetheless.

Now to be fair, in international affairs long-term goals need to be weighed against short-term security concerns, and shortsightedness is not exclusive to the Trump administration. Obama did not do enough to protect a budding democracy in Egypt, and was too risk averse in Syria, allowing Russia to eventually come in and dictate the result of the conflict. There is, however, a sense that the Trump administration will not even really weigh these options when making tough decisions. After all, Trump has shown at best a lukewarm appreciation for democratic institutions at home (attacks on the judiciary and independent media) and has praised authoritarian leaders abroad. It is, therefore, no stretch of the imagination to think that he will, by default, opt for the easy solution without even considering the long-term benefits of promoting democratic governance.

In this case, even considering the potential negatives, abandoning the Kurds would be one of America’s most short-sighted decisions the Middle East since we sleepwalked into the Iraq War in the first place. Based on what we know about Trump and his “America First” foreign policy, it is not likely to be the last short-sighted decision either.

Update (1/27): I knew Trump wouldn’t do the right thing…The U.S. has agreed to stop arming the Syrian Kurds to appease Turkey’s Erdogan. Erdogan, sensing weakness in Trump’s resolve, is trying to further dictate terms to the U.S., demanding we remove all of our troops from Manbij.

It would be incredible to imagine the U.S. allowing another country to dictate where we keep our troops, particularly since Manbij is part of Syria, not Turkey. With that being said, nothing would surprise me anymore; all bets are off with the Trump administration.

Bottom line–Turkey and Erdogan have no right to tell us who we can ally with, and where to position our troops.

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Turkey, Kurdistan and ISIL: The Case for Partitioning Iraq and Syria

kurdmap

The fight against ISIL has taken another complicating turn, with direct fighting between two of America’s most important regional allies, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds (YPG).

There is, however, something that can be done to address each sides concerns and uphold their interests. That something is abandoning the supremacy of Syrian and Iraqi territorial integrity, and carving a Kurdistan out of parts of Syria and Iraq.

This step, accompanied by the right conditions, can help resolve the longstanding feud between the Turks and Kurds and get the fights against ISIL and Assad back on track.

Take Land From Those Who Have Proven They Cannot Govern It

The Syrian and Iraqi governments have both lost their ability to govern the entirety of their respective country’s. These are not my opinions, they are the facts on the ground.

In Syria, Assad has committed numerous war crimes against his people in an attempt to squash a popular uprising against him. Even these violations of human decency and humanitarian law alone would not have kept him in power, as he has relied heavily on support from Russia and Iran.

The Iraqi military melted away in the face of ISIL advances in 2014, and the government has proven unable to address the underlying social and sectarian grievances that enabled this advance. Iraq as we know it would no longer exist without the support of America and its allies.

This is not to say there should be no Syria or no Iraq, but neither country’s government has done anything in recent years to suggest the idea of partitioning should not at least be on the table. The other countries with major Kurdish populations, Turkey and Iran, are still functioning states despite their varying degrees of poor governance.

The argument for creating Kurdistan out of parts of Iraq and Syria is strengthened when considering the strong arguments for Kurdish statehood. These arguments include justice for a large, stateless population, and a reward for bravery in fighting ISIL on the world’s behalf.

By giving the Kurds what they want in Syria and Iraq, it should ease pressure to create a Turkish Kurdistan. Some people may argue the opposite, saying such a development would only fuel Kurdish desires to expand into Turkey. But I think the Kurds, realizing how difficult statehood is to sustain in what is currently Iraq and Syria, would be content with the territory they are allotted. Of course my beliefs cannot be taken on faith–certain conditions would need to be put in place to ensure peaceful coexistence between Kurdistan and its neighbors.

Conditionality is Key

Kurdistan’s founding would be based on a set of conditions. Should these conditions fail to hold Kurdistan would loose international backing, which would basically be a death-blow to the newly formed state.

The main condition needed to make this plan work is the explicit understanding that the Kurds would lose support if they expand beyond originally agreed upon borders, unless it is in response to armed conflict initiated by another country or one of it’s proxy’s (such as Hezbollah for Iran). This condition would ensure two things:

  1. The Kurds will not try to expand, as international support would be needed to sustain a new Kurdistan.
  2. Kurdistan will not be invaded by its neighbors (at least by a national army, non-state actors such as ISIL are always wildcards). Both Turkey and Iran share the same primary concern with respect to Kurdish statehood–the effect it would have on their own Kurdish populations and ultimately their territorial integrity. Since invasion would be the one thing that could result in internationally recognized Kurdish expansion, it should act as a strong deterrent against invasion. 

The Benefits of Bold Behavior

People will say such a solution is untenable–Turkey will never “allow it”, Russia will never go for it, and the current American administration is opposed to it. Iran, for its part, will play the spoiler at ever turn.

First of all, America’s stance could well change in the following months with a new administration on its way. But more importantly, it is not the decision of any one country–not the U.S., not Russia, not Turkey or Iran–to “allow” something or not. Issues of global concern, such as armed conflicts and their resulting boundary-less extremism and refugee crises, must be resolved by the international community through the United Nations.

Much could be achieved by taking land from countries that have proven themselves unable to govern it (and were based on arbitrarily drawn borders to begin with) and giving it to the Kurds. It would:

  1. Reward a large, stateless people who have a commitment to democratic principles and have fought bravely against ISIL.
  2. Remove Turkey’s (and to a lesser extent Iran’s) fear of Kurdish expansion into its own territory.
  3. Refocus the fight against ISIL.
  4. Allow Turkish and Kurdish forces to focus their efforts against Assad, altering the calculus of the Syrian Stalemate.

Bold ideas that challenge the current balance of power tend to be met with skepticism and condemnation at first. But the current balance of power in the Middle East empowers extremist organizations and totalitarian governments–it should be challenged.


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Conflict Watch: Kurdish Awakening

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.