Atatürk's Republic

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Untangling the Turkish-Kurdish-IS Debacle

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The Islamic State is advancing on the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria.  Turkish Kurds and Kurdish refugees still huddled around the boarder are rioting.  The take away of most international media observers can be paraphrased as “the Kurds are unhappy because Turkey is purposely letting Kobane fall.”  As with most Turkish politics, the truth is much more complex.

Turkey is genuinely stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Kobane.  Both the Syrian Kurdish leadership and the Assad government have flatly said that they would consider a Turkish military incursion into Syria a hostile act (although the position of the Kurdish regional government may be changing). About half of Turkish citizens are opposed to intervening against IS.  Erdogan and Davutoglu are absolutely right when they insist that a half-hearted air campaign will never succeed in fully defeating IS and that a multi-lateral strategy is need.  None of these issues of course excuses Erdogan’s equating the PKK (which the Turkish government has been in peace talks with for the year and half) with IS (which kidnapped dozens of Turkish citizens and has called Erdogan in infidel).  Nor does it justify tear gassing Syrian Kurds trying to cross back into the Kobane region to help defend the city. However, it does explain why Turkey has knowingly given the US and the Syrian Kurds an impossible to fulfill set of demands that would need to be met before it would agree military cooperation against IS.  This is also why Turkey will continue to urge the US to use airstrikes on IS and lash out against the US for not doing enough to stop IS, while simultaneously blocking the usage of the US airbase in Turkey for such a purpose.

Kurds are indeed frustrated with both the US and Turkey for what they believe is the former’s unwillingness to provide sufficient air support for Kobane and the later’s all but open support of IS.  Both of these accusations are oversimplifications, but the tense situation right now means perception matters more than the truth.  The political dynamics between Turkey, its Kurdish citizens, its Kurdish Syrian refugees and the Syrian Kurdish regional government complicates issues further.  The Syrian Kurdish government does not want its previous autonomy disrupted by a partnership with or military intervention by Turkey.  As Harold Doornbos, a reporter currently on the Turkish-Syrian border tweeted yesterday “There are some misconceptions, especially among Western audiences, regarding Turkey ‘doing nothing’ and ‘just watching how Kobane dies’ [sic]… Kurds [are] angry at Turkey NOT b[ecause] Turkish army does not intervene in Kobane, but b[ecause] Turkey blocks weapons, fighters from reaching Kobane.”  Kurds in both Turkey and Syria are upset at what they perceive, accurately, as Turkey’s double standard when it comes to Syrian fighters.  After letting Islamists cross the border essentially unimpeded for years, Turkey is now denying this same privilege to Kurds.  Granted the greater border security has much to do with the rise of IS, but Turkey’s decision to prevent unarmed young Kurds, both Syrian and Turkish, from traveling to Kobane since this battle started has led many Kurds to perceive Turkey’s new border security as more anti-Kurdish than anti-IS.

Kurds began protesting in cities around Turkey and around the world Monday and on Tuesday night in Turkey these protests morphed into riots.  Kobane is the spark, but frustration has been building for some time among Turkey’s Kurds.  The Turkish-Kurdish peace talks have been stalled longer than they have been productive.  The AKP government gave Turkey’s Kurds hope that they would finally enjoy equal cultural rights with Turks, only to have these hopes met halfway at best and indefinitely delayed at worst.  Turkey was forewarned multiple times by Kurdish leaders that an IS victory in Kobane would lead to renewed Kurdish violence.  Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the situation should have been able to see these riots coming.  The Turkish government should have also been able to predict that Kurdish protests, peaceful or not, would be met be counter-protesters from Turkey’s ultra-nationalist and extreme fundamentalist groups, all of which are known for their involvement in past violence.  Whether out of malicious intent or simple stupidity (and again, Kurds will perceive it as malicious) the Turkish government seems not to have taken any steps to prevent or assuage the violence.  Many police were off duty due to the holiday over the weekend and were only recalled once the violence peaked.  Once again, citizens have reportedly been killed and seriously injured by police actions.  Perhaps more disturbingly, the police failed to prevent multiple deadly clashes between Kurdish citizen and political groups and one or more extremest political groups.  Reports indicate at least 14 dead (update: 18) most the victims of the inter-group clashes.

Some Turkey watchers have raised concerns that we may be seeing a return to the bad old days in Turkey- armed clashes between rival political groups, renewed PKK insurgency and government emergency rule.  It is too early to make any solid predictions, but the events of the last few days have put the gains that Turkey has made during the AKP decade under serious threat, even more so than its recent slip toward authoritarianism.  A return to unpredictable violence does not just threaten Turkey’s democratic institutions, but its economic and growth and social stability, the foundation on which the AKP has built its power.  It is the best interest of all groups involved, the Kurds, the AKP and the Turkish nation at large for the Turkish government to find a way to deescalate this explosive situation.  The first step is to address it’s pro-IS reputation.  The Turkish government must stop simply saying that it does not support IS and find ways to demonstrate this stance, such as providing non-military aid and allowing Kurds to cross into Kobane to help defend  the city.  The government must also clarify its position on the PKK.  As long as the PKK is engaging in military actions against the Turkish government, it makes no sense for the government to maintain that it is equivalent to IS.  If the PKK and its members have no chance of being rehabilitated, what motivation do they have to hold the ceasefire?  Of course, an Erdogan apology for this statement is out of the question, but Davutoglu or other government officials need to find a way to modify or qualify this comparison.  Only if Turkey’s Kurds stop perceiving the Turkish government as the enemy, and vice versa, will there be any hope for a return to peace and stability.

IS is not the Anti-State

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The Islamic State, or IS, is a non-state actor which has quickly managed to invade and occupy large swaths of territory straddling the border of two established nation states.  It declared its allegiance not to a political or military leader but to self-declared Caliph, a religious leader. IS is unflinchingly brutal in method of war and is a grave threat to the security of all the states in the region.  However it is not, as some have claimed, proof that the concept of the nation-state has failed in the Middle East. The organization’s name change from ISIS to the Islamic State was not an arbitrary rebranding.  The world needs to start treating IS as a territorial-based organization; a proto- nation-state where ethnicity has been replaced by religion as the national identity marker.

The current manifestation of the group can be roughly compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan .  Unfortunately, IS has also learned from many of the mistakes of the Taliban made while attempting to govern Afghanistan.  IS has imposed brutal rule based on its own interpretation of Islamic texts while simultaneously installing a bureaucracy, institutions and law-and-order in an area that has enjoyed few of these luxuries since the Syrian civil war began.  IS has also broken from the Taliban model in centralizing its religious leadership.  The spiritual leader of the group has declared himself the Caliph of all Muslims, the successor to the prophet Mohammad.  Despite its declared universal religious and political ambitions (some members of the group have asserted that the group has ambitions to expand its reach as far as Istanbul) the realities of holding and controlling territory has begun, as Jeremy Shapiro of Brookings puts it, to change both the governors and the governed.  In short, IS is following the Weberian model and transitioning from a charismatic, revolutionary organization into a routinized, centralized and bureaucratized state.

Establishing itself as a national instead of transnational, revolutionary organization makes IS less of a threat to Western states, but not necessarily to bordering states like Turkey.  Therefore, while containment might be a reasonable strategy for the US, it is in Turkey’s best interest for IS to be “degraded and destroyed.”  The establishment of the IS proto-nation, as opposed to a decentralized terrorist organization, makes it more vulnerable to traditional tactics for weakening a pariah government.  IS’s ability to govern the territory it has seized must be interrupted by restricting the group’s access to capital, new recruits, resources and infrastructure.  Turkey has already taken steps in this direction, cracking down on oil smuggling, a major sources of revenue for the group, and the movement of foreign would-be jihadists.  Despite the fact that it is reluctant to do so, Turkey needs to allow the international community to help it further monitor the movement of people and goods across its borders.  The efficacy of cutting off of supplies to governments via sanctions and trade restrictions for purposes of weakening governments is highly debatable.  In this case however, as the IS government let alone state has barely been established and its popularity is strongly tied to its ability to provide services and stability, their likelihood of making an impact is much greater.

Even if Turkey does not get involved militarily (the domestic political price of doing so is likely prohibitively high) for its own long term benefit it needs to do everything it can to support countries who are willing to carry out military operations.  Turkey also needs to get over its unreasonable fears of Kurdish autonomy in Syria and do more to support the multiple Kurdish groups that are bearing the brunt of IS’s assaults.  Though directly supplying weapons is again politically out of the question, Turkey needs to be open to providing desperately needed non-military supplies as well as allowing Kurds to enter or re-enter Syria and Iraq in order to fight IS.  Supporting the Kurds is critical for both halting the expansion of IS as well as maintaining the PKK ceasefire within Turkey.  Many Kurds and members of the PKK in particular believe Turkey is favoring and supporting IS to the detriment of the Kurds.  Whether or not this is true (and most experts agree that Turkey is not supporting IS) PKK leadership is threatening to break the current ceasefire and take up arms against Turkey once again.  This would be disastrous for both Turks and Kurds and the Turkish government needs to do everything it can to (re)make peace with Kurds both in and outside its borders.

IS’s location straddling the former border of two states will most likely work against its ability to hold and govern its proto-state.  The Taliban were largely left to themselves, and therefore was able to control Afghanistan for a decade despite its unpopularity, until the September 11 attacks because their brutal state was confined inside the established borders of one nation-state.  As weak as it is, Iraq’s central government still exists and is still committed to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi nation-state.  IS would have to conquer all of Iraq or convince the Iraqi government into agreeing to a truce, both of which still look unlikely at this point.  On the Syrian side, Assad would probably be fine with IS taking over rebel held territory as long as his government was allow to hold onto its much-shrunken kingdom.  However, it is unlikely that the multiple rebel groups will all agree make a similar concession and will continue to fight to hold on to the territory they control as well as to regain the territory held by IS.

There are no easy solutions for dealing with IS, it will take a combination of military strategies as well as continued international cooperation and coordination over a lengthy period of time.  See the links below for additional useful discussions of the problem of IS from a Mid-East analyst perspective, some of which I drew on for my discussion above.

Brookings: What is ISIS’ strategy?

David Motadel: The Ancestors of ISIS

Zenonas Tziarras: The Geopolitical Impact of ISIS: Actors, Factors, and Balances of Power in the Middle East

Carnegie Europe: What on Earth is Turkey up to?

Michael Koplow: The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition

Aaron Stein: Turkey and the US led anti-IS coalition: Ankara is doing more than People Think

Nathan Brown: Avoiding old mistakes in the new game of Islamic politics

Marc Champion: Turkey’s Complicated Position on Islamic State

Henri J. Barkey: How the Islamic State took Turkey Hostage

William McCants: State of Confusion: ISIS’ Strategy and How to Counter It (Did not read this piece prior to writing the above, but has a similar thesis to my post)

Also see these excellent background stories:

Piotr Zalewski: Why Islamic State Wants to Conquer a Kurdish Border Town

Piotr Zalewski: How Islamic State Wages War

David D. Kirkpatrick: ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed

New York Times: Turkey Inching Toward Alliance With U.S. in Syria Conflict

Turkey still has a Refugee Crisis

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Some very harsh light has been cast on Turkey and its malignant neglect of its ISIS problem over the past week.  Turkey joined the US led coalition against ISIS only to almost immediately backtrack.  Whether or not this was the right decision for Turkey to make, and in the long term I believe it is not, is complex and the subject for another blog post.  In addition, investigative reports,  in Newsweek by A. Christie Miller and Alev Scott and in the New York Times today by Ceylan Yeginsu, have made it clear that ISIS has successfully convinced thousands of vulnerable Turks and Turkish Kurds to join their nascent state.  Miller, Scott and Yeginsu’s reporting has not only proven that Turkey’s boarders remain dangerously porous but also reveal that despite Turkey’s notorious internet censorship and surveillance the Turkish government has neither been able to identify  potential ISIS recruits nor stop ISIS propaganda. Why Turkey has not stopped virtual ISIS infiltration is again the subject for another blog post.

Turkey’s undoubtedly serious ISIS problem has diverted attention from the fact that is still also facing a serious, and continually growing, refugee crisis.  In addition to the more than a million Syrian refugees already residing in Turkey, ISIS’s rampage through northern Iraq has driven yet another wave of refugees into Turkey, the Yazidis.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are outside of the highly lauded refugee camps, living mostly in Turkey’s southern cities or in Istanbul.  Syrian refugees have swelled the population of cities like Reyhanli, Killis and Gaziantep.  Despite the largely welcoming attitude of the Turkish population toward the refugees, recently tensions have been rising.  In August there were violent anti-Syrian protests in Istanbul and riots targeting Syrians went on for several days after a Turkish landlord was murdered by his Syrian tenant in Gaziantep.  In order to try to prevent even more Syrians from entering the country, Turkey has encouraged the building of refugee camps just inside the Syrian border.  The conditions in these camps are decidedly worse than the camps located inside of Turkey.

After Kurdish fighters pushed back the ISIS invaders which had displaced and killed thousands of Yazidis, members of this religious minority began fleeing over Turkey’s southeastern border.  Official estimates put the number of Yazidi refugees at 16,000.  Camps are being set up for this new refugee group but like the Syrians many find themselves living either in ad-hoc shelters or in camps inside Iraq.

Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority whose religious beliefs are widely misunderstood.  Yazidis follow a syncretic religion that is based on pre-Islamic, Pre-Christian Zoroastrian beliefs.  They speak Kurdish dialects and most (but not all) consider themselves to be ethnic Kurds.  Muslim Kurds for their part appear to embrace Yazidis as their ethnic kin, fighting heroically to allow trapped Yazidis to escape from the barren Sinjar mountain and even training Yazidis who volunteered to fight against ISIS.  Kurds inside Turkey have gathered donations and personally delivered necessities to Yazidi refugees.

The Turkish government is already overwhelmed trying to manage the Syrian refugees inside its borders.  It needs a new strategy in order to effectively manage and accommodate a vulnerable refugee group like the Yazidis.  I wrote an unpublished policy paper last fall addressing the issue of Turkey could better accommodate other ethno-minority refugees, specifically the Alawite and Alevi refugees from Syria.  The data is somewhat dated, but the essential argument I make still stands.  In brief, I assert in this paper that the most productive and efficient plan of action for Turkey regarding minority urban refugees is to work with Turkey’s own indigenous Alevi and Alawite minority communities to provide services to these refugee groups.  This proposal is doubly beneficial.  It not only addresses the problem of these under-served refugee groups who are hesitant to ask for assistance directly from the Turkish government but also, in working together to address the needs of refugees, it also would build trust between the Turkish government and its long marginalized Alevi and Alawite citizens.

This proposed plan of action can be directly translated for the current situation of Yazidis, who have taken refuge in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast provinces. Kurdish municipalities and individuals have been providing aid independently but do not have the resources to deal with a crisis of this scale in the long term.  The Turkish central government on the other hand has the resources but not the contacts on the ground.  In order to address this crisis effectively, the two need to work together.  Additionally, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, while not yet broken, has stagnated.  Partnering with local Kurdish authorities and civil society organizations to asses and address the needs of this latest group of refugees would be just the kind of good-will initiative that the peace process so desperately needs right now.  The Turkish government needs to set aside its phobia of everything Kurdish (read: anything with the remote possibility of being affiliated with the PKK) and directly engage with all willing partners in order to both manage this crisis and demonstrate that there can be a lasting peace between Turks and Kurds.

However, I can almost without a doubt predict that Turkey will continue its current plan of action, or lack there of, regarding both Iraqi and Syrian refugees.  Over the past year Turkish efforts to address both Sunni and minority Syrian refugees have flatlined.  The only discernible change stems from disconcerting reports that urban refugees, particularly those begging on the streets, have been rounded up and sent to camps against their will.  I have yet to see any investigative reports regarding these camps, if they do indeed exist.  I certainly hope that when the current crisis cools down that both the Turkish government and the media will realize that the Syrian refugee crisis is turning into a permanent population displacement.  Sending refugees to camps is not a long term solution, no matter how good the conditions in said camps may be.  Major policy changes, such as issuing work permits for refugees, need to be paired with creative grass-roots based solutions in order to prevent Turkey’s refugee population from becoming a major, and likely long-term, social, economic and political burden.

Written by ataturksrepublic

September 16, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Reaching a Real Settlement

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In an article yesterday, Claire Berlinski commented on the eerie and depressing similarities between the Gezi protests last year in Turkey and the ongoing protests in Ferguson, MO.  Indeed,  there is a trend in the images produced by protest movements- clouds of tear gas, police in armor and choking but defiant citizens.  The post 9/11 world have given rise to the nearly universal militarization of police forces.  Whether recent protests have taken place in an autocracy, democracy, or one of the many semi-democracies, police have again and again erred on the side of excessive force.

Both Ferguson and Gezi are examples of a dangerous world-wide trend in law enforcement.  However, the demands and demographics of the protesters in these two cases actually have little in common.  A more apt comparison to Ferguson in the Turkish context would be the intermittent and chronic protests by Kurds against government repression, particularly the building of gendarme outposts, in Turkey’s Southeast.  Both involve an ethnic and socio-economic underclass that largely inhabits marginal areas.  Both groups have been the target of brutal police repression but are often ignored by the mainstream media.

Of course comparing these two very complex and very different cases of minority repression is dangerously reductive on many counts.  That being said, at this particular moment in Turkish history, Turkish politicians would be wise to take a broad lesson from the history of African-Americans in the US, of which Ferguson is only the latest manifestation.  Turkey is in the midst of a much heralded attempt to finally reach a settlement with its indigenous Kurdish armed movement in return for increased cultural rights for Kurds.  Even if this process reaches the ideal outcome of granting equal cultural and legal rights to Kurds, the residual social and economic discrimination faced will not be erased.  The Turkish government cannot drop its focus on Kurdish issues and concerns once the settlement process is deemed complete.  Even if a formerly second-class group group of citizens is recognized as having full legal parity with the majority, in all likelihood discrimination will continue in practice for many decades to come.  Leaders on both sides of Turkey’s settlement process need to realize that the current legal negotiations are only, and should only, be the beginning.  In the decades to come, social, educational and economic inequalities will have to be addressed in order to truly reach equality between ethnic Kurdish and ethnic Turkish citizens of Turkey.

Written by ataturksrepublic

August 15, 2014 at 1:38 pm

President Erdogan

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Brent Sasley of Mideast Matrix and I have a collaborative article in Foreign Affairs which discussed the possible future direction of the Erdogan Presidency.  Specifically, we used another Turkish Prime Minister cum President, Turgut Ozal as a model.

You can read the post here: President Erdogan.

 

 

Written by ataturksrepublic

August 14, 2014 at 1:27 pm

Questioning the Outcome of Turkey’s Presidential Race

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Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent announcement of his candidacy to be Turkey’s first popularly elected President was, despite the AKP’s best efforts, utterly unsurprising. Erdogan and his party had been all but discussing it as a done deal for months prior. Now that his candidacy is official, commentators across the spectrum have largely been assuming that Erdogan’s electoral success is all but inevitable. Though Erdogan’s chances of winning are undoubtedly high, the effect that his two challengers will have on the August election, as well as how he will use the powers of his office if and when he does win, make the results of this election more unpredictable than it may first appear.

Erdogan’s rivals in this election are Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint candidate of the CHP/MHP parties and Selahattin Demirtaş, the candidate of the Kurdish HDP party. Ihsanoglu’s nomination was as surprising as Erdogan’s was predictable. Ihsanoglu is not a politician per se, let alone a member of either the CHP or MHP. Instead, he is a career diplomat and intellectual who most recently was the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. His endorsement by the two largest opposition parties, and three smaller ones, caught the Turkish political community and its followers off guard. As far as I know, he was not on any analyst’s list of probable candidates.

In certain respects Ihasnoglu is a solid choice for a Presidential candidate.  Both his academic and professional work have centered around Islam, giving him the potential to appeal to Turkey’s pious majority.  His diplomatic career, as well as his statements since beginning his campaign, indicate that Ihsanoglu would confine his role as president to the traditional, a-political figurehead role.  His short campaign has already had some ups and downs, one low point being the bizarre campaign slogan announced yesterday, but Ihsanoglu has made a good faith effort to reach out to a variety of underrepresented groups in Turkey, including Alevis and supporters of the Gezi movement.  Though Ihsanoglu is certainly no match for Erdogan, arguably there are no current CHP or MHP politician that would potentially make a better candidate or draw more votes.  Ihsanoglu has little chance of making a dent in the AKP base, but will likely collect the disaffected voters from the former AKP block- youth, liberals and possibly others.

The Kurdish candidate, Demirtas, was a bit of surprise as well.  There had been speculations that the Kurdish party would back Erdogan’s candidacy, in part because of Erdogan’s role in the ongoing Kurdish-Turkish peace process.  Demirtas will certainly take votes away from Erdogan in the first round of voting; Kurdish voters are unlikely to support any CHP or MHP candidate because of both parties’ historic (and present) nationalism.

This brings up the first major question: Will Erdogan win a majority in the first round of voting?

If no candidate wins a majority in the August 10 ballots, then a second round of voting will be scheduled.  Analysts agree that if Erdogan were to not receive a majority in the first round, but then presumably go on to win in the second round, his mandate would be diminished.

This leads to the related question: What percentage of the vote can each candidate expect to receive?

While Turkish polls are notoriously unreliable and often purposely biased, the recent local elections can provide us with a rough prediction.  The AKP received about 43% of the vote, the CHP and MHP a combined 43% of the vote and the Kurdish parties 6% of the vote.  This breakdown corresponds roughly with some poll results.  Other polls, notably trumpeted by the pro-government media, show Erdogan getting a majority in the first round (here, here and here) but these same polls are cited in the international media as well.

Erdogan may or may not win in the first round of voting, but barring some political disaster on his part (there are still Turkish diplomats being held for ransom by terrorists after all) it is safe to assume that one way or another Erdogan will get his wish to become president.  However, if voting goes to a second round, Erdogan’s mandate to rule may very well be diminished.

This leads to the next question: How will Erdogan use his power as President?

He has notoriously promised to use all his constitutionally given powers, something that current President Gul has refrained from doing, and generally continue to maintain his tight grip on Turkish politics.  However, it is still not clear if Erdogan will be able to gather power and centralize it as he clearly wishes to.  His efforts to change the constitution to create a strong, central and basically unchecked presidency have been thwarted in the past and, despite Erdogan’s change of office, there is no indication that the current political situation will allow Erdogan and the AKP to successfully relaunch their constitutional initiative.

Despite efforts to bring the judiciary under executive control, local courts and most notably the Constitutional Court have exhibited a remarkable level of independence and commitment to the rule of law.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Constitutional Court challenges Erdogan if and probably when he tries to overstep the constitutionally constrained bounds of the Presidency.

Finally there is the wild card of the next Prime Minister.  Current President Gul had initially denied the desire to fill this position, but rumors have been circulating lately that he may have changed his mind.  If Gul does eventually become PM (he would have to run and be elected to parliament first) some believe he may actually use the powers of the office to keep President Erdogan in check.  This would be constitutionally possible, but given Gul’s track record I remain skeptical.  However the fact remains that the next Prime Minister, whoever he may be (and it will be a he) will be able to challenge Erogan’s power if he so desires.

I have previously waxed optimistic about Turkey’s political future, probably overly so.  However, the future remains too uncertain to declare the end of Turkish democracy and assume that this election marks the beginning of Erdogan’s term as President for Life.  The political opposition remains divided and disorganized, but also makes up at least 50% of the population.  There is enough political discontent to keep Erdogan on his toes and, if there is a will in Parliament and the courts, make him fight for every inch of power.

Turkey’s Options in Iraq

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The ongoing crisis in Iraq has led to an explosion of op-eds and policy pieces discussing the future, or lack thereof, of the Iraqi nation-state and the implications this has for foreign policy-makers.  Steven Cook echoes many thinkers when he warned that Iraq is on the verge of breaking apart.  As he and Nick Danforth rightly point out, the international borders created by Western powers a hundred years ago were largely arbitrary, more so than elsewhere.  Cook sees the eventual break-up of Iraq as practically inevitable given the disunity of it’s various factions and compares it to the former Yugoslavia.  However, as Danforth points out the involvement of ISIS in particular creates the possibility of alliances and shifting borders outside of the confines of ethnic and religious allegiances.

As many have also pointed out, the most likely “winners” in this situation, and the most likely to successfully create their own breakaway state, are the northern Iraqi Kurds.  The Kurdish para-military forces, known as peshmerga, took advantage of the chaos and successfully gained control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.  Kurdish leaders have declared that this is not a temporary security measure and they plan to hold on to the city even if the threat of ISIS subsides.  The Kurd’s ascending power, coupled with their record of stable governance of northern Iraq, has resulted in a number of calls for greater international support of and recognition for the Kurd’s claims of sovereignty.  Dov Friedman and Cale Salih argued that if the US wants the Kurds to help defeat ISIS, instead of simply defending their own territory, the US government needs to pull back on their support of Maliki and all but recognize the Kurds as sovereign in their territory (though, crucially not independent).  Developments today indicate that the Obama administration is taking at least the first half of Friedman’s and Salih’s advice and may be orchestrating the ouster of Maliki.  Similarly, writing in regards to Turkey’s policy options, Michael Koplow suggested that it is “Time for Turkey to Support an Independent Iraqi Kurdistan.”

The foreign policy options for the US regarding Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are much more numerous and complicated and, frankly, lay outside my area of expertise.  Turkey, bordering both ISIS and Kurdish controlled regions of Iraq and having much less influence over Baghdad has a limited number of routes it can chose.  Koplow’s proposal is bold and well-intentioned but I don’t think it’s an idea whose time has yet come.  It is only a week into the crisis and it is much too early to declare the death of the Iraqi nation-state.  As Danforth points out, ISIS brought a number of parties who were formerly at odds together in the fight against the invasion.  Even if Kurdistan does manage to gain it’s independence as a result of this incident (and I do believe Iraqi Kurdistan has a very good chance of becoming its own state sooner or later) Baghdad will likely remain in control of most of the rest of Iraq in the short to medium term. As Danforth also states, despite the media’s new found interest in discussing the potential for a plethora of new states in the Middle East, the idea that there are “natural” and homogeneous enthno-religious nation-states waiting to be born is a myth.  The idea of the nation-state is surprisingly tenacious, even in states where it was imposed from the outside.  Breakups in the model of Yugoslavia are rare.  If Iraq were to split, I foresee an outcome more akin to either the break-away provinces in Georgia or the bi-lateral split in Sudan.   Ankara should not risk cutting its already stressed relations with the Iraqi government over a pre-emptive declaration of Kurdish independence.  Turkey should of course continue to build ties with the KRG, but its current wait-and-see approach is the best way to keep it’s long term options and political ties open.

This wait and see policy should not be applied to the ongoing ISIS hostage crisis however.  As I wrote earlier, the AKP and Erdogan are at a loss as to what to do and therefore have resorted to their tried and true blame and divert tactics.  Erdogan has even managed to impliment an official media blackout regarding the hostages, even as credible reports claim that 15 more Turks have been captured by ISIS.  The longer the hostages are held, the more likely there won’t be a happy ending to this story.  ISIS is no friend of the Turkish government, despite what pro-government talking heads on Turkish TV may think.  ISIS is ruthless, brutal and stubborn.  Treating them with kid gloves may keep the Turkish hostages alive for now, but does nothing to guarantee their ultimate safe return.  Turkey needs to draw on its ties with Kurdistan and work with the peshmerga, how ever distasteful that may be, to locate and recover their citizens.  This is both the best of the bad political options for the AKP and the best chance for the captured Turks to return home.

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