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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  The world needs to start treating IS as a territorial-based organization; a proto- nation-state where ethnicity has been replaced by religion as the national identity marker.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

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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.

Stunned Silence

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Update: Since writing this post last night, Erdogan has finally addressed the Mosul crisis publicly.  The context and content of his speech only reinforce my main points below.  It took him two days to speak publicly about the kidnapping of Turkish diplomatic staff but his speech lacked the depth and details you would expect at this point in the crisis.  He briefly reassured the public that every effort is being made to free the hostages, a statement that should have been made immediately after the kidnapping, then went on to slam the CHP for criticizing the response of AKP officials to the crisis.  He accused them of being allies of Assad and claimed that their criticism of the government would “provoke” ISIS.  Erdogan now only has one mode: blame and distract.  He and his government’s policies have failed and he is doing everything he can to avoid addressing the justified criticisms of the opposition.  Erdogan, his government, and Turkey are in an extremely vulnerable position at the moment, a situation of their own making.  Distraction may work for now, but if (God forbid) the hostages are harmed or killed it will be very difficult to shift the blame for such a blow to Turkey’s honor to a weak and divided opposition (which is what he is setting up to do).  Mosul, like Soma, is another sign of the slow decline of the power of Erdogan and the AKP both at home and abroad.

 

Erdogan is known for his fiery and frequent speeches.  Since last year’s protests, his conspiracy-laced pontifications have become nearly a daily occurrence.  However, the crisis in northern Iraq has literally left Erdogan dumbstruck.  Since ISIS stormed into Mosul, taking several dozen Turkish truck drivers hostage Tuesday and 49 Turks affiliated with the consulate hostage Wednesday, we have heard nary a peep from the Prime Minister.  Instead, Erdogan reached out to the United States government Thursday.  I am sure it is an understatement to say that he must have felt slighted to be connected with Vice President Biden and not President Obama.

The weaknesses of the AKP government in general and Erdogan in particular are being bared in quick succession.  Just as Soma revealed the shallow and inhumane nature of the AKP’s neo-liberal domestic policies, the crisis in Iraq is the consequence of Turkey’s poorly managed foreign policy.  Though Turkey never directly supported ISIS and its activities, the Turkish government’s all but open boarder policy for anti-Assad militants allowed many foreign fighters to enter Syria and swell ISIS’s ranks.  ISIS was always open with its hostility toward Turkey, declaring Erdogan an apostate, despite Turkey acting as as rear base for their fighters.  The fact that ISIS’s recent hostility toward Turks and Turkey seems to have taken the Turkish government off guard demonstrates a frightening level of naivete on the part of officials.

The Iraq crisis is another event in the series of Turkish foreign policy breakdowns that began with the Arab spring.  The beginning of the Arab spring marked the height of Turkey’s influence in the region and their neo-Ottoman ambitions.  As Syria and then Egypt descended into political chaos, Turkish power became all but illusory.  Some pro-government news outlets continue to publish fantastical, Turko-centric visions for a “new” middle east.  However all but the most delusional in the Turkish government must see that the loss of stability in northern Iraq, a region that was key to Turkish trade with the region, puts Turkey in its weakest international position since the rise of the AKP.  The AKP will not be resurrecting the Ottoman Empire.  They will be lucky, and smart, to maintain their one solid relationship with a Middle Eastern neighbor, namely Iraqi Kurdistan (but that’s another blog post).

Erdogan’s stunned silence in response to this crisis speaks volumes.  Over the past year, he has been doing everything possible to stir up domestic crises, involving the Gulen movement, Gezi protesters, foreign journalists and many others, which he can then go about “solving” through ministerial purges, police crackdowns and repressive laws.  Erdogan didn’t even shy away from tackling the Soma disaster head on, though his approach left something to be desired to say the least.  Now, when Turkey faces a real threat with citizen’s lives on the line, he cannot even find the time to reassure the public that the government is working to resolve the crisis.  Though some AKP ministers have tried, Erdogan’s usual tactics are not sufficient to address this serious of a situation.  Mosul is a real test of the political meddle of Erdogan and the AKP and thus far they have been found wanting.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 13, 2014 at 4:02 am