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Posts Tagged ‘Kurds and ISIS

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.

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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