Thursday, October 09, 2014

Kurds, the Islamic State and the tangled web of Obama's Non-War War

The Kurdish city of Kobani in syria is apparently on the verge of being taking over by Islamic States forces. (Daren Butler and Oliver Holmes, Islamic State seizes large areas of Syrian town despite air strikes Reuters 10/09/2014; Patrick Cockburn, The Siege of Kobani Counter-Punch 10/08/2014)

This is a discussion from PBS Newshour, in which the general bias toward escalation in war commentary is seen, Can air power alone stop advance of Islamic State militants? 10/08/2014:

Here is the news from Butler and Holmes:

... the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State, which is still widely known by its former acronym of ISIS, had pushed forward on Thursday.

"ISIS control more than a third of Kobani - all eastern areas, a small part of the northeast and an area in the southeast," said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Observatory which monitors the Syrian civil war.

The commander of Kobani's heavily outgunned Kurdish defenders confirmed that the militants had made major gains in a three-week battle that has also led to the worst streets clashes in years between police and Kurdish protesters across the frontier in southeast Turkey.

Militia chief Esmat al-Sheikh put the area controlled by Islamic State, which has already seized large amounts of territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, at about a quarter of the town. "The clashes are ongoing - street battles," he told Reuters by telephone from the town.

Turkey is pointedly holding back from any direct intervention to save Kobani, although their parliament has authorized military action:

Despite Kurdish appeals for help, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu played down the likelihood of its forces going to the aid of Kobani.

"It is not realistic to expect Turkey to conduct a ground operation on its own," he told a joint news conference with visiting NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. However, he added: "We are holding talks. ... Once there is a common decision, Turkey will not hold back from playing its part."

Ankara resents any suggestion from Washington that it is not pulling its weight, but wants broader joint action that also targets the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "We strongly reject allegations of Turkish responsibility for the ISIS advance," said a senior Ankara government source.
Turkish policy wants to get rid of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. But they don't want to do anything that would promote Kurdish independence or bolster the strength of Turkey's leftist PKK Kurdish guerrilla group pushing for Kurdish independence.

It seem pretty obvious at the moment that in choosing between IS over the Syrian Kurds, Turkey prefers IS. It's one more aspect of how very complicated Obama's Iraq-Syria Non-War War is.

There has been militant reaction from Kurds in Turkey, as Patrick Cockburn reports:

The refusal by the Turkish government to help the Syrian Kurds in their hour of need immediately provoked demonstrations by Kurds across Turkey. There have been protests, often violent, in the Kurdish south-east and wherever there are Kurdish minorities, such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa. In Varto, a man was killed and in Istanbul a prominent human rights lawyer, Tamer Dogan, was shot in the head. His friends say he may have been targeted. Smoke was rising over many towns where demonstrators had lit fires in the streets and police used tear gas and water cannon.

Turks may react angrily to reports that a bust of Ataturk was burned by a crowd in Van province. The General Staff in Ankara put out a report that the Turkish flag had also been set alight. An office of the Kurdish political party, the HDP, was surrounded in one Istanbul district by a crowd shouting ‘Allahu Akhbar’.

One observer in Turkey writes: “These events could turn what began as a general humanitarian protest at the abandonment of the besieged in Kobani into a headlong collision between the Kurds and the Turks.”
But even for the Turkish Kurds, there are more issues than just Turkish direct intervention, among them the treatment of refugees and allowing passage of PKK fighters through Turkey to Syria.

From Reuters, Turkish Kurds clash with police, angry over Kobani 10/09/2014:

In a European political sideline, the German Left Party, which actively pursues Turkish votes in Germany, seems to be somewhat divided over the Kurds and over opposing direct Turkish participation in the non-war war against IS. Evrim Sommer, a Green Member of the state parliament in Berlin, argues for the value of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq, which he thinks would not adversely affect Turkey. (Freudenfest für 40 Millionen Menschen Neues Deutschland 30.08.2014) Which, in Kobani right now, IS is busy doing for them. Some Left Party parliamentarians have even been calling for a military intervention to protect Syrian Kurds under a UN mandate, "until now a taboo for the Left Party" ("bisher ein Tabu für die Linkspartei"; LINKE-Abgeordnete offenbar für Militäreinsatz gegen IS Neues Deutschland 07.10.2014)

This has not been enthusiastically received in the Left Party, it appears. The Party's spokeswoman for domestic policy, Ulla Jelpke, argues that the Kurds in Iraq and Syria do not want other ground troops brought in against IS, but better weapons for Kurdish forces and access to Turkey for refugees and for Turkey to allow passage for Kurdish fighters going to combat areas in Iraq and Syria. (Uwe Kalbe, Wenig Mitleid für Mitleidige Neues Deutschland 09.10.2014) The argument here reflects Kurdish fears that Turkey would be more likely to use their troops to suppress the Kurds than to fight IS. Kalbe quotes Özlem Demirel, Party spokesman for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, saying "Turkey itself is part of the problem" ("die Türkei ist selbst ein Teil des Problems").

Cockburn raises an important point about those who are focusing on the obviously limited effect on US air power in defending Kobani:

The Turks were not alone in abandoning Kobani to the Islamic militants. The US was careful not have any direct liaison with Kurdish fighters on the ground though local intelligence should have made their air strikes more effective and might have stopped the Isis advance. Over the past 24 hours, these strikes have increased in number but may come too late as Isis militants fight street to street.

The US campaign against Isis is weakened not so much by lack ‘boots on the ground’, but by seeking to hold at arm’s-length those who are actually fighting Isis while embracing those such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey who are not. There is a similar situation in Iraq, where most of the fighting against Isis is by the Shia militias from which the US keeps its distance. [my emphasis]
As Juan Cole points out, the limited effect of US air power is likely to be partly a matter of not having enough US military on the ground to "paint lasers" on IS targets. (The Last Days of Kobani Loom as ISIL Closes in on Syrian Kurds with Murder on its Mind Informed Comment 10/09/2014)

Wayne White in Kobani: Questionable Turkish, US Behavior LobeLog Foreign Policy also addresses Turkey's Kurdish policy in the Non-War War:

The leftist anti-Turkish politics of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD or YPD), its connection to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and an iffy Syrian Kurdish alliance of convenience with the Syrian regime against IS may have trumped military wisdom, leaving potentially 2 million Syrian Kurds to bear the full fury of IS mostly alone. Perhaps Ankara expressed early on a preference that Kobani’s defenders receive little US air support, hoping IS might degrade a longstanding thorn in Turkey’s side.

If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan harbored such sentiments, time has not been kind to him. The international media dramatized the heroic Kurdish stand at Kobani, and Turkey’s large Kurdish population—not just Syrian Kurdish refugees—have become increasingly outraged. Yet although armed with new legislation authorizing him to take military action, Erdogan has remained passive—not even responding to IS artillery and mortar rounds falling inside Turkey (and wounding several Turkish civilians). He also made the mistake of saying publicly on Oct. 7 that airstrikes would not save Kobani, which was “about to fall.”

David Rohde and Warren Strobel report on various critics and defenders of the White House squabbling over whether President Obama reacting quickly enough to the IS crisis, which as we all know the The Greatest Threat We've Ever Faced. (How Syria policy stalled under the 'analyst in chief' Reuters 11/09/2014)

None of the sides in the policy debate described here seemed to take the position of: "You know, our 21 years of war in Iraq didn't work out so well, and in fact seems to have contributed mightily to a lot more chaos and bad stuff happening. Maybe we should find ways to get negotiated ends to the civil conflicts there and make every effort to avoid getting into war there again."

The Very Serious People don't think that way.

And given Obama's broad war aims and the minimum three-year commitment he's made to his Non-War War, the pressure to send ground troops will continue. Because when you apply can-do logic and a narrow perspective to the situation, it's easy to come up with an analysis like this one from George Petrolekas and Howard Coombs, Avoiding the Long War Redux The National Interest 10/08/2014.

It's one of the features of permanent war is that we permanently get to read optimistic fantasies like that one: drop in some ground troops, swing them around this way, use some bases in Turkey, and Victory!

"The point being that success is possible if aims are limited to the destruction of the IS, and not a mission to establish government or re-establish civil society by military means." Yeah, just blast IS to bits and it's all over in a couple of weeks, nice friendly pro-Western secular governments pop up in Iraq and Syria right away, and we all get free ponies. Awesome.

My favorite part of that is that they use the Gulf War as an example of setting limited aims, getting them done (Iraq out of Kuwait) and getting out clean. Except for, you know, the decade-plus of no-fly zones and bombing that followed. And the 2003 invasion that followed that. And Obama's new Non-War War that followed that and that he's already said will continue at least three years. That means only five consecutive Presidents will have been at war with Iraq. Other than that, we made a clean getaway in 1991!

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