Friday, October 14, 2016

“The Syrian Kurds Need More Than Weapons—They Need Political Support”

In the last presidential deba…cle, Hillary Clinton mentioned her plan to provide Kurds in Syria with small arms, as the Obama administration has discussed in recent weeks. This article by Patrick Lewis thoughtfully considers this policy:
The Obama administration is considering a plan to further arm the Kurds—whom many in Washington call “our most effective partner on the ground” in Syria—in order to incentivize Kurdish participation in an upcoming offensive against ISIS in Raqqa. Two weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial endorsing this plan—the headline proclaimed this as “Step One” for “Fixing Syria.” And in presidential debates, including last night’s, Hillary Clinton has advocated a similar plan.

Expelling ISIS from Raqqa, the largest Syrian city under the group’s control and its self-declared capital, has been a primary U.S. military objective in Syria since the beginning of its intervention in 2014. Raqqa now carries (in the minds of U.S. political and military leaders, at least) great symbolic importance in the war on ISIS. So it’s no surprise when the Tribune declares that the many complications and dangers of sending even more arms to the Kurds can be brushed aside: “What’s important now is the ouster of the Islamic State from Raqqa.”

But in calling for more shipments of weapons to Syria without any semblance of a plan for a political solution to the 5-year conflict—nor the even longer conflict between Turkey and the Kurds—the Tribune is reinforcing the worst aspects of U.S. policy in the region. This policy remains overly focused on achieving short-term military victories at the expense of longer-term political settlements, without which a lasting peace is impossible. What’s more, this policy will almost certainly fail to achieve even the limited goals it has set out for itself, namely the capture of Raqqa.

What’s needed is dialogue around Kurdish demands for a federal system in Syria (with local autonomy for Kurds and other minorities); without this, simply delivering weapons will privilege a military solution over a diplomatic one. It will likely strengthen the most militant and hardline factions among the Kurdish leadership while continuing to sideline many of the political and civil society leaders most responsible for the ongoing experiments in radical participatory democracy that have inspired admiration from Western Leftists and liberals alike.

Aldar Xelil, a member of the executive committee of TEV-DEM (an umbrella organization coordinating civil society groups in Rojava), made a similar point in a recent interview. When asked about Clinton’s pledge during the debates to arm America’s Arab and Kurdish allies in Syria, Xelil responded, “Of course it is important to give support to Kurdish forces. However, this support cannot be limited to military aid. Any support that will be forthcoming must be provided in all areas; that is to say it must be political, diplomatic, economic and social support as well.”

Xelil cites the consistent exclusion of the PYD—the dominant Kurdish party in Rojava—from the Geneva peace talks on Syria as one area in particular where the U.S. has failed its declared partner. An increasingly common perception in Rojava is that America has repeatedly blocked the PYD’s participation in these talks out of deference to its NATO ally Turkey. (The PYD is a close ally of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state in the country’s Kurdish-majority Southeast.)

In late August, the U.S. gave its support to Turkey’s cross-border incursion into Syria, to go after ISIS as far south as Jarabulus. However, it is widely acknowledged (including by Turkish President Erdogan himself) that the Kurds and their autonomous cantons in Rojava were also a primary target. Thus it was hardly a surprise to anyone that within days of Turkey’s intervention, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were fighting with Turkish soldiers south of Jarabulus.

The Tribune argues that Turkey can be consoled by a U.S. pledge that “the Kurds wouldn’t be getting heavy artillery, just small arms and ammunition.” This is entirely nonsense, and as insulting to the intelligence of the Syrian Kurds themselves as it is to Turkey. More weapons without diplomacy in Northern Syria risks further inflaming tensions in both the Syrian conflict and Turkey, where the government has been waging a new “dirty war” on its own Kurdish population. Tens of thousands have been displaced and entire neighborhoods left in ruins while the American government has remained largely silent.

The renewed fighting in Turkey came after a multiyear peace process between Turkey and the PKK fell apart last summer, in large part due to tensions over Kurdish gains in Syria. This is partly the fault of the United States, which failed to see how its policy of military support for the SDF was destabilizing the peace process in Turkey.

Not only would Turkey be unhappy if the Kurds received more U.S. weaponry, but there’s no evidence the Kurds want to take the deal either. As long as the United States is unwilling to push Turkey toward a comprehensive settlement with Kurdish parties in both Turkey and Syria, it is entirely unreasonable to expect the Kurds to send their fighters into Raqqa (where hundreds could be killed) solely in exchange for “small arms and ammunition.”

In fact, at the end of August, Asya Abdullah, the co-President of PYD, announced that there would be no Kurdish-led operation against Raqqa as long as Turkey’s incursion into Syria continued.

Likewise, just last month, Polat Can, the official representative for the YPG (the dominant group within the SDF) in President Obama’s “Global Coalition to Counter ISIL,” explicitly ruled out the group’s participation in such an operation as long as the U.S. and its Western allies continued to deny recognition to the Kurd’s political project in Rojava. “We are not some paramilitary group,” he told Washington-based journalist Mutlu Civiroglu. “We cannot say to our people let us go and fight, sacrifice so many of [our] young men and women [and] then not have the right to speak. Our people will not accept this and no one would accept this.”

Regardless of its real intentions, America’s double-game in Syria isn’t fooling anyone. It cannot continue to back two warring parties through a myopic focus on its war on ISIS. If it cannot find a political solution to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict—a conflict it has ignored for decades—further military successes against ISIS will become virtually impossible.

Absent a serious diplomatic effort to bring Turkey and the PKK back to the negotiating table and real steps toward some form of recognition for the Kurds’ political project in Rojava, the crisis in northern Syria will only deepen further, opening the door to an even wider regional conflagration. The United State[s] must not pour more gasoline on the fire.

Interlude – “Unissons Nous”

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

HSUS endorses Hillary Clinton

WaPo reports:
…Now, even America’s animals are breaking their silence to voice opposition to Trump.

Okay, not really the animals themselves. But last week, the lobbying arm of the nation’s most prominent animal welfare group, the Humane Society, broke with its own tradition of not making endorsements by coming out in support of Democrat Hillary Clinton and releasing an attack ad against Trump, calling him “a threat to animals everywhere.”

Trump “has assembled a team [of] advisors and financial supporters tied in with trophy hunting, puppy mills, factory farming, horse slaughter, and other abusive industries,” Markarian wrote in a blog post announcing the Clinton endorsement.

The president, Markarian noted, has influence over several agencies that create policies that affect animals, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Bureau of Land Management. Donald Trump Jr., who is seen holding up a severed elephant tail in the Humane Society ad, has expressed interest in joining the Department of the Interior.

But animal lovers shouldn’t just vote for Clinton out of fear of Trump, the HSLF argues. As the organization has written before, Clinton has a robust record on animal issues. As a senator, she sponsored legislation against animal fighting, puppy mills and slaughtering of horses for human food. As secretary of state, she led international efforts to police wildlife trafficking. The Clinton Foundation has fought elephant poaching, and Clinton’s official campaign website has a section on her positions on animal welfare.

If that’s not convincing, Markarian wrote, consider how the Clintons have shared their homes with Socks the cat and other animals, while Trump “would be the first president since Harry Truman without a pet in the White House.”

It should be noted that not all animal advocates are pro-Clinton. In response to the HSLF endorsement, Ecorazzi, a news site that says it has “an unapologetically vegan voice,” argued that there’s no point in looking for animal advocacy from politicians or officials who play roles in regulating the meat industry. The only hope, it says, is a “grassroots vegan movement.”
Look, Ecorazzi, there are two plausible options here: Clinton or Trump. A continuing grassroots vegan movement is necessary regardless. How do you think that would fare in a Trump presidency?

Interlude – “Million Dollar Loan”

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Friday, September 23, 2016

Quote of the day – “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump.”

“Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, whoever disagreed, whoever challenged him — it is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.”
– Omarosa Manigault, speaking in “The Choice 2016,” a Frontline episode about the presidential candidates airing this coming Tuesday, September 27, at 9 PM Eastern

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016

“Our NATO ally is bent on destroying the Kurds of Rojava, the Syrian force with the most democratic, pluralistic, and feminist vision.”

This is an outstanding article by Meredith Tax in The Nation: “Turkey Is Supporting the Syrian Jihadis Washington Says It Wants to Fight.” I’ve excerpted enough to convey the general argument, but I recommend reading the entire article to see the evidence Tax presents. As I suggested a year ago, what happens in the area around Jarabulus will play a large role in determining the fate of the world.
What political choices can the United States make in the Middle East? Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria and subsequent attacks on Rojava—the three autonomous cantons set up by Syrian Kurds—raise this question, but so far the answer has been framed only in terms of military alliances and realpolitik. But as many have said, the appeal of ISIS and Al Qaeda has to be countered ideologically, not just militarily. This cannot happen without a compelling alternative model. Rojava, with its vision of egalitarian democratic inclusivity, is trying to establish a new paradigm for the Middle East—but so far Washington has seen the Syrian Kurds only in military terms and is short-changing future possibilities because of a misplaced deference to zero-sum ethnic rivalries and the so-called “moderate Islamism” of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On August 24, Turkey invaded Jarabulus, a Syrian border town held by ISIS, with great fanfare: several hundred Turkish soldiers, twenty tanks, and 1,500 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters from Islamist militias. In reality, the whole battle was a fake. ISIS had quietly left town several days before, and the difference between this and their usual behavior convinced some observers, particularly the Kurds, that their exit was coordinated with Ankara.

While the mainstream media saw that Erdogan’s real purpose was to go after the Kurds, and noted that it is problematic for the United States to be allied with two parties that are fighting each other, US coverage of Syria has overwhelmingly focused on either the war or state politics. It has thus failed to look hard at the Erdogan government’s support of jihadis, or to ask what they have in common—whether or not Turkey is a NATO member.

A lot of the mainstream media covered “Operation Euphrates Shield” as if Turkey were actually fighting ISIS. Echoing Turkish press releases, CNN said, “Turkey sends tanks into Syria against ISIS; rebels reportedly capture town.” The made-for-TV battle had been scripted down to camera angles (pool reporters were confined to one hill): bombs dropping, puffs of smoke in the distance, even footage of scouts peering into living rooms, searching for the enemy. Few seemed to notice that not a shot was fired. Operation Euphrates Shield was thus a startling contrast to earlier battles fought by the Kurdish and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Kobane and Manbij, where combat went house to house, deadly and prolonged, and hundreds of lives were lost to ISIS snipers, booby traps, mines, incendiary bombs, and suicide attacks.

The BBC did say that the Turkish invaders met “little resistance,” but it was left to the Voice of America News to express surprise that ISIS had “essentially conceded one of its last strategic border towns,” quoting former intelligence officer Michael Pregent to the effect that the Turkish takeover had been too easy and would end up benefiting ISIS: “What Turkey has done is give ISIS the space to regroup. They basically halted the Kurdish forces from destroying ISIS.”

Meanwhile, from positions nearby, furious members of the Jarabulus Military Council of the SDF, who had wanted to capture Jarabulus themselves but had been put off by the United States, watched the charade….

While it is not possible to prove that Turkey let ISIS fighters slip back into Jarabulus in FSA uniforms, Turkey supports so many salafi-jihadi militias that ISIS members would not have stood out….

In fact, Erdogan’s support of salafi-jihadi groups is an open secret despite extreme government censorship….

Turkey’s relationship with ISIS has also been scrutinized, though little of the research has been picked up by the US media….

On June 29, Eren Erdem of the CHP made a speech in the Turkish Parliament detailing evidence contained in 400 pages of documents about the government’s dealings with ISIS. He said ISIS had sleeper cells in fourteen Turkish towns and that the man behind the 2015 Ankara bombing was known to MIT, which had tapped his phones and watched as he facilitated the entrance of nearly 2,000 jihadis into Syria without arresting him even once.

Two months after Erdem’s speech, Turkey marched into Jarabulus to replace ISIS with FSA jihadis, who immediately began to attack the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish government has already been at war with the Kurds in its own southeast since last year, killing civilians and leveling towns on such a scale that a war crimes lawsuit has been filed in Germany. Why would they want to open a second front in Syria?

Because the Syrian Kurds were making too much progress.

On August 13, two weeks before the Turkish invasion, the SDF finally drove ISIS out of Manbij after a ferocious battle that lasted months. Residents of Manbij, mostly women and children, were ecstatic at being freed from ISIS, and soon pictures spread over the Internet of women burning their burqas and men cutting off their beards. The Rojava women’s liberation movement’s umbrella organization, Kongreya Star, collected stories of ISIS mistreatment and rushed to publish a report* calling for support from world feminists.

This was not the kind of liberation that Turkey and the FSA had in mind.

So on August 24, Turkey invaded Syria with its favorite FSA factions. The same day, at a joint press conference, Joe Biden ordered the Kurds to retreat from Manbij and stay out of Jarabulus or lose American military aid. No wonder they feel betrayed.

Under American pressure, the YPG-YPJ moved east of the Euphrates River just as Biden had told them to. General Votel said on August 30, “They have lived up to their commitment to us,” though that doesn’t mean the Kurds were happy about it. The YPG issued a statement saying that, having completed their mission of liberating Manbij, they had withdrawn their troops, leaving the city in the hands of the Manbij Military Council, which is largely Arab. This fact was confirmed by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Nevertheless, Erdogan continued to claim that the Kurds still held Manbij. With this excuse, Turkish-supported FSA forces attacked villages south of Jarabulus and, on August 31, Turkey began bombing YPG-YPJ headquarters in Afrin.

While many Western commentators see the conflict in ethnic or religious terms—Arab versus Kurd, Sunni versus secularist—clearly Erdogan sees no significant difference between the Rojava Kurds and any Arabs who support their paradigm of autonomy, pluralism, and feminism. Both are a threat to his dreams of regional Islamist hegemony. For this reason if no other, the Rojava revolution deserves the attention of anyone in the region looking for a way to move past wars, ethnic cleansing campaigns, theocracies, and dictatorships.

The Rojava revolution began in 2011, during the Syrian uprising, when 5,000 members of the People’s Democratic Union (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party allied with Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), came home. They quickly consolidated a liberated area on the Syria-Turkey border consisting of three cantons: Cizire, Kobane, and Afrin. There they set up local councils and began to put into practice the feminist, democratic, and pluralist ideas advanced by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Founded in the 1970s as a classic Marxist national liberation movement with a strategy of people’s war, since the 1990s the PKK has transformed itself into a leading component of a Kurdish liberation movement able to combine self-defense with civil resistance, parliamentary work, and community organizing. It has also renounced its earlier goal of a separate Kurdish state, saying that it prefers regional autonomy in a democratic system. Its vision of social revolution is a powerfully democratic and pluralistic one in which women play a leading role, as they do in the Kurdish militias—every organization in Rojava must be at least 40 percent women, and all administration is led by co-chairs, one male and one female.

By [2015], the Pentagon had decided the Kurds were their only hope of a reliable ally in Syria, and decided to enlist them in building a new army to fight ISIS: the Syrian Democratic Forces, which united the YPG-YPJ with Arab militias, principally the “Euphrates Volcano,” made up of fighters who had escaped Raqqa after it was seized by ISIS. When the SDF liberated Tal Abyad in June 2015, it became possible to connect the two eastern Kurdish cantons of Kobane and Cizire, but the smallest canton, Afrin, far to the west, is still cut off by a strip of land controlled by ISIS—a strip containing both Manbij and Jarabulus. And Afrin is now under attack not only by ISIS but also by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) and Turkey.

In addition, since the battle of Kobane, all three cantons have been starved of food, medical supplies, and building materials by a Turkish embargo on one border and an Iraqi Kurdish embargo by Massoud Barzani’s forces—which are Turkey’s allies and economic dependents—on the other. They have also been under constant attack by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamist militias. And Turkey is now trying to build a wall to isolate them further.

Very little about any of this has appeared in US mainstream media. One reason is the complexity and unfamiliarity of the story and the difficulty of access in a war zone—particularly since the Iraqi Kurds won’t let freelance reporters through their border checkpoint into Syria. A larger problem is that most commentators see the story through the lens of great-power politics and do not focus on changes happening on the ground in Rojava—particularly changes in ethnic relations and the position of women—and what these could mean for the region.

The United States is now being pressed by Turkey to disavow its alliance with the Kurds, but as General Votel said in an August 30 press conference, Kurdish fighters are too valuable. They are the only ground troops who have been able to defeat ISIS. But even if the Pentagon is committed to a military alliance with the Syrian Kurds, military support is not enough. Rojava is caring for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees despite an embargo that prevents food and supplies from coming in. Its people deserve political, economic, and humanitarian support.

Military supporters of the Syrian Kurds should ask themselves, How much of their success is due to the fact that they do not lock women up or push them to the back? Rojava and PKK women not only have their own militias, some even lead units that include men. Since ISIS enslaves women, these units are highly motivated.

In the long term, wouldn’t it make sense for the United States, for once, to help a project that is actually progressive and democratic? Turkey is supporting the jihadis Washington says it wants to fight. So why should Washington keep bowing to Turkey’s hatred and fear of the Kurds? A strong and united Rojava could not only help defeat ISIS but could become an experimental model of pluralistic, democratic, and feminist policies for the entire Middle East.

That’s just what Turkey is afraid of.
* I haven’t included the numerous links in Tax’s article here, but this is the link to the report she describes.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Quotes of the day – Trump on “losers,” self-esteem, and revenge

“I have to tell you about losers. I love losers because they make me feel so good about myself.”

“Get even. If somebody screws you, you screw ‘em back ten times over. At least you can feel good about it. Boy, do I feel good.”
- Donald Trump, delivering a “motivational speech” to an audience in Colorado in 2005 (quoted in David Cay Johnston, The Making of Donald Trump, Chapter 3: “Personal Values”)

Mother Jones has a running feature called The Trump Files. Entries related to the quotes above include “Why Donald Called His 4-Year-Old Son a ‘Loser’,” “Donald Dumped Wine on an ‘Unattractive Reporter’,” and “When Donald Took Revenge by Cutting Off Health Coverage for a Sick Infant” (this episode is described in detail in Chapter 4 of Johnston’s book).