Chaos at Turkish border as ISIS presses in on Syrian Kurdish enclave

Although Turkey has already absorbed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees since the start of the civil war in 2011, one of the government’s big fears has been that the situation directly adjacent to the border, in northern Syria and northern Iraq, will deteriorate significantly and overwhelm the stability and crisis capacity of the lengthy southern border.

This fear has been so powerful in recent months that Turkey recently suspended its longstanding (albeit already somewhat relaxed by improved relations) policy of trying to keep Kurdish militant groups weak and contained, because they decided it would be better to allow Kurdish fighters from Turkey to go to Iraq and fight ISIS than to allow the refugee safe-haven of the Kurdish Regional Government to collapse and flood Turkey with up to a million more refugees.

Although the situation in northern Iraq, after the start of US airstrikes in early August, seems to be stabilizing somewhat in comparison to the earlier months of continuous advances by ISIS across the north, things in northern Syria have been getting worse. Earlier this week, I wrote about an ISIS unit supported by tanks that began attacking villages in an isolated, historically-Kurdish area right along the Turkish-Syrian border:

An armor-supported ISIS division in northern, central Syria has launched an offensive to seize territory from one of the three major Kurdish enclaves in Syria, which have been largely separate from the primary civil war for the past couple years.

[...] the north-central Kurdish enclave where Kobani/Ayn Arab is located is surrounded by ISIS and “moderate rebel” positions on three sides and a largely unsympathetic Turkey with border controls on the fourth. They are mostly cut off from other Syrian Kurds, unless they can cross through Turkey or manage to get through areas now held by ISIS.

Over a span of just three days, this nearly encircled area shrank considerably, as 16 captured villages became 60 and thousands of Syrian Kurdish villagers raced out of the countryside toward the border town of Kobani, ahead of advancing ISIS tanks and heavy artillery. YPK defenders were forced to fall back very quickly as well. Now, the only way out for the civilians (and possibly the fighters) is through Turkey.

Map: Ethnically Kurdish zones of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran -- circa 1992. (Credit: CIA)

Map: Ethnically Kurdish zones of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran — circa 1992. Small, southwestern corner of the yellow area is the Kobani region in Syria. (Credit: CIA)

Although it’s a relatively small number of people in this situation compared to the vast northern Iraq crisis, this is precisely what Turkey’s government was afraid might happen. A chaotic border crisis and humanitarian emergency played out live on national television in Turkey, as CNN reported:

An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Kurds fleeing the violence walked right up to the wire border fence with Turkey, where they initially were not allowed in. They just sat at the border as Turkish Kurds on the other side of the fence tried to persuade the Turkish guards to let them in. The situation on the border could be observed on a live feed from the border and from video footage aired on Turkish news outlets. The refugees also tried to force their way into Turkey, creating chaos as one woman stepped on a landmine. Turkey finally opened the border, relieving some of the mounting pressure in Kobani and allowing refugees to enter Sanliurfa province.

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Gen. Dempsey outlines proposed “Syrian rebels” plan

Even as we learn more about the planned arming and training of the mythical moderate rebels in Syria, there is little reason to think the proposal is realistic or executable. Here are the details we know so far, from The Los Angeles Times’ account of the public statements to Congress on the U.S. plan for countering ISIS in Syria:

In a further sign of a measured approach, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, outlined a narrow mission for the prospective Syrian force, saying the lightly armed fighters might be assigned to recapture and police Syria’s now-open eastern border to prevent militants from crossing into Iraq. “If we can restore the border, it goes a long way to putting pressure on [Islamic State] that will lead to its ultimate defeat,” Dempsey told reporters traveling with him in Paris. He called the border a “sieve.”

On the one hand, this is actually the first mildly encouraging thing I’ve heard about this vague and probably impossible “arm the rebels” plan. Why? In terms of feasibility, reliability, and geography, the only available rebel fighters to patrol the eastern border are probably going to have to be Syrian Kurds. Among all possible groups to arm and train for guerrilla rebellion, this is still not ideal but is way better than most of the competing options, given our close relationship to the Kurdish forces and leaders in Iraq. (Meanwhile, though, our NATO ally Turkey is going to be sitting there hand-wringing internally about whether the United States should be arming and training a Kurdish insurgency.) But it’s unclear to me why Arab states would suddenly help with training, as discussed below, if they are in fact Kurdish rebels not Sunni Arab rebels, so that probably means I’m even giving this plan too much credit…

On the other hand, all the actual details of this plan we’ve heard still make close to no sense and aren’t likely to make any impact on the situation any time soon.

Dempsey told the committee it would take three to five months to recruit and screen Syrian fighters for extremist ties, and eight to 12 months to prepare them for battle. He said they would require independent Syrian commanders, not Americans, and that he hoped special operations troops from Jordan or another Arab state would assist them.

It’s now September 2014. Best case scenario these guys are in the field in eastern Syria by August 2015. Best case. In western Syria, the rebel base city of Aleppo will almost certainly have fallen to the government by then (barring a direct U.S. offensive against Assad), ending the western rebellion and collapsing the non-ISIS opposition to the regime. So these newly trained rebels certainly won’t be providing substantive help to the resistance in Syria in time to turn the tide.

The training will occur in Saudi Arabia and another Arab nation, reportedly Qatar.

They’re going to be trained in Qatar? Given Qatar’s recent record, with or without “screening,” we might as well send these rebels to The Islamist Terror Networks & Logistics Training Academy to get their associate’s degree in kidnap and ransom.

The final detail that struck me as deeply unrealistic was this: Read more

What have we learned so far from Wisconsin’s police shootings law?

According to an article from Al Jazeera America, Wisconsin’s groundbreaking law on investigations of shooting deaths by police has not (so far) resulted in any cops facing consequences, but it has revealed a lot more information on cases that previously would have remained shrouded in mystery.

So far this year, law enforcement in the state has shot and killed 6 people. Not a big pool of data, but still worth examining. Of those 6 cases, 2 were suicidal (so, not a helpful response by police), 1 was allegedly attempting to burn down the house of his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend (a sheriff’s deputy), and 3 were schizophrenic (but not necessarily having an episode). At least 3 of the victims were already known to the specific law enforcement members involved in the shootings.

This is, of course, not really a revelation — mentally ill or developmentally challenged civilians in the United States have long been the victims of fatal incidents with the police — but it provides more information and case studies that should be used to advocate for increased training for how police can and should respond to people with serious mental health issues or other mental difficulties, to avoid chaotic responses that end in tragedy.

ISIS tanks move on Kurdish enclave in Syria

An armor-supported ISIS division in northern, central Syria has launched an offensive to seize territory from one of the three major Kurdish enclaves in Syria, which have been largely separate from the primary civil war for the past couple years. This area (see map below) is nominally part of the rebel-dominated Aleppo Governorate but lies across the Euphrates River in a kind of sub-district — far from the city of Aleppo itself — long populated with ethnic minorities including Syrian Kurds, Syrian Turks, and Syrian Armenians.

From the AP report today:

Islamic State fighters backed by tanks have captured 16 Kurdish villages over the past 24 hours in northern Syria near the Turkish border, prompting civilians to flee their homes amid fears of retribution by the extremists sweeping through the area, activists said.
Islamic State militants have taken over the 16 Kurdish villages in Syria’s northern Kurdish region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, since Wednesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said there were casualties on both sides, but that Kurdish civilians were fleeing their villages for fear that Islamic State group fighters “will commit massacres against civilians.”

Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the Kurdish fighters withdrew or lost up to 20 villages in the Kobani region and evacuated civilians with them.
Earlier this week, for example, Kurdish fighters captured 14 villages from the Islamic State in other parts of Syria. Now, the Kurds have been forced out of villages elsewhere.


Map of the Syrian Civil War as of September 13, 2014. Red = Regime, Gray = ISIS, Green = FSA, Yellow = Kurdish. (via Wikimedia)

Map of the Syrian Civil War as of September 13, 2014. Red = Regime, Gray = ISIS, Green = FSA, Yellow = Kurdish. Kobani region is the central yellow area of the map. (via Wikimedia)

Although the Syrian Kurdish fighters in the YPK have previously been very effective against all comers including ISIS, much of their successes — such as the liberation of the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar just across the border in Iraq — have occurred either in Iraq (not Syria) or in the northeastern enclave of Syria that is directly contiguous with Kurdish areas of Iraq. The porous border and (relatively) friendly presence on the other side allows them more room to maneuver around approaching enemies or simply melt away. Before the rise of ISIS, this presence allowed the creation of a relatively stable, self-governing Kurdish breakaway quasi-state in the northeast under the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

In contrast, the north-central Kurdish enclave where Kobani/Ayn Arab is located is surrounded by ISIS and “moderate rebel” positions on three sides and a largely unsympathetic Turkey with border controls on the fourth. They are mostly cut off from other Syrian Kurds, unless they can cross through Turkey or manage to get through areas now held by ISIS.

Depending perhaps on Turkey’s views on the potential future threat posed by the now-beleaguered YPK fighters and the Kurdish villagers they are trying to protect, as well as whether the influential Iraqi Kurdish leadership is concerned about the situation — both of which have a significant voice in setting American military priorities in the region and are much friendlier to Syrian Kurds after months of ISIS advances into Iraq — ISIS tank units attacking Kurdish areas in northern, central Syria seem like a pretty tempting target for American-led coalition airstrikes on ISIS forces in Syria, once those begin in the coming weeks.

Can Guinea-Bissau’s new civilian president dump the military leadership?

One of the major challenges in trying to reform a country’s military to keep them from interfering with governance is whether the meddlers can be removed without them meddling again. Guinea-Bissau’s Army chief, General Antonio Indjai, who was indicted last year in U.S. court for a scheme to send weapons and drugs to Colombian rebels, has been relieved of command by President José Mário Vaz of Guinea-Bissau this week.

The latter only became president in June of this year in free elections after defeating the military’s candidate. He was a finance minister in an earlier government before it was overthrown. Guess who overthrew that government? Why, none other than General Indjai.

In fact, Indjai staged the military coup in 2012 — which blocked presidential elections from being completed — in response to an earlier effort to reform the military under the supervision of Angolan advisers and troops. (Angola is a fellow ex-Portuguese colony that became independent about the same time.) In 2010, Indjai staged a mutiny to become army chief in the first place. Will he go peacefully this time? The better bet is probably no, but perhaps Vaz has an ace up his sleeve and is confident he can make this go off without a hitch.

Guinea-Bissau is one of the least stable countries in the world, with no elected leader having ever left office peacefully, voluntarily, and/or alive in the four decades since independence. In the last fifteen years, the capital power struggles have been particularly intense and bloody — including three successful coups, two high-profile assassinations, and one civil war. Drug traffickers suggested in 2009 that Guinea-Bissau might actually qualify as more dangerous and unstable than Somalia.

To replace General Indjai, President Vaz appointed a close ally and veteran soldier from the country’s war for independence, which ended in 1974 with the overthrow of the Portuguese home government.

The appointment of General Biague Na Ntan, 61, an ethnic Balanta like Indjai, could smooth over any resentment from the ethnic group that makes up about 60 percent of the army and security forces and 25 percent of the population.

He had been commanding the presidential guard prior to his promotion to head of the army.

Far across the continent of Africa, the leader of Lesotho also recently tried to fire the head of his country’s armed forces, only to find himself fleeing a coup attempt, which has now divided the military’s loyalties. That crisis, which has still not been resolved, has to be weighing heavily on the mind of President Vaz in Guinea-Bissau as he tries to remove his own army chief and past coup leader.

As an additional stressor, Guinea-Bissau remains on high alert right now for any signs that the Ebola outbreak might have arrived from neighboring Senegal or Guinea-Conakry, the outbreak epicenter.

Map of Guinea-Bissau and surrounding countries. (CIA World Factbook)

Map of Guinea-Bissau and surrounding countries. (CIA World Factbook)

September 17, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 99


Topics: NFL, colleges, and handling assaults; Obama’s new Syria/ISIS policy. Content warning: Domestic violence discussion. People: Bill, Nate, Persephone. Produced: September 14, 2014.

Discussion Points:

- What role should institutions like the NFL and colleges play in investigating and punishing players and students for alleged domestic violence, sexual assaults, and other crimes?
- Is President Obama’s plan to strike ISIS in Syria really comparable to his airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen? Can it succeed?

Part 1 – NFL and Crimes Off the Field:
Part 1 – NFL and Violence – AFD 99
Part 2 – ISIS/Syria:
Part 2 – ISIS and Syria – AFD 99

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links

- ThinkProgress: The Most Discouraging Sentence in Obama’s Entire ISIS Speech
- Arsenal For Democracy: Is Obama’s Anti-ISIS Operation Really Just Intended to Overthrow Assad?


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

5 reasons I’m supporting Martha Coakley after the primary

She wasn’t my first choice for Governor of Massachusetts, but here are 5 big reasons to make sure Martha Coakley wins in November, instead of Republican Charlie Baker.

Above: Atty. Gen. Martha Coakley. (Credit: Fogster - Wikimedia)

Above: Atty. Gen. Martha Coakley. (Credit: Fogster – Wikimedia)

  1. Veto Wielder: No matter who you supported in the Democratic primary, nothing genuinely progressive you wanted to see happen is going to get done to advance Massachusetts if Charlie Baker becomes governor and wields the veto pen. No matter how liberal he claims to be, he still identifies as a Republican, rather than a conservative Democrat, and that tells you where his priorities will lie. It definitely won’t be in pushing progressive laws and expanded investments in our state’s future, and it will likely mean vetoing them on so-called “fiscally conservative” grounds or for the benefit of Big Business.

    Even with strong Democratic majorities in the legislature, there is enough of a conservative wing in the Massachusetts Democratic Party to sustain Baker vetoes or derail and water down legislation toward elusive “compromises.” We saw what happened when we let Mitt Romney hold the veto pen: health insurance reform cost-controls were ripped out and the state’s health costs ballooned. We wouldn’t even be looking seriously at a “healthcare executive” to run the state if it weren’t for the last Republican’s horrible job of trying to make health care policy in the first place. We need a Democratic Governor to prevent that from happening all over again. Time and again, Democratic governors across the country have proven more fiscally responsible than their “fiscal conservative” counterparts in the Republican Party.

    In contrast, Martha Coakley has been running on a progressive platform this year with a long list of ambitious agenda items. She’ll work with the legislature — not against them — to make some of those ideas happen.
  2. Lieutenant Governorship and the Republican Platform: You might think the lieutenant governor (elected on a ticket with the governor in the general election) is unimportant, but if the governor has to resign for some reason — which, between scandals and promotions to Federal offices, is pretty common for U.S. governors in general these days — the lieutenant governor becomes Acting Governor of Massachusetts. We had two Republican Lieutenant Governors become Acting Governors in Massachusetts from 1997-2001. One even had to deal with 9/11′s impact on the state, after two flights from Boston were hijacked and ended in disaster. Fortunately, she was reasonably up to the job, but this is not something to leave to chance. From New York to Arizona, in the last six years, we’ve seen some pretty terrible lieutenant governors fail to rise to the challenge when suddenly promoted. So who did Baker select for that job?

    Supposedly inconsistent with his own views, Charlie Baker chose an anti-marriage equality “stalwart” (as the Boston Globe put it) as his running mate, to please the fringe base of the rapidly dwindling Massachusetts Republican Party. Last time around, Baker actually had the guts to run with an openly gay state senator, who this year was forced to boycott the state convention because it was set to adopt an anti-gay, anti-choice platform in the year 2014 in Massachusetts. Baker isn’t even in office yet and he’s already catering to the lunatic right-wing, while trying to convince us he’s more liberal than ever.

    If Charlie Baker becomes governor, and his term ends unexpectedly early for any reason, anti-gay bigot Karyn Polito would be the acting governor of Massachusetts. That’s unacceptable. If Martha Coakley becomes governor, in the number two spot we’ll get Steve Kerrigan, a competent and progressive former Ted Kennedy staffer. The contrast in backup governors could not be clearer.
  3. Nominations: This is pretty straightforward. I would rather have any Democratic governor nominating people to the state’s courts and cabinet positions than Charlie Baker nominating them. His first nomination so far — his running mate, see #2 — has already given us a strong hint that he would use nominations as a way to appease conservatives who think he’s too moderate.

    Appointed officials and judges tend to be the people residents end up most affected by, whether they realize it or not. They are the people who make the big decisions on how to implement what the lawmakers approve or how to interpret those laws. If you don’t want your rights and programs in the hands of unqualified, right-wing Republican Party favorites, Martha Coakley needs to become governor instead of Charlie Baker.
  4. Executive Orders: When faced with an opposing party’s control of the legislature, executives start getting creative with executive orders. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but sometimes it’s a way of circumventing the normal legislative process and making or suspending rules and regulations by fiat. Again, there’s a legitimate role for executive orders, but I would trust Coakley over Baker on executive orders. Plus, she won’t need to rely on them as heavily, because she can go to the legislature controlled by her own party.
  5. National Implications…
    - Implementation of Federal laws: From the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansions to any number of other Federal laws that allow flexibility to state governments, we’ve seen in the past several years what the consequences can be of allowing Republicans to become governor. Don’t let Charlie Baker on Beacon Hill help Capitol Hill Republicans block President Obama’s agenda even more.

    - Baker for President? Charlie Baker, much like the last Republican governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, has already flipped-flopped a lot to try to reposition himself for a second attempt to win office. If Baker becomes Governor of Massachusetts, it will immediately position him on the shortlist for the Republican nomination for president in 2020 or 2024. The media and the party opinion-makers love it when somebody doesn’t quite fit the partisan mold and manages to become governor of a state that is traditionally associated with the other party. These narratives are always overblown and oversimplified, but they sure fuel a lot of presidential campaign bids. Let’s not help Republicans find an electable, flip-floppy moderate to run for the White House.
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