Op-Ed | Selling Out the Kurds

The essay below was co-authored with Stephan Richter, Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist, where it originally appeared.

A U.S. Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from the Ohio Air National Guard at Incirlik, Turkey, August 2003. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Vince Parker.)

A U.S. Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from the Ohio Air National Guard at Incirlik, Turkey, August 2003. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Vince Parker.)

To recruit Turkey against ISIS, the United States lost sight of its true friends.

U.S. policy on Iraq, Syria and the surrounding countries seems to have been left solely in the hands of amateurs in the White House. That is not a partisan statement, for it applies to both the current and previous occupants. The next occupant, regardless of party, seems likely to muck it up as well.

The latest foolhardy decision seems to have been a deal long sought by the United States to move the “strategy” against ISIS forward. It is worth recalling that the terrorist organization is de facto an American creation resulting from the completely ill advised Iraq policy under George W. Bush.

In the blinding desire to destroy ISIS, Mr. Obama and his team were so keen on getting rights to use Turkish air bases that they completely forgot about the dark side of Mr. Erdogan.

Erdogan’s other agendas

No sooner had the agreement on bases been reached than Turkey’s own aircraft began pounding Kurdish militant targets in northern Syria and Iraq.

The government, which still lacks a governing mandate after no party won a majority in the recent elections, has officially put the anti-ISIS PKK fighters on the same threat level as ISIS. In reality, Kurdish fighters appear to be a much bigger target of the Turkish Air Force than the ISIS fighters.

The point of all this maneuvering is that Erdogan hopes to leverage wartime fervor into a favorable nationalist coalition or a new election with a better outcome for himself.

As if the U.S. collusion in that domestic, entirely partisan strategy would not be shameful enough, the United States is also pledging to help Erdogan on another matter. He has long sought to clear an ISIS-held area of Syria that is coveted by both Kurdish nationalists and (pro-Erdogan) Ottoman irredentists in Turkey. The latter, it seems, still have yet to accept the country’s 1920s borders.

Hard though it may be to believe, the facts on the ground are as follows: The U.S. military is now helping Turkey’s hardliners achieve their goals against the very Kurdish fighters whose close coordination with U.S. bombers have pushed ISIS back from Kobani and disrupted its supply lines. All the while, Turkey sat on its hands and refused to halt lucrative ISIS smuggling.

Marginalizing the Kurds

In effect, the Americans managed to sell out the Kurds, perhaps Syria’s only remaining true “freedom fighters,” as they proved to be in the defense of Kobani. Read more

After the Battle of Kobani

On January 25, John McCain attacked President Obama’s air campaign at Kobani as pointless and ineffective. A day later and some 700 airstrikes in, we got the news: “Kurds push Islamic State out of Kobani after four-month battle” (Reuters).

A week later, journalists were able to access the city at ground level and interview or photograph those re-entering and those who had remained the whole time. Here are two such feature articles I want to highlight…

“In Liberated Kobani, Kurds Take Pride Despite the Devastation” — The New York Times

Standing just inside the gate that separates Kobani from Turkey, Mohammed Jarada, a fighter guarding the post, savored the recent victory and shrugged off the costs. “This means that the Kurds exist,” he said. “We exist.”

See also: “Inside Kobani: Bodies of Isis militants lie in rubble on shattered streets [Graphic images]” — International Business Times / AFP Photos. The graphic images are blurred and you can skip past them. The rest of the photos are eerie but worth examining to see the catastrophic destruction of an obliterative siege. It’s a wasteland inside the city. Even World War II photos of bombed out cities don’t look this bad. People won’t be able to return for a long time (even if ISIS weren’t still right nearby in the outlying suburbs and villages) because of how much rubble there is and how many buildings have been destroyed.

A low-res close crop of the destruction inside Kobani, stretching toward the horizon, captured by AFP's Bulent Kilic. Full image at IB Times.

A low-res close crop of the destruction inside Kobani, stretching toward the horizon, captured by AFP’s Bulent Kilic. Full image at IB Times.

Flash back to September 18, 2014, when our blog began coverage before most outlets realized it was going to become a decisive stand that could break the momentum of ISIS: “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.
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.


Kobani allegedly attacked from Turkish side by ISIS

In a potentially huge development, observers and Kurdish fighters say ISIS staged an attack on the north side of the border town of Kobani — previously besieged on just the other three sides — by crossing through Turkish territory.

Turkey denied this version of events, but it’s not totally implausible. The border is heavily mined there, so such an attack would probably require some complicity by low-level border checkpoint guards, but the latter have previously been a bit lax about stopping Sunni Arab militants from crossing for the right price.

Here’s what each side says happened:

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a Kurdish official in the town, Idris Nassan, said the vehicle used in the dawn car bombing had come from Turkish territory.

Prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office said in a statement that while Islamic State had attacked several parts of Kobani, including Mursitpinar, it was “definitely a lie” that the vehicle used in the bombing had crossed from Turkey.
The observatory said a second bomber detonated an explosive vest in the same area before two more suicide attacks hit the southwestern edge of the town.

Turkey’s pro-Kurdish HDP party said the militants were using state grain depots on the Turkish side of the border as a base from which to attack Kobani and described their presence in an area patrolled by Turkish security forces as a “scandal”.

An alternate explanation supporting Turkey’s version would involve ISIS fighters driving very carefully and undetected through the very narrow gap between the northern edge of the town and the border fence, but the witnesses on the Kobani side of the border seem pretty convinced (according to the report above, at least) that the vehicle had crossed the border.

Labeled overhead map of Kobani / Ayn Al-Arab, Syria, showing its relationship to the Turkish border crossing bottleneck on the north side. The empty band of space is a fenced-in border buffer with land mines. Click map to enlarge or click here to navigate in Google Maps.

US and Turkey part ways on Syrian Kurds

US cargo planes yesterday began ferrying supplies and ammunition from the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government to Syrian Kurdish fighters in the besieged town of Kobani, despite protests from Turkey’s president.

Earlier Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would not arm the Kurdish fighters, calling them “equal” to the Kurdistan Workers Party that both Turkey and the U.S. consider a terrorist group.

Erdogan said “it would be very, very wrong to expect” the Turkish government “to openly say ‘yes’ to our NATO ally America giving this kind of support. To expect something like this from us is impossible.”

This echoes the strident remarks made last weekend by Erdogan’s former deputy prime minister and the current number two in the president’s ruling AK Party, in which he asserted that the battle at Kobani was essentially just terrorists fighting terrorists. It also follows last week’s resumption of Turkish airstrikes against the PKK Kurdish fighters in Turkey after two years of peace.

That, combined with the embarrassing reversal on Turkish airbase use for the Syrian campaign a week ago, appears to have served as a breaking point for the United States on trying to placate Turkey on American policy on Syria’s Kurds, because there was another big shift in addition to the supply drops:

[Erdogan] made the comment days after the United States said it held its first direct talks with the Syrian Kurdish political party the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which is tied to the Kurdish fighters in Kobani.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) was formed in 2003 by the Syrian Kurdish backers of the PKK in Turkey, about five years after Syria’s Hafez al-Assad regime switched from supporting the the PKK to supporting the Turkish government and ejected the PKK from Syrian territory. During the current civil war, the PYD emerged as the central government structure of the increasingly independent Syrian Kurdistan in the country’s north, an area called “Rojava” or “Western Kurdistan” (eastern Kurdistan being the Iraqi and Iranian areas of Kurdish populations).

Because of their affiliation with the PKK against Turkey, the United States and the rival Kurdish political parties in Iraq had kept their distance from the PYD and their fighters (known as the YPG), but the threat of ISIS increasingly forced everyone toward a fork in the road on whether to embrace them or leave them behind. Turkey’s government appears to have taken the latter path, while the United States is choosing the former. (The Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government is still more on the fence. Despite yesterday’s aid to Kobani, they have complained as recently as last week that they don’t want to help the PYD because they might be allied with Bashar al-Assad, a dubious albeit vaguely plausible allegation that periodically circulates.)

Given the YPG’s vital help earlier this summer in relieving the ISIS siege of the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in Iraq, helping the Kurdish fighters at Kobani is only fair. Moreover, the Kurdish paramilitaries in Syria remain one of the most reliably US-friendly militant groups in the country’s civil war, and the United States can ill afford to abandon any friends there now.

With the United States now directly talking to Kurdish leaders in Kobani in real time, coalition efforts to lift the siege at Kobani should make much more progress. As I noted previously, it seemed that Turkey’s obstruction and opposition to anyone coordinating with YPG fighters directly was a major impediment to military support at Kobani:

Not only has Turkey still not let coalition planes use airbases close to Kobani — which would make it much easier to reach to offer air support — but Turkey appears to be discouraging the US from talking to Syrian Kurd commanders on the ground to gain real-time intelligence. This may be why coalition airstrikes have been so limited and ineffective at Kobani: there are no spotters on the ground to report rapidly shifting targets for American planes. In contrast, the airstrikes have been much more effective in breaking Iraqi sieges at Sinjar and Amirli in part because the US has a much stronger and pre-existing, working relationship with the anti-ISIS commanders on the ground, particularly within Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government’s paramilitaries.

The US, of course, is also more focused on broader strategic targets that will break ISIS overall, not just at Kobani […] But relief airstrikes have occurred in Iraq at several key points, which implies that if the United States had more ability to break the siege at Kobani, they would do so. A lot of that impediment seems to hinge on Turkey’s vacillation regarding how to handle the situation at Kobani (and its unwillingness to work with the Syrian Kurdish fighters or let the US work with them).

Already we have seen US airstrikes on ISIS at Kobani hit with more frequency and more accuracy in the past several days as YPG commanders provide targeting coordinates to American bombers.

We may well be witnessing the emergence of another far-reaching Middle Eastern alliance between the United States and a minority quasi-government with a large paramilitary.


ISIS and the irreversible rise of Kurdish female fighters

Global coverage of the Kurdish struggles with ISIS in northern Syria and northern Iraq has included a pretty strong focus on the role of women in the Kurdish paramilitaries. Several weeks ago, Marie Claire of all places published a lengthy freelance piece featuring photos and interviews with Kurdish women fighting ISIS.

(Slightly outside the topic of Kurdish fighters, we also saw the viral rise of a photo by Zmnako Ismael of Runak Bapir Gherib, a 14-year-old Yazidi girl determinedly packing a Kalashnikov gun half her height to protect her fleeing family from ISIS, despite a look of pure exhaustion. It’s one of the most powerful photos of survival that I’ve ever seen)

Some of the coverage of the Kurdish women in combat has perhaps been a bit skewed toward the overly dramatized wondrous-curiosity angle of “Hey look at this unusual thing and how unusual it is” or toward the morbid.

Granted, ISIS hasn’t exactly been doing itself favors with either the ladies or media coverage, by issuing proclamations like this:

“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” read an article in Dabiq magazine, attributed to ISIL spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani and addressing those who do not subscribe to the group’s interpretation of Islam.

“The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers,” another Dabiq article read. “The Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shariah [Islamic law] amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations.”


This past week, however, the Wall Street Journal tried to put the stories more in context with a long profile of who some of the women are, why they volunteered, what they’ve experienced, what role this fits into in existing Kurdish society, and what impact it will have on future Kurdish society. The current conflict is one of the most high-intensity wars to involve the Kurds since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire began about a hundred years ago, and it will likely be a defining moment for generations to come. One way it could define the culture might be in gender roles.

Here are just a few of the highlights from the piece:

“When I walk with my gun, the men who haven’t volunteered keep their eyes down around me,” said Dilar, who didn’t want to give her family name. “My bravery shames them.”
Women in battle shock many in traditional corners of the Middle East, but among Kurds the female warriors have drawn acclaim in poems and on Facebook.

Kurdish society is hardly a bastion of feminism, but across the wider region, Kurds—who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from Arabs or Turks—are relatively progressive. That is partly a reflection of the leftist and Marxist political ideology that has influenced the Kurds’ decades long struggle for independence in Turkey and Iraq.

Many Kurdish women’s rights activists have criticized Mr. Ocalan and other Kurdish leaders as only paying lip service to their cause, pointing to the male-dominated military and political hierarchies of Kurdish society that in practice keep women shut out from leadership positions. Now, the prowess of Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish women fighters is straining, if not breaking, that glass ceiling.
If she survives the battle for Kobani, Ms. [Afsin] Kobane [a 28-year-old commander and former kindergarten teacher] said she knows her battlefield experience will alter her life forever. “After this, I can’t imagine leading a life of a traditional Kurdish woman, caring for a husband and children at home,” she said. “I used to want that before this war.”


Turkey OKs, then cancels air base for coalition Syria strikes [Updated]

[Note: This article is from October 2014. For July 2015 news and maps about this topic, see here.]

Amid mounting pressure from the Obama Administration, the Turkish government appeared briefly to have decided to allow the famous Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey, to be used for coalition bombing of ISIS positions in Syria.

Map of Turkey's Incirlik Air Base relative to Kobani, Raqqa, Mosul, and Erbil. (Adapted from Wikimedia)

Map of Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base relative to Kobani, Raqqa, Mosul, and Erbil. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

Such a decision would allow the U.S.-led mini-coalition on Syria, which had been flying from air bases and ships in Bahrain and the Persian Gulf, to dramatically shorten both the overall flight time of bombing runs to Syria (particularly northern Syria), but it would also mean the distance flown over hostile airspace specifically is significantly shorter. Airstrike missions to the embattled Syrian border town of Kobani, for example, could be flown almost entirely through friendly airspace until the final moments.

The bases would also be used for air operations in northern and western Iraq by the much larger coalition that includes several other NATO members and Australia, all of whom did not feel comfortable intervening in Syria without a UN resolution or government request for assistance.

Update: Hours later, Turkey’s government denied any deal on air bases had been reached and insisted that the old demands regarding a wider intervention in Syria were still on the table.

A day after American officials said Turkey had agreed to allow its air bases for operations against the Islamic State, which they described as a deal that represented a breakthrough in tense negotiations, Turkish officials on Monday said there was no deal yet, and that talks were still underway.

The Turkish comments represented another miscommunication between the United States and its longtime ally Turkey, as President Obama pushes to strengthen an international coalition against the militants that control a large area of both Syria and Iraq, by securing a greater role for Turkey.

The Turks have insisted that any broad support for the coalition is dependent on the mission’s going beyond just the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, to also target the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, which Turkey has long opposed and blames for creating the conditions that led to the rise of the extremists within Syria and Iraq.

Read more

Senior AKP official: Kobani is just terrorists fighting terrorists

More indications that, after weeks of dithering, the Turkish government is getting off the fence on Kobani and the debate of whether the Kurdish militants or ISIS pose the bigger threat…and the answer, unfortunately, appears to be that the Kurds are. Washington Post:

Besir Atalay, the deputy head of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, said that “there is no one left in Kobane except Kurdish . . . militants.”

“There is no tragedy in Kobane as cried out by the terrorist PKK,” Atalay said, according to a BBC report. “There is a war between two terrorist groups.”

The Kurdish political leader, Muslim, said that “thousands” of Kurds remain in Kobane.

Beşir Atalay was Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey until the end of August and previously served as Interior Minister. He is now one of the top leaders in the ruling AK Party (Justice & Development Party).

Turkey waged a counterinsurgency war against Kurdish rebels (PKK) from 1984 to 2013, when the AK Party achieved a ceasefire and promised enhanced status for Turkish Kurds.

Click to enlarge: Detailed conflict map of Northern Syria and Northern Iraq, September 26, 2014, including Kobani / Ayn al-Arab. (Adapted from Wikimedia)

Map of Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria (yellow) and Iraq (yellow-green) prior to the siege of Kobani. Click to enlarge. (Adapted from Wikimedia)