The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Geopolitics, Kurds, And Problems In Foreign Policy

YPG Sniper in Kobani
Photo Courtesy of The Lions of Rojava

Longtime readers of this blog are understandably confused as to why articles about international relations and security keep popping up here. I understand this, as they’re not funny or satirical or to do with religion or, in short, related in any way to the kind of content that makes this excellent blog excellent.

So I figure I owe you all an explanation. What generally happens is that Tim has a question. It’s usually a bit of the news that he hasn’t had either the time or the expertise to parse for himself, and with a breathless disregard for clicks, popularity, or branding, he asks me to do a long and dull explainer because, for him, it doesn’t matter how many people get the information, so long as some people get it. And not to be forgotten is the fact that he wants to be one of those people.

I wrote an angry piece about the Kurds yesterday with reference to how their consistent abandonment reveals the rotten worm of selfish hypocrisy at the heart of the western project. That’s largely because Tim asked me about them, and I’m absolutely furious about the way we continually break our promises to ourselves and the world, and in doing so cause millions of deaths every year. Deaths that we don’t care about because the corpses are far away and brown. Or just far away – it’s not race that matters here, it’s difference. We don’t care about these people because the media market is biased towards ‘relatability’ or, to put that another way, if they’re not like us we don’t care.

At a time when friends of mine were trying to explain to northern Iraqi villagers, through interpreters, that the rotting arm bone they just dug up out of a mass grave belonged to a child under the age of six, was not a pelvis, and even if it were it belonged to someone pre-pubescent and therefore could not provide sufficient information to determine whether or not it was their child, the great Australian public was entirely consumed by an argument about franking credits, whatever the hell they are.

Today, if I haven’t bounced you away from this page by waggling my finger accusatorily, I would like to balance my anger with some facts.

Historical context is important, but perhaps not primary in this case. Suffice it to say that the victors of WWI promised the Kurdish peoples a state and then reneged on that promise because oil, Wahhabism, and the Cold War. The Kurds then proceeded to carve out their own state by taking the territory of countries not known for their patience or humanitarianism. Fortunately for them, Turkey was too busy ethnically cleansing their immediate neighbours at the time. And Syria and Iraq were focused on trying to create the Holocaust 2.0 by attempting to wipe Israel off the map, and being embarrassingly defeated in the attempt. Basically, the Kurds still exist because everyone looked away.

Kobani

Now, however, we’re looking right at them. Thing is, we’ve been looking at them for longer than most people realise. Every time you’ve seen female fighters in the Syrian intervention, they’ve been Kurds. Every time you’ve heard about the fall of Raqqa, the consolidation of territory in NE Syria, every time you’ve scrolled past a report about yet another shelling of a civilian area, you’ve been looking at the products of Kurdish action in alliance with western forces. I know I shared this statistic in yesterday’s article, but I feel it bears sharing again. 11,000 Kurds have died in operations and civilian massacres directly arising from our intervention. Eleven thousand. 11000. Eleven battalions. But not battalions necessarily – 11,000 including old men, women, children, boys, dogs, cats, more children, male and female combatants, ten year old combatants, sixty year old combatants, and ditto non-combatants. All bulldozed into mass graves or shot in the back of the head behind their houses and in front of their children prior to their sale into slavery. Look at the woman in the picture at the top of this article, and then imagine the worst and darkest thing you can possibly imagine happening to anyone. There is now a one in four chance that a much worse and darker thing will happen to her, and then she’ll be killed. All in support of our mission in Syria. I’m labouring the point because it’s worth labouring.

I also labour the point because it usually has little to no bearing on any foreign policy calculation. In the 2016 election, fewer than 12% of Americans put foreign policy/international relations in their top three political concerns. Let that sink in. In the most imperially extended country in the world, less than 12% of the voting age population gives the slightest crap about what their country is doing abroad.

Mass Grave in Raqqa

And it’s not just the Americans. At a time when friends of mine were trying to explain to northern Iraqi villagers, through interpreters, that the rotting arm bone they just dug up out of a mass grave belonged to a child under the age of six, was not a pelvis, and even if it were it belonged to someone pre-pubescent, and therefore could not provide sufficient information to determine whether or not it was their child, the great Australian public was entirely consumed by an argument about franking credits, whatever the hell they are.

I’ve often asked myself why this is. I think the answer is actually quite simple. Foreign policy is not human. It’s not adaptable to a moral narrative, and therefore cannot provide the necessary level of feels to keep us interested. Any moral narrative about foreign policy is necessarily false. To illustrate this, I like to use the coming of age model.

Your personal morality has to take a back seat because suddenly you’re an adult with other people to consider. And now multiply that moral attenuation by 22,000,000 – that’s what a foreign policy calculation looks like.

Let’s say you’re in your early twenties and straight out of uni. Let’s say you’ve done law or environmental science or geology or arts or anything, really, because what you want to do is to make a difference in the world. Let’s say you’re idealistic and willing to be poor, to sacrifice your wellbeing and your personal interests in the service of a moral mission. And then let’s say you hit thirty and have a couple of kids. All of a sudden, you start considering working for Philip Morris or Telstra or any company that will take you, because it’s no longer just you. You have responsibilities. You can’t decide to starve your children in the pursuit of some abstract ideal. Your personal morality has to take a back seat because suddenly you’re an adult with other people to consider. And now multiply that moral attenuation by 22,000,000 – that’s what a foreign policy calculation looks like.

And now let’s look at the USA. The USA spends ten times more on the military than the next ten countries combined, and each one of those ten countries has a military that could potentially end the world. The US military has a natural three to one capability and strike power superiority over all of their allies combined. They have more than one hundred allies. The USA has the most sophisticated and largest economy not just in the world, but in all of human history. Even with their current president, the USA is a country which could potentially fight the entire world and win.

Whenever the USA decides, for moral or ideological reasons to intervene beyond its own borders, it’s only a matter of time before large swathes of their voting population starts asking, “Why the hell are we bothering?”

And that’s the problem. They have no existential threats – none. I don’t care how much you enjoy screaming about China and Russia, it is a simple, uncontestable fact that the USA has no existential threats outside its own borders. So there’s no incentive to actually complete any foreign mission. Whenever the USA decides, for moral or ideological reasons to intervene beyond its own borders, it’s only a matter of time before large swathes of their voting population starts asking, “Why the hell are we bothering?” So they pull out. They lose winnable wars. They make a massive mess and then wander off back home to argue about the bible or brown people or whether or not it’s right to cyber-bully a sixteen year old girl.

What the foreign policy establishment and the Kurds both understand all too well is that Kurdish survival just does not matter. Like all the people who have lived in the liminal zones of empires, they know that their survival rests on occasionally aligning with the goals of great powers. If it weren’t for the urgent need to discredit Donald Trump at every turn, our abandonment of the Kurds would be a non-story just like the other three times we’ve done it in the past thirty years. In fact, the only person in all of this who’s taking a moral stance is Lindsay Graham. Let that sink in – foreign policy is so goddamned weird that the beacon of morality in this instance is Senator Lindsay ‘I’ll sell my entire nation and its constitution to back Trump’ Graham.

Anyway…

If you’re still reading by this point, I’d like to offer you my sincere congratulations. You’re one of the few people who is actually eager to think in abstract terms about things that are not of individual, but of national and global importance. I’d recommend that you treat this attribute like the opposite of a sexually transmitted disease and make it the work of your leisure hours to spread it around. Because foreign policy is weird and alien and unappealing, but it’s also a very small market. And like all small markets, it can be influenced by an astonishingly small number of people. I’d urge you to be one of those people, so that you can say in all truth that you did a small but significant thing in order to prevent yet another massacre of people who are far away, foreign, largely invisible, and hugely important for the simple fact that they are people.

The Kurds Have No Friends But The Mountains

Photo Courtesy of The Lions of Rojava

Right now, there is no shortage of information on who the Kurds are, where they come from, and why we should support them/not support them, all garnished with either ineffectual bleeding hearts or rock-jawed, chicken-livered foreign policy ‘realism’, and that most disgusting of contemporary products, hyper-partisan and politicised history.

Let’s start with the history. The Kurds are a group of peoples who have occupied a region that saddles Syria, Iraq, and Turkey for a very long time. More of a culturo-linguistic complex than what we might term a uniform ethnicity, scattered, militant, fiercely proud of their turbulent history and their profound impact on the more easterly parts of Europe, the Middle East, and the Levant, they pop up in the historical record as movers, shakers, and warriors from about the Bronze Age onwards. In the wake of WWII, for various reasons ranging from compelling to necessary to foolish, the western powers basically screwed them in favour of peoples who had been closer allies against the Axis. Donald Trump’s ‘they didn’t help us in Normandy’ is probably a garbled version of advice he may have received to this effect.

The Kurds are, however, known within foreign policy circles as the USA’s most effective Middle Eastern ally for a span of at least four decades. It was the Kurds who were abandoned after Desert Storm, who shored up territory and supply lines in Inherent Resolve, and who performed very much the same role in the global war on terror, or whatever we’re calling our Middle East intervention this week. On their side, the calculus has been largely mercenary. Every time we need them we tend to arm and fund them, and strategically-minded Kurdish militants see these episodes as stepping stones to their eventual goals. They know we’re going to screw them – they knew this every time. The tragedy is that the next time we want them they’ll step up, sacrificing their safety and the safety of the vast majority of Kurds who are NOT combatants (I feel this isn’t emphasised enough) in exchange for some crates of weaponry and some shrink-wrapped US dollars. Not because they’re evil terrorists or thrill-seeking soldiers of fortune, but because it’s the only feasible way they have a chance of surviving as a people. And it’s largely their only option because as inconsistent as western foreign policy tends to be, it has been consistent in screwing over the Kurds.

It’s hard to get across just how mercurial and impermanent we look next to a group of peoples like the Kurds. There are fighters in the militia today who have been dealing with western powers since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Their reality is guerrilla warfare, an unacknowledged and tottering, but somehow largely stable state, poverty, and death. All that really changes for them is the stamps on the crates of weapons they’re given. Given this, it’s not really important what anyone says, thinks, or fabricates about their history, their current circumstances, or their mission. The fact is that there is no possibility of constructing a clean narrative of good vs evil in their region without telling some absolutely whopping lies. Some might suggest that this is also true of all the rest of the world too, and that we’d all be a lot better off if we could remember this.

No, what makes the Kurds important in foreign policy terms is what they reveal about us. We have, by their count, used up the lives of 11,000 of their fighters in our anti-ISIS intervention. I believe them. According to them, we owe what territorial stability we have been able to achieve largely to their efforts. I believe them on this too. And now that the USA has a cowardly idiot for a president, they say we’re screwing them yet again. Which doesn’t require belief – it’s a verifiable fact. And when I say ‘we’, I do not just mean the USA. I mean all of us in those countries which have earned the right to dictate global morality by means of possessing most of the weapons and nearly all of the money in the world. The US is not the only ally of the Kurds. Why then, do we not see any European countries stepping in to help? Why is it, then, that other non-NATO countries do not put a ring of steel and fire around their territories, instead of just weeping about it on social media?

It’s because we don’t care. Fundamentally, in places which don’t tend to be explored whilst having brunch in hipster wank-bars, we acknowledge that a big part of the western project is underpinned by people far away suffering and dying in order to guarantee our safety. So while Donald Trump might have done what he did in a stupid, incoherent, and fatuous way, the actual thing that he’s done is consistent with our morals and values as participants in the free and prosperous western world. Our tears are crocodile tears, and our outrage mere self indulgence. What this incident has revealed is not the idiocy of POTUS – that was never a secret. What it reveals is the current moral bankruptcy of the west.

Is this perhaps an offensive or cynical position? It doesn’t stop it from being true. Disagree? I suppose I could prove you wrong, but I don’t want to. Because the thing that occurs to me is that if we all really cared, we’d already know who the Kurds are and what they’ve done for us. we’d already know that Kurdish militia are always hiring, that they bank in all the same tax havens as our rich parents and relatives and are accepting donations. That foreign policy is one of the most susceptible and simultaneously least regarded branches of government. That there is, in fact, quite a bit that ordinary people can do to help, to sway policy makers, or to further the discussion. But the simple fact is that beyond sharing or clicking partisan hit-pieces on social media, we don’t actually care about these people. If we did, we wouldn’t be clicking on articles like this in order to find out who the hell our most consistent and effective allies in the Middle East actually are.

https://www.facebook.com/TheLionsOfRojavaOfficial/?ref=nf

https://www.bellingcat.com/?s=kurdish

https://www.csis.org/analysis/settling-kurdish-self-determination-northeast-syria

Syria Strike And The Trump Effect

Syria Strikes

It’s been an amazing experience, watching the world’s reaction to Trump’s recent strike on the Al Shayrat airbase in Syria. Rarely before has there been an opportunity to observe so many different conspiracy theories being formed in real time, and remarkably rapid real time at that. According to the various left and right wing rags which currently seem to pass for news media, Trump has variously conducted this strike in collusion with Russia and Syria for reasons which aren’t immediately clear, in collusion with Raytheon in order to raise their share price, in collusion with his own press office in order to raise his approval ratings… and this is even before we get to the Alex Jones end of the spectrum.

What’s amazing about this is that quite a bit of this kind of idiocy is coming from the mainstream media. While it’s axiomatic that any media will always make a dog’s breakfast out of any military story, it’s rarely been done to this extent. While I understand that reality isn’t nearly as entertaining as the hysterical witterings of partisan screamsheets, I do feel it’s probably important on some level, so let’s break down both what’s happened and what’s likely to happen.

BACKGROUND OF THE STRIKE

Very few media outlets spent any time at all avoiding the incorrect assumption that this was the first major chemical strike of the Syrian civil war. As such, it became difficult to see that there was any real background to the strike, as it seems to serve the turn of  sensationalist reporting to present this action as random and bizarre. A full transcript of Tillerson and McMaster explaining the rationale behind the action can be found here. Even if you don’t believe a word they say, it makes sense that even blatant lies coming from the White House are going to bear some relation to the truth, even if that relationship is purely inverse.

For those of you who can’t be bothered reading lots of stuff in order to answer questions, I’ll provide a quick summary here. Previous chemical attacks had gone unpunished by the Obama administration (despite Obama’s efforts to get congressional approval for a near identical strike). This appears to have emboldened Assad, who stepped up his campaign of terrorising civilians in rebel held areas in order to aid his campaign. Whether this was a miscalculation, or was business as usual, this provided the Trump administration with the necessary pretext to signal their marked difference in approach. The official narrative from Trump is that he was watching television, had an attack of the feels, and called for options from the Joint Chiefs. This is worryingly plausible, given what we know about Trump, but there are some important factors to consider before we all retire to our bunkers.

The strike itself was perfect and copybook arms-length intervention. Not only was an attempt made to pre-establish a legal justification (Trump’s statements heavily hinted at collective self defence being the element in question), the strike itself was strictly, fussily in line with principles of proportionality, limitation, and targeting. Many outlets rightly pointed out that this strike looked to have been prepared months or even years in advance. This makes sense – an action like this would have been on the books as an option since the beginning of the conflict, with only the GPS co-ordinates wanting for completion.

EXECUTION OF THE STRIKE

Going further on the legal theme, much hay has been made of the fact that Syrian and Russian troops were informed of the impending action. This has been used as ‘evidence’ of collusion with Russia, Syria, China, the inhabitants of Planet X, and so on. Which is, needless to say, pretty damn silly. Notification of the strike is in line not only with certain elements of the international law of armed conflict, it’s also in line with numerous precedents. Like German U-Boat command in WWI. And WWII. And British submarine command. And the USAF. And so on, and so forth. Sure, it could mean that the Trump administration are colluding with their lizard overlords to create a New World Order, but it’s probably more reasonable to link this behaviour to the past behaviour exhibited during countless military actions conducted by countless administrations the world over.

The purpose of the strike was clearly to target relevant materiel. Or at least, as much materiel as could be targeted with a mere 59000 pounds of high explosive. For anyone who actually understands these matters, this always looked like a slap on the wrist – a largely symbolic act. It’s rather in the same category as a fine – the infliction of expense via the destruction of some very costly equipment. Casualty and damage reporting after the fact would indicate that people died, but it’s important to remember that these figures come from the Syrian regime and other less than credible sources. Regardless of this, the fact remains that this is about as distant and as minor as it’s possible to get while still being able to claim direct action.

REACTION TO THE STRIKE

War with Russia isn’t really on the cards unless the US is hell bent on making it happen. This is owing to the simple fact that Russia is neither ready nor able to win even a dirty little local war with the USA. So Russia’s reaction to the strike has largely been to open a war of words. Let’s focus, then, on the element that isn’t purely verbal.

Russia has intimated that any future strike will be met with “force”. This statement, initially worrying, should provoke some examination to try and figure out exactly what they mean. A quick scan of Sputnik, RT, and other Russian propaganda disseminators, allows us to discern that what Russia is heavily telegraphing is their intention to use BUK and S500 air defence systems (already deployed for over a year) in defence of any Syrian air installations to come under similar attack. While this will make things a bit tense, it’s important to note that exactly this level of hostility was repeatedly operative in the recent Balkan conflict, with the net result of the world failing to burst untimely into WWIII.

As for the likelihood of deep US intervention in Syria, I’d say that’s anyone’s guess. Will Trump be persuaded that his only option moving forward will be to establish regional hegemony a la Dubya? Or will his base force him to maintain the arms-length policy he inherited from Obama? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else, no matter how well they conspiracy.

LEGALITY OF THE STRIKE

Much has been said about whether or not the strike was legal, largely by partisan and entirely unqualified sources. There’s a good break down here, but I’ll once again summarise. The short answer to the question, “Was the strike legal?” is: yes and no. Or maybe, and probably not. The thing about international law is that it’s complicated and, like any law, it is by definition arguable. Is this aggression against a sovereign nation for no reason? How ‘legitimately sovereign’ is the Assad regime? Can the collective self defence argument be used? Who knows? This stuff needs testing in courts, most of which the US doesn’t recognise, so the point is largely moot (in the American sense of the word). What we do know, is that the US government is required to make its arguments to congress regarding the legality of the strikes some time within the next day or two, so it’s up to us to wait for that and either analyse those arguments ourselves, or wait for some media outlet to spin them into more entertaining hysteria.

Russia, Syria, Iran and World War III

From the air ... A video grab from footage made available on the Russian Defence Ministry

It has been apparent for months that Russia was planning a serious move in Syria. Russia, bless them, rarely varies its tactics when it comes to making moves on the QT, possibly because most Russian leaders have always been far more worried what their own people think of them than the opinion of the rest of the world. So, the same tired old ‘subterfuges’ of aid shipments which were really arms and troop shipments, and materiel sales that were really incremental mobilisation have been taking place right under our noses. And most of us guessed what was happening, to our credit.

Judging by the news cycle, however, a whole lot of people seem to be very surprised and, in this state of shock, have begun to scream hysterically about World War III. The argument is that Russia is more or less openly striking targets other than ISIS, and that these targets include rebel groups that are being backed by the USA and a raft of other countries. So, if Russia is killing American allies, then what’s to stop the USA from declaring war on Russia? And also, Iran’s announced its intention of sending ground troops in to fight ISIS and every time anyone says ‘Iran’, heads the world over begin immediately to explode.

I, however, would recommend remaining calm. As I pointed out in a previous post, fears about the advent of WWIII are basically academic. To all and intents and purposes, that gig’s already on, so the worry is not when will it start, but when and to what extent will the West join in. At this stage, it is abundantly clear that aside from limited deployment of air and SF assets, most of the Western powers don’t want a bar of it – not now or any time in the future. The scale of crime against humanity being perpetrated here is more than enough to justify all kinds of force, but we’re simply not willing. In the case of our recent historical experience with warfare, the West has a case of “once horrifically mauled, forever shy”.

The Russia/Syria relationship is a close and long-lived one, and it is widely known that Syria provides the Russian navy’s holy grail – a warm water port – as well as access to lucrative energy markets. Everybody knows this, so it’s not as if anybody is surprised or confused as to why Russia is conducting airstrikes in support of the Syrian regime. And nobody who’s been paying any attention at all (and one would hope this group includes the US government) is in any way surprised. This makes the chance of some state actor reacting rashly from shock or anger a fairly remote one.

Russian airstrikes have followed a pattern that makes it blindingly obvious that they are not targeting ISIS [Institute for the Study of War]

Sure, the people being targeted are, in fact, largely made up of groups that have more or less official US backing, but to call them allies would be ludicrous. In the first place, they’re not countries and in the second, they’re clearly proxy fighters in the same way that the Mujahideen and the Peshmerga have been in the past. And one thing we know for certain about the USA is that they do not make a habit of going to war in defence of their proxies. For evidence, we just have to look at the spectacular non-reaction of the US when Turkey used its UNSC authorisation to begin systematically murdering Kurdish forces. You know, the Peshmerga who we all apparently loved and supported so much. Nobody goes to war in defence of their proxy fighters. If they did, what would be the point of having them in the first place?

And the ‘entry’ of Iran into the war in support of their Shi’ite style brothers in faith, the Alawite Assad regime, is not so much a worrying recent development as it is a worryingly late public recognition of something that’s been going on for a very long time. Iranian militia (and their army is almost entirely organised on a militia structure) and special forces have been on the ground for at least 6 months and probably a great deal longer. I wrote an article about it, predicting that greater rapprochement with Iran would very soon become necessary as a result. But that’s beside the point. The point is, Iran isn’t just arriving – they’re reinforcing. And their entry all that time ago was so far from being a flash factor that it was quietly encouraged by the major Western powers.

Russia Syria

Remember the Kurds?

What we’re looking at with the situation between Russia, Syria, Iran and the USA is a situation that is indistinguishable from most of the cold war. A region is imploding, richer, bigger powers line up on either side according to their national interests and provide varying degrees of support to players who are already on the ground. Sound familiar? That’s right. When thinking specifically about the involvement of Russia and the West in the Syrian conflict, probably the most accurate way to frame it is not as a new confrontation, but as a continuation of the cold war. The last two decades appear to have been half-time, and now that the oranges have been handed out and eaten, we’re unfortunately back to business as usual.