The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

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

Turkey, Russia, Murder and Islam

Assassination of Russian Ambassador

Most of us are aware by now that the Russian Ambassador to Turkey has been shot dead by a 22 year old Turkish policeman who the Turkish regime is tentatively linking to Fethullah Gulen, the figure who was also blamed for the abortive military coup earlier in the year and who basically acts as Turkey’s ‘Goldstein’ a la 1984. The screamsheets (my new name for all media, shamelessly stolen from Cyberpunk) have done their usual best to spread despondency and panic, and the conspiracy theorists can’t be far behind. I’d like to get in before them and try to break down what this attack actually means.

Firstly, we need to understand a little bit about what’s happening in Turkey at the moment. A full situational appreciation would take thousands of words, but a brief, somewhat simplistic rendering should be sufficient for our purposes here. In very crude terms, Turkey is conflicted between secular nationhood and Islamist regional hegemony. Erdogan, authoritarian, populist and Islamist, is attempting to undo, prick by prick, the grand experiment in secular nationhood kicked off by Ataturk. His consistent tendency has been to expand the powers of the presidency, nudge state law closer to Sharia, and to position Turkey as a regional hegemon at the very least. Many suspect that he seeks imperial power, with his detractors comparing his regime to the Ottoman Empire.

These are big changes which strike at the core of Turkey’s revivified vision of itself in the wake of its humiliation at the end of WWI. This has led to a nation which is sharply divided. There are many splinters and factions, but two broad schools of thought can be identified – populist, interventionist, Islamist and expansionist on the one hand; middle class, secular, republican and non-interventionist on the other. Erdogan’s straw man opponent, one time ally Fethullah Gulen, is almost exactly analogous to Trotsky – hounded out of the USSR and subsequently blamed for every riot, production shortfall or particularly nasty winter. Gulen believes in interfaith dialogue, secular government and science – basically, Ataturk’s westernising, secularising vision. He’s also vehemently opposed to Turkey’s support of elements seeking to overthrow Bashar al Assad. It’s this last belief, loudly proclaimed from Gulen’s exile in the USA, which conveniently allows the Erdogan regime to pin this assassination on his influence. This is not to say that the Gulenists are necessarily innocent, but rather that Turkey’s attribution should be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that this socio-political ferment could produce someone like Mevlut Mert Altintas, the police officer who shot the Russian Ambassador. This is not an isolated attack – Turkey has been wracked with violence for some time now, with car bombs, suicide bombings and shootings having become so routine that western media outlets have largely given up reporting on them. What is unique is the targeting of a Russian dignitary. The motives behind this have to be seen as fairly transparent. There are many groups who wish to see Turkey fall out with its old enemy, Russia, for a whole confusing spectrum of reasons. And groups aside, there’s also the simple fact that many Turks despise Russia, vehemently support the rebellion in Syria and are broadly sympathetic to the aims and worldview of extremist Islamist militia. It should be noted that I’ve made no attempt to attribute responsibility for this attack. The investigation, such as it is, is in a very early stage, and it’s highly probable that we may never know the truth of it as very few of the investigating bodies are of the kind whose conclusions can readily be believed at the best of times.

Taken in context, the most probable deep motivation would either be to unseat Erdogan, highlight Russia’s pro-regime actions in Syria, or both. Erdogan is tap dancing on thumb tacks when it comes to Russia. They’re one of Turkey’s most important economic partners, but their interests in the region are diametrically opposed. So long as Erdogan pursues an anti-Assad policy while maintaining his hegemonic ambitions, the possibility of an irreconcilable conflict with Russia looms large. Mismanagement of this relationship could very well see him ousted through loss of popular support, such support being the only limiting factor on the Turkish military’s capacity to remove him from power. So we can see that the focus here is largely inward when it comes to Turkey, and the measured restraint of Russia’s response is an indication that they understand this.

Implications for the end game, however, are slightly more worrying. Erdogan, secure in his popular support for now, is still somewhat beleaguered  on the international front. The price he has paid for his policies has been to devolve his role into that of ‘strongman’. What’s key, in this position, is the perception of the degree of control he has over his country. Turkey’s relationship with Russia and, somewhat more worryingly, its status as a NATO member, now rest largely on this perception. While it’s very unlikely that anything Turkey can do will lead to all out war, too much more of this nonsense will see Erdogan isolated, possibly removed from power, and Turkey on the brink of becoming yet another domino in the failed state effect which is sweeping its immediate region.