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