Turkey’s Kurdish anxieties

The Bipartisan Policy Center hosted Cascading Conflicts: U.S. Policy on Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds Tuesday morning. This was nominally a launch of its report on Authoritarianism and Escalation: Preparing for the Worst in Turkey’s Resurgent Kurdish Conflict but ranged rather far from that excellent account of how Turkey has repeatedly turned to war when its government has become more authoritarian.

Eric Edelman, Co-Chair of BPC’s Turkey Initiative and former ambassador to Turkey, discussed the mutual misreading of priorities and interests between Turkey and the US. Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Institute, recalled how the peace talks between the PKK and Turkish government in February 2015 raised hopes for reconciliation that were then dashed by President Erdoğan. Ceng Sagnic, Junior Researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, considered how the Kurdish situation in Syria has thwarted Turkey’s foreign policy and prompted its interventionism. Aliza Marcus, Communications Consultant for the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund at the World Bank, assessed the relationship between the YPG/PYD (the dominant Syrian Kurdish organizations) and the PKK (the dominant Turkish Kurdish organization) as well as Turkey’s position on the question.  Ishaan Tharoor, a reporter for the Washington Post, moderated a lively discussion spanning Turkish domestic politics, the fight against the Islamic State (IS), and more.

Amberin Zaman elucidated how domestic and international factors have influenced Turkey’s position on Syria and the Kurdish question. She maintained that peace talks with the PKK faltered in part because of rising tensions with the YPG/PYD in Syria and also in response to Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. Growing Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria has emboldened Kurds everywhere. In the words of Aliza Marcus, no matter how hard the Turkish government hits the PKK domestically, now there will always be a powerful Kurdish presence across the border in Syria.

The conversation then turned to Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism. Ambassador Eric Edelman argued that the US has a vested interest in shaping Turkey’s domestic politics.  Long-term US interests and Turkey’s status as a NATO ally—an alliance intended to be a union of liberal democracies— demand that US use its position to speak out publicly and privately on Turkey’s civil rights violations.

Aliza Marcus explained how the YPG grew out of networks of support for the PKK in Syria. However, despite clear evidence of ties between the two, she said that it is unclear to what extent the PKK and the YPG/PYD are independent decision-makers. She added that, from Turkey’s perspective, the question is irrelevant. The two are one and the same, and nothing will diminish Turkish fears of Kurdish nationalism.

After hearing from audience member and representative of Rojava Cantons, Sinam Mohamed, on Kurdish governance and long-term strategy, Ceng Sagnic contended that Kurdish-controlled areas show more signs of functioning governance than the rest of Syria currently does. He also commented on current Syrian Democratic Force movements into Sunni-Arab areas in northern Syria. Marcus countered that Kurdish forces are not expanding for expansion’s sake, they are simply going where the Islamic State already is–namely Sunni areas.

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Hard questions, difficult answers

Murdered yesterday, Jo Cox gave this last speech in Parliament on Syria (via @ThomasPierret):

Would that we could all lead lives that guarantee we leave behind such eloquent, upstanding memorials!

I can’t match that, but my readers do ask hard questions about the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Here are a few, with answers:

Q: Why do the Russians back Assad?

A: Lots of people more knowledgeable than I am about Russia have tried to answer this one. Most take seriously Moscow’s frequent statements that they are not wedded to Assad personally but want an orderly and legitimate transition in Damascus, not abrupt regime change.

Certainly they don’t want regime change, but I’ve seen no evidence the rest of that summary is true. Now that they have doubled down on Assad by joining the fight last fall, the Russians have in fact welded, if not wedded, themselves to Assad or some proxy for him. There is no conceivable successor regime that would be even half as friendly to Russian interests.

Moscow’s tactical gains through its air attacks have guaranteed it eventual strategic defeat in Syria, where the overwhelming majority of the more than 60% of the pre-war population that was Sunni will be forever hostile to Russia.

Q: How about the Iranians?

A: Iran has been 100% committed to Assad from the get-go. They need Syria to maintain their pipeline of arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, who are Iran’s front-line troops in the confrontation with Israel. Tehran cannot rely on access to Beirut’s airport, and Syria provides strategic depth to Hezbollah.

Iranian strategic defeat is even more certain than the Russian loss of Syria. I would be the first to stand up against retaliation by Sunnis against Shia and Alawites, but the odds of its happening eventually are high.

Q: Why don’t we just go in there any finish off the Islamic State?

A: In some alternate universe where George W. Bush is still president, I suppose we might do that. But the risks of deploying US ground troops to the front lines to fight ISIS are significant. Are we prepared to see 100 American soldiers captured and shot in the back of the head or burned alive? How about 500? Or a thousand? ISIS is significantly more virulent and brutal than even its predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq during the 2000s.

There is also the “day after” problem. The key question once ISIS is defeated is how the territory it once controlled will be stabilized and governed. Without a solution to that, we can expect ISIS (or something worse) to return. The US didn’t do well as an occupier in Iraq in 2003. How well would we do in Syria or Iraq in 2016? Are we prepared to deploy several hundred thousand troops for years to try to make sure things come out right? And pay perhaps another 500 billion or a trillion dollars for reconstruction?

Q: What’s the solution?

A: I don’t know. The last five years of war have made everything more difficult than it might have been in those first six months of peaceful demonstrations, but the clock can’t be turned back.

There are two propositions I find somewhat appealing now.

One is for the US to extend its war on terrorists in Syria, which in practice now targets only the Sunni variety, to Hezbollah, which is a Shia non-state actor. The first step would be telling the Iranians that Hezbollah must leave Syria. We’d have to be prepared to back that up with air strikes. Getting rid of Hezbollah would significantly affect the military balance in Syria, raise the risks to Russia and Iran, and increase the odds of a negotiated outcome.

The second somewhat appealing idea is creation of safe areas for the non-extremist Syrian opposition to govern, one in the north and one in the south. This would give the mostly Arab opposition an opportunity to prove itself a serious competitor to the regime in dealing with the requirements of Syria’s citizens, as the Kurds have begun to do along the northern border with Turkey. Doing this would entail both protecting the safe areas from the air and providing the opposition with the means to protect themselves on the ground, as we already do with the Kurds.

Neither of these propositions is a slam dunk. The first would likely lead to Hezbollah retaliation against American or allies assets somewhere in the region. The second, safe areas, is an inherently difficult operation that provides the regime, the Russians and the Iranians with target-rich environments they would no doubt attack. Safe areas have more often failed (Bosnia) than succeeded (Iraqi Kurdistan).

Q: What do you think of the State Department dissent message urging air attacks on Syrian government forces?

A: I might agree with its overall thrust, as it appears based on the notion that the Russians won’t help and we have to do something to rebalance the military equation. But I’ll need to see a full text before commenting.

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Dear UN,

Riyad Hijab, who heads the High Negotiations Commission of the Revolution and Opposition Forces, writes:High Negotiations Council


Number: 256

Date: 16/6/2016


H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon

United Nations Secretary-General

New York


Al-Waer neighborhood in Homs has been under severe siege for over three and a half years. During that time, al-Waer’s residents have come under enormous pressure – because of dire humanitarian conditions, bombardment and starvation imposed by the Assad regime – to agree to a local truce. The United Nations Damascus office has helped the regime enforce the terms of this truce. In March 2016, the regime again targeted Al-Waer residents.  As a result, the neighborhood is now on the brink of an epic humanitarian disaster. Food items have been denied entirely and medical, emergency, and surgical supplies have not been allowed to enter for over two and a half years.

Al-Waer neighborhood has been continually subjected to systematic bombardment. The regime’s siege exacerbates an already deteriorating humanitarian situation. Additionally, more than 700,000 residents have been displaced, none of whom have returned. Despite this, the UN team in Syria has asked the Al-Waer negotiations committee to meet in the hopes of continuing local negotiations.

We are deeply concerned by what has been relayed to us by the Free Homs Provincial Council and relevant entities in Al-Waer about the UN team there. The UN team has reportedly stressed to the residents through the Al-Waer negotiations committee that the political process in Geneva, per UN Security Council resolution 2254, will not lead to improved humanitarian aid delivery to Al-Waer, and that the only way to receive aid is to submit to the illegal siege tactics of the Assad regime.

We need clarification from the UN about what exactly was meant by the UN country team’s comments in its meeting with the Al-Waer negotiations committee on Saturday 12 June, in which the humanitarian situation in Al-Waer was discussed. The UN team stressed that the Security Council resolution cannot be implemented on the ground without the Al-Waer negotiations committee making major concessions. The UN team stated that the issue of airdrops to besieged areas was nothing more than words that could not be implemented. The best way to get aid to Al-Waer neighborhood was thus to succumb to the Assad regime and agree to its terms.

Unfortunately, this behavior is not limited to Al-Waer. We have seen it repeated by UN staff in several other areas. In addition, UN staff have permitted expired humanitarian aid items into some areas, leading to cases of serious poisoning and the death of some civilians.


We place this matter in your hands with full certainty that you will give it due attention, as we know you are keen for the United Nations to implement Security Council resolutions and to maintain the confidence of the people it serves. Syrians now desperately need the UN to play a strong role to ease the suffering and end the tragedy they have endured for their rejection of oppression and demand of freedom, justice, and the rule of law.

Please accept, Your Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.


Dr. Riyad Hijab

General Coordinator of the High Negotiations Commission

of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces


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Dump Trump

I’m a Democrat, albeit one who votes often for local Republicans. I don’t like the one-party “state” I live in. I’d have preferred to register as an independent. But that means my voice would never be heard. Elections here are almost always decided in closed primaries. The District of Columbia isn’t even a state like the other 50, which means I don’t get to vote at all for Senators or a voting member of the House.

So I had absolutely no voice in whom the Republicans chose as their candidate. Nor did I much care, since I wasn’t going to vote for any one of the 16 (or was it 18?)  candidates who joined the primary horse race. Even Governor Kasich, the most proven of them, had a record on abortion and gay marriage that we used to call neanderthal, until we discovered that they were pretty smart.

Trump is smart too. He understood that many Republican primary voters are racist misogynist xenophobes. His anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-abortion rants and sound bites gained him their votes, while his competitors split the remainder. Trump voters like his bold, unsubtle grab, accentuated by his repetition of vacuous and unsupported claims that the people he just offended will “love” him.

The trouble is they don’t and won’t. His negatives among women, Hispanics and minorities generally (including Blacks and Jews as well as Muslims, gays and lesbians) are astronomical. Even the Republican leaders in Congress don’t like him and are refusing to defend him. Utah is thought now to be in play! That we, and the rest of the world, have to put up with another five months of this loser’s narcissistic bombast is unfair, cruel and unusual. Those who didn’t vote for him in the primaries and won’t vote for him in the election don’t deserve this.

This screed wouldn’t be complete without some reflection on foreign policy and national security. Trump is already having an effect there: his anti-Muslim rhetoric supports the Islamic State claim that the West is at war with Islam, his pro-Putin sympathies give comfort to our antagonist in Ukraine and Syria, his offer to meet with Kim Jong-un undermines efforts to isolate a fanatical nuclear proliferator who threatens American troops and important American allies.

Yesterday he sought to boost the value of a commodity he owns that has lost almost one-third of its value from its peak around five years ago, by suggesting he supports returning to the gold standard. That’s a dumb idea with zero chance of becoming reality. What other personal interests will he seek to promote during the campaign?

The only way out is for Republicans to dump Trump. That won’t be possible at or after the convention. He has too many pledged delegates lined up. It has to be prepared in advance and implemented by Trump himself. The Republican leadership in both houses and in the party should tell Trump now that the joke is over. He needs to step aside and allow the convention to choose a serious replacement. Any serious Republican will do: Romney is the obvious choice and would surely do better against Clinton than Trump.

Failing to dump Trump will risk bringing to office an unqualified pathological liar capable of doing serious damage both domestically and internationally.

Or, in the more likely event of his defeat, it will spell the end of the Republican party as we know it, and likely just the end of the Republican party. This will be its third presidential loss in a row, one I expect will be resounding. The Democrats survived that kind of near-death experience in the Reagan/Bush 41 period, but they retained control of the House and regained control of the Senate. This time the Senate and maybe even the House will turn Democratic. The Republicans will likely split if not implode.

That’s my fear. I prefer that the two-party system survive. There is only a month for the Republicans to save it. I hope they have the courage to do so. Dumping Trump will save their party from an ignominious defeat and preserve a serious electoral competition.

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Pay the piper

The Syria Campaign’s Taking Sides, a report out today on how the United Nations operates its humanitarian relief efforts in Syria in favor of the government, is dramatic. It illustrates that the UN gives the Syrian government a veto over how and when aid is distributed, resulting in supplies going overwhelmingly to government-controlled areas. It concludes:

The United Nations (UN) in Syria is in serious breach of the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality.

But the issue is not an academic one of principles. It has a real impact on the ground inside Syria, where aid is just not reaching many opposition-held areas.

For Americans, what this means is that some portion of the $4.5 billion in tax dollars we have spent on Syria-related relief during the past five years or so has gone exclusively to regime-controlled areas, thereby supporting the government of Bashar al Assad. For 2016, that means a substantial portion of the more than $250 million pledged to the UN. Russia and Iran, both of which are belligerents with troops on the ground supporting the Syrian government and therefore contributing to the humanitarian crisis, have pledged zero in 2016 (Russia’s total for the past five years is $36 million while Iran’s is zero).

Some US aid does go to opposition-controlled areas, through cross-border shipments by nongovernmental organizations operating from Jordan and Turkey. US government officials will likely want to point this out, but they may not do so to protect the semi-covert character of many of these shipments.

What the Syria Campaign advocates is that donors make their support conditional on the UN maintaining the most basic of humanitarian principles: that aid should go to people based on need and need alone. That may sound blindingly obvious, but it is exceedingly difficult in a conflict zone. The Syrian government uses the leverage it gets from the UN’s presence in Damascus to make sure it doesn’t happen.

So the issue comes down to this: is the UN prepared to continue operating in Damascus, or would it do better to threaten to leave and operate exclusively from other countries? The Syria Campaign thinks the government would yield, at least in part, to a UN threat to leave, because it needs the relief the UN supplies to continue to flow to parts of the country it still controls.

Certainly the odds of any relief supplies getting to opposition areas the government has besieged would decline even further if the UN were to leave Damascus. The political economy of shipments into besieged areas gives the regime good reason to maintain its stranglehold. But the UN could be far more aggressive in providing cross-border assistance to areas that are not besieged from neighboring countries if it were not under the government’s thumb in Damascus.

Ideally, the Syrian government would cave to a UN threat to leave the capital and allow more shipments to opposition-controlled areas. That however seems unlikely, especially during a period when government forces are on the offensive and making some progress.

One thing the US could do, if the UN stays in Damascus, is reduce its aid channeled through the UN and increase its cross-border efforts. It could also tell Moscow and Tehran they need to fill the resulting gap in UN funding. It is time that those who call the government’s tunes pay the piper.


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Is Islam exceptional?

At last Thursday’s Brookings event celebrating the launch of his new book on Islamic Exceptionalism, Shadi Hamid laid out the historical and religious reasons for Islam’s resistance to liberal secularization. He argued that the differing contexts of Christianity and Islam’s founding moments shaped the histories of interactions between the state and religion in European and Islamic civilizations.

Jesus and Mohammed, Hamid argues, had different historical roles. Jesus was a radical dissident in the Roman Empire. He avoided politics. The New Testament has little to say about governance, making it easy to divorce Christianity from political life. Mohammed was the author of a constitution and for part of his life a head of state. The Qur’an guided governance in the Middle East and North Africa for well over a thousand years, with the reign of the Prophet serving as an example to live and rule by. Liberal ideas like the inevitability of progress and secularism have no analogues in traditional Islam.

The end of the Ottoman Caliphate left the Middle East struggling to create a new, legitimate form of government. Mainstream Islamism is the latest successor to generations of Muslim thinkers attempting to parse the legacy of Islamic governance beyond its eighth century origin. The current Islamist project of reconciling pre-modern Islamic law with the modern nation-state has never been attempted before. Islamism is inherently modern in a way few conservative religious movements can claim to be.

Brooking’s Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy, Leon Wieseltier, joined Hamid in discussing one of the most controversial arguments in Islamic Exceptionalism. Islam does not fit with Western concepts like secularism. This exceptionalism challenges the liberal tendency to explain away difference and argue that all peoples and civilizations are fundamentally the same—or are at least similar in fundamental ways. Hamid contended that the differences between the Islamic world and ‘our’ largely Christian world tangibly affect what forms of government and policies are feasible or practical.

Wieseltier and Hamid then dove into the questions of Islam’s compatibility with liberal democracy and the values essential to it, namely equality. Hamid argued that Islam is compatible with democracy, but it runs into some problems with liberal democracy. Islamic concepts such as Shura can be adapted into democratic structures, but equality doesn’t fit neatly into Islamic law or many Islamic societies. Wieseltier challenged this point; he claimed that certain concepts like equality are as universal as algebra, and therefore can be compatible with a ‘modernist’ vision of Islam.

In Hamid‘s view, the ‘metaphysical’ nature of this discussion reflected the political debate happening all over the Middle East. Rather than contesting budget reports, Islamists and their opponents are dealing with big questions about the role of religion in public life. The conversation about that will not be over soon.

Here is the video of the event:

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