Day: July 1, 2015

Kurdish advances, Turkish concerns

Last week, the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the YPG (People’s Protection Units, the paramilitary wing of the Democratic Union of Kurdistan or PYD) captured the strategic town of Tal Abyad, on the Syrian-Turkish border, which lies 30 miles East of Kobani, and 65 miles north of Raqqa, ISIS’s Syrian capital.

This is a significant, as Tal Abyad sits at the center of the previously non-contiguous PYD controlled territory in Syria—known as Rojava. Rojava had been split into three cantons: Afrin (an area north-west of Aleppo), Kobani (west of Tal Abyad) and Al Jazira (in the north-east of Hasakeh Province). If the YPG keeps control of Tal Abyad, this will create a route from Kobani to al Jazira, facilitating Coalition efforts as well as laying the groundwork for Syrian-Kurdish self-governance in northeastern Syria. The loss of Tal Abyad deals a heavy blow to ISIS, as this town was used as a smuggling route for the group, as well as an entrance for foreign fighters.

Amidst these recent Kurdish gains, Turkey has been weighing the option of creating a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, in order to thwart the ambitions of the Syrian Kurds as well as provide a safe haven for Syrians. This is not the first time such buffer zones have been proposed; yet now the proposition has taken on a new attraction. Kurdish gains in Syria pose more of a threat to Turkey than ISIS.

The Kurds have a difficult history with Turkey. The PYD’s mother organization, the PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers Party), has been engaged for decades fighting against the Turkish state. Yet, the creation of such a buffer zone would require a major ground incursions of Turkish military forces—an unpopular and extremely dangerous scheme, as it would mean fighting both ISIS and Kurds.

Erdogan reiterated his position towards the formation of a possible Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border last week, with a resounding “no.” A recent article in Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdogan newspaper, suggests that  Kurdish gains in northern Syria represent a plot by the West to destroy Turkey.

The Kurdish gains have complicated the US-Turkish relationship. The United States has increased its support for the Syrian Kurds since the January liberation of Kobani, where American airstrikes helped dislodge ISIS from the besieged city and cost the jihadi group thousands of fighters. The YPG’s victory at Tal Abyad would not have been possible without US-led, anti-ISIS Coalition airstrikes. America has given increased attention and support to the Kurdish fighters, as they are one of the only truly capable fighting forces more interested in fighting ISIS than Assad.

The question of whether Kurdish forces will continue the push towards Raqqa remains open. Some speculate that the Kurds are unlikely to take such a gamble. In Iraq, Kurdish peshmerga forces have successfully defended their region, but are unlikely to lead the effort to recapture Arab lands, such as Mosul or Anbar.

ISIS has responded to the recent Kurdish success with retaliation attacks on Kobani—purportedly entering from the Turkish border dressed in Free Syrian Aarmy and YPG uniforms. The ISIS attacks have left around 200 citizens dead.

The pictures below are from the Barzani Charity Foundation’s recent trip to Tal Abyad to deliver diesel and food aid.


Inside the city of Tal Abyad, smoke rising to the East
River crossing at the Syrian-Iraqi border
Food aid ready to be delivered to the residents of Tel Abyad


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The slough of despair

The Wilson Center Tuesday hosted a panel on Ukraine and its challenges. Speakers included former Ambassador to Lithuania John Cloud, now Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, his colleague Professor Nikolas K. Gvosdev and Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, who also moderated the event.

Rojansky shared insights from his recent travel to Ukraine. He warned that the media’s portrayal of Ukraine is different from events on the ground. From the Ukrainian point of view, the conflict is about values and the survival of Western civilization. There is a culture war between neo-Soviet culture and the resurgence of Western Ukrainian ideas and history.

Rojansky also emphasized the severe cognitive dissonance in the country, where there are people experiencing the impact of war every day, as well as those who are isolated from it. He claimed that macro-level psychological impacts, such as cognitive dissonance and untreated post traumatic stress, could be extremely unhealthy for Ukrainian society.

Cloud talked about his experience visiting bordering areas of Ukraine, near Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. He explained the slow and painful process of reforms, wracked by poor coordination. Reforms have been on and off for a long time with few concrete results, resulting in public distrust of the government.

The need for economic reform is acute, given Ukraine’s high levels of inflation and budget deficit. Oligarchs continue to do well and therefore are resistant to change. Cloud suggested three solutions:

  1. Prosecute or force the oligarchs to leave the county,
  2. Strike a deal with them, or
  3. Create a thriving middle-class, which is the hardest solution of the three options.

Cloud also discussed the European Union’s “donor fatigue.” Although Ukraine is only entering its second year of conflict since the revolution began, the EU has been assisting Ukraine for the past 24 years. The Commission has nevertheless put together a $1.2 billion macroeconomic assistance program—the largest such package the EU has ever provided.

This does not mean the EU has severed relations with Russia. The Union has made concerted efforts to keep Russia content, notably by inviting Russia to join discussions on the impact of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA)—a free trade area between the EU and Ukraine.

Gvosdev described three important themes of the Ukraine-Russia crisis. First, he viewed the European conflict as a “crisis of rules,” in which the enforcement of EU rules is imposing a cost that the Europeans are unwilling to pay. He cautioned, however, against avoiding enforcement, as it carries a higher cost in the long-term.

Second, the EU lacks unity. The further west and south one goes in Europe, the less Ukraine is an issue. This disparity has made it difficult to create an EU framework agreed by both Poland and Spain. Building a unified response to Ukraine will require compromises and concessions from all EU member states. Another point of disagreement is the resettlement of migrants. Eastern European countries are very resistant to accepting Ukrainian migrants and worry about radicalized refugee flows.

Third are the geopolitical and geoeconomic implications of the crisis. Geopolitically, Russia is challenging post-Cold War stability and threatening the current world order. Economically, many business interests are at stake, including the Asia-Pacific “Silk Road,” which will pass through Russia. Many businesses lack confidence in North America’s shale gas and would like to keep Russia as Europe’s energy supplier.

A huge sense of fatigue and pessimism casts a shadow on the Ukraine-Russia crisis. Gvosdev said that Euro-Atlantic solidarity is questionable and the US is unlikely to play a major role as it gets caught up in domestic politics with the nearing presidential elections.

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