Monday, January 18, 2016
When Iraq was configured by Britain and France in their WWI carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, they drew lines on a map. They liked straighter lines and natural boundaries, but clearly Mssrs. Sykes and Picot (the line-drawers) knew absolutely nothing about the demographic clusters within this land mass they sliced out of the Middle East in 1916. They combined into one nation (to be governed under the British) a Shiite majority in the south and east with an incompatible Sunni faction farther north on the western flank and ripped a Kurdish minority from their Turkish brethren in the extreme north.
As Iraq has splintered into its ethnic components, with the Shiite majority pulling their political allegiance directly into the Iranian sphere of influence (and control?), Sunnis have bolted with many shifting their support to ISIS rather than accepting Iranian hegemony. The northern Iraqi Kurds have turned their enclave into a successful, stable and autonomous region that is only very loosely affiliated with Baghdad (they are still part of Iraq). This reality has made NATO power and, at least on paper, U.S.-ally Turkey exceptionally nervous. Having faced Turkey’s own internal issues with a Kurdish minority seeking autonomy since the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) mounted an active insurgency in 1984, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey’s President) has stepped up his assault on Turkish Kurds.
In the second weekend of January, Turkey announced yet another “victory” against Turkish insurgents in the southeast; 32 Kurdish forces killed. All part of Turkey’s assault against its Kurdish population, despite on-again, off-again détentes negotiated between the PKK and Turkey. In spite of the fact that the PKK, joined with other Kurdish fighters, have been among the most successful forces in the battle against ISIS, Turkey calls them terrorists, a label which the United States also still accepts. When Erdoğan agreed to allow U.S. aircraft to launch against ISIS from a Turkish air base, as he committed to fight ISIS directly, his initial forays were all against the Kurdish militant and not ISIS.
The Kurdish militants have responded by upping their commitment to their own autonomy, and in the back of a lot of people’s minds is a possible merger of bordering Kurds in Iraq, Turkey and Syria carving out a new larger assembly into a separate country. The above map illustrates how Kurds are distributed throughout the region. The anti-Kurdish battle within Turkey long has been bloody. “The PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, says it is fighting for autonomy and greater rights for Kurds in the NATO member country… More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
“President Tayyip Erdoğan has said 3,100 PKK members were killed in operations inside and outside Turkey in 2015. The PKK is based in camps in the mountains of northern Iraq, which have been targeted by Turkish warplanes since the conflict resumed.” New York Times, January 9th.
Despite the Kurdish success against ISIS, the U.S. is loath to provide their front lines with the requested heavier weapons needed to crush a well-armed ISIS military for fear of offending its NATO ally, Turkey. And Turkey has amped up the anti-Kurd battle, putting innocent civilians in harm’s way. Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made his country’s continue position very clear: "We will pursue our anti-terror fight with great determination until...our mountains, plains and towns are cleansed of these killers."
The United States is watching as Saudi Arabia and its allies have fractured their tenuous “peace” with Iran, adding yet another barrier to the containment and ultimate defeat of ISIS. Add our complicated alliance with Turkey that is hell-bent on destroying one of the few non-Shiite forces aligned against ISIS, and you can see the mess we face. Who exactly is going to stop ISIS? Right now, it’s mostly Shiite forces controlled by Iran with Russian and Western bombing of ISIS targets (with Russians adding civilian targets in Syria to aid the Assad regime). Kurds are fighting on two fronts: ISIS on one side and Turkey on the other. ISIS is smiling, and we are watching as our best-planned foreign policy directives – getting a coalition of Sunni and Shiite forces to join with the Kurds to stop ISIS – slip off the table.
Shiite forces, led by Iran, are anti-American in the extreme. It was Iran that convinced Iraq to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, and despite the nuclear accord, the U.S. and Iran have upped their antagonistic war of words. If Shiite forces do indeed dislodge ISIS, they will be the new mega-force in the region, which will inevitably lead to more conflicts with regional Sunni powers. These realignments threaten a very vital area of the world and suggest that we need to start pressuring our regional “allies,” from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, to recognize that the real threat to all of us is mainly ISIS. We have taken one step forward – in Iraqi forces’ retaking several towns in ISIS-land – and three steps back in regional success everywhere else.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we need to get real in the region and stop muttering slogans that will never get the job done!