17 October 2014

Turkey, ISIS and the Kurds: A Case Study in Cynicism

A good friend of mine asked me an interesting question.

She wanted to know why the band of idiots formerly known as ISIS are so determined to massacre Kurds and take the Kurdish border town of Kobani.

The answer is not as straightforward as you might think and it includes a heavy dose of cynicism on the part of Turkey and some other silent players.

Let me start with a few reminders about ISIS.

Cynical Mercenaries

When the band of idiots formerly known as ISIS popped into our collective consciousness barely four months ago, we knew very little about them.

The more we found out the less their stated goals made sense.

For instance, we realized that they had no interest in fighting against the staunchly secular government of Bashar al-Assad. This is the guy whose father was (in)famous for ruthlessly massacring ten of thousands of Islamists.

Similarly, we learned that ISIS had no interest in extending its Jihadist message to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. They say that is because they consider Hamas apostate.
One tweet stated, “The Hamas government is apostate, and what it is doing does not constitute jihad, but rather a defense of democracy [which Salafists oppose].” Another tweet said, “Khaled Meshaal: Hamas fights for the sake of freedom and independence. The Islamic State: it fights so that all religion can be for God.” 
Yet we know that the same ISIS is working in alliance with former Baath party officials in Iraq.

And we also know that they have been working closely with the current Turkish government. If Hamas is apostate then they would have to find a new term to qualify the AKP government.

Finally, we found out recently that ISIS was selling oil to Turkey and buying arms from the Assad regime.
IS exports about 9,000 barrels of oil per day at prices ranging from about $25-$45 (£15-£27).
Some of this goes to Kurdish middlemen up towards Turkey, some goes for domestic IS consumption and some goes to the Assad regime, which in turn sells weapons back to the group.
How is that for cynicism?

All of this tells me that the band of idiots formerly known as ISIS are a cynical mercenary outfit. Of course this applies to the leadership, as the actual fighters are misguided idiots who have no clue about anything (that is the subject of an upcoming post).

To make this point, I outlined their slick marketing, multimedia and IT operations. I also provided the main rationale for their formation and their operational goals.

What Is Their Mission?

If you didn't click the last link above, where I explain my argument in some detail, you might find the short version of my thesis unconvincing. So I suggest you do.

But if you prefer not to read my elucubrations, in a nutshell, their mission is to create a Sunni state from the ashes of the former Sykes-Picot countries. Hence the initial name of ISIS or ISIL.

And the primary motivations behind this mission are
(a) Qatar's desire to build a pipeline crossing a shorter and safer area to sell its natural gas to Europe,
(b)Turkey's desire to have the spigot in their country in order to become a major energy hub and
(c) Europe's desire to reduce Putin's energy leverage.

On this last point, you probably know that Europe is too dependent on Russia for its annual energy imports of almost 500 billion cubic meters of natural gas (which is valued at about $170 billion annually at current prices). That dependency is one of the main elements behind the Union's muted response to Putin's annexation of Crimea and his erratic foreign policy in Ukraine.

Qatar is the only viable alternative source. And Pipelineistan is the best route.

You can add to these my global hypothesis, which is the US desire to control the distribution of gas and oil in order to maintain its superpower status against rising Asian rivals (and its relatively recent eagerness to solve the Palestinian and Kurdish issues to achieve that goal). Someone else put it more economically than me:
To control oil flows across the planet and deny market access to recalcitrant producers is increasingly a major objective of American foreign policy.
In that sense, if you ask me, my Pipelineistan thesis passes the Occam's Razor test for a number of odd occurrences.

What Can Pipelineistan Explain?

It explains how ISIS became the wealthiest terrorist organization in the world in a very short period of time. Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, they could never have done it by selling oil or by collecting ransom money. They have billions. They received the bulk of it from Qatar, their non-denial denials notwithstanding.

It explains why Turkey's Islamist government trained, armed and provided healthcare to ISIS terrorists.

It explains how Saddam's elite officers are helping ISIS at every turn.

Think about it. Aren't you surprised by the extraordinary military feats of ISIS, supposedly a bunch of Islamist young men from all over the world, including Western Europe and North America?

If, as the corporate media maintains, their equipment of armored vehicles and tanks came from the retreating Iraqi army, how do we explain their extraordinary skill in using them. After all, we are also told that "a regular IS tank driver is trained to drive his tank at night with a thermal camera, and that the commander of the team has enough tactical military knowledge to best deploy his tanks."

Do you know how long it takes to acquire such skills? Do you seriously believe that a bearded idiot who was plucked from the Saint Denis suburb of Paris would be able to do this after a couple of weeks of training in the aftermath of Mosul invasion?

ISIS attacks are not just ruthless, they are militarily innovative and very effective. You cannot do that with a ragtag army of misguided idiots. But you can do it if the band of idiots is reinforced with well trained experienced soldiers.

Finally, my hypothesis also explains why the US and its allies were completely unmoved when ISIS was occupying large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria or when they slaughtered Christians, Yazidis and other minorities. As we know, they sprung to action only when ISIS moved north to Erbil to threaten Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)'s oil fields.

In fact, even though ISIS has been building up forces near Kobani for some times now, coalition airstrikes were few and far in between until these last days.
According to Salih Muslim, the coalition has yet to effectively bomb IS positions near Kobane. "That is why the IS thinks it is safer to deploy most of its forces near Kobane in order to protect them from air strikes," he says.

Most coalition air strikes have targeted areas near Mosul and Irbil in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria. 
As one pundit put it succintly, Kobani is not Erbil.

In short, if my hypothesis is correct, the recent events would indicate that ISIS was seen as a necessary evil by the relevant actors. And consequently, their destruction would not be desirable before they finished the job of creating a new Sunni state. Incidentally, this is supported by Obama's and Cameron's assertions that the war against ISIS will be a long-term campaign.

Having established the parameters of my argument, let me turn to the question of why ISIS has decided to attack the Kurds instead of consolidating its grip on the territories it occupied.

Why ISIS Is Attacking the Kurds?

There are several reasons for ISIS' determination to attack the Kurds.

The first one is what I have been maintaining over the last two years: Kurds are the only coherent and capable military force in Syria and Iraq. Without their acquiescence, it would be very difficult for any group to establish their supremacy. FSA or al Nusra Front all failed and if Kurds are not defeated eventually, ISIS will also fail in its bid.

In that sense, ISIS (correctly, in my opinion) sees the Kurds as their main regional rival. This is not just a military assessment. Kurds are also a major impediment to their rule in Syria. Their ideology and organizational structure are fiercely secular. They allow women to have a more or less equal position in all their institutions, including their combat troops. You can say that they represent the anti-ISIS.

This would not have been (and it is not) a big deal in Iraq where ethnic cleansing took place a long time ago and Sunnis tribes and Kurds live in separate regions. But in Syria, especially in the north, Kurds and Arabs still live side by side. Most places have both Kurdish and Arabic names: as you know, Kobani is also known as Ayn-al-Arab.

You could argue (and correctly, in my opinion) that they did not have to go after the Kurds this early and with this much fierceness.

For that, Kurds blame Turkey. And correctly, in my opinion.

The AKP Government and ISIS

The new President (and former PM) Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets upset when someone suggests that his government has been assisting and supporting ISIS.

But the evidence shows that closely collaborating with ISIS (and other Jihadis before them) has been one of the pillars of his Syria policy.

For instance, his government allowed ISIS to have recruitment center in Turkey and never intervened when thousands of young men joined them.

ISIS fighters have been freely crossing the Turkey-Syria border in both directions. A couple of days ago, Der Spiegel reported this:
Meanwhile, IS continues to have a surprising degree of freedom of movement on Turkish soil. On Oct. 4, a plane operated by Turkish discount airline Pegasus landed at Hatay airport in the southern Turkish province of the same name. Among the passengers on board Flight PC 4180 were nine men, likely Uzbeks and a Saudi, all wearing the dark-green outdoor jackets, sandals and ankle-length pants favored by the radicals. No one stopped the group and not a single official at airport security asked any questions. They were able to leave the airport unchecked before climbing into a minibus and disappearing.
 This is from a recent interview with a former ISIS idiot:
We were initially told by the IS field commander to fear nothing because there was cooperation with the Turks at the border. The watchtower light caught us and our commander said everybody should stop but do not look at the light. He talked on the radio, then the watchtower light began to move after 8-10 minutes and that was the signal saying we could safely cross the border.
Turkey has been providing arms to ISIS by the truckloads.
According to the Hurriyet report, the truck in question was stopped by police attached to anti-terrorism squads shortly after leaving the town of Reyhanli near the Syrian border.
Three men on the truck — who were later revealed to be members of Turkey’s intelligence service, Milli Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT) — prevented the police from searching the truck, arguing it was outside city limits, where jurisdiction belongs to the gendarmerie. The gendarmerie was then called in, and their cursory search reportedly revealed weapons and military equipment. (...)
The truck was subsequently released and allowed to continue to Syria.
As early as the beginning of September, a discovery in Iraq triggered tensions between Ankara and Washington. IS munitions found there were manufactured by MKE, a Turkish state-owned defense company. The revelation fueled suspicions that Turkish authorities may be providing direct support to IS -- with or without the government's approval. [emphasis mine]
And last and possibly the least Turkey is also a significant source of income for ISIS:
 Mahmut Tanal, a lawmaker from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told The Daily Beast he was trying to get an official government comment on reports saying that ISIS was exporting up to 4,000 tons of fuel to Turkey every day and earning $15 million every month from the trade. “I am expecting some answers here,” he said. [He never got one]
This symbiotic relationship is so cozy that some people in Turkey believe that the government had allowed the Mosul consulate to fall [link in Turkish] and let ISIS grab 46 Turkish citizens because they needed a pretext not to join the fight against the band of idiots. Apparently, for days, the Ministry did not reply to the consulate's "mayday" messages and returned their call only after the building was overrun by ISIS to instruct them to surrender.

Even after that pretext was removed, Turkey took its time to pass a parliamentary resolution to join the anti-ISIS coalition but so far it has taken no steps in that directions. Coalition airstrikes still do not use Turkish military bases. And Turkey has not provided any assistance to any party that fights ISIS.

That cynical attitude is also on display in their dealings with Syrian Kurds. Early in October, they held secret talks with the leader of PYD, Salih Muslim and promised him that Turkey would not let Kobani fall.  And then they did absolutely nothing, save perhaps, sending a lone truck with medical supplies.

They allowed civilian refugees in but refused safe passage to Kurdish militia to join the fight in Kobani. The situation was so strange that, in an unusual move, the UN envoy for Syria called upon Turkey to let Kurdish fighters join the fight in Kobani.

Instead, the new Turkish PM Davutoglu went on CNN to claim that Turkey would help Kobani only if the international community made a commitment to overthrow al Assad and establish a no flight regime and a buffer zone.

As you might be aware, none of these conditions can be met without a Security Council resolution. And Russia would never allow such a move. Gazprom is too lucrative a business to let Turkey realize its energy hub dreams.

Moreover, a buffer zone implies that Turkish troops would enter Syrian soil and invade a large region. Guess who inhabits that region in Northern Syria?

Why Is Turkey Hoping ISIS Would Decimate Syrian Kurds?

This is where cynicism skyrockets.

There are several reasons why Erdogan hopes that ISIS would invade Kobani and kill everyone there.

The first one has something to do with Erdogan's blueprint to hold on to power. Which the same as Karl Rove's 50 percent plus 1 accompanied with a heavy dose of polarization.

During the last presidential elections, the results were presented as if he received 52 percent of the vote in the first round. But in fact, despite spending massive sums and facing a highly inexperienced and deeply unpopular opposition candidate, he received the same number of votes his party got in the municipal elections, that is 44 percent.

In other words, the dirty little secret is that 56 percent of the electorate either abstained or did not vote for him. So he is after the 50 percent plus 1.

Turkish general elections will be held in eight months in June 2015. The main leader for AKP will be the newly minted PM Ahmet Davutoglu. He is a slightly dorky university professor with the charisma of lawn furniture.

It is very likely that, without Erdogan at the helm of the party, the AKP will see a significant decline in its electoral support.

There are two remedies. One is to intensify the climate of polarization to hold on to his conservative base.The other is to try to grab some electoral support from the opposition parties.

Most pundits assumed that he would make an overture to the Kurds, especially after their candidate's resounding success in the presidential elections.

Instead Erdogan's lieutenants opted to go after the votes of the ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP).  Their base is staunchly anti-Kurdish. If Kobani were to fall and Syrian Kurds and PKK fighters were killed along with civilians, most MHP supporters would see this as a positive development.

This why he has recently stated that ISIS and PKK are the same.  And this is why a prominent AKP politician declared that ISIS is better than the PKK. The MHP base would eat this up and wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment.

From Erdogan's cynical perspective, Kobani's fall (and the subsequent massacre) would bring other advantages as well. The military wing of the Kurdish movement will be considerably weakened. Both the PKK and PYD suffered heavy losses during the siege and if the city is captured many more fighters will perish.

There is also a PR bonus. A Kobani massacre will be marketed by ISIS as a major victory. And it will tarnish the PKK's reputation (especially after their decisive contribution to the retaking of Mosul dam) as a formidable fighting machine who held its own against the mighty Turkish army for decades.

Moreover, while Kobani is not a strategic town, its loss would make it very difficult to connect the three enclaves in Syrian Kurdistan:
The Kurdish areas in Syria are not like the Kurdish areas in Iraq, which are all connected. There are three enclaves in Syria. Afrin is now safe, the enclave in Aleppo province, because ISIS has been kicked out of Azaz, which is now controlled by anti-ISIS groups. Kobani is now completely surrounded by three sides, and then you have the provinces of Hassakeh and Jazira, but they are bordering Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, so Kobani is the easiest target for ISIS because it is surrounded on three sides. 
That in turn means no unified Kurdish region in Syria.

Erdogan is betting that after the 2015 elections he could go back to the defeated Kurds and offer them some new rights and avoid the statehood issue altogether.

Will Erdogan's Cynical Plan Work?

I doubt it.

For one thing the US is fed up with Erdogan's cynical games. In the last three days, they intensified air attacks around Kobani and as a direct result, as of this morning, the Kurdish leaders in town were saying that ISIS fighters are "being driven out of Kobani."

Tellingly, the US has just held its first ever direct talks with PYD, the Syrian branch of PKK. If this is not a kick to Erdogan, I don't know what is.

While a defeat and a massacre might have weakened the Kurdish resolve, a victory would have the opposite effect and would embolden the Kurds and the PKK. The siege and the heroic resistance would also turn into a mythical narrative that would almost certainly bolster the Kurdish national identity.

Similarly, a Kurdish victory would make ISIS look vulnerable: If they could not defeat an army of men and women fighting with light arms against tanks and artillery, how good are they?

From a domestic point of view, Erdogan's cynical ploy deeply offended the Kurds in Turkey, including those who traditionally voted for conservative parties like the AKP. Already scores of people died in demonstrations in various regions and elder Kurdish statesmen are warning that Kurdish electorate have become very radicalized.

All of this means that Turkey is entering a very delicate phase. Erdogan has nowhere to go, so he is likely to double down. His recent decision to break the two-year old ceasefire and order the bombing of PKK positions near Iraq was his way of provoking the PKK.

He hopes that the PKK will take the bait and relaunch the civil war with Turkey. He could then point to them as terrible terrorists and his cynical electoral plan might still be workable.

But the US and European powers declared that they will supply the Kurds with modern equipment and arms. They realized that given the proper tools, Kurds could put a check on Jihadis and prevent them from grabbing more land (like Aleppo which was likely to be the next target). They could also be trained for directing air strikes.

All of this strongly suggests that the PKK will gain strength, become more prominent in the region and end up with a significant portion of those arms. In fact, Germany said that it might provide arms to them directly.

That would be Erdogan's worst nightmare.

But if it happens he will have no one but himself to blame.


This is from the New York Times today:
Signs of the toll on the militants began to emerge Friday. A video apparently taken by Kurdish fighters showed the aftermath of an airstrike: In the midst of collapsed buildings and pulverized vehicles, the fighters walked among body parts as they toured the razed site. 
On a cellphone purportedly captured from a dead Islamic State fighter, voice messages sent to a friend, according to a rebel media activist who heard them, revealed the sudden swing of the battle: from supreme confidence that the capture of Kobani would take 10 days to laments as the militants were surrounded by Kurdish fighters, who had “popped up” everywhere. 
“All of my group is killed now, and I’m left alone here,” the activist quoted the militant as saying.
And coincidentally, just about the same time, Turkey said that it "is now allowing the U.S. to launch unmanned aircraft to fly over Syria. But so far, traditional warplanes are out of the question."

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