19 April 2015

Why Is No One Using the Kurds to Defeat ISIS?

(This is the second part of this post)

A commentator recently asked the same question: "the Kurds have an army, and they’re willing to fight and die. So why isn't the United States sending them the weapons they need?"

He elaborated further:
Over the past few weeks, it’s the Kurds who have been responsible for the world’s only victories on the ground against IS. In January, Kurdish forces in Syria, after weeks of brutal house-to-house combat, finally pushed Islamic State out of the key border town of Kobani. And within just the past few days, Peshmerga fighters who answer to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq appear to have regained the upper hand against IS forces who staged a surprise offensive against the key city of Kirkuk.
As my long time readers know, my answer has been the same since before ISIS showed up on the scene and the initial Islamist groups like the Nusra Front began implementing an early version of the now familiar "broadcasting operatic violence" strategy: Support the Kurds.

It is a no-brainer: using mostly light arms, they defeated ISIS in Kobani. They took back large areas from ISIS and stopped its encroachment. And most observers agree that, with proper equipment, they could liberate Mosul.

Moreover, arming the Kurds has no downside.

They are overwhelmingly secular and they are not about to pass on the arms they receive to Islamist groups (the Kurdish Salafis are a tiny group and they hate ISIS).

And you have a bonus: If they, as a secular force with a large contingent of female fighters, won one or more battles against ISIS, they could expose the new Caliph as a phony.

You see, if the emergence of a new and righteous Caliph was Allah's will, as claimed by ISIS and the editors of Atlantic magazine, Allah would never allow His Caliph to be defeated by a secular army and its female fighters. If it were to happen that could only mean that Baghdadi was not the Chosen One.

Nothing would break the path to redemption for ISIS fighters faster than the knowledge that the Caliph is a phony. And nothing would stop the rush to join ISIS faster than this realization.

Then why is nobody arming the Kurds?

Remember the Sherlock Holmes quote "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."

In this instance, the improbable truth is that nobody wants the Kurds to defeat ISIS.

And when you take a closer look you notice that this truth is not as improbable as it appears from a distance.

Sunni - Shia Animosity

As we all gathered by now, the primary source of conflict in the Middle East is the Sunni-Shia chasm.

On the Shia side you have Iran, Iraq's ruling Shia minority, Syria's ruling Alewite minority, Hezbollah of Lebanon, Houthis of Yemen and the sizable Shia minorities in Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia.

On the Sunni side you have everybody else, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Gulf Council Countries, Saudi Arabia, and Sunni encaves in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Besides Iraq, Syria and Yemen, which are open war zones, you see simmering civil unrest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf countries.

In my contrarian opinion, this deep and passionate Sunni-Shia hatred is overdetermined (in the Althusserian sense of the term) by a massive economic incentive to modify the Middle East map and to create a new Sunni entity that I call Pipelineistan, a term I borrowed from Pepe Escobar (who uses it to refer to Eurasia).

As I argued in 2013, the Syrian civil war, the Iraqi unrest and the rise of radical Islamist fighters could all be traced to Syrian President Assad's refusal to let a huge pipeline go through his territory. I suspect that his decision was strongly encouraged by Russia.

It is a simple equation, really: Qatar is at one end of South Pars natural gas fields and Iran is at the other end. Qatar is already siphoning off 25 times more gas than Iran. The proposed pipeline would have allowed Qatar to increase its production and its energy exports exponentially and would have given Europe a solid alternative to Russian natural gas.

It would also turn Turkey into an energy hub.

When Assad said no, within days, the then Turkish Prime Minister R.T. Erdogan, who was his BFF previously, became his most implacable enemy. And the Syrian civil war was launched. As you know, Turkey has provided all kinds of logistic and material support and allowed its border to be freely used by Islamist rebels, including and especially ISIS.

Reinforcing my hypothesis is Qatar's massive funding of al Nusra Front and ISIS. Despite its non-denial denials, we know that Qatar has been  the financial powerhouse behind these radical fighting machines. When you think about it, it makes no sense for a tiny country like Qatar to spend billions of dollars to finance a bloody civil war far away from its borders unless it has something to gain from it.

Other Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Gulf Emirates has had no issues with Qatar creating a Sunni monster since the Shia Muslims, i.e Iran and Shia minorities in the region, would be on the losing end of this effort.

More specifically, reducing Iran's ability to benefit from the South Pars field would weaken it financially. In Iraq, the Shia minority that reclaimed central power after Saddam's departure would be pushed back. In Syria, Bashar al Assad, who is Alewite, (an offshoot of Shia Islam) would be toppled.

That is what I mean by Sunni-Shia chasm being overdetermined by Pipelineistan.

And this is also why nobody wants ISIS defeated. Not only has ISIS created a vast Sunni country covering both Iraq and Syria but it positioned itself as a ferocious bulwark that keeps Shia expansionism in check and as the Sword of Sunni Islam against Shia forces.

Unfortunately, Kurds complicate this picture quite a bit.

First, their country is in the way of Pipelineistan.

Look at the map.

While it is certain that the Turkish and Iranian sides of the map are wildly overdrawn, the Syrian pocket is likely to be too modest. But even with that caveat you can see that the proposed Kurdish state is solidly positioned between Turkey and Pipelineistan.

And therein lies the problem.

This was why ISIS was so desperate to take a non-strategic town like Kobani.

And this was why Turkey did not lift a finger to save Kobani.

Secondly, Kurdistan straddles four countries which are at the core of the Sunni-Shia divide: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The first two are regional super powers for the Sunni and Shia camps and the other two are the actual theaters where a Sunni-Shia war of proxy is taking place.

The presence of Kurds and their victories and defeats have significant repercussions for the warring parties.

Of these four countries, Iraq and Syria are helpless to stop the Kurds. Iran has other worries at this point in time (not to mention serious financial difficulties).

The fourth one, that is, Turkey is on a position to affect the outcome of the Kurdish struggle and it is implementing a fairly cynical strategy in that respect.

What does Turkey Want?

Contrary to what most pundits claim, Turkey is not fundamentally opposed to Kurdish independence. They certainly were at some point but the current government is fully aware that it is too late to suppress that possibility.

When they initiated the Kurdish peace process some three years ago, what they wanted was to be able to control the process that leads to independence and to push for the creation of a weak and dependent entity.

And where do I get that idea? Well, from the blueprint that is already in place.

As you might be aware, Turkey actively assisted the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Northern Iraq to achieve a large degree of autonomy from Baghdad. Turkish companies have been investing there heavily and 70 percent of KRG's international trade is with Turkey. They enable KRG to sell its oil and natural gas through a Turkish pipeline and help them ignore the loud protests coming from Iraq's central government.

Thus, through its dealings with KRG, Turkey created what some analysts call an undeclared economic commonwealth or others deem, perhaps more accurately, a client state. And this is what they want for the Greater Kurdistan.

The problem is that the Kurds in the other three countries that make up Kurdistan (Turkey, Syria and Iran) are all controlled by the same group, the PKK (the Syrian chapter is PYD and the Iranian chapter is PJAK). And after a long civil war that took tens of thousands of human lives, the PKK is likely to push for something more than a client state.

In that sense, the current stalemate mirrors the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Just like Netanyahu, Erdogan wants a battered, weakened and helpless interlocutor. And just like him, he would like to be able to pick and choose who will lead the other side: You know, "I won't deal with terrorists" dictum to avoid talking to Hamas and PKK.

Interestingly, the Netanyahu analogy also holds for Erdogan's electoral calculus.

On June 15, general elections will take place in Turkey. For the first time in recent history, the opposition votes outstrip AKP supporters and there is a good chance that the party may not be able to form a government without a coalition partner. Even worse, Erdogan, who got himself elected President last year, needs a super majority of 400 MPs to amend the Constitution and to establish a Presidential system. Otherwise, he will be relegated to figurehead status.

If the pro-Kurdish HDP jumps over the 10 percent electoral threshold, such a super majority is an arithmetic impossibility. If, on top of that, the ultra-nationalist MHP wins close to 18 percent of the vote, which is a distinct possibility, the new government will very likely be a coalition government. It might even be formed by the opposition parties. And that would be Erdogan's nightmare scenario.

So Erdogan took a page from Netanyahu's playbook and made a major shift to the right to woo MHP supporters. A couple of weeks ago, he declared that "there was no Kurdish problem" in Turkey and criticized the government for its Kurdish peace policy.

This was so unexpected that it earned him an unprecedented rebuke from the Deputy Prime Minister and one of the co-founders of AKP, Bulent Arinc, who told him publicly to know his place and mind his business. Within days, the jailed leader of PKK, Ocalan made a cessation of hostilities announcement to bolster the government's position.

But Erdogan's signal was already intercepted by the Turkish military.
The military, after a long period of silence, and interestingly only two days after Ocalan’s statement and the criticism of Arinc about Erdogan’s meddling in the government’s commitments to the Kurdish side, strongly rejected any speculation of its cooperation with the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Alluding to Ocalan, the military said the armed forces will never see him as a counterpart in the quest for the resolution of the problem and underlined the determination of the military for confronting and fighting the “terrorist organization” — in Turkish official parlance, the PKK.

And on March 24, again after a long interval, a military communique announced that the armed forces had begun an operation against PKK elements in the Mazidag countryside, in Turkey’s southeast, presumably in a stronghold of the Kurdish movement.
Just like Netanyahu using settlers and ultra-orthodox parties to keep himself in power and to give himself cover to sabotage the peace process, Erdogan's new approach seems be to ally himself to the ultra-nationalistic MHP and make it impossible for him to pursue a peace policy towards Turkey's Kurdish minority.

In that context, ISIS is invaluable as it keeps Kurds on the defensive and and preoccupied in Syria and Iraq.

As one of Erdogan's MPs put it, ISIS is preferable to PKK.

You cannot be clearer.

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