Random Thoughts, Gaza Edition

November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

I have a bunch of interconnected things to say about Gaza and Operation Pillar of Cloud, so here we go.

First, on Monday I wrote that I thought Israel was likely to go into Gaza eventually with ground forces, and three days later I see no reason to alter that prediction. Taking out Ahmed al-Jabari was guaranteed to elicit a response from Hamas, and now that three Israeli civilians were killed when a rocket from Gaza hit their apartment building in Kiryat Malachi, the IDF is going  to ramp up military operations even further. Over 200 rockets were fired out of Gaza yesterday, and the Israeli cabinet has authorized the army to call up any reserve units that it needs, on top of the earlier authorization to call up reservists serving in the Home Front Command, so I am relatively confident that it is only a matter of time before ground forces are ordered into Gaza.

Second, nobody should be shedding any tears for al-Jabari, and I do not begrudge for a second Israel’s right to kill terrorist leaders who target civilians. That said, the Hamas problem is not going to be solved militarily. Cast Lead was not able to do away with Hamas, and Pillar of Cloud is likely to meet the same fate of quieting things down in the immediate aftermath but not solving the overarching problem of Hamas controlling Gaza and still not being willing to negotiate a permanent end to its war with Israel. As Jeffrey Goldberg and Brent Sasley have both pointed out, this type of operation is all about short term tactics in an attempt to ignore a long term strategic conundrum, and until Israel figures out a way to address this, the next Cast Lead or Pillar of Cloud is only four or five years away. Already there have been Palestinian civilian casualties, and much like Israel faced the Goldstone Report and a renewed BDS push following its last incursion into Gaza, no doubt it is going to deal with a fresh round of condemnations and pressures when this is over. As much as Israel can hit Hamas where it hurts, this is no successful way to operate.

Third, Pillar of Cloud makes the Foreign Ministry’s threats earlier this week to collapse the Palestinian Authority over its UN bid an even stranger move than it already was. The fact that Israel is now engaged in its second major military operation against Hamas in four years while collaborating with the PA security forces in the West Bank over the same time period demonstrates the absurdity of Avigdor Lieberman’s position that the PA is just as bad, or even worse, for Israeli interests than Hamas. If the PA collapses in the West Bank, it is a near guarantee that Hamas takes over, and then Israel’s security situation is vastly worse. Pillar of Cloud is going to damage Hamas militarily but may very well strengthen it politically, and so in tandem with a strategy of weakening the PA, it means that a Hamas-controlled West Bank is ever more likely. Lieberman obviously knew Pillar of Cloud was coming and just didn’t care, and it is also evident that Bibi Netanyahu either has limited control over what Lieberman is doing at the Foreign Ministry or doesn’t see it as a problem. The operations in Gaza make reneging on the UN bid impossible for Mahmoud Abbas, since he cannot back down in the face of Israel pressure while Palestinians are being killed in Gaza and retain any shred of credibility. What this all means is that Israel’s right hand and left hand are essentially working at cross purposes, trying to forestall a UN bid while also making it more likely, and trying to eliminate Hamas while giving it the West Bank on a silver platter. Someone in the upper echelons of Israel’s decision making hierarchy needs to take a step back and look at the big picture here.

Finally, Turkey’s response to all of this has been interesting. It was well behind Egypt and the Arab League in condemning Israel yesterday, waiting hours to say anything and then issuing a Foreign Ministry statement close to midnight (and one that has still not been posted on the ministry’s English language website). Ahmet Davutoğlu had some harsh words for Israel when talking to reporters but the overall Turkish response was not as fast and furious as one might have expected. Egypt, in contrast, was way out in front and has been keeping up the pressure rhetorically while recalling its ambassador back to Cairo. I have some thoughts at the Atlantic on why this might be and what we can expect from Turkey and Egypt going forward, and here is a teaser:

Since Israel’s last major foray into Gaza with Operation Cast Lead in 2008, no country has been more vocal about the plight of the Palestinians than Turkey. Prime Minister Erdoğan has made it a priority to keep the world’s attention on Gaza and has repeatedly called out Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians while attempting to bolster Hamas. The Palestinian issue has been so important to the Turkish government that it has made ending the Gaza blockade one of its three conditions, along with an apology and compensation, for restoring full ties with Israel following the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara. Erdoğan recently announced plans to visit Gaza, which would undoubtedly go a long way in the campaign to legitimize Hamas.

Becoming the champion of the Palestinian cause is one of the primary reasons that Erdoğan has had such high approval ratings in the Arab world. It has not only made Erdoğan personally popular but also enhanced Turkey’s international stature, contributing to Turkey’s efforts to be seen not only as a regional leader but as a leader of the wider Sunni world as well. In essence, the resulting deterioration in relations with Israel has in some sense been well worth the cost as Turkey’s reputation and soft power has been enhanced. In light of all this, the expectation following Israel’s new military operations in Gaza today is that Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are going to be leading the charge to condemn Israeli military actions, which would be consistent with Turkey’s position over the past few years.

But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

For the rest, please click over to the original at the Atlantic’s website.

 

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The Significance of Gaziantep

August 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

The car bomb that exploded in Gaziantep on Monday, killing nine and wounding nearly seventy others, was a horrific act of terrorism that many suspect is the work of the PKK, although the PKK has so far denied any involvement. Hüseyin Çelik has raised the possibility that Syria may be involved as well, but unless one is prepared to go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories involving the deep state (and I certainly am not), this has the fingerprints of the PKK all over it given the upsurge in PKK violence this summer, the location of the bombing, and the fact that the intended target was a police station. Allowing for the assumption that the PKK was behind this latest terrorist atrocity, this is the second strategic misstep for the group in as many weeks following the earlier bizarre kidnapping and release of CHP deputy Hüseyin Aygün, which only inflamed opinion against the PKK and seemed to harden the government’s stance against the group even further.

That the PKK has denied being behind the Gaziantep bombing is significant because it indicates that the PKK realizes that this might actually represent a turning point. It is a strange move for a terrorist group to perpetrate an act of terrorism – generally designed to garner attention and demonstrate the group’s power – and then immediately deny all involvement, but it is not surprising in this instance given the civilian casualties involved and the fact that it was done on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. This was a major strategic miscalculation that backfired in a big way, and not only will it garner the PKK no sympathy, it will give cover to the government to go after the PKK even harder than it already has. Few will object to Turkish military operations against the group following this bombing.

The PKK’s terrorism campaign is a thorny one with no real end in sight for a number of reasons. The PKK is able to draw on a base of ethnic Kurdish support, which makes it difficult to root out and eliminate entirely. It also does not help that Turkish Kurds have a set of legitimate political grievances, yet the government has adopted a nearly exclusively military approach to the problem, assuming that once the PKK is gone, Kurdish political demands will dissipate. What this means is that the PKK draws on a well of Kurdish sympathy even in places where there is no outright support for the group or its actions. In Gaziantep, however, the PKK has done something that might actually cut into that base of sympathy. Trying to shore up support among the Kurdish population by blowing up civilians during a religious holiday is a strange strategy indeed, and it is bound to be a losing one. Maybe, just maybe, the PKK’s denials here are an indication that it realizes just how far it has gone.

One of the ways in which terrorism ends is when a terrorist group is faced with dwindling support arising from outrage at moral atrocities. There is a large moral distinction to be made between killing Turkish soldiers – and let me be crystal clear that I do not condone such PKK actions at all – and killing and maiming civilians with bombs placed in the middle of cities. The PKK pretty clearly realizes the danger here, which accounts for its widely derided denial of responsibility. If this attack cuts into the PKK’s support and contributes in any small way to the end of its terrorism campaign, then at least the senseless killing of nine Turks will perhaps be a spur to a better and more peaceful Turkey down the road. Reduced support for the PKK and a genuine political solution to the Kurdish issue are the only ways in which the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK will ever be resolved.

Ankara’s Nightmare Is Coming To Pass

July 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

Turkey is suddenly gearing up to face what might be the biggest foreign policy challenge the AKP has faced in its decade in government, which is the emergence of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. As Assad’s forces pull back and retrench, they have left the Kurdish areas of northern Syria in the hands of the PYD, which is the Syrian counterpart to the PKK, and all of a sudden Turkey is facing the prospect of a Syrian Kurdish state right on its border. This has caused enormous angst in Ankara, with the prime minister threatening to invade Syria in order to prevent the PYD from controlling its own swath of territory. In addition, it seems as if the time and effort spent courting Massoud Barzani has backfired, as he was responsible for getting the PYD to join the Kurdish National Council and present a unified Kurdish front and has subsequently allowed the PYD to train in Iraqi Kurdistan. All of this, of course, terrifies Ankara since it raises the specter of a mass movement on the part of Turkish Kurds to have their own autonomous region as well once they see independent Kurdish governments in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Consequently, Ahmet Davutoğlu is slated to visit Erbil next week to express his displeasure with Barzani and make Turkey’s concerns clear.

All of this comes at the worst possible time given the way in which Erdoğan has been dealing with Turkey’s Kurdish situation. Turkish Kurds are restive following the cessation of the AKP’s Kurdish opening, and as Aliza Marcus pointed out last week, Erdoğan has directed his energy at denying the existence of Kurdish nationalism and ignoring Kurdish concerns. Rumors have the AKP making common cause with the nationalist MHP in order to sidestep the Kurdish issue in the new constitution, and the government has continued arresting and trying people for alleged links to the PKK, including 46 lawyers earlier this month. In short, despite the obvious benefits that would have come with a gentler touch, the very recent strategy has been all sticks and no carrots when it comes to dealing with the Kurdish population, so the developments in Syria are even more worrisome for the government than they otherwise would be.

It must also be noted that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had no inkling that this was coming and appear to have no good strategy to deal with it. The assumption appeared to be that because the Syrian National Council is led by a Syrian Kurd, that would be good enough and the PYD would not seek to carve out its own autonomous sphere, which was naive at best. The two seem to have trusted that their zero problems with neighbors strategy with Barzani would hold, but much as this outdated policy imploded with regard to Assad, Barzani seems to be resistant to Ankara’s charms as well. So Turkey is left with a situation where it is madly rushing tanks and missile batteries to the border and threatening to invade and even to create a buffer zone, but we have seen this play before and it turned out to be all bark and no bite. While the PKK issue inserts a new variable into the equation, the fact remains that the PYD has joined hands with Barzani and the Kurds of northern Iraq, which makes military action against them far more risky than it previously was. Turkey has been reluctant to send its forces into Syria alone and has avoided doing so at all costs (including after its plane was shot down) up until this point, and nothing has altered that equation. There also still doesn’t appear to be a huge appetite among the Turkish public for an invasion of Syria and all that it will entail, and while the MHP might be chomping at the bit to take it to the Kurds once and for all, that isn’t enough to make armed conflict a foregone conclusion. The greater likelihood is that this is one big show designed to appeal to popular nationalist impulses and that the tough talk is being driven by domestic politics. The problem with making a lot of noise about the PYD is that Turkey risks being the boy who cried wolf if it blusters without doing anything yet again, which can have real world consequences. Threats are only effective if they are considered to be credible, and talking tough without actually taking action risks emboldening the PYD and the PKK and destroying any deterrence that Turkey has established. By taking such a hard rhetorical line, Turkey is risking its long term foreign policy and security goals unless it is prepared to follow through, and the evidence suggests that it is not ready to do so.

In short, Turkey is in a no-win situation after being completely blindsided, and it can only hope that moving troops and tanks to the border in a show of force will be threatening enough to keep things quiet and that the PYD will keep its focus on getting rid of Assad rather than stirring up trouble for Turkey and openly aligning with the PKK. In any event, going after the PYD would not solve much of anything anyway, since that is simply fighting the side effects rather than the disease. If Turkey wants to keep its Kurdish population happy and part of Turkey, Erdoğan is going to have to change his tune very quickly and come to the realization that eliminating the PKK, PYD, and all other Kurdish terrorist groups is not going to address the real issue of Kurdish disenchantment within his own borders. A military solution might be attractive, but political problems require political solutions.

PKK Pressure Both Internal and External

May 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Turkey suffered a terrible bout of PKK terrorism today, with a bomb killing one policeman in central Turkey on top of the news that the PKK has abducted ten civilians in Diyarbakır. There are two primary reasons that there is a new round of PKK violence, one of which appears to be in Turkey’s power to control and one which is not. The first is a result of internal politics, namely the ongoing controversy over the Uludere drone strike that killed 34 civilians last year. The strike itself was bad enough as it stirred up enormous anger and resentment, but those feelings were magnified further this week after Interior Minister Idris Şahin referred to those killed as “PKK extras” and said that the government did not owe anyone an apology over the matter. This has prompted a furious backlash, including from AKP deputy chair Hüseyin Çelik who blasted Şahin’s remarks as inhumane and reiterated that his position was not shared by Prime Minister Erdoğan or the government. The damage has been done though, and the government’s continuing clumsy efforts to close the door on the episode are not going to alleviate things much, if at all. While Ankara paid the victims compensation, it has held the line on issuing an apology and has been unwilling to go further than expressing regret (which is ironically the same stance that Israel has taken on the Mavi Marmara deaths). This is, of course, not making the PKK any less popular in southeastern Turkey, and while there is absolutely zero justification for terrorist violence at all, the government is not making it easier to get that message to stick. Increased support for the PKK among Turkey’s Kurds leads to more terrorist attacks, and that is part of what is now going on.

The other set of pressures is external and has to do with Syria. The government in Damascus has been holding the threat of PKK support over Turkey’s head if it does not back off its tough stance against Assad, and by some accounts this seems to be working. Soner Çağaptay argues that Turkey’s fear of a Syrian Kurdistan with a strong PKK presence has led Ankara to take a wait and see attitude when it comes to Assad after its earlier aggressive position. The Syrian support for the PKK is also driving the new PKK attacks in Turkey since they have a new base for training, logistics, and safe haven that they have been lacking since the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq cracked down on them after repeated Turkish entreaties to do so. It also does not help things that the removal of Syria as a massive trading partner is leading to renewed economic depression in Diyarbakır, since increased trade and economic activity in southeastern Turkey was designed to make Turkey’s Kurdish population happier and thus less likely to support separatism or autonomy. Neither Syrian support for the PKK nor the drop-off in trade is in Turkey’s power to alter, but  these factors are starting to give rise to a slow burn underneath the Kurdish issue that is making the government’s life a lot more difficult.

What all of this means is that PKK terrorism, which has dwindled in recent years, is probably making a comeback. Turkey can do some things to alleviate it, such as actually resolving the Uludere issue to Kurds’ satisfaction rather than letting it linger and endless live on, but the situation in Syria is largely out of Turkey’s hands and certainly no longer a problem of its own making. The PKK violence against civilians this week is unfortunately a bad sign that this is going to be an unstable and bloody summer.

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