September 23, 2014 § 4 Comments
Now that U.S.-led airstrikes – or according to the UAE’s press release, UAE-led airstrikes – have begun against ISIS positions in Syria, it seems we have an actual coalition to size up. Participating in one way or another were the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, with Qatar the only one of the six to not actually drop bombs or shoot cruise missiles. One of these things is obviously not like the others, and that is Qatar. Aside from the fact that Qatar’s participation is going to remain limited to logistics and support, Qatar’s inclusion in this group is striking given that the four other Arab states represent one distinct camp in the Middle East, while Qatar represents another. There has been lots of talk the past few years about a Middle Eastern cold war taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but there is a separate battle taking place between what I’ll call status quo Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. and revisionist Sunni states Qatar and Turkey. The latter are trying to upend the current regional order, and have thus spent lots of capital – both actual and rhetorical – supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups and other actors opposed to the current regional configuration. It is interesting to see Qatar openly participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, and it is likely a response to the charges that Qatar is tied to terrorism and has been funding shady jihadi and Islamist rebels. Qatar wants to demonstrate that it is not aiding ISIS, and this is the best way of going about that.
Far more intriguing is who is not part of this coalition, and that would be the other member of the Sunni revisionist camp. Along with Jordan, Turkey is the country most threatened by ISIS given its long border with Syria and the growing number of Turks being recruited as ISIS fighters. Turkey’s hostages have just been released by ISIS, so the biggest reason for Turkey’s hesitation has been removed, and yet Turkey is adamantly not joining the coalition. Aaron Stein has a good rundown today of what Turkey is doing behind the scenes to help out, but there are still reasons why Turkey is not going to publicly join the fight. The big one is that Turkey isn’t actually for a particular outcome; it only knows what it doesn’t want. It does not want Bashar al-Assad to benefit from any moves taken to degrade ISIS, but it also does not want ISIS to permanently control territory in Syria, but it also does not want the Kurds to benefit from ISIS being rolled back. Where Turkey runs into trouble is that not one of these outcomes can be realized in its entirety without limiting the success of the other outcomes. Eliminating ISIS will benefit Assad and the Kurds, while removing Assad creates a vacuum that will be filled by ISIS and/or the Kurds, and limiting any gains by the Kurds necessarily means that ISIS is maintaining its strength in northern Syria. Turkey wants a combination of goals that cannot be filled simultaneously, and yet it does not want to or cannot choose between which ones should be shunted aside.
The irony here is that by not throwing the full force of its weight behind getting rid of ISIS, it is risking a bigger domestic problem with Turkey’s Kurds, some of whom are crossing the border to fight with Kurdish forces against ISIS. Turkish Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even empowering the group with its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy, and thus the more half-hearted the Turkish government behaves with regard to getting rid of ISIS, the harder any Kurdish peace process and any effort to fully integrate Kurds into Turkey will become. In trying to appease ISIS by not taking a public role in the fight against the group – and thereby attempting to head off any jihadi terrorism inside of Turkey’s borders – Turkey is going to reignite an entirely different type of domestic problem. It is also foolhardy to believe that ISIS is a fire that won’t burn Turkey if the country steps away from the issue. At some point, ISIS violence is bound to come to Turkey whether Ankara participates as a full in open partner in the fight against the group or not, and when that happens, the vendetta against Assad and the worries about Kurdish nationalism are going to seem myopic.
The other regional player absent – although this is altogether unsurprising – is Iran. John Kerry and others have expressed hopes that the U.S. and Iran can cooperate together against ISIS given that the group presents a common threat. While I don’t rule out an eventual U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement (although I am skeptical), there is never going to be open Iranian cooperation with the U.S. on any shared goal such as the fight against ISIS, despite the optimism running rampant today following Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive in New York. Iran is an ideological state, meaning that it references explicitly ideological claims or a programmatic mission in justifying political action and allows those claims or mission to constrain its range of actions. Ideological states behave very differently from non-ideological states because ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, and so fealty to the state ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. To the extent that the ideology is institutionalized, its protection becomes vital, as a blow to the ideology is a blow to the state’s legitimacy among its citizens. The ideology also becomes the most important feature of the regime’s legacy, and no true guardians of the state ideology want to be responsible for its downfall or delegitimization. A large element of the Iranian regime’s ideology is opposition to the U.S.; it is the reason that the regime has harped on this point for decades on end. When you base your legitimacy and appeal in large part on resisting American imperial power, turning on a dime and openly helping the U.S. achieve an active military victory carries far-reaching consequences domestically. It harms your legitimacy and raison d’être, and thus puts your continued rule in peril. Iran wants to see ISIS gone as badly as we do, if not more so, and ISIS presents a more proximate threat to Iran than to us. Despite this, Iran cannot be seen as helping the U.S. in any way on this, and simply lining up interests in this case is an analytical mistake as ideological considerations trump all when you are dealing with highly ideological regimes. The same way that the U.S. would never have cooperated with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to defeat a common enemy – despite being able to come to agreement on arms control negotiations – because of an ideological commitment to being anti-Communist, Iran will not cooperate with the U.S. against ISIS. Those naively hoping that ISIS is going to create a bond between the U.S. and Iran are mistaken.
August 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
As events blow up around – and within – its borders, Turkey has had a difficult time calibrating its next moves and figuring out what it wants to do. Say what you will about the simplistic naivete inherent in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s zero problem with neighbors, but at least it provided Turkey with a baseline direction for its foreign policy. At the moment, it seems like Turkey is moving from crisis to crisis on a completely ad hoc basis, and while Ankara may be doing a decent job of short term management, it is creating a host of potential big problems for itself down the road.
Exhibit A is Syria. Turkey famously dragged its heels at the outset, insisting that Assad was a reformer at heart and convinced that Erdoğan could use his relationship with Assad to coax him into easing up and beginning the process of transitioning to multiparty elections. Once Erdoğan realized that this was a pipe dream, he turned on Assad completely, and to Turkey’s great credit it has not wavered in its insistence that Assad must go. To Turkey’s even greater credit, it is expending significant resources to provide for Syrian refugees, and the government should be commended for taking on a thankless humanitarian task in such a thorough manner. Where Ankara seems to be thinking in a less than rigorous manner though is what comes after Assad. Turkey is working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Free Syrian Army, and that in itself should raise some red flags immediately. While the government touts itself as a democracy that supports democratic movements, and President Gül even pushed the idea of Turkey as a “virtuous power” in April, Saudi Arabia and Qatar care not a lick about establishing democracy in Turkey. For them, the great opportunity presented by the civil war in Syria is the possibility of installing a friendly Sunni government next door to Iraq, and Turkey appears to be operating according to the same calculus. Thus it is not necessarily democracy that Turkey is looking to see flower in Syria, but simply another Sunni state, since a democratic Syria is assuredly not something that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are terribly interested in midwifing. It is also the case that there are legitimate worries over Sunni extremists with al-Qaida links being involved with the FSA, and yet Turkey appears to be moving ahead full bore. If Turkey were thinking more strategically and in the long term, it would not only be concerned about these elements within the FSA but would also think about how its rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East can be squared with supporting any Sunni movement that emerges, no matter how undemocratic or unsavory. Is becoming a cheerleader and patron of any Sunni group in a bid to be seen as the regional Sunni leader really a smarter longterm plan than being the promoter of democracy in the region? I don’t think that it is, particularly given the better street cred on the issue that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have, but this seems to be a policy born out of a desperate moment rather than a well thought out plan.
Exhibit B is what’s going on right now in Şemdinli, where the Turkish army is pounding the PKK while taking casualties of its own. Turkey rightly has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to PKK terrorism – although I would be curious to see Ankara’s reaction if the IDF blocked off part of the West Bank to journalists and all non-residents, refused to let anyone in or out, destroyed stores of food and medicine, and amid reports of hundreds of people being killed asked everyone to just trust that it was killing terrorists solely and leaving civilians alone – but killing PKK terrorists is not in itself a lasting solution to the Kurdish issue. I have written about this at length on numerous occasions so I don’t need to do so again and sound like a broken record, but the bottom line is that a political, rather than military, solution is needed, and Ankara appears to be farther away than ever from coming up with one. It does not have a longterm vision, and is just lurching from military operation to military operation, going after the PKK strongholds and warning the PYD about what will happen should it provide safe havens to the PKK in Syria. This simply is not a winning strategy for putting the Kurdish/PKK issue to bed once and all, and is instead just a series of temporary “solutions” that will exacerbate things over the years to come. I don’t mean to suggest that Turkey should not be working to eradicate the PKK, but it only makes sense to try doing so in concert with a political solution, since otherwise the government and military are playing whack-a-mole every spring and summer.
In short, Turkey needs to figure out what it wants to do over the next decade rather than coming up with things on the fly. Does it want to be at the vanguard of democratic movements in the Middle East? Does it want to project virtuous power? Does it want to try and return to a zero problems with neighbors stance? Does it want to be seen as the leader of the Sunni states? Is preventing Kurdish autonomy in Syria and in its own southeast a concern that overrides every other policy goal? Some of these things overlap and others are mutually exclusive, but they cannot all exist in concert. Turkey needs to pick a direction and figure out how best to implement its aims, rather than rushing into things head on before thinking through the consequences.
July 24, 2012 § 3 Comments
Today’s post is going to be a departure from my usual fare, but it’s an issue I have been thinking about lately so I figured I’d muse about it. There is a debate currently taking place among policymakers and security analysts over whether to arm the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups in an effort to bring down the Assad government. While there have been reports that Turkey and Sunni Arab states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been doing so, the United States has so far been resistant despite criticism from John McCain – who yesterday, in response to a question asking if we should be arming the rebels, flippantly said, “Sure, why not?” – and others. The U.S. is reluctant to do so primarily because we don’t know precisely who the rebels are and there are reports that the rebels are being supported by al-Qaida, which makes arming them a dangerous proposition. The decision not to arm the rebels is being driven by the specifics of the situation in Syria, but I think there is a bigger picture question that should precede it, which is whether arming rebels is ever a good idea in any situation.
Looking at the U.S. history of arming rebel groups reveals some major long term strategic blunders. The most prominent one was the effort to arm the Afghani mujahideen in the 1980s in a bid to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. This policy seemed like a smart one at the time, at it was undoubtedly successful in carrying out its immediate objective, as the Soviet Union suffered enormous losses in Afghanistan and ultimately pulled out, which was one of many contributing factors to its ultimate demise and the end of the Cold War. In hindsight, however, arming the mujahideen caused enormous blowback for the U.S., since the weapons supplied by the U.S. were ultimately turned on U.S. and NATO troops years later and the arms and training indirectly benefited al-Qaida and the Taliban down the road. All you have to do is read the very first chapter of Steve Coll’s excellent book Ghost Wars, in which the CIA is running around desperately trying to buy back all the Stinger missiles that it handed out in Afghanistan 15 years earlier so that they aren’t turned on American planes, so see why the policy was highly problematic. In other examples, arming and training rebels in South and Central America ultimately led to death squads or brutal military dictatorships in places like Honduras, Nicaragua, and Chile, and did not create stability or end the bloodshed but rather extended it.
I asked the question on Twitter yesterday whether there is an instance in which arming rebels did not lead to terrible unintended consequences down the road, and the two answers people collectively came up with were the French supplying weapons to the colonists during the American Revolution and the arming of the French Resistance and other partisan groups in Nazi-occupied Europe. A few people suggested Libya as a positive example, but it is way too soon to tell what the long term consequences there will be. Neither of the two historical examples is particularly encouraging given that one happened 250 years ago and involved no weapons more powerful than muskets, and the other was a much smaller scale and less organized effort to arm rebels who were also engaged in many other resistance activities other than fighting. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the Syrian rebels should under no circumstances be armed or provided with support. More importantly, I am absolutely not suggesting that the world should just sit back and watch Assad massacre more Syrians in an effort to stabilize the country and end the bloodshed as quickly as possible, since that is not a viable or ethical solution. What I am suggesting is that before people rush to arm the Syrian rebels, there should be a real conversation about what happens the day after the immediate goals are achieved. Where do those arms go next and what will they be used for? What can we learn from previous historical examples that will help us manage the unintended consequences that accrue from arming rebel groups? Given what we know happens when a country in the midst of a civil war is flooded with more weapons, is there a better option and should active outside intervention be rethought? I would like to hear more discussion that focuses on what happens once the conflict ends in addition to the current discussion about the easiest and least short term costly way to remove Assad from power.