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.
March 18, 2012 § 3 Comments
Nevruz, which is the Turkish name for the Persian New Year (traditionally celebrated the first day of spring) has caused all sorts of headaches for successive Turkish governments. It is a day that is celebrated by Kurds, leading to increased Kurdish nationalism and sometimes to PKK violence, both of which the Turkish government wants to avoid. In fact, Nevruz has been so controversial in the past that its celebration was actually banned in the mid-90s following demonstrations and police shooting and killing civilians in 1992. This year, controversy swirled again after the pro-Kurdish BDP announced that it would be celebrating Nevruz this year on March 18 rather than March 21 since Sunday festivities would get more people into the streets, and Turkish provincial governors responded by ordering celebrations to take place on March 21 as usual.
The reasoning behind forbidding Nevruz celebrations today was to minimize excessive shows of Kurdish nationalism, but as was entirely predictable, the move backfired terribly. The BDP refused to back down, police in Diyarbakır and Istanbul ended up using tear gas and water cannons on crowds that gathered to celebrate/protest, and BDP member in Istanbul was killed during the clashes (rumored to be a Kurdish politician).
Two quick thoughts on this, one specific to today’s events and one more general. First, having state officials attempt to dictate when a non-state holiday is to be celebrated is nothing more than foolish and guaranteed to lead to trouble. Ankara is understandably wary of PKK violence on Nevruz and of louder calls for Kurdish autonomy, but attempting to designate an official day on which festivities can be held is always going to be a losing proposition. There was no doubt that Kurds were going to fill the streets, and that police equipped with crowd control devices trying to stop them would lead to injuries and possibly fatalities. What was the potential upside to doing things this way? Now pro-Kurdish politicians get to loudly proclaim that Turkey’s actions make it a “fascist state” and Kurdish nationalism gets a larger boost than it otherwise would, obviating the very purpose of trying to eliminate a Sunday Nevruz observance.
Second, this type of stuff is going to keep on happening until Turkey finds a genuine solution to its Kurdish problem. Kurdish nationalism is not going to disappear, and the 15-20% of Turkey’s population that is ethnically Kurdish is not going to all of a sudden embrace the Kemalist narrative of “we are all Turks.” Erdoğan’s brief Kurdish opening was a start, but he quickly reversed himself and now again has gone back to trying to sweep the issue of Kurdish nationalism and identity under the rug. Until the government has an open and honest conversation about what to do with its Kurdish population in the long term, Nevruz is going to continue to be a day of violence rather than an innocuous festival heralding the end of winter.
March 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
The helicopter crash in Afghanistan that killed 12 Turkish soldiers is a sobering but important reminder that Turkey is not run by “Islamic terrorists” but is a member of NATO and an ally of the United States supporting the mission in Afghanistan. The fact that anyone with such a high level of ignorance about basic foreign affairs was deemed fit at one point to run for president is just staggering. Plenty of people take issue with aspects of Turkish foreign policy, but it is somehow overlooked by far too many casual observers that Turkey has been in NATO since 1952, hosts the 39th Air Base Wing of the U.S. Air Force at Incirlik, and is a linchpin of American strategy in the Middle East.
March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
This report is interesting, as it opens up a possibility that would have been entirely unlikely months ago. If Turkey actually goes through with establishing a buffer zone inside Syria, it will be welcomed by those who are advocating intervention as it will move Turkey away from rhetorical support of the Syrian opposition and refugee assistance to active military action against the Assad government. I would be a bit surprised if it happens though, as it will make it easier for PKK fighters to slip through the cracks since there will be a larger border area to cover, and recent Turkish airstrikes and cross-border raids into northern Iraq indicate that Turkey’s willingness to risk a larger PKK presence inside its borders is slim.