Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kurds

Erdoğan’s Projection of Hatred

Israel’s exercise of self-defense brings out the worst in those prone to hate the Jewish state, or Jews themselves. Hence, protestors of the Israeli campaign against Hamas—action brought on by Hamas’s kidnapping and killing of Israeli (and American) teens and the launching of rockets itself—in Paris sought to sack synagogues. German police allowed anti-Israel protestors to use a police megaphone to incite the crowd with anti-Semitic chants. A University of Michigan professor turned polemicist was particularly unhinged with this piece as he performs intellectual somersaults to ignore the fact that Gaza is not occupied, Hamas is motivated by ideology rather than grievance, and that Hamas’s charter blesses genocide against not Israelis but Jews everywhere. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s authoritarian and virulently anti-Semitic ruler, can be counted on to take hatred to a new level.

Read More

Israel’s exercise of self-defense brings out the worst in those prone to hate the Jewish state, or Jews themselves. Hence, protestors of the Israeli campaign against Hamas—action brought on by Hamas’s kidnapping and killing of Israeli (and American) teens and the launching of rockets itself—in Paris sought to sack synagogues. German police allowed anti-Israel protestors to use a police megaphone to incite the crowd with anti-Semitic chants. A University of Michigan professor turned polemicist was particularly unhinged with this piece as he performs intellectual somersaults to ignore the fact that Gaza is not occupied, Hamas is motivated by ideology rather than grievance, and that Hamas’s charter blesses genocide against not Israelis but Jews everywhere. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s authoritarian and virulently anti-Semitic ruler, can be counted on to take hatred to a new level.

Here, for example, is Erdoğan comparing Israel’s policy to Hitler’s, while accusing Israel of perpetrating state terrorism. The irony here is that it was under Erdoğan that Mein Kampf became a Turkish best-seller, apparently because of mysterious Turkish subsidies, and a Turkish film endorsed by Erdoğan’s wife brought blood libel to the big screen. There’s a reason why Turkey’s centuries-old Jewish community is now beginning to flee.

But what about the charge of state terrorism? Hamas, of course, is in violation of the Geneva Accords by hiding among civilians, eschewing uniforms, and placing weaponry in homes, schools, and mosques. Despite this, Israel, however, has bent over backwards to prevent civilian casualties. They are the only military force in the world to utilize roof-knocking, for example, to warn civilians to evacuate buildings in which Hamas built bomb factories or sheltered terrorists.

But what about Turkey? On December 28, 2011, Turkish fighter jets fired at a column of unarmed Kurds near the border, killing 34, half of whom were children. While Erdoğan has claimed that Muslims don’t kill Muslims, dozens of widows, parents, and orphans beg to differ. And while Erdoğan claims that Israel pays money for the deaths of those on the Mavi Marmara, he has refused to pay compensation for the Kurds for whose deaths he is responsible. That’s certainly reflective of Erdoğan’s hypocrisy. But taken together, it creates a certain irony: a racist, hate-mongering ruler who censors the press, slaughters innocents on the basis of their ethnicity, and then accuses others of acting like Hitler. Perhaps when Erdoğan invokes such analogies, he projects a bit too much?

Read Less

Will Kurdistan Be the World’s Newest Dictatorship?

With the collapse of Iraqi authority over Kirkuk and its lucrative oil fields, Iraqi Kurds have consolidated control over nearly all territory to which they have laid claim. They preside over a booming region fueled by oil and, in recent years, real estate development as well. A whole generation of Kurdish youth speak no Arabic, have no memory of life under Saddam Hussein, and feel no connection to Baghdad whatsoever. Whereas Kurds long quipped they had no friends but the mountains—and the world’s silence a quarter century ago when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population reinforced such a belief—now an international array of investors, including a number of former U.S. officials, line up for a share of the Kurdish pot of black gold. Indeed, it’s hard not to embrace the Kurdish desire for independence denied to them in the wake of the post-World War I settlements and border adjustments. That Syrian Kurds now have de facto autonomy and Turkish Kurds appear likely over the next decade of winning similar status suggests that when Kurdish statehood comes, it may not simply be limited to northern Iraq.

Read More

With the collapse of Iraqi authority over Kirkuk and its lucrative oil fields, Iraqi Kurds have consolidated control over nearly all territory to which they have laid claim. They preside over a booming region fueled by oil and, in recent years, real estate development as well. A whole generation of Kurdish youth speak no Arabic, have no memory of life under Saddam Hussein, and feel no connection to Baghdad whatsoever. Whereas Kurds long quipped they had no friends but the mountains—and the world’s silence a quarter century ago when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population reinforced such a belief—now an international array of investors, including a number of former U.S. officials, line up for a share of the Kurdish pot of black gold. Indeed, it’s hard not to embrace the Kurdish desire for independence denied to them in the wake of the post-World War I settlements and border adjustments. That Syrian Kurds now have de facto autonomy and Turkish Kurds appear likely over the next decade of winning similar status suggests that when Kurdish statehood comes, it may not simply be limited to northern Iraq.

That said, while it’s easy to cheer lead for Kurdish independence, it would be tragic to believe that the Kurdish struggle will end with the lowering of the Iraqi flag (if any still fly outside of Sulaymani and Kirkuk) and the raising of the old Mahabad flag adopted by Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdistan is still divided among oligarchs and tribal strongmen. And while it will be easy to welcome Kurdistan into the formal family of nations, it would do Kurds a disservice if the international community simply forgot about them then and ceased pressuring for Kurdistan to become the democracy that so many Kurds desire. Masud Barzani, the Kurdish Region’s president, unilaterally extended his second term so as to avoid the constitutional mandate to step down at its conclusion. He promotes a cult of personality, bases employment on party loyalty and family fealty, and uses his son’s security force against any who would pose him or his party any challenge whatsoever. He draws no differentiation between state resources, party resources, and the personal pocketbook. In other words, while Kurdish officials often brag about their democracy, Kurdistan has become about as democratic as Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Let us hope that the Kurds win their freedom, but even as we celebrate that step it is important to remember that freedom and possessing a nation-state are not synonymous; indeed, a battle just as real for human rights and liberty may only just be beginning. In all the celebrations, it’s important to recognize that a Kurdish democracy can contribute to the advancement of the Middle East much better than just another Middle Eastern autocracy.

Read Less

Sacrificing the Kurds to Save a Narrative

Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

Read More

Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

As Iraq continues to come apart, the Kurds are presented with an opportunity to realize genuine self-rule. That would mean Iraq would truly dissolve on Obama’s watch. The administration doesn’t want to deal with those optics, hence Kerry’s attempt to talk the Kurds into self-sacrifice:

In advance of Kerry’s arrival from Amman, Jordan, Barzani signaled yesterday that the “time is here” for the Kurds, a minority of 6.5 million, to decide on independence instead of what’s now a semi-autonomous state within Iraq. As fighting rages between extremists and Iraqi forces, the Kurds are in a position to be deal makers in political talks for a new government. …

A decision to go forward with independence would affect not only the future of about 17 percent of Iraq’s population of 33 million, but also whether the nation of Iraq dissolves into a loose federation or disappears. Either outcome would be a tectonic shift in regional politics with implications for neighbors Turkey, Iran and Syria, which also have Kurdish minorities.

The U.S. has said it wants Iraq to maintain its territorial integrity and seek a peaceful outcome through a new government that respects the interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The Obama administration would strongly oppose Kurdish independence now as “another nail in the coffin of the Baghdad government,” said Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow in Washington at the Century Foundation and a former U.S. diplomat.

This is typical of the Obama administration. It pulls American influence back from an area of interest, which leaves a vacuum the administration then expects allies in the region–those left behind by Obama–to step into in order to mitigate the damage. Obama also takes allies for granted, acting as though they’ll never really be needed and then when they are, the president expects them to fall in line. And most of all, it trades away the freedom of others so Obama can uphold the illusion of stability.

It’s also characteristic of Obama in one more way: having almost no grasp of history–especially of the Middle East–he can’t learn from it, and instead gets policies flat wrong. He would do well to read Matti Friedman’s incisive piece in Mosaic this week. Friedman kicked off the discussion earlier in the month with an essay on Israel’s Mizrachim, a category broadly comprising Jews from Arab lands. Mosaic then, as per its custom, published a couple of learned responses. Friedman has followed up with a response of his own.

He begins by discussing how the advance of ISIS and similar fanatical groups throughout the Middle East is having a brutal effect on ethnic and religious minorities. They are virtually unprotected, and as such have no real influence on the events around them. “One of the biggest stories in the region in the past century—the disappearance of the old cosmopolitan mosaic that always found a way to exist under Islam but no longer can—has now picked up speed to an extent that would have been hard to imagine even two or three years ago,” Friedman writes. “Soon these communities will all be gone, and one of the great cultural losses of our times will be complete.”

He then explains that the story of the Jews–and specifically Middle Eastern Jews–holds a lesson for the region’s other minorities:

When one looks at the recently exiled Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Christians, and others, the Jews displaced by Muslims from their ancestral homes beginning in the mid-20th century begin to look more and more like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews have often played in different parts of the world.

Are you an ethnic or religious minority that wishes to survive in the Middle East? You had better have a piece of land in which you are the majority, and the power to defend it. This is the lesson of the Kurds, as has been vividly brought home this past month, and it is the lesson of Israel.

And of course if you want that piece of land to call your own and the power to defend it, you’ll need some powerful allies. When the British Mandate expired and Israel declared its independence, the realist fans of stability around Harry Truman wanted idealism, fairness, and moral courage sidelined to avoid disrupting the status quo. Truman would have none of it, and recognized Israel immediately. Now the Kurds face a similar–though certainly not identical–situation.

It’s also possible the Kurdish elite aren’t as enthusiastic about independence as they appear–that such talk is intended to boost the concessions they can wring from the U.S. for staying in Iraq. But they have probably learned the historical lesson Friedman writes about and the fact that they might never have a better chance to strike out on their own. If that’s the case, Kerry is asking quite a lot of them in seeking to save a narrative at the expense of Kurdish national aspirations.

Read Less

Obama’s International Legacy: Fait Accompli

President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

Read More

President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

With United States power in retreat and with populists and dictators across the globe concluding that they can act with impunity, never has the danger been so real, not only in the current crisis spots but in Taiwan, the Falkland Islands, the Baltics, and other lands aggressors and dictators crave. All that matters in the new world order is brute strength and the will to use it. The most intractable diplomatic problems will no longer be solved by diplomacy, but rather by unilateralism. Of course, some critics might say unilateralism is simply what America engaged in for decades. That’s more propaganda than reality but, even if so, moral equivalency is a disease. America believed it acted for good; China and Russia clearly do not–their motivations are purely cynical.

One of the most surprising things I encountered when researching my recent study on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups was that, while the military spends more time in the classroom or the training ground going over its mistakes in order to learn from them, the State Department has never really conducted a full lessons-learned review with the diplomats who actually drive policy. Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was doing the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Unfortunately, that seems to apply to the State Department, not only in the current administration but in the last ten or so.

It would be wrong to blame all chaos on Obama. He may have ceded the ground, but ultimately it is the dictators who are to blame. Nevertheless, perhaps it is time for President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other top administration officials to sit back and consider the state of the world and what the United States might have done differently at key inflection points in order to prevent the current situation. Only then can the United States learn from its mistakes and seek to salvage what is left.

Read Less

Why Does the U.S. Call Kurds Terrorists?

Given how the Turkish government has both used its security services and judiciary to target the prime minister’s political enemies rather than those who contravene the law, and how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently developed close business relations with a designated Al Qaeda financier, the idea that anyone in the United States government should take the Turkish government at its word with regard to terrorism is risible.

And yet, successive administrations still do (and, admittedly, I once did as well) when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots, one of which now governs much of northeastern Syria, which under Kurdish leadership has become a remarkably placid and functioning region in sharp contrast to just about everywhere else in Syria.

Read More

Given how the Turkish government has both used its security services and judiciary to target the prime minister’s political enemies rather than those who contravene the law, and how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently developed close business relations with a designated Al Qaeda financier, the idea that anyone in the United States government should take the Turkish government at its word with regard to terrorism is risible.

And yet, successive administrations still do (and, admittedly, I once did as well) when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots, one of which now governs much of northeastern Syria, which under Kurdish leadership has become a remarkably placid and functioning region in sharp contrast to just about everywhere else in Syria.

That said there is reason why the United States might once have designated the PKK to be terrorists. The PKK certainly engaged in violence, and killed a number of civilians for their ideological transgressions.

Recently, the continued designation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as “Tier III” terrorist organizations under the Immigration and Naturalization Act has raised the issue again, although KDP leader Masud Barzani is not being truthful when he says he cancelled a recent visit to Washington because of the issue. (Rather, Barzani was upset that he did not get a meeting with President Obama and that his second son, Mansour Barzani, had trouble getting a visa; regardless, eldest son Masrour traveled to Washington against the backdrop of the supposed boycott on Washington so that his wife could deliver their baby at Sibley Hospital).

Regardless, the Tier III designation is wrong. The PUK and KDP—both U.S. allies—fought an insurgency and killed many civilians. But at its root, they were engaged in insurgency rather than terrorism. Lest anyone forget how violent the KDP insurgency could be, here’s a blast from the past: A young and svelte-looking Hoshyar Zebari—now Iraq’s Foreign Minister—narrating a propaganda video showing a KDP attack on what appears to be a civilian truck. Zebari seems to suggest that their goal is to disrupt Iraqi oil flow. In addition, both the KDP and PUK murdered several thousand civilians and captured opponents during the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war.

Most American policymakers understand the Tier III designation of the KDP and PUK to be a mistake, the result of a poorly worded law. But as the United States considers its terror designation of our Iraqi Kurdish allies, perhaps it is also time to reconsider whether the PKK’s activities differ considerably from those of the PUK and KDP, other than in the length and breadth of their insurgency that, at any rate, is now suspended as peace talks continue.

The PKK is certainly not non-violent, and its roots in hard left doctrine certainly were dangerous in the context of the Cold War. But the PKK—like much of its leftist brethren—has evolved with the recognition that communism was a failed ideology. The information at the root of the PKK designation certainly should also be re-examined to ensure that information contributed by Turkey is reliable and that the KDP’s corroboration of that information is based on subjective evidence rather than a desire to drag the United States into an intra-Kurdish tribal struggle.

Perhaps now is the time to reflect on a broader Kurdish strategy and policy, one that reflects the 21st century reality of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, and recognizes that the United States and regional Kurds have many mutual interests and can benefit from partnership.

Read Less

It’s Not Just Regime vs. Al-Qaeda in Syria

A false assumption that too often permeates Washington policy deliberation is that debate can continue endlessly without regard to the situation on the ground. Take Syria: There are two poles to the Syria debate. The first—most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain—seeks to support the opposition materially, while the second prefers to do nothing. The sides have not altered their positions over the past three years despite a radically changing situation on the ground. Three years ago it might have made sense to support the Syrian opposition, but that was before the influx of foreign jihadis radicalized the opposition. Those meeting U.S. diplomats in Istanbul or Geneva simply do not represent the power on the ground. To provide the Syrian opposition with a qualitative military edge would be to risk such capabilities falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. (That does not mean doing nothing, but rather considering direct action against Syrian air power, if neutralizing Syria’s Air Force becomes the goal of U.S. policy.)

The situation on the ground has changed in other ways. The violence in Syria has not been random; much has been conducted in pursuit of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Three years into its civil war, Syria is as different from its pre-war self as Yugoslavia was three years into its civil war in the 1990s. Jamestown Foundation’s Nicholas Heras, for example, has published a study examining a potential Assad statelet in Syria.

Read More

A false assumption that too often permeates Washington policy deliberation is that debate can continue endlessly without regard to the situation on the ground. Take Syria: There are two poles to the Syria debate. The first—most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain—seeks to support the opposition materially, while the second prefers to do nothing. The sides have not altered their positions over the past three years despite a radically changing situation on the ground. Three years ago it might have made sense to support the Syrian opposition, but that was before the influx of foreign jihadis radicalized the opposition. Those meeting U.S. diplomats in Istanbul or Geneva simply do not represent the power on the ground. To provide the Syrian opposition with a qualitative military edge would be to risk such capabilities falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. (That does not mean doing nothing, but rather considering direct action against Syrian air power, if neutralizing Syria’s Air Force becomes the goal of U.S. policy.)

The situation on the ground has changed in other ways. The violence in Syria has not been random; much has been conducted in pursuit of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Three years into its civil war, Syria is as different from its pre-war self as Yugoslavia was three years into its civil war in the 1990s. Jamestown Foundation’s Nicholas Heras, for example, has published a study examining a potential Assad statelet in Syria.

Other changes provide new opportunities not recognized in a policy debate that seems stuck on repeat. Last month, I spent several days in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province, home to Syria’s Kurdish minority, thousands of Syriac Christians, and many Arabs as well. While the United States refuses to deal with the multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian administration set up in this region largely out of deference to Turkey, which does not like the idea of another federal Kurdish region on its borders, the Kurds, Arabs, and Christians of Rojava have done a remarkable job ousting al-Qaeda-affiliated elements and other radicals, and putting in place a functioning administration. I described some of this in a Wall Street Journal piece last Friday.

It seems remarkable that with the disaster that is Syria today, the White House would not jump at a chance to support a stable, secular, and secure region that is relative pro-American. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have decided to do. The residents of Hasakah, or Rojava as Kurds call the region, don’t ask for much: just an end to the blockade imposed not only by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but also by Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose president, Masud Barzani, sees Rojava as potential political competition) so that they can received donated medicine and rice. The region’s Popular Protection Units (YPG) and their Syriac Christian and Arab corollaries have successfully neutralized the regime and pushed by radical Islamist elements without international assistance. Should the West decide to support Syria’s secular elements even further, they might stabilize portions of Syria under a federal model, much like in Iraq. That isn’t a magic formula but, as in Iraq, perhaps embracing stability in some provinces can be a useful first step if achieving stability in all provinces is not immediately possible. Rather than simply regurgitate three-year-old talking points about arming the opposition, perhaps it would be more productive to look at the current situation on the ground and support Rojava.

Read Less

Should Abdullah Öcalan Be Freed?

On February 15, 1999, a Turkish commando operation captured Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan in Nairobi, Kenya. Öcalan had been on the run since international pressure on Syria had forced Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad to demand Öcalan no longer call Syria his home. Michael M. Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and a prolific author regarding the Kurdish issue, interviewed Öcalan at his Damascus residence shortly before the PKK leader departed Syria.

Öcalan was Turkey’s arch-nemesis. He had launched and personally directed an insurrection inside Turkey that ultimately claimed upwards of 30,000 lives, the majority Kurdish. Öcalan was not the only Kurdish leader in Turkey and, in the early years of his operations, brokered no dissent; he reportedly targeted rival Kurdish groups. Washington-based Turkey scholar Soner Çağaptay outlined the Turkish case against Öcalan and, by extension, the PKK, here.

That said, while Öcalan led the PKK, he was not always opposed to peace. Turkish President Turgut Özal and the PKK set the stage for some real progress on efforts to resolve the conflict, before a heart attack cut Özal’s life short just over two decades ago.

Read More

On February 15, 1999, a Turkish commando operation captured Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan in Nairobi, Kenya. Öcalan had been on the run since international pressure on Syria had forced Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad to demand Öcalan no longer call Syria his home. Michael M. Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and a prolific author regarding the Kurdish issue, interviewed Öcalan at his Damascus residence shortly before the PKK leader departed Syria.

Öcalan was Turkey’s arch-nemesis. He had launched and personally directed an insurrection inside Turkey that ultimately claimed upwards of 30,000 lives, the majority Kurdish. Öcalan was not the only Kurdish leader in Turkey and, in the early years of his operations, brokered no dissent; he reportedly targeted rival Kurdish groups. Washington-based Turkey scholar Soner Çağaptay outlined the Turkish case against Öcalan and, by extension, the PKK, here.

That said, while Öcalan led the PKK, he was not always opposed to peace. Turkish President Turgut Özal and the PKK set the stage for some real progress on efforts to resolve the conflict, before a heart attack cut Özal’s life short just over two decades ago.

A decade ago, I considered the PKK to be an unrepentant terrorist group. Turkey was a strong and consistent U.S. ally and considered them to be, and generally speaking, I believe it is important for the United States to stand by its allies. Turkey, however, changed my mind. Western police and security agencies, as well as the United Nations, now use more than 250 definitions of terrorism. Consistency matters, however. In 2006, the Turkish government not only reached out to Hamas, but that bus-bombing, rocket-launching, kidnapping group’s most militant, Damascus-based faction. In subsequent years, Turkish diplomats—like Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States—argued that Hamas was legitimate and should be engaged. It is hard to suggest that Hamas is legitimate but the PKK is not. After all, the PKK has greater popular support among Kurds, not only in Turkey but also in Syria and perhaps Iran as well than Hamas has among Palestinians. And while both groups have engaged in violence, Hamas continues to target civilians while the PKK has long since constrained itself to a more traditional insurgency.

All this is moot, of course, since the Turkish government itself has opened peace talks not only with the PKK but more specifically with Abdullah Öcalan himself, who now resides in prison on İmralı island, in the Sea of Marmara. Whatever one thinks of Öcalan, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan transformed him into the indispensable man and confirmed him as the most important Kurdish politician when he chose him as his partner in the Kurdish peace process rather than any other Kurdish politician. And, with regard to the U.S. terror designation, it is unclear why the PKK should be considered a terrorist group when the State Department has de-listed the Mujahedin al-Khalq, a group which—unlike the PKK—actually targeted and murdered Americans.

There is much about the PKK which should concern the United States, and certainly the personality cult which surrounds Öcalan stands in sharp contrast to some of the PKK’s reformist rhetoric. At the same time, the Öcalan personality cult is little different from the Masud Barzani personality cult that permeates portions of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Barzani is a U.S. ally.

Erdoğan’s peace process has largely held, but the PKK’s ceasefire is not the end all and be all of the process. Ultimately, the Kurds seek more than just token television programming or some recognition of Kurdish culture, especially since Öcalan now pushes not for a Kurdish state but rather for confederation, the shape of which he has fleshed out in his recent writings.

Öcalan is in prison because of alleged terrorism. But if the Turkish government now treats him as a peace partner, then it is unclear how that peace process can continue with Öcalan in prison. The decision is similar to what once confronted South Africa. Nelson Mandela, now remembered as a peaceful hero, had embraced hardcore Communism and his African National Congress had engaged in terrorism. Mandela, however, evolved with time.

It seems that Erdoğan now has a choice: If he is serious about the peace process, then he has little choice but to free Öcalan, no matter how distasteful it might be to many Turks to see the world embrace a figure they consider to be a terrorist as some sort of Mandela reincarnate. At the same time, to keep Öcalan effectively ends, if not reverses, the peace process. The ball is in Turkey’s court, and is a decision point solely of Turkey’s making.

Read Less

Even the Kurds Are Turning Away from U.S.

Successive administrations in Washington have long taken the Iraqi Kurds for granted, which is a shame because the Kurds have, since the tail end of the Cold War at least, been relatively pro-American, at least compared to others in the region.

Alas, if anyone wants to confirm just how far American influence is falling, even among American friends, they need go no further than Iraqi Kurdistan. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party founded in 1975 as a more progressive, less tribal off-shoot of Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has in recent years suffered from increasing factionalism, a phenomenon only worsened when a debilitating stroke removed party founder and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani from anything more than a symbolic leadership role.

Read More

Successive administrations in Washington have long taken the Iraqi Kurds for granted, which is a shame because the Kurds have, since the tail end of the Cold War at least, been relatively pro-American, at least compared to others in the region.

Alas, if anyone wants to confirm just how far American influence is falling, even among American friends, they need go no further than Iraqi Kurdistan. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party founded in 1975 as a more progressive, less tribal off-shoot of Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has in recent years suffered from increasing factionalism, a phenomenon only worsened when a debilitating stroke removed party founder and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani from anything more than a symbolic leadership role.

There are three main factions to the PUK: Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Talabani’s wife; and former PUK Prime Ministers Barham Salih and Kosrat Rasul. Hero is heavily involved in both the transparent and opaque aspects of party purse strings and has sought to promote her sons within the party. Most observers see the Western-educated Barham—whom Hero dislikes immensely—as a reformer. Kosrat, whose health has declined in recent years, is most popular with the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, as he was himself long a successful military leader.

That the three factions and their various followers have been unable to cooperate has paralyzed the PUK.

I spent part of last week in Sulaymani, Erbil, and Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds pointed out the significance of the fact that it was not the United States which brokered political compromise, but rather Iran which worked out—or some might say imposed—a formula in which Barham would become secretary-general of the party, with Talabani’s second son Qubad as one deputy and Kosrat’s son Darbaz as another deputy. Earlier this week, with Hero seeking seemingly infinite delays to a new PUK conference, both Barham and Kosrat resigned their PUK politburo positions sparking a new crisis. Again, the Iranians are coming to the rescue to set Kurdish politics straight.

How sad it is that America’s best friends in the region see the United States as devoid of meaningful influence. And what happens in Kurdistan does not stay in Kurdistan: Every other politician in the region has watched the crisis unfold and concluded that it is Iranian dictates which matter and not the demarches of the United States. And how sad it is, as well, that this is a legacy Obama’s successors will face for years to come.

Read Less

Repeating the Iraq Mistake in Syria

No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

Read More

No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

I first visited the Iraqi Kurdish safe haven nine years later, spending about nine months there, writing in the New Republic at the time a few dispatches. Iraqi Kurdistan was stable and safe from the violence plaguing the rest of Iraq. Nevertheless, it remained a pariah, suffering not only under international sanctions because it was part of Iraq, but also under Saddam Hussein’s own blockade. While some U.S. diplomats privately encouraged me to go, the more officious ones–for example, a consular officer in Ankara–warned me that she would consider what I was doing illegal because I was using a U.S. passport to travel to what was technically Iraq; I went anyway.

Fast-forward almost 23 years since Iraqi Kurds established their de facto autonomy. Today, as Secretary of State John Kerry visits France to try to coddle and cajole various factions to come to the Geneva II conference later this month, one group is decidedly not invited to attend: The Democratic Union Party (PYD) which controls Rojava, a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian and de facto autonomous zone in northeastern Syria. As I’ve noted here before, in Rojava, children go to school, the shops are open, and men and women go about their business. Christians worship freely, as do Muslims. Not everything is well in Rojava: The Nusra Front and more radical elements of the Syrian opposition have attacked the secular zone repeatedly, but Rojava’s own militia has successfully beat the al-Qaeda affiliates back.

U.S. diplomats say they blacklist the Syrian Kurds for a number of reasons:

  • They accuse the Syrian Kurds of not cooperating with the opposition.
  • They accuse the PYD’s leader Salih Muslim of cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militias.
  • They accuse Rojava of marginalizing other Kurdish groups.
  • And the State Department is wary of offending Turkey’s sensibilities by recognizing another Kurdish entity on Turkey’s borders.

None of these are good reasons and, indeed, in many cases, they are simply wrong.

The Syrian Kurds do cooperate with the opposition, although they also have warned the United States repeatedly about the growing radicalization of the opposition. This is a message that the State Department has not wanted to hear, and so they have effectively punished the messenger. They also demand that the opposition recognize their own right to autonomy, a demand Iraq’s Kurds long made.

Salih Muslim strongly denies cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militia, although he acknowledges talking to all groups. That is effectively what John Kerry has blessed by pushing for Geneva II. Given how the Syrian Kurds have suffered under Baathist rule, PYD officials take special umbrage at the notion that they favor Assad.

The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq does not like Rojava because it does not like competition. Masud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has never been able to shed his tribal mindset. Many Syrian Kurds do not like the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq because its tribal policies are unattractive to the Syrian Kurdish mindset. In addition, many Syrian Kurds—indeed, the vast majority it seems—favor political groups closer to Turkey’s Kurds. Barzani has the State Department’s ear, however, and seems intent on having the United States take sides in what is effectively an internal Kurdish political dispute.

Turkey, of course, hates Rojava because it opposes Kurdish autonomy and because Rojava maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party which for years waged an insurgency against Turkey. That insurgency is over, however, and Turkey itself has entered peace talks with the former insurgents. How ironic it is that the State Department bends over backwards for Turkey, a state which has supported al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, pursued policies that compromise NATO systems to China, and has helped Iran avoid sanctions.

The last thing the United States should do is undercut the only stable, secular, democratic, and functioning section of Syria. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on doing. Rather than treat Rojava like a pariah, it’s time the United States treats it like a model.

Read Less

Kerry’s Self-Defeat Ahead of Syria Conference

Sometimes it seems that Secretary of State John Kerry lives in an alternate universe, one in which the Palestinian Authority seeks peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is liberal, Iran’s Islamic Republic seeks only to generate electricity, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a leader who for the good of humanity might give up power to an opposition against whom he maintains a military edge.

Hence, Kerry is moving full-steam ahead with plans for the “Geneva II” conference to discuss Syria’s future. Thirty-two countries—including Iran—will participate, because in Kerry world, having as many countries as possible attend a conference makes it easier to reach a solution. Even Iran will attend because, again in Kerry’s alternate reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps answers to Iranian diplomats.

One group will not be attending the Geneva II talks, but not for lack of desire. That group—which embraces secularism, fights actively against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and controls thousands of square miles inside Syria—has found its participation in Geneva II actively blocked by Kerry.

Read More

Sometimes it seems that Secretary of State John Kerry lives in an alternate universe, one in which the Palestinian Authority seeks peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is liberal, Iran’s Islamic Republic seeks only to generate electricity, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a leader who for the good of humanity might give up power to an opposition against whom he maintains a military edge.

Hence, Kerry is moving full-steam ahead with plans for the “Geneva II” conference to discuss Syria’s future. Thirty-two countries—including Iran—will participate, because in Kerry world, having as many countries as possible attend a conference makes it easier to reach a solution. Even Iran will attend because, again in Kerry’s alternate reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps answers to Iranian diplomats.

One group will not be attending the Geneva II talks, but not for lack of desire. That group—which embraces secularism, fights actively against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and controls thousands of square miles inside Syria—has found its participation in Geneva II actively blocked by Kerry.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), led by Salih Muslim, is Kurdish and runs its own autonomous government in and around Qamishli, the largest town in northeastern Syria. In its effectively autonomous zone, children attend school, businesses remain open, and women can go shopping or walk in the street without fear of kidnapping, rape, or murder. The PYD’s sin, it seems, is its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group which once waged an insurgency against the Turkish army and which the United States continues to designate a terrorist group, less on its merits and more out of deference to Turkey. Herein is the irony: the Turkish political leadership has for years engaged with the PKK, and the two sides have negotiated a ceasefire. The PYD is to Syria what the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are to Iraq. Of course, both the Clinton and Bush administrations engaged with the KDP and PUK; they recognized it was in the United States’s interest to do so.

How sad it is that terror sponsors receive the enthusiastic embrace of the Obama administration, but those groups which not only talk about peace and stability, but also achieve it are given the cold shoulder. The PYD’s sin seems to be its neutrality: It has long claimed that the Syrian opposition is too radical, a position for which the United States has sought to punish it, even as most in Congress come to recognize the truth of that position. The State Department also claims that the PYD is pro-Assad. This is a misreading: The PYD has sought to be neutral in the conflict; that neutrality has meant keeping lines open to Assad, which is exactly what Kerry is doing at Geneva II. That Kerry and crew seek to ban the PYD and undo its success demonstrates once again the administration’s skewed values and strategic incompetence. It’s time to give the PYD a seat at the table.

Read Less

Will Non-Violence Change Turkey’s Kurdish Struggle?

Turkey is going through a crisis, not only political in nature but moral as well. Once on a trajectory toward democracy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s consolidation of control over the last decade has reversed what gains Turks had already made in terms of press freedom and separation of power. Erdoğan has become Turkey’s Vladimir Putin.

Even as Erdoğan has rolled back Turks’ freedoms, Kurds have become more assertive. While Erdoğan condemns the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK) as a terrorist group, the group does not meet the terrorist criteria based on Erdoğan’s own embrace of Hamas. Certainly, some PKK off-shoots still conduct terrorism, but the PKK itself is more an insurgency. It fights the Turkish army, not civilians, and increasingly holds and controls territory.

Read More

Turkey is going through a crisis, not only political in nature but moral as well. Once on a trajectory toward democracy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s consolidation of control over the last decade has reversed what gains Turks had already made in terms of press freedom and separation of power. Erdoğan has become Turkey’s Vladimir Putin.

Even as Erdoğan has rolled back Turks’ freedoms, Kurds have become more assertive. While Erdoğan condemns the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK) as a terrorist group, the group does not meet the terrorist criteria based on Erdoğan’s own embrace of Hamas. Certainly, some PKK off-shoots still conduct terrorism, but the PKK itself is more an insurgency. It fights the Turkish army, not civilians, and increasingly holds and controls territory.

Without doubt, the PKK remains more popular than the Turkish government in Diyarbakir, much of southeastern Turkey, and among the Kurdish population in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. While the PKK’s past terrorism was a mistake—and delegitimized the group in the West and convinced not only the United States but also the European Union to designate it—the Kurds’ shift to non-violent political protest is both welcome and effective.

A massive hunger strike among Kurdish prisoners in more than 60 Turkish prisons is now at day 54. Even the Turkish press acknowledges the pressure the Kurdish prisoners have exerted on the Erdoğan regime. The Turkish government has banned public rallies in Diyarbakir and other cities in sympathy with the hunger strikers. While Erdoğan has dismissed the starving prisoners “as just a show,” the deaths that will likely occur in the next few weeks will undermine the legitimacy of Erdoğan’s strategy. The growing unrest and discord should also raise questions about the wisdom of choosing Turkey as the host of the Summer Olympics.

As for the United States, regardless of the election outcome, it may be time to re-evaluate why the United States categorizes the PKK as a terrorist group rather than an insurgency. Perhaps the United States will choose to maintain its terror designation but, if this is the case, it should explain why. Regardless, the Kurdish hunger strike and the Kurds’ recent turn toward non-violent resistance should lead Washington to reconsider its policy and outreach to Turkey’s Kurds.

Read Less

Is It Time to Reconsider the PKK?

The United States has long designated the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK) a terrorist group. The PKK certainly has a long and bloody history, one in which it targeted not only the Turkish army but also many local Kurds who refused to submit to its leaders’ will.

The PKK has always enjoyed popularity in Syria. While the Turks were fighting the PKK in the 1990s, the Syrian government hosted the group’s headquarters. Almost 15 years ago, the Middle East Quarterly actually interviewed PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan inside Syria. While Öcalan has since been captured and imprisoned, the legacy of his long residence in Syria reverberates with Syrian Kurds who overwhelmingly favor the PKK (and its local political offshoot, the Democratic Union Party, PYD) over Masud Barzani’s autocratic Kurdistan Democratic Party in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.

Read More

The United States has long designated the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK) a terrorist group. The PKK certainly has a long and bloody history, one in which it targeted not only the Turkish army but also many local Kurds who refused to submit to its leaders’ will.

The PKK has always enjoyed popularity in Syria. While the Turks were fighting the PKK in the 1990s, the Syrian government hosted the group’s headquarters. Almost 15 years ago, the Middle East Quarterly actually interviewed PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan inside Syria. While Öcalan has since been captured and imprisoned, the legacy of his long residence in Syria reverberates with Syrian Kurds who overwhelmingly favor the PKK (and its local political offshoot, the Democratic Union Party, PYD) over Masud Barzani’s autocratic Kurdistan Democratic Party in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.

While the United States considers the PKK a terrorist group, the PYD now controls significant territory in eastern Syria including the city of Qamishli. There, early indications suggest its new administration has been both professional and benign. Alas, the PKK designation still gets in the way of U.S. interaction, if not directly than out of a diplomatic desire to avoid offending Turkey.

Herein lies the irony: The Turkish government talks to the PKK, even as it insists others should not. And, under the current prime minister, the Turkish government has suggested that national liberation movements are legitimate partners. Turkey embraces Hamas, Hezbollah, and the prime minister has even defended donating money to Al Qaeda financiers. If Turkey refuses to accept American sensitivities about terrorism, then the United States should have no responsibility to carry water for the Turks, especially if doing so may go against American interests.

The State Department has now de-listed the Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO), a terrorist group which has killed Americans and, to this day, refuses to apologize. Designation or not, the MKO is a terrorist group and remains undeserving of any U.S. support. Perhaps it is time, however, for the United States to reconsider its PKK designation. This need not mean reversing the designation, but it should spell out what it finds objectionable about the PKK. Has the PKK targeted U.S. citizens? If so, when? Is the PKK simply waging an insurgency against Turkish soldiers, or is it continuing to target Turkish civilians? What actions, if any, should the PKK take to achieve a new status under American law? Hopefully, it won’t go the distasteful MKO route of simply bribing officials with inflated speaking fees, but will really and sincerely reform. Even if the State Department determines that the PKK in Turkey still deserves its terrorism designation, it might ask whether this should preclude better and more productive relations with the PYD, a strengthening secular movement now controlling territory in Eastern Syria. Certainly, they are better than the Al Qaeda alternative now rearing its ugly head among the Syrian opposition.

Read Less

Will Turkey Lose its Fight to the PKK?

A few days ago, I speculated in my occasional Kurdistan Tribune column that Turkey might be losing its fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its acronym, the PKK. Considered by the United States, European Union, and Turkey to be a terrorist group, the PKK has waged a bloody insurgency since 1984, which has claimed the lives of 45,000.

I have been a vocal critic of the PKK in the past, and was held up at gunpoint by the group once in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK—like many Kurdish political parties—trends toward the personality cult and is intolerant of dissent. Make no mistake: I still find the group to be noxious and, so long as the U.S. government considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, I will as well. But, as an analyst rather than an advocate, it is important to consider what events bode. Frankly, it seems as if Turkey could now lose its fight against the PKK:

Read More

A few days ago, I speculated in my occasional Kurdistan Tribune column that Turkey might be losing its fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its acronym, the PKK. Considered by the United States, European Union, and Turkey to be a terrorist group, the PKK has waged a bloody insurgency since 1984, which has claimed the lives of 45,000.

I have been a vocal critic of the PKK in the past, and was held up at gunpoint by the group once in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK—like many Kurdish political parties—trends toward the personality cult and is intolerant of dissent. Make no mistake: I still find the group to be noxious and, so long as the U.S. government considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, I will as well. But, as an analyst rather than an advocate, it is important to consider what events bode. Frankly, it seems as if Turkey could now lose its fight against the PKK:

  • The Turkish government has legitimized the PKK both by negotiating with it and also by embracing Hamas, a group which likewise justifies terrorism in rhetoric of resistance and national liberation.
  • While the PKK could never defeat Turkey in a head-on fight and so the Turkish Army will never formally lose, the PKK seeks only a stalemate. Insurgencies prioritize asymmetric warfare.
  • The Turkish military is a shell of its former self. Largely for political reasons, Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made the military his public enemy number one. One-in-five generals now sit in prison, even though no court has found them guilty. Because the Turkish conscripts do most of the dying in the fight against the PKK, their morale is also low.
  • Even with Predators, Turkish intelligence is poor. It has failed to head-off recent profile attacks against Turkish border posts, and often fails to differentiate between PKK fighters and ordinary villagers.
  • In recent weeks, the PKK has grown so bold as to establish shadow governors not only in isolated mountain districts, but also for Van, a major city in eastern Turkey.
  • Whereas the fight between the PKK and the Turkish Army was isolated to southeastern Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish destruction of villages during this period led to a massive flight of Kurds into major cities in central and Western Turkey: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Today, the PKK strikes with impunity in the West as well.
  • De facto autonomy in largely Kurdish eastern Syria also gives the Kurds momentum and space to organize. According to private conversations with Kurdish journalists, Iraqi Kurdish residents, and European NGO workers, up to 90 percent of Syrian Kurds support the PKK’s local front group.
  • With their oil gains, Iraqi Kurds have greater resources than ever before, and don’t hesitate to fund Kurdish movements in neighboring states, even as they reach out to Turkey.

American policy is famously reactive. A de facto Kurdistan, however, is unfolding before us. Washington will never abandon Ankara. Still, there is no reason why the United States should fight Turkey’s PKK battle if the Turks themselves legitimize the group, and seem unwilling to apply the same definition of terrorism abroad which they seek to at home. Perhaps a starting point would be to work with Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to encourage greater transparency and commitment to democracy. Kurdish nationalism and good governance should not be mutually exclusive.

Read Less

The Obstacle to Syria Regime Change?

I had the opportunity to have dinner with some Kurdish journalists last week in London, where events in Syria were very much on peoples’ minds. Kurds make up perhaps 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million people; much of northeastern Syria is almost entirely Kurdish. I asked my friends how the allegiance was breaking down among these Kurds. Their answer: 50 percent of Syrian Kurds support Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 50 percent support the Kurdistan Workers Party, best known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK.  Others Kurds I have since talked to—diehard opponents of both the Syrian regime and the PKK—say that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds favor the PKK. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan long called Syria home, and so it is natural that many Syrian Kurds would pay their loyalty to him.

The United States government defines the PKK as a terrorist group. The group engaged in a long insurgency inside Turkey, during the course of which it targeted not only Turkish troops, but also Turkish and Kurdish civilians. The Turkish government—a brief interlude of secret negotiations aside—takes a zero tolerance approach to the PKK. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraces Hamas and imbues it with political legitimacy, his criteria is not subjective; he is unwilling to ascribe any legitimacy to the PKK even though its popularity in Kurdish areas of Turkey is far greater than Hamas’ popularity in the Gaza Strip.

Read More

I had the opportunity to have dinner with some Kurdish journalists last week in London, where events in Syria were very much on peoples’ minds. Kurds make up perhaps 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million people; much of northeastern Syria is almost entirely Kurdish. I asked my friends how the allegiance was breaking down among these Kurds. Their answer: 50 percent of Syrian Kurds support Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 50 percent support the Kurdistan Workers Party, best known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK.  Others Kurds I have since talked to—diehard opponents of both the Syrian regime and the PKK—say that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds favor the PKK. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan long called Syria home, and so it is natural that many Syrian Kurds would pay their loyalty to him.

The United States government defines the PKK as a terrorist group. The group engaged in a long insurgency inside Turkey, during the course of which it targeted not only Turkish troops, but also Turkish and Kurdish civilians. The Turkish government—a brief interlude of secret negotiations aside—takes a zero tolerance approach to the PKK. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraces Hamas and imbues it with political legitimacy, his criteria is not subjective; he is unwilling to ascribe any legitimacy to the PKK even though its popularity in Kurdish areas of Turkey is far greater than Hamas’ popularity in the Gaza Strip.

After years of singing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s praises, Erdoğan has shifted his tune and called for Assad to step down. Like President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, however, Erdoğan has been unwilling to move such calls beyond rhetoric into reality. By seeking to lead from behind and work through Turkey, however, Obama and Clinton may simply be enabling Turkey to sacrifice any serious Syrian political developments on the altar of its fear of empowered Kurds in a post-Assad Syria.

Perhaps the time has come for the Obama administration to have a serious discussion about the PKK and whether Turkey’s antipathy toward the group should trump freedom for 22.5 million Syrians.

Read Less

The Troubling Correlation between Dialogue and Dictatorship

There’s an unfortunate correlation between high-level engagement with Middle East potentates and their human rights abuses. When Nancy Pelosi went to Syria, Syrian dissidents ran for cover. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak knew he was off-the-hook when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Egypt and failed to mention democracy. Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Iran a democracy and signaled regime hardliners that their path to repression was clear. President Barack Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan one of his favorite leaders; once an emerging democracy, Turkey now ranks below Russia and Venezuela in terms of press freedom and Erdogan rounds up political opponents in the dead of night.

Earlier this month, Kurdish strongman Masud Barzani joined the club. During his trip to Washington, he met not only with his usual interlocutor Vice President Joseph Biden, but also Obama. He gloated at his reception and calculated that the embrace meant that he would face no more pressure to curtail rampant corruption or respect basic human rights.

Read More

There’s an unfortunate correlation between high-level engagement with Middle East potentates and their human rights abuses. When Nancy Pelosi went to Syria, Syrian dissidents ran for cover. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak knew he was off-the-hook when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Egypt and failed to mention democracy. Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Iran a democracy and signaled regime hardliners that their path to repression was clear. President Barack Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan one of his favorite leaders; once an emerging democracy, Turkey now ranks below Russia and Venezuela in terms of press freedom and Erdogan rounds up political opponents in the dead of night.

Earlier this month, Kurdish strongman Masud Barzani joined the club. During his trip to Washington, he met not only with his usual interlocutor Vice President Joseph Biden, but also Obama. He gloated at his reception and calculated that the embrace meant that he would face no more pressure to curtail rampant corruption or respect basic human rights.

The result was this—the arrest of Sherwan Serwani, the editor of an independent Kurdish magazine by security forces controlled by Masud’s son Masrour, who also visited the White House. Serwani has since disappeared. American human rights activists often talk about “disappearances,” but seldom do they get caught on video. Barzani added an exclamation point to his crackdown by banning Hell of Truth, a book by a former employee which detailed corruption within the Kurdish authority. The author has since fled for his life.

Dialogue can be important, even with dictators. But that’s what Biden is for. Rolling out the red-carpet for dictators can be very dangerous indeed, unless Obama is insincere about his call for democracy and freedom in the Middle East.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.