Reflections on 2016: The Year’s Most Popular Posts

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Afghan National Army soldier fires an RPG-7 (DoD photo)

As 2016 comes to a close, it is important to look back on our successes and failures as we go forward into a different numbered year. Very thankfully, Insurgentsia has had a few successes. In 2016, Insurgentsia entered into a syndication agreement with Business Insider. Select posts have been republished to a wider audience for which I am both proud and grateful.

Through my work both here and other publications like The Fair Observer and NonDoc, I was sponsored for an associate membership in The Military Writers Guild—a more impressive group of people you will have a tough time meeting.

This year also saw more posts, more subscriptions, and more readers per post (a certain 2015 post going viral means 2016 did not break 2015’s total readers—note to self: make more posts go viral). If you found Insurgentsia this year, I thank you very much for your readership.

Here is a look back at this year’s most popular posts. I hope you enjoy(ed) them and I look forward to providing a continued look into the world of small wars, political violence, and terrorism in 2017:

 

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What ISIS Really (Really) Wants

 

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Homage to Catalonia: A Lions of Rojava Update

 

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ISIS-Chan, the Crowdsourced Anime Meme Information Operation

 

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Five Years After Killing Bin Laden: The Failure of Decapitation Strategy

 

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Reflections on Leaving Afghanistan

Turkish Offensive Against Islamic State into Syria Signals Limit to Kurdish Expansion

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Turkish Special Forces (ANKA photo)

Turkey launched its largest offensive to date into Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS or ISIL if you like to bother everybody) held territory in Syria on Wednesday in a combined air, armor, and special operations campaign to take the border city of Jarabulus.

The timing of the United States-backed operation coincides with Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Turkey which is occurring at a particularly fractious time in Turkish-American relations.

In July, an attempted military coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been blamed by many Turks on the Americans. Allegations that the US allowed a Turkish Air Force refueler to take off from the US controlled Incirlik Air Base that refueled Turkish F-16s involved in bombing government buildings, and a bizarre conspiracy theory involving American one dollar bills being found on a number of Turkish officials linked to the Gulenist movement credited with the coup are in part responsible for the souring of relations between the two NATO allies.

The Syrian offensive is nominally in response to a suicide bomb attack on a Kurdish wedding in Turkey on Saturday, killing 54. But it may also be a message to the United States that it is still willing to cooperate on regional security issues. The US recently warned Turkey that its purge of Gulenists from the military would hamper the campaign against IS. Wednesday’s offensive suggests that Turkey is showing the US that it has not.

More importantly, the Turkish offensive signals that Turkey is serious about not allowing Kurdish forces to maintain contiguous territory along the Turkish border.

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A representation of Kurdish held-territory in Syria (Thomas van Linge graphic)

By intervening in Jarabulus on behalf of non-Kurdish Syrian rebels, they are preventing the Kurds from crossing the Euphrates River at the Turkish border and putting a stop to the western expansion of Rojava (Kurdish Syria) toward Kurdish-held Afrin District, northwest of Aleppo.

The US backed the Turkish offensive with air support and has agreed to not support any Kurdish operation on the city.

The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned the Kurds directly that if they did not remove their troops east of the Euphrates River and away from the Turkish border, “We will do what is necessary.” Turkish armed forces have had no qualms with bombing Kurdish forces in the past.

It appears that if the US is supporting Turkey over its Kurdish allies on the limits of the borders of Rojava, it is unlikely the Afrin Canton of Rojava will be linked with Rojava proper to the east. But this may turn out to be an important step for the Kurdish hope of self-determination and statehood: after all, two major powers just de facto recognized a border.

A Post-Syria Middle East

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Update: The Department of Defense’s Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson answered a direct question about Rmeilan Airfield on Reddit, tacitly acknowledging that it is being used by special operations forces:

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A recent article about a purported American deal to use an airbase in Syria to support operations against Islamic State (IS) struck me as odd. It was not that the United States was further establishing a military presence in the war-torn Middle East — let’s face it, it is 2016 and this the norm — but rather who the agreement was made with: the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG, whom I have written about before (specifically their capacity to recruit American volunteer fighters), have controlled the territory in northeast Syria where Rmeilan airfield is located for over two years. If the claim that the Americans are using the airfield is true (a spokesman for United States Central Command has denied it, despite some evidence to the contrary), this represents a significant step in the end of the state we know to be Syria.

What is a state?

To discuss this concept, the state must be defined. The classical definition of the state in the field of international relations usually starts with sociologist Max Weber, who wrote in 1919 that the state is a “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

Additionally, the declarative theory of statehood adds that a state must have:

  1. Defined territory
  2. Permanent population
  3. Government
  4. Ability to enter into relations with other states, or thus be recognized by other states
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Sociologist Max Weber dropping some knowledge, 1917 (Wikipedia Commons photo)

When we combine these two definitions, it is apparent that Syria is struggling as a state — particularly when it comes to the monopoly on violence and defined territory.  But what makes the question of Syria as a state interesting is the other actors that have popped up inside what was once Syrian sovereign territory and how they have started to check the boxes for statehood. Prominently, groups like the YPG and IS are beginning to look like states.

Kurds and the Rojava state

The YPG controls most of northern Syria along the Turkish border. In the Weberian sense, the YPG looks like a state — they have successfully monopolized the legitimate use of violence within their territory. Though there has been active warfare over the last two years or so, in the opinion of the permanent population of Kurds that live there, it is for the most part the YPG who are the legitimate doorkeepers to the use of violence (not, for example, Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra).

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Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) checkpoint in Syria, November 30, 2013. The sign reads “YPG in every place, YPG eyes do not sleep”. (REUTERS/Rodi Said photo)

However, a monopoly on violence and territory are not the only requirements. The YPG’s Kurdistan must also have a government. In fact, the YPG has established a government: an autonomous area called “Rojava” (West in Kurdish) with four established cantons and a democratic constitution.

The last and most crucial ingredient to statehood is the ability to enter relations with other states. Therefore, if the YPG has made an agreement with the US government to allow the use of an airfield, then Rojava has made an important step toward an eventual statehood.

Islamic Statehood in Iraq and al-Sham

But if the YPG are fulfilling some of the requirements to being recognized as a state, what about IS? After all, “state” is right in their name (by design!) Well, despite the name, there are many who would argue that Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. As the former would require another post (or book) entirely, I will only be focusing on the “state” aspect.

“Islamic State reacts as stately as the US when it comes to armed dissent — though IS justice can be a little more Waco, a little less Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.”

IS has been effective in brutally enforcing the monopolization of violence. On the one hand IS must continue to fight and win to attract foreign fighters, thus as long as they continue to win, they can claim legitimacy in the simplest “might makes right” terms. But while immigrants to Islamic State-held territory are pre-convinced of IS sovereignty, surely not all of their permanent population recognizes IS’s legitimate violence monopoly.

In this case, I do not think that some contention from their population delegitimizes the claim of statehood. After all, in the United States, an armed militia recently occupied federal lands. In response the FBI shot and killed one of the militiamen and arrested the others. By winning and eliminating the troublemakers, the US retains its legitimate monopoly of violence. IS reacts as stately as the US when it comes to armed dissent — though IS justice can be a little more Waco, a little less Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The ability of IS to actually govern has been widely covered. Much like Hizbullah or Hamas, IS does provide services to its population via bureaucratic institutions. But what about the most important element to statehood? Officially, IS is not recognized by any other state. IS can call itself a state all it wants, but until another state acknowledges them as one, they are not in the club. This is not for lack of trying, however. In a recent video, IS recognized Taiwan — perhaps hoping to get a return scratch on the back.

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Islamic State literally destroying the border between Iraq and Syria in a figurative gesture (IS social media photo)

Curiously, a major source of IS revenue is oil sales. Yet if no state has recognized IS, then who is buying their oil? (Assad, actually, among others.) This implies that IS does actually have some sort of de facto recognition from the international community and demonstrates that they do have some ability to enter in relations with other states. For the time being, it appears they can only do so discreetly.

The end of the Syrian state

While the YPG’s Rojava and Islamic State cannot be considered full-fledged states yet, they are certainly on their way. The current state of their existence has delegitimized Syria to a point that the Syria we knew before 2011 has ceased to exist — probably forever. We have seen that various actors in Syria have started to fit the classical definition of the state: monopolizing violence, controlling territory, having a population, and governing. As the global community begins or continues to enter into relations with these actors, new states may form and we will have finally stepped fully into a post-Syria Middle East.


Update: I did eventually write another post on how Islamic IS is. You can read it here.

Homage to Catalonia: A Lions of Rojava Update

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Lions of Rojava Photo

Over a year ago, Insurgentsia broke that a Kurdish militia called the Lions of Rojava (LoR) within the left-leaning People’s Protection Unit (YPG) was actively recruiting Americans to join the fight against the Islamic State (IS) much like the Marxist militias that attracted George Orwell during the Spanish Civil War. Since then, that particular post has been Insurgentsia‘s most Googled piece, numerous articles have been written about the Lions of Rojava in the press, (the Washington Post and The Guardian picked it about a month later) and the Lions of Rojava have become almost famous in certain circles.

Among private security contractors in Afghanistan that I have spoken with, the Lions of Rojava are talked about with a certain reverence and some jealousy, as it is understood that these are the guys who are engaging in offensive operations against IS, unlike most legitimate security contractors who are involved in strictly defensive operations. Of course, the LoR are volunteers and as such are not paid more than a nominal allowance — a deterrent for most people who make their living as an armed security professional.

Indeed, the comments section of my 2014 piece is filled with would-be volunteers asking for information on how to join or offering their services. The most poignant example of LoR’s popularity  is simply how many Westerners have joined (and how many have been killed or wounded in action) since then.

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Lions of Rojava: American Jordan Matson (second from right), Australian Ashley Johnston (right), and Briton Konstandinos Erik Scurfield (bottom) – AP Photo

The most famous of the Lions of Rojava, and the person who first advertised that LoR had begun an effort to recruit more Americans, is Jordan Matson, the unofficial American spokesman for the YPG. Initially I was a bit skeptical of Matson who was in the United States Army for a year and a half and had a penchant for having silly photos taken of himself. But after over a year since my first post, he seems to have stuck out his commitment — even after others who came after him left or were killed, after his injury, and after he was sent back to combat. Today he is married to a Kurdish woman and plans to start a family in the US.

However, many were not as lucky as Matson. Today the Kurds enjoy contiguous territory from Kobane in the east to the Iraqi border in the west, but this was not always the case. Many remember the fierce fighting for Kobane which received a lot of news coverage last year.  Yet there were more battles for the YPG as well: Tel Hamis, al-Hasakah, Sinjar, Sarrin, al-Hawl, and others.

According to the LoR Facebook page, six Western volunteers have been killed while fighting for the YPG in Syria: former Austrialian Army soldier Ashley Johnston, Australian Reese Harding, former Royal Marine Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, American Keith Broomfield, German Kevin Jochim, and German Ivana Hoffman.

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Western martyrs of the Lions of Rojava via their Facebook page

Furthermore, it seems life in the YPG is not what many who make the long trip expected. In September, the New York Times interviewed a number of Americans who had volunteered for the LoR in Syria. The general feeling of the volunteers was disappointment, boredom, and humilation. One former oil field worker who preferred to be called Azad said:

“Came all the way over here for nothing. Seems like such a waste of my life. I’ll never get the security clearance to go work the oil fields again. They will do a background check, and Homeland Security won’t like that I’m in a foreign militia. Work your whole life, finally get to the point where you’re making good money and blow that aside to do the right thing, and then when you get here, your hands are tied. It’s a no-win situation. If you go home, you will hate yourself the rest of your life, because maybe you could have made a difference.”

A common theme I have noticed among these volunteers is that the ones who had military experience had never deployed and the rest had simply never been in the military. They wonder why the YPG asks them to stand guard or drive an ambulance, but this is how normal junior soldiers are treated in every military.

I do partially understand the urge to join, though. For veterans who did not deploy I can understand the feeling of missing something in your life — it is why I joined the Army National Guard after serving in the Air Force: I was not satisfied with my deployments and wanted another. And for the younger volunteers I can see wanting to get into some “action” against IS quickly while the Western national armies are slowing down their operations tempos — it is hard for regular soldiers to deploy these days.

But now that the Kurds have secured most of the Kurdish territory in Syria, I wonder how many Western volunteers will stick around. There is still some Kurdish territory to take from IS, but the Kurds have been wisely reluctant to fight for Arab territory. I have read reports that there are anywhere from 100 to 400 Westerners in the LoR in Syria. If they stay in Syria, 2016 will probably mean defending the territory the Kurds nearly tripled in size last year. If they choose to go home, what then? For Zac, a 22 year old Briton wounded while fighting, it will be:

“I’m really looking forward to it at the moment. Everything. Seeing friends, going down the shop, everything that’s in England. I can’t wait to sit down at my computer and waste away.”

Today’s picture of western fighters with the YPG’s Lions of Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan

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It has been quite a while since my last post, but during the hiatus it got a lot of attention. Apparently if you google “Lions of Rojava” this blog is on the first page of results. The comments on my last post are filled with inquiries and resumes of would-be recruits.

I want to make it clear that this is not a YPG recruitment website and I do not endorse the YPG (I’m sure they feel the same way).

But the picture above shows that westerners are making it to Syrian Kurdistan to fight (or at least pose for pictures). Personally, I these guys look about as professional as ISOF or a group of airsofters, so you might want to take into consideration before you book your flight.

I was told by a Blackwater employee once that the first rule of being a mercenary is, “Remember your ABCs: Always Be Cool.” In my opinion, if you’re looking to join a foreign Army, the French Foreign Legion never looks not cool and they still turn people away. I think selectivity should be a priority when looking to join a group of guys with guns in a foreign country.

From the picture above and the Lions of Rojava Facebook page, it seems like right now they will take anyone. And I get it, during an existential crisis you have to loosen your standards a bit. That’s how we ended up with so many soldiers with neck tattoos.

The Lions of Rojava Are Recruiting Americans to Fight the Islamic State in Syria

There has been a lot of press recently about Kobane, a Kurdish border town in northern Syria that has been under siege by Islamic State fighters. There has also been some press about Western foreign fighters who have joined the Kurds in their fight against IS such as Jordan Matson and this Dutch biker gang.

Matson has been liberal with his Facebook friend request acceptance policy and it’s on his page where I learned about “an official YPG recruitment page” for foreigners to join their fight against IS:

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Post from Jordan Matson recruiting Americans for the YPG via Facebook

It is unclear whether The Lions of Rojava are to become an International Brigade à la the Spanish Civil War (famously written about in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) or whether recruits would be injected organically into the YPG’s platoons as Matson apparently was. (Before he was injured, he communicated through a few words of Kurdish and a lot of gesturing.) The Facebook page was only created today and advertises itself as part of the YPG’s “Media Center”.

But they are specifically targeting Americans. The page shows a picture of Brian Wilson, another American veteran who joined the YPG and links to an article about American Jeremy Woodard, yet another veteran who made his way to Syria to fight with the Kurds.

With Turkey now openly allowing Kurdish groups to move across its territory to fight in Syria, it should not be too  difficult for Americans to get to Syria. But what will the U.S. government do when they try to return? How will it distinguish these fighters from those who might join officially designated terrorist groups such as the PKK or are joining jihadist groups?

Americans joining up to fight in foreign wars is not new, but it surely has never been this easy. Social media has changed the world in ways I doubt anyone predicted.