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.

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What We Can Learn from T.E. Lawrence About Today’s Middle East Policy

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I recently stumbled across an article in Foreign Policy written by James Stravadis titled How Would Lawrence of Arabia Defeat the Islamic StateAs a researcher who writes about Islamic State (IS) and a personal fan of Lawrence (my dog is named T.E.), this type of article was right up my alley.

If you could use a refresher, T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia” after the 1962 Oscar-winning film of the same title, was a British Army officer who successfully trained and equipped an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War 1. With an army of irregulars, he employed guerrilla warfare against the Ottomans, blowing up trains, attacking and melting away — he led the same type of insurgency the United States has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade.

What was so special about Lawrence was his deep understanding of both Arab and Ottoman societies. He was a British intelligence officer working as cartographer and archaeologist in the Middle East when World War 1 broke out. He was sent to liaise with Arabs from the Hashemite tribe in present day Saudi Arabia who the British thought might be sympathetic to their anti-Ottoman war effort.

Lawrence’s appointment was supposed to be temporary until a replacement could be sent, but he ended up nearly single-handedly (from a Western perspective — there were thousands of Arabs involved) leading a revolt in the desert. In the vernacular of today, we would say he was a special operator training and advising local national fighters. (One might imagine that today an Obama Administration official would make the distinction that he was involved in “non-combat operations” despite the numerous raids he went on.)

That Lawrence was so successful in working with Arab groups to successfully implement Western policy in the Middle East is what draws our attention to him today. Many of the candidates in this year’s American presidential election called for the creation of a Sunni Arab coalition to fight IS. Stravadis’s article recommends we rely on our Sunni allies as well — namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt. But the war against IS today reflects a different reality.

The aforementioned countries minus Oman are currently caught up in a war in Yemen, while Egypt is dealing with its own insurgency in the Sinai. Meanwhile, in the military intervention against IS, Jordan has participated in only token air strikes against Syria –mostly after one of their pilots was executed in a brutal and widely plublicized video. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have participated in Syria, but only nominally. President Barack Obama has been forthright in his opinion that our Sunni allies need to do more, but we should also remember that those five countries’ defense budgets combined is about $110 billion, or only about 15% of what the US spends.

“While Kurds and Shiites are the most organized fighters now and that makes them a convenient ally, one must take into consideration what the ultimate goals are for these groups.”

Instead, what the US has done (after twin failed Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency train and equip programs in Syria) is make the Kurds of northern Syria and northern Iraq along with the Shiites of southern Iraq our de facto fighting force against IS. Our new baby in Syria, a coalition of militias in Syria called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” are mostly Kurds.  The US has also established an airfield in Kurdish-held Syria.

In Iraq, US special operations forces have also set up an airfield and outposts in Kurdish controlled areas. US troops are now operating out of an airbase near Erbil and a US Marine was killed by indirect fire from IS at an outpost in the area. Additionally, a Delta Force soldier was killed during a raid with Kurdish forces, as was more recently a Navy SEAL while training Kurds. Successful territory gaining operations against IS thus far in Tikrit were mostly comprised of Shiite militias and the Shiite Badr Corps were on the ground in the liberation of Ramadi.

So what is the lesson we can learn from Lawrence of Arabia? During the successful Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the Hashemites of Saudi Arabia were promised kingdoms in a Middle East. Faisal bin Hussein was made King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria. After being ousted by the French who had received Syria in the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, he became the first King of Iraq with the help of the British.

Faisal’s brother, Abdullah I, became the first King of Jordan after being convinced by the British not to attack the French in retaliation for removing his brother. Finally, Faisal and Abdullah’s father, Hussein bin Ali, declared himself King of the Hejaz (an area in present day Saudi Arabia), but was never recognized by the global community and the British-backed al-Saud tribe forced him to flee in 1924.

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Arab revolt fighters, 1918 (Library of Congress photo)

Today, the only remaining Hashemite ruler in the Middle East is King Abdullah II of Jordan.  The Hashemites were overthrown in Iraq in 1958 during a bloody coup resulting in the death of many members of the Hashemite family. The Sauds conquered the Arabian peninsula and created modern Saudi Arabia.

Lawrence, perhaps disgusted with how the Hashemites he fought with were essentially betrayed by the British and French governments, enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1920 under an assumed identity, distancing himself from his past identity as Colonel T.E Lawrence, leader of the Arab Revolt.

The lesson here is that the US needs to be careful about who it supports in its fight against IS. While Kurds and Shiites are the most organized fighters now and that makes them a convenient ally, one must take into consideration what the ultimate goals are for these groups. The YPG, a Kurdish militia the US is supporting in Syria, has made it known that it intends independence. Shiites in Iraq have habitually disempowered Iraqi Sunnis and will likely continue to do so.

Whether or not the US plans acquiesce its current allies plans for self-determination, it must be prepared for the next conflict after IS is defeated. It is unlikely that in a post-IS world, empowered and well-armed Kurds will willingly return to the old status quo. Similarly, it is not a stretch to imagine Sunnis in formerly IS-held areas to rebel against their Shiite conquerors. Much of our modern turmoil in the Middle East is thought to be related the failed promises and poor planning of the post-conflict after the Arab revolt —and it has lasted nearly a century. Are we prepared for another hundred years of conflict in the Middle East?

 

Attacks Kill 120 and Wound Over 700 This Week Yet Public Outcry Scarce

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The world’s insurgentsia have been unusually active this week with attacks in Tunisia, Israel, Iraq, Turkey, and Ivory Coast. Interestingly, there has not been much public outcry (if any) in response to any of these attacks in the Western media — certainly not to the extent that the attacks at the Bataclan and elsewhere in Paris last November received. Nor have these attacks garnered the attention of the Charlie Hebdo attacks before that, despite some being similar in nature, i.e. targeting Western civilians. So, in case you missed it:

Last Monday, Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) fighters attacked army and police posts in the town of Ben Gardane in Tunisia killing 12 soldiers and seven civilians. Ben Gardane is close to the border with Libya and known for being a hotbed of jihadist recruitment. If the town fell to IS, it could establish another transnational control area like the one they enjoy in Iraq and Syria.

On Tuesday, stabbing attacks by a Hamas member in the Israeli city of Jaffa killed one American and injured twelve others. The American was 28 year old Taylor Force, an MBA student at Vanderbilt University, former Army officer, and West Point graduate. Today, four Israeli security forces members were injured in an attack by Palestinian gunmen at a security checkpoint near the entrance of an Israeli settlement near Hebron in the West Bank. These attacks are part of a surge of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories that have resulted in the deaths of 30 Israelis and roughly 180-200 Palestinians that some are calling the “Third Intifada”.

In Iraq, there were two attacks this week by IS using chemical weapons in the Shiite village of Taza, near Kirkuk, a region controlled by Kurdish militias. Reports suggest as many as 600 injured. According to the Department of Defense, IS is using chlorine and mustard gas in its attacks, which it is likely manufacturing itself. Last month, the head of the IS chemical weapons program was captured in a raid by US special operations forces. Additionally, 47 Iraqi soldiers were killed by IS in attacks near the recently liberated city of Ramadi.

In Ivory Coast, an attack most like the Paris attacks occurred. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters attacked a beach resort in the city of Grand Bassam yesterday, killing at least 14 civilians and two soldiers. Four of the victims were Westerners, including one French and a German national. The beach resort was likely targeted because it is popular amongst Westerners. This is not the first attack by AQIM this year: in January, AQIM-affiliated group al-Murabitun attacked a hotel popular with Westerners in Burkina Faso, killing 30 and wounding 56.

Finally, 37 were killed and dozens more injured in a suicide car bombing in the Turkish capital of Ankara yesterday. The Turkish government claims a male and female member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were responsible. The target was a busy bus stop and mostly civilians were killed. In response, Turkey has begun airstrikes on Kurdish militia camps in northern Iraq.

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Protesters in Luxembourg in response the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris (Jwh/Wikimedia Commons)

The combined death toll of just these attacks this week is 57 civilians, 61 military, with over 700 wounded.  The civilian deaths are only about half that of the November 2015 Paris attacks, but almost five times as many as the Charlie Hebdo attack. Of course, only a small fraction of the attacks were on Westerners and none were in Europe. After years of violence, one might understand why Westerners would be numb to attacks in the Middle East and perhaps even in Africa, despite these victims also being human beings. But as one Ankara foreign resident pointed out, why do Westerners feel nothing for Turkey?

“It is very easy to look at terror attacks that happen in London, in New York, in Paris and feel pain and sadness for those victims, so why is it not the same for Ankara? Is it because you just don’t realise that Ankara is no different from any of these cities? Is it because you think that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, like Syria, like Iraq, like countries that are in a state of civil war, so therefore it must be the same and because you don’t care about those ones, then why should you care about Turkey? If you don’t believe that these attacks in Ankara affect you, or you can’t feel the same pain you felt during the Paris or London attacks, then maybe you should stop to think why, why is it that you feel like that.”

Perhaps we should take a look at the numbers on the top of this page, take note of our feelings, and think, “why?”

The GOP Candidates’ Plans for Beating Islamic State Range from Contradictory to Absurd

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Presidential candidate Ted Cruz wants to “carpet bomb” Islamic State (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons photo)

The Republican candidates for president have said some provocative things about battling Islamic State (IS — also referred to as ISIS or ISIL), yet none have mapped out a plan quite as detailed as Hillary Clinton’s, which I wrote about, along with Sanders’, last month. With four Republican primaries today and another 25 to go, the remaining candidates have outlined their strategies as such:

Ted Cruz

Goal: Defeat IS while allowing the Syrian civil war play out and reserving American ground forces as a last resort

How? Cruz famously said that he would “carpet bomb” IS, but later revealed he did not know what the term meant when he elaborated — essentially describing standard close air support within the framework of legal air strikes. He has also said he wants to “bomb ISIS back to the stone age,” but this seems more like blustery talk and less like a new form of hyper-anti-counterinsurgency policy. Cruz wants to:

  • Arm the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq to defeat IS in both Iraq and Syria
  • Avoid population-centric counterinsurgency and state building in Syria
  • Focus on Iraq, not Syria, and avoid resolving the Syrian civil war

It is clear that Cruz does not want American forces to do more than bomb IS. Ironically, for someone saying Obama is not doing enough, his plan is less involved than the Obama Administration’s. He speaks of using the Peshmerga as a ground force in Iraq, but they have not and will not fight for traditionally Arab areas. It is unlikely that Cruz could defeat IS using the meager plan he has described so far. On his campaign website, his IS strategy is tellingly limited to “calling the enemy by its name – radical Islamic terrorism – and securing the border. Border security is national security.”

John Kasich

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John Kasich wants American troops in Syria now (YouTube/New America photo)

Goal: “Wipe out, degrade, and destroy” Islamic State with an American-led coalition of European and Middle Eastern allies sooner rather than later, without using American forces against Assad

How? Kasich said he wants to:

  • Utilize American, European, and Middle Eastern ground forces
  • Arm moderate rebels in Syria
  • Arm Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish militias
  • Create and enforce no-fly zones in Syria
  • Encourage regional allies to take in refugees

Kasich’s plan is firmly in the interventionist camp, but he also knows that military action alone will not defeat Islamic State. While he once called for the creation of an agency to promote “Judeo-Christian values”, he later walked back this statement, instead suggesting to “breathe life”  into Voice of America, a US-government funded news organization broadcast around the world.

However, his vision of a broad military coalition including American ground forces and no-fly zones, while not taking action to depose Assad is non-sensical. Enforcing no-fly zones in Syria means shooting down Syrian and Russian aircraft should they encroach on this hypothetical airspace. In that event, it would be very unlikely that American ground forces could avoid combat with the Syrian Arab Army.

Marco Rubio

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Rubio sees the world through the eyes of an early 2000s Neocon (Gage Skidmore photo)

Goal: The US-led defeat of IS in a post-Assad Syria as part of a larger zero-sum “clash of civilizations”

How? Rubio’s plan is neatly outlined in bullet points on his campaign website, though most of “his” plan is already being implemented by the Obama Administration. The significant policy changes he would like to pursue are:

  • Utilize American and coalition ground forces in Syria and Iraq
  • Expand air campaign and deploy American forward observers to direct airstrikes in Syria and Iraq
  • Increase training of rebels in Syria to fight Assad
  • Form safe zones in Syria
  • Directly arm Sunni and Kurdish militias in Iraq
  • Increase military action against Islamic State in Libya and Afghanistan
  • Bar entry of Iraqi and Syrian refugees into the United States

Rubio proposes the most military action of any candidate. Like the Democratic candidates, he prefers regime change in Syria. Like Hillary Clinton, he proposes safe zones, but without adequate troop commitment safe areas become the opposite.

He has called for American ground forces embedded with coalition forces, but despite his bravado and “them or us”, “fight them here or there” world view, has not offered that he would deploy American infantry battalions to fight in any country. Most worrying about Rubio’s plan is his insistence on describing the fight against IS as a clash of civilizations:

“For [Islamic State and other jihadist groups] do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East, they hate us because of our values. They hate us because young girls here go to school. They hate us because women drive. They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we are a tolerant society. . .This is a clash of civilizations and either they win, or we win.”

If 9/11 and the Global War on Terrorism should have taught us anything, it is that the above quote is nonsense. Rubio is still attempting to paint the world as the Bush Administration and other Neoconservatives saw it in the early 2000s. Jihadist groups including al-Qaida and IS have told us themselves that they attack the United States because of realist security issues, not abstract cultural differences — there is not much of a mystery there.

Donald Trump

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Donald Trump wants to give Syria to Exxon and torture people (Michael Vadon photo)

Goal: Donald Trump’s envisioned end state in Iraq and Syria is unclear. If any candidate has said more senseless things about the Middle East than former candidate Ben Carson, it is Trump. Trump wants to defeat Islamic State — that much is clear.

How? Before Trump was an official candidate, he hinted at knowing a “foolproof” plan to defeat IS, but as of yet still has not enlightened us. Interestingly, in that same interview he suggested talks with IS, but a peaceful resolution has not been brought up since. Instead, he has said he wants to:

  • Expand legal authority to torture
  • Ban Muslims from entering the United States
  • Allow Assad and Russia to continue fighting IS in Syria while the US fights them in Iraq
  • Use airstrikes and ground forces to seize IS-controlled oil fields and take the oil for the US

Essentially Trump’s plan so far is three-pronged: bomb them, send in ground forces, take their oil fields. He has said it is important for the US to avoid fighting two wars at once, because it cannot win. While the last decade and a half in the greater Middle East might support his theory, it is important also to realize that wars are not what you want them to be, they are what they are. Simply because he might choose not to fight Assad does not mean Assad will not fight the US directly or via proxy, especially when his oil fields are occupied by American troops and Exxon.

It is also necessary to stress that there is no research that suggests that Trump’s plan to expand the legal authority to torture IS fighters and his suggestion that their families might also be legal targets would hasten an IS defeat. IS has partly risen in response to US torture. Indeed, IS prisoners wear orange jumpsuits to mimic Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo Bay prisoners and treatment of prisoners by Americans is frequently mentioned in IS propaganda videos.

As the French learned in the Algerian War, torture is not only counterproductive, it also “corrupts the the torturer as much as it breaks the victim.”  A quote from a French paratrooper in Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 shows the suffering of the torturer himself:

“‘All day, through the floor-boards, we heard their hoarse cries, like those of animals being slowly put to death. Sometimes I think I can still hear them. . . . All these men disappeared. . . .’ Gradually, ‘I felt myself becoming contaminated. What was more serious, I felt that the horror of all these crimes, our everyday battle, was losing force daily in my mind.’ Going on a month’s leave to Paris was like a deep breath of fresh air, and sufficient ‘to make me forget the suffering throughout poor Algeria. I felt ashamed. Ashamed of having been so happy.’”

For someone who supposedly has made veterans’ issues a high priority, he might consider  more deeply the lasting effects of war on those who serve.

 

Both Hillary and Bernie’s Plans for Fighting Islamic State Are Problematic

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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate – ABC/Ida Mae Astute Photo

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have prioritized the threat of Islamic State (IS) in their presidential platforms, yet Clinton has provided much more detail about how she would tackle the IS problem.

In November, Clinton spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations about IS. Recently, she rightly chastised a pivoting Sanders, who dodged a question on his anti-IS strategy by talking about his Iraq invasion voting record. Clinton interjected, saying “a vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.”

Sanders said in the most recent debate that IS was the biggest threat to the United States, over North Korea, Russia, and Iran. But on actual strategy, he has said little, acknowledging that there is no “magic wand” for fixing Syria and that Hillary Clinton has much more experience than him.

Here is how the Democratic candidates’ strategies against IS breakdown:

Hillary Clinton

Goal: “Defeat and destroy” Islamic State by intensifying and accelerating current strategy, but keep American combat troops at home

How? Clinton wants to start a new phase of anti-IS operations that would “deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria.” In Syria, she wants to:

  • Rely on local Sunni troops to engage in infantry combat against IS
  • Increase deployment of special operations forces (SOF) and allow SOF to support allies with air strikes
  • Enforce “coalition” no-fly zones on the Turkish/Syrian border against Assad’s air force in partnership with the Russian air force
  • Lock down the Turkish/Syrian border to prevent refugees from entering Europe
  • Support a Syrian-led democratic transition away from Assad

“We have to try to clear the air of the bombing attacks that are still being carried out to a limited extent by the Syrian military, now supplemented by the Russian air force.”

Hillary Clinton 11/19/15

What about Iraq? In Iraq, Clinton plans to:

  • Allow troops in Iraq training Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to embed in Iraqi units and help target air strikes
  • Arm Sunni and Kurdish forces in Iraq (with or without Baghdad’s approval)

Outcome: A post-Assad democratic Syria and Iraq where IS controls no territory

Bernie Sanders

Goal: Defeat IS while not repeating the mistakes of the war in Iraq using a coalition led by Middle Eastern allies

How? Sanders has made it clear that he thinks the destruction of IS is a “struggle for the soul of Islam” that must be led by Muslim nations with support from global partners. He wants to:

  • Support a Syrian-led democratic transition away from Assad
  • Create a NATO-like international organization to confront the threats of the 21st century and defeat violent extremism
  • Obtain a commitment from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE to make the fight against IS their priority
  • Arm Iraqi Kurdish militias

Outcome: A post-Assad democratic Syria and a Middle East where IS is defeated largely by their own efforts

There are some confusing aspects to Clinton’s IS strategy — namely, her enthusiasm for no-fly zones. She wants to stop the bombing of civilians by both Assad and Russia, but also wants to partner with Russia to enforce this hypothetical no-fly zone (who would thereby be abandoning their number one ally in the Middle East). These no-fly zones would serve to protect refugees, who would not be allowed to leave Syria because in her ideal world the Turkish border is locked down.

“It is more difficult to find flaws in Sanders’ strategy because he has not outlined much of one.”

Additionally, Clinton’s plan to arm and train Sunni and Kurdish militias in Iraq with our without Baghdad’s approval is a bit troubling. After IS is defeated, what incentive do these militias have to disarm and re-enter the Shi’a dominated Iraqi political system?

It is more difficult to find flaws in Sanders’ strategy because he has not outlined much of one. In the last debate he said he agreed with most of Clinton’s strategy, yet hardly elaborated. It is clear that Sanders does not want the US to lead operations against IS and instead would rather pressure other nations to take a more active role in the region. Essentially, his strategy is entirely dependent on external forces.

I find it interesting that he supports arming the Peshmerga in Iraq but no other militias in Iraq or Syria. I wonder if this was simply a matter of misspeaking or if he specifically supports the Peshmerga for some reason.

Clinton seems more prepared to take over Operation Inherent Resolve than Sanders. Unfortunately, whether or not her plan is ultimately more effective than Sanders’ “Can’t someone else do it?” approach will never be tested, because only one of them can become Commander-in-Chief in November — and neither might.

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).

Vehicles pass a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) checkpoint in Tell Tamer town in Hasaka

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.”

The Fall of Mosul One Year Later

IS parade through Mosul in June 2014. (Associated Press photo)

I have been spending a lot of time over the past few days thinking about the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State. While I have no particular attachment to Mosul, I cannot help but realize that its capture by the Islamic State has been nothing less than world changing. Looking back, its significance is undeniable.

Let’s examine the the world we lived in before IS captured Mosul:

  1. Nouri al-Malaki was Prime Minister of Iraq
  2. IS was still calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Da’ash/Daesh moniker was only used by Arabs
  3. Few, if any, maps of the territory controlled by the IS were being produced for consumption on the internet
  4. There were no propaganda videos of IS beheadings
  5. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had made no public appearances
  6. There were no photos of IS driving American Humvees or firing American artillery
  7. Kirkuk was not under Kurdish control
  8. There were no Americans or other Westerners volunteering for Kurdish militias
  9. Iran was not openly sending advisors and military hardware to Iraq and their influence was less overt
  10. There were no American military in Iraq except for the embassy complex
  11. The general Americans public were not aware of IS unless they had read about them in the context of being an AQ splinter group

These are just a few observations from an American 7,000 miles away. I would be very interested to see a list like this made by an Iraqi to understand better how the fall of Mosul changed life for Iraqis—both inside and outside of IS territory. But looking at this list, it’s obvious that the fall of the Mosul was the defining moment for IS as we know it today.

It’s telling that on the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul, the IS of today is the most famous and easily recognizable IS. Like all important moments in history, the world before it is almost hard to imagine.

Before the fall of Mosul, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still ran Iraq with a Saddam-esque authoritarianism. A year ago Western journalists were questioning the brutal treatment of protestors and the general Western sentiment seemed that it was time for Maliki to go, should Iraq become an even quasi-democratic state. Today, Haider Abadi is Prime Minister and that strong leadership is gone. The Iraq of today is a failed state with a central government that can barely maneuver its military to crush dissent, let alone battle organized enemies.

It’s also important to note that a year ago, “IS” wasn’t “IS”. This is relevant because the battle for what this group is to be called has been waging ever since. Before the fall of Mosul there were few Muslims asking Westerners not to use the term “Islamic” to describe the group because few Westerners did. When they were mentioned at all in the West it was strictly as ISIL/ISIS much as al-Qaida is called AQ by Beltway insiders. But even that’s changed in the last year as AQ lost stature. Today, al-Qaida is more often referred to as Nusra or even the mysterious “Khorasan group” as AQ central becomes less in control of global jihadism.

Presently, those who refuse to use the title “Islamic State” or even its acronyms call it Da’ash or Daesh. It is curious that this has become a slur against the group, because it is the exact same thing as calling it ISIS except in Arabic. Even senior government leaders have dropped ISIL for Daesh. Oh, the power of words! If you know of any examples of organizations the US government has refused to name, please let me know in the comments because it seems unprecedented. It’s as if IS is Voldemort and is the group that must not be named. Ironically, I imagine this sort of self-censorship of names tends to lead to the exact opposite of its intention: it provides more power to the group in the psyche of the person who wishes to diminish that power.

But if anything comes close to holding as much power as words, it might be maps. Remember a time before those with an interest in geography and current events could visualize a map of IS territory? It existed one year ago. Now these maps are constantly being shared on social media and blogs and even make it onto the major news networks whenever there is a significant change in these perceived borders.

Recent maps of IS territory from The Atlantic, BBC, and Institute for the Study of War

Recent maps of IS territory from The Atlantic, BBC, and Institute for the Study of War

Yet maps such as the ones above have something in common. Their borders are all defined as a stringy web of roads and population centers. They look more like a game of cat’s cradle than a familiar political map. One must realize that it’s not as if those empty spots in the deserts of Western Iraq or Eastern Syria are controlled by their respective governments. They’re just generally empty. Does that mean they are not in IS territory? Of course not. These maps are not accurate representations of IS-held territory, at least not in the way borders are traditionally drawn. By presenting IS in this manner it undermines their power by both refusing to acknowledge them a state with clear borders and by making them look weaker (as if to say this puny so-called Islamic State only controls a few roads.) But imagine if the porous borders of the Southwest United States or the empty arctic were drawn in this fashion—they would look very similar.

I live in one of those white areas and can attest I haven't seen federal government forces in months

I live in one of those white areas in the West and can attest that I haven’t seen federal government forces in months. (Not shown: Wilayat Alaska and Wilayat Hawaii)

If only it were just maps of IS that we were seeing more of these days. Unfortunately, it’s not. One year ago there were no IS beheading videos. Imagine that for a moment: a world in which we lived our lives without seeing videos of American aid workers being brutally murdered after a masked Briton speaks directly to the President and us. These videos started shortly after the Pentagon resumed a bombing campaign in Iraq after withdrawing from Iraq two and a half years earlier. We will return to that in a moment, but another type of propaganda we had not seen before the fall of Mosul was the public appearance of the self-appointed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Up until then, essentially the only image we had of Baghdadi was a mugshot from his time at the Camp Bucca military prison in Iraq. But after Mosul’s fall, Baghdadi felt comfortable enough to appear in public (however, this has been his sole public appearance as far as we know.)

Another image we had not seen in a pre-fall of Mosul world was that of American Humvees and military equipment being captured by our enemies en masse. The images of hundreds of millions of dollars of American hardware being driven in IS parades shocked the nation. Dismally, many more Humvees and other equipment has been captured by IS since then, especially during the recent fall of Ramadi.

Worse yet, Humvees have turned out to be perfect weapons for IS. This might surprise many Americans (especially veterans) who know that the Cold War-designed Humvee had many flaws as a gun truck in Iraq. These flaws resulted in the uparmor program to better protect the soft-skinned vehicles from IED/VBIED and ambushes raising the purchase price from $70,000 to $220,000 each. Despite the upgraded armor, the vehicles still suffered from a design flaw in that they were low and wide which meant that explosions from below devastated the vehicle and its occupants. Worse still, the increased weight increased the instances of stuck vehicles and (often fatal) roll overs.

So the Pentagon quickly started replacing its Humvees with two million dollar MRAPs (seen recently on an American city street with a race riot near you) and the Humvees were given to our Iraqi military counterparts who likely experienced all the same problems the Americans did. Yet it was IS who found an ingenious use for them as armored guided bombs. As VBIEDs, the Humvees’ armor is perfect to keep its suicide driver alive until he hits his target.

But while images of the Islamic State in these forms evoke visceral reactions from many Americans, less understood, I think, by the general American public is that before the fall of Mosul many areas now under Kurdish control in Northern Iraq (and Syria) were not Kurdish before. Indeed, in a pre-IS Northern Iraq the Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces sometimes had border disputes and it seemed a state of cold peace was slowly coming to a boil. After those ISF units fled Northern Iraq during the fall of Mosul, the Kurds deftly used the power vacuum in the area to move into areas they had wanted to control for decades, such as Kirkuk. It is unlikely they will ever willing gives these areas “back” to Iraq. While the Kurds and IS continue to fight in both Iraq and Syria, in some ways IS did more for the Kurds than two and a half decades of US support.

Continuing on the topic of the Kurds, today I think more Americans know about Kurdish militias than ever before thanks to the fall of Mosul and the hot new trend of joining the YPG, or the People’s Protection Units in order to get a chance to shoot at IS fighters. Note that the YPG is from Rojava, Syria, and does not operate in Iraq, yet still this was not commonplace until after the fall of Mosul and IS really became relevant to Americans. On the other hand another Kurdish militia, the PKK, does operate in Iraq. But it has not been as popular since it is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and leans even more Red than the YPG.

British actor Michael Enright dressed as a YPG fighter in Syria (AP Photo)

British actor Michael Enright dressed as a YPG fighter in Syria (AP Photo)

But it’s not just the Kurds who have benefited from IS gains in Iraq. Because of the terrible security situation and a reluctance from the US to entangle itself in Iraq again, Iran has brilliantly stepped up to be Iraq’s savior. While it is no secret that Iran has been providing weapons and training to Shia fighters in Iraq since the US invasion, in the post-Mosul fall world Iran can openly send Revolutionary Guard advisors, the most prominent being Major General Qasem Solemani, commander of the Quds Force (Iranian foreign special operations.)

Unlike their American counterparts, the Iranians are so involved in anti-IS operations that some of their top commanders have been killed in action. Perhaps the best example of overt Iranian influence in Baghdad is a billboard of both the late Ayatollah Khomeinei and current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the same square that Americans famously removed a statue of Saddam Hussein during the invasion. The billboard advertises Iran-backed Shia militias, without whom the “liberation” of Tikrit would not have been possible—and another example of Iran openly filling the security vacuum in Iraq.

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Billboard of Khamenei and Khomeinei advertising Shia militias in Baghdad (Liz Sly/Washington Post photo)

Obviously, Americans aren’t only in the region in Kurdish units. Today, there are 3,550 American troops in Iraq with more surely on the way. It might be hard to remember, especially in the frame of the entire Iraq war from 2003 to today, but for two and a half years the United States military was effectively out of Iraq. And since the fall of Mosul, they are back and will likely remain for years. Before Mosul, the Iraq war was over. Today, the forever war continues.

(New York Times graphic)

(New York Times graphic)

Lastly, it is impossible to forget that in our post-Mosul fall world most people are aware of IS. This is probably my most salient point. Before the fall of Mosul IS was just ISIL—a successor to AQI and an AQ splinter group. If you had said that sentence aloud to someone at a party using those acronyms, very few would know what you were talking about. But today there are very few people who haven’t heard of ISIS or the Islamic State (don’t you envy them?)

Looking back, I think the fall of Mosul was a defining moment not just for IS, but for the region and even the world. In the year that has passed since then, what was once unthinkable is now commonplace. Where will we be one year from now?

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.