“The U.S. cannot force Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds to make peace or to act for the common good. They have been in conflict for 1,400 years.” Peter DeFazio
“We need our own laws, our own rules, our own country, and we are going to get them.” Masrour Barzani, the Kurdish Intelligence Chief
“Politics is much more difficult than war,…” Masoud Barzani
“For three years we have kidded ourselves about this, and those that pushed policies at odds with Trump, working to sketch out a maximalist policy that ignored Ankara’s obvious intent, and the wishes of the world’s most powerful man, should be ashamed,” Aaron Stein, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, to Al-Monitor.
There is so much furor in the press these days about the recent decision for the US to pull, initially fifty of their special operators, now all of their soldiers out of the line of fire of the advancing Turkish army as they cleared out what they called, “a security safe zone” in northern Syria. I am writing about this highly emotionally charged event with a bit of hesitancy, but it is important that we take a sober look at the situation because there is more than meets the eye concerning the competing narratives predominant in the mainstream media today.
Sometimes it is easy to read media reports as if they are modern day romance novels. There are good guys. There are bad guys. There is a “boy meets girl” sub-plot, an obstacle to overcome and a hero. Unfortunately, all of life does not fall neatly into one of those categories. It is interesting and fun when it does, but every now and then, a story comes along that simply defies all the rules. There is no hero, no romance, not even good guys and bad guys. There is just cold hard reality. It robs us of our need for someone with whom we can identify.
The story of the Turkish and Kurdish conflict in northern Syria is such a story. On the Kurdish side of the story, they are a 30 million strong distinctive people group with a noble heritage and no homeland, something for which they long for. On the side of the Turks there is a 30 year or more terrorist war with a militant arm of the Kurds called the PKK. Over 40,000 people have died over the course of the past few decades. Humanly speaking, there seems to be little hope in sight for future reconciliation.
Currently media seems to be looking only at the superficial evidence of what is happening in northern Syria. They are not examining the elements that exist beyond the naked eye, evidence rooted in history, negotiations and agreements, or a lack thereof.
Winston Churchill once said, “The only thing anybody has ever learned from history is that nobody learns anything from history.”
My hope is that we can discover what has been happening, what is currently happening and what will happen in the future. I would like to address the following questions.
- What has the relationship been between the US and Turkey, the US and the Kurds, and between Turkey and the Kurds?
- What was the nature of the relationship between the US and the Kurds in northern Syria?
- What exactly has the US done in response to the Turks and the Kurds?
- What are a few of the competing narratives?
A. What has the relationship been between the US and Turkey? – The US-Turkey relationship has been a consistent, but difficult one for many years. Both have relied on the other to uphold its word in both good times and bad.
- Turkey is an important U.S. security partner. Turkey has been a valued North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally since 1952. For over 70 years Turkey has been a NATO ally.
- In 2017, Turkey was the 28th largest goods export market for the US and its 34th largest goods import market. Turkey is the tenth largest purchaser of US LNG exports worldwide and is an emerging regional energy hub.
- In a 2012 Pew poll, Turks, as recorded in general, do not care for Americans. From my personal experience of living in Istanbul and having many Turkish friends, I find that data to be a bit skewed. I was received well as an American, wherever I went in Turkey.
From the Pew study, “On balance, around two-thirds or more Turks express unfavorable views of the European Union, China, Brazil, Russia, Iran and Israel. Turks even dislike Saudi Arabia (53% unfavorable and, notably, the highest favorability percentage (26%) among all countries we asked about). The people of Turkey also hold negative views toward NATO specifically (70% dislike the organization). In fact, it is hard to find any country or organization the Turkish people really like, except, of course, Turkey itself. According to our spring 2012 poll, 78% of Turks said they had a favorable view of their country.”
From this data we conclude that the US-Turkish relationship has been quite problematic for years, but consistent. The emergence of strong-handed leadership such as President Erdogan (2014-present) and President Trump (2016-present) has complicated the relationship. Neither wish to compromise or to back down from the other.
B. What has the relationship been between the US and the Kurdish people? – The history of the Kurds’ relationship with the United States is a series of swings between rescue and abandonment, and as a consequence, between gratitude and distrust.
Common interests, objectives and strategies are what binds the Kurds to the United States and its allies. In September 2014 the US officially started to arm and train what it called, moderate Syrian rebels, including the Free Syrian Army and its affiliates. Reports say that the US government granted 500 million dollars in funding to opposition groups. It did not take long for the Pentagon to admit that its efforts in Syria were lagging because “[they did not] have a capable partner on the ground.” Ashton Carter, the Secretary of Defense announced that the United States was looking for capable motivated forces on the ground to retake territory from the ISIS. The YPG turned out to be the motivated alternative that the US was seeking.
A little discussed factor is the reality that the Syrian Kurds were in desperate need of support by the United States and its coalition partners and had proven their effectiveness as a disciplined fighting force. A strong symbiotic connection between the two sides was a natural consequence of their needs and attributes.
Many believe that the US simply needed the Kurdish fighters to accomplish the goal of defeating ISIS. This was not entirely the case. Yes, the US needed a competent and capable ally in the area, but the Kurds were also desperate for US assistance. It was a strange, but necessary partnership that was never intended to go beyond the defeat of ISIS. Granted, over the course of the past five years we have seen that relationship strengthen and many friendships have been bonded. Both sides however, were fully aware of the longstanding commitment of the US to NATO and its allies, along with the reality that it was was not going to give that up any time soon.
C. What has been the relationship between Turkey and the Kurds? – Turkey considers the Kurdish experiment in northern Syria as an existential threat to its national security. Turkish officials label the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed affiliate, People’s Protection Units (YPG), as terrorists similar to the Islamic State (ISIS). Up until 2014, indeed, in times past—until 1998—PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, lived freely in Syria. The father of the current Assad allowed him to train and equip his highly disciplined terrorist group for attacks into Turkey. It’s also true that over time, the various governing parties of Syria, Iraq and Iran have made use of PKK assaults on Turks as a way to exert pressure on Turkish politics. Turkey has suffered greatly from PKK terrorist attacks both inside Turkey and globally, and the PKK is clearly designated on the US and EU’s list of terrorist organizations. More than 40,000 deaths over the past 30 years have been attributed to the active attacks of the PKK in Turkey. This lies at the heart of Erdogan’s anger.
Why are the Kurds angry? There have been thirty years or more of repression of the Kurdish people within Turkey. However, in the past decade there has been an easing of tensions between the Turkish government and the Kurds. With the recent challenge of opposition to the leadership of Erdogan’s party he has been forced to make some drastic political moves. Solving the Kurdish problem has risen to the top of his list. Already, his popularity has temporarily bumped up in the past week. By and large though, his popularity has diminished and many predict that his seventeen year dominance of Turkish politics will come to an end, but not until 2023.
What are a few of the competing narratives? –
One of the competing narratives is that this all came as a total surprise to the Pentagon, to the Kurds and to the Turks. This is simply not an accurate narrative. It was never an assumption by the Kurds that the United States would turn from its traditional NATO ally, Turkey, to help the Kurds fight against them. Many are forgetting the legally binding NATO article 5, which the United States has ratified as a legal position.
Article 5 asserts: Collective defense means that an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies.
- The principle of collective defense is enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.
- NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
- NATO has taken collective defense measures on several occasions, for instance in response to the situation in Syria and in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
- NATO has standing forces on active duty that contribute to the alliance’s collective defense efforts on a permanent basis.
For the US to continue to defy Turkey in this matter would have put it in opposition to its own legal position in regard to NATO. Perhaps a resolution could have been to call an emergency meeting of NATO leadership to find a pan-NATO solution. The competing narrative is that the US did not fulfill its obligations to its alliance to the Kurds.
Another competing narrative is that the Pentagon did not know about the decision that President Trump was about to make with President Erdogan. Defense Secretary Mark Esper stated over and over again that there had been discussions all week previously concerning these matters and though all may not have agreed with the presidential decision, there certainly was an awareness of what was about to happen. Once again, the competing narrative was that the Pentagon was completely blind-sided. This simply was not the case.
Lastly, It goes without saying that when people say “the Kurds” they are simplifying to the point of meaninglessness. Besides the geographic distribution across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the Kurds are hardly a cohesive and consistent group in terms of worldview, political goals, and relationship to the states in which they live. Are the Kurds terrorists, allies in the war against the Islamic State, or a nation in need of a state? The answer is yes to all of these, which makes things extraordinarily difficult for American policymakers and underlines why observers cannot just invoke “the Kurds.” There is more than meets the eye.
Competing narratives lead to much confusion. Isn’t there only one truth? How can we be so confused? It is important to be reminded that media is a business. Journalists are paid to write stories which are read. If your stories are not read, no matter how true, if they are not immediate or compelling, you as a writer will lose your job.
Most writers probably start out being committed to accuracy and honesty. I would like to think that most journalists try not to intentionally skew truth (some do), but the rigors of the industry require them to report on what they can, skimping on the truth by majoring on the trite. They find themselves in the midst of deadlines which can take preeminence to the truth. They may skip the vetting and the accuracy in exchange for the speed. Since the invention of the 24/7 news cycle, accurate news reporting has consistently declined. For a perfect example of what I am talking about, see my blog this week. Click here.
News networks are not only reporting the news, they are creating it, or at a minimum shaping it in such a way that demonstrates little difference between the politicians and the journalists in the story. A journalist may make an unvetted statement; shortly after that a politician will parrot what they heard in the news, assuming that it is accurate reporting. Using words such as: abandonment, retreat, “hung out to dry by the United States,” are not accidental words used by the press. They are used with the intention of promoting an emotional response or deep seated feeling. They fuel a fire that may or may not already exist. I would suggest that they further the cause of global conflict instead of contributing to peace.
Journalists and politicians use highly inflammatory words to describe situations, that to use anything less inflammatory makes one seem ignorant and indifferent to human suffering. There is and will continue to be much human suffering as the conflict continues to unfold. The Turks are angry at the Kurds because of thirty years of societal attacks in Turkey. The Kurds are furious at the Turks for years of repression and the denial of a national homeland. But the main story is the one of how President Trump has abandoned the Kurds. All these emotions are experienced at the dismissal of historical relationships, agreements of convenience and realities on the ground.
The actions of world leaders always bring with them grave consequences or benefits. There is no doubt that many will suffer as the battle lines are being redrawn. The Kurds have agreed to work with President Bashar Al Assad’s regime, backed by Russian and Iranian troops, including aircraft. This now pits directly a NATO armed force in potential conflict with Russia and Iran. The unfolding scenario creates a whole host of new and complicated possibilities.
Christians in Kurdish territories date their history to the first-century Apostle Andrew. The church persisted until the Arab conquest, when a majority of the Kurds were forced to convert to Islam. Some Muslim Kurds, however, converted to Christianity. For a wonderful discussion on the Kurdish people see Christopher Crossan’s book, “Children of the Magi: A Sacred History of the Kurds and the Persians”
There is an evangelical witness and church working among the Kurdish people today. They are our brothers and sisters and deserve our intercession. Paul’s commitment should be ours: “From the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” (Colossians 1:9)
The One who came as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) is the ultimate answer to the conflicts of the Middle East and in every soul. As we turn to Jesus, we find in him God’s peace, which surpasses all understanding. (Philippians 4:7)
Pray for such peace in every heart, beginning with our own.
A War on their terms-or ours?… https://thelevantnews.com/en/2019/10/a-war-in-their-terms-or-ours/
Two can play that game…Saudi Arabia Says It Is not Behind Alleged Attack On Iran Tanker… https://en.radiofarda.com/a/saudi-arabia-says-it-is-not-behind-alleged-attack-on-iran-tanker/30214423.html
I would love to hear your feed-back. I know that in trying to provide an analysis of both sides of an argument I may drift back and forth. I hope that this provides a reasonable assessment of what is actually happening. For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org