Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Syria, Iraq, and the Kurds - Correcting their destiny

It's times like now that I think we really feel the sting of not having General Petraeus around anymore. Say what you want about the man's extracurricular activities, he knew how to deal with an insurgency. He knew how to deal with the various clans and tribes in Syria/Iraq. My guess is that he would see exactly what I'm seeing right now, and that is the Kurds are at a major turning point in their existence.

The Kurds in Syria are in the North East of the country. The very top corner. They are represented by the DBK (Kurdish Supreme Committee). The Kurds in Iraq are in the North and Northeast and are represented by the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government).
Kurdish organizations get confusing and it's easy to get lost in the sea of acronyms. Just know that the DBK govern the Kurds in Syria and the KRG govern the Kurds in Iraq. The YPG (People's Protection Units) are the soldiers of the DBK and the Peshmerga are the soldiers for the KRG. Whew!

The border between Iraq and Syria has already dissolved. We don't even have legitimate governments in Syria and Iraq anymore. The Levant and Mesopotamia are governed more on the clan and tribal level now. It's time to forget the Sykes-Picot governments of Syria and Iraq and deal with the clans/tribes that will rule this region going forward.

As of now we have Kurds in the north battling the Islamic State and Arabs in the west and south battling the Islamic State. What's the common denominator? They all have a common enemy in the Islamic State.
If the United States truly wants to get involved and see true positive change they need to enable/encourage Arab tribes to unite versus the Islamic State in the west and south (like the Anbar Awakening). They also need to arm and build the Kurds. Relations between the DBK and the KRG are crucial. If they're united under the banner of a Kurdistan that spans from Northeastern Syria to Northeastern Iraq they would be a formidable force.

The famous diplomat Robert Strausz Hupe said that geopolitics is about space and peoples struggle for influence over that space.
The struggle for Syria and Iraq is about geopolitically dominated space. The struggle we're seeing now would've happened after the fall of the Ottoman Empire if the UK and French hadn't intervened. The Turks, Kurds, and Arabs all would have sought to dominate the space that is currently called Iraq and Syria (and Lebanon). European and Western influence stunted the transformation.

I see 3 things that need to happen:

1. Arab tribes in Syria and Iraq need work together to encourage the formal dissolution of the Syrian Iraqi border. It's already dissolved informally. The "governments" of Baghdad and Damascus need to be seen as separate tribes or warlord factions. All part of greater Syria.

2. The DBK and KRG need to unite and establish their borders within Syria and Iraq. The United States and the West need to make this their number one priority going forward. Arming and training a professional Kurdish fighting force should happen immediately.

3. The United States would increase military assistance and be the guarantee that Kurdish forces would defeat the Islamic State only if Damascus and Baghdad agree to accept Independent Kurdistan.

Two players (beyond Baghdad and Damascus) would have issues with this. Those being Turkey and Iran. Strengthening the Kurds could endanger them both. But there are levers to be pulled that may be able to see this through.
The Turks are looking to become a major regional player with influence. To do that they need to fix their domestic Kurd problem. This could be the solution they're looking for.
The Iranians are on the verge of having their oil/gas stockpiles unleashed on the world market. To do that they need a reliable and safe pipeline to Western Europe. Through independent Kurdistan sounds like an enticing proposition.

The rebellion of the Assad regime in Syria, the Kurdish awakening, and the tribal rejection of the Iraqi government are all part of a natural progression that was going to happen eventually. It should have been a prophetic fact when the Ottomans fell. Regardless of which outside entity attempts to hold them together the blunt fact is that these map lines don't belong there. We can either continue the madness of trying to patch things up a little while longer, or we can push for an actual solution.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Turkey's new Prime Minister - Ahmet Davutoglu

As expected, Ahmet Davutoglu was named Prime Minister of Turkey. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs is the architect of Turkey's current foreign policy direction.

President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu represent a Turkish Institution that the world better get used to dealing with. I use the word institution because the AKP (Justice and Development Party) is shaping a Turkey that will run a certain way long after Erdogan and Davutoglu are dead.

Davutoglu believes in Turkey's "Strategic Depth". He's a true geoplitical thinker. His entire foreign policy is predicated on the fact that Turkey's unique geostrategic position has provided them with advantages. Not only has it guaranteed their nation state status, it also enables them to influence multiple adjacent regions. They control the Bosporous, can influence the Caucasus, the Balkans, and have a historical leadership role in the Middle East.

The current institution in Turkey loathes the Cold War days. Turkey was but a handful of nations out on the periphery. Caught in the middle of an argument between two nations playing their own geopolitical chess game.
The AKP is looking to lead Turkey beyond their old alignments and spin the globe in such a manner where the center is on Anatolia. I highly doubt Turkey's membership in NATO lasts much longer. Similarly, I believe their application to join the EU is more about appearances and European diplomacy than anything else. Turkey's plans are to lead not to join.

Davutoglu has coined the phrase "zero problems" when describing relations with Turkey's neighbors. They're trying their hardest to not offend anyone and to repair the relationships that aren't so great. The hope is that eventually Turkey's economic power on top of their "soft power" will begin to seep deeper into their periphery. Eventually the entire Middle East, parts of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans (all former Ottoman areas) will all see Turkey the ideal model and look to them for leadership.

"Zero Problems" is most definitely phase one in the AKP institution's foreign policy plan. We're sure to see a more assertive Turkey in the years to come. They see themselves as leaders blessed with the geography that enables them to influence those around them. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is a defining representation of the current regimes direction. This institution is being built to sustain itself for years to come.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Defeating the Islamic State - Evolving the Middle East

The Islamic State continues to spread their Caliphate throughout the Levant into Mesopotamia. Along their road of plunder and devastation they've begun an ethnic and religious cleansing of Kurds, Christians, and anyone else not willing to convert. The U.S. has begun airstrikes on IS positions, and U.S. lawmakers have encouraged even more extensive military action.

Is this the right action?

The question shouldn't be "How do we destroy the Islamic State" but rather "How do we use this to make the region a better place". My fear is that the Obama Administration isn't thinking along these lines.

The hard truth is that if the United States intervenes too forcefully with the Islamic State Iran stands to benefit the most from the aftershock. The Iraqi government is already borderline proxy status to their neighbor Iran. A quick victory against the IS will help Baghdad consolidate their power base which in turn helps Iran consolidate theirs. Iranian influence would be uncontested from Tehran, to Baghdad, to Damascus. There would be no real change in the region. Just more of the same dysfunction they've seen since after WW1.

What's the solution?

We're now seeing an area (Iraq and Syria) that is battling border lines that should never have been drawn. The Sykes/Picot Agreement was a solution brought forth by outsiders looking down on a foreign land. Sooner or later geography and the people that reside on that geography are going to revolt.
Over the years through shear brutality and force warlords such as Assad and ruthless dictators like Saddam have ensured these border lines have remained intact. However, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring have both served as a catalyst to enable the Levant and Mesopotamia to draw their own borders along a more natural progression.

You'll often here of Iraq as being divided between 3 areas: Sunni, Shia, Kurd

(map via stratfor.com)

The above map illustrates the Sunni, Shia, and Kurd divisions. It's easy to see this and think that Iraq's problems are a religious war with a minor Kurdish dilemma. This is far from the truth. Iraq's problems go much deeper. They involve tribal, clan, religious....a full spectrum of issues from people that have lived in the area for a thousand years.
Take for instance during the Anbar Awakening. Sunni tribes joined forces with Shia to oppose Sunni jihadists. If it were merely a religious dispute this type of union would have never happened. Even today Sunni tribes in Iraq are joining forces with Shia militias and Iraqi military to battle the Islamic State.
Yes religious differences play a role, but it's only one of their problems.

Quite bluntly, Iraq is not governed anymore from Baghdad. The Baghdad based Iraqi government is only legitimate in that it is recognized by the UN. In country, however, things are quite different. Tribal leaders in Iraq, be they Sunni or Shia, see themselves as Mesopotamian rather than Iraqi. They govern their lands independently. The Iraqi government governs Baghdad and that's about it.

The Middle East evolved.

As of the writing of this blog entry we've been arming and assisting the Kurds in Northern Iraq to fight off the Islamic State. I think this is a fantastic move and we should take it further. It is now time to push for a National Home for The Kurds. More than just an autonomous region in Northern Iraq. An independent Kurdistan where Kurds from the entire region can call home. Be they in Turkey, Iran, etc they would all be motivated to make Arbil their new capital.

Kurdistan would become the "Israel" for the Kurds. A bastion that they could feel safe in and that they would all be willing to die for to defend. Arming the Kurds would be not just a short term project to help them against the Islamic State but a long term strategy. They would be a viable check to the Iranians and radical jihadists.

The right for self-determination (supported by the UN) would be infectious in the region. The fact that tribal leaders in Iraq are willing to cross Sunni/Shia barriers for overall stability is a good sign. It's not too difficult to imagine a new nation state evolving that encompasses both the Levant and Mesopotamia. It also wouldn't be a stretch for it to be named "Greater Syria" or al Sham. Historically that would make since to the residents that live within those current borders. A federalized government that recognizes the differences (cultural, sectarian, religious, etc) in each "state" within Greater Syria.
The moderate Sunni's would eventually overwhelm the radicals. A strong Kurdish nation state in the north and a Greater Syria at peace would transform the Middle East.

Yes, IS must be put down...but the Kurds need to be the ones to do it. They need to use that as leverage to finally make independent  Kurdistan a reality. Syria and Iraq's destiny is joined. A federalized Greater Syria has the chance to erase the sins of post WW1 and evolve the Middle East.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Israel/Palestine - The Root of The Problem

I didn’t have many conversations with my father’s father. One of the few that I did have sticks out in my mind as I look at all the media coverage over Israel, Palestine and Hamas.
I had asked him why the large Oak tree in the front yard fell on his roof. The fact that a large powerful tree like that could topple over absolutely floored me.
He looked at me with that look he had that signified he was proud of the wit that was about to come forth and said, “I neglected to see the root of the problem.” As he said those words he stomped on a large rotted out root to the tree that had given way and which was now the cause that we all had to help grandpa get this tree off his house.

What’s the root of the problem here?

I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard people say that the current conflict in Israel is a fight that’s been raging for a thousand years. That if it hasn’t been solved now it won’t ever in the future.
Sure, this area has been highly contested ever since the bronze age. But so have other areas of the world.
I’ve also heard people throw around the word “Zionism” and claim that the Jews displaced Palestinians from their land. This is an important point to address because most people in the world are either ignorant on this issue or they’ve been straight lied to.

First of all Jews have lived in the land area called Palestine for thousands of years. Do they have claim to this land? Likewise, Arabs have lived in Palestine for thousands of years. Do they have claim to this land? The answer to both is an easy...Yes. They all have claim.

Jewish immigration back to Palestine.

Jews have been slowly migrating back to their ancestral homeland for hundreds of years. Palestine has always been a mixture of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, etc and the various cultures have made it work.
The two main groups leading up to WW1 were Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The Jews never displaced anyone while immigrating back to Palestine. They either went to the “Jewish area” or bought land from Arabs that lived elsewhere. Palestine’s boundary lines were already pretty much artificially set. Jews clumped in their area and Arabs in theirs.

What did Palestine look like before WW1? Mark Twain visited the Holy Land in 1867 and this is what he observed:


"...[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse....A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action....We never saw a human being on the whole route....There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."

So before the Jews began to come back to Palestine in significant numbers the entire area was desolate with a low population.

How about this for actual demographic numbers - The Jewish population from WW1 to WW2 increased by 470,000 people. In that same time frame the Arab population grew by….588,000. That’s a 120% population increase of Arabs in 20 years. So how were Jews displacing Arabs if the Arab population was growing faster than the Jewish?

The root.

The root of this problem is very easily traced. We don’t have to go back thousands of years. We needn’t go back further than 1916. 2 years had passed since the outbreak of WW1.

The Ottoman Empire was a major threat to the allies. More specifically to Great Britain who had built their Empire off the back of their navy which secured trade routes all over the world. To cripple the allies the Ottoman Empire could attempt to shut down the Red Sea trade route to the Indian Ocean. India was Great Britain’s crown jewel. Something had to be done to neutralize such a powerful threat that had a stranglehold on the most profitable trade route in the world.redSeatrade.jpg

Palestine throughout Ottoman Rule was a part of “Ottoman Syria” which encompassed present day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, parts of Iraq, and Jordan. Understanding these boundary lines is crucial for understanding current conflicts in this region. Even present day terrorist groups such as ISIS have made re-establishing these border lines as their eventual goal. Their name “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” means that they wish to create a Caliphate within the old Ottoman Greater Syria area. Iraq and al-Sham is the territory pictured in the map. OttomanSyria.jpg

Arabs asked to attack the Ottomans


To neutralize the Ottoman threat Great Britain sent T.E. Lawrence to convince the Arabs to attack the Ottoman Empire.

Through Lawrence Great Britain promised much to the Arabs. If the Arabs would turn against the Ottomans Great Britain would help them establish a Greater Arab kingdom in it’s place.

Lawrence fought with two Arab brothers from the Hashemite tribe. The Hashemites were the most powerful Arabs at the time and controlled the Hejaz which is the land area where Mecca and Medina are located. The Hejaz is now within Saudi Arabia.

Both Abdullah I bin al-Hussein and Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi commanded Arab armies. T.E. Lawrence had a much better relationship with Faisal and accompanied him along with his Northern Arab Army. Great Britain promised Faisal that he would be king of the new Arab monarchy that would replace the Ottomans.

Sykes-Picot Agreement

At the same time T.E. Lawrence is promising the Arabs a new super kingdom Great Britain and France hold secret negotiations to determine the fate of the Middle East post WW1. Great Britain was represented by Sir Mark Sykes and the French by Fran├žois Georges-Picot.

The purpose of these negotiations was to define GB and France’s spheres of influence and determine who would control what should the Triple Entente win the war. It’s important to note that this was entirely contrary to what was promised to the Arabs who believed that they would assume majority control of the Middle East. As Faisal dreamed of ruling “Greater Syria” like the Ottomans did Sykes and Picot conspired otherwise.

In the end France, Great Britain, and Russia all signed off on a Middle East that looked like the picture below. The blue area would be French, the red area British, and the green area Russian.640px-Sykes-Picot.svg.png

Great Britain and France never intended to honor their promises to the Arabs. Remember that their key concern was having an all powerful empire in the middle east that could dominate the Red Sea trade route. They toppled the Ottomans over it. They definitely weren’t about to allow another empire to spring up in it’s place.

The result of Sykes-Picot was a Middle East that had been forced to accept the Western European model of nation states. There were now lines drawn on the map that had never existed before. Borders were drawn along sectarian lines. It was clear that the French and British wanted a fractured and conflicted Middle East rather than united under Arab control.

King Faisal was given the Arabian coveted Kingdom of Syria. However, he was soon deposed after a coup attempt and then French occupation. To appease the Hashemites Faisal was made King of Iraq and his brother Abdullah was placed in charge of Transjordan (which means “other side of the Jordan”). The new nations of Syria and Lebanon were under French influence. Iraq and the new Mandates of Palestine and Transjordan were under British control.


The land of Palestine was now split. East of the Jordan river was given to the Hashemites under King Abdullah. West of the Jordan river was split based off of demographics. Heavily populated Jewish areas were separated from the heavily populated Arab areas. Peace in these areas was backed up by British troops.

It’s important to realize Arab resentment for the western allies after the realization of Sykes-Picot. The idea of ruling “Greater Syria” was an Arab dream that was shared all over the Middle East. However, Sykes-Picot had done it’s job in making it extremely difficult for Arabs to unite the entire area.

Arabs unite in another way

The Sykes-Picot spheres of influence were now backed by the League of Nations. If the Arabs wanted to make gains they would have to do it differently than how they toppled the Ottomans. They were given exactly what they needed when United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a transmission to British jewish community leader Baron Rothschild. It would famously be known as the Balfour Declaration.

“His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”800px-Balfour_portrait_and_declaration.JPG

Arabs were against any further partitioning of al Sham (greater Syria). It’s important to note that they opposed a separate Palestinian State as well as a Jewish State. It would later be clarified that the British government did not intend to create a Jewish State. They would just guarantee a safe Jewish homeland within the mandate.


The Balfour Declaration helped the Arabs to unite under the banner of opposing a Jewish State. They began to declare that the British intended to make all of Palestine a Jewish State. Publications at the time ran this propaganda as if it were the truth (pictured above).

In 1936 Arabs revolted against the British occupying troops. Their main complaint was that Jewish immigration was becoming too extreme. This was obviously just an excuse to attack the British and Jews. Arab immigration to Palestine was far greater than Jewish.
The British would end up being successful in putting down the uprising. More significantly Jewish security forces and infrastructure would be solidified. This played a major role in future Jewish military successes.

Arabs change the argument

Arabs had effectively changed their argument. Their aspirations for a united Arab kingdom now took aim at the Jews.

The British Mandate for Palestine was set to end. In 1947 the UN adopted a resolution to partition Palestine. It called for:UN_Palestine_Partition_Versions_1947.jpg
1. A Jewish State
2. A Palestinian State
3. A special international regime for the city of Jerusalem

Jews embraced the UN plan but the Arabs were furious. It’s very important to note that the Arabs not only did not support the Jewish state but they also didn’t support the Palestinian State either. The goal was for a fully unified Arab state or kingdom.

Arabs made the Jews the scapegoat and civil war began in Palestine.
The main players in the war were:
1. King Abdullah of Jordan
2. King Farouk of Egypt
3. Nuri as-Said of Iraq
4. Syria and Lebanon

This constituted the main players of the Arab League at the time. Their declared reason for invasion was to re-establish order in Palestine, stop the bloodshed, and to create a unitary Palestinian State. Not surprisingly they blocked the creation of a Palestinian government. They didn’t care about the Palestinian Arabs. They wanted an Arab sphere of influence without partitions. Again, Jews took the blame to rally their cause.

Miraculously the Jewish security apparatus held and the Arab League was embarrassed. It really wasn’t surprising once you realize what they were really after.

King Abdullah struck a secret deal with the Jews before the invasion even happened. He agreed not to press his attack into Jewish territory. Instead, when the invasion began he attacked the West bank and East Jerusalem. Read that again….instead of attacking the Jews (which was the Arab League rallying cry) he attacked the Palestinian Arabs! He invaded Arab Palestinian lands and occupied it. This land was never promised to the Jews in the UN partition plan so the Israelis let him have it.

Similar motivations were among the entire Arab League. King Farouk of Egypt wanted to annex southern Palestine for himself. Nuri as-Said of Iraq wanted the entire fertile crescent under his control. Syria and Lebanon wanted to annex portions of Northern Palestine.

They were after the land! They cared very little for the Palestinian Arabs living there. Most of whom were immigrants that came to Palestine in between WW1 and WW2.

Arab Nationalism

The Arab League’s defeat would begin an overall rise in Arab Nationalism. The rise of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser gave the Arabs a leader that had the potential to do what the Hashemites after WW1 had failed to.

In 1956 Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. What Great Britain and France had feared the Ottomans may do back in WW1 was now a possibility again through Nasser and Egypt. Israel, Great Britain, and France made a secret deal to invade Egypt and topple Nasser. Israel invaded through the Sinai and France/Great Britain invaded via Port Said. After President Eisenhower condemned the action and appealed to the UN all forces withdrew. The end result was a perceived Arab victory and Nasser became the undisputed leader of the Arab world.nasser.jpg

Pan-Arabism would take flight. Nasser’s popularity was starting to make the Arab monarchs in the region nervous. Syria was Egypt’s staunch ally but Jordan and Saudi Arabia feared that Nasser would try and upend their monarchies. Nasser formed the United Arab Republic with Syria. He would then go on to orchestrate a coup in Iraq and brought Iraq in under the UAR umbrella as well.

After the successful coup in Iraq Nasser would be quoted saying this:

“The holy march on which the Arab nation insists, will carry us forward from one victory to another ... the flag of freedom which flies over Baghdad today will fly over Amman and Riyadh. Yes, the flag of freedom which flies over Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad today will fly over the rest of the Middle East”

Nasser’s goal was to bring in every Arab nation into the UAR. It was ambitious and not doable at the time. He decided to turn his attention to Palestine. After all, uniting the lands of Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria has always been the ultimate goal. It was obvious how to gain full Arab support for the acquisition of Palestine. Make it a war on the Jews.

6 day war

Turning the conquest of Palestine into an Arab war vs Israel was all that was needed to bully Jordan and Saudi Arabia into supporting the UAR. Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran (equivalent to an act of war) and began a massive military buildup in the Sinai along the Israeli border. Israel would strike first. 6 days later it was all over. Israel decimated the Arab armies. They would end up taking control of Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

It’s interesting to note Jordan’s unique situation. Nasser basically lied to and bullied them into the war. Like Israel, Jordan was also fighting Palestinian Arab extremists groups. The PLO wanted Jordan out of not only the West bank but the Jordan land area altogether. Jordan was also criticized by much of the Arab world for occupying the West Bank. When Jordan abandoned the West Bank and East Jerusalem their status with the Arab League increased. They also now had Israel as a larger partner in fighting the PLO.

Palestinian extremist groups would continue to fight Jordan bitterly. The PLO wanted to rule Jordan instead of the Hashemite Monarchy. Jordan retaliated by killing thousands of Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat. Not only were Palestinian Arabs killed by the thousands but they were completely displaced out of the country by the Jordanians. The PLO had to relocate to Lebanon.
The PLO then shifted the majority of their attacks now toward Israel. This resulted in a civil war in Lebanon and the eventual expulsion of the PLO to Tunisia. A relatively small Shia militia named Hezbollah grew in power from these ashes.

Wrapping up

If Israel suddenly didn’t exist we’d still have conflict in Palestine. The Jordanians would still want the West Bank and Jerusalem, the Egyptians would try and annex Southern Palestine, and Syria would annex Northern Palestine. Arab vs Arab fighting would be even bloodier than Israeli vs Arab.
Israel has been made the ultimate scapegoat by Arab nationalists looking for expansion in Palestine. Palestinian extremist groups were seen as terrorists when attacking the Jordanians or inciting destabilization in Lebanon. But when they attack Israel and use Arabs as human shields Israel is suddenly the terrorist? Ironically Israel now is a stabilizing element in a volatile Middle East. They’re silent partners with Jordan and provide border security along Syria and Lebanon’s southern borders. This at a time when both Syria and Lebanon have much larger problems to deal with.

Eventually the Middle East will correct itself from the damage of Sykes-Picot and all that happened from then on. Until then we’re sure to see another “Nasser” willing to make the conquest of Palestine appear as an Arab vs Jew conflict. It’s up to you to be informed enough not to fall for the propaganda of a Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah, etc. The demonizing of Israel is really about Arab conquest of Palestine. As long as the finger is pointed at Israel the longer the world will be kept in the dark on what the actual purpose is for.