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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Enter the Ottomans: Turkey joins the fight against ISIS

After much complaining and squabbling, Turkey has decided to join in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Turkish Grand National Assembly voted its consent back in October, but only now have airstrikes come from Turkish F-16s. Ankara claims this is the start of a broader strategy rather than a one-time maneuver.

Turkey, a member of NATO, has received strong criticism from other NATO states for seemingly not doing much to combat the evil group running rampant across Iraq and Syria. There's also been considerable speculation that Turkey is turning a blind eye to ISIS militants crossing the border in hopes that the group will undermine the Assad regime in Syria.

Two recent events have turned the tide in Turkey. A suicide bombing in a town named Suruc, just across the border from the Kurdish town of Kobani left 32 dead and one hundred injured. Turkish officials have since identified who they believe carried out the bombing-an ethnic Kurd who had ties to Islamic State. This likely came as a surprise as Kurds, while many are conservative Muslims,   have fought ISIS for many months outside Turkey. Another clash on the Syrian border left a Turkish soldier dead and several others injured.

There is an essentially important third dynamic in this conflict: the Kurds. Much of Turkey's southern border looks out over an area of Syria that ethnic Kurds have defiantly carved out over the last few months. Kurds are an ethnic group that are spread out over Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, but it is Turkey where they have been fighting a long, drawn-out conflict with the designated terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, often known by its initials PKK.

As it turns out, ISIS is not the only organization being targeted by the Turkish Armed Forces in this new campaign. The Turkish Air Force has also targeted and struck PKK strongholds in Iraqi Kurdistan. This comes after rising tensions between the PKK and Turkey culminated in the end of the ceasefire between the two parties and the PKK attacking and killing Turkish police officers.

The PKK is not a fundamentalist Islamic group like ISIS, but it has sent its message of Kurdish separatism by violence just the same, and they have contributed heavily to the long and still-unresolved rift between Turks and Kurds in Turkey.

This new flare-up may have far-reaching ramifications. The People's Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, a left-wing Kurdish interest political party that won 80 seats in June's general election, has often been smeared by other parties as an extension of the terrorist PKK, allegations it denies. Whether it is or it isn't, the PKK's resurgence means the HDP will be heavily scrutinized by the rest of the Turkish government and may even be banned in lieu of the recent violence. This is sure to drive the wedge between the Kurdish southeast and the rest of Turkey even further. And this time, left-wing Turks who voted for HDP a month ago will probably not be on board to defend the party they voted for.

Interestingly, the strikes conducted by the Turkish military in northern Iraq against the PKK were conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan. It's not clear whether Masoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005, allowed or authorized these airstrikes, but seeing as Iraqi Kurdistan still answers to a dysfunctional Baghdad, he may not have had any say in the matter at all. President Erdogan of Turkey and Barzani enjoy close relations, but the airstrikes may contribute to destabilization of Iraqi Kurdistan if they continue.

Turkey has been wary of the rise of Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan has considerable autonomy from Baghdad and the areas that Syrian Kurds have fought for control of have broad autonomy as well. The Kurds' success around Turkey has ignited speculation that an independent Kurdistan may soon be a reality. This, coupled with the fact that Kurds are an antsy majority in Turkey's poorer southeastern region, some of whom still itch for independence, has Ankara worried.

Syrian Kurds fighting for the YPG interviewed by TIME magazine expressed skepticism when asked about Ankara's entry into the ISIS coalition. It can be argued that Turkey has been stuck between a rock and a hard place, only wanting to avoid conflict, but that conflict may be impossible to avoid at this point. Syrian Kurds as shown in the interview, however, argue that Turkey has had multiple opportunities to contribute to the fight against ISIS which it has let pass.

Turkey is a regional powerhouse. It is a comparatively wealthy and democratic country, founded on principles of secularism and civic nationalism which have kept it together and made it much stronger than the vast majority of Middle Eastern countries. It also boasts one of the biggest and most competent militaries in the region and has the capability to put ISIS on its heels.

There may have been an opportunity here for Turks and Kurds to unite in even a limited capacity, but that possibility has shrunk considerably with the recent actions of the PKK. It's a shame, considering
that if faced with a common enemy, the well-equipped Turks and the tough-as-nails Kurds had the capacity to drive a spike straight through the chest of Islamic State.

While many Turkish Kurds aren't supportive of the PKK, a crackdown on the HDP could absolutely reignite tensions between the two peoples and drive the Kurdish population to consider independence again. This is something Turkey is extremely unlikely to allow as it goes against the Turkish constitution and the Turkish military is absolutely able to crush any serious uprising. Unless the PKK quickly reconsiders and ends its recent provocations, the region will further destabilize.

A Tale of two Nuclear Negotiations

Less than two weeks ago, it was announced that the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran have agreed on a nuclear deal. President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani have both worked tirelessly to initiate a sort of detente between the United States and Iran.

This nuclear deal is, for better or for worse, going to be a lasting part of President Obama's legacy. However, it's actually not the first time the United States has entered into lengthy negotiations regarding a country showing interest in nuclear capabilities that run contrary to Washington's interests.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton turned his attention towards the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, otherwise known as North Korea. North Korea had been, in the early 1990s, developing weapons-grade plutonium, plutonium that they had not declared to the IAEA. North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which they followed through on.

The deal was not looked upon favorably in the U.S. Congress, dominated by Republicans who believed the deal reeked of appeasement. Funding was provided to uphold the deal but was not always drawn up in full. Eventually, negotiations and the period of detente soured and completely broke down by 2003.

The DPRK's decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty motivated the United States, along with China, Japan, Russia, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to start what are now known as the Six Party Talks. The objective of the talks was to find peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear program. Though slow and frequently futile, the fifth round of talks between the participating states yielded a step forward when North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities in exchange for a plan to normalize relations with the U.S. and Japan and aid in the form of fuel.

By 2009, unfortunately, North Korea had withdrawn from the talks and continued its nuclear program, and North Korea remains an isolated totalitarian state where the average person lives in poverty, fear, and a brainwashing environment.

Less than two weeks ago, the United States emerged from more nuclear negotiations, this time with the Islamic Republic of Iran. A deal was struck by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif along with the "P5+1", representatives from each country on the U.N. Security Council (The United States, Russia, China, France, and United Kingdom) as well as Germany.

The nuclear deal has been both hailed and decried. For some, it represents a great victory for diplomacy between powers that have been at odds for decades, and the start of a new chapter. Others have claimed the nuclear deal reeks of appeasement and is a sham, that the enemy will never adhere to their promises and will continue their ways of wrongdoing, a sentiment seen in both the United States and Iran.

The relationship between the United States and Iran is a complicated one, where both countries have acted in ways deemed gravely offensive and cold by the other.

In 1953, the United States and United Kingdom engineered a coup d'etat in Iran. Back then, Iran was a constitutional monarchy, led in practice by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and in ceremony by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Mossadeq's decision as a socialist to nationalize Iran's vast amount of oil irritated the U.S. and U.K., and coupled with the Red Scare occurring in those countries, encouraged the powers to engineer the coup. As a result of the coup, Reza Pahlavi became an absolute monarch, ruling Iran brutally and opulently. His secret police force, the SAVAK, punished dissent by torture and intimidation. While he lived in excess, ordinary Iranians starved. Iranians were furious at the decision of the United States to take in the dying Shah as the Islamic Revolution raged as many wanted the former monarch to be tried in Iran, a fate that likely would have resulted in Pahlavi's execution.

On July 3rd, 1988, the U.S.S. Vicennes shot down a civilian passenger plane, Iran Air Flight 655, over the Persian Gulf. Nearly 300 people were killed. The United States claimed it was an accident and that the plane was mistaken for an attacking military plane. But the United States never officially apologized for the grave mistake they'd made (though compensation was agreed upon and it was eventually admitted that the Vicennes was negligently responsible) and the man who ordered the attack was decorated by Former President George H.W. Bush. The event still stings Iranian hearts today.

Tehran's hands are not entirely clean, either.  During the Islamic Revolution of 1979, an angry mob of Iranians attacked the American Embassy in Iran's capital, taking fifty-two American diplomats and civilians hostage for 444 days. The Iranian government regularly organizes venomous anti-American rallies in major cities where "Death to America!" "Death to Britain!" and "Death to Israel!" are chanted by participants. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was an ideologue who boasted of his denial of the Holocaust.

At the end of the day it must be remembered and acknowledged that the regime calling the shots in Tehran is authoritarian, repressive, and oftentimes brutal, even resorting at times to public hangings from construction cranes.

Does that mean this deal with Iran is going to go the way of the deal the United States tried to strike with Pyongyang?

It may be too early to tell, but there are some instances that point to the deal holding up.

There is extensive detail on the repression carried out by the Iranian regime, but Iran's government is not quite as extreme as North Korea's or even some other regimes in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia comes to mind). Iran is a relatively well-developed, stable, and functioning country with an emerging middle class. North Korea is so incompetent at even providing food to its people that at one time it even asked Mongolia, a country with a tenth of its population, a large nomadic sect, and hunger problems of its own, for food aid. North Koreans are brainwashed and isolated from the outside world, endlessly subjected to propaganda from Pyongyang. Iranians, despite government censorship, have considerable access to the outside world and were famous for their use of Twitter during the 2009 Green Uprising. Furthermore, Iranians are not afraid to make their voices heard even if it does not always yield the desired result. When election results came out in 2009 giving the presidency back to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians who supported Mir Hossein Mousavi poured into the streets to protest and demand a recount, facing police brutality and undeserved imprisonment.

It's true that the Green Uprising of 2009 was eventually crushed by the government, but the desire of the Iranian people to be heard has not been lost. The election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013 represents a desire of the Iranian people to see their country turn a page with old enemies such as the United States, as Rouhani campaigned on his desire to engage Washington. Many Iranians actually do not subscribe to the venomous anti-American propaganda of the government any more, and Rouhani won very convincingly with the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his campaign promises. This month, Rouhani delivered on a key campaign promise. Next February, Iranians will vote in their parliamentary elections, and the path of continued reform looks like the most popular. If Tehran tries to pull the wool over the Iranian people's eyes again, the government could see another wave of angry protest headed their way.

Nothing of the sort exists in North Korea. The North Korean people have absolutely no say in what their government does.

The Iranian government may be repressive, but it is not irrational. Many consider Tehran's sabre-rattling towards Israel vile and infuriating, but as North Korea wouldn't dare directly attack its southern neighbor, it's hard to imagine the Iranian government actually launching an offensive against Israel after months upon months of negotiations and efforts to produce diplomacy with western powers.

It's also important to consider the propaganda wing of Iran's government. One of the cornerstones of the Islamic Republic government as it was swept into power was fierce distrust of the United States and Britain, the powers that inflicted an authoritarian Shah upon the Iranian people. North Korea exhibits similar revolutionary spite alluding to the Korean War in the 1950s and the invasion of their land by American-led troops. North Korea, unlike Iran, has never allowed wiggle room for its people to think anything else. By contrast, a young population in Iran, many of whom don't remember the Islamic Revolution, let alone the 1953 coup, may not buy that message as much as older Iranians do. Iran's government harps on the 1979 revolution and its messages, but as closer relations are sought with the sworn enemies of yesterday, how long can that revolutionary spirit stay aflame? It is possible the Iranian government will be forced to adopt or change its revolutionary ideology if this agreement holds up. That doesn't mean the government will fall to a new revolution or vote itself out of power like some of the communist governments in central Europe did in the 1980s, but the page may be turning. It's probably best to let it turn rather than to violently flip the pages back to the beginning.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Srebrenica: Another dividing line between Russia and Europe

Between July 11 and July 13 of 1995, Europe witnessed a horrific event in its Balkans region, the worst since the Second World War.

It happened in a pretty little town called Srebrenica, in the eastern part of what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina's Republika Srpska (Serb Republic). As war raged all around Bosnia and what was once socialist Yugoslavia, United Nations troops declared Srebrenica, then held by Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) troops, a "safe area" in April 1993. 

Two years later, Bosnian Serb nationalist troops under the control of General Ratko Mladic overran the town. And that July, some eight thousand Bosniak men and boys were massacred by the Serb troops. 

This event, which will be commemorated in Bosnia on the 11th of July, is known as the Srebrenica Massacre or Srebrenica Genocide. Dozens of recently identified victims will be remembered and buried at the memorial to the genocide.

What happened in Srebrenica in summer of 1995 has been widely referred to as a genocidal act by both national governments and international organizations as the Bosnian Serbs committing the massacre were Orthodox Christian and the Bosniak victims were Muslims. However, not everyone agrees that the atrocities qualify as genocide.

Russia, as a member of the United Nations Security Council, has vetoed a resolution calling the events at Srebrenica a genocide, angering many across Europe. 

Genocide naming has unfortunately become a politicized and subjective squabble in many places even when evidence points to genocide being committed. The United States has quietly not recognized the Armenian Genocide due to the fear that recognition will hurt the important relationship with Turkey, as does Israel. Even though France recognizes the Rwandan Genocide, Paris has waffled on its own role in the genocide. 

And Russia refuses to acknowledge that Srebrenica (and the Holodomor) was a genocidal act. 

The reasons for this are numerous. Russia has historically enjoyed close ties with Serbia. The two countries are predominantly Orthodox Christian. The Cyrillic alphabet is used in both Serbian and Russian. The countries share the same national colors and both use the Orthodox two-headed eagle as a national symbol. 

Serbia is a divided country. While many Serbians believe their country should become a member of the European Union, others, particularly Serb nationalists, believe Serbia should look to its more traditional allies, namely, Russia. Serbian nationalism championed by Slobodan Milosevic was one of many catalysts that drove the Balkans into the hell of the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s. Yet a Serbian with nationalist credentials ousted Milosevic from power in 2000, when he lost the 2000 General Election to Vojislav Kostunica.

Another argument stems from numbers. The massacre at Srebrenica killed some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. By comparison, somewhere between half a million and 1.5 million Armenians perished in the Armenian Genocide, and six million Jews met their death in the Holocaust. Some argue that the massacre in Srebrenica was not big enough to be considered a genocide, merely an atrocity of war. Yet the definition of genocide only vaguely considers size 

Though international organizations claim that Serbia herself was not responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica, it did assert that Serbia did not do enough to prevent the atrocities from happening.

This is not to say Serbians outright deny what happened at Srebrenica. President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic have both admitted and apologized for the massacre, and Vucic plans to attend the commemoration in Srebrenica on July 11. Yet neither consider what happened at Srebrenica a genocide, and Russia's recent decision to veto the UN resolution was looked upon favorably in Serbia.

It's important to remember that Serbia and her nationalist forces were far from the only forces responsible for atrocities during the Yugoslav Wars. Croatian nationalists committed numerous atrocities, matching their Serb counterparts tit-for-tat in vileness. Once Bosnia entered the fold, the multi-ethnic country was torn apart by Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks alike. The Yugoslav Wars made the lives of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs hell-only the Slovenes and Macedonians managed to get out relatively unscathed as they did not possess ethnic minorities of interest to Croatia, Serbia, or Bosnia. 

Russia walks an odd line when it comes to genocide. The Holocaust is remembered as a genocide in Russia, and the Armenian Genocide is also recognized in Russia, and has been since 1995. Yet the Holodomor and Srebrenica do not make the cut in the Kremlin. 

The Kremlin's decision to veto this UN resolution is not a prudent decision. Srebrenica has been analyzed by international organizations at the Hague as well as at the United Nations, and the evidence does point to deliberate slaughter by the Bosnian Serbs. Refusing to call it genocide only allows the embers of nationalism to continue to burn in a region of the world where nationalism still divides and keeps progress from happening-especially in Bosnia, which has been effectively stuck in neutral since the Dayton Accords. It may be a hard pill to swallow for the Serbians, but it will be an issue that will allow the countries to progress to other issues if it is resolved sooner than later.