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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Comparing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Turkey's Kurdish Question

Ever since its formal establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has been involved in a back-and-forth border dispute with their Palestinian neighbors.

The conflict is a nasty, bloody tornado of terrorism, poverty, extremist ideologies, and violence on both sides.

Hamas lobbing rockets into Israeli territory.
Fundamentalist Palestinians stabbing and killing Israelis without provocation.
Pizza places and buses blown up in Tel Aviv.

And on the other side, similar atrocities.

Fundamentalist Israeli settlers torching Palestinian homes.
In the 1990s, Baruch Goldstein, the butcher of the Cave of the Patriarchs, went on a murderous rampage in a mosque which only ended when worshipers overpowered him and beat him to death.
Yigal Amir, a Haredi fanatic whose cold-blooded murder of revered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sent Israel into mourning at a time peace looked like it could finally happen.

Some miles northeast, violence continues in southeastern Turkey, eerily similar to the continuing strife in Israel and Palestine.

Turkey, in the Treaty of Lausanne, officially recognizes three ethnic/religious minorities. They are Armenians, Greeks, and Jews. One minority is suspiciously missing from this list, however, and that's the Kurds. For many years, Kurds were referred to as "Mountain Turks", a symptom of Turkey's strong sense of nationalism. In 1978, a militant left-wing terrorist group called the Kurdistan Workers' Party was formed, and they have been fighting Turkey since their creation and into the present.

The PKK uses many of the same methods as Islamic fundamentalist groups such as suicide bombings and most of their victims are Turkish soldiers, but atrocities are committed in both attacks and counterattacks.

Both Palestinians and Turkish Kurds cite the opponent's stubborn nationalism as a main cause for armed struggle and terrorism.

Israel is defined in its law as a Jewish, democratic state. Its national anthem, a haunting, solemn tune called Hatikvah (The Hope), speaks about the Jews' desire to "be a free people in our own land...the land of Zion and Jerusalem."

Zionism is by definition a nationalist ideology that calls for a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land, and it has both religious and secular components just as the religion it comes from. Benjamin Netanyahu is a member of the secular center-right party Likud. Likud, the largest party in Israel's Knesset (Parliament) is a secular Zionist party, while its coalition party The Jewish Home is a religious Zionist party which sits to the right of Likud on the political spectrum.

 Zionists defend their ideology as a simple and reasonable idea that Jews should be able to have a Jewish state in the region of the Middle East known as Israel. Its critics claim it to be a prejudiced and colonialist ideology that discriminates against Palestinians and other Arabs, some going as far as to say that Israel's government is as discriminatory as South Africa's was under apartheid.

The Republic of Turkey is not much older than Israel. It was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The new country embraced Kemalism, a political ideology that serves as the foundation of modern Turkey.

Kemalism is made up of six different ideas, known as the Six Arrows, which today adorn the crimson banner of Turkey's secular, social democratic Republican People's Party.

The first is carved into the halls of Turkey's Grand National Assembly. "Sovereignty unconditionally belongs to the nation." In other words, the people of Turkey are to be the only entity to be tasked with the governance of the Turkish state. Ataturk did away with the slogans of the Ottoman Empire and replaced them with a new identity based on the idea of civic nationalism. "Long live the Sultan/Sheikh" was gradually replaced by "How happy is the one who says 'I am Turkish.' "

To the Turkish people, this national identity is cherished and touted. It has played a large role in Turkey's development into a regional power and one of the most democratic, free countries in the Middle East. Ataturk's face is everywhere in Turkey.

Unfortunately, many Turkish Kurds do not share the same glowing view when it comes to Turkey's national identity. Turkey's lack of recognition of Kurds as an ethnic minority, even calling them "Mountain Turks" instead of Kurds, has isolated them within the Turkish borders and caused them to take up Kurdish nationalism rather than to embrace a Turkish identity that they feel is forced upon them. After 1980, Kurds were forbidden to speak their native tongue. Although this has changes considerably (state run broadcaster TRT now broadcasts some programming in Kurdish) many Turkish Kurds still support the efforts of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the left-wing terrorists mentioned before.

The Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK as it is often known, is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Turkey. It primarily wages its war against Turkey in the form of suicide bombings (primarily in the 1990s) and attacks on Turkish soldiers. On paper, the PKK fights for the rights and self-determination of Turkish Kurds. At one time they supported independence, which if it ever happened, would mean a significant loss of territory for Turkey.

Poverty also plays a role in these conflicts. Like much of Palestine, the Kurdish areas of Turkey are poor and conflicted.

Israel does not have a national identity comparable to Kemalism in Turkey, but it does have some ethnic tension. About 20 percent of Israelis are Arabs, and they lead conflicted lives to say the least. While some have accepted Israeli citizenship and assimilated into Israeli society by participating in learning Hebrew-both Hebrew and Arabic are official languages in Israel but Hebrew is more widely spoken-many refuse, seeing that action as a betrayal towards the Palestinian struggle.

In order to find permanent solutions, there will have to be concessions on all sides.

Israel does some things well. It is always quick to condemn act against Jewish extremists when they rear their head. When an atrocity is committed in Israel in the name of Judaism or Zionism, even Israel's far-right nationalist political parties speak with contempt and disgust about it. Demonstrations against the atrocity occur. And perhaps most importantly, the perpetrators don't get far. The Jewish Underground, a terrorist group in the 1980s, was only able to carry out one act of brutality before the Shin Bet (Israel's equivalent to the American FBI), with the help of an informant, caught a large number of the terrorists planting bombs on buses and sent them all to prison-the group is now defunct. In a more present-day example-suspects thought to be the arsonists that killed Palestinians have also been taken into custody.

One of the biggest problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in the settlements. After the Six Day War in 1967, Palestine's borders were pushed back to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel's isolation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip since then has exacerbated tensions, and the settlements have pushed the borders back even further.

Immediate withdrawal, however, isn't quite the instant solution some may believe either. Israel withdrew completely from the Gaza Strip in 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and tensions have not ended in that area.

Israelis deserve to live in peace and they have the right to defend themselves. However, the two-state solution often considered the best way forward, does not seem to be much of a priority under the current government.

Unfortunately, the solution likely does not lie with the Palestinian Authority either. The Palestinian Authority is entirely corrupt and ineffective. Hamas is a terrorist group that embraces Islamism and anti-Semitism and rules Gaza with an iron fist.

While Palestinians have the right to live in their own country, the power structures within their borders offer no help to their cause when they scream wildly anti-Semitic rhetoric and cheer terrorists who kill Jews as martyrs.

If there is a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will likely require some land concessions from Israel and a major overhaul of Palestinian civil society away from Islamic fundamentalism.

Since the PKK is not an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization, it does not inspire the same fear that groups like Da'esh do. However, just as groups like Hamas will never solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with their methods, it's unlikely the PKK will achieve their goals for the Kurdish people with theirs. Kurds in Turkey can be and often are subject to repression that Turks don't face, but killing Turkish soldiers is fighting fire with fire.

Turkey's governmental structure is faulty as well. In order to get into the Turkish Parliament, a party needs to get 10% of the popular vote. This makes it a nail biter every time the Kurds try to send a party to parliament-even in Turkey, where turnout is very high in elections, the most recent Kurdish party (the People's Democratic Party) considered 13% of the vote to be high. That's only 3% away from the threshold. Lowering that threshold would allow Turkey's democracy to diversify and cement Kurdish representation, though this is unlikely to happen in the current political climate with President Erdogan's Justice and Development Party in power.

The chances of Turkey finding a permanent solution might be a bit more likely than that of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that's because Turkey's nationalist spirit is in many ways rooted in ideas rather than religion. Turks and Kurds are both predominantly Muslim. If Ankara was to concede minority representation (official constitutional recognition, language representation at the regional level, a lower threshold to get into Parliament, perhaps cultural exchanges) to Turkish Kurds, it could undermine the radical Kurdish groups such as the PKK.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Washington and Tehran score diplomatic points, indirectly make Moscow and Ankara look ridiculous

Just as soon as it had begun, it was over.

Ten sailors from the United States Navy, nine men and one woman, who were taken into Iranian custody while running exercises in the Persian Gulf, have returned to American hands unharmed.

Apparently, the sailors were conducting an exercise in the Gulf when they drifted into Iranian waters. They spent less than 24 hours in Iranian custody.

The mood in Washington and Tehran seems to be one of relief and perhaps even excitement. Iranian state media spoke in neutral terms about the sailors. "The detained U.S. sailors, after it was realized that their entry into Iran’s territorial waters was unintentional, and after the sailors apologized, were released into international waters in the Persian Gulf.”

Eight years ago, British Marines did the same and were detained by the Revolutionary Guard. They, however, were held in detention for thirteen days before being released. The standoff between Iran and the UK (and their close allies in the United States) further exacerbated tensions and rhetoric on both sides. 

It's been thirty-seven years since Iran's Islamic Revolution and the Hostage Crisis. In those years, this kind of diplomacy was unheard of. While Iranian (and some American) hardliners still furiously rabble about the evils of their opponents, perhaps this is the turning corner in American-Iranian relations. 

Next month, Iranians will head to the polls to vote in a very important election. They will elect both the Iranian Consultative Assembly, also known as the Parliament or Majlis, and the Assembly of Experts, an upper house of sorts that will choose the next Supreme Leader when Ayatollah Khamenei either resigns or dies. Among those running for the Assembly of Experts are current President Hassan Rouhani, who was swept into office in a landslide win in Iran's 2013 Presidential Election, former President Ali Akbar Rasfanjani, and the late Ayatollah Khomenei's grandson Hassan Khomenei. 

Those elections are still some days off and the climate will take some time to materialize as candidacies are approved or disapproved by Khamenei. But however they turn out, Washington and Tehran have shown some serious diplomatic chops-especially in the face of other rivals such as Russia and Turkey. 

On November 24th, 2015, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian SU-24 plane. One of the pilots was killed by a militia in Syria that captured him after he ejected from the plane, while the other was returned to Russia. 

Both Moscow and Ankara immediately started pointing fingers and squabbling over who was to blame for the spat. Tensions have unfortunately remained high with Russia bulldozing Turkish fruit, a nationalist crowd pelting the Turkish Embassy in Moscow with rocks and eggs, economic sanctions, and accusations ranging from the Islamic fundamentalist  to the bizarrely sexual. More can be read here in my post Yet Another Nationalist Spat. 

Moscow's anger at Ankara was understandable and warranted. Russia is a country where patriotism flourishes and the Russian Armed Forces command great respect among the Russian people. The responses by Moscow and Ankara to this unfortunate and short-sighted mess, however, have been nothing but counter-productive. Nationalism, which flourishes in both countries, has prevented the two sides from coming to the negotiation table and working out methods to prevent this kind of thing from happening a second time. 

None of that will have to happen between Washington and Tehran. The United States has its sailors back. Washington has thanked Tehran for the swift resolution of a precarious situation that could have mushroomed into something much, much worse such as the recent Iran-Saudi Arabia mess. Tehran responded to accidental breach of the waters it controls in the Persian Gulf with force, but with restraint as well. 

Take notes, Moscow and Ankara. This is how you resolve a precarious conflict. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

What Russia Can Do Right in Syria

A recent NPR report suggested that Russia is not exclusively supporting forces loyal to Assad. During Putin’s annual conference with the press. In a speech to top military commanders, it was revealed that Russia was assisting “some factions” of the Free Syrian Army. 

The report did not specify which branches of the Army were being supported, but the recent spat with Turkey implies that it could be the Arab/Kurdish alliance in the north that goes by the name of “Syrian Democratic Forces” or SDF. 

The SDF is a recent player in the civil war. A large portion of their fighters are Kurds who are members of the smaller People’s Protection Units, known by their Kurdish initials YPG. The YPG is opposed in theory to the Assad regime, but has compromised with Assad’s forces in the northeastern cities of Hasakah and Qamishli, where some still patrol. The YPG has also placed priority on defeating Da’esh rather than fighting Assad’s forces, which, barring a couple very small exceptions that have opted to cease fire with the YPG, are not trying to claim the same land. 

The YPG’s ultimate goal in Syria is to establish an autonomous “democratic confederalist” region along the Syrian border with Turkey called Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. 

The YPG made a name for themselves when they drove the Islamists out of Kobane after an excruciating siege which destroyed most of the city, and are advancing west in hopes to take control of the entire border with Syria. 

If these are the “moderate rebels” the Kremlin wishes to support (despite the consistent complaining about the United States doing similar), it may be a preferable path to follow. The Kurds have suffered immensely at the hands of the governments of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent Iran. Supporting them, provided that support lasts, could establish a rare consensus between Europe, the United States, and Moscow. 

While it may further aggravate the relationship with Ankara and President Erdogan, the Turkish government has often been maligned for its nationalistic attitude towards its Kurdish minority-until recently Kurds in Turkey were known as "Mountain Turks". International pressure could even swing towards Ankara to fully and comprehensively address the festering wound that has been aggravated by both the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Turkish government.  If the Kremlin can find a way to swing international interest towards the Turkey-PKK conflict and contribute to working out some sort of consensus, it would considerably help the region’s stability. 

The Kurds in Iraq and Syria find themselves at an interesting crossroads. Kurdish forces in Iraq managed to keep Islamic State away from most of their territory and have even gained control over territory they didn't have before, including Kirkuk, a large city considered a centre of Kurdish culture. Arab Iraqi forces from Baghdad recently recaptured the large city of Ramadi.

This is a huge victory that will likely mean a march on Mosul in the north will be coming in the next months. The Iraqi Kurdish government has expressed interest in a referendum on full independence and Russian recognition of the region should it go forward with a possible referendum would establish a considerable precedent in the region. An autonomous Syrian Kurdistan could also establish relations with Russia and give Moscow a secular, democratic ally in the region. 

The Kremlin’s explicit support of Bashar Al-Assad is still condemnable considering the regime’s use of chemical weapons, brutal suppression of protests against his rule, and the horrific treatment of prisoners of war captured by Assad’s forces. And there’s no question Syria would probably be better off for the future without Assad in power. But a considerably weakened Assad in power of a decentralized and more closely monitored Syria is not the worst scenario considering the alternatives. The Free Syrian Army would likely find it more difficult to rebuild the country as it is not as centralized and united as the forces loyal to Assad-if they were to strike some agreement with the SDF, however, their voice may stand a greater chance of being heard as well. 

The King and Ay(atollah): Examining the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Mark Twain, the famous American author, once said "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."

It seems to have rhymed with itself again in the Middle East.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Iran have formally severed diplomatic ties.

The diplomatic decision comes amid steel and fire. On January the 2nd, Saudi Arabia executed forty-six people. Most of them were terrorists belonging to Al-Qaeda.

One of them, however, was a Shi'a cleric named Nimr Al-Nimr.

Al-Nimr was a Saudi Shi'a critical of the Saudi government who even at one point suggested Saudi Arabia's populous Eastern Province (pictured below) should secede from the Kingdom if the country would not give its Shi'a minority, which is around 10-15% of the population and mostly concentrated in the Eastern Province, its deserved rights. Al-Nimr also called for free elections in Saudi Arabia. As Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, it does not include a national legislature as part of the structure of its government. Elections do occur, but only at the very local level and they cede little power away from the royal family.

Provincial map of Saudi Arabia. The Eastern Province is shown in red. 
Map from Wikipedia. 

Across the Persian Gulf, Iranians reacted with terrible rage and fury. In Tehran, Iran's capital and largest city, thugs stormed the Saudi embassy, ransacked the compound and set entire rooms ablaze. The Saudi consulate in Mashhad, a large city in Iran's northeast not far from the border with Turkmenistan, saw similar damage. The rioters allegedly chanted "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Greatest!) and "Marg Bar Al-Saud!" ("Down with/Death to the Al-Saud family!") as they torched the buildings. 

If the rioters were indeed chanting "Allahu Akbar!", it sheds light on one of the main reasons Saudi Arabia and Iran are not very friendly with each other. Both are predominately Islamic countries, but Saudi Arabia is mostly Sunni Muslim, where as Iran is mostly Shi'a Muslim. The two sects of Islam branched off from each other centuries ago over a dispute regarding who should succeed Mohammed, Islam's holiest of prophets, and have been at odds ever since. 

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran claim to speak for their respective sect of Islam. The Saudi flag contains in beautiful, sweeping Arabic calligraphy the shahadah, or testament of faith that is central to Islam: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet." 

Iran's flag, since the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei to power, has contained a stylized version of the various Farsi (Persian) words that make up the first part of the same testament, "There is no God but Allah". The green and red stripes of the flag are also bordered with the phrase "God is Greatest" multiple times. 

For two countries that claim to speak for God, it's hard to find any moral high ground in this explosion of tension. In fact, the entire thing is rife with double standards and hypocrisy. Iran 's outrage is understandable when you think about the average person, but it's hard to argue on behalf of the government sitting in Tehran. Both countries carry out public capital punishment, but Iran does it a whole lot more than the Saudis and in an equally gruesome fashion. While Saudi Arabia beheads their criminals with a swing of the sword, Iran hangs their corpses off of construction cranes like some sort of sadistic pinata. Executions have actually gone up in Iran since Hassan Rouhani was elected president. 

Furthermore, it's ironic Iran would complain about the execution of political dissidents. In the 2009 Green Uprising, when Iranians flooded the streets of major cities all across their countries, the security apparatus responded with deadly force. The government claims around three dozen were killed in the unrest, but opposition figures claim between seventy and 150 were killed. Dissidents are tortured and imprisoned regularly in Iran. 

As for the religious dynamic, Sunnis live in Iran just as Shiites live in Saudi Arabia. Like the Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Sunnis do sometimes face discrimination, but Iran's diverse ethnic background does result in more recognition of the minority religion. Iran's Kurdish, Lari, Balochi, and Turkmen populations are predominately Sunni Muslim, and President Rouhani has pledged to reach out to the Sunni minority. Iran also enjoys very friendly relations with Tajikistan, a Sunni Muslim country, because of the strong cultural ties the countries share: Tajiks speak Tajik, a language very similar to Iran's official language, Farsi, and President Ahmadinejad claimed once that "Iran and Tajikistan are one spirit in two bodies."

Furthermore, smaller religious minorities in Iran such as Christians and Jews are also allowed to practice their respective faiths in the country and possess a small handful of reserved seats in the Iranian Parliament. By contrast, if one wishes to become a Saudi citizen, they must convert to Islam. 

The prime suspects in the arson attack on the Saudi embassy and consulate in Iran seem to be the Basij. The Basij is a paramilitary volunteer group which has often been maligned as more of a branch of the Revolutionary Guard designed to cause trouble. Indeed, when Iranian students loyal to Ayatollah Khomenei's new government stormed and took hostages in the American Embassy, Khomenei offered his support to their actions. 

There is an anti-Saudi sentiment among ordinary Iranians as well. The two countries' respective strength and development make them natural rivals vying for influence in the Middle East, and Arabs and Persians have had a rocky relationship with each other for centuries.

The chances of a permanent solution between the two countries were elusive before and looks near impossible now, and the Sunni-Shi'a divide only further complicates matters. If religion was to take a smaller or much-revised role in both countries with a real decentralization of power in Saudi Arabia, things may be able to change. But with the stubbornness on both sides, that's unlikely.