How the U.S. Can Thread the Kurdish-Turkish Needle

April 11 2019

A key ally in the American war against Islamic State has been the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which now control, with the help of roughly 2,000 U.S. troops, the northeastern third of the country. To Ankara’s great consternation, the SDF is led by the YPG, a Kurdish militia that is for all intents and purposes an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group operating within Turkey’s borders. The resulting Turkish-Kurdish tensions, argue Merve Tahiroglu and Andrew Gabel, leave both parties likely to turn to the Syria-Iran-Russia axis to broker the conflict—unless Washington uses its leverage:

Politically, Ankara’s foremost fear is the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region bordering Turkey’s own Kurdish-dominated southeast. . . . [S]hifting more power to the SDF’s non-Kurdish elements would dilute the influence of nationalist Kurds within the group, allowing both local Arabs and Turkey to stomach the SDF’s existence more easily. . . .

Turkey would prefer to create a safe zone in northeastern Syria, in which the Turkish military would occupy Kurdish population centers and clear them of YPG militants, as it did in the [Syrian] Kurdish canton of Afrin in early 2018. Because the United States is unwilling to support such an operation against its Kurdish allies, Ankara has turned to Russia for help.

Realistically, however, the United States is the best-positioned actor to ensure that northeastern Syria does not become a PKK sanctuary. Iran, Syria, and Russia have a long record of employing Kurdish groups as proxies against Turkey, and are ready to do so again. The United States, by contrast, is already working with Ankara to move certain YPG militants away from the Turkish border, and in the long term it could use its leverage over the YPG to lure the group away from the PKK. [Above all], Washington should condition further U.S. support for the YPG on the group’s continued restraint toward Turkey. . . .

In addition to pushing the YPG away from the PKK, the United States should attempt to marshal northeastern Syria’s valuable natural resources to deepen Turkey’s interest in the stability of the region. The SDF now controls almost all of Syria’s oil fields, which, if properly leveraged, could foster peace-building efforts between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey.

There is precedent for such an arrangement: at first, Ankara fiercely objected to the existence of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Today, Turkish businesses are all over Iraqi Kurdistan, and Erdogan facilitates a controversial oil trade between [this region] and Israel. Erdogan is an opportunist and may well accept an SDF-controlled zone in Syria so long as he is a primary outside beneficiary of its resources.

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More about: Iran, Kurds, Russia, Syrian civil war, Turkey, U.S. Foreign policy


Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat