Kurdish fiasco an ‘America first’ cause

WHEN PATRICK HENRY vowed to “live free or die,” he couldn’t have known about today’s Kurdish dilemma in Iraq. Two weeks ago 92 percent of Kurdish voters in northern Iraq voted in a referendum to create an independent state, consisting of the three Iraqi provinces where they’re in a majority. Unfortunately for them, the outcome has been, not independence, but curbs on their freedom to travel, economic hardships, and political isolation in the region. Now very few Iraqi Kurds seem ready to risk further hardships pushing for independence, let alone die fighting for the cause.

Iraq already has banned air travel in and out of its semi-autonomous “Kurdistan.” No Iraqi government can expect to stay in power if it were to allow the dismemberment of the country. And the Turkish government has announced it’s going to shut off the oil pipeline of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which runs through Turkey, carrying 5.5 million barrels of crude oil daily and providing more than 90 percent of the KRG’s annual budget.  Ankara fears that the secession of a Kurdish enclave in Iraq would embolden its own Kurdish militants, who have been carrying on a terrorist campaign since 1984 to create an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey.  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like the Baghdad government, had urged the KRG over and over not to hold the referendum.

Two days ago Baghdad announced that it’s now going to host a summit among Iran, Turkey and Iraq to decide on further measures to punish the KRG for its secessionist move.

Poor Iraqi Kurds! Their grievances remind me of a Mexican official’s response to President Trump’s demand that Mexico pay his proposed wall along its boundary with the United States. An aide to President Enrique Peña Nieto told the Trump administration, facetiously of course, that Mexico would be happy to pay for the wall provided it’s “built along the northern boundaries of New Mexico and Arizona.” He was obviously alluding to the fact that those American sates used to be part of Mexico until the United States grabbed them by force.

Kurds in Iraq – and in Turkey, Iran and Syria – have a similar grievance. In reality, their plight as minorities in those Middle Eastern countries originated in the imperialist machinations of a century ago. When France and Britain were gobbling up territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, they promised the Kurds an autonomous statelet, which they said could eventually become an independent nation-state. That commitment was mentioned in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Little did the Kurds know that oil under their soil would turn out to be the stumbling block to their independence, just as resources in many other developing countries had cost theirs. Lure of resources drove European powers into invading and colonizing most of the non-Western world.

In the 1920s as Britain was settling down in its Iraqi colony (bestowed on it under the League of Nations mandate), the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company struck oil near Kirkuk, in the middle of the Kurds’ “promised land” of an autonomous state. Out the window went the British and French pledge for a “Kurdistan.” The two imperial powers now decided to split the more resourceful part of the centuries-old Kurdish homeland between the British colony of Iraq and neighboring French colony of Syria and dole out the remainder of the territory to Turkey and Iran.

Thus 35 million Kurds have become the world’s largest ethnic community without a state of their own, languishing as minorities in four states and refugees in many others. During trips to Iraq and Turkey, the word I often heard Kurds mention as the source of their quandary was “betrayal” – betrayal by British and French colonial powers. Throughout the century that followed the fourfold partition of their land Kurds in one country or another have struggled off and on for a national homeland or homelands.

In Turkey bloody terrorist attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and bloodier government reprisals have cost nearly 40,000 lives in three decades. In Iraq separatist uprisings by the Kurdish Peshmerga militia led to equally brutal government crackdowns, including a chemical attack in the Halabja village by the Saddam Hussein government.

Thanks to America’s need for the Kurdish Peshmerga militia to fight its wars against the Saddam government and then against the Islamic State, the United States has helped set up Iraqi Kurdistan with wide local autonomy.  But Washington never agreed to support Iraqi Kurds’ secessionist scheme.  In northern Syria Kurds have taken advantage of the five-year-long Syrian civil war to carve out a territory they call Rojava, which they aspire to turn into an autonomous or independent Kurdish stare. The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is also perturbed by the Rojava campaign and the adrenaline it could get from the KRG referendum in Iraq. Last week Damascus denounced the KRG for its referendum. In Iran Kurdish separatism is less assertive than in any of the three other countries. But Tehran, too, worries about a spillover of the Kurdish ferment in its neighborhood, and the Iranian government has decried the referendum in northern Iraq. The United States and several European countries have also been concerned that a Kurdish independence movement in Iraq could threaten the stability of the state system in that region. The Trump administration repeatedly warned KRG President Masoud Barzani not to stage the referendum.

Barzani couldn’t but have known that in the teeth of the strong regional and international opposition his referendum would open a Pandora’s box, instead of promoting Kurdish independence. True, the Kurds lost their territories to the four states against their will, just as Mexicans lost part of their land to America against theirs. But plenty of water has flowed down the Euphrates and Mississippi rivers since America and the four Middle Eastern countries took shape and evolved as nation-states.  The aide to the Mexican president can’t expect to wrest Texas, New Mexico or Arizona back from America anymore than Kurds in Iraq – or Turkey, Syria or Iran – stand a reasonable chance of tearing up those nation-states to create one or more independent Kurdish states.

The Kurds could achieve their goal of national independence in one of two ways: by the force of their own arms or through the military or diplomatic intervention of a major power or powers. Bangladesh, South Sudan and East Timor gained their independence in one or the other of the two processes. But Kurds in none of the four countries have the armed capability to secede, and support for their cause in the international community is zero (Oops! I forgot the vociferous Israeli support for the KRG’s independence project).

You would wonder why, then, the KRG president went ahead with his ill-fated referendum. I think his fast dwindling support base among Iraqi Kurds has something to do with it. Barzani was elected KRG president by the regional legislature in 2005. Since then he has turned into an autocrat, ruling the territory without a mandate since his term of office expired in August 2015. His blatant nepotism, rampant corruption in his government and a sharp downturn in the region’s economy have heightened his people’s discontent against him.  But the aspiration for an independent homeland still animates most Kurdish minds and hearts in Iraq. If he held the referendum to shore up his popularity among Kurds, their overwhelming yes vote shows that he made a good bet. But sadly, their euphoria was short-lived.  Media reports show that it already has died down and most Kurds are worried, instead, about the onset of the economic and political crisis, spawned by the neighboring states’ virulent reactions to the referendum.

I think the international community should get to work to help resolve the Kurdish imbroglio. The United States, which has used Iraqi Kurds in two major wars, is morally obligated to step in to pull them out of the quagmire. The Kurdish predicament also offers the Trump administration an opportunity to get away from its own quagmire created by the president’s reckless stands on the climate change accord, Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and other issues. He should get Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take the lead in an international initiative to bring about a reconciliation between Iraqi Kurdistan and its neighbors. Because such an effort would bolster America’s standing in the world, it would be part of Trump’s “America first” agenda.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts this blog.

 

 

 

 

No ‘cakewalk’ to Pyongyang, please

ON WEDNESDAY I was about to head out to a seminar on cyber security at Wilson Center in Washington when I peeked into the Internet to check the latest news.

“U.S. quietly plans to occupy North Korea after war,” a banner headline in London’s The Sun newspaper screamed at me. I remembered that President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had said, too, that military action against North Korea is a  possibility.

The story led to a Newsweek link. Clicked, it opened a piece in which German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel was quoted as saying that a war between the United States and North Korea “could be deadliest conflict in history,” more catastrophic than the Second World War.

The seminar was about security threats from North Korea, China and Russia.  James Lewis, vice president of Center from Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, talked about a “deterrent” against cyber threats from Pyongyang.

I told him that North Koreans had been saying that their nukes are meant to be “a deterrent against American invasion.”  I also mentioned that I had heard Sunni Arab leaders in Iraq lamenting that if Saddam Hussein had a few nuclear weapons he could’ve “deterred the U.S. invasion” of 2003, sparing both Iraq and America the “unnecessary and catastrophic war.”

Lewis nodded, apparently signaling that he was aware of it.

Continuing, I inquired if Iranians wanted to have “a couple of nukes,” which they insisted they never did, won’t those warheads also serve as a deterrent against Israeli or U.S. military action? I couldn’t conceive, I added, of Iranians wanting to “commit national suicide” by initiating a nuclear conflict with Israel or the United States.

I asked the CSIS executive what he thought of Kim Jong-un’s reasoning for a nuclear deterrent against a U.S. invasion.

The panelist didn’t answer my question, but warned, instead, that North Koreans “would be deluding themselves” if they thought that a few nukes “would give them immunity” against the U.S. military power. The United States could “get rid of the problem” posed by Kim, regardless of his nukes.

Was he hinting at a possible regime change in North Korea? I wondered.

Explaining the reason America was determined to prevent North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, Lewis said, such weaponry could tempt those countries “to evade their responsibilities under international law, to violate international law,” and threaten their neighbors and international security.

I thought of asking him the obvious question of whether the United States and other nuclear powers weren’t potentially violating international law over and over because they sat on nuclear stockpiles.  Nuclear arsenals have given them the ability to commit illegal aggression against non-nuclear countries. Also, they have equipped them with veto powers at the U.N. Security Council, practically shielding them against accountability for violations of international law. But I didn’t want to get into an argument with the panelist.

Martin C. Libicki from the U.S. Naval Academy, another panelist, picked up on my comment about Iran. He said Iranians would be “right to think that Israel can do things with its [nuclear] capabilities that its neighbors can’t.”  But the Israelis needed that capability for their national security, added the professor of cyber security studies.

Their comments reminded me of a complaint that my Pakistani mentor had made to me several times in the early 1970s. Nurul Amin was prime minister and later vice president of Pakistan, and I worked as his press aide.  He would lament to me about America’s “blatant and illegal” military interventions, and often regime change, in Iran, Lebanon, Vietnam, Congo, Ghana and elsewhere. “Independence from colonial rule lets us [Asian and African nations] have our own brown and black rulers,” he would say, “as long as we toe their lines.”

On the subway train back home from Wilson Center, it occurred to me that Nurul Amin’s comment of the Cold War era doesn’t quite apply to the new world we live in. Yes, in 1953 the CIA under the Eisenhower administration could have Iran’s democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq easily overthrown in a military coup. But by 1979 Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries bundled out the brutal pro-American monarchy of Muhammad Riza Pahlavi, whom the Americans had installed in Tehran.

In 1958 the Iraqi army overthrew the pro-Western monarchy in Iraq while Muslim insurgents in neighboring Lebanon rose up against the pro-Western Christian minority government of President Camille Chamoun. Chamoun asked for U.S. help, and the Eisenhower administration immediately rushed some 14,000 troops to Lebanon. The Muslim insurgents ran for cover and the invading American troops hit the beaches in Beirut.

“We drank a lot,” as the U.S. Marines corporal Thomas Zmecek would recall later. “We were provided with swimming trunks and swam with the daughters [of Christian hosts] and had a grand time.”

Twenty-five years later a U.S.-led multinational force was stationed in Lebanon to intervene in a brewing civil war between the Israeli-backed Christian forces and Syrian-backed Muslim and Druze activists. When opposition forces threatened the presidency of Maronite Christian Amin Gemayel, the Reagan administration, prodded by the Israelis and Secretary of State George P. Schultz (against the strenuous objection of Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger) ordered an American contingent to rush to West Beirut to protect the Gemayel regime. But the new Lebanese generation didn’t go into hiding as had their parents and uncles in 1958. They were infuriated by the America intervention in their internal affairs and began to mobilize to resist it. But one of them, a Shiite Muslim, spared them a prolonged fight. He went on a suicide mission, piling up explosives onto a truck and detonating it at a U.S.-French Marines barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American and 58 French servicemen. That led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon.

American politicians and bureaucrats have had difficulty grasping the changed social ethos and worldviews of contemporary generations of post-colonial societies. Many people who grew up under European colonial rule or in the shadow of the colonial era were tolerant of Western military interventions and hegemony. Their children are not. Born in independent countries and exposed to Western values of freedom and democracy, disseminated by myriad communications media, they’re mostly allergic to foreign domination and presence of foreign troops on their lands.

American neocons and Cold War retirees who planned the Iraq war were ostriches with their heads buried in the sand, without having a clue about the dynamics of the Muslim youth of the day. During the run-up to the war neoconservative security expert Ken Adelman proclaimed he was “reasonably certain” that the Iraqis would greet invading U.S. troops “as liberators.” He probably was musing over Lebanese Christians reveling at the arrival of U.S. troops in 1958. Or maybe images of Koreans hailing U.S. Marines under Gen. Douglas MacArthur after their heroic victory in Battle of Inchon was flashing back on his mind.

But in 2003 Iraq had a fiercely independent-minded breed of Arabs who, despite their sectarian feuds, were deeply hostile to foreign domination, as I had observed during three trips in previous years. Their resistance to the U.S. invasion led to the rise of the Islamic State, sectarian blood-letting, unraveling of the Iraqi state, and the security of America and the West.

I’m not sure that the United States can launch a successful invasion of North Korea. Unlike Iraq, that Communist country is believed to have between six and 16 nuclear weapons, most or some of which are in locations unknown to Americans.  “It is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, [intelligence] collection nations that we have to collect against,” Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, told Congress in May. Even if America can succeed in taking out all of Kim’s nukes before an invasion, which is extremely unlikely, I doubt that North Koreans would hail American invaders as “liberators” anymore than did Iraqis.  North Koreans are extremely xenophobic people, usually suspicious of foreigners.  A U.S. occupation force would very likely get bogged down in the Hermit Kingdom for years, which the war-wary American public is unlikely to accept.

If the Trump administration blunders into an invasion of North Korea, I’d be as concerned about the catastrophe it would spawn for Americans and Koreans as is Gabriel, the German foreign minister.

– Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts this blog.

Bravo, Trump!

This is a first for me: supporting an action of President Trump. I applaud his order tonight to strike Syrian military installations with dozens of Tomahawks. It’s a highly moral and humane undertaking whose strategic consequences are likely to be far-reaching.

I hope that America will finally get rid of the ghastliest and most repugnant dictator alive, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. And I hope this is the beginning of the end of the hell on earth that has engulfed the Syrian people for six years, which has seemed eternity to most.

I have opposed Trump’s election and most of his words and deeds so far. And I will continue to criticize his right-wing domestic political and economic programs and most of his other uninformed and potentially counter-productive foreign policy agenda. But his decision to clip the wings of the bloodthirsty dictator in Damascus has my unreserved support. The president has put the world, and especially the Obama administration, to shame, which they richly deserve, for wringing their hands while Assad and his Russian and Iranian collaborators systematically slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women and children.

Trump has been widely criticized and lampooned, often rightly, for his many faults and failings, but tonight he has hopped onto a moral high ground for his bold decision: to punish the Assad regime for its chemical attack, which has snuffed out the lives of scores Syrians, including “beautiful babies,” as he put it. With a single stone he also is killing a host of other birds: cutting Vladimir Putin down to size; giving Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a bloody nose; putting Kim Jong-un on notice; earning the support and accolade of Arab regimes, whatever it’s worth; and above all, giving a principled dimension to his otherwise wrong-headed, rudderless administration.

The ultimate outcome of the U.S. intervention in Syria is unlikely to please Trump, his Republican friends and many other Americans. Post-Assad Syrian politics and society will likely be dominated by Sunni Arab forces most of whom will remain hostile to U.S. support for Israel and the repressive Arab monarchies and dictatorships. It will require the Trump and the United States a much greater epiphany to earn the support and trust of Arab and Muslim societies, which, at this moment, doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. But that doesn’t diminish the significance of the laudable operation the administration has launched in Syria.

Nobody can tell the future awaiting Syria, which is going to be chaotic at least for a while. Whatever it is, it will be far better than the nightmare that millions of Syrians have gone through since they rose up against their brutal dictator.

Meanwhile, Trump’s bold and decisive undertaking in Syria has earned him and America abiding gratitude of the Syrian nation (except the coterie surrounding and supporting Assad), and a very bright spot in Syrian history.

Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’: http://muslimjourney.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did CIA try to bump off Erdogan?

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN has upped the ante in his row with the Obama administration, which has heated up since last month’s failed coup in Turkey. The Turkish president now has jumped onto the lap of America’s geopolitical rival, Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan’s meeting Tuesday with his Russian counterpart in a czarist palace outside St. Petersburg has opened what he called – correctly, I believe – “a new page” in Turkish-Russian relations. The two erstwhile foes agreed on a raft of trade, economic and strategic ties between their countries. Some Turks are calling it Erdogan’s “counter-coup” against the United States, which they believe masterminded the botched military coup to overthrow the democratically elected Turkish government.

The St. Petersburg meeting was a 180-degree turn for a man who used to admire America with a passion. The United States was a “model of democracy which Europe should follow,” Erdogan, then disgraced mayor of Istanbul, told me during an interview at his office on August 2, 1998. He was packing to leave the office as he had lost his mayoral job upon his conviction in a Turkish court for reciting a provocative “jihadi poem” at a public gathering.

Putin had fallen out, spitefully, with Erdogan last November when Turkish troops shot down a Russian fighter jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace. That’s all forgotten now. The Turkish guest addressed his Russian host as “dear friend” three times in 10 minutes during their meeting.

Erdogan’s trip to Russia, his first abroad since the failed coup, was meant, partly, to be his tribute to the man he believes had saved his life and government. On the night of July 15 Russian intelligence officers at the Khmeimin airbase in Syria intercepted coded radio signals about preparations for an uprising by military units in Turkey. At Putin’s behest, they called Erdogan at a seaside Turkish resort to alert him about it. A squad of rebel soldiers, they told the Turkish leader, was in flight with orders to “capture or kill” him. Less than 15 minutes after the Erdogan and his family had left the Marmaris resort by an aircraft, 25 renegade Turkish soldiers barged into the hotel where he was staying, looking for him. Erdogan must have thanked his stars for making up with the Russian president a month earlier.

The Turkish president and his associates have accused the CIA of organizing the attempted rebellion in collusion with Erdogan’s arch rival Fethullah Gulen, a multi-billionaire Turkish cleric, living in Pennsylvania. The unorthodox Muslim cleric has built a vast network of schools, businesses and charities in Turkey and dozens of other countries. Critics say the pro-American Gulen has been planning to use his support base in his native Turkey to rule that country as a political and spiritual leader, as a Turkish Ayatollah Khomeini, so to speak. Except that unlike the Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary of Iran, Gulen is a pragmatic, modernizing religious leader.

The belief that the United States engineered the attempted putsch is widely shared by the Turkish public, 69 percent, according to one poll, and by several Turkish media organizations. Some print and electronic news outlets have detailed the alleged American complicity. The Yeni Safak (New Dawn) newspaper, based in Istanbul, has named retired U.S. Army Gen. John F. Campbell as “the man behind” the rebellion. The pro-government paper wrote that Campbell had been recruiting Gulenists in the Turkish armed forces for the coup for eight months. The general, the paper said, had been working with some 80 CIA operatives and distributed $2 billion among Turkish military officers and others through the Nigerian branch of the United Bank of Africa. Yeni Safak obtained most of the information from testimonies of the putschists in Turkish custody.

Then while the uprising was being crushed by angry crowds who had poured into the streets of Ankara and Istanbul at the call of their president, someone spotted a groups of distinguished foreigners behaving suspiciously at a luxury hotel on Princes’ Island outside Istanbul. Henri J. Barkey, a well-known former CIA official and Gulen’s mentor, was watching the insurrection on TV, along with 17 others. Among them, according to one account, was Graham E. Fuller, another former top-ranking CIA officer and long-time Gulen patron. Barkey had instructed the management of the Splendid Palas hotel to set up gadgets for connection to American TV channels.

“I will make a live interview with CNN International,” Barkey had informed them, “and with Voice of America.”

Gulen’s relationship with the CIA began in the 1980s and thickened in 1999 when he defected to the United States to escape capture by the then Turkish government, which had obtained a taped speech by him, instructing his followers to infiltrate government agencies to eventually seize the government. “Move into the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence,” he told them, “until you reach all the power centers.”

In the United States, Fuller was among three CIA-linked Americans who pushed for Gulen’s permanent residency, despite opposition from the State and Homeland Security departments. The other two were George Fidas, a 31-year CIA veteran, and Morton Abramowitz, U.S. ambassador to Turkey during 1989-1991, who is suspected to have been collaborating with CIA projects.

Some of my Turkish interlocutors have been saying that the CIA is the main source of Gulen’s staggering wealth ($25-$50 billion) and his schools and charities in Central Asia. Among those who exposed his CIA connection was the former head of Turkey’s foreign intelligence service, known by its Turkish acronym MIT (the “Turkish CIA”). In 2011 Osman Nuri Gundes published a book, saying Gulen’s Central Asian schools were honeycombed with CIA agents operating as “native-speaking English teachers.”

Regime Change

The CIA reportedly tapped Gulen to use him in a broader U.S. program to get Islam and Muslims to fight communism. The collaboration allegedly continues as part of the CIA’s and neoconservatives’ fight against Islamist movements, one of the many pie-in-the-sky American programs to fight Muslim extremism and terrorism. In any case, they included Erdogan’s AKP in the program.

Unlike Turkey’s Islamic fundamentalist organizations of earlier times, the AKP is a moderate or conservative Muslim party. But American neocons, intelligence agencies and leading media operations continue to consider it a typical Islamist party. They have been as hostile to Erdogan and the AKP as they are to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its imprisoned leader Mohammed Mursi. One can see their animosity toward Erdogan in the writings and rhetoric of Fuller, Barkey, Abramowitz, Michael Rubin, Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes and others. They have been castigating Erdogan’s Islamic “agenda” and “authoritarian” rule and making no secret of their impatience for a regime change in Ankara.

Intriguingly, on March 21 Rubin wrote an article on the American Enterprise Institute website under the headline, “Could there be a coup in Turkey?” He wrote: “The Turkish military would suffer no significant consequence should it imitate [Egyptian coup leader and now president] Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s game plan in Egypt, no one should be surprised if Turkey’s rocky politics soon get rockier.”

Some of these neocons and intelligence operatives have also been defending Gulen against Ankara’s repeated calls, being made for years for his extradition to answer charges in courts for his alleged subversive activities (before the recent coup attempt). The Erdogan government has ratcheted up those calls since the July 15 mutiny. The Obama administration’s persistent refusal to hand over Gulen to Turkey has deepened many Turks’ suspicion about alleged U.S. collusion with Gulen to overthrow the Erdogan government.

President Obama and other American officials have strongly denied allegations of a U.S. role in the Turkish rebellion, and Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Turkey later this month to underscore U.S. support for that country and Erdogan’s democratically elected government. Gulen, too, has flatly denied any complicity in the uprising, although he said some of the Turkish troops who participated in it could be among his supporters.

I don’t expect Turkish-America ties to snap overnight. Relations between the the two old allies have survived Turkey’s invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974, which infuriated President Lyndon Johnson; the Turkish parliament’s rejection of Americans’ plans to use their airbase in southern Turkey during the 2003 Iraq invasion; and other glitches.

But the dissension between Ankara and Washington has been too real, and going on for too long, to ignore. If I were to pick a time when the feuds began, I would say it was Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 U.S.-led war against Iraq to roll back its invasion of Kuwait.

Iraq used to be Turkey’s No. 1 trading partner, and relations between the two Muslim neighbors were cordial. The Turks were opposed to the war, but were “bullied” into it “despite our misgivings about it,” then Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit complained to visitors. As a NATO member, then impoverished and dependent on U.S. military aid and trade, Ankara couldn’t afford to turn down the U.S. demand to join the conflict. The war and the devastating U.S.-sponsored trade embargo on Iraq that followed completely ruptured Turkey’s trade and commercial relations with Iraq. A decade later the Ankara-based newspaper Turkish Daily News reported that Turkish trade with Iraq had dropped to 8 percent of its 1990 volume, costing Turkey between $80 billion and $100 billion.

“We have become America’s serfs,” Faris Estarda, a college graduate and centrist political activist working at Alibaba rug store near Istanbul’s Sultanahmet square, lamented to me during my 1999 trip. “They [the Americans] would start a war with a country to enlarge their empire or take out a government they don’t like, and they would order us pick up the guns and march. Or let them use Incirlik [U.S. military base in southern Turkey]. We can’t say no. Whatever that does to our economy, our relationships, we can’t say no.”

Freedom, Dignity

By the time the George W. Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, however, Turkish society and politics had changed dramatically. The democratic upheaval spearheaded by Erdogan and his AKP had ushered in an unprecedented economic boom and buoyed the Turks with a spirit of freedom and dignity they hadn’t felt sine the early 1920s when they defeated the victors of World War l to liberate Turkey from their occupation. Before and during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Turks were denouncing it as “unjust,” “imperialist,” and so forth. Erdogan, still on good terms with the United States, planned to help with the American war plan. But the Turkish parliament overwhelmingly rejected Washington’s request to use its Incirlik airbase for bombing runs in Iraq.

American politicians and foreign policy community were enraged. Many of them blamed the Turkish rebuff on the AKP-led Islamic resurgence. Ever since, relations between the two NATO partners have been deteriorating, mainly because U.S. strategic and policy objectives are clashing with Turkey’s security and economic interests.

During the Iraq war, the United States depended heavily on Kurdish and Shiite militias to do most of the ground fighting against Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Arab forces. The Bush administration didn’t want to use U.S. ground forces on front lines, fearing American casualties would erode U.S. public support behind the war.

To compensate for their support in the war, Americans let Shiites monopolize political power in Baghdad, and what has had more far-reaching consequences, looked the other way as the Shiite government and militias began a massive purge of Sunni Arabs from the military, bureaucracy and security forces. Simultaneously, Shiite militants and public went on ethnically cleansing Sunni Arabs from Shiite-majority towns and cities. That led to the rise of ISIS as the only defender of Sunni Arab victims of the U.S. invasion and Shiite pogrom. The tragedy that befell Sunni Arabs in Iraq spawned anger and anguish among many Sunni Turks across the border.

But it was America’s coddling of the Kurds that took – and is still taking – the heaviest toll on Turkish-U.S. relations. Iraqi Kurds had been fighting for decades, often against American resistance but with Israeli support, to create an independent or autonomous “Kurdistan,” comprising the three Kurdish-majority provinces in northern Iraq. As a price of their help with the U.S. war effort, the United States endorsed their Kurdistan project. Turkey objected to the project strenuously as it feared that the autonomous Kurdish territory in Iraq would become a staging ground for attacks into Turkey by secessionist Turkish Kurds. And it did. Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists have been fighting since 1984 for an autonomous or independent territory in southeastern Turkey, just as their ethnic kin had been in northern Iraq. PKK guerrillas now infiltrated Iraqi Kurdistan and began attacking targets in Turkey from there. The Erdogan government urged Washington over and over to expel the PKK guerrillas from northern Iraq. Americans did little in response, except denounce the PKK and ask the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq to throw them out, which the KRG ignored.

Besides its dependence on the fighting muscle of Iraqi Kurds, the United States also saw Iraqi Kurdistan as a strategic asset. After the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki rejected, under Iranian pressure, U.S. plans to build military bases in southern or central Iraq, the Pentagon and the CIA saw Iraqi Kurdistan as an alternative host to U.S. bases. Last month the Pentagon signed an agreement with the KRG to build five bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, apparently to carry out surveillance and launch military missions in the Middle East.

PKK guerrillas not only were using northern Iraq for their terrorist campaign in Turkey. They also made common cause with fellow Kurds in northern Syria, whom the United States has been using in its fight against ISIS. In the fog of the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish militia in Syria, known by its Kurdish acronym YPG, has staked out an autonomous region of their own, known as Rojava. The YPG has been supportive of the PKK and its secessionist struggle in Turkey. The Kurdish terrorists from Turkey have getting arms, ammunition and other logistical support from their fellow Kurds in Syria.

The Obama administration practically has ignored Ankara’s pleas to expel PKK fighters from Rojava, as it did before in Iraqi Kurdistan. Erdogan’s aides say the Turkish president was first befuddled by Obama’s indifference to his pleas. For months now, he has reportedly been convinced that the availability of Iraqi Kurdish territory for U.S. military bases has downgraded Incirlik’s importance to Washington, and Turkey’s, for that matter. America’s need for the YPG to fight ISIS is cited as the main reason the United States has been indifferent to the Syrian guerrilla group’s support for and collaboration with the PKK.

A widely circulated exchange at a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing was taken by Ankara as evidence that the United States is ready to forget about the Turks to preserve its ties to PYG. In April

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter told the Senate panel that he believed YPG was aiding the PKK in its terrorist activities in Turkey. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who had returned from an investigation of the Turkish-PKK conflict, concurred with Carter’s assessment. The Texas Republican criticized the administration for “arming people inside of Syria who are aligned with a terrorist group” that was destabilizing Turkey. Arming the PKK-aligned Kurdish guerrillas in Syria was “the dumbest idea in the world,” he added.

The State Department immediately got its spokesman to disown the defense secretary’s comments. John Kirby told the press that Carter’s remarks on YPG was “his views and the Pentagon’s views.” The YPG was “not a designated foreign terrorist organization” and hence the United States had no problem arming them, he added. Kirby ignored Carter’s and Graham’s concerns about the threat that the YPG’s support for the PKK has posed to Turkey.

The Obama administration has a decision to make. If it thinks security and strategic relations with Turkey would continue to serve U.S. strategic interests, it has to accommodate two crucial demands of the Turks. First, the Obama administration needs to get its Syrian and Iraqi allies to stop aiding and abetting the PKK. Secondly, it should extradite Gulen to Turkey to answer allegations in Turkish courts about his role in the July 15 armed insurrection and other subversive operations.

An unwillingness to meet the two crucial Turkish demands would signal to the Turks that their assumption is right: Turkish-U.S. security and strategic relations have outlived their usefulness. Who knows, they may have.

  • Mustafa Malik covered Turkey as a newspaper correspondent and conducted fieldwork there and in Europe on Ankara’s relations with the European Union. He hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’ (http://muslimjourney.com)

Iran deal: Break it and you own it

(A version of the article was published on May 23, 2016, in Masthead, the journal of the Association of American Opinion Writer)

ABSTRACT: Does the Iran nuclear deal remain in danger? The Obama administration been steadfastly defending the accord between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. Stephen Mull, the U.S. diplomat charged with overseeing its implementation, told me during a State Department briefing that blocking Iran’s paths to acquiring nukes has been the goal of “several [U.S.] administrations for many years,” and that the accord does precisely that. Yet congressional Republicans remain unreconciled to the agreement, and some have threatened to scrub in the next Congress.  Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has already called for the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic, arguing that Tehran violated a U.N. Security Council resolution by testing its Shahab-3 ballistic missile. I argue that scrapping deal would be a calamitous blunder for America. It would compel the United States to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, leading to war between the two countries. And Iran, with its military power and network of militias and activists throughout the “Shiite Crescent,” could wreak havoc to U.S. strategic and security interests and institutions in west Asia.

Paul Ryan tried to suppress a touch of elation when he declared that the Iran nuclear deal was “starting to unravel.” The House speaker echoed the anticipation, widespread among his fellow Republicans and the Israeli right, that the next administration and Congress would junk the agreement between P5+1 nations and Iran.

It reminds me of a Jay Leno spoof. “A retired Air Force colonel said that U.S. military operations are already under way in Iran,” the comedian told his TV audience. “You know what that means? That means that it’s time to break out the old ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner!”

On May 1, 2003, 11 days after U.S. troops roared into the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, President George W. Bush arrived in a fixed-wing aircraft to the bow of USS Abraham Lincoln. The aircraft carrier was anchored just off the San Diego coast. As TV cameras rolled furiously, the 43rd president, wrapped in a flight suit, flashed confident smiles and gave a self-congratulatory talk. But the war president’s ebullience was overshadowed by a long banner hanging behind him, declaring: ‘Mission Accomplished.”

The real Iraq war would begin soon. Droves of Iraqi guerrillas would stream into the streets and alleys of Iraqi cities and towns and engage U.S. and allied forces in a long, ferocious struggle.  In the decade that followed, close to 1 million Iraqis and 4,000 American troops would perish. The Iraqi state and society would come unglued. And the Islamic State terrorist nightmare would unfold, posing a persistent threat to American and European security.

Behind Leno’s insightful joke lurks a chilling warning about the possibility of America blundering into a war with Iran, triggered by the rejection of the Iran nuclear deal. But could the next administration really scrub the accord?  Stephen Mull, the U.S. diplomat charged with seeing through the implementation of the accord, wouldn’t rule it out. “It’s not a treaty,” he told me. “The next president can tear it up.”  He was explaining to a group of us from the Association of Opinion Writers the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the Iran accord.

Mull said, during the State Department briefing, that Iran’s agreement with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia) and Germany, called p5+1, already had achieved a major foreign policy goal, pursued by “successive U.S. administrations for many years”: the elimination of the threat from a nuclear-armed Iran. The JCPOA had, the diplomat continued, got Tehran to slash its stockpile of 1,2000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride to just 300, a 98 percent cut. It bars the Islamic Republic from enriching uranium above 3.67 percent, far below the level required to make a nuke. The Iranians, too, had to reduce their stock of 19, 000 uranium-enriching centrifuges to only about 5, 000. And their nuclear sites had been “open for inspection 24/7” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “Iran has implemented this deal in completely good faith.”  All these and and other provisions of the pact had, Mull emphasized, “cut off every possible way for Iran to make nuclear weapons.”

But a majority of the Republican-majority in Congress has been dead-set against the JCPOA. Forty-seven U.S. senators have sent an open letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warning Iran’s supreme leader: “The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen.”

The deal could to come up for review by the next president, whoever that is. Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, has denounced it as “horrible” and vowed to scrub it, if elected president.  Democrat Hillary Clinton has long been hostile to Iran.  As President Obama’s secretary of state, she had to lead the U.S. diplomatic team to negotiate the Iran deal, and she obviously has to defend it on her presidential campaign trail. Yet hours after the United States dropped its part of the multilateral sanctions against Iran, as required by the JCPOA, Clinton demanded slapping new U.S. sanctions on it, citing Tehran’s testing of its Shahab-3 ballistic missile. The JCPOA doesn’t bar such tests, but she argued that Tehran was “violating UN Security Council resolutions with its ballistic missile program.”

America can, as Mull pointed out, scrub the agreement. But then? Their internal political feuds notwithstanding, the Iranians are a deeply patriotic nation, large swaths of which are pulsating with revolutionary zing. Iran’s population and military power are more than thrice those of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. America can start a conflict with the Iranians and throw a “Mission Accomplished” party after a likely initial victory.

But it’s only Iran that could end such a war. With its network of activists and militias across the “Shiite Crescent,” the Islamic Republic could set the Middle East on fire, which probably wouldn’t stop before consuming many of America’s interests and endangering its hegemony in Muslim west Asia.

On Aug. 5, 2002, Colin Powell, always a reluctant warrior, was trying, unsuccessfully, to dissuade President Bush from invading Iraq. The secretary of state told the president that the war being planned could land America into a costly and long-lasting quagmire, and told Bush about a pottery barn rule: “If you break it, you own it.”

Maybe someone should remind our anti-Iranian hawks of Powell’s caveat, again.

  • Mustafa Malik worked as a reporter, columnist and editor for the Hartford Courant, Glasgow Herald and other newspapers and think tanks. He writes about international affairs for various American and overseas newspapers and journals.