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Lessons from the Precipice: North Korea and Indonesia as ‘Mentors’ for Iran

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Since the revolution, Iranian politics have progressed through a number of phases, becoming progressively more splintered as time passes, where the question of which identity for the nation – whether to continue as a purely Islamic theocratic state or to move towards a more open Islamic Democratic Republic – plays out.

Internally, many of Iran’s political factions believe strongly that the future of the state is in deepening Iran’s relations with the outside world and drastically improving its own economy. In that regard, if one were to take a more holistic view in determining what lessons Iran could learn from other nations with regards to their various approaches to the same questions, one can certainly draw interesting conclusions from countries like North Korea and Indonesia to see how their experiences have helped or hurt their countries.

Inside Iran one of the two main political factions are the ‘Principalists.’ This group represents Iranian Conservatives and is more closely aligned with the Ayatollah and his revolutionary ideology. While they may not like the comparison, this side of Iranian politics tends to prefer an Iran modeled very much in the mold of North Korea. Isolationist and defiant to the greater global world, they oppose such things as the recent nuclear accord and moves toward a more modern lifestyle, combining this with a deep mistrust of the West’s intensions. In North Korea, we see a country that has taken an extreme stance in both its internal and external relations. In exploring its internal politics we see a country where, while its leaders enjoy complete control over the nation’s populace, its people live in absolute poverty, the economy is largely non-existent and in shambles, and the only real means of survival seems to rest on the fact that it possesses a nuclear arsenal and is willing to convince the world it might act irrationally with it.

On the surface Iran and North Korea have a number of similarities: both regimes were born out of revolutions that were largely founded on anti-imperialist sentiments; both regimes have consistently used the United States as a scapegoat for their own economic woes; and both find the development of a nuclear program, whether for peaceful or military means, at odds with the international community and the source of crippling international denouncement and sanctions. Finally, both are topped by non-democratic leaders, with the Ayatollah firmly entrenched as the Supreme Leader of Iran and Kim Jong-un standing as North Korea’s cult of personality. It is this approach to the nuclear issue within the global community that Iran could look towards North Korea to understand the seriousness of potential consequences if it is unable to find a solution amenable to all. While both nations have multiple layers of political and military leadership beneath them, the two Supreme Leaders share a common role in being the final word throughout all of their nations’ foreign and domestic policies.

North Korea, similar to the discussions Iran is currently engaged in, came to an agreement on what the international community felt were acceptable terms with regards to its nuclear program. Adherence to the terms of this agreement would have brought in much needed fuel, food, and financial assistance, creating a major positive impact on the health and well-being of its citizenry. Unfortunately, North Korea’s adherence to the agreement was short-lived and its hardships have worsened. Cut off from the outside world, North Korea has experienced such severe hardships that some estimates horrifyingly claim up to 15 percent of its population has perished during the most recent economic downturn. These shortages have caused the nation to attempt to erratically leverage its nuclear position to basically ‘extort’ aid. And so continues the never-ending cycle that causes outside nations to be alarmed at the increasing instability and react by attempting to tighten the diplomatic/economic noose in an effort to displace the NK leadership. With the passage of the JCPOA, Iran stands at a precipice similar to where North Korea once stood: abide by the terms of the agreement and move back into the fold of the international community or depart from the terms and sink deeper into the political and economic abyss. It is sincerely hoped that Iran will prove to be less irrational and less petulant compared to North Korea in reacting to such pressures. The main difference in Iran that could prevent this comparison scenario from continuing in a negative light is the existence of identifiable groups within both the main population and elite levels of government that provide a contrary voice and have the power to effect change. It is this voice of potential grassroots pragmatism that has been effectively silenced within North Korea and possibly has the power to force Iran’s more dogmatic leadership to move along a different trajectory, thus preventing the nation from falling into the same despair as North Korea.

In contrast to North Korea, Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim community, provides an excellent example of how a democratic nation and Islam can peacefully co-exist within the global environment. For decades Islamic political pressures boiled in Indonesia as we currently see in many Middle Eastern nations today. These forces were kept largely in check by President Suharto’s military regime until the nation, long tired of authoritarian rule, forced Suharto to resign. We see some of these same pressures today within Iran as large segments of the population disagree with the powers Khamenei wields over the government and look to effect at least quasi-democratic change. While many worry that Islam and democracy will never be allowed to co-exist in Iran, we have seen this as an unfounded worry inside Indonesia. While the majority of Indonesians are Muslim, the state itself is not considered theocratic. As in Indonesia, we see in Iran a populace that is supportive of such fundamental principles as the freedom of political parties, inclusive suffrage, freedom of the press, and a number of other civil rights normally associated with mature consolidated democracies. With an increase in religious and cultural plurality within Iran, the stage could soon be set for a more inclusive form of government similar to the Indonesian path.

Such a successful outcome, however, would require a political disengagement of the current religious leadership that currently sits atop Iran’s power structures. That may well be unattainable at this moment but it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility in the future, through either peaceful or non-peaceful means. Economic hardships combined with Persian nationalism could well force Iran’s leadership to effect change within the state in order to ensure its own political survival, even if at a lessened capacity. Once that door is opened, who knows how swift and dramatic potential changes could be? Peaceful and progressive revolutions aimed at JOINING more tightly to the global community are less noticeable and far harder to predict than strident ideological movements bent on separating further from the international stage. Iran has already had this latter revolution. Now it is time to hope that the former is on the visible horizon.

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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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