20 Years of Leading Analysis
  • Strategic Cynicism in Kobani

    Posted by: Michael Cecire October 30, 2014

    For now, courageous and tenacious Kurdish fighters are holding onto the northern Syrian town of Kobani. Against steep odds, they have staved off major humanitarian catastrophe. Had Kobani fallen, the legacy of the siege would have looked very different. Though Western coalition forces had no expectation of a Turkish intervention on behalf of Kobani’s Kurdish defenders, images of Turkish tanks idly overlooking the city as ISIS fighters launched waves of attacks likely would have defined the enduring narrative if the city had fallen.

    Kobani has revealed Turkish policy in Syria to be deeply cynical and confused—if not outright insidious, as some critics allege. Turkey’s passivity at the prospect of a widely expected ISIS slaughter was not only abhorrent from a human rights perspective, but also may have erased years of progress in Turkish-Kurdish relations and consigned the country to another generation of insurgency while alienating potential allies in Kurdish northern Iraq.

    Kobani has revealed Turkish policy in Syria to be deeply cynical and confused.
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    The notion that Ankara had no way to find common cause with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)-affiliated People’s Protection Unit (YPG) fighters comprising the bulk of Kobani’s sentinels is dubious. Ankara has expressed few qualms about reframing relations with states and non-state groups to meet its own ends. Examples abound, including the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) erstwhile engagement with the PKK, the rapid oscillations in Turkish relations with (pre-war) Syria and Iran, and Ankara’s willingness to deal with an assortment of unsavory militant groups in its attempts to defeat Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad’s regime.

    However, Turkey’s official explanation for its non-involvement—conditioning anti-ISIS operations on a wider campaign to unseat Assad—has genuine merit and is unduly dismissed by many Western analysts and policymakers. Turkey has been nothing if not consistent on this particular point.

    Though the AKP leadership initially painted Western backing of Arab Spring protests as neo-colonial grousing, Ankara pivoted to an openly anti-regime stance as the Syrian protests erupted into country-wide violence. Since that point, Turkey has aggressively pursued a policy of regime change.

    Though Turkish fixation on Assad’s departure may seem an unwelcome condition for joining any anti-ISIS coalition, it does make sense. In many ways, Assad’s regime has been an incubating force for ISIS’ dramatic rise from one of many competing Islamist rebel factions in Syria to a sprawling quasi-state and credible global terror threat.

    Counter-intuitively, a détente between regime forces and ISIS held for a significant portion of the civil war. Both sides clearly benefited: the regime was able to concentrate its attacks against smaller rebel factions on the population-rich coast; and ISIS was able to expand into the east and south, where it acquired key oil fields, and build the rudiments of a functioning quasi-state. The regime’s overall strategy was as clear as it was cynical—eliminate the smaller, more moderate non-ISIS factions, which would eventually force the West to choose between the regime and ultra-radical ISIS. The fruits of this strategy are already playing out as politicians and pundits in the United States and Europe mistakenly call for alliances of convenience with Assad and Iran in order to combat ISIS. A credible explanation for the recently-discovered, mysterious Russian spy station in Syria is that Russian operatives were helping their Syrian allies to prosecute just such a divide-and-conquer strategy.

    Almost by definition, a coalition war restricted to fighting ISIS would only grant regime forces further license to seek and destroy non-ISIS rebel brigades, including more moderate formations that could represent legitimate alternatives to Assad. Meanwhile, Turkey, with ISIS-held territory sitting along much of the Turkish border, would likely bear the brunt of the heaviest fighting and terrorism. Downstream, a victory for regime forces could lead to an even frostier spell between an unforgiving Syria and Turkey, particularly if the Syrian regime returns to its tried-and-true practice of sheltering anti-Turkish Kurdish militants.

    In isolation, Turkey’s actions in Iraq and Syria appear strategically myopic and potentially self-defeating, but they do accept that even an assured victory against ISIS irregulars could end up empowering the same regime Ankara has pledged to remove from power. Ultimately, the war against ISIS is inextricably linked to the war against the Assad regime, making its difficult to launch a war against one but not the other. This does not excuse Turkey for the bystander role it played in the Kobani siege, but it does add much-needed context regarding the Turkish reluctance to be more deeply and quickly involved in the Syrian civil war.

    Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Project on Democratic Transitions. He is also a former economic development practitioner.

  • Will Lustration Help or Hinder Ukrainian Reform?

    Posted by: Yuval Weber Wednesday, October 29, 2014

    The Ukrainian government retains the prerogative to exclude violators of public trust from further government service while new political and economic institutions are built. It remains to be seen how lustration and anti-corruption laws will be implemented.

  • The World’s Future: Bipolar Geoeconomics?

    Posted by: Dmitri Trenin Tuesday, October 28, 2014 2

    Regionalization may indeed be the future or at least the new stage of globalization. Competition among the super-regions, in this scenario, will become the essence of global geoeconomics and geopolitics.

  • Ukraine Votes: United in Diversity

    Posted by: Balázs Jarábik Monday, October 27, 2014

    Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Ukraine have made it clear that Ukraine’s political life is quite diverse, and voters are not partial to “united” solutions. A lower turnout also suggests that Ukrainians are increasingly tired of their politics.

  • Echoes of the Ukraine Crisis in the South Caucasus

    Posted by: Maxim Suchkov Friday, October 24, 2014

    The Ukrainian crisis has shown to the South Caucasian states that deciding between European and Eurasian integration comes at a high price, but that indecisiveness is an even worse path.

  • Eurasia and the ASEM Summit

    Posted by: Richard Youngs Thursday, October 23, 2014

    It would be a stretch to think that ASEM can foster any kind of benign diplomatic triangle between the EU, Russia, and Asian powers. However, ASEM may survive as an interesting mix of debating club, retreat and venue for bilateral meetings.

  • Games of Bluff in Moldova

    Posted by: Thomas de Waal Wednesday, October 22, 2014

    The biggest current dangers for Moldova lie not in the unresolved Transnistria conflict, but in domestic Moldovan politics.

  • Ukraine Election Countdown: 5 Days Remaining

    Posted by: Yuliya Bila, Isaac Webb Tuesday, October 21, 2014

    With less than a week left until the Ukrainian parliamentary elections, there is growing uncertainty about whether the new parliament will provide a boost to President Petro Poroshenko's flagging reform agenda and attempts to manage the extremely fragile situation in the east.

  • A Hereditary Disease

    Posted by: Mikhail Krutikhin Tuesday, October 21, 2014 1

    The old Soviet “enemies-are-everywhere” mentality frequently leads Russian decision makers to losses and defeat.

  • Paying for Ukraine

    Posted by: Dmitri Trenin Monday, October 20, 2014 1

    If Ukraine is allowed to become a failed state, the consequences for Europe will be serious, even dire. Making sure that Ukraine keeps itself warm this winter is an absolutely necessary step.



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