Tuesday, October 14, 2014

From Berlin to Kobani - and Ebola

There is no direct link between the two stories in this week’s headlines, but they share the fact that a year ago, most people had never heard of either, thanks to the media’s reluctance to cover the big picture. Even when ‘stories’ (sic) grow exponen-tially in prominence, this does not result in any significant background information. Journalists take for granted that events appear out of the blue, to be dropped when the next ‘big thing’ grabs the public’s attention. Last week marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and I was only reminded of it when James Baker remarked on a talk show that he and Henry Kissinger had been to Berlin for the celebration. By globally failing to acknowledge that momentous event, the media shows that it has no more concept of history than of the big picture. That’s part of the reason why we’re facing the threat of a third world war - if not in Europe, then in the Middle East - not to mention a deadly virus out of Africa!
 What is scary about Ebola is that although it was first identified in 1976, until last year only 1,716 cases had been reported, while this year to date four thousand people have died from the disease. The sudden rise to prominence of an illness that kills an average of 50% of those it strikes can be compared to the rise in severe weather incidents resulting from climate change: nothing can be done about either. Recently on RT’s Keiser Report, Alec Baldwin mentioned that he had campaigned for Mayor De Blasio, but after seeing the hardships Hurricane Sandy’s blackouts caused New Yorkers, he realized that government is totally unprepared to confront similar challenges. We can assume that when American pubic health officials claim there will be no Ebola rampage here, they are keeping their fingers crossed, for the staggering amount of global air travel almost guarantees that temperature checks of passengers from West Africa will be like paper against swords.
Speaking of swords, the latest news about ISIS is that it admits and defends the practice of slavery http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/islamic-state-officially-admits-to-enslaving-yazidi-women/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Syriacomment+%28Syria+Comment%29.  While  the fall of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani seems inevitable, I believe that by publishing a defense of slavery, ISIS has sealed its fate.  Defenders of fundamentalist Islam can rightly point out that beheading is no more criminal than drone strikes, but they will find it difficult to defend slavery by quoting the Prophet, who lived fourteen hundred years ago.
The women who are being taken as ‘concubines’ by ISIS fighters belong to a group that was heretofore known only to Middle Eastern specialists, the Yazidis, who made their appearance in headlines a couple of months ago when they were besieged in Syria. While the Yazidis had probably never been in the news, the Kurds, today’s headline group, have been in the news off and on since 1916. Although this ancient Iranian people is the fourth largest ethnicity in Western Asia after Arabs, Persians, and Turks, they were passed over in the Sykes-Picot Agreements between France and Great Britain that planned the creation of sovereign Middle Eastern States once the Ottoman Empire would be dissolved. In that carve up and the drawing of national borders, the Kurds, who inhabit contiguous areas belonging to what became Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, were left out, and none of their host countries is willing to see their Kurdish areas become part of an independent Kurdish nation. 
Although Saddam Hussein was not far behind, Turkey has had the most violent relationship with its Kurdish minority, which comprises between 15% and 25% of its population. In 1984, the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, formed the Peshmerga, a military organization, to struggle for cultural and political rights and self-determination. After failed Kurdish rebellions in the 1920’s Kemalist Turkey, thousands had fled across the border to northern Syria, where they were granted citizenship by the French mandate authorities. After independence in 1962, the Syrian government used the fact that the Kurds came from Turkey to justify discriminatory policies. Today they comprise 10 to 15 percent of the Syrian population and are the country’s largest ethnic minority.  
Meanwhile, after twenty years of fighting for self-determina-tion in Turkey, in 2013, the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence for terrorism, endorsed a peaceful resolution of the conflict. That process is now threatened by Turkey’s refusal to allow its Kurds to join the Syrian Kurds’ fight against ISIS. 
In an interview with France 24 yesterday, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlot Cavusoglu justified this refusal by putting the PKK and ISIS on an equal footing. This is perhaps the first time that a high-ranking government official anywhere has declared specific freedom fighters and a specific aggressive force to both be terrorists. (The ideological difference between the Peshmerga and ISIS alone justifies not seeing them as equals: far from the Salafists, the Kurds, though Sunnis, appear to be closer to the Lebanese and Syrian Shi’a in their social attitudes: their women are soldiers AND are allowed to wear make-up…..)
Turkey’s often emotional President Erdogan appears to have a steely Foreign Minister who speaks excellent English, as he walks a tightrope between containing Turkey’s Kurds and fending off the Islamic State. You can see the contrast between Cavusoglu’s cool determination and the violent demonstrations in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast on France’s English language channel or on-line. According to Cavusoglu, Turkey is ready to send ground troops to Syria on condition that the goal is to destroy both the Assad regime and ISIS - while keeping the Kurds on both sides down. As the remaining Kurds in Kobani face slaughter, Turkey not only prevents its own Kurds from coming to their aid, it refuses entry to new refugees, claiming they already number more than a hundred thousand. In ghoulish defiance of international opinion, Turkish tanks have been massed for weeks on a barren plane like so many giant insects.
 You have to go digging on the internet to discover that in 2006, as they sought political autonomy within a democratic federal state - if not outright independence as part of a Kurdish state - the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria held two major conferences, one at the US Senate and the other at the EU parliament in Brussels http://kurdmedia.com/article.aspx?id=1287. In 2012, after the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) signed a cooperation agreement that created the Kurdish Supreme Committee as the governing body of all Kurdish controlled areas in Syria, protests evolved into armed clashes, leading to the creation of the Popular Protection Units (YPG) - otherwise known as the - Syrian - Peshmerga) that are currently in the headlines.
No more than it provides details about the Kurds, does the MSM tell us that the fight for Kobani is part of a larger campaign.  In July of this year, the YPG captured the towns of Kobanê (Ayn al-Arab), Amûdê and Efrîn in the north, and the KNC and PYD formed a joint leadership council to run them. By the end of July, the Syrian Kurdish cities of Dêrika Hemko (Al-Malikiyah), Serê Kaniyê (Ra's al-'Ayn), Dirbêsî (Al-Darbasiyah) and Girkê Legê (Al-Ma'bada) came under the control of the Popular Protection Units and were declared parts of autonomous Syrian Kurdistan, the only major Kurdish cities remaining under government control being Hasaka and Qamishli. So Kobani is part of a large swathe of Syrian territory that has now fallen from the hands of the Syrian Kurdish YPG into those of ISIS, and the battle for Kobani is part of an on-going struggle for control of the Turkish/Syria border. For details about the several year long war in Syrian Kurdistan, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Kurdistan_campaign_(2012–present)
President Obama’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice yesterday assured Meet the Press that Washington, with almost sixty allies, has everything under control in the Middle East.  She failed to mention that as a result of Turkey’s brutal Kurdish policy, the Turkish PKK has called its fighters back from Iraqi Kurdistan, where they had agreed to retreat as part of the peace effort, threatening renewed attacks against the Turkish government. In a fascinating discussion with RT’s crack interviewer, Oxana Boyko, Fadi Hakura, head of Chatham House’s Turkey Project, confirmed Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish stance. Hakura and Boyko agreed that the Turkish President appears to be taking a page from Vladimir Putin’s playbook in terms of reorganizing the Presidency and the Constitution, however when it comes to foreign affairs, he seems to be playing hara kiri rather than chess: while America’s Neo-cons are eager to divide the world into manageable small states, Erdogan insists on playing a colonial game vis a vis the Kurds. (Time will tell whether, in one of his signature non-sequiturs, Obama agrees that the Kurds should remain without a state of their own, notwithstanding their fighting skills…) 

For a detailed and highly readable primer on the Kurds, who together with Ebola will increasingly be in the news, see Dexter Filkins’ report in the September 19th New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/29/fight-lives.  

For more about ISIS, based on research that does not appear in the MSM, see my next article.

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