Depending on one’s interests and sense of timeframe, there are either rarely, sometimes, or always big stories coming out of the Middle East. If one happens to be a regional expert inclined to contexts with stretch marks back into time, today is one of great big-story abundance. But even if one is not, the story of Kobani, the Turks, the Kurds, and the Obama Administration is about as big as they come.We’ll get to Kobani in a moment. But, first, let’s sideswipe some (just three) other not-at-all-trivial items of regional news—by no means all of it that is fit for e-print.Three Easy Pieces1. Back in late August Al-Ahram weekly published some data on Egypt’s food-insecurity problem. We at TAI have been pointing at deeper sources of trouble in Egypt for years, but these numbers are truly shocking. Out of a population of 83.7 million—by far the largest in the Arab world and growing rapidly—about 25 percent are between the ages of 18 and 29 years, and of these about a quarter are impoverished and unemployed. Since these are the main childbearing years, it means that somewhere between 31 and 45 percent of all Egyptian children from six to 59 months are malnourished. That means their bodies and brains will be stunted for a lifetime. That is in addition to a current adult population, many of whom feed themselves and their kids on cheap kushari starches alone, that suffers from an abundance of chronic anemia.All these figures are worse—in many cases much worse—than they were at the start of the so-called Arab Spring about three years ago. Do you think that a state as large and ancient as Egypt cannot possibly dissolve into a Hobbesian nightmare? Better think again. This is a big story if one considers the future to be at all important. If one doesn’t, then never mind.2. While visiting Paris, Lebanon’s former and perhaps to-be-once-again Prime Minister Saad Hariri (the Younger) revealed yesterday that a $1 billion grant from Saudi Arabia to the Lebanese army, which he had announced after visiting King Abdullah back in August, had been finalized. Today, France confirmed that a different deal announced back in December, for $3 billion-worth of French weapons bought by Saudi Arabia for Lebanon, was all squared away and that the equipment would be delivered soon. This makes up for both the $11 billion U.S.-Qatar arms deal signed in July—which displaced what had been since the 1970s a major French arms market—and the delay over delivering any Mistrals to Russia.The Saudi gifts have recently been followed by an offer of weapons and weapons-financing to Lebanon from Iran, which carried the seeds of espionage and suborning in order to help a battered client, Hizballah. If Syria is the Spanish-Civil-War, just a geostrategically Off-Broadway platform for the burgeoning sectarian conflict already roiling the region, then Lebanon is the Portugal to Syria’s Spain. For a long time now, Lebanon has been a stage for Shi‘a-Sunni competition, with Saudi Arabia long having taken a special interest in protecting the Sunni community there from the rise of Shi‘i politicization, which goes all the way back to the “vanished iman”, Musa Sadr, and the subsequent rise of Amal in the early 1970s. As usual, it’s knowledge of the backstory, otherwise known as the historical context, that gives meaning to today’s headline and makes the story “big.”3. Speaking of Hizballah, it is now established that the explosive device that went off and wounded two IDF soldiers on the Israel-Lebanon border yesterday was the work of Hizballah. Just as Israel responded for the sake of its deterrence reputation to the incursion of a Syrian fighter jet into its airspace a few weeks ago, the IDF will be tempted respond to this aggression too. Maybe it already has. But just as the fighter’s incursion was inadvertent, this attack, while obviously not inadvertent, may be less than meets the eye. It was probably a local rogue initiative, because it makes no sense for Hizballah’s leadership to heat up a second front against a vastly superior enemy while it is in the midst of getting the crap kicked out of it in Syria.Israel, meanwhile, must deal with a dilemma not entirely unlike the one the Obama Administration is failing to wisely deal with: It can effectively attack the Syrian regime, the Islamic State (which I will forthwith refer to in its currently transliterated Arabic acronym, Da’esh), Jabhat al-Nusra, Hizballah, or any other military force within 500 nautical air miles, but if it attacks any one of its enemies it de facto helps others who hate Israel as much as the chosen target. That is how a target-rich environment can coexist with a poor-politics environment to produce maximum feasible frustration. But military self-restraint is Israel’s best option right now. Why should Israel exert itself to kill enemies, and attract their ambient hatreds, when those enemies are doing such a bang-up job of hating and killing each other?One Very Hard PieceAll of this is admittedly small potatoes compared to the battle for and over Kobani, which is part and parcel of the exploding Da’esh portfolio.As regular readers of my commentary know, I am skeptical that President Obama’s willing of the end—the defeat and extirpation of Da’esh—is even remotely matched by his effort to will the means. Under those conditions, and the U.S. failure to manage its way through the sectarian labyrinth that leads to sound policy—which would see that only by getting to the source of the problem, the murderous behavior of the Syrian Alawi regime, can the symptom that is Da’esh be effectively treated—I have been opposed to the feckless and futile use of U.S. airpower in the absence of (non-U.S.) Coalition boots on the ground. As usual for this Administration (and with even Leon Panetta now piling on for good measure) it has defaulted to the smallest possible military action with the smallest possible footprint possible. Indeed, as others have pointed out, the Administration has refused to even give this operation a name! Heaven forfend: If it had a name, we might imagine ourselves as being at war…and so close to the midterms! One has to wonder if there is any outer limit to the word-magic self-delusions of this White House.Now, despite being opposed to the current air war under current circumstances, I nevertheless have been appalled at the way it has developed from a strictly military point of view. When the first strikes were launched on the evening of September 22–23, 194 strikes in three waves were involved. None of them were aimed toward Kobani, which frankly surprised and puzzled me. Eight days later, we had summed to only 300 strikes, which represented an equally puzzling desultory operational tempo. As of yesterday, we had reached about 2,000 but, while better, that’s still very modest. As The Feed noted on October 3, “By comparison, during the Libya campaign, U.S.-dominated NATO forces were launching over 100 offensive strikes per day, ultimately culminating in over 26,000 raids. And Libya was a limited effort—during the start of the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. military launched over 116,000 airstrikes in a few weeks.” So what is going on here?Part of the explanation lies in the details of how one uses air power to achieve certain political ends. Not that the number of sorties is the only or best way to measure a campaign, but two interwoven issues shape that number, especially at the outset. One is target planning and the other is the quality of the local intelligence support one has.If one has a lot of time to analyze and choose targets, things happen faster once the balloon goes up. In this case, the U.S. military was caught relatively flat-footed, since nothing suggested in the President’s body language in recent months and years that the Air Force and the Navy would be engaged in anything like this—indeed, very much the opposite. That made local allies more important, but we didn’t have many and in some places we didn’t have any to snitch on Da’esh activities or point lasers. “It takes a village” to mount an effective air campaign, as some Air Force officers wryly like to put it, and our villages in Syria were ghost-towns for all practical purposes. The result so far, as I warned, has been to help Da’esh: For every “bad guy” we eliminate from the fight, multiple others are drawn to it thanks to the identification in blood of Da’esh as an American enemy.But the more persuasive explanation for the meek nature of the U.S. air campaign may lie in the intricacies of U.S.-Turkish relations.As Henri Barkey and Eric Edelman here at TAI, and others such as Steve Cook at Foreign Policy, have pointed out, the Turks have backed themselves into a real corner, and according to Administration-friendly interpretations, we have been sensitive—perhaps too much so—about not making things worse for what remains, warts and all, a NATO ally. Actually, our real motive seems to be to salvage a ground force for the Coalition effort where there was none and little promise for one. We seem to be banking on Turkish desperation to fill in the key blank within the President’s half-a-strategy, as a form of post hoc redemption for a highly underdeveloped plan.Indeed, that interpretation has the merit of explaining the remarkably obtuse comments of a highly placed Administration decision-maker speaking yesterday to the New York Times. According to this source—maybe my old friend Phil Gordon in the White House, but I hope not—the Turks are just making up excuses for their passivity. Let’s take these comments one by one.As maybe-Phil/maybe-not-Phil explained, “There’s growing angst about Turkey dragging its feet to act to prevent a massacre [in Kobani] about a mile from its border. After all the fulminations about Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, they’re inventing reasons not to act to avoid another catastrophe.“Say what? As if the Turks had ever promised us that they would put boots on the ground in Syria; they certainly did no such thing. (They did moot the possibility in private back in March 2012, but the Administration flatly told them “no”; we wanted nothing to do with humanitarian or no-fly zones…we did not want to get dragged into a war that our own passivity dragged us into anyway.) As if Prime Minister Erdogan’s insistence that the fall of the Assad regime be part of the strategy does not make sound strategic sense; it certainly does. As if the Turks lack legitimate concerns that a move into Syria would doom Turkish soldiers in the Suleyman Shah enclave; touch off Da’esh-abetted terror in Turkish cities; exacerbate an already demanding refugee crisis; and probably suck more military assets into Syria to protect the ones who went in first, ultimately risking a direct clash with Syrian military forces. They don’t lack so many reasons that they need to invent more.That is why we had this past weekend such a bizarre conversation with Ankara, with each side imploring the other side to go kill more Arab religious fanatics. One can imagine the stripped-down basics:
U.S.: “Please send troops to prevent Da’esh from taking Kobani.”Turkey: “No, you need to use more air power to prevent Da’esh from taking Kobani.”U.S.: “Air power alone isn’t enough.”Turkey: “Right, especially the way you guys are using it—so why did you start without pledges of boots on the ground?”U.S.: “Ok, ok, we’ll do a little more…”
And we did. According to news reports from the area, the most recent strikes have made some difference around Kobani, with some Da’esh forces backpedaling from the western outskirts of the town. Note that yesterday’s strikes there totaled only five, but that more than doubled the number of the preceding few days. It goes to show what sort of impression a Hellfire missile hitting a target can make.Now, why suddenly is Turkish military force so critical to U.S. strategy, when use of such force had never been promised? Because, as Phil-or-not-Phil explained: “We have anticipated that it will be easier to protect population centers and to support offensives on the ground in Iraq, where we have partners. . . . Clearly, in Syria, it will take more time to develop the type of partners on the ground with whom we can coordinate.”Now here is a statement truly full of both improbable implications and outright chutzpah. If the Administration thinks that the Iraqi Army will ever be an effective partner for fighting Da’esh in Iraq, at least within a timeframe that matters, it remains delusional. If it thinks the Kurdish peshmerga will fight outside of Kurdish territories, it is trying to vault over an 18-foot hole with a straw. If it will take so much time from this point going forward in Syria to “develop the type of partners on the ground with whom we can coordinate”, whose fault is that? If we had begun the effort two and half years ago, as we should have, we would be there by now. Really: For this Administration, this White House, to accuse the Turks of passivity is a little like Chicken Little accusing Dr. Strangelove of paranoia.Phil-or-not-Phil also intoned: “This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s thrown from their border.” As if Turkey’s assessment of its situation is headlined by humanitarian concerns; it certainly is not. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu do not think like Samantha Power and Susan Rice. They cannot afford to even if they were so inclined, which they are not. Quite aside from all the dangers and risks just enumerated, Turkey’s real dilemma—the part where its horns hurt most—is Kurdish in nature.In an earlier post I discussed all this, and warned that it is a complicated matter. Withal, it is not so complicated that it can’t be explained. If you absorbed the earlier analysis, what follows will be easy for you.In recent years the Turks have been trying, wisely in my view, to resolve the country’s internal fissures between Turks and Kurds. As part of the strategy, the government has also come to see the Barzani Kurds in what used to be northern Iraq (but which is today an independent state in all but name) as a useful “glove” to wear as a tool in its relations with Iran, Syria, and Iraq. The Turks have preferred the Barzani Kurds to their own PKK and Syria’s kindred PYD: They have been, at least in recent years, more pragmatic, moderate, successful, and willing to engage. The basic idea was that negotiations with the PKK would benefit from Turkey having a positive and growing relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government, and the ultimate aim in the internal negotiations was to acknowledge the legitimacy of some PKK demands without enabling the PKK to become strong enough to insist on other, harder to stomach demands.It was working, but it was not finished when the Syrian Civil War changed the whole external context. Because of ideological and other affinities between the Turkish-Kurdish PKK and the Syrian-Kurdish PYD (a Cold War-era development whose origins I described in that earlier analysis), the autonomy wrested by the PYD by dint of the collapse of the Syrian state indirectly made the PKK stronger—too strong for Turkish comfort. And in recent days, weeks, and months things have gotten dramatically worse in that regard from the Turkish point of view. Two factors stand out.First, in the effort to save the Yazidis at the siege of Mount Sinjar in August, Barzani’s KRG was forced to call upon help from the PKK and the PYD—and help arrived. Indeed, fighters from these groups were more effective than the vaunted peshmerga, and their star has since risen amid the newly forming pan-Kurdish national identity. This is exactly the opposite of what the Turks hoped would happen: They wanted the PKK/PYD-type Kurds to be folded beneath the safer wing of the KRG Kurds, but instead the opposite seems to be developing.Second, even more recently, the Kurds have shown that they have the capability of generating and coordinating a lot of trouble in Turkish cities. The protests of the past few days, demanding Turkish action to save Kobani, recall last year’s Gezi Park demonstrations, which took hold of the AK Party government and shook it but good. Erdogan and Davutoglu know that a coalition of anti-AK forces, recent elections notwithstanding, has the ability to touch off a problem just short of a civil insurrection in scale. The fact that the Turks overreact, in this case leaving 14 killed at last count, only feeds Turkey’s own vulnerability.So the Turks are screwed if they do and screwed if they don’t. If they enter the war in Syria with boots on the ground, or even if they just allow PKK cadres to enter Syria to fight with the PYD against Da’esh, they will contribute to a form of Kurdish power that, in their view and not entirely without foundation, threatens Turkey’s territorial integrity in the not-that-long run. If they don’t go in and keep preventing PKK cadres from doing so, they risk with the fall of Kobani the near entirety of the Turkish-Syrian frontier coming under pressure from Da’esh control, with all that implies for future Turkish security. Ankara’s humanitarian concerns on Kurdish behalf play no part in any of this—zero, zippo, zilch.The Syrian Kurds have their own dilemma in this regard. They don’t want Turkish tanks and artillery roaming around their lands—for fear they won’t leave, and for fear that Ankara will repatriate Arab refugees into those territories to dilute Kurdish control over them. On the other hand, they need help desperately, and they need it now. Only about 3,000 PYD defenders are trying to hold off as many as 10,000 Da’esh attackers.If I were a PYD decision-maker, I wouldn’t sleep well at night no matter what choice I made. If I were a Turkish decision-maker…ditto. If I were a U.S. decision-maker, I would start my evening by letting go of the conceit that any of these decision-makers are inventing excuses for either doing or not doing what we want them to do (or not do). They don’t need excuses just now. They need courage, foresight, and luck. They certainly don’t need U.S. officials insulting their integrity in public.What this all comes down to is a case of multiplayer strategic extortion. The Turks won’t fight unless we turn our own guns on the Assad regime; we now seem to be holding back a stronger use of U.S. airpower to push the Turks in. But in turn the PKK/PYD won’t invite the Turks into Syria unless they bend their negotiating stances toward PKK desiderata; yet if they don’t come in under terms the PKK/PYD can stomach, they seem ready to threaten to unhinge, yet again, Turkish domestic tranquility.So it’s complicated, but it’s not uninteresting. In fact it’s too damned interesting.