Kurdish Independence Referendum Key Moment in Modern Eurasian History

 

Image from Al Jazerra

 

What can bring together the governments of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the United States?

Voting stations set up for the referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq have closed their doors and counting of ballots has begun, according to the official supervising body.

Voting closed at 6pm local time (16:00 GMT) on Monday, and the final results were expected to be announced within 72 hours.

Erbil-based Rudaw TV, citing the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, said 78 percent of the more than five million eligible voters turned out to vote.

In Kirkuk, authorities declared a curfew an hour and a half before polls closed as jubilant Kurds started to celebrate.

Yup. After 13 years of virtual autonomy, decades of Baathist repression, nearly 100 of being yoked into an imperial etching of a country, and centuries of repression, the Kurds of Iraq have taken a huge step toward having the first independent Kurdish state. That’s uh…not going over great in the rest of the region.

Needless to say, the government in Baghdad isn’t happy, but neither are their neighbors. Iran, Syria, and most of all Turkey have large Kurdish populations which could see this (non-binding) referendum as an incentive to start their own state.

Turkey has spent its entire post-WWI history defining being Turkish as being “not-Kurdish”, and has fought a long-running civil war to maintain that identity. Its intervention in Syria was more to prevent Kurdish power than to stop ISIS. Kurdish oppression has long been a key part of Asad rule in Syria, and Kurdish fighters (allied with the US) have been using the chaos to create autonomous zones, much like they did in Iraq.

So this is a hinge time, but it has been a long time coming. In the post-Ottoman scramble after WWI, England and France divvied up the Middle East, creating what seemed to be manageable states for the purpose of exploitation. The Kurds were left stateless, divided between these new countries and a newly Kemalist Turkey, fighting to consolidate power in the rump of empire.

It isn’t that there was no sympathy for the Kurds; it is just that, well, the whole thing was too damned difficult.  Better to have a few pliant countries than actually care about national ambition, no matter the noble mummerings of Versaille.

(Fun counterfactual history for HBO: imagine if both Kurdish representatives and Ho Chi Min were listened to at Versaille. You probably can’t, because history would be more boring).

To be fair, though, it isn’t like oppression was new to the Kurds. A regional minority, they had fought against Arabs and Persians and Turks and Russians and everyone else since forever, honing skills in their mountain fastness. There is a reason the US has cultivated them as allies: the peshmerga have a reputation as ferocious fighters, and unlike when we cultivate allies in other parts of the world, seem to have developed excellent democratic instincts.

Indeed, in many ways, the Kurdish indepenence movements are some of the last bastions of true radicalism in the world, which is why so many American leftists have gone to fight with them. They have a reputation of being egalitarian in terms of gender. We all love praising female peshmerga, with a frisson of excitement, but they are no less progressive in their politics.  If you want to hear a very weird but cool story, read how Abdullah Ocalan was influenced by the ecological radicalism of Murray Bookchin.

Indeed, the Kurds might be too liberal for the US, but that isn’t why America opposes the referendum. We support Kurdish independence in theory, but would like it to remain in theory until the right time, which is when the Middle East is stable, peaceful, and able to absorb a political shock, which is to say: never.

But never seems too long for people who have successfully set up a government and who are far more capable of governing themselves than the kelpto-theo-crats in Baghdad. The US, though, has no one to blame but itself. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the catastrophic jolt that set history back in motion after the colonial/post-colonial interregnum.

We’ve argued in this joint that the 100 years after WWI have been just a post-Ottoman shakedown, stilted and perverted by the the colonial period and the distortions of the post-colonial reactions, which took place in the context of the nation-state. But the invasion of Iraq broke apart that status quo, leading as it did to:

  • A split Iraq
  • Growing Persian strength (played out all around the region)
  • The rise of ISIS
  • Civil war in Syria (or at least, made worse by the factionalism unleashed in Iraq and the refugee crisis)
  • Kurdish autonomy and strength

All of these are essentially post-state, post-Sykes/Picot, post-Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchhill and Nasser and the Shah and Saddam. The war was the preciptiating factor int he great Near East dissolve, unleashing as it did forces which had been shifting around under the surface of a phony, ahistoric map.

To say we’re entering a new historic era is wrong. We’re just entering the next phase of an era that began as the Ottoman Empire fell and Europe rushed into the void. The Kurdish referendum won’t solve anything, and on the surface won’t change anything, but will set the tenor for the next step. The US can’t stop the forces that the invasion set loose. Nor, I think, should it try. More than one empire has been wrecked on the shoals of that sort of hubris.

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Qatar and Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, War in Syria: The Dangers of Unserious Leadership in Fragile Times

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I’m not saying that to be a successful President you have to understand what this map means. But you actually kind of do…

America has been rightfully consumed with the subdued opera of the Comey hearings, in which members of both parties accepted as a stipulation that the President was a grotesque, habitual liar, and that his best defense was he literally has no idea what he is doing, so how could he be obstructing justice? I don’t know the legal ramifications of this, but even as the GOP desperately tried to downplay Comey, which seems to imply a return to the status quo, I think there will continue to be a steady drip of revelations. Comey implying that Sessions is dirtier than we (well, the media) thought might be the first major crack. No one is going to want to be the last person to go down for this.

But think again about the essential shrugging reaction even senators from his own party have to the essential nature of Trump: sure he’s dishonest and completely incapable of being President, but is that illegal? Maybe for the former, probably not for the latter. But that’s not the issue: the issue is that it is extremely dangerous. It’s dangerous domestically, and potentially catastrophic abroad.

There could be few worse times to have a blundering, spite-filled, ego-driven ignorant man as President of the United States. The post-WWII order was crumbling, but just as importantly (if unremarked), the post-WWI order in the Middle East (and much or Eurasia) is crumbling and reforming in unexpected and difficult ways as well. This is a hinge moment for a huge part of the world, and with his disaster-junkie approach to things, Trump can’t help but make it enormously worse. And it starts, of course, with Qatar.

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Jared Kushner Is The Whole Absurdity

 

Pictured: Take Your Boss’s Daughter’s Husband to a War Zone Day.

 

It’s sometimes hard to really put your finger on what is the most absurd and nonsensical part of the Trump Administration, but then you hear about how Jared Kushner flew to Iraq, and you realize: this is it. The flgarant third-world absurdity, the little petty crime family nonsense, the reliance on pseudo-toughguy “loyalty” over even the most basic competence: it’s everything that’s cheap and flim-flammy about Trumpism in a skinny well-married package.

(Note: this isn’t about what’s cruel and evil in the Administration; that’s virtually everything else. The two are intertwined, but we’re just focusing on absurdity right now.)

This isn’t to say that Kushner isn’t, like, smart. He’s not the dopey son who is suddenly made Lord High General of the People’s Glorious Armed Forces. But, relative to the insane position he’s been given, it isn’t too far off. Kushner, as Daniel Drezner points out, is in charge of:

  • Relations with Mexico, which are a diplomatic minefield, considering his boss/father-in-law based his entire campaign around demonizing Mexico and saying he’d make them pay for his idiot wall.
  • Relations with Canada, which, ok.
  • Peace in the Middle East. This means Israel/Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and the whole Sunni v Shia thing. It’s pretty complex!
  • Solving the opioid crisis, because I’m sure he really gets the white working class. He’s relatable.
  • Fixing the VA. I don’t know, maybe a good businessman can do something good. I doubt that he has the chops for it, but I’ll cut him some slack.
  • Improving the way the government works, which means turning it into a business, which: stupid, and not innovative. People have been saying that for centuries.

This whole thing is madness. Even if he is smart, there’s no way one person could do any of this, much less all of it. Especially because he hasn’t been able to build a staff, mostly because Trump doesn’t want too many people involved. It’s a family business.

And that’s the heart of how malignantly stupid this administration is. The thinking here literally boiled down to “Hey, that kid who married my daughter is bright, and he’s stuck by me. He can probably fix the world by himself.”

Politico on Saturday ran a long piece about how resentful senior White House staff are of Kushner, equal parts annoyance and jealousy. He’s prone to popping into every meeting, acting as Trump’s eyes and ear and hatchet man, and running things like…well, like Trump would. But one wants to ask these staffers: what did you expect? It’s a White House run by Donald Trump, reality show idiot.

But not all is well, as these amazing parts demonstrate.

Kushner’s boosters see him as “a visionary” who is bringing to government a disruptive Silicon Valley mindset that helped him succeed in the technology and real estate industries, as well as on Trump’s unconventional presidential campaign.

It’s always important to remember that “disruptive Silicon Valley mindset” is what dumb people say when they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Others are more concerned about what Kushner hasn’t done. One pro-Israel operative who works with the administration said “there were high hopes” that Kushner — an Orthodox Jew and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, whose only picture in his office is of his grandparents — “was a guy who really understood our community” when Trump tapped him as a point person on the Middle East.

What? Why would you think that? Because he’s Jewish? Maybe he “understands your community”, but so do tens of thousands of people, very few of whom have any capability at running a government or, you know, bringing peace to the Middle East.

But, the operative said, those hopes mostly have been supplanted by “deep concern that Jared is not the person we thought he was — that this guy who is supposed to be good at everything is totally out of his depth.”

Why was he supposed to be good at everything? Because he was born rich and got richer? Who are these people?

But if you really want the straight hit on how gross and stupid these people are, get a load of these two paragraphs.

Influential Jewish Republicans including the mega-donor casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson lobbied Kushner to convince Trump to appoint prominent neoconservative foreign policy hand Elliott Abrams as the No. 2 official in Foggy Bottom and to remove Michael Ratney, a State Department official who previously served as U.S. consul in Jerusalem under Obama, from his role handling Middle East affairs.

Kushner was non-committal about Ratney, according to two sources familiar with the lobbying. But Kushner did go to bat for Abrams, only to have Trump veto the appointment because Abrams had criticized Trump during the campaign and was opposed by Bannon. Nonetheless, Adelson, who has spoken repeatedly by phone with Kushner, was disappointed with Kushner’s inability or unwillingness to deliver on the personnel recommendations, as well as the stasis on the embassy, said three Jewish Republicans active in Israel causes.

This is amazing and beautiful and perfect. A terrible, terrible person tried to get Kushner to install a horrible war criminal in State, but was stopped by a bitter white supranationalist on the grounds that the war criminal wasn’t loyal enough. Does anything demonstrate the twisted web of America’s worst people any better?

Well, maybe: Diamond Mark Perrone tipped me off to a long piece on Jeff Zucker, which included this perfect morsel.

Zucker had breakfast with Kushner a few weeks later in Manhattan. Kushner wanted to know why CNN still hadn’t fired anti-Trump commentators like (Van) Jones and Ana Navarro, who said on CNN in October that every Republican would have to answer the question of what they did the day they saw a tape of “this man boasting about grabbing a woman’s pussy.”… Zucker tried to explain that even though Trump won, the network still needed what he described as “a diversity of opinion.”

So enough of the “Kushner is the moderate” or “Kushner is the voice of reason”. He’s a very small cosseted rich dude who married into an even richer family and rode a tide of white nationalism into power. He uses that to try to silence “enemies”, because he thinks that some wealthy simulacrum of omerta is proof of character. They are playacting as a competent administration, playacting as tough guys, and playacting at solving problems.

Kushner is no different. His portfolio is the biggest joke of all. He’s as bad as his odious father-in-law, thinking that being born rich means you can do anything. It’s the idea that if you just leave it to us, it’ll be solved. That’s our government right now. Whatever isn’t truly evil and cruel about is absurd. That the absurdity has real consequences for people who aren’t them only sharpens the cruelty.

 

Yemen, Mosul, and a Strategy of Civilizational War

WASHINGTON — The senior United States commander in Iraq said on Tuesday that an American airstrike most likely led to the collapse of a building in Mosul that killed scores of civilians this month…

“My initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties,” said General Townsend, who commands the American-led task force that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But he asserted that “the munition that we used should not have collapsed an entire building.”

On the one hand, the tragedy of Mosul was “one of those things” that happen in a war, and clearly not intentional, and obviously pales in comparison to the flagrant bloodlust of ISIS. It doesn’t pale to the hundreds killed, of course, and that’s exactly the other hand. It’s hard to say if this one specific incident was an outcome of the Trump administration loosening the rules on engagement, giving fewer restrictions about civilian casualties, or if it could have happened regardless, but we need to be prepared for more of these stories.

Because, while letting on-the-ground commanders have more freedom, and more coordination with local officers fighting ISIS, is theoretically a sound strategy in a vacuum (and there have been reports that Iraqi commanders are happy), we aren’t in a vacuum. We’re in the Trump administration, which has been openly hostile to the Muslim world. Mass civilian casualties won’t be seen as an outcome of war. They won’t be seen as terrible accidents by genuinely committed and largely decent military people who want to destroy ISIS and liberate the people of Iraq and Syria from medieval teenage monsters. It will be seen as an outcome of Trumpism.

And the problem might be that this is exactly what Trump and his people want.

Steve Bannon might be a slight outlier when it comes to dreaming of religious holy wars, but he isn’t that far off. For years, the GOP has been saying that the fight against ISIS is a war of civilizations, and of civilization, and that it is essentially an existential struggle in which the US might be destroyed. This is wrapped up, and exacerbated by, general hostility to Muslims. It also “confirms” and strengthens that hostility.

Part of that is the rhetorical tomb Republicans walled themselves in. Because Obama (correctly) didn’t consider ISIS more than just a very dangerous terrorist group, they had to imagine them as Nazi hordes landing on Floridian shores. And because Obama actually did act aggressively to fight ISIS, they had to ramp up the rhetoric to pretend that MORE had to be done, because Obama, of course, was a wimp and really probably wanted ISIS to win. Senator ISIS, he surely thought, had a great ring to it. So they’ve convinced themselves for years that a massive blitz was needed.

It goes deeper than that. It’s partly because the GOP is, by and large, a bunch of non-military types who pump themselves up with reflected glory, and that means elevating every threat to an existential level. But it is also because the GOP is, by and large, made up of religious bigots and hysterics who despise Islam and want the US to fight a Christianized battle against it. They’ll say against terrorism, but the two have a 1:1 conflation in the GOP mind.

So that’s where the new rules come in. It’s a way to push that battle forward, and that sounds good to Donald Trump, who 1) is a bigot; 2) thinks he’s tough, and 3) is too lazy to come up with a plan other than “kill”. So again, his personal pathologies perfectly line up with mainstream Republican goals, “mainstream” here meaning “lunatic”.

We see this in Yemen, probably more than in Iraq and Syria, largely because Yemen is off the map, for the most part, and seen as an ideological playground and a place in which one can experiment. It’s where the Special Forces-Drone strategy was tested by Obama, and it’s where Trump will test his “anything goes”s strategy.

The administration is expanding its role in Yemen, as the Soufan Group reports. It wants to expand help to the Saudi-led war against the Houthis, the large majority of which is a war crime. It is doing this because it believes that the Sauds are our friends, and that they can help broker Jared Kushner’s regional peace deal. They are doing this because they believe that the Houthis are essentially Iran, and that this is a war against Iran. They don’t believe Yemen actually exists, save as a battleground for their experiments.

But mostly, they are doing this because they can. They want this war, which is why they are expanding Yemen’s “area of active hostilities“.  This is a war of civilizations, against the Muslim tide. That they are doing this in conjunction with shutting down our borders from refugees, and specifically targeting Muslims, is not a coincidence. It’s a plan. Or, if this is a mistake, and they actually think that they are doing something positive for world peace, as opposed to Western domination, then they are doing an excellent incidental job of persuading people otherwise.

Yemen is facing a terrible, devastating famine, which will further destabilize the region. Can you imagine the Trump administration, which is gutting foreign aid, even pretending to care? The war in Yemen is not inherently regional; it’s a local battle steeped in Yemeni history and geography, and can only be resolved by taking that into account. Can you imagine Bannon or Trump or Kushner knowing any of that history, or even pretending to take it into account? Of course not.

And none of that is chance. They might be all bluster, but this isn’t a blunder. It’s a global tragedy, but it is intentional. They want a civilizational battle, and that’s essentially in lockstep with the majority of the Republican Party. The moral outrage of their actions is terrible enough. But knowing that any fleeting victory is ledgered against an ever-expanding and irresolvable conflict makes what happened in November a world-historic disaster.

The Spiteful Illogic of the New Travel Ban

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When the first “Travel Ban” executive order was announced a week into the Trump administration some 4600 years ago, some of the key pillars of a free society made their impact felt in a way that shocked even the most optimistic observer. The legal system had a two-pronged effort. Organizations like the ACLU protected the victims of the order’s cruelty and brought their cases to an independent judiciary, which treated the order as what it was: a legal measure subject to review; not the blessed fiat of a New Dawn.

The other pillar, of course, was public protest, which stunned anyone who expected obsequiousness after the snowflakes of the women’s march melted. It is doubtful that legislators, and possibly even the courts, would have reacted with the swiftness they did were in not for spontaneous acts of disobedience, compassion, and righteous fury. Protests were shown again to not be movements of self-expression or sideshows to politics; they are a vital part of civil society.

So, the reaction to the travel ban, and its being held up by the courts, led to the rollout of a newly revised order yesterday. This was supposed to be rolled out last week, but it was delayed so that news of it wouldn’t step on the reception to Trump’s Congressional address last week.

Now, it is a good demonstration of how deeply dumb the President and his people are that they genuinely thought the rest of the week–month?–should revolve around him garnering praise for clearing the lowest possible bar. Trump was reportedly livid that the news of Sessions misleading Russian testimony and subsequent recusal took away from what I promise you he believes is regarded as the finest speech in American history. That’s partly what led to this weekend’s insanity.

But more importantly, as everyone pointed out, the delay for some good ol’ self-gratification contradicted the fierce urgency with which the initial rollout happened, and made Trump’s truly dangerous tweets about how judges were making our country less safe even more reckless. But that hypocrisy is just one of the many contradictions that shows how pointlessly self-defeating (not to mention cruel and un-American) these travel bans really are.

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