Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Syria and Turkey: REAL FOCUSED on America Right Now

I should start off by saying: I really like Joshua Foust. I cut my teeth on Registan and would like to go back there semi-eventually, and Mr. Foust was one of the first people to get me to start thinking critically about news and news cycles. He has the memory of an elephant and the analyses of a....well, an animal that can think real well.

All that said, I am not a huge fan of his latest piece for PBS on Turkey and Syria. I was surprised to see the byline because to my knowledge Mr. Foust hasn't written about the Middle East or Turkey before. His game is in Central Asia. And I was immediately skeptical, because I knew when I first stumbled into Central Asia that there was a whole lot to dig through before I could form my own intelligent opinions. It's a minefield few tread tactfully in.

And anyways, Yigal Schleifer already wrote the bullet-point version of the Turkey/Syria weirdness, so what else was there to write?

Long story short; Mr. Foust uses exactly two Turkish sources, both Today's Zaman from a few years ago talking about the bright happy days when Syria and Turkey were working together (it was about the same time, by the way, that the State Department was sending American kids to Syria for Arabic Language courses, so it's not exactly like we're dealing with The Perfidious Turks here). Everything else is CNN, NYT, or some other white boy explaining how things work over there, without letting the workers explain it themselves.

If Mr. Foust was doing one of his traditional "Here's what the American press is saying, and here's why it's stupid" pieces, this would be fantastic. Unfortunately, it isn't, and it isn't.

Saying that Turkey is "claiming the incident is an attack not just on Turkey but also on the whole of NATO" and that this is "a gambit Ankara has been pushing for months" doesn't seem to quite mesh. Turkey's government has been a soul of caution throughout the whole Syrian implosion; it does not want any more refugees than it can currently handle and does not want to be the home to a humanitarian crisis as it was after Gulf War One. At the same time, Erdoğan has taken Assad's perfidy as a personal insult and will harbor no good will for the man like he did when waffling on Ghaddafi. Turkey's government wants an end to the bloodshed, but does not want that end to be tens of thousands of homeless Syrians staying on Turkish soil.

*I wish I could find some citations for all of this but its late and I don't feel like going through terribly-designed Turkish Newspaper Archives at the moment. Please forgive me and call me out on any specifics you don't like.


I haven't heard anybody talk about Article 4 and Article 5 of NATO's Treaty outside of Washington, DC. It seems like the sort of thing poli sci majors take to Twitter about to high-five each other on their knowledge of things, but that's not the sort of thing sweeping the Turkish public. It's arcana, and I'm not sure its relevant to anyone outside of DC (or maybe Brussels).

Also, again, the only people talking about conflict between Turkey and Syria seem to be the Americans who are openly licking their lips at Muslims killing Muslims. Syria and Turkey seem to have acknowledged a cluster-fuck on Syria's part. Likely there is an out of work Air Traffic Controller in Syria this week. But it's not like Erdoğan getting his yell on is a new event, he does this literally every week for something else (abortion, building canals in Istanbul, building ugly space-age mosques in Istanbul, tearing down ugly statues of Armenian-Turkish friendship, and that's all off the top of my head). There is a lot of laviscious lip-licking and hope that Turkey will take down the Assadian menace. I'm not sure what proof there is for this other than the hope that they'll start killing each other. It's like the Underpants Gnomes' sadistic sisters or something.

Finally, comparing Syria to Kurdistan is a bit strange. Talabani and Maliki have both seem to come to some sort of agreement with Turkey that allows the Turkish military to go in and take out presumed PKK members if the intelligence is good enough. There is certainly high-level intelligence sharing between the two countries, not to mention the millions of dollars of construction and infrastructure that Turkey is contributing to the Iraqi economy. There is no Iraq without Turkey, I don't think, and Iraq has comfitted itself with treating some dead Kurds with quietude if the money keeps rolling in. It's a situation very similar to US/Pakistan in that regard, but with much smaller stakes. Unless you happen to be the wrong smuggler on the wrong road at the wrong time, of course.

Turkey, of course, almost invaded Syria in 1998. Papa Assad was forced to kick Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK, out of Syria after working together for a few years (even using the PKK to initiate strikes in Hatay, which is still a part of Syria in most 20th century Syrian maps). The two countries' relationship can be described as uneasy at best; when they can use each other, they do, and when they can't, the teeth get bared. This is not unusual in the long history of international relations, from what I gather.

That is the point-by-point takedown. The conclusion I've come to is pretty much opposite of Mr. Foust's:

In short, Turkey has run out of patience over the Syrian civil war, and has done almost all it can short of military action to bring the fighting to a close. While it remains unwise to involve NATO in a response, Turkey is certainly within its rights to want to prevent fighting next door from adve butrsely affecting the country.
Even intervening directly in Syria is not without precedent, but Turkey should exercise caution. Dragging NATO into a conflict with Syria might not safeguard Turkish interests. And a Turkish-Syrian war could have resounding regional implications far beyond the plight of massacred Syrian civilians
The phrase "short of military action" is one that always bothered me, because it's never true. Really? Turkey's done everything? Of course not. They haven't done a blockade, they haven't even tried rapproachment with Russia and Syria, they haven't trained the insurgency...shoot, they haven't even decided what to do about Syrian Kurds. Turkey still aims to become the peacemakers and to have a large foot in post-Assad Syria. They've noticed that people don't like other people's soldiers and would rather not play that game. This isn't hopelessness and this isn't NATO.

The problem I see in this piece is usually the sorts of problems Mr. Foust counteracts. It comes from a blithely American point of view and elides the point that neither Syria nor Turkey really care what the United States thinks about the downed airplane. I personally couldn't help but guffaw at the SecState "We express condemnation and concern" sorts of things...they don't mean anything. Syria and Turkey are not looking up to NATO like two fighting siblings, they're gonna try to handle this on their own. The Turkish populace will get lathered up, certainly, but nobody is itching for a war with no easy nor obvious exit. Except for Americans hoping to see old-enemy-Syria and new-enemy-for-reasons-we're-still-not-quite-sure-about-Turkey start shooting each other. 

Such "well, what can we do?" sort of statements belong better from Claire Berlinski or whatever journalist-bro is in charge of Pajamas Media these days. It simply doesn't seem like something that Mr. Foust would usually write, because he's usually way more into second-order thinking. What can Turkey get from killing some Syrians in revenge for a downed plane? What can Syria get from intentionally taking down the plane as an act of war to begin with? Trying to forge a pattern from a few years of history while ignoring the facts that don't fit just isn't becoming.

So that's my response to that. Hopefully Mr. Foust won't be too upset with this because as I said, I really admire the guy, and I just don't think this is his best work as he makes a foray away from Central Asia. These things are complicated, and they deserve the grace to be treated as so. And of course, Erdoğan could always change tack entirely and make me look like a fool. This is an eventuality we all must prepare for, even, if reports are accurate, Abdullah Gül.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Minor Tragedy on I-5

Driving home today, I passed an overturned truck. Rotten horse parts were falling out of it. My eye was particularly caught by a head that was staring at me, unencumbered by a body.

Then I drove on.

Pretty perfect metaphor for modern life, right? During our daily tasks we get struck with the sheer horror of our actions but then move on, unable to discuss what just happened with anybody except for the anonymous internet.

Geez.