Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Twisting Road to Victory Over the Islamic State

Even as Canada continues to reel from its first casualty in the war against ISIS, one important question must loom in our participation in this war effort is meaningful at all:

How does Canada, and how do its allies, intend to win this war?

Obviously, we intend to win it. If we didn't intend to win it there was no sense in going. Likewise if we didn't have any sense of how we were going to win it.

But how can the war be won? The war requires an endgame. And as Canada looks ahead to discussions about the potential extension of the mission, this is a necessity that must be at the front of our minds.

So what does victory over the Islamic State look like?

In my opinion, it looks a lot like a Kurdish state.

More specifically, in my opinion it looks like Kurdistan.

There should be no question that the Kurdish people have been our strongest and fiercest dog in this fight. They turned the tide of battle from near-defeat to victory in Kobane, and are generally believed to be giving at least as good as they get.

But they're always in need. Of materiel. Of reinforcements. And to that end, we in the west are not giving the biggest, fiercest dog in the fight against ISIS as much support as they need.

In fact, at least one British woman has been arrested for planning to leave the UK to fight not for ISIS, but for the Partiya Karkaren Kurdistani -- the Kurdish People's Party. They maintain the YPG and YPJ, the people's defense forces. The YPJ, specifically, is comprised of women fighting ISIS forces.

So with that in mind you'd think the PKK isn't an obvious villain in the region. Until you keep in mind that the British government -- in fact, virtually all western governments -- consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization.

It's said that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. It's been said often enough that the phrase has nearly transcended cliche. Yet in the case of the PKK, it's an obvious truism.

Until the establishment of no-fly zones in northern Iraq following the first Persian Gulf War there was virtually no safe haven for the Kurdish people. Even after the establishment of those no-fly zones the region historically known as Kurdistan remains spread out across the states we currently know as Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

Turkey is a particular issue in regards to the PKK. Since 1984 the PKK has conducted regular raids into Turkey, where the Kurdish population lives oppressed.

Turkey, meanwhile, is a NATO country. Which would complicate matters greatly for the UK even if it's government was sympathetic toward the oppression Kurds suffer there. The UK -- and the whole of NATO -- could not help but recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization lest it alienate an ally.

Turkey has been touchy enough about the Armenian genocide, often threatening geopolitical consequences if its western allies dare condemn it. And that was something that happened 100 years ago. Just imagine how Turkey would react were the west to condemn something it's still doing today.

So of course the UK must continue to recognize the PKK as a terrorist entity. Nor can it even partake in a serious push to reincarnate Kurdistan as a country without risking a key Middle Eastern ally.

This situation is in no small part analogous to the conditions that fomented the Israeli insurgency following the 1939 white paper. Then it was a British government dependent on Arab Muftis who ultimately controlled the flow of Middle Eastern oil to the British war effort, and placating them by limiting Jewish immigration into modern-day Israel to only 10,000. Then it was Jews -- particularly in the post-war years -- defying British law to immigrate there illegally, all so the Israeli people could have a land in which to realize their right to self-determination.

Now it's Yazidi Britons defying British law in order to repel the hordes of the Islamic State so that the Kurdish people may have a land in which to realize their right to self-determination. Them, and non-Yazidi citizens such as Aussie Ashley Johnson, who have joined the fight and in some cases even given their lives. (In Johnson's case, it's Australian law he has defied.)

In that western governments haven't arrested western fighters upon their return is indication that we have recognized the legitimacy of the PKK, at least by half-measures. We're willing to tolerate western fighters doing battle alongside them, so long as they don't intend to join full-time.

Half-measures are not even half-sufficient. While the contributions of western nations to the fight against ISIS are undoubtedly valuable, we must recognize that they are not enough to win the war.

I firmly believe that, in the end, only the Kurds can win this war. There's clearly quite a diplomatic and legal minefield that must be navigated in order to maximize the west's ability to fully contribute to that victory, but no other path to victory appears immediately feasible.

In terms of issues on which Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson could attempt to insert some leadership internationally, there are worse places he could look. There are few signs of anyone else trying to blaze this vital diplomatic trail.

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