De-romanticising YPG

Kyle Orton is a budding Middle Eastern analyst who authored an important op-ed for the New York Times last year on the former dictator Saddam Hussain’s rarely mentioned role in creation of Islamism in Iraq. In Syria, he is anti-Assad regime, pro ‘moderate’ rebels, and unsympathetic towards Kurdish national self-determination.

 

Recently, Orton published a couple of blog pieces on western volunteers in the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) ranks, here and here. The pieces, based on two separate lengthy interviews with a former and a current fighter, do a reasonable work of de-romanticising YPG’s International Brigades of Rojava.

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The Battle for al-Bab

The battle for al-Bab, in Syria, rages on. In an increasingly crowded combat zone around the ISIS-held town, Turkish forces and their jihadist Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxies are in a race with Syrian Army and allied militia to be the first to capture the town. Russian air strike killed 3 Turkish servicemen and wounded 11 others yesterday in what Kremlin called a “friendly fire” incident. Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) can only watch from sidelines as their resources, along with American support, are diverted further south towards ISIS capital Raqqa.

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It is now a matter of when al-Bab falls and what happens afterwards.

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On Australia Day, January 26

A few of my fellow Kurdish Australians raised objections to celebrating this day in terms of relations with indigenous communities.

History could have unfolded differently, for the better as well as for the worse for indigenous Australians, since 26 January 1788. No one can deny the history of violence, dispossession and racism towards the indigenous communities in Australia since the start of the European colonisation.


Should that be a sufficient reason to mark Australia Day with national grief instead of celebration? In my view it is not. That this great nation was built upon the sweat and toil of 1000 social outcasts sentenced to death, however, is a good reason to celebrate.

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Bearing Witness to Bambi

Here is a sad story that I wanted to share since I contacted my family on Facebook 2 years ago.

Meet Bambi. I met her once too on the stairs of my Department of Housing building in Lilyfield some time in the early-2013. We had a brief eye contact and exchanged smiles; I said Hi, she said Hi, and we walked past each other.

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A month later, I asked my neighbour who that pretty girl was. “My ex-girlfriend”, he said. “Lucky man! Are you back together?” “She is dead”, he said. Bambi had committed suicide. She was 36 years of age.

Any young person ending their life, for whatever reason, is sad enough, but the more I learned about this girl the deeper my heart sank for her and her family and the more intensely I reflected about my own. It is important that I talk about her because there are other untold migration stories in hers.

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Unheeded Warnings and Turkey’s Multiple Wars

Turkish columnist Cengiz Candar bewails Turkey’s wrong-headed Syria policy and expresses the consensus view that involvement in Syria’s civil war has destabilised his country.

Candar, along with Amberin Zaman and Kadri Gursel, who are also columnists in al-Monitor, are among rare Turkish commentators who can view the events in Turkey from a western perspective and report with little fear or favour.

His article begins with the final paragraph of Turkish author Elif Shafak’s piece in the Guardian post-Reina club attack:

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On Barbaros Sansal controversy

Barbaros Şansal is a Turkish fashion designer who calls himself a “tailor’s apprentice.” He is a cultural critic, TV host, producer, performer, and a university teacher. He is charming as well as abrasive; controversial while also entertaining. He is a flamboyant gay activist who was expelled from Turkey’s LGBT “Pink Life Association” for transphobic comments.

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On new year’s eve, Sansal posted a video on social media from Turkish Northern Cyprus, where he was holidaying, to his fans in Turkey. Following a short rant about the country, he ends with, “drown in your own shit, Turkey.”

Yesterday Sansal survived a lynch attempt in Istanbul airport after Turkish Cypriot government expelled him for insulting Turkey. Today he was arrested and is to face the court on “incitement’ charges.

This is the speed of turnaround for AKP government opponents now. From ordinary Facebook users to famous fashionistas to seasoned journalists, nobody can say they can speak freely in Turkey anymore. Criticism of the ruling power is considered an insult to the whole nation and may land one in jail, if not in hospital, within a short amount of time.

This particular controversy also proved convenient to the government as it deflected attention from ISIS-claimed Reina club attack in Istanbul. If only the police, not to mention lynch mobs and vigilantes, were as quick and eager to round up known ISIS supporters as they were with Sansal.

 

This article offers more and a roundup of reactions to Barbaros Sansal video, including one from a conservative commentator that this should be a “lesson to keyboard warriors and terrorist lovers.”

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What is noteworthy also is the Atta Turk portrait in the still image used for the piece, reportedly lifted from Twitter. It is not clear whether it was on Sansal or in the hand of an assailant, or whether the photo was altered later. It does not appear in the video.

Here is the comment that got Barbaros Sansal in hot waters (my translation):

“Of course of course. There is no question. 2017 has entered all of you. Happy new year! Enjoy it. Now take a deep breath, lie down to your side, and pull one knee to your stomach, relax your body, and pretend you are strained.

Can you write for me the name of the misery? While so many journalists are under arrest, while so many kids are subjected to abuse and rape, while corruption and bribery are running headlong, while bigots spread filth in the streets, are you still celebrating the new year?

Do you know what I am going to do now? I am going to drink all the alcohol in the bar and at home; all of it, all of it! I am not going to leave you a drop. I am going to transfer all my dollars to Switzerland; I am not going to leave a penny behind.

Moreover, I am in Cyprus. Turkish Northern Cyprus entered the new year -under pressure from Turkey- at the same time as Turkey did. There is another hour before [Greek] Cypriot Republic enters the new year. Soon I am going to Nicosia. I will celebrate it there once more. I will drink there too. All of it! No kisses for you. In the midst of so much scum, disgrace and misery, you go on celebrating too.

Drown in your shit, Turkey.”
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On Istanbul Attacks

Istanbul is Turkey’s most beautiful, modern and cosmopolitan city. Prime spots are along the Bosporus, where Turkey’s wealthy elite and the city’s old-time establishment reside in expensive historic properties that in the past used to be reserved for Ottoman government’s high-ranking officials. There is precious little space open to public along the coasts of the straits. Those lands and buildings not in private hands are usually educational institutions, some of which are used as setting to shoot soap operas.

The best of the coastline, and hence the schools by location, are on the cosy, tree-lined, Ciragan Street that stretches for 2 km from Besiktas to Ortakoy. There, midway between the two districts and opposite of the main entrance to Yildiz Palace & Park, is a seafarer’s Technical High School, now called Ziya Kalkavan Anadolu Denizcilik Meslek Lisesi. That is the school I boarded and studied for three years from the age of 14 to 16. I almost forgot my Kurdishness and became assimilated as a Turk in that school, hence my strong mixed feelings about the latest attacks.

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Last month, during a football game in Besiktas, twin attacks claimed by highly secretive Kurdish militant group TAK, an off-shoot of the PKK, killed 40 members of the security forces. It was in retaliation for the destruction and massacres wrought in Kurdish towns and districts in 2016. Today, in the early hours of the new year in a prominent night club in Ortakoy, 40 revelers were gunned down and as many wounded by men wearing Santa costumes. Only one police officer was killed. Let’s see if and when ISIS claims responsibility for this carnage against secular-minded civilians in the name of jihad.

Secular Turks, the vast majority of whom continue to kowtow to the racist fascist ideology and legacy of Turkey’s founder Atta Turk, in response to the AKP government’s slide towards Islamism, will again refuse to evaluate and accept the distinction between the nature and the reasons between two attacks and the parties behind them. It is safer to accept the AKP government’s lumping of them both as terrorists who cannot be negotiated with and must be fought off with greater military force. If anything, Kurds are the biggest threat to them because Atta Turk said so, as do Erdogan now.

The reality is a lot different. The war engaged in by the PKK and its off-shoot TAK is, in Clausewitz’s famous words, “politics by other means”. They respond in kind because Turkey refuses to accept that Kurdish parties are rational political actors representing legitimate demands and grievances of a large repressed minority population. Like it or not, the PKK’s cause against Turkish security forces is that of an admissible national liberation struggle, not unlike that of Kosovo against Serbia and that of Iraqi Kurds against Saddam. Successive Turkish governments have failed, and will fail again, to completely rout Kurdish fighters from the country, a la the mortal blow Sri Lankan government inflicted on the Tamil Tigers. Negotiation and a political solution is inevitable if Turkey wants to end the conflict with the PKK.

The same cannot be said of ISIS. The so-called Islamic State is not fighting for political settlement in a world of nations; its ideology, aim and fight are for world conquest. Even if the loony ISIS jihadist dream of bringing all the lands from India to Turkey to Andalusia under Islamic rule turn into reality, they will seek to invade lands from China to Argentina to spread the religion to those infidels who have not yet heard the word and wrath of allah. Islamists have no limits, know no boundaries, recognise no laws and admit to no conventions not found in Koran. They cannot be negotiated with in good faith or even reasoned with. With the promise of paradise in the afterlife, living or dying is a win-win situation for the Islamist terrorist.

Turks fail to acknowledge the sharp differences in the their threat assessments between the two. While retaliatory Kurdish militant attacks on security forces are condemned swiftly and loudly, ISIS attacks are acknowledged belatedly and in a more muted fashion. For example, according to T24 internet newspaper, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said, “there are signs but we can’t say which group did it.” Meanwhile the country’s pro-government newspaper columnists are blaming the night club owner: “If you expected an attack, why did you open the club for customers?” Turkey’s unaccountable religious leaders were declaring Christmas and New Year celebrations as apostasy, and there was a bizarre video footage of racist fascist Turks with Islamist hues first circumcising and then stabbing a Santa puppet in the final days of 2016.

Currently, the lead story on the web page of the pro-AKP government Yeni Safak is a criticism of the renowned Turkish affairs correspondent Amberin Zaman who tweeted, “will the [Turkish] attacks on the most effective anti-ISIS forces YPG [Kurdish ‘People’s Protection Froces’] and the SDG [Syrian Democratic Forces] continue I wonder?” Yeni Safak responded with “she defends terrorist against terror.” The Islamist paper refused to not only speculate that ISIS could be behind the latest atrocity in Istanbul, but saw no distinction between Western-backed groups and ISIS.

For the last few years, international observers mocked the spectacular collapse of Turkey’s ‘Zero Problems with neighbours policy in Syria and Iraq. Turkish soldiers are now in the north of Syria trying to block a corridor linking Kurdish cantons around the town of al-Bab. In so doing they have found themselves combating three sides also staking claim on the town: US-backed YPG/SDF, Russia-backed Assad regime, and Turkey’s friend-to-frenemy ISIS.

What should be of great concern now is whether the instability Turkey has caused in Syria and Iraq will blow back into Ankara’s face. The signs are there; a clear ideological divide between Kemalist establishment and the new Islamist current, mass-casualty attacks, a failed coup that cost hundreds of lives, mass purges of high ranking government officials from generals to judges of Constitutional Court on the claims that they belong to yet another alleged terror network in the Gulenist movement, a police force that shouts ‘Allahu Akbar’ while firing in the air, the arrest of many pro-Kurdish rights HDP parliamentarians and the push to ban legal Kurdish politics all together, and, most recently, Muslim preachers denigrating Christian symbols and calling for assassination of Kurdish figures. The country is slowly simmering for a major internal multi-faceted armed conflict under AKP’s leadership.

This morning I cast my mind to the two spots that were attacked within a month by ISIS and TAK in Ortakoy and in Besiktas. Like many Opera House walks that I make under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in many weekends during my high school years, I would walk on Ciragan Street to the western pylon of the Bosporus Bridge, where the ISIS-attacked night club is now located, and from there I would walk back towards Besiktas, often alongside playing grounds of my football team where TAK blew up a police bus. Having lived there for three years as a teenager, I feel a great deal of affection for that refined, historic city with many centuries-old buildings. Now, it is slowly metamorphosing into a war-zone like Beirut and Baghdad. That is sad to see.