The Promise – a movie review

The Promise – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

I am not breaking my summer silence, merely taking a recess. The cause is a movie I saw on television last night called The Promise. It is about the Armenian genocide. If I was a true film aficionado, I would know about the film, whether I had seen it or not. But I not only did not see it when it was released, but I had not heard of it. I initially thought I had an excuse because the release date that I read was 27 May 2017. However, the actual release date in Canada was 21 April 2017. Further, it was at TIFF in 2016. In any case, my lame excuse had been that I went north to my island for the rainy and cold month of June and did not return fully until July.

Before I begin the review, a few, and perhaps too many, words about the Armenian genocide. As is well known, successive and very different Turkish regimes have denied the existence of any intentional slaughter of the up to 1.5 million Armenians killed in that slaughter. The Armenians were killed, the Turks claim, because they allegedly started a civil war. Civilians were killed in the crossfire. They were casualties of war, not deliberately murdered. In any case, the Turks insist, the numbers that died is grossly exaggerated.

They are not. The genocide took place as depicted.

I became a secondary scholar of the Armenian genocide when I was asked by the Toronto School Board to sit with two other academics, experts on the Holocaust, to adjudicate whether the story of the genocide should be included on the curriculum for high school students in Toronto. Deliberately, not one of asked to serve on this voluntary judicial advisory committee because we had published on the Armenian genocide. The Board of Education wanted expertise without offering grounds for the formal Turkish government complaint to subsequently declare a prior bias.

This was, of course, not entirely possible. All three of us were familiar with Holocaust deniers. I certainly knew of Rwandan genocide deniers, or those who try to mitigate that tragedy, though the latter position was virtually impossible to sustain. Instead, in the case of Rwanda, deflection is used – a practice with which every reader is likely to be extremely familiar since the election of President Donald Trump. The claim is that President Kagame of Rwanda has been systematically slaughtering Hutu since the Tutsi-led rebels invaded Rwanda and initiated the civil war in 1990. The numbers killed on each side, these genocide distractors imply, are about equal. This past month, I was asked to review a research paper that edged in this way towards apologetics. However ruthless President Kagame may be as an elected dictator in Rwanda, any fair examination of his record, positive and negative, would not declare him to be a genocidaire.

However, the Turks, and their successive governments of very different stripes, have been united perhaps on only one topic for over one hundred years  – the persistent and insistent denial of the Armenian genocide.  A Turkish graduate student of mine – not an Armenian – wanted to write a thesis on the Armenian refugees in WWI. Somehow the Turkish government heard of it. A representative of the Turkish embassy in Ottawa paid me a visit when I was the founding director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. He asked generally whther any student was writing about refugees, particularly from Turkey, during I disclosed nothing but informed my student. That student, fearing punishment on any return to Turkey, switched topics.

On the committee, I read much of the scholarly literature on the Armenian genocide as well as the Turkish propaganda denying its occurrence. What was distinctive from the Jewish and the Armenian genocides is that, in this case, there were two reputable scholars who denied that a systematic government-led effort to slaughter and forcefully relocate the Armenians had taken place. The vast majority of scholarly conclusions – as the committee claimed in its report to the Board of Education – supported the claims of genocide. Though the committee did not find that the evidence for the Armenian genocide taking place was incontrovertible or unassailable – there are very few historical events in which this is the case – the committee concluded that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, and the logical flaws of the deniers, made it unquestionable that the Armenian genocide should be taught as a segment of actual history on a high school curriculum and without providing any necessity to make room for the literature of deniers. The evidence was as indisputable and indubitable as one can find in historiography. Yet two films appeared relatively recently that bordered on genocide denial – The Ottoman Lieutenant and Russell Crowe’s Water Diviner.

All this is to say that when I watched the film, I had no distraction or concern that the genocide had taken place. However, I was bothered somewhat by the implication that Turkey during the dying days of the Ottoman empire and even the beginnings of the Young Turk takeover in the aftermath of the disastrous Turko-Russian War largely waged in the Balkans in 1912, was simply a prosperous multicultural society. It certainly had that appearance. But just as there had been early warnings of a genocide in Rwanda with some trial efforts at mass slaughter, the warnings in Turkey were far clearer with the slaughter of 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians in the massacres of 1894-95 by the paramilitary Hamidye (the Interahamwe militias were used in Rwanda) and the 10,000–30,000 murdered by units of the armed forces in the Adana massacre of March-April 1909. However, as most scholars point out, a pogrom does not constitute a genocide. But pogroms can be precursors.

Thus, the film is correct in dating the formal start of the genocide to 24 April 1915 when several hundred Armenian professionals and intellectuals were rounded up and interned, with the vast majority eventually being killed. Second, the film depicts the second stage of the genocide when young Armenian (as well as Assyrian and Greek Christian) males from their teens to their forties were arrested, subjected to forced labour and murdered en masse in the process. The third phase of the slaughter portrays whole Armenian villages and towns put to the torch and Armenian older men, women and children set out on a forced march to Syria, where, on route, the vast majority perished in the desert which they attempted to cross with inadequate supplies of food and water. In the finale, the film portrays the brave and victorious Armenian 53-day self-defence by the Armenians from the villages of Kabusia (Kaboussieh), Yoghunoluk, Bitias, Vakef, Kheter Bey (Khodr Bey) and Haji Habibli  at the mountain, Musa Daği (ironically, Moses’ Mountain) recorded in Franz Werfel’s  novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, until over 4,000 Armenians were rescued by the French navy.

The genocidal scenes are handled with mastery by the director, Terry George, and constitute a complement to the beauty and variety and richness of Constantinople before the war. Terry George entered this project with a stellar reputation from directing Hotel Rwanda and, before that, Some Mother’s Son (1991) about the 1981 IRA prisoner hunger strike, In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997), the latter two both starring Daniel Day Lewis. Unlike these depictions of the troubles in Northern Ireland, The Promise is directed on an epic scale with wonderful crowd scenes varying from the throngs in the markets of Istanbul to the forced labourers to the mass deportations in cattle cars and the forced march of the Armenian inhabitants of towns and villages. The leads portrayed by Oscar Isaac as Mikael Poghosian, an apothecary with a determination to become a doctor, Charlotte Le Bon as the vivacious and vibrant Ana, and Christian Bale as the famous American journalist, Chris Meyers.

So what is wrong with the film? Why is it not the Armenian equivalent to Schindler’s List? It is certainly not the cinematography which is gorgeous – perhaps all-too-gorgeous, even in the scenes about the flight. Unlike Atom Egoyan’s 2003 imperfect movie Ararat, also on the Armenian genocide, the flaw in The Promise is in the script co-written by Terry George and Robin Swicord. The weakness is not because they used a romantic triangle among the three to anchor the film in the personal, but because the triangle remains too central when the belated portrayal of the genocide begins. Further, it turns into a contrived and cloying series of segments through the latter half of the movie. Finally, and I could not figure why, there is almost no sexual chemistry between Ana and Mikael.

Some reviewers that I read this morning found this simply to be a distraction. For other reviewers, it spoiled the film. While I agree with the consensus on the sentimental and manipulated personal narrative at the core of the film, the power of the portrayal of the genocide, the brilliant directing and cinematography, and the wonderful acting, even though the character of Mikael Poghosian is too much of a goody-two-shoes for me, the events and their portrayal more than make up for this lapse so that I was mesmerized by the film and would have rated it much higher than the negative and barely positive reviews that I read.

However, do not read the reviews before you watch the movie. I did not, and very rarely do, for, in this case, review after review egregiously offer an account of the plot in great detail. A script which allowed reviewers to be distracted from the main and very important subject matter can be blamed on the screenwriters, but reviewers are as much to blame for allowing their narrative sensibilities to detract from the power of the movie.

It is a must see. And it does not cost nearly as much to watch on TV as in a movie theatre, though I desperately wish I had viewed the panoramic scenes on a large movie screen.

 

with the help of Alex Zisman

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Donald Johnston and Donald Trump: Europe and Russia

Donald Johnston and Donald Trump: Europe and Russia

by

Howard Adelman

Russia and Europe are both in the headlines these days, Russia because of the probe into the connections with the Trump White House, and Europe because of the fallout from Donald Trump’s visit last week. “The American-German relationship has been the core of the transatlantic alliance for more than 70 years. It was in Berlin in 1963 that President John Kennedy uttered the phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner” signalling the unbreakable link between the U.S. and Germany.

Following last week, that close relationship is now dead. At its centre were trade and a military alliance. With respect to the latter, Donald Trump refrained from endorsing Clause 5 of the NATO pact. Trump even lectured his European colleagues for their failure to pay their fair share of NATO costs. Yesterday we learned that most are expecting Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris Accords.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel rebuked the American leader. “Anyone who accelerates climate change by weakening environmental protection, who sells more weapons in conflict zones and who does not want to politically resolve religious conflicts is putting peace in Europe at risk.” Angela Merkel said that it was time for Europeans, “to take our fates in our own hands.” Given “what I’ve experienced in recent days,” the days when “we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent.” “We have to fight for our own future, as Europeans, for our destiny.”

These statements, as much as one might deplore this extraordinary breach in the trans-Atlantic alliance, seemed to prove Donald Johnston’s conviction that Europe had to have strong, visionary leadership. Though he had not seen it yet when he wrote Chapter 3 of his book, “Europe Listing, but Afloat,” the statements of German leaders, the election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France, the prior rejection in Austria of a right-wing populist government, the rebirth of Greece and its rejection of a Greek Grexit, the solidification of the Spanish and Irish economic recoveries, all spoke to a revived Europe, and one without the UK which had voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit upset referendum.

The UK seems to be on a downward slide. London’s place as a world financial centre will begin a slow spiral driven by the gravity of less access to markets. Further, the UK faces the possibility of disintegrating into even smaller nation-states as Scotland looks forward to another vote for separation and rejoining Europe. While most Germans, Dutch and French identify as Europeans, the English still overwhelmingly identify their nationality with their little British Isle. Nevertheless, Johnston believes that the English will soon come to their senses, especially as the unravelling gets closer and more difficult. He believes that Brits will reverse course before it is too late.

One reason Donald Johnston offers is not only the difficulties in unravelling membership, not only the increasingly apparent high costs, but his belief that the Brexit referendum “was a vote of passion, not reason.” Rational self-interest would win out over identity politics currently manifest in the U.K.’s resistance to the influx of outsiders, even though two-thirds of migrants to the UK were not Europeans. Further, like populists on the right in the U.S., those supporting exit from the EU hated the Brussels bureaucracy and called for “independence.”

Nevertheless, Johnston believes that Brits will change their minds before the break is finalized. “What government would have the courage to sign off on Brexit if the polls show a large majority of electors opposed, which is likely to be the case when the consequences are well understood?” If they don’t, separation will take place “against the will of the majority of people in the United Kingdom.” How does he arrive at that assessment? He adds together those who voted against exit with those who did not vote at all on the assumption that 100% would oppose Brexit. Further, even if the divorce is concluded, he expresses the belief that Britain would remain in the European economic zone or, at the very least, forge a free-trade agreement.

Ignoring the statistical sleight of hand above, which Johnston rails against in his chapter on stats, for someone who supports democratic institutions, it reveals a strong distaste for populism and referenda, a dislike he repeatedly expresses in the book. The problem, of course, is that a united Europe is primarily a mandarin’s dream while people throughout Europe and not only in the UK resent the usurping of tradition, of national parliaments and national pride. Johnston believes in a federated state model for Europe. He is an unabashed supporter of multilateralism and globalization as he envisions an even stronger Europe with increasingly open markets, a diminution of trade subsidies, a supporter of structural reforms in the provision of labour and manufacturing. But without completing the mission of creating a united federal state of Europe, the prospect of it becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world while ensuring social cohesion is, for DJ, iffy.

It is not that Johnston has not considered the reasons for populism – the suspicion of remote bureaucracies or the desire for greater parochialism. He has, but only to dismiss such approaches and to double down in defence of globalization. Nowhere in the book could I find an analysis of the effects of restructuring and globalization on workers. Further, and this is most surprising, though he applauds the goals of the Lisbon Declaration in support of education, research and innovation, research and innovation are not included in his graphic summary of his moral economics. Nor is his support for representative democracy and his fears, even hatred, of referenda and populism. The latter just provide grounds for demagogues and irrational passions displacing the task of rational decision-making. DJ quotes Edmund Burke with enthusiasm for parliamentarians who offer unbiased opinions, mature judgement and an enlightened conscience applied to political decision-making. Even those who have a deep faith in rational decision-making can be romantic visionaries.

What remains wrong in Europe? No equivalent to a European-wide securities and exchange commission, no EU-wide drug or food agency, no effective common immigration and refugee position, if only to counter-balance population decline, no formula for redistribution and strengthening weak regions. These unachieved goals, not identity politics, are responsible for the reassertion of populist, irrational, ill-informed and volatile popular will.

Donald Johnston presents himself as the antithesis to Donald Trump. Except he thinks Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an effective leader in Turkey and only became a radical pro-Islamic politician because Europe procrastinated and dithered on Turkey’s application to join the EU. Turkey’s flaws are largely the product of that rejection, even though he concedes that many who suspected his demagoguery and counter-democratic tendencies may have been correct. What he writes abut Russia offers a test of whether he can reconcile his support of parliamentary representative democracy and admiration for strong, effective leaders, for the latter is the trait he unabashedly shares with Donald Trump.

That, however, does not seem to be the case when he begins his chapter on Russia. “Putin’s personal agenda is totally incompatible with democratic ideals, free markets, freedom of expression, and even human rights.” Sounds pretty much like Erdoğan. Both men came to power with a very specific goal – to make their respective countries great again. Both used democracy to advance their own popularity and agenda. Both are economic mercantilists. And both are enemies of freedom and human rights. So why is Johnston so favourable to Erdoğan but critical of Putin? The sentence that follows partially answers the question. “His popularity is founded on hostility and aggressive policies towards the west.” (p. 41)

But what is the difference between the two leaders of Turkey and Russia respectively? Both disappeared adversaries, Erdoğan blatantly, openly and extensively. Putin was more surreptitious, but only Putin is accused. The difference seems to be that people eliminated in Russia included technocrats who Johnston knew – Boris Nemstov, for example.  Erdoğan only wiped out Kurds, jailed journalists and rounded up tens of thousands of members of his own party, civil servants and members of the judiciary, or anyone he thought might be opposed to his increasingly autocratic rule. The only substantive difference: Turkey had a much longer period as a democratic state.

But the causes are the same. Western failures. “Putin [like Erdoğan] is a product of Western blindness.” The stimulus may be different – the closure of the EU to Turkey versus the resurrection of the Cold War in a new form against Russia. The EU dithered on admitting Turkey. OECD procrastinated with Russia’s application to join.

Look at DJ’s answer to Putin’s query to him for an example of bad practices that OECD could help eliminate. Johnston replied, with only the slightest hesitation: “In Canada, which is a vast and diversified country and has similarities with Russia, we committed many mistakes. We pushed local development policies that were more tailored to positive political outcomes than to economic ones.” His reaction to Putin’s impassive response is even more interesting, explaining that passivity because Putin recognized that, “in democracies, placating local constituencies with public funds is an odious, yet obvious (my italics), by-product of the election process.” (p. 45) That says very little about Putin, but a great deal about Johnston’s cynicism and very guarded qualified defence of democracy, which seemed to boil down to the less you consulted your constituents, the less you tried to placate and cater to them, the better leader you were.

Putin could ignore proposals to liberalization of trade, effective taxation, privatization and methods for attracting foreign capital investments. Why? Because the West had made him justifiably wary because of the advance of Western missile defence systems eastward and NATO expansion to the borders of Russia. Those missile defence systems and the move of NATO eastward were not because former satellites had learned to distrust Russia throughout their history and needed reassurances if they were going to embrace the West.

Whether the problem was Crimea, the Ukraine or Syria, the answer is always the same: the mindblindness of the West. The West had failed to provide, in a timely way, healthy market-oriented and properly regulated economic nostrums in the nineties so that Russia could have avoided the depredations of corruption and kleptocratic oligarchs. Why? Because “the Harvard boys” with their unboundaried faith in self-correcting free markets got to Moscow before the OECD boys and their ethical economic doctrines. Russia could and should have been made part of the EU community earlier and history would have run a different course. The IMF got it wrong. OECD had it right.There are vast differences between DJ and DT: DJ’s high regard for civil servants and DT’s contempt for them; their joint appreciation of free markets, but Trump for unregulated ones and DJ’s belief in moral boundaries to them; DJ’s and DT’s contempt for the populace, but with Trump gleefully manipulating the public while DJ did so with his head down and with no sense of self-satisfaction. However, look at the similarities. Both support military withdrawal from spheres of Russian interest. Both share a belief in the power of personal diplomacy. Both respect strong leadership. Trump crusaded against corruption while openly admitting he was part of the corrupt system. DJ, though critical, was more accepting of corruption in its institutionalized democratic forms.

With respect to the latter, there is a major difference. DJ believes in consulting, placating and catering to constituents as little as possible. Trump does not exactly consult them, but psychologically he needs their approval and applause – look at how he is handling the abrogation of America’s signature to the Paris Accords.

DJ and DT are not the same. They are in many ways opposites. However, they are twins, though DT is the hairy one prone to mistakes, governed by instinct and unabashedly frank and even trusting. DJ is cautious, reads his briefing papers diligently and, even more importantly, appreciates others who do the same. Both have strong opinions and both offer very weak defenses of them. Trump’s are almost non-existent or simply products of his imagination.  But DJ respects mandarins. DT despises them. DJ is a globalist and cosmopolitan. DT is a nationalist. DJ is the epitome of civility. DT disses his opponents.

But both believe that history can be commanded and controlled – DJ through thoughtful and careful deliberation, DT through instinct and unabashed self-trust.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Inadmissibility of the Acquisition of Territory by Force

The UN Resolution on Israeli Settlements
Part I: Inadmissibility of the Acquisition of Territory by Force

by

Howard Adelman

This series of blogs on the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel for its continuing expansion of settlements in the West Bank, a resolution passed on Friday, offers an opportunity to investigate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once again, but in the context of what has taken place over the last fifty years, within the current context in which we are witnessing the largest tectonic shift in the way politics has been conducted over the last century, and in the context of an even larger shift in the modes of communication we use to understand the world and converse about it in the first place. But I begin, not with these large themes, but with one specific motion passed 14-0 with one abstention, that of the United States, in response to the United Nations Security Council condemning Israel for its policy of expanding settlements in the West Bank. My effort is in the tradition of the oldest and almost obsolete mode of communication, a detailed analysis and a hermeneutic for comprehending what is happening and what is at stake within the emotional context of a lament.

For those who like their political analysis to be terse and to the point, that is easy enough. For the last forty years, I have been active, not on the front rows, but as a bit player on the world scene as the drama of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unfolded even further than it had previously. I was a very active member of the Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East (CPPME) and, for one year following the death of Harry Crowe, served as its president. I was part of one of sixteen known Track II efforts of international diplomacy, that is, the use of academics to advance a peace process in a context where either side could participate, but never take responsibility or be accused of taking positions. The politics of deniability was at the heart of Track II diplomacy.

I was also a scholar who had studied refugees in general and the Palestinian refugee situation in detail, not only for scholarly purposes, but as an advisor to a Canadian diplomatic team as Canada gavelled the most important of the five sets of multilateral talks dealing specifically with the Palestinian refugee question. For that set of talks was also about deception as many of the matters that could not be sorted out in the bilateral talks, matters that had nothing to do with the refugee issue per se, were resolved in the refugee talks through the expertise and good offices of Canadian diplomats – issues such as: who spoke for the parties, who could represent them, how they were to be recognized.

During that time, I could be clearly labeled politically. I was an extreme dove, supporting the two-state solution and believing that Israel would have to give back most of the territory captured in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem. while never expecting Israel to agree to the last part of that position. I was especially surprised when two different Israeli Prime Ministers, one from the right of centre and one from the left of centre, both Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, made unprecedented offers of peace that I had never expected, offers that included the provision of turning over East Jerusalem to the Palestinian state. Ehud Olmert in 2007 would go on to insist that unless Israel strongly pursued a two-state solution, the nation risked being compared to South Africa as an apartheid state by the world community. Not risked becoming an apartheid state, as many mistakenly interpreted his statement, but being identified as one.

During the last eight years, I have watched President Barack Obama spend a considerable amount of international and domestic political capital in what his administration perceived as a last chance at forging a two-state solution, only to conclude at the end of the process that the prospect was very dim. Further, publicly he placed almost the total blame for that failure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Finally, he indicated that in the light of those events, the U.S. would have to re-assess “aspects” of its relationship with Israel. One of those aspects became very clear as the U.S. did not veto but abstained on Resolution 2334 passed 14-0 in the Security Council on Friday just as the United States was on the verge of Donald Trump taking power, the Donald who clearly has a very opposed view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a radically different approach than the one that had been used over the last forty years of my involvement in dealing with international conflicts.

The passing of that resolution on Friday was not an expression even of a last hurrah, but a de facto confession of moral impotence and hypocrisy that has been a deep part of the failure in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is important to understand why this is so, why the movers of the motion felt so impassioned about it, why the passing of the resolution received such sustained applause and why the Obama administration and why Benjamin Netanyahu had such opposite responses when the motion was passed. The motion was really a pronouncement that the two-state solution was dead. The motion was a claim for rhetorical victory by the losing side, much as the United States in 1972 had claimed victory in extracting itself from the Vietnam War only to watch North Vietnam take over the south three years later. While many applauded and others raged at the passage of the UNSC resolution, I cried. Literally!

This series of blogs is intended to explain my position in great detail. I begin with the dissection of the resolution itself – in this blog dealing with the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. In subsequent blogs, I will deal with other issues in international politics, law and ethics – the principles of protection of civilians in times of war, the role of International Courts of Justice in dealing with highly complex international political issues, the demographic character of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the danger of continuing Israeli settlements imperiling the two-state solution based on the 1967 lines (my italics), the role of past UN resolutions demanding a freeze on settlement activity, including freezing any opportunities for natural growth, the dismantlement of illegal outposts of the settler movement, and the compatibility of all these moves with the vision of the region in which two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders.

All of these elements of the resolution have to be analyzed within an historical pattern of perception in which all trends on the ground are simply perceived in negative terms because they are looked at strictly from the position of a defense of preserving one version of the two-state solution and the increasingly forlorn hope of the resurrection of a position I have defended and worked on for forty years, but for which there is no longer any realistic prospect. Further, all this is happening in a context in which the conduct of international politics and the even larger context of international political communication are both undergoing a seismic shift.

I have included the full UN Security Council resolution at the end of this blog, though it is preferable if it is read, and repeatedly read, before each step in the analysis. I also must explain that my blogs may be more irregular as much of my time increasingly goes to my new position as a nurse’s aid. Eventually, I will cover all the key problems with the resolution, the reasons for the American abstention and neither supporting nor vetoing the resolution, Donald Trump’s role in its passage, the response of the Israeli government as well as the leading opposition parties in Israel, the analysis of those who pushed the resolution and their rationale, the role of Egypt, the larger context of international diplomacy and communications, and the long term consequences of the resolution on all the relevant parties.

The Inadmissibility of the Acquisition of Territory by Force

On 23 December 2016, the UN Security Council passed UN Resolution 2334 included at the end of this blog. I have added the bolding. The relevant clause discussed in this blog is the first principle cited in the preamble and it reads as follows:

Guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and reaffirming, inter alia, the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force.

Is it inadmissible to acquire territories by force?

The principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territories by force is embodied in UNSC Resolution 242 passed on 22 November 1967 in the aftermath of the Six Day War. Chapter VI of the UN Charter calls on member states to settle their disputes by peaceful methods (inquiries, negotiations, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, etc.) rather than war. In cases of failure to reach agreement, the issue must be referred to the Security Council. Chapter VI allows any state or consortium of states to bring a resolution before the UN Security Council. Note that Chapter VI only allows the UN to pass resolutions that are recommendations; resolutions that are passed, do not bind the member states engaged in a dispute. This is unlike resolutions passed under Chapter VII which are deemed obligatory. Resolutions under Chapter VI are commendatory, particularly since the UN has no enforcement mechanism.

If territories are acquired in a defensive war, not through intentional conquest, why is it inadmissible to hold onto such territories, particularly if the territory is largely being held both for defensive reasons and as bargaining chips in a future peace negotiation? The inadmissibility is directly tied to efforts to settle populations on that territory as distinct from acquiring those territories? What is the definition of acquisition of a territory by a state?

Further, since the Six Day War, Israel concluded two peace agreements, one with Egypt in which Israel gave back all territory captured as part of a full peace agreement. The other was with Jordan, a country which had walked away from any responsibility for the territory it had captured and annexed in the 1948 war. Article 2, paragraph 5 of the UN Charter requires states to refrain from using force “against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Such a clause is only possibly applicable to the Golan Heights which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and subsequently annexed. However, the bone of contention driving Res. 2334 is the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, captured in the 1967 war and claimed, not by an existing state, but by an aspiring Palestinian state.

It is notable that the supposed universal principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force only refers to Resolution 242 applicable to only one area of the many occupied by one state and taken from another, and then only after Israel acquired further territory following the Six Day War in 1967; it is not applicable to the additional territory Israel captured and annexed in the 1948 war.

Look at many of the other areas of the world to which the principle has not been applied. In 1975, Morocco occupied just over 100,000 square miles of desert flatlands in the Western Sahara (formerly the Spanish Sahara) that was also claimed by Mauritania when Spain gave up administrative control of the territory. The Polisario Front also fought to make the territory an independent self-governing state (the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), even though the population totalled only about half a million. In the war that ensued, the Polisario Front was left with at most a third of the territory, while Morocco controlled the rest, including the whole Atlantic Ocean coast line, all in defiance of a 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice that upheld the right to self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara.

In contrast, the U.S. politically recognized Morocco’s right to the territory even when, subsequently, Morocco and the Polisario National Front agreed that a referendum would be held in which the people of the Western Sahara could determine their fate. That referendum has never been held, though periodically there have been diplomatic efforts to resolve the impasse. Under Trump, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. will bring pressure on Morocco and King Mohammed VI to sort out the problem of voter eligibility and the mode of conducting the referendum, especially given the access Morocco provides U.S. military forces to Atlantic ports and aircraft refueling. Thus, though the U.S. launched a war against Iraq in 1991 that could theoretically have been on the principle of the inadmissibility of conquering the territory of another state when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the U.S. used the Moroccan conquered territory as part of its war effort. In current U.S. policy stretching back to those years, including both Bush and Clinton administrations, the U.S. does “not automatically reject a territorial transfer brought [about] by force.”

The question arises: why is the U.S. willing to exempt Morocco from acquiring territory by force, especially given three factors – Morocco, unlike Israel, is an autocratic monarchy not a democracy; Morocco engages in extensive human rights abuses; finally, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the tension is a source of instability in both areas – the Maghreb and in the former territory of the Palestinian mandate. Yet the Obama administration never challenged Morocco. President Obama even lauded the monarchy for its efforts at “deepening democracy” and “promoting economic progress.” Trump’s foreign policy will undoubtedly stress even more favouritism towards allies rather than rights of self-determination and the inadmissibility of the conquest of territory by force.

However, the key question raised in Friday’s vote was the policy of the UN. The UNSC this year renewed its peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) that was also passed on a Friday (almost eight months earlier on 29 April). In spite of a much greater UN presence there as a peacemaker than in Israel-Palestine, and perhaps because of that and the risks a more activist diplomatic stance might make on the security of its peacekeepers, the UN has not placed any significant pressure on Morocco. It has not even passed any resolutions on Morocco to cease and desist from its policies of expulsion in the area. When Ban Ki-moon visited the territory this past year and even called it “occupied,” a diplomatic firestorm ensued.

The original Res. 379 of 2 November 1975 simply urged the contending parties to desist from unilateral actions and instructed the Secretary General to report back. The stronger 6 November 1975 Resolution 380 deplored a march held by Morocco in the territory, called on Morocco to withdraw its troops and asked the contending parties to cooperate with the UN. The very recent 29 April 2016 Morocco resolution continued the pattern of its predecessors, including Res. 2218 of the previous year, renewing the peacekeeping mandate for an additional year while endorsing the efforts of UN envoys to reconcile the position of the parties and congratulating both parties for their positive efforts to reach a compromise. Nothing was ever said about the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force.

The full resolution 2218 on the Western Sahara conflict can be found at the end of this blog.

This was not the case when Indonesia invaded East Timor, also in 1975, and the UNSC passed resolution 384 on 22 December 1975. Though that very much stronger resolution required all states to respect the territorial integrity of East Timor and the inalienable right to self-determination, the resolution never invoked the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. What forced the Indonesian withdrawal was the weakened state of the Indonesian economy and the active intervention of the Australians, propelled in good part by their oil interests in the area.

Only in the case of Kuwait, an independent state and full member of the UN, did the UN Security Council pass a resolution (660), but it authorized member states to take military action to resist and overturn the conquest. The members passed that resolution, not under the principle of the inadmissibility for the acquisition of territory by force, but under a much harsher Chapter VII principle of maintaining peace and security in the region. The resolution endorsed military intervention.

When North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam in 1975, no resolution akin to the anti-Indonesian one was passed. In no other case that I can find has there been the invocation of the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force of arms.

Though the UN and other states put pressure on China to accede to the independence of Mongolia in 1961, the Chinese military takeover of Tibet in 1950 and its repression of the Tibetan uprising in 1959 never involved any invocation of the principle of the inadmissibility of the conquest of territory by force. At best, the General Assembly of the UN periodically took up the question of Tibet, but even China’s strongest critics never invoked the principle of the inadmissibility of the conquest of territory by force. Perhaps some resolutions had been morally stronger – charging China with acts of genocide in the fifties and insisting that Tibet had previously been an independent state, but the principle of the inadmissibility of the conquest of territory was not invoked.

The principle is applied exclusively to Israel. Further, the resolution applies only to Israel following the 1967 war.

There are many other cases. Do we need to add the supine character of the UN when it came to the Russian takeover of Crimea, Moscow’s coercive interventions in eastern Ukraine, never mind Russia/s military invasion of Georgia in 2008 ostensibly on behalf of self-determination in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A United Nations member was being dismembered by force, and the UN was impotent to act.

In the case of Ethiopia’s two-year war with Eritrea which began on 6 May of 1998, the two parties reached a peace agreement. That agreement provided for an arbitration commission to determine borders. That commission found in favour of Eritrea and against the claims of Ethiopia that most of the territory of the border region it occupied belonged to Ethiopia, specifically the hundreds of towns and villages along the border in which the Ethiopian army destroyed the buildings and infrastructure in the area occupied, particularly that of the border towns of Senafe and Tsorona- Zalembessa. The UNSC proved unable to enforce a ruling by an independent boundary commission awarding the bulk of disputed border territory to Eritrea.

Ethiopia ignored the findings and continued to occupy the border territory and integrate it into the territory of Ethiopia. This was another example of a seizure of territory by force never condemned by the UN Security Council as a breach of the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. Instead, based on a report of the UNSC Monitoring Group, the UN reprimanded Eritrea for violating the UN resolution by importing weapons and ammunition from eastern Sudan and claimed that it had evidence that Eritrea supported the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement and Ginbot Seven. Eritrea had also been condemned by a human rights commission for arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, enslavement, murder and reprisals against family members of dissidents inside the country. There is no equivalent report on human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza except by Israel.

When Turkish forces took over Northern Cyprus and continued to administer the territory as if it is an extension of Turkey rather than part of the territory of an independent state and member of the UN, it did so under the pretext that Turkey had no jurisdiction or control over the territory of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus which Turkey, but no other country, recognized as an independent de facto state. Turkey claimed that Northern Cyprus was not a “subordinate local administration.” The European Court of Human Rights had already previously ruled that Turkey exercised effective control over northern Cyprus. Nevertheless, the UN Security Council had never ruled that Turkey’s effective control was an example of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory through force.

Comparative historical examinations of other situations as well as of the case of Israel before 1967 clearly points to the fact that the Security Council has been using the language of a general principle to apply to one and only one case, thereby undermining that principle as a norm of international conduct and reinforcing the position that the acquisition of territory through force is, in fact, the accepted practice and not its obverse.

Next Blog: The UNSC Res. 2334 Part II: Occupation and Acquisition:
Legal Obligations and Responsibilities Under the Fourth Geneva Convention

Appendix 1:

Security Council Resolution 2334
Reaffirming its relevant resolutions, including resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973), 446 (1979), 452 (1979), 465 (1980), 476 (1980), 478 (1980), 1397 (2002), 1515 (2003), and 1850 (2008),
Guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and reaffirming, inter alia, the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force,
Reaffirming the obligation of Israel, the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously by its legal obligations and responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of 12 August 1949, and recalling the advisory opinion rendered on 9 July 2004 by the International Court of Justice,
Condemning all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, including, inter alia, the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law and relevant resolutions,
Expressing grave concern that continuing Israeli settlement activities are dangerously imperilling the viability of the two-State solution based on the 1967 lines,
Recalling the obligation under the Quartet Roadmap, endorsed by its resolution 1515 (2003), for a freeze by Israel of all settlement activity, including “natural growth”, and the dismantlement of all settlement outposts erected since March 2001,
Recalling also the obligation under the Quartet roadmap for the Palestinian Authority Security Forces to maintain effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantling terrorist capabilities, including the confiscation of illegal weapons,
Condemning all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation, incitement and destruction,
Reiterating its vision of a region where two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders,
Stressing that the status quo is not sustainable and that significant steps, consistent with the transition contemplated by prior agreements, are urgently needed in order to (i) stabilize the situation and to reverse negative trends on the ground, which are steadily eroding the two-State solution and entrenching a one-State reality, and (ii) to create the conditions for successful final status negotiations and for advancing the two-State solution through those negotiations and on the ground,
1. Reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace;
2. Reiterates its demand that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard;
3. Underlines that it will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations;
4. Stresses that the cessation of all Israeli settlement activities is essential for salvaging the two-State solution, and calls for affirmative steps to be taken immediately to reverse the negative trends on the ground that are imperilling the two-State solution;
5. Calls upon all States, bearing in mind paragraph 1 of this resolution, to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967;
6. Calls for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction, calls for accountability in this regard, and calls for compliance with obligations under international law for the strengthening of ongoing efforts to combat terrorism, including through existing security coordination, and to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism;
7. Calls upon both parties to act on the basis of international law, including international humanitarian law, and their previous agreements and obligations, to observe calm and restraint, and to refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric, with the aim, inter alia, of de-escalating the situation on the ground, rebuilding trust and confidence, demonstrating through policies and actions a genuine commitment to the two-State solution, and creating the conditions necessary for promoting peace;
8. Calls upon all parties to continue, in the interest of the promotion of peace and security, to exert collective efforts to launch credible negotiations on all final status issues in the Middle East peace process and within the time frame specified by the Quartet in its statement of 21 September 2010;
9. Urges in this regard the intensification and acceleration of international and regional diplomatic efforts and support aimed at achieving, without delay a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East on the basis of the relevant United Nations resolutions, the Madrid terms of reference, including the principle of land for peace, the Arab Peace Initiative and the Quartet Roadmap and an end to the Israeli occupation that began in 1967; and underscores in this regard the importance of the ongoing efforts to advance the Arab Peace Initiative, the initiative of France for the convening of an international peace conference, the recent efforts of the Quartet, as well as the efforts of Egypt and the Russian Federation;
10. Confirms its determination to support the parties throughout the negotiations and in the implementation of an agreement;
11. Reaffirms its determination to examine practical ways and means to secure the full implementation of its relevant resolutions;
12. Requests the Secretary-General to report to the Council every three months on the implementation of the provisions of the present resolution;
13. Decides to remain seized of the matter.

Appendix 2: The UN Security Council on the Western Sahara:

“The Security Council,
“Recalling and reaffirming all its previous resolutions on Western Sahara,
“Reaffirming its strong support for the efforts of the Secretary-General and his Personal Envoy to implement resolutions 1754 (2007), 1783 (2007), 1813 (2008), 1871 (2009), 1920 (2010), 1979 (2011), 2044 (2012), 2099 (2013), and 2152 (2014),
“Reaffirming its commitment to assist the parties to achieve a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in the context of arrangements consistent with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations, and noting the role and responsibilities of the parties in this respect,
“Reiterating its call upon the parties and the neighbouring states to cooperate more fully with the United Nations and with each other and to strengthen their involvement to end the current impasse and to achieve progress towards a political solution,
“Recognizing that achieving a political solution to this long-standing dispute and enhanced cooperation between the Member States of the Maghreb Arab Union would contribute to stability and security in the Sahel region,
“Welcoming the efforts of the Secretary-General to keep all peacekeeping operations, including the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), under close review and reiterating the need for the Council to pursue a rigorous, strategic approach to peacekeeping deployments, and effective management of resources,
“Expressing concern about the violations of existing agreements, and calling on the parties to respect their relevant obligations,
“Taking note of the Moroccan proposal presented on 11 April 2007 to the Secretary-General and welcoming serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution; also taking note of the Polisario Front proposal presented 10 April 2007 to the Secretary-General,
“Encouraging in this context, the parties to demonstrate further political will towards a solution including by expanding upon their discussion of each other’s proposals,
“Taking note of the four rounds of negotiations held under the auspices of the Secretary-General and welcoming the commitment of the parties to continue the negotiations process,
“Encouraging the parties to continue cooperating with the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in implementing the January 2012 updated Plan of Action on Confidence Building Measures,
“Stressing the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps, and encouraging the parties to work with the international community to develop and implement independent and credible measures to ensure full respect for human rights, bearing in mind their relevant obligations under international law,
“Encouraging the parties to continue in their respective efforts to enhance the promotion and protection of human rights in Western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps, including the freedoms of expression and association,
“Recognizing and welcoming, in this regard, the recent steps and initiatives taken by Morocco to strengthen the National Council on Human Rights Commissions operating in Dakhla and Laayoune, and Morocco’s ongoing interaction with Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council, including those planned for 2015, as well as the planned visit of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2015,
“Also welcoming the implementation of the enhanced refugee protection programme developed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in coordination with the Polisario Front, which includes refugee and human rights training and awareness initiatives,
“Reiterating its request for consideration of a refugee registration in the Tindouf refugee camps and inviting efforts in this regard,
“Welcoming the commitment of the parties to continue the process of negotiations through the United Nations-sponsored talks,
“Recognizing that the consolidation of the status quo is not acceptable, and noting further that progress in the negotiations is essential in order to improve the quality of life of the people of Western Sahara in all its aspects,
“Affirming full support for the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara Ambassador Christopher Ross and his work in facilitating negotiations between the parties, and, welcoming to that effect his recent initiatives and ongoing consultations with the parties and neighbouring states,
“Affirming full support for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara and Head of MINURSO Kim Bolduc,
“Having considered the report of the Secretary-General of 13 April 2015 (S/2015/246),
“1. Decides to extend the mandate of MINURSO until 30 April 2016;
“2. Reaffirms the need for full respect of the military agreements reached with MINURSO with regard to the ceasefire and calls on the parties to adhere fully to those agreements;
“3. Calls upon all parties to cooperate fully with the operations of MINURSO, including its free interaction with all interlocutors, and to take the necessary steps to ensure the security of as well as unhindered movement and immediate access for the United Nations and associated personnel in carrying out their mandate, in conformity with existing agreements;
“4. Welcomes the parties’ commitment to continue the process of preparation for a fifth round of negotiations, and recalls its endorsement of the recommendation in the report of 14 April 2008 (S/2008/251) that realism and a spirit of compromise by the parties are essential to achieve progress in negotiations;
“5. Calls upon the parties to continue to show political will and work in an atmosphere propitious for dialogue in order to enter into a more intensive and substantive phase of negotiations, thus ensuring implementation of resolutions 1754 (2007), 1783 (2007), 1813 (2008), 1871 (2009), 1920 (2010), 1979 (2011), 2044 (2012), 2099 (2013), and 2152 (2014), and the success of negotiations;
“6. Affirms its full support for the commitment of the Secretary-General and his Personal Envoy towards a solution to the question of Western Sahara in this context and calls for renewed meetings and strengthening of contacts;
“7. Calls upon the parties to continue negotiations under the auspices of the Secretary-General without preconditions and in good faith, taking into account the efforts made since 2006 and subsequent developments, with a view to achieving a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in the context of arrangements consistent with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations, and noting the role and responsibilities of the parties in this respect;
“8. Invites Member States to lend appropriate assistance to these talks;
“9. Requests the Secretary-General to brief the Security Council on a regular basis, and at least twice a year, on the status and progress of these negotiations under his auspices, on the implementation of this resolution, challenges to MINURSO’s operations and steps taken to address them, expresses its intention to meet to receive and discuss his briefings and in this regard, and further requests the Secretary-General to provide a report on the situation in Western Sahara well before the end of the mandate period;
“10. Welcomes the commitment of the parties and the neighbouring states to hold periodic meetings with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to review and, where possible, expand confidence-building measures;
“11. Urges Member States to provide voluntary contributions to fund confidence-building measures agreed upon between the parties, including those that allow for visits between separated family members, as well as food programmes to ensure that the humanitarian needs of refugees are adequately addressed;
“12. Requests the Secretary-General to continue to take the necessary measures to ensure full compliance in MINURSO with the United Nations zero-tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse and to keep the Council informed, and urges troop-contributing countries to take appropriate preventive action including predeployment awareness training, and other action to ensure full accountability in cases of such conduct involving their personnel;
“13. Decides to remain seized of the matter.”

Ten International Film Previews

1. Coming Home (Chinese)
2. You Call It Passion (Korean)
3. A Decent Engagement (Indian)
4. A Separation (Iranian)
5. Mustang (Turkish)
6. Footnote (Israeli)
7. The Source (French about North Africa)
8. Poli Opposti (Italian)
9. Barbara (German about East Germany)
10. The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles (French)

Ten International Film Previews

by

Howard Adelman

These are not reviews per se, but sketches and reflections on what these films may say about the world today and one country in that world. They are not representative of their country. Their selection depended on films that I have watched in the last week, mainly on the flight home from Israel. The list excludes the Hungarian film, Son of Saul, on which I wrote three blogs. The compilation is not comprehensive either – no Russian films, no Latin American films and no films from Black Africa. The order of the previews is arbitrary, simply traveling from east to west and then south to north.

Coming Home (China)

First shown at Cannes in 2014, the title of this film in Chinese literally translates as The Return, a name that makes far more sense in terms of the plot and theme. For the film is about a professor, Lu Yanshi (Lu played by Chen Daoming), sent away to a “re-education” camp during the Cultural Revolution who returns twice to his wife, Feng Wanyu (Yu played by Gong Li) and daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), an aspiring ballerina. [I know that referring to Lu – the husband – and Yu – the wife – can be very confusing; it was while watching the movie, at least for the first half hour. But that is how they refer to one another.] The first time when he escapes, his family is intact, but he is re-arrested when he tries to meet his wife. He returns a second time when he is rehabilitated years later. In neither case does he come home, for the first time he cannot reach home and the second time there is no home to come to; intervening events have destroyed “home” in any meaningful sense except the physical.

The film is superbly acted, but it is far more than a domestic drama or even an indictment of the Cultural Revolution. The film is an allegory of recognition. In fact, Yanshi, the name of the professor, literally means “how to recognize” in both Cantonese and Mandarin. But the term is more often associated with passionate romance, definitely not the passion of the next film discussed. Yet this is a film of passionate romance on the deepest level.

When the professor first returns and encounters his daughter whom he has not seen in over ten years – he was arrested when she was four years old – she does not recognize him as her father or her responsibilities to him. Ironically, this loyal child of two revolutions – a communist and a cultural one – only knows personal ambition. As a direct result of this failure of recognition, and the trauma of a blackmail Yu was forced to endure, Lu’s wife will suffer amnesia and no longer recognizes her husband when he returns a second time. The movie offers an allegory that suggests that it is one thing for greed, blind ambition and power mongering behind a Cultural Revolution to produce an authoritarian and repressive state. It is perhaps even worse when contemporary China enters a state of amnesia about that period creating a double calamity for the victims.
You Call It Passion (Korea)

Newspaper stories can be about publishers and the pursuit of power, such as Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, or about juxtaposing a journalist’s ethos of setting truth against power by covering the tale of two very different but dedicated, determined and diligent journalists (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) trying to uncover the Watergate scandal. Or it can be about a hard bitten reporter who turns out to be a very good detective as James Stewart did in Call Northside 777. Newspapers used to be excellent backdrops for interweaving glamour and intrigue, money and power, ambition and ethics. This is no longer the case as newspapers struggle to stay alive in the world of the new media. This tale of the tabloid press is a little bit of all of these themes, but never seems to focus on any of them as it narrates the tale of a very bright but innocent newspaper intern, Do Ra-hee (Park Bo-young) who joins the workforce of a very large, likely pulp, newspaper in the entertainment section that is more about scooping for scandals than it is about allowing readers to get greater insight into the artists and entertainers in Seoul.

Though the intern is a woman who looks like a teenager to a North American, this is no weak feminist track like Front Page Woman. The movie is about getting the scoop on a famous young male actor, but as a cross between the reporter as detective as well as one torn by ethical concerns when offered material by “a reliable source” that could destroy a career but enormously advance that of the young reporter. I initially thought the movie was going to be a contemporary Korean remake of the classic Hollywood tale It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, but this time with a young female rather than male reporter trying to get the goods on a celebrity. But the closest this movie gets to the hard bitten reporter is the entertainment editor, Ha Jae-kwan (Jung Jae-young), who yells at his journalists to put passion into their jobs and make passion what their jobs are about. But the movie is really about saving their own jobs by uncovering economic skulduggery. The film is a lesson in lack of direction where a movie fails to decide at the core what it is about. Neither comedy nor romance, neither exposé nor ethical drama, neither a poem to a journalist’s passion for truth nor deconstruction of an editor’s drive to get a scoop while being a bit of both of the latter, the movie is a lightweight addition to the genre of newspaper movies.

A Decent Engagement (India)

India makes excellent movies, from Bollywood entertainment to serious court room films about justice, like Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. This is clearly not one of them. Put an American hunk into an Indian setting where he is finally to meet the love of his life in a traditional arranged marriage and you have the basic elements of tension and conflict, comedy and romance. But not one of them is in evidence here. The situations are clichés. The script is terrible. The film is not helped when the lead cannot decide whether he is mentally challenged or an innocent abroad or, more accurately, an American with the patina of an Indian in Delhi. As soon as the lead opens his mouth, we learn that he cannot act. The best part of the movie is the plethora of scenes of Indian life that serve as fillers to a threadbare script, but also serve as a respite from a disastrous movie.

A Separation (Iran)

Iran has wonderful directors and actors. In a country with a built-in stress between creativity and repressive control, especially under the auspices of religious law, the opportunities for exciting and great films certainly exist, even if the conditions for exploiting the opportunities are extremely difficult. Asghar Farhadi’s movie walks that line with a great sense of balance. It is a simple courtroom drama about the unintended consequences of competing but legitimate personal interests and priorities clashing where both truth and a hierarchy of norms are both very unsettled in spite of the claims of Sharia law to have a monopoly on both.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) may love one another, but Nader is attached to his father who suffers from dementia while Simin wants to ensure that their daughter has a future. Thus, past and future clash in the present. And the film is greatest in showing that there are no easy answers as two excellent actors pursue that task.

Mustang (Turkey)

Set in a small remote agricultural village far from Istanbul, Mustang is an absolutely wonderful film. There is no difficulty in determining on which side of the modernity-tradition divide the female director (Deniz Gamze Ergüven) falls, as five very close sisters grow up in the home of their aunt and uncle who fall back on protection and policing when the first threat appears on the horizon to the couple’s reputation. The girls, all with a great sense of joie to vivre that is wonderfully portrayed and at all times infectious, is viewed from the perspective of and also driven mostly by the youngest, a mustang determined not to be tamed.

The film begins with the will to live and celebrates life’s joyful, comedic and happy moments, but gradually, and very gradually, descends into claustrophobia in a house made into a prison for confining the human spirit before the plot turns to loss, the greatest being the camaraderie among the five girls, and eventual tragedy. The movie is touching without in any way being cloying, funny without being farcical, and horrific without any of the usual exposure to gross torture. And though clearly on the side of freedom and feminism, the movie somehow manages not to be didactic. Unlike the Indian film above, all the beautiful cinematography of landscape and life are integral to the flow of the film.

Footnote (Israel)

This is one film I did not see in the last five days. But not for lack of trying. Since I was flying from Israel, I was looking forward to watching one of the many excellent Israeli films. I could speculate why I could not find one, but instead I will simply add a footnote to an excellent 2012 Israeli film about both the love and the competition between a father and a son who happen to be in the same realm of scholarship. But there is a difference. The father is engaged in pilpul, a minute engagement in teasing out inconsistencies and insights from small passages in the Talmud. The son, by contrast, is a populizer of Judaism and a public intellectual instead of probing into the minutiae of scholarship.

I loved the movie, not simply because it was about the real tension I experience between the minutiae of scholarship and the desire to communicate to a larger audience, but because the movie was about the fact that neither aspiration can substitute for love within the family, and especially between father and son. To do so with an acute comic sense is masterful. The brilliant hilarious scene of s cluster of great scholars crowded into a tiny office to resolve a dispute offers the humorous side of Israel, precisely because it exemplifies what is so maddening and tragic about the wonderful country.

The Source (France about North Africa)

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata provides the template for this contemporary version of women in a small village using a sexual strike to force their underemployed men to undertake work that can ease the burden of their overworked and treacherous effort at carrying water back from a well. Instead of striking for peace in opposition to the Peloponnesian War, these North African women declare a sexual war to overcome the resignation to and backwardness of crippling tradition. Like the Turkish movie above, Mustang, the setting is in a small remote village. Like Mustang, the film flirts with the comedic against a backdrop of hardship, but that is physical as much as it is moral. Both films are about women in motion that brings forth the poetry of that action.

In this film, an outsider Leila (Leila Bekhti) is married to a village teacher. Rather than the youngest daughter of a family acting as the spur to upset the settled applecart because there is neither a road nor a cart to bring the water from the village well, Leila organizes the protest against assigning women to carrying water hanging from a pole slung across the backs of the women, including pregnant ones. The result of the current obsolete system leads to a disproportionate number of miscarriages and deaths of children. Unlike the Turkish film, and unlike Turkey itself these days, Radu Mihaileanu imbues his movie with love and hope rather than tragedy and despair.

Poli Opposti (Italy)

This movie is a sophisticated contemporary comedy set in a thoroughly modern world, not only one where sexual repression has been removed, but where the women have become the hard bitten, cold and insensitive ball breakers, and the men have been transposed into sensitive souls. Often funny, always very well acted, this traditional version of a comedy of opposites that attract and fall in love, is conceived in an inverted mode. It is a delight to watch precisely because credibility is not a stake. The female warrior divorce lawyer (Sarah Feiberbaum) and her son are saved from being cast into the cold of an unloving world by a sensitive human relations counsellor (Luca Argentero) who believes in pushing cooperation and dialogue rather than exacerbating already deep divisions. If Lysistrata informed The Source, the sophisticated comedies of traditional Hollywood provide the template for this movie, but it is updated by reversing the archetypal male and female roles.

Barbara (German about East Germany)

The story portrayed in Coming Home of abuse by political authorities in China was mirrored by events in East Germany. But Barbara is a film about voyeurism rather than intimate love in the face of oppression. Nina Hoss plays a brilliant physician, not sent to a re-education camp, but to the boonies because she applied for an exit visa. Lu Yanshi just wanted to return home. Barbara just wants to get out. Escape, not unlike that of Huckleberry Finn, a book she reads to a patient and escapee she is protecting. But Barbara had become hardened, not by male abandonment, but by male domination and real repression. She smokes heavily and smiles rarely. But when she does, she lights up the screen.

Though a failure in trust imbues both Coming Home and Barbara with an enormous degree of tension, it is all the more oppressive in Barbara because it appears to be so total and comprehensive leaving very little room for humanity and empathy. Yu in Coming Home develops cold and expressionless eyes, but they are sometimes awakened and we delight in the joy and sensitivity of those rare occasions. The same look, however, in the landlady in Barbara is menacing rather than simply vacant. Both films record the devastating effects of state oppression with great attention to detail, but the regime of surveillance, the informers in East Germany, are omnipresent and anonymous. In the love story of Lu and Yu, the informers are intimates and the party secretary is portrayed in a sympathetic way. East Germany and Stasi reached a dead end; If Coming Home is any indication, there is some hope that China can overcome or get around oppression because, after the Cultural Revolution, room has been made for inter-human sensitivity and empathy even as the government retains its iron grip on society in general and the country suffers from collective amnesia.

However, excellent films can emerge from the worst conditions.

The Yellow Eyes of the Crocodiles (France)

Two sisters, one glamorous, cold and self-serving, Iris (Emmanuelle Béart), the other, Joséphine (Julie Depardieu), mousy, intellectual and self-effacing, one oblivious to the needs of her son, the other sensitive but often clumsy in dealing with the needs of her two daughters, especially the older one who is so caught up in the attraction of the glitter of her aunt, provide the core of this story of recognition both on the inter-personal and collective level but from a radically different standpoint than Coming Home. In Yellow Eyes, the deceit is obvious and eventually self-destructive. That is why it is a comedy. In Coming Home, the failure of recognition becomes buried deep in the broken families resulting from the Cultural Revolution.

The acting is brilliant as is the direction by Cécile Telerman. One of the greatest rewards in watching foreign as well as American films is observing women come into their own as great directors. When the variety of directors throws light, not only on the screen, but on and into the world in which we live, the rewards are enormous.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Fighting ISIL or ISIL or Daesh – to what end?

Corporealism XVIII: Body Politics in the Middle East

Fighting ISIL or ISIL or Daesh – to what end?

by

Howard Adelman

If I have characterized Daesh with reasonable accuracy, how should the West best fight this menace? Daesh is ensconced in eastern Syria and in western Iraq separated from the Turkish and Iranian borders by Kurdistan, the northern part of Iraq controlled by Iraqi Kurds and its Peshmerga forces. Daesh also has a presence in an oil rich small area of Libya. Daesh first captured Rojava after the Syrian army retreated in 2012. The great victory was the capture of Mosul that allowed ISIL to declare a caliphate established in the summer 2014.  This key victory included the defeat of the Iraqi army which literally turned tail.

Since then, ISIS has suffered setback after setback and the number of militants identified with its cause and fighting on the ground in Iraq and Syria is now estimated to have fallen from 31,500 to 25,000 altogether. (“The latest assessment about the number of fighters who are fighting on behalf of ISIL in Iraq and in Syria – based on an earlier assessment – was up to 31,500 fighters in that region of the world.  There’s a new assessment from our intelligence community that indicates that that number is now up to about 25,000 fighters.”  U.S. White House Press Secretary John Earnest 2 February 2016)

The key force that has limited the expansion of Daesh and that has itself expanded to fill the vacuum has been that of the Kurds of Northern Iraq and Syria who have won back Sinjar, Ramadi and Tikrit. Within Iraq, the Kurds now control disputed Kirkuk completely. In northern Syria, the Kurds much more than ISIS are being attacked by Turkish jets.

ISIS has been pushed back. The question is not its defeat but when and how and what part Canada and other countries in the West should play in its defeat. For the dilemma is a matter of “boots on the ground.” The West has relied on the Kurds with 120,000 experienced, battle-trained and determined fighters, largely equipped by the U.S. The other force countering Daesh has been a reconstituted Iraqi army, also trained and equipped by the U.S. and its allies. In the meanwhile, Russia and Iran are supporting Assad and his re-equipped army with Russian air support. Those forces have captured large swaths of territory from the American-supported Syrian rebels who lacked any air support or significant amounts of updated equipment.

In this multi-faceted war with multiple sides with some parties on the same side really engaged in supporting opposite strategies on the ground – the Turks and the Americans. The point is that the defeat of Daesh must be seen within a much larger context. The thirty million Kurds have been seeking an independent state since the end of World War I where, in the divvying up of the Middle East among the Great Powers, they were left divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and to a small extent, Iran. They now have de facto independence in northern Iraq and in parts of Syria. They are also the major boots on the ground responsible for the pushback of Daesh. But what is in it for them to combat Daesh in Mosul? It is not a Kurdish city. So the Allies are buying time to retrain and strengthen the Iraqi army. But a strengthened Iraqi army to the south of the Kurds endangers their quasi-independence. So if ISIL totally loses, they are likely to lose the strategic advantage they enjoy currently.

The other major concern is Turkey, which views the rise of the Kurds as the greatest threat they face, not Daesh. Turkey is involved in widescale bombing of Turkish Kurdish territories as well as Kurdish-controlled area in Syria under the guise of the war against ISIL. This is the paradox. The boots on the ground best able to defeat Daesh supplied by the Kurds and those supported by the Turks respectively, each for very opposite reasons, has no reason to destroy Daesh. At the same time, the Kurds in Syria have consistently ignored Turkey’s threats – such as when Turkey insisted that the red line of the Euphrates was not to be crossed by Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria. The Kurds, like the Russians subsequently, ignored Erdoğan’s bluster, even when they were attacked by Turkish jets. In fact, in the battle over the Menagh airbase, the Syrian Kurds defeated the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has been a proxy on the ground for Turkey.

The problem is not the defeat of Daesh, but the political order that the allies want to emerge out of the wreck in Iraq and now the even much worse wreck in Syria. In Iraq, the Kurds are at their peak now. If the allies build up the Iraqi army now to defeat ISIL, then what will almost certainly follow eventually will be a war between the central government in Iraq and the Kurds. And the Kurds fear being abandoned once again by the West after they have done the main dirty work in stopping and pushing back Daesh.

If the Iraq situation were not complicated enough, the issue of the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds exponentially increases the problem. When the revolution in Syria broke out in 2011, Turkey envisioned extending its influence southward. But Turkey has been thwarted at every turn – the rise of the Kurds in power in key parts of Syria along half of the border between Turkey and Syria, the increasing weakness of the rebels against Assad, the Russian support for Assad that has brought the two powers close to war with Turkey effectively now breaching Turkish air space almost with impunity.

More on the Kurds. They are not natural allies of the West; they have been allies of convenience. Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), may have been in jail since 1999, but he not only remains the titular head of the PKK in Turkey but the de facto head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) based in Rojava, Syria and in Kobani, Syria where the Kurds delivered a resounding defeat to Daesh. The Kurds even captured Tal Abyad on the Turkish border and sent chills up the spine of President Erdoğan. Turkey may be an ally of the U.S. and a member of NATO, but the Kurdish boots on the ground fighting ISIS, whatever their skills, courage and determination, have been helped enormously by American air cover, the very air cover the Canadian CF-18s have now backed away from providing. Further, the main spotters have not been the aircraft that Canada and other coalition partners have left in the air – they mainly confirm reports from the ground that come virtually exclusively from the Kurds who then mop up after the fighter jets have destroyed the identified targets.

The Tories have been dead right. The air strikes against ISIS have been highly effective. It is estimated that in the battle for Kobani, air strikes, leaving aside injuries inflicted, killed over 10% of ISIL militants on the ground in the months of fighting for Kobani. But that does not mean that Canada should continue participating in the air strikes. Or, for that matter, even advising and training troops on the ground. It depends on what Canada envisions as the outcome it favours and whether there is a realistic prospect of bringing about its preferred outcome.

The key factor is the de facto new quasi alliance between Russia and the U.S., two world powers that seem to once again dividing up the Middle East as spheres of influence by either side. Will the cease fire they have organized bring peace to Syria and on what terms? Shades of the end of WWI and WWII! The situation will become even more destablized when, as I anticipate, Turkey implodes under all the competing pressures and the series of failures in Turkish foreign policy under Erdoğan, matched by even greater political and economic crises at home. Kurdistan, with its apparent stability, is also seething underneath in a general context of a recession instigated in good part by the dramatic decline in oil prices compounded by corruption and nepotism.

I could go on. But my purpose here is not to lay out a political-economic and military analysis of that part of the Middle East, but merely to point to three main themes:

  1. The defeat of Daesh is not the main problem – that will come; it is just a matter of when, where and how.
  2. The defeat is not a matter of destroying an insurgency in a battle for hearts and minds, but destroying the army of a quasi-state.
  3. The main problem is regional stability; right now it is a balagan, in Hebrew, an absolute and total mess.

Begin with the immediate problem, the coming battle over Mosul and even perhaps Raqqa, the presumptive capital of the Caliphate. It is no secret that the coalition forces will be attacking Mosul, likely in the spring and certainly by summer. Will Daesh stand and fight to the last man and woman? Hardly likely. They have not done so thus far. And their sending out signals that they will is but the first rule of warfare – deceive your enemies. When claiming that you will stand to the last militant, plan a careful retreat, first of the political leadership and then of the military leadership, and finally, whatever militants can be saved while leaving enough to sacrifice as many civilians as possible in Mosul. Evidently, the political leadership has already relocated to Libya in anticipation of the next defeat. For the second rule of warfare is, when you know you have a significantly inferior force, evade direct conflict with the enemy.

Whatever Daesh suffers on the moral front, they clearly understand the basic laws for conducting war. The fact that they are ethically challenged is not only revealed in their cutting off of heads and the severe repression they practice about dress and social behaviour, but also in the moral deterioration already underway as the leadership deserts and the militants resort to corruption and smuggling civilians out of Mosul for US$500 a person. Daesh will leave behind sleeper cells to work behind enemy lines. For they realize they are at the mercy of fighter jets in the air and have to avoid open battles lest their backs be broken by the jet-fueled falcons and hawks patrolling the skies that will break their backs if they appear openly. Hence the rapid decline in missions and the ability of the coalition to release Canada from its commitment to supply six CF-18s.

In the battle against Mosul, the coalition partners have much to learn from the Israeli battles in Gaza with roughly the same population. However, the coalition has one major advantage. It can conduct a pincer movement as Kagame did in 1994 in Rwanda and allow the enemy to escape. I am convinced the allies will follow this pattern otherwise the costs to civilian lives in Mosul will be too high. A third law of warfare is that the best victories are based on building a golden bridge to allow your enemy to retreat. When they cross that bridge, attack them from the air on the other side.

The problem, to repeat once again, will not be to defeat ISIS in battle, but to win the war. And I have not read anywhere what a victory at that level will look like.  Further, unless victory in the war is envisaged, the battle may be won, but the losses will be much greater as has been the pattern in so many American wars from Vietnam on. The key problem is not victory in the battle over Mosul, but victory in the war in the Middle East. And the wars fought there, whether under a Democratic or a Republican commander-in-chief, have been disastrous because battles are being fought, not wars.

Sometimes, as in the case of the Israelis, it may be impossible to fight a real war because of diplomatic and other considerations. But that does not seem to be the case with the Americans. Except they no longer recognize what war they are fighting and what they are fighting for. Stopping ISIL is the least of their worries. The problem is that the lack of clear direction from the Obama administration is certainly far better than the mass hysteria, currently being whipped up by the Republican Party front runner. And it is not just The Donald that is the problem. He is just the loudest barker by far in the current American political circus on the Republican side. After all, it was overwhelmingly Republican state governors who announced that they would not permit Muslim Syrian refugees to enter their states. It was these Governors who initially completely ignored the laws of the United States and the Constitution.

I wrote on Friday that a core of politics is not inflaming emotions and passions. On shabat, on the day dedicated to peace, the real purpose of fighting any war has been determined. Further, the precedent must be set for skill, understanding and judgment to rule the roost. Instead, all three appear to be totally invisible on the Republican side and just barely on the horizon in the case of the current American administration in spite of its enormous efforts to reign in the war hawks.

So the coalition lacks strong and wise leadership that allows us to discern the overall goals and strategy. The U.S. was correct to release Canada from its responsibilities to continue contributing CF-18s from the war in Iraq and Syria because those jets were, in fact, no longer what was really needed. But why train Iraqi soldiers unless we want Kurdistan in Iraq eventually to be significantly reduced in size and even eliminated, and, if the course as set continues to be followed, eventually ending the dream of an independent Kurdistan. The chance to redeem just one of the major errors from WWI will be lost.

Should Canada back the Kurds, not just opportunistically as the Americans currently appear to be doing, but long term? I do not know. I am, however, convinced that unless we answer that key question, we cannot have a judicious and intelligent foreign policy in the area backed up by the limited military forces we are able to contribute. What about Turkey? Should we continue backing our formal ally Turkey which, under Erdoğan has been practicing a vicious anti-democratic policy over the last few years and one even far more dictated by a combination of whim and hysteria than even the U.S. Republicans are promising.

ISIS may be a much bigger threat than either al-Nusra and al-Qaeda because it is driven by a war strategy and not an insurgency, and it has brought sabotage and not just terror to the home fronts of its enemies. So ISIS as an organization needs to be extinguished. But let us not exaggerate the threat as U.S. Air Force General Phillip M. Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe who dubbed ISIS an existential threat. The real threat is that America may be in the process of blowing up whatever degree of sobriety there is left in America and setting off a really-out-of-control wildfire. Do not light matches at home on shabat if your eventual goal is peace.

On the other hand, ISIL terrorists are not just out-of-control testosterone driven thrill-seeking teenagers. Their average age is 26. They are dedicated and sober, even if truly psychopathic martyrs for their cause. But the West in warfare can take advantage of that wish to die a martyr by making it convenient for them, without sacrificing a sense of security and swaths of civilians in exchange. They have largely been nihilistic mass killers alienated from institutions of order and cool rational judgment who use Islam as justification for their heated madness and cold compassion.

What about the NDP’s proposals to concentrate on cutting off the financing of ISIS and acquiring more intelligence on the movements of volunteers for ISIS? The latter is declining anyway. On gathering intelligence overseas, Canada lacks and in-depth capacity. As for cutting off financing that has already been underway led by the Americans and Canada is a bit player in that game.

What about the push to increase humanitarian and development aid even further? The reality is that Canada under the Liberals by ratio to population already contributes roughly the highest amount in both categories compared to the $5.1 billion in total dollars committed by the U.S. to emergency aid, the $3.3 billion EU, $3.6 billion from Germany, $1.75 billlion from the U.K., etc. As my opening paragraph indicated, the replenishment of fighters has largely been effectively staunched and ISIL which is no longer able to replenish its losses. I think these NDP suggestions look more like panic in search of a policy and a strategy, though the NDP is the only party calling for a consistent policy within an overall plan.

The real larger issue is how to contain the enormous ambitions of Iran and Russia, which has already checked Turkey. Obama has been counting on diplomacy since he is unwilling to contribute more American troops on the ground to the fight. In the meanwhile, Assad’s forces, reinforced by Iranians and Hezbollah volunteers and resupplied by Russia and provided air cover by the Russian air force, has been able to recover control of a great deal of territory and even totally encircle Aleppo, which had been under the control of America’s Syrian allies according to a study by the Institute for the Study of War in its 5 February Report. In addition, the military pressure on Kuweires Airbase has been relieved and the threat along the Mediterranean coast to the Russian fleet has virtually been eliminated, at great cost to the Turkish strategic aim of bringing down the Assad regime. Russia has emerged as a “hero” against Turkish military intervention in Iraq. Thus, Turkey’s ambitions in Iraq have been set back considerably.

The Russians and their allies conducted a very strategic operation to suck the rebels and other militants from urban areas into the open and to destroy them there, indicating that the rebels were more committed to saving civilian lives at the cost of strategic advantage, especially in comparison to Daesh. The biggest winners over the past year have been Assad, the Russians and the Iranians, though the losses on the ground for both the Iranians (143 officers alone from the rank of captain up) and their cannon fodder from Hezbollah volunteers has been huge in addition to the huge cost in dollars, which Iran could ill afford at this time, estimated at $6-12 billion per year, after having lost $450-500 billion since the sanctions took effect and while costs rise for its support of the Houthis in Yemen as Saudi Arabia directly supports the other side.

In my estimation, the current “peace” efforts offer an opportunity for the Syrian regime and its Russian ally to recuperate and regroup from the recent strenuous efforts and unrestrained attacks on civilian populations, a justifiable concern that handicaps the West in the type of warfare being fought in Syria. There is clearly no comparable effort by the Western coalition to counter the Syrian-Iranian-Russian partnership and that coalition, not Daesh, has been the major victor over the last year of the war. The peace talks look to me more like a front to confer de facto victory to Assad and his backers.

So where does this put the various parties in the Canadian parliament, ignoring the separatist party in this assessment. The Tories appear to want to fight last year’s battles. The NDP seems determined to be irrelevant. And the Liberal policy may be the most delusionary since this is not a war for hearts and minds, but a typical power play by regional and international actors. If this assessment is anywhere near correct, how does it affect the development of an overall Canadian defence strategy and our deployment of troops in the Middle East? In the next blog, I will deal with the need for a revitalized defence policy and intervention policy for Syria and Iraq. Clearly it will be a sketch only since I have merely provided a caricature of what has been going on in Iraq and Syria rather than a detailed area by area analysis of this multi-sided competition for power and control in the region.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Turkey and Israel

Turkey and Israel

by

Howard Adelman

I want to begin by fitting Turkish-Israeli relations within the context of the recent 1 November election, domestic policy and the overall foreign policy of Turkey. I begin with the elections. I had suggested last week that the increase in the vote for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was partly due to a shift in conservative religious Kurdish votes in the south-eastern part of Turkey back to the AKP when the war with the Kurdish rebels (PKK) resumed after the June elections. The motivation – a fear of instability and/or a belief that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (HDP) was linked to the PKK and/or the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) that had been so active in constructing blockades in Kurdish urban areas when the Turkish army resumed the war against the PKK. That interpretation has since been strongly challenged by one of the leading polling firms in Turkey, Konda, and its CEO, Bekir Ağirdir.

If indeed that shift had really taken place, it could mean that Erdoğan .no longer needed a war against the Kurds and demonization of the PKK to rally support for the AKP. He might become more flexible. That, in turn, would mean that the close relationship developing between the Kurds and the Israelis would become less consequential. However, part of the increased support of 8.7% for the AKP may not have been due to a shift in support of the Kurds at all, even though the HDP vote declined by almost a million votes.

In addition to the explained shift in my previous blog of votes from Saadet (Felicity) and Büyük Birlik (Great Unity), two parties which did not run in the 1 November election, and from the AKP’s rival on the right, the MHP, whose thunder Erdoğan had stolen with his resumption of the war against the PKK, 4% of the increase in the AKP vote was attributed by Konda, not as a shift from the HDP, but from voters who did not vote in the 6 June elections and new voters. That would mean that Erdoğan had little incentive in terms of domestic political support to resume peace negotiations with the PKK and to cease its war also against the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria, a party that receives a great deal of unacknowledged support from Israel. As stated in my blogs on Turkish domestic and foreign policy, Erdoğan’s greatest fear is the creation of a safe haven for Turkish Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. He has been more than willing to curtail his recent aggression against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria to concentrate most of his forces against the PYD.

In the aftermath of the IS terrorist attacks on Paris, will that policy shift as a result of the current G-20 meeting in Antalya with Erdoğan in the chair? After all, the recent aggression of IS, the refugees and the war in Syria threaten to overshadow the economic issues which were supposed to dominate the agenda. Further, Turkey has assured Hamas that Israel’s role in both Syria and the Gaza Strip will be raised in the discussions  Though the emphasis was mostly on the war and the refugees in the statement issued by the EU before the attacks in Paris – “Meeting in Turkey in the midst of a refugee crisis due to conflicts in Syria and elsewhere; the G20 must rise to the challenge and lead a coordinated and innovative response to the crisis that recognizes its global nature and economic consequences and promotes greater international solidarity in protecting refugees,” – the priority given to conflict in the region and the refugees means that IS will definitely be at the top of the agenda.

After all, Turkey, in both its actions and its words, had signalled that its war in Syria will concentrate more and more on IS as a priority, a priority very much likely to increase in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Turkey is a member of NATO. And in the aftermath of Paris, NATO is bound to have a much higher profile in the war against IS. Turkey will be pressured even more to play its part. Further, the EU badly needs Turkey’s cooperation in stemming the flow of refugees, particularly since Turkey promised to provide a safe haven for the refugees in northern Syria and invest there in container communities like those built so quickly in Germany.

Whatever the eventual policies, this shift in Turkish priorities will put a spotlight on Israel’s involvement in Syria. Just before the 1 November elections, IDF planes evidently bombed, not only IS sites on the Golan Heights and Hezbollah bases near Ras al-Ayn and Katifa along the Lebanese border, but also sent sorties towards the Damascus airport. Further, Turkey will have as much interest as Israel in driving a wedge between Iran and Russia. Russia and Iran may both be allies of Assad in Syria, but Russia focuses its energies on rebuilding the secular Syrian army while Iran tries to strengthen the religious Shiite (Alawite) irregular forces fighting for Assad, the parallel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Numbering 200,000, with 20,000 volunteers from Iraq, Hezbollah from Lebanon and Taliban from Afghanistan, often led on the ground by seasoned Iranian officers – hence the almost 50 Iranian “adviser” casualties, most officers – Russia and Iran are setting the stage for the post war battle over succession, assuming Assad will be offered as a sacrifice for a deal with the West. But Iran, with boots on the ground, has the distinct advantage.

Israel is directly affected by this rivalry. Israel is the arch-enemy of Iran, and Iran has no interest in strengthening any force linked to Israel. On the other hand, Assad (assume the Syrian army) and Israel had established a modus vivendi over the last few decades. More recently, Israeli officials met with Russian representatives to ensure that Israeli and Russian warplanes do not clash over the skies of Syria. Further, Russia assured Israel that Hezbollah would not get Russian arms. This Israeli-Russian connection has been built on a foundation of increased trade between Russia and Israel, including advanced military equipment and military exchanges.

Of course, the primary source of friction between Israel and Turkey has been the Palestine issue, with the single main source of friction Israel’s attack against the Mavi Marmara in which Turks were killed. More particularly, Turkey has been a strong supporter of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. So it should be no surprise that when the election results were approaching a clear win for the AKP, almost the first voice of congratulations delivered to Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was from Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau and the deputy chair of the political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh. Erdoğan, promised both that he would put Israel’s violations of its historical role on the plaza of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount on the agenda of the G-20.

However, Khaled Meshaal does not belong to the extreme wing of Hamas. Meshaal was the one who, in July 2014, aborted the planned attack by Hamas’ military wing using the tunnels that would have sent a seismic wave through the Middle East, perhaps as great as the recent IS attacks on Paris. Like Paris, the Hamas-planned attack was a highly sophisticated, coordinated and simultaneous one by three different 10-man teams from its elite force through three different underground tunnels, involving one detail infiltrating Israel to attack and kill residents of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom and return with civilian hostages, a second team to control the perimeter and a third to set a booby trap for the IDF when they rushed to the defence of the kibbutz. The goal was to trade Israeli hostages for Hamas members in Israeli prisons. Meschaal vetoed the plan in fear that the Israeli response would be so overwhelming, so much more even than the results of the 2014 Gaza War, that it would have left Gaza totally devastated with European voices silenced because the violence was triggered by such a daring Hamas initiative.

On the other hand, the link between Hamas and Erdoğan has become more important since the 4 November announcement that Hamas was seeking a unified Palestinian command in the current 3rd intifada against Israel that he hoped would facilitate Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. “Hamas believes in all of the resistance’s choices and in the importance of coordinating efforts under a united command to increase the intifada’s efforts.”

But to really understand Turkey’s actions and policies, it is necessary to shift from Gaza, which is a sideshow in the conflicts in the Middle East, to Israel’s relations with the Kurds (Ofra Bengio “Surprising Ties between Israel and the Kurds,” Middle East Quarterly Summer, 21:3, 2014), and Turkey’s response to that connection. Historically, the Kurdish move to separatism had been labeled the New Israel. As Christians and other minorities are cleansed first from Iraq and then other Middle Eastern countries, one stream of the Muslim response was to label the tendency of Kurds to seize independence and create a “Yahudistan” as another naqba. The slander went beyond defining a parallel, but suggested that Israel had a more nefarious role. The very recent effort of the Kurdish offensive to retake the city of Sinjar from IS should be read with this in mind.

Ironically, there is some ground for suggesting a connection between Israel and the movement towards independence. There are also many historical differences. After WWI, while the Balfour Declaration in 1917 promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, dividing up the Middle East in the Versailles Treaty after WWI denied granting the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey the status of an independent state for 30 million Kurds. In the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, Kurds, beginning in the autumn of 1961, once again saw their chance to rise up in Iraq. The Kurdish activist, Ismet Sherif Vanly, went to Israel to meet Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Shimon Peres, with a result that Israel and the Kurds exchanged permanent representatives, an arrangement that secretly survived that crushing of Kurdish aspirations. The Kurdish leader, Mulla Muṣṭafa al-Barzānī, visited Israel both in 1967 and 1973. As a result, in 1967 he Kurds opened another front against Iraq, thereby preventing Iraq from joining the other Arab states in the Six Day War. Kissinger and the CIA blocked a similar attempt in 1973. (Hasan Kösebalaban (2011) Turkish Foreign Policy, Nationalism and Globalization, 181)

Only in 1980 did Prime Minister Menachem Begin disclose the humanitarian and subsequent arms support and dispatch of military advisers that Israel had given the Kurds during the 1965-75 Kurdish uprising. In the aftermath of the Kuwait War in the beginning of the 1990s, once again the Kurds rose up in Iraq to set up an independent state, an initiative that was totally crushed by Saddam Hussein as the West refused to come to the aid of the Kurds, even though Prime Minister Shamir of Israel made a plea to the West on behalf of the Kurds. Israelis became even more convinced that they could only rely on themselves.

What survived was an Israeli-Kurdish Friendship society which worked diligently to reinforce relations between Iraqi Kurds and Israel. A Kurdish-Israeli journal was even started – Israel-Kurd. The Kurds, unlike the Arab world, even invited Israelis to conferences in Kurdistan. In spite of these links, there have never been any formal relationships between the Kurdish leadership and Israel, partly so that the relationship would remain under the radar and not attract even more attention to the Kurds. American Jews also tried to serve as intermediaries between Kurds and the American government through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its links with the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI).

Israel’s relationship with the Iraqi Kurds was one thing, with the Turkish Kurds another, partly because Turkish and Israeli foreign policy had been aligned in the latter half of the twentieth century, at least until Erdoğan was elected Prime Minster, and the Kurdish PKK was viewed as a radical terrorist organization allied with Syria and the PLO. In Lebanon in 1982, volunteers from the PKK fought against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and, with the defeat and departure of the PLO from Lebanon, the PKK were given a safe haven in Syria. Netanyahu, when he was first Prime Minister, publicly supported Turkey in its fight against the PKK. The Israeli government was even accused of capturing Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the PKK in 1978. Israel was accused of turning him over to the Turkish authorities, especially since Israel regarded him as a persona non grata after his anti-Semitic remarks. In fact, his capture in Nairobi in 1999, was a combined effort of the CIA and Turkish military intelligence. (Victor Ostrovsky, “Capture of Kurdish Rebel Leader Ocalan Recalls Mossad Collaboration with Both Turkey, Kurds,” Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, April/May 1999)

When the war of the Kurds in Turkey resumed against Erdoğan in the 21st century and Erdoğan had become an outspoken critic of Israel, a rapprochement took place between the PKK and Israel. By 2005, Barzani openly defended Kurdish relations between Kurdistan in Iraq and Israel and Jalal Talabani, the President and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and President of Iraq at the time, openly shook the hand of Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, in front of Mahmoud Abbas in Greece in April of 2008. It seemed clear that the two men had met before. Seymour Hersh even claimed that Israel had been arming and training the Kurds in Iraq, a claim echoed by Yedi’ot Aharonot which insisted it had evidence of Israeli military advisers training the Peshmerga.

Once the peace process initiated by Erdoğan in 2013 had been ended by him in June 2015, the relations between Israel and the PKK, and between Israel and Syrian Kurds, went up several notches. The Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) had close ties with the PKK and operated in both Iran and Kurdistan; Israeli ties with the PJAK deepened. For the first time, Israeli relations with the four very different parts of the nationalist Kurdish movement in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey had become, more or less, aligned. How much was Israel willing to antagonize Turkey further by realigning its relations with the PKK? How willing is Erdoğan to bury the hatchet with Israel and perhaps even re-establish an exchange of ambassadors with Israel to give him a freer hand in fighting both the PKK and the Kurds in Syria? How willing are Putin and Obama to push Erdoğan towards such a reconciliation?

Not enough, evidently. On 24 October, Erdoğan claimed that the PYD in Syria remained an existential threat to the unity of Turkey, even while the U.S. was lending increased indirect support to the PYD and direct support to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga in the fight against IS. The militant arm, the YPG (People’s Protection Units) of the PYD, collaborated with both the Free Syrian Army in the fight against both Assad and IS. However, Turkey was critical of American support for Syria’s Kurds and took umbrage at American concerns about human rights and freedom of the press in Turkey as four thugs, three of them open members of Erdoğan’s AKP, beat the popular columnist of Hürriyet, Ahmet Hakan, to a pulp. Erdoğan not only escalated the war against the PKK, but against the YPG as well.

But Erdoğan is now fighting a five-front war, against the secularists within Turkey, Güllenists within Turkey, and a more militant war against the PKK and the PYD, and, now against IS as well, the latter especially since two police were killed on 26 October in the raid against an IS hideout in Turkey. The West really only identifies with the latter war, but Turkey failed to take advantage of that when IS allegedly bombed the Kurd-dominated rally in Ankara and over 100 were killed. But the outpouring of sympathy for Turkey from the West was subdued compared to the response to the over 130 dead in Paris following the IS attacks there. Virtually no one takes Erdoğan’s claims seriously that the PKK and IS were allied in perpetrating the Ankara bombing.

In conclusion, as much as the West needs Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against IS, Turkey’s antagonism towards the Kurds in general and the PYD in Syria in particular, will keep any rapprochement with Israel at bay, especially since Israel is continuing to provide ammunition and arms, military training and diplomatic support to the PYD and, indirectly, the PKK. Where will Turkey end up now that the West is, or soon will be, in an all out war against IS? If Turkey aligns its policies more with the West and Israel reconciles to some degree with Turkey, will the West and Israel, more particularly, sacrifice their relations with the Syrian Kurds to rebuild its relations with Turkey? As long as the West has no troops on the ground, as long as Turkey continues to see the Kurds in Syria and the PKK as its main foe, in spite of joining the fight against IS, as long as the West needs Turkey in its fight against IS, then Israel will continue to be left out in the cold and will also likely continue strengthening its ties with the Kurds.

I suspect now that IS will be defeated in Syria, but that IS will also go underground more extensively in both Turkey and Europe. With the open battles between the police and IS terror cells in Turkey in October when Davutoğlu pronounced IS as ungrateful, presumably for all of Turkey’s previous covert support to IS, IS terrorists will continue to infiltrate Turkey as well as European states engaged in supporting the fight against Assad. However, because of Turkey’s resumption of war with the Kurds in both Syria and Turkey, Israel will continue to support the Kurds and Turkey’s animosity against Israel will remain intact. This is especially true since the public in Turkey still refuses to see IS as a mortal danger in contrast to the militant Kurds. Only about 15% of Turks believe that IS is a real danger to Turkey. And almost 60% of Turks believe that, even if IS was at the bottom of the two suicide bomber attacks in Turkey in October, IS is not a real threat to Turkey. 20% (see Gezici Research) even believe that the Turkish military intelligence was really behind the October suicide bombings, even if the perpetrators were from the IS.

Further, Turkey even denies the existence of significant numbers of Kurds in Tell Abyad, 5% instead of 40%. Of 250 Armenian families that escaped to Aleppo, only 50 have returned to Tell Abyad compared to the almost total return of the Kurds. Yet Erdoğan in October 2014 still claimed that, “I don’t want to argue whether Kobani is Kurdish or Arab. But its real name is Ayn al-Arab.” “Tell Abyad,” he recently added, “belongs to Arabs and Turkmen.” With such mindblindness, any effort to deepen relations between Turkey and Israel seems highly unlikely.

Turkish Foreign Policy

Turkish Foreign Policy

by

Howard Adelman

The main focus of Turkey’s foreign relations has been Syria and Iran, but also Iraq. Iran and its satraps (Assad’s Syria and a Shiite-led Iraq) form the main rival for Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been unwilling in the latter part of his rule to become an obsequious suitor in pursuit of full entry into Europe. Erdoğan no longer believes that this is doable, at least not on terms acceptable to him. Hence, in part, the turn eastward.

There are also Cyprus and Greece, Egypt and, of course, Israel. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, became one of many of Erdoğan’s regional archenemies after Sisi toppled the democratically-elected regime of Mohammed Morsi, the then Islamist president of Egypt. Egypt is now Turkey’s hegemonic rival to the south-west. Whereas it may seem that the two countries should be close allies, since Egypt has an authoritarian government that Erdoğan can only envy, and both now have IS in their entrance hall, the reality seems to be that the two countries for now seem incapable of combining forces to deal with common enemies such as IS.

Erdoğan is also not willing to surrender his effective control of the northern half of Cyprus if that is a condition for getting into the EU. It seems clear that, quite aside from the EU’s concerns with Turkey’s human rights record and the fear of adding 80 million Muslims to the European population base, Cyprus is a key wedge issue on which Europe will not and cannot surrender on Turkey’s terms. It is one thing to accept a de facto division of the island. It is quite another to reward Turkey with de jure recognition of the division at the same time as Turkey gains EU membership. Meanwhile, Turkey is consolidating its links with the Turkish half of Cyprus. On 17 October, Erdoğan inaugurated the very controversial $450 million pipeline link with Turkish-governed northern Cyprus.

However, Cyprus is no longer the wedge issue between the EU and Turkey. The key factor is the almost two million refugees in Turkey. Turkey opened its doors to the flight of Syrians (and Afghans and Iraqis) to the EU to send a clear message that the EU needs Turkey’s cooperation to manage the crisis. Merkel’s efforts to call Erdoğan’s bluff by agreeing to admit 800,000 still has to be played out, but it is clear that Turkey holds a sword of Damocles over Europe since it could easily send a million more refugees towards Europe.

At the same time, Erdoğan has been pushing for a no-fly zone over Syria, ostensibly to facilitate refugee return as well as supposedly create a zone free of “terrorists” (read Kurds, not just IS). One suspects that any no-fly zone would cage Russia in and provide greater freedom for Turkish forces to tackle Kurdish militants on the ground in Syria. The Kurds could not be protected by the Americans, not only from IS, but now from Turkey. Such a step would also give both IS as well as Turkey, a much freer scope for action on the ground, especially since, as part of this proposal, Turkey has offered to rebuild the infrastructure as well as housing for the returnees.

There is another problem in the Mediterranean other than Cyprus and refugees. Turkey’s relations with both Russia and the United States depend almost entirely on Erdoğan’s battle in Syria, first with the Kurds there, who Erdoğan feared were en route to forming a strong military and economic base to help undermine his control of south-eastern Turkey. Then there is Assad, who was built up by Erdoğan as Turkey’s main enemy, primarily because of Turkey’s rivalry with Iran. IS with its strong base now in Iraq and its newer controls over swaths of Syria, had, until only very recently, been ranked very much and far lower down as a third priority in Syria. In fact, Turkey has been accused of supplying arms and munitions to IS in the past. For example, in 2013 Eren Erdem and Ali Şeker, opposition members in the Turkish parliament, openly accused the Turkish government of supplying IS with the chemicals used in the attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Hundreds were killed in the chemical attack, which was initially blamed on Assad. Though there is evidence that Turkey provided continuing support to IS, more recently, this situation has been changing, but not enough to give up Erdoğan’s preoccupation with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds lest they encourage Turkish Kurds, by their example and material and military support, to pursue autonomy and, possibly, independence.

Just a little over a year ago, 60,000 Kurds fled to Turkey in just 24 hours, a flight and influx that made the movement of refugees to Europe look like a slow motion operation. This is not because Kurds are in love with Erdoğan. It is because IS decided to run its own ship, abandon any reliance on Turkey’s support and attack the weakest areas in Syria, the villages and towns along the northern border with Turkey. Given the IS surprise victory in Mosul over the Iraqi army on 10 June 2014, and its acquisition of an enormous amount of American military equipment — AFV’s, American M1 and T-72M tanks, 4,000 IS militants in September 2014 turned from the IS victory in Mosul and seized dozens of villages that were predominantly Kurdish. Their prime target was the strategically-placed border town of Ayn al-Arab or Kobanî. Control of Kobanî was necessary for IS to consolidate its control over the north of Syria. Kobanî is located half way between Aleppo in the west, Syria’s second largest city, and Amude, Qamishli and Deirik in the north-east.

In spite of the danger IS posed to Turkey itself, especially in the long run, there is a great deal of evidence that Turkey’s security forces were supplying IS with arms and munitions even as the U.S. was ramping up its war against IS after deciding, reluctantly and tardily, to provide bombing cover for its allies in Syria. Those allies, as we shall see, included the Kurds. And the Kurds posed a central fear for Erdoğan lest the new strengthened semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq link up with a corresponding one in Syria to provide a border base for Turkey’s own separatist and militant PKK. At the same time, Turkey opened its border to the tens of thousands of Kurds in flight from Syria and surrendered over a hundred villages to the IS militants who randomly slaughter Kurdish civilians at will.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s call for a concerted and coordinated international intervention to protect Kobanî from IS initially went largely unheeded, in good part because the PKK has been labelled a terrorist organization and the so-called Rojava Revolution to unite Kurds in an independent Kurdish state in the Middle East has been viewed as a threat to “stability” in that region. The defence of Kobanî in the fight against IS by Kurdish forces emerged as a turning point in the war against IS and the shift away from Turkey’s unabashed support for IS in opposition to the Kurdish militants within Turkey. Ironically, the eventual victory of the Kurds in the fight against IS from Kobanî meant that the Kurds were perceived as posing an even greater danger to Erdoğan.

With the losses in the June 2015 election and the strength of the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria, Erdoğan could not desist in once again resuming the war against the PKK. The irony is that this was taking place at the same time as the Kurds in the region were joining nationalist democratic struggles, struggles which recognized Kurdish autonomy, in an effort to protect the gains Kurds had already made in both Iraq and Syria. As they worded it in their September conference in Washington, they opposed “nationalism that separates peoples, identities, beliefs and cultures – rejecting racism and religious extremism.” At the Washington conference, they adopted a policy of establishing organizational and military, political and diplomatic alliances that recognized Kurdish autonomy within larger free and democratic states, such as their goal for Syria.  What began as a resistance against al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra terrorists morphed into a search for allies in the struggle against the even more virulent and extremist IS or al Daesh. In less than one year of warfare directly engaging IS, the Kurds suffered 3,000 casualties, almost 30% of them dead.

However, the Kurds had established themselves as the clearest and most disciplined fighting force in the Middle East, including even IS. They had been crucial to the victory over and reversal of the IS position in Mosul, gaining, at the same time, more territory and consolidating the Kurdish autonomous area in Iraq. But their most formidable victory that established the Peshmerga force as a significant military actor in the region was the Kurdish defence of Kobanî and the eventual retreat of IS at the beginning of 2015 from many of their gains in northern Syria.

IS felt certain of victory in Kobanî. They had modern tanks and artillery. They had 4,000 experienced fighters. They had swept most Kurds out of northern Syria in an exercise in very rapid ethnic cleansing. They, however, were not counting on the far poorer equipped Peshmerga Kurdish forces to make such a valiant stand in Kobanî. They had expected the Kurds to flee en masse from IS’s reputation of exacting revenge on any civilians that remained behind.

In what seemed like impossible odds, the Kurds held off IS for months until the U.S. finally offered air support that allowed the Kurds to push back the IS forces. Ironically, the Kurdish successes in both Iraq and Syria only left Erdoğan feeling more threatened. Further, Erdoğan had held off as long as he could in providing permission for the U.S. air force to take off from Turkish airfields, permission which he finally granted in late summer of 2015.

Tim Arango in The New Yorker (29 September 2014) had been very prescient about the fighting skills of the Kurds. In a 27 October 2015 article, he depicted the Turkish military attacks against Kurdish forces, not only in Turkey, but in Tal-Alyad, Syria, just after the Kurdish forces routed IS from that border town. Erdoğan was not satisfied with his cold and calculated move to once again take up the war against the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast. He was moving the war to the base of Kurdish strength in Syria, taking on the People’s Protection Units or YPG, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party in Syria. He had ostensibly warned the Kurdish Syrian military forces that they should not cross the Euphrates, that the river was Turkey’s red line.

In return for granting the U.S. access to air bases in Turkey, Erdoğan had already launched 400 sorties against Kurdish forces in Iraq. Just as Kurdish forces were pushing towards the IS capital in Raqqa, Erdoğan now turned his military against the Kurds in Syria, though ostensibly he was supposed to be targeting IS. That would come next, Turkish political leaders assured the Americans. IS could not be weakened if it only left the Kurds strengthened. The Obama regime seemed to avert their eyes as Turkey attacked its strongest ally in the Middle East next to Turkey itself, Egypt and, of course, Israel. However, the Kurds were the best fighting force on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. Would the U.S. allow one ally, that was a member of NATO, pulverize its other most steadfast ally in the region, now even more reliable than Israel?

Following Erdoğan’s enormous election victory on 1 November 2015, the situation became even worse as Turkey set out to weaken the Kurdish military totally within Turkey and in both Syria and Iraq with a barely disguised bid to create a buffer zone in the southeast border areas of Syria and Iraq to prevent reinforcements of the PKK entering Turkey and to disrupt the PKK supply lines. As rumours abounded on Remembrance Day 2015 that Erdoğan planned to hold a plebiscite on the presidency, the U.S. State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, repeated that the Kurds would be resupplied through Baghdad and not directly to either the Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq and clearly not directly to Syrian Kurdish forces. Nevertheless, the U.S. insisted that it continued to support the Kurdish attacks against IS. Turkey’s Prime Minister openly announced it had no opposition to supplying arms to the Peshmerga forces in Iraq via Baghdad, but was adamantly opposed to strengthening the Syrian Kurds at all.

As the war widens within both Turkey’s south east and in Syria itself, as the ostensible allies fight a two-front war – where there is no real front – against both IS and Assad, the issue is whether the Kurds will become the sacrificial lambs once again to the realist compromises of the great powers. It seems that the Kurds, as usual, have no reliable strong ally anywhere in the world.

But perhaps they have. In this balagan, a political mess that seems so characteristic of the Middle East, Israel appears initially only relevant as a distraction. When Erdoğan thinks he needs the Palestinians to rally his Muslim base in his own country and in the Middle East more generally, he will continue to use them to create spectacles, but ones without any true substance. Israel and Turkey are not “natural” enemies. Nor are they likely to become such given how Turkey is surrounded by real enemies. That is because Turkey’s policy entails an engagement, not only with the Islamic State (IS) that has recently made itself Erdoğan’s enemy, at the same time as all of the “allies” try to overthrow Assad. The only thing that seems clear is that the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria remain Erdoğan’s main preoccupation that colours and effects his relationships with Russia, the United States, countries like Saudi Arabia, and, as we shall see, Israel.

Next Blog: Turkey, the Kurds and Israel