For the small Kurdish force defending the Syrian town of Kobani against ISIS, it’s been a brutal battle for more than a month . Coalition forces have supported defenders of the town just across Turkey’s border with air strikes and drops of weapons and ammunition have helped. Now Turkey has agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its borders and lend support on the ground. Turkey’s delayed and somewhat muted response to the embattled city’s plight reflects the complex and contradictory regional alliances that have, so far, stymied broad and decisive action against ISIS. Please join us to talk about Turkey’s role in the fight against ISIS.
- James Kitfield Contributing editor, National Journal, Atlantic Media's Defense One and the National Interest; senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
- Michael Rubin Resident Scholar at American Enterprise Institute and author of "Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes."
- Omer Taspinar Professor, national security strategy, U.S. National War College director of the Turkey project, Brookings Institution
- Phyllis Bennis Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies; co-author of "Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. has been putting pressure on Turkey to put a much greater role in the coalition fight against ISIS, but for Turkey, this means coming to the aid of Kurds, something they've been loath to do. Joining me to understand Turkey's role in the struggle against ISIS, James Kitfield of National Journey, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, Omer Taspinar, he teaches at the U.S. National War College and Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies.
MS. DIANE REHMDo join us, 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MS. PHYLLIS BENNISGreat to be here.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood to be here.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINGood to be here.
MR. OMER TASPINARThank you.
REHMThank you. James Kitfield, tell us about the fight for the town of Kobani.
KITFIELDWell, you know, for many weeks, it's been under assault by ISIL or ISIS, however you want to refer to the Islamic State. 200,000 civilians fled the town. Turkey let those civilians across, but there is a cadre of Kurdish fighters who are putting up a very good fight. We've decided that we want to back them. We have been -- we had air strikes trying to support them, trying to, you know, kind of break the siege, if you will.
KITFIELDIn the last few days, we've started air-dropping them weapons and medical supplies. And the most recent news is we've manage to convince Turkey, which was very reluctant to agree to this, but to let Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces come through Turkey and to reinforce the defenders of Kobani.
REHMAnd to you, Omer, why has Turkey been so reluctant up till now?
TASPINARThe main reason is because the Kurds in Syria, the entity that is fighting against ISIL, is linked with what Turkey considers a terrorist organization, the PKK. The PYD, which is the Democratic union of Kurdistan in Syria, is basically the PKK branch of Syria. And despite the fact that Turkey had a peace process with the PKK for the last couple of years, it is still listed as a terrorist organization.
REHMSo there's little trust on either side.
REHMAnd what's changed now?
TASPINARWell, right now, there is a lot of pressure within Turkey. Turkey has about 15 million Kurds and what happened the last couple of weeks was basically riots across Turkey which killed about 40 people and the government has realized that doing nothing is not an option so there has to be a face-saving way of dealing with the problem. And instead of allowing PKK fighters to cross the border from Turkey to Syria, the Turkish government decided that letting the Peshmerga forces from Iraq to do the same, to cross from Turkey to Syria to help their Kurdish cousins in Syria is a better option.
TASPINARAnd I think American pressure on Turkey to do something played a major role in that.
REHMSo Michael Rubin, where does Turkey stand vis a vis the Kurds? They're certainly not totally anti-Kurdish.
RUBINWell, it depends what time of the month it is or what time of the year it is. When you actually look at the timeline of now President Erdogan's various outreaches to the Kurds inside Turkey, you see a situation where before major elections, that's when he announces peace processes. After the elections, sometimes those outreaches get forgotten.
RUBINWhen it comes to the continued clash, if you will, between Turkish nationalists and Kurds, what worries me is there's still a great deal of misunderstanding. When I talk to many Turks, they will argue, well, the peace process is about getting this PKK to lay down their arms, maybe in exchange, we can have some Kurdish programming on TV. But when I talk to senior PKK leaders, they say, hey, we didn't have this insurgency so that Abdullah Ocalan, their imprisoned leader, could be mayor someday of Diyarbakir. They want significantly more.
REHMSo James, how much of a difference can Iraqi Kurds on the ground in Kobani make?
KITFIELDWell, potentially significant difference. I mean, we saw, weeks ago, in Iraq when Erbil was threatened, the capital of the Kurdish region, autonomous region, of Iraq. When we supplied them with air power and some weapons, they were able significantly reverse some battlefield gains of ISIS. So they're tenacious fighters. If they're armed and supported by U.S. air power and enough of them get to Kobani before it falls, they could have significant impact.
REHMBut you're skeptical, Michael.
RUBINI'm a little skeptical. You know, at first, inside Kobani or Ayn al-Arab, as its name is in Arabic, the YPG, the Kurdish militia inside Syria, was doing a pretty good job, but as the Islamic State was able to reinforce itself, both with what they captured in Mosul and with jihadis coming in across the border, they gained the upper hand. Now, the YPG are the most tenacious fighters and they've managed to, at first, stop the ISIS advance and now there's a real chance that the YPG, the Syrian Kurds, could actually win the battle of Kobani.
RUBINWhat I see Turkey doing is allowing the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in so that they can claim it was actually the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga that made the difference, rather than have to give credit to the PKK.
REHMPhyllis, how do you see it?
BENNISWell, I think that like every country working in the region, including the United States, Turkey is working for what it perceives as its own interests and that means suppressing Kurdish gains, suppressing Kurdish ability to claim victories. I think the fact that they are allowing in Iraqi Kurds and not allowing in Turkish Kurds to fight is an example of that. But I think that we do have to be clear that it has been these Kurdish fighters who, among other things, protected the civilians on Mt. Sinjar, something that was widely portrayed in the U.S. press as they were only saved because of U.S. air strikes.
BENNISIn fact, they were saved by Syrian Kurds who got up the back of the mountains, escorted them off to safety. There were only, as far as we know, somewhere between two and five U.S. air strikes in that whole Sinjar area. The others were all up in Erbil to prevent any further gains there.
REHMAnd now, Turkey has asked the U.S. to help to provide a buffer zone. What would that mean?
BENNISYeah, that would mean, essentially, the same thing as a so-called no-fly zone. This is something that if we remember back to 2011, when we were talking about what kind of intervention would there be in Libya, the talk was, from the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, that a no-fly zone starts with bombing Syria. Sorry, with bombing Libya. That's what he said then. It's the same thing now.
BENNISThe reality is that a no-fly zone is not that relevant in that area. The problems caused to civilians by the horrific regime in Syria are not mainly by planes in that area. So it's not really going to work. I think that this is a kind of political beginning of what would be a much larger scale military engagement by the U.S. and a very dangerous one.
REHMOmer, how do you see it?
TASPINARWell, what Turkey wants is essentially a U.S. strategy that will tackle the whole question, not just the Kurdish dimension, not just Kobani, but what needs to be done against Bashar al-Assad, the regime in Damascus and helping the Kurds, at this point, in fighting ISIL, according to Turkey, helps Damascus. And so what Turkey wants is a strategy for Syria, not just a strategy for Iraq, not a just a strategy against ISIL.
TASPINARAnd this is why the buffer zone or using the Incirlik Air Base, which is strategically very important for this war effort. For Turkey, it's conditional. It's conditional on seeing basically a U.S. strategy, ideally with more military involvement, with boots on the ground, that's where the U.S. and Turkey really differ. Turkey wants more U.S. involvement and the U.S. is obviously reluctant to get involved in a buffer zone or in a more direct military way, other than air strikes.
REHMHow much more is the U.S. going to get involved, James?
KITFIELDYou know, the no-fly seems to me to be one that, as we watch this develop, could be on the table at some point. We'll see. We had a no-fly over Iraq for a decade. So we've done this before. I think that now that the administration has basically declared war and said its strategy is to defeat and degrade ISIS, to the degree that is not -- we are not able to do that with what we're doing now, we'll have to consider other measures. I do not think that Turkey is going to be successful in getting the United States to make the fall of Assad its strategic aim here.
KITFIELDWe've been resisting that for three years. It's just not gonna happen. It would require significant boots on the ground inside Syria. That's not gonna happen. So there is a divergence -- there's an alignment with Turkey on getting ISIS under control. That alignment diverges very quickly on Assad, on the issue of Assad. We think the main effort's in Iraq, actually, and that's where we're gonna be focusing a lot of our effort 'cause in Iraq, we have reliable proxies on the ground in the Kurds in the north and, well, Iraqi security forces may not be reliable, but, you know, we can support them 'cause we know them.
RUBINWell, I think the basic problem is the United States and Turkey will look at Syria and see completely different problems. You know, when the Turkish parliament had its resolution, it was oftentimes misreported in the United States as this was a resolution that would allow Turkey to take action simply against ISIS. But Turkey didn't mention ISIS. They talked about authorizing military force in Syria and Iraq.
RUBINIf you look at Turkey's targets in order of Turkish priority, I'd say number one is Assad, number two are the Kurds and a distant third is the Islamic State. And this means that in the United States, when we look at what Turkey is doing, increasingly policymakers are perceiving Turkey, if I may, as Pakistan on the Mediterranean, where perhaps diplomats will say one thing, but we see officials inside Turkey and the policy of Turkey doing something quite different.
BENNISWhat we're not hearing enough about, Diane, is diplomacy. We know from President Obama himself. He has said it over and over again. There is no military solution. And yet, all of his actions are aimed at acting as if there is a military solution. I think, you know, there's an old Chinese proverb that says, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today. That's also true for diplomacy.
BENNISThe best time to start good diplomacy in the region as a whole is 20 years ago. The second best is today and we need to do it now.
REHMBut is it too late?
BENNISNo. It's never too late because what we're looking at now is assume that all of these small scale military actions worked and we were able to deal with the Kobani crisis. What we're left with is the kind of chaos we see now in Libya. That's not anything that's gonna be good for anybody in Syria or anywhere else.
REHMPhyllis Bennis, she's with the Institute for Policy Studies, co-author of "Ending The U.S. War In Afghanistan: A Primer." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about Turkey and its involvement or non-involvement in the battle against ISIS. Here is an email from Neil who's a student at the University of Georgia in Athens. He says, "Based on recent assumptions that the Islamic State may have retaliated against Canadian forces because of their recent joining in the military coalition with the U.S., does this change your view on nonmilitary intervention? In other words, if there's evidence that Islamic State members have reached American or Canadian soil in the attempt of terrorist attacks, should the U.S. reconsider putting troops on the ground," Phyllis?
BENNISWell, I think first of all we don't know very much yet about the Canadian situation. We have to be very careful about not making assumptions there. But there is no question that some actions of ISIS, including those horrific beheadings of the two U.S. journalists and aid workers was directly in response to the U.S. announcement of its new bombing campaign. So we can't deny that there's a link.
BENNISI also think that we don't make political decisions and military decisions based on whether there could be some kind of an individual reaction like that, but we should be thinking about it because it's wrong. It doesn't make us safer.
RUBINThe Islamic State is primarily motivated by ideology, not by grievance. This means that no matter what the United States does or does not, whatever Canada does or does not, whatever Great Britain does or does not, we're still going to be targeted. Remember, this isn't Islamic State but 1993 the first World Trade Center attack, we didn't respond to that and yet we were hit in 1998 in East Africa. Likewise, U.S.S. Cole in 2000, we didn't respond to that and yet we were hit on 9/11. We have to realize we're up against ideological foe. Simply absenting ourselves from the region isn't going to make a difference.
KITFIELDAnd I disagree a little bit that we have not engaged in any diplomacy here. I mean, this is not a president who reaches first with the trigger. I think we've all learned that. He was very reluctant to get involved in this. There is serious diplomacy going on with Iraq. That's why we don't have, you know, the previous prime minister there anymore because he was seen as a divisive figure. There's serious diplomacy going on with Turkey, which is why Turkey just agreed to let the Peshmerga in.
KITFIELDThe problem with diplomacy involving Syria is the serious patrons are Iran and Russia. And we have big problems right now with Iran and Russia. We're involved in extremely delicate negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program. We don't want to muddy that water. And Iran's not very helpful on Syria anyway. It's backing up the Assad regime with its Hezbollah proxy. And Russia is dismembering Ukraine. So it's a very difficult set of circumstances on the diplomacy on Syria.
BENNISThat's why we need it.
REHMAnd this total picture is so complicated. It is so interwoven and so complicated. I want to get back to Turkey itself, Omer, and ask you about the refugees at the border between Syria and Turkey. How many are there? How are they being taken care of?
TASPINARWell, since the insurrection started in 2011, the number today has reached 1.6 million. So you have a large amount of refugees from Syria. But in the last couple of months from the Kurdish regions there were about 200,000 Kurds who flocked to Turkey.
TASPINARBut I should emphasize that Turkey's a large country. Turkey's population is 75 million and it has a strong economy. When you look at the refugee problem in Jordan, in Lebanon, these countries are much smaller, much modest economic power. So Turkey, in a way, has more ability to absorb refugees. For Turkey the problem is really a problem of foreign policy. It has become really a failure of Turkish foreign policies.
TASPINARA lot of people thought that Turkey could handle Syria, that Turkey had leverage with Damascus. Turkey had a honeymoon period with Bashar Assad and believed it had leverage over Bashar Assad. But now Turkey has adopted this very Sunni sectarian approach. Instead of trying to understand the complex dynamics of Syria, basically Turkey's support has become a support towards the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni segments, unable to understand (word?) dimension, the Christian dimension of the country. And in that sense the problem to me is not really the refugee problem, but a larger problem of Turkish foreign policy.
REHMBut then put it another way. How much influence does ISIS have within Turkey?
TASPINARWell, there are lots of people in Turkey who have sympathy for ISIS because they consider ISIS as the victims of Shiite's supremacy in the region, just like they have sympathy for the Sunnis of Iraq who have been sidelined by the Shiite regime in Baghdad. So Turkey is a 90-percent Sunni country. And the sensitivities of Turkey, especially with this government, have become Sunni sensitivities.
TASPINARIn the past, Turkey was more secular and did not really take sides in this Shiite, Sunni divide whereas now a lot of people in Turkey say, well, if there is this kind of insurrection coming from ISIL, surely there has to be a legitimate ground for this insurrection. These guys did not decide to become terrorists all of a sudden. They were sidelined by the oppressive police regimes dominated by the Alawite Shiite's regime in Damascus and also in Baghdad by the Nouri Maliki regime which was very oppressive against the Sunnis.
RUBINWell, I mean, I largely agree. Turkey has become as much of a sectarian actor in the region as Qatar and Saudi Arabia on one hand or Iran on the other. If we look at the problem of ISIS in Iraq however, and to some degree this will be the case in Syria, one of the major issues is simply that the Sunni community doesn't have a great deal of leadership under Saddam Hussein. He used to try to divide and conquer. He used to cut off anyone at the knees, especially in the Sunni community who would try to rise up.
RUBINBashar al-Assad in Syria wasn't much different in this regard. And therefore when people say, oh, just rely on the tribes, well, there's three or four competing shakes for each tribal -- for each tribe. It's easier said than done.
REHMBut do you agree that there are sleeper ISIL cells in Turkey and growing?
RUBINAbsolutely. You know, we see a pattern in the Middle East where either publically or privately many of these countries have supported radicalism for export only. We saw this in Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia only got serious once they started striking back at Saudi Arabia. Bashar al-Assad in Syria, people forget Syria during the Iraq war became the underground railroad of suicide bombers into Iraq. Assad was willing to complicit in that so long as they concentrated their efforts in Iraq. That bounced back.
RUBINWhen I was in Turkey this summer, (word?) , one of the main Turkish newspapers, actually had a feature on shops in Istanbul who were selling ISIS memorabilia promising to send the proceeds to ISIS inside Turkey.
REHMAnd wasn't there a failed attempt at an ISIS kidnapping just recently, Omer?
TASPINARYes. As far as I know, there was this problem with a Danish citizen who was involved in a prisoner exchange when Turkey negotiated the release of the 49 Turkish official who were basically kidnapped by ISIS. In that framework there was an agreement that allowed this citizen to be released. Overall I think the problem in Turkey right now is that not only you have these ISIS sleeper cells but public opinion also looks at the problem through the angle of PKK versus ISIS.
TASPINARAnd in the eyes of the Turkish government and in the eyes of the majority of Turks, these are both terrorist organizations. There's no attempt to really distinguish between the two, which also shows that there's a failure of leadership in Turkey in terms of showing the difference, explaining why it's not a moral ethical position to equate ISIS and PKK at this juncture.
REHMPhyllis, with all this going on in Turkey, what is life like for ordinary citizens there?
BENNISYou know, I've not been in Turkey for about a year so I can't say from direct on-the-ground experience but I think the entire region has to be seen in the context of this upheaval. And it's a very dangerous moment. It's dangerous for the number of refugees. We talked about a million-and-a-half on the Turkish border, but there are over 3 million refugees from Syria alone. That doesn't even count the new 200 or more thousand Kurdish refugees that have fled in the most recent fighting.
BENNISAnd there's very little -- there's problems of water access. This question of the impact on Jordan and Lebanon is certainly as much about water as anything else. But it's also a question of the politics of it. Because if we look back at this whole regional rise of ISIS, if you look, for example, in Iraq, which the U.S. says is its main focus, that Syria's really not its main focus, Iraq is the focus, what we see is this extraordinary, very hard-to-understand-from-the-outside level of support for ISIS from ordinary Iraqi Sunnis.
BENNISBecause the repression they faced at the hands of this very sectarian U.S.-backed government was so severe it included people being killed, torture in prisons, mass executions. It's been, you know, barrel bombs were dropped by the government. It's been a horrific reality. And so people are turning to ISIS as their only protector.
REHMMichael Rubin, Turkey is doing some things now but what more do you think Turkey should be doing?
RUBINWell, diplomatically if there's low-hanging fruit the one thing Turkey could be doing is shutting its border to the transit of these radicals from other countries. And this is something that people from Morocco through Europe and all across the globe have been asking Turkey to do. CNN International, for example, had done a documentary about Turks flying into -- sorry, Jihadists flying into Istanbul airport, taking Turkish air to either Gaziantep or Hatay, taking a taxi and for a $40 bribe, crossing the border unmolested into Syria.
RUBINAnd what's worse is oftentimes these same guys are coming back through the same route. If you spend any time in Turkey's airport -- in Istanbul's main international airport, you're going to hear chatter of people coming off these flights from the domestic terminal who have been fighting inside Syria and openly talking about their experiences with their comrades.
KITFIELDYou know, I think the next thing we're going to be asking for Turkey is to use Incirlik for our strikes. It's strategically perfectly located. We've had -- since the no-fly zones in the '80s and '90s -- or the '90s there, we've had, you know, a squadron of fighters there. It's a logical place for us to operate out of. I think that's probably going to be on the table.
KITFIELDOn the point you were making earlier though, there was a case where there was a kidnapping and, you know, some ISIS gangsters -- some gangsters who were working for ISIS captured one of the rebel commanders and tried to get him back across the border. Luckily they weren't successful but, you know, with 1.6 million Syrian refugees, you know there are sleeper cells inside Turkey that are associated with ISIS. And Turkey, I think, is waking up to that danger.
REHMJames Kitfield of National Journal, Atlantic Media's Defense One and the National Interest, also of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now. First to Little Rock, Ark. and to David. Hi, you're on the air.
DAVIDGood morning, Diane. I've heard a lot of discussion on, you know, the inaction of Turkey and how frustrated everybody is with their tanks parked right on the border. But as I understand it, Turkey, as a NATO member, is protected by other NATO members. And if ISIL or ISIS attacks Turkey then they're going to get wiped out by the response of NATO. But what I've not heard anybody discuss was whether if Turkey goes on the attack and goes across the border into Syria and attacks these people, would NATO be obligated than to defend them since they were the one that fired the first shot and were the aggressor and lost their defensive cover?
BENNISYou raise a very, very important question and I think it's part of the reason that we have to look at this in the context of what happens the day after. It's not enough to just say what's the immediate impact? Could some small number of people be saved in and around Kobani? That's crucial of course. Saving every person is important. There's also the question of what happens the day after?
BENNISIf this draws NATO into a full scale war in Syria, what we're left with is Libya on massive steroids. This would be a war that would leave absolute chaos if there is a full scale war. There are, right now, at least seven separate wars being fought in Syria in the name of the Syrian civil war. We don't have to go through them all but they include sectarian wars, regional power struggles, etcetera. And the people who are paying the price are the civilians of Syria. That will only get worse and it will spread to the rest of the region.
KITFIELDFirst off, NATO's not going to go into Syria. NATO -- the Article 5 is a defensive pledge. If Turkey is attacked, NATO will have to come to its defense. If ISIS tried to take a Turkish town like it's trying to take Kobani, believe me, the Turkish military is fully capable of defending its own territory. The problem with ISIS is basically its terrorist tactics, you know, bombing, suicide bombings, killings, beheadings.
KITFIELDThese kinds of things are going to increase in Turkey because of this refugee problem. But in terms of the ISIS that sort of swept into Iraq and acts as sort of a hybrid army, Turkey can defend itself against that. And if that happens, sure, NATO would help it defend itself but that is not what ISIS is going to do. It knows better.
RUBINWell, there's also a broader debate which has arisen now, the situation with regard to NATO, and that's whether Turkey really has a future in NATO. NATO is governed by consensus. And as Turkey changes and as it reorients itself to the Middle East and the Islamic world rather than Europe, the question is whether Turkey really belongs in Europe to the same extent that it once did, whether it could be a hindrance to NATO rather than an asset.
RUBINAnd if I can put on my historian hat for a second and pay to predict the past, you can just look at -- admittedly I get it right only half the time -- but you can look at the Central Treaty Organization from the 1950s, the so-called Baghdad Pact which included Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. Why doesn't it continue to this day? It's because of the changing nature of those governments. But if you go into Pakistan, they're still very bitter that when they got into a war with India, America didn't come to their rescue under similar clauses.
TASPINARI think for NATO it is strategically very important and symbolically very important to have a Muslim member because in Afghanistan, for instance, Turkey's presence was crucial. And here too in order not to create this clash of civilizations' perception that there's a war against Islam by western countries, it is important to have a country with strong Muslim credentials like Turkey now. With Erdogan we can blame him for being an Islamist. But what he brings to Turkey in fact is a very strong Muslim credential in the Arab street. And in that sense I think it is important for Turkey to remain in NATO.
TASPINARAnd Incirlik is very important but Turkey does not really trust NATO. That's the problem. In case there's an attack on Turkey, whether Turks really believe that NATO will come to its defense. If for instance Iran acquires the nuclear weapon, will Turkey be protected by the NATO nuclear umbrella or Turkey would go for its own nuclear force? I would predict that Turkey would prefer to go for its own nuclear force because there is a sense of distrust now between the Turkish public opinion leadership and NATO.
REHMOmer Taspinar. He's professor at national security strategy, the U.S. National War College and the Brookings Institution. Short break, more of your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about Turkey and its role in the battle against ISIL. Here's an email from George, in Charlottesville, Va., who says, "Why doesn't Turkey just deploy its large modern army to depose Assad?" Omer?
TASPINARFirst of all, Turkish public opinion does not support that. Turkish public opinion doesn't want an adventure in Syria, which could turn into a quagmire for the Turkey ministry. But most importantly, Turkish troops fighting in Syria, going all the way to Damascus, would mean Turkey fighting with Hezbollah, Turkey fighting with Iran, and Russia would not support that. And Turkey's dependent for its economy, for its gas supply, energy supplies, on Russia and Iran.
TASPINARSo it doesn't want to pick a fight with these two larger neighbors. And Turkish foreign policy, despite its Islamist shift in the recent years, is overall reluctant to engage in unilateral action. Turkey's a NATO member, Turkey wants a multilateral NATO operation. That's why it emphasizes this no-fly zone, this buffer zone, and it wants to act with the United States.
RUBINWell, I would disagree that Turkey is that multilateral. After all, it still occupies little bases in Iraq, which it has no legal basis to do, in Kani Masi, Amedi and so forth. But I'd say the basic reason and answer to George's question is the emperor has no clothes. Simply put, Turkey's army is a shadow of its former self. It's been emasculated. It's been eviscerated under Erdogan. At one point, one out of every five generals was in prison.
RUBINAnd when you look at the fight just against the PKK in Turkey, before the peace talks started, in Hockadi (sp?), in eastern Turkey, the PKK actually not only controlled, but governed territory. And there wasn't a darn thing the Turkish army could do about it. The fact of the matter is the Turkish army is coasting on its reputation right now. It's much weaker than many believe.
REHMAll right. To Dallas, Texas. Denai, you're on the air. Are you there? Is it Danna?
DANNAYes, this is me.
REHMOkay. I'm sorry. I mispronounced your name. Go right ahead.
DANNAThat's okay. Thank you so much, Diane Rehm. I love your show. It's fantastic.
REHMThank you, thank you.
DANNAI have a comment for one of the guests. She said that earlier that having a no-fly zone in Syria would not have made a big difference. I just want to say a large part of the advancement that the regime was able to make in destroying civilian populations was through barrel bombs that he dropped on civilian populations. He destroyed most of the infrastructure in Syria, actually, and the free Syrian army, which was very moderate. It was not extremists at all. And it's not extremist right now. It has nothing to do with ISIL. And it started out with peaceful protests.
DANNAThey were actually making great advancements in Syria up until Assad was able to -- through airstrikes, able to destroy them and destroy the civilian population. I think had we had a no-fly zone we would have been able to help the moderates. And the moderates have actually been fighting ISIL.
BENNISDanna makes -- raises a very important point. There has been huge attacks by the Syrian Air Force against civilian populations. Not in the area where Turkey and the U.S. are discussing the possibility of a no-fly zone, which is along the border. Those attacks have been in cities in other parts of Syria, where this would have no impact. She's absolutely right, that the air force in Syria was committing huge war crimes. It's also true though, I'm afraid, that these days the free Syrian army -- which has never been an army.
BENNISIt's always been an amalgam of a bunch of different militias with different levels of unity with each other -- is also somewhat of a shadow of its former self. The non-violent opposition in Syria remains. And they are brave and, you know, have worked under incredibly difficult circumstances. Many have been killed. Many have been driven into exile. But at the level of who's actually fighting back, overwhelmingly it's Islamist forces, not only ISIS, but other Islamist forces as well. And I think that that's, you know, the reality that we're seeing on the ground.
REHMAll right. To Joe, in Louisville, Ky. Hi there.
JOEHello, Diane. Another beautiful day in the Bluegrass here.
JOEI was calling to remind people -- and I thought that this was something rather startling from the very beginning when President Bush called the whole push into the Middle East as a crusade. And I think that stuck. And I think the Islamic peoples always believe that. I'd like to think that when Obama said he had no strategy -- I don't think there is a strategy over there in the Middle East, a correct, good strategy that's going to be good for the Americans.
JOEI like to think that the Americans, pretty much, are the Velveeta of the cheeses that attract all the vermin and rats in the Middle East. Whenever we come in there they just come in hordes because they know that we are the infidels. And I really don't think there's ever going to be a solution for us in the Middle East.
KITFIELDWell, that was certainly -- the crusade comment was certainly poorly chosen and Bush, to his credit, backed off of it within almost hours, much less minutes. On the issue of whether we have a strategy. We actually do have a strategy. What we have not have a strategy was for the last three years. We sat back and said basically, we're out of Iraq. And Syria, you're on your own. And we have, today, this horribly complex conflict now that is spreading and destabilizing the whole region, which we've discussed here today.
KITFIELDSo we do have a strategy now. It is to defeat and degrade ISIS. It is not to defeat and degrade Assad. And it is to hold Iraq together and to eventually recapture territory that ISIS has gained. Now, that is not a perfect strategy. There are no perfect strategies for this situation. But you can, you know, when you get into a proxy war you have to pick your proxies and you have to pick your enemy. We know who the enemy is. And now we're trying to find the proxies.
REHMHere's an email from Allen, in Lauderhill, Fla., who says, "If our policy objectives revolve around maintaining post-World War I national borders, I'm afraid we're in for some rude comeuppance."
BENNISYou know, this has been one of the main points, Diane, that ISIS has made. That there is no legitimate border between -- in their case -- Syria and Iraq. They World War I borders, the Sykes-Picot Agreement the lines in the sand, were as arbitrary and colonially interest driven as the borders, the artificial borders, in Africa. The big difference is that the Organization of African Unity, decades ago, made a decision that essentially said as bad and as arbitrary and as divisive as these borders are, it will be worse if we challenge them, so we're just going to leave them.
BENNISIn the Middle East, in the Arab League there's not been that kind of understanding. And the borders, in many ways are more overtly linked to creating interests, protecting interests of the colonial powers. The creation of Kuwait because the British wanted to be sure that they would have a little oil interest there. You know, the division between Syria and Lebanon because the French wanted to be sure they would have a French oriented, Christian majority in one little part. All of this was completely arbitrary and driven by colonial interests. And ISIS is not the only party that wants to change that.
TASPINARIt is certainly true that Syria and Iraq are artificial creations. However, the organic element in this region are the Kurds. And the Kurds now are uniting. Historically, the biggest problem of the Kurds have been their divisions, their tribal divisions, sectarian divisions, linguistic divisions. It's a very mountainous area. There has never been really a centralized Kurdish power. So now time is on the Kurdish side -- history's on the Kurdish side.
TASPINARThey have an opportunity to unite. However, there are still remaining divisions, as we see today. The Syrian Kurds, for instance, are dominated by the PKK. But on the Iraqi side you have two different tribes trying to run the country. In Iran there are divisions, as well. And in Turkey, the AKP's trying to conduct a peace process with the PKK, but there are also Kurds who are basically in support of conservative Islamic viewpoints. And there are divisions on the Turkish Kurdish side as well.
RUBINWell, it's certainly true that when you look at the map of the Middle East, wherever you see a straight line, that's artificial. But don't make the mistake of thinking that just because the borders are artificial, all the countries are artificial. And you have concepts in Arabic literature of Iraq, going back to the 12th, 13th, 14th century. The same thing is true with Syria. If you want to look at the broad swath of Arab history, you can say that there's three main political, cultural and economic capitals, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad.
RUBINAnd they've seldom all been on the same page historically and politically. So you do have some sort of division between Iraq and Syria. The last quick point would be that even though these countries could be artificial they have a shared history over the last nine plus decades. And that means that you get a huge sense of us versus the other.
KITFIELDJust a quick point on the borders. I mean, we may not be able to keep the borders sacrosanct in this conflict. That was one of the reasons why people said if you let Syria burn, that Sunni-Shia divide that is at this -- at the core of Syria will fracture throughout the region. We've seen that happen. It is fractured. It's fractured in Iraq. Whether we can keep Iraq together, I wouldn't give it more than 50 percent because it's a political decision. And if you put another sectarian in the government in Baghdad, Iraq will not hold together.
KITFIELDBut what the clear U.S. interest is that -- whatever emerges from this really tumultuous time is that a group like ISIS does not rule any large section. So wherever ISIS is, believe me, we will be in a conflict with it because its ideology is so virulently brutal and anti-Western that we will always be in a fight with it's like.
REHMJames Kitfield, contributing editor for National Journal. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Michael, you wanted to bring up something in particular.
RUBINWell, you know, the peoples in the Middle East and the peoples in this region are very much aware that the situation has changed and, as we've talked about, about the artificiality of borders. And so there's an active discussion about how to deal with this. And certainly to look at Syria just as Libya part two is a mistake, because it's much more Bosnia. I mean, the difference between post-war Bosnia and pre-war Bosnia is the same as between pre-war Syria and whatever comes next in Syria.
RUBINAbdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, has dedicated most of his recent books -- and they're available in English. I know his translator -- to talking about new models of federalism, just like the Iraqi Kurds have a decentralized federal area. What Ocalan is saying is no, the Kurds in Syria and the Kurds in Turkey shouldn't break apart. We should have interlinked federal regions within the existing nation states. At the same time, over July 4th weekend, I went off and talked with Ra'ad al-Hamdani, who was the Republican Guard commander that fought the Americans in 2003.
RUBINSaddam Hussein's sons were part of his unit. And he said the only solution for Iraq is administrative federalism, devolving power from Baghdad into the provinces, districts or sub-districts, where you only have the central government to take care of foreign affairs and defense. And you have all the decision-making over peoples' lives down at the very local level.
TASPINARI would just say that federalism requires working institutions. It requires power sharing. It requires a political culture of nationhood. And in Turkey, where we have a nation state, Abdullah Ocalan is advocating a federation. And the peace process between the PKK and Turkey was based, ideally, in this idea that there would be a decentralized Turkey, that Ankara would not be able to control everywhere, but there would be regional capitals. And Diyarbakir, the Kurdish capital of Turkey's Kurdish area, would become much more autonomous.
TASPINARBut I'm afraid that Turkey doesn't have this kind of power-sharing political culture, this kind of institutions that would lead to federalism like it is indicated -- the case in the United States or in Germany. We still have a big problem of not working institutions that are weak, authoritarian political culture, patriarchal leaders who are power hungry and who want to accumulate as much power as they can at the center, instead of devolving power.
BENNISI think that this is true in a number of countries. But I think the key thing that's prevented the possibility of developing those kinds of internal dynamics that could lead to indigenous decisions about how divided -- how power should be divided between the center and the periphery within a country has been prevented by the domination of those governments by, in most cases recently, by the United States. If we look at Iraq, we don't get to choose.
BENNISIf we're looking at international law, we should not be the ones who decide who's the prime minister of Iraq, how divided or united they're going to be. There is a strong national identity in Iraq, the way there is in Turkey, the way there is not in Afghanistan, for instance. There are differences. But it should not be up to the United States to get to choose what kind of legal structures and how much unity there is in a national government versus a divided power-sharing arrangement.
KITFIELDWell, I mean, you can talk about the U.S. influence and screwing up Iraq. And you won't get a lot of disagreement from this side of the table. But the fact of the matter is we have neglected Iraq since 2011. Well, how's it looking to you? We had absolutely zero to do with what's happened in Damascus and Syria. We've washed our hands of it and watched it burn. So, you know, yeah, we got involved in Libya and then turned our back on the post conflict and that was a big mistake and Libya's a mess.
KITFIELDSo, you know, I don't think looking at America as the root cause of all that ails in the Middle East right now is really the answer. What it needs is some mediation in some cases. In some cases, as we've seen, these countries only trust us to mediate. So, I mean, if you like Maliki in Iraq and what he did in the last three years, then fine. And it's not looking too good.
TASPINARI would just add that the U.S. will be blamed no matter what. It will be blamed for intervention.
REHMNo matter what.
TASPINARIt will be blamed for intervening in Iraq. The Turks blame them.
BENNISBut it did.
TASPINARAnd now Turkey is blaming the United States for not intervening in Syria. So there is a tendency to blame the United States for all the problems, historically blaming imperialism, blaming the West. But the reality of the matter is that the region as it is now is unable to provide regional solutions. There always is a tendency to resort back to the super power, to the United States and to blame United Nations, to blame United States for the problems. And what we've seen now in Turkey is that the leadership blames the situation in Syria, including the emergence of ISIL for -- on U.S. inaction.
TASPINARErdogan always says if the U.S. had intervened in time in Syria, there wouldn't be the oldest jihad is coming to the country. And there may be an element of truth to that, but obviously the U.S. cannot be there all the time. And U.S. public opinion also matters. The U.S. public opinion doesn't want to get involved.
REHMYou know, it's interesting. One of our callers says, "Why don't we call this World War III?" You've got 20 countries involved. Is this the beginning, James?
KITFIELDI think this is not the beginning of World War III. This is the beginning of the breakdown of the world order that we sort of ruled over post-World War II. I think this -- I think you've seen it breaking down around Russia's periphery. I think you see China as a rising power, questioning and trying to push back against that international order. And in the Middle East you're seeing it break down altogether.
REHMJames Kitfield, Michael Rubin, Omer Taspinar, Phyllis Bennis, thank you all so much.
KITFIELDYou're welcome. Thank you.
BENNISThank you, Diane.
RUBINThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.