Kobane and the Kurds: Clueless at the New York Times

Turkish Inaction on ISIS Advance Dismays the U.S.,” a report in today’s New York Times identifies three reporters in the byline: Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt in Washington, and Anne Barnard in Beirut.

It sometimes seems like the more names there are in the byline, the worse the reporting and the less the accountability.

Even though international journalists are offered a grandstand view of the battle in Kobane from the relative safety of Turkey, the Times does not appear to currently have a staff reporter there. No disrespect to “news assistant” Karam Shoumali, but it’s hard to understand why they have no one else there right now.

Today’s report makes vague references to “Kurdish fighters” in Kobane but doesn’t identify them as belonging to the People’s Protection Committees, the YPG, until the penultimate paragraph.

As the headline suggests, the general narrative is of American “frustration” and “dismay” at Turkey’s unwillingness to defend Kobane.

The Kurds are crying for help, the Turks aren’t listening, and the Americans are wringing their hands (“the United States took pains to emphasize its support for the embattled Kurds in Kobani”).

Kurdish fighters in Kobani said they were running out of ammunition and could not prevail without infusions of troops and arms from Turkey.

The Guardian reports more accurately: “the US, reluctant to commit ground troops itself, wants Turkey to send in soldiers to confront Isis.”

But the point is this: unlike the U.S., the Kurds have no desire to see Turkish troops enter Kobane. Their arrival would be seen as having more to do with Turkey’s desire to suppress Kurdish autonomy than an effort to thwart ISIS.

As Jenan Moussa in the tweet above says, the appeal the Kurds are making is for their own fighters to be allowed to cross the border and for their dwindling supplies of ammunition to be replenished. Additional weapons, such as American TOW anti-tank missiles would help too.

As much as American officials may want to cast themselves as willing defenders of the Kurds as they face an ISIS onslaught, both the U.S. and the Kurds frustrated by a lack of support from Turkey, the lack of support has come just as much from Washington, hamstrung by its own anti-terrorism fundamentalism.

The New York Times peddles the administration’s excuses:

“We have anticipated that it will be easier to protect population centers and to support offensives on the ground in Iraq, where we have partners” in the Kurdish pesh merga fighters and the Iraqi Army, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Clearly, in Syria, it will take more time to develop the type of partners on the ground with whom we can coordinate.”

For this reason, the official said, the military strategy in Syria so far has focused on “denying ISIL safe haven and degrading critical infrastructure — like command and control and mobile oil refineries — that they use to support their operations in Iraq.”

The report correctly notes that the Kurds have been left feeling abandoned: “even though they are the sort of vulnerable minority group that Mr. Obama has made a priority of protecting — political moderates who have women fighting alongside men and have provided refuge for internally displaced Syrians of many ethnicities.”

So when U.S. officials talk about the time needed to develop “partners on the ground,” they are trying to obscure the fact that the YPG is already qualified to serve as such a partner. In its gender equality, it’s even more progressive than the U.S. military itself!

Moreover, President Obama owes a personal debt of gratitude to the YPG because after he promised “to prevent a potential act of genocide” when in early August thousands of Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq were in peril from ISIS, it was the Syrian Kurdish fighters who enabled their escape by creating a safe corridor for their evacuation.

As Global Post reported:

Despite a widely publicized US bombing campaign to save them, family after family tells the same story of escape: While the Western media narrative has emphasized the US role and that of the Iraqi Kurds’ peshmerga fighters battling IS in recent weeks, it was instead the Kurds coming in from Syria and Turkey who saved the Yazidis’ lives. A limited number were airlifted off the mountain, but the mass exodus took place on foot. The much-vaunted peshmerga [in Iraq], meanwhile, initially ran.

“The PKK [a political and militant Kurdish party based in Turkey] saved us. They cleared a path for us so we could escape the Sinjar Mountains into Syria.”

“Thank God for the PKK and YPG [a Syrian branch of the PKK].”

“If it wasn’t for the Kurdish fighters, we would have died up there.”

For the U.S., the problem with the YPG is its affiliation with the PKK which has been designated as a terrorist organization. This has resulted in calls from some quarters that the PKK be delisted. Were that to happen, it would antagonize Turkey but also highlight the arbitrariness with which the U.S. labels terrorists.

The real problem is not that the YPG or the PKK can be linked to terrorism; it is that criminalizing membership of organizations is itself incompatible with the basic principles of democracy.

How can the United States on the one hand recognize the constitutional right of Americans to join anti-democratic extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, while at the same time refusing to partner with a group like the YPG that is genuinely and literally fighting for democracy?

The United States does not lack a partner on the ground in Kobane with which it could currently be coordinating its air strikes on ISIS. It lacks the willingness to discard a counterproductive security doctrine.

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