Mixology for Human Rights and Geopolitics: How To Avoid A Molotov Cocktail

What do you do when your ally is committing mass atrocities against civilians within its own borders?

And when said ally is interfering with both your strategy and your military allies in a nearby country? And when those allies happen to belong to the same group being massacred by your ally?

A bit awkward, isn’t it?

Add to that that in the past, your ally has turned a blind eye to one of the major terrorist groups you are trying to fight in that neighboring country, allowed jihadists to pass through its own borders, and is harboring assorted other terrorist and extremist organizations… well, that takes your relationship to a whole different level of “it’s complicated”.

This is the situation we are essentially facing with Turkey, which appears to be on the warpath on all fronts – in Syria, against Russia, Kurds, and political freedom. It also managed to sour relations with Israel (which it now is desperately trying to repair), Egypt, and even Bulgaria.

I am not going to go into every detail of AKP’s and Erdogan’s corruption and the downfall in the economy which could have led to significant losses of the party. Erdogan naturally turned to scapegoating to detract from his failed policies, while, for a long time, remaining consistent to his policy of turning a blind eye to ISIS, while harboring Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and assorted other extremist organizations. (Until the ISIS presence inside the country came back to haunt him). All of that is now a painfully familiar story, and volumes have been written about this situation.

All of that puts everyone who is dealing with Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds in an extremely complicated situation. What do you do with an ally committing atrocities and interfering with your strategy, but who also has potential to be very useful?

There are numerous side issues that make the situation even more complicated – the internecine differences between Kurds themselves, for instance. KRG trades with the Turkish government and recently blocked the passageway for Syrian Kurds. It also identified PYD, operating inside Syrian with the Turkish PKK. PYD has been an ally of the United States against ISIS, and is not on terrorism list, PKK, within Turkey, is. Turkey’s aim in Syria has been to stop Kurds from creating an autonomous continuous territory that could bring them closer to becoming a state. The Kurds there recently announced a federation. Syrian Kurds themselves are split between the PYD followers and other parties, and have had difficulty overcoming political tensions. None of that bodes well for a creation of an independent state that would give Kurds everywhere a safe  haven from pressure inside their countries. KRG itself has been experiencing a host of issues from the allegations of corruption by the Barzani government to pressure from the Iraqi government, and interference by Iran. Turkey, though a rival of Iran, recently agreed to manage differences and boost trade, for what promises to be billions worth of dollars. Still, all of these tangential conflicts do not absolve Turkey from the bloody mess it has created within its own borders. International observers occasionally misinterpreted the outrageous activity as a conflict between the PKK and the Erdogan administration, but closer analysis of the way the conflict started, and its trajectory makes it obvious that provoking PKK through numerous actions against civilians was merely a way for Erdogan to reach his goal of getting to the majority in the Parliament and further centralizing control

One of the earlier episodes in what is increasingly looking like a civil war rather than a conflict, is the firing of fourteen foreign and Kurdish professors from the University of Mardin in June 2015, coupled with conveniently timed terrorist attacks on HDP headquarters close to the elections which threatened the status of the AKP. These fourteen professors, including Kamal Soleimani, and Saladdin Ahmed, were let go without any legitimate reason. However, the President of the university, appointed by the state, tweeted a series of xenophobic comments, accusing this group of being Un-Turkish. This happened shortly after Erdogan’s infamous promise of waging a crusade on Jerusalem. A number of these professors were Syrian Kurds, who. left without jobs, faced the danger of deportation to No Man’s Land. Similar episodes took place in other cities around the country, where Kurdish professors were let go without a cause.  As time went on, Erdogan’s intentions of whipping up xenophobia through populist demagoguery became self-evident. Attacks on foreign vendors in Istanbul  later in 2015 further illustrated this dangerous trend. All of that was coupled with crackdown on the media. Any critics of the regime were a target, but the Kurdish media faced a particularly severe crackdown, with video channels frequently blocked to prevent information about curfews and attacks on civilians in Southeastern Turkey from getting out to the West.  This method of informational control proved effective. BBC coverage of the attacks on civilian cities, the mauling of the bodies of young Kurds by tying them to vehicles, and the refusal to return bodies of both Syrian fighters murdered by ISIS and Turkish Kurds killed by the government, did not make it through to the mainstream media. Some print journalism covered the terrible conditions in Diyarbakir, Cizre, and elsewhere, but US TV stations remained overwhelmed with election coverage and largely silent to the tragic unraveling of the events, and the sheer scope of atrocities. When 150 Kurdish civilians were burned alive, that incident finally received wider coverage, and eventually the widespread attacks on civilians and the indiscriminant, and frequently, targeted killings of civilians, including children, started making it into the US press – but frequently, drowning in the coverage of the European refugee crisis, assorted terrorist attacks, fight against ISIS in Syria, the nuclear deal and its aftermath, and the involvement of Russia in Syria, among other things.

That mass atrocities against Kurds and anyone who criticizes the regime are going by largely unnoticed by the outside world is deplorable enough. What is worse, however, is Erdogan’s intervention elsewhere that allows him to throw his weight around and keep any attempt to crack down on the human rights violations inside the country to a minimum. Although the European Union and the State Department voiced concerns over the treatment of Kurds in Turkey, none of that has led to any concrete actions. Furthermore, Erdogan, despite overplaying his hand and managing to alienate practically everybody, managed to pull through by extorting Angela Merkel and the European Union, with promises of curtailing the refugee crisis and accepting Greek refugees back into Turkey at the expense of remuneration, and basically, not being subject to scrutiny. Likewise, membership in NATO put him at a mild advantage vis-a-vis Russia, which proved to be sufficient – eventually, Russia ended up suffering heavy losses in Syria, and upon the conclusion of the relevant portion of the peace talks, had to largely withdraw.

All of this is merely background information. Some of the main players in this scenario have been placed in a conundrum. The United States has states that we do not recognize the newly declared Syrian Kurdish federation. This decision has given an advantage to Russia, which has not ruled out Kurdish autonomy in the region. The US has also consistently failed to intervene in the Turkish attacks on its own citizens, stopping at superficial admonishment. Israel has been engaged in negotiations over resuming the process of normalization with Turkey, with the end result that Erdogan has kicked  a Hamas member out of the country, and expressed interest in resuming or enhancing intelligence cooperation. He also reacted fairly quickly to the recent killing of three Israeli toursits in a terrorist attack in Istanbul, and acted quickly to coordinate the release of an Israeli journalist arrested under accusation of espionage. Erdogan finds himself in a vulnerable position, facing unrest in his own country, threats from ISIS, pressure from Russia, and isolation or cooling off the relations with all of his former allies. Some argue that he may be soon facing a potential coup. His son’s investigation for money laundering in Italy does not help matters.

He is in a position to make significant concessions on both intelligence cooperation and human rights fronts. Traditionally, and particularly, in recent years, major geopolitical players have viewed involvement in other countries’ human rights abuses as detrimental to successful cooperation on other fronts. Hillary Clinton infamously stated that human rights are off the table upon her visit to China as Secretary of State (would love to see any of the candidates to bring that one up). President Obama stated that the United States could learn from Cuba’s (deplorable) human rights record, and did not bring up the fact that dozens of dissidents have been arrested just hours prior to his “historic” visit to the country earlier this week, to add to all the political prisoners already in existence.. The nuclear deal with Iran infamously disregarded the human rights issue, and of course, Obama failed so much as to mention Raif Badawi by name when visiting the Saudi King last year. All of these things have been done with the fear that the countries will not agree to cooperate on more important fronts if pressured to make concessions, or alternatively, that these issues will improve and resolve themselves naturally over the course of time if the countries are left at peace and given a chance to liberalize. Both of these notions are entirely false, as is the underlying presumptions, that the idea of human rights is detrimental to our cooperation with the countries, and that we are better off leaving them aside until our other goals are reached.

Allow me to refute these theories, which have less to do with realpolitik, and more to do with intellectual laziness and moral cowardice. From the point of view of realpolitik, all tools that can enhance the standing of the country, should be used to strengthen the negotiations. Human rights are certainly one of them. Showing concern over the position of citizens of that country puts the country showing that concern in a position of strength, simply by the nature of being perceived as not being desperate and and having standards when dealing with other states. If you have minimum requirements when conducting negotiations, it’s not a weakness – it’s a show of self-worth and power. Furthermore, human rights demands are actually an effective tool to make breakthroughs in other areas, in particular intelligence cooperation. Frequently, poor human rights record is consistent with a country’s intolerance to criticism and involvement in nefarious affairs that present a threat to outside actors.  In fact, in Turkey’s case, where Erdogan turned a blind eye to ISIS so long as ISIS “only” attacked Kurdish interests, it led to a proliferation of terrorist presence inside the country and on the borders. He was only too glad to profit from ISIS oil, stolen artifacts, and ISIS threat to Kurds in Syria and Turkey, which empowered his own position – up until the point where the monster Erdogan helped create broke lose, started wreaking havoc in Turkey, and endangered Erdogan’s already shaky positions.

Furthermore, as the horrendous situation in Syria has showed, human rights, rather than a separate track from geopolitical considerations, is part and parcel of geopolitical threats and the importance of considering the human impact during the course of crafting any geopolitically oriented resolution. The mass war-related atrocities in Syria have led directly to a crisis of masses of people fleeing through Turkey to Europe, and terrorists have taken advantage of the ensuing chaos. European institutions are overwhelmed with dealing with hundreds of thousands of people from different cultures, many of them undocumented or with forged documentations.  The issues that arose from the war in Syria have had a far-reaching impact on places quite far from the direct events. Had effective action to curtail attacks on civilians been taken by a number of present actors much earlier, and had ISIS been eliminated at its birth, consequent issues would have been much easier to resolve. Indeed, we see a similar situation in Africa, and unfortunately, have appeared to learned no lessons from the Syrian fiasco. And should Iran ever implode under the pressure of its multiple minorities residing in restricted, descriminated, and tortured conditions, no doubt, the spread of chaos will affect the whole region and many countries beyond.

Attacks on the human rights front was one of the tools used by the West against the Soviet Union and its satellite – in terms of an attempt of clandestinely empowering dissidents, assisting Soviet Jews in leaving the country, and otherwise exposing the horrors of the apparatus to sympathizers at home and abroad. Though the horrific nature of the Soviet regime did not stop some, like the presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, from taking their honeymoon trips to the workers’ paradise, most people were turned off once the mass atrocities against its own citizens finally came to the surface – and that is why, the leftist anti-liberal types who hijacked the word “liberalism” have done their outmost to minimize, hide, deemphasize, and otherwise disregard the scale of the murderous Stalinist regime, and the attacks on freedom under the consequent secretaries generals. We see across the board that totalitarian regimes utilize mass human disasters to facilitate their own geopolitical goals. The Soviet Union backed Yassir Arafat and the PLO in instigating terrorism across Israeli targets, and played no small part in the birth and perpetuation of the Palestinian “refugee” camps in assorted Arab states. (see Ion Pacepa’s “Disinformation” for details). It utilized the same strategy in backing Algeria, and creating both a disastrous condition within the country IN ORDER to use that to instigate conflicts against Western-oriented Morocco and to attain a geopolitical advantage. Destabilizing and impoverishing countries and placing abusive corrupt regimes at the top is a favored strategy of authoritarianism in order to spread their influence far and wide. For all the commentary on the Islamist use of social assistance to gain support, in reality, these groups have a revolutionary mindset that rival the Soviets, and are bent on creating destabilization and human rights disasters in order to sustain themselves and provide justification for further expansionism.

We are coming to a point where human rights not only cannot be ignored for practical reasons, not just out of moral considerations, but are becoming central to policymaking. Failure to address these issues at the root is bringing them closer to our own doors.  And our entire perspective on what constitutes a violation of human rights needs to change from the vapid bureaucratic mindset where everything is a human right, and therefore nothing really is to prioritizing the basic rights of all individuals to reside in peace and security, and be treated with dignity under the law. The right to be free from terrorist attacks is indeed a human right. The right to equal treatment in the justice system and to fair trials is a human right.

The right to not be subjected to abuse by the government on the streets or in prison is a human right.  And the right to not be treated as a sex object on the street is also a human right. Prioritizing the basics  is essential to developing clear goals and workable strategies. Right now, we  appear to have lost our moral compass, cannot tell wrong from right under the devastating morass of relativism, and for that reason, fail to discern when social problems in other countries become genuine geopolitical and security threats – to ourselves. This confusion creates a vacuum where we, despite being in a position of strength, are at a loss as to how we should be dealing with dictators, and where terrorists groups with a strong and colorful message take advantage of our indecision and lack of focus to provide the many disaffected, confused, young people with a concrete platform, plan of action, and tempting considerations. Not knowing what’s good and what’s evil, having no clear goalposts, or social constructs is no way to get through life. Lack of purpose and ability to make one’s own decisions creates easily manipulable zombies, who will easily follow anyone who is vocal enough and who promises them a meaningful future with real results. Our society, increasingly untethered,  lacks a clear direction for people to follow and aspire to. We don’t know what we stand for – and we forget that human rights, the rights to live in a society where there is a reason to wake up each morning, is the ultimate reason for all our geopolitical scheming and strategizing.

So what do we do in the situation with Turkey? What do we do about inconvenient ally we are stuck with? What do we do when one ally attacks another? The answer is not all that complicated – we do the only right thing to do under the circumstances. We do whatever it takes to prevent the further deterioration of the situation. Not just out of ours sense of justice, empathy and humanity – but because we do not want to set any more precedents where we allow the human abuses to continue to the point that an entire country turns into a hellhole and our would-be allies become our enemies.  We take advantage of Erdogan’s weakness to micromanage him and his cohorts in everything that is of any relevance to our interests. The Kurdish role in the region is central, and has always been, and it is potentially suicidal to allow them to be manipulated by our enemies. As we have already seen, Israel is coming out of the shadows in terms of its alliance with the Kurds. It is openly calling for a Kurdish state, but just as importantly, cooperating with Iraqi, and perhaps, some Syrian Kurds, on a variety of basic issues.

This cooperation is only likely to grow, as both nations realize each other’s importance and potential in future friendship beyond basic defense and security matters – a potential for trade, educational exchanges, scientific research, addressing traumas and infrastructural rebuilding, and in other words, helping create a stable, innovative, and growing Middle East out of the rubble of the current factionalism and warfare. The United States, in its stubborn adhesion to its failed policy of minimal involvement, allows hostile forces to interfere with its own positive role in contributing towards the blossoming of truly productive alliances. Its divisive strategy towards Kurds has led to the slowing in confrontation with ISIS, and the ability of Iran and Russia to interfere with and manipulate the situation on the ground in a variety of ways to an entirely destructive effect. And what are we getting out of this, except an increasingly belligerent Erdogan with less and less control over his own country, who interferes with our strategy, and Russia and Iran, which laugh in our faces? What do we have except a maelstrom of useless activity, and wasted resources? Who will thank us for our useless, agonized, and to some extent, detractive involvement? What advantages will we gain once the situation stabilizes of its own accord or thanks to intervention from other forces?  All our calculations in dealing with dictators have failed thus far. Iran is continuously shoving its illegal ballistic missiles in our missiles and has rekindled armament of Hezbullah and other terrorist organizations.

We are no longer viewed as a reliable ally – by Israel, the Kurds, or frankly, anyone else. We are putting ourselves at a tremendous long-term strategic disadvantage in terms of intelligence sharing, defense cooperation, favored trade status, and much else.  Though we secured some goodwill among Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, our capital is dwindling as we show a stubborn refusal to take a logical stand and propose or back a mutually beneficial solution. And our failure to reach out to Turkish Kurds and protect them as a group, to make an ultimatum to Erdogan that further cooperation is directly contingent on his curtailing of xenophobia and attacks on civilians will further any historical suspicion among Turkish Kurdish population, and will slow down any potential for ideological liberalization in that region. Israel should utilize this precious opportunity of Erdogan’s eagerness to return to the fold of cooperation with Israel to demand a return to the political resolution of Kurdish interest in autonomy inside Turkey and restitution for civilian victims, and play a positive, if quiet role in deescalation of the atrocities. It should also take heed and further its outreach to the Turkish Kurdish population, engaging them in trips to Israel and utilizing this opportunity to create an alliance with a group that historically has been much further from friendly relations with Israel than other Kurdish regions. The United States and Israel should back away from the absurd Iranian-backed plans for Syria, and back the “Safe Zone” plan that will provide protected areas for the Druze and for Kurds, among others, while minimizing tensions.

The US should also recongize that Assad is bound to fall, that the days of ISIS are numbered, and that Shi’a militias coupled with other Sunni-led organizations are likely to start playing a more central role in Syria should we fail to address those issues. We need to stop hiding our heads in the sand and start thinking about the next step after Assad, which means starting to engage the groups we have previously ignored in Geneva in the negotiating process. Finally, we should recognize that addressing the human disaster in Syria on the ground is the only way to address our geopolitical concerns – namely, regional stability, prevention of Iranian aggression, and curtailing of the spread of terrorism to the West, and start supporting and investing heavily in the initiatives towards supporting liberal-minded opposition, educational projects, and infrastructural rebuilding. The conflict between geopolitical considerations and human rights concerns only happens when we allow faux human rights activists to dictate what falls under human rights violations and when the process is hijacked and politicized by those who stem to profit from attacking some groups at the expense of others.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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