Obama’s Syrian Debacle
by Randall Stevens
Who’s killing Kurds?
On January 10, three women were assassinated in Paris in what French authorities described as executions. Among the victims was Sakine Cansiz, a leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Parti Karkerani Kurdistan, or PKK). A nationalist separatist group, the PKK considered Cansiz, 55, to be a living legend. Present at their foundational meeting in 1978, she was also responsible for creating the highly influential women’s movement within the organization. (According to author Aliza Marcus in her book Blood and Belief, by 1993 one-third of the PKK membership was comprised of women.) The two other victims found dead with Cansiz at the Kurdish information center were Fidan Godan, 30, and Leyla Soylemez, 24, described by The New York Times as Kurdish activists.
Less than a week later, on January 16, Russian mafia boss Aslan Usoyan was assassinated by a sniper outside a restaurant in Moscow at the age of 75. More commonly known as Ded (Granndfather) Khasan, Usoyan was an ethnic Kurd born in Georgia. His illicit business interests included arms and drug dealing, as well as casinos and illegal extraction of natural resources.
Who wanted these Kurds dead, and why kill them now?
What’s a Kurd?
Wikipedia describes the Kurdish people as follows:
The Kurdish people, or Kurds, are an Iranic people native to Southwest Asia, mostly inhabiting a region known as Kurdistan, which includes adjacent parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. They speak the Kurdish language, which is a member of the Iranian branch of Indo-European languages. The Kurds number about 38 million, the majority living in Southwest Asia, with significant Kurdish diaspora communities in the cities of western Turkey, in Armenia, Georgia, Israel, Azerbaijan, Russia, Lebanon and, in recent decades, some European countries and the United States. The Kurds are an indigenous ethnic minority in the countries of the Kurdistan region, although they have enjoyed partial autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991. An irredentist movement pushes for the creation of a Kurdish nation state.
In the aftermath of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish people were the largest sizeable ethno-linguistic group in the region not to be given an autonomous state. The Kurdish diaspora across the region, in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, has been the source of many conflicts, particularly since the 1970s. Nationalist movements within the diaspora emerged in an attempt to gain autonomy for the Kurdish minorities across several countries, such as the Baath Parties in Iraq and Syria, and from Turkey. The most prominent nationalist Kurdish parties are the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose current leader is Jalal Talibani, the President of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan (aka “Apo”), the PKK was originally a “fusion of revolutionary socialism and Kurdish nationalism.” (The original flag was red and yellow, and featured a hammer and sickle; since 2005, the party’s flag is still primarily red, with a five point red star in the middle.) In 1980, the PKK bombed the Turkish Consulate in Strasbourg, France. Around this time, in 1979 or 1980, the late Sakine Cansiz was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by Turkish police, to be released in 1991. In 1984, the PKK transformed into a paramilitary/terrorist organization, with a goal of establishing an independent Kurdistan with territories seized from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Following a crackdown of the local group in Turkey, many PKK members, including Öcalan, fled to Syria, creating tensions between the two countries that ultimately led to an undeclared war between them. Hafiz al-Assad, then President of Syria, viewed the Kurds as leverage in his ongoing struggles with neighboring Iraq and Turkey (Noi). However, following a string of suicide bombings in the mid-1990s within Turkey, Syria cast out the PKK to avoid a direct confrontation with the Turkish military. While many PKK members fled to northern Iraq, Öcalan fled instead to Kenya, where he was arrested in 1999 by Turkish authorities. Though sentenced to death, his punishment was commuted to a life sentence so that Turkey could join the European Union (the death penalty being outlawed within the EU). He remains imprisoned in Turkey today.
Following the death of Hafiz al-Assad in 2000, his son, Bashar, assumed the Presidency in Syria. Breaking with his father’s general leniency, Bashar cracked down on the 300,000 Kurds within Syria, forbidding them from building private schools, publishing books in Kurdish, and giving their businesses and children Kurdish names. Though some of these restrictions have since been relaxed by granting a measure of autonomy to Kurdish regions, until 2011 Bashar had maintained tighter control over this sizeable minority of non-Arab Syrians. Yet since the commencement of the Arab Spring, Syrian cooperation with the PKK is evident. The PKK, for example, has warned Turkey that in the event of a Turkish intervention, they would fight alongside the Syrian government (Noi). Bashar al-Assad, like his father, considers the PKK and their desire for Kurdish independence a weapon to be wielded against rival Turkey. Tellingly, Syrian Kurds have been conspicuously absent in the movement to overthrow the Assad regime, despite years of oppression. This is in large measure because they do not trust the intentions of the rebels, especially the Islamists among them, including the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda elements.
Since March 2011, a disparate coalition of insurgents has been fighting to overthrow the Arab nationalist Baath government of Bashar al-Assad. Coalition partners include the domestic Free Syrian Army, foreign Mujahideen (among them Pakistani Taliban), and Kurdish Democratic Union Party – whose position puts them at odds with their close ideological partners, the PKK.
Backing the insurgents in seeking to overthrow Assad are the countries of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. A recent New York Times article implicated the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia as “funneling money and small arms to Syria’s rebels.” Some of the monies and small arms were American in origin, which coincides with the position taken by the Obama administration to recognize the Syrian National Council as the sole legitimate government of Syria. But only Turkey has engaged Syria militarily: following the Syrian downing of a Turkish F-4 fighter jet in June 2012, the countries’ militaries exchanged artillery fire.
The ruling party in Turkey is the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The AKP, like the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, is the party of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (aka “Ikhwan”), or Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Egyptian schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna after Kemal Ataturk dissolved the caliphate, believes in re-establishing the Ummah, or the nation of Islam under Sunni Sharia rule. (Inasmuch as he accepts his party’s stated goal, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan fundamentally rejects the founding of the Turkish Republic by Kemal Ataturk.) Is it no wonder that the Turkish government supports the Mujahideen in Syria, a term that emerged in the 20th century to describe the fundamentalists in Afghanistan who battled with Soviets for independence? Al-Assad, a secular ruler by regional standards and close ally of Moscow, is Alawi (quasi-Shia), and therefore of an enemy of a movement that desires a global Sunni-based caliphate.
Vladimir Putin has used Russia’s place on the U.N. Security Council to protect Assad from American and European maneuvers to force resignation. Many speculate that Assad is residing on a Russian warship in the Mediterranean. In addition to diplomatic maneuvering, Russia also provides heavy arms to the Syrian military. Moscow’s other major ally in the region, Iran, supports Assad with their elite Revolutionary Guard, who helped to suppress anti-Assad protests, and through their proxy Hizbollah. On January 26, as Patriot missile batteries were declared operational along Turkey’s border with Syria, a senior Iranian official warned that any attack on Syria would be viewed as an attack on Iran.
Of the two neighboring countries of Syria who are American allies, Israel and Jordan, the allegiances are less opaque than they may appear. Despite its historical distrust of Syria and Iran, Israel has been publicly ambivalent on the matter of Assad; for though Baathist Syria and its affinity for Tehran have been a persistent cause of concern for Israeli security, the assumption of power by Sunni fundamentalists, who count among them Taliban and al-Qaeda, is equally if not more disconcerting to the Jewish state. And although in late 2011 King Abdullah II of Jordan did suggest that Assad step down, in January the Jordanian monarch and direct descendent of Mohammed was more measured, cautioning that Assad would not fall any time soon. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood party in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front, is no friend of Abdullah; not only did they hold anti-election rallies and then boycott voting, but have since sought to sew unrest by calling for change in the Jordanian political system. (Qatari-based Al Jazeera quoted IAF leader Hamza Mansour after the election: “The street is not calm.”)
Syrian rebels receive support not only from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, but from the U.K., France, and the Obama administration. In this respect, events are consistent with what happened in Egypt when secular Mubarak was forced to step down, ultimately turning the rule of Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood under the banner of the Freedom and Justice Party. Yet in the case of Egypt, Mubarak was a long time American ally, not a Russian proxy; and although Egypt is the most populous Arab country, Syria’s geographic proximity to Israel, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon presents its own complex strategic puzzle.
Unsurprisingly, given Syria’s close relationship with Tehran, the Syrian government also has the backing of North Korea, which provides them with Scud missile technology. The presence of North Korea is significant not only because of their considerable military capabilities, but because Scud missiles can be used to deliver biological and chemical weapons. A mix of al-Qaeda-linked revolutionaries and biological weapons in Syria is regarded by Israel, the United States, and Russia as the worst possible outcome. In light of reports of rebels committing genocide against Syrian Christians, the potential emergence of a Syria ruled by al-Qaeda associates is particularly disquieting.
This sum of all fears perspective seems to be confirmed by Israeli warnings that they are considering pre-emptive strikes against Syrian chemical weapons.
Religion, Politics, or just Business?
There is an important, less politically legitimate side to the PKK: heroin trafficking.
Like many terrorist and paramilitary groups, the PKK is engaged profitably in the drug trade. In Asia and the Middle East, two regions produce the vast majority of opium globally. The first, an area known as the Golden Triangle, consists of grows in Burma, Laos, and Thailand. This region is the major source of heroin to North America. The second region, which supplies Europe, is known as the Golden Crescent and includes Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. The PKK is a primary trafficker of heroin from the Golden Crescent. Heroine is transported into Turkey, via Iran. From Turkey, it goes into Europe and Russia. The PKK is a major part of the opium trade, and profits from it handsomely.
These are widely reported facts: “The terrorist Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) and its armed wing, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have entered the ranks of the world’s biggest drug cartels, narcotics operations in recent years show” states one article from November 2011. According to a report from 2008, “Turkey remains a major transit route for heroin trafficking with a substantial proportion of the revenue being used to finance radical organizations, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), according to a recent report by the Department for Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime (KOM) in the Turkish Interior Ministry.”
Still, the PKK has competition. And that competition just happens to be in the graces of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish state. Enter the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. Turning again to Wikipedia:
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a militant Islamist group formed in 1991 by the Islamic ideologue Tahir Yuldashev, and former Soviet paratrooper Juma Namangani—both ethnic Uzbeks from the Fergana Valley. Its objective was to overthrow President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, and to create an Islamic state under Sharia. [emphasis added]
Today, IMU is active not so much in Uzbekistan, but Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and there main business just happens to be – surprise – heroin smuggling from Afghanistan. According to the U.N., by 2000 the IMU allegedly controlled the majority of heroin entering Kyrgyzstan. From Kyrgyzstan, heroin is brought north by IMU, through Kazakhstan and into Russia. Today, the volume of Afghani heroin entering Russia is enough to give the country the dubious distinction of one of the largest consumers of the narcotic.
And you wonder what funds terror?
Listed IMU allies on Wikipedia include al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who are right now fighting to overthrow Assad – with full support and approval from Turkey, the Obama administration, etc.
A Detour through Benghazi
On January 23, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before Congress regarding the events of September 11, 2012. On that day, four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were murdered following an extended firefight at what was originally termed an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Operating in that region is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The political battle that erupted in the aftermath of the killings has revolved around the administration’s initial explanation events. It just so happens that on the same day, there were (allegedly) spontaneous protests in reaction to an anti-Islamic video. Some speculate that before the November election, for President Obama to acknowledge that al-Qaeda had taken more American lives would contradict his hard-on-terror public persona, so carefully groomed since the killing of Osama bin Laden by SEAL Team Six. Instead of disclosing the role of al-Qaeda in the attack, the administration lumped in the incident with other coincidental protests, including one in Cairo, that were apparently inspired by the now infamous The Innocence of Muslims – or so say critics.
Briefly, the movie’s creator, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, turned out to be criminal with a long rap sheet including bank fraud and drug charges. He is now in jail for violating the terms of his parole. One can only speculate why a fraudster with a criminal record related to drugs would launder spend $5 million and take the time to create a sensational movie that had no audience outside of its notoriety in inciting riots.
Yet in recent weeks, the very premise of the Benghazi story has been called into question. Multiple sources claim that in fact the “consulate” was no such thing (also see here and here), but in fact a CIA safe house established for the purpose of running Libyan weapons into Syria to arm the rebels. Recently, Senator Rand Paul called the operation “a kind of international Fast and Furious in Benghazi.” Notwithstanding that gun running between Mexico and the United States is implicitly international, this would help to explain the odd fact that the attack happened right after a visit from the Turkish Ambassador with Stevens.
AQIM, like the PKK and IMU is also in the drug business. The terrorist group, which has recently made headlines due to the Benghazi attack and the French incursion into Mali, transports drugs imported from South America through northern Africa, to Europe and Asia. Looked at through the rubric of a Profit and Loss Statement rather than ideology, it is not improbable that such notorious (one might say intentionally flagrant) attacks are carefully considered distractions aimed to draw attention away from smuggling rings operating in the area. This may explain Nakoula’s cinematic enterprise. Lest the idea of committing acts of terrorism for profit sounds too risky, consider that recent narco-subs have the capacity to carry up to twelve tons of product, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Take the recent hostage crisis and subsequent massacre at a natural gas facility in In Aménas, on the Algerian-Libyan border, by an AQIM splinter group: with such large amount of money on the line, the ultimate intentions of such violence cannot automatically be assumed to be ideologically inspired.
Could all these events, movie included, be coordinated distractions to draw security focus away from ports of entry and common shipment routes? Recognizing the overlapping, self-reinforcing, networks of terrorism and the international drug traffic, and the coincidence of interests between drug smugglers and non-state paramilitary organizations, such tactics cannot be ruled out.
Leading from Behind, or Friends with Benefits?
On January 24, Senator John Kerry testified before the Senate in his confirmation hearings after being nominated by President Obama to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. In his opening statement, Senator Kerry delivered what was considered by several in the media a curious line: “It is also imperative that in implementing President Obama’s vision for the world as he ends more than a decade of war, we join together to augment our message to the world.” To date, the refrain in journalistic and political circles is that the Obama foreign policy is leading from behind, whatever that means.
Vice President Joe Biden, in response to Republican criticism during the 2012 Presidential race aimed at the administration’s foreign policy modus operandi of leading from behind, said “I know a lot about foreign policy and I know one thing: loose talk is dangerous. The last thing we need is another land war tying us down.” Examined in the context of international events that have had as their impetus American involvement, the Vice President’s statement does seem to accurately convey the style that the administration chooses to exert power. Rather than emulating the Bush era method of full frontal assault on “evildoers,” President Obama has chosen the operational antipode: conduct covert wars through proxies, discreet arms and financing, with the only visible aspect of American policy being conventional diplomatic gestures.
The ongoing scandal of related to the administration’s arming of drug cartels, dubbed Fast and Furious, can be viewed this way. According to a “high ranking member of the Sinaloa drug cartel,” Fast and Furious was to provide arms to the cartel in exchange for information on other cartels. Presumably, the administration was also cognizant of Sinaloa’s rival cartels, namely Los Zetas. In a speech delivered in February 2011, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano admitted that DHS considered cooperation between al-Qaeda and Los Zetas a concern of the agency responsible for preventing future terrorist attacks on American soil. Since 2009, the administration had been providing military grade weapons to the Sinaloa cartel, whose leader is the infamous “El Chapo” Guzmán, including grenade launchers, anti-aircraft guns, and .50 caliber rifles. While the majority of Americans would undoubtedly support fighting al-Qaeda on our own continent, doing so by arming a cartel headed by the World’s Most Wanted Man may prove less popular in the court of public opinion.
In one of his first major speeches delivered as President, Barack Obama addressed the people of Cairo. Entitled, “A New Beginning,” in the speech Obama praised the historical accomplishments of Islamic culture, and declared that “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.” The speech was seen as a call for more democracy in Arab countries traditionally governed by secular strongmen. Less than two years later in February 2011, President Hosni Mubarak, for decades an American ally in the region, resigned following the abandonment of support by the Obama administration. In the two years since his resignation, the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization which Mubarak suppressed since his election to office in 1981, now govern a new, democratic Egypt.
In Libya, the administration put its money (and fighter jets) where its mouth was. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Muammar Gaddafi, whom Reagan had called the “Mad Dog of the Middle East,” renounced Libya’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, leading to a warming of American-Libyan relations. However, in early 2011, the fever of the Arab Spring reached Libya, leading to mass protests against the eccentric, tent-dwelling dictator. In March, the United Nations Security Council, in a reaction to the killing of unarmed civilians, announced a no-fly zone over Libya; a week later, NATO began enforcing it. Soon, NATO air power began assisting the rebels in crippling the Libyan military and pro-Gaddafi forces. Then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that NATO was “not targeting Gaddafi specifically,” instead focusing on military and logistical sites. On October 20, 2011, Gaddafi was killed by a mob after being anally raped with a bayonet. The Economist reported in January that the Muslim Brotherhood was likely to make further electoral gains, following months of chaos and anarchy.
A similar scenario is playing out today in Syria. To say nothing of the concrete connections to narcotics trafficking, it is just the latest in a pattern that is becoming too obvious to ignore. It may be that the administration does not want public association with neither dictators, nor the Islamist totalitarians and narcotics merchants who replace them through the democratic process.
Still, there was a time when a sitting president, in a grand duel against global Communism, was scandalized after it was revealed that his administration was arming rebels in Latin America with demonstrable links to the cocaine trade. That president had made it plain to the world that he stood with those who opposed the Kremlin, and committed himself to that cause. To use the parlance of the day, could it be that the current administration’s foreign policy “vision” is no more complicated than: Why get “tied down” with diplomatic commitments when you can have revolutionary friends with benefits?
Bienvenue, Madames et Monsieurs. Vous aimez l’héroïne? Da!
The notion that Qatar and Turkey have twin political agendas in the region is nearly banal. Both countries have steadfastly backed Islamic revolution in Africa and the Middle East (aka the Arab Spring), both were against Gaddafi, and both now demand Assad step down in Syria. Call it fanatical religious piety; call it the desire for political hegemony. On a more prosaic level, they may just be allies in a turf war.
Which brings us back to Paris. The PKK, being part of a broader Kurdish diaspora, has long established itself in European capitals, especially Paris. For decades, they have enjoyed the lion’s share of the heroin market. Yet, in recent years, there’s more competition. Matter of fact, it’s the same competition they face in Russia – the jihad brigade of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Viewed through the framework outlined above, it is only logical that, like the PKK, the competition start acquiring local property. Qatar did just that back in September. Let the real estate flipping begin. After all, is there a better laundromat?
The ethnic Kurd mafia boss Khasan was based out of Moscow. A drug merchant of the same ethnicity as the PKK, Khasan was surely an associate – and competition for IMU.
Moscow Strikes Back?
On January 19, perhaps in response to these assassinations, a would-be assassin aimed a gun at the leader of Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms while he was delivering a speech on live television. The gun apparently misfired, and the party leader, Ahmed Dogan, pushed it aside while his bodyguards rushed the stage. The gunman, Oktai Enimehmedov, was also identified as an ethnic Turk. Dressed in all black, jack boots, and a sporting a close crew cut, his optics were flamboyantly mobster or neo-Nazi, of the Russian variety.
In the days since the incident, reports emerged that cast doubt on the sincerity of the attack. The gun, for example, was a gas pistol loaded with pepper spray. Because the event was being televised, it is possible to observe in the video that 58 year old Dogan appears to overpower the significantly larger Enimehmedov, allowing for the press present to snap several heroic pictures. Bloodied and beaten, Enimehmedov can be seen hurried from the room by security.
The Movement for Rights and Freedoms Party, as noted above, represents the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. Consistent with its ethnic constituency, it hews closely to the official position of the Turkish State. Why would an ethnic Turk dressed like a Russian mobster attempt to assassinate a Turkish leader in Bulgaria, only to use a non-lethal weapon and fail on live television? The odd array of circumstances calls into question the wisdom of judging this spectacle on a purely superficial level.
The Narco Curtain
Four recent assassinations, four dead Kurds in the drug business. Three in Paris, one in Moscow. Four shadows on the cave wall. A fifth, now in Bulgarian custody, the apparent victim of a setup: shooting a man in temple with an air pistol sans bullets. Turkey’s Foreign Minister maintains that there is evidence, yet to come to light, linking the murders in Paris to an internal PKK feud. There is speculation that, as Turkey negotiates with the imprisoned Öcalan, there are those who would sabotage this reconciliation by violence.
A recent article in Al-Monitor reads “It is not a secret that since Öcalan was jailed in 1999 at Imrali Prison, Ankara has been tried to split the PKK by using Ocalan and breaching PKK ranks… I wish the old game of each side exploiting the other was over.” Would PKK agents really assassinate a celebrated founder of their movement to derail talks that they must consider a fan dance with a mortal enemy?
Could it be mere coincidence that days later, another prominent Kurd in the same business is murdered in Russia, a country diametrically opposed to Turkey’s ambitions in Syria?
Or may it just be that Ankara had enough of the Kurds foiling their grandiose plans to expand the dominion of the Muslim Brotherhood and the turf of their heroin pushing benefactors?
The Syrian Snow Globe
Syria today presents a neat microcosm of global affairs; the stark parallels of organized crime and geopolitics are as striking as they are rare. In a country barely larger than North Dakota, a secular dictator backed by the Russian bloc and North Korea battle an ascendant Islamist caliphate, funded by the global narcotics trade, comfortable with terrorism, and supported diplomatically, financially, and militarily by European powers and the Obama administration.
This raises a number of questions related to American interests and the priorities of the Obama administration:
- Why is the US, with France and the UK, systematically installing Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood regimes across the Middle East and North Africa?
- Why is the United States seeking a direct conflict with Russia in the region, when it appears as if the aspirations of the Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, are counter to both American and Russian geopolitical agendas? How does it benefit the United States to be on the opposite side of events as a diverse set of nations including Russia, Israel, Jordan, and Hizbollah?
- What is the Obama administration doing arming al-Qaeda and Taliban affiliates? A pattern emerges when linked to Fast and Furious: arming dangerous criminal and drug interests with no apparent strategic goal.
- With American light and heavy arms going to Mexican drug cartels, al-Qaeda jihadis, and the Taliban, how does the Obama administration in good conscience seek to limit access to firearms by law abiding American citizens?