Thinking Aloud: Better Late than Never

Oct. 20,  2014 by Darius 

Last night, as the battle for the town of Kobani in Syria continued, the US airdropped supplies to the defenders of the town.  The supplies didn’t come from the US, though.  Instead, the supplies came from the Iraqi Kurdish government.  The US merely delivered them.

Turkey, which is deeply mistrustful of the main Syrian Kurdish movement, was not asked about the US airdrop.  Instead, the US “informed” the Turkish government, and US planes simply didn’t use Turkish airspace.  Today, Turkey agreed to let Iraqi Kurdish fighters traverse Turkish soil to reinforce Kobani.

Turkey’s decision to allow Iraqi Kurdish forces transit is a sensible reversal of a prior bad decision.  In previous days and weeks, the Turkish government didn’t want to provide any support to the Syrian Kurds.  Allowing in Iraqi Kurdish forces, though, makes everyone happy.  The Syrian defenders of Kobani get needed reinforcements.  The US and West, which care little about Kurdish politics, stop criticizing Turkey for being obstructionist.  Iraqi Kurds get a chance to bolster their regional prestige.  And Turkey wins too.  Much of Turkish policy towards Syrian Kurds since the war in Syria started has been to try to promote groups aligned with the Iraqi Kurds.  What better way to create goodwill and an opening for these groups among Syrian Kurds than by arriving as much-needed reinforcements against a common enemy?

Previous Turkish policy is a good example of the missed opportunities that arise when an actor only considers its historic or short-term goals.  In this case, Turkey’s short-term goal was to prevent the empowerment of the Syrian Kurdish group because of Turkey’s historic mistrust of the Turkish-Kurdish terrorist organization with which the Syrian Kurdish group has been allied. In doing that, Turkey ignored its longer-term goals and the fact that the situation on the ground has changed: assisting, even passively, the Syrian Kurds builds goodwill with foreign and domestic audiences, deprives the Assad government of the Kurdish corner of Syria, and gets an army of murderous fanatics off its doorstep.

In other news related to both the Syrian Kurds and the need to take the long-view and deal with facts as they exist, last weekend the U.S had its first-ever face to face meeting with the main Syrian Kurdish group, the PYD – three and a half years after the beginning of the Syrian civil war and three years after the beginning of the US’s vetting of moderate Syrian rebel groups.

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News You Really Need To See: “Death Penalty Fuels Violence in Iraq, Says U.N. Report”

“Death Penalty Fuels Violence in Iraq, Says U.N. Report”

Reuters, October 19, 2014

Iraq should stop its widespread use of the death penalty, which is unjust, flawed and only fuels the violence it purports to deter, the United Nations said in a report on Sunday.  Sixty people were hanged in Iraq by the end of August this year, and although that is fewer than the 177 who were executed in 2013, 1,724 people remained on death row.  Iraq tends to carry out the sentence in batches because President Jalal Talabani opposes the death penalty so a vice president orders executions when he is out of the country…. Judges often pass death sentences based on evidence from disputed confessions or secret informants, condemning suspects who are unaware of their rights, may have been tortured and have no defense attorney until they arrive in court, the report said.  Some convicts’ relatives said they had been offered a chance to avoid the death penalty by hiring a particular lawyer for $100,000, while many women detainees said they had been detained in place of a male relative, the report said.”

Quickie Analysis:  The death penalty as a mechanism of justice is rather dependent on executing the right people.  Without that, it just becomes another mechanism for corruption and sectarian violence.  

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Thinking Aloud: How the Other Half Lives

Oct. 19,  2014 by Darius 

What a difference 850 miles makes.  That’s the approximately distance between the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria and Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia.  One thing in particular stands out between them: the role of women.  It’s about as far apart as one can get within the Muslim world.

Two articles that appeared in the same Wall Street Journal (October 18-19, 2014) illustrate the difference very well.  The first article details how well car service apps, like Uber, are doing in Saudi Arabia.  There, 80% of their customers are women.  Why do Saudi women use Uber so much?  Because Saudi women still aren’t allowed to drive, and Uber provides more convenient and more upscale service than taxis.

Meanwhile, according to another article in the same newspaper, Kurdish women are fighting on the front lines against ISIS fighters.  It is even estimated that up to a third of Kurdish fighters in Kobani are female.  Kurdish women have long enjoyed great empowerment and independence; in the 1920s, British author Agatha Christie, accompanying her husband on an archaeological dig in Syria, commented on the fierce, no-nonsense character of Kurdish women.

Yet the Kurds and the Saudis ostensibly follow the same religion, Sunni Islam.  The main Kurdish women’s brigade fighting in Kobani is even named after a martyr – as it happens, a female schoolteacher who was killed by ISIS.

Where does the deep difference spring from?  In short, culture.  There is nothing in the Qur’an (which is Saudi Arabia’s official constitution) that prohibits women from driving; there is not even any injunction in the Qur’an that women must cover their hair, simply that women (and men) should dress modestly.  Yet burqa-clad Saudi women need to spend hundreds of dollars a month on car services while Kurdish women fight and die alongside men to defend their homeland.

Admittedly, the Saudi women and the Kurdish women are on the ends of the spectrum seen across the Muslim world.  It’s important to remember, though, that while the extremes make the news, most Muslim women actually live in the middle.  It’s also important to remember that social conventions that are described, erroneously, in the Western press as Islamic are often, in fact, cultural and have no specific religious basis at all.

For more on either of these two stories, see

“Uber’s Most Avid Users: Saudi Women,” The Wall Street Journal, October 18-19, 2014, p.B1, and “Kurdish Women Fight on Front Lines Against Islamic State,” The Wall Street Journal, October 18-19, 2014, p.A1,

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News You Really Need To See: “What Would an Actual Battle for Baghdad Look Like?”

“What Would an Actual Battle for Baghdad Look Like?”

The Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 2014

“There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and armchair quarterbacking lately over whether Baghdad is in imminent danger from the forces of the so-called Islamic State. … As it stands, Baghdad is far from a safe place.  On Thursday IS fighters carried out at least four car-bombings and a mortar attack across the city that claimed at least 36 lives.  The car-bombings of Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad obviously have value to IS in instilling fear and fueling the impression that the central government can’t keep civilians safe.  But they also serve to enrage Shiite soldiers and the Shiite militias along with them, something that has frequently led to atrocities targeting Sunni Arabs during Iraq’s 11-year-old war.  And that can lead to more sympathy and recruits for the IS army of Sunni jihadists. … The Washington Post reports Thursday from Abu Ghraib, in Anbar Province about 14 miles west of the edge of Baghdad, that ‘sympathy for the radical fighters is growing here, residents say, because of the actions of heavy-handed Shiite militias.’  Forces loyal to Baghdad and IS have fought intermittently around Abu Ghraib for weeks. … Abu Ghraib, if it falls, would be the logical place to coordinate any attempt on Baghdad west of the Tigris. It’s hard to believe the militants aren’t dreaming of an assault on Baghdad International Airport, which lies on the city’s western edge.  The airport is surrounded by Sunni suburbs, many containing homes of favored officers from Saddam’s-era.  Alarm at their proximity is one reason US Army Apaches took on IS forces west of Baghdad last week. … Could the whole city fall?  That seems less likely.  A decade of sectarian cleansing has turned most of Baghdad east of the Tigris into Shiite majority ones.  Shiite militias and the Iraqi army would be fighting for their homes and families, and would enjoy overwhelming public support in these areas.”

Quickie Analysis:  An interesting look at how Iraq’s decade of civil war, and the sectarian segregation it brought, could make it easier for ISIS to seize at least part of Baghdad.

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Quick Thought to Amuse and Edify

There are ten countries in the world whose names are only four letters long.  How many can you come up with in two minutes?

You can take the quiz at

I only got six; see if you can do better!

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News You Really Need To See: “New Afghan Government Faces a Clash of Cultures”

“New Afghan Government Faces a Clash of Cultures”

The Washington Post, October 18, 2014, p.A4

“Mohammad Mohaqiq thinks he’s owed a lot for throwing his support behind Afghanistan’s U.S.-brokered coalition government.  The influential former warlord-turned-politician expects nothing less than a fifth of all Cabinet ministries and governorships for his ethnic group.  ‘Twenty to 22 percent,’ declared Mohaqiq in an interview at his opulent, heavily guarded house, ‘should go to those from the Hazara community.’  But President Ashraf Ghani and his close aides have vowed to fill government positions based on skills and competence — not ethnic or regional quotas. … Ghani, an American-educated technocrat who cites Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson as his influences, wants to enact reforms and create a modern government run by experienced civil servants accountable to the people.  But he has to contend with the high expectations of dozens of powerful individuals under him, some with nefarious pasts, who helped him attain the presidency.  They are steeped in the traditional ways of Afghan politics, driven by ethnicity, patronage and enormous egos. … Many Afghans question whether Ghani can effectively work with Abdullah Abdullah, his political rival who is now his partner in the power-sharing government.  The pair, diplomats and analysts said, will need to rein in the demands and ambitions of the outsized personalities in their respective camps in order to prevent the sort of divisiveness and corruption that have plagued the country in the past.”

Quickie Analysis:  Even if Ghani is personally interested in a technocratic government not divvied up on ethnic lines, others in his faction, like his vice president, Uzbek warlord Abdurrashid Dostum, will not be so keen on the idea.  It could become a test to see who really runs Afghanistan: the president or the warlords.

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Thinking Aloud: “A Writer at War”

Oct. 17,  2014 by Darius 

I just read A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman With the Red Army, 1941-1945, edited by Antony Beever and Luba Vinogradova.  The book consists chiefly of the notebook writings of Soviet journalist Vasily Grossman and is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.

Grossman was a reporter for the Soviet military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda.  He was present at nearly every important battle on the Eastern Front, and altogether, he spent more than 1,000 days covering the war at the front.  As hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were killed or captured by advancing Nazis in the Ukraine in 1941, Grossman was nearly captured himself.   Later, he spent months at Stalingrad, where a soldier was considered an old-timer if he had survived for three days.  Finally, he accompanied many of the same units from Stalingrad as they fought all the way to Berlin itself.  There is a wonderful story about one unit bringing its camel, which carried munitions at Stalingrad and became something of a mascot and pet, all the way to Berlin, where they brought it inside the Reichstag to spit.

Obviously, Grossman’s writing captures a great deal of the hell on earth that was the Eastern Front in World War II.  He was one of the first Soviets to see German death camps, and his article entitled “The Hell Called Treblinka” was read at the Nuremburg Trials as evidence and makes for some of the most powerful reading of the book.  But A Writer at War is also full of breathtaking courage, patriotism, and sacrifice exhibited by individual Soviet citizens and soldiers.  Grossman’s mastery as a journalist and writer comes in his ability to maintain a focus on the individual amid the clashes of millions.  His articles in Krasnaya Zvezda became incredibly popular among Red Army soldiers, and they grew to have a great deal of respect for Grossman for telling their stories.

After the war, Grossman’s dedication to reporting events as they happened and not as the Stalinist machine wished them to have happened led to him falling into political disfavor.  His master work, Life and Fate, a fictionalized version of the Battle of Stalingrad, was suppressed inside the Soviet Union and was only published after being smuggled out of the USSR.

Reading Grossman’s dispatches also gives readers some insight into the complexity of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine and a sense for the Russian attachment to Ukraine, a territory many Russians paid for in blood during WWII.

A Writer at War would appeal to anyone with an interest in World War II or Russian history.

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