Weekly Letter to the President
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INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
October 18, 2019 (Posted October 22)
Mr. President: The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon. One only has to look
back on America's topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria as
The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone
between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria. Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with
some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border
camps. The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.
Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian. After the First
World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria
came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was
divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran -- a
brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families. About
the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India
into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.
How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave,
surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place,
remains an open question. Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?
For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.
There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a
desirable proposition -- the guerrilla fighter. Lightly armed and a master of
asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes.
Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down
helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt
any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little
chance of long term stability. If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend
countries to its
will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point. Forever
synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia
facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:
access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the
area south of it up to the Israeli border.
Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they
were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians
ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon. It was when the
Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke. It took a while but
soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood. The game was
no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up
eventually behind their own border.
A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and
new political power. The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle
old scores and teach them a lesson. So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in
2006. Now they are feared by Israeli troops.
To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone
call between Erdogan and Trump. Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed
Erdogan in the past. It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, "We're
leaving. If you go in, you will have to police the area. Don't ask us to help you." Is
that subject to misinterpretation? It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green
light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office.
For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order
imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions. Three Turkish ministers and
the Defense and Energy ministries are included. Trump has also demanded an
immediate ceasefire. On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50
percent as it used to be before last May. Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade
deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith. The order also includes the holding
of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area
carrying what they can. Where are they headed? Anywhere where artillery shells do
not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.
Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences.