Nation building by force in Ukraine and the Middle East


Refugees fleeing Kobani

It is amazing how the glasses through which we view the world can colour what we see. Here is a story of two civil wars seen through radically different lenses.

The world has been gripped of late with the plight of the Kurds of Kobani, and rightly so. They have been fighting against the militants of Islamic State (IS) – a party to civil wars in both Iraq and Syria in which both governments and opposition forces appear to have committed war crimes – and, until recently, have been unsupported in their struggle. Turkey has long been afraid of giving succour to its own Kurdish minority,with whom it is in threatened peace negotiations. Ankara is also at loggerheads with the government of Bashar al Assad, IS’ enemy, against whom it would far rather see NATO firepower directed. 

As a result, Turkey had, until a little over a week ago, refused to allow volunteers from its own regions to come to the aid of their kin over the border. Turkish tanks on the border faced inward – aimed at its own Kurdish population rather than their fellows’ IS nemesis.  The Western world, moved by the Kurds’ plight, placed the Turkish government under seemingly intolerable pressure until it eventually cracked. The fact that Syria, as a sovereign state, might also have a view on the issue, does not seem to have entered either Turkey or its allies’ equations.

Ankara has now promised a safe corridor to Kurdish volunteers to support the beleaguered defenders while the US and its allies have dropped weapons to assist them. 

Indeed, all parties to the civil war in Syria have been receiving fighters and materiel from abroad. While the fall of Mosul allowed IS access to Iraqi government funds and military equipment, it would appear that IS, and other Syrian rebel groups, have long received a steady supply of weapons, money and ammunition from wealthy donors in states traditionally allied to the West, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The flow of fighters to IS is seen as a major threat by all states in the region, prompting legislative attempts to stop them from countries as far afield as Australia.

Meanwhile, some 2500 km to the North, another civil war has been stuttering through a partial ceasefire in Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine. Here, Russian speaking Ukrainian separatists have been involved in a six month conflict with the central government. Again, since the beginning of the government’s 'Anti Terror Operation', which saw troops sent into the Donbass, both sides appear to have committed war crimes, including shelling of built up areas and possible unlawful killings in the field. Ukraine’s Russian speakers, like Syria’s Kurds, have limited to no political representation in their respective governments and, in both countries, language rights are a very real issue. Like the Kurds, the Russians find support across the border in Russia proper. Unlike Turkey, however, Russia seems to have been a willing ally. 

As is the case in Syria, volunteers from Russia, and other parts of the world, have streamed to both sides of the conflict. Far from sealing the border, Russia seems to have been openly allowing volunteers to pass and supplying them with at least some military support, at least until last month’s ceasefire. (Repeated Western allegations of an invasion have, however, not been supported by much in the way of tangible evidence.)  

Here the West’s reaction has been rather different to that in Syria. These are not 'our' rebels fighting for cultural and language rights but 'their' terrorists, cat’s-paws of a foreign power. Russia, far from being pressured to allow the passage of volunteers, has been sanctioned for doing what the Turks are being urged to do.

While IS is not recognised as a state and is undeniably far more brutal than the government in Kiev, there seems little doubt that, in both cases, a civil war is underway which will ultimately not be solved by military means alone. There is a reason why parties to a civil war fight, and pouring petrol on the blaze from afar is rarely useful. It should be remembered that IS, itself, did not arise in a vacuum but grew in the aftermath of the spectacularly unsuccessful US attempt at forcible nation building in Iraq in 2003.

It is admittedly true that Russia’s annexation of Crimea – the legality of which is questionable, at least – has compromised the rebels’ cause in Western eyes. (Interestingly, Turkey’s own forcible acquisition of Northern Cyprus in 1974 does not seem to have affected its status as a NATO member). 

No one denies, however, that the insurgency in Ukraine grew out of disenfranchisement. In this respect, it is like that of the Kurds in Syria, or  – for that matter – that of the Sunnis in Iraq, which led to IS. In no case have the great powers allowed the United Nations to act as independent broker – knowing that each party has the support of a permanent member of the Security Council, whose veto will hamstring any proposed action by the others.

Syria and Ukraine are just the latest in the roll of civil wars where ossified Cold War rivalries exacerbate conflicts and prevent the forging of a just peace which is in all parties’ interests.

Justin GlynJustin Glyn is a Sydney based Jesuit in training who holds a PhD in international and administrative law.

Syrians fleeing Kobani image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, civil war, United Nations, Syria, Ukraine, IS, Russia, USA



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Existing comments

"Russia’s annexation of Crimea – the legality of which is questionable". They voted, they ascended as simple as that. Can't get any more legal than this my friend and it was watched by international observers!!. The west wants Crimea to bloack Russia from their mediterrean port hence why it is not questionable. US nation building in Iraq ? - I think the last decade is enough proof that the USA don't build nations, they act only for their selfish national interest and wreck havoc with their illusion of democracy.

Maximus | 28 October 2014  

I read somewhere (in Eureka Street) that the catholic church's teaching on Marriage is idealistic. Any priest who has heard the confessions of Catholics (i.e. those who bothered to go) would be aware of how far short many Catholics fall from those ideals. Between the ideal and the reality lies fallen/broken human nature. Likewise the Church's moralising on how nation-states should conduct themselves is idealistic. In fact two of the basic axioms one learns in the study of International Relations is Might is Right. Self-interest trumps altruism. It's called Realpolitik not Idealpolitik.

Uncle Pat | 28 October 2014  


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