Sectarian War Principles

If the title insulted your sense of decency, well, good – it should have: sectarian war and principles are two concepts that should not go together.

The Wall St. Journal just published an interesting review of the Kurdish campaign against a key Islamic State-controlled town on the Syrian-Turkish border, noting that Ankara is supposedly worried about Kurdish expansion into Arab regions of Syria and that Washington recognizes that the Kurds should not lead the assault on the traditionally Sunni Arab city of Raqqa. Then the Journal stops, for U.S. newspapers seldom address fundamental issues of principle. But the principle is the point.

For once I can comfortably concur with both Washington and Ankara: yes, the U.S. should avoid supporting a Kurdish attack on an Arab region. But the reason is not to cut a backroom deal with Erdogan or for any other tactical goal. The reason is that the U.S. should discourage sectarian warfare, even by “good guys,” because when men in white hats engage in sectarian warfare, their hats get dirty. Was that too cute? Sectarian warfare turns decent soldiers into criminals; decent societies into repressive societies. Societies that do not believe in making war on cities, committing torture, committing genocide find themselves doing so and thus change, decline. Need I cite examples? Yeah, this is a hard issue for Americans, so some examples could include one Lt. Calley from my sad generation, the French experience in Algeria, and any number of campaigns in the U.S. Civil War. The principle is: no sectarian war.

By definition, the principle is not restricted to “the other side.” If we have principles, we are supposed to live up to them…otherwise, they aren’t principles but tools. So, just as Kurds should not run a campaign against Arabs, Israelis should not be in military occupation of Palestine, Shi’i military forces should not be taking control of Sunni cities in Iraq, and ethnic Turks should not be occupying ethnic Kurdish areas of Turkey. Yes, indeed, principles get embarrassing. But without a moral compass, politicians do not know where they are going.

Every U.S. diplomatic conversation with Ankara should note this principle. Sectarian war is a double-edged sword with no handle. If Ankara cannot find citizens of Kurdish descent in sufficient numbers to maintain peace in Kurdish regions, then something is fundamentally wrong with the Turkish socio-political system. Change could  be brought about by stressing the desire to recruit and promote Kurdish Turks for military/police service in the Kurdish region, just as the (black) head of a certain U.S. city recently invited blacks to apply for jobs as police. If Ankara is not willing to have those Turkish citizens who identify themselves as ethnically Kurdish in the military and police in units defending security in Kurdish regions, local governance run by people locally elected, pupils taught by local Kurdish teachers, local Kurdish opinions represented in the media, and everyone having the option of voting for a party of their choice, then Ankara should offer peaceful division in accordance with the results of a referendum in each electoral district.  Black (Palestinian/Sunni/Kurdish/white) lives matter. If a regime (or government at any level)  wants to rule, it is the responsibility of that authority to entice the broad mass of the population throughout the area it proposes to rule into accepting that rule.*

If Erdogan or Netanyahu or whoever rejects this noble advice, then the relevant states do not deserve to be called “allies.” Washington does not approve of  Beijing’s attitude toward Tibet; China is not a U.S. ally: we do not need to start a war or refuse to interact, but the disagreement on principle sets a certain limit. “Alliance” carries with it costs and rewards; it should amount to something more than just tactical convenience. We Americans could of course sound a bit more sincere if we started by applying this principle more carefully at home.


  • That is democracy; the whole voting thing is just a method. Of course, “off with their heads” is another way to go.







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