Friday, 20 May 2016

The “Sri Lanka Model” in Northern Kurdistan: Counterinsurgency As Genocide

Photo: A memorial for Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day at University of Jaffna in Tamil Eelam (Northeast Sri Lanka) on May 18, 2016 – Credit: Tamil Guardian

The “Sri Lanka Model” in Northern Kurdistan: Counterinsurgency As Genocide

Every year on May 18th since 2009, Tamils come together for “Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day” to remember all Tamils who died in the final stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War. During this period, the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) perpetrated unprecedented levels of violence on Tamils, both combatants and civilians alike, to push through a decisive military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The fact that a recent investigative report by Vice magazine claimed that 146,000 Tamils disappeared is enough to show why Tamils consider the so called end of the Sri Lankan Civil War as a genocide that is still not recognized by many. What is distinctive about the conclusion of the military conflict between the SLA and the LTTE though is not only its brutal nature but also how it was the culmination of implicit and explicit support by regional and world powers, especially the U.S. and India. Such international backing enabled the Sri Lankan state to destroy Eelam Tamils’ counter-hegemonic force, the LTTE, and thus turn the balance of power in favor of the Sri Lankan state’s genocidal solution to the Tamil national question.

Since then many other governments racked with similar conflicts, especially Turkey, have expressed a desire to replicate Sri Lanka’s so-called success. Thus, it comes to no surprise that the AKP-led government is currently attempting to pursue a military solution to the Kurdish question. Similar to justifications put forth for the Sri Lankan state’s “last war”, the discourse constantly reiterated in rationalizing the Turkish state’s war policy is that the government wants to destroy terrorism in Turkey by annihilating the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its affiliates. Since the U.S. and EU have refrained from taking the PKK off their list of proscribed terrorist organizations, Turkey’s “War on Terror” discourse still has some legitimacy. In contrast to Turkey’s position on the war in Northern Kurdistan, the Kurds and their supporters claim that Turkey is repeating its habits of conducting genocidal war against the Kurds to suppress them as a meaningful political force. In supporting this claim, evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and analyses of the Turkish State’s present behavior as a continuation of past atrocities against the Kurds have been put forth.

And so, the present conflict between the Turkish State and the Kurds is not only a war between NATO’s second largest army and Kurdish militants, but also a war of words. On the surface, the narratives of both sides are competing to be the view of what is really happening on the ground. When one considers the Counterinsurgency (COIN) dimensions of the conflict though, Turkey’s claims of fighting terrorism just ultimately lends more support to the Kurdish discourse.

What the Kurdish struggle in recent times has reminded the world of is how the so-called War on Terror is used as one of many other ideological and repressive state apparatuses to justify neo-imperialism at the expense of the rights of peoples struggling against oppressive states. While much of alternative media has played a large role in exposing this systemic trend, what is often missing in writers’ analyses is just how pervasive the theory and practice of COIN is in our international world order from the military practice of states to the ideological language used by so called independent observers and more. Therefore, discussing the COIN dimensions of the conflict between the Turkish State and the Kurds helps us understand the more hidden political machinations behind Turkey’s wish to do a “Sri Lanka” on the Kurds.

COIN As An Ideological and Repressive State Apparatus

It was the late Tamil journalist Dhameratnam ‘Taraki’ Sivaram who largely wrote about how COIN was a salient feature of the war between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE. He was especially instrumental in demonstrating how the Sri Lankan state’s last war against the LTTE and the peace process prior to it was an internationally sanctioned and coordinated COIN campaign intended to obliterate the LTTE in the short term and set the stage to keep Tamil resistance permanently suppressed in the long term. In theorizing about COIN, he contended that modern nation-states are never interested in genuinely resolving a conflict with an insurgent group when engaged in a COIN campaign because doing so would require fundamentally restructuring the state in such a way that cedes power away from the state-controlling group, especially its monopoly on violence. The state’s monopoly on violence was especially important to Sivaram’s discourse on COIN since he argued that the persisting challenge to the state’s monopoly on violence by an insurgency with its ‘counter-violence’ was what made an insurgency a potent threat to the state. Thus, the monopoly on violence is the last aspect of its power that a state-controlling group will give up.

As a practice, COIN originates in colonial wars of the 19th century. It began to take shape as a body of knowledge during this period as a way of colonial powers figuring out how to suppress rebellions that frequently took place in colonies and fighting forces of Communism. It is only during Britain’s successful war in Malaysia and other colonial wars after World War II that COIN started to assume the more modern form as we know it today. The writings of British army commander Frank Kitson gives a disturbing but reliable history of what went on in COIN campaigns including counter-terror by the army, recruiting informants, and torture. Furthermore, COIN has continued to be refined in the post-Cold War era with studies on terrorism, with the very idea of terrorism becoming part of the conceptual tool box of COIN theory and practice.

It must emphasized though that COIN is not a purely military phenomenon, but a politico-military phenomenon. It is about “forcing the target population to lose its collective will to achieve the objective you are trying to destroy or head off…the state is always focused on destroying the political will of the target population, and…the art and science of doing that is counter-insurgency, including its political components”. [1] The political components of COIN goes beyond the parties to the conflict within a given country since there are always geopolitical conditions. Other states may either support the main state fighting against an insurgency or support the insurgents in order to destabilize the state they are fighting against depending on their interests.  Furthermore, while each COIN campaign has its own circumstances and particularities, in each case the State is ultimately looking to maintain the status quo for the most part. Usually this means only reduce the insurgency to a more tolerable level rather than substantially incapacitate their organization as Sri Lanka did in its last war against the LTTE while at the same time keeping obscured the real key issues that caused the insurgency in the first place. [2]

A Summary of the Sri Lanka Model as a COIN Strategy

In developing his discourse on COIN, it must be kept in mind that Sivaram articulated all this in the context of the conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE. In fact, by the mid-nineties Sivaram had come to view Sri Lanka’s civil war as “a kind of military-political laboratory in which the various repressive forces of late modernity (local and international) were testing their clever, often cruel, counter-insurgency tactics”. [2] The results of the last of these experiments, Sri Lanka’s final war against the LTTE, was militarily successful due to a confluence of international support for the Sri Lankan government while the LTTE was largely isolated in the international arena and the genocidal intentions of the Sri Lankan state serving as an ideological motivator.

Traditional COIN theory would not deem Sri Lanka’s military success over the LTTE a complete victory since Sri Lanka has failed to resolve the underlying political causes of the conflict to this day, the Tamil national question, in any decisive manner. However, many people from the COIN establishment have gone as far as hailing Sri Lanka’s military defeat of the LTTE as a complete success, saying that the traditional “winning-hearts-and-minds” precept may need to be reconsidered in light of the Sri Lankan experience. [3] It is these kind of arguments that are being used to justify a “Sri Lanka Model” of COIN, which can ultimately be reduced to the following axioms as articulated by Tamil academic R.M. Karthick:

- Military solution first. Display ruthlessness in securing your hegemony and the population will be willing to accept any political solution you throw at them later.

- Winning ‘hearts and minds’ is outdated. Break the spine of the population; throw fear in their hearts and numb their minds. They will be grateful to you for letting them to just live.

- The press does nothing to influence public opinion that you don’t want it to. If they are against you, they are with the ‘terrorists’ and are to be dealt accordingly. [4]

While genocidal violence against an opposing group it not anything new within human history, the COIN establishment’s embrace of Sri Lanka’s methods of war sets a dangerous precedent for all resistance movements that have been forced to take up arms. Furthermore, the above principles seem very much to be in play in the Turkish state’s COIN campaign against the PKK and its affiliates with tactics being used such as massacres of civilians and crackdowns on any press and civil society that would dissent from the Turkey’s official line on the war. But it must be emphasized that there is no pure model of COIN so it not should be assumed that Turkey is simply “applying” the Sri Lanka model to its conflict but is implementing it in its own way with a mind towards the specific context it is operating in as well as the specific tools it has at its disposal. Thus, in order to discern how Turkey is implementing the Sri Lanka model, we must analyze how its COIN campaign is operating.

Key Issues and Geopolitical Conditions of Turkey’s COIN Campaign

In discussing the macro trends of Turkey’s COIN campaign that help us to make sense of the State’s violence against the Kurds and their supporters, there are two sets of questions that need to be answered: 1. What are the real key issues from which the PKK and other Kurdish insurgent forces are given a reason to exist, and what are the ways in which the state tries to conceal these key issues?  2. What geopolitical conditions exist, who are the actors connected to these conditions, and where do their interests lie with respect to the conflict? The key issues of the conflict between the Turkish State and the PKK can be summed up in the following manner: a historical denial of the Kurds as a distinct people different from the Turks due to how the modern Turkish State was founded on a centralized state which included in its ideological foundation a concept of “Turkishness” as being the only nationality that really existed within the borders of the modern Turkey. Such a monocultural conception of the Turkish state can be gleaned from how Ataturk himself referred to the Kurds as “Mountain Turks”. In the past, the way the Turkish State attempted to make this national myth a reality with respect to Kurds includes policies of forced assimilation and even outright denying that the Kurds ever existed as a people ethnically distinct from the Turks. Such state practices not only constitute structural genocide of the Kurds but are also processes of obfuscation enacted by the state to hide how the state’s foundations on a conceptual level as well as the political tradition of the state generates the Kurdish national question in Turkey despite repeated attempts to suppress the Kurds as a political force.

What stands at the forefront of Turkey’s current attempt to obscure the key issues that lie at the heart of its conflict with PKK is its narrative that its current military campaign against the Kurds is seeking to end terrorism in South East “Turkey” once and for all. The Turkish State is essentially saying the Kurdish national question will be resolved in due time once the PKK and its affiliates are eradicated. This War on Terror rhetoric is a common COIN tactic today since the concept of “terrorism” or “terrorists” allows a state to posit that the insurgent group fighting them are actually separate from the people they claim to be fighting for since they are merely “terrorists” that need to be either contained or destroyed entirely.

But Turkey’s efforts to make this conceptual dichotomy as representative of the reality of the situation are not holding water as the war progresses. Unlike the LTTE, which was isolated internationally in Sri Lanka’s last war, the PKK has some degree of international support even though it remains proscribed as a terrorist organization by significant regional and world powers.

Furthermore, the Kurdish people also have enough international awareness and sympathy for their plight that is growing by the day than Tamils did in 2009 that the assertion that the PKK is essentially a terrorist organization that has no legitimate cause to fight for can be constantly challenged. Concurrent with this process of growing sympathy with the struggle of the Kurds is the increasing international isolation of Turkey which further delegitimizes its criminalization of the PKK.

While discerning the key issues and how the Turkish state obfuscates them helps to lend support to that Turkey wants a genocidal solution to the Kurdish Question, it is important to also consider the geopolitical conditions. As a particularly important actor in the current geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East, the Kurds not only have to contend with the state and non-state actors they are fighting against on the ground but also the geopolitical battles played out between regional and world powers. Considering that the people-centered resistance and political paradigms of the PKK and Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria are anathema to maintaining Saudi Arabia and Turkey as regional hegemons that provide a counterbalance to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance, the lack of significant action by the US and EU to force Turkey to halt its genocidal war on Kurds can be construed as nothing less as an implicit endorsement of Turkey’s wish to resolve the Kurdish question in a genocidal fashion. The support of programs of extermination enacted by states like Sri Lanka and Turkey is part and parcel of the current world order where the interests of regional and world powers are prioritized above all else. With respect to oppressed nations like Tamils and Kurds, neo-imperialism ultimately seeks to subjugate or keep subjugated any national liberation movements fighting for people-centered political paradigms that run counter to the status quo and interests of regional and world powers. Thus, not only is the destruction of Kurdish resistance and autonomy in Turkey in the cards, but also dismantling the PYD’s governance and its military arm, the YPG and YPJ, is also on the agenda of the West-Saudi-Turkish alliance in addition to continuing efforts to overthrow the Assad regime. [5]

Solidarity with the Kurdish Struggle as a Necessary Solidarity

Recently, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged Turkish authorities to allow independent observers unimpeded access into “South-East Turkey” to verify reports of severe human rights violations committed by Turkish military and security forces. While this is a welcome development from the UN since it means that all the evidence put forth by media, activists, and human rights organizations is forcing them to respond, one should still keep a critical eye at what is said by mouthpieces of establishments like the UN. What is interesting is how Zeid puts forth concerns over reports of human rights violations in Northern Kurdistan while at the same time adhering to Turkey’s line that they are fighting against terrorism and not the armed resistance of the Kurds in using terms like “terrorist acts” and “counter-terrorism operations”. What this choice of words reveals is the integral part COIN plays in our international world order today. This is why it is all the more important to be in full solidarity with the Kurdish struggle and revolution at this critical juncture. Given their place in the Middle East right now, the Kurdish people are not just fighting for their people’s freedom. They are fighting to preserve all peoples’ right to resist oppression, including armed resistance when need be, against an international world order that seeks at every interval to keep national liberation struggles and other people-centered movements subdued for the benefit of the oppressors over the oppressed even to the extent of supporting the genocidal programs of nation-states like Sri Lanka and Turkey.

[1] Mark P. Whitaker, Learning politics from Sivaram: the life and death of a revolutionary Tamil journalist in Sri Lanka (London: Pluto Press, 2007), 135-150.
[2] Whitaker, 118.
[3] Ibid., 138-141.
[4] R.M. Karthick, “UK author eulogising  Sri Lanka COIN backfires exposing USA”,
[5] R.M. Karthick, “Genocide as Counterinsurgency – Brief Notes on the ‘Sri Lanka model’,”
[6] “West endorses regional allies as State violence against Kurds escalates”,

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rojava Solidarity Worldwide.

The author of this article Sitharthan Sriharan is an Eelam Tamil American activist, political writer, and graduate student at Columbia University.

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