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What the battle for Kobane says about U.S. overseas military bases

A woman celebrates the liberation from Islamic State militants of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane at a refugee camp across the border in Suruc, Turkey. (Amy Austin Holmes)

Last week, Syrian-Kurdish militias known as People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) announced they had liberated their hometown of Kobane. While some of the areas around Kobane are still contested, the recapture of the city was celebrated by locals as a significant victory. The routing of Islamic State militants was due to unprecedented cooperation among the YPG, YPJ, smaller numbers of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces and Free Syrian Army brigades, and the U.S.-led coalition forces that carried out air strikes. The Incirlik Air Force base in southern Turkey is one of the major installations that is closest to Kobane, and it would have been a logical choice to use for the operations. Yet Turkey never authorized the use of Incirlik for the air strikes and never joined the coalition, although the Islamic State had occupied territory just across its border.

This absence reflects a long history of contentious politics surrounding the United States’ overseas network of military assets. U.S.-operated military installations have existed in Turkey since the end of World War II but have received very little scholarly attention. My book “Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945” is the first comparative study of the history of the U.S. presence in these two NATO allies – and the whole spectrum of contentious politics that it provoked. Those U.S. bases engendered a wide range of opposition that took very similar forms in both countries, including: civil disobedience, labor strikes by base workers, parliamentary opposition, as well as violent attacks by groups engaged in armed struggle. As a result of decades of social unrest and pressure from below, the Turkish parliament succeeded in gaining more control over the U.S. bases inside Turkey than is the case in other countries.

In 2003, the United States requested access to bases in Turkey in order to open up a northern front against Iraq. In what was seen as a stunning blow to the George W. Bush administration’s invasion strategy, the request was denied by the parliament. This was due to the widespread anti-war mobilization by the citizenry. By contrast, during the ongoing conflict with Islamic State militants, access to Incirlik was denied by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has publicly called for regime change in Syria, and evidently thought that he could use access to Incirlik as a bargaining chip to prod the Obama administration into agreeing to a larger assault against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Finally, Erdogan also has no interest in strengthening Kurdish groups that are pushing for statehood.

In my study I found strikingly similar types of anti-base protests in the otherwise dissimilar political contexts of Turkey and Germany. This would seem to suggest that the cause of opposition to the U.S. military cannot be traced to the religion, culture, prevailing ideology or regime type of the host country – but rather to how the U.S. military operates in those countries.

The global network of U.S. military bases is unprecedented in size and scope. The Pentagon even refers to itself in its official publications as “one of the world’s largest landlords.” This network takes the form of different types of protection regimes, the legitimacy of which are determined primarily by two variables: the level of threat to the host country and the level of harm caused by the bases toward those it claims to protect.

In order for the U.S. military to qualify as “legitimate protection” it must protect against an outside threat (ideally one which it did not create itself) and cause no harm toward its proteges. If it offers protection against an outside threat, but causes harm in doing so (whether because of sexual exploitation, environmental degradation, violations of sovereignty or other reasons) – it becomes what I termed “pernicious protection.” How host countries respond is unpredictable. In some cases, it can lead to the loss of military assets. At the height of the previous war in Iraq, the United States had around 505 bases there. After U.S. personnel tortured detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere, the Iraqi parliament balked at the idea of giving immunity to U.S. soldiers stationed in the country. The U.S. military therefore withdrew in 2011 and turned over hundreds of installations to the Iraqi army. While still claiming there are no “boots on the ground,” President Obama has ordered the deployment of several thousand U.S. troops to Iraq to assist in the conflict with Islamic State militants.

What kind of protection regime has emerged in Kobane? According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, fighting in Kobane has resulted in the deaths of over 1,300 people, including 979 Islamic State combatants. So far civilian deaths due to the airstrikes have not been reported. This could in part be because most civilians had evacuated Kobane and fled across the border to Turkey to the small town of Suruc. On a recent visit to Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, I witnessed how over 100,000 refugees were being hosted in Suruc, a town with a population of about 60,000. The mainly Kurdish refugees lived in camps that were organized and administered by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a political party in Turkey with a large Kurdish base. According to Serdar Tekinalp, the deputy mayor of Suruc, and others I spoke to, their refugee camps had not received any meaningful financial or logistical support either from the UNHCR (the U.N. refugee agency), or from the Turkish government, which is led by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Turkish government runs its own refugee camps in the area. I visited one in Islahiye, but upon questioning, the official I spoke to could provide no information as to whether any Kurds lived in the camp, as they only classify the refugees as either Arabs or Turkomen. In sum, the people of Kobane could escape across the border, where they have survived largely due to the solidarity of their fellow Kurds in Turkey. Whether this happy confluence of factors can be repeated elsewhere in Syria or Iraq is an open question. With the death toll in Syria now exceeding 200,000, it is clear that Kobane is an exception.

Ironically, because of Turkey’s reluctance to take part in the anti-Islamic State coalition, the United States found itself cooperating more with various Kurdish militias than with Turkey – with unpredictable implications for the future of the U.S. basing system. While the Kurdish peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan are recognized as the official military of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), other Kurdish groups do not enjoy the same status. In December, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were quietly taken off the terrorist list in the United States, where they had been since 2001 under the Patriot Act. Nonetheless, the YPJ and the YPG have been the main fighting forces on the ground in Kobane, and they are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In order for the United States to cooperate with the YPJ and YPG in the airstrikes against Islamic State militants, a few hundred peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan were called in. Some observers suggest they were not deployed as part of a fighting force, but as a liaison between the U.S. military and the YPJ and YPG. One week after the U.S.-led airstrikes began, Meysa Abdo, a YPJ commander also known under the nom de guerre Narin Afrin, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which she thanked the coalition for its airstrikes, pleaded for airdrops of supplies to continue, and called on women around the world to join them because they were “fighting for the rights of women everywhere.”

For now, the fact that Kobane is under control of groups that claim they want a “democratic, secular society of Kurds, Arabs, Muslims, and Christians” is good news. Whether the cooperation between the United States and the Kurds will have implications for U.S. basing strategy is uncertain. But the history of U.S. base politics may be instructive in two ways. Even if the liberation of Kobane and other cities in Syria and Iraq rely on U.S.-led airstrikes, there is no reason to believe that after the routing of Islamic State militants, that the U.S. military would automatically be welcome to stay. And as Erdogan’s recalcitrance makes clear, being in possession of a globe-encompassing network of military bases does not necessarily mean the ability to use it.

Amy Austin Holmes is an assistant professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. She is the author of “Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945” (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Follow her on Twitter: @AmyAustinHolmes.