Two weeks after the Tunisian Revolution, I visited Aleppo, Syria. It was New Year's Eve, and I was in Gaziantep and had heard about day-trips to Syria. Ever the curious traveler, I wondered what was on the other side of the border. A frequent travel buddy and friend from college and I stopped at a bank in Kilis, a small but bustling border town, to exchange Turkish lira to dollars in case the Syrians wouldn't take Turkish lira. I vividly remember a disheveled looking man bypassing the bank line, greeted by a bank employee and taken care of at a desk that had been, up until that moment, closed. The man took out wads of bills from a nondescript plastic shopping bag and handed it over to the bank employee for deposit. This seemingly mundane bank transaction is really the key to how all global armed conflicts can be solved.
Kilis had become a burgeoning border town, the center of commerce between Turkey and Syria. With free passage between the countries and recently opened borders, goods and services from both countries were exchanged and relationships formed. The average Turk was able to visit Syria for the first time and Syrians were able to visit Turkey. Oblivious to that fact that the "unrest" going on in Tunisia would spread to Syria in three months, we made plans to come back to Syria in the summer. Aleppo was historic It was also tired. Its people were friendly, hospitable and big fans of Turkey. The people had cellphones and the Internet; they made plans to travel and study abroad. I remember the motorcycles the police rode had a picture of Bashar Assad wearing sunglasses on their windshield. It was still a dictatorship, but a waning one. "There's no way this regime lasts another five years," I thought.
Five years later, Assad is cornered in Damascus, his army depleted and weary of fighting. Saddam Hussein's Baathist army, fully dismissed from their posts, unemployed and despised by the people of Iraq, have regrouped and formed their own army once again. The former anti-religion Marxists have suddenly found God and conveniently now fight for "Islam," expropriating the name in the acronym ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). When I tell people that Saddam Hussein added the words "Allah-u-Akbar" (God is great) to the Iraqi flag only after he lost the Gulf War, they are shocked. A ploy for popular support, Saddam banked on gaining popular support by framing the war into a war "against the Crusaders." ISIS does the same thing and has been successful at attracting gullible disenfranchised Europeans to fight for their "Islamic State."
This leaves fighters from the People's Defense Units (YPG) - the sister organization of the globally recognized terrorist organization, the PKK - and a group of opposition fighters, mainly battling Assad's military, to round out the parties in Syria. The United States and Turkey began a campaign of fighting both ISIS and the PKK, brethren in their Marxist roots, when previously they had hoped they would finish each other off. Apparently they weren't killing each other fast enough.
This campaign comes on the heels of the P5+1 - the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany - agreement with Iran. That the timing is a mere coincidence is unlikely. More likely, Iran agreed to cease active support of Assad in exchange for what the unkempt bank customer handed over for deposit: Money. Ultimately, people act in their own best interests, and for many this means basic food and shelter. For the Iranians, this meant making concessions with their nuclear program in return for the lifting of crippling sanctions.
With a de facto "safe zone" being carved out in Northern Syria by the U.S. and Turkey, the question becomes what next? Turkey should install a regional government in Aleppo. It should be administered by the moderate fighters that have been fighting Assad for years. Most importantly it should be well funded so that rebuilding can immediately begin. You can decide to spend money on bombs or butter. The world has tried bombs, let's give butter a chance.
As Syria rebuilds, Syrian refugees will return to jobs and peace. The "safe zone" should extend to the borders of Iraq and with the help of the Iraqi government and continue on in all areas that border ISIS-held territory. Terrorism is fueled by desperation; citizens with food, shelter, jobs, hope for the future - essentially a reason to live - will have no incentive to join terror groups. Neither the PKK nor ISIS will be able to lure fighters unless they have nothing to lose.
Turkey's fight against the PKK could have been preempted a century ago if the West hadn't draw borders that ensured constant unrest and propped up dictators that controlled them. It also could have been prevented years ago if the government had not neglected and discriminated against their Kurdish citizens. Unfortunately, previous governments did, and this government was unable to make up for 80 years of neglect and discrimination fast enough in its "reconciliation process."
The Syrian war emboldened the PKK and its sister organizations who are suddenly now much more well-funded and organized thanks to Western nations trying to eliminate the ISIS threat. They are no longer satisfied with gaining rights afforded other citizens; they wish to continue their guerrilla war. Turkey and the U.S. have had to make the least-worst choice. Here's hoping peace is restored quickly.