Why ‘Game of Thrones’ helps you understand the Middle East

Several months ago, a Washington Post article took up the delicate task to parallel the Houses of Westeros, the fictional entities of the Game of Thrones books and series, with the countries of the Middle East1. What started as a far stretched endeavor, resulted in an exceptionally well placed comparison. My heart as a fan of Game of Thrones was of course immediately taken by the writing. But more so, my mind as an analyst of the Middle East was also impressed by how well the author made the shoe fit. It is, of course, foolish to believe that the situation in the Middle East might ever continue according to the Game of Thrones script, but at this point in time and Game of Thrones season, the comparison succeeded surprisingly well.
More so than the comparison of Houses in Westeros and states in the Middle East, however, the fiction of Game of Thrones does indeed hold a value for understanding the realities of the crisis-torn region: it provides a new perspective. In this article, I would like to highlight three important lessons learned from Game of Thrones: 1) when the central power disappears, instability and a multiplication of forces occur; 2) thinking in categories, such as ethnicity or religion, is too shortsighted to understand the situation on the ground; and 3) power is a shadow – it resides where people believe it to reside.

When the central power disappears…
It is hardly a new thought to contemplate that the downfall of a powerful center comes along with rising instability. Be it the succession claims of hereditary monarchies, the formation of a new government out of the revolting forces, or the consolidation of a military take-over through a civilian cover – change comes with instability. The source of this instability arises from the opportunity structure that is created in the immediate power vacuum. Different interest become (more) visible and all kinds of groups, organizations, clans and tribes will contemplate at least their own survival but if possible a bettering or maintaining of their situation in the new circumstances. When the rules of the game change, opportunities arise and insecurities skyrocket. Having increased force show up as a result of these circumstances can hardly be surprising.
What Game of Thrones and the Middle East have in common in this regard is the depth of division in interests, ethnicities, religions and tribes or “family-houses” as well as the wide availability of weapons. Yet it was the fiction of Westeros and not the analyses of reality that portrayed the right picture. As the “Arab Spring” was sweeping through several countries, joy and relief was the reaction of western scholars observing the region. Already back then I wondered, whether they had not read what happened after the French Revolution – to this day the scholarly pivot of democratization effort. Have you heard of the Jacobins? Napoleon? Instead, Game of Thrones painted a much more refined picture. When the king died, questions were raised about his succession, new interests arose to challenge the authority, rumors were as much a force of alliance formation and violence as realities, and violence erupted among the different forces.
This is not to say that the correct conclusion or policy option then is to stabilize the center at all costs; but it is to point towards the likely consequences of the actions to support a weakening (Syria) or downfall (Libya, Iraq) of a strong center.

Why thinking in categories is misleading …
More importantly than the lessons learned about the dangers of removing a central power, however, is what Game of Thrones can teach about the invalidity of thinking in categories such as “religion”, “ethnicity” and “tribe”. Even “alliances” are not a category worth counting on.
Let me provide you with an example. Listening to the popular media reporting and even some scholars, I am afraid to say, one gets the impression that the Kurds are their own ethnicity, culture and interest group. And they are. But Kurds are not Kurds. The danger lies in considering the Kurdish populations of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran as one group. And I will now show why it is indeed outright dangerous: thinking in these terms will make you overlook the reality unfolding in front of you; or how else would you explain that a Kurdish party in the north of Iraq is cooperating with Ankara, the well-known forefront of anti-Kurdish measurements, against other Kurds in Turkey? Or how would you explain Shia and Sunni cooperating against other Shias or other Sunnis?
Thinking in terms of “ethnicity”, “religion” or other clear cut categories denies the actual realities on the ground. And Game of Thrones shows exactly that: the show makes so valuably visible that allegiances are not necessarily permanent – even if they have existed for hundreds of years; they arise on the basis of common features, such as geography (the northern tribes), ethnicity (the houses) and religion (the old god’s or the fire god’s), but also on the basis of mere interests (tyrells and lannisters) or personal rationale (not to say ‘ego’) (house greyjoy). Alliances form and break; sometimes out of calculation, sometimes out of irrational longings, sometimes out of rumors, and sometimes out of forces beyond anyone’s control. Without recognizing at least the forces behind the fluctuation of alliances in the Middle East – not just between states, but between all actors involved in a conflict – the region can not be understood.

Power resides where people believe it to reside…
In one of the first seasons of Game of Thrones, the figure ‘Varys’ posts a riddle to ‘Lord Tyrion’. It goes like this: in a room there are a king, a priest and a rich man. Between them is a common sell-sword. Each of them wants the others to die; who wins, who dies?
Lord Tyrion gives the answer that the sell-sword himself could kill all three of the others and keep the power to himself, but Varys then asks why it is not soldiers ruling the lands but kings and queens instead. And the solution to the riddle is such that power is a shadow – it resides where people believe it to reside. If the sell-sword (“the people”) believe in religion, no money in the world could corrupt them. The same goes for money and religion, if the person has a true allegiance to the king. But the allegiance of the people depends on each person themselves.
It is in this riddle, that the different alliances become a new dimension. Groups will form and dissolve on the basis of many factors. Some are opportunity, others are deep loyalty. But in either case, people follow what they believe the power they believe to be rightfully powerful. And this is not always the one western observers might like to judge as “right”. And it is with all these additional variables in mind, that suddenly the “mess” in the Middle East becomes a little bit less messy. After all, if one can follow some ten or more fictional houses in a popular TV series, with all their intrigues, conflicts and shifting alliances, one can just as well follow the happenings in the Middle East without being surprised about their dynamic character.

1 Tharoor, Ishaan. If ‘Game of Thrones’ were in the Middle East. Washington Post, April 9 2015, 1 URL:  http:// www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/04/09/if-game-of-thrones-was-inthe-middle-east/, accessed April 9 2015

Went Ankara Bonkers?

Spoiler alert: no. Looking at the current security policy of Turkey, one might assume the government in Ankara went bonkers, fighting a peaceful left-wing grassroots organization that is currently devoting most of its energy to fight the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria and which was key in liberating Yazidis from mount Sinjar helping to prevent mass atrocities against innocent people.

But the picture is completely wrong: the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, a self-declared Maoist, militant underground organization, has committed unspeakable crimes against its perceived enemies by using land mines, VBIED’s, and kidnapping and executing innocent people. Arguably Turkish authorities in no way used inferior methods to suppress Kurdish independence aspirations or even public outcries against unequal treatment of Kurds – something that fills Turkish jails until today.

Using the balance of threat template on the PKK, for Turkey the organization has high geographic proximity, strong offensive intentions, powerful enough offensive capabilities to seriously threaten Turkish authorities and an impressive aggregate strength, mainly consisting of its support among Turkey’s Kurds. This makes the organization a serious peril for Ankara.

Turkey’s war against the PKK and the organizations menace for the country has changed dramatically over the last years for a number of reasons though: a) the danger of separatism on the Kurdish side lost in importance. Yet although the separatist stance loosened somewhat in recent years, the guerrilla group still poses the greatest danger to Turkey’s geographical integrity – far beyond that of let’s say ISIS. But then again, Turkey faces significantly less security concerns than issued in Ankara and the country is currently far from facing a major breakaway of state territory.

b) The regional power constellation is completely different than it was twenty years back and Turkey’s role in its direct neighbourhood increased significantly. Turkey used to have brinkmanship relations with Syria and Iran (and with Iraq arguably) for a good part due to the reason that they sponsored Turkey’s Kurdish separatist movement, most notably of course Abdullah Öcalan’s PKK. Next to these countries, Greece and Russia, with which Turkey too had very strained relations in the past, also supported the group in one way or another in an effort to balance Ankara. None of the named countries still supports the organization, reducing the direct geopolitical threat to unprecedented levels and making it very difficult for the PKK to organize on 1980s and 1990s levels.

c) The leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party Abdullah Öcalan has been captured 16 years ago and is willing to support a ceasefire. Although there are still powerful forces within the PKK, particularly around the figure of Cemil Bayik, who is deemed one of the most powerful figures in the organization, that oppose the peace process with Ankara, the PKK as a whole still complies with Öcalan and supports a rapprochement if he does, and he does. Öcalan not only supports the peace process, he favours a democratic process of legitimizing Kurdish interests and became an opponent of complete independence of Turkey’s Kurds. He also supported the disarmament of the PKK on Turkish soil and the relocation of armed fighters to outside territory, mainly to northern Iraq. On the whole this does not constitute a large reduction of offensive capabilities, it reduced the organizations immediate military capabilities inside Turkey though.

d) Last but not least there is a general Kurdish empowerment stemming from increasing autonomy of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, the battle of Kobane and greater Rojava in Syria and the recent and growing economic and political integration of Turkey’s south-east. Kurds in the respective countries thus individually get empowered, but also as a whole, leading to a greater Kurdish rapprochement. This in turn led to an increase of influence regionally and globally, as Kurdish interests came in the limelight again and Kurdish forces are key for the western strategy to fight ISIS.

The current escalation does not necessarily represent a return to Turkey’s traditional policy towards the PKK. The hysteria over the Kurdish threat has gradually decreased and with the exception of a bunch of hard-core nationalists in and outside the MHP – currently the third largest party in Turkey, which of all established parties made the biggest gains in this year’s general elections – few perceive the PKK a bigger menace than ISIS or the Assad regime as apportion of the balance of threat scheme on these two clearly highlights. And here’s where popular and executive threat perception contradict each other. Significant parts of Turkey’s security apparatus are still caught in an anti-Kurdish paranoia that resembles rather ethnic racism than it does real security threats. Admittedly, many people have been killed on both sides in the short period since the ceasefire between the two sides was suspended, but this is more due to the deliberate escalation of the conflict by parts of both the Turkish government and the PKK than due to the mutual security risks.

The population of Turkey in the June 7 elections made clear several points: first of all people democratically elevated Kurdish interests into the Parliament (at least that’s what should happen once a government is formed) against all the odds, including the ruling AKP’s opposition to it. Secondly, Turkish nationalists made clear that they opposed an approximation with Kurds for ideological reasons, and they attracted a significant part of the AKP’s former electorate for this idea. Thirdly, and this must not be underestimated, the majority of voters made clear that they did not want the ruling AKP to change the political system into a presidential one and therefore increase the ruling parties powers – or president Erdoğan’s to be more precise.

From an outside perspective Turkey’s recent move to allow the U.S. led coalition to fly sorties from Incirlik air base while at the same time fighting the PKK – and thus indirectly its Syrian sister organization, the YPG – might turn out as a huge mistake. Ankara’s intention is clearly to separate U.S. interests from Kurdish military success in northern Syria (mostly directed against ISIS), which constitutes the biggest single empowerment of Kurdish interests across national borders, as Kobane has shown. Next to the fact, that Kurds with little effort could turn to Iran as a possible partner1, posing a geopolitical nightmare for Ankara, the move could also empower Saudi and Qatari interests in Syria, as their proxy Jabhat al-Nusra (which is the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria) would massively gain ground, increasing the Turkish strategic defeat.

The government in Ankara thus is in a predicament. While powerful political and military elites push for a return to a direct military confrontation with the PKK, Turkey’s NATO partners and other western powers as well as most parts of Turkey’s society prefer the ceasefire solution of the last two years. At the same time Turkey fights over regional influence and wants to increase its interests in the Middle East, a scheme which I predicted to fail repeatedly already in my prior blog entries. Turkey cannot win this conflict militarily, everyone knows that, but many influential forces within Turkey stand against simply giving up and ceding authority to the Kurds (in general). Additionally the AKP appears to be in a fight for political survival and seems willing to sacrifice domestic stability for the sake of a legislative majority. This makes the current government, and more so Erdoğan, look insincere and even hypocritical, but this fits into the trend, that the AKP gradually is losing its political monopoly. This does not mean the AKP era, or the Erdoğan era is over – far from it, but the political landscape is changing. While some, including the sitting government, are losers in this trend and have a hard time giving up their powers, I see signs of a political opening in Turkey that might go beyond the trend in the AKP’s first years in office. For the greater Middle East and political as well as military stability there the situation looks completely different and the region will continue to produce instability on a massive scale in the years to come.