As Erdogan prepares to meet Trump, can US keep allies from bloodshed?

The timing of the Turkish airstrikes on Syrian Kurdish forces, weeks before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to visit the US President Donald Trump, is not a coincidence.

The attacks serve as a warning for the US, but it also aims to ensure Turkey retains an influence over proceedings in Syria, while simultaneously appeasing hawkish circles in Turkey crucial to Erdogan’s recent referendum win.

The attacks on the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) bases near the Syrian town of Derik, which also included Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in the Shingal area in Iraq, led to diplomatic protests from the US.

The US is in a difficult conundrum. It relies heavily on Syrian Kurdish forces, whom they have stated many times as one of the most effective troops battling the Islamic State (IS).

However, keeping their once dependable allies in Ankara onside at the same time is proving an impossible balance.

Underlining this difficult predicament, Turkish airstrikes came as YPG led forces were in the middle of an intense battle to capture Tabqa from IS that would pave the way for the final assault on Raqqa.

The strong Turkish opposition to the growing ties between the Kurdish forces, whom they accuse of being an extension of the PKK, and the US is not new.

Turkey has attempted to pressure Washington on multiple occasions to sideline the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the YPG forms as its largest and strongest contingent, and to propel Turkey, and its Syrian opposition allies, to lead the fight to drive IS from their stronghold of Raqqa.

This week, Erdogan stated the US-led coalition, working hand in hand with Turkish forces, “can turn Raqqa into a graveyard for IS.”

This suggestion of anti-IS alliance has been proposed countless times and has been evidently rejected by the US, which has increased their support of SDF forces in recent months.

Erdogan warned continued US support needs to stop “right now,” or risk bringing persistent strife in the region and Turkey while urging that without cooperation on the global fight against terrorism, “then tomorrow it will strike at another ally.”

The US has rejected the notion that the YPG and the PKK are one and the same. This places the US in an increasingly difficult standoff with Turkey.

According to Mark Toner, the former US State Department spokesperson, Washington had already communicated that “Turkey must stop attacking the YPG.”

Toner added the US supports “Turkey’s efforts to protect its borders from PKK terrorism,” but this stance fuels ambiguity in an already tense regional landscape.

The US policy towards the YPG forces, both now and in the future, remains incoherent and unclear.

Erdogan warned that “we may suddenly come at any night,” referring to further attacks on YPG positions. This would certainly undermine Kurdish support in the battle against IS.

For Erdogan to back down on his unwavering stance on the YPG now would risk a nationalist backlash.

It remains to be seen how far the US is willing to go to defend their Kurdish allies, who had even requested a no-fly zone.

The US had already expressed their disappointment over a lack of notice and coordination before Turkish strikes. Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), described the time provided by Turkey as “inadequate.”

According to Dorrian, the US “had forces within six miles of the strikes,” while the operations box given by Turkey was too big to ensure the safety of US troops.

As a deterrence to further Turkish attacks, US armored convoys were seen patrolling some areas alongside Kurdish forces.

This came as US officers visited the site of the airstrikes, with reports of US forces attending funerals of YPG members killed by the air raid.

Deployments of US troops along the border areas was confirmed by Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, who urged focus from all parties in the fight against IS as the common enemy.

An angry Erdogan remarked that “we are seriously concerned to see US flags in a convoy that has YPG rags on it.”

Erdogan is likely to protest strongly with Trump when they meet.

Ankara hoped Trump would abandon former US President Barack Obama’s policy in allying with the Kurds.

But, with the Kurds driving deeper in their assault on Raqqa, Trump has seemingly taken advice from his military leaders and stuck with the Kurds.

Any change now would spell bloodshed either way. Turkish forces would have to wedge through Kurdish territory, leading to certain conflict.

Conversely, Turkey’s resistance against the YPG would only embolden, especially as Kurds solidify their autonomous rule.

This regional powder-keg goes well beyond the question of who will take Raqqa. IS will be defeated, but the complex Syrian web from years of bloodshed will be much more difficult to untangle.

After IS, is the US willing to protect YPG forces at the continued expense of Turkey, or will it leave both allies to open a new chapter of bloodshed?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Referendum win is only start of battle for Erdogan, New Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan achieved his long-time dream of an executive presidency in Turkey, but his narrow win came at a price, with almost half the population voting no, risking deeper polarization in Turkey.

Erdogan’s referendum win by 51.4 percent introduces sweeping new powers, with the biggest political revolution since the foundation of the republic.

The constitutional changes will transfer undisputed power to the hands of one man, allowing Erdogan to potentially rule until 2029, or even 2034.

Additionally, the president will have political, as well as judicial influence, and can dismiss parliament or ratify laws by decree.

The narrow victory came under controversial circumstances as the opposition accused the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of electoral violations and an unfair playing field.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and other electoral monitors were critical of the referendum campaign, with the Council of Europe stating the vote “did not live up” to its standards.

The criticism at home and abroad were brushed off by a victorious Erdogan, but he will remain acutely aware the battle in Turkey has just started.

The referendum victory coincided with the third extension of a state of emergency following the infamous failed July coup last year, which Erdogan blamed on exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, leading to a wide-range of crackdowns on the opposition.

With strained ties with the European Union, a floundering economy, a reenergized war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), terror threats across its borders, and an increasing national divide, Turkey’s next moves will have dramatic ramifications.

But, a further crackdown on media and the opposition, especially in light of narrow victory margins, risks driving Turkey into deeper instability.

Erdogan, Prime Minister in 2003, was instrumental in the revival of the economy, reigning in military powers, untying the secular constitutional noose, and bridging gaps with the long disenfranchised Kurdish population.

But his populism has become more regionalised, as a geographical heat map of voting indicated.

Strong support in conservative rural areas was in stark contrast to the larger cities, the Aegean and Mediterranean coast, and most of the Kurdish-dominated areas.

Erdogan and the AKP, must stem the polarization, loosen anti-terror laws, and stifling of opposition voices, or risk mass protests and instability.

One burning question is the Kurdish democratic opening which, after making positive strides, regressed back into a full-blown conflict with the PKK.

With the vote secured, Erdogan has a golden opportunity to dilute the strong nationalist hand vital to his victory, but a hindrance to peace with the PKK, and seek to resolve the increasing violence and instability that engulfs the Kurdish southeast.

In fact, voting in the Kurdish areas was not a rout by the “no” side by any means. The no campaign was victorious in 11 Kurdish provinces where the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) got most seats in the 2015 elections, but votes for Erdogan increased in comparison to AKP election faring.

The “yes” campaign won in 10 other Kurdish-majority or ethnically mixed provinces.

This was not something missed by Erdogan, who stated, “I kept watching the whole night. The times have changed. There is now a steady progress. I believe things will get better.”

However, the vote is not a comprehensive Kurdish endorsement of Erdogan. It is more likely a reflection of people tired of decades of war and turmoil on their doorsteps, placing them between repressive government policies and the PKK. 

Voting is acknowledgment Erdogan, as the strongest man in Turkey, holds the keys to elusive peace 

Another critical factor is economic health that is always a barometer of public sentiment.

As such, Turkey will need to revive the Customs Union with the EU, as their most vital trading partner, and mend tenuous relations.

Shortly after the referendum, Erdogan announced plans to visit Russia, China, and India.

Strong ties with these respective countries, including the US, where President Donald Trump gave a significant endorsement, calling and congratulating Erdogan, will help dispel any clouds of legitimacy. 

Turkey remains a vital player on the regional and international stage.

Moreover, EU leaders, as well as the US, will need a stable and pro-Western Erdogan now even more so with a consolidation of power.

However, the visit to regional powers on its eastern front will be used to ensure Turkey maintains leverage.

His threat to introduce the death penalty in Turkey, something that will certainly end any diminishing hopes of EU membership, is proof Erdogan is unwilling to be roped in by any side.

The referendum ends one chapter in Turkey and reopens another. But, the future stability and security are by no means concluded, and divisions between nationalists, secularists, Islamists, and Kurds will be difficult to heal.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Do US air strikes change the picture in Syria?

Where former US President Barack Obama hesitated when the Syrian regime crossed his “red lines,” current President Donald Trump took swift military action in the aftermath of the Syrian chemical bombing of the rebel-held town Khan Sheikhoun which for Trump “crossed a lot of lines,” leaving 80 dead and hundreds more injured.

The 59 Tomahawk strikes on the Shayrat airbase near Homs, which the US believes was used to orchestrate the nerve agent attacks, was defended by Trump as a “vital national security interest” of the US, as Washington vowed they could yet do more.

The US’ new willingness to take action adds an unprecedented dimension to the already complicated Syrian civil war. However, will the US action hasten diplomatic initiatives to end the war or will it drive Syria into a deeper conflict?

Trump, whose campaign was on a US-first and anti-interventionist basis, showed the unpredictable style of his presidency as he took action without seeking permission from Congress or his allies, with knowledge it would damage the warmer ties he hoped to foster with Russia.

The primary purpose of this proportionate response was to deter Damascus from further chemical attacks, something Obama believed he achieved with the last-minute deal brokered by Russia in 2013 to dispose of Syria’s chemical stockpiles after the regime launched a deadly chemical attack in Gouta.

It also served as a warning Trump was willing to change his position quickly based on unfolding events, and, at the same time, remind the likes of Iran and North Korea the US remained a major global player who was not afraid to intervene if required.

Western powers backed the US’ military response, but they also received broad support from the Democrat-Republican line.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement highlighting that after repeating the chemical attack of 2013, “President [Bashar al-Assad] alone bears the responsibility for this development.”

Meanwhile, UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, echoing the similar sentiment from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, blamed Russia as the key backer of Assad responsible “by proxy” for “every civilian death” that resulted from the chemical attack.

The dramatic turnaround in fortunes in recent months for the Assad regime is directly owed to Russian military intervention in 2015 which led to the recapture of swaths of territory, including Aleppo.

The US military response may give the fading opposition renewed hope, but US policy on Syria remains incoherent.

Whether the US strikes change Assad’s calculus or willingness to negotiate a political settlement depends if US action proves a one-off. It also depends on if the Americans are willing to take steps to significantly bolster the fragmented opposition or take radical steps such as the creation of US enforced safe-zones.

However, Assad’s stance will be largely dependent on Russia, who remains the key component of how the six-year Syrian civil war will play out.

It came as no response Russia strongly condemned the US strikes on the Syrian airbase. Russia accused the US of encouraging “terrorists” with actions they deemed as “unilateral” and an “act of aggression,” as they vowed to bolster Syrian air defenses and mobilized a warship to confront US naval positions in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Denouncing the strikes as illegal, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev went as far as warning the strikes were “one step away from military clashes with Russia.”

Moreover, a statement from a joint command center, comprised of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, threatened to “respond with force” if their red-lines were crossed.

The greatest challenge of the G7 nations remains to change Russia’s stance on Syria, whether through sanctions or diplomacy.

But, with every Western rhetoric denouncing Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, or any threat of further US military action in Syria, Moscow’s position becomes more entrenched.

The contradictory claims emanating from US officials on their priority in Syria or stance on Assad does not help matters.

A week before the chemical attacks, Washington had publicly stated the removal of Assad was no longer a priority, but this seemingly changed after the chemical bombing.

However, in recent days, Trump stressed the priority remained to defeat the Islamic State (IS), and Washington was “not going into” Syria’s civil war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the US of “very ambiguous” and “contradictory ideas.”

With an unclear US policy, a seeming lack of hunger to be drawn military into Syria, and growing friction with Russia, the past week’s events make a political solution in Syria all the more difficult.

Either way, for Trump, military action now sets a precedence. If Assad launches another chemical attack, will he be willing to escalate military action and a potential stand-off with Russia or risk appearing weak?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

The Kurds have long considered Kirkuk their Jerusalem. The diverse city has a clear Kurdish identity, notably with the area already under the de facto control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The uproar over the decision of the Kirkuk Provincial Council to hoist the Kurdistan flag alongside the Iraqi one over state institutions ignores the reality and aims at creating a political commotion.

The objections raised by Turkmen, Baghdad, the Turkish government, and even the United Nations (UN) take a narrow view of proceedings.

Firstly, in a deliberate attempt to change the demographic make-up of the area, including governorate boundaries, thousands of Kurds were forcibly evicted from their homes as part of Saddam Hussein’s infamous Arabisation campaign.

Why would Hussein have gone to extreme lengths to Arabise the city if the Kurds did not constitute a majority? Moreover, the same parties that object to the raising of the Kurdistan flag choose to ignore the injustices committed against the Kurds. Instead, they turn the tables by accusing the Kurds of creating instability.

When the Kurds returned to their ancestral homes, the addressing of Hussein’s atrocities was overlooked, and the Kurds were accused of changing the demographic make-up of the city.

Secondly, after Hussein, the protracted and difficult negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad centered on disputed territories.

Throughout those negotiations, which led to the eventual formation of the Iraqi constitution, the Kurds had a clear stance on Kirkuk, leading to Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution that provided a clear roadmap for the resolution of all disputed territories.

Almost 10 years after a referendum that should have been held after a process of normalization, no vote was in sight. The Kurds are now accused of taking illegal and unconstitutional measures, yet why did Baghdad fail to implement a key article of the constitution?

If Turkey, regional actors, and the UN, or any other party, wishes to provide an impartial intercession to support stability, then they should have pressured Iraq to oblige by its constitution.

In short, Baghdad dragged its heel on Article 140, fully mindful any referendum would only rubber-stamp the return of Kirkuk to the KRG.

Lastly, Kirkuk has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural city. Its inhabitants have lived side by side peacefully for decades. Hoisting the Kurdistan flag merely symbolizes the Kurdish majority component and Kurdish identity of Kirkuk. It doesn’t imply the Kurds have chosen to ignore Turkmen, Arabs, or Christians, or have denied their rights.

In the same way, Mosul has an Arab majority, but with a significant Kurdish population, it doesn’t mean Kurds object to Iraqi flags raised across the city.

Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim recently stated, “We tell those who want to instigate chaos: this flag is that of the Arabs and Turkmen, as well as the Kurds. It is the flag of Kurdistan which is a place for everyone.”

When the Iraqi army fled in the aftermath of an Islamic State (IS) onslaught in 2014, and the Peshmerga provided great sacrifices to protect Kirkuk, they didn’t just defend the Kurds, they defended all of its inhabitants. Who else would have protected the Turkmen and Arabs against the atrocities of IS?

Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani defended the raising of the flag as a legal and standard measure. Pointing to the fact the flag had been present since 2003, and especially after the IS crisis in 2014, Barzani underlined in a statement, “It was the same flag that protected Kirkuk from the threat and attacks of terrorists.”

Meanwhile, according to Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the recent actions of the Kirkuk governorate would strengthen peace and co-existence.

“In a complete conflict like that in Iraq, the KRG and Kirkuk governorate have shown a great example of coexistence and keeping their areas from tensions and sectarian fighting,” the PM stressed.

As Karim and Kurdish leaders defended the move as constitutional, it came under a barrage of criticism and warnings.

A statement from Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned against any “unilateral act that would jeopardize the reconciliation and stabilization efforts in the country.”

Arshad Salihi, the leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), claimed that “Kirkuk is a fire that if ignited will burn everyone.”

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) issued its warning “against any unilateral steps that might jeopardize harmony and peaceful coexistence.”

Karim, in a defiant message, insisted they would not be bound by the Iraqi parliament’s vote that only the Iraqi flag should fly over Kirkuk.

As for Turkey, Kirkuk was long a “red line,” but times have changed, and rhetoric aside, Ankara accepts Kurdish rule of Kirkuk that gives the Turks a strategic advantage via its warm relations with the KRG.

Either way, the time of opinion and meddling has long passed. If any side truly wants a peaceful and legal resolution on Kirkuk, then it’s time to hold the long overdue referendum.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Motives behind Turkey’s increasingly divisive EU rhetoric

Discontent has clouded relations between Turkey and the European Union (EU) in recent times, but over the past few weeks, it has escalated to another level, with aggressive and divisive language emanating from Turkey.

Turkey has witnessed a grave political fallout with the Netherlands and Germany over their refusal to allow the Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials to hold rallies in respective countries to support the April 16th referendum in Turkey, where voters decide on a proposed presidential system that would give Recep Tayyip Erdogan unprecedented new executive powers.

Netherlands and Germany cited concerns that such political rallies would spark unrest among their significant Turkish populations. Turkish anger was stoked further with pro-Kurdish protests held in Switzerland and Germany.

For Erdogan, the estimated 2.5 million citizens of Turkish origin with a vote act as vital swing votes.

Erdogan has made no secret he has been planning for such a presidential system since his days as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990’s. And with the outcome of the vote far from certain, Erdogan must not only lure the swing voters to his cause but ensure his support base vote for nothing other than a yes.

The strong rhetoric that followed the fallout with Netherlands and Germany go a long way explaining Erdogan’s desire to mobilize the nationalist voter base.

The issue has transformed into a matter of national pride, class and even religion, seemingly to ferment an emotional response in the Diaspora and at home.

Such divisive euphoria could do irreparable damage to Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU, with accession talks long-stalled; however, the ‘us versus them’ mentality plays into the hands of Erdogan, and the upcoming referendum takes a much greater precedence than the already fading dream of joining the EU.

Erdogan claimed that “the spirit of Fascism is running wild on the streets of Europe,” drawing parallels with Angela Merkel’s government and Nazism of the past on a number of occasions, and accusing the Netherlands of being “Nazi remnants” and a “banana republic.”

Erdogan underlined a struggle between the cross and the crescent, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, also accusing the EU of fascist sentiments, gravely warned, “You have begun to collapse Europe. You are dragging Europe into the abyss. Holy wars will soon begin in Europe.”

On the theme of a religious injustice, Erdogan implored Muslims in Europe to “make not three, but five children. Because you are the future of Europe. That will be the best response to the injustices against you”.

With motivations to blur the political and religious lines, opponents of constitutional amendments have even been referred to as “opponents of Islam” by a prominent Turkish cleric.

Leaders of Netherland and Germany have been irritated by the harsh rhetoric but have mostly kept to a diplomatic tone while stressing the Nazi comparisons must stop.

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, expressed he was “stunned” over Erdogan’s rhetoric. Schaeuble warned, “In a short time, it willfully destroys the integration that has grown over the years in Germany. The repair of the damage will take years.”

Since last year, fallouts between the EU and Turkey quickly resulted in threats to dismantle the migrant deal signed in March 2016 after lengthy negotiations.

The migrant crisis, largely stabilized after the deal, remains a nightmare scenario for Europe, and Ankara is not shy to remind Europe of the sway it holds on this matter.

Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, warned European leaders, “If you want, we could open the way for 15,000 refugees that we don’t send each month and blow the mind.”

Meanwhile, Erdogan warned that “no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets” if they assumed the same course.

Nationalist sentiment is a card that Erdogan is all too aware of to court voters. In the same way, the resumption of the war against the PKK was instrumental in swaying nationalist voters at the snap elections in 2015, and curbing voters from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

The large-scale crackdown on the opposition in the aftermath of the failed coup of July 2016 may have resulted in EU criticism, but the surge in nationalism has transformed the Turkish landscape.

In reality, EU membership, however unlikely, would be a hindrance to Erdogan and the AKP as a presidential system gives them a far greater advantage.

All things considered, Erdogan has placed his eggs on winning the referendum. If Erdogan loses, this will forever stain his legacy and the political pillars he has erected.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Newroz marks sacrifice, freedom, and gallant survival for Kurds

The festival of Newroz, marking the beginning of the vernal or spring equinox, is not just any new year for the Kurds. It’s the very symbol of the Kurdish fight to preserve their nationality.

For thousands of years, Newroz has been a reminder of ancient Kurdish culture and identity, but above all, how the resolve of the Kurdish nation has continuously overcome the fiercest of tyrants to mark new dawns.

According to Kurdish mythology, Kawa, a fearless Kurdish blacksmith ended the tyrannical reign of King Zahak. Fires were lit to mark the end of oppression and the beginning of a new dawn of freedom.

To this day, Kurds have continued to suffer hardships, repression and a battle for survival against all odds. Whether defying the Baathist regime in Iraq, dictatorial rule in Syria or challenging the harsh denial policies of Turkey, Newroz has come to symbolize the strong determination of the Kurds.

Although Kurdish lands were divided and people were separated against their will, Newroz served as a representation of the unity of the Kurdish spirit.

Today, Kurdish fortunes may have transformed, particularly with Kurds enjoying strategic standing in Iraq and Syria, but the symbolic power of Newroz is undiminished.

What should be a festival commemorated by joy and peace, more often, celebration have culminated in tensions, bloodshed and deeper divisions in countries such as Iraq, Iran and Syria but particularly in Turkey.

Citing security concerns about possible “tension and provocations between people who will participate in the celebrations and others,” the decision by governors of Ankara and Istanbul to ban Newroz celebrations this year is likely to fuel more tensions and violence.

With the festival heavily politicized, denial of Newroz celebrations has become synonymous with denial of Kurdish identity and rights.

Turkey is a far cry from the Newroz celebrations of 2013. Firstly, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, declared a ceasefire and start of peace talks, heralding an unprecedented chapter in the decades-old PKK-Turkey conflict.

Meanwhile, in the same year, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was Prime Minister at the time, in a powerful statement, took stage in Diyarbakir alongside the popular Kurdish singers Sivan Perwer and Ibrahim Tatlises.

With an increasing climate of hope and expectation at the time, Erdogan promised a future filled with peace and fraternity. Unfortunately, today, in Turkey, with tensions in Kurdish-dominated parts, curfews and return to violence, this message appears as distant as ever.

As Kurds celebrate across all parts of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Region continues to serve as the greatest beacon of light in the Kurdish nationalist renaissance.

Faced with a bitter enemy, the Islamic State, it is carrying the global flag against terrorism.

In a public message marking Newroz, the Kurdistan Region President, Masoud Barzani, while reiterating his drive for statehood, stated, “the month of March has been the month of triumph, joy and also the suffering of the Kurdish people.”  President Barzani added, “but it has also been the demise of the enemy and the start of new light and life, proving that sacrifice bears fruit.”

Indeed, the March 1991 uprising or “Raparin” that saw Kurds expel the tyrannical Saddam Hussein regime from their lands ended second-class citizenship and opened a new passage to the freedom and prosperity of today.

However, nothing would have been possible without the immense sacrifices of the Peshmerga and the Kurdish people throughout history, with a refusal to succumb to tyranny, no matter the odds or the strength of the enemy.

Today, many dangers and perils remain for Kurdistan. Newroz should serve as a reminder for the Kurds, to avoid slipping into a false sense of security, and that unity is needed as much as ever.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Faced with a common enemy, a new front pitching Kurd against Kurd is a travesty

Even in the face of a common enemy, and at a historic juncture, relations between Rojava and the Kurdistan Region have been blighted by political differences. A prime example is the ongoing presence of the PKK and its affiliated armed wing, Shingal Resistance Unit (YBS), in Shingal region.

Although these forces played a crucial role in breaking the Islamic State (IS) siege on Shingal in 2014, and later in fighting alongside Peshmerga forces against IS, that critical juncture has been passed.

PKK’s continued presence has been a ticking time bomb.

In recent days, an armed confrontation between the YBS and Peshmerga forces in Khanasor that resulted in casualties and scores of wounded culminates the severity of the tensions between the two sides.

There are already many battlefronts facing each side, and it’s most regrettable to open a new front that pitches Kurd against Kurd.

In the dawn of the new Middle East, which has placed both Rojava and KRG in strategic positions, Kurds have an opportunity to rewrite many of the wrongs of history.

To realize such goals, Kurds need unity within borders, but also across their geographical divide; however, political motivations usually blight relations among Kurds and division harms their aspirations.

The disconnect among Kurds is illustrated in their difficulty of arranging a symbolic pan-Kurdistan national conference over past few years. Even those arranged, such as the recent one in Moscow, were never representative, owed to ongoing friction.

The Ezidi community has endured more than its share of tragedy in recent years, and using the local community as political leverage by the PKK will only prolong suffering.

Turning the Kurdistan Region landscape into a patchwork of militias will fuel further animosity and disintegration. Ezidis and Christians have every right to protect their population, but only under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Ultimately, only the Peshmerga forces have the right to be deployed in Kurdistani territories of Iraq.

Anything else results in the formation of unnecessary cantons, susceptible to influence by outside forces, and potentially pitching locals against Peshmerga forces and the KRG.

Motives behind the continued PKK presence are intended for controlling the strategic cross-border area and to maintain political and regional leverage.

A statement from the Kurdistan Region Presidency warned, “No party is allowed to interfere in the Kurdistan Region’s affairs or restrict Peshmerga movement in the Region.” President Barzani had given an order to Peshmerga Ministry to bring “the situation under control and prevent it from escalation.”

The armed clashes in recent days led to accusations from both sides of initiating the conflict. The commander of the Peshmerga forces in Shingal, Sarbast Lezgin, blamed the PKK for creating problems and urged them to leave the area, while also warning that “we will not ask for PKK’s permission to move forces in the Kurdistan Region.”

Lezgin’s call echoed similar statements from the Ministry of Peshmerga affirming that they do not seek authorization from anyone during force changeover, or deployments within the borders of Kurdistan Region.

Meanwhile, in a joint statement, Ezidi leaders including members of the Ezidi Religious Council (ERC) urged a stop to intra-Kurdish fighting and asked the PKK to leave the region.

“The wounds of Ezidis are still not cured, and we don’t want to face more injuries,” the announcement pleaded.

The friction centers on the presence of a 5000-strong Rojava Peshmerga force trained in the Kurdistan Region that is close to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and endorsed by Turkey. In spite of the grave battle against IS in Rojava, these Peshmerga forces have not been allowed to enter owed to mistrust.

The dominant Rojava parties aligned to PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and those close to the KDP, have signed three peace agreements, yet none have been implemented.

The YBS and Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an umbrella organization of the PKK, in separate statements, alleged the recent confrontations were a result of Barzani’s recent visit to Turkey.

The YBS see any deployment of the Rojava Peshmerga in Shingal as an “occupying force,” as they allege financing and training from Turkey.

For the PKK, it’s not just about Shingal, but keeping these Peshmerga forces off the vital border zone between Rojava and Kurdistan Region.

As many of the political leaders have condemned the incident, a political deal is needed to diffuse tension. For example, the KRG could open the border crossing, in return for PKK leaving the area.

YBS helping to stem IS in Shingal at a vital time, followed by Peshmerga forces assisting their brethren in Kobani, when the town was at its greatest hour of need, should have set the foundations for cross-border harmony.

Unfortunately, all too often, political affiliations and party interests quickly resume center stage.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Who will spearhead the Raqqa offensive?

With focus largely on the Iraqi liberation of Mosul, the Islamic State (IS) Syrian stronghold of Raqqa remains the ultimate prize for defeating the group. However, owed to a complicated regional dynamic, the battle for Raqqa is marred by a lack of consensus on the strategy to take the city.

As US President Donald Trump waits for an official review of options from US Defense Secretary James Mattis, due by the end of this month, the military picture against IS in Syria is far from idle.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprised largely of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), continues to make inroads in isolating Raqqa, while coalition warplanes relentlessly pound IS targets. The SDF has been vital in pushing back IS in recent months, but this was only possible with significant US support, much to the dismay of Ankara who remains uneasy at increasing Kurdish territory and military power.

Turkey has presented its own plan to the Trump administration to take Raqqa, while at the same time Russia has offered to coordinate directly in liberating the IS stronghold. Another option on the table to accelerate the offensive is increasing the number of US troops on the ground.

With time of the essence, it remains unclear if the US-led coalition can afford to sideline the Kurdish forces in any Raqqa offensive.

Turkish Defense Minister, Fikri Isik, recently expressed optimism that the “new US administration has a different approach to the issue” of support to the YPG and the main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), who Turkey accuses of been an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). However, there are mixed signals on the ground.

US support for the SDF has continued in recent weeks, including arms shipments. While the official line remains the US does not provide arms to the Kurds, only to Arab elements of the group, the lines remain murky.

Former US president, Barack Obama, left the controversial decision to arm the Kurds, an idea many in his administration supported, to Trump.

It remains unlikely that the Kurds will be put to one side, not because Washington is insensitive to concerns from its Turkish allies, but because the Kurds are the most effective local force and Washington cannot afford to waste time to build a strong local Arab force.

The US is mindful of the ethnic makeup of the force entering the predominantly Arabic city and has tried to calm Turkish fears of Kurds entering Raqqa, by empowering Arab elements of the SDF.

However, this conundrum cannot satisfy all sides.

It is difficult for the coalition to split their policy, such as providing arms to only Arab components of the SDF, as it creates an imbalance that hinders any assault on the city.

Lt. Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, who visited a newly established logistical hub near the Turkish border to support US and SDF forces alongside head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel underlined this dilemma, “we can’t just equip parts of this force, we have to equip the entire force.”

Townsend has concluded that a combined Arab-Kurdish force will be needed “because the Kurdish component is the most effective.”

Any gap in local Arab forces can be filled with the US, Turkish or Russian boots on the ground, but none of these will be without drawbacks and risks.

The details around the Turkish-led proposal to enter Raqqa are unclear, but ultimately, even if a sizable force could be mustered, it risks a confrontation with the Kurds and a further complication of the Syrian dynamic.

Turkish entry into Syria was as much to check the growing Kurdish aspirations as to contain the IS threat on its border. Isk has openly stated that once al-Bab is liberated, they would turn their attention towards Manbij.

Any eastern advance into the Kurdish-held territory by Turkey will almost certainly see the Kurds divert their forces from the IS battle.

Underscoring the importance of keeping momentum, Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman for the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, recently stated, “we’re now seeing signs that ISIS fighters, its leaders in Raqqa, are beginning to feel the pressure.” Meanwhile, Votel expressed his concern of “maintaining momentum.”

Ahead of the recommendations to Trump, both Dorrian and Votel stressed they would continue to work with local forces, with Dorrian emphasizing “that fundamental principle isn’t going to change.”

Major General Rupert Jones, a deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, believes “the force that looks most likely capable of conducting the liberation of Raqqa remains the SDF.” While adding, he expects the Arabs and Kurds to work in tandem to liberate the city.

Whatever Trump decides, the socio-political picture is guaranteed to remain as complex as the battle for Raqqa itself.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Kurdistan praised in Munich, but real prize remain independence

The 2017 Munich Security Conference in Germany demonstrated the strategic importance of the Kurdistan Region on the regional and global stage, as it held bilateral meetings with a significant number of state officials.

Kurdistan was the only autonomous region to be invited alongside 192 countries, yet, as much as Kurdistan is receiving increasing acclaim for spearheading the battle against the Islamic State (IS), it remains stateless.

Almost three years since IS took control of large swathes of Iraqi territory, IS remains not just a regional threat but is a global threat that has led to deadly consequences across Europe. As Iraqi forces struggled against the IS advance in 2014, the Peshmerga took center stage in putting IS on the retreat.

The Munich Security Conference proved a vital platform for Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, and his accompanying delegation, to boost ties and ensure continued support for Peshmerga forces.

Statements from many high ranking officials in Munich reaffirmed the standing of the Kurds.

Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, described her meeting with Barzani as “excellent” and praised the Kurds as reliable partners while expecting German and international support for the Kurds to continue for “quite a while.”

Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence tweeted after a meeting with President Barzani that he discussed the “the need to accelerate plans to defeat ISIS,” while thanking Barzani for “cooperation with Baghdad.”

Barzani and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis had a lengthy meeting on the sidelines of the conference. According to a statement from the office of the Kurdistan Presidency, Mattis had “reiterating his country’s support for the people of Kurdistan” and had stated he “was familiar with the Kurdish cause and that Kurdistan and the US had made sacrifices side by side.”

Barzani also had a meeting with a delegation of 20 US senators who expressed strong support for the Kurds and stressed the new US administration would not abandon the Kurds.

There were many other positive statements of support towards the Kurds. In fact, the Kurdistan leadership often host high-ranking figures such as UK Defense Minister Michael Fallon in recent weeks.

However, this is only the short-term game for the Kurds. Security is the important theme of today for Western and regional powers, but the Kurds are looking beyond tactical measures.

The fact remains that IS became a problem on the doorsteps of Kurdistan mainly due to the continued sectarian policies emanating out of Baghdad as well as the weak defense that Iraqi forces were able to muster.

While Kurdistan remains part of Iraq, it can never safeguard its future, let alone prevent IS from striking again.
President Barzani has openly discussed Kurdish independence over past few years, but the significant difference is the growing international support for their right to self-determination.

According to Hemin Hawrami, senior advisor to President Barzani and part of the delegation in Munich, “the main point in the agenda of Barzani’s talks has been the independence of Kurdistan,” before adding, “President Barzani discussed this issue with the US Vice President very seriously.”

According to Hawrami, “there might have been some different points of views in timing and the mechanism, but we never heard of any delegate of any country saying the question of independence and self-determination is not your right.”

Kurdistan’s right to self-determination is not bound to the fact they are playing a key part in preserving stability amidst regional fires. However, the reliance on the Kurdistan government and Peshmerga forces at a vital time only magnifies the irony of being the largest nation in the world without a state.

It’s not that Kurdistan has been impatient, almost 14 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the same sectarian issues blight Iraq, Shiite militia forces hold more sway than the official army, and Sunnis remain as disenchanted as ever. All in all, neither sectarian fighting nor political instability will end in Iraq after IS.

Even putting these major issues aside, Erbil is unlikely ever to escape being a subordinate of Baghdad, placing doubt that a genuine partnership could ever materialize.

The fact that some countries continue to insist on delivering military support to Kurdish forces via Baghdad only fuels this sense of subordination.

Barzani remains insistent on pursuing the path dialogue with Baghdad over Kurdish independence as “this will pave the way to many other countries to recognize us.” However, Barzani stressed that as much as they will continue to push for a positive result through dialogue, they “will certainly take other steps” if this fails.

As a boost to Kurdish aspirations, Von der Leyen made clear that independence was a matter for the Kurds to decide and they would respect this decision.

This view was likely to be echoed by French President Francois Hollande, who President Barzani met in recent days. Both leaders emphasized the strong and friendly relations, and France is likely to be a reliable partner of a future Kurdistan.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Kurdistan’s migrant burden deserves international focus

The turmoil caused by the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) has created unimaginable human tragedy, not least millions of refugees and Internally Displaced Person’s (IDPs). While the internationals spotlight about the refugee crisis is mainly on Turkey, the migrant burden has created unsustainable pressure on the Kurdistan Region.

The estimated 1.8 million IDPs and refugees in Kurdistan is a considerable number, but with the ongoing battle to recapture Mosul and the violence in Syria and Iraq far from over, this number is continuously increasing.

Since the battle for Mosul began, an additional 95,000 IDPs have taken refuge in the Kurdistan Region. The Kurdistan Region’s Minister of Interior, Karim Sinjari, issued a warning of “an impending humanitarian catastrophe” as Kurdistan could not cope with a further flood of refugees, especially, as the battle front shifts to the west of Mosul.

Sinjari called for “additional resources to be provided immediately to deal with the increased burden.”

The strain this crisis has placed on the region is visible. Such refugees need adequate food, health care, clothes, and shelter. This is not for a week or two but on a long term basis due to the protracted and complicated nature of events that lead to their plight.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is also facing tremendous pressures caused by a weakened economy and the costly fight against IS. Adding the millions of IDPs into the mix is simply unsustainable, with the region’s infrastructure unable to cope with the increased demand.

Germany’s Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Gerd Muller, in a recent press conference with Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, praised the Kurdistan Region for embracing 1.8 million IDPs, in spite of the harsh economic climate.

Muller stated, “But we have come to support you, as well as the EU, should support the Kurdistan Region,” as he vowed that the “Kurdistan Region is not alone.”

Meanwhile, Barzani stressed, “On a humanitarian level it is indeed very important that Germany helps the migrants, but it is as important to assist the Kurdistan Region to deal with the refugee crisis here and prevent people from becoming migrants in other countries.”

The European Commission has allocated €241 million since 2015 in humanitarian aid to Iraq, with expectation for Iraq to receive another €50 million from the EU in early 2017, of which €28 million has been allocated for the KRG.

But even this much welcome aid is unlikely to be sufficient.

While the focus is primarily on international aid, Baghdad could certainly do more. After all, a large proportion of the migrants is made up of Arabs escaping the violence south of Kurdistan’s border.

Moreover, the weak security provided by Iraqi armed forces and the continued sectarian policies emanating out of Baghdad contributed to this crisis.

Ironically, Baghdad failed to pay salaries of Peshmerga forces, at the heart of the battle against IS, and pay Kurdistan’s fair share of the budget, let alone help with the region’s migrant crisis.

As welcome as international aid will be to alleviate the crisis in Kurdistan, these remain tactical measures. The real focus should be on ensuring the rebuilding of shattered areas so that IDPs can safely return.

Unfortunately, if aid was an issue to sustain internally displaced persons, any rebuilding efforts will run into tens of billions of dollars.

Also, political measures must be taken to ensure the same policies or mindsets do not allow further unrest.

In a recent statement, the KRG stated it has no “intention whatsoever to close the camps where the displaced populations are hosted,” in spite of the great difficulties it has to face. Further, it would only support cases of “safe, voluntary, and dignified” return of any displaced persons.

First Published: Kurdistan 24