Can Turkish opposition overcome nationalist stigma, ally with Kurds?

The 2015 snap elections, failed military coup in 2016, and the successful referendum to introduce an executive presidency in 2017 has consolidated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grip on power. Now, can the Turkish opposition unite, especially with the Kurdish minority, to challenge Erdogan?

Erdogan achieved his long-time dream of an executive presidency in Turkey, but like the national elections in 2015, it underscored a deepening polarization of the country.

The July 2016 failed coup tightened Erdogan’s authority with mass crackdowns aimed at supporters of Fethullah Gulen, spreading across the opposition spectrum.

Opposition to Erdogan may be strong, but so is his support base, leaving the opposition in a difficult predicament.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest party in Turkey with 59 seats, has seen several of their MPs arrested—including co-leaders Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas—with growing unease in Kurdish dominated areas of Turkey leading to government-PKK violence reminiscent of the 1990’s.

However, although the HDP has campaigned against Erdogan and led the opposition voice, unity with other Turkish opposition parties have not been as forthcoming.

The HDP, like numerous other Kurdish parties in the past, has struggled to escape the shadows of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the noose of tough security laws, factors the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has successfully used to dilute the HDP’s credibility.

As Kurds struggle for their rights in Turkey, and with a floundering peace process showing no signs of revival, the HDP’s quest for enlarged freedoms has been swept under the banner of terrorism.

Even as a prominent opposition force, there remains a stigma working with the Kurds that hampers the prospects of a loose alliance with mainstream Turkish opposition parties.

The case of the hawkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who have been vehemently against any expansion of Kurdish rights or peace deals with the PKK, may be understandable but with the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the biggest opposition party, there was more ground for cooperation.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu recently undertook a Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul he hailed as a “rebirth.”

While Kilicdaroglu criticized Erdogan stating that “we are facing dictatorial rule,” and “we don’t want to live in a country where there is no justice,” there was no specific mention of the plight of the HDP MPs or the Kurds in general.

With the Kurdish question remaining a sensitive national topic, opposition parties remain fearful of alienating their traditional nationalist support base.

Ironically, the cross-party endorsement of the bill that removed MP immunity from prosecution, principally aimed at the HDP, led to the imprisonment of CHP MP Enis Berberoglu and the subsequent justice march.

In fact, Erdogan has traditionally towed a careful line between appeasing Kurdish supporters and enticing nationalists’ votes when required.

The terror card and the end of the peace talks with the PKK helped to swell AKP votes in snap elections that saw the party resume power.

Erdogan has also used the AKP religious base to woo conservative Kurdish voters as a counter-weight to rallies around ethnicity.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has accused the PKK in the past of targeting the “faith of our Muslim, conservative Kurdish brothers” and striving to turn Kurds “atheist and Marxist.”

Rejecting the HDP as representatives of the Kurds, Erdogan recently stated, “Supremacy is not being Kurdish or Turkish. He who is closer to Allah is supreme.”

With national and presidential elections set for 2019, the opposition must make difficult compromises.

The opposition may need a loose alliance with the HDP to muster a coalition that can successfully challenge Erdogan. Aside from mass rallies and cross-country marches, the opposition needs an effective strategy to counter Erdogan.

Additionally, the opposition must identify a presidential candidate that can rival Erdogan. Until then, Erdogan is likely to tighten his grip on power further.

There are signs the CHP may work with the HDP with the recent public show of solidarity for the HDP’s justice march where CHP members, including the party’s Istanbul provincial head Cemal Canpolat and Istanbul lawmaker Sezgin Tanrikulu, attended the Kurdish rally.

Canpolat stated at the gathering in Kadikoy’s Yogurtcu Park, “We’ll be in a struggle to extend this solidarity. These problems cannot be solved with blood and tears.”

“We need to go through a reconciliation process for peace, democracy, and solidarity in the period that our country is going through,” he added.

Meanwhile, Tanrikulu stated, “In that march [in July], we were in solidarity with all of Turkey’s democratic forces. Today we are here to show the same solidarity.”

HDP’s spokesperson Osman Baydemir, rejecting a recent resolution by the Turkish government to ban the use of the words “Kurdistan” and “genocide” at the Parliament, vowed “we will not keep quiet” and “we will not bow to fascism.”

At crossroads, the opposition must make tough concessions to persuade the Kurds, if they are to muster a successful challenge to Erdogan.

However, with a polarized socio-political landscape in Turkey, even the opposition will struggle to overcome division.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

US sanctions strain ties with Russia, threaten cooperation on key issues

US President Donald Trump lamented the Congress sanctions bill targeting Russia that he grudgingly signed into law in the face of a Congress veto, as he decried, “our relationship with Russia is at an all-time and very dangerous low.”

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which places Russia in the same bracket of threat as Iran and North Korea, complicates US foreign policy, potential settlement of the Syrian war, and general US-Russian cooperation on global issues.

Trump’s campaign pledge was to foster better ties with Russia, but ironically, with ongoing investigations into alleged Russian meddling of the US election, Russia has become a dark cloud over the White House and internal US politics.

It has placed Trump in a difficult standoff with Congress, who he criticized of overstepping its constitutional authority, but also created doubt on his power to dictate foreign policy without obstruction.

Recent events have also highlighted inconsistencies of the Trump administration over Russia.

For example, Vice President Mike Pence was much less reconciliatory toward Moscow on a tour of the Baltic, stating, “no threat looms larger in the Baltic states than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east.”

The sanctions also potentially put the US at loggerheads with the EU, as Europe faces great impact by any energy sanctions on Moscow due to its energy reliance on Russia.

So far, Moscow has largely given Trump the benefit of the doubt relating to ties, even as the prospects of improvement has rapidly disappeared.

However, the sanctions bill, giving Congress a strong hand in the future of the matter, threatens a long-term noose around relations. It drew a naturally strong reaction from Moscow.

Labeling the latest sanction as a “full-scale trade war” against Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev claimed the package “ends hopes for improving our relations with the new US administration,” while slating Trump’s perceived impotence against Congress.

The sanctions may result in economic pressures on Russia, but headstrong Russian President Vladimir Putin is even less likely to back down on Russia’s geopolitical ambitions that have seen it display a strong hand over Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria.

With US influence in the Middle East on the decline, Russia has become a key player in the resolution of many regional flashpoints.

In the case of Syria, Russian-US cooperation is vital not only to achieve an elusive political settlement to end the devastating six-year civil war but to avoid any situation that inadvertently pits their forces into a dangerous collision course.

With the soft partitioning of Syria taking hold, the US has carved out a key sphere of influence in partnership with Kurdish forces.

Meanwhile, Russia has shown a long-term commitment to Syria as their critical gateway to the Mediterranean with the signing of a half-century deal with Damascus over the Hmeimim air base, adding to the long-term deal over their naval base in Tartous.

In fact, Tartous was one of the locations chosen for the recent Russian military parade, highlighting its prized status and Russian assertiveness.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently laid out Washington’s strategy in Syria, while underlining the importance of focusing on mutual interests with Russia such as the fight against terrorism.

Tillerson, who condemned the sanctions as unhelpful on efforts for diplomacy with Russia, pointed to the ongoing battle with the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and the civil conflict in the country.

“What we are hoping to avoid is the outbreak of a civil war,” he said.

“What we really have is two conflicts in Syria: the war against [IS] and the civil war that created the conditions for [IS] to emerge,” the US official continued.

Tillerson added, “We’re working closely with Russia and other parties to see if we can agree a path forward on how to stabilize Syria, in the post [IS] world, create zones of stabilization and lines of deconfliction that will hold, and then create conditions for the political process to play out in Geneva.”

There have been some positive signs between the US and Russia on Syria such as a ceasefire deal between Putin and Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit, and the US decision to cut assistance to rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a move that many analysts saw as appeasing Moscow.

While Tillerson maintained calls for Assad’s removal from power and that Iran “must leave and go home,” Russian and Iranian domination of Syria is too entrenched, leaving Washington with a limited hand in Syria save the Kurdish area of influence and the fight against IS.

Even the fight for the remaining lands under IS will likely see a de-facto partition agreement between Russia, the US, and their respective allies.

Russia may be keen for cooperation to continue, but it is now even less likely to be dissuaded from its policies, especially when these key matters affect its growing strategic ambitions.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Baghdad obstructs Kurdish referendum but is Iraq’s constitution now void?

As Kurdistan’s historical independence referendum draws near, Baghdad continues to argue the Kurdish drive toward independence is illegal and against the Iraqi Constitution.

However, over a decade of failure to implement key articles of the Iraqi Constitution such as Article 140 that determines the future of Kirkuk, oil sharing, payment of Peshmerga salaries, and Kurdistan’s share of the national budget, is the Iraqi Constitution now void?

The Iraqi Constitution has become a double-edged sword to confine Kurds. On the one hand, Iraqi politicians argue it prevents the Kurds from independence and, on the other hand, Baghdad refuses to implement it fully.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated again this week that no article in the Iraqi Constitution mentions a referendum on independence while warning of the negative effects of such a move.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continued this line, stating in a recent interview, “Kurdistan cannot become an independent state from the point of view of the law or from the point of view of the constitution.”

“The Kurds determined their fate when they voted for the constitution and decided that Iraq is a federative state,” he continued.

The Kurds may have been willing signatories in 2005, but the Iraqi Constitution is a legal framework.

If Iraq fails to implement any aspect of the constitution or if politicians fail to adhere to its terms then, ironically, Baghdad would be the one on illegal grounds.

Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, who accused the Iraqi leadership of having “the same culture” of genocide as past Iraqi governments, hit back and blamed Baghdad of violating the constitution.

“It was the Iraqi governments who neglected Article 140 for 10 years and didn’t allow the establishment of a federal council,” President Barzani stated.

“In Iraq’s diplomatic institutions, Kurdistan’s share is decreased dramatically, Kurds were isolated, forcing Kurds out,” the President added.

In a recent letter to the Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC), the Iraqi government claimed the government “cannot implement” Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution in Kirkuk.

Rebwar Talabani, the Head of the KPC, recently told Kurdistan 24 the Iraqi government had “no intention” of implementing the constitution, before concluding there is “no option left for [Kurds] but to use other means outside of the constitutional framework” to determine the future of Kirkuk.

If Iraq refuses to implement Article 140 of the constitution, then the Kurds have a strong case to counteract the lack of application of the constitution with their referendum.

Furthermore, the international principle of self-determination is not bound to any state constitution. When Kosovo separated from Serbia, or when South Sudan ceded from Sudan, the respective countries had a constitution.

The United Nations Charter states that nations, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no external compulsion or interference.

Self-determination is also protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a right of “all peoples.”

The independence of Kosovo set a legal and moral precedence that strengthens the Kurdish case.

Kosovo was the first case of secession raised before the International Court of Justice who ruled in 2010 their declaration of independence was legal and did not contravene international law.

World powers at the time including the US, EU, and the UK defended the move.

Then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the situation “a special case” for reasons such as “Yugoslavia’s breakup, the history of ethnic cleansing and crimes against civilians in Kosovo, and the extended period of UN administration.”

More specifically, they argued Serbia’s repression had forfeited their right to govern Kosovo by “breaching its responsibility to protect” its civilians under international law, and thus the Kosovars were free to determine their destiny.

Like Serbia, Iraq has forfeited the right to rule the Kurds after decades of genocide and repression under the hands of successive Iraqi governments, but also due to the failure of Iraqis to adhere to the constitution of the new Iraq.

In spite of the rhetoric around the importance of Iraq’s unity, once the Kurds achieve independence, US, EU, and even regional powers, will quickly realize the benefit of strategic relations with the world’s newest state.

Russia is already a step ahead, warming to the idea of a secular Kurdistan as a key strategic partner in the Middle East.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently emphasized his country’s mutual interests with Kurdistan.

“It is important for us that the Kurds like all other people of the world achieve their ambitions and legal rights and political goals,” he said.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Can independent Kurdistan instill stability in Iraq, Middle East?

After a century of statelessness, the historical Kurdistan independence referendum is just two months away. Yet, many sides warn Kurds they would be fueling instability or claim their time has not come.

Contrary to such threats, Kurdish independence would be a factor for stability in both Iraq and the greater Middle East for several reasons.

Firstly, the historical injustice against the Kurds by depriving them of their right to statehood and confining them to decades of repression as minority subjects is difficult to comprehend through the lens of a Turk, Arab, or Persian.

As long as the Kurds remain the largest nationality without a state, they will never settle.

Moreover, without correcting one of the great dilemmas of the Middle East, the region will always have a foundation for instability and restlessness, both now and in the future.

Clinging on to the myth that artificial borders of Iraq and the wider region are untouchable merely ignores the fact these arbitrary borders are the real source of contention and conflict in the Middle East today.

Iraq has struggled to build any sense of unity since its inception.

One of the pillars of instability in Iraq, after the great sectarian complexities, is a Kurdish population refusing to succumb to Arab rule or to become subordinates of Baghdad.

The Kurdish price for this defiance may be high, but the preservation of their identity was non-negotiable.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently stated, “We are now a united country.”

However, such statements from officials in Baghdad merely ignore the decades of repression against the Kurds and instability that resulted.

As long as Kurdistan is bound to the Iraqi borders, relations will always remain fractious, and scars of suffering under Arab rule will never heal.

In contrast, an independent Kurdish state can open a new chapter with Iraq.

According to the Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, postponing independence would lead to greater instability.

“We have proved that we are factors of stability,” President Barzani said. “What we are doing through a referendum is to prevent that upcoming instability.”

“We want to cut any possibility of bloodshed in the future,” the President added.

Kurdistan has enjoyed stability and newfound prominence, especially since 2003, but whether you call it the “other Iraq” or whatever else, it is still a formal part of Iraq.

The sectarian violence ensures Kurdistan can never truly escape the shadows of the crumbling state of Iraq.

According to Abadi, “It is in national, economic, trade, and security interests if the Kurds are part of Iraq.”

However, the Iraqi tag will always cast a noose over Kurdish economy, tourism, and security.

If there was a uniting factor between Sunnis and Shias, it was the ethnic card against the Kurds.

Focusing on rifts with the Kurds and actions such as cutting Kurdistan’s share of the budget was often a tactic by Baghdad to deflect deep-rooted issues and corruption in the country.

Ironically, an independent Kurdistan may be a uniting factor for the rest of Iraq, by acting as a stable broker and forcing Iraqis to reconcile differences without the Kurdish question hanging over Baghdad.

President Barzani believes an independent Kurdistan could have a much stronger relationship with Baghdad.

“Kurdistan can be a factor for security and stability, and that is best done through an understanding with Iraq,” he stated.

Meanwhile, Mala Bakhtiyar, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) executive body, addressing a recent meeting with Iranian officials in Tehran, said: “We frankly told them that we, as Kurds, live in uncertainty due to the current situation in Iraq, the post-Da’esh [Islamic State] fight, and the disputed territories. We, therefore, decided to hold the referendum to guarantee a path for our future.”

Regarding the wider region, a secular, pro-western and democratic new state home to an array of religions and ethnicities is just what the volatile region needs.

Rather than fermenting instability in Turkey, a Kurdish state can act as a vital buffer against sectarian jostling gripping the rest of Iraq and the region, and can only strengthen the already strong economic and security ties with Ankara.

According to former Iraqi Foreign Minister and a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Hoshyar Zebari, “Kurdistan is the only place from which they can ensure energy supplies,” while it can act as “a buffer between them and the expansionism of Shia militants.”

The United States has pumped trillions of dollars into achieving stability in Iraq since 2003.

Even after the costly and intensive fight against the Islamic State (IS), there remain doubts Baghdad has truly learned lessons.

How can Kurdish secession cause instability when Iraq is deeply embroiled in a battle against IS and self-inflicted crises since 2003?

Does the continuous obsession with a united Iraq benefit US and EU interests, or does a plural Kurdish state that can act as a bulwark against extremism and serve Western ideals in the region?

Much like there will never be a good time to declare independence in a chaotic region, the Kurds cannot be accused of creating unrest and instability when Iraq and the wider region has known nothing less.

 

Mass destruction and ongoing national issues: IS defeat in Mosul a success?

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday announced “the end, failure, and collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism” with victory in Mosul over the Islamic State (IS) amid jubilant scenes.

However, the symbolic ousting of IS from a city they have occupied for over three years may paper over the cracks, but the deep underlying socio-political crisis that contributed to the rise of IS remains largely unresolved.

IS was only defeated after the sacrifice of thousands of forces, a constant barrage of coalition air strikes since 2014, deaths of countless civilians, over a million displaced persons, untold human suffering and, not least, the destruction of much of the historic city.

When the euphoria of victory dies down, the price of success and the immense task that remains on the political, social, and security front will quickly dent short-term joy.

Victory celebrations in Mosul should not mask the political soul-searching required in Baghdad.

Why was IS able to swiftly sweep into a major city protected by thousands of well-armed Iraq forces? Moreover, is the sectarian climate that facilitated IS’ rise to power dealt with?

Long before IS, Mosul and other Sunni-dominated governorates in Iraq were hotbeds for al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups.

Several of these insurgent groups, and key Sunni tribes, entered into a marriage of convenience with IS.

There may not have been a common endorsement of IS ideology or their rule of law, but their hatred of Shia monopoly of power and Iranian meddling was stronger.

Now, the disfranchised Sunnis remain the key to the future security and stability of Mosul and their areas, but only if they can be enticed into the political and national fold.

Many of the same problems that blighted the sectarian landscape remain rife today. However, it remains unclear if Baghdad is ready to devolve powers to Sunnis.

Furthermore, much of the corruption and deep mistrust that has led to mass protests in the past against the Iraqi government remain.

If Baghdad had a difficult job in enticing the Sunnis before IS, then the roadmap for stability has become even more complicated.

According to the United Nations (UN), in the Old City alone, fighting resulted in the damage of over 5,000 buildings, with 490 destroyed.

Additionally, the UN believes over a billion dollars is required to reinstate basic services.

The sheer destruction of the city and the great suffering of millions of people will leave a deep scar that will be difficult to heal.

The aftermath of IS rule leaves behind not just mass destruction, but new political realities.

The borders between Kurdistan and Iraq have altered significantly, Iranian influence has only deepened, and Sunnis may well seize the opportunity for greater autonomy from Baghdad.

For the sake of long-term stability, Baghdad must make several key concessions, but doubts remain if it has a true post-IS stabilization and reconciliation plan, let alone the means to implement it.

Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh when Mosul was captured in 2014, ominously stated: “We are back to where we were before Mosul fell, (because) there is an idea among the hardline Shia leadership to keep the liberated areas as loose areas, with no (local) political leadership, or security organizations, so they can control them.”

Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, while emphasizing victory in Mosul does not equate to a return of stability in Iraq, stated, “I have a big concern about the future of the area. I hope I will be wrong.”

The local composition of future security forces will be vital in achieving any semblance of peace.

The gains against IS can be attributed to Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Shaabi) as much as the Iraqi forces.

Reliance on militias sows seeds of further discord and conflict, especially without a strong Sunni military hand in their areas.

The Sahwa or Sunni Awakening Councils showed in 2008, as al-Qaeda was finally driven out of Sunni heartlands, a strong local Sunni force is vital.

However, Baghdad was constantly weary of empowering Sahwa forces, and the hesitancy to include them as part of state forces ultimately backfired.

The US-led coalition should not continuously support, train, and fund Iraqi forces, as it has done since 2003, without key prerequisites met by Baghdad.

Without the great support from the coalition, victory against IS would not be possible.

Likewise, the reconstruction of the battered cities will not be possible without significant international aid.

However, this aid should be provided under the provision of an all-encompassing plan from Baghdad.

As the old saying goes: Prevention is a better cure. Iraqis, along with international powers, can ill afford not to learn great lessons from the bitter fight against IS.

Either way, no matter what happens in the post-IS era, Iraq or its ethnosectarian mosaic will never be the same.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

IS borders diminish in Syria but new conflict lines open

With the Islamic State (IS) cornered in Raqqa, the US-led coalition is eagerly anticipating the fall of the self-proclaimed capital of the caliphate, but as IS land continues to shrink, it is replaced with new complexities in Syria.

The US has relied heavily on the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and with every weakening of IS comes a potential strengthening of the Kurdish hand, unsettling an already irate Turkey.

Turkey’s unease with the growing US-Kurdish alliance is not new, and increasing border skirmishes in recent weeks between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Turkish forces suggests Turkish threats to invade Afrin is not mere saber-rattling.

The gradual defeat of IS leaves a political void. Even if local Arab forces govern non-Kurdish areas such as Raqqa, the security threat is unlikely to dissipate once IS gone, leaving a strong reliance on Kurdish firepower.

Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commander of the US-led coalition, acknowledged the importance of Kurdish fighters in helping Arab forces “buttress” and “do the hard stuff” in Raqqa.

According to Townsend, “Mosul and Raqqa are intermediate objectives on a path to a final victory,” and, especially in the case of Raqqa, this path introduces new regional flashpoints and jostling for influence.

The void left by IS is eyed by the US, with views of protecting its hard-fought gains in a costly three-year campaign against the militant group, but also by the Syrian regime backed by Russia and Iran.

With IS on the retreat, new dividing lines emerge between the multiple local and foreign forces that dot the Syrian landscape.

With a weakening Syrian-Iraqi border, Iran has a unique opportunity to create a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean, covering Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, reinforcing its role as a dominant regional power.

The recent US willingness to confront any regime and Iranian-militia-spurred-aggression in these borders areas, as well as around the newly liberated areas taken from IS, highlights US concerns.

A de-facto border is being drawn along the Euphrates, both on the ground and in the sky.

As the fallout from the recent downing of a Syrian SU-22 jet by US forces proved, after it had fired on SDF positions, this new line brings new prospects of conflicts with Russia and regime forces.

The US has consistently stressed their ambitions in Syria lie solely on the defeat of IS. But, in a highly complex Syrian civil war, missions are difficult to isolate.

Whether it likes it or not, the US cannot risk abandoning its new zone of influence in Syria.

Washington has previously stressed their relationship with the SDF and YPG forces were tactical and short-term, partly to appease Turkey, but it can ill-afford a swift exit from Syrian plains.

IS did not grow to such a mighty force overnight; it happened under the passive eyes of the global powers, who finally acted when the group was firmly entrenched in Iraq and Syria and had committed grave atrocities.

Only after a relentless air campaign and significant efforts to train, equip, and fund local forces has the US-led coalition managed to deal a significant blow to IS.

Can the US afford to be a bystander once again in Syria, and risk any IS resurgence or indeed the next install of IS?

At the same time, can the US afford to allow a significant regional power shift by allowing unfettered Iranian access and Russian domination of Syria?

Recent statements by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis suggest a US gearing for a long-term role in Syria and, indeed, a continued partnership with Kurdish forces that will hardly soothe anxieties in Ankara.

Mattis was much less decisive when asked about weapons recovery from the YPG forces than stated in the past.

“We’ll do what we can,” Mattis stated, who was keen to highlight that the fight against IS did not stop at Raqqa.

More importantly, Mattis expressed willingness to continue arms supplies to the Kurds as future missions dictated.

“When they don’t need certain things anymore, we’ll replace those with something they do need,” he explained.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily insisted, “We will make the real owners of those weapons…pay for any bullet that will be fired to our country, for every drop of blood that will be shed.”

As the soft portioning of Syria becomes increasingly likely, each side is rushing to either protect or extend their de-facto borders.

Keen to counter Kurdish gains east of the Euphrates, Turkey is increasingly vociferous in its willingness to liberate Afrin, a Kurdish canton west of the Euphrates, already sandwiched by pro-Turkish Syrian rebels.

At the same time, the Kurds are seemingly undeterred, with threats of their own to clear the Jarablus corridor and realize their goal of connecting their cantons.

The post-IS battle lines threaten new rounds of violence, unless US, Russia, Turkey, and Iran can somehow strike a grand bargain.

In the case of Turkey, Ankara’s focus on curtailing Syrian Kurdish ambitions will inevitably result in trade-offs with Damascus and Moscow, solving one problem, but as always in Syria, adding much more.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Qatar standoff thrusts region into new divide

The decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and a few other nations to cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism, has ramifications across the Middle East, not least in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi delayed his visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud by a week so as not to be seen as taking sides.

However, even as Baghdad and Riyadh announced a “quantum leap” in bilateral relations according to statements, their relations, which have been lukewarm in recent decades, remain overshadowed by the dominant Iranian influence in Iraq.

Iran is a supporter of Shia militias in Iraq, while several Shia political parties enjoy strong historical ties to Tehran.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia has previously criticized the Iraqi Shia militia Hashd al-Shaabi for being a “sectarian organization which threatens Iraq’s unity.”

Baghdad has been more suspicious of Saudi meddling in Iraq for fear of inciting its restive Sunni population.

Saudi only reopened its embassy in Baghdad after a 25-year hiatus in 2015. By then, Tehran’s footprint was firmly established in Baghdad.

Also on Abadi’s Middle East tour was Iran, whose jockeying for regional supremacy with Saudi ultimately led to the Gulf standoff with Qatar.

Tally Helfont, Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Kurdistan24, “No matter how much the Saudis try to woo the Iraqis, Iran’s talons are firmly sunken into Baghdad, enabling the Iranians to operate unfettered throughout Iraq.”

“This state of affairs continues to divide Sunni from Shia, keeping the Sunnis aligned with Da’esh and Iraq’s traditional Arab allies at bay,” she added, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

The growing influence of Iran in the region has startled Saudi and its Gulf neighbors, as Iran seeks to consolidate a Shia corridor from Tehran to Beirut.

If Iran can muster some control over the Iraq-Syria border, then it will have an effective land route for military supplies and to stamp its authority.

The diplomatic stand-off has led to an economic embargo on Qatar as land and sea routes were severed. Qatar labeled the accusation of supporting terrorism as “unjustified.”

Ironically, each of the concerned countries has been supporting various proxy groups and enhancing their agendas.

The Saudi-led Gulf discontent with Qatar is not new. There was a similar diplomatic impasse in 2014, although it did not lead to the assertive actions of today.

Qatar may be a small state, but its regional influence belies its size, owing to its economic might that allows it to influence conflicts and geopolitics well beyond its frontiers.

It is this geopolitics that has often been contrary to the Saudi agenda, such as Doha’s support for the Arab Spring, Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas.

Qatar has mediated many conflicts, including Eritrea’s border conflict with Djibouti, demonstrating an influence that extends to the Horn of African.

It has somewhat struck an independent foreign policy tone, especially in its cordial relation with Iran, that has annoyed Riyadh and opened cracks in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The bold moves by the Saudi alliance may ironically push Doha closer to Tehran.

With Turkey, who have their first military base in the Arabian Peninsula in Qatar, enjoying strong relations with Doha and even dispatching troops as well as food supplies in support, the standoff could lead to the powers of Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Russia on one side and a Saud coalition on the other.

Saudi has counter moves of its own, such as support for Iraqi Kurds in their bid for independence as well as Syrian Kurdish autonomy.

The reaction to the diplomatic standoff places many countries in a difficult predicament. For example, the US has expressed a contradictory stance so far.

On the one hand, US President Donald Trump initially backed Saudi in a series of tweets.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been much more conciliatory, urging Saudis to ease the “blockade.”

Tillerson’s spokeswoman recently issued a statement underlining his impatience with the Saudi-led alliance and stating the US was “mystified” by their failure to list demands for Doha.

Qatar hosts Al-Udeid, the largest US airbase in the Middle East.

Saudi has been the traditional US ally in the region, but Washington can ill-afford to let Qatar slip into the hands of Iran and Russia, making a peace settlement in Syria, as well as regional conflicts much more tenuous.

According to Helfont, even at its boldest, Qatar has struggled to “shrug off the yoke of the Al-Sauds.”

“The intertwined nature of the strategic fates, militaries, and economies of the Gulf States will prevent Qatar from breaking away in any meaningful manner,” Helfont added.

“It is more likely that the Qataris will once again be brought back in line by the Saudis, if for no other reason than to retain a unified Gulf in the face of the looming threat of Iran,” she concluded.

An agreement to end the embargo looks out of sight for now, but as much as Qatar seeks to avoid the shackles of the Saudis and exert its influence, they can ill-afford long-term isolation.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Kurdistan independence referendum: Placing national issues above partisan agendas

The independence referendum, set for Sep. 25, 2017, presents Kurdistan with an unprecedented opportunity to rewrite their destiny. However, in the face of regional powers determined to derail Kurdish aspirations, it needs to instill unity and reinforce democratic institutions to achieve national dreams.

As historic as the referendum is for the Kurds, it was beset by bickering from the main parties on the mechanisms to initiate the vote.

The meeting convened between Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani included the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) where the date was set for the independence referendum.

However, this meeting was boycotted by Gorran, the second largest party with 25 seats, and the Islamic League (Komal).

Shorsh Haji, Gorran’s spokesperson, criticized the move toward the independence referendum labeling it as “party-based and an illegal process.”

However, PM Barzani, left the door open for Gorran and Komal, stating, “This procedure does not belong to one political party but all the people of Kurdistan.”

“It is the responsibility of all parties and components in the Kurdistan Region to participate,” he added.

Originally, the PUK was aligned to the Gorran opposition, that reactivation of Parliament was a key precondition before passing legislature on an independence referendum.

In fact, Gorran has an alliance agreement with the PUK, which has largely not been implemented. Both the PUK and Gorran have had their share of internal uncertainty in recent times.

The influential figurehead of Gorran, Nawshirwan Mustafa, tragically passed away last month.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the PUK has been beset with internal leadership squabbles that saw them lose their traditional dominant role as the largest political party alongside the KDP.

The evolving and fluid political climate highlights the desperate need for elections, scheduled for later this year, to be held on time.

New elections and a new gauge of public sentiment are needed to reinvigorate the political landscape and drive Kurdistan forward at this crucial historical juncture.

A functioning Parliament is vital for any healthy democracy. It represents the mandate of the people. The UK is a great example of how snap elections were recently held to renew political orders.

Current UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who assumed the top post following David Cameron’s resignation last year after the UK decision to leave the EU, announced snap elections to give her a strong mandate in exit negotiations with the EU.

Ironically, May’s hand was weakened as the Conservatives lost their majority, revealing a different public sentiment to what she assumed. Nonetheless, this underlines the need for partisan politics to reflect the evolving opinion of the electorate.

Every vote for any party is a reflection of the will of the people. Every political party has a mandate to serve the people but also ensure that mandate continues to be reflective of the will of the people.

The Kurdistan Parliament has been effectively in recess since October 2015, when KDP blocked speaker of Parliament Yousif Mohammed from returning to Erbil, after several demonstrations in Sulaimani Province turned violent with KDP offices torched, resulting in several deaths.

The government itself took almost seven months to form after elections in September 2013, highlighting the tense political climate.

Ideally, the Kurdistan Parliament would have endorsed the independence referendum.

Nevertheless, the issue of self-determination, something the Kurds have been waiting for over a century, goes above partisan politics or any intra-party jockeying.

It’s a national issue and a national right, and all parties, including Gorran, should put national interests first, even if some preconditions have not been met.

This doesn’t excuse the political stalemate since 2015 but, critically, the Kurds need to look to the future and not open old wounds that have not healed between all parties.

Just as elections in Europe see a changing political picture based on the sentiment of the electorate, elections later this year gives the Kurdistan Region renewed impetus on implementing a government that reflects the will of the people.

It’s far from certain how people will vote, and the political parties will need to orchestrate strong campaigns to persuade voters. And, this is how it should be in any healthy democracy.

In early May, Jaafar Ibrahim, KDP politburo member and deputy speaker of Kurdistan’s Parliament, stated, “There is good understating with respect to the question of reactivating the Parliament. I, therefore, think the Parliament will be reactivated in a month.”

A month later, there is still no sign of Parliament reconvening, with one option touted as reactivating the assembly without the current speaker.

However, the efforts and controversy of reactivating a full or partial Congress, should not dissuade from the focus on holding a successful independence referendum and then elections on time.

A lack of unity has often blighted the Kurdish cause. Without a united political front for the sake of national interests, and with many opposing sides determined to derail the Kurdish drive toward independence, Kurdish aspirations will be hampered once more.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel is a London-based freelance writer and analyst whose primary focus and expertise is on the Kurds, Iraq, and current Middle Eastern affairs.

With eyes on statehood, Kurdistan bolsters ties with Russia

The visit of a high-ranking Kurdish delegation led by the Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to Russia had several short and long-term goals.

On the one hand, it reinforced the already strong relations, especially in the battle to defeat the Islamic State (IS), but Kurdish eyes were also on the upcoming independence referendum scheduled for later this year.

As a dominant global power and a major influence in the region, Russian support is vital for Kurdish aspirations and ensuring its prosperity both now and in the future.

Russian backing also provides the Kurds a powerful alternative gateway to the regional players such as Baghdad and Ankara but also diversifies the Kurdish reliance on the US.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the US have enjoyed strong relations, especially since 2003. However, too often the Kurds have suffered under the US’ obsession with a united Iraq.

Its “one-Iraq” policy has seen Washington lean toward appeasing Baghdad, often at the expense of giving the KRG too much support or legitimacy.

One of these key factors was the lack of US endorsement for independent Kurdish hydrocarbon exploration and exportation deals signed with foreign companies, after pressure from Baghdad. The KRG may have pursued with its oil policy regardless, but this offered a major constraint.

Facing a difficult economic crisis over the past three years, the KRG deal with Russian giant Rosneft, reportedly the largest signed at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg (SPIEF), provides Kurdistan with new leverage and breathes life and renewed credibility into the Kurdish oil sector that was stagnating.

The Rosneft statement detailed the signing of a series of documents aimed to expand cooperation between the two parties “in exploration and production of hydrocarbons, commerce, and logistics.”

“The Parties signed an investment agreement under which they committed to develop cooperation in exploration and production, agreed on monetization of the export oil pipeline in [the Kurdistan Region], as well as entered into a number of production sharing agreements,” read the Rosneft report

PM Barzani declared a new state of bilateral relations had begun between the KRG and Russia in all aspects, following meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the unveiling of the historic oil deal with Rosneft.

The PM stated that “this is certainly a sign of restoring trust after all these years of problems in the Kurdistan Region, especially the budget cut, the war on [IS], and 1.8 million refugees.”

“I think this is, after all these problems, a good beginning for the restoration of trust in the markets of Kurdistan,” he continued.

“We hope this marks the beginning of further agreements with countries in the energy and all other sectors,” PM Barzani added.

On his visit, PM Barzani reaffirmed that Kurdistan’s independence referendum is one of the KRG’s priorities.

The major deal with Rosneft, under the auspices of Putin, provides indirect endorsement to a future Kurdish state.

In December, Putin emphasized Russia’s “special and very good relationship with the Kurds” while responding to a Kurdistan24 reporter.

With Putin further adding, “Ultimately, the legitimate rights of the Kurds will be ensured, but what will be the form and how it depends on Iraqis and Kurds themselves.”

The deal was naturally met with apprehension from Baghdad. But, fighting a bitter sectarian war and engulfed in the battle against IS, Baghdad is experiencing a weak hand in provinces under their control, let alone in Kurdistan.

However, the deal did face some criticism from opposition circles at home.

The Change Movement (Gorran), Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU, Yekgirtu), Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal), and Kurdistan Islamic Movement (KIM), issued a statement declaring: “The Rosneft agreement should not have been signed in the absence of the parliament’s observation and interpretation.”

“It is impossible not to know how much discount the Kurdistan Region has made for the price of oil to Rosneft,” the joint statement continued.

“It is impossible not to know in what way Rosneft will become partner or possessor in these five oilfields, and for how many years the deal is,” the report added.

In any case, the finer details of the agreement are expected to take months of ironing out before contracts can be signed.

Despite the objections, the opportunity for lucrative and possibly game-changing energy deals with major powers such as Russia is difficult to turn down, especially with an upcoming referendum, a tough economic climate, and with an energy sector that has been lagging in recent years.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Manchester terror attack instilled unity, rejected religious discrimination

On May 22, the UK suffered its deadliest terror attack since the events of 7/7 in 2005. The suicide bomb attack at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena killed 22 innocent civilians, several of them children, and injured another 119.

The attack was described by UK Prime Minister Theresa May as “among the worst terrorist incidents [the UK had] ever experienced.”

Such terrorist attacks naturally strike fear and raise countless questions: What did security services know about the attackers? Could they have done more to stop the attacks? Where will the terrorists strike next?

As the nation was left stunned by the barbaric incident, such events can bring unity or drive a wedge with the Islamic community and heighten discrimination, something the attacks try to inspire.

However, the attack by the radicalized Briton of Libyan decent, Salman Abedi, served to unite the country.

Terrorism and Islam are often used side-by-side, and such implications are a prelude to religious divide in the West.

Ironically, Abedi’s family ran to the sanctuary of the UK from the dictatorial regime of Colonel Gaddafi. The freedoms Abedi and his family enjoyed in the UK could not be replicated in Libya today, let alone under Gaddafi.

The UK is a place of harmony and co-existence between dozens of ethnic communities and religions.

The actions of Abedi and his terrorist network constitutes a very small minority that does not represent Islam.

Calls by some popular figures in the country that the Islamic community should do more is a narrow-minded motion.

The actions of a few extremists, who managed to slip through the complex UK security network, should not be pinned on the lack of action from the Islamic community.

The response of the Muslim community was to greatly condemn the attack, organize vigils, and show solidary in Mosques with ubiquitous posters of “We love MCR.”

Displays of defiance from the Muslim community dispel the goal of terrorists to promote the concept that such attacks are sanctioned by Islam.

Ironically, the greatest victims of terrorist attacks in general by Islamic groups are Muslims themselves.

Divisive rhetoric or policies as a response to terror attacks or threats from the Islamic State (IS) pushes communities further apart and, more importantly, leads to public misinformation about the foundations and spirit of Islam.

Such rhetoric was a cornerstone of US President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, leading to an outcry that did more harm than good for the values of democracy and pluralism of the US.

Recently, Trump refrained from one of his favorite phrases, “radical Islamic terrorism,” a term rejected by many.

Trump’s attempts to impose a travel ban on citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries hit a stumbling block in US federal courts with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals stating the proposal “drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.”

Trump may have recently toned down his rhetoric connecting terrorism and Islam, but his Ramadan address was still dominated by the battle against terrorism.

The White House statement read: “This year, the holiday begins as the world mourns the innocent victims of barbaric terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom and Egypt, acts of depravity that are directly contrary to the spirit of Ramadan.”

The report added that “such acts only steel our resolve to defeat the terrorists and their perverted ideology.”

The statement reiterated a key part of Trump’s message on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, “America will always stand with our partners against terrorism and the ideology that fuels it.”

Islam is not a threat; it is the rhetoric that stereotypes Muslims based on the extremist actions of a few.

In contrast to Trump, George W. Bush’s Ramadan statement in 2001 did not mention terrorism at all, just months after 9/11.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s attempts to connect Britain’s involvement in military action abroad and such terror attacks in Manchester, was largely rebuked.

The perpetrators of the Manchester attacks were part of a small circle. The violence should not be an excuse for the UK to regress from its global obligations in the battle against terror.

Moreover, extremist ideology can come from anywhere, not just Islam. The decades of deadly IRA attacks on the UK is one such example.

As sickening as the attacks in Manchester were, the West should not ignore that terrorist attacks anywhere are unfortunate and sorrowful.

Days after the Manchester attack, militants in Egypt killed at least 28 Coptic Christians, which received little coverage.

Victims of terror span across religions and ethnicities and the war on terror is not linked to one country or continent. It requires global and regional unity.

Today, the Kurdistan Region finds itself at the forefront of the fight against IS.

Supporting regional forces such as the Peshmerga is the most effective way to ensure peace in the UK and the West, not just through localized reactions in respective countries.

First Published: Kurdistan 24