Kurds must look within to secure future

Kurdistan is crossing through a unique and sensitive juncture, yet lack of unity is threatening to hamper the region at a crucial time.

With Kurdistan at war with the Islamic State (IS), experiencing unprecedented economic crisis, and housing nearly two million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees in an increasingly volatile region, the challenges are already high.

However, the constant bickering between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Change Movement (Gorran), at this vital time undermines Kurdish goals and aspirations.

The Kurdistan government took just shy of seven months to form in 2014 after Kurdistan parliamentary elections in September 2013, underscoring the fragile makeup of the coalition cabinet.

Deep divisions over the state of the presidency, protests in October 2015 that turned violent with KDP offices getting torched and the subsequent prevention of parliament speaker from Gorran, Yousif Mohammed, from entering Erbil, culminated in the political standoff that remains today.

There have been various attempts to find a political breakthrough but the political parties have mainly blamed each other for the stand-off and lack of progress.

Kurdistan Region President, Masoud Barzani, recently urged political parties to kick start negotiations to resolve the current deadlock. The president urged the political parties “to solve the current crisis…activate the parliament and elect a new presidency,”

However, Barzani stressed that “it is not possible for those who have been the source of the crisis, remain in the chair of the parliament.”

The deadlock has seen a threat of a return to the dual administration of the past with KDP on one side and PUK and Gorran on the other. There has been notable differences in their respective approaches to working with Baghdad, relations with Ankara and Tehran, policies on Syrian Kurdistan region, handling of oil revenues and budgets and even moves towards independence.

Gorran’s suggestion of governorates establishing direct relations with Baghdad would merely intensify these divisions in Kurdistan and would undermine the hard fought Kurdish gains.

The new initiative by President Barzani is a welcome step to thaw tensions and end the deadlock. However, giving the likely nature of a slow process of compromise and with legislative and presidential elections set for 2017, Kurdistan may well have to wait for next elections to achieve a breakthrough.

Kurdish parties cannot afford to focus on short-term measures to bridge divides. Greater unity, especially outside of Kurdistan borders, should be a red line if Kurdistan wants to achieve its long-term dreams.

The new historical passage for the Kurds amidst the unravelling Middle East places Kurdistan into a dominant strategic position and ever closer to independence.

However achieving statehood, the dream of all Kurds, is a lofty task if the region itself cannot find greater unity, a shared vision and a long-term strategy when it’s facing grave security dangers and economic crises.

The imperial powers had already tainted Kurdistan by forcefully dividing and annexing the Kurdish regions to neighbouring states; however, Kurds are not helping themselves with further divisions in the respective segments.

Kurds are already looking across to see how the United States President-elect Donald Trump could benefit the Kurdish position. But with globalization on the decline, a new anti-establishment mindset in the US, rising Russian influence and the European Union braced for right-wing revivals, the world is braced for more change and unpredictability.

As history has proven, Western interests will always be through the narrow lens of their governments. At the same time, Kurds should not expect Baghdad, Ankara or Tehran to come running to solve their economic crisis or defend their region.

A polarized Kurdistan, faced with economic difficulties, increasing social unrest and political deadlock will only undermine the Kurdish position.

These unique historical junctures do not come often. After suffering for decades under repressive regimes and a second class status, Kurds are in a position to rewrite their own destiny. This is an opportunity that they dare not waste.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Turkey’s migrant card coerces EU

Relations between the European Union (EU) and Turkey have often been weighed-down by the political, social and religious divide. Turkey has been trying to join the bloc for decades with formal accession talks starting in 2006. However, the non-binding decision by the European Parliament (EP) to suspend accession talks last week was a symbolic blow to relations and also threatened irreparable damage to the vital migrant deal.

The migrant deal agreed in March 2016 served as a landmark between the EU and Turkey. Not only did it stem the flow of thousands Syrian refugees that led to a massive crisis across the EU, but it set the foundation for a reinvigoration of ties.

As part of the agreement, Turkey would move to seal its border and receive financial aid in return. Crucially, Turkey would also get via-free access to the Schengen area and an acceleration of accession talks if certain conditions could be met by Turkey, including amendment of its tough anti-terror laws.

Even after the deal was struck, there was a level of unease between both sides and an increasing negative rhetoric.

However, after the failed coup in July, the Turkish landscape transformed on many fronts. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took drastic action at the coup-plotters and this lead to a wide crackdown of opposition circles and the media which shocked the EU.

This saw an increase in the language of threats on both sides. Ankara was disappointed with lack of a strong EU response to the failed coup and has seemingly ignored most of the criticism from EU over its crackdown and in turn looked to build new bridges with Russian and its eastern frontier as a warning to NATO and the EU.

Erdogan even threatened to extend the state of emergency, stating this is a decision for Turkey whilst telling the EP “What’s it to you… Know your place!”

With Turkey even threatening to reintroduce the death penalty, Turkey clearly lacks the conviction of joining the EU at any price.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim downplayed the decision by the EP as having “no significance as far as we are concerned.” Whilst Erdogan warned the EU that they could reinforce their relations to the East and join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), “The EU has been delaying us for 53 years. Why shouldn’t Turkey be in the Shanghai five?”

Turkey’s vital strategic position as a major power straddling Europe and Asia and serving as a gateway the Middle East meant that it was always going to have huge importance to the EU. But having a predominantly Islamic based Turkey as a full member of what many perceive as a ‘Christian club’ was seemingly a bridge too far.

More importantly, Turkey needed to drastically narrow the gap of EU requirements if it was ever going to seriously become a full member of the EU. And this gap, widening as ever, demonstrates the great difficulties of seeing a country, that borders Iraq, Iran and Syria and with its different values and political landscape of ever joining the EU.

Over the years, EU powers had to manoeuvre around their strategic reliance on Ankara with any criticism of its anti-terror laws, restrictions on freedoms and especially the treatment of its Kurdish population. The arrest of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leaders might have been a final straw that led to the EP vote.

An example of the cautious nature of the EU towards Turkey is the response of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, to the EP decision. On the one hand, he urged EU member to “refrain from giving lessons” to Turkey on the refugee crisis as Turkey was taking a greater burden then Europe on the matter but at same time he warned Turkey that they must abide by migrant deal, and stop the authoritarian treatment of its citizens or be responsible for the consequences.

Whilst acknowledging democratic progress under Erdogan until 2014, Junker beloved that in the past two years, Turkey has “distanced itself from European principles and value.”

An angry Erdogan threatened to “open the border gates” and flood the EU with thousands of migrants if the EP went any further. This would spell obvious disaster for EU and is a scenario that no one in Europe wants to see.

One of the anxious EU leaders was German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she urged both Europeans and Turkey to meet commitments.  Whilst Merkel insisted the agreement is in the mutual interest of both sides, in reality it is Europe without a Plan B and that remains highly concerned by a new influx of refugees that stands to really lose.

However, how long does the EU continue bend in its ideals and freedoms, which it openly acknowledges are not matched in Ankara, in appeasing Turkey?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

US depends on Kurds once more in Raqqa offensive

As the battle to liberate Mosul gathers steam, the US-led coalition facilitated plans for the liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State (IS) with the launch of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates. However, Syria is no Iraq, and the Raqqa offensive adds to the already complex Syrian landscape.

As the operation began, the US-led coalition was seemingly forced to rely on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as its best chance of success.

Highlighting this point, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend stated, “…the only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion.”

The coalition had to act quickly for many reasons: To capitalise on IS losses in Iraq, to prevent retreated IS forces from remobilising and to prevent IS attacks on European soil.

Kyle Orton, Syria and Middle Eastern analyst with the Henry Jackson Society, told Kurdistan 24 that “the US has prioritised timing in the Raqqa operation – it wants it done as quickly as possible – and the tactical reality there is that the YPG is the only force positioned to do it.”

On a phone call to the US President Barack Obama, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted, “we do not need terrorist organisations like the PYD and YPG in the Raqqa operation. Let us work together to sweep Daesh from Raqqa.”

But in defiance of frequently harsh rhetoric from Ankara owed to the US reliance and support of YPG forces, the US has decided to go with the Kurds again.

The US finds itself in an awkward corner; it has acknowledged the sensitives of Ankara but at the same time does not have a plethora of choices at a critical juncture. Further, it has tried to appease Turkey into playing a role in the Raqqa offensive alongside the Kurds, but Turkey rejected the idea.

Nabeel Khoury, an analyst at Atlantic Council’s Hariri Centre for Middle East At, told Kurdistan 24 that YPG and Ankara could be convinced to work together against a common enemy in IS “with good diplomacy and inducements”. According to Khoury, “the two friends of the U.S. will have to work together, albeit in limited and prescribed roles for this campaign to succeed.”

However, Orton believes “it is highly doubtful that the Turks and the YPG can be convinced to work together. The announcement of the Raqqa operation is itself a means of the YPG gaining a political advantage over Turkey. The interests of Turkey and the YPG simply vary too widely to imagine a convergence that would allow cooperation.”

This begs the question, could the US forgo the Kurds and rely on the Turkish-backed forces?

Any Turkish troops leading a charge into Raqqa would inevitably cut through Kurdish-held territory sparking the possibility of conflict with the Kurds, which would jeopardise Kurdish cooperation with the coalition.

Syrian rebels are too weak without Turkish backing, and in reality, their priority remains the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and aiding their fellow rebels under siege in Aleppo.

At the same time, Raqqa is not a top priority for the YPG. Had they had a choice, Kurds would have preferred to focus on expanding their territory westwards towards Afrin, instead of an Arab-dominated city that they cannot hold.

The Kurds have sought assurances that they are not stabbed in the back by Turkey in sacrificing forces for the Raqqa assault.

The US-led coalition has openly acknowledged that they would prefer an Arab force, as does Turkey, to lead the charge into Raqqa with the Kurdish forces mainly working to seal off the city. However, such a force does not exist and training one will take time.

The US general, Joseph Dunford, acknowledged “we always knew the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa. What we are working on right now is to find the right mix of forces for the operation”. But it is proving almost impossible, especially since Turkey remains reluctant.

European Ministers such as Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, have warned that the liberation of the Raqqa would have to be done by an “essentially Arab” force to avoid a local backlash.

In essence, the coalition has little choice but to continue to rely on Kurdish forces. However, as YPG seemingly gathers more strategic strength and perhaps more territory, this opens the door to further violence and instability once IS are gone.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Arrest of HDP leaders fuels vicious cycle of violence

The controversial arrest of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdagalong along with ten other MPs for alleged links to terrorism ramped up an already tense climate in the predominantly Kurdish south east.

These arrests, as part of a greater crackdown on dissidents and opposition forces in the aftermath of the failed July coup in Turkey under a state of emergency, places a fresh cloud over Turkey while threatening further polarization and fuelling the vicious cycle of violence.

When the Turkish parliament voted to lift the immunity of MPs from prosecution in May, the HDP were key targets of this bill and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made no secret of this. In an apparent reference to the HDP, Erdogan stated “my nation does not want to see guilty lawmakers in this country’s parliament. Above all, it does not want to see those supported by the separatist terror group in parliament.”

With the arrest of HDP MPs, Erdogan has followed up his tough rhetoric with firm action. However, the notion of “guilty” under the framework of punitive terror laws in Turkey is always bound to stir tension.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have frequently accused the HDP of been an extension of the PKK, a claim that they have denied.

Demirtas stated after his arrest “in these days where our country is pushed further into darkness, our illegal arrest only served to intensify the darkness.” The HDP announced a boycott of parliament in response to the arrests.

The HDP is not just a small party. It made history by becoming the first Kurdish party to break the 10% parliamentary threshold, and with 59 seats, it is the third largest bloc.

The HDP is not the first Kurdish group to suffer under shadows of the PKK. Many Kurdish parties have been closed for alleged links to the PKK.

But with strong support amongst Kurds, accusing HDP of been an arm of a terrorist group is akin to charging millions of their voters of been terrorists.

The aged—old Kurdish question remains a sensitive topic and too often Kurdish nationalism is intertwined with supporting the PKK. It has been almost impossible for pro-Kurds not to be labelled as separatists or inciting terrorism.

However, such views only serve to strengthen the polarization of the country. The millions of Kurds need a way between the PKK, whom clearly not all Kurds support and harsh government policies.

The HDP could have been a bridge, and as witnessed with its widespread support, many had hoped that the HDP could herald a new era for Kurdish politics in Turkey.

The Kurdish issue needed a political stage in a state of peace. HDP was a vital interlocutor at the height of the peace talks. Though it seemed closer than ever before, the ceasefire collapsed, and violence resumed in 2015.

The end of the ceasefire helped AKP to garner nationalist voters and ultimately helped the AKP win a majority at the snap elections. At the same time, it benefited those in the PKK who did not favor disarmament.

Now these arrest threatens more violence and closes the political platform for Kurds.

Similar moves to remove immunity in the 1990s did not pacify security fears in Turkey led to some of the worst violence at the time.

These latest arrests may strengthen Erdogan’s hands. Firstly, it dilutes opposition voices in parliament with a likely vote on adoption of a presidential system. Secondly, if the HDP fails to achieve 10% threshold in the future, the AKP may secure more seats.

As the snap elections proved, the PKK is a ubiquitous noose around the HDP. As the violence resumed, the HDP lost many seats in parliament compared to their June electing fairing. AKP strives to deal the HDP a further political blow.

The PKK may retaliate to these arrests with an escalation of violence, which will embolden hawks in Ankara and justify the need for strict security and terror laws leading to a continued deadlock.

The European Union and the United States expressed their concern over the arrests. Martin Schulz, European Parliament President, expressed that the arrests “call into question the basis for the sustainable relationship between the EU and Turkey.”

However, Turkish leaders hit back at the criticism. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim vowed that “politics can’t be a shield for committing crimes”, whilst Erdogan brushed off the criticism and accused the EU of “abetting terrorism.”

As the middle ground and diplomatic channels seems to fade in Turkey, the vicious cycle of bloodshed over the last 3 decades that has benefited no side and produced no clear victor will merely.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

There was never an ideal time in eliminating IS

With the Islamic State (IS) entrenched in Mosul and parts of Iraq since 2014, its reign of terror in Iraq’s second largest city has been almost unhindered. So when the long-awaited battle to liberate the city finally arrived, for many it could not have come soon enough, yet others argue that the battle could have been launched prematurely.

The planning for the liberation of the city has been protracted, bogged down by lengthy negotiations between various sides.

In many ways, these delays, as much as it meant that IS could commit further atrocities and solidify its control over the cities, were unavoidable.

There are a number of angles to this, not least the military side of the equation. The Iraqi army suffered an embarrassing defeat against IS and in many ways, it was the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces that were instrumental in stopping IS on the doorsteps of Baghdad and later in reclaiming lands.

The Iraqi forces needed to take stock, rebuild and revamp its image. Going into Mosul prematurely, especially if it meant a further embarrassing defeat for Baghdad and the Iraqi forces would have been catastrophic.

Both the Iraqi and Kurdish forces needed logistical and military support against a well-armed and well-prepared enemy.

The humanitarian element cannot be ignored; any battle needs meticulous planning to avoid mass civilian casualties. If the human cost was too high, then this would forever stain any victory and worsen local animosity.

Then there is the political angle. Without addressing the fragmented ethno-sectarian landscape that fuelled the advance of IS, Iraqis could not claim a decisive victory and this has proved tough.

Any force needs to be balanced based on these ethno-sectarian sensitivities. The Coalition forces, Kurds, Shia or Sunnis could not take a unilateral role in the liberation or the post IS era.

These elements take time and even today there isn’t a comprehensive agreement on the future make-up of Mosul. However, as the post-2003 Iraq has proved that political agreements in Iraq can take an indefinite amount of time if agreements are achieved at all.

Iraqis and the coalition could not wait endlessly to resolve every aspect and there was never a ‘perfect’ time for any operation. The fact that the battle was eventually launched weeks before US presidential elections and end of Barack Obama’s tenure was bound to stoke the conspiracy theorists, none more so than presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Trump had strongly criticized the US-led offensive in Mosul as losing the “the element of surprise” and thus allowing IS leaders to escape. “Why don’t we just go in quietly, right?” Trump decried.

Furthermore, Trump alleged that the timing of the offensive was designed to boost Hillary Clinton’s campaign and make her “look good.”

A victory in Mosul would indeed spell a good ending for Obama and a warmer beginning for Clinton, but it’s hardly that simple or predictable.

Against a well-armed, motivated and unpredictable enemy such as IS, no one can guess how the battle would unfold or impact the presidential elections. Ironically, it could suit both presidential candidates. For example, if the Mosul battle takes a turn for the worse, the Trump camp could well capitalize.

Iraqi, Kurdish and Coalition forces have stressed the importance of thorough planning many times over the past 2 years. U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter indicated in February 2015 that success was more important than timing in any attempts to take Mosul.

Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has long emphasized that “the post-liberation period must be prepared for” to avoid a repeat of these tragedies.

In terms of the element of surprise, it’s almost impossible given the complex landscape. Given the difficulty in capturing cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit that were much smaller than Mosul, any operation needed a sizable force.

It’s hardly possible to discreetly deploy thousands of troops, tanks, and weapons. The IS defence needs to be gradually softened through airstrikes and blocking their supply lines. Any brazen and miscalculated offensive would result in high casualties and hit morale.

This was highlighted by a Mark Kimmitt, a retired army general and former senior Pentagon official, “Strategic surprise is rarely accomplished, but tactical surprise — the how and where of low-level attacks — is kept secret.”

More importantly, civilians needed to be given every opportunity to escape the ensuing violence.

And IS leaders are more intelligent than to wait to be picked off by coalition forces, especially if they escape through mainly barren lands to Syria.

There was a never going to be a perfect timing or political environment to suit all parties. Even today, there are many looming dangers of a post IS Iraq that are unaddressed. Either way, getting rid of the tyranny of IS did not come a day too soon.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Turkish jockeying for influence in Iraq

As the much anticipated battle for Mosul final began, the number of parties vying for a key role in the battle underscores the diverse and complicated ethno-sectarian landscape. Turkey, determined to protect its own interests, is intent on playing a key hand. However, relations between Ankara and Baghdad have become frosty and fueled by mistrust, whilst Kurds are in a difficult position between both sides.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, telling him to “know his place” before adding “you are not my equal.”

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim threatened Baghdad “not to talk big.”

The presence of Turkish troops at the Bashiqa camp in Iraq has led to deep friction and increasingly tough rhetoric.

Turkish forces have been training predominantly Sunni Muslim forces but also Kurdish Peshmerga forces since 2014. However, relations between Baghdad and Ankara worsened in December 2015 as Turkey sent hundreds of elite troops and tanks to bolster its existing force.

Ankara has insisted that the Turkish troops were deployed at the request of Iraq to train their fighters but Baghdad has viewed them as an occupying force.

Turkey is keen on ensuring that Sunni militias it has trained play a key role to dilute the influence of Baghdad and the powerful Shia militias aligned to Iran in the Post Islamic State (IS) era. The sectarian animosity in Syria and Iraq are very much interlinked.

The Kurds find themselves vital to the liberation of Mosul, but face a somewhat tricky position between Baghdad and Ankara.

The Kurds enjoy strong economic ties with Turkey with independent oil exports enabled by Turkey. In needs Turkish support to maintain economic prosperity, security, Kurdish control of areas liberated from IS and later even outright independence. Therefore, it cannot be an obstacle to Turkish interests. At the same time, Erbil cannot afford to antagonise Baghdad.

As Iraq struggles for any sense of unity, Turkey relies on the Kurds and Sunnis to serve its regional and strategic interests, away from any dependence on Baghdad.

The Turkish military intervention in Syria, after years of criticism that it was sitting on the fence, showed a new willingness for Turkey to play a more proactive hand in determining the outcome of regional storms.

It was faced with a choice. These political and sectarian fires, intensified with the rise of the IS, will forever change the shape of the Middle East. Either Turkey tries to influence these historical events to its benefit or such events force a new reality on Turkey.

The growing power and autonomy of the Syrian Kurds, where Turkey alleges their main force to be the same as the PKK, is a great example of an idle Turkey forced to face such realities.

Erdogan warned that they will take action they deem required to protect their interest, “we don’t need permission from anyone, nor are we going to ask for it.”

In no uncertain terms, Erdogan made clear that Turkish forces will not leave Bashiqa. The decision by Turkish parliament to extend the mandate of the forces in Iraq underpins the long-term role that Ankara views in Iraq.

“We will convey our request to coalition forces that we are determined to take our place in a coalition in Iraq. If they don’t want us, our Plan B will come into effect.” Erdogan said.

That Plan B is not clear, but if Turkey is not allowed to join the coalition in Iraq, then they will take matters into their hand. They are likely to bolster their existing force, embolden Sunni forces to play a crucial role and perhaps endorse the expanded Kurdistan borders.

Equally, Baghdad is likely to have its own Plan B, including the possibility of increased support to PKK or allowing the PKK a role in the Mosul battle.

By virtue of Erdogan’s statement, it’s not just about the liberation of Mosul but also the post IS reality that he wants to protect via direct force or certainly through further training of Sunni forces.

The eventual destruction of IS will end one danger but bring many dangers in its wake, not least potential for another influx of refugees from Mosul and regional proxy wars for sectarian supremacy.

Kurdistan also needs long-term stability in the area as it will face the direct heat of more sectarian bloodshed on its border.

Turkey is unlikely to withdraw their forces, certainly not at the request of Baghdad, placing the United Stated into a tough corner with two vital allies. On the one hand it must support the notion of a unified Iraq and thus central influence of Baghdad, but it can do little to influence the Turks, Kurds, Sunni and Shia, all with different goals and a level of autonomy in their decision making.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

The courage of Nadia Murad and recognizing crimes

The fate of the thousands of Yezidi’s under the hands of Islamic State (IS) has come to epitomize the brutality of the group. Thanks to the courage and determination of Nadia Murad and some prominent Western figures, the plight of the Yezidi community may finally receive the international focus it deserves.

Over two years since the atrocities in Sinjar, thousands of Yezidi girls remain under barbaric condition as sex slaves. In addition to the thousands of women and girls, thousands more men and boys were systematically slaughtered.

Murad, is a young Yezidi who was captured by IS in 2014. She witnessed the murder of six of her brothers before she was subjected to sexual and physical abuse along with thousands of other girls. She was sold as a slave a number of times before managing to escape.

The bravery of Murad and her determination to the take the Yezidi plight first hand to the international arena saw her travel to Europe and the United States. She recounted her experience first-hand to international audiences, including the UN Security Council in December 2015 where she briefed the first ever session on human trafficking on her experiences.

Murad stated at the time, “their cruelty was not merely opportunistic. The ISIS soldiers came with a pre-established policy to commit such crimes.”

Fitting of Murad’s courage and efforts to highlight the crimes against the Yezidi, she was announced in September as the United Nations’ first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Nadia that “there is no greater testament to human resilience and the spirit of solidarity than the strength, dignity, and extraordinary courage you show everyday in telling your story and working for a better world.”

Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani congratulated Murad on her appointment and vowed to provide her all the support she needs.

Recounting her story at the United Nations upon her appointment, she urged the Islamic world to stand with her against IS before adding “I call the international community to take actions and rescue Yezidi captives.”

Renowned Human Rights lawyer Amal Clooney has been instrumental in highlighting the Yezidi plight in spite of the obvious threats to her safety this entails. A high profile figure such as Clooney, who now represents Murad, brings much needed clout in efforts to recognise the genocide against the Yezidi.

Sitting side-by-side with Nadia at the United Nations, Amal denounced IS’s “bureaucracy of evil” and the “industrial scale” of IS crimes against the Yezidis.

Clooney stated her shame as a lawyer that nothing was being done about IS crimes and her shame as a woman that the likes of Nadia could endure such abuse.

Whilst the suffering of the Yezidis is beginning to receive the attention it deserves, it should not mask the lack of action from the international community. It has now been over two years since the acts of genocide took place and the Western powers only reacted in August 2014 when the crimes had long been committed.

Furthermore, it begs the question whether Western powers could have done more to prevent the rapid rise of IS in the first place.

The fact that thousands of girls remain in IS custody is a stain on the international community. There is little doubt that the reaction would have been much fiercer if the captured girls were of American or European descent.

Murad summed up perfectly when she addressed a recent UN refugee and migrants summit, “if beheading, sexual enslavement, child rape, if all those acts will not force you to act, what will?”

First Published: Kurdistan 24

 

Stability of Mosul after liberation requires a political solution

After months of planning, the much-anticipated battle for Mosul is expected to arrive in the coming weeks. Not only will the liberation of Mosul prove a bloody and attritional struggle, but the political future of Nineveh province is unclear.

For every day that Iraqi forces have prepared for the offense, IS has been planning its own systemic defense with oil filled trenches, complex tunnels, and widespread booby-traps.

Without a long-term plan to appease various sides, especially the restive Sunni population, the future of Mosul will prove as contentious and complicated as its eventual liberation.

Mosul has been a hotbed of al-Qaeda and Sunni fueled insurgency since 2003. The ability of IS to gain support from the disenchanted Sunnis and form loose alliances with various Sunni militant groups was the key to its success.

The basis of these alliances was greater hatred of the Shiite-led government than any real affinity with IS. This fact was underscored by the Sunni demonstrations against the Shia hegemony of power and the marginalization policies of the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Without addressing the root-causes of Sunni animosity and discontent, Baghdad could end up at square one.

Owing to the fragmented and fractured Iraq, Mosul and the surrounding regions requires a long-term solution that can finally provide a sense of equilibrium between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias.

US President Barack Obama echoed this sentiment as he stressed to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that Mosul needed stability and rebuilding so that IS and its “extremist ideology born out of desperation will not return.”

The various forces taking part in the liberation of Mosul tells its own story. Kurdish Peshmerga, who have played a vital role in pushing back IS, will play a key role as will the Iraqi forces, Sunni tribal militias, and Shia Popular Mobilization Units. This is augmented by Iranian elements that will directly or indirectly support the operation, thousands of US Special Forces, and a multi-national force patrolling the skies.

It makes great reading on paper – Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds join forces in a national struggle. But it’s anything but a united effort, and even a central command is difficult to establish. Arabs remain as opposed to Kurdish forces entering the city as they are with IS remaining, the Shia militia forces are looked upon by great distrust from large sections of the local Sunni population and Baghdad remains worried of empowering Sunni militias.

Then there is a question of who retains control of a predominantly and restive Sunni province.

Nineveh is one of the most divided areas in Iraq and as such as the security forces holding the fort once IS is ousted must reflect this.

The boundaries of the Nineveh province must change to reflect the ethnosectarian reality. Large sections of the province are already part of the Kurdistan Region; the borders must be redrawn to ensure that the realities on the ground are reflected in the political and security apparatus.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces should continue to control the liberated Kurdish areas until a referendum can be held. It is important that the fate of disputed territories is resolved on a legal basis to provide stability. Ultimately, an autonomous Sunni federal region should be established and local Sunni tribes need empowerment to keep security in their own areas.

It was the Sunni Awakening Councils, local Sunnis armed and paid under the auspices of the U.S. that proved the turning point in driving out al-Qaeda between 2007 and 2008.

Sectarian mistrust destabilized the region. This time, Baghdad must take heed and make concessions in the post-IS era. Without a political solution, the city will ultimately return to instability and violence.

Baghdad has been busy rebuilding the Iraqi Army for the second time since 2003, yet Shia militia remains the strongest Arab based force. This fact underscores that a national army is hard to achieve in a deeply divided state.

The danger now after 13 years of bloodshed and Sunni marginalization is that Baghdad may find it impossible to resurrect the notion of a united Iraq, let alone heal the Gulf of sectarian mistrust and animosity.

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani has emphasized many times for the need of a clear and comprehensive “political plan” for the post-IS era in Mosul.

In the absence of such a plan, the deep-rooted animosity, mistrust and political instability between the various groups in Iraq will quickly extinguish any sense of triumph.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

New ceasefire plan and Kurdish angle in any Syrian settlement

The latest Syrian ceasefire plan between the United States (US) and Russia that was hoped to form the foundations for an elusive peace deal came to an abrubt and controversial end. Much like previous ceasefires, the latest planquickly unravelled as the regime’s forces and the rebel groups violated the agreements. Consequently, any peace plan excluding any of the major components of the Syrian society, including the Syrian Kurds, will likely fail.

If the latest ceasefire was able to hold for  at least a week, the intention was to establish a Russian-US Joint Implementation Centre (JIG) that would see Russia and U.S. in a symbolic coordination of air strikes on Islamic State (IS) and al-Nusra Front targets.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the joint implementation center would allow Russian and US forces to “separate the terrorists from the moderate opposition”. However, agreement on what the terrorist list would include proved a difficult proposition. Moscow and Damascus have long insisted that all groups taking up arms against the regime are terrorists.

Moreover, groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which renamed itself from the al-Nusra Front to distance itself from al-Qaeda, are deeply intertwined with so-called moderates. The task of delineating zones that are permissible for attacks by the new Russian-US command was always going to be challenging.

There are dozens of rebel groups in Syria, and the US will have a difficult job in reigning all these groups, many who are increasingly distrustful of Washington and suspicious about US plans to work directly with the Russians.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had stated that if the deal could be implemented it would “provide a turning point, a moment of change.”

But the multi-pronged Syrian war is far from been straightforward. If upholding a ceasefire was difficult enough, then a long-term peace deal after five years of bloodshed is even more challenging.

And one of these vital angles to any ceasefire agreement and any long-term peace deal is the Syrian Kurds amidst Turkish anxiety.

The Syrian landscape was already complex enough before Turkey’s sudden intervention. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are key allies of the U.S. in the fight against the IS in Syria, but Turkey entered Syria with one eye on IS but with a deeper gaze on pushing back YPG forces that they deem as “terrorists.”

With Turkey venturing deeper into Syria to strike Kurdish positions south of Jarablus, increasing battles between both sides has alarmed the US.

As Russia urged the Kurds and FSA forces to halt fighting, YPG released statements that they intended to abide by the US-Russian  ceasefire agreement. This was unlikely to be reciprocal from Ankara for a group that it deems as terrorists, meaning that there is little prospect of  any calm between YPG and Turkish-backed forces.

Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently hit back at recent concerns raised by Washington and some European powers such as Germany over clashes with Kurdish forces.

Erdogan insisted that they would not allow a “terror corridor” on their border and refuted US claims that YPG forces had relocated east of the Euphrates, “we will not believe that the YPG or PYD crossed east of the Euphrates by listening to statements in the US.”

Turkey has stated they are not in Syria for the long haul, but the pro-Turkish Syrian rebels rely heavily on Turkish support to hold gains, making it inevitable that a “safe-zone” will remain in force.

For any real peace agreement in Syria to last, Turkey, Russia and the US must strike a deal on the Kurds. There appears to be a much better platform for a deal on Syria between Ankara and Moscow.

The recent statement from Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildrim, who stated that after normalizing ties with Russia and Israel, “Turkey has taken a serious initiative to normalise relations with Syria”, highlights this.

Other than terror corridor referred to by Ankara, Kurds rule large parts of northern Syria which Turkey deems as a “terrorist” zone. It is not clear how Turkey intends to tackle this long-term and if the US and Russia will continue to support the Kurds.

In the multi-pronged and intricate Syrian civil war, the principal elements, including the Kurds, must be appeased before any peace deal or ceasefire could ultimately stick.

Can Turkish intervention curtail growing standing of Syrian Kurds?

The already complicated Syrian landscape was given another dose of fuel as Turkish tanks rolled into Syria overrunning the town of Jarablus under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State (IS).

Western powers have long accused Turkey of not doing enough in the fight against IS and in tightening control of its porous border that has served them as a vital gateway. So why did Turkey suddenly intervene?

If the threat was solely IS, Turkey could have invaded years ago. However, Turkey’s real eyes were on curtailing the rapidly expanding territory under the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) who simultaneously became United States’ (US) key ally in the battle against IS.

Hossam Abouzahr, the editor of the Atlantic Council’s Syria Source blog, told Kurdistan24, “Turkey has been planning this move for at least a year.  The fighting between the Turkish and Kurdish forces shows just how serious Turkey is about stopping the Kurds from seizing control of northern Syria.”

Turkey was content as long as IS and YPG forces were locked fighting, the former was a natural way to keep Kurdish aspirations in check.

But with growing US-led coalition support and international recognition, YPG forces have quickly taken a large swathe of territory from IS, including Manbij, west of the Turkish Euphrates red line, and had their eyes set on creating a contiguous Kurdish autonomous region.

The Russian and US support to the Kurds was in contrast to Ankara’ frosty relations with these powers leaving Turkey isolated.

In addition to the loss of territory by its Syrian proxies, and the failed coup, Turkey embarked on a policy of rapprochement with Russia, Iran, Israel and the US.

John Cookson, Chief Correspondent of Arise News, told Kurdistan24 “Turkey has now turned to look East instead of West…An incursion into Syria to crush the Kurds plays well among his base in Istanbul.”

However, Amanda Paul of the European Policy Centre told Kurdistan24 that although there is evidence of a Turkish compromise with Moscow in light of the recent rapprochement, “the Russians were clearly not expecting the scope of Turkey’s current offensive.”

Either way as history has shown, the West could betray the Kurds again.

The thawing of ties between Ankara and Moscow was a stark warning to NATO and the Americans. Now in the quest to entice Ankara, US had to appease Turkey especially with regards to the Kurds.

According to Cookson, “If America has to choose between the Kurds and Turkey, the US will ultimately back Turkey” before adding that like the uprising in Iraqi in 1991, “the Americans will sell the Kurds out.”

For Paul, “Biden’s recent visit was aimed at building bridges.  At the end of the day Turkey is a vital US strategic partner and long-time NATO ally.   While the PYD has been an important partner for the US in Syria it is not comparable to the relationship with Turkey.”

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made clear that “Turkish forces will remain in Syria for as long as it takes to cleanse the border of Islamic State and other militants”.

 

However, Kurdish control west of Euphrates is one thing, and their large and well-entrenched control of the region east of the Euphrates is another.

According to Paul, not only could Turkey become bogged down in Syria but “the current operation is not going to help Turkey’s own Kurdish issue and it is likely to spread furthers enmity toward the Kurdish people in the region.”

However, for the US and its primary focus on defeating IS, the armed confrontation between Turkish and Kurdish forces is a major headache. It can tolerate a limited incursion to appease Ankara, but the boundaries are becoming ever murky. Pentagon warned Turkey to focus on IS and not the Kurdish forces. According to Washington, the YPG had retreated east of the Euphrates as promised but an unconvinced Yildrim vowed, “operations will continue until all threats to Turkish citizens have been eliminated.”

More importantly, there is now a sense of unease between the Kurds and US that would hamper operations against IS further south.

The US spent millions on training moderate forces who quickly failed against IS; hence, it has relied heavily on the Kurds. However, will the new development change the game again?

There are already signs that Turkey will accept a grand bargain to curtail Kurdish advances.

Regardless of any deal between these powers, the Kurds of Syria remain a key component of the Syrian calculus. Their new found autonomy and military might cannot be ignored. Not without wide-scale military intervention, which is a step far for the likes of Turkey and certainly for Syria.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc