How Obama’s red line fiasco breathed new life into the Syrian regime

the U.S., U.K. and France’s retaliatory airstrike on April 21, two weeks after alleged chemical attacks by Bashar Assad’s forces in Douma, was to deter the Syrian regime or force a change of mood, then it looks like a failure. Regime forces are relentlessly continuing their fierce quest to drive out opposition forces in remaining enclaves around Damascus.

As a team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) finally arrived in Douma on April 17 to investigate the alleged chemical attacks, the U.S. and its allies had long made up their minds and attributed blame to the regime.

U.S. President Donald Trump promised to make Assad pay a “big price” for the chemical attacks that left over 40 people dead. However, the fierce rhetoric and threats on social media came well short of eventual military action.

While the missile strikes were greater in number than those ordered by Washington in April 2017, when Western powers were again adamant that only Assad could be responsible for the fatal chemical attack in Khan Sheikoun, the U.S.-led response this time around seemed more sensitive to avoid any action that would incense Russia, or worse still, hit Russian personnel.

This view seems to be confirmed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who stated, “We told them where our red lines were, including the geographical red lines… The results have shown that they haven’t crossed those lines.”

Trump hailed the operation, predominantly aimed at destroying Assad’s chemical weapons development capability, as “mission accomplished,” however, this is where the ironies are hard to ignore. Five years after Assad brazenly crossed then U.S. President Barack Obama’s infamous red line on chemical attacks, the fact that U.S. is still reacting to such scenarios says much about the flawed deal in 2013 between Washington and Moscow that was supposed to see Syria dispose of all of its chemical weapon stockpiles in exchange for halting military action.

Obama clearly set a red line in August 2012 for military intervention in Syria when he stated, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Yet, just days after Assad’s deadly attack in Ghouta, Obama quickly backtracked and even stated in September 2013, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”

Fast forward to 2018, Assad is not only still in power, but also very much in the ascendency with significant support from his Russian and Iranian allies. Trump was critical of Obama’s failure to enforce redlines, and vowed that when he set a redline he meant it.

This pledge placed Trump in a difficult corner after the most recent chemical attack by Assad, but U.S has seemingly little appetite for regime change or any greater military campaign that sees it sucked in deeper into the Syrian war or thrust into a direct showdown with Moscow.

The real time for action that would have greatly swayed the Syrian war and resulted in a much more rapid settlement of the conflict was in 2013. Obama greatly misjudged his shifting red lines and the effects of the so-called deal that would remove Assad’s chemical weapon capability.

At the time, Obama was quick to hail the deal that averted the need for military intervention. Meanwhile, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was equally upbeat, stating in 2014, “With respect to Syria, we struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.”

Now, any outcome from the OPCW, who cannot attribute blame but only confirm chemical weapons use, will not change the calculus on the ground. The United Nations Security Council is in a state of paralysis from reaching any meaningful diplomatic agreement, let alone agreeing on real action, due to Russia’s ardent support for Assad.

The OPCW investigation into the April 2017 attacks had little effect on dissuading Assad. Ahead of the OPCW team’s delayed arrival, there was fierce rhetoric between the U.S. and Russia over alleged cover-ups at the site of the attacks.

Heather Nauert, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, stated, “Russian officials have worked with the Syrian regime, we believe, to sanitize the locations of the suspected attacks and remove incriminating evidence of chemical weapons use.”

However, Russia and Syria remained resolute that the opposition staged the attacks with the support of the West. Either way, Russia remains in the driver’s seat in Syria and looks to prop up the regime and its strategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean at any cost. On the other hand, U.S. policy in Syria seems disjointed and unpredictable.

Just weeks ago, Trump vowed that U.S. forces would be withdrawn soon; then subsequent statements from U.S. officials backtracked and indicated a more long-term stay in Syria.

As for Assad, with the firepower of his allies at hand, he will quickly mop up the remaining opposition strongholds around Damascus, Homs, and beyond. Unfortunately, for the long-suffering Syrian population, there seems to be no short-term end in sight to the brutal war that has devastated millions of lives.

First Published: Daily Sabah

International powers scramble to manipulate Afrin for geopolitical gains

As Turkish troops and their allies advance in Afrin, the besieged canton has become a theatre for regional and global powers to wield influence, extract concessions to boost their goals in Syria, and settle scores against old rivals.

With the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) surrounded by Turkey, Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, regime forces and countless jihadist groups, all actors in the Syrian conflict are trying to manipulate the situation to their own advantage.

The United States, whose partnership with the YPG was pivotal in driving out the Islamic State group from large swathes of Syrian territory, decided that Afrin was a completely different case to Manbij and other territories where it remains active with Kurdish forces – as the Pentagon did not have forces stationed there.

In practice, this was a convenient excuse for US to give concessions to their irate NATO allies in Ankara, after seeing relations with Turkey deteriorate dramatically in recent years. This may sway some sentiment in Ankara but is not without its own ramifications.

As Washington has acknowledged, Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates have already diverted forces from the fight against IS to join the fight against Turkish-led forces. US calls have centred on restraint, labelling the operation a “distraction”, but have stopped short of calling for a halt in attacks.

More ominously, US indifference over Afrin may not be sufficient to appease an increasingly ambitious Turkey.

Turkey already has its eye on Manbij as the next target where a sizable contingent of US forces are also present. On his recent visit to Turkey to defuse tensions mutually deemed at “crisis point”, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly promised a YPG withdrawal east of the Euphrates and joint Turkish-US patrols in Manbij.

While details remain unclear, the new US-Turkey commitment to “work together” in northern Syria could drive a deeper wedge between the US and the Kurds that has opened up over Afrin.

Turkey has grave concerns over Afrin, Kobane and Jazira cantons all being controlled by the Kurdish YPG, which it sees as an offshoot of the PKK Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has fought a bloody 34-year insurgency against Ankara

The undermining of US-Kurdish relations is music to ears of Moscow and Tehran. It firstly dilutes the US influence on the ground as well as dampening their long-term plans in Syria aimed at the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and hindering the Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.

Secondly, it forces the Kurds into a difficult corner where they have little choice but turn to Damascus and thus further the Assad and Russian goal of reclaiming sovereignty over all parts of Syria.

Strengthening its geopolitical goals, Moscow essentially gave Ankara the green light with access to Syrian airspace and removing its forces stationed in Afrin.

As much as the Afrin operation gave Washington a degree of Turkish appeasement, Russia also benefits from concessions to Turkey. Turkey, whose ties with Russia have warmed considerably from the lows of 2015, remains important in any lasting peace deal in Syria but Russia and the regime will have “red lines” on Turkish moves.

After all, the Turkish offensive is spearheaded by thousands of FSA fighters that Assad and Russian have been battling at great costs for several years. Facilitating a rebel foothold in Afrin is a prelude to trouble for the regime, as reinvigorated Syrian rebels are hardly likely to stop at Afrin.

Without a set of arrangements and Turkish assurances that aid FSA goals, Syrian rebels would become nothing more than a proxy force of Turkey.

Either way, the Turkish aim in Afrin is ultimately a long-term foothold in the country, in much the same way that Iran has guaranteed its own long-term role in Syria. Afrin allows Turkey to link Azaz and Idlib while putting further pressure on Assad – both militarily as well as at any peace table.

It’s little surprise that, after waiting for the Kurds to have little choice but to turn to Assad, that pro-regime militias entered the canton to ally with the Kurds.

While these forces may not be Syrian Arab Army (SAA) components, it changes the calculus of the Turkish operation. It undermines Ankara rhetoric of fighting terrorists if they are in direct conflict with the regime-allied forces of a neighbouring country.

Damascus support for the Kurds will naturally come at a price and the regime’s presence in Afrin and other Kurdish-controlled areas is a starting point. It remains to be seen if the SAA or a larger continent of fighters will enter Afrin, or what Russia’s next move will be as Turkey closes in on the canton.

With the US seemingly unwillingly to intervene and Kurds against the odds, Russia can woo Syrian Kurds using Ankara.

As for Turkey, with border areas secure and contiguous access ensured between Azaz and Idlib, the presence of regime forces could also give Ankara a way out of a deep and bloody war with Kurds – while still declaring victory to pacify nationalist circles in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the prospect of Turkish-US joint patrols in Manbij is hardly a tonic for the Kurds. It places further clouds on future relations with the US east of the Euphrates where the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured large swathes of territory.

Unless Washington makes guarantees to Kurds east of the Euphrates, the growingly sceptical Kurds may question their partnership with the US and pre-empt any greater US shift to appease Turkey, especially with the bulk of the fight against IS over.

In this scenario, Kurds may view a broader alignment towards Damascus and Moscow as a safer route than facing isolation or dependency on US tactical shifts. The Kurds could agree to hand Assad territories such as Manbij rather than allow US to work with Ankara in controlling Manbij.

In return, Assad and his allies may enshrine some Kurdish autonomy demands as long as the regime retains some official presence in those autonomous areas. This leaves Washington in a weaker spot to orchestrate the long-term influence it desires on Syria, including on any final political settlement, removing Assad from power or thwarting growing Iranian authority in the region.

The latest manoeuvres in Afrin and Syria further complicate the possibility of stability or peace in Syria. With a war of attrition unlikely to see one side triumph, the latest moves hasten a soft division of Syria among the regime, Turkish-backed rebels and the Kurds.

First Published: New Arab

Struggle against PKK needs multi-pronged approach

here is no doubt that the decades-old PKK insurgency has led to destruction and bloodshed in Turkey, none more so than within the Kurdish region itself. However, after decades of conflict and suffering, a true end to the insurgency needs a multi-pronged political and social approach by the government as much as continued military operations. Some of the roots of the PKK conflict lie in the regrettable discriminate policies of former governments in Turkey. While Kurds and Turks have lived side-by-side peacefully for hundreds of years and have been part of a common social fabric, past policies have alienated Kurds.

However, this hardly means that the PKK is a true representative of Kurds or that Kurds condone the bloody insurgency that has blighted Kurdish areas and overshadowed the need for development of the impoverished Kurdish region. As a significant group in the wider region, Kurds are a diverse population across the Middle East. The PKK, in terms of ideology and methods, is not and never has been representative of all parts of the Kurdish divide, let alone the Kurds in Turkey.

In fact, the Kurdish government in northern Iraq – the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – and generally, the local population there, has not tolerated the presence of the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan. Strong strategic, political and economic relations between the KRG and Turkey have looked beyond the narrow prism of Turkey’s struggle against the PKK.

To serve and further their own agendas, regional and foreign actors often exploited the PKK in the past, with Kurds suffering the most as a result.

In Syria, there are dozens of Kurdish political groups, many of whom that are not aligned to the dominant political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or its People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, which are extensions of the PKK. Yet, without a wider outreach to the Kurdish spectrum in Syria, the empowering of other Kurdish parties as well as other Kurdish military forces to dilute any PYD or YPG hegemony, Turkish military action in Syria risks adding to claims by the YPG that they are the defenders of Kurdish rights. It will also add to the view that Turkey is against Kurdish rights and political gains in Syria.

In Turkey, the Kurdish position has taken tremendous strides since 2002 under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) spearheaded by first prime minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The implementation of many historic reforms in comparison to the policies of before heralded a welcome and unprecedented chapter in Turkey.

There are dozens of Kurdish AK Party deputies in Parliament today and there are hundreds of Kurdish mayors. There are ministers in the Cabinet of Kurdish origin. Elections in recent years have shown that the AK Party retains a significant Kurdish constituency that has proven pivotal to the party’s success in recent years.

This simple facts are enough to highlight that Kurds do not see the PKK as their sole representatives.

However, it is far from a finished job when it comes government policies on the Kurdish population. Without other approaches to deal with the PKK and dilute any appeal of such organizations, there is a danger that some government actions inadvertently serve the PKK camp.

Many Kurds are stuck between the PKK methods they reject and harsh government policies. These Kurds have become somewhat stuck in the middle. In fact, the people who suffer the most under the government fight against the PKK are the local Kurdish population, with the PKK insurgency leading to the loss of thousands of lives and destruction of infrastructure. This alone highlights why the PKK does not serve the general interests of the local population.

More importantly, the longer any insurgency endures, the more those vital resources are lost to rebuilding the disadvantaged region and improving the local economy.

Kurds are allowed the right of representation in Turkey today. However, the fight against the PKK has created a nationalist stigma against Kurds. Clearly, one should be able to express or support one’s Kurdish identity without any fear accusations of affiliations to violent groups such as the PKK.

Evidently, the decades of Turkey’s fight against the PKK has served no side, and is rather a cycle of violence. As many examples have shown, the military option alone is not enough to end an insurgency. With every drop of blood spilled on either side, the cycle of violence is merely fueled further. Unfortunately, those who suffer the most are ordinary civilians who aside from being a minority, want to live in peace and brotherhood and believe in political means to achieve their objectives.With vital elections around the corner in Turkey, Kurdish votes for the AK Party remain as important to securing victory as the conservative Muslim or nationalist base.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Iraqi Kurds remain key ally for Turkey in volatile region

The independence referendum held in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq last year unsettled otherwise strong strategic, economic and political relations between Ankara and Irbil.

Since 2007, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has enjoyed a steady rise in cooperation with Turkey, not least as Turkey endorsed independent oil exports from the KRG through a new pipeline. This close alliance came as Iraq was blighted by sectarian chaos, instability and violence, and while the Arab Spring introduced new complex angles to the already volatile Middle Eastern plains, such as the birth of Daesh.

The rapid rise of the KRG on multiple fronts would not be possible without the support of Ankara. Turkey continues to act as a vital gateway for the Iraqi Kurds for economic prosperity and access to Europe. The strong mutually beneficial trade is rooted since the Kurds won autonomy in 1991 but has thrived since 2003, especially prior to the war on Daesh.

Today, for a stable and prosperous KRG, Turkey remains a key ally for the Iraqi Kurds economically, strategically and in terms of security. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recently emphasized that the KRG gate to the world, especially on crucial oil exports, is Turkey, which he deemed as giving the Kurdistan region “meaning.”

However, this view depicts only one part of story. Iraqi Kurds also remain an important ally to Turkey’s regional goals in a volatile region.

This includes ensuring security in Turkey but also stability in ongoing hot spots such as Syria and Iraq. As a largely secular and nonsectarian region, the KRG has acted as a critical bulwark in recent years against Shiite expansionism that resulted in a strong influence from Tehran in Baghdad along with the sectarian fires that have raged in Iraq since 2003 – all factors that endangered Turkey’s own regional goals.

As the sectarian power struggle continues to grip the Middle East, Iraqi Kurds will play a key role in the regional jockeying for influence.

The Kurds did not expect a smooth ride or lack of repercussions from the historic but contentious referendum and such the ensuing fallout was hardly a surprise. However, the time has come for Turkey and the KRG to look at the bigger picture and the reality that they are neighbors that share common objectives as well as sharing any blowbacks resulting from a volatile region.

The continued suffering of the Iraqi Kurdish population or a weak KRG does not benefit Turkey. It also threatens an expanded Iranian domain of influence in Iraq, while facilitating the long sought-after Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.

As such, Ankara is a decisive actor to finally bring Baghdad to the negotiating table and resolving all disputes in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.

The Kurdish leadership is prepared for dialogue and has already made concessions to lower tensions but months have passed since the referendum fallout and little progress has been made. The airports in the KRG continue to be closed and the military option appears somewhat closer to Baghdad than striking a comprehensive deal with the KRG at the negotiating table based on the Iraqi constitution.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi should accept Turkey’s offer to mediate border crossing and other disputes with the KRG. Baghdad’s continuous blockade of the region and withholding the share of the budgets makes national reconciliation and long-term stability in Iraq all the more difficult and adds to the view that Baghdad wants to collectively punish the Kurdish people.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in his new year message, “Turkey will not be able to secure its future without resolving problems in its region. This leads us to pursue a more active, bold and if necessary, riskier foreign policy.” And, in this direction, the Turkish military is currently conducting the counterterrorism cross-border offensive, Operation Olive Branch, against the PKK-affiliated groups near its border in northern Syria.

As such, the Iraqi Kurds are important in ensuring President Erdoğan’s objectives. A weak KRG gives the PKK a strong foothold in the Kurdistan region as witnessed with increasing influence and autonomy in a number of Iraqi Kurdish regions close to the Syrian border.

The endorsement of “safe zones” along the KRG border with Turkey by the Kurdish leadership aimed at limiting the PKK’s movement across the border is testimony to the KRG’s importance in ensuring border security.

The Kurdistan region not only borders Turkey, but also borders Kurdish regions in Syria and Iran. This gives the KRG a prime hand in encouraging stability in these Kurdish areas. For example, any peace deal with the PKK, as elusive as it seems today, can be supported and boosted by the KRG leadership.

Turkey’s “zero problems” policy with its neighbors have quickly unraveled thanks to the fractious and unstable sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East. As permanent neighbors, and with mutual goals, a strong alliance between Ankara and Irbil remains vital to navigate the growing Middle Eastern storms.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Regional alliance punishing Iraq’s Kurds for referendum cannot last

A determination to derail Kurdish statehood aspirations led to the emergence of a newfound Ankara-Baghdad-Tehran alliance – but can neighbours who have often been at odds and with conflicting strategic and regional objectives, sustain ties based on common ground against the Kurds?

The past few months have witnessed each country host neighbouring leaders with the impact of the Kurdish referendum topping the agenda. However, as history has shown, while current regional geopolitical interests converge, relations between countries with greatly diverse agendas often eventually unravel.

The Kurds in their respective areas have been exploited all too often by the same neighbouring powers as a counter-weight in regional standoffs, or to muster strategic advantage. Now, in rallying against the Iraqi Kurds, long-term policies that weaken the Kurdistan Region or rile the sentiment of the Kurdish population could backfire.

In such a scenario, Turkey could feel the repercussions greater than any other side. Kurdistan Region not only borders Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, but also borders Kurdish regions in each country.

With its age-old Kurdish dilemma continuing to fester and threatening deeper polarisation in Turkey, and Ankara sending its military in to Syria to wrest control of Afrin canton from Kurds, the strong ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) helped to serve mutual goals.

Ironically, Turkey fuelled and expanded the autonomy of the KRG through a new oil pipeline and lucrative energy contracts while openly rejecting the outcry from Baghdad, defending the agreements as in compliance with the Iraqi constitution.

The KRG served as a vital counterweight to Baghdad’s often sectarian policies, and growing Iranian influence that often came at a disadvantage to Turkey’s own regional goals.
Strong ties with the Kurds was in contrast to Ankara’s frosty ties with Baghdad.

Only a year ago, a standoff over Turkish troops stationed in Bashiqa, close to Mosul, led to an angry war of words. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, telling him to “know his place” before adding, “you are not my equal”.

Punishment of the Kurdistan region that goes beyond punishing the leaders, as proclaimed by Ankara, will support the viewpoint of Turkey as anti-Kurdish – and not anti-terrorism

Neither was Erdogan a stranger to wars of words with Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. In April 2012, Erdogan criticised Maliki’s “self-centred ways” while accusing him of fomenting sectarian unrest. Meanwhile, Maliki accused Turkey of becoming a “hostile state”.

Now, Erdogan and Abadi stand side-by-side as equals in a show of solidarity. Nevertheless, for all the words in public, Ankara is mindful of not pushing the levers against the Iraqi Kurds to breaking point.

Not only would it harm Turkey’s economic and security interests, but Tehran would also be quick to fill any void. The equilibrium in Turkey’s regional Kurdish policy would also be broken. Punishment of the Kurdistan region that goes beyond punishing the leaders, as proclaimed by Ankara, will support the viewpoint of Turkey as anti-Kurdish – and not anti-terrorism.

A Shia domination of Iraq not only affects the Kurds but also the long- disenchanted Sunni Arabs that Turkey has sought to support. In fact, Turkey has been keen on training Sunni militias and empowering Sunni tribes to dilute the Iran-backed Shia hegemony over the military and political scene.

Many Shia militia groups openly reject any Turkish presence in Iraq, and that may yet open new lines of conflict. In parallel, any hostility from the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) towards Turkmen in disputed territories will place Turkey into another difficult predicament.

Reeling from weaker ties with the EU and especially the US, Turkey has looked eastwards and shifted away from NATO allies. While growing ties between Russia and Iran may preserve Turkish interests in Syria, namely the curtailment of Syrian Kurdish autonomy, the fluid regional dynamic is far from clear-cut.

Turkey finds itself aligned with Iran over Kurdistan and to a lesser extent Syria – but the regional order after the Arab Spring saw both powers often pitted on opposing teams.

The Kurds remain vital actors in the regional dynamic, and will likely continue to play a prominent role in jockeying for influence

Now with the focus on the post-Islamic State regional order, their strategic and religious standpoints are far from aligned.

These differing geopolitical goals often resulted in a climate of enmity and suspicion. Even today, the powerful neighbours enjoy “working ties” rather than any real strategic alliance.

The growing divide over Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Qatar is causing a new sectarian axis to emerge, led by Saudi Arabia on one side, and Iran on the other – but the picture can quickly transform.

As such, the Kurds remain vital actors in the regional dynamic, and will likely continue to play a prominent role in jockeying for influence.

While Turkey’s focus in Syria has quickly shifted from the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to containing Kurdish ambitions, Iran has not been as antagonistic to the dominant Kurdish party in Syria.

Warm ties between Turkey and Iran may change this, especially if Ankara can utilise its influence with the Syrian opposition to push for a grand bargain in Syria – but it can quickly go in the opposite direction if relations between Turkey and Iran become strained.

A renewed understanding between Ankara and Washington over Syria at the expense of the Syrian Kurds, for example, could quickly undermine Turkey’s relations with Iran. On the other hand, Iran could leverage the Syrian Kurds if Turkey chooses to bolster the Syrian opposition against Assad.

Iranian and Turkish leaders recently agreed to join forces to counter “foreign meddling” in the region, yet the same meddling has been rampant from both sides as they promoted their goals in the various regional fires.

As the unraveling of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy has shown, in the congested sociopolitical Middle Eastern landscape, win-win situations are difficult to sustain.

First Published: New Arab

Trump’s decree pours further fuel on Jerusalem fire

turbulent Middle East already engulfed in crisis and conflict hardly needed more fuel on the fire. However, that is exactly what it got after U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and in turn his decree to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

The Israel-Palestinian conflict has dominated the Middle East agenda for decades with a peace deal proving as elusive as ever. The principle of a two-state solution has waned against a backdrop of obstacles and complications that make the prospect of a viable peace deal between Arabs and Israelis a distant reality.

As a spiritual center for Islam, Christianity and Judaism, any settlement of the status of Jerusalem was also going to be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Centuries of conflict have raged for the religious, cultural and economic riches of this ancient city.

The rival claims to Jerusalem were made more problematic by the Israeli capture of Jordanian-occupied east Jerusalem in 1967 in the Six-Day War. Since then, decades of wars, uprisings, failed international diplomacy and thousands of new Jewish settlements have only added to the complications of any peace deal.

The policy of foreign countries has been to keep their embassies in Tel Aviv until a final solution on the borders and Jerusalem is agreed. Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem broke the norm and triggered large scale protests and anger in the Arab and Muslim world.

Trump insisted that this decision does not determine the final agreement between Israel and Palestine, stressing, “We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”

Ironically, serving as major symbolic support to Israeli claims, it makes negotiations far more complex. In turn, it places doubt on the role of the U.S. as an impartial peace broker.

Palestinian officials insisted that Trump’s decision would have no legal effect on the status of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went as far as saying that he no longer sees the United States as having a role in peace negotiations.

Two-state solution

U.S. policy has been generally on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, but in spite of efforts and brokering from successive U.S. presidents, this has proved a tall order.

A more reconciliatory stance would have been for Trump to clearly mark the move as the recognition of west Jerusalem in support of the border of the demarcation line from 1967. The Czech Republic did just that shortly after Trump’s declaration, by recognizing west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Czech foreign ministry statement went on to emphasize that “the Czech Republic together with other EU member states, following the EU Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions, considers Jerusalem to be future capital of both states, meaning the state of Israel and the future state of Palestine.”

East Jerusalem was always earmarked as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and the international community has never recognized Israel’s occupation of all of Jerusalem after 1967.

Any amicable and long-lasting peace deal should be based on international accords, anything less would merely trigger decades of more conflict that will serve neither the Israeli or Arab sides.

Due to the significance of Jerusalem to billions of the world’s population, any final solution must not come to the detriment of Muslims, Jews or Christians, including the millions of pilgrims each year. Jerusalem will always have a special place in the world, not just for Israel or Palestine.

The bold move by Trump has caused division with traditional U.S. allies. The recent U.N. Security Council resolution against Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem – affirming that any decisions on the status of Jerusalem were “null and void and must be rescinded” – was vetoed by the U.S. after the remaining 14 members voted in favor of the draft, including U.S. allies Britain, France, Italy, Japan and Ukraine.

Haley’s way of diplomacy

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley rebuked the U.N. and pointed to the resolution as “one more example of the U.N. doing more harm than good in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Haley, warned ahead of a nonbinding U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, organized as a counter-measure to the U.S. veto of the Security Council resolution, that the U.S. would remember the names of those that vote against it.

Haley does have a point when highlighting the U.S. Congress declaration of 1995 that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of Israel, which includes the relocation of U.S. embassies there. On that note, Trump can argue he is merely implementing a legal commitment. However, Washington must diligently assess why in 22 years, successive presidents have continually waived the implementation of this legislation.

The short-term gain for Trump in appeasing, his vital Jewish support base and fulfilling a key campaign pledge will erode with a ramp up of hostilities in the region and the U.S. losing further influence after it was overtaken in Syria by Russia and with Iran able to propel its regional policies unmolested.

Turkey has been particularly vociferous in rejecting Washington’s move, leading to a bitter exchange of words between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

President Erdoğan denounced the U.S. as a biased broker and indicated his desire to relocate the Turkish embassy to east Jerusalem in response.

In an emergency meeting in Istanbul one week after Trump’s announcement, leaders from the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) recognized east Jerusalem as the occupied capital of a Palestinian state, while calling on the international community to reciprocate.

The U.S.’s decision may lead the two sides to further entrench their positions rather than make concessions, for example, in the settlement building around east Jerusalem. Trump’s declaration increases international divisions, and toughens the Israeli stance and Palestinian disunity. It also promises to make any settlement much more tenuous.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Syrian Kurds remain vital to Russian and US interests alike

With the Islamic State group largely defeated, diminishing IS territory has been replaced by new complexities and conflict lines.

As key US partners on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, were instrumental in driving IS out of Raqqa and vast territories east of the Euphrates.

Washington’s close US alliance with the YPG, in spite of strong objections from Turkey – which accuses the YPG of been an extension of the outlawed PKK – drove a wedge into already fragile relations between the US and Turkey.

Turkey frantically lobbied for the US to abandon its support for the Kurds, but US President Donald Trump endorsed the tactical alliance nonetheless. However, with the battle against IS entering a new phase, future relations between US and Syrian Kurdish forces, including the provision of armaments, has again come into the spotlight.

Turkey’s painting of Trump’s call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan late last year may have been more of a reflection of hope than of reality. According to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Trump pledged to Erdogan that the US would cease supplies of US armaments to the Syrian Kurds.

Turkish rejoicing ensued, but seeing this not only as a US abandonment of arms provision but also of all ties with YPG may have been premature.

The different interpretations of the US commitment with regards to the supply of arms to the YPG may disappoint Turkey, but also shows Trump’s promises may not override his defence officials, who are closer to the ground.

We’re in a position to stop providing military equipment to certain groups. But that doesn’t mean stopping all support…
– White House spokesperson

On the back of Trump’s call with Erdogan, a White House statement gave much looser wording by confirming “pending adjustments to military support”.

Meanwhile, echoing a similar statement from the Pentagon, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders later clarified: “Now that we’re continuing to crush the physical caliphate… we’re in a position to stop providing military equipment to certain groups. But that doesn’t mean stopping all support of those individual groups.”

If the statements around “adjustment” and “support” were already unclear, US Defense Secretary James Mattis did not clear the waters either: “We are going to go exactly along the lines of what the president announced.”

He also emphasised: “As the coalition stops offensive operations, then, obviously, you don’t need that, you need security… you need police forces. That’s local forces. That’s people who make certain that [IS] doesn’t come back.”

Local security forces cannot make certain that IS does not come back without weaponry and financial support.

This was echoed by a statement from Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon: “We are going to maintain our commitment on the ground as long as we need to, to support our partners and prevent the return of terrorist groups.”

Afrin, Kobane and Jazira are all regions held by Syrian Kurds. Turkey has moved to encircle Afrin canton by entering northern Idlib, as Assad’s Russian-backed troops advance from the south

There was always an expectation that once IS was largely defeated, the US would review its supply of arms, and this would not come as a surprise to the Kurds. However, any hasty moves to dilute YPG capability on the ground threatens repercussion in terms of security, local governance and the political and strategic picture in Syria.

In reality, any recovery of US arms would be a difficult predicament. US has been supplying arms to Arab fighters as well as Kurdish elements of the SDF. Tracking and returning heavy equipment is not a simple undertaking.

Moreover, the US is deeply mindful that the war on IS is far from over. It needs to maintain a dependable ally on the ground to prevent any IS resurgence but also maintain local peace. For this, Kurdish forces are likely to continue to receive some equipment, even under a different guise.

From a political perspective, the biggest influence that the US continues to enjoy in Syria as well as in its quest to stifle growing Iranian regional aspirations, is via the Kurdish-controlled areas. While the long-term relationship between the US and its Kurdish allies is unclear, the Kurdish card gives the US a key hand in any settlement of the Syrian conflict and preventing an Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.

Compared with Russia, US has little sway in Syria after it largely abandoned support for the Syrian Arab rebels. However, in the same vain as restricting Iran, the Kurdish card also gives Washington some leverage over Moscow in shaping the future Syrian landscape.

While [the Kurds] welcome any long-term alliance with US, they are conscious of not putting all their eggs in Washington’s basket

Continued partnership, even under a new name or brand, between the YPG and the US will hardly soothe Ankara’s expectations of a hard stop in Washington support for the Kurds. However, Washington may calculate that relations with Kurds may better serve its immediate interests, than appeasing an unpredictable Turkey with already cooler ties with EU and NATO.

The friction cause by the alliance with YPG only exasperated already tense relations.

As for the Kurds, while they welcome any long-term alliance with US, they are conscious of not putting all their eggs in Washington’s basket, while burning bridges with Damascus, Tehran or Moscow. Especially, with a Turkey that is willing to shape its flexibility in peace talks with these respective countries in return for a curtailment of Kurdish autonomy and influence.

As such, Kurdish relations with Russia remain as crucial as those with the US. Working closely with Moscow provides a platform for a Kurdish role at future peace talks, even if it angers Turkey. It also boosts the chance of cooperation with the Syrian government, which would favour Moscow and Tehran as it would strengthen the hands of Bashar al-Assad.

Recent Russian support for YPG forces east of the Euphrates, as well as previous shows of support, illustrates a willingness to cooperate for mutual advantage.

In spite of Turkey’s strong objections, the dominant Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is likely to win a seat at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi in February, and ultimately, a seat at the eventual peace settlement.

While Erdogan is increasingly willing to engage with Assad if it means serving his top priority of reining in the Kurds, Damascus cannot ignore the realities on the ground.

Assad may have signalled his intention to recapture every inch of Syrian land, but any military confrontation with the Kurds would threaten Assad’s gains and provide Moscow and Tehran an unwanted angle that prolongs their already deep involvement in Syria.

First Published: New Arab

Dominance of militias may haunt Baghdad

The Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), were instrumental in pushing back the Islamic State group from the gates to Baghdad, and later in driving out IS militants from major cities across northern Iraq.

Heeding a call from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an array of old and newly formed groups rallied under the PMF umbrella. In Iraq, the growing stature of the PMF reaffirms the view that the most effective forces are those motivated by sectarian or political loyalties, posing an ominous long-term dilemma for the Iraqi government.

The interests of the PMF constituent groups converged over IS, and more recently, in pushing back Kurdish forces in Kirkuk and other disputed territories – but as a disparate alliance of Shia groups with various political and sectarian affiliations, the jostling for control and influence will intensify, especially in the run up to crucial national elections.

For Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the PMF has proved to be an opportunity and a headache, allowing him to build credibility with decisive victories over IS, but at same time he ha sbeen left struggling to assert control over the force, with doubts surrounding Baghdad’s jurisdiction over the Badr Organization, Sayara al-Salam, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

With PMF forces now legalised as an independent state-affiliated force, there are growing signs that the powerful PMF is becoming the equivalent of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose loyalties are political and sectarian rather than to the state itseld.

In a similar vain to the IRGC-allied Hizballah in Lebanon, these powerful parallel security structures wield significant political and security influence.

PMF fighters celebrate victory of IS in Mosul
August 2017 [Getty]

Under Abadi’s Order 91 that legalised the PMF forces, the militias are supposed to be “cut from all political, party and social frameworks, and political work will be prohibited in its ranks”.

However, this is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in reality. With the Shia community far from united, PMF groups are certain to be at the forefront of the Shia political power struggle.

With former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki determined to wrest back the hot-seat, Abadi, favoured by Washington, has been under pressure to dispel criticism of being a weak leader.

The strong-handed response to curtail the Kurdish drive towards independence was a show of force to Kurds as well as those rivals and critics in Baghdad.

In attempts to counter the growing power of the PMF, Abadi sanctioned Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, the Golden Division, as positioned as the frontline fighters against IS.

The aim was to give Abadi more military supervision with a force under his office, as opposed to the defence or interior ministries, yet this latest military division gave the security situation yet another layer of friction and command bureacracy.

The segmented command structure opens potential new lines of conflict between the state military and the PMF, but also raises the prospect of intra-militia fighting in a quest to marginalise rival groups or provide the platform for one political party to dominate power within the PMF.

The PMF subgroups are broadly split between allegiances to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – or political groups, with Muqtada al-Sadr in particular holding large influence.

Popular Mobilization Forces march
during a military parade holding a banner featuring
Ayatollah 2015 [Getty]

Al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army had been a ubiquitous thorn in the sides of the US and Maliki, leading Maliki to reach out to Iran in attempts to rein in the influential cleric.

With the most powerful groups within PMF, such as the Badr Organization, Asaib ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Kata’ib Hezbollah, aligned to Khamenei and Iran, this provides Tehran with a significant advantage in the political and military landscape of Iraq.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, designated a terrorist by the US, and Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Corporation, head up the PMF. The likes of Muhandis, Ameri and Qais Khazali were primed by Iran and have strong ties to IRGC Quds Commander Qassem Soleimani, a well-known adviser to the PMF.

With these pro-Iran figures controlling the PMF, Iran-affiliated groups have garnered significant leverage in terms of salaries, arms and personnel. This was a key source of friction with Sadr’s Peace Regiments (Saraya al-Salam), who were angered at the dominance of groups linked to Muhandis and Ameri.

In turn, it gives Maliki – who has strong ties to these Iranian-affiliated groups and has the backing of Iran – an advantage over Abadi in the coming elections.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr remains intent on ensuring Maliki does not return to power, and has taken a growing anti-Iranian line in recent years. Al-Sadr has become a popular champion of the working class, with his supporters holding large protests against the corruption, lack of services and monopoly of power in Baghdad.

Maliki tried to take a hardline view on militias. His 2010 electoral bloc even went under the banner of “State of Law” [Dawlat al-Qanoon], but with pressure from IS well before their takeover in Mosul, his alliance with a number of largely Iranian backed militias rapidly grew.

As the elections in 2010 showed with al-Iraqiyya, a non-sectarian group with a loose alliance of Sunnis producing victory over Maliki bloc, the Shia front cannot take the next election’s results for granted – which will only increase political jockeying.

With many groups and divergent loyalties, coalition blocs will be difficult to form and will be susceptible to cracks.

As for the long-disenfranchised Sunnis, the same seeds of discontent that facilitated the rise of IS and other Sunni militant groups remain. In addition, the growing power of the PMF over the state security apparatus, and especially around traditional Sunni heartlands, means that Sunnis remain as wary as over.

Sunni anxiety at continued Shia domination paves the way for more militias to emerge to offset and challenge the PMF. While the PMF were given a legal status, the Sunni Sahwa or Awakening councils, instrumental in driving driving out al-Qaeda at the heart of the Sunni insurgency in 2007-2008, were largely sidelined.

Wary of empowering Sunni forces with guns and legal status, Maliki took a more antagonist view of Sahwa councils.

Sunni tribes and militias may well resurrect their struggle for a political voice, as well as work to root out the PMF in their areas, possibly forming a loose alliance with Kurds.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki, one of his goals was to heal the country’s long-neglected sectarian divides.

However, with Sunni discontent unaddressed, Iraqi security forces splintered along sectarian and political allegiances, and Kurds and Arabs in an increasingly violent standoff, Iraq remains at the mercy of sectarianism and violence.

First Published: New Arab

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