Category Archives: International Media

Frustrated by the West, Turkey looks East to mend ties and transform regional dynamics

The recent mending of ties between Russia and Turkey comes almost 9 months after the ill-fated Turkish shooting of a Russian jet that saw relations plummet to historic lows. The tune of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin after the patching up of ties was a far cry from months of harsh rhetoric, economic sanctions and deep animosity.

This sudden thawing of ties has been on the card for a few weeks as Erdogan tried to mend ties with Moscow with a number of reconciliatory statements. There is no doubt that improvement of ties is linked directly with the failed military coup in Turkey last month. Erdogan, AKP and Turkey were rocked by the coup and have been vociferous in their disappointment of the EU and US response.

Ankara even made a thinly veiled threat to leave NATO owing to the lack of support since the coup, western criticism of the strong post-coup crackdown and EU threats to end Turkish EU membership bid if Turkey reintroduces the death penalty. The US on the other hand has refused to extradite exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Erdogan accuses of spear-heading the coup.

Turkey has also suffered greatly from an economic angle since the downing of the jet with bilateral trade significantly hit as a result of the Russian sanctions. At the same time, Turkey was already experiencing somewhat frosty relations with the EU and US even before the coup over developments in Syrian and the region, such as US support for the Syrian Kurdish fighters who Turkey deems as terrorists but who are in fact the most effective group against the Islamic State (IS). EU and US have been consistently critical that Turkey could have done much more to stem the flow of IS fighters and arms across its porous border. Then relations with EU soured further over the migrant deal which Turkey has criticized and even now is not fully implemented.

Turkey could not sit idle with a lukewarm West on the one hand and a bitter and powerful Russia on East. Any less favorable view of the West for Turkey, invariably means that Turkey will turn further east towards Russia. Restoration of economic ties and tourism is an obvious benefit but Turkey gets a natural leverage against NATO and the West with the revival of ties with Russia. It’s showing Western powers that Turkey does not need them that they need Turkey and that Turkish foreign policy is dynamic enough to deal with the changing socio-political picture in the Middle East.

Russia also benefits from resumption of trade and a warmer Turkey that may help to boost Russian strategic influence in the Middle East that it craves as well as diluting Western leverage in the region. It also speeds up the deal to provide natural gas to Europe via Turkey. Turkey, of course, relies heavily on Russian gas for its needs.

At a critical juncture in Syria and the Middle East, the warming of ties adds another angle to an already complicated Middle Eastern picture. However, economic and energy ties are easiest to fix. No side really benefits from loss of trade and lucrative energy deals. But on the political front it’s much trickier.

9 months of fierce rhetoric and rock bottom ties will not heal overnight. Neither will their entrenched positions on Syria. Turkey is unlikely to forgo its support of Syrian rebels and Russia is obviously a huge backer of the Syrian regime. But it may increase the chance of some compromise over the fate of Assad and certainly a closer cooperation to deal with IS as a counter weight to US led coalition efforts against the same group.

Ultimately, the biggest bargaining chips is the Kurdish forces in Syria that are enjoying a stronger autonomy and strategic standing by the day. Turkey can much more readily accept a Syrian reality that does not match their objectives and vision if the price is that Syrian Kurds are stifled and Russia gives up support for them.

Can Turkey force Russian hands on Syrian Kurdish support and autonomy? Can Turkey accept Assad to stay in power if Russian concedes on key Turkish demands?

Key bilateral relations that are dominated by two parties with different strategic agendas will have to make way for some tough compromises.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Failed military coup only tip of the ice-berg for a highly polarised Turkey

The dramatic failed military coup that sent shockwaves across Turkey and the world may have quickly subsided but the aftermath of the events will be felt for much longer.

Whether it was just a faction of the military or not, it was no small matter. The coup forces ranged from low-ranking soldiers to senior officers demonstrating the broad nature of the move. Furthermore, it was not a handful of troops but several hundred that were able to deploy tanks and helicopters and carry out their moves with a degree of confidence and clear planning.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged triumphant by early Saturday morning but was clearly as shocked as any as the events initially unfolded with the government simply unable to comprehend the size and support of the coup. A president speaking by Skype on his mobile to address the nation speaks volumes.

Helicopters and fighter jets roaring above the sky, sound of heavy gunfire and explosions and tanks rumbling through the streets in Istanbul and Ankara hardly paint a picture of an isolated incident. However, the tide of the coup clearly turned as thousands of Erdogan supporters heeded his call and took to the streets.

The mass of supporters confronted the rebel soldiers and surrounded tanks. At time of reporting the government had stated that 104 coup plotters had been killed and over 2800 arrested whilst more than 90 people had died and over 1100 were injured.

Yet, it could have been a much worse bloodbath. Popular support against the rebel soldiers helped to quickly take the steam out of the coup attempt and any heavy handed retaliation against the supporters would have quickly turned into much wider scale of violence.

But the crisis is far from over and the post-mortem is likely to be painful and protracted. Erdogan was quick to blame the “parallel structure” in clear reference to influential exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen who denied any involvement but regardless of who takes the rap for the coup, the dramatic events shows the highly polarised nature of Turkey.

Erdogan may have strong support but he equally has many foes. Then there is battle of ideology, identity and nationalism seeing a deepening divide between Islamists and secularists, reformists and conservatists and not forgetting the great divide between Kurds and Turks with the PKK and government continuing to wage war.

A highly paranoid Erdogan has been swift to consolidate power and banish opposition voices. Now it seems that the failed coup justifies to Erdogan his instincts based on suspicion, distrust  and a sense of anxiety.

This means that Erdogan now holds even more ammunition to continue with policies against Gulen, dissident voices and those who he deems as terrorists. As Erdogan dramatically arrived in Istanbul on the morning of the coup he decried that “What is being perpetrated is a treason and a rebellion. They will pay a heavy price.”

The number of arrests in Turkey quickly accelerated and is likely to yield thousands more in the coming days.

The fact that Erdogan urged his followers to remain on the streets and in key public places in case of a second coup demonstrate the fragile nature of the state. Erdogan and the AKP clearly realise that the coup attempt goes much deeper than those soldiers and generals involved.

The post-mortem will be harsh and messy and may only lead to a deeper polarisation of opposing camps. Erdogan called the failed coup a divine gift so that certain conspiring forces can be weeded out. And ironically, the coup strengthens Erdogan’s hand than really weaken his grip, allowing him to move more confidently towards the strong presidential system he craves.

The coup against a democratically elected government, whatever the scale of the country’s polarisation, was always going to be denounced by European and global powers.

The West have always looked at Turkey as a model of democracy in a fiery region but Turkey is much of a powder-keg as any.

The polarisation of Turkey into many camps naturally weakens the fight against the Islamic State (IS) or attempts to ferment regional stability.

Many of the battles between the Islamic, secularists, nationalists and reformists span many decades and has never really subsided but only contained. One of these old battles is of course the Kurdish issue. For decades, Ankara has been cutting the branches and not dealing with the root of the problems that has led to vicious cycle of war.

Hundreds of people have been killed in south east of Turkey in recent months but this has received little coverage than any event in west of Turkey as it has simply become normal to accept bloodshed in Kurdish parts of Turkey and accept them as by-products of terrorism and not as one of the many imbalances in the setup or health of the state.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

West overlooks that Saddam was the ultimate weapon of mass destruction

13 years after the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, UK and Western media remain engrossed with the obsession that the actions of former U.S. President George W Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair unearthed the raging bull that is visible across the Middle East today.

The much-anticipated Chilcot Report drew a damning assessment with the notion that the UK decision was based on “flawed” intelligence leading to an invasion that went “badly wrong”.

The report was met with hysteria in the media with frequent pointing to Iraq as the original sin that highlight why the Islamic State (IS) was able to rise and unleash terror and why the Middle East is engulfed in flames.

Such viewpoints since 2003 simply fail to assess and accept the bigger picture.

The Iraqi invasion has also become an excuse for the numerous Western foreign policy failings since 2003 that ultimately allowed groups such as IS to flourish.

Evidence clearly points to a misalignment of evidence around Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction capability in 2003 but why is Saddam, Iraq or the Middle East been viewed with such narrow lens and lack of real perspective?

Saddam came to power in 1979, 24 years before the invasion of Iraq. Saddam was not any ruler, he was a brutal dictator who knew how to placate and control a disparate nation.

The seeds of the wide discontent on show today in Iraq and Middle East go well beyond 2003, the aftermath of the Arab Spring or even the birth of Saddam. The ultimate root cause is that Iraq and much of the Middle East was arbitrarily thrown together to fulfil selfish imperial interests.

There may have been relative stability in southern Iraq under Saddam compared to mass violence and chaos of today, but this was due to the iron fist rule of Saddam than due to a charming and popular leader who represented or was admired by the whole country.

Then of course, is the baffling disregard by Western critics of the Iraq war on the campaigns of genocide against the Kurds. Was the pre-2003 era really that glorious or are these so called experts picking and choosing facts to serve their arguments rather than viewing the bigger picture?

How can anyone overlook the devastating chemical bombing of Halabja in 1988 where thousands perished symbolised by mothers and fathers died on the spot holding their infants? Where even today the population and surrounding lands pay a price.

Thousands of Kurdish villages were razed in broad daylight and thousands more Kurds were confined to mass graves under the infamous Anfal campaign. Many of these mass graves have only been discovered after the overthrow of Saddam.

To those who question Saddam’s capability to possess and use WMDs need to look no further than Halabja. However, the biggest WMD remains to be Saddam himself.

The Kurds have flourished remarkably under self-rule and in their dawn of freedom. Kurdistan forms a sizable portion of Iraq, so how can the successful Kurdistan model be ignored with focus on Baghdad and the Sunni triangle that has been the hotbed of violence?

The real question is why topple Saddam in 2003? Why not when he committed such grave acts against his own population or when he launched a devastating war on Iran or when then invaded Kuwait? The simple answer is that Saddam’s barbarous rule was masked as he served Western interests.

Is it really the fault of Blair and Bush that Sunnis and Shiites have held centuries of animosity? Is it really their fault that Iraq, even with the advent of democracy, has been ruled by corruption, controversy and policies that have widened the ethno-sectarian divide than really unite a country?

The notion that Iraq would have been a better place today if Saddam remained in power is seen through narrow and tainted lens. No dictator can survive forever!

Yes, Middle East was more stable under Saddam and prior to the Arab Spring but this was all due to a common factor – the unsustainable scenario of dictators who ruled with a strong hand.

The invasion of Iraq simply opened Pandora’s Box. With the artificial ethno-sectarian lines across the Middle East, sooner or later the locked-up devil would have been unleashed.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

The wide ramifications of UK exit from the EU as economic and political uncertainty ushers a new era

The UK referendum on whether to remain or exit the European Union was always going to be a highly emotive, divisive and controversial affair, and it certainly did not disappoint.

The Brexit campaign divided the nation, political parties and businesses with claims and counter claims and campaigns of fear. Topics such as immigration, economic ramifications and national sovereignty played on the minds of many. It was projected to be a very tight contest but Remain camp lingered firmly in the driving seat on referendum day.

However, it was the Exit camp that won the day with 51.9% of the vote with Britons, Europeans and global powers waking up to a new reality that sent shockwaves across the continent.

The value of the Pound against the Dollar see-sawed wildly on the night before settling at lows not witnessed since 1985. The global markets were braced for turmoil and this was even before UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation in a teary speech.

Fluctuations and anxiety in markets are to be expected, after all, we are entering the unknown. The UK has two years to negotiate its exit once it invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Economic uncertainty is topped by a deepening national divide. London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain. An exit from the EU, now threatens the very existence of the UK with Scotland very likely to press ahead with a second referendum on independence with view to rejoining the EU.

There is already much talk of a referendum on uniting both parts of Ireland after the Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU. Allegiance to the UK will be tested versus desire for EU membership.

This social, political and economic uncertainty will take time to settle. But once the dust eventually settles, it remains unclear exactly what UK is left behind. However, in spite of all the scaremongering, pulling out of the EU is one thing and pulling out of the European continent is another.

The UK has always had a firm and influential place in Europe and this will not change. UK’s long-standing strategic ties with major powers and key global economies is not about to dissipate either as a result of the vote.  Existing the EU does not mean that countries such as France or Germany will stop trading with the UK or will not work with UK in key geopolitical and security matters. Nor will it mean an end to the free movement of people.

Putting stringent borders between UK and EU will benefit no side. It just means that the terms of engagement will be different and no party is bound by any common law except mutual interests.

The web of years of EU legislation will naturally take time to untangle and the period of uncertainty is hard to quantify.

But the UK’s decision to leave the EU has as wide ramifications for the EU as it does for the UK. EU leaders have a battle on their hand to ensure that the UK leaving is a solitary fire that they can quickly extinguish. But anti-EU voices are already growing in France, Germany and Denmark. Discontented nationalists are already pushing for referendums of their own.

Now the arduous task of exit negotiations with the EU will begin. As much as the EU will still rely on trade and political ties with UK, they will hardly roll the red carpet for an easy exit either.

The EU will not want to alienate the UK as it will backfire and harm their own interests but it will equally want to make a show of the exit as a warning to all member states. Either way, the EU will never be the same again and is in desperate need to reform and face a tough period of self-reflection.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Interview with Shargh Newspaper (Printed in Tehran, Iran)

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel – Interview with Shargh Newspaper (Printed in Tehran, Iran)

Please note: the interview was conducted in English but translated to Farsi (Persian) for the print edition of Shargh newspaper. The links to the Farsi version are listed below:

http://www.sharghdaily.ir/1394/05/18/Main/PDF/13940518-2367-11-24.pdf (Newspaper Print Edition)

http://tinyurl.com/nmnst2z (Website Edition)

1-Recently, some newspapers near AKP have expressed dissatisfaction about the recent winning of Kurd against ISIS. They believed that Kurds (particularly PYD and PKK) are bigger danger than isis for turkey. What do you think about the arguments? Do you think the argument is the main cause of little support of turkey government of Kurds struggle against Isis? Do you think we can expect change in turkey’s policy toward Kurds struggle against Isis in the next government of the country?

Erdogan and the AKP have been clear that they do not differentiate between the PKK and IS – they see them both as terrorist organisations. But such a labelling does not only affect a party, it is an unfair label on a whole population. The Syrian Kurds have the right to self-defence and PYD has been one of the most affective forces against IS. Who would protect the Kurds if not the YPG?

I don’t expect Turkey to accept PYD with open arms but the people deserve to be protected and should not suffer due to outdated nationalist principles. PYD have not committed massacres or terrorist acts in the same way as IS. Furthermore, how can one say that all Syrian Kurds are PKK affiliated? There are dozens of political parties in Syria, of course, PYD is the main party but Turkish policy on Syrian Kurds is far too narrow.

The fear of PYD\PKK is firmly rooted in Turkish nationalist anxiety. This same fear saw decades of repressive policies against Kurds in Turkey to no benefit but social upheaval and loss of life. You cannot deny 15 million Kurds in Turkey and neither can you deny the 2 million in Syria.

Turkey will not support the Kurds against IS. If they didn’t support at bleak hour of need when Kobane was days from falling when a grave massacre was certain likelihood then I don’t say Turkey bolstering Syrian Kurds now. But PYD and more importantly the Syrian Kurds are not about to vanish.

After such historic gains in Syria after decades of been side-lines, PYD or the Syrian Kurds will not accept a rollback of their gains, in spite of any sabre rattling from Turkey.

2-Recently, President Erdogan said that turkey don’t let to Kurds establish Kurdish government in northern Syria. Do you think the Erdogan warn is serious? Do you think the military intervention of turkey army in Syria in next month will be possible? What would be the reaction of international community on the issue in your opinion?

Erdogan has referred to such red lines since 2012. It didn’t stop PYD from declaring autonomous administrative rule in the 3 cantons or moving relatively unhindered. Turkey has been weary of the raise of the Syrian Kurds since 2011-2012 but in recent months, they have become key actors in the fight against IS and indeed one of the only few trusted groups of the US.

The Kurdish question in Turkey is intertwined by the fate of Kurds in Syria. There are strong connections across the border. This was evident at the mass protests at Turkish inaction over Kobane. The Kurdish struggle in Turkey moved stage to Syria.

Talk of military action has been running since 2012 but has grown in recent weeks; Turkey has a huge amount at stake with any invasion. It will confirm suspicions of sceptics who state that Turkey tolerates IS on its border but will now finally reinforce its border because the more moderate Kurds are making gains?

Any Turkish invasion will be far from plain sailing – Kurds, on both sides of the border, will not stay idle to any Turkish transgression. It will widen the already complicated Syrian war and will all but end the elusive Kurdish peace process in Turkey. PKK will certainly resume armed struggle in Turkey and in case Turkey attacks IS, this will bring great threat and instability to mainland Turkey. There are many permutations but they all end in more bloodshed and disaster.

International community will hardly welcome such a move when the Syrian landscape is already messy and complicated enough and indeed there will be strong jockeying in the background to ensure Turkey does not take such hasty steps.

Syrian Kurds too have their own red lines, they will not declare independence but they will certainly not give up their autonomous rule or allow any Turkish meddling or control of Syrian Kurdistan.

3-We know some Turks voted to HDP too as well as Kurds, How the Turks convinced vote to HDP? Do you think this is a sign of decrease Turkish nationalism sense or this is a sign of increasing pluralism in turkey? What is your assessment about the recent victory of HDP In turkey election?

HDP was successfully in attracting growing number of people who were disenchanted with AKP and who didn’t have the right national forum. A lot of these disillusioned liberals saw in HDP an opportunity to block Erdogan’s attempts to implement a strong presidential system, dilute what they saw as growing power and monopolisation of AKP and at the same time have a voice on the political stage. The HDP electorate also included large sections of minorities and of course large sections of Kurds who turned to HDP after previously voting for the AKP.

Although HDP won a respectable 13% of the vote, this is far from a statement that nationalism is decreasing. Nationalist parties continued to do well. Nationalists continue to be a thorn in the peace process and still dominate the political system in Turkey.

The fact this was the first time that a Kurds entered parliament as a party says it all. It is a significant historical milestone for the Kurds and provides a bridge between the long-time disaffected east and west of Turkey. 13% of the vote is not a meagre figure to be ignored in parliament and Kurds will have a direct influence on political and government affairs.

HDP’s gains can only be good for the Kurds but can also bring a sense of legality and national perspective to the Kurdish question. 80 MPs in parliament cannot be merely branded by the PKK brush – Turkish politics needs to mature beyond the age old narrow nationalist perspective i.e. any Kurdish PM is quickly labelled as a separatist or a PKK sympathiser.

HDP can serve as vital and legally enshrined interlocutors between the PKK and Ankara.

4-What is your assessment about the relation recent HDP victory in turkey’s election with PKK activities in the region? Can we expect the recent victory in turkey will be impact on power of PKK?

As mentioned earlier, the rise of HDP and their entry in parliament can give the peace process the right nation platform. Ocalan and most of the PKK have stated their readiness to convene a party congress with view to the giving up of arms. However, this will not happen without concrete steps been taken by the government – PKK will need to see firm actions and unfortunately, bowing to nationalist pressure, the future government will not easily cave in to demands from what they see as terrorists. HDP position in the political fold may help ensure that a more appealing reform package can be initiated – most Turks are in favour of ending bloodshed and the government must capitalise on a historic opening.

PKK will naturally see the HDP’s electoral success in a positive light but it doesn’t mean that PKK will drop their arms tomorrow just because HDP have broken the 10% threshold in parliament. HDP leadership has in turned made clear the real power to end the armed struggle and give up arms is in Imrali and not with them.

No doubt that HDP success brings a unique opportunity to further the peace process and should not be wasted. HDP can double the number of MPs in parliament, but if the PKK is not satisfied then the HDP influence can only stretch so far. Peace is not achieved by numbers in parliament but concrete actions.

5-What is the effect of HDP victory on Kurdish separatist sentiments in turkey and region? Will be weakened or strengthened?

This depends on the next steps. After breaking the age old constraints of the electoral threshold, the Kurds have a unique position in Turkish politics; especially that HDP now includes many Turkish voters within their ranks.

If the Kurdish region finally believes they have a voice in parliament, they are no longer side-lined, have better integration and can influence Ankara as national partners, then this can be a good sign for unity. Ultimately, the goal of local autonomy will not disappear especially if Kurds in south east increasingly speak with one voice.

If the HDP is somewhat side-lined or broken up under terrorism label as with previous party manifestations or the peace process unravels, as a result of the increased electoral power and not forgetting what events may take place in Syrian Kurdistan, then south east will drop further and further from Ankara’s grasp.

6-Do you think the increasing conflict between HDP and turkey hizbollah will be possible? What will be the relation between HDP and conservatives and religious Kurds in the future?

As the recent deadly shootings have shown in Diyarbakir, historic tension between PKK and Hezbollah supporters is in danger of escalating. The shootings were clear provocations designed to stir tension. The ramp up in tensions depends on how much restraint the parties can show and if they rise to the bait but I doubt it will reach a critical stage. No side will really benefit from such direct confrontation and no side really wants bloodshed to ensure.

HDP has already won significant votes from conservative and religions Kurds in the elections who traditionally voted for AKP. However, this is likely to continue as a key focus if HDP wants to grow in strength and represent a broader spectrum of the Kurdish voter base. AKP has used the religious card to successfully divide the Kurds in the past away from ethnic affiliations.

7-Some report showed that PYD have cooperation with Assad regime in Syria against isis. Don’t you think the US support Kurds in Syria is contradicting with the will of US for Assad falls? What will be impact of the support on the viewpoint of Syria government?

Such allegations of collaboration between PYD and Assad regime have been common place since the PYD took control of the Kurdish zones. But PYD and Assad regime relations have been more about mutual convenience than any real strategic pact. At a time when Syrian forces were already stretched, Assad wisely did not move to open a costly front with the Kurds. There have been various battles between the two sides but never on a systematic level.

At the same time, Syrian Kurds want control of their land and this is their first priority. They haven’t enjoyed great relations with FSA or Syrian National Coalition and attacking Assad forces to help FSA has not been an objective. Kurds have been weary of provoking Assad when they have already gained control of most Kurdish lands. The SNC has not been ready to commit to Kurdish demands in any post Assad era and Kurds have viewed the group with much suspicion. In many ways, it’s been a case of the devil you know for the Kurds than any real support or affiliation with the Assad regime.

US seeks political transition in Syrian and ultimately the fall of Assad but their bigger focus is on IS and not Assad. PYD goal is also a political transition in Syria and a new plural and inclusive constitution that enshrines their autonomy, and priority is not to prop up Assad. Don’t forget that PYD and Assad forces were in conflict long before Syrian civil war ensued.

PYD focus at the same time is IS and defence of their lands. Syrian Kurds are not tied to Assad regime and they will not fight to keep Assad in power.

8-What is relation between PKK and HDP? Demirtaş and Ocalan both are charismatic figures don’t you think in long time we will see conflict between two groups?

Many HDP members have travelled to Imrali and have previously played key roles in the Kurdish peace process. Of course, HDP have connections with the PKK but to say they are one and the same is too narrow minded.

HDP can be affective and legal interlocutors in the peace process. HDP can influence the PKK but ultimately it is not the HDP that decide PKKs next move on the peace process or whether they will give up arms, this power sits with Imrali.

It’s hard to compare the positons of Demirtaş and Ocalan – one is in parliament and one is an isolated prison. They are both significant leaders for the Kurds but from totally different perspectives and platforms.

There is always the possibility of disagreement between the PKK and HDP but by and large and through different means, they represent the same goal – enshrinement of Kurdish rights and bigger voice for the Kurds as national partners.

9-What do you think about the viewpoint of Kurdish peace negotiation prospect after victory of HDP? Do you think it will have a positive impact on negotiation? What do you think about possibility end Ocalan arrested?

The rise of HDP as a power in Turkish politics can only be a good thing for the peace process. This serves as an opportunity to bring the peace process onto a national and legal platform.

HDP have become the natural and legal interlocutors. 80 MPs in parliament can have a major voice on the direction of the peace process.

HDP can have a positive impact on the peace process but ultimately the real decision lies in Imrali. Under nationalist’s pressure, Erdogan toned down his stance towards the peace process and concessions towards the PKK – he became more hard-line.

PKK expects concrete steps from government and although the HDP can push to achieve these concrete steps, it really lies in the hands of Ankara. I don’t see Ocalan under house arrest let alone free, Turkish nationalist sentiment is far too narrow to allow the onset of such a phenomenon that will bring uproar to large sections of Turkish society.

10-What is your assessment about ROJAVA cantons and the performance? Do you think the Rojava can be a model for Kurds in other parts of the region? What are the strengths and weaknesses of ROJAVA in your opinion?

Rojava cantons and the establishment of a Kurdish Region of Syria was an unprecedented milestone for the Kurds in Syria, where previously hundreds of thousands of Kurds didn’t even have basic citizenship and rights let alone autonomous zones and new strategic importance in the region.

But Rojava autonomy is still in its infancy and hardly in the best surroundings with IS and deadly battles. What made the cantons unique was that it was in 3 geographically separate lands, until recently when Kurds took control of Tel Abyad.

Syrian autonomy needs to be backed by a cross party unity – too often the dozen or so Kurdish parties have been divided into pro KRG and pro PKK camps, with PYD dominating control of the cantons

The cantons have a long way to go but autonomous rule cannot be perfected in just a few years. The Syrian Kurds have much progress to make in their rule of their lands but this is hardly surprising. After decades of been side-lined, the current autonomous structure feels a lifetime away from previous repression and Arabisation of Kurdish lands.

It is the Kurdish Region of Iraq that really set the expectation and model of self-rule and not the Rojava cantons. Local autonomy is fast becoming a minimum expectation for Kurds across the region.

11-What is your assessment about the Assad regime reaction to Kurdish autonomy in Syria? Do you think Syria government will be grant autonomy to Kurds because their struggle against common enemy (isis)?

Assad needs Kurdish support, if not real political or military support, than at least that a new front is not opened. Assad’s forces are already stretched and granting Kurds autonomy is far easier than a suicidal new front against the Kurds. Assad has taken full advantage of the mistrust between Kurds and FSA\SNC.

Autonomy is a red-line for the Kurds and a small price for Assad to pay to maintain stability in the Kurdish areas and indeed his seat in power.

12-What do you think about impact of recent HDP victory in turkey and PYD in Syria on the Barzani –Talibani power in Iraq? Do you think HDP and PKK are threat against Autonomous Region of Kurdistan?

I don’t see the rise of HDP or the influence of PYD in Syria a threat to the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KRG and Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani would see the success of HDP as a historic and welcome milestone – they have encouraged the peace process in Turkey.

Barzani has personally worked hard for more cross-party unity in Syria with power sharing as per the Erbil agreement between the Syrian Kurdish parties. He would not want to see any PYD domination and other political parties, with many pro-KRG, been side-lined.

The red line for KRG is any meddling in Kurdistan Region internal affairs by PYD but especially PKK. As far as the KRG is concerned, it is not their zone of influence.

13-Some people said Kurds could not reach to recent successes without US supports in Iraq. What do you think about the arguments? What do you think about the possibility of establish a Shiite – Kurdish – US coalition against Isis in Iraq? Do you think the cooperation against Isis will be because more close Kurd – Shiite?

US support for the Kurds has been key but it is not so one dimensional. Ironically, the Kurds have often accused Washington of bias towards Baghdad. US have been obsessed with Iraqi unity and have avoided any actions that may be fuel a breakaway of Kurdistan from Iraq. Indeed on many occasions it has sided with Baghdad over the Kurds to promote the idea of a centralist rule in Iraq.

At the same time, the US relies heavily on Kurdish support against IS as it did against al-Qaeda a few years before that.

Iraq has been increasingly fractured as a state since 2003 and Baghdad policies especially under Nouri al-Maliki have not helped. In fact IS merely took full advantage of sectarian tensions and mass Sunni discontent. Many Sunni groups jumped on the IS bandwagon and notion of what is “IS” quickly become a grey area.

The KRG have been insistent that for any real struggle against IS to succeed, especially in Mosul, that local Sunni forces must have a bigger say. Kurds are keen to see an inclusive make up of Iraqi forces against IS.

Successive disputes with Maliki and now with Haider al-Abadi over national budget and oil exports has put a negative sentiment in the relations. The Kurds will not bail out Baghdad when it feels that Baghdad has consistently failed to deliver on its agreements and promises, has not paid its share of national budget and has not provided Kurds with needed weaponry even when the Kurds are at the centre of the war against IS.

Only a large Iraqi inclusive coalition will entice Kurds to fight in areas south of the Kurdistan borders.

14-What is your assessment about the possibility of establish a Kurdish state in Middle East? What is the obstacle in the way of this? Israel supported for Kurdistan state idea do you think the support of US and EU will be possible, too?

Establishing a Kurdish state has hardly been a secret for the Kurds and is also a goal of the Kurdistan leadership but it’s all about timing. A Kurdish state is inevitable and the Kurdistan Region is practically independent in all but name. If Kurds start selling oil directly en mass as retaliation for lack of budget payments from Baghdad than this removes the remaining noose Baghdad has over the region.

There is growing support for Kurdish independence in the EU and from many members of the US Senate and Congress but Washington will not directly support any Kurdish independence bid. It has reinforced the notion of a sovereign and united Iraq at every turn since 2003, when the Iraq state is anything but united or whole. US has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives on a promoting principles of national reconciliation and unity that has never borne fruit.

Turkey has grown warmer to the idea of independence for the Kurdistan Region but will not support such a notion at a delicate time in the region and indeed at a sensitive juncture for the Kurds of Turkey and Syria.

Self-determination is a right that the Kurds will ultimately exercise and formal independence is only a question of when.

15-What do you think about recent Kurds victories on the regional equations? Do you think strengthen of Kurds can lead to essential changes in geographic and demographic in the region? What are the consequences for the region countries particularly Iran, turkey and Iraq? Do you think we should expect the change of borders in accordance with Sykes – Picot agreement?

The Kurds in Iraq are already major regional actors and the rise and prominence of the Kurdistan region in Iraq has been unprecedented. Kurds have become an important economic partner for Iran and particular Turkey and a stable and largely secular entity serves an important role in the fast unravelling and volatile Middle East.

At the same time, Kurds in Syria are enjoying new found prominence. Too often the Kurds were on the scrapheap of the Middle East thanks to large repressive campaigns and the arbitrary Sykes-Picot borders. Kurds are now a driving force in the new Middle East calculus.

Whilst the Sykes-Picot borders will not change overnight, in many ways the present era witnesses the rise of the Kurds. From the shackles to strategic players across the Middle East. The borders between the Kurdish regions in each country are slowly eroding.

The Kurds are a major factor for any long-term stability and peace in the Middle East – they simply cannot be ignored from Syria to Turkey to Iraq to Iran.

First Published: Shargh (Iran)

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Turkey, Kurds and ISIS: Who is fighting whom?

As Turkey finally comes off the fence and decides to take part in the ongoing collective fight against ISIS more actively, its decision to suspend the reconciliation process and open a simultaneous front against the PKK has costly ramifications

For many, the deadly Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) bombing of the Kurdish town of Suruç in Turkey was a long-delayed wake-up call for Turkey. Thirty-two students were killed and over 100 injured in the suicide attack that sparked public outrage. Directly or indirectly, Turkey was already a key player in the Syrian civil war. However, this week spelled a new phase in Turkey’s policy on ISIS and one that will have large ramifications in Syria and also Turkey.

Turkey largely employed a “no peace, no war” stance on ISIS, and such a standpoint was influenced by the increasing autonomy of the Syrian Kurds who have been pitched in deadly battles against ISIS forces. For the Turkish government, the threat of the Democratic Union party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), was also of a concern than an ISIS that effectively contained Kurdish ambitions. As Turkey enters a new phase against ISIS with a series of airstrikes with the agreement for the U.S.-led coalition to use the İncirlik Air Base and also the provision of a buffer zone that Ankara has so fiercely insisted, these events have long been in motion, but the bombing in Suruç was the final catalyst.

ISIS, which was already feeling the heat from a Turkish crackdown and the onset of tighter security measures, something that the U.S. has long insisted that Turkey was not doing enough of, sent a number of messages with the recent bombing in Suruç. The tragic death of so many Kurdish youths stoked the fire among many Kurds who were already skeptical of Turkey’s Syrian stance, which they deemed as being designed to undermine the Kurds. The anger and protests that erupted was a clear message that many felt that Ankara had brought this on them with months of dithering owing to their much deeper anxiety regarding a de-facto Kurdish state developing on their southern border. The bombing in Suruç by an ethnic Kurd was orchestrated in order to warn the Kurds that ISIS ideology appeals to deeper than ethnic lines that the Kurds had used so well in their defense of Kobani and other Kurdish towns in Syria. It also stirred debate among some locals of who are the protectors of the Kurds, Ankara or the PKK?This very point was exposed as the PKK retaliated with revenge killings of police officers. ISIS aimed to relieve the heat on the Syrian battlefronts with the YPG by shifting focus further north.

Turkey has always maintained that they see no difference between ISIS and the PKK, and there is no doubt that the PKK and Syrian Kurdish ambitions were at the forefront of the “package” agreed on between Ankara and Washington that has led to the new Turkish attitude. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that safe zones would “form naturally” once the areas under ISIS control were cleared. This is firstly against ISIS, and secondly against any YPG expansion west of Jarablus, which Ankara has openly dreaded. Turkish involvement deeper in Syria will certainly focus on keeping Syrian Kurdish ambitions in check, but this leads to a series of deadly double games that may ultimately backfire. The cease-fire with the PKK has been shaky to say the least, but in spite of increasing skirmishes over the past several months it has remained intact. As Turkey launched a series of airstrikes on PKK strongholds in northern Iraq, the door was swung firmly open to a new dawn of confrontation.

Turkey has responded with a strong message to PKK attacks in recent days in conjunction with its attacks on ISIS positions to keep true to its word that it does not see any difference between the two groups. However, this is a dangerous game that could spectacularly backfire. ISIS has kept a largely neutral view of Turkey, but this has long vanished. After hundreds of arrests and now airstrikes, the building of concrete walls along its border and allowing the U.S.-led coalition to use Turkish military bases, Turkey has finally come off the fence in the fight against ISIS with all the repercussions this will now bring.

But simultaneously opening a second front against the PKK is under question. After decades of violence, thousands of deaths and great animosity, a return to the dark days of the past will lead to a new and unprecedented polarization of Turkey. The Kurdish question in the Middle East has moved on a great deal since the harrowing days of conflict in the 1990s. The reconciliation process was a bold and welcome step by Erdoğan in 2012. And only lasting peace in Turkey can ever be the way forward.

Reform packages and greater rights for the Kurds in any new constitution should not be tied to their PKK dilemma. Not all Kurds are PKK sympathizers and many Kurds become trapped between alienation, harsh government policies and the PKK. Turkey can continue cutting branches, but without addressing the root of the problem the vicious PKK-Ankara struggle will continue for more decades with more bloodshed. This is also true for the Syrian Kurds. How about the dozen or so other Kurdish political parties? Kurdish autonomy in Syria is unlikely to reverse and Turkey must adjust to this new reality. Any confrontation with the YPD or continued Turkish policy against Syrian Kurds will simply turn greater Kurdish sentiment across the divide against Turkey.

Immediately after the Turkish attacks on the PKK, the White House urged the continuation of the reconciliation process and a de-escalation of violence, but also stressed Turkey’s right to self-defense. But the situation becomes more complicated when the most effective fighting force in Syria against ISIS are indeed the YPG. The U.S. continues to list the PKK as a terrorist organization, and yet ironically enjoys increasing strategic ties with the YPG. Seldom does such a precarious web of inter-relations remain intact for long. Turkey is at war with ISIS and the PKK, the PKK is at war with ISIS and Turkey, the U.S. is at war with ISIS and is helped by the PKK, Turkey is helping the U.S. fight ISIS, the PKK are helping Kurdish forces in the Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey is enjoying good relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government. The complex map is riddled with ironies and contradictions and the scene is set for greater fallouts and casualties in these relations.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As ISIS strolls into Ramadi…

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) storms into a key Iraqi city, the state forces are routed leaving their weapons behind, refugees flee in their thousands in sheer panic, hundreds of slaughtered bodies dot the streets and a sense of panic reverberates across the region. All this sounds very familiar. However, this is not June 2014, but a full year later. The fall of the symbolic Sunni town of Ramadi has assumed the same fate as Mosul and other Iraqi cities, just when ISIS was supposedly in retreat and weakened by months of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

The fact that Ramadi suffered such a similar fate to other cities in 2014 shows that the Iraqi political, sectarian and military scene has not shifted a great deal 12 months on. Until Baghdad addresses these common ailments, the fight against ISIS will merely drag on.

The Iraqi army continues to lack the real ingredients, not a lack of training and arms, but willpower and motivation, which the much smaller ISIS forces show in abundance. Why do ISIS forces struggle in Kurdish-dominated areas or Shiite strongholds around Baghdad and yet seem to make steady gains in Sunni areas? This is far from a coincidence. The disenfranchised Sunni population was not sufficiently enticed into the political fold after suddenly playing second-fiddle to the Shiites after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein with Iraq practically entering a sectarian civil war between 2006 and 2007. It was the establishment of the “Sahwa,” or Sunni Awakening Councils, that successfully turned the tide against al-Qaida and other insurgent groups in the restive Sunni triangle that had crippled U.S. and Iraqi forces since 2003.

However, Baghdad did not capitalize on the opportunities. The Sunni tribes in return for ousting al-Qaida wanted a bigger piece of the political cake, integration of Sahwa forces into the official security apparatus and more concessions from Baghdad.

A continuation of monopolization of power under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stoked further sectarian fires. Iraq was gripped with mass protests in Sunni areas by the end of 2012, and by the end of 2013, ISIS had already established a strong footing in Anbar province.

ISIS could not have made such steady gains if it did not have grassroots support. It is these Sunni tribes that remain key to defeating ISIS not only today, but preventing any ISIS mark from entering their heartlands once more. While U.S. President Barrack Obama’s belief that “I don’t think we’re losing” or that Ramadi was merely a “tactical setback” is a delusional assessment, Obama was spot on with his statement: “If the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.”

Iraqis have been quicker to point a finger at the U.S. than their guns at ISIS, and that is the fundamental issue. National reconciliation has been a key condition of U.S. support since 2003 with the U.S. surge strategy of 2007, as thousands of troops were poured in to stabilize the security mayhem in Iraq at the time instigated under the proviso that Baghdad would mend ethno-sectarian wounds. Then the U.S.-led coalition intervention against ISIS last year was under the firm condition that Maliki would be replaced by a more inclusive figure that would placate the national divide.

The U.S. has spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to afford Iraqi politicians an opportunity to rebuild the state and bridge the elusive national divide in the post-Saddam era. But years of sectarian policies have only strengthened this divide and it is easy just to blame the U.S. for all of Iraq’s troubles and not look closer to home. Whether ISIS now or al-Qaida in the Sunni insurgency heyday, these militants are simply exploiting glaring gaps in the ethno-sectarian fabric of Iraq. Prior to ISIS’s attacks in 2014, Iraq had on paper one of the largest security forces in the Middle East with the U.S. providing significant advanced weaponry and training programs. Now in 2015, the theme is once again the need to build up and train Iraqi security forces and provide weaponry.

This may make little difference if the core issues are once again not addressed – the army’s low morale, sectarian mistrust and animosity that dot the landscape as well as state forces that are not sufficiently inclusive of vital Sunni and Kurdish ranks.

As the forces wilted away in Ramadi, the baton was once again passed to the much more effective Shiite militia forces to take the fight to ISIS. It is becoming increasingly evident that Iraq can only survive if it effectively has three armies -Kurdish peshmerga forces, a new official Sunni battalion and Shiite forces. If the ISIS advance in Iraq was about exploiting fractures in the Iraqi state then this is no different in Syria. ISIS took control of the historic city of Palmyra in Syria just days after assuming control of Ramadi.

But, as with victories in Iraq, the ISIS victories in Syria are as much down to the weakness of the Syrian state and opposition forces as the sheer strength and capability of ISIS. The U.S. train-and-equip program in Syria is slow and unclear. Even then, these forces are designed to confront ISIS and not the real reason why we are even talking about ISIS today – the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Until a strategy is devised to effectively tackle both Assad and ISIS in Syria, and ISIS and ethno-sectarian fractures in Iraq, the fight will merely be a day-to-day reactionary affair rather than the onset of any true long-term strategy.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

US softening stance on Assad epitomizes failed foreign policy

In February, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura controversially claimed in a press that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “…is part of the solution”.

Then a short while later in March, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, caused more controversy when declaring in an interview that “we have to negotiate in the end” with Assad.

While both statements resulted in swift backtracking amidst Syrian opposition and a regional outcry, it appears that Kerry and de Mistura merely uttered a growing acknowledgement in the West and particularly Washington.

In spite of later assurances that the US line on Assad had not changed – that he had no role in Syria’s future and had lost legitimacy to rule, Kerry’s comments merely added to growing scepticism and frustration in Turkey, with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu likening shaking hands with Assad to shaking hands with Hitler.

US President Barrack Obama, once labelled groups such as the Islamic State (IS) as minor players. Yet a grand coalition, frantic responses as IS steam-rolled through large parts of Syria and Iraq and hundreds of air strikes later, the name on the lips of Washington is IS and not Assad.

Turkey which has been at increasing loggerheads with the US and become disillusioned and bitter with Obama’s foreign policy, finds itself in a difficult predicament as an “official” part of the coalition, yet finds differences with the US over Assad a bridge too far to assume a more active role. In turn, the line from Washington is that Turkey has not stepped up to the plate as a key NATO ally.

Failed US foreign policy

Regardless of the official tone, there is now increasing realisation that whilst Assad is part of the problem, he is also part of the solution.

When Assad alleged that there was indirect contact with the coalition over the operations against IS, the US quickly denied this insisting that Assad’s comments be “taken with a grain of salt.” But the situation must also be judged within the new grains of reality – Assad did not give up power when the regime was on its knees, let alone when they are relatively secure and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is rapidly splintering.

This says much about the sorry state of Western foreign policy. Four and half years into a brutal civil war that has killed over 200,000 and displaced millions under the hands of a regime that clung to power by all means possible, to be in a situation where Assad and his institution is needed to prop up a Syria under the evident threat of a Jihadist takeover, tells its own story.

Obama’s Syrian policy failed to see the bigger picture, a conflict hijacked by Jihadists that was spreading fast across the borders of Syria and that once the bushfire started the effort to contain it, let alone to put it out, would far exceed any efforts in its prevention in the first place. Syria was very much the fertile Jihadist garden which allowed the IS seeds to flourish with Assad’s blessing.

Assad continuously broke red-lines that we quickly reset into greyer lines by Washington. Finally, a largely reluctant US intervened – when yet another red-line surfaced, IS banging on the doors of Erbil and Baghdad.

Strained US-Turkey ties

The lack of intervention in the first pace and now a focus away from Assad has infuriated an Ankara adamant that tackling Assad must be part of any operation against IS. The US has insisted that its hands are full with the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria, but for Turkey, increasingly fed-up with more foot-dragging by Washington, the road to defeating IS can only run through Damascus..

The softening of the US stance towards Assad is hardly through a plethora of options on the table. Put simply, giving the choice between Assad and IS, US would choose Assad over and over again. But choosing the lesser of two “evils” hardly bodes well for American credibility.

From the long-standing assertion that the time has come for Assad to “step aside” to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statements that the time was now for Assad to “to think about the consequences”, the tone changes are subtle but nevertheless discernible.

Kerry gave tentative support for a largely unsuccessful Russian peace initiative between Syrian opposition figures and the regime which saw large segments of the key Syrian opposition figures boycott the talks amidst distrust and skepticism. The fact it was Russia, a chief backer of Assad, leading the peace charge with US nowhere to be seen, highlighted that Washington sees prospects of a real breakthrough as slim and that Assad’s removal is not a priority.

Turkey remains reluctant to meet the Coalitions demands of using Turkish soil for air raids or for Turkey to assist directly in the fight against IS. Turkish bases are highly strategic for a successful campaign against IS, especially Mosul.

Erdogan has shown himself as a dogged, independent and at times unpredictable ally that will not be pushed around by the US or European powers. Erdogan warned months ago prior to a repair mission by US Vice President Joe Biden that the Turkish position will not change unless the US can strike real compromise. The repair mission was ironically by a man who drew the ire of Erdogan with suggestions that Ankara had encouraged the flow of Jihadists along the border.

“From the no-fly zone to the safety zone and training and equipping – all these steps have to be taken now,” insisted Erdogan previously, before reiterating a common stance “The coalition forces have not taken those steps we asked them for…” and that as a result his stance will not change.

With such a significant shared border with Syria, home to the main Syrian opposition groups and the host of millions of refugees, Turkey finds itself at the centre of the conflict one way or another. Yet its lack of an agreed policy with the US speaks volumes on the state of what was already a diminishing relationship.

Turkish annoyance at their US partners could not have been demonstrated better than over the Kurdish town of Kobane. As Erdogan continuously downplayed the significance of the Kobane, the small dusty town unknown to much of the world become a symbol of the coalition fight against IS and one which the US deemed its credibility would be judged.

Kobane was not any Syrian town. It was part of the newly declared autonomous cantons of the main Syrian Kurdish party (PYD) which Ankara accuses of been an arm of the PKK. To the anger of Turkey, the US even provided ammunition and supplies to the Syrian Kurdish rebels with signs of growing cooperation.

The bigger picture

Even if IS is defeated in Syrian, which could take years, the US needs to quickly agree on a plan to deal with the root-cause of IS – Assad.

A grand bargain with Russian and Iran may well be possible to see that regime apparatus remains in place with Assad ‘eventually’ gone. However, such terms can no longer be on the unrealistic Genève Communique of 2012.

Even the new US initiative to train thousands of so called moderate Syrian rebels in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia starting in early spring, is fraught with difficulties. The US made clear that goal of the initiative was to empower rebels to go on the offensive against IS and set the scene for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Syria. Assad was not even mentioned.

But so fractured is the Syrian landscape that picking out the moderates and vetting individuals is a painstaking task. Indeed, many moderates have slipped into the hands of new Islamist alliances in Syria bewildered at the lack of Western support. And what about the appetite of any newly trained rebels turning their guns on IS under Western pressure whilst Assad, their ultimate priority, simply regroups and gains strengths in the background?

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Ankara with its new independent and assertive role in the Middle East can simply wait on US policy that it remains unconvinced with, as it continues to harbor millions of refugees and an unstable border.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

The battle for Tikrit – Iraq going down “that” sectarian road again?

Why does the following sentence hold so much significance? Iraqi forces, backed by thousands of Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribesmen and supervised by the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, launched an attacked to retake the Islamic State (IS) held town of Tikrit, without the assistance of Coalition forces.

This sentences pretty much sums up Iraq’s past, present and most likely its future failings. Just who are the ‘official’ government forces and why after a decade of rebuilding, extensive training and supplied with vast amounts of weaponry, do they need to be significantly augmented by Iranian backed Shiite militia or indeed led by an al-Quds Force commander?

Any sense of a united force is lacking in Iraq and having wasted the chance for several years to build a cross-sectarian and multi-ethnic armed force, the scene is dominated by one of a number of different forces depending on where you are in Iraq.

Whilst hundreds of Sunni tribesman have played a role in the Tikrit offensive, currently it is more of symbolic than of real strategic value. There are plenty of Sunni tribes that are anti-IS and support Baghdad’s efforts but by large the Sunni position from the pre IS days has not been drastically addressed.

Sunnis continue to view the Baghdad political chambers and its Shia dominated security apparatus with distrust and resentment. It is easy to forget that IS strolled into town amidst widespread Sunni protests and continued clashes in the traditionally problematic Anbar province.

As the combined Iraq force slowly makes progress around Tikrit, there is a growing danger of a wider sectarian divide. Crucially, the liberators must be separated from the eventual protectors. If the Sunnis do not lead the protection and control of their heartland then this is a recipe for disaster.

Iranian backed militias on the Sunni doorstep simply echoes the sentiments that led to the Sunni welcome from some sections as the IS blitzed in to town.

In fact, the Iraqi Sunni tribal and various Baathist forces became so blended with the IS ‘label’ that it is often misleading when attacks merely become tagged as against IS. There is a danger that sectarian atrocities could be committed under the banner of banishing the evil of IS.

The Sahwa or Sunni Awakening Councils that drove al-Qaeda out of the Sunni hotspots is an example that Sunnis can be enticed into the fold – but the success of the Sahwa initiative was greatly diluted as the Sunni tribal forces were not sufficiently embedded within the national security apparatus and the opportunity to lure the Sunnis into a greater political role was lost by Baghdad.

Even as the Coalition plays no part in a key offensive against IS in Iraq, the US has somewhat tried to brush off the Iranian influence in the battle for Tikrit but this fact is not lost on weary regional powers. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal pointed to the offensive in Tikrit as the prime example of the anxiety of Gulf States of Iran “taking over” Iraqi forces.

With the U.S. in deep negotiations with Tehran over the curbing of its nuclear program and concern amongst regional powers that US is softening its stance on Iran, hardly soothes this regional anxiety.

In the words of US General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the hodge-podge of Iraqi Humvees and various vehicles who darted towards Tikrit like “rush hour on the Washington Beltway”, will ultimately overcome IS forces in Tikrit due to their “overwhelming numbers.”

The US is naturally worried that their enormous investment in eradicating IS will be hijacked by Iran as it increasingly displays its influence and plays a leading role by training militia and providing general arms and increasingly sophisticated weaponry.

Of course, Iraqi forces in spite of any backing from Iran would not be anywhere near Tikrit if it was not for the significant coalition airstrikes.

The greater concern for Iraq is whether the common threat of IS, where battles rage from Kurdistan to the north, Anbar to the West or to the gates of Baghdad further south, will be bring the county closer together or even wider apart?

Unfortunately, augmented by the growing political rifts with Kurdistan, all the signs currently point to the latter. As U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter pointed out “We’ve been down the road of sectarianism in Iraq and it’s important that the government of Iraq not go down that road again.”

When you have a significant Shiite militia backed by Iran that is perhaps more powerful than the official state forces leading the road to Tikrit, it’s hard not to see that in spite of Carter’s warnings, Iraq is going down that road again and fast.

Tikrit is the all-important dress rehearsal for Mosul. If Iraqi forces get bogged into a protracted battle with IS or worse the situation turns into sectarian anarchy, then the battle for Mosul will no longer be Iraq versus IS but Shiite versus Sunni.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Is it Time for Rojava and Kurdistan to Unite against Common Enemy?

Whilst the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) was propelled into the limelight in spectacular manner in Iraq, controlling Mosul, Tikrit and large swathes of territory across Iraq, for the Kurds of Syria their deadly battles with the al-Qaeda offshoot over the past year or so have largely failed to make headlines.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has ubiquitously engaged in furious battles against IS militiamen across the areas in Syria under Kurdish control. Those Kurdish areas are of strategic importance, as they straddle the Turkish border — and with it some of the most vital border crossings — and are home to some of Syria’s largest oil fields.

Conversely, the battle of the Peshmerga forces in Iraq has been well noted, as they have formed a formidable frontier against IS rebels, all but saving Kirkuk and many other cities from falling to the IS, which recently changed its name from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In the same manner as the Peshmerga, the YPG should be acknowledged for its vital role in keeping IS at bay in Syria.

Fresh from their gains in Iraq, a buoyant IS has returned to Syria with a new onslaught on Kobane and other Kurdish towns and villages. However, this time the goalposts have shifted. Armed with significant booty from their Iraq conquests, including Humvees, tanks and artillery — not to mention millions of dollars in funds – IS quickly shifted their guns to the Syrian Kurds once more.

According to Jabar Yawar, secretary general of the Peshmerga ministry, “ISIS has different types of rockets, tanks and other heavy weaponry that they got from the Iraqi army and now they use these weapons to attack Kobane.”

Faced with a barrage of attacks on Kobane from different sides, Kurdish forces have fervently confronted IS forces; but they will ultimately struggle under inferior firepower.  The co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Salih Muslim, warned that IS now possesses “heavy weaponry like mortars and tanks, which concerns our forces. We can’t use our weapons against their bulletproof tanks.”

Furthermore, Syrian Kurds have complained at lack of humanitarian aid over the past couple of years and have been hampered under the cautious eyes of Ankara.  YPG spokesperson Redur Xalil called on the international community to “intervene immediately and carry out their duty toward Kobane.”

The Syrian Kurds freed themselves from decades of tyranny and repression and announced self-rule across three cantons. But lack of political unity between the main PYD party and other political parties threaten the existence of the administration in the midst of increasing danger.

The situation has not been helped with lukewarm relations between the PYD and the Kurdistan Region leadership.

There could be no better time for the Kurds to unite and protect the Kurdish population in Syria and also preserve hard-fought Kurdish self-rule. IS is not just an internal matter for the Syrian Kurds: What happens there is very much a problem for the Iraqi Kurds.

Because if Kobane and other major Kurdish cities fall, the IS gets even stronger. That is not good for Erbil, which is also somewhere on the IS priority list of enemies to annul.

For Abdul-Salam Ahmed, co-chair of PYD, Kobane was effectively becoming a factor to “the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement,” the 1916 pact by which the powers of the time redrew the Ottoman Empire borders, essentially dividing the Kurds in the process. Whilst rallying Kurdish unity, Kurdish veteran politician Ahmet Turk emphasized that there is no difference between Kobane and Kirkuk.

PYD head Muslim warned that the unity of the three cantons and ultimately the Syrian Kurdish autonomous region itself depends on Kobane, which he labeled as the “symbol of the Kurds’ identity and resistance.”  He urged Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani to join a common struggle against the Islamic militants, claiming that Barzani “had not fully grasped the nature of ISIS.”

Whilst the Kurdish Region edges towards independence, the importance of a stable, secure and prosperous Kurdistan Region of Syria as a key neighbor cannot be discounted.

To this effect, the Syrian Kurds, who have already imposed compulsory military service, have tried to rally Kurds in Iraq and particularly Turkey. Gharib Haso, an official from the PYD, claimed that “Young Kurds from all parts of Kurdistan are going to Syria.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdul Rahman stated that at least 800 Kurdish fighters had crossed the Turkish border into Syria to join the battle.

“It’s a life-or-death battle for the Kurds. If ISIS takes Ayn al Arab (Kobane), it will advance eastwards toward other Kurdish Syrian areas, such as Hasakah in the northeast,” he warned.

The ultimate success of greater Kurdistan rests with all its four parts. There is no better place to start than with a political alliance amongst Kurdish parties in Syria and the fostering of better ties between the Rojava administration and the Kurdistan Region.

First Published On: Rudaw

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc