Category Archives: International Media

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

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

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

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: (Newspaper Print Edition) (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