Category Archives: International Media

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

A Marriage of Convenience: The Many Faces of Iraq’s Sunni Insurgency

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may have stolen the limelight, but the current Sunni insurgency in Iraq is dominated by a number of Sunni groups, with ISIS forming possibly less than a third of rebel forces. Each group has its own reason and motivation for siding with ISIS, but far from sharing ideology or a common end goal, the main binding factor is hatred of the Shiite government and Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki (Middle East Monitor, June 17; Rudaw [Erbil], July 7).

The key to ousting ISIS and arriving at a peaceful solution ultimately lies in the hands of the Sunni tribes and the local Sunni population, not in the guns of the Shiites. It was the Sunnis that turned the tide against al-Qaeda once before, but wary Sunnis may not bail out Baghdad so easily again. The danger now after 11 years of bloodshed and Sunni marginalization is that Baghdad may find it impossible to resurrect the notion of a united Iraq, let alone heal the gulf of sectarian mistrust and animosity.

A number of the Sunni armed groups currently fighting Baghdad are remnants of the previous insurgency against U.S. occupation. Many of these groups have formed alliances and grown in strength since the revitalized Sunni uprising evolved from popular protests at the end of 2012 to renewed armed conflict and sectarian war. Indeed for this reason, many Sunni tribal leaders discount ISIS as the spark of the revolution and accuse them of taking advantage by jumping on the Iraqi Sunni bandwagon.

  • · General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries (GMCIR)

One of the main groups that fought alongside ISIS is the GMCIR. This group was formed in early 2014 from an alliance of various other military councils or tribal revolutionary groups with the aim of establishing a unified command as a result of renewed fighting with Baghdad (al-Ahram Weekly[Cairo], March 20). The GMCIR includes a large number of former officers of the disbanded Iraqi army and has the general aim of establishing a Sunni autonomous entity without compelling any break-up of Iraq. The group is associated with the Muslim Scholars’ Association led by the influential Shaykh Harith Sulayman al-Dhari. GMCIR has an uneasy cooperation with ISIS that saw large areas of northern Iraq slip from the control of Baghdad, but differences between the groups are discernible in their approach to governance in Mosul and the issue of ISIS’ dominant role on the ground (al-Akhbar[Beirut], June 16).

Days after the occupation of Mosul, GMCIR spokesman and former general Muzhir al-Qaisi described ISIS as “barbarians” (BBC, June 14). Distancing themselves from ISIS’ extremist ideology, the GMCIR has tried to emphasize a non-sectarian agenda and a political solution to the crisis.

  • · Military Council of the Tribal Revolutionaries (MCTR)

The MCTR is the largest non-ISIS force and is believed to include a coalition of approximately 80 Sunni Arab tribes and 41 armed groups, including former officers from the Saddam era. Its presence is especially strong in Fallujah, Ramadi and parts of Nineweh and Salahuddin (al-Araby al-Jadid [Beirut], June 14).

  • · Military Council of Anbar Tribal Revolutionaries (MCATR)

One of the main military councils, the MCATR was formed in early 2014 (Journal of Turkish Weekly, June 25). The MCATR has pressed the remaining Sahwa (Awakening) forces to fight for their cause – many of the groups that comprise MCATR today relinquished their Sahwa allegiance after key demands were not fulfilled by al-Maliki and the prime minister ordered a violent crackdown of sit-in protestors. However, in the battles for Ramadi and Fallujah earlier this year, it was clear that remnants of the Sahwa forces battled insurgents on the side of the government.

Shaykh Hatim al-Sulayman is the leader of the MCATR and chief of the powerful Dulaim tribe in Ramadi (with significant influence in Anbar). The Dulaim tribe, including the al-Bou Nimr, al-Farraj, al-Bou Issa and al-Fallaha sub-tribes as well as gunmen from the al-Jamilat, al-Jabour and al-Janabat clans, has played a central role in the uprising since last year (Al-Monitor, January 8).

Al-Sulayman, like many other tribal leaders, is hardly full of praise for ISIS but sees al-Maliki as more dangerous. Pointing out various disagreements with ISIS, he signalled that the inevitable fight against ISIS was merely postponed (Rudaw [Erbil], July 7). For al-Sulayman, ISIS came only to take advantage of the Sunni revolution and their quest to win back Sunni rights.

  • · Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandia (JRTN – Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Path)

Another major group, with particular influence in the provinces of Nineweh and Kirkuk, is the JRTN, which has a close alliance with the GMCIR. The JRTN, spearheaded by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy, Izzat al-Douri, is based on a mix of old Ba’athist pan-Arab secular nationalism and Naqshabandi Sufi Islam (see Terrorism Focus, July 28, 2008).

The goals of the JRTN are the return to power of the Ba’ath party and the safeguarding of Iraqi sovereignty through the simultaneous end of the strong Iranian influence in Baghdad. Their key aim is to “fight for the unity of Iraq’s land and people to preserve the Arab and Islamic identity.” [1]

  • · Al-Jaysh al-Islami fi’l-Iraq (JII – Islamic Army of Iraq)

The JII was particularly potent at the height of the initial uprising against U.S. military occupation (Telegraph, June 20). The movement went from being a thorn in the side of the Americans to being a key player in the Sunni Sahwa (Awakening) councils that turned the tide against al-Qaeda before later turning full circle by re-joining the anti-Baghdad insurgency.

Shaykh Ahmad al-Dabash, founder of the Islamic Army of Iraq and an influential imam from the Batawi family, is determined to accept nothing less than the removal of al-Maliki and has noted his movement’s common interest with ISIS in removing the Shiite prime minister (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 27). Its demands, like those made by the majority of Sunni groups, include a political solution to the ongoing crisis, the establishment of a Sunni federal region and the removal of al-Maliki.

  • · Jama’at Ansar al-Islam (JAI)

JAI is a jihadist group from the post-2003 era that shares the general ISIS goal of a caliphate, but rejects a leading role for ISIS in an Islamic state (BBC, July 1).

  • · Jaysh al-Mujahideen (JAM)

JAM is another group that dates back to the early post-Saddam era with an anti-Shiite agenda and the goal of overthrowing the central government (BBC, July 1). It is known to have disagreements with ISIS and the Islamic Army of Iraq.

  • · Kata’ib Thawarat al-Ashrayn (KTA – 1920 Revolution Brigades)

Named for an anti-British nationalist uprising during the British mandate in Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades is a lesser known Sunni militia originally formed in 2005 to fight the American occupation (al-Jazeera, June 27).

There is a growing unease between Sunni tribes and ISIS. ISIS recently executed 30 people, including a tribal leader and his son, after they refused to pledge allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and pay “royalties” (Shafaq News [Erbil], July 10).

Most of the Sunni groups have insisted that they are in control of key areas and facilities and have pushed back ISIS where necessary. For example, the Islamic Army of Iraq prevented ISIS from entering Dulu’iya after they took control of it due to ideological differences between the movements (al-Arabiya [Dubai], June 11). Al-Maliki has tried to manipulate Sunni tribal anxiety by encouraging Arab tribal leaders in northern areas to fight ISIS (BasNews [Erbil], July 8). There have been skirmishes between these tribes and ISIS militants but for any real impact on the ground Sunnis must turn against ISIS in much greater numbers.

What is clear, however, is the increasing tension between former the Ba’ath party, JRTN factions and ISIS. These groups have already been involved in deadly clashes in the Kirkuk area with reports of JRTN assassination campaigns against ISIS leaders in the Diyala region (al-Sumaria [Baghdad], June 22; Shafaq News [Erbil] July 9). There are other reports of generalized clashes between tribal forces and ISIS in Mosul, Salahuddin and in other areas (al-Mustakbal [Baghdad], July 12; al-Estiqama [Baghdad], July 11).

With so many groups and varying end games, the danger of Sunni infighting can only grow. Furthermore, the more Sunni groups in the field, the more difficult it becomes to establish a negotiating partner. Sunni tribes have to find a solution to ISIS, but are more likely to deal with that problem when al-Maliki is removed from power and a Sunni region is endorsed under an agreement. Either way, Sunni tribes have learned their lesson from the disappointments of the first Awakening initiative and Sunni support to expel ISIS or offer Baghdad any respite will not come cheap this time around.

First Published On: The Jamestown Foundation

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Latest Sunni insurgency threatens to put final nail in the Iraqi coffin

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have continued to assume centre stage with more towns and borders crossings falling in dramatic fashion.  However, the lines have been blurred between a Salafist-Jihadist and a Iraqi Sunni insurgency. It is no longer acts of terrorism on show. This is a powerful, motivated and determined force that will be hard to extinguish without major concessions to the long disenfranchised Sunni minority.

Influential Sunni tribes do not approve of the extremist ideology of ISIS but their disapproval with Shiite rule particularly under Nouri al-Maliki is much greater.

In the meantime Shiite militias parade the streets of Baghdad in a show of force with thousands more joining the battle against the Sunni insurgency pumped up by their spiritual leaders.

As Iraq slides into sectarian anarchy and inevitable partition, the future of Iraq as an integrated nation is looking increasing bleak.

Sunni insurgent revival

In 2008, the Islamic State of Iraq (as it was known at the time) in a leaked communication deemed itself as being in a state “extraordinary crisis”. So how did a diminishing Islamist movement regain such ascendancy in Iraq?

Although, the widely acclaimed surge strategy of US president George W. Bush is credited with largely defusing the sectarian civil war in Iraq, it was the establishment of the Sahwa or Awakening Council’s that really turned the tide.

Influential Sunni tribes, fed up with violence and al-Qaeda dominance, turned against the movement. This was not going to come cheap and the Sunnis expected a larger share of political cake, integration of the Sahwa militias into official forces and decentralisation of power. This was a unique opportunity for Baghdad to solidify gains but was missed.

Today, Sunni sentiment is hardly different to that of 2003 or at the height of the original Sunni insurgency. Long the rulers of Iraq, the Sunnis suddenly played second fiddle to the Shiites by virtue of the fact that Shiites had higher numbers.

The simple fact remains, just as the Kurds will never succumb to been ruled by Baghdad, the Sunnis will never accept rule under Shiites.

Even if the US and Iranians supported the Baghdad government and quelled the Sunni uprising. Another one will simply spring up. You can cut the branches of the Sunni resistant but without addressing the root it will never vanish.

This branch is ultimately the division of Iraq into 3 autonomous components.

Sectarianism in Iraq is hardly new and dates back many centuries. The public especially the youth, are particularly influenced by religious leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr and influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Indeed, it isn’t an “Iraqi” fightback that is holding off ISIS on the doorsteps of Baghdad but a Shiite one.

The influence of spiritual leaders and Fatwas was clearly on display as truckloads of young Shiite volunteers heeded Sistani’s call to resist.

The fact that Iraqi security forces numbering in the hundreds of thousands needed to be rescued by militias tells its own story about sectarian allegiance.

Iraq vs. terrorism or Shiites vs. Sunnis?

The US has hesitated to intervene realising that as former US commander in Iraq, David Patreus, warned it is effectively the Shiites that they will be siding with, thus further adding fuel to the fire.

Sistani in a recent statement urged on the creation of “an effective government” and one “that enjoys broad national acceptance [and] that reverses past mistakes.” This was a thinly veiled reference to the failings of Maliki marginalisation policies.

From an initial Shiite call for resistance, a more cautious Sistani is now insisting on an Iraqi identity by putting “all Iraqis on the same level” to stand against the insurgency.

The danger is that after 11 years of bloodshed and marginalisation, can Baghdad muster the notion of a common “Iraqi”?

For that to happen, the real influence is in the hands of the Sunni tribes and the local Sunni population not in the guns of the Shiites.

The Sunnis drove out al-Qaeda once and conceivably can do to the same to ISIS, but why should they? A loose alliance of ISIS militiaman, armed local tribes and ex-Baathists has a common goal and at least for now can serve the goals of each other.

If the Sunni tribes ousted ISIS, what guarantee is there that this time Baghdad will take heed and implement their demands? At the same time, by losing ISIS, the Sunnis risk losing the spear to their arrow.

Sunni tribal influences

The Sunnis are composed of a number of influential tribes including Dulaim, Shamma, al-Jaburi, the Ubaydis, the ‘Azza and the al-Bu Nasir.

The founder of the Islamic Army of Iraq, Sheikh Ahmed al-Dabash, and influential imam from the Batawi family and for many years a thorn in the side of US, acknowledged in a recent interview that thousands of his men are participating in the ISIS-led insurgency.

al-Dabash, whose demands like many other tribal leaders will not stop short of an autonomous Sunni region,  stated “Is it possible that a few hundred Isis jihadists can take the whole of Mosul?…No. All the Sunni tribes have come out against Maliki. And there are parts of the military, Baathists from the time of Saddam Hussein, clerics, everyone came out for the oppression that we have been suffering.”

Other tribal leaders have joined the fray in outlining their position.

The leader of the political wing of the Tribal Revolutionary Council, Sheikh Zaydan al Jabiri, in a similar vain to al-Dabash doesn’t endorse ISIS ideology but highlighted their common enemy, the Shiite dominated government

Ali Hatim Al-Suleiman, an emir of the Dulaim tribe echoed the sentiment of other tribal leaders, “It is the tribal rebels who are in control of the situation in Mosul. It is not reasonable to say that a group like ISIS, which has a small number of men and vehicles, could be in control of a large city like Mosul. Therefore, it is clear that this is a tribal revolution, but the government is trying to force us all to wear the robe of the terrorists and ISIS.”

Sheikh Khamis Al Dulaimi, a tribal leader in the Anbar Military Council of Tribal Revolutionaries, exclaimed “This is a revolution against the unfairness and marginalization of the past 11 years.”

A common them among these tribal leaders is their fear of ISIS and Sheikh Bashar al-Faidhi, Association of Muslim Scholars, was no different, “We’re terrified of them. They are a problem. But we have to have priorities.”

The tribal leaders were the key to recent snow-balling of ISIS influence and they are the key to any move to oust ISIS.

Growing sectarian divide since 2003

Animosity, hatred, fanaticism and revenge are a vicious cycle that is hard to break. The sectarian bloodshed since 2003 will be hard to ever heal let alone the deep history that entrenches the divide.

Passions are so high that even the slightest damage to any Shiite shrine will see the battle morph into all-out war (not to mention thousands of enraged Iranians joining any bloodbath). Just look at the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in 2006 to see the 2 years of sectarian mayhem it unleashed.

Many of the youth, who are in now in their teens, grew up in a cycle of sectarian terror. It is these youth than joined the ranks of Shiite militias such as that of the Mehdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr and vehemently opposed US occupation.

Indeed, the sectarian landscape has changed immensely since 2003.

One look at makeup of the neighbourhood of Baghdad tells its own story. The city has segregated greatly along religious and to a lesser extent ethnic divisions.

The continuous demarcation of ethnic and sectarian divisions across Iraq put into focus the only real solution – Iraq’s breakup. Even then, sectarian and ethnic cleansing in such a scenario will run rife.

Shiite insurgencies in the past

The Sunni insurgencies against Baghdad are in some ways not too dissimilar to Shiite insurgencies against Sunni ruled Baghdad. Al-Da’wa al-Islamiyah (the Islamic Call), was established in 1967 by Shia clergy and activists against the Baathist rule.

The Da’wa was a revolutionary movement with the goal of creating an Islamic state in Iraq and fought through its al-Badr Brigade. Grand ayatollah Muahhamd Sadeq al-Sadr and his two sons including Muqtada al Sadr’s father and elder brothers were killed in 1999. It’s no secret which events Moqtada drew his anger.

However, in a similar way to how Sunnis were originally appeased to fight al-Qaeda, sometimes the bonds of tribal affiliation are older and stronger than religious affiliation, and Shiite tribes were affectively influenced to protect border regions in the Iran-Iraq war.

Ultimately, religious passions do not rule the head or heart of every Sunni or Shiites. But with lack of jobs, inclusion in society and government and a bleak future, a lot of Iraqis have little to hold onto.

First Published On: Rudaw

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Counting on the Kurds

Large shockwaves are reverberating across Iraq and the whole Middle East as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues its sweep through large parts of northern Iraq. While city after city falls, from populous Mosul to largely Ba’athist Tikrit, best known as the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and now to Tal Afar, a strategic town west of Mosul, all the Iraqi armed forces have been able to muster so far is a faltering defense.

In contrast, in only two days the Kurds took control of some ISIS-threatened territories—ones that had been constantly disputed between the autonomous Kurdistan Region and the central government for the eleven years since Saddam Hussein fell from power. In the case of Kirkuk, the symbol of the Kurdish national struggle, the Iraqi forces hastily retreated and Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, assumed control in a matter of hours. With Kurdish interests at great risk and a security vacuum to be filled, the Kurds were not about to remain idle.

The seeds of Sunni insurgency were sown long before ISIS came to town, and it is hardly the first time that the volatile Sunni plains and cities such as Mosul and Fallujah have been under the control of Sunni insurgents. Neither is it the first time the Kurds have had to step in to restore security. Indeed, it was the Peshmerga who helped bring control and stability to Mosul and the surrounding area between 2004 and 2005, and again in 2008, when the areas were threatened by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the groups that would eventually merge to become ISIS.

Now, much like they were in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003 that transformed Iraq’s sociopolitical landscape and sparked the fierce sectarian showdown that followed, the Kurds could yet become the main victors of the latest turmoil that has plagued Iraq. As the Kurds face off against ISIS on their doorstep, the Peshmerga are increasingly being viewed as key players against ISIS rebels and a main factor in the battle to secure stability. The price they could demand from Baghdad for this support in beating back an insurgency, however, could permanently alter the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s borders, its political status—and its fortunes.

Bailing out Maliki?

The ISIS attacks could not have come at a lower point for relations between Erbil and Baghdad. For years, there has been a fierce dispute between the autonomous region and the central government in Baghdad—over oil exports, the status of disputed territories, and the Kurdistan Region’s share of the national budget. Now, facing this growing insurgent threat, administering newly captured territory with significant minority populations, and hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the crises in Iraq and Syria, the Kurds must ask themselves if they should rush to bail out Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. After all, it is Maliki’s policies the Kurds blame for stoking this latest sectarian fire.

The Kurdish leadership has long issued warnings about what in its view were divisive policies pursued by Maliki and his government. Instead, recurring themes in the Kurds’ post-2003 rhetoric were calls for national reconciliation and moves to bring Iraq’s Sunni community, which was feeling increasingly disenfranchised, back into the fold through political incentives and greater representation.

But if anything the sectarian divide only grew larger, especially during Maliki’s second term, when many Sunni political figures were exiled or ousted from government. Eventually, major Sunni protests in Anbar province at the end of 2013 were met with a violent crackdown. Now that those protests have mutated into a sectarian conflict exploited and exacerbated by ISIS militants, there are calls for all concerned—from Shi’ite militias to the Kurds and international parties such as the United States—to step in and help preserve the unity of Iraq.

The Kurds, however, have long aspired to the opposite of a united Iraq: they want an independent country for their nation formed, at least in part, out of the area of northern Iraq currently administered as the autonomous Kurdistan Region. As the ISIS crisis looms larger, they are not likely to step in to preserve anything other than their own interests—and certainly not to rescue Maliki or Baghdad from the mess that, in the Kurds’ view, they have created. Only a few weeks ago, after all, Erbil and Baghdad were at loggerheads about oil sales and arbitration, and Baghdad has failed to pay the Kurds their share of the national budget since January.

Now, if Baghdad wants the Peshmerga to step in as they have done in the past, it will have to promise something in return. Even if Baghdad met key Kurdish demands—for greater control over oil exports from the region, payment of the overdue portions of the national budget, and formal recognition of the territories the Kurds currently hold as part of the Kurdistan Region—it would likely not secure more than limited support from Kurdish leaders in the battle against ISIS.

While the contentious US invasion of Iraq in 2003 created something of a sectarian whirlwind that today continues to rip through Iraq, for the Kurds it marked the beginning of a national renaissance and the creation of a Kurdistan Region a world away from the dark years of oppression and genocide under Saddam. Their strong economy is underpinned by a rapidly growing energy sector and control of billions of barrels of oil that is serving as the fuel for independence—literally—and in recent fighting their security service has proven itself to be among the more effective and better-organized forces operating in Iraq.

Between economic growth and the longstanding pursuit of complete independence, the Kurds’ goals have been lofty. It is Baghdad that the autonomous region’s Kurds deem as the major impediment to their continued progress, with the ongoing oil dispute proving particularly damaging to the relationship.

Control of oil revenues and oil exports was in many ways the last umbilical cord that Baghdad had over the region. By agreeing lucrative energy contracts with Turkey, the Kurds called Baghdad’s bluff and pressed ahead with an independent oil sale, to Baghdad’s vocal consternation. The Iraqi government even filed for arbitration against the Kurdistan Region over the oil sale issue—in part because economic self-sufficiency would help propel Iraqi Kurdistan to greater autonomy and eventual independence.

But while even two weeks ago Kurdistan’s first independent oil sale, through the Turkish port of Ceyhan, was highly controversial, the tone has certainly changed now that Iraq is swept up in sectarian bloodshed and seemingly dependent on the Peshmerga for security support. It would be a bit rich for Maliki to dictate the terms of oil sales while he is fighting an enemy only the Kurds have won against so far.

On that platform of relative economic success, Kurdistan has prided itself on its rapid advancement and relative stability. At the same time, Iraq as a whole has suffered. But, the goalposts for the “Other Iraq” have now shifted substantially, due to the Kurds controlling territory outside their official autonomous region and with substantial minority populations. They must incorporate a large Arab minority and a number of smaller minorities, not to mention the many refugees, inside territory with a border shared not with the Iraqi state, but with a region now controlled by ISIS militants.

The price of an army

If they manage all this, the Kurds stand to gain a great deal, not least of which is control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region. They saw Kirkuk slip through their hands in 1991, the year of the Kurdish uprising against Saddam that saw their autonomous region first established. Again in 2003, Kirkuk fell just beyond their grasp as they succumbed to US and Turkish pressure. Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution aims to deal with Kirkuk and other disputed territories, and it should have been implemented by the end of 2007. Much to the frustration of the Kurds, Baghdad has had no appetite to address the issue, and even a national census—an important first step in dealing with the disputed territories—has been repeatedly put off. Today, the Kurds are not about to forego yet another golden opportunity to seize Kirkuk, said by many to be the “Kurds’ Jerusalem.”

To keep Kirkuk—and the entire Kurdistan Region—safe, the Peshmerga have formed what for now has been an effective security barrier against ISIS and its allied forces. For now, the Peshmerga are in defensive mode only: While there have been skirmishes, ISIS do not have endless forces or firepower, and it is unlikely they could wage and win a war against well-prepared Kurdish forces. And, where the Iraqi forces, which were organized along sectarian lines, swiftly retreated, the Peshmerga have stronger ties of loyalty—and would likely defend Kurdish lands to their last breath.

Perhaps even greater than the prospect of more territory in Iraq or greater control of oil revenues is the chance for increased unity with Kurdish populations living outside the autonomous region, namely in Syria and Turkey, and for improved ties with old enemies such as Ankara.

Amid cries that the Middle East’s borders are eroding, Syria’s Kurds have carved out their own autonomous territory in the northeast of that war-torn country, and in a symbolic move the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces fought side-by-side with the Peshmerga along the Syrian border in the effort to drive out ISIS rebels. At the same time, Syrian Kurds, bolstered by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have built strong ties with the Turkish Kurds—and, of course, there is the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan’s recent unilateral oil sales could not have come without the cooperation of Turkey.

The Turkish government has fast realized that, far from being a threat, the Kurds are its natural partners and a newfound strategic player Turkey needs and can rely on in stormy regional waters. The ISIS onslaught has undoubtedly changed Turkey’s Iraq calculus, pushing Ankara closer than ever to Erbil. In a bizarre twist of fate, the US spent years and much effort bringing Ankara and Erbil closer together. Now that Turkey and Kurdistan are enjoying strong economic, political and strategic ties, they are viewing the developments with great caution. While in 2003 the Kurdish occupation of Kirkuk caused an outcry from Ankara, Turkey may now actively support it, especially with the protection it affords the Turkmens living in Kirkuk and the potential benefit to Ankara if Iraq’s Kurds control even more oil resources.

Of course, the ultimate goal of the Kurdish population has long been complete independence. As the Iraq crisis continues almost unchecked, the Kurds could be getting closer to outright independence. The short-term goal for the Kurds is about consolidation and stability. ISIS forces may not invade the newly demarcated line between the territory they hold and the expanded Kurdistan Region, but they can certainly wreak havoc on Kurdistan and its interests. The immediate goal for the Kurds, then, is to preserve the security and stability of the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdish populations in the greater Kurdish area.

The Kurds will keep a close, diligent eye on developments, and once Kurdish interests are secured, they will not jump in with both feet into the Iraqi quagmire. Depending on how the Iraq crisis unfolds—and the staying power of an alliance of ISIS, armed locals and old Ba’athists—the Kurds may well need to strike a deal with Baghdad in order to keep their own peace. Either way, the Kurds will need to maneuver carefully between Sunni militants and a weakened Maliki administration.

First Published On: Majalla (part of Sharq al-Awsat newspaper)

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Commentary for Vo Tima Newspaper (Greece)

Greek Version (English version below)

Ο πετρελαιοκίνητος εθνικισμός των Κούρδων

Τούρκοι και κούρδοι ηγέτες έθεσαν σε εφαρμογή μια ενεργειακή συμφωνία που υπόσχεται να ενισχύσει την ημιαυτόνομη περιοχή του ιρακινού Κουρδιστάν με μια ανεξάρτητη ροή εσόδων από το πετρέλαιο

«Καύσιμο για την ανεξαρτησία» Δημοσιογράφος και αναλυτής του μιλάει στο «Βήμα»

«Τα εκατομμύρια βαρέλια του πετρελαίου από το Κιρκούκ χρησιμεύουν, κυριολεκτικά, ως καύσιμο για την ανεξαρτησία των Κούρδων του Ιράκ» λέει μιλώντας στο «Βήμα» ο Μπασντάρ Ισμαήλ, δημοσιογράφος και αναλυτής στο

«Οι πρόσφατες πετρελαϊκές συμβάσεις με την Τουρκία έχουν προκαλέσει σάλο στη Βαγδάτη και στην Ουάσιγκτον, που φοβούνται νέα αποσταθεροποίηση στο Ιράκ. Αλλά η Αγκυρα έχει καταλάβει ότι οι Κούρδοι είναι φυσικοί εταίροι της και αναδυόμενοι στρατηγικοί παίκτες στη νέα Μέση Ανατολή. Για τους Κούρδους, η Τουρκία είναι μια πύλη ζωτικής σημασίας, χωρίς την οποία δεν μπορεί να ανθήσει η οικονομία τους. Από αυτή την άποψη, η Αγκυρα γίνεται, με πολύ παράδοξο τρόπο, ο καταλύτης του κουρδικού μετασχηματισμού» τονίζει ο Ισμαήλ.

«Συνειδητοποιεί η Τουρκία ότι ο δρόμος προς την ανεξαρτησία είναι ο φυσικός προορισμός για το Κουρδιστάν; Φυσικά. Αλλά ένα ισχυρό ιρακινό Κουρδιστάν θα είναι παράγοντας ειρήνης και σταθερότητας για την Τουρκία, και για τη δική της ταραγμένη κουρδική μειονότητα. Στην Τουρκία, στο Ιράκ, στη Συρία και στο Ιράν οι Κούρδοι είναι εδώ για να μείνουν, και η Αγκυρα έχει καταλάβει ότι η ξεπερασμένη πολιτική της που βασιζόταν στον στενό εθνικισμό ήταν μια αυταπάτη, που δεν την προστάτευε. Ακόμη και η Τουρκία δεν μπορεί να αγνοήσει το τεράστιο στρατηγικό, οικονομικό και πολιτικό βάρος που έχουν αποκτήσει οι Κούρδοι σήμερα» καταλήγει ο Ισμαήλ.

English Version

The Kurdish national renaissance is underscored by a booming Kurdistan Region that is far cry from the dark days of the past. A booming economy is underpinned by a rapidly growing energy sector and billions of barrels of oil that is serving as the fuel for independence – literally. Recent Turkish oil contracts with Kurdistan have caused a stir in Baghdad, but in truth Ankara is already neck deep in Kurdistan with billions of trade and hundreds of companies. In many ways Turkey has seemingly chosen Erbil as its partner over Baghdad and these oil contracts placate growing strategic ties. Yet ironically just a few years ago, Turkey was ever-anxious at Kurdish national developments and setting red-lines for intervention.

With a fast unravelling and conflict strewn Middle Eastern, Turkey has fast realised that far from a threat, the Kurds are its natural partners and newfound strategic actors that Turkey needs and can rely on in stormy regional waters. At the same time, Turkey is the vital gate that Kurdistan cannot flourish without. Ankara in many ways is the enabler of the rapid Kurdish transformation. With a win-win situation for both sides, it’s no wonder that new pipelines and contracts are been signed.

Does Turkey realise the independence path that is a natural destination for Kurdistan – of course. But a strong Kurdistan Region actually helps brings peace and not instability to Turkey and its own restive Kurds, and also helps influence Kurds elsewhere.

Whether in Syria, Turkey, Iraq or Iran, the Kurds are here to stay and Ankara has realised that its out-dated policies based on a narrow nationalistic mind-sets were a delusion that hampered Turkish nationalism, not protect it. Even Turkey cannot ignore the sheer strategic, economic and political weight that the Kurds now bring.

Will Iraq experience ‘withdrawal symptoms’

A sight of departing US forces was a long-time dream for sections of the Iraqi population opposed directly and indirectly to the American occupation. However, as the remaining US combat forces trickle over the desertous border, ahead of the 31st August deadline as per their strategic agreement with Baghdad, what kind of an Iraq will they be leaving behind?

Back in April 2003 amidst short-lived euphoria, the ambition and vision for the new Iraq was bold and inspiring. Not only did the US overthrow a brutal dictator but aimed to induce a sense of western values and democracy to Iraq that at the same time would serve as a model for the greater Middle East. 

Seven battle-hardened years later with over 4,400 troops dead, 30,000 wounded and not to mention war costs that now run into trillions of dollars, the Iraqi adventure will always remain a blot on US foreign policy and one that will symbolise the contentious tenure of George W. Bush.

While the US was seemingly bogged in a quagmire and stuck in a vicious cycle between insurgents on the street and bickering politicians in parliament, the situation in Iraq was averted from a total failure with Iraq finally turning a corner, the appeal of sectarianism slowly waning and security improving dramatically.

However, the situation in Iraq is by no means irreversible and the crunch period for the stability and future of Iraq is yet to be seen. No better way sums up the continual frailties that remain than the current circumstances that encompass the US withdrawal.

Almost six months after the milestone national elections that was hoped to foster the first genuine post-war national government, Iraqis still bicker on the choice of prime minister lest forming a new government to deal with the decisive issues that loiter on the parliamentary shelf.

While Iraq may not necessarily make the front pages of the news as it used to, this shouldn’t mask the fact that Iraq is still tentative and has great strides to make. As such, even as Washington can breathe a sigh of relief after almost a decade of two brutal wars that stretched even the might of the world’s greatest army to its very limits, Iraq is far from a “job done”.

While certain circles have been all too frequently keen to highlight US deficiencies in Iraq, Iraqi politicians must take a lion share of the blame for protracted progress and slow reconciliation. The US is hardly responsible for every Iraqi misfortune and the controversy over the US occupation merely masked key issues on the ground that was tapered for decades by totalitarian rule.

The huge US presence particularly in the aftermath of the surge campaign was designed to offer Iraqis crucial “breathing space” that was hoped to cement political progress. However, much of the benchmarks set by the US failed to be achieved by the Iraqi government.

Even as Baghdad has progressively moved towards full sovereignty in recent years and become more confident to stand on its own feet, the same fundamental handicaps continued to undermine the Iraqi mission.

Iraq is a disparate nation with a deep history of mistrust amongst its ethnic and sectarian mosaic. Too often direct US influence in the Iraqi political chambers allowed key legislation and government forming to ensue. More strikingly, whilst progress and milestones were often hailed over the years to showcase Iraqi path to success, many achievements could only be ushered by brushing key political hot-potatoes under the political rug.

For example, seven years later, enmity and ideological divides on the running of the country plague relationships between Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite camps. The Iraqi oil industry, which on paper has the power to propel Iraq to great economic heights, continues to linger behind with a lack of a census amongst groups on a true way to share its immense oil wealth.

Years after the onset of the constitution, the implementation of key terms such as article 140 continues to gather dust. While for many years, the spotlight was on the Sunni-Shiite showdown resulting in almost all out civil war, the strategic differences between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad were not as relevant. However, one of the greatest dangers that continue to gather pace is the simmering tension in the disputed border regions in the north, particularly in Kirkuk.

Although, relatively calm for now, the growing issue is yet to bear its full fruit owed to years of foot-dragging in resolving key standoffs between Arabs and Kurds.

In reality, the US has invested too many lives, money and foreign policy to wave good bye just yet. Far from the end of an era, the presence of 50,000 full armed US soldiers is hardly a meagre figure. The US with its eyes on the growing menace of Iran and its ongoing war in Afghanistan, can not afford an Iraq that slips into deeper infighting and insurgency and drags the rest of the Middle East down with it.

In essence from the 1st September 2010 under its new label of Operation New Dawn, all that may be happening is a rebranding of the American escapade. Remaining “non-combat” troops have the legal jurisdiction to continue counter-terrorism operations, assists Iraqi forces and act in self defence.

Owed to the fractured nature of the state, Iraqis are very much susceptible to foreign meddling and without a strong government in Baghdad Iraq may well play a role of a client state for neighbouring countries in the years to come. Iran continues to exert strong influence on Shiite parties, Turkey continues to build and strengthen its ties with Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan observe diligently to ensure that Sunni interests do not succumb to a new wave of Shiite revolutionaries on their eastern borders.

Political frustrations aside, security in Iraq is hardly clean-cut. One only has to point to the notion that there are now “only” 50 or so deaths a week. That is still 50 lives too many that Iraqi families have to endure. Although, Iraqi forces numbering over 600,000 are formidable on paper, by their own admission they are not ready to assume full responsibility for all aspects of security without US assistance.

Furthermore, just where loyalties lie within the forces is open to question. Until the security forces broadly comprise all three groups, sentiments will be cautious to the effectiveness and impartiality of the forces.

Above all else, as at least a phase of the US adventure comes to a close, people have lost sight of the overall picture. The new Iraq and foreign actors must realise that a brutal dictator, who killed thousands of his own civilians with chemical weapons, launched deadly wars, drained national resources and repressed three quarters of the population was removed thanks to the US. Just ask the Kurds in north at their gratitude towards the Americans.

The new Iraq can in theory excel economically and strategically. However, as the US has come to terms over seven years, they can only push Iraqis so far, the rest of the journey only Iraqis can assume whilst Americans anxiously watch. Iraqis must start to look at key differences that continue to blight progress and realise only they can muster a new dawn. There is nothing the US can do but hope that their grand and costly excursion in Iraq comes to fruition.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Epoch Times, Peyamner, Various Misc.