Category Archives: Syria

U.S. and Syrian Kurds – Hand-in-hand on the road to Raqqa

Normally any march towards the de facto Islamic State (IS) capital of Raqqa would be met with jubilation and relief but such is the sensitive political picture in Syria that even the long hoped for liberation of Raqqa is shrouded in controversy.

The U.S. spent millions on training so-called moderate Arab opposition forces only to see a handful of forces emerge. All the while, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces were proving themselves as the most capable force on the ground and ticked all the boxes the U.S. spent huge amounts of effort to find.

The alliance between the U.S. and the Syrian Kurds was logical in many ways even if it has resulted in constant outcries from Ankara who accuse the YPG of been an extension of the PKK.

This has placed the U.S. into a difficult corner placating anxieties from its traditional regional ally in Turkey whilst at the same time growing closer to the YPG who it views as their number one ticket to drive out IS in a way that thousands of coalition air raids have failed to achieve.

YPG advances against IS have been met more with threats and unease by Turkey than any sense of relief. The establishment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was in many ways an answer to the heavy Kurdish identity of forces battling IS, increasing Kurdish control and the growing ties between the U.S. and Syrian Kurds.

Although there are thousands of Arab and Christian forces in the SDF, the vast majority are still Kurdish.

Images of US Special Forces not only coordinating with Kurdish forces on the ground but even wearing the YPG insignia was bound to cause uproar in Turkey. Washington has been quick to downplay the gesture and even ordered the removal of such insignias but nevertheless the situation is not any less complicated.

The U.S. has a heavy reliance on Kurdish forces that it sees as its best ticket to rid Raqqa of IS before the end of Barack Obama’s presidential term but it’s stuck in a dangerous game.

Kurdish forces will not merely sacrifice or coordinate closely with the coalition without firm preconditions regardless of whether they are at the peace table in Geneva. They are continuously looking to enshrine their autonomy and expand their territory.

The U.S. cannot afford to abandon the YPG just to appease Turkey and on the other hand the Syrian Kurds cannot rely long-term on Washington to achieveitslong-term goals.

All the while, the Turkish hand is weakened in spite of all the harsh rhetoric over the YPG. At some point, the SDF is likely to move west towards Jarablus and break more Turkish redlines. Turkey has threatened to retaliate but an all-out invasion would not only be met with dismay by the US-led coalition but will ultimately deepen the Syrian civil war and Turkey’s own war against the Kurds.

Regardless of any role in peace talks, the Syrian Kurds are not about to reverse their hard-earned autonomy or new found prominence. In the past Turkey felt it was easier to deal with a neighbor such as IS than a strong Kurdish force with growing autonomy.

Syria will never be the same again and the new regional outlook will have a profound influence on the future of the region regardless of the resistance of any country.

 

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

 

 

As Turkey frantically jockeys to tarnish Syrian Kurds, can the U.S. afford to abandon the Kurds?

As Kurdish-led forces were rejoicing the capture of the strategically important town of al-Shadadi from the Islamic State (IS), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on a frantic mission to pressure Washington to abandon support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and label the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as terrorists.

Erdogan’s call to Barrack Obama was on the back of statements from State Department spokesman John Kirby that refused to blame the YPG for the recent bombing in Ankara that Turkey vehemently insists was carried out by the Syrian Kurds.

Turkey has long insisted that the PYD are a mere extension of PKK and has stuck to the view that the PKK or PYD are no different than IS. In fact, since Turkey formally joined the war against IS after a bombing in Suruc in 2015, it is the PKK that been the subject of Turkey’s rage on “terrorists”.

On the other hand, the Syrian Kurds have proved to be the most effective ground force against IS and have made significant gains in recent months in curtailing vital IS supply routes. At the same time, Turkey has insisted that Washington decides between the PYD and Turkey.

The fact that the U.S. has refused to take sides speaks volumes. The U.S. spent millions of dollars on a training program for so called Syrian moderates that amassed to virtually no gains. The Kurds have demonstrated to the U.S. that they are the ready-made boots on the ground that Washington had craved in vain for so long.

The visit of US Special Presidential Envoy for the Coalition against ISIS, Brett McGurk, to the Kurdish town of Kobane, the source of the symbolic victory of the US-led air campaign against IS, illustrates the significance of Kurdish support to the U.S.

Even though the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) claimed responsibility for the deadly Ankara bombing, this would have always fallen on death ears in Turkey.

It is not just about a bombing incident, it is about the strategic standing and clout of the Syrian Kurds, who aside from a narrow corridor between Afrin and Jarablus hold almost the entire Syrian border with Turkey, that Ankara is trying to tarnish.

The fact that Turkey sees the PYD as bigger “terrorists” than IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and various other jihadist groups tells its own story. Turkey would tolerate any group on its doorstep than an autonomous Kurdish stronghold.

Turkey’s border has been the lifeline for not just the Syrian opposition but also IS. The remaining IS access to the Turkish border could have been easily sealed by Kurdish forces with coalition air support.

Turkey is already fighting a frenzied new battle against the PKK and the south east of Turkey is threatened with a return to the dark days of the 1990’s with daily curfews and violence.

The fate of the Kurds in Turkey and Syria are intrinsically linked. Without an affective Turkish policy that caters for both realities there will never be peace in Turkey.

As for the Syrian Kurds, what if Turkey succeeds in getting the U.S. to abandon ship and desert their Kurdish allies? The simple answer is that the already uneasy Kurds will merely become fully engrossed in the Russia camp where they already enjoy strong ties.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Can a ceasefire be achieved in Syria amidst Assad’s victory march?

The battle lines have been frequently redrawn in the deadly Syrian civil war. However, Russian military intervention shattered the military picture. From the outskirts of Latakia, Syrian rebels are scampering to defend an increasingly encircled Aleppo from outright fall into regime hands.

As regime forces lay siege on remaining crucial rebel supply lines to the Turkish border, it becomes clear that with Geneva III coinciding with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest hands in years, peace talks were always going to fail.

For the rebels, it is increasingly a becoming now or never moment. They rebels are surrounded by regime forces with the Islamic State (IS) in close proximity and to the north, especially around Azaz and the Turkish border, rebels are under pressure from Syrian Kurdish forces, who increasingly feel their strategic goals are more likely to be realized through Moscow than Washington.

Under the cover of relentless Russian airstrikes, rebels groups are increasingly weak on the ground and since leverage at any peace talk will always be heavily swayed by the picture on the ground, Syrian opposition parties will find it difficult to twist Assad or Moscow’s arms with their lofty demands.

Even as major powers agreed on a “cessation of hostilities” in Munich which is due to take effect next week, sheer skepticism and animosity quickly diluted any optimism.

For one, the agreement is not an actual ceasefire, since neither of the warring parties signed the agreement. Secondly, Russia has vowed to continue airstrikes against what they deem as “terrorists”. Thirdly, a buoyant Assad remains ambitious that with Russian support and a potential sealing of the borders he could recapture all of Syria.

Assad recently statement that “… if we negotiate, it does not mean we stop fighting terrorism” does not speak of a man, who after clinging to power at his weakest point is about to relinquish power when he holds the aces.

Russia enjoys a powerful position in the Syrian calculus, and whilst the U.S. is bogged down in the struggle against IS, it can ill-afford the same bold intervention as the Russians or to turn the focus to the removal of Assad, which longed slipped as a priority.

The ball is firmly in the court of Assad and Russia. Assad has always been willing to negotiate but on his terms. If Assad succeeds in sealing the borders and overrunning Aleppo, any peace talks will to him feel like a victory treaty.

However, the war in Syria has proved be fluid and Assad’s renewed position of strength could easily change if Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers decide that after 5 years of immense investment in the opposition cause, they can ill-afford to throw-in the towel.

Assad and his allies are juggling a rapid defeat of rebel forces with the possibility of a Turkish or Saudi ground invasion.

Tensions between Russia and Turkey are already high owed to the Turkish downing of a Russian jet last November. It won’t take much for all-out war if Turkish or Russian forces engage each other once more.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry openly acknowledged that if the peace plan fails then more foreign troops would become a reality in the conflict. As Kerry pointed out, without pressure on Russia or Iranians to hold Assad to any ceasefire or peace talks, then Syrian regime has little reason to back down on their victory march.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Heated discussions, disagreements and distrust, and the tenuous Syrian peace talks have not even begun

The starts of the Geneva III peace talks were delayed twice last week owing to objections from the main Syria opposition represented by the Higher Negotiating Committee (HNC). The HNC finally bowed to pressure from the United States and the United Nations and agreed to attend the talks after “receiving assurances”, even then they insisted they are going “not to negotiate” with the government just yet, but lay the grounds for their demands to the UN.

What makes the situation more complicated is the disparate nature of the opposition, some 15 opposition grounds are represented in the Saud Arabian backed HNC alone, this discounts various other groups deemed too close to the regime or too hardline to play any role in the future of Syria.

The exclusion of no party is more ironic than that of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). They have been pooled with other terrorists not acceptable to join talks such as al-Qaeda afflicted al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS).

Russia has long insisted on the inclusion of the PYD and other opposition parties. Whilst the Syrian Democratic Council that includes the PYD is invited, the omission of the PYD leaders is a grave mistake.

The PYD and its armed wing, People’s Protection Units (YPG), have been supported by US air power as well as Russian forces. A political settlement is unimaginable without the Kurds who control large parties of Syria with autonomous administration and a strong militia force that is spearheading the battle against IS.

Whilst the UN has not set loft goals at the start of the talks and expects the prospect of any agreement to be protracted, it remains to be seen whether it is the opposition and Bashar al-Assad’s regime that will decide the outcome or if it will be US and Russia.

Both the US and Russia have a clear role to play both now and in striking any agreement. There is no doubt that many aspects of the future Syrian framework have already been discussed and agreed between both camps such as the composition of the transitional government and state forces.

The US rhetoric over Assad may be the same but Washington has taken an increasing backseat role allowing Russia to become the dominant actor.

As US tip-toed around military action in Syria, Russia showed little hesitation as they salvaged Assad from the brink with military intervention.

If the notion that negotiation is determined by the state of the battleground, then Assad has the upper hand as he quickly recovers ground. Both Russia and Iran have shown that they will not allow Assad to fall.

The US has long abandoned the view that Assad must go before any peace talks. Ironically, it is now the US that is insisting that it is “important for these talks to continue without preconditions”.

In fact, with streams of millions of refugees streaming across Europe and IS problem becoming a more dominant issue by the day, Washington and its allies are reluctant for any wholesale changes of regime apparatus that will only fuel more chaos and bloodshed.

Without major concessions from the regime and the opposition and the inclusion of the Syrian Kurds, Geneva III will end much in the same way as Geneva II.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As US dithers, an increasingly assertive Russia shows its weight in the Middle East

As if the Syrian skies were not crowded enough, an assertive Russia joined the fray in its first combat mission in the Middle East since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The bold move by Russia, which is designed to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, caught many in the west by surprise but Russia has shown that it will not hesitate to match words with firm actions and the large array of aircraft and military hardware it was busy assembling in recent weeks in Latakia was hardly for mere show.

Since the start of the Syrian war, Russia has not hidden its relentless support for the Assad regime and along with Iran has been Damascus’s chief backer.

Islamic State (IS) has been around for a number of years so if the Russian actions are solely aimed at eradicating IS, why join the fight now?

The bottom line is that unlike the persistent dithering and indecisiveness of the US over the past few years, Russia has shown little reluctance in its support for Assad.

The trigger for Russia’s swift entry into the crowed Syrian battle scene was the increasing pressure on the Syrian regime from rapid rebel advances that had taken them to the door steps of Latakia.

Russia still maintains the only solution to the conflict is a political one but its military drive in Syria will serve to strengthen Assad’s hand.

The US led coalition has spent years trying to level the playing field to force through a negotiated settlement with its support of moderate forces that has been ultimately too slow and bogged down with the sheer difficult of vetting the moderates from the extremists.

If Russia continues to focus largely on the rebels that it labels as terrorists in the same manner as Damascus, then Assad is afforded much needed breathing space at a crucial juncture much like the Hezbollah\Iranian intervention a few years ago that saved the regime from the brink.

US President Barack Obama labelled the Russian view that all those forces opposing Assad are terrorists as a “recipe for disaster”.

Russia has already tried to sway large segments of the Syrian opposition over the past year or so as it hosted peace talks and a continued perception that the Russia action in Syria is solely on the side of Assad will backfire.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated the Russian approach is “doomed to fail” as a political settlement needed at least some of the opposition onboard.

The boldness of the Russia actions in Syria transforms the negotiation landscape. Russia has insisted it is not wed to Assad personally but for any settlement to be viable Russia will ensure that its strategic presence in Syria is maintained with its naval base in Tartous and new bases in Latakia and that apart from Assad, the power apparatus and institutions remain largely the same.

As the war rages on, the West will have little choice but to compromise on the position of Assad and there are already numerous signs that Western powers see their “Assad must go first” mentality to any political transition as unrealistic.

If Russia continues to prop up Assad with such increased fervor, then even the Syrian rebels may see the dead ends especially if US support on the ground continues to lack the same urgency as that of Russia.

Russia has also targeted IS but could easily increase the ferocity of its campaign against IS if the West and Assad’s regional foes start to make concessions on the fate of Assad.

Russia would not want to exert all its energy eradicating IS whilst anti-Assad forces creep closer to Latakia and the gates of Damascus.

In the short-term, Russian intervention is yet another party dropping bombs on Syria and suffering of millions only intensifies under a crowded battle field with so many warring sides and now ever crowding Syrian skies.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Turkish red lines on Rojava will not hold sway

The gains by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in recent weeks against the Islamic State (IS) including the capture of the strategically important border town of Tel Abyad was hailed by the US-led coalition but was viewed with alarm and suspicion in Ankara.

In fact such gains have led to persistent rumors of imminent Turkish invasion to create a buffer zone in northern Syria.

The YPG have proved one of the US-led coalitions most effective partners against IS and the seemingly growing US-YPG cooperation has only worsened the blow for a Turkey that has repeatedly stated that it doesn’t differentiate between the IS and PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish forces.

Turkey has responded to the increasing Syrian Kurdish autonomy with a series of red lines. However, in spite of such repeated warnings, the Syrian Kurds have pressed ahead relatively unhindered. They announced autonomous administration in three cantons in 2013 and this autonomy has been expanding in recent months with a series of key gains by the YPG.

Jarablus, a key IS controlled town, which lies just west of Kurdish controlled Kobane and the Euphrates River that divides Kurdish\IS zones, has quickly emerged as another red line for Turkey. The fear is that with any success against the remaining IS foothold on the Turkish border, the Kurds could then bridge the Kobane and Afrin cantons forming a contiguous Kurdish zone across most of Northern Syria.

Clearly for Turkey, IS is second priority to YPG but Turkish anxiety over any notion of Kurdish nationalism is not new. The unraveling of the Middle East has added new sociopolitical and strategic dimensions and the legacy view of the Turkey regarding the Kurds is only a recipe for more instability and confrontation.

The Kurds have viewed with suspicion that Turkey finally moves to control a volatile and instable border just when Kurds assume control of the border zones.

Any prospective invasion will not serve Turkey’s goals, the peace process with its own Kurdish population or the overall situation in Syria.

In many ways the fate of Syrian and Turkish Kurds are intertwined. Strong sentiment of Kurds in Turkey towards Rojava was clear to see with mass protests over Turkish refusal to intervene in Koban under a IS siege.

A Turkish invasion on the door-steps of YPG will add a new unwanted angle to the already complicated Syrian war and will almost certainly kill the already fragile peace process in Turkey. Furthermore, any Turkish attack on IS may sow the seeds for retaliations across Turkey.

In the end, Turkey is unlikely to invade let alone agree a political consensus with no government formed and the strong rhetoric from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is mere saber-rattling and a pressure card against the US. Ankara-Washington relations have been on a downward spiral with US refusal to focus on the removal of Bashar al-Assad and their growing cooperation with the YPG and US belief that Ankara has not done enough to shore up its border.

The Middle East is often a game of red lines but such lines can quickly change. Turkey is seemingly open to somewhat of a rapprochement with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) who dominates power, if they denounce their autonomy and take down Kurdish flags.

Often one’s red line is met with that of another. The Syrian Kurds, after decades of been in the shadows of Arab rule and mass repression, will never abandon their gains or their quest for autonomy rule, especially after their costly sacrifices in such gains.

It is easy to forget that Turkey had set many a red line over the Kurdistan Region and was threatening to invade in the same way as Rojava. Many of these red lines passed with Kurds not only experiencing unprecedented economic ties with Turkey and control of Kirkuk but even outright independence is been discussed with little push back from Turkey.

Autonomous rule is one red line that the Syrian Kurds will not negotiate. Turkey is in a unique position in that it can positively influence Rojava and balance the political landscape. It is true that the PYD is the dominant party, but there are dozens of other parties not affiliated to the PKK or with strong ties to the Kurdistan Region.

Too often in the past, the terrorist card has resulted in narrow nationalist viewpoint and as a result a whole population has suffered. The Kurds have a right to self-defense under IS massacres and a right to decide how they will govern their own affairs.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Kobane massacre shows that double-standards to Syrian Kurdish forces must end

As the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces were celebrating rapid gains against the Islamic State (IS) in the strategically important border town of Tel Abyad and then Ayn Issa, just 50 km from the self-declared IS capital of Raqqa, IS committed one of their worst massacres to date in Kobane.

Disguised as YPG and Free Syrian Army forces, IS units managed to infiltrate the town initiating a number of deadly suicide attacks and then brutally killing at least 146 civilians in a vicious house-to-house hunt. IS fighters managed to occupy a number of buildings and approximately 50 civilians are still held as hostages.

IS intention was never to occupy the town but send out a stark reminder after its recent losses of the damage that it could inflict at a moment’s notice. For the war-ravaged town of Kobane, any sense of normality may never return.

Kobane is a symbol of the Kurdish resistance against IS and one of the few success stories of the US-led coalition that provided pivotal air support and was finally liberated in January after 4 months of intense fighting.

YPG have proved one of the most capable fighting forces against IS but yet find themselves in the tough position where the US has hesitated to directly arm and support and who Turkey merely label as terrorists.

And it is this “terrorist” tag that is becoming an outdated and unfair noose on the Syrian Kurdish population. Turkey has insisted many times that for them both PKK affiliated YPG and IS are the same.

How can the actions of the YPG, which has been instrumental in driving back IS, ever be compared with the mass slaughter of innocent civilians?

More importantly, demarcating a group as terrorists is one thing but a population is another. The Syrian Kurds deserve the support of Turkey and the West. They deserve the right to defend their own lands from massacres such as that in Kobane.

Turkey, other regional powers and US have supported so-called moderate groups within the FSA for years, with US providing arms and training even when the notion of moderates in rebel ranks was as grey or non-existent as ever.

Jaish al-Fatah or the Army of Conquest, the new powerful alliance supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which has made rapid gains in Idlib province in recent months, is augmented by a loose alliance with al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. It is all the more ironic that with the immense brutality of the Syrian war, that definition of moderates and Jihadists has become a relative term.

Yet the Syrian Kurdish gains in recent weeks were quickly met with allegations of ethnic cleansing and land-grabbing to create a new Kurdish state. Syrian Kurdish priority is defense of their lands and people than the lofty dreams of a new state that is been propagated to paint the Syrian Kurdish forces as separatists who are only keen on pursuing their own interests.

There can be no great boost to the Kurdish peace process in Turkey than more Turkish support of the Syrian Kurds. The Kurds form a large part of the Turkish state and support of their brethren across the border can only enhance trust and unity in Turkey.

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani strongly denounced the attacks on Kobane and urged the US-led coalition to provide greater support to YPG fighters against IS. Barzani stated willingness of the Kurdistan Region to support and aid the Kurds in Kobane and Rojava.

No regional power can stay idle to a human massacre on their door step and international powers must do more to allow the people to defend themselves.

As the recent chilling terrorist attacks in Tunisia on holiday makers, a bomb blast at a Shite –affiliated mosque in Kuwait and an explosion in a chemical factor in France have shown, the battle is far from one confided to Syria and Iraq.

The massacres such that in Kobane are not in a remote far away land, it could easily be on your doorstep.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

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

How the battle for Kobane and Peshmerga deployment eroded borders between Kurds

Barely a few weeks ago, Kobane was surrounded on three sides by heavily armed Islamic State (IS) forces and in danger of imminent collapse. Now, Kobane has propelled itself as the symbol of the international battle against IS but more importantly it has placed the Syrian Kurds under great international spotlight.

Few would have imagined that this small dusty town would have brought together in one way or another, Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, Free Syrian Army (FSA), Turkey, the US, European Union, Saudi Arabia and various coalition partners.

Events on the ground as well as the political dynamic have transformed to the extent John Allen, the retired US general in charge of overseeing the US campaign against IS, stated that the town is no longer in danger of fallen into IS hands.

This week in a highly symbolic move, 150 Iraqi Peshmerga forces crossed the Turkish border to help in the defense of the town. 150 troops is an important but nevertheless symbolic figure, however the heavy weaponry that accompanies them add to their considerable clout.

Of greater significance is the boost in morale and optimism that Kobane and the local Kurdish population have received with this reinforcement. The journey of these Peshmerga, to rapturous welcome of Turkish Kurds, was also symbolic as it crossed three parts of Kurdistan.

With Kurds in Iraq, Turkey and Syria cheering equally resolutely, the deployment of the Peshmerga forces greatly enhanced Kurdish unity. The deployment also opens a new channel that will not remain closed, if the situation dictates the path is clear for further Peshmerga reinforcements to arrive.

Just weeks ago, Kobane was confounded to a local problem. It is now cross-border Kurdish problem as well as a firm strategic goal of the coalition forces.

Kobane has not been without its ironies. Turkey has faced a backlash over its stance on Kobane. Although it has welcomed Iraqi Kurdish and FSA forces, at the same time it has loathed any support of the People Defense Unit (YPG) forces for their sympathies to the PKK.

In parallel with Peshmerga reinforcements, FSA forces recently entered to support Kobane, a key demand from Turkey to try and give the Kobane battle a more Syrian and anti-Assad feel, than a united Kurdish campaign based on nationalism. Although it won’t transform the historically cautious relations between FSA battalions and Kurdish forces overnight, this latest cooperation may pave the way for a joining of forces to oust Assad once the IS headache is resolved (as Ankara has long demanded)

This week, Turkish Prime Minister, Ahem Davutoglu hit back at growing critics, stating his refusal to be part of a ‘game’ for a few weeks to satisfy American or European opinion.

The battle for Kobane has marked the brave resistance of Syrian Kurdish forces but it has also placed into clear context the strength of IS. On Wednesday alone, there were 10 US led air strikes against IS positions in Kobane with dozens more since the allied campaign intensified in recent weeks.

Yet, even with other front lines in Iraq and other parts of Syria, and an avalanche of air strikes, IS has become weakened but largely prevailed. Literally hundreds of IS armored vehicles and positions have been destroyed – this only shows how much of a force and a problem that IS had become.

It developed tremendous strength over the past 2 years, especially since its conquests in Iraq, but the West ignored this stark reality and reacted too late. Indeed for the YPG, bloody battles with IS over the past year or so, often with little support and recognition, is not new.

Now a vicious war rages against IS in Syria and Iraq. What makes all this a remarkable irony, is that this is only a war within a war. A greater Syrian civil war still rages with over 200,000 killed and with Bashar al-Assad firmly in power, regardless of how the battle against IS now dominates the headlines.

It was the Syrian civil war, security vacuums and lack of a clear Western policy that created IS. Now, with much more investment, intense fighting and a great deal of sacrifice, IS will be defeated but what then for Syria and the other fronts of war?

Defeating IS is one thing, letting them re-spawn is another matter entirely that the West cannot overlook.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel finally admitted a well-known reality, that the campaign against IS is benefitting Assad even if their long-term target remains his removal from power.

Syrian and IS need a comprehensive solution. Above all, both regional and global powers now need to look at the new realities of the war in Syria. The situation can never return to any pre-civil war era. With every sacrifice and valiant resistance, the Syrian Kurds consolidate their hard fought and deserved autonomy. Kobane could well serve as the iconic bridge that brought all of great Kurdistan together both now and the future.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

How the struggle for Kobane transformed the regional dynamic

“I don’t understand why Kobane is so strategic for the US, there are no civilians left there”, bemoanedthe disillusionedTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after the US conducted multiple aidrops of military and medical supplies to the Syrian Kurdish YPG forces.

Whilst Turkey has downplayed the significance of the small town, Kobane has become a symbol of the international fight against the Islamic State (IS), placing the credibility of the coalition on the line.

At the same time the fight for Kobane is not just contained to a local struggle against IS militants but the battle reverberates politically and strategically across the region.

Kobane has already had a profound effect on the regional dynamic. Turkey has resisted international pressure to intervene in Kobane or allow Kurdish volunteers from Turkey to enter, labelling the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as a “terrorist organisation” that it sees as no different to the PKK or indeed the IS.

Turkey has repeated this rhetoric whilst conversely US military assistance and communication channels to the Syrian Kurds have rapidly increased.

US measures have contradictedthe Turkish line, with the US clearly seeing the Syrian Kurds as key allies in the battle against IS and hardly as a terrorist force.

At the same time, Turkey has tried to strike agreement with the Kurds to allow Free Syrian Army (FSA) to enter Kobane, even as it opposed the hundreds of Kurdish volunteers from joining the fight. Aligning the FSA in a more official capacity in Kobane, would dilute the sense of Kurdish nationalist struggle for Kobane and Rojava and also soften the rising stock of the PKK.

Turkey has worked hard to pressure the PYD to join the FSA to turn the battle as a Syrian national struggle with the wider goal of ousting Bashar al-Assad. Ironically, a Kurdish dominated win in Kobane, will only strengthen Kurdish nationalism, the standing of the PKK and Kurdish autonomy, not to mention the pivotal role of the Syrian Kurds in the battle against IS across Syria. This is the same fate that Ankara has tried to avoid.

As the US has grown closer to the Syrian Kurds, Ankara, in danger of been isolated underintense international spotlight, allowed Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces a passage through Turkey to support Kobane.

This week the Kurdistanregional parliament approved the deployment of up to 200 fighters. These fighters will provide key support to strained YPG forces but is also a symbolic move by the Kurdistan leadership to bolster cross-border Kurdish unity. For Turkey, having FSA and Peshmerga forces on the ground, alleviates it from an embarrassing situation of providing de-facto assistance to the Syrian Kurdish forces, even as they are labelled as a terrorist organisation and ultimately as anenemy.

A key move on the back of the decision to deploy Peshmergafighters this week was the unity agreement negotiated in days of talks in Dohuk between the PYD and rival Syrian Kurdish factions. The split between pro-PKK and pro-KRG Kurdish parties in Syria had severely handicapped the Kurdish struggle and their newfound autonomy.

Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani hailed the agreement, “This agreement brings us together and itself is a significant answer to enemies who did not intend the Kurds to be united.” While PYD leader, Salih Muslim, stated that “All Kurdish people are under attack, so they should be united.”

Previous unity agreements have quickly broken down and if it sticks this time around, it will serve as a major boost for the Syrian Kurdish cantons and perhaps in the way Ankara approaches the region.

Such is the intense international focus on Kobane and the symbol of the fight against IS that even the Syrian government has been quick to stake their part in the struggle, alleging military and logistical support to Kurds in Kobane.

Whoever thought that a small dusty town, unknown to much of the wider world, would bring together the Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, IS, FSA, Assad, the US, Saudi Arabia and numerous other international and regional players?

First Published On: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: OpenDemoracy, eKurd.net