Category Archives: U.S. Foreign Policy

Do US air strikes change the picture in Syria?

Where former US President Barack Obama hesitated when the Syrian regime crossed his “red lines,” current President Donald Trump took swift military action in the aftermath of the Syrian chemical bombing of the rebel-held town Khan Sheikhoun which for Trump “crossed a lot of lines,” leaving 80 dead and hundreds more injured.

The 59 Tomahawk strikes on the Shayrat airbase near Homs, which the US believes was used to orchestrate the nerve agent attacks, was defended by Trump as a “vital national security interest” of the US, as Washington vowed they could yet do more.

The US’ new willingness to take action adds an unprecedented dimension to the already complicated Syrian civil war. However, will the US action hasten diplomatic initiatives to end the war or will it drive Syria into a deeper conflict?

Trump, whose campaign was on a US-first and anti-interventionist basis, showed the unpredictable style of his presidency as he took action without seeking permission from Congress or his allies, with knowledge it would damage the warmer ties he hoped to foster with Russia.

The primary purpose of this proportionate response was to deter Damascus from further chemical attacks, something Obama believed he achieved with the last-minute deal brokered by Russia in 2013 to dispose of Syria’s chemical stockpiles after the regime launched a deadly chemical attack in Gouta.

It also served as a warning Trump was willing to change his position quickly based on unfolding events, and, at the same time, remind the likes of Iran and North Korea the US remained a major global player who was not afraid to intervene if required.

Western powers backed the US’ military response, but they also received broad support from the Democrat-Republican line.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement highlighting that after repeating the chemical attack of 2013, “President [Bashar al-Assad] alone bears the responsibility for this development.”

Meanwhile, UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, echoing the similar sentiment from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, blamed Russia as the key backer of Assad responsible “by proxy” for “every civilian death” that resulted from the chemical attack.

The dramatic turnaround in fortunes in recent months for the Assad regime is directly owed to Russian military intervention in 2015 which led to the recapture of swaths of territory, including Aleppo.

The US military response may give the fading opposition renewed hope, but US policy on Syria remains incoherent.

Whether the US strikes change Assad’s calculus or willingness to negotiate a political settlement depends if US action proves a one-off. It also depends on if the Americans are willing to take steps to significantly bolster the fragmented opposition or take radical steps such as the creation of US enforced safe-zones.

However, Assad’s stance will be largely dependent on Russia, who remains the key component of how the six-year Syrian civil war will play out.

It came as no response Russia strongly condemned the US strikes on the Syrian airbase. Russia accused the US of encouraging “terrorists” with actions they deemed as “unilateral” and an “act of aggression,” as they vowed to bolster Syrian air defenses and mobilized a warship to confront US naval positions in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Denouncing the strikes as illegal, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev went as far as warning the strikes were “one step away from military clashes with Russia.”

Moreover, a statement from a joint command center, comprised of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, threatened to “respond with force” if their red-lines were crossed.

The greatest challenge of the G7 nations remains to change Russia’s stance on Syria, whether through sanctions or diplomacy.

But, with every Western rhetoric denouncing Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, or any threat of further US military action in Syria, Moscow’s position becomes more entrenched.

The contradictory claims emanating from US officials on their priority in Syria or stance on Assad does not help matters.

A week before the chemical attacks, Washington had publicly stated the removal of Assad was no longer a priority, but this seemingly changed after the chemical bombing.

However, in recent days, Trump stressed the priority remained to defeat the Islamic State (IS), and Washington was “not going into” Syria’s civil war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the US of “very ambiguous” and “contradictory ideas.”

With an unclear US policy, a seeming lack of hunger to be drawn military into Syria, and growing friction with Russia, the past week’s events make a political solution in Syria all the more difficult.

Either way, for Trump, military action now sets a precedence. If Assad launches another chemical attack, will he be willing to escalate military action and a potential stand-off with Russia or risk appearing weak?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

There was never an ideal time in eliminating IS

With the Islamic State (IS) entrenched in Mosul and parts of Iraq since 2014, its reign of terror in Iraq’s second largest city has been almost unhindered. So when the long-awaited battle to liberate the city finally arrived, for many it could not have come soon enough, yet others argue that the battle could have been launched prematurely.

The planning for the liberation of the city has been protracted, bogged down by lengthy negotiations between various sides.

In many ways, these delays, as much as it meant that IS could commit further atrocities and solidify its control over the cities, were unavoidable.

There are a number of angles to this, not least the military side of the equation. The Iraqi army suffered an embarrassing defeat against IS and in many ways, it was the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces that were instrumental in stopping IS on the doorsteps of Baghdad and later in reclaiming lands.

The Iraqi forces needed to take stock, rebuild and revamp its image. Going into Mosul prematurely, especially if it meant a further embarrassing defeat for Baghdad and the Iraqi forces would have been catastrophic.

Both the Iraqi and Kurdish forces needed logistical and military support against a well-armed and well-prepared enemy.

The humanitarian element cannot be ignored; any battle needs meticulous planning to avoid mass civilian casualties. If the human cost was too high, then this would forever stain any victory and worsen local animosity.

Then there is the political angle. Without addressing the fragmented ethno-sectarian landscape that fuelled the advance of IS, Iraqis could not claim a decisive victory and this has proved tough.

Any force needs to be balanced based on these ethno-sectarian sensitivities. The Coalition forces, Kurds, Shia or Sunnis could not take a unilateral role in the liberation or the post IS era.

These elements take time and even today there isn’t a comprehensive agreement on the future make-up of Mosul. However, as the post-2003 Iraq has proved that political agreements in Iraq can take an indefinite amount of time if agreements are achieved at all.

Iraqis and the coalition could not wait endlessly to resolve every aspect and there was never a ‘perfect’ time for any operation. The fact that the battle was eventually launched weeks before US presidential elections and end of Barack Obama’s tenure was bound to stoke the conspiracy theorists, none more so than presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Trump had strongly criticized the US-led offensive in Mosul as losing the “the element of surprise” and thus allowing IS leaders to escape. “Why don’t we just go in quietly, right?” Trump decried.

Furthermore, Trump alleged that the timing of the offensive was designed to boost Hillary Clinton’s campaign and make her “look good.”

A victory in Mosul would indeed spell a good ending for Obama and a warmer beginning for Clinton, but it’s hardly that simple or predictable.

Against a well-armed, motivated and unpredictable enemy such as IS, no one can guess how the battle would unfold or impact the presidential elections. Ironically, it could suit both presidential candidates. For example, if the Mosul battle takes a turn for the worse, the Trump camp could well capitalize.

Iraqi, Kurdish and Coalition forces have stressed the importance of thorough planning many times over the past 2 years. U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter indicated in February 2015 that success was more important than timing in any attempts to take Mosul.

Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has long emphasized that “the post-liberation period must be prepared for” to avoid a repeat of these tragedies.

In terms of the element of surprise, it’s almost impossible given the complex landscape. Given the difficulty in capturing cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi and Tikrit that were much smaller than Mosul, any operation needed a sizable force.

It’s hardly possible to discreetly deploy thousands of troops, tanks, and weapons. The IS defence needs to be gradually softened through airstrikes and blocking their supply lines. Any brazen and miscalculated offensive would result in high casualties and hit morale.

This was highlighted by a Mark Kimmitt, a retired army general and former senior Pentagon official, “Strategic surprise is rarely accomplished, but tactical surprise — the how and where of low-level attacks — is kept secret.”

More importantly, civilians needed to be given every opportunity to escape the ensuing violence.

And IS leaders are more intelligent than to wait to be picked off by coalition forces, especially if they escape through mainly barren lands to Syria.

There was a never going to be a perfect timing or political environment to suit all parties. Even today, there are many looming dangers of a post IS Iraq that are unaddressed. Either way, getting rid of the tyranny of IS did not come a day too soon.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

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 ironic American-Turkish twist on Kurdistan

The Middle East can be an ironic stage. Only a few years ago, the US administration, deep in its Iraqi quagmire, was reassuring the Turks about the unity of Iraq and pressing an anxious Ankara towards diplomacy over potential conflict with Kurdistan.

Fast forward to 2013, and it is the Americans who are worried that increasingly close alliances between Ankara and Erbil is fuelling the disintegration of Iraq. American views are mirrored by Baghdad who accuses Turkey of dividing Iraq.

There is no doubt that ties between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region are miles apart from that of 2008 when Turkey invaded, harsh rhetoric was the norm and even recognition of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was a bitter pill to swallow.

But in the fast changing socio-political whirlwind of the new Middle East, 5 years is an awfully long time. Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds have become natural allies and have much to gain politically and economically, in particular from Kurdistan’s immense energy potential.

And it is these energy ties that continue to underpin and consolidate strong relations between both governments that are the source of discomfort for Baghdad and Washington.

Baghdad’s all too frequent cries and threats against KRG energy deals with foreign firms is hardly a new phenomenon nor has it deterred the Kurds or oil majors who have started to stream in. The underlining question is what are the Kurds doing illegally? Are they breaking laws or is Baghdad’s only gripe Kurdistan’s growing strategic clout and economic prominence?

In a further twist of irony, while Washington has tried to slow down Kurdistan’s growing independence and close ties with Ankara, US oil majors Chevron and Exxon-Mobil have signed key agreements with the KRG. This is in addition to Total and Gazprom who have joined the ranks.

If it was so illegal to deal with Kurdistan and such deals were “unconstitutional”, why would oil majors flock to do business?

There is growing talk of a “secret” framework agreement signed between Turkey and the KRG around the transportation and marketing of oil and gas from Kurdistan directly to Turkey.

Kurdish plans to build an independent pipeline to Turkish ports are hardly a secret or a new initiative. Broad plans including oil pipe-lines were announced publicly last year at the international energy conference hosted in Erbil.

It goes without saying the political importance of a national hydro-carbon law for Iraq, but 6 years since the last draft was sidelined, efforts to reconcile differences have been lacking and Nouri al-Maliki’s government has done little to bridge major disputes with Kurdistan, and not only in the energy sector.

The Kurds are faced with a predicament to either wait indefinitely on Baghdad and be at their mercy on oil exports or drive their own destiny with the legal basis to do so.

The stop start nature of oil exports via Kurdistan and the bitter disputes over payments to foreign companies is synonymous with many other disputes between Erbil and Baghdad.

The control of oil exports is one remaining noose that Baghdad has around Kurdistan and this is also manipulated in other political struggles against the Kurds.

Recently, KRG has started to export independently via trucks to meet domestic demand much to the fury of Baghdad. But it appears that with Turkish support and growing confidence, the Kurdish patience with the Baghdad waiting game is running thin.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a major boost to Kurdish ties, defended Turkish energy cooperation with Kurdistan. Erdogan deemed such ties as legal and in line with Iraq’s constitution and stated they were merely helping their neighbour meet their needs.

Political ramifications

There is no doubt that Turkish ties with America has rapidly cooled, especially as Turkey has looked increasingly east. Turkey is attempting to adapt to a new Middle East, seeks a proactive role in current conflicts, particularly in Syria, while it perceives the Obama administration as increasingly distant, slow and indecisive.

Washington is particularly uneasy about deteriorating Turkish ties with Israel and cautioned Turkey on recent “inflammatory” statements.

Turkey has also realised necessity of peace at home at a time of Middle Eastern sandstorms with a new reach-out to the PKK and its own Kurds. It deems new strategic relations with the Iraqi Kurds as a bridge with its own Kurdish community.

Closer cooperation with Iraqi Kurds comes at a time when Turkey is increasingly wary of Maliki and his Iranian influence.

U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Francis J. Ricciardone, warned that “If Turkey and Iraq fail to optimize their economic relations… There could be more violent conflict in Iraq and the forces of disintegration within Iraq could be emboldened.”

This follows previous warnings by Ricciardone and other senior US diplomats.

With Maliki at the helm and with a continuous policy of lip-service to implementation of key constitutional articles, division and the disintegration of Iraq is intensifying. There is no fear of something breaking when it is already broke.

With a fragile government, monopolisation of power under Maliki, renewed sectarianism, a lack of security and deep distrust and discord throughout Iraqi circles, is it really the Kurds who are the source of the Iraqi divide?

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources:  Various Misc.

U.S.withdrawal: End or beginning of Iraq?

As the last convoy of US troops trickled over the desertous southern-Iraqi border, the move was met with contrasting emotions, much like the overall US experience little shy of 9 years.

For many in Iraq, the image of seeing their “occupiers” leave became a long-time nationalist dream.  Fast forward 9 years, 4500 lost lives and an expenditure fast approaching trillion dollar that has crippled the US foreign policy image and dented the US economy, the US were arguably as keen to leave as they were to enter.

Many placed direct blame on much of the unfolding crisis over the years in Iraq on America but as the future will prove the US is not responsible for every Iraqi misfortune and that perhaps America did well to stave off so many obstacles.

The downfall of Saddam and subsequent invasion of Iraq only opened a hornets nest, the nest was placated many decades before with the artificial creation of Iraq. The lid was simply held firm by the iron grip of Saddam and once opened, the Americans struggled relentlessly to keep grip whilst under immense international spotlight.

It is time for the Iraqi political actors to take accountability and responsibility for the current situation in Iraq. Iraq has had a sovereign government for many years, has now held two national elections, implemented a national constitution and has a large security force at its disposal that has been in practical control of the streets long before the US withdrawal.

History will prove that America never really got the credit it deserved. It made huge sacrifices whilst Iraqi politicians have constantly failed to deliver. It pulled Iraq from the brink of all-out sectarian war in 2007 with the promise of thousands of more troops as part of the surge strategy but the Iraqi leaders again failed to keep their promises and their end of the bargain.

It is by no means to say that the US adventure in Iraq should be marked as a shining glory. The two Washington administrations, particularly that of George W. Bush, will be the first to admit that Iraq was an achilles heel and in the case of Bush the hammer blow to the credibility of the his tenure. In hindsight, the US is more than likely to have done things differently and will have a bitter taste in their mouths as some events backfired.

However, as the old saying goes, you can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Iraq has had many historical milestones and achievements but has successfully failed to capitalise on any positive motions created.

The bottom line is that deep sectarianism, a clear ethnic divide and above all profound historical mistrust and animosity have severely handicapped any chance of national reconciliation and genuine progression in Iraq.

As soon as the US forces formally withdrew, fierce debate ensued about the legacy that they left behind. One thing for sure is that the positive picture of the current climate in Iraq that the US was hoping to promote did not take long to shatter.

A day later, Iraq become embroiled in a new sectarian and political crisis as an arrest warrant was issued for Iraq”s Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi and a number of other Sunni figures, on terror related charges. This is in addition to controversy around Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak whose criticism of Maliki”s dictatorial tendencies left him clinging on to his position as Maliki sought a vote of no confidence against him.

People have warned about the fragility of the current coalition, however, the coalition has been anything but stable and harmonious since its much delayed inception. Over a year later and key ministries still remain in so-called temporary hands. Iyyad Allawi, the head of al-Iraqiya, has had an ongoing political rift and escalating war of words with Maliki accusing him of monopolisation of power and reneging on the Erbil agreement.

As the current crisis has escalated, an already bewildered al-Iraqiya decided to boycott parliament. Renew sectarian bloodshed coupled with a collapse of the current government may place Iraq in a point of no return and without a bail-out from the US this time around.

It is easy to overlook that Sunni Sahwa councils were a significant factor in the decline of violence and they still remain a localised Sunni tool rather than a national possession. Without a balanced security apparatus, Iraq will have three different armies guarding each of the major factions of Iraq.

The Sunni-Shiite power struggle is also exhibited in the increasing ploy of largely Sunni provinces to manipulate constitutional clauses and seek regional autonomy to place Maliki in a difficult bargaining corner and to safeguard their powerbases.

While much of Iraq has been stuck in a rut, Kurdistan has enjoyed unprecedented progression much to the regular dismay than applaud from Baghdad. More than any other group, the Kurds were most disappointed by the US exit and left them feeling anxious at hostile parties around them.

Renewed sectarianism and friction in Baghdad will see the Kurds embroiled in a fresh nightmare that will only blight the attraction and evolvement of the region. Furthermore, the Kurds have been so busy helping construct successive governments in Baghdad and then help papering over the cracks that they have seemingly overlooked that Baghdad has seldom kept their end of the bargain and has gotten away without any real political repercussions.

Kurdistan has waited for almost a decade for the return of Kirkuk and disputed territories and has waited many years for key laws such as a national hydrocarbon law to be adopted. In reality, unless Kurdistan takes matters into their own hands and pushes Baghdad in no uncertain terms, they will wait yet another decade for the return of their lands.

As kingmakers, Kurds have taken a tough-line position in negotiations over successive government formations, while Baghdad has dragged their heels in the commitments they have agreed to as part of the initial wooing of Kurdish blocs.

Just as the jostling of power between Sunni and Shiites will come to the boil at some point, especially if the proviso of parliament and politics is seen as an insufficient forum, then the increasing bitter relationship between Erbil and Baghdad will take similar suit if it indefinitely becomes stuck in a detrimental cycle.

While much of how the proceedings play out is in the hands of the Iraqi leaders, the difficulties already inherent are only exasperated by the influence of neighbouring countries. As the US formally withdraws, the battle for influence in Iraq will only heighten.

The Shiite-led government of al-Maliki openly sways towards Tehran and has defended the Allawite and fellow Shiite Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, while most of the Arab world has turned increasingly against him. All the while, Sunni neighbours such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia looks anxiously at the alliances formed by Baghdad.

As the Middle East has evolved greatly as a result of the Arab Spring, Iraq will need to greatly alter the relations with its neighbours.

At the same time, Kurdistan which is already under great constraints due to the weary eye of its neighbours, strives for good relations with all sides and must not rely on the sentiments of Baghdad in achieving its nationalist ambitions.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

The mutual necessity of extending the US stay in Iraq

Owed to the great commotion surrounding the second Gulf war and the subsequent public fall-out, the US liberation of Iraq may always be remembered as a dark moment of US foreign policy akin to Vietnam. However, in the midst of the hostilities, violence, squabbling amongst Iraqi factions and stumbling steps towards democracy, the significance of theUSinvasion is often forgotten.

As the US suffered a tainted foreign policy image and a general deterioration of perception amongst the Muslim community whilst becoming vilified for its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is easy to paper over the failings, deep-rooted animosity amongst Iraq’s socio-ethnic patchwork and misdealing and underperformance by successive Iraqi governments as US errors of judgment.

Iraq became an Achilles heel of George W. Bush and a great handicap for the US at home and abroad and both politically and economically. However, as the months wind down towards the end of 2011, where the remaining 45,000 or so US troops are set to withdraw from Iraq as part of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), there are increasing voices within the Iraqi political spectrum calling for an extension of this deadline, realising the stability that the US presence provides and the fragile nature of Iraq.

Whilst Iraq’s transition from brutal dictatorship to democracy has not been perfect, it is nevertheless a remarkable milestone. Iraq has made great strides in recent years particularly in the field of security but reconciliation has been as difficult as ever owed to the fragmented Iraqi socio-ethnic mosaic and the entrenched mistrust amongst disparate groups that has made the sharing of the Iraqi cake all that more difficult.

It is often overlooked that not only did the current government formation set a world record but that the cabinet is still not formally concluded months after the deadlock to form government was broken. Whilst politicians entered the agreement through gritted teeth and under a cloud of compromise there are growing signs of fractures amongst the current alliance. Simply put Iraqi politicians have spent more time squabbling within the political chambers than delivering services to the people on the streets.

Ayad Allawi of Al-Iraqiya, who won the majority vote at the elections, has made a number of threats to leave government and has been critical of been treated “not as a partner but as a participant.” Allawi refused to take the post as the head of National Council for Strategic Policy owed to disputes with Nouri al-Maliki around powers that he would be afforded, with al-Iraqiya demanding more than just symbolic posts with no real power but with al-Maliki unwilling to relinquish his executive decision making status.

The current predicament in Baghdad is overshadowed with a number of disputes with the KRG which have festered over many years through constant foot-dragging, side-stepping and half-hearted approach to resolution from Baghdad.

Kirkuk continues to be at the top of the contentious issues over disputed territories. In spite of a clear road map for the resolution of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, it has been continuously put on the shelf and the constitutional articles have not been implemented. Furthermore, althoughKirkukwas a key condition ahead of the agreement of Kurdistan parties to back a new coalition in Baghdad, in reality practical steps have not been undertaken to finally diffuse this long-time ticking time-bomb.

Devastating bombings in recent weeks have highlighted the tentative nature of Kirkuk. Al-Qaeda and insurgent groups continue to try and ignite ethnic strife and fuel animosity amongst the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens. The sensitive climate was further highlighted with the Arab uproar when Kurdish Peshmerga forces were deployed to Kirkuk in March under the pretext of protecting the Kurdish inhabitants ahead of mass protests that were organised. Whilst the situation was quickly diffused, it showed how sentiments can explode at any time and where ethnic loyalties clearly lie.

The US has highlighted Kirkuk as biggest danger toIraq’s stability post withdrawal. Friction between the Erbil andBaghdad, fragile coalitions, a loose national partnership and with questions around the effectiveness and logistical readiness of the Iraqi security apparatus, this has bolstered the case for a US stay beyond 2011.

The Kurdish support for such long-termUSpresence and indeed permanent bases inKurdistanis nothing new and where recently reaffirmed by Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

However, al-Maliki’s openness to extending the US stay is a sign of the importance most Iraqi’s increasingly pin to an extended US presence on their soil. Officially, al-Maliki has stated that he will proceed with national dialogue with rival blocs to reach consensus on extending the SOFA agreement, but almost certainly secret talks have been ongoing behind the scenes for several months with US military officials.

The top officer of the Iraqi army, General Babaker Zebari, previously stated that US forces will be needed until 2020.

Clearly, after the enormous sacrifices in preserving a stable Iraq and indeed a stable Middle east, the US will not want to walk away all too easily.Iraq was never a short-term project, regardless of the presence of troops on the ground. Influence and interest in a region or country is not just about the number of troops, the web of intelligence and entanglement is much deeper. The US will want to be seen to respect Iraqi sovereignty from a public perspective but in the background will be pressuring to maintain a strong hand in the direction of the Iraqi government, defeat of radical forces and ensuring equilibrium in the region not least because ofIran.

US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates has openly admitted that other than maintaining stability inIraq, the priority for troop extension is to send a strong warning toIranthat the US will not pull out of the Middle East. Iranian and to a lesser extent  Turkish and other Sunni Arab meddling in Iraq is already a key handicap for reconciliation and any hasty US withdrawal when the Iraqi project is clearly not complete will only enlarge the ethnic and sectarian divide and increase interference by neighbouring countries.

Iranian influence on Baghdad is evident and has somewhat contributed to the divided political lines. The US hand in Iraq, is not just designed to keep the Iranians at bay in Baghdad, but to ensure Iranians are hampered in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and beyond.

It is somewhat unsurprising that the main group who vehemently oppose US presence is the pro-Iranian group of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who has threatened to recommence violence if US forces stay beyond the deadline.

Aside from providing critical security over the years, Washington has had an instrumental hand in forcing the Iraqi hand to end a number of political impasses. In fact many symbolic agreements where only achieved with frantic American jockeying in the background.

It is increasingly acknowledged that the same mediation will be needed to ensure political stability inIraq, especially if the current government breaks down. Whilst progress has been achieved at a painstaking pace, it can unravel and unwind at a much faster pace. Progress inIraqis very much reversible.

Keeping US troops in Iraq will not only have repercussions in Iraq. It will also highlight a major u-turn for US President Barack Obama, whose key election pledge was to withdraw forces fromIraqas quickly as possible.

The top priority of the US should no longer be security but ensuring the establishment of a strong political and economic foundation. Pushing for the implementation of roadmaps for resolving disputed territories, sharing of natural resources, affective power sharing formula and bridging sectarian divides is the only long-term answer.

The US needs to apply pressure to finally force the Kirkuk issue and seek long-term resolutions to the increasing tensions between Erbil and Baghdad. Too many critical differences have been too often brushed under the political rug for the sake of short-term gains at the time.

It must not be forgotten that the significant US surge strategy was to only provide Iraqis with “breathing space” to reconcile their difference and find political concord. However, this was far from achieved with many of the measurements set by the US all those years ago still not met.

Without resolving the true underlining issues that continue to plague Iraq and the establishment of am affective power-sharing system via loose federations, US presence for decades more will not solve core issues.

 While the US was a long-time scapegoat for the Iraqi downward spiral, it is time for Iraqi politicians to shoulder the responsibility of tackling corruption, unemployment and security and build rebuild their house for the future.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

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.

Not to save the day alone

As the US aims to save the day again in Iraq, the reality is that further underlying issues are being swept under the political rug.

All too frequently democracy and reconciliation in Iraq has been hampered with the reality of taking one step forward and two steps back. Throughout the past several years US meddling and intervention have played a crucial part in ensuring key political and constitutional breakthroughs as Iraqis struggled to overcome their historical differences.

However, while pressure and influence is nothing new, it does however mask the cracks that continue to undermine long-term Iraqi unity. For the US, which has expended billions, lost thousands of lives and tirelessly sought an elusive exit strategy, the perception of Iraqi concord, national stability and democratic progress has become an obsession.

This has meant that while the Iraqi political chambers have become accustomed to bickering, jostling and protraction, the US has often been racing from group to group to find compromise. But the long-term strength of many of those agreements is open to question – often real issues have been swept under the political rug, rather than the establishment of compromise and harmony between the embittered groups.

The US was yet again tirelessly jostling in the background these past weeks to resolve another potential political landmine ahead of the national elections. Not only was the election delayed by almost two months, and the election law grudgingly passed with US handing out promises and carrots, but before Iraqis could breathe a sigh of relief yet another row threatened to derail the elections.

Washington at stake

For the US, what is at stake in Iraq is clearly extortionate. While it can not indefinitely keep the same level of commitment and sacrifice that it has in the past several years, it can ill afford to leave an Iraq on the brink either. The regional ramifications alone are too grave to even contemplate.

Security and political gains these past few years have not come easy and unless comprehensive national elections can be held on March 7, 2010, where all parties and sects keenly participate, there is every chance that Iraq may end up back at square one, along with the US goals of withdrawal by August of this year.

Baathist banning row

US knows a repeat of Sunni bitterness, boycotting and anger that blighted the last elections in 2005, will undo much of their hard work of the past five years, which has been aimed specifically at enticing Sunnis into the political fold and ensuring they receive a reasonable piece of the Iraq cake to appease sentiments.

Therefore, a decision to ban some 500 candidates from parliamentary elections by the Justice and Accountability commission, for suspected links with Saddam Hussein’s former Baathist regime, rang alarm bells in Washington.

A new raging debate just weeks after the US and UN were catching their breath from the last furor to save elections in Iraq, threatened to pit the Sunni population and the Shiite majority just weeks from the elections with campaigning still not underway.

While the list of banned candidates was not exclusively Sunni based, with many being Shiites and some Kurds, it was drummed up and manipulated by certain parties as a direct attack to undermine Sunnis ahead of the elections.

External meddling evident

While Iraq has been technically sovereign for a long while, it is clearly hampered by regional jockeying and foreign interference. US meddling has been clear to see but with Iran throwing its weight around as a regional superpower, along with neighbours such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria who are more akin to support the Sunnis, it becomes evident that these neighbours have become entrenched in the Iraqi machine, both directly and indirectly.

The Accountability and Justice commission itself is spearheaded by several prominent Shiite figures, with the one time US darling, Ahmad Chalabi, in particular with close ties to Tehran.

US political arm-twisting by both Vice President Joe Biden and US Ambassador Christopher Hill was heavily behind the decision by the Iraqi Appeals Court to overturn the ban on the candidates until after the elections.

Divisions within Iraq were discernible as uproar ensued in the Baghdad government, which deemed the overturning as “illegal and unconstitutional”. As emergency parliamentary sessions were hastily arranged, clearly the goal was one of overriding the decision of the appeal courts. The US was rather predictably overjoyed with the decision of the appeals court, to a motion that they themselves had promoted. However, this motion itself was plagued with contradiction – specifically, what would be the affect if after the intended post-election review a candidate was removed against the wishes of the electorate?

Twist in the tale

If the current situation was not marred by enough controversy, this was further clouded by an announcement that effectively meant that all but 37 of the appeal candidates had their cases disqualified as it was deemed that they did not submit their cases properly.

During the ongoing row, a lot of banned candidates were duly replaced by their parties while some had their bans lifted, which had left 177 cases in the appeal process. Sceptics would point to government manipulation of the appeal processes to dilute the chances of banned candidates participating.

Bitter after taste

Regardless of moves to find compromise and allow a number of banned candidates to participate, this episode hardly leaves a sweet taste in the mouth ahead of a critical national milestone.

Key Sunni politicians and Shiite rivals of current premier Nouri al-Mailki have pointed to a ploy to undercut their support ahead of decisive balloting and mask inefficiencies and negative sentiment towards the current Baghdad government.

Baathism, an ideology of pan-Arab nationalism, was not purely embraced by Saddam Hussein. It has popular weight in Sunni circles in the region and contrary to some opinions its support is not exclusively Sunni based. Naturally many have pointed to Iran’s Shiite hands in Iraq, with the apparent aim of stifling Sunni Arab renaissance, as the reason behind Maliki’s stance.

Baghdad has in turn blamed many of the recent deadly bombings in Iraq squarely on ex-Baathists and their affiliates.

Keeping problems in perspective

As problems in Iraq typically get blown out of all proportion, it is easy to lose sight of the argument. The first de-Baathist commission was actually setup by the US provincial powers in 2003 and was later formerly superseded by the current legal entity. The idea was to formulate a new Iraq based on justice and democracy that would never allow previous perpetrators of the brutal regime a chance to return or hold power in any capacity.

On the surface, such a motion should allow for historical wounds to heal and for politicians to build a new national unity away from the dark chapters of the past. It is only right that having waited decades to expel the evil, and with thousands of mass graves later, that they would never allow a chance for such roots to regrow.

For those with proven links to the Saddam apparatus, they should not be allowed to participate in any shape or form. Cries of injustice by such individuals are ironic as they denied the same rights and freedoms to thousands of Iraqis.

However, the process should be clear and transparent, and not riddled with contention. For example, why did the relevant legal bodies wait until just weeks before the election to ban such a large number of candidates? Why weren’t those candidates banned well before? The criteria for the banning and associated evidence to underpin such decisions should be undisputed.

Such publicity over this debacle threatens to turn this political charade into a sectarian showdown. With wounds just healing from the previous civil war, Iraqis can ill afford another two steps back.

As for the US, its pressure and influence should be all about the future of Iraq. While it can clearly jumpstart the Iraqi political vehicle at key times, why the US hasn’t directly supported article 140 and other key constitutional articles is questionable.

Continuous feuding in the political chambers has merely masked the other fundamental milestones that have not been achieved – the settling of disputed territories with the Kurdistan Region; the advent of a national hydrocarbon law; and cross-sectarian mix of the security forces including long-term integration of the Sunni “Awakening Council” militias.

Whatever government is installed next in Baghdad, without resolving these historical handicaps, Iraq will weave from side to side but will struggle to move forwards.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Iraqi withdrawal symptoms

 

As the continuous US adventure in Iraq enters yet another “new” dawn, the US can ill-afford to lose focus

Over the past six years or so, the US has have experienced many false dawns in their quest to attain success in Iraq. Many key milestones have been hailed in this time, in the hope that it would spark an elusive US exit strategy, but ominously Iraqi’s have too often failed to take real advantage.

 

Now it is hoped that the much hyped and celebrated US withdrawal from Iraqi towns and cities on June 30th 2009, would serve as one of the final “real” dawns of the new Iraq.

The withdrawal, as per Sofa agreement, was met with jubilation by Iraqis and subsequently declared a national holiday. While Iraqis rejoiced in public at the start of the end of a notorious occupation, behind closed doors in Baghdad and Washington, one couldn’t help but think that smiles in public were overshadowed with anxiety behind the scenes, particularly for the US.

After all, after so many years of sacrifice, lost lives and billions of dollars of investment that saw Iraq become a focal point of US foreign policy, the US can hardly just disregard or sidestep their Iraqi adventure. The US clearly has unfinished business in Iraq.

However, US President Barrack Obama has hardly kept his desire for a new stronger focus on the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan a secret, has consistently vowed for swift withdrawal and was opposed to the original invasion. This has fanned fears that the US is no longer focused on Iraq.

Biden’s calls for national reconciliation

 

The US has expressed their concern in recent days on the lack of political reconciliation and has openly urged Iraqis to make greater efforts. Public calls by US Vice President Jo Biden, the man charged with seeing out the Iraqi mission, for the need of more progress was rebuffed by Baghdad. The vice presidents comments came as he underwent a visit to Baghdad to strengthen diplomatic ties and push Iraqi leaders for greater political progress.

The response from Baghdad implied that they were unwilling to endorse US meddling in its internal affairs. The strong response from Baghdad, shows growing assertiveness from Iraqis as the assume the “real sovereignty” talked about in Washington and may be playing on the sentiments of the Iraq public ahead of January 30th general election, who are seemingly only too keen to see US forces depart, regardless of the demons that this may itself bring.

Al-Maliki’s office reaffirmed its commitment to the national reconciliation process. Al-Maliki had earlier stated that the countries had “entered a new phase” on the back of the US withdrawal.

In spite of Baghdad’s warning to its US counterparts about trying to influence internal Iraqi affairs, Biden suggested that the Iraqi leaders were “very anxious” to maintain strategic understanding and engagements with the US moving forward.

Obama’s message

 

Whilst hailing the significance of the withdrawal, Obama warned of “difficult days ahead” and once again reemphasised the importance of a “responsible” withdrawal. However, emphasise was equally placed on Iraqis new responsibility as they took control of their future. US combat divisions are due to withdraw from Iraq by September 2010 and all together from Iraq by the end of 2011.

In spite of public reassurance that the US had not lost focus, privately Biden gave the strongest indication yet that under their new “sovereignty”, the US was unlikely to come rushing back to keep peace if civil strife was to erupt in Iraq.

Biden has been a long-time advocate of federalism in Iraq, as a way of preserving peace and unity between Kurds, Sunni and Shiites, and it is somewhat unsurprising that he has focused on healing the national divide on his recent visit.

The end of the beginning

 

The beginning of the end for the US may well be the end of the beginning for the Iraqis. With the valuable cushion that the US has provided for so long, in spite of frequent criticism and backlash of their presence by Iraqis, ironically perhaps now as the US time in Iraq dwindles down, many Iraqis may now truly appreciate the relative if not forgotten comfort that the US has provided.

The US surge strategy was always a short-term measure designed to buy Iraqis time. It is ultimately down to the Iraqis to seek true compromise and build a new nation that can house such a contrasting array of views and ethnicities.

Regardless of the principles of democracy that now underpin the new Iraq, it is ultimately the true hunger of sides to settle their differences and end mistrust and animosity that will determine the future Iraq. This is easier said than done of course. Trying to keep an ethnic mosaic happy and working towards the notions of equality, are down to the individuals themselves and no amount of US military presence or political pushing can change that.

As the US have realised no amount of force or political pressure can make any side adopt any notion that they may not embrace at heart.

Key issues remain unresolved years after the advent of a new constitution and democratic elections. Growing discord between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over many fundamental issues such as oil production, federalism and disputed lands spell a clear long-term danger.

As we have seen with a rise in suicide bombings in recent weeks, the threat of terrorism and sectarian bloodshed are elements that can return to the stage ever so quickly. Too often long-term problems have been masked by short-term goals. An example of this are the Sunni Sawha councils, armed and founded by the US and a clear success story in the battle against al-Qaeda. If there demands are not satisfied, how long before they are keep onside?

The greater picture

 

Whilst the US may now provide added focus to Afghanistan, the US has to mindful of not needing to return to Iraq once they achieve a semblance of peace and unity in Afghanistan.

Issues and conflicts in the Middle East are delicately intertwined, and the US can ill afford to neglect the importance of the Iraqi domino in this puzzle. There is little in the Middle East that would have a greater ripple affect than instability and chaos in Iraq. The US has already underestimated the intricacy that is Iraq to its loss.

As future events will show, its unlikely that the US can simple afford to adopt a policy of “over to you now Iraqis” just yet.

As Obama’s speeches to the Muslim world have highlighted, however, the US is unwilling to put all its eggs in one basket. It needs the support of the greater Middle East in keeping the tentative and fragile peace. This is something that it simply can not do by itself.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Obama’s historic speech the platform for Middle Eastern peace?

The birth of a “new beginning” with the Muslim world, hoped as a new beginning for the elusive peace process

It was no secret that improving ties with the Muslim world was to become a core component of US President Barack Obama’s new administration. On 4th June president Obama delivered his highly anticipated speech at Cairo University, where a “new beginning” for ties with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect” took on strong emphasis. A strong symbol of this new start is the peace process between the Israel and the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state. However, as we have seen many times before, emotive words and real action and tough decision making do not always translate to the same thing.

Furthermore, by looking at the greater whole of the Middle East, will parts such as Kurdistan miss out?

One of the greatest historical problems in the Middle East has been the establishment of elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians that has become almost symbolic of the US relationship with the Muslim world. Obama’s seemingly new tough approach with Israel signalled a new phase in the peace process. Successfully achieving peace between the Jews and Arabs and ultimately the establishment of a Palestinian state may well prove to be the platform on which Obama is judged at the end of his term.

The speech was refreshing, warm and conciliatory. Any speech that even grabs the mood and attention of customary US nemesis, speaks volumes about the influence and importance of the speech. However, deep and powerful rhetoric is by no means a measure on how such broad goals will be achieved in reality.

New ties with the Muslim world

A frequent theme of Obama’s speech was his emphasis on the positivity and role of Islam on the global stage. He pointed out the significance of Islam on contemporary history and human development and indeed the part that Islam has played in America’s history, while referring to civilisations “debt” to Islam.

Relations with the Islamic world under George W. Bush and indeed before that became strained and introduced dangerous levels of animosity and mistrust. The perception of the US in the last several years has been tarnished by its foreign policy, with many Middle Eastern views portraying the US as “anti-Islamist”.

Obama downplayed such beliefs of an ideological clash and stated “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Obama was evidently keen to eradicate somewhat negative stereotypes that surround both Islam and the US, and the cycle of distrust that had undermined common ties.

Obama frequently highlighted a great respect for Islam while aiming to show that there was more common ground than differences.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

From the outset, Obama has clearly been keen to reach out to the greater Middle East. A common theme of his tenure as president is that the US will aim to “listen rather than dictate” to the Muslims.

Indeed, the Middle East is as much of an interlinked web as ever, and no solution or stability in any one country will achieve the greater goals of the region.

Peace and success in the Middle East can not be achieved without a broad consensus amongst the social mosaic of the region. The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that individual achievements will only ever be hampered by greater obstacles in the surrounding environment.

More importantly, US relations in the Middle East have reached a vicious and perilous cycle, which Obama has been clearly intent on breaking.

Obama tried to win the hearts of the Islamic audiences by making references to texts from the Quran, and by emphasising that with a “proud tradition of tolerance”, the positive role that Islam plays in solutions rather than as a source of problems.

Ties with Israel and Palestinians

In his quest to turn a new page with the greater Muslim world, there can perhaps be no greater starting point than resolving the historical Palestinian dilemma.

Peace between Israel and the Palestinians formed a core focus of the Bush era, however, the much-hyped peace road map never really started.

Obama speech echoed a neutral stance with regards to the present Israeli-Palestinian standoff. The Islamic view of America has long been defined by the strong historical support of the Jews, seemingly at the expense of Arab suffering and the deprivation of Palestinian rights.

This notion has only served to add to the view that US foreign policy was hypocritical and unequivocal.

In his keynote speech, Obama once again reaffirmed the strong bond between the US and Israel, which is “…based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” However, Obama was clearly keen to ensure that Palestinian rights and sufferings were treated on equal footing, describing the situation of the Palestinians as “intolerable”, who he believes “endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. ”

Shifting US ties with Israel?

Many have pointed to a shift in US policy towards Israel. However, this policy is needed if the overall “reach out” of his administration to the Muslims is to be taking seriously.

It remains to be seen how much political or public pressure, the US government is willing to place on their historical ally in the region.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, visiting Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the back of Obama’s speech, reiterated that the US views a two-state solution as the “only viable political solution” to the conflict.

A key note of Obama speech on the peace process was the firm need to halt all Israeli settlement building activity in the occupied West Bank, which is deemed illegal under International law.

This caused a potential confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who previously vowed to at least to accommodate “natural growth” building in the settlements. Furthermore, Netanyahu and his cabinet have appeared reserved to endorse the principle of a Palestinian state in public, much to the contrary of American support to the idea.

Netanyahu is due to deliver a key speech later this week, which will go a long way to underlining the path that his Israeli government will pursue. Either way, the Israeli government will need to make concessions in terms of cabinet personnel or policy, as they realign with the new realities in Washington.

Many in Israel are evidently concerned about the new shift of support from the US government. With Obama placing equal focus on both the Israelis and Palestinians, many will now be looking at the political movements and initiatives shown in each camp. On the back of the historical speech by Obama, there is now a danger for either side to be singled out depending on the steps they undertake.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians have been cautiously warm to the renewed efforts called for in Obama’s speech.

Moreover, Israel may need to make greater concessions not just in the face of US pressure, but also in their quest to win greater endorsement from the Arab world and particularly support against the growing Iranian nuclear threat.

The US has been keen to emphasise to their Israeli counterparts that the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue must come hand-in-hand with the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. What is certain is that no side can act against the Tehran government without a broad support of the greater Middle East.

Any Israeli unilateral action on Iran, as much as its nuclear programme is also feared by many Arab regimes in the region, would go a long way to ensuring further isolation of Israel.

The need for tough measures

For Obama’s brave new policies to become a reality, the US government must go beyond strong rhetoric and mixed this up with tough action and decisions.

For example, while the US have been insistent that no Israeli settlement building continues, what will they do if Israeli continues their justification of further construction in one form or another? Furthermore, the US should be clear on their exact policy regarding settlement building, so that there is no doubt or misinterpretation to suit one side. Does opposition to settlement building mean future settlement expansions or the presence of these settlements altogether?

In his speech, Obama was signalling the prospects of a new definition of ties with Hamas, if Hamas refuses to change its policy towards Israel and does not become an apart of a new unity Palestinian government, then how will the US react to the entity that affectively rules the Gaza strip?

If the peace process goes down a productive and positive path, then the stance of the US will look after itself, however, such similar paths in the past have seldom followed such positive motions. The position of the US will come under much scrutiny, if key differences emerge between Israel and the Palestinians or if indeed outright violence erupts again.

Obama is correct in that no ideology or principle, such as democracy can or should be imposed on a nation. It is indeed down to the real will of a nation, on what they choose to adopt or how they want to be ruled.

By that token, Israelis and Palestinians must make the real concessions and choose what kind of a future they want, but obviously the right US policy has great bearings on the decisions and directions taking by each nation. One thing that is certain is that the current status-quo will serve no side.

All sides, particularly Israel must realise that peace measures should not just be political, more opportunities and economic progression in the Palestinian territories will be a major influence to sway Palestinian sentiments.

The dangers for the Kurds

One side that has clearly benefited from the US foreign policy of recent years are the Kurds. A pro-American, democratic and secular nation does not come around too often and the US and Kurds have developed positive ties. However, many Kurds have grown disillusioned at lack of US support or appreciation of these bonds.

Clearly, when one takes a greater view of a subject matter, certain components that make up key parts of the whole, may miss out.

Too often in the past, the US has neglected so-called “smaller” actors to attain their bigger strategic goals with the perceived more dominant powers in the region.

The US must not forget that that as the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, the Kurds deserve recognition as a firm actor in the region and to be credited for their recent gains, their path towards prosperity and democratisation.

Too often reach-outs in the Middle East have been represented by Jews and Arabs. Reach out to the Muslim world, includes all such parties, including Kurdistan, which is after all a predominantly Muslim nation.

However, there is an inherent fear that the US can not keep all sides happy, which is next to impossible and as a result the Kurds have to be careful no to over rely on fickle foreign policies in the region, be it from the US or neighbouring countries.

By keeping the “major” parties happy in the Middle East, the US may well choose to do this at the expense of others. The Kurds have to ensure that they achieve self-sufficiency for their experience and reinforce their region based on a future that is not necessarily dependent on Western powers whose support is conditional and reserved at the best of times.

Support against extremism

Clearly, the war of the modern era has been the battle against terrorism and extremism. This new battlefield is one that is unconventional and high-impact. As the last several years have highlighted, it is one war that the might of ones military alone can not win in the long-term.

The battle against fanaticism and fundamentalist can be won on ideological grounds alone, by affectively winning the hearts and minds of the populations or uprooting the support base of these elements.

In Palestinian, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan, it is indeed that battle against extremism that has handicapped reconstruction, social advancement and peace. In any of these cases, US can not win these “battles” by merely imposing their ideology or military might. In other words, they strongly need the support of the greater Muslim “moderates” to establish long-lasting peace.

It is only with the establishment of a strong moderate support base, that the extremists can then be uprooted. The previous cycle of animosity and alienation between the US and Muslim powers, further distanced such moderates and indirectly encouraged support for more radical elements.

Obama was quick to emphasis that violence is not a part of Islam. In the case of Palestine, Obama stated that violence was a “dead end” and that “resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed”.

Obama, although stating that America was not at war with Islam, openly warned that the US would continue to confront extremists that threatened its security. This is a clear reminder that the US has not necessarily gone soft on its determination to battle radicals or employing a complete shift in foreign policy, particularly against elements like the Taliban in Afghanistan or the regime in Tehran.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd, PUK Media, Peyamner, Various Misc.