Kurdistan praised in Munich, but real prize remain independence

The 2017 Munich Security Conference in Germany demonstrated the strategic importance of the Kurdistan Region on the regional and global stage, as it held bilateral meetings with a significant number of state officials.

Kurdistan was the only autonomous region to be invited alongside 192 countries, yet, as much as Kurdistan is receiving increasing acclaim for spearheading the battle against the Islamic State (IS), it remains stateless.

Almost three years since IS took control of large swathes of Iraqi territory, IS remains not just a regional threat but is a global threat that has led to deadly consequences across Europe. As Iraqi forces struggled against the IS advance in 2014, the Peshmerga took center stage in putting IS on the retreat.

The Munich Security Conference proved a vital platform for Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, and his accompanying delegation, to boost ties and ensure continued support for Peshmerga forces.

Statements from many high ranking officials in Munich reaffirmed the standing of the Kurds.

Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, described her meeting with Barzani as “excellent” and praised the Kurds as reliable partners while expecting German and international support for the Kurds to continue for “quite a while.”

Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence tweeted after a meeting with President Barzani that he discussed the “the need to accelerate plans to defeat ISIS,” while thanking Barzani for “cooperation with Baghdad.”

Barzani and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis had a lengthy meeting on the sidelines of the conference. According to a statement from the office of the Kurdistan Presidency, Mattis had “reiterating his country’s support for the people of Kurdistan” and had stated he “was familiar with the Kurdish cause and that Kurdistan and the US had made sacrifices side by side.”

Barzani also had a meeting with a delegation of 20 US senators who expressed strong support for the Kurds and stressed the new US administration would not abandon the Kurds.

There were many other positive statements of support towards the Kurds. In fact, the Kurdistan leadership often host high-ranking figures such as UK Defense Minister Michael Fallon in recent weeks.

However, this is only the short-term game for the Kurds. Security is the important theme of today for Western and regional powers, but the Kurds are looking beyond tactical measures.

The fact remains that IS became a problem on the doorsteps of Kurdistan mainly due to the continued sectarian policies emanating out of Baghdad as well as the weak defense that Iraqi forces were able to muster.

While Kurdistan remains part of Iraq, it can never safeguard its future, let alone prevent IS from striking again.
President Barzani has openly discussed Kurdish independence over past few years, but the significant difference is the growing international support for their right to self-determination.

According to Hemin Hawrami, senior advisor to President Barzani and part of the delegation in Munich, “the main point in the agenda of Barzani’s talks has been the independence of Kurdistan,” before adding, “President Barzani discussed this issue with the US Vice President very seriously.”

According to Hawrami, “there might have been some different points of views in timing and the mechanism, but we never heard of any delegate of any country saying the question of independence and self-determination is not your right.”

Kurdistan’s right to self-determination is not bound to the fact they are playing a key part in preserving stability amidst regional fires. However, the reliance on the Kurdistan government and Peshmerga forces at a vital time only magnifies the irony of being the largest nation in the world without a state.

It’s not that Kurdistan has been impatient, almost 14 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the same sectarian issues blight Iraq, Shiite militia forces hold more sway than the official army, and Sunnis remain as disenchanted as ever. All in all, neither sectarian fighting nor political instability will end in Iraq after IS.

Even putting these major issues aside, Erbil is unlikely ever to escape being a subordinate of Baghdad, placing doubt that a genuine partnership could ever materialize.

The fact that some countries continue to insist on delivering military support to Kurdish forces via Baghdad only fuels this sense of subordination.

Barzani remains insistent on pursuing the path dialogue with Baghdad over Kurdish independence as “this will pave the way to many other countries to recognize us.” However, Barzani stressed that as much as they will continue to push for a positive result through dialogue, they “will certainly take other steps” if this fails.

As a boost to Kurdish aspirations, Von der Leyen made clear that independence was a matter for the Kurds to decide and they would respect this decision.

This view was likely to be echoed by French President Francois Hollande, who President Barzani met in recent days. Both leaders emphasized the strong and friendly relations, and France is likely to be a reliable partner of a future Kurdistan.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Kurdistan’s migrant burden deserves international focus

The turmoil caused by the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) has created unimaginable human tragedy, not least millions of refugees and Internally Displaced Person’s (IDPs). While the internationals spotlight about the refugee crisis is mainly on Turkey, the migrant burden has created unsustainable pressure on the Kurdistan Region.

The estimated 1.8 million IDPs and refugees in Kurdistan is a considerable number, but with the ongoing battle to recapture Mosul and the violence in Syria and Iraq far from over, this number is continuously increasing.

Since the battle for Mosul began, an additional 95,000 IDPs have taken refuge in the Kurdistan Region. The Kurdistan Region’s Minister of Interior, Karim Sinjari, issued a warning of “an impending humanitarian catastrophe” as Kurdistan could not cope with a further flood of refugees, especially, as the battle front shifts to the west of Mosul.

Sinjari called for “additional resources to be provided immediately to deal with the increased burden.”

The strain this crisis has placed on the region is visible. Such refugees need adequate food, health care, clothes, and shelter. This is not for a week or two but on a long term basis due to the protracted and complicated nature of events that lead to their plight.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is also facing tremendous pressures caused by a weakened economy and the costly fight against IS. Adding the millions of IDPs into the mix is simply unsustainable, with the region’s infrastructure unable to cope with the increased demand.

Germany’s Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Gerd Muller, in a recent press conference with Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, praised the Kurdistan Region for embracing 1.8 million IDPs, in spite of the harsh economic climate.

Muller stated, “But we have come to support you, as well as the EU, should support the Kurdistan Region,” as he vowed that the “Kurdistan Region is not alone.”

Meanwhile, Barzani stressed, “On a humanitarian level it is indeed very important that Germany helps the migrants, but it is as important to assist the Kurdistan Region to deal with the refugee crisis here and prevent people from becoming migrants in other countries.”

The European Commission has allocated €241 million since 2015 in humanitarian aid to Iraq, with expectation for Iraq to receive another €50 million from the EU in early 2017, of which €28 million has been allocated for the KRG.

But even this much welcome aid is unlikely to be sufficient.

While the focus is primarily on international aid, Baghdad could certainly do more. After all, a large proportion of the migrants is made up of Arabs escaping the violence south of Kurdistan’s border.

Moreover, the weak security provided by Iraqi armed forces and the continued sectarian policies emanating out of Baghdad contributed to this crisis.

Ironically, Baghdad failed to pay salaries of Peshmerga forces, at the heart of the battle against IS, and pay Kurdistan’s fair share of the budget, let alone help with the region’s migrant crisis.

As welcome as international aid will be to alleviate the crisis in Kurdistan, these remain tactical measures. The real focus should be on ensuring the rebuilding of shattered areas so that IDPs can safely return.

Unfortunately, if aid was an issue to sustain internally displaced persons, any rebuilding efforts will run into tens of billions of dollars.

Also, political measures must be taken to ensure the same policies or mindsets do not allow further unrest.

In a recent statement, the KRG stated it has no “intention whatsoever to close the camps where the displaced populations are hosted,” in spite of the great difficulties it has to face. Further, it would only support cases of “safe, voluntary, and dignified” return of any displaced persons.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Reliance on militia forces sows more sectarian cracks in Iraq

With much focus on the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (IS), there lacks a full consensus on the political future of the city, especially, how to maintain security.

As the Iraqi army, Peshmerga, Sunni tribal militia, and Shiite-led Population Mobilization Units (PMUs), painstakingly clear Mosul of IS fighters, an active local security force will be vital to keep the hard-fought gains.

Well-armed Iraqi forces wilted away as IS launched its lightning advance on Mosul in 2014.

It was the PMUs or Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella of mainly Shiite militia factions formed after a fatwa from influential cleric Ali al-Sistani, that stopped IS at the doors of Baghdad which was also instrumental in ousting IS from Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tikrit.

The effectiveness of militia forces, when government forces already exist, speaks volumes about the sectarian undertones that continue to undermine Iraq.

The most effective forces are those motivated by sectarian or political loyalties, which poses a grave long-term dilemma for the Iraqi government.

The reliance on sectarian militias raises the prospect of more communal fuelled violence and revenge attacks. Reports of sectarian crimes marred the liberation of Fallujah and Tikrit.

In many ways IS capitalized on long-running Sunni discontent to assume power. Many tribal forces sided with IS as they saw them as a lesser evil than Shiite-dominated Baghdad.

A demand of the Sunnis has long been greater autonomy, and it is unclear what Baghdad will do to maintain long-term security in Sunni heartlands such as Mosul.

Leaving weak state forces in control of Mosul is risky, but at the same time, the presence of more powerful Shiite militias is a red line for Sunnis.

With even state forces lacking the overall trust of Iraqis as a sectarian neutral force, the only solution may well be to empower Sunni tribal militias. The PMU have already incorporated some smaller Sunni militias to give the flavor of a national force, but these are Sunnis with positive affiliations with Baghdad.

The Sunni Sahwa or Awakening councils were capable of driving out al-Qaeda at the heart of the Sunni insurgency in 2007-2008. While the PMUs were given a legal status in November 2016, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, refused to incorporate Sahwa councils into state security apparatus for fear that they may turn their guns on Baghdad.

As an official independent entity of the Iraqi Armed Forces, the PMU in theory come under the command of the Prime Minister. However, it’s doubtful if Baghdad has jurisdiction of the many disparate groups such as Badr Organization, Sayara al-Salam, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

It’s hard to ensure that these militia forces will cut political or social group affiliations, if not impossible.

The presence of many powerful militias also raises prospects of intra-fighting amongst sects. For example, it could lead to the marginalization of rival militias, Iraqi forces or allows a political party to dominate power.

According to Lt Gen. Stephen J. Townsend of the US-led anti-ISIL coalition, if the PMU forces could resemble more of a national guard and not a “puppet” of Iran, it could make Iraq more secure.

Many of the groups within the PMU already have strong connections with Iran, and this only adds to animosity with Sunnis and a sense of Iranian leverage over Baghdad. Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Suleimani, has personally overseen many PMU battles raising suspicion.

But with their official status ensured, there is a danger that the powerful PMU forces may become the equivalent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a force that serves political and sectarian loyalties than that of the state alone.

Hezbollah similarly mirrors this in Lebanon. They became a powerful parallel security structure that enjoys vast political and security influence.

Animosity and potential for clashes also stretch to Peshmerga forces, and there has been heightened rhetoric leading to skirmishes between both sides.

After a recent attack by a sub-unit of Hashd al-Shaabi on Peshmerga positions in Shingal, Sarbast Lezgin, a Peshmerga commander, warned of “loosely supervised groups within Hashd al-Shaabi who wish to create tension.”

According to Lezgin, “in December of last year alone, our positions were targeted four times.”

Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has emphasized the need for a comprehensive political solution post-IS to ensure same sectarian-fuelled environment does not lead to more instability. Barzani underscored in addition to fighting on the battlefield, “the intellectual, financial, political and social support for ISIS should be eliminated.”

However, although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki to heal the long neglected sectarian divide, Iraq remains at the mercy of sectarianism and violence.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Time for Trump to abandon Washington’s ‘One Iraq’ policy

Throughout his tenure as President of the United States, Barack Obama, stuck to a “one Iraq” policy. It was the continuation of his predecessor’s, George W. Bush, policy who worked hard to promote the idea of a unified and inclusive Baghdad, even as sectarian fires in the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq led to a costly experience for Washington.

However, the Kurdistan Region took a very different course from the rest of Iraq, and other than been confounded to the same state borders, their fortunes and ideals could not be more different.

US enjoys strong ties with Kurds, especially as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) became a bastion of peace and stability post-2003, but the concept of upholding Iraqi sovereignty meant that Washington would often tip-toe around Baghdad in dealing with the KRG.

As Falah Mustafa, Head of the KRG office of Foreign Relations, pointed out, the US relations with the Kurdistan Region are not new and “the US has had a significant role in the making of today’s Kurdistan since 1991.” However, throughout these times, successive US administrations have been careful not to undermine Baghdad or give encouragement to any Kurdish secession from Iraq.

KRG is not without its own downfalls but is certainly no Baghdad. It has remained stable, inclusive, secular, prosperous and pro-Western.

Clinging to the notion of a one Iraq policy means placing the (KRG) as a subsidiary of Baghdad.

Today, Kurds find themselves at the pinnacle of the war against Islamic State (IS). Therefore, treating Kurds as a sub-party of Baghdad discredits their vital strategic role.

The US has even shown hesitation in by-passing Baghdad when it comes to arming the Peshmerga.

In 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry, was strongly against a US Senate motion to directly arm the Kurds, urging “Iraq’s fragile territorial and political unity would be in jeopardy if the amendment passed.”

Even former US Vice President Joe Biden, who was a long-time advocate of splitting Iraq into three distinct federal regions, insisted on coordination through the “government of Iraq.”

That said, there is much doubt whether Baghdad delivered all the arms shipments intended for Erbil. Hence, Kurds deserve a distinct status of relations from the Donald Trump administration—owed not only to their importance in fighting against IS, but also in achieving greater stability in the Middle East.

Trump has made clear that he deems Islamic militants as the biggest threat to US national security.

Recent comments from Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, indicate the US may directly arm the Peshmerga, which is a welcome step. Moreover, McCain, in a previous interview with Kurdistan24, emphasized that the Peshmerga need sufficient “arming, training, and equipping,” before adding “sometimes, it may mean direct.”

Chief of Staff of the Peshmerga Ministry Jabbar Yawar recently stated that “the US is expected to fully arm two more brigades this year, the same way the first and second brigades were armed.”

An agreement last year between Washington and Erbil saw the first two Peshmerga units directly armed by the US. However, it is unclear whether the new US administration will take a different approach with the KRG by arming the Peshmerga directly.

McCain, like many other US officials, has been actively vocal praising Kurdish forces, yet the one Iraq policy serves to diminish the Kurdish standing.

Many international conferences on security, and the fight against IS have been held where ministers from Baghdad were deemed sufficient in place of representatives from the KRG. Such a policy highlights the contradictory policy towards Kurds: Baghdad will never fairly represent Kurds or their interests.

President Masoud Barzani expressed confidence at the recent Davis World Economic Forum that Trump, who had previously stated that he is “a big fan of the Kurdish forces,” will provide military and political support to Kurds. Barzani said, “Fortunately, many of those who are supposed to take high positions are acquainted and friends with me personally and Kurdistan.”

Trump, in a thinly veiled criticism of Obama but especially Bush, stated the US had wrongly “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”

Kurds hope Trump will not overlook the fact that in the Kurdistan Region, the US mostly achieved what they had expected for the rest of Iraq.

Kurds have always yearned for a long-term US military presence in Kurdistan and will hope that the plan to build one of the largest US consulates in the world in Erbil, is a prelude to a more active cooperation.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

US sidelined in Syria, as Turkey and Russia set stall for Trump

The notable absence of the United States (US) in the latest Syrian ceasefire coordinated by Turkey and Russia coincided with escalating rhetoric and growing animosity from Turkey, blaming Washington for the failed military coup, recent security attacks, and the growing Syrian Kurdish power.

The intensification of criticism from Turkey is designed as parting shots at the outgoing US President and as pressure on the incoming US President-elect Donald Trump.

With the thawing of ties with Russia, Turkey is increasingly looking to build bridges away from the West; this is evident not only with general animosity towards Washington but also the European Union in recent months.

The shift in Ankara can be seen with the armed intervention in northern Syria to drive out the Syrian Kurdish forces and the Islamic State (IS) and by accepting that Russia and Iran would not allow the demise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Michael A. Reynolds, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Kurdistan 24, “Under Obama’s leadership the US either by intention or default put itself on the sidelines. This, I think, exasperated Ankara and led it to reach out to Moscow, repair relations, and to accept Assad’s continued tenure as president of Syria.” 

Now, in playing a prominent role in the latest ceasefire and the prospective talks in Kazakhstan, Turkey is seemingly open to striking a deal, without the US to act as a roadblock, to preserve its interests in Syria while Russia and Iran would also maintain strategic interests.

Ankara’s key goal, however, is to curtail the growing Syrian Kurdish autonomy, in contrast to the continued US support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces.

As for Russia, it will continue to enjoy unhindered access to the Mediterranean via its naval bases, a pro-Russian regime in the Middle East and growing influence in the region last seen in the Soviet era.

Meanwhile, Iran’s influence is also growing through a pro-Iranian access zone along the Shiite axis between Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

By pressing ahead with a ceasefire, peace talks and a possible grand bargain over Assad, Turkey, Russia, and Iran are setting the stall for the future Trump administration.

While Trump will exert some influence, the expectation is that a more Russia-friendly Washington will provide little resistance to any initiative. Trump has already highlighted that his focus is on working with Russia to defeat IS and is unlikely to continue support for Syrian rebels.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signaled his hope that Trump “will also join the efforts in order to channel this work into one direction basing on friendly and collective cooperation.” One of Trump’s dilemmas will be how to handle the existing military alliance with the Syrian Kurds that has been vital to pushing back IS.

Turkey has a strong expectation that Trump will change course over support of the Kurds, but a complete u-turn by Washington is risky and not inevitable.

Overlooking the Kurds and allowing Turkey to take center stage in battling IS on the ground, as it has long insisted, may weaken IS but will risk inevitable conflict with the Kurds that Obama has tried to avoid.

Trump has previously stated “I’m a big fan of the Kurdish forces. At the same time, I think we could have a potentially very successful relations with Turkey. And it would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together”. However, balancing between the Kurds and an increasingly hawkish Turkey is difficult.

Ultimately, the indecisive approach of the Obama administration towards Syria lead to its waning influence and credibility in the region.

Various red lines such as the use of chemical weapons by Assad were crossed without action and Obama hesitated to empower Syrian rebels, especially as the distinction between moderates and Islamists amongst fragmented rebels became murky.

According to Reynolds, “Trump was quite critical of Obama’s half-hearted attempt to intervene in Syria, and particularly of Obama’s muddled and incompetent efforts to aid the armed opposition in Syria.

Whereas Clinton wished to double-down on intervention, Trump did not see how such recklessness would serve American interests.”

While the US dithered, Russia took center stage diplomatically and shaped the military picture on the ground. After all, it was both a combatant and an arbiter and had to be taken seriously.

As for Trump–Turkey and Russia expect him to come on board with their plans, but Trump has already proved unpredictable, and Syria remains too complex for straight forward relations between sides with their differing agendas.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Who represents Kurds at Syria peace talks?

Swiftly after the last rebels were evacuated in Aleppo as Syrian forces took full control, a new ceasefire was orchestrated by Russia, Iran, and Turkey intending to a fresh round of peace talks in Kazakhstan. Though, the dominant Syrian Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with its military wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, have been excluded from the talks at the insistence of Turkey.

The capture of Aleppo by the Syrian regime and their allies provides a pivotal moment in the Syrian war and a platform for a peace deal. However, vast areas of the country remain not in the hands of Assad or even the opposition but the powerful Kurdish forces.

Turkey’s Syria policy has long been shaped by its fear of an increasingly assertive Kurdish zone on its southern border. In fact, in some ways, this defined its approach to dealing with the Islamic State (IS).

In contrast, the United States has relied heavily on these Kurdish forces as one of the most effective forces against IS. Ongoing US support for what Ankara deems as terrorists has placed Turkey at loggerheads with the US.

With the thawing of ties between Ankara and Moscow, Turkey is enjoying new leverage in Syria, culminating in their intervention last year to curtail Syrian Kurdish aspirations to join their cantons. With the realization that Russia and Iran would not forgo Assad, Turkey’s focus has fast shifted from the removal of Assad to keeping Kurdish aspirations in check and creating a northern zone of influence.

The exclusion of the PYD and YPG in any talks and perhaps even the dismantling of their autonomy was likely a key Turkish condition on any deal with Russia and Iran.

Although the PYD has been excluded from the talks, the Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS) will be taking part. Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar of ENKS told Kurdistan24, “the claims that Syrian Kurds are not represented in the peace talks are false.”

The ENKS has played down PYD’s exclusion from the peace negotiations from being linked to Kurdish rights. But, ultimately, PYD has greater political leverage in the region as well as the influence of YPG forces.

This underscores the division among Kurds that undermine their solidarity, unity, and negotiating position in future talks.

Various agreements to unite the ENKS and the rival People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), an affiliate of PYD, have eroded.

Turkish intervention and takeover of a strip of IS controlled land in the north of Syria, primarily aimed at curbing Kurdish aspirations, is likely to have been launched with Moscow’s tacit approval.

Russia had previously insisted that participation of the main Syrian Kurdish party was vital in any peace talks.

In March 2016, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, critical of Turkish ultimatums at the time, even said leaving the Kurds out of the Geneva talks could endanger Syria’s territorial integrity.

Turkish intervention in Syria was not received warmly by Washington as it feared conflict between Kurds and Turks and a focus away from defeating IS.

In recent weeks, tense relations between the NATO allies were visible over a lack of US air support in Turkey’s bid to take al-Bab. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isık said the ongoing US support for the PYD was leading the government to “question” the use of the strategic Incirlik base by the US-led coalition forces.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was equally damning of the US stance on the Kurds, accusing the US of been engaged in a “fake struggle.” He urged President-elect Donald Trump to “put an end to this vileness, as it is now time for friends and foes to clearly separate themselves from each other.”

As much as Trump will be eager for a deal with the Turks and Russians to end the war, pulling the plug on the Kurdish forces is a significant risk at a crucial time against IS. Moreover, any military moves to curtail the Kurds would merely prolong and intensify the Syrian war.

Autonomy is a red-line for the Kurds, and regardless of which political party represents them in any peace talks, they remain a vital component of the Syrian landscape, and their rights should be ensured if Syria is to find any semblance of peace and stability.

As for Syrian Kurds, without a unified political scene and armed forces, any autonomous region cannot flourish amid hostile neighbors.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Global powers cannot deny legitimate Kurdish rights

In the tumultuous new age of the Middle East, Kurds have risen as strategic players, and this exhibits their increasingly influential position in settling regional conflicts.

The by-product of this new prominence is strong relations with regional powers such as Turkey but also with the European Union, the United States, and Russia.

With Kurds at the center of the battle against Islamic State (IS), both in Iraq and Syria, their role is vital to achieving long-term peace in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran and the greater Middle East.

Both the US and Russia have worked with Kurds as key actors in battling terrorism. As much as Kurds have grown in strategic standing and received increasing acclaim, they are still stateless.

However, more and more countries are supporting their legitimate rights, and it appears this is something that Russia is also willing to do. Russian President Vladimir Putin, while responding to a Kurdistan 24 reporter, emphasized their “special and very good relationship with the Kurds” who he believes had “a very difficult past.”

When pressed about Kurdish independence by the same reporter, Putin added, “ultimately, the legitimate rights of the Kurds will be ensured, but what will be the form and how it depends on Iraqis and Kurds themselves. We have been and would continue to be in contact with Baghdad and Kurds, but we will not interfere in domestic affairs of Iraq.”

US President-elect, Donald Trump, has also praised the Kurdish role in the fight against IS while acknowledging that wrongs were committed against them. Trump stated that they should be “using and utilizing those people, they have a great heart. They are great fighters, and we should be working with them much more so than we work (now).”

Trump’s appointment of Rex W. Tillerson, ex-CEO of Exxon, as Secretary of State may bode well for the Kurds. It was Tillerson who supported Kurdish rights by insisting on working in Kurdistan in 2011 in spite of opposition from Baghdad and Washington.

Clearly, global powers, as much as their short-term foreign policies center on the sovereignty of Iraq and having normal relations with Baghdad, cannot deny the legal right of the Kurds to self-determination while much smaller nations have been able to secure these rights long ago.

If neighbors such as Turkey that were historically opposed to any notion of Kurdish nationalism, let alone autonomy, are coming to terms with the reality of Kurdish Independence, then little stands in the way of the Kurds.

In a recent interview, Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani underscored that the question of independence has gone from a “red line for Turkey no matter what” to an “opportunity to open this dialogue.”

While Barzani only emphasized that the aim was to get Turkey to “listen,” in reality, Turkey has long acknowledged the end-game, and they have directly or indirectly already supported the foundations of this emerging state.

The deal to export oil through Turkey independently of Baghdad is one such act that boosted the Kurdish bid for statehood.

Barzani believes that the road map for Kurds to secede from Iraq is “a very serious dialogue with Baghdad.” He added, “For argument’s sake if we do declare our independence without consultation with Baghdad or any form of dialogue, our independence won’t be viable.”

The question is not permission from Baghdad, but rather to establish the ground rules for an “amicable divorce.”

Iraq does not have the resources or national will to oppose the Kurds, even if neighbors such as Tehran are against the idea of independence.

The common line has been that Kurdish independence would cause instability in the Middle East, yet the Middle East has never been stable. On the contrary, a Kurdish state will help bring stability to the region. A century after the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Middle East, no side can justify the Kurds remaining as the largest nation in the world without a state.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Kurds must look within to secure future

Kurdistan is crossing through a unique and sensitive juncture, yet lack of unity is threatening to hamper the region at a crucial time.

With Kurdistan at war with the Islamic State (IS), experiencing unprecedented economic crisis, and housing nearly two million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees in an increasingly volatile region, the challenges are already high.

However, the constant bickering between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Change Movement (Gorran), at this vital time undermines Kurdish goals and aspirations.

The Kurdistan government took just shy of seven months to form in 2014 after Kurdistan parliamentary elections in September 2013, underscoring the fragile makeup of the coalition cabinet.

Deep divisions over the state of the presidency, protests in October 2015 that turned violent with KDP offices getting torched and the subsequent prevention of parliament speaker from Gorran, Yousif Mohammed, from entering Erbil, culminated in the political standoff that remains today.

There have been various attempts to find a political breakthrough but the political parties have mainly blamed each other for the stand-off and lack of progress.

Kurdistan Region President, Masoud Barzani, recently urged political parties to kick start negotiations to resolve the current deadlock. The president urged the political parties “to solve the current crisis…activate the parliament and elect a new presidency,”

However, Barzani stressed that “it is not possible for those who have been the source of the crisis, remain in the chair of the parliament.”

The deadlock has seen a threat of a return to the dual administration of the past with KDP on one side and PUK and Gorran on the other. There has been notable differences in their respective approaches to working with Baghdad, relations with Ankara and Tehran, policies on Syrian Kurdistan region, handling of oil revenues and budgets and even moves towards independence.

Gorran’s suggestion of governorates establishing direct relations with Baghdad would merely intensify these divisions in Kurdistan and would undermine the hard fought Kurdish gains.

The new initiative by President Barzani is a welcome step to thaw tensions and end the deadlock. However, giving the likely nature of a slow process of compromise and with legislative and presidential elections set for 2017, Kurdistan may well have to wait for next elections to achieve a breakthrough.

Kurdish parties cannot afford to focus on short-term measures to bridge divides. Greater unity, especially outside of Kurdistan borders, should be a red line if Kurdistan wants to achieve its long-term dreams.

The new historical passage for the Kurds amidst the unravelling Middle East places Kurdistan into a dominant strategic position and ever closer to independence.

However achieving statehood, the dream of all Kurds, is a lofty task if the region itself cannot find greater unity, a shared vision and a long-term strategy when it’s facing grave security dangers and economic crises.

The imperial powers had already tainted Kurdistan by forcefully dividing and annexing the Kurdish regions to neighbouring states; however, Kurds are not helping themselves with further divisions in the respective segments.

Kurds are already looking across to see how the United States President-elect Donald Trump could benefit the Kurdish position. But with globalization on the decline, a new anti-establishment mindset in the US, rising Russian influence and the European Union braced for right-wing revivals, the world is braced for more change and unpredictability.

As history has proven, Western interests will always be through the narrow lens of their governments. At the same time, Kurds should not expect Baghdad, Ankara or Tehran to come running to solve their economic crisis or defend their region.

A polarized Kurdistan, faced with economic difficulties, increasing social unrest and political deadlock will only undermine the Kurdish position.

These unique historical junctures do not come often. After suffering for decades under repressive regimes and a second class status, Kurds are in a position to rewrite their own destiny. This is an opportunity that they dare not waste.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Turkey’s migrant card coerces EU

Relations between the European Union (EU) and Turkey have often been weighed-down by the political, social and religious divide. Turkey has been trying to join the bloc for decades with formal accession talks starting in 2006. However, the non-binding decision by the European Parliament (EP) to suspend accession talks last week was a symbolic blow to relations and also threatened irreparable damage to the vital migrant deal.

The migrant deal agreed in March 2016 served as a landmark between the EU and Turkey. Not only did it stem the flow of thousands Syrian refugees that led to a massive crisis across the EU, but it set the foundation for a reinvigoration of ties.

As part of the agreement, Turkey would move to seal its border and receive financial aid in return. Crucially, Turkey would also get via-free access to the Schengen area and an acceleration of accession talks if certain conditions could be met by Turkey, including amendment of its tough anti-terror laws.

Even after the deal was struck, there was a level of unease between both sides and an increasing negative rhetoric.

However, after the failed coup in July, the Turkish landscape transformed on many fronts. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took drastic action at the coup-plotters and this lead to a wide crackdown of opposition circles and the media which shocked the EU.

This saw an increase in the language of threats on both sides. Ankara was disappointed with lack of a strong EU response to the failed coup and has seemingly ignored most of the criticism from EU over its crackdown and in turn looked to build new bridges with Russian and its eastern frontier as a warning to NATO and the EU.

Erdogan even threatened to extend the state of emergency, stating this is a decision for Turkey whilst telling the EP “What’s it to you… Know your place!”

With Turkey even threatening to reintroduce the death penalty, Turkey clearly lacks the conviction of joining the EU at any price.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim downplayed the decision by the EP as having “no significance as far as we are concerned.” Whilst Erdogan warned the EU that they could reinforce their relations to the East and join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), “The EU has been delaying us for 53 years. Why shouldn’t Turkey be in the Shanghai five?”

Turkey’s vital strategic position as a major power straddling Europe and Asia and serving as a gateway the Middle East meant that it was always going to have huge importance to the EU. But having a predominantly Islamic based Turkey as a full member of what many perceive as a ‘Christian club’ was seemingly a bridge too far.

More importantly, Turkey needed to drastically narrow the gap of EU requirements if it was ever going to seriously become a full member of the EU. And this gap, widening as ever, demonstrates the great difficulties of seeing a country, that borders Iraq, Iran and Syria and with its different values and political landscape of ever joining the EU.

Over the years, EU powers had to manoeuvre around their strategic reliance on Ankara with any criticism of its anti-terror laws, restrictions on freedoms and especially the treatment of its Kurdish population. The arrest of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leaders might have been a final straw that led to the EP vote.

An example of the cautious nature of the EU towards Turkey is the response of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, to the EP decision. On the one hand, he urged EU member to “refrain from giving lessons” to Turkey on the refugee crisis as Turkey was taking a greater burden then Europe on the matter but at same time he warned Turkey that they must abide by migrant deal, and stop the authoritarian treatment of its citizens or be responsible for the consequences.

Whilst acknowledging democratic progress under Erdogan until 2014, Junker beloved that in the past two years, Turkey has “distanced itself from European principles and value.”

An angry Erdogan threatened to “open the border gates” and flood the EU with thousands of migrants if the EP went any further. This would spell obvious disaster for EU and is a scenario that no one in Europe wants to see.

One of the anxious EU leaders was German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she urged both Europeans and Turkey to meet commitments.  Whilst Merkel insisted the agreement is in the mutual interest of both sides, in reality it is Europe without a Plan B and that remains highly concerned by a new influx of refugees that stands to really lose.

However, how long does the EU continue bend in its ideals and freedoms, which it openly acknowledges are not matched in Ankara, in appeasing Turkey?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

US depends on Kurds once more in Raqqa offensive

As the battle to liberate Mosul gathers steam, the US-led coalition facilitated plans for the liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State (IS) with the launch of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates. However, Syria is no Iraq, and the Raqqa offensive adds to the already complex Syrian landscape.

As the operation began, the US-led coalition was seemingly forced to rely on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as its best chance of success.

Highlighting this point, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend stated, “…the only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion.”

The coalition had to act quickly for many reasons: To capitalise on IS losses in Iraq, to prevent retreated IS forces from remobilising and to prevent IS attacks on European soil.

Kyle Orton, Syria and Middle Eastern analyst with the Henry Jackson Society, told Kurdistan 24 that “the US has prioritised timing in the Raqqa operation – it wants it done as quickly as possible – and the tactical reality there is that the YPG is the only force positioned to do it.”

On a phone call to the US President Barack Obama, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted, “we do not need terrorist organisations like the PYD and YPG in the Raqqa operation. Let us work together to sweep Daesh from Raqqa.”

But in defiance of frequently harsh rhetoric from Ankara owed to the US reliance and support of YPG forces, the US has decided to go with the Kurds again.

The US finds itself in an awkward corner; it has acknowledged the sensitives of Ankara but at the same time does not have a plethora of choices at a critical juncture. Further, it has tried to appease Turkey into playing a role in the Raqqa offensive alongside the Kurds, but Turkey rejected the idea.

Nabeel Khoury, an analyst at Atlantic Council’s Hariri Centre for Middle East At, told Kurdistan 24 that YPG and Ankara could be convinced to work together against a common enemy in IS “with good diplomacy and inducements”. According to Khoury, “the two friends of the U.S. will have to work together, albeit in limited and prescribed roles for this campaign to succeed.”

However, Orton believes “it is highly doubtful that the Turks and the YPG can be convinced to work together. The announcement of the Raqqa operation is itself a means of the YPG gaining a political advantage over Turkey. The interests of Turkey and the YPG simply vary too widely to imagine a convergence that would allow cooperation.”

This begs the question, could the US forgo the Kurds and rely on the Turkish-backed forces?

Any Turkish troops leading a charge into Raqqa would inevitably cut through Kurdish-held territory sparking the possibility of conflict with the Kurds, which would jeopardise Kurdish cooperation with the coalition.

Syrian rebels are too weak without Turkish backing, and in reality, their priority remains the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and aiding their fellow rebels under siege in Aleppo.

At the same time, Raqqa is not a top priority for the YPG. Had they had a choice, Kurds would have preferred to focus on expanding their territory westwards towards Afrin, instead of an Arab-dominated city that they cannot hold.

The Kurds have sought assurances that they are not stabbed in the back by Turkey in sacrificing forces for the Raqqa assault.

The US-led coalition has openly acknowledged that they would prefer an Arab force, as does Turkey, to lead the charge into Raqqa with the Kurdish forces mainly working to seal off the city. However, such a force does not exist and training one will take time.

The US general, Joseph Dunford, acknowledged “we always knew the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa. What we are working on right now is to find the right mix of forces for the operation”. But it is proving almost impossible, especially since Turkey remains reluctant.

European Ministers such as Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, have warned that the liberation of the Raqqa would have to be done by an “essentially Arab” force to avoid a local backlash.

In essence, the coalition has little choice but to continue to rely on Kurdish forces. However, as YPG seemingly gathers more strategic strength and perhaps more territory, this opens the door to further violence and instability once IS are gone.

First Published: Kurdistan 24