Tag Archives: Assad

How Obama’s red line fiasco breathed new life into the Syrian regime

the U.S., U.K. and France’s retaliatory airstrike on April 21, two weeks after alleged chemical attacks by Bashar Assad’s forces in Douma, was to deter the Syrian regime or force a change of mood, then it looks like a failure. Regime forces are relentlessly continuing their fierce quest to drive out opposition forces in remaining enclaves around Damascus.

As a team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) finally arrived in Douma on April 17 to investigate the alleged chemical attacks, the U.S. and its allies had long made up their minds and attributed blame to the regime.

U.S. President Donald Trump promised to make Assad pay a “big price” for the chemical attacks that left over 40 people dead. However, the fierce rhetoric and threats on social media came well short of eventual military action.

While the missile strikes were greater in number than those ordered by Washington in April 2017, when Western powers were again adamant that only Assad could be responsible for the fatal chemical attack in Khan Sheikoun, the U.S.-led response this time around seemed more sensitive to avoid any action that would incense Russia, or worse still, hit Russian personnel.

This view seems to be confirmed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who stated, “We told them where our red lines were, including the geographical red lines… The results have shown that they haven’t crossed those lines.”

Trump hailed the operation, predominantly aimed at destroying Assad’s chemical weapons development capability, as “mission accomplished,” however, this is where the ironies are hard to ignore. Five years after Assad brazenly crossed then U.S. President Barack Obama’s infamous red line on chemical attacks, the fact that U.S. is still reacting to such scenarios says much about the flawed deal in 2013 between Washington and Moscow that was supposed to see Syria dispose of all of its chemical weapon stockpiles in exchange for halting military action.

Obama clearly set a red line in August 2012 for military intervention in Syria when he stated, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Yet, just days after Assad’s deadly attack in Ghouta, Obama quickly backtracked and even stated in September 2013, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”

Fast forward to 2018, Assad is not only still in power, but also very much in the ascendency with significant support from his Russian and Iranian allies. Trump was critical of Obama’s failure to enforce redlines, and vowed that when he set a redline he meant it.

This pledge placed Trump in a difficult corner after the most recent chemical attack by Assad, but U.S has seemingly little appetite for regime change or any greater military campaign that sees it sucked in deeper into the Syrian war or thrust into a direct showdown with Moscow.

The real time for action that would have greatly swayed the Syrian war and resulted in a much more rapid settlement of the conflict was in 2013. Obama greatly misjudged his shifting red lines and the effects of the so-called deal that would remove Assad’s chemical weapon capability.

At the time, Obama was quick to hail the deal that averted the need for military intervention. Meanwhile, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was equally upbeat, stating in 2014, “With respect to Syria, we struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.”

Now, any outcome from the OPCW, who cannot attribute blame but only confirm chemical weapons use, will not change the calculus on the ground. The United Nations Security Council is in a state of paralysis from reaching any meaningful diplomatic agreement, let alone agreeing on real action, due to Russia’s ardent support for Assad.

The OPCW investigation into the April 2017 attacks had little effect on dissuading Assad. Ahead of the OPCW team’s delayed arrival, there was fierce rhetoric between the U.S. and Russia over alleged cover-ups at the site of the attacks.

Heather Nauert, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, stated, “Russian officials have worked with the Syrian regime, we believe, to sanitize the locations of the suspected attacks and remove incriminating evidence of chemical weapons use.”

However, Russia and Syria remained resolute that the opposition staged the attacks with the support of the West. Either way, Russia remains in the driver’s seat in Syria and looks to prop up the regime and its strategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean at any cost. On the other hand, U.S. policy in Syria seems disjointed and unpredictable.

Just weeks ago, Trump vowed that U.S. forces would be withdrawn soon; then subsequent statements from U.S. officials backtracked and indicated a more long-term stay in Syria.

As for Assad, with the firepower of his allies at hand, he will quickly mop up the remaining opposition strongholds around Damascus, Homs, and beyond. Unfortunately, for the long-suffering Syrian population, there seems to be no short-term end in sight to the brutal war that has devastated millions of lives.

First Published: Daily Sabah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Russian support and “red carpet” welcomes underscore realities on fate of Assad

Shortly after what the United States deemed as a “red carpet welcome” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after his symbolic visit to Moscow, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov as well as the foreign ministers of Turkey and Saudi Arabia met for talks in Vienna.

With Russia joining the military fray in Syria in recent weeks, this has transformed the calculus on the ground. Whilst Russia has insisted the target is Islamic State and “terrorist” groups, there is no doubt for Russia that the majority of anti-Assad rebel groups fall into the latter category, with Russian air strikes tipping the military balance at a delicate time.

Russian intervention has a number of goals but none more so than to ensure the survival of Assad, preserve Russian strategic interests in the Mediterranean and enshrine the role of Moscow as a key player in the Middle East. In this light, Assad’s recent visit to Moscow, even as Russia reaffirmed the importance of a political settlement to the crippling war, is designed to showcase their commitment that they will not relinquish Assad as part of any transitional government as the West and most of the regional powers demand.

There is clearly a lot of common ground between the US and Russia – keeping the country unified, promoting a secular and inclusive government and eliminating extremist groups. But even that common ground is nothing new. It’s the role of Assad that continues to plague transitional talks even as Lavrov condemned the “fixation” of these countries on the fate of Assad.

Russian and Iran have long insisted that it is up to the Syrian people to decide the fate of Assad, but even as Assad may be open to new presidential elections, it lacks credibility and value if they can only be held in Assad dominated areas once more and when most of the country is in turmoil.

However, there has been a reality brewing for several months in Western circles, that for talks on a political settlement to really succeed, the US and its allies have to ultimately accept that Assad will play a key part in any transitional government. If there was any doubt in that reality, then it has certainly been quashed with Russia’s active involvement in the conflict.

There has been literally dozens of round of talks on resolving the Syrian crisis and almost all have stopped at the fate of Assad. Even the much lauded Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012 suffered as it failed to clarify the role of Assad.

Assad and his allies do not pretend that they can ever assume control of greater Syria, the Russian air-strikes and the counter offensives on the ground by regime, Iran and Hezbollah forces is to ensure that Assad negotiates from a position of strength or at a minimum keeps the Alawite rump-state intact.

Kerry and Lavrov expressed a common goal in defeating IS, but in reality Russian will not seek to bail the US and its allies and actively eliminate IS only for those forces currently busy with IS turning on Damascus once more.

With the brutal Syrian war approaching 5 years, with thousands of deaths and millions displaced, facing the reality that West and regional powers may have to work with Assad in the short-term may be a small price to pay.

After all, what choice do they have? For any upping of rebel support, Russian and Iranian have proven their willingness to counter that in due measure. Assad has proven his staying power. It’s becoming a fruitless cycle and clearly there will be no military victor at this stage of the game.

Even most anti-Assad forces realize even if Assad is removed from the equation, the state institutions must be kept intact.

The ultimate question is how long will Assad be part of a transitional government, months or even years?

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Russia’s new military drive in Syria – the making or breaking of peace?

There seems little hope that the devastating Syrian war will be ending anytime soon. Vested interest in the conflict from Russia, Iran, US, Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and numerous other powers has turned Syria into a proxy playground with the end result of severe destruction, a deepening humanitarian crisis and a country at a point of no return.

Each side has much to gain and much more to lose in the deadly civil war with the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad overshadowed by another side war against the Islamic State (IS).

Fighter jets of various nationalities roam the crowded skies each with seemingly different agendas. And now Russia, who has been a key backer of Assad alongside Iran, is expanding its own sphere of influence in Syria.

The extensive Russian supply of military hardware and advisers has been a key factor of Assad’s evident stamina in the conflict. However, Russian support is not for love of the Assad regime or indeed Syrians – it is for their strategic interest in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean that want to preserve at all costs.

Tartous, in the Alawite heartlands of Syria, is home to Russia’s only naval base in the Middle East. If the Assad’s regime was to suddenly crumble it would hamper Russian interests on many levels not least its military presence in the Middle East.

The weakening hand of Assad as an alliance of Syrian rebels increasingly knock on the doors of Latakia is no doubt a key trigger for Russia’s extensive military buildup around this key city in recent weeks, which has includes hundreds of marines, equipment and tactical Russian fighter jets.

Russia is seemingly determined to add to it naval base by building a new airbase. The Russian expansion in recent days naturally sent alarm bells in Washington. Russia is issuing a bold statement that it will not forfeit its strategic interests in Syria or abandon Assad at any cost whilst their interests are intertwined.

The sense of reality from the US has prompted the first military-to-military talks between US Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu in over a year.

Whether the Russian role will deepen the conflict or hasten attempts to end find an elusive settlement remains to be seen.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has focused on the notion of “common ground” in recent days. And it is this common ground that will go a long way to deciding the ongoing severity and length of the Syrian war.

Russia’s active involvement could on the one hand bolster the campaign again IS that it has long insisted as a common goal but there are wider ramifications. Russia is unlikely to join a coalition when their ally in Assad is sidelined and threatened to be removed from power.

By moving to consolidate its presence in Latakia, Russia has set redlines to any rebel encroachment of this area as well as protecting its naval port.

Such redlines affectively partition Syria along the current battle fronts that may serve the basis for any future negotiations.

Although further talks are expected between Russia and US in the coming weeks, with a possible meeting between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a UN General Assembly at the end of September, the Russia position on Assad is unlikely to shift.

Russia will not abandon Assad and their new military adventure reaffirms this commitment. This pushes the peace initiative to end the war firmly in the hands of Russia.

The US and its allies have to accept flexibility around the future of Assad with an agreement that Assad “eventually” leaves as part of a transition.

Kerry’s statement in recent days may be aligned to this reality, “our focus remains on destroying ISIL and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria, which we believe cannot be achieved with a long-term presence of Assad.”

Russia has claimed it would be even open to the idea of supporting the Assad regime with combat troops if requested by Damascus. Obama may have condemned Russia military moves as a “strategy that’s doomed to failure” but as their willingness to negotiate has shown, it must keep Russia onside.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

US softening stance on Assad epitomizes failed foreign policy

In February, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura controversially claimed in a press that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “…is part of the solution”.

Then a short while later in March, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, caused more controversy when declaring in an interview that “we have to negotiate in the end” with Assad.

While both statements resulted in swift backtracking amidst Syrian opposition and a regional outcry, it appears that Kerry and de Mistura merely uttered a growing acknowledgement in the West and particularly Washington.

In spite of later assurances that the US line on Assad had not changed – that he had no role in Syria’s future and had lost legitimacy to rule, Kerry’s comments merely added to growing scepticism and frustration in Turkey, with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu likening shaking hands with Assad to shaking hands with Hitler.

US President Barrack Obama, once labelled groups such as the Islamic State (IS) as minor players. Yet a grand coalition, frantic responses as IS steam-rolled through large parts of Syria and Iraq and hundreds of air strikes later, the name on the lips of Washington is IS and not Assad.

Turkey which has been at increasing loggerheads with the US and become disillusioned and bitter with Obama’s foreign policy, finds itself in a difficult predicament as an “official” part of the coalition, yet finds differences with the US over Assad a bridge too far to assume a more active role. In turn, the line from Washington is that Turkey has not stepped up to the plate as a key NATO ally.

Failed US foreign policy

Regardless of the official tone, there is now increasing realisation that whilst Assad is part of the problem, he is also part of the solution.

When Assad alleged that there was indirect contact with the coalition over the operations against IS, the US quickly denied this insisting that Assad’s comments be “taken with a grain of salt.” But the situation must also be judged within the new grains of reality – Assad did not give up power when the regime was on its knees, let alone when they are relatively secure and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is rapidly splintering.

This says much about the sorry state of Western foreign policy. Four and half years into a brutal civil war that has killed over 200,000 and displaced millions under the hands of a regime that clung to power by all means possible, to be in a situation where Assad and his institution is needed to prop up a Syria under the evident threat of a Jihadist takeover, tells its own story.

Obama’s Syrian policy failed to see the bigger picture, a conflict hijacked by Jihadists that was spreading fast across the borders of Syria and that once the bushfire started the effort to contain it, let alone to put it out, would far exceed any efforts in its prevention in the first place. Syria was very much the fertile Jihadist garden which allowed the IS seeds to flourish with Assad’s blessing.

Assad continuously broke red-lines that we quickly reset into greyer lines by Washington. Finally, a largely reluctant US intervened – when yet another red-line surfaced, IS banging on the doors of Erbil and Baghdad.

Strained US-Turkey ties

The lack of intervention in the first pace and now a focus away from Assad has infuriated an Ankara adamant that tackling Assad must be part of any operation against IS. The US has insisted that its hands are full with the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria, but for Turkey, increasingly fed-up with more foot-dragging by Washington, the road to defeating IS can only run through Damascus..

The softening of the US stance towards Assad is hardly through a plethora of options on the table. Put simply, giving the choice between Assad and IS, US would choose Assad over and over again. But choosing the lesser of two “evils” hardly bodes well for American credibility.

From the long-standing assertion that the time has come for Assad to “step aside” to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statements that the time was now for Assad to “to think about the consequences”, the tone changes are subtle but nevertheless discernible.

Kerry gave tentative support for a largely unsuccessful Russian peace initiative between Syrian opposition figures and the regime which saw large segments of the key Syrian opposition figures boycott the talks amidst distrust and skepticism. The fact it was Russia, a chief backer of Assad, leading the peace charge with US nowhere to be seen, highlighted that Washington sees prospects of a real breakthrough as slim and that Assad’s removal is not a priority.

Turkey remains reluctant to meet the Coalitions demands of using Turkish soil for air raids or for Turkey to assist directly in the fight against IS. Turkish bases are highly strategic for a successful campaign against IS, especially Mosul.

Erdogan has shown himself as a dogged, independent and at times unpredictable ally that will not be pushed around by the US or European powers. Erdogan warned months ago prior to a repair mission by US Vice President Joe Biden that the Turkish position will not change unless the US can strike real compromise. The repair mission was ironically by a man who drew the ire of Erdogan with suggestions that Ankara had encouraged the flow of Jihadists along the border.

“From the no-fly zone to the safety zone and training and equipping – all these steps have to be taken now,” insisted Erdogan previously, before reiterating a common stance “The coalition forces have not taken those steps we asked them for…” and that as a result his stance will not change.

With such a significant shared border with Syria, home to the main Syrian opposition groups and the host of millions of refugees, Turkey finds itself at the centre of the conflict one way or another. Yet its lack of an agreed policy with the US speaks volumes on the state of what was already a diminishing relationship.

Turkish annoyance at their US partners could not have been demonstrated better than over the Kurdish town of Kobane. As Erdogan continuously downplayed the significance of the Kobane, the small dusty town unknown to much of the world become a symbol of the coalition fight against IS and one which the US deemed its credibility would be judged.

Kobane was not any Syrian town. It was part of the newly declared autonomous cantons of the main Syrian Kurdish party (PYD) which Ankara accuses of been an arm of the PKK. To the anger of Turkey, the US even provided ammunition and supplies to the Syrian Kurdish rebels with signs of growing cooperation.

The bigger picture

Even if IS is defeated in Syrian, which could take years, the US needs to quickly agree on a plan to deal with the root-cause of IS – Assad.

A grand bargain with Russian and Iran may well be possible to see that regime apparatus remains in place with Assad ‘eventually’ gone. However, such terms can no longer be on the unrealistic Genève Communique of 2012.

Even the new US initiative to train thousands of so called moderate Syrian rebels in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia starting in early spring, is fraught with difficulties. The US made clear that goal of the initiative was to empower rebels to go on the offensive against IS and set the scene for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Syria. Assad was not even mentioned.

But so fractured is the Syrian landscape that picking out the moderates and vetting individuals is a painstaking task. Indeed, many moderates have slipped into the hands of new Islamist alliances in Syria bewildered at the lack of Western support. And what about the appetite of any newly trained rebels turning their guns on IS under Western pressure whilst Assad, their ultimate priority, simply regroups and gains strengths in the background?

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Ankara with its new independent and assertive role in the Middle East can simply wait on US policy that it remains unconvinced with, as it continues to harbor millions of refugees and an unstable border.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Once the Islamic State is defeated, what is the long-term strategy to prevent IS mark 2?

Almost 6 months since the Islamic State (IS) seized large swathes of territory Iraq in a rapid advance, the war on IS remains as fierce as ever in Iraq and Syria.

The obvious goal is to defeat IS but sheer military might aside, what is the long-term strategy to keeping IS defeated? Initially, IS sprung-up in Syria with limited influence before their support base and military capability snow-balled into an avalanche.

One way or another, with increasing air-strikes, military supplies to the Peshmerga and other anti-IS forces and a growing international coalition, IS will be defeated. But without long-term cross-border measures and strategy, could IS spring up again in the future, just when their defeat is celebrated?

The lack of a long-term vision or consideration of the bigger picture could not be clearer than in Syria. Syria was very much the fertile Jihadist garden which allowed the IS seeds to flourish. This was only exacerbated by a lack of a clear and consistent Western foreign policy and in particular reluctance of the U.S. to get involved.

As Bashar al-Assad scathed through the population, crossing various red-lines along the way, it paved the way for hardline sentiment to dominate and IS took full advantage. At one point, IS was even tolerated or directly and indirectly supported by some powers as they became a tool to the toppling of Assad. But IS eyes were not fixated on regime change in Damascus and in fact Assad and IS had mutual interests.

Now the battle in Syria rages on and nowhere depicts the current ferocity and pro-longed nature of the battle against IS better than in Kobane. Hundreds of air strikes and dozens of Kurdish sacrifices later, IS was dealt a blow but remained a determined foe.

Even if IS is defeated in Syria, what then for root-cause of IS, the Assad regime? There is much talk of a political transition in Syria but this has been much of the same tone since the Geneva Communique of 2012. Assad did not leave his throne when the regime was at its weakest let alone when he has regained ascendancy and moderate rebel forces are diminishing fast.

In Iraq, long-time disenfranchised Sunnis welcomed and some tribes openly supported the IS onslaught in Iraq. IS may have hijacked the Sunni revolution but nevertheless the seeds of animosity and conflict were sown long-before between bitter Sunnis and a Shiite-led Baghdad government where the fuels of sectarianism were increased by the marginalization policies of Nouri al-Maliki.

Like the deadly battle with al-Qaeda in the several years before IS, where the grounds are fertile fundamentalism will always grow.

Sunnis are growing increasingly fed up of IS and some tribes have openly fought against them, but doubts remain as to whether a true national and representative government will ever merge in Iraq. The recent government of Haider al-Abadi has patched some cracks but does not account for the many other Sunni groups and tribes that remain unconvinced and hostile.

One factor that illustrates the Iraqi difficulty in striking a semblance of unity is a lack of cross-national armed forces. The sectarian-leaning armed forces were long viewed with distrust by Sunnis and Kurds and quickly collapsed under the IS onslaught. In fact it was the Shiite militias and in particular the autonomous Peshmerga that stepped up to the plate.

One key product of the IS battle is the growing erosion of Middle Eastern borders but also state relations and foreign policies becoming much more intertwined. Gone are the days that states can keep regional conflicts at arm’s length and pursue unilateral policies.

Passive attitudes in the end do greater harm on one’s soil. Since 2011, many regional states and Western powers tried to stay out of the Syrian civil war.

However, peace in any country can only be achieved with cross collaboration across the borders. Whilst it’s not quite the equivalent of the European Union, it’s the grass-roots of such unions in the Middle East. Governments must work together, unify policies and seek common security objectives through pacts if they are to succeed.

One needs to look no further than Turkey. Just a few years ago, it was watching anxiously at the rapid development of a Kurdistan Region on its borders and had set its own red-lines.

Just this week Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pledged increased military support and training for the Peshmerga with the prospect of providing heavy weapons to the Kurdistan Region.

Of course, it doesn’t meant that Turkish nationalist anxieties have evaporated, one only needs to look at the Turkish hesitancy over support of Kobane over links of the Kurdish forces and the main party to the PKK.

But Turkey cannot turn a blind eye to the conflicts on its door step or to the growing Syrian Kurdish autonomy. Turkey’s security and political stability will not endure by strong relations with one side of the border and animosity and distrust on another.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

Prospects of Geneva 2, Syrian Kurdish Autonomy and why Syria will never be whole again

As representatives of the Syrian regime and the Syrian National Coalition met in Geneva, the prospects of an agreement to end the bitter 3 year civil war that has killed over 130,000 and displaced millions were dim.

The fiery exchanges at the opening of the conference in Montreaux and the deep reluctance to even meet face-to-face, never the mind the entrenched positions over the fate of Bashar al-Assad, underscored the challenges of securing any meaningful agreement.

Yet in so many ways, getting the opposing sides in the same room was an accomplishment in itself. With every bullet fired, every air strike launched and every death recorded, the animosity only deepens and reconciliation is pushed a step further. The profound emotional scarring cannot be patched in a few days in Geneva, but let there be no doubt, the regime and opposition have no choice but to reach a peaceful settlement sooner or later.

If there was a military solution it would have been achieved months ago. 3 years on, with the forces in a stalemate and with most of Syria lying in ruins and blood, no matter the eventual outcome, how can anyone truly feel victorious? What will they govern with some cities in literal ruin and billions of dollars needed to reconstruct the country?

More importantly, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Syria can ever be whole again. Too much damage has been done and the polarization is now too great for Syria to ever return to any sense of unity.

In this light, it was symbolic and largely missed due to the intense focus on Geneva, that the Syrian Kurds declared administrative autonomy and a provincial governance on the eve of the conference.

The Kurds who have had relative self-rule since July 2012 are increasingly working towards safeguarding and formalizing their new found autonomy. The Kurdish area in Syria, or Rojava as most proudly refer to, is set to be ruled under 3 cantons, Kobani, Efrin and Jazira with an Autonomous Governing Council in each region.

Kurds are already preparing a local constitution and have their eyes on holding elections early this year as well as taking many steps to resume normal life in the region. Anyone would think this is taking place in a distant land, but this is taking place in the same country ruled by Assad and gripped by a deadly civil war.

The growing Kurdish confidence and assertiveness having successfully warded off Islamist forces, naturally unnerves Turkey and other regional players. The Syrian Kurdistan region is effectively governed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) with links to the PKK and protected by the People Defense Units. This only adds to Turkish anxiety.

Yet with the Syrian Kurds stamping their authority, it was ironic that in Geneva the Kurds were refused a separate delegation or had any specific mention. Regardless of any political deal in Geneva, the Kurds are not about to take a step back into the dark days of the past and relinquish their hard fought gains.

With Alawites weary of Sunni backlash in any post-Assad era, there will almost certainly be a de facto sectarian delineation in Syria to add to the ethnic lines that the Kurdish self-rule promises.

The only way Syria can be truly patched is a loose federation where Sunni, Kurds or Alawites govern their own regions.

The problem in Syria is that the opposition is not represented by one group but a spectrum of forces with differing agendas. Take the SNC, they only agreed to attend the peace talks after dozens of their members walked out in protest and even if anything is agreed long-term, they have insufficient sway with the fighters on the ground.

This introduces the likely scenario that if a broader peace agreement was achieved, it would never be comprehensive and thus there is every chance that the opposition and regime forces may turn their guns on other forces, in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other Islamic groups that will never accept or recognize any agreement.

Unfortunately for Syria, the fighting has a long way to go before it reaches its course, regardless of any symbolic breakthrough in Geneva.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Disunity weakens the Syrian Kurdish hand in Geneva

When it comes to pivotal international conferences, particularly in Switzerland, the Kurds hardly have a colourful record. It was the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 that cruelly deprived the Kurds of an independent homeland that was promised as part of the earlier Treaty of Sevres in 1920. Today the Kurds are slowly regaining control of their destiny, but still suffer from the fate enforced upon them by world powers whilst they were deprived of a voice.

With this in mind, the upcoming Geneva II conference that foreign powers hope will lead to a peaceful political solution to the bloody Syrian civil war is an important platform for the Syrian Kurds.

Yet in spite of intense negotiations in Erbil to mend the Kurdish divide and unite the Kurdish stand in Geneva, unity appears as elusive as ever and it’s becoming increasingly evident that the Kurds will send two separate delegations to the talks, and worryingly one with the Syrian regime delegation.

After decades of repression and confounded to the shadows of the Syrian state, the Syrian Kurds have been great benefactors of the intra-Arab turmoil and afforded a unique chapter in their history.

Yet a lack of unity has been a severe handicap that has threatened to undermine the new Kurdish dawn and historical juncture.

Regional jockeying over Rojava between the PKK, Turkey, Kurdistan Region and neighbouring powers has added to the tension.

The talks in Erbil between the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is more closely aligned with Massaud Barzani and is expected to attend Geneva talks with the opposition, and the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), which is spear-headed by the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) that refused to join the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), failed to produce a conclusive agreement despite earlier promise.

The Erbil Agreement of 2012 which united the Kurdish ranks with the establishment of the Kurdish Supreme Committee has all but eroded.

The PYD, who recently declared autonomy, is more closely aligned with the PKK and has been accused of monopolising power and has been the subject of strong criticism from the Kurdistan government,.

The Kurdish differences overshadow the fragile nature of the Kurdish gains in Syria. Thousands of Kurds continue to suffer in Syria and thousands more have sought refuge in the Kurdistan Region while fierce battles continue against Islamist forces.

The ideal position for the Kurds is to attend as a separate united delegation – this sends the strong message that the Kurds are a factor within their own right and not merely as a component of opposition struggle. In other words, fighting for your rights in a broader coalition dilutes the Kurdish cause by the leaving the Kurdish position to one of minority rights. The Kurds were often treated as second-class by Arabs in Syria and deserve a position as a distinct Syrian component. This will ensure Kurds are a separate topic where a separate solution is required with the ultimate goal of enshrining autonomy.

Of course, offering the Kurds such a position at the negotiating tables is likely to be blocked by Turkey, the US and some regional powers.

The need for a united and strong Kurdish position in Geneva is not that Geneva II is likely to herald the lofty goals expected. In contrary, a stubborn regime and a highly disjointed Syrian opposition are unlikely to strike an elusive political transition with such wide starting positions, but such a Kurdish position would be symbolic and send a strong message to the world that Syrian Kurdish rights and autonomy is not the end goal but a starting position.

The recent Erbil talks must continue with hope of bridging gaps, ensuring a share of power and decision making in Rojava, easing the suffering of the population through the opening of the border crossings and above all putting Kurdish national interests above any party or individual interests.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Chilling echoes of Halabja in Syria as the world watches on

The tragic and deplorable chemical attack on Damascus on 21st August 2013 by the Syrian regime brought echoes of the unforgettable Halabja massacre in 1988. Over 5000 innocent Kurdish civilians dropped where they were in an attack that crossed all boundaries, with thousands more injured and suffering life-long ailments.

Yet, as the shocking as the chemicals attacks are in Syria, some of the world looks on with doubt that Bashar al-Assad’s regime would perpetrate such action, even accusing the rebels of “fabricating” the event pointing to the timing of the attacks with UN weapons inspectors having just arrived in the country on their long awaited mandate, mere miles from the affected zone.

But a dictatorship is just that, it will not stop at nothing to cling to power or realize narrow minded goals. Terror is a rule not an exception. More importantly, why would the Syrian regime hoard some of the largest chemical weapon stockpiles in the world if it was afraid to use them? The US and most EU powers have already confirmed the use of chemical weapons by the regime during the bitter conflict.

Going back to Halabja, the West knew very well the chemical might and arsenal of Saddam, after all they were his allies against Tehran. Saddam’s forces reverted to chemical weapons on a number of occasions to desperately repel advancing Iranian forces. The regime had already destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages, terrorized the Kurdish population and committed mass murder, why would they hesitate at other means to annihilate the Kurds?

However, strategic interests of the West at times play a more crucial role in foreign policy than real justice or protection of human rights. In the aftermath of the Halabja massacre, Western governments and media were initially muted. The US intelligence agencies even blamed Iran for the Halabja attack. Ironically, Halabja was used 15 years later by the US and the coalition to justify the overthrow of Saddam.

In Syria, the ever thick and moving “red line” of US President Barrack Obama has been crossed many times. However, Washington has done all it can to avoid becoming embroiled in the complex Syrian conflict.

The fact that the Syrian regime would even contemplate such attacks speaks volumes about their perceived threat of international intervention. This sets an even more dangerous precedent for other so called “rogue states” keeping a close eye on Western response.

If the US and its EU allies finally act, it would be because they are dragged and shoved unwillingly than any real passion for action. Over 100,000 have already died and human suffering in Syria has become an acceptable norm without any concrete international response.

Of course, the dangers of regional spillover will intensify with any Western military response and the risk of an uncertain and Islamist led post-Assad Syria hardly soothes Western hesitancy, but one must place politics, sectarianism and strategic interests firmly to one side when hundreds of innocent children are suffocating to death under toxic gases.

If the Syrian regime has a grain of credibility left then it must urgently allow UN inspectors access to the scene. If they are innocent, then what have they to hide?

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc