Tag Archives: IS

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

Turkey, Kurds and ISIS: Who is fighting whom?

As Turkey finally comes off the fence and decides to take part in the ongoing collective fight against ISIS more actively, its decision to suspend the reconciliation process and open a simultaneous front against the PKK has costly ramifications

For many, the deadly Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) bombing of the Kurdish town of Suruç in Turkey was a long-delayed wake-up call for Turkey. Thirty-two students were killed and over 100 injured in the suicide attack that sparked public outrage. Directly or indirectly, Turkey was already a key player in the Syrian civil war. However, this week spelled a new phase in Turkey’s policy on ISIS and one that will have large ramifications in Syria and also Turkey.

Turkey largely employed a “no peace, no war” stance on ISIS, and such a standpoint was influenced by the increasing autonomy of the Syrian Kurds who have been pitched in deadly battles against ISIS forces. For the Turkish government, the threat of the Democratic Union party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), was also of a concern than an ISIS that effectively contained Kurdish ambitions. As Turkey enters a new phase against ISIS with a series of airstrikes with the agreement for the U.S.-led coalition to use the İncirlik Air Base and also the provision of a buffer zone that Ankara has so fiercely insisted, these events have long been in motion, but the bombing in Suruç was the final catalyst.

ISIS, which was already feeling the heat from a Turkish crackdown and the onset of tighter security measures, something that the U.S. has long insisted that Turkey was not doing enough of, sent a number of messages with the recent bombing in Suruç. The tragic death of so many Kurdish youths stoked the fire among many Kurds who were already skeptical of Turkey’s Syrian stance, which they deemed as being designed to undermine the Kurds. The anger and protests that erupted was a clear message that many felt that Ankara had brought this on them with months of dithering owing to their much deeper anxiety regarding a de-facto Kurdish state developing on their southern border. The bombing in Suruç by an ethnic Kurd was orchestrated in order to warn the Kurds that ISIS ideology appeals to deeper than ethnic lines that the Kurds had used so well in their defense of Kobani and other Kurdish towns in Syria. It also stirred debate among some locals of who are the protectors of the Kurds, Ankara or the PKK?This very point was exposed as the PKK retaliated with revenge killings of police officers. ISIS aimed to relieve the heat on the Syrian battlefronts with the YPG by shifting focus further north.

Turkey has always maintained that they see no difference between ISIS and the PKK, and there is no doubt that the PKK and Syrian Kurdish ambitions were at the forefront of the “package” agreed on between Ankara and Washington that has led to the new Turkish attitude. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that safe zones would “form naturally” once the areas under ISIS control were cleared. This is firstly against ISIS, and secondly against any YPG expansion west of Jarablus, which Ankara has openly dreaded. Turkish involvement deeper in Syria will certainly focus on keeping Syrian Kurdish ambitions in check, but this leads to a series of deadly double games that may ultimately backfire. The cease-fire with the PKK has been shaky to say the least, but in spite of increasing skirmishes over the past several months it has remained intact. As Turkey launched a series of airstrikes on PKK strongholds in northern Iraq, the door was swung firmly open to a new dawn of confrontation.

Turkey has responded with a strong message to PKK attacks in recent days in conjunction with its attacks on ISIS positions to keep true to its word that it does not see any difference between the two groups. However, this is a dangerous game that could spectacularly backfire. ISIS has kept a largely neutral view of Turkey, but this has long vanished. After hundreds of arrests and now airstrikes, the building of concrete walls along its border and allowing the U.S.-led coalition to use Turkish military bases, Turkey has finally come off the fence in the fight against ISIS with all the repercussions this will now bring.

But simultaneously opening a second front against the PKK is under question. After decades of violence, thousands of deaths and great animosity, a return to the dark days of the past will lead to a new and unprecedented polarization of Turkey. The Kurdish question in the Middle East has moved on a great deal since the harrowing days of conflict in the 1990s. The reconciliation process was a bold and welcome step by Erdoğan in 2012. And only lasting peace in Turkey can ever be the way forward.

Reform packages and greater rights for the Kurds in any new constitution should not be tied to their PKK dilemma. Not all Kurds are PKK sympathizers and many Kurds become trapped between alienation, harsh government policies and the PKK. Turkey can continue cutting branches, but without addressing the root of the problem the vicious PKK-Ankara struggle will continue for more decades with more bloodshed. This is also true for the Syrian Kurds. How about the dozen or so other Kurdish political parties? Kurdish autonomy in Syria is unlikely to reverse and Turkey must adjust to this new reality. Any confrontation with the YPD or continued Turkish policy against Syrian Kurds will simply turn greater Kurdish sentiment across the divide against Turkey.

Immediately after the Turkish attacks on the PKK, the White House urged the continuation of the reconciliation process and a de-escalation of violence, but also stressed Turkey’s right to self-defense. But the situation becomes more complicated when the most effective fighting force in Syria against ISIS are indeed the YPG. The U.S. continues to list the PKK as a terrorist organization, and yet ironically enjoys increasing strategic ties with the YPG. Seldom does such a precarious web of inter-relations remain intact for long. Turkey is at war with ISIS and the PKK, the PKK is at war with ISIS and Turkey, the U.S. is at war with ISIS and is helped by the PKK, Turkey is helping the U.S. fight ISIS, the PKK are helping Kurdish forces in the Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey is enjoying good relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government. The complex map is riddled with ironies and contradictions and the scene is set for greater fallouts and casualties in these relations.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Bombing in Suruc a long delayed wake-up call for Turkey

The deadly Islamic State (IS) suicide bombing in Suruc that killed 32 and wounded over 100 others was a much delayed wake-up call for Turkey.

All the more tragic was that the gathering by the young student activists in the Kurdish town was aimed at taking part in a rebuilding mission over the border in the war-scarred town of Kobane.

Directly or indirectly, Turkey was a key factor in the Syrian civil war long before the events of the past week. The vast majority of militants and weapons, from groups supported by the US, Turkey and the neighboring countries to IS have come through Turkey?s long porous border.

Many in the west including US, have long complained that Turkey could do more to stem the flow of fighters and weapons but Turkey has preferred a policy of no peace, no war with IS. Ankara has long disputed the US led coalition?s strategy in Syria which is focused on IS and not the regime of Bashar al-Assad which Turkey deems as the real the seeds of IS.

More importantly, Turkish eyes have been firmly rooted on the deadly struggle of Syrian Kurds against IS with the Syrian Kurds enjoying greater autonomy and a strategic role as part of the campaign against IS.

Turkey refused to intervene on the side of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) when Kobane was on the brink of been overrun by IS viewing the PKK affiliated YPG forces as no different to IS.

Sooner or later, the keeping on the fence policy would backfire on Turkey and this is symbolized by the brutal bombing in Suruc.

Suruc was significant not just due to the unfortunate deaths of so many students, it was a red-line for Turks and Kurds alike across Turkey. Mass protests across Turkey placed even greater pressure on the government.

But such is the nature of Turkey?s precarious post-election political climate that even a message of unity could not be agreed. Suruc was used by various sides for political gains.

IS targeting of Suruc was not coincidental and was designed to send a number of messages. As a largely Kurdish town, IS sent a warning to the Kurds that their struggle is not limited to Syria, it aimed to shift the focus of the IS-Kurdish conflict further north after a string of IS defeats in recent weeks in Syria.

The fact that the IS bomber was a young ethnic Kurd was orchestrated to demonstrate that the IS ideology spans beyond the ethnic lines that Kurds have successfully used to spurn IS attacks.

Almost immediately after the attack, PKK linked rebels killed two policeman in Celanpinar for allegedly collaborating with IS militants.

The peace process in Turkey was already developing large cracks, with Turkish policy on Syrian Kurds serving as a major dent. IS is attempting to reignite the PKK armed struggle on a larger scale.

As town of Suruc has barely recovered from the tragedy, the message that resonates with the locals is who will be their protector? The PKK or Ankara? Just as importantly, would Ankara react differently if the attack was on an ethnic Turkish town?
Many Kurds across the border view the policies of Ankara against the YPG, not specific to Syrian Kurds but against Kurds on both sides.

Turkish sentiment in recent months has turned against IS with dozens of arrests as a part of an increased crackdown. However, as the border skirmishes between Turkish soldiers and IS militants near Kilis showed just days after the Suruc attack, Turkey has been thrusted into a new dawn against IS.

It later launched air strikes against IS border positions, the first of its kind by Turkey. Of greater significance in Turkey?s changing approach is the decision to allow the US-led coalition to us the Incirlik military base after months of resistance.

This is viewed by many in the Washington administration as a ?game changer? bringing US forces from a distance of 2000km to about 400km from IS de-facto capital of Raqqa, allowing faster and more frequent raids.

As part of the concord with Washington to use Turkish air bases, sources in Turkey also report agreement on a 90km buffer zone between Syria?s Mare and Jarablus that will be 40-50 km deep. This allows Ankara to contain IS but keep firm eyes on PYD and ensure their expansion remains in check.

In addition Turkey is planning to build concrete walls along its border with increased surveillance operations.

Whatever the next few months brings for Turkey in its new battle with IS or its old one with PKK, now that the door is ajar there is no turning back.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As ISIS strolls into Ramadi…

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) storms into a key Iraqi city, the state forces are routed leaving their weapons behind, refugees flee in their thousands in sheer panic, hundreds of slaughtered bodies dot the streets and a sense of panic reverberates across the region. All this sounds very familiar. However, this is not June 2014, but a full year later. The fall of the symbolic Sunni town of Ramadi has assumed the same fate as Mosul and other Iraqi cities, just when ISIS was supposedly in retreat and weakened by months of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

The fact that Ramadi suffered such a similar fate to other cities in 2014 shows that the Iraqi political, sectarian and military scene has not shifted a great deal 12 months on. Until Baghdad addresses these common ailments, the fight against ISIS will merely drag on.

The Iraqi army continues to lack the real ingredients, not a lack of training and arms, but willpower and motivation, which the much smaller ISIS forces show in abundance. Why do ISIS forces struggle in Kurdish-dominated areas or Shiite strongholds around Baghdad and yet seem to make steady gains in Sunni areas? This is far from a coincidence. The disenfranchised Sunni population was not sufficiently enticed into the political fold after suddenly playing second-fiddle to the Shiites after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein with Iraq practically entering a sectarian civil war between 2006 and 2007. It was the establishment of the “Sahwa,” or Sunni Awakening Councils, that successfully turned the tide against al-Qaida and other insurgent groups in the restive Sunni triangle that had crippled U.S. and Iraqi forces since 2003.

However, Baghdad did not capitalize on the opportunities. The Sunni tribes in return for ousting al-Qaida wanted a bigger piece of the political cake, integration of Sahwa forces into the official security apparatus and more concessions from Baghdad.

A continuation of monopolization of power under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stoked further sectarian fires. Iraq was gripped with mass protests in Sunni areas by the end of 2012, and by the end of 2013, ISIS had already established a strong footing in Anbar province.

ISIS could not have made such steady gains if it did not have grassroots support. It is these Sunni tribes that remain key to defeating ISIS not only today, but preventing any ISIS mark from entering their heartlands once more. While U.S. President Barrack Obama’s belief that “I don’t think we’re losing” or that Ramadi was merely a “tactical setback” is a delusional assessment, Obama was spot on with his statement: “If the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.”

Iraqis have been quicker to point a finger at the U.S. than their guns at ISIS, and that is the fundamental issue. National reconciliation has been a key condition of U.S. support since 2003 with the U.S. surge strategy of 2007, as thousands of troops were poured in to stabilize the security mayhem in Iraq at the time instigated under the proviso that Baghdad would mend ethno-sectarian wounds. Then the U.S.-led coalition intervention against ISIS last year was under the firm condition that Maliki would be replaced by a more inclusive figure that would placate the national divide.

The U.S. has spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to afford Iraqi politicians an opportunity to rebuild the state and bridge the elusive national divide in the post-Saddam era. But years of sectarian policies have only strengthened this divide and it is easy just to blame the U.S. for all of Iraq’s troubles and not look closer to home. Whether ISIS now or al-Qaida in the Sunni insurgency heyday, these militants are simply exploiting glaring gaps in the ethno-sectarian fabric of Iraq. Prior to ISIS’s attacks in 2014, Iraq had on paper one of the largest security forces in the Middle East with the U.S. providing significant advanced weaponry and training programs. Now in 2015, the theme is once again the need to build up and train Iraqi security forces and provide weaponry.

This may make little difference if the core issues are once again not addressed – the army’s low morale, sectarian mistrust and animosity that dot the landscape as well as state forces that are not sufficiently inclusive of vital Sunni and Kurdish ranks.

As the forces wilted away in Ramadi, the baton was once again passed to the much more effective Shiite militia forces to take the fight to ISIS. It is becoming increasingly evident that Iraq can only survive if it effectively has three armies -Kurdish peshmerga forces, a new official Sunni battalion and Shiite forces. If the ISIS advance in Iraq was about exploiting fractures in the Iraqi state then this is no different in Syria. ISIS took control of the historic city of Palmyra in Syria just days after assuming control of Ramadi.

But, as with victories in Iraq, the ISIS victories in Syria are as much down to the weakness of the Syrian state and opposition forces as the sheer strength and capability of ISIS. The U.S. train-and-equip program in Syria is slow and unclear. Even then, these forces are designed to confront ISIS and not the real reason why we are even talking about ISIS today – the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Until a strategy is devised to effectively tackle both Assad and ISIS in Syria, and ISIS and ethno-sectarian fractures in Iraq, the fight will merely be a day-to-day reactionary affair rather than the onset of any true long-term strategy.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As UK tourists instructed to evacuate Tunisia, is UK succumbing to terrorist wishes or does it need to rethink its strategy?

The devastating attack on the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse by an Islamic State (IS) linked Tunisian militant in June was the worse terror attack on Britons in a decade. In a brutal daylight rampage, Seifeddine Rezgui shot dead 38 with 30 of these Britons.

The attack sent shockwaves across the UK, with harrowing tales of tourists shot dead guarding their loves or in their desperate attempts to escape. As the coffins returned to British shores in recent weeks, the chilling nature of the attack could not be closer.

This placed the British government in an awkward position to react, with extension of air strikes to Syria been discussed by MPs. In recent days, the UK Foreign Office went a step further and advised that all UK tourists should leave Tunisia immediately.

UK Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond’s statement might be contradictory in that another attack was “highly likely” even though they have no firm intelligence on any impeding plot, but the UK government could not afford the backlash if more Britons were caught in the crossfire.

The Sousse attack has put the Tunisian government in a tough predicament. It has increased security across the beaches but now faces the threat that its vital tourism industry, which constitutes approx. 15% of GDP, could be ruined. Hammond defended their advice and stated “more work is needed to effectively protect tourists from the terrorist threat”.

The actions of a few tarnish the lives of millions and the image of a country but that was the intended objective of such attacks. The Tunisian people deserve huge respect for their actions that prevented an even larger massacre with many putting their lives in front of their “guests”.

It was not Syrians or Iraqis dying under the hands of IS but the attacks were much closer to home forcing the EU to rethink its stance on wars in Syria and Iraq.

The attack in Sousse follows the attack in March on Bardo Museum in Tunis which 20 tourists were killed. Tunisia was the trigger for the Arab Spring in 2011 and arguably the only success story of the Arab uprising. It has only recently recovered from the turmoil of such an uprising but with a civil war and Islamic State rampant across the border in Libya, Tunisia is in a precarious position.

It has tried portray itself as a democratic and secular country but at the same time Tunisians comprise the largest source of IS militants.

Ironically, Tunisia only ended years of security state rule in 2011 but are now in the ascendancy towards a new one. The government has been forced into tough action that risks alienating the population. For example, 80 mosques were closed in recent weeks with conservative Muslims feeling unfairly targeted.

Such is the threat emanating from Libya that it has even commissioned a new wall across its eastern border with Libya.

As a result of the UK decision to withdraw tourists, Irish and Danish governments quickly followed suite. Although, other European Government have not gone as far, tourism is already feeling the straining with some hotels almost empty and the ever popular tourist destination, the ruins of ancient Carthage, was reportedly devoid of a single tourist on Friday.

Ultimately, Nabil Ammar, Tunisian ambassador to the UK, is correct in labelling the actions of Westminster as “…what the terrorists want….By damaging the tourism, by having foreigners leaving the country, they damage the whole sector and put so many people out of work and on the streets.”

Evacuating all tourists may seem reactive short-term stance but this is not a solution. What if there was an attack in Morocco, Egypt etc, does the UK just keep adding these countries to its black list or does the Sousse attack serve as a wakeup call to the UK and European governments that their passive policies in Syria have failed and that they must alter their strategy on dealing with the threat of IS?

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Ramadi underscores weakness of Iraqi state than real strength of Islamic State

The fall of Ramadi to the Islamic state (IS) has a stark sense of déjà-vu. It is almost a year since IS first stormed into Mosul and large swathes of Iraq.

A reluctant US only intervened when IS threatened the doorsteps of Erbil and Baghdad. However, it was under the firm proviso that new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will avoid the errors of the past and will work to bridge the deep ethno-sectarian divide.

A year later and the same core issues plague the Iraqi state. The Sunnis have not been sufficiently enticed or armed to take the fight to IS, the Peshmerga, as the most capable fighting force, have seen little of coalition weapons dispatched to Baghdad and Shia militias remain the most effective tool at the disposal of Baghdad.

Over the years, Iraq has lost numerous opportunities to appease disenfranchised Sunnis. After driving out al-Qaeda in the Sunni heartlands with the Sunni Sahwa Awakening forces, Baghdad was too slow to capitalize and even feared long-term empowerment of the Sunni tribal forces.

IS have taken advantage today much in the same that al-Qaeda did all those years ago. Without addressing the root causes, even if IS defeated then a similar force will simply come to the fore with the same end result.

The fall of Mosul and now Ramadi was more to do with the weakness and low morale of Iraq’s security forces than the real might and numbers of IS.

But what does it state about the US-led coalition if a year on IS is actually increasing areas under their control, including control of roughly 50% of Syrian territory.

Thousands of air strikes later and IS has prevailed. The finger can be pointed at US with US policy coming under much scrutiny, but ultimately US President Barrack Obama is correct – if Iraqis are unwilling to bridge their differences, if Baghdad is unable to delivery true national reconciliation and if the Iraqi are not willing to fight for their own country, then why should the US be expected to do it for them.

Even today, with the country deep in bloodshed, Baghdad has failed to reconcile with the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Peshmerga have not been sufficiently reinforced with key weapons let alone funding, with Baghdad wary of strengthening Kurdish security forces.

The only solution that can glue the fracturing Iraqi state together is a loose federation which must include a Sunni autonomous region with its own Sunni force.

The Sunni tribes, whilst many against the ideology and conduct of IS, will not bow to Shia forces or Baghdad influence in their neighborhoods.

The effective Shia militias were held back at the insistence of US for fearing of stoking further sectarian fires, but with thousands of Shia militias summoned to the Ramadi frontlines with Baghdad urging volunteers to join the fight, there is an ironic feel as Iranian back Shia militias are supported from the air by US forces in a traditional Sunni heartland.

The focus has turned to rebuilding, training and equipping the Iraqi army. This was a common theme under US occupation and there is no guarantee that the new army will outlast the old one. As IS has demonstrated, sheer determination and motivation is much more important than sheer numbers.

This means that certainly in the short-term, Baghdad will lean ever-heavily on Iran.

But Baghdad needs the support of Sunni tribes and Kurdish Peshmerga forces more than ever. If Baghdad cannot wrestle control of Ramadi, then how will it ever succeed in Mosul? The Peshmerga are certainly capable to take Mosul but after years of animosity and tension, the Kurds are not about to race into Mosul to aid Baghdad.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

U.S. House of Representative approves direct arming of Kurds as arms and oil payments from Baghdad trickle in

At the heart of the fight against the Islamic State (IS), the Kurds have long complained at the lack of adequate weapons as the raging Peshmerga battles with IS forces reaches a year. At the center of Kurdish irritation is their share of the $1.6bn Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) but more importantly that key weapons are not funneling through at a sufficient speed or volume from Baghdad.

In recent days, the US House of Representatives passed a controversial defense bill that facilitated direct arming of the Peshmerga and Sunni militia forces as part of the $612 billion defense policy bill for next year.

The House Armed Services Committee of the US Congress caused controversy when it proposed clauses into the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), referencing the Peshmerga and Sunni militias as “countries” in order make the direct provisioning of arms easier.

The bill was objected by the Obama administration who threatened to veto and drew strong rebuke from Iraqi politicians who considered this as a step to Iraq’s division. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a historic thorn of US forces in Iraq, even threatened retaliation.

US Vice President Joe Biden, who ironically for years was a strong advocate of splitting Iraq into 3 distinct federal regions, stressed just last week that “all US military assistance in the fight against [ISIL] comes at the request of the Government of Iraq and must be coordinated through the Government of Iraq”.

The bill that was ultimately passed was rewritten to remove references to “country” and toned down any inference to the division of Iraq but nevertheless has proved just as contentious. The Peshmerga and Sunni tribal forces could directly receive $179 million of the US$715 million allocated to the Iraqi government.

At the same time, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its own 2016 defense bill where strong support is expected for direct arming of the Peshmerga.

The Kurdistan leadership has attempted not to be drawn into the bill or the friction that it has caused for the Obama administration, with Kurdistan President, Massoud Barzani, declaring his satisfaction on White House assurances that “the necessary weapons” will be provided.

Although the bill is symbolic for the Kurds, in reality it is only a 25% share with the Sunnis. For Kurdish forces that are crucial to any victory against IS, a significant share should be provided by Baghdad that should not need US politicians or White House pressure to ensure Kurds receive a share of such arms.

At the same time, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the long established Kurdistan Region enshrined in Iraqi legislature and recognized internationally should not be compared with burgeoning and disparate Sunni forces. With no formally recognized Sunni force and some directly aligned with IS or deeply against Shia dominated Baghdad, who is the ultimate Sunni beneficiary of such arms?

The Kurdish apprehension at the lack of arms filtering from Baghdad is the tip of a much larger iceberg. The Kurds and Baghdad have been at loggerheads over oil payments even as a deal was struck in December. The lack of budget payments from Baghdad, including only a part payment for April, has hardly aided relations.

With Mosul firmly in IS hands, it remains to be seen of the sacrifices that the Kurds would be willing to make when Baghdad doesn’t fund the Peshmerga forces as per the constitution, doesn’t provide arms or even budget payments.

All this has a familiar tone. The US has tried to promote the principle of a unified Iraq at every turn since 2003 whilst ignoring reality, with the Kurds having to tip-toe between their important US allies and a Baghdad that they must work with but who appears not keen on any step that strengthen Kurdish hands or breaks the remaining umbilical cords that it has over the Kurds.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As Barzani heads for talks with Obama, has the battle against the Islamic State served to unify Iraq or merely underscored its division?

The Islamic State (IS) has rapidly occupied the Middle Eastern equation over the last year and the Kurds find themselves at the centre of the battle.

While the Kurds assumed control of disputed territories as the Iraqi army wilted away amidst the IS avalanche, they have endured great atrocities under the hands of IS and with the Peshmerga suffering hundreds of casualties.

The battle against IS is far from just a military conundrum. At the heart of the matter is a political crisis underlined by a fractured landscape and deepening sectarian lines. The Sunni dilemma has not been addressed and IS merely took full advantage.

This begs the question of the repercussions of remaining as part of the Iraqi state for the Kurds. The statehood ambition of the Kurds is hardly a secret or a new phenomenon. If you ask any Kurd when statehood aspirations arose and the answer is most likely long before the artificial map of the Middle East was even drawn.

Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani is scheduled to commence an official visit to the US where will meet both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Barzani’s visit comes soon after the visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The fight against IS is likely to dominate the agenda, but according to statements by Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) presidency, the issue of independence will also be discussed.

The notion of Kurdish statehood at a sensitive time in the struggle against IS is hardly music to Obama’s ears. On the contrary, the Washington administration has tried hard in recent months to reinforce the principle of a “unified federal, pluralistic and democratic Iraq”. Key to this has been coordinating coalition’s efforts and weapons supplies via the central government.

Barzani is likely to repeat the calls for more arms but the US tip-toeing around Baghdad has been a big hindrance.

A great example was the recent international anti-IS conference in London, where despite their crucial role in the fight against IS, the Kurds were not even represented in the conference as the presence of al-Abadi was deemed sufficient to represent all Iraqis.

A key condition of the US intervention in Iraq last year was the ouster of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the onset of a more liberal and inclusive government. In fact national reconciliation and unity has been a common theme of the US list since 2003.

A US spokeswoman confirmed that Barzani’s visit will include talks on Wednesday with Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken to discuss “the combined campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”

A key litmus test will be the liberation of Mosul. But this is not without its own perils. Ultimately, it must be Sunni sentiment and the local population that play the key role in driving out IS in conjunction with the Iraqi army.

And this is where Iraqi fault lines are best summed up. It is the Shia militias that are arguably the strongest force at the disposal of Baghdad and their presence in Mosul is hardly going to bode well for the locals.

The Kurds, who have shouldered tremendous sacrifices in largely liberating Kurdish areas, will have little appetite to lead the charge in Arab dominated areas such as Mosul but will ultimately still play a key support role.

Once IS is driven out, who is then responsible for the security and policy of the area? Without Sunni control over security, any Shia or Kurdish control of Mosul will simply stoke further unrest.

This ultimately leads to the question of arming Sunnis and creating an official Sunni force. Whilst it may be effective in the short-term, it will merely deepen the fractures in the Iraqi state.

Regardless of whether Obama entertains the notion of formal Kurdish independence or US insistence that the battle against IS has somewhat served to unify Iraqi ranks, IS has merely served to underscore the division of Iraq.

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