Tag Archives: Obama

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

After Iraq, West is obliged to support Syrian Kurds at the hands of IS

The rapid and barbaric advance of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq gripped the world’s attention, leading to eventual Western intervention and arming of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. However, the IS problem has long festered untouched in Syria.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces have been locked in bloody battles with IS militants since 2013 with little support. The fierce battle for Kobane in the Kurdish region of Syria has been raging for several months, but armed with heavy weaponry taking from their spoils in Iraq and regrouping for a major new assault, Syria is on the cusp of yet another humanitarian crisis at the hands of IS.

While the Syrian Kurdish battle against IS has received far less attention and backing than the Kurdish forces repelling IS forces in Iraq, the struggle against IS in that part of the world is just as important and strategic as the ones in Iraq. The Syrian Kurdish struggle against IS not a separate equation but in all reality one and the same.

Thousands of desperate Syrian Kurds fled dozens of villages around Kobane as Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, showing initial hesitance, finally authorized the opening of the border as grateful civilians flooded into the Turkish town of Dikmetas.

“IS fighters have seized at least 21 villages around Kobane,” confirmed Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with reports that IS had already cut off water and electricity supplies to the city.

Under a new strategy to combat IS, US President Barack Obama finally agreed to hit IS strongholds in Syria and as such there is no better place to start than preventing a humanitarian catastrophe in Kobane.

The same YPG forces helped in the fight back against IS forces in Iraq and in turn they must now be helped by Western and Iraqi Kurdish forces.

With common affiliations to the PKK blighting perception, YPG has been viewed with much suspicion and mistrust, particularly by Turkey who has failed to recognize the bigger picture at times. Reservations from nationalists will lead to a much deeper problem for Turkey with a potent IS across its long porous borders.

Recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that Turkey was considering plans for a buffer zone on its border with Iraq and Syria. Although this is a much welcome move, such a buffer zone was needed a long-time ago.

The West saw that Peshmerga forces in Iraq were its natural partners and hand in the push back of IS and provided the lightly armed Peshmerga in comparison with IS much needed weaponry.

Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani urged Western support against IS in Kobane amidst “barbaric and terrorist acts”. Barzani  stated, “I call on the international community to use every means as soon as possible to protect Kobane,” while adding that “IS terrorists … must be hit and destroyed wherever they are.”

In Syria, the same situation as Iraq must somehow be replicated as US tries to bolster moderate Syrian opposition forces. Much in the same way as the Iraqi Kurdish forces have been so vital in pushing back IS, the Syrian Kurdish forces ultimately hold significant sway to any defeat of IS.

US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about the IS gains and advance around Kobane.

The US needs partners it can trust and Syrian Kurds are willing allies. This has proved a difficult reality with deep reservations from Turkey and ties to the PKK, but the situation on the ground needs decisive action and decision making and further US and Western dithering will not only see further atrocities at the hands of IS but the US plan again to defeat IS greatly weakened.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Obama’s IS strategy and new “inclusive” government in Baghdad highlight make or break time for Iraq

Just six months ago US President Barack Obama deemed groups such as the Islamic State (IS) as minor players. Obama’s recent speech outlining his strategy to defeat IS, including extending air strikes to Syria, underscored the gravity of the situation just a year after Obama hurried away from launching air-strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people.

Obama’s revised approach is testament to the growing power and influence of IS in Syria and particularly Iraq and the foreign policy failings on Syria where a devastating civil war shows no sign of ending.

Such was the danger that just weeks ago, well-armed IS militants were advancing to doorsteps of the Kurdish capital of Erbil. US air strikes helped push back IS forces with the US and Europeans powers providing much needed arms and supplies to Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

No doubt the timing of events over the past few weeks has been interlinked with the changing strategy of the US. Obama has always emphasised the importance of Iraqi unity and an inclusive government that can truly entice the disenfranchised Sunni community into the political fold and into an alliance against IS. A key precondition for the launching of air strikes and with it the resumption of military activities in Iraq, years after Obama cleaned his hand of George W. Bush’s legacy, was the end of Nouri al-Maliki’s quest to seek another term.

Just days later Maliki backed down and Haider al-Abadi was announced as the new Prime Minister. As for the Kurds, US and European support of Kurdish forces was on a clear basis – the reluctant Kurds must participate in the new Baghdad government, help in the greater fight against IS outside of Kurdish borders and preserve the unity of Iraq.

Furthermore, Iraqis were under pressure to cobble together a new inclusive government before Obama’s crucial strategy was announced this week.

Obama may have been reluctant to launch an inevitable war on IS, but aside from public shows of unity, Iraqi politicians will have been just as reluctant in forming a new inclusive government.

It was reminiscent of the days of the past, where US pressure often was a key factor for Iraqi political breakthroughs and agreements at various junctures of the Iraqi transition post Saddam Hussein. However, whilst agreements and coalitions were ultimately made, often it lacked real basis or buy-in from all sides.

Although US air power will be a significant hand, the US strategy relies heavily on Iraqi forces on the ground driving out IS militants. Whether Peshmerga forces, Shiite militias and Sunni tribal forces can be united to oust IS remains to be seen. A great deal depends on whose turf they are fighting for.

Such is the disparate and fragmented nature of Iraq, that it is doubtful whether the aforementioned forces will truly fight anywhere other than where their zones of interest lie on the ground.

The Kurds may have joined the new government, but the centralist and marginalisation policies of al-Maliki still ring in their ears. The Kurds participated in Baghdad with much scepticism that al-Abadi will succumb to their key demands or follow a different course to the policies of Maliki on oil exports, national budget, disputed territories and status of Peshmerga forces.

The Kurds negotiations with al-Abadi have already hit an impasse on Baghdad’s outstanding payment of the Kurdish share of the national budget and the status of Kurdish oil exports.

After giving successive Baghdad governments many ultimatums and agreeing various pre-government accords over the years, many of the key promises and agreements were never fulfilled. For example, there is still no official Hydrocarbon Law and seven years after the original deadline for implementation of article 140 has passed, it still remains to be resolved.

In this light, the Kurds have been somewhat predictably sceptical on further agreements or promises from Baghdad, giving al-Abadi 3 months to meet their demands and 12 months to settle issue of disputed territories.

Al-Abadi’s proposal includes a peaceful settlement to territorial disputes as well as the incorporation of the Peshmerga forces as a National Guard Force, including arms and training, a Kurdish demand that stretches to 2005.

The Kurds have received four Iraqi ministries including Deputy Prime Minister, but it is clear that Kurdish interests do not lie in titles in Baghdad, but in expanding Kurdish autonomy, self-sufficiency and security capabilities i.e. all the factors that hinge on Baghdad fulfilling Kurdish demands.

Either way, the situation in Iraq has long changed, and the Kurds are not about to give-up control of disputed territories they have secured with much sacrifice or control of oil exports only to see their economic fortunes pinned on the good-will of Baghdad.

Aside from the Kurds, it remains to be seen whether the concessions to the Sunnis will be deemed enough. The buy-in of powerful Sunni tribes and armed Sunni groups are much more important than buy-in of Sunni politicians in Baghdad. Key Sunni demands remain decentralisation of power, an autonomous Sunni region and the incorporation of Sunni tribal militiamen into the Shiite dominated Iraqi security forces.

Above all, this latest attempt at forming an inclusive government and the breathing space that the US is willing to afford Iraqi forces in battle to eradicate IS, makes this make or break time for Iraq as a state.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Stuck between an uncompromising Baghdad, well-equipped IS enemy and lack of funding and oil exports, Kurds left to suffer Baghdad’s mess

As the unfolding humanitarian crisis intensified in Kurdistan, the world can ill-afford to become bystanders once more to massacres against the Kurds or fail to match mere rhetoric with tangible support.

Under great pressure, US President Barack Obama, finally authorised air strikes against ISIS forces threatening the Kurdistan Regional capital of Erbil and the thousands of desperate Kurds from the Yezidi community stranded on Mount Sinjar.

Yet Obama’s reluctance to get involved was all clear to see. Obama hesitated to get involved in what he deemed would be taking sides in a sectarian war as the Islamic State (IS) first took Iraq by storm in June.

However, the IS phenomenon is anything but a local crisis, it’s now a major global concern. The US support of their Kurdish allies has been lukewarm as their obsession of keeping a united Iraq and fears of a Kurdish drive towards independence has led to disconnect with realities on the ground.

“When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide.”

Unfortunately, it is no longer about preventing genocide. With thousands of Yezidis and Christians brutally killed and thousands more Yezidis dead due to thirst and starvation on Mount Sinjar, genocide and massacre has already been committed. It is now only a question of preventing further genocide.

Kurdish suffer from oil exports, Baghdad and IS

The more that Washington treats Iraq as a whole piece, the more that the Kurds suffer. Obama added, “The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces,” making it clear that intervention would be limited.

Obama needs to distinguish between Kurdistan and the general term “Iraqi”. IS was not a problem created by the Kurds but due to years of marginalisation and centralist policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Even under the current IS whirlwind that has taken Sunni rebels to the doorsteps of Baghdad, Maliki was reluctant to reach out to Sunnis and stubbornly refused to relinquish yet another term as Prime Minister. Iraq is broken and the Kurds are facing the greatest blow-back for failings of the state or policies of Baghdad.

A great example is the controversy over Kurdish oil exports. In the hope of preventing the collapse of Iraq, the one-sided US policy that frequently favours Baghdad, continues this notion of Iraqis resolving their issues without assessing the situation on the ground.

The Kurds are owed billions of dollars of payments for their share of the national budget since January. Deputy Spokesperson for the US State Department, Marie Harf, recentlystated “There is no US ban on the transfer or sale of oil originated from any part of Iraq…Our policy on this issue has been clear, Iraq’s energy resources belong to all of the Iraqi people. These questions should be resolved in a manner consistent with the Iraqi constitution.”

The same Iraqi constitution that the US refers to is already clear, it doesn’t need negotiation but implementation.

Now Kurds are deprived of much need oil revenues with a tanker anchored off the shore of Texas, no budget payments and are then expected to fight Baghdad’s war with a lack of weapons or support. “Stronger Iraqi forces” should also translate to stronger Kurdish forces.

Obama stated that the US and its allies had failed to “appreciate” the weakness of the Iraqi security forces. The problem was never a lack of arms but a lack of will tied to growing sectarian splits in Iraq. Funnelling yet more US advanced weaponry is not a solution.

The phobia of keeping Iraq united and not bolstering the Kurds for fear of seeing them breaking away, will lead to more to more massacres under the hands of extremists.

Even as Kurdistan was under great threat, Baghdad was quick to undermine Kurdish leadership with Amer al-Khozai, adviser to Maliki, stating they were “pay(ing) the price for the negative positions it took against Baghdad”. Al-Kohzai urged Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani to “correct his mistakes against the federal government so as to face the terrorism threat that has started to threaten the region.”

Kurdistan has to contend with an uncompromising Baghdad, a determined and well-equipped enemy in IS and lack of international support.

International response

Following US commitment to limited air strikes, the response of EU powers was initially limited to support of humanitarian operations before sentiment within the EU rapidly turned in favouring of arming the Kurds.

France was one of the first EU powers that promised to support the Kurds. In discussions with Barzani, French President François Hollande “confirmed that France was available to support forces engaged in this battle,” before later confirming plans to supply arms to bolster Kurdish forces.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier admitted in a statement that “It is clear that (humanitarian aid) is not enough and we have to see what we can do beyond that.” Referring to “new horrors”, Steinmeier added “We condemn these despicable crimes, targeted at entire communities, in the strongest terms.”

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, strongly condemning the “barbaric attacks”, backed US military action as he insisted on the need to help the Yezidis in their “hour of desperate need”. While the UK quickly ruled out military intervention, momentum in recent days has strongly turned to arming the Kurds.

There are growing calls from MPs to bring the matter to UK parliament. Prominent Labour MP, Mike Gapes, voiced criticism of UK government’s response and urged recall of parliament to debate the issue.

UK Labour MP, Tom Watson, stressed that the sovereign view of the parliament was need than unilateral decrees and warned that “We cannot abandon Iraq to the black flags of Isis any more than we could leave Europe to the Kaiser or to his black-shirted inheritors 22 years later.”

Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British Army, warned that history will be their judge and believes that UK has a “moral obligation” to join the air strikes on Iraq and even station troops to create a safe area. Dannatt urged “Parliament needs to be recalled and the West needs to face up to its responsibilities.”

Kurdish need arms not sympathy

The Kurds are more than capable of defending their territory, however, no sheer will or numbers will ever win a war. The Kurds need advanced firepower. The IS is anything but a militia. After taking huge amounts of advanced US sourced military gear from the Iraqi forces, they are now a formidable force.

Kurdistan Head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, Falah Mustafa Bakir, stated “Christians and the Yezidis must be protected. We do not wish to face this war alone. The international community must act and the US should take its responsibility. We need advanced weapons and ammunition to fight the terrorists.”

Sharing an immense border with IS, Kurdish forces are spread across a wide area. Jabar Yawa, chief of staff and spokesman for the Ministry of Peshmerga, stated “It is a vast area…We need a lot of troops to protect and cover almost 40 kilometres of land.”

In a response to Iraqi Yezidi MP, Vian Dakhil’s passionate cry for help, Obama declared “…today America is coming to help”. It is not just today but the needs of tomorrow that Kurdistan must be provided.


First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As the United States turns its back on Iraq and ‘Bush’s legacy’, Kurds and democracy left to suffer

The United States and their allies took a bold step in 2003 amidst strong international opposition to free a country from decades of tyranny and a dictator that was the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, to build the foundations of a new Iraq that most Iraqis never thought they would see.

The legacy of former US President George W. Bush on Iraq is in stark contrast to that of Barrack Obama. For all his critics, Bush was highly determined to “last the course” in Iraq and oversaw an Iraq that had a series of historic elections, a new constitution and a new dawn of liberation that could not have been better symbolised than in veteran Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani’s appointment as Saddam Hussein’s successor.

Talabani’s instalment as president was poetic justice as it represented the ironic twist of the oppressed replacing the oppressor, Kurds who were long denied equal rights were now at the forefront of the new Iraq. The US adventure in Iraq was often plagued for everything it didn’t fulfil, not for all the historic opportunities that it unravelled.

The US invasion of Iraq had many success stories for Washington, non-more illustrious than the Kurdistan Region. From impoverishment, oppression and suffering, the Kurds have built a secular democracy with increasing economic and strategic clout in Iraq that most US politicians in 2003 dreamed about.

When Iraq’s was descending into all out civil war, Bush took the bold move to call upon thousands more troops, when the budget was blown billions more dollars were approved and when Iraq was falling apart, the determination of the US only grew further. Iraq was simply at the centre of US foreign policy and a project that it could ill-afford to abandon. US intervention on many occasions allowed Iraqi politicians to reach compromise and democratic progress to continue, whenever the Kurds, Sunnis or Shiites were on the negotiating table, the fourth would be a keen and willing US.

The Iraqi baton was passed to Barrack Obama in 2009, and the contrast in approach could not be greater. Iraq is hardly in the media, in the US public eye or a priority of Obama as Washington has distanced itself from the role of the foster parents of the new Iraq.

Of course, it was somewhat inevitable as Obama’s election campaign was always centred on Iraqi withdrawal and anti-meddling in Iraqi affairs and due to changes in the global political climate. It has tried to play a supportive and neutral role in Iraq, whilst stating its support for a plural and democratic Iraqi that adheres to its constitution.

It is no coincidence that shortly after US withdrawal in Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s stance toughened with a consolidation of power, the fallout over Sunni Vice President  Tariq al-Hashemi began, already fragile political agreements weakened and relations between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad plummeted.

A little over a year after US forces departed, the immense sacrifices and efforts of the US are in great danger of been wasted. The delicate and often tenuous balance that the US managed to achieve over the years is fast evaporating. Bush warned in one of his last speeches that the Iraq “war was not over”.

In a recent interview with Time magazine, Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, emphasising the moral responsibility of the US, underlined Kurdish disappointment on the current US position “…America came to this country, spent huge amounts of money and have sacrificed lives. But they handed over the keys to others…”

Whether the current administration likes it or not, they have a level of responsibility to the Kurds and the new Iraq they helped to create.

Washington cannot simply send thousands of troops like before or throw billions more dollars that it doesn’t have, but it cannot be a bystander in Iraq either. A Baghdad that is increasingly distancing itself from US influence has a man at the helm that holds the position of acting interior minister, acting defense minister and acting national security minister as well as the role of Prime Minister.

The US always referred to potential conflict between the Kurds and Arabs as the greatest danger in Iraq. The very reason that tense stand-offs were averted in the past was due to US intervention and the advent of join patrols in disputed territories.

Now that very danger is perilously close to reality, with both Kurdish and Iraqi troops amassed in a stiff showdown that not only threatens to put Iraq back to square, but whose ramifications will serve to shake an already edgy Middle East.

The Obama administration has repeated its support for an Iraq that abides by the Iraqi constitution many times. However, what happens when the same constitution is violated or constitutional principles such as article 140, hydrocarbon law or power sharing are neglected?

It is not to say that the US has a magic wand, but its influence could and should still go a long way in Iraq. The US cannot wash a hand that was deeply tainted in the Iraqi struggle for so long.

The oil dispute typifies the new US stance of sitting on the wall. While the rest of Iraq has lingered behind, Kurdistan is developing and raring to go. Yet the US has repeatedly warned Turkish companies against direct deals with the Kurds claiming it threatens the “integrity of Iraq”. It is Baghdad’s lack of commitment to the constitution and not the Kurds who threaten the integrity of Iraq.

Ironically, the biggest coup for Kurds was to get US oil giant Exxon-Mobil onboard and who are ready to drill in highly-contested areas in 2013, amidst a backdrop of familiar warning by Baghdad.

The Kurds remain reliant on Baghdad for exportation of oil and oil revenues and this has been somewhat of a stop-start tap in recent years and has become the source of Iraq’s carrot and stick approach against the Kurds.

The Kurds are by far the biggest pro-American group in Iraq and their flourishing economy, secularist nature and pro-western ideals is exactly what the US should have embraced. Yet Kurds feel let down, dejected and to a large extent weary of what the US will do if Iraqi forces turn their guns and arsenal on the Kurds once more.

Not only has the US supplied Baghdad with F16’s, modern tanks and weaponry, the Kurds fear a passive US stance should Kurdistan come under attack once more.

The increasing self-sufficiency drive of the Kurds, with an independent oil infrastructure at its heart, is the key to its long-term survival and prosperity. It is no wonder that surrounded by hostile forces and with a distant Washington administration in the background that they have increasingly needed to rely and capitalise on growing ties with Turkey. As Kurdistan Prime Minister emphasised in the same interview “we have a door of hope, which is Turkey. And if that door, that hope is closed, it will be impossible for us to surrender to Baghdad. We will do something that will put in danger the interests of all those concerned.”

The US needs no reminding that the Kurds helped keep Iraq together at key times when security situation descended into chaos. The Kurds were often the factor for compromise on the negotiating table, supplied thousands of troops to protect southern areas and adopted a patient game while Iraq stabilised.

The Kurds cannot simply wait for Iraq to determine when it will implement a democratic constitution, oil laws and power sharing agreements.

The US is against Kurdish independence yet it also acknowledges the importance of a plural Iraq that abides by its constitution. Kurds cannot remain stuck in this paradox indefinitely. Either it is independence or full implementation of the constitution. Barzani reiterated this position in recent warnings, “…there is no doubt if and when we lose hope that the constitution is not adhered to, certainly there are other options.”

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources:  Various Misc.

Obama’s Tireless Quest to Reinvigorate Foreign Policy Results in Surprise Visit to Iraq

Obama’s frantic foreign diplomacy drive incorporated a surprise visit to Iraq. While the US can point to hope and their “enormous sacrifice”, progress and national reconciliation in Iraq has clearly a long way to go.

US President Barrack Obama’s whirlwind eight-day foreign tour, encompassing six countries, ended with a surprise visit to Iraq and his first visit to a war-zone as commander-in-chief.

Obama met with key Iraqi leaders including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdistan Region President Massaud Barzani. The meetings aimed to enforce US-Iraqi relations in what is a critical year for Iraq, as well as to showcase appreciation for the US forces based in the country.

The US adventure in Iraq, six years since the downfall of Saddam Hussein, has not come cheap. Whilst significant progress has been made in Iraq since 2003, the rewards are a scant consolation for the deep US involvement and the financial burden that George W. Bush in particular has paid in Iraq, with over 4000 US lives lost and over $600 billion dollars spent.

With the inauguration of Obama as president, this raised expectations that a new page can be turned in US foreign policy, where Iraq had become a symbol of its deficiencies and controversies.

Obama has made no secret of his desire to withdraw troops as soon as possible, alter the US mission in Iraq and also waste no time in realigning and leveraging US foreign policy and introduce a fresh impetus that is greatly needed to either mend or refresh ties with key global powers.

Perception of Obama in Iraq

Obama was generally well-received by Iraqis. Most Iraqis south of the Kurdistan border, prefer a speedy withdrawal of US forces and see Obama in a positive light compared to his predecessor.

The fact that Obama was against the Iraqi invasion from the outset and Iraq is deemed as Bush’s war, affords Obama an opportunity to revitalize Iraqi-U.S. ties.

Obama emphasized the need to transition to the Iraqis, after years of sacrifice and allow the Iraqis “to take responsibility for their country.”

Clearly, not only does prolonged US engagement play into the hands of insurgents and hard-line elements of the Iraqi landscape, the US can simply ill-afford to continue to watch Iraqis reconcile at a leisurely rate, where other fires in the US radar rage.

An unprecedented global economic crisis and a forgotten war in Afghanistan, as well as a US foreign policy vehicle that is in urgent need of repair, highlight the US need for all the partners it can get, let alone take ties with traditional allies for granted. Put simply, Iraq is no longer the “make or break” headache it once was, with the world ever changing over the past 6 years.

Clearly some elements such as the Sadrist bloc, favour only total US withdrawal and it came as no surprise when they attacked Obama’s visit as a “barefaced interference”

The end of the beginning for Iraq

As the US slowly plans the end of its Iraqi adventure, the work for Iraqis has just begun. 6 years of violence, sectarian feuds and lack of security, only veiled the fractured and deeply divided Iraqi social mosaic. Achieving true elusive national reconciliation is more than just achieving security and stability in the country.

Security and stability is just the bridge to national reconciliation, if there is indeed a strong deep-rooted desire for this concept amongst all the groups.

Many obstacles remain and many key issues remain unresolved. The US administration has clearly put a lot of hope that 2009 will form a strong platform for Iraqis to resolve key differences and promote a relative form of national harmony so desperately craved.

Much of this hope lies on the Iraqi general elections set for the end of this year, which promises to bring Sunnis firmly into the political arena, as well as revise coalitions and power-sharing.

However, how productive a platform the elections will serve depends much on what Baghdad can achieve in the remaining months leading up to the elections. If the track-record is anything to go by, then there will be a few optimists, with deep-rooted animosity and mistrust still at large.

The Iraqi hunger to implement constitutional articles such as article 140, adoption of a national hydrocarbon law and implement a system of governance that can appease all parties, is largely out of the hands of the US. However, this doesn’t mean that the dawn of the end of the US in Iraq, means that the US can be a by-stander in developments. If 2009 doesn’t become the all defining milestone in Iraq and broad violence in turn erupts, realization of the anticipated US withdrawal in August 2010 will be interesting indeed.

Obama urged Iraqi Prime Minister to quicken the reconciliation pace, a notion that the Bush administration have been pushing for years before, with the focus still largely on enticing minority Sunnis into the political fold as well as in to the predominantly Shiite based security forces.

Baghdad has often promised much when it comes to meeting US benchmarks but in essence has achieved insufficiently to foster real progress.

Meeting with Kurdistan Region Delegation

Obama also met with Kurdistan Region President Massaud Barzani to discuss a number of situations in Kurdistan Region and Iraq. Clearly, pressing agenda items include edgy relationships between KRG and Baghdad and assurances that the Obama administration will not neglect Kurdish ties at the expense of other alliances.

One of the looming dangers in Iraq is the increasing stand-off between Erbil and Baghdad. It is the firm duty of the US administration to ensure that bilateral ties are promoted between both sides and active steps are taken by the US to resolve fundamental differences between each side, particularly over disputed areas and jurisdiction of security forces, long before any reduction of forces.

While the US have so far chosen a more passive role in the disputes between the Kurds and Baghdad, pointing to the democratic apparatus in place to resolve such disputes, it is their duty to ensure that the disputes are indeed resolved via democratic principles and they do not leave Iraq in a perilous and tentative state, regardless of their commitments to withdraw from Iraq or other pressing matters that they have on the table.

Moreover, the US should oversee that the enticement of Baathists into the political sphere by the al-Maliki government is not at the expense of the greater peace between Kurds and Arabs. Baghdad has been looking to diminish Kurdish power and letting prominent former Baathist hardliners out of the ropes, may well see them in direct confrontation with Kurds in the contested areas. A promotion of Sunni power in the north of Iraq, may well come as a trade-off to maintain Sunni-Shiite peace further south.

Reach out to the Muslim World

Clearly, success in the Middle East goes much further than just achieving a relative notion of success in Iraq. US foreign policy requires much needed healing across the greater Muslim world.

Obama’s keenness to visit Turkey so early in his tenure comes as no surprise, with its strategic position as well as its perception as an important benchmark for the region, with Turkey housing a Muslim democracy, a pro-Western outlook and secular institutions.

Obama is keen to introduce a new dawn in US relations with the Muslim world, far from the legacy and negative perception of Bush.

Not only did Bush fail to sufficiently entice historical nemesis into the diplomatic fold, but US policies in this time also drove a wedge between traditional allies.  With global crisis such the economic downturn and the broader battle against radicalism, even the might of the US can no longer afford a policy of unilateralism. If it can not sway contentious powers into the diplomatic arena, then the least it can do is not damage historical friendships.

Time is a virtue

As much as Obama’s historical ascendency to power has created much hope across the international sphere and with it the prospects of a new beginning, shifts in US policy will take time and concrete progress especially on matters relating to the Middle East may take even longer than the maximum of two presidential terms that Obama can achieve as president.

As much as Bush’s policies took time to implement and foreign relationships deteriorated over a period of time, it will take Obama time to unravel and renew US foreign policy and promote new bonds with global powers.

This concept is best demonstrated with Iraq, where any hasty decisions by Obama may well place a nail in his presidential coffin before his work has even begun. To a great extent, he will have to inherit and assume Bush’s policies, particularly in the short-term, and his hands will be inevitably tied by previous dealings in Iraq.

As much as he has touted swift withdrawal, a cornerstone of his election campaign, any withdrawal must be assessed and conducted in the most responsible manner.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Obama’s pledge to listen instead of dictate bodes well

While not a “miracle worker”, Obama is set to change the way the Muslim world perceives the US.

The Middle East will prove a Tough Nut to Crack for Obama, But “listening” is a good start

In the time since his widely publicised inauguration in front of million of expectant onlookers from around the world, US President Barack Obama has wasted no time in getting to work.

So lofty is the level of expectation and responsibility placed on his broad shoulders that Obama needs to use every minute to live up to the billing he has received as “global saviour”. 

The Middle East will prove as much of a ubiquitous agenda item as any in Washington, and may well be the platform on which he is measured at the end of his tenure. So keen was Obama to showcase the new determination to engage more actively in the Middle east, that within hours of his appointment as US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was half-way across the Atlantic en route to a Middle Eastern tour.

Bush’s imprint on the Middle East

Without a doubt, the era of George W. Bush will forever be symbolised by key failings in the Middle East. Bush’s track record left behind an uncertain region and no significant results, in spite of the democratic projects and peace roadmaps his administration tried so hard to implement.

Some benefitted greatly from Bush’s foreign policy: just ask the much repressed Kurds and Shiites who suffered immensely under decades of barbarian dictatorships in Iraq; however, the overall consensus is that Bush lost the support and respect of the greater region.

One of Obama’s first goals will be to draw a line in the Middle Eastern sand. His eagerness to highlight the birth of a new chapter and all the opportunities that it brings could not make this intention clearer.

Obama does not want to be prejudiced, for the perceived failing of a predecessor, before his work has even begun. In this light, even the staunch foes of the previous regime, are addressed in the most diplomatic and tactful manner.

Under Obama burnt bridges are being restored and there now exists an opportunity for anyone willing to “unclench their fist”.

Obama’s message of hope and friendship

Above all the aspiration, dynamism and guile, Obama is a realist. Long before he ran for presidency, he would have known from his extensive network of advisors, the size and complexity of the task facing him in the Middle East. Obama knew long before his accession to prominence, that unless he worked diligently to alter policies, even the more established relationships in the region could be threatened.

The first public statement on the Middle East by Obama was judged along the same lines as before, but in a recent television address on a prominent Arabic news channel, Obama was able to put his oratorical skills to great use, in the quest to strike a different tone in the region and build new ties with the Muslim world.

Leaving Iraq responsibly

In many ways, Iraq was Bush’s Achilles heel and became the cornerstone of Obama’s election campaign. In spite of the early promise, and almost six years of a costly occupation, Iraq continued to be a vicious thorn in the side of the Bush administration.

Obama never supported the war from the outset, was against the troop surge in 2007, and pledged to withdraw troops within 16 months of taking oath.

A security agreement took affect on January 1, 2009, effectively handing over full sovereignty to the Iraqi government and setting a timetable for withdrawal. However, the task of withdrawing thousands US troops is only half the battle in Iraq. Obama requires a long-term vision for Iraq and a strategic understanding with Iraq as well as neighbouring countries. The troops may ultimately leave but this does not always mean the headache will go.

Iraq has come a long way in the past couple of years, especially in respect to security. But with so much attention being paid to the US exit strategy, not much emphasis has been placed on the exit strategy of the Iraqis themselves.

The US would do well to leave “responsibly”. Nonetheless, much in the same way as the word “success” in reference to Iraq provided a rather ambiguous term for the previous administration, leaving Iraq in “reasonable shape” may prove to be similarly ambiguous.

Key long-term problems remain unresolved in Iraq, and this is one battle over which, in practice,  the US may have little sway. It is down to the Iraqis to compromise and seek greater national reconciliation, but if all sides do not embrace democratic conventions and companionship in the same manner, there is little the US can do.

Key spanners in the Iraqi works

Iraq is a case in point that illustrates that imposing ideals on a population, even those taking for granted in the West, will never work if those same ideals are not embraced by that population – however logical they may seem to a Western onlooker.

More importantly, the West needs to allow time for its ideals to take effect, without supervision and forceful steering, and must appreciate that the result or outcomes are not always going to be as hoped.

The Iraqi transitional road to democracy is as uncertain as ever. Many key issues continue to blight the national horizon, but none more so than the unwillingness of some sides to reach true compromise.

To his credit, Obama has been insistent on thorough planning. This “planning” must finally show a realisation that objectives in Iraq must be viewed in the long-term and not just in short-term success measures, which will allow the US a much needed and credible escape route.

Iraq represents a fragmented society and classic diplomacy, unfortunately, is not always their option of choice when it comes to bridging historic ethnic and sectarian differences.

Whether Obama adopts the much discussed plan by his now vice president Joe Biden, to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous federal entities, remains unclear, but what is certain is that it will take the pioneering mindset of someone like Biden with a policy that is genuinely out of the box, to prevent further bloodshed in Iraq, let alone preserve its long-term unity.

Outgoing US ambassador Ryan Crocker ominously warned Obama about the challenges that lay ahead in Iraq and the difficulty in pinning timescales for their resolution.

Key milestones in Iraq

In many ways, 2009 will be a decisive year for Iraq and a litmus test for the readiness of Iraqis to go it “alone”. Events in the next six months may well shape events in years to come.

In most of the country voting took place on January 31, to appoint provincial councils with parliamentary balloting also set to be concluded by the end of 2009.

It remains to be seen whether Iraq will be better leveraged and balanced on the national stage as a result of these elections.

Obama administration will need show new vigour and flexibility as the same rigid mentality of the previous regime will prove counter-productive.

Common mistrust among politicians and a simmering war of words between Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad, show that the appetite for true reconciliation and a common vision will remain elusive for some time to come, regardless of the number of elections held.

Listen rather than dictate

A real welcome to all in the Middle East was Obama’s pledge to listen rather than dictate. This may yet prove to Obama’s biggest strength. By planning and analysing the facts, the US can slowly reach out to the predominantly Muslim population of the Middle East. The new administration must steer away from the perception that the US is anti-Islamic.

Perhaps, this is an underlying reason why peace between Israelis and the Palestinians under Bush fast became a mirage. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and prospective wars touted for so long in Syria and particularly Iran, only encouraged Islamist sceptics who long-alleged an anti-Islamic agenda and the ambition of the US to shape the Middle East according to colonial mindsets and a thirst for oil.

The desire for an open diplomatic approach stressed by Obama was evident as he emphasised that Israelis and Palestinians will have to make some tough decisions and the US could not dictate proceedings.

The US appears intent on looking at the bigger picture when resolving matters in the Middle East. Clearly, from Iraq to Palestine, one can not foster long-term prosperity without appreciating the ripple affects and the influence that neighbouring countries often induce.

Obama implied that in the future the US would have to take into account all the factors involved, this was a clear dig at Bush and the chaos that ensued in the aftermath of Iraq’s liberation.

Hoping for a miracle

Although, a new platform of optimism is badly needed in the region, Obama is not a miracle worker. No guarantees can be provided that decade’s long conflicts and disputes, so elusive to many US presidents, can be fixed by injections of pragmatism alone.

There is always room for manoeuvre in foreign policy, but the fundamental blueprints of US policy, such as its historical support of Israel can not be shifted all too easily.

What is clear is that with Obama’s new thinking and an active approach, he may get closer than any former president in building new peaceful ties in the region and setting a genuine stage for much needed progress.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Obama’s Global Image Taking Shape?


Can Obama win “vital election points” for his tour?

As the young U.S. senator begins his first major foreign tour as a presidential candidate, the Republican machine may gethe chance to hammer him on a massive public scale for several of his policies concerning Iraq and Afghanistan.

All eyes were on U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama this week, as he undertook a major foreign tour, including his first visit to Baghdad, in the countdown to the November 4 U.S. presidential elections.

The “war-torn” tour comes at a crucial time as the feverish election campaign gathers pace.

It is likely that as much as this visit can win Obama vital election points as well as seemingly address his alleged foreign policy “Achilles heel,” it could serve just as much as a Republican stick to hamper his presidential quest.

On paper, Obama’s ascent to prominence and candidacy for the White House helm is almost poetic. While the U.S. global image has suffered immensely in the shape of a controversial foreign policy and a war on terror, with President George W. Bush perhaps serving as the personification of that, Obama represents a taboo-breaking and fresh outlook to the international community.

His victory as the Democratic presidential candidate over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton highlighted his political astuteness and growing confidence, a campaign undoubtedly augmented by the unavoidable fact that he is a young black from a deprived background.

Dress rehearsal as next American president?

Although Obama’s foreign visit in light of the possibility of winning the election in November was always going to depict him by some circles as the visiting next U.S. president, he was very quick to play this down.

Obama is careful to bolster his election chances with an effective medium campaign, by appearing as a confident but modest U.S. senator and not in an arrogant tone as the next president. Obama emphasized that he did not have a “message” as such to Afghan or Iraqi leaders, as he was “more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking.”

The Iraq effect

There is no doubt that the Iraq War has centred heavily in the U.S. election campaign, and Obama’s objection to long-term troop presence and repeated calls for a withdrawal within 16 months has formed a central spotlight of his campaign.

Obama has capitalized on the fact that he was against the war from the outset, while his Republican presidential rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, supported the Iraqi invasion from day one and has vowed to keep troops in country as long as necessary rather than set any unrealistic benchmarks or timetables.

A firsthand analysis in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq is served to signal his desire to be seen as in touch with the realities on the ground and to foster crucial political understanding with key leaders.

Before his visit to Iraq, Obama promised to make “a thorough assessment” that could ultimately influence a “refinement” in his policy. Critics lost no time in accusing him of laying the foundation for future changes in his stance on Iraq, but in reality, with much changing in Iraq, it is hard for Obama not to adjust his viewpoint as much as it may play against him.

Meeting with Iraqi leaders

Obama arrived in the heavily fortified Green Zone as part of a congregational delegation, where he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabini, as well as the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

Clearly, the security situation in Iraq and the prospect of troop withdrawals was a common interest. In Iraq, a swift American withdrawal is a hotly contested debate with some figures keen not to incept a premature withdrawal by the onset of a fixed timetable at a delicate stage in Iraq’s recovery and with Iraq still far from political reconciliation, while others, such as Moqtada al-Sadr, have used this to assemble significant following and influence.

Al-Maliki quickly denied claims that he supported Obama’s plan to withdraw combat troops within 16 months. However, at the time when Iraqi leaders are under intense public pressure to assume prime sovereignty, thy will press Obama for clarity on his long-term vision.

Obama has previously stated that he wants Iraq to assume responsibility for security, with the U.S. possibly leaving a residual force to help train Iraqi troops and fight al-Qaeda.

The situation on the ground in Iraq has changed a great deal since the start of the presidential race. Largely owed to the U.S. surge established in early 2007 and the onset of Sunni Awakening Councils, the security situation in Iraq has improved markedly.

Obama’s new willingness to be more flexible on the assessment of Iraq has naturally led to accusations of inconsistency by the Republicans.

The Republicans, while pointing out that the surge strategy Obama opposed has worked, have accused him of “stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal” and say he threatens to undo the hard work of the past year.

Tying the hands of the next president?

The Bush administration has been vehemently opposed to setting a firm timetable for troop withdrawals from the outset and have instead emphasized that decisions should be made based on military assessments on the ground and Iraqi attempts to foster political reconciliation.

However, Bush has been criticized in many circles for seemingly tying the hands of the next administration. With the days of his tenure in office coming to an end, he is not expected to make any major decisions on troop numbers but is likely instead to pass the baton to the next president.

The negotiations on the Status of Forces agreement, highlighting the long-term legal status of American forces in Iraq, has proved highly contentious and is unlikely to be agreed upon by the original target date at the end of July. To avoid a legal vacuum in January 2009, when the last UN mandate expires, a “transitional” pact is envisaged, leaving the hard negotiations to the next U.S. president.

An increasingly confident Iraqi government has been pressing for a more definitive timeline and a less hazy role for the U.S. in the future Iraq, forcing Bush to somewhat grudgingly accept a “time horizon” for withdrawal, a notion he has long opposed.

Despite Obama’s bold assurance of a withdrawal within months of assuming the presidency, in the short term his hands may well be tied. Any major decision that has negative consequences may well hammer his image and credential before his job has even begun. In the short term, the principle cogs assembled by the Bush administration will continue without significant change.

Obama is aware that any move to dampen the delicate foundations set in Iraq could be catastrophic. With many political stumbling blocks remaining between fractious Iraqi groups, any hasty withdrawal to fulfil election promises may set Iraq back many years.

With a more optimistic climate, Iraq is becoming less of the nail to hammer the Republicans and may yet work strongly in their favor.

Contrast with McCain

The contrast of the first-term senator from Illinois with his established Republican presidential rival McCain could not be more distinct. Obama is already becoming a well-known international name and has attracted huge media attention.

McCain, however, has the experience to derail Obama’s election bandwagon and will use any perceived flaws or missteps on Obama’s trip to full advantage. McCain’s earlier visits to Iraq and elsewhere attracted much less attention, and he could argue that Obama’s background has played as much significance as his political merits.

McCain will also point to recent opinion polls in the U.S. suggesting he has more public trust as Commander-in-Chief.

With improving prospects for Iraq, coupled with a growing crisis over the state of the U.S. economy, Iraq has increasingly taken a back stage in the U.S. public’s concern, which may take the spin off of Obama’s campaign.

Need for new focus on Afghanistan

With a resurgent Taliban creating fear in parts of Afghanistan and pushing already limited coalition forces to the breaking point, Afghanistan is under threat of becoming a forgotten war.

Obama, upon visiting Afghanistan, claimed that the country should be the new “central focus” of the fight against terrorism and pledged to reinforce troop levels by a couple of brigades, by diverting troops no longer needed in Iraq to Afghanistan. Republicans would argue, of course, that this is just an adopted Republican surge tactic and is just masking another way to ultimately keep troop levels the same and U.S. forces strained.

All in all, the perception that Obama leaves as he carries on his foreign tour may well go a long way in deciding the next U.S. president.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.