Tag Archives: Syrian Uprising

Red lines and lack of action – how the bigger picture in Syria is overlooked

With the death toll from the Syrian crisis rapidly surpassing 80,000, over 4 million displaced Syrians forced to live in poor conditions and the human catastrophe deepening on a daily basis, the continued discussions in America and Europe about the trespassing of “red lines” and what action should follow is an insult to the suffering of the Syrian people.

When will the conflict be considered a crisis worthy of firm action? When the whole region is embroiled in the conflict, when the death toll surpasses 100,000 or even 200,000 or when most of Syria lies in rubble?

The point is, whilst the regime’s brazen and clear use of chemical weapons, meant that the US “red line” was crossed a long time ago, no matter what tools or apparatus is used by the ever desperate Bashar al-Assad, whether it is Sarin gas, ballistic missile or cluster weapons, the end result is the same – destruction of Syria and mass civilian casualties.

Just as in Iraq when the debate was side-tracked by search for weapons of mass destructions, the West often overlooked the bigger picture. Saddam Hussein, amongst his far reaching terror, systemically used chemical weapons on a mass scale on the Kurds and was by far worse than any weapon. By the same token, the Assad dynasty has ruled Syria with an iron fist for decades. It is not just the Assad actions of the past two years and the recent death tolls, what about the thousands dead before and immense suffering that his dictatorship has produced?

Syria is clearly a different case to Egypt and Libya, it has firm allies in the region in Iran, Hezbollah and sections of Iraq, not forgetting their chief arms supplier and bastion at the UN in Russia. However, the difficulty in knowing how to act or finding common ground to act should be no reason to remain idle for such a lengthy period of time.

US President Barrack Obama’s seemingly blurring red line and back-pedalling of the White House sends all the wrong signals to Iran, North Korea and beyond.

Last week Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that any red line was crossed long ago. Then less than a week later two car bombs allegedly orchestrated by a group with ties the Syrian intelligence ripped through the Turkish border town of Reyhanli slaying 46 people and resulting in scores more wounded. The Turkish elite warned that a red line was crossed, yet another line, but Turkey is unlikely to retaliate.

While somewhat productive talks took place last week between UK, US and Russia, Russia continues to hold the keys to ending the conflict. The conflict has allowed it to come to the fore in a powerful and influential manner, stamping its authority on the UN and the region, while the US has largely taking a back-stage.

With the EU arms embargo in force, the rebels remain crippled by a lack of arms, as Russia and Iran, for their strategic goals, supply the regime with sophisticated weaponry and Hezbollah lends hundreds of its fighters.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

Can the Syrian Kurds turn the tide against Assad?

Syrian Kurds have endured decades of repression and denial and in the case of thousands treatment as virtual foreigners in the lands of their very ancestors. If anyone should have a gripe against the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad it is the Kurds, yet the Kurds have remained largely on the side-lines of the two-year bloodshed in Syria.

While much of the West is locked in debate about ways of ending the immense suffering and the protracted civil war in Syria and speeding-up by Assad’s demise, the Syrian Kurds remain a vital card in tipping the balance of war against the regime.

Division and splinter groups are commonplace throughout the Syrian opposition and it’s no different in Syrian Kurdistan, with dozens of Kurdish parties in the political fold, but with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) continuing to orchestrate the greatest influence and military might.

The Kurds with thousands of well-trained militia would be natural partners to court in the overthrow of Assad, yet ironically Syrian rebel groups, namely Jabhat al Nusra, have been battling Kurdish fighters in the north instead.

Most Syrian Kurds, particularly the PYD with long alleged ties to the PKK, have distrusted Arab opposition groups, especially those with Turkish backing, fearing marginalisation in a post-Assad era or seeing their historic autonomous gains wiped away.

It is for this reason that they have tried to remain relatively neutral in the conflict and facilitated indirect understandings with the regime in Kurdish-dominated areas. It was win-win at the time, as Kurds took historical control of most of their region while Assad was spared a further frontline and likely a further depletion of his forces in a confrontation with the Kurds.

The Kurdish priority was to safeguard Kurdish gains, spare violence in Kurdish areas and to leave their fate in their own hands.

The Kurdistan Region leadership succeeded in uniting the various Kurdish factions last year but animosity and distrust in Kurdish circles remains common-place.

However, in recent weeks it appears that the Kurds are increasingly ready to end their neutrality and fight regime forces. This can be seen with the coordination between Syrian rebels and People’s Defense Units (YPG) in the Kurdish dominated Sheikh Makqsud district of Aleppo, where Kurdish fighters have helped to choke the vital supply routes of the regime.

The regime retaliated for this apparent change of heart by the Kurds with a deadly airstrike on the district killing 15 people as well as attacking Kurdish units on the outskirts of Qamishli, with the Kurds launching their retaliatory attacks of their own. A bombing just this week of a Kurdish village in the oil-rich Hasaka province killed 11 civilians, which the Kurdish National Council called a “serious escalation by the regime”.

In addition, in recent days Syrian rebel groups have started attacking army positions in Hasaka and more importantly on Qamishli itself.

It is not clear whether the recent Arab-rebel attacks in Hasaka is in coordination with the Kurds, but judged by recent events, the Arab rebels are unlikely to have a launched an attack that would have risked a Kurdish backlash as seen in the past.

If the Syrian rebels and Kurdish parties can muster a workable and long-term understanding, the liberation of Qamishli and indeed all of north-eastern Syria would form a formidable enclave against the regime.

The PKK is a card that Syria has effectively used against Turkey in the past, and unsurprisingly Syrian support increased for the PKK rebels after Turkey became key actors in the Syrian struggle and provided major support to the Syrian opposition.

Assad successfully split the Syrian opposition and even the Kurds. But the recent change of Kurdish stance on the ground and a truce that has taken hold between Islamist rebels and the YPG forces is perhaps more linked to developments in the peace process in Turkey than direct changes in Syria.

Turkey is on the verge of historic peace with the PKK and significant strides have been taken since the turn of the year to end the armed rebellion and find a long-term solution to the Kurdish question.

The timing of developments in Ankara is noticeable. Turkey, seeking to became a major force in the new Middle East that is been laid, is facing the prospect of a de facto Kurdish state in Syria alongside the already strong and strategically important Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The Kurdish reality on its doorstep has expedited the quest for peace. A lack of long-term peace in Turkey would severely undermine stability in Turkey and its regional influence.

The effect of the PKK peace process can be seen with a thawing of ties between Ankara and the PYD. If the PKK successfully ends its armed struggle, then for Turkey, the PYD and particularly a Syrian Kurdish region will be much more tolerable.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently put a list of conditions for any engagement with the PYD, a far cry from a previous stance of no dialogue at all. Although the idea of “pre-conditions” has not gone down too well with the PYD leadership, a level of dialogue is inevitable and somewhat natural and the conditions set when studied are not real obstacles. These conditions include not siding with the Assad regime, avoiding “fait accompli” until a parliament is formed and not supporting terror in Turkey.

The Turkish stance is also linked to its increasing frustration with the prolonged nature of the Syrian war and Assad’s stubborn grip on power. The Kurds, whose areas includes much of the country’s oil wealth, have the strength to turn the tide against the regime and close the one-loop in the north-east of the country that has acted as a breathing space for the regime.

All the while, the West continues to sluggishly ponder their next move in Syria with thousands of Syrian dying each day. While the Western powers have been far too slow to devise a strategy in Syria, Islamist groups who have proved the most coordinated and affective against the regime have filled the vacuum.

As a result of the West’s inaction, there is now a race between Free Syrian Army moderates and the increasingly influential Islamist rebels to take Damascus. The Islamist groups will now have a seat at the Syrian table in the aftermath of the conflict whether the West likes it or not. Failing that, another civil war will mark the end of this one.

As for the Kurds, who are also integral components to any future Syria, a more concrete outreach by Syrian opposition forces and Turkey as well as more recognition and support from Western powers could well mean the pendulum can swing against Assad.

Kurdistan may well be divided, but increasingly the Kurdish borders are been eroded. Future harmony and the attainment of peace in Turkey are linked to Syria and beyond. For example, the PKK will likely maintain a condition that Turkey does not meddle in Syrian Kurdish affairs or adopt any policies against a future Syrian Kurdistan.

Imagine if Kurdish autonomy or rights were not granted in a future Syria and a war broke out, would the PKK and Turkish Kurds stand idle? Could Ankara really intervene in such a situation without aggravating the Kurds? Either way, peace and stability cannot be achieved in any part of Kurdistan, if other parts prove volatile or restive.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

The many regional dimensions of the Syrian war

Syria was always going to be a special exception to the Arab Spring. In contrast to Egypt and Libya, its religious and ethnic framework, political alliances, strategic location and above all else its potential to instigate heat waves across the region was always going to make regional and foreign powers tip-toe that much more carefully.

However, directly or indirectly, the battle in Syria is hardly restricted to Syrians themselves. A deep underlying proxy war is already taking place in Syria that brings together many influential parties with their own interests in the conflict and the eventual outcome in Syria.

Turkish alarm

Relations between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Turkey rapidly faded after the start of the revolution. Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and other pro-rebel foreign powers and Turkey itself, have been supporting the rebels indirectly from Turkish territory.

Regional powers have restrained from direct intervention in Syria, but a Syrian mortar attack that landed in the Turkish border town of Akcakale last week killing 5 Turkish civilians, resulting in retaliatory attacks by Turkey for a number of days, showed just how quickly the fire of civil war can burn across a far reaching forest.

Cross border tensions in the north are hardly new and other stray Syrian bullets and mortars have already fallen across the border in Turkey, and in Jordan and Lebanon for that matter, not forgetting the hotly-disputed downing of a Turkish jet reportedly in international waters fresh in the memory.

But the deaths in Akcakale were a red-line and Turkish parliament was quick to authorise symbolic cross-border operations if the needs arise to serve as a strong warning, even if in reality Turkey is far from jumping in to the drums of war.

Matters were hardly helped as further stray Syrian mortars landed in Turkish fields in the Hatay province on Saturday, just days after Syria had offered a rare apology and vowed not to repeat the incidents.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Syria would pay a “big price” and that Turkey would not shy away from war if provoked, stating “those who attempt to test Turkey’s deterrence, its decisiveness, its capacity, I say here they are making a fatal mistake.”

Clearly, Turkey and its allies do not have the stomach for direct intervention at the current time, due to the intense regional escalation it would cause. On another day, Turkey may well have had the pretext to strike back with more fire-power or even declare all-out war, but such a solitary move without some allied coalition would be detrimental to Turkey both politically and in terms of its own stability and security.

UN and NATO response

Both the UN and NATO issued a strong rebuke to Syrian actions.

NATO demanded “the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally” and pressed the Syrian regime to “put an end to flagrant violations of international law.”

While the UN Security Council strongly condemned the provocations by the Syria regime in rare agreement after hours of negotiations and stated that the incident  “highlighted the grave impact the crisis in Syria has on the security of its neighbours and on regional peace,” and “demanded that such violations of international law stop immediately and are not repeated.”

If it was not for the staunch support of Russia and China, a Western backlash on Assad would have been much more stern and direct. However, the UN text that was issued showed the increasingly difficult predicament of Moscow as it was forced to make concessions over the cross-border crisis whilst trying to maintain calm.

Regional ramifications

The war in Syria has already split the West along Cold War lines and polarised the region. The latest escalation in tensions between Syria and Turkey threatened to introduce a whole new dimension to the Syrian conflict but is not a unique danger.

Clashes have already taken place in Lebanon between pro-Assad and pro-rebel groups inside Lebanon and border skirmishes are not rare as the battle has ubiquitously spilled over. Both Iraq and particularly Lebanon have similar sectarian connotations that introduce vested interests in the Syrian conflict.

The influential Shiite group Hezbollah based in Lebanon and closely aligned with Iran, has reportedly assisted Syrian forces but in spite of stirring of old sectarian wounds in Lebanon, the major factions have shown restraint with the bitter 15-year civil war still etched in the memory.

Baghdad, who is closely entangled with Tehran, has come under pressure from its dismayed US ally for its Syrian position and pressed to cease underhand support of the Syrian regime or allow Iran logistical access to send arm shipments to Syria. While Nouri al-Maliki is careful not to alienate foreign partners, they are clearly in favour of the current regime and not the Sunni dominated rebel movement. Some even ascribe the resurgence of Sunni attacks and groups in Iraq to the deepening sectarian conflict in Syria and the rise of Sunni power in Syria.

Israel with its occupation of the Golan Heights on the direct doorstep of the Syrian conflict, and with Iranian supported Hezbollah on the other flank, knows it can also be easily dragged into the battle.

While the Syrian crisis may have split the Arab world largely under sectarian lines, it is perhaps the Kurdish issue that may prove the most destabilising of all.

The Kurdistan Region has provided a natural helping hand to its Syrian Kurdish brethren, with Syrian Kurds using the security and political vacuum to claim de-facto autonomy and break from the shackles of Arab suppression.

On the other hand, Assad’s forces, weary of Turkish intervention or even the creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria, have strategically ceded Kurdish border areas to avoid bloodshed with the Kurds and to delimit the rebel movement and at the same time create their own buffer zone.

Turkey has already suffered to a great extent with the establishment of the Kurdish region and renewed support of the PKK in Damascus, which was a ploy by Syria to only deter a Turkish incursion but was also a tool to punish the Turks for their support of the Sunni rebel movement.

Turkey is acutely aware, that with PKK attacks on a rapid rise in Turkey and Kurdish passions running high across the Syrian-Turkish divide, a unilateral incursion may open up unwanted new fronts.

A Turkish move into Syria could well see Iran ratchet its increased support for Kurdish rebels or embolden the Syrian forces with renewed military assistance.

With Iraq, Iran and to a lesser extent Lebanon on one side, Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries, Jordan and Egypt have promoted and aided the rebel cause through proxy forces while at the same time trying to keep the conflict at arm’s length.

Syrian game changer

No war drives on indefinitely and something will have to give sooner or later. While the West and pro-rebel regional forces have been largely passive, how long can the world view a humanitarian crisis, a growing refugee influx and escalating violence in Syria as an internal issue and without ultimate intervention or the setup of some kind of no-fly zones?

The fall of Assad’s regime in Syria will have far reaching ramifications, may well see the break-up of Syria and drastically alter the political, strategic and sectarian map of the Middle East.

Both within the current crisis and in the aftermath of the war, regional powers will flock to make their stake and influence in the new Syria. Syria is far too important both now and the future to be simply left aside as a distant war.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd.net, Various Misc.

PKK enjoys new lease on Ankara-Damascus conflict

The Kurdish question is manipulated by Syria as it turns to their old PKK allies to undermine an increasingly hostile Turkey and simultaneously divide the potentially decisive Kurds back home. 

The Arab Spring may have stormed through a number of countries but for Syria it has not been such a straightforward transition.

Syria is not a clear-cut arithmetic as the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt or even Libya. Syria finds itself at the crux of the complicated and intertwined web that is the Middle East and has a hand in a number of historic tensions that continue to plague the region.

It finds itself inhabited by a disenfranchised Sunni majority under the iron fist of minority-Alawite rule for successive decades. It has a powerful hand in the socio-political equation in Palestine and Lebanon and is a major ally of Tehran. To put the icing on the cake, it houses a significant Kurdish minority that has borne the brunt of government brutality and that makes the unfolding of a post-Assad era all the more sensitive.

Over a year since the uprisings first began and Bashar al-Assad continues to cling on to power. Even though the revolt against Assad enjoys popular support from Sunni Arab countries, most Western powers, the UN and particularly Turkey, the fall of the regime is not yet a forgone conclusion.

The Syrian opposition may receive funding and overlying diplomatic support but the Syrian rebels continue to lack real firepower, cohesion and a long-term ability to capitalise on any gains.

It is easy to forget that it was not Libyan rebels that overcame the rule of Muammar Gaddafi but the sheer might of NATO air power.

The prospect of foreign intervention remains the only real game changer in Syria. This looked unlikely with the stern opposition of both veto-wielding Russia and China at the UN table but this could all change as Turkish-Syrian relations take a nosedive with Turkey becoming increasingly engulfed in the Syrian hostilities.

Turkey already plays host to the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and thousands of Syrian refugees and is embroiled in a bitter conflict with Syria’s new friends, the PKK.

The Kurdish card

Aside from regional proximity and Sunni majorities, both Turkey and Syria share a historic Kurdish problem that has been long been a thorn in the sides of the respective countries. Turkish Syrian relations greatly improved after a deal in 1998 whereby Syria withdrew its key support of the PKK and signed the Adana Agreement to preserve cross-border peace. Now with an ever increasing hard-line rhetoric and opposition from Ankara towards Assad’s ongoing rule, Syria has once again turned to the Kurds as a way of hitting back at Turkey, knowing fully well that this is one of the most emotive and sensitive bullets that Damascus can fire at Ankara.

By providing renewed support and rekindling ties with the PKK, Assad gains a key leverage against Turkey whilst simultaneously weakening the Kurdish voice back home.

One of Assad’s and Baathists key strengths has been the manipulation of sectarian sentiments in Syria to consolidate power both in the midst of the current uprisings and over the past decades. Along the same lines, Assad quickly reached out to the Kurds while the uprising was still in its infancy, knowing fully well that a united Kurdish opposition to his rule and active Kurdish participation in the revolt could easily break the back of the regime.

What the Syrian Kurds have been striving for decades, Assad promised in days as he vowed to resolve the case of stateless Kurds and increase freedoms.

The Kurds in Syria now find themselves at crossroads. The ill-fated treatment of the Kurds under the hands of the Baathists is something that the Kurds will hardly forget. However, at the same time, the Kurds are not convinced on their destiny in what will still be an Arab dominated post-Assad era.

Many Kurds feel that the Syrian National Council (SNC), with strong ties and backing from Ankara, is under pressure from Turkey to curtail Kurdish demands, particularly that of autonomy. The SNC has so far resisted key clauses demanded by the Kurds much to the dismay of Kurdish parties.

At the same time, the Kurds are mindful that they may suffer in the hands of Sunni Arab hardliners in a post-Assad era for a lack of direct support to the opposition.

It appears that under the new Syrian-PKK lease of life, the Democratic Union party (PYD), the PKK offshoot in Syria, has been given a platform by Damascus to operate and enhance its influence.

Meanwhile, a swathe of Kurdish parties united under the Kurdish National Congress (KNC) umbrella which is backed by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but in spite of their agenda to promote their demands and support the overthrow of Assad, action has not gained significant motion on the ground.

A more sincere reach out to the Kurds by Western powers, Arab League members and SNC could easily tip Kurdish scales in the battle to overthrow Assad.

The UN peace plan

The six-point plan that was brokered by the UN-Arab League envoy, Koffi Annan that should have led to a withdrawal of Syrian troops and firepower and a subsequent ceasefire, has been tentative at best.

Even if the UN plan, which has already been violated, was to work in the short-term it is always at risk of collapsing. Regardless of any such peace plans, the respective end goals of Assad or the opposition doesn’t change. The opposition and international powers will not rest until Assad leaves, while Assad will not go down without a fight or succumb to Western pressure.

Furthermore, both sides can easily manipulate the current peace plan and breach the peace. Assad forces will use the smallest of provocations to justify the notion of self-defence, while rebels will hardly want to see their hard work undone and return unarmed to their homes. The opposition know that large-scale demonstrations are the easiest and most sensitive way of testing government appetite for peace.

In truth, this is just the beginning of the conflict in Syria and UN peace plans are nothing more than preludes to justify stronger action in the future.

The current situation that awaits Assad is not too dissimilar to that of Saddam Hussein in 1991. In spite of strong opposition within Iraq and fierce diplomatic pressure at the time, a lack of real practical steps by foreign powers meant that the opposition petered out and Saddam lasted another 12 years. This is a scenario that the West is unlikely to want to repeat and the end-game is the quick downfall of Assad one way or another.

While the UN aims for peace, paradoxically there are attempts to arm the rebels and provide significant funding.

Prospects of a buffer zone

The likely scenario that would tip the scales and shatter the current picture in Syria is direct Turkish intervention. Ankara has threated to take action a number of times but hawkish voices grew as Syrian forces killed a number of civilians in Turkey in a cross-border fire exchange, including Turkish nationals.

The idea of a buffer zone has been touted for a while but owed to regional sensitivities and a number of risks were put on hold. However, it is becoming a more realistic possibility with a current spate of events that have angered Turkey and with Ankara’s lack of conviction that Assad will abide by the current peace-plan.

The creation of a buffer zone inevitably involves military deployment on Syrian soil and thus the possibility of direct confrontation with Syrian forces. Such moves may appear unilateral on paper, but will have the full backing of most neighbouring governments and Western powers with Russia likely to remain neutral.

The purpose of creating a buffer zone may appear humanitarian in nature but is intended to achieve nothing but the overthrow of Assad.  How Assad or their PKK allies will react in such an event may lead to intensified hostilities.

Either way, Ankara has go to come to terms with a post-Assad era that invariably means that the Kurds will be granted new freedoms in Syria in one form or another.

With the PKK or Kurdish nationalist question unlikely to disappear in either an Assad or post-Assad era, Turkey may find itself forced to adopt a new long-term hand in Syria.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.