Monthly Archives: October 2013

Why You Should Care About the Kurds (Part II of II)

Kurdish Militia Members in Syria

Kurdish Militia Members in Syria

(Part I on the background of the Kurds can be found here)

Why should anyone care about the Kurds? The Kurdish role in the Middle East could drastically change the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey’s bid to the European Union and the future stability of Iraq. Most importantly for Americans, the Kurds could be a significant force in the long term war against al-Qaeda.

In Turkey, the recent reforms initiated by the government to solidify the peace with the Kurds and address their grievances fell short. Despite all the other obstacles and realities in play concerning Turkey’s accession to the European Union, a revived Kurdish insurgency would spell disaster for Turkey’s PR image. For both the Kurds and Turkey, leaving the negotiating table for the battlefield is a no-win situation.

Just across the border in Syria, Kurds are not getting the attention or credit they deserve for fighting al-Qaeda’s affiliates. The Kurds are not as concerned with who’s in charge of the Syrian government as the Free Syrian Army, so they have less of an incentive to partner with Islamic extremist groups when the going gets tough. Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, the Kurds will be in a much more consolidated position to gain significant regional autonomy or seek full independence. With more independent authority, the Kurds would have more of an incentive to drive away violent extremism from the region altogether.

The relationship between the government in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has continually been tenuous especially concerning oil revenues. Nonetheless, Iraq deteriorating into another sectarian civil war is a scenario that neither wishes to face, and the two may be forced to collaborate against Islamic extremists for the sake of stability.

The Kurds are the only major group in the region that both fought against Saddam Hussein in 2003 and  al-Qaeda in the Syrian Civil War . Although at the surface they seem like the perfect US ally in the region, it’s a very complicated relationship due to American ties with the Baghdad and Ankara. However, the United States may find more incentives in working more closely with the Kurds as Kurdish relations with their host neighbors change.

The Kurds of today are making modest political gains in Turkey, consolidating territory in northern Syria, and making bold moves towards oil autonomy in Iraq. The Kurds of tomorrow could force Turkey to concede further recognition, establish legitimate autonomy or control in parts of Syria and hold more sway in the oil and political affairs of Iraq. US policymakers should seriously consider closer ties with the Kurds while constructively working with both Baghdad and Ankara. The Kurds could definitely use an ally in the US, and the US has a chance to make a new friend in an emerging Kurdistan.

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Who are the Kurds? (Part I of II)

Kurdistan1

Kurdish Flag, Kurdistan, Iraq

(Part I of II)

The Kurdish people are a distinct ethnic group primarily concentrated in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and northern Syria. They have their own language, culture, and customs, and they have been persecuted to varying degrees by host countries for decades. They are frequently referred to as “the largest ethnic group without a homeland” and number around 40 million. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, but there are also large portions that are Shi’a Muslim and many Kurds follow smaller sects as well.

In Turkey, Kurds account for roughly one-fifth of the population. Recent democratic reforms have allowed Kurds to teach their language in schools and Kurdish towns and villages may officially be recognized by their Kurdish rather than Turkish names for the first time. Reflective of the contentious status of Kurds in Turkey, the reforms were criticized by Turkish ultranationalists for granting too many rights to Kurds while Kurdish groups have contended that the reforms were insufficient. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist group by the US, EU, NATO, and many other countries, reached a cease-fire with the Turkish government in March of this year ending 30 years of war in which over 40,000 were killed. Tensions are still high, but there is optimism towards negotiations progressing.

The Kurds in Iraq live in three northeastern provinces which together form the autonomous Kurdistan region. Massoud Barzani is the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Jalal Talabani is currently the President of Iraq. The KRG has had disputes with Baghdad over their sovereignty, especially in regards to oil development and exportation. Nonetheless, the Kurdistan region in Iraq is one of the safest in the country and its citizens enjoy higher standards of living and better infrastructure than the average Iraqi.

Within Syria, Kurdish militias fighting under the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have consolidated territory in hopes of creating an autonomous area within the new country or a separate and independent country altogether. Kurds account for about 10% of Syria’s population. The KRG’s Barzani in Iraq has threatened to intervene in the Syrian Civil War in order to defend Syrian Kurds if necessary. The role of the Kurds in the Syrian Civil War is closely tied to the future of Kurds in the region in general.

(Part II analyzes the future of Kurds in the region and may be found here)

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Lebanon’s Growing Refugee Crisis

Lebanon1In early September, the number of external refugees from the Syrian Civil War topped two million and a little over a month later the number continues to steadily rise. The number of internally displaced civilians is also alarmingly high at over 5 million. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres declared that the conflict had devolved into, “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”  Lebanon has been received the most refugees out of Syria and is now facing its own internal crisis in in trying to aid the hundreds of thousands fleeing into its territory.

At the onset of the Syrian Civil War, Lebanon had two major positions in regards to the crisis. First, it would not become involved directly in the conflict and secondly, they would not deny entry to any refugees entering into Lebanon from Syria. Lebanon is a country of only around 4 million to begin with, and the UN tally reports that over one in three of all Syrian external refugees are in Lebanon. Thus the nearly 800,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon account for over one-fifth of the country’s population.

The majority of refugees both in Lebanon and in neighboring countries are women and children. Over one-fourth of the housing for refugees within Lebanon is substandard and housing prices in Lebanon are much higher than in Syria. More than 70% of families have at least one child out of school, and the language differences play a major role. (Syrian children are more often taught Arabic in school, Lebanese students primarily take lessons in French or English). Lebanese have opened their homes for many refugees, but such assistance is expected to last only temporarily as there is already such a great strain on the country. Furthermore, there is discrimination and conflict within the refugee community in Lebanon between Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees.

(Much of the above information in the above paragraph was taken from an American Near East Refugee Aid presentation)

Concerns over the situation in Lebanon are growing and some analysts have already referred to the situation as nearing a breaking point. Infrastructure and food shortage fears have risen, but so far Lebanon has been able to marginally cope thanks to international assistance. A World Bank Report estimated that the effects of the Syrian Civil War will double Lebanon’s unemployment and cost it $7.5 billion dollars in cumulative losses by the end of 2013. Statistics are one thing, but what will be more telling is how Lebanon is able to withstand supporting such an incredibly large refugee population in the long run. While it is unlikely that the situation will completely break down in the near future, the strain of millions of Syrian refugees will test the stability of Lebanon over time. The longer that the civil war remains unresolved, the more and more Lebanon will have to rely on the international community in supporting its Syrian guests.

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Alarming Warning Signs in Iraq

Two recent developments in Iraq have further underscored the severity of the security situation that is spiraling out of control: a surprising attack in the previously untouched heart of Kurdistan and a wave of coordinated revenge bombings against Sunnis carried out by Shi’a militants.

Attack in Erbil

While not the site of the attack, the historic city center of Erbil is literally walled off, and the city is widely considered one of Iraq's safest.

While not the site of the attack, the historic center of Erbil is literally walled off, and the city is widely considered one of Iraq’s safest.

Erbil is fourth largest city in Iraq and the most populated city in the Kurdish Autonomous region. It is the capital of Erbil Province in northeastern Iraq, and hasn’t been the site of a major violent incident since 2007. Throughout the entire Iraq War, the US did not lose a single soldier in the Kurdish region.

The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group from Arabs with their own language, customs and culture. Kurds may be either Sunni or Shi’a, but are more likely to self-identify with their region or ethnicity before religious sect.

On September 29th, five coordinated bombs targeting the Kurdish security services killed six members of the Kurdish security forces. One of the bombs was hidden in an ambulance that exploded when responding to the scene. Dozens more were wounded, and six attackers were killed in response. Baghdad has an agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) so it may police its own region, and they have done a very solid job up until this incident.

Side note: KRG President Massoud Barzani previously remarked that he was committed to defending Kurds in the northern areas of Syria with the Kurdish Peshmerga military forces, which has interestingly been encouraged by Assad.

The significance of the attack is that the likely perpetrators, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are bold enough and organized enough to get through to one of the most highly defended areas of the country.  ISIL has been trying to incite groups into fighting in order to destabilize the state to their own benefit. If ISIL has the strength and ability to strike Kurdish forces persistently, it could open up another front in the nascent war.

Sectarian Funeral Bombings

Moqtada al-Sadr rally in Sadr City in 2008

Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi milita, rally in Sadr City in 2008

For four consecutive days deadly funeral bombings struck Iraq, killing over 100 people, many of whom were already mourning those lost in recent violence. What is critical of these attacks is that they reflect the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence that is reaching new levels.

Two bombing attacks in Baghdad and one near Samarra targeting Sunni funerals on September 20th, 21st and 23rd killed dozens. Previously it was relatively unheard of to hear of several consecutive attacks targeting Sunnis, but violence on both groups has increased. Sadr City, a heavily Shi’a district within Baghdad and one-time stronghold of the insurgent Mahdi Army active in the 2006-2007 civil war, was rocked by the largest funeral bombing attack that killed at least 73 on September 22nd. Further attacks since the funeral bombing wave in Shi’a neighborhoods have further underlined this growing division.

The implication of this recent series of attacks is that now it suggests revenge attacks are already are able to be executed in a devastating manner on short notice. The UN condemned the string of bombings, expressing heightened concern and urging against retribution attacks. If the Shi’a have already started responding to Sunni extremism that hasn’t been contained by the government security forces, there may be little UN rhetoric left that could dissuade them from fighting back.

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