Category Archives: Kurds

Updates from Iraq and Syria: Turkey Stepping Up Involvement Abroad

Woman mourning at the mass funeral of bombing victims in Suruc, Turkey

Woman mourning at the mass funeral of bombing victims in Suruc, Turkey

After the May ISIS siege on Ramadi that captured the regional capital of Iraq’s largest province,  US defense secretary Ash Carter blamed a “lack of will” within the Iraqi military for the significant loss. Among the soldiers who retreated from Ramadi, there was significant frustration and disillusionment with the Iraqi military leadership which prompted questions of whether the city was sold out to ISIS. Since the fall of Ramadi, more local Sunni fighters and Shia militias have joined the fight, the latter in dramatically increased numbers.

Turkey3

Map of Kurdish YPG and ISIS controlled territory

More than 55,000 left Ramadi upon the ISIS takeover according to the UN Population Fund, the majority of which came to Baghdad, 75 miles to the east of the Anbar capital. In response to the loss, Iranian Quds Force leader Major General Qassem Soleimani stated, “Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran.” Soleimani went on to criticize the US as well as the governments of Iraq and Syria for the recent gains by ISIS.

Analysts of the conflicts have noted recent developments have significantly changed the long term options for both Iraq and Syria. Thomas Ricks of Foreign Policy reiterated that the Obama administration’s goal to eradicate ISIS is unachievable because, “you cannot destroy a movement.” Ricks went on to point out the logistical and military drawbacks that have plagued the military response to ISIS and proclaimed, “If our strategy is containment, we should admit it; and the president must be prepared to explain to the American people the risks involved.” While Ricks argues containment would foster a sanctuary comparable to Bin Laden’s Afghanistan prior to 9/11, his colleague Stephen M. Walt defends containment as the best possible option when coupled with working with regional actors like Saudi, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran. Anthony Cordesman of CSIS expands on the latter, noting “Just as it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without a Syria strategy, it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without an Iran strategy.”

The largest recent development in the fight against ISIS involves the increasing role of Turkey in combating the radical jihadist group along its border. An agreement between the US in Turkey has spurred perhaps the greatest increase in Turkish involvement since the inception of the conflict. The goal of the new coordination is to create a “ISIS-free zone” within Syria on the Turkish border from which more moderate groups may operate and refugee Syrians may find safety. Turkey’s increased vigilance against ISIS comes after 32 were killed in a suicide bombing attack in the Turkish border town of Suruc. Turkey has additionally allowed US aircraft to utilize Turkish air force bases to stage strikes for the first time. Additional details are being worked out between the Turks and Americans in an ongoing strategic dialogue.

Turkey4

Turkish airbases near borders of Syria and Iraq

The dark side of the increased Turkish military activity is that it has reignited their conflict with the Kurds, as a two year cease-fire agreement is already deteriorating between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Many have questioned Turkey’s newfound motivation to combating ISIS as a cover for renewing their offensive against Kurdish militant groups. Turkey has long been accused of not taking on the ISIS threat as directly as it should, but its evolving position will show in due course the regional power’s objectives. Kurdish-led fighting units known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria have made stunning gains against ISIS near their headquarters in Raqqa, recapturing the critical Liwa 93 base and more recently together with Syrian government units they overtook significant areas in and around the city of Hassakeh. There are significant differences between the PKK and YPG, though it is clear more Turkish involvement will make Kurds across both countries a little uneasy.

Thus, the balancing act the US has been playing between the Turks and Kurds in the fight against ISIS is going to become ever more complicated. US and its NATO allies, including Turkey, need to prioritize the campaign against ISIS over the Turkish feud with Kurdish militant groups. Many Kurdish units have achieved great successes against ISIS, and if Turkey is to focus too much on escalating the tensions with them then the only beneficiary would be ISIS and other extremist groups. Now more than ever, the involvement of neighboring regional actors will play a larger role in the fate of Iraq and Syria.

2 Comments

Filed under Iraq, Kurds, Syria, Turkey

Civilians Key for Fight Against Islamic State

Yazidi Woman and Child resting after fleeing from IS

Yazidi Woman and Children resting after fleeing from IS

Over the course of the last several months, the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or alternatively as ISIS) has rebranded themselves as the Islamic State (IS) and established an informal caliphate across large swaths of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The Islamic State has swiftly asserted control over the residents of the cities it has captured, driving out hundreds of thousands of refugees in the process. IS has specifically targeted non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim minority groups including Yazidi, Christian, Shabak, and Turkomen peoples in what Amnesty international has described as ethnic cleansing. Militants from IS have staged mass executions, coerced conversions to Islam under the penalty of death, and have forced women and young girls into sexual slavery. These deplorable acts persist unabated in areas under IS control as the extremist jihadists continue to seize territory and threaten to further destabilize the region.

Man about to be executed by Islamic State militant

Man about to be executed by Islamic State militant

The Islamic State is embroiled in direct fighting with Syrian government forces, anti-Assad rebel groups, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Shiite militias, and Iraqi government forces. Kurdish and Iraqi forces, in tandem with US airstrikes, achieved a key strategic victory when the Mosul Dam was retaken on August 17th. The US has carried out over 150 airstrikes since the initial attacks in early August, and President Obama has noted that it will likely be an extended campaign as part of the offensive to degrade and destroy IS. As a result of US involvement, a representative of the Islamic State executed American journalists James Foley in a highly publicized event. Steven Sotloff, an American-Israeli journalist, was beheaded days later. Anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric has been a staple of the Islamic State, hoping to incite additional extremists to join their cause. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has warned that the jihadist group could reach Europe in a month if left unchecked in the Middle East, and the number of foreign fighters joining the IS ranks is staggering.

The severity of the threat the Islamic State poses is only now being recognized. What has not been appropriately addressed in the discourse is the appalling and inhumane treatment of minority groups and women under the banner of the Islamic State. The UN on September 1st approved an investigation into human rights abuses by the Islamic State on an ‘unimaginable scale’ but it is likely to reveal what is already being heard from individual accounts, but largely ignored.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State

The Yazidis are a mostly Kurdish ethno-religious minority who follow elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, and have lived in northern Iraq for centuries. The Shabak people are a separate ethnoreligious group who have a distinct language, culture, and religion. Along with Iraqi Christians, Turkomen, and smaller minority groups, they have been persecuted relentlessly by Islamic State militants. In some cases they are offered the choice of paying a monthly ‘jizya’ tax or the option to flee, but in many other cases these people are killed en masse. Women and girls captured through jihad have been sold as sex slaves and repeatedly raped, justified under a perverted interpretation of Islam. The barbarity has been widely documented from refugee reports, but has received little attention as it is impossible to ascertain the extent of the crimes. These minorities and civilians are critical to the future of the region, as they will ultimately determine who to support, complicity or explicitly, through the long road ahead. IS would not be as powerful as they are today if not for the exploitation of the grievances of marginalized Sunnis and other groups, and it will not be easy to win them back.

In President Obama’s speech on September 10th, he repeated the goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State. France has recently announced its intention to join in striking IS targets. The focus on eliminating the jihadist group ignores a common mistake that has plagued Western involvement abroad for far too long. The airstrikes that helped free some 20,000 Yazidis from Mount Sinjar saved countless lives, and such actions on humanitarian grounds must continue to protect civilians. Working with regional and international partners is a necessity, but any boots on the ground risk worsening grievances. The idea that foreign powers can ‘systematically’ eliminate IS is shortsighted. The goal should not be to defeat an abstract enemy that will always exist in some form, but rather to enable the locals to reject the extremists that continue to thrive on discontent and conflict. The US and other powers must think forward to what will happen as soon as the air campaigns cease and what will emerge afterwards. It is necessary to retake what IS has captured, but it is impossible to do so without creating new enemies in the process. The US should not stand idly by, but it should reevaluate what it realistically hopes to achieve. Taking back cities without a plan on how they will be administered in the wake of IS demise only serves to create another vacuum of power. Thus all the parties involved in fighting the Islamic State need to win back the trust of the citizenry that has been left in this devastating situation. Providing stability, security, and a real alternative to the Islamic State–for minority groups, marginalized Sunnis, and all other civilians– should be paramount over any long term military objectives.

iraq8

6 Comments

Filed under Iraq, Kurds

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Iraq, Kurds, Syria, Turkey

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)

12 Comments

Filed under Iraq, Kurds, Syria, Turkey