Tag Archives: Iraq

Syrian Ceasefire Dissolved

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

The national ceasefire brokered between the US and Russia aiming to pause hostilities between major players in Syria lasted only seven days before falling apart. The Syrian Armed Forces General Command formally declared that “the US-Russian ceasefire deal started sin
ce September 12th is over” on September 19th which was followed by government jets bombing targets in and around Aleppo. Fraught with hesitation and both sides throwing blame from the start, the ceasefire crumbling apart throws any possible diplomatic solution into greater obscurity. Most importantly, the relationship between the US and Russia has taken a serious step backwards as both scramble to reassess and posture in the aftermath of the symbolically significant failure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Unfortunately small scale violations that may have been manageable were overshadowed by two major incidents, first the accidental US bombing of Syrian government forces on September 17th in Deir-el-Zour, and the September 19th strike on a UN aid convoy that killed the director of the Syrian Red Crescent. The convoy that was hit was on the very same path that the ceasefire was trying to protect in order to provide much needed assistance to civilians under siege in hard to reach areas in Aleppo province. Russia and Syria denied participating in the strike, though Russia simultaneously claimed that the convoy was “escorted by terrorists.”  Russia’s definition of terrorist groups was a significant concern that remained unchallenged upon the signing of the deal.

If the ceasefire had been successful, the Americans and Russians  had plans to coordinate on a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to counter extremist groups which would have heralded a great step in resolving the crisis via the two major powers working together against a common foe. Russia’s targeting of what the US designates as ‘moderate rebel groups’ is likely to resume which will further drive a wedge between the two nations. The ceasefire had excluded attacks on ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham following its formal split with Al-Qaeda, which means these jihadi groups will gain the most in the fallout of the agreement.

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Following the breakdown of the ceasefire attacks from Russia and the Syrian government escalated, causing a US intelligence official to remark the bombing campaign was one of the deadliest since the inception of the Syrian Civil War more than five years ago. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby announced that the US is “suspending its participation in bilateral channels with Russia that were established to sustain the cessation of hostilities” while also reiterating blame for the September 19th strike on Russia and the Syrian regime. Earlier that day, President Vladimir Putin stated the US was creating “a threat to strategic stability” in Syria and ended cooperation on a deal with the US on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

Approximately 430,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian Civil War as of mid-September, according to the watchdog group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The worsening of relations and evaporation of talks between the US and Russia in September stands to be one of the greatest setbacks in the war in 2016. It may be some time until US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov, or their successors, can formally broker another deal with any tangible impact on the situation on the ground. In the meantime, the US and Russia will act independently with at times overlapping and at times conflicting agendas.

At the very least, the US and Russia should aspire to coordinate attacks against their shared enemies in ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham while working towards alternatives in terms of other rebel groups.  ISIS is losing its war in Iraq to the point that the possibility of retaking Mosul, their capital in Iraq, is now more feasible than ever. If the focus on ISIS is decreased within Syria, that will undoubtedly complicate the offensive in northeastern Iraq and push back the day when over a million people may be freed from the oppressive grip of ISIS in Mosul. For both the sake of Iraq and Syria, American-Russian cooperation is pivotal, if not absolutely necessary.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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How Tikrit has Changed the War

Iraqi troops and allied militia in preparation for recapturing Tikrit

Iraqi troops and allied militia in preparation for recapturing Tikrit

Tikrit will be remembered as the birthplace of Saddam Hussein and forever associated with the legacy of the Iraq War for many, thanks to nearly a decade of conflict. Nonetheless, the recent US-led airstrikes against ISIS in the city reveal a pivotal shift in the current offensive against the jihadi radical group. This is because for the first time, American forces are bombing a target with the implicit knowledge that it will directly benefit the success of the Iranian-led militias and Iraqi government troops on the ground. In other words, the United States and Iran are indirectly coordinating together against ISIS in Tikrit.

Map of current situation in Iraq, Tikrit is within the blue circle northwest of Baghdad

Map of current situation in Iraq, Tikrit is within the blue circle northwest of Baghdad

The city of Tikrit is located not only at a crossroads between the capital of Iraq, Baghdad, and Mosul, the center of ISIS in Iraq, but it’s also at the crux of the anti-ISIS offensive. An initial American unwillingness to work with forces under Iranian command or their supported Shiite militias, coupled with a rhetoric from those forces on the ground declaring no US air support was needed, has led to an incredibly interesting scenario. Despite those actions, the US and Iran have just found themselves as odd bedfellows in an increasingly complex fight against a common foe. With the Kurds and Shia militias facing a similarly tenuous alliance in fighting the extremists around Kirkuk in the north, it looks as if the “enemy of my enemy” objective has overcome the mistrust between the vying factions to lead the charge against ISIS.

Commanding officer of the US operation Lieutenant General James Terry stated the strikes, “will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit.” The mention of Iraqi command obscures the well-established fact that especially in Tikrit the ground effort has been directed by senior Iranian military leaders. The US has avoided coordination any military actions, directly or indirectly, with Iran up until this point, but as Iranian support becomes increasingly pivotal the relationship has been impossible to ignore.

Qassem Soleimani, the highest ranking Iranian commander in Iraq

Qassem Soleimani, the highest ranking Iranian commander in Iraq

Iraq, whose military forces have been plagued by ineffectiveness and a lack of direction, have been largely enveloped by the other powers in play. Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force has played a divisive role in leading strategy within Iraq against ISIS. Likewise, the Kurds have been able to consolidate power in the north and have been slowly pushing towards Mosul, the critical city that is firmly entrenched within radical control. What is guaranteed is that Mosul will not fall from the hands of ISIS without a consolidated and comprehensive assault that is not feasible to take place for some time, though when it does, hopefully the lines between the various factions will be more clear.

Retaking Tikrit is one step, albeit a significant one, in the fight against ISIS. What remains to be seen is how Iran, Iraq, the US, the Kurds, and the other elements at play will cooperate or conflict in moving forward against them.

 

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Mission Creeping and the Ideological Battle against ISIS

ISIS, also called Daesh, militants in Iraq

ISIS, also called Daesh, militants in Iraq propaganda video

After President Obama nearly doubled the number of military advisors to Iraq (from 1,600 to 3,100) in early November, White House official Denis McDonough asserted that the move does not amount to “mission creep.” However, this action epitomizes mission creep and has set the standard for further US involvement. Furthermore, it seems the stage has been set for everything short of direct military engagement. The new US forces entering Iraq will be operating beyond the established bases in Baghdad and Erbil to train nine Iraqi brigades and three Peshmerga (Kurdish) brigades. The Government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have requested the additional assistance which will supplemental coalition airstrikes against ISIS. Participating countries in the airstrikes and military training has expanded to include the US, UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark the Netherlands and France via air intervention, while Germany, Italy, Norway Spain, and Turkey have committed trainers. Gulf nations intervening only in Syria include Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

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While previously it has been restated time and time again that there will be no boots on the ground, the definition of what constitutes boots on the ground has shifted over time. Furthermore top military commander General Martin Dempsey commented that he would “certainly consider” sending  a modest number of US combat troops for operations such as the retaking of Mosul. It is important to note a series of recent minor victories against ISIS such as the attacks west of Ramadi carried out by Iraqi forces and strikes earlier in the month that injured ISIS leader al Baghdadi. However, justifying ramping up military involvement beyond the scope of assistance would only further exacerbate the long term conflict as the war against ISIS in Iraq cannot be won from the outside.

A consequence of the perpetual direct military commitment in the region is that it will continue to provide fodder for anti-Western rhetoric. This is a prerequisite trade-off of intervention that has garnered little attention, yet it is crucial in influencing the thoughts and attitudes of many sympathetic to ISIS or caught between competing interests. Alarmingly, ISIS is indoctrinating children to glorify terrorism and resent the outside world, which will seed future hatred and perpetuate extremism based on misrepresented principles. Much of the attraction to ISIS comes from impoverished and marginalized young adults abroad, and constructive alternatives have failed to stem the flow of adherents. Both inside and outside the Muslim world, there must be further action taken on an ideological level to counter the ISIS narrative. Accurate information on ISIS,their atrocities, and their effects must be promoted in lieu of ignorance or apathy.

ISIS recruits allegedly as young as 10 in Syria

ISIS recruits allegedly as young as 10 in Syria

On the other hand, the imposition of ISIS-interpreted Sharia has not come without its own problems, as seen by internal rifts within the quasi-state. The ever changing and hypocritical regulations within ISIS on their perverted interpretations of Islam are frequently at odds within their leadership. ISIS has recently decided to relax its policies towards incoming foreign fighters, hoping to continue attracting high numbers of militants despite controversy within the organization on who should and shouldn’t be allowed in. Medical care in ISIS administered areas has brought about numerous conflicts undermining the ability of doctors under their control.These all point to the group’s need to constantly adapt to their shifting circumstances. If these confusions can be exploited, it would do all the more to undermine the radical message of the extremists.

The need to constantly counter ISIS on all levels, through highlighting their religious illegitimacy, to their unequal and arbitrary mistreatment of civilians, to their ideological extremes, will be ever present for the foreseeable future. Mission creeping will deepen the conflict without a surefire endgame, while fighting the ISIS ideology can invoke systematic opposition.

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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.

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The New War in Iraq has Begun

ISIS militants marching in seized city of Mosul

ISIS militants marching in captured city of Mosul

The Iraqi government, the United States, and the international community must recognize the situation on the ground in Iraq and label it appropriately for what has become: a new civil war. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (synonymous with ISIS) now control cities and significant territory within the country, has further deepened the fracture between Sunnis and Shias, and it has created a vacuum that the Kurdish Regional Government has capitalized upon.

ISIS captured the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, on June 10th. While the scale of the attack and the success they achieved was unprecedented, their rapid growth and brutality is nothing new. The Sunni Islamic terror group’s first major attack freed hundreds of militants from the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons occurred in July 2013, nearly a year ago. Since then they have continued to gain sympathizers, fighters, and land, and they now are fighting towards Baghdad while threatening what little stability is left in the country. In February, ISIS was disavowed from its affiliate status with al-Qaeda, and the radical group has continued to prove its effectiveness on its own in pursuit of creating a new Islamic caliphate under strict Sharia law.

Extent of ISIS influence and control

Extent of ISIS influence and control

In the attack on Mosul, the Iraqi army deserted en masse, leaving behind weapons, military equipment, and even uniforms. ISIS has even added former Saddam loyalists to their cause, stirring old animosities against the current Shia government. Thus far, the Iraqi government has proven to be wholly incapable of mounting a counter campaign to reverse the progress gained by the extremist group. At present, ISIS informally administers a volatile region spanning from eastern Syria to western Iraq. ISIS has enough resources and firepower to attack conventional security forces head on though they additionally utilize suicide bombers with devastating results.

The alliances that have been sought with tribal militias and locals to fight ISIS have fallen far short in creating a united opposition to the intruding extremist group. As a result, the US has signalled that it wishes for a new Iraqi government to be formed without the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accusing him of failing to curb the festering sectarian divisions plaguing the country. Maliki has had significant troubles appealing to the Sunni community and has marginalized many Sunni leaders in how he has approached the crisis in the western Anbar region. It is clear that without international support the Iraqi government, with or without Maliki, cannot hope to administer their own country.

Iran’s stake in Maliki and a stable neighbor in Iraq, the only other large Shia majority country, has also been brought to the forefront. Iran is already deeply involved in Syria and propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but ISIS is a common enemy for both Iran and the United States. Furthermore, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has jumped in and taken control of Kirkuk and other smaller towns previously contested between the KRG and Iraqi government. The Kurdish Peshmerga security forces have not directly fought with ISIS on a comparable scale to the Iraqi army, but they are a critical element to be reckoned with in terms of both the future of the Iraqi state and ISIS controlled territory on their border.

PM Maliki requested a state of emergency after the capture of Mosul

PM Maliki requested a state of emergency after the capture of Mosul

The nascent war currently raging in Iraq between Islamic extremists and the Iraqi government is not the responsibility of the United States. If an American says, “this is not our fight” then they are correct, the current crisis is not a fight of the United States. However, this war has developed under the current Iraqi government that recent events have suggested may be impossible to truly win. The Iraqi government needs to make further concessions to moderate Sunnis willing to stand up against the terrors of ISIS. The Kurdish factor also cannot be ignored, and as they have their own highly trained security forces (the peshmerga), parlaying with the KRG against ISIS should be an obvious option to pursue.

The wider involvement regarding the US, Iran, and beyond needs to be weighed with the larger security threat as a whole. If ISIS is able to build an autonomous, unrecognized state within the borders of Syria and Iraq that can export terrorism to neighboring countries then the priority should be to disable that threat as quickly as possible. The safety and security of innocent Iraqis, whether they be Shia, Sunni, or one of the myriad of smaller minorities, needs to be addressed as well. The US cannot and will not send a conventional military force back to Iraq in the near future. However, utilizing the resources and relationships in the region to stem the success of ISIS for the benefit of all must be pursued.

Iraq cannot continued to be ignored, and the problems it faces will continue to worsen until there is significant change in how the people of Iraq are empowered to stand up and oppose ISIS.

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The Syrian Civil War is Far From Over

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For more background information on the Syrian Civil War check out this post or read my preceding update on Syria.

At least 150,000 people have been killed as the Syrian Civil War enters its fourth year of fighting. The bloodshed has become so devastating and the fighting so entrenched that the United Nations has ceased formally counting the casualties because of a lack of verifiable information. Since the shock from learning of atrocities has subsided and without a major breakthrough by either side, coverage and interest in the conflict has waned. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the longer the civil war continues, the more the security of the whole region will be threatened, and the tougher it will be for millions of civilians to return to normalcy.

The total number of Syrians who have fled the country is now around three million according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres as 2.6 million have officially registered as a refugee in a foreign country. For comparison, if the same percentage of people were to flee the United States that would amount to nearly 42 million refugees, more than the entire population of California. Even if the civil war were to suddenly cease tomorrow, the effects will be felt for years to come for Syrians in the country and those who have resettled regionally and internationally.

The first and second rounds of the Geneva II Conference concluded quietly in February and failed to accomplish anything meaningful. A third round is potentially in the works but there is heavy pessimism on all sides because little has changed and it seems nobody is willing to truly reconcile on key issues. In terms of chemical weapons, it is still possible for the OPCW (the Nobel Peace Prize winning organization tasked with removing the weapons) to complete their mission before the proposed deadline of mid-2014. While taking chemical weapons out of the equation is a great accomplishment and should be praised, unfortunately this is only a minor element of the war at large and will not by itself have a ripple effect in lowering violence.

Spillover from the conflict is apparent through violent attacks in Iraq and Lebanon, and is causing a constant worry for Syria’s other neighbors of Jordan and Turkey. Whether it be violence directly occurring within Lebanon, or the collapse of local markets in southern Turkey, sprawling animosities and the refugee crisis are impacting the region as a whole. International and regional aid has been fluctuating depending on the circumstances, but obviously the longer the conflict goes on the costlier it will be and the more difficult it will be to properly gain the resources necessary to rebuild.

Fighting and shelling may have subsided in some areas, but it is clear that the underlying tensions are just as pressing as ever. Without any political reconciliation or any kind of formal cease-fire, any drop in direct combat between government forces and the opposition could very well translate to an increase in irregular and indirect fighting. Unfortunately too many Syrians and international fighters on both sides are still making the choice to enter the battlefield and risk their lives instead of suing for peace or seeking alternative solutions. A cessation to the bloodshed cannot be instituted successfully without the acquiescence of fighters on the ground, and the process cannot move as quickly in the right direction without international resources and assistance.

What can be done is to not ignore or brush aside the problems of Syria as ‘business as usual.’ These are real people who may be a half a world away but deserve the world’s attention because the atrocities and the devastation have continued and will continue. A renewed effort at seeking political reconciliation and an emphasis on how little violence has accomplished thus far should be a priority. There are next to no opportunities present for either side to seriously consider putting down their weapons because the incentives to disarm have been too few, and too many grievances have not addressed. Even small, concerted efforts towards a cease-fire could have beneficial impacts in the long term. Syria will not conclude its civil war until the Assad issue has been resolved, and the opposition has presented a real alternative.

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Iraq at Year’s End

Iraq Sunni anti-government rally in May

Iraq Sunni anti-government protesters in May

It has become clear that 2013 will be the deadliest year Iraq has experienced since 2008. Looking ahead, 2013 will likely be looked at in retrospect in one of two ways. Optimistically, if violence were to subside after 2013, then this year may be viewed as a late spike in conflict before a return to relatively lower levels of violence. On the other hand, the more likely outcome will show that 2013 is a shift from the relatively lower levels of violence experienced in 2008-2012 that will only continue to worsen in the foreseeable future. We all hope for the former, but should expect the latter.

The most recent developments include the US sending 75 Hellfire missiles and dozens of unarmed reconnaissance drones  to help counter the growing power of al-Qaida affiliate groups. This is the first significant public boost in security aid since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with President Obama in early November. However, the assistance is expected to have a relatively minor effect in turning the tide against extremists, especially compared to the effects armed drones or the requested Apache attack helicopters could have.

The recon and intelligence support that the US has and will continue to provide to Iraq is critical to both countries’ long term interests in combating terrorism. Providing attack helicopters or more advanced weaponry which have been blocked by Congress is a much thornier issue that has yet to be resolved. Pressuring Maliki and the Iraqi government to act more inclusively towards the Sunni populace in the country is important for the future functionality of the state. The war against extremism cannot be won by the US alone, and it cannot be won by drones alone either.

The sectarian element of the open war in Iraq is perhaps the most significant issue that needs to be addressed moving forward. On Christmas, several attacks targeting Christians that killed dozens proved yet again that a small minority of Sunni extremists wish to deepen the ethnic and religious divides that make up the country. It will be much harder to change the minds of those who are committed to radical ideology in comparison to empowering the populace to stand together against them, though the latter is by no means a straightforward task. The average Iraqi knows of the devastation that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) al-Qaida affiliate can inflict on the country, but in areas where ISIL has a strong presence turning to the government is incredibly risky.

Thus, in looking to the future of Iraq there are two key elements that need to be advanced hand in hand. The government and international community needs to support and assist the Iraqi populace in standing up to and opposing terrorism and sectarian violence of all forms. Secondly, the West and Baghdad need to identify and subvert extremist resources as effectively as possible with the limited resources that are made available to them. Both of these are lofty and generalized goals in response to an incredibly complex crisis, but escalating the conflict via overwhelming military force will produce unintended consequences, and ignoring the problem will only make it worse. The situation in Iraq can improve, but it cannot be done overnight.

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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)

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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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