Iraq: The battle to come

Joost Hiltermann writes: As an eight-month battle to retake Mosul from ISIS is coming to an end in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old City, a parallel battle to defeat its fighters in the Syrian town of Raqqa is gathering force. But further battles await: downstream along the Euphrates in Deir al-Zour, in the vast desert that spans the Iraq–Syria border, and in a large chunk of territory west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. To members of the US-led coalition and to Western audiences, this has been a necessary military campaign, directed at a jihadist group whose brutal methods and ambition to carry out attacks in western capitals pose an intolerable threat.

To local people, the picture is decidedly different. ISIS’s military defeat, which Western officials believe will come sometime later this year or early next, will hardly put an end to the conflicts that gave rise to the group. For much of the battle against ISIS has taken place in a region that has been fought over ever since oil was found in Kirkuk in the 1930s. The deeper conflicts here—between Arabs and Kurds, between Shia and Sunni, between neighboring powers such as Iran and Turkey, and among the Kurds themselves—will only escalate as the victors, fortified by weapons supplies and military training provided by foreign governments, engage in a mad scramble for the spoils.

When ISIS conquered Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Arab areas three years ago, it faced off with Kurdish forces along a frontline that ran through the middle of what one might call the borderlands between Arab Iraq, with Baghdad as its capital, and Kurdish Iraq, which is governed from Erbil in the north. Kurdish leaders claim that significant parts of these so-called disputed territories are “Kurdistani,” by which they mean that even if the local population is not majority-Kurdish, it nevertheless should be incorporated into the Kurdish region—and thus into a desired future Kurdish state. Many local Arabs, on the other hand, insist that these areas are inalienably Iraqi and must remain under Baghdad’s authority. [Continue reading…]

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Amid Turkey’s purge, a renewed attack on Kurdish culture

The New York Times reports: Gosto’s kebab shop is not the only diner on its block, let alone on its street. It is, however, the one that perhaps reveals most about the threat to Kurdish culture.

Its owner and manager — the cheery, chubby Vural Tantekin — turned to the kebab trade only in January, after the city authorities sacked most members of his municipally run theater troupe.

“The reason,” said Mr. Tantekin, during an interview squeezed between kebab orders, “was to stop us from performing in Kurdish.”

For people like Mr. Tantekin, the fate of Diyarbakir’s theater troupe is emblematic of an ongoing assault on Kurdish culture at large.

Since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, which enshrined a monocultural national identity, the country’s sizable Kurdish minority — around 20 percent of the population — has often been banned from expressing its own culture or, at times, from speaking the Kurdish language. [Continue reading…]

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Short of allies, Syria’s rebels are down but not out

The Associated Press reports: They are veterans of Syria’s rebellion, trying for years to bring down President Bashar Assad. But these days they’re doing little fighting with his military. They’re struggling to find a place in a bewildering battlefield where several wars are all being waged at once by international powers.

Syria’s civil war has become a madhouse of forces from Turkey, the United States, Syrian Kurds, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida as well as Assad’s allies Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias — all with their own alliances and agendas.

Syrian rebel factions, battered by defeats and as divided as ever, reel around trying to find allies they can trust who will ensure their survival.

“We have become political dwarfs, fragmented groups which hardly have control over the closest checkpoint, let alone each other,” said Tarek Muharram, who quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011.

Over the years he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States. Now he has now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Rebel leaders have limited options — none of them good. They can line up behind Turkey, which is recruiting factions to fight its own war in Syria against Syrian Kurds primarily, as well as Islamic State militants.

Or they can ally themselves with al-Qaida’s affiliate, the strongest opposition faction. It leads a coalition that is still battling Assad and dominates the largest cohesive rebel territory, encompassing the northwestern province of Idlib and nearby areas.

Or they can try to go it alone.

Despite differences with Washington, all of them hope for support from the United States. But they feel it has abandoned them after deciding to arm and finance Kurdish-led militias to fight IS.

They see an enemy in IS but also potentially in the Kurds, who have carved out their own territory across northern Syria. Now in the fight against IS, the Kurds could capture Sunni Arab-majority regions like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, to the alarm of the mainly Sunni Arab rebels.

The Associated Press spoke to a series of veteran rebels who move between Syria and Turkey and found them desperate for resources and support but intent on fighting for years to come. [Continue reading…]

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UN accuses Turkey of killing hundreds of Kurds

The New York Times reports: Turkey’s military and police forces have killed hundreds of people during operations against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey, the United Nations said on Friday in a report that listed summary killings, torture, rape and widespread destruction of property among an array of human rights abuses.

The report, by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, details how operations by the Turkish infantry, artillery, tanks and possibly aircraft drove up to half a million people from their homes over a 17-month period from July 2015 to the end of 2016.

Though the report is focused on the conduct of security forces in southeastern Turkey, the 25-page document underscores the deepening alarm of the United Nations over the measures ordered by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, since a failed coup attempt last July.

The state of emergency Mr. Erdogan imposed after the coup attempt appeared to “target criticism, not terrorism,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said here on Tuesday. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military aid is fueling big ambitions for Syria’s leftist Kurdish militia

The Washington Post reports: In a former high school classroom in this northeastern Syrian town, about 250 Arab recruits for the U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State were being prepped by Kurdish instructors to receive military training from American troops.

Most of the recruits were from villages surrounding the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, and the expectation is that they will be deployed to the battle for the predominantly Arab city, which is now the main target of the U.S. military effort in Syria.

But first, said the instructors, the recruits must learn and embrace the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader jailed in Turkey whose group is branded a terrorist organization both by Washington and Ankara.

The scene in the classroom captured some of the complexity of the U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State in Syria, where a Kurdish movement that subscribes to an ideology at odds with stated U.S. policy has become America’s closest ally against the extremists.

The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is the military wing of a political movement that has been governing northeastern Syria for the past 4 1 / 2 years, seeking to apply the Marxist-inspired visions of Ocalan to the majority Kurdish areas vacated by the Syrian government during the war.

Over the past two years, the YPG has forged an increasingly close relationship with the United States, steadily capturing land from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. airstrikes, military assistance and hundreds of U.S. military advisers. [Continue reading…]

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The Mosul Dam is failing

Dexter Filkins writes: On the morning of August 7, 2014, a team of fighters from the Islamic State, riding in pickup trucks and purloined American Humvees, swept out of the Iraqi village of Wana and headed for the Mosul Dam. Two months earlier, ISIS had captured Mosul, a city of nearly two million people, as part of a ruthless campaign to build a new caliphate in the Middle East. For an occupying force, the dam, twenty-five miles north of Mosul, was an appealing target: it regulates the flow of water to the city, and to millions of Iraqis who live along the Tigris. As the ISIS invaders approached, they could make out the dam’s four towers, standing over a wide, squat structure that looks like a brutalist mausoleum. Getting closer, they saw a retaining wall that spans the Tigris, rising three hundred and seventy feet from the riverbed and extending nearly two miles from embankment to embankment. Behind it, a reservoir eight miles long holds eleven billion cubic metres of water.

A group of Kurdish soldiers was stationed at the dam, and the ISIS fighters bombarded them from a distance and then moved in. When the battle was over, the area was nearly empty; most of the Iraqis who worked at the dam, a crew of nearly fifteen hundred, had fled. The fighters began to loot and destroy equipment. An ISIS propaganda video posted online shows a fighter carrying a flag across, and a man’s voice says, “The banner of unification flutters above the dam.”

The next day, Vice-President Joe Biden telephoned Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish region, and urged him to retake the dam as quickly as possible. American officials feared that ISIS might try to blow it up, engulfing Mosul and a string of cities all the way to Baghdad in a colossal wave. Ten days later, after an intense struggle, Kurdish forces pushed out the isis fighters and took control of the dam.

But, in the months that followed, American officials inspected the dam and became concerned that it was on the brink of collapse. The problem wasn’t structural: the dam had been built to survive an aerial bombardment. (In fact, during the Gulf War, American jets bombed its generator, but the dam remained intact.) The problem, according to Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American civil engineer who has served as an adviser on the dam, is that “it’s just in the wrong place.” Completed in 1984, the dam sits on a foundation of soluble rock. To keep it stable, hundreds of employees have to work around the clock, pumping a cement mixture into the earth below. Without continuous maintenance, the rock beneath would wash away, causing the dam to sink and then break apart. But Iraq’s recent history has not been conducive to that kind of vigilance. [Continue reading…]

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Russia is drawing a weak and unstable Turkey into its orbit

Cengiz Candar writes: When a Turkish police officer assassinated Andrey G. Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, on Monday, it felt for a moment as if the whole world shook. The killing took place at a time of global uncertainty and reminded some observers of the start of World War I.

The truth, however, is that despite shaky relations between Russia and Turkey in recent years, the assassination is unlikely to lead to more tension between the countries. Indeed, it will probably push them even closer together, as Moscow realizes that this is a perfect opportunity to draw a weak and unstable Turkey into the Russian orbit.

Mr. Karlov’s assassination is not the first test for the Turkish-Russian relationship. The war in Syria, where Russia backs the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey has supported rebel groups, has also threatened to suck the two historical powers into confrontation.

In November 2015, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian plane near the Syrian border, the first time a member of NATO is believed to have fired on a Russian plane in some 50 years. For weeks afterward, the two countries engaged in a war of words.

It never escalated, though, and in June, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey apologized to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, for the incident. Mr. Erdogan was rewarded the next month when, at least according to the story put forward by both governments, Mr. Putin was the first head of state to come to his defense after a failed coup attempt.

Since then, relations between the two countries have improved considerably. Turkey’s stability, on the other hand, has only deteriorated. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi Kurdistan slides toward autocracy

Akbar Shahid Ahmed reports: Most mornings this August, Wedad Hussein Ali, a 28-year-old Kurdish journalist with a trim beard and a penchant for spiking his hair, would get up early to drive his big brother, Sardar, to work. The trip from Kora, their leafy, ancient village in Iraqi Kurdistan’s mountains, to Dohuk, the nearest big town, took 30 minutes.

On Aug. 13, they reached Sardar’s construction site at 9:15 a.m. He got out of the car as usual. Ali drove on.

Minutes later, two unmarked cars cut off Ali. Three men got out. One pointed a gun to the journalist’s head. The others tied his wrists and placed a hood over his head. As witnesses watched, the men loudly announced that they had official business with Ali. They placed him in one of their cars and drove away.

A few hours later, a police officer called Ali’s family to say his body was at a local morgue. It had been transferred there after police in a neighboring village found it dumped by the side of a road, the police contact said. Ali had been cut, beaten and bruised, showing signs, one doctor said, of having been hit by a long object like a bat or a baton. To the family, it looked like he had suffered third-degree burns and beatings with electric cables. His eyes appeared to have been torn out with knives.

There were plenty of groups that could have killed Ali. The vicious Islamic State group maintains sleeper cells across Iraq, including in Kurdistan; Dohuk is just an hour’s drive from Mosul, the chief ISIS hub in the country. Iran-backed Shiite militias have tortured and terrorized thousands of their fellow Iraqis over the past decade, focusing their attention on people who follow the rival Sunni branch of Islam — which most Kurds do. And Iraqi Kurdistan has long hosted an internationally condemned Kurdish movement called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has issued harsh punishments, including executions, to Kurds who refuse to collaborate with it.

But Ali’s family doesn’t blame ISIS, Shiite militias or the PKK for his murder. They believe Iraqi Kurdistan’s U.S.-friendly leaders were responsible for his death.

Nine weeks after Ali’s murder, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, held a triumphant press conference. The day before, 4,000 Iraqi Kurdish fighters had begun moving toward Mosul. Scores of American advisers boosted their ranks, and American B-1 and F-15 jets provided air support.

The Kurds’ advance was sold as a key sign that the U.S. had rallied its partners in Iraq and prepared them to push ISIS out of the country for good. Brett McGurk, the top American managing the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, wished the Kurds and others “Godspeed” on Twitter. “We are proud to stand with you,” he added.

Since the U.S. and Kurdistan first began major cooperation against ISIS in August 2014, Barzani, an iconic former militia man who has been close to winning Time’s Person of the Year award, has pushed the region ever closer to autocracy.

But the Obama administration and President-elect Donald Trump have largely ignored warning signs — including Ali’s death — that point to a dark future for Kurdistan.

Parliament has not functioned since last October, because Barzani banned its speaker, an opposition politician, from entering the capital. Thousands of refugees who have sought sanctuary in the region have seen their freedoms restricted. Kurdish authorities have meted out particularly harsh treatment to Sunni Arabs, mimicking the Iraqi policies that provoked Sunni dissatisfaction and enabled the initial rise of ISIS. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have demolished the homes of Sunni Arabs in areas recaptured from ISIS. Kurdistan has subjected many of the Yazidis, the minority group whose genocide prompted U.S. action against ISIS, to painful shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine because of their affinity for the anti-Barzani PKK ― only strengthening the militant Kurdish group’s appeal. [Continue reading…]

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After ISIS, Iraq at risk of a new battle for disputed territory

The Washington Post reports: When the Kurdish peshmerga commander arrived in this town in northern Iraq last month, he knew he was there to stay.

Col. Nabi Ahmed Mohammed’s force of 300 fighters had been tasked with securing Bashiqa as part of the Iraqi military’s offensive against the Islamic State in the nearby city of Mosul. The town had been home to minority Yazidis who were forced to flee when the militants arrived in 2014.

When Kurdish troops pressed into the town, they faced sniper fire and attacks from militants in underground tunnels. At least eight peshmerga were killed.

Now, Mohammed’s men are making plans for a permanent presence in the bombed-out town, long claimed by both the Kurds as part of their semiautonomous region and by the central government in Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. seeks to maintain fragile anti-ISIS alliance in Iraq

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Obama administration is trying to preserve the fragile alliance between the Kurdish fighters and Iraq’s military that has made significant battlefield gains against Islamic State in Mosul but is now threatened by a budget battle in Parliament and uncertainty over the policies of the incoming Trump administration.

Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s top envoy for the U.S.-led international coalition fighting Islamic State, on Monday made a rare visit to a military checkpoint near Mosul, the militants’ last major stronghold in Iraq. There he assured Kurdish fighters, called the Peshmerga, that the U.S. would continue to stand by them as long as they remain united with the Iraqi government against Islamic State.

“Without the cooperation of the Peshmerga [and] the Iraqi military…Daesh would be in Mosul forever,” Mr. McGurk told Kurdish officers, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Mr. McGurk, a key official in the 68-nation alliance fighting Islamic State in Iraq and neighboring Syria, has been meeting with political and military leaders for several days. The visit comes as Mr. Obama’s presidency winds down and the fight grinds on to oust the Sunni Muslim extremist group from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Despite rapid gains since the operation was launched in October, fighting in the densely populated eastern portion of Mosul has become a bloody street-to-street undertaking, with the military and civilian death toll rising. Official casualty figures aren’t available, but Iraqi army commanders acknowledge that they are unusually high compared with previous battles to take Ramadi and Fallujah, which didn’t involve the same magnitude of urban warfare. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: The sand berms and trenches that snake across northern Iraq stretch toward Syria, some accompanied by newly paved roads lit by street lamps and sprawling checkpoints decked with Kurdish flags. The fighters here insist it isn’t the border of a newly independent state — but in the chaos of Iraq that could change.

Construction began in 2014, when this marked the front line between U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, and the Islamic State group, which had swept across northern Iraq that summer, routing the army and threatening the Kurdish autonomous region.

Since then, a more permanent boundary has taken shape as Kurdish aspirations for outright independence have grown. The frontier could mark the fault-line of a new conflict in Iraq once the extremists are defeated. A similar process is underway in Syria, where Syrian Kurdish forces have seized large swathes of land from IS.

“It was our front line, now it’s our border, and we will stay forever,” said peshmerga commander and business magnate Sirwan Barzani. He’s among a growing number of Kurdish leaders, including his uncle, the Kurdish region’s President Massoud Barzani, who say that lands taken from IS will remain in Kurdish hands. [Continue reading…]

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Amnesty slams lasting, forced displacement of Turkey’s Kurds

The Associated Press reports: Turkish authorities have forcibly evicted tens of thousands of people in security operations in a predominantly Kurdish district of southeast Turkey, a human rights group said Tuesday.

Amnesty International said in a new report that authorities have prevented their return by expropriating and demolishing homes in a policy that may amount to collective punishment.

Amnesty’s Europe Director, John Dalhuisen, said that “a year after a round-the-clock curfew was imposed in Sur, thousands of people remain displaced from their homes, struggling to make ends meet and facing an uncertain future in an increasingly repressive atmosphere.” [Continue reading…]

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Is protecting Mosul minorities an excuse for partition?

The New York Times reports: Kurdish forces on Monday morning began advancing on a string of villages east of Mosul, the start of a long-awaited campaign to reclaim Iraq’s second-largest city from the Islamic State, which seized it more than two years ago, officials said.

About 4,000 Kurdish pesh merga troops are involved in the operation to retake 10 villages, the opening phase of a battle that could take weeks or months and could involve nearly 30,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops, with American warplanes providing air support. Iraqi counterterrorism forces, which work closely with American Special Operations commandos in Iraq, are also expected to join the Kurdish forces in the coming days. [Continue reading…]

Beverley Milton-Edwards writes: As the military battle over ISIL-controlled Mosul and Nineveh has begun, questions over the future of this vital province of Iraq are flowing thick and fast.

While there is confidence that the new US-supported coalition can defeat ISIL (also known as ISIS), there are concerns that each faction holds contesting views about what comes after.

It is becoming apparent, for example, that a number of elements have well-vested interests in partitioning the province into a series of six to eight ethnic or sectarian cantons with independent rights and autonomy from Haider al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad.

Back in Washington and Congress there is some support for such solutions if they are seen as a way of protecting the rights of religious minorities such as Yazidis, Assyrians, and Chaldeans who have been mercilessly persecuted and ethnically cleansed from their ancient homelands by a genocidal ISIL.

A note of caution should be sounded at this point as such arrangements, while appearing attractive in the abstract, could make matters worse, not better. Partition can deepen schisms in fragile states.

While power-sharing in Mosul before ISIL took over in 2014 was far from perfect, it did represent forms of power-sharing which accommodated and balanced minority interests. The 2013 governorate elections returned a coalition of parties from the Kurdish KDP and PUK, Atheel al-Nujaifi’s tribal, Sunni-dominated al-Hadba coalition, and other tribal, Shabak, Yazidi, Chaldean, and nationalist parties, reflecting the possibilities of representation without territorial carve-ups. [Continue reading…]

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Baghdad bridles at Turkey’s military presence, warns of ‘regional war’

Reuters reports: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has warned Turkey that it risks triggering a regional war by keeping troops in Iraq, as each summoned the other’s ambassador in a growing row.

Relations between the two regional powers are already broadly strained by the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State militant group.

Turkey’s parliament voted last week to extend its military presence in Iraq for a further year to take on what it called “terrorist organizations” – a likely reference to Kurdish rebels as well as Islamic State.

Iraq’s parliament responded on Tuesday night by condemning the vote and calling for Turkey to pull its estimated 2,000 troops out of areas across northern Iraq.

“We have asked the Turkish side more than once not to intervene in Iraqi matters and I fear the Turkish adventure could turn into a regional war,” Abadi warned in comments broadcast on state TV on Wednesday. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s post-coup crackdown hits Kurds

The Wall Street Journal reports: A post-coup crackdown in Turkey has expanded into the restive Kurdish minority’s heartland, exacerbating tensions after a rare show of solidarity by Kurdish lawmakers with the democratically elected government.

Turkey’s Education Ministry suspended 11,285 teachers this month for allegedly supporting Kurdish separatists. The government also removed by decree 24 elected mayors from pro-Kurdish parties accused of aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the moves are part of a campaign against Kurdish terror groups, billing it as the biggest operation yet against the PKK. But the fresh crackdown worries some in Turkey and its Western allies that the policies are stoking ethnic rivalries, rather than capitalizing on a brief sense of national unity to negotiate an end to the PKK’s three-decade uprising.

As F-16s attacked the national assembly during the July 15 coup attempt, Kurdish lawmakers stood there in solidarity with other lawmakers and joined an extraordinary parliament session to adopt a resolution in defense of democracy.

But even as Mr. Erdogan has warmed relations with two other opposition parties, he has ignored Kurdish overtures and the government has ruled out peace talks.

Prosecutors have pressed on with PKK-related terrorism charges against dozens of lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, while Mr. Erdogan dropped some 1,500 charges against other opposition lawmakers for insulting the president.

“There is a systematic embargo against us,” said Figen Yuksekdag, co-chair of the HDP. “If the HDP is ostracized, that will raise the risk of a coup and civil war.” [Continue reading…]

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Silencing Kurdish voices

Diego Cupolo reports: Earlier this month, as he watched crew workers dismantle his television studio, Barış Barıştıran, chief broadcasting manager at Özgür Gün TV, told me that running a Kurdish news channel has never been easy in Turkey — but it’s never been this hard.

“In the 1990s, they would bomb our building, they would harass us, but they wouldn’t shut down our channel,” he said. “We would get punished and that was it.”

A week earlier, Barıştıran received a text message from the station’s satellite service provider saying they would stop broadcasting Özgür Gün TV, downgrading the channel from a national network to a local station reliant on landlines. With the station’s audience now diminished, advertisers dropped their contracts, and Baristiran, no longer able to afford the rent on the TV studio, was forced to move operations to another location.

“They told us thirty minutes before cutting the satellite service,” he said. “It was purely a political decision coming from above.”

Özgür Gün TV has been broadcasting from Diyarbakır, Turkey’s largest Kurdish-majority city, in one form or another since 1995. As with all other Kurdish media in the country, the station has long confronted obstacles in its coverage. It’s been penalized for broadcasting interviews with Kurdish politicians, and had its websites and social media accounts blocked repeatedly by telecommunications authorities.

In October 2015, a plainclothes police officer put a gun to the head of one of its reporters while he was covering military operations in the southeastern city of Silvan. This too was nothing new for Kurdish journalists. What mattered was that the TV crew was able to continue broadcasting afterwards.

“As you see, that’s not the case anymore,” Barıştıran said, as workers laid down a world map printed on composite board that, moments earlier, had served as the backdrop for the news studio. [Continue reading…]

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In northern Syria, outside powers have exploited Arab-Kurdish tensions to consolidate counter-revolutionary interests

Michael Karadjis writes: A week after the United States rushed to defend its Kurdish allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), against the Assad regime in Hassakeh, Washington supported the intervention of the Kurds’ Turkish nemesis to expel IS from the border town of Jarabulus.

These events suggest the outlines of a regional understanding over a reactionary solution in northern Syria.

It follows the recent diplomatic back-flips by Turkey’s Erdogan government – including Ankara’s reconciliation with Russia and Israel (who themselves have formed a very close alliance over the past year), the further strengthening of relations with Iran (which have remained strong despite Tehran’s backing of Assad), and the declaration by Prime Minister Yildirim that Turkey was no longer opposed to a role for Assad in a “transitional” government consisting of elements drawn from both the regime and opposition.

The YPG – connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – has had a long-term, pragmatic non-aggression pact with Assad, sometimes leading to minor conflict, while at other times collaborating more closely – including during the recent siege of rebel-held Aleppo.

However, Hassakeh was the first time Assad launched his airforce against the YPG, possibly in response to Turkey’s feelers. An official from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently noted that Assad “does not support Kurdish autonomy… we’re backing the same policy”. Despite YPG pragmatism, Assad has forcefully rejected Kurdish autonomy, while the rise in the Kurdish struggle in Iran suggests recent Turkish-Iranian meetings are likely anti-Kurdish in content.

Both Russia and the US have been key backers of the YPG. Russian airstrikes helped the Afrin YPG in February seize Arab-majority towns from the rebels in northern Aleppo, including Tal Rifaat. But Putin’s reconciliation with Erdogan suggests that Russia has dropped the YPG. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s intervention in Syria, with tacit Russian backing, has raised tensions with Washington

The Daily Beast reports: Russia and Iran have raised no serious objections to Turkey’s intervention. The Political Directorate of the Syrian Arab Army now speaks of the Kurdish guerrilla force [the YPG] as the “PKK.”

As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center observes, “Over the past five years, Damascus has more often referred to the pro-PKK factions in Syria by simply using their official names (such as YPG, Asayish, and so on) or by some quaintly patriotic workaround, such as ‘loyal Kurdish citizens.’ It is rare for them to employ the ‘PKK’ term and even rarer to blast it across state media.” The shift is obviously meant as much for Turkish ears as for Syrian ones.

Also remarkable is how Russia’s English-language propaganda outlet Sputnik has unblinkingly about-faced on who’s who in this war.

This week, it took the unprecedented step of referring to the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army as having “liberated” villages in Aleppo from “terrorists,” citing the Turkish General Staff’s press release. As for the terrorists, Sputnik left it an open question as to whether or not these were ISIS militants or the YPG.

Washington, meanwhile, appears to have been outflanked. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the U.S. and Turkey had been discussing a joint intervention in Syria but that President Obama had delayed approving Pentagon plans.[Continue reading…]

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