Iraqi Kurdistan president: Time has come to redraw Middle East boundaries

The Guardian reports: The president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish north has called on global leaders to acknowledge that the Sykes-Picot pact that led to the boundaries of the modern Middle East has failed, and urged them to broker a new deal paving the way for a Kurdish state.

Massoud Barzani, who has led the troubled country’s Kurds for the past decade, said the international community had started to accept that Iraq and Syria in particular would never again be unified and that “compulsory co-existence” in the region had been proven wrong.

“I think that within themselves, [world leaders] have come to this conclusion that the era of Sykes-Picot is over,” Barzani told the Guardian. “Whether they say it or not, accept it or not, the reality on the ground is that. But as you know, diplomats are conservatives and they give their assessment in the late stages of things. And sometimes they can’t even keep up with developments.”

The political map of northern Iraq has changed drastically in the 18 months since Islamic State overran Iraq’s second city, Mosul. Kurdish forces are now in full control of Kirkuk and Sinjar and have claimed control of thousands more miles of land that had been under control of Iraq’s central government. [Continue reading…]

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Rebuilding Kobane

Tom Anderson and Eliza Egret write: “We have cleared 1.5 million tonnes of rubble,” Abdo Rrahman Hemo (known as Heval Dostar), head of the Kobanê Reconstruction Board, tells us humbly as we sit in his office in Kobanê city in November 2015. But as we walk through the bombed streets, with collapsed buildings all around us and dust filling our lungs, it’s hard to believe that Kobanê could have been any worse. “We have estimated that 3.5 billion dollars of damage has been caused,” he continues.

It’s been one year since the US bombing of Kobanê – then partly occupied by Daesh – and most of the buildings are still in tatters. Kobanê is in Rojava (meaning ‘west’ in Kurdish), a Kurdish majority region in the north of Syria that declared autonomy from the Assad regime in 2012.

When Daesh approached, the majority of those who were not involved in defending the city left, most to neighbouring Turkey. The People’s Protection Units of the YPG and YPJ remained to defend the city, and were eventually given air support by the US. Most of the refugees have now returned, only to find a city almost entirely destroyed and littered with mines and booby traps, planted by Daesh before they were defeated. As we walk around, a family waves at us from the wreckage of their home, which no longer has three of its walls. Washing lines are hung up and clothes are dried amongst the wrecked houses as people continue their daily lives.

So why is Kobanê still in ruins one year on? Unsurprisingly, the US – whose bombs caused the majority of destruction in Kobanê – has not provided any support for the reconstruction. This is a mixed blessing, as US reconstruction efforts are aimed at creating markets for US companies and generating allies for US foreign policy. But it leaves a vacuum that grassroots solidarity movements need to fill. [Continue reading…]

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Northern Iraq: Satellite images back up evidence of deliberate mass destruction in Peshmerga-controlled Arab villages

Amnesty International reports: Peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish militias in northern Iraq have bulldozed, blown up and burned down thousands of homes in an apparent effort to uproot Arab communities in revenge for their perceived support for the so-called Islamic State (IS), said Amnesty International in a new report published today.

The report, Banished and dispossessed: Forced displacement and deliberate destruction in northern Iraq, is based on field investigation in 13 villages and towns and testimony gathered from more than 100 eyewitnesses and victims of forced displacement. It is corroborated by satellite imagery revealing evidence of widespread destruction carried out by Peshmerga forces, or in some cases Yezidi militias and Kurdish armed groups from Syria and Turkey operating in coordination with the Peshmerga.

“KRG forces appear to be spearheading a concerted campaign to forcibly displace Arab communities by destroying entire villages in areas they have recaptured from IS in northern Iraq. The forced displacement of civilians and the deliberate destruction of homes and property without military justification, may amount to war crimes,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Advisor, who carried out the field research in northern Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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The Middle East is now suffering from neoconservative sins of commission and realist sins of omission

obama-assad

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes:  By now it is clear that US policy in Iraq and Syria is a disaster. In neither country has the situation been improved by the US military presence. In Iraq it empowers the same sectarian militias that forced alienated Sunnis into the arms of ISIS. In Syria it ignores, even accommodates, the regime whose brutality spawned the jihadi menace in the first place. In both its actions address symptoms rather than causes and alienate people without providing any commensurate security gains.

But would the situation improve if the United States were to withdraw? Ask the Yazidis of Iraq, whose tragedy would have been much larger had it not been for the timely US intervention; ask the Kurds of Syria, who would have been routed in Kobani had it not been for the sustained airstrikes that helped them repel an ISIS offensive. The Sunnis of Iraq might well ask who would protect them from the revanchist fury of the newly empowered sectarian militias, absent a US presence.

The issue then is not so much the fact of US military involvement as the nature of this involvement.

The United States bears responsibility for much of the current turmoil in the Levant. Had it not been for George W. Bush’s war and the fracturing of the Iraqi society, the region wouldn’t have turned into an incubator for jihadism. Had it not been for Barack Obama’s betrayal of the Syrian revolution — by making lofty promises and offering meager support; by following brave words with conspicuous inaction; and by demanding that Syrians submit their political aspirations to US security concerns — a quarter-million people would not have lost their lives, millions would not have been displaced, and thousands would not have drowned. The region suffers today from neoconservative sins of commission and realist sins of omission.

The United States could exit the Middle East and, in Sarah Palin’s immortal words, “let Allah sort it out.” But it would have condemned the region to perpetual war. Isolationism in the face of serious geopolitical challenges is not only an abdication of responsibility, but also a recipe for disaster. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey wages lengthy battle for Kurdish stronghold

The Wall Street Journal reports: To most Turks living outside Diyarbakir’s ancient citadel walls, the military operation inside the city [the de facto Kurdish capital in southeastern Turkey] is something they see only in television images of flag-draped solders’ coffins and civilians fleeing urban battle zones.

But the outcome of the broader military operation is likely to have a major impact on the rekindled aspirations of millions of ethnic Kurds in Turkey, whose ancestors’ hopes of building a Kurdish nation were thwarted by world powers after World War I.

Kurdish leaders say they want to make sure they don’t let this new opportunity slip away. “The fate of the Middle East is being rewritten,” said Selahattin Demirtas, the top Kurdish lawmaker whom Mr. Erdogan wants to see stripped of parliamentary immunity. “As Kurds, we don’t want the mistakes made 100 years ago to be made again.”

Mr. Demirtas leads a political group drawing inspiration from the successes of American-backed Kurdish militants in neighboring Syria, where they are governing an autonomous region carved out of parts of the country they’ve seized from Islamic State rivals.

“The Kurds are a growing power in the Middle East,” Mr. Demirtas said in an interview last week with The Wall Street Journal.

Emboldened by the gains in Syria and prodded by Mr. Erdogan’s efforts to marginalize his pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, Mr. Demirtas is stepping up his calls for self-rule, a politically charged stance in Turkey that skeptics see as a precursor to Kurdish demands for outright independence.

That is becoming an increasing concern for Mr. Erdogan, who has championed the expanding military and political crackdown on Kurdish activists and insurgents across the country.

One of the most important battlegrounds is in Diyarbakir, where more than 2,000 Turkish security forces have spent weeks battling small numbers of Kurdish militants who have laid deadly booby traps throughout a neighborhood that is home to some of the oldest mosques in Islamic history.

Since Dec. 2, large parts of Diyarbakir’s Sur District have been under 24-hour curfew. Many of the 24,000 people living in the now-closed military zone have fled, said Huseyin Aksoy, the Ankara-appointed governor of Diyarbakir. About 4,000 residents are believed to be trapped in their homes while Turkish forces try to uproot what the governor estimates to be no more than 100 Kurdish militants.

Since mid-December, when Turkey sent 10,000 members of its security forces into a “decisive” military operation targeting thousands of Kurdish militants who have declared self-rule in parts of cities and towns across southeastern Turkey, more than 440 Kurdish fighters have been killed, according to the military. [Continue reading…]

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Kurdish leaders call for autonomy; Erdogan accuses them of treason

Reuters reports: Kurdish groups meeting in southeastern Turkey called for self-rule on Sunday amid heavy fighting in the region as the army pushed ahead with a security operation in which it says more than 200 Kurdish militants have been killed.

The Democratic People’s Congress (DTK), made up of Kurdish non-governmental organizations, made the call after a two-day meeting in Diyarbakir.

“The rightful resistance mounted by our people against the policies that degrade the Kurdish problem, is essentially a demand and struggle for local self-governance and local democracy,” said the final resolution of the meeting, titled “declaration of political resolution regarding self-rule”.

The declaration called for the formation of autonomous regions including several neighboring provinces of Diyarbakir to take account of cultural, economic and geographic affinities. [Continue reading…]

Al Jazeera reports: Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said autonomy demands from a Kurdish leader were a “clear provocation” and his political party will be “taught a lesson”.

A Turkish prosecutor opened an investigation into Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) chief Selahattin Demirtas after he made recent calls for greater Kurdish self-governance in the country’s southeast.

Erdogan’s remarks targeting Demirtas on Tuesday could further widen the gulf between the government and the Kurdish opposition as violence increases in the region.

“A certain leader … talked nonsense and what he did is a clear provocation and treason,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul before departing on a trip to Saudi Arabia, adding the HDP would be “taught a lesson by our citizens and the law”. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s Kurdish cities become war zones

The Wall Street Journal reports: Turkey’s stepped-up military campaign to crush Kurdish insurgents has reduced some urban neighborhoods in the southeast of the country to battle zones, raising fears the conflict could escalate and spread elsewhere in the country unless peace talks resume.

Since the government last week declared what it called a “decisive” campaign to end five months of limited violence between Kurds and government security forces, young Kurdish militants in the cities of Diyarbakir, Cizre, Silopi and Nusaybin have been targeted by Turkish tanks, helicopters, artillery and snipers, according to local residents and news reports from the region.

Militants in the mainly Kurdish cities have erected barricades to seal off neighborhoods they’ve declared outside the authority of the Turkish state, and are using AK-47s, rocket launchers and homemade bombs to defend the enclaves, these residents say.

Turkish officials said Wednesday that about 170 Kurdish militants and at least 11 members of Turkey’s security services have been killed since the government’s announcement last week.

The rising death toll has raised concerns among human-rights groups, the U.S. and the European Union that the fighting could expand beyond southeastern Turkey and become more indiscriminate if both sides fail to heed appeals by Washington and Brussels to stop fighting and return to negotiations. [Continue reading…]

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Raqqa tribes challenge Syria Kurds

NOW reports: A group of tribes in Syria’s Raqqa province have warned the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) against entering areas it controls, in the latest sign of simmering tensions between ethnic Arabs and Kurds in the province where ISIS maintains its de-facto capital.

“No one from the YPG may enter the Arab areas where are our fighters are present,” the Collective of Raqqa Tribes said in a statement issued Tuesday.

The group further called on the Kurdish militia to “hand over” the flashpoint Tal Abyad, a strategic Raqqa border area populated by ethnic Arabs and Turkmen that the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has joined to its Democratic Self-Rule Administration. [Continue reading…]

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Turkish troops said to leave Iraqi camp after Baghdad orders them out

Reuters reports: Some Turkish troops started leaving their camp in Iraq and moving north on Monday, a Turkish military source and a senior official said, days after Baghdad protested to the United Nations and ordered them out.

Any move northwards would take them back closer to Iraq’s border with Turkey, but the officials did not say where they were going and it was unclear how far Ankara was bowing to pressure to bring its soldiers home.

Iraq said in early December hundreds of Turkish troops had arrived in its territory without its knowledge, calling it a hostile act.

Turkey said at the time the troops were meant to guard an international mission training and equipping Iraqi forces who are preparing for an offensive to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul, seized by Islamic State militants more than a year ago.

But the move was widely seen as a Turkish attempt to establish a greater foothold in the simmering conflicts across its border, which have already pulled in other regional and global powers. [Continue reading…]

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Top Shi’ite cleric says government should not tolerate Turkish infringement of Iraq’s sovereignty

Reuters reports: Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the government on Friday to show “no tolerance” of any infringement of the country’s sovereignty, after Turkey deployed heavily armed troops to northern Iraq.

Sistani’s spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi Karbala’i, did not explicitly name Turkey, but a row over the deployment has badly soured relations between Ankara and Baghdad, which denies having agreed to it.

Sistani also said Iraq’s neighbours should not send any troops to Iraq “under the pretext of fighting terrorism”, except with the approval of the Baghdad government.

“The Iraqi government is responsible for protecting Iraq’s sovereignty and must not tolerate any side that infringes upon on it, whatever the justifications and necessities,” Karbalai’i said in a weekly sermon.

Ankara says the troops were sent as part of an international mission to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State. Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday a withdrawal was “out of the question for the moment”. [Continue reading…]

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Kurdish fighters say U.S. special forces have been fighting ISIS for months

The Guardian reports: On a damp afternoon in Iraqi Kurdistan, a 29-year-old peshmerga fighter named Peshawa pulls out his Samsung Galaxy mobile phone, flicks hurriedly through his library until he finds the video he wants, and presses play.

The clip, filmed just after dawn on 11 September, shows four tall and western-looking men in the heat of a battle against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. “These are the Americans,” says Peshawa in a secretive tone.

One is crouched behind a machine gun firing round after round from the top of a fortified mound; another lies on his front a few feet away, legs outstretched and taking aim at the enemy with a long rifle. A third wields a long-lens camera taking photo after photo, and the last stands back, apparently overseeing the others during the combat south-west of the city of Kirkuk.

The footage, Peshawa says, is evidence that US special forces have been waging a covert war on the frontline in Iraq for months. Such a claim could alter the feverish debate over whether Barack Obama should move farther and faster against Isis in the wake of the Paris attacks.

A string of terrorist atrocities in France, Lebanon and elsewhere has intensified pressure on Obama to take a more aggressive stand against Isis in Iraq and Syria. Having won election promising to end the Iraq war, however, the president has repeatedly insisted that he will not send back ground troops. In June last year he announced the redeployment of up to 300 military advisers there but pledged: “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”

The US military denies any special operations forces involvement in combat on 11 September or in three other other incidents listed by the peshmerga. Yet in interviews with the Guardian, a dozen Kurdish fighters and commanders said that US special forces troops have been participating in operations against Isis for months.

In another video, dated 11 June, an American soldier wearing the fatigues and insignia of a Kurdish counter-terrorism unit can be seen walking alongside two dozen peshmerga in the aftermath of a seven-hour firefight with Isis militants in the village of Wastana and Saddam settlement, according to the peshmerga who filmed the video.

“Initially, the Americans rained fire on Wastana,” said Major Loqman Mohammed, pointing to the hamlet which remains under Isis control.

None of the peshmerga were willing to publish their photos or video footage for fear of dismissal, but they allowed the Guardian to watch the video and see the images on their mobile phones.

Karwan Hama Tata, a peshmerga volunteer, showed a Guardian reporter a video which appeared to show two Americans in the midst of the battle accompanied by three peshmerga fighters. He said: “They fight and they even fight ahead of the peshmerga. They won’t allow anyone to take photos of them, but they take photos of everyone.” [Continue reading…]

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Killing of prominent pro-Kurdish lawyer sparks protests in Turkey

Al Jazeera reports: A prominent lawyer and human rights defender, who faced a criminal charge for speaking in defense of Kurdish rebels, was killed Saturday in an attack in southeast Turkey in which a police officer also died, officials said.

Tahir Elci was shot while he and other lawyers were making a press statement. Two policemen and a journalist were also injured.

It wasn’t immediately clear who was behind the attack, and there were conflicting reports about what led to it. [Continue reading…]

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Rojava: Kurdish democracy without a state

Wes Enzinna visited Rojava in northern Syria, to teach a crash course in journalism: ‘‘I’m an atheist,’’ said Ramah, an 18-year-old student with a neatly trimmed goatee. A crowd of students had circled around, curious about who I was, what music I liked, how I had ended up here. None of them had ever heard of Bob Dylan or Edward Snowden or Brooklyn, where I lived. They asked if Obama really was a Muslim. They asked if everyone in America was an atheist, like Ramah. I told them there were many Christians, Muslims and Jews, though I said I didn’t believe in God.

‘‘Were you afraid when you discovered that God didn’t exist?’’ Ramah asked, imploring me with earnest, walnut-brown eyes.

‘‘Why would I be afraid?’’ I said.

‘‘In a world where there’s no God,’’ he said, ‘‘how do you deal with the constant fear of dying?’’

The next morning, I met with a student named Sami Saeed Mirza. I had barely slept, kept up by the intermittent swoosh of fighter jets and a series of loud thuds, whether distant bombs or the innocuous din of street life, I couldn’t tell. At one point, I went onto the rooftop and looked out at the horizon, a squiggly line of undulating sand spotted with a few stone huts. It was beautiful, in its way, a whole world painted with a single brush stroke of brown. Somewhere out there was the front line.

Mirza, 29, had sad, drowsy eyes and wore thick spectacles perched low on his nose. He hadn’t noticed the commotion. ‘‘I’m used to the sound,’’ he said. Unlike other students at the academy, Mirza grew up outside Syria in a small village in western Iraq. He is not a Muslim or an atheist but a Yazidi, part of an ethnic and religious minority that practices a modern form of Zoroastrianism. He hadn’t heard of Abdullah Ocalan until recently. In August 2014, ISIS extremists attacked his village, near the city of Sinjar, and butchered as many as 5,000 of his neighbors. While Mirza and his family were trapped on a mountain for four days, waiting to die, a battalion of women — Y.P.J. soldiers — fought through the ISIS lines and created a path for them to escape. Mirza, severely dehydrated and on the verge of collapse, fled.

‘‘The battle made me think of women differently,’’ he told me. ‘‘Women fighters — they saved us. My society, Yazidi society, is more, let’s say, traditional. I’d never thought of women as leaders, as heroes, before.’’

Mirza heard about the academy at a refugee camp, and here his education in feminism had continued. He and his fellow students studied a text that Ocalan wrote on gender equality called ‘‘Liberating Life.’’ In it, Ocalan argues that problems of bad governance, corruption and weak democratic institutions in Middle Eastern societies can’t be solved without achieving full equality for women. He once told P.K.K. militants in Turkey, ‘‘You don’t need to be [men] now. You need to think like a woman, for men only fight for power. But women love nature, trees, the mountains. … That is how you can become a true patriot.’’

‘‘I’ve learned the truth,’’ Mirza said. ‘‘The leader has shown us the correct interpretation of society.’’ Rojava’s Constitution — its ‘‘social contract’’ — was ratified on Jan. 9, 2014, and it enshrines gender equality and freedom of religion as inviolable rights for all residents. The Sinjar massacre gave Rojavan authorities an opportunity to show that they were deadly serious about protecting these rights. Still, I wondered if the rescue of Yazidis like Mirza wasn’t also strategic, a way to enlist the minority group in the defense of Rojava.

‘‘Why do you think the Y.P.G. and Y.P.J. saved you?’’ I asked.

‘‘Maybe I know, maybe I don’t,’’ he said. ‘‘But they are the only ones who came to help us. America didn’t come. The pesh merga’’ — Iraqi Kurdistan’s military — ‘‘didn’t come.’’ Now he wanted to devote his life to the teachings of Ocalan. ‘‘I was nothing before coming to the academy,’’ he said. [Continue reading…]

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Arabs accuse Kurds of exploiting war with ISIS to grab land

The Wall Street Journal reports: After U.S.-backed Kurdish forces drove Islamic State militants from the Iraqi city of Sinjar this month, some of the fighters involved began looting houses of Sunni Arabs suspected of ties to the extremist group.

A week later in the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, Kurdish fighters expelled about 60 Sunni Arab families who had remained in the ruins of one village, according to local officials and residents. They said it was one of more than 50 Arab villages razed or partially demolished by Kurds who recaptured them from Islamic State since July. The Kurds suspected some male relatives of the expelled families of fighting with the Sunni radicals of Islamic State.

Sunni Arab officials and residents in Iraq accuse Kurds of exploiting the war with Islamic State to grab land. In Syria as well, Sunni Arabs are either fleeing, being forced out or are blocked from returning to areas seized by Kurds or Iran-backed groups, according to residents and some of the Kurdish fighters themselves.

It is part of a broader shift in Iraq and Syria, where opponents of Islamic State such as Shiites and Kurds are claiming recaptured land and oil resources that have long been in dispute. These conquests are redrawing internal boundaries, displacing communities and deepening ethnic and sectarian tensions in the two increasingly fragmented countries. [Continue reading…]

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Kurds can’t be Syria’s saviors

Hassan Hassan writes: A senior commander of the Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade, one of the SDF factions [in the newly-formed Syrian Democratic Forces], told the authors that uneven American support for the YPG enabled the Kurds to dictate terms to the rest of the factions. The main task of the new alliance “is to protect their areas only because the Kurds can’t cover all the region,” he said. “[The army] has only light weapons so it does not become too powerful.… The American support is what made [the Kurds] above the rest and impose their political goals.”

This reality was exemplified last month, when the Pentagon said that U.S. jets airdropped 50 tons of ammunition to Arab rebel forces in northern Raqqa. However, the Arab factions seemingly could not move the ammunition on their own, and it quickly ended up in Kurdish hands.

There are three reasons the subordinate role for Arab tribal fighters undercuts the alliance’s potential. First, the imbalance will undermine the military capabilities of the coalition to push against the Islamic State in Arab-dominated areas.

Second, the tribal fighters’ status as junior partners in the alliance will increasingly reduce their morale — as happened previously, when many U.S.-trained rebels abandoned the battlefield because they felt the program was aimless and disproportionally focused on counterterrorism. Tribal fighters say that U.S. support for the Kurds indicates it is less committed to tribes in the long term. They fear that nobody would come to their aid if the Islamic State returned to areas from which it had previously been expelled, as happened in Iraq over the years or in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor last year, when repeated appeals for help went unnoticed by the international community.

“Had it not been for the [international] coalition, ISIS would have reached Qamishli,” said a fighter from the Shammar tribe, which leads the Kurdish-Arab alliance’s al-Sanadid forces. “And the fact is that when ISIS wants, it could reach anywhere.”

Finally, there are widespread fears that as more areas are seized by the Kurdish-led alliance, incidents of ethnic cleansing will increase. Last month, Amnesty International released a report accusing the YPG of committing war crimes, including the forced displacement of Arab civilians and demolition of their houses. “Whenever the YPG enters an area, they displace its Arab residents,” the Shammari fighter said, referring to Arab towns in southern Hasakah. “Fifteen villages were leveled to the ground in Tal Hamees, Tel Brak, and Jazaa.” [Continue reading…]

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