Kurdish militants reportedly shoot down Turkish security forces helicopter

The Washington Post reports: They were used to stalk Russian helicopters in Afghanistan, and the United States has worked hard to keep them out of chaotic Syria. But now Kurdish guerrillas battling Turkey’s security forces may now have shoulder-fired missiles — an acquisition analysts say will seriously challenge Turkish air power and potentially intensify fighting in the region.

On Saturday, media affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a leftist militant group battling the Turkish state, posted a video purporting to show a fighter downing a Cobra attack helicopter with a man-portable air-defense system — or MANPADS — in the mountains of southeastern Turkey on Friday morning. Arms observers said this is the first time they have seen PKK fighters successfully using MANPADS in their four-decade fight against the Turks.

About four minutes into the video, the fighter, clad in camouflage fatigues, crouches on a verdant hillside with the weapons system on his shoulder. When the launcher locks on its target — a helicopter whirring noisily on the horizon — the fighter stands to fire. The heat-seeking missile swoops through the air and strikes the Cobra’s tail, sending the aircraft spinning and eventually crashing into the mountainside. [Continue reading…]

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Kurdish tensions undermine the war against ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: Amnesty International has in seven months issued two major reports highlighting allegations of war crimes by rebel and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The two reports are related to a secondary conflict brewing between Arabs and Kurds from Hasakah to Qamashli to Aleppo, which could easily spin out of control and add to the many conflicts that already plague the country.

The United States has an unintentional hand in this new conflict, and de-escalation hinges largely on whether Washington is willing to review its strategy in northern Syria, which sometimes privileges the appearance of success in the battle against ISIL over sustainable policies.

On Friday, Amnesty published a damning new report accusing rebel factions in Aleppo, organised under the Army of Conquest, of committing acts that may amount to war crimes. The rights group said it gathered strong evidence of indiscriminate attacks that killed at least 83 civilians, including 30 children, in the Kurdish-dominated Sheikh Maqsoud between February and April.

On October 13 last year, Amnesty issued a report, Forced Displacement and Demolitions in Northern Syria, accusing the Kurdish political party PYD, the Democratic Union Party, of carrying out a wave of forced displacement and home demolitions that it also said may amount to war crimes. The shelling of civilians by rebel forces cannot be justified, and perpetrators must be punished and restrained by their regional backers. The attacks on Sheikh Maqsoud were encouraged by some supporters of the opposition living abroad, after the PYD’s military wing, the YPG, attacked the rebels in February. Worse, such calls continue to be heard and more indiscriminate attacks can be expected. [Continue reading…]

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In remote corner of Iraq, an unlikely alliance forms against ISIS

Reuters reports: They share little more than an enemy and struggle to communicate on the battlefield, but together two relatively obscure groups have opened up a new front against Islamic State militants in a remote corner of Iraq.

The unlikely alliance between an offshoot of a leftist Kurdish organization and an Arab tribal militia in northern Iraq is a measure of the extent to which Islamic State has upended the regional order.

Across Iraq and Syria, new groups have emerged where old powers have waned, competing to claim fragments of territory from Islamic State and complicating the outlook when they win.

“Chaos sometimes produces unexpected things,” said the head of the Arab tribal force, Abdulkhaleq al-Jarba. “After Daesh (Islamic State), the political map of the region has changed. There is a new reality and we are part of it.”

In Nineveh province, this “new reality” was born in 2014 when official security forces failed to defend the Sinjar area against the Sunni Islamic State militants who purged its Yazidi population.

A Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) came to the rescue, which won the gratitude of Yazidis, and another local franchise called the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) was set up.

The mainly Kurdish secular group, which includes Yazidis, controls a pocket of territory in Sinjar and recently formed an alliance with a Sunni Arab militia drawn from the powerful Shammar tribe.

“In the beginning we were unsure (about them),” said a wiry older member of the Arab force, which was assembled over the past three months and is now more than 400-strong. “We thought they were Kurdish occupiers.”

Their cooperation is all the more unusual because many Yazidis accuse their Sunni Muslim neighbors of complicity in atrocities committed against them by Islamic State, and say they cannot live together again. [Continue reading…]

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Mosul: Suspicion and hostility cloud fight to recapture Iraqi city from ISIS

The Guardian reports: At the bottom of a hill near the frontline with Islamic State fighters, the Iraqi army had been digging in. Their white tents stood near the brown earth gouged by the armoured trucks that had carried them there – the closest point to Mosul they had reached before an assault on Iraq’s second largest city.

For a few days early last month, the offensive looked like it already might be under way. But that soon changed when the Iraqis, trained by US forces, were quickly ousted from al-Nasr, the first town they had seized. There were about 25 more small towns and villages, all occupied by Isis, between them and Mosul. And 60 miles to go.

Behind the Iraqis, the Kurdish peshmerga remained dug into positions near the city of Makhmour that had marked the frontline since not long after Mosul was seized in June 2014. The war had been theirs until the national army arrived. The new partnership is not going well.

On both sides, there is a belief that what happens on the road to Mosul will not only define the course of the war but also shape the future of Iraq. And, despite the high stakes, planning for how to take things from here is increasingly clouded by suspicion and enmity. [Continue reading…]

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How the curse of Sykes-Picot still haunts the Middle East

Robin Wright writes: In the Middle East, few men are pilloried these days as much as Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Sykes, a British diplomat, travelled the same turf as T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), served in the Boer War, inherited a baronetcy, and won a Conservative seat in Parliament. He died young, at thirty-nine, during the 1919 flu epidemic. Picot was a French lawyer and diplomat who led a long but obscure life, mainly in backwater posts, until his death, in 1950. But the two men live on in the secret agreement they were assigned to draft, during the First World War, to divide the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement launched a nine-year process — and other deals, declarations, and treaties — that created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since.

“Hundreds of thousands have been killed because of Sykes-Picot and all the problems it created,” Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, the Governor of Iraq’s Erbil Province, told me when I saw him this spring. “It changed the course of history — and nature.”

May 16th will mark the agreement’s hundredth anniversary, amid questions over whether its borders can survive the region’s current furies. “The system in place for the past one hundred years has collapsed,” Barham Salih, a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, declared at the Sulaimani Forum, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in March. “It’s not clear what new system will take its place.”

The colonial carve-up was always vulnerable. Its map ignored local identities and political preferences. Borders were determined with a ruler — arbitrarily. At a briefing for Britain’s Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, in 1915, Sykes famously explained, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk.” He slid his finger across a map, spread out on a table at No. 10 Downing Street, from what is today a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast to the northern mountains of Iraq.

“Sykes-Picot was a mistake, for sure,” Zikri Mosa, an adviser to Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, told me. “It was like a forced marriage. It was doomed from the start. It was immoral, because it decided people’s future without asking them.” [Continue reading…]

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Fighting erupts in Iraq, and ISIS isn’t part of it

The Washington Post reports: Kurdish troops and Iraqi Shiite forces exchanged mortar and machine-gun fire Sunday in a flare-up that killed at least 12 people and raised concerns about the state’s ability to control an array of armed militia groups as areas are freed from the Islamic State.

The fighting broke out in Tuz Khurmatu, an ethnically and religiously mixed tinderbox town that is 120 miles north of Baghdad. Both sides blamed each other for the conflagration.

The Islamic State was pushed out of the surrounding area in 2014, but the armed groups here have since jostled for control and influence. Keeping militias under state control, and preventing them from turning on one another, is a major test for the Iraqi government as it slowly claws back territory from the Islamist militants. [Continue reading…]

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Syria peace talks — democracy left out in the cold

Saleh M. Mohamed writes: This week, United Nations talks meant to chart a path toward a peaceful, democratic future for Syria are set to resume in Geneva. But, in an absurd twist, the legitimate representatives of a large, democratically governed area in the country will not be invited to attend.

This area is called Rojava, in the northern part of Syria, and despite its frequent description as “Kurdish,” it is governed inclusively by Kurds, Arabs, and the area’s other ethnic groups. Furthermore, its self-defense forces are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the United States that have advanced toward Raqqa, the center of the Islamic State’s power in Syria.

Both in strategic and moral terms, Rojava’s existence is a rare bright spot in this conflict. So the exclusion of its representatives from the U.N. process is not only unfair, but makes no sense if the aim of the talks is to establish a viable path to democracy in Syria.

The primary reason for this injustice is that Turkey opposes Rojava’s military force, the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., claiming it is one and the same with the P.K.K., a Kurdish group with a long history of armed conflict with the Turkish government.

This is not true. Both groups are Kurdish, but the Syrian Kurds, with their Arab allies and international support, are locked in a difficult, but thus far successful, battle against the Islamic State. The Y.P.G.’s fight is about Syria, not Turkey. Its role is to defend the institutions of self-government in Northern Syria (the party of which I am co-president, the Democratic Union Party, is part of this political coalition, along with other parties and civil society organizations).

It’s a fair question to ask what kind of democracy this is. Its central philosophy is that people should govern themselves from the bottom up, and so as much decision making as possible is left to local assemblies. These assemblies, furthermore, are designed to ensure a voice for non-Kurdish minorities and for women. This is real and genuinely inclusive democracy, and it deserves to be supported, not ignored. [Continue reading…]

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Is the Kurdish plan foolhardy or first-rate?

Hassan Hassan writes: The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, made history last week when it announced a federal system in northern Syria. The declaration is both symbolic and catalytic, and there are reasons to believe it is not as foolhardy as many think. Although Syrian and Iraqi Kurds differ on many issues, the move has linked the adjoining territories controlled by Kurds, who prevail over a combined territory the size of Sri Lanka.

In Syria, the PYD controls approximately 10,000 square miles, roughly two-thirds of the territory ruled by Iraqi Kurds. In October, the party seized more territory after gains against ISIL in northern Syria. Since then, the group’s military wing, the YPG, drove out ISIL from southern Hasaka. This has galvanised Kurdish activists who dream of statehood for “the world’s largest stateless nation”.

On the other hand, the news agitated almost everyone else involved in the conflict in Syria, including putative Kurdish allies such as Haitham Mannaa, a Syrian opposition figure who has distanced himself from mainstream rebels. The US too stated it would not recognise the federacy. Turkey, unsurprisingly, rejected it.

Local populations in northeastern Syria also fear the YPG’s nationalist project, particularly after incidents, documented by Amnesty International, of home demolition and forced displacement by the Kurdish militia against Arab families.

From the outside, the project appears to be a fool’s errand. In Iraq, Kurds carved out a semi-autonomous region after the US-led coalition forces declared a safe haven inside Iraq in 1991. In Syria, the Kurds are outnumbered and surrounded by hostile Arab demographics and armed groups, not to mention Turkey. Kurdish-majority areas are also scattered throughout northern Syria. [Continue reading…]

Shiar Neyo writes: I do support the right of Kurds and other minorities in Syria to self-determination, and I do believe that federalism is better than a centralist state. However, federalism by definition requires all concerned units or parts to agree to this system of governance because they believe it is better for all of them.

Not only were other parts of Syria and other Syrian political and military forces not consulted and not involved, even people and political parties within the so-called self-administration areas were not involved in the process.

There should have been a long process of consultation and negotiation followed by a general referendum, which are clearly not possible at the moment, rather than a hasty two-day conference clearly dominated by the PYD to ‘discuss’ and agree an equally badly written and quite confused founding document deciding important issues that affect all Syrians. It was clearly a politically motivated move.

The declaration came soon after the PYD forces attacked Syrian opposition factions and took over some areas in north Syria with the support of Russian air strikes and Iranian-led ground assaults. It is indeed telling that the founding document dedicates a whole section to the “historical development of the societal problems in the Middle East and Syria and the current situation,” tracing them back to Mesopotamia. (!) Yet it does not even mention the ongoing Syrian revolution. It only talks about war and Islamist forces backed by regional powers. [Continue reading…]

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‘This is a new Syria, not a new Kurdistan’

Wladimir van Wilgenburg writes: They have been locked out of Syrian peace talks, and by extension a future Syrian government, despite controlling much of northern Syria, being the only force to successfully oppose the Islamic State and having the favour of both the United States and Russia.

On Thursday the Syrian Kurds decided on their answer to this outsider status: the formation of a new Federation of Northern Syria that would take in Kurdish-majority areas of Jazeera, Kobane and Afrin, knowns as Rojava, plus Arab towns currently under Kurdish control.

Syria’s government, opposition and regional powers have rejected the new system, saying the Kurds have no right to carve up Syria for their own purposes.

But Salih Muslim Mohammed, the co-leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest Kurdish party in Syria, said the federation should not be seen as an autonomous Kurdistan region, but rather a blueprint for a future decentralised and democratic country, where everyone is represented in government.

“There is no autonomous Kurdish region, so there is no question of recognising it or not,” he said. “It is part of a democratic Syria, and it might expand all over Syria. We want to decentralise Syria, in which everyone has their rights.

“The name is not important, we call it a democratic Syrian federalism,” he told Middle East Eye. [Continue reading…]

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Haunted by the smell of apples: 28 years on, Kurds weep over Halabja massacre

By Bahar Baser, Coventry University

Kurdish history is full of oppression, suffering and tragedies. But the gas attack at Halabja, 28 years ago this week, must surely be the most egregious.

In 1988, during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s army attacked the Kurdish province near the Iranian border with chemical gas, including mustard gas, sarin, cyanide and tabun. Survivors from Halabja say the gas smelled sweet like apples and instantly killed people who were exposed.

These attacks were part of a larger genocidal campaign mainly against the Kurdish people. Called al-Anfal, it cost 50,000 to 100,000 lives and destroyed 4,000 villages between February and September 1988. Al-Anfal referenced the eighth “sura” of the Koran, “The Spoils of War”, which described the campaign of extermination of non-believers by Muslim troops in 624CE under Ali Hassan al-Majid.

In Halabja, nearly 5,000 civilians were killed on the spot. A further 10,000 were left with serious injuries that affect their lives to this day. It was reported that more than 75% of the victims were women, the elderly and children. The attacks completely destroyed residential areas. Many of those who fled were never to return.

[Read more…]

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Kurds hope to establish a federal region in northern Syria

The New York Times reports: Syrian Kurdish parties are working on a plan to declare a federal region across much of northern Syria, several of their representatives said on Wednesday. They said their aim was to formalize the semiautonomous zone they have established during five years of war and to create a model for decentralized government throughout the country.

If they move ahead with the plan, they will be dipping a toe into the roiling waters of debate over two proposals to redraw the Middle East, each with major implications for Syria and its neighbors.

One is the longstanding aspiration of Kurds across the region to a state of their own or, failing that, greater autonomy in the countries where they are concentrated: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, all of which view such prospects with varying degrees of horror.

The other is the idea of settling the Syrian civil war by carving up the country, whether into rump states or, more likely, into some kind of federal system. The proposal for a federal system has lately been floated by former Obama administration officials and publicly considered by Secretary of State John Kerry, but rejected not only by the Syrian government but by much of the opposition as well. [Continue reading…]

Middle East Eye reports: Syrian Kurds have declared a “Federation of Northern Syria” that unites three Kurdish majority areas into one entity, an announcement swiftly denounced by the Syrian government, opposistion and regional powers.

According to Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) official Idris Nassan, the plan will involve “areas of democratic self-administration” under the federal banner, encompassing all ethnic and religious groups living in the area.

Two officials at talks involving Kurdish, Arab, and other parties in the town of Rmeilan told the AFP news agency that delegates had agreed a “federal system” unifying the three mainly Kurdish cantons in northern Syria.

According to the pro-Kurdish Firat News Agency (ANF), the “Rojava and Northern Syria Unied Democratic System Document Text” was approved after a vote from 200 delegates, which included Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, Turkmen, Chechen, Syriac and other ethnic groups.

The boundaries of the federalised region have yet to be established, according to a delegate to the talks on Twitter. [Continue reading…]

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Is federalism the answer in Syria?

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Kurd turns on Kurd as Turkey and U.S. back new faction in Syria

Middle East Eye reports: Turkey is backing a new Kurdish faction within the Free Syrian Army to take back territory from the Islamic State (IS) group and stop the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from seizing further ground along the Turkish border.

The group, known as the Grandsons of Salahadin after the famed 12th-century Muslim Kurdish leader, has already captured several villages in the IS-controlled border region between Jarabulus and Azaz following Turkish artillery attacks and missile strikes. In response, IS hit the Turkish town of Kilis earlier this month, killing two civilians.

But threats to attack the YPG unless it withdraws from territory seized from opposition rebels during an advance by pro-government forces in northern Syria last month have stoked concerns of a possible “Kurdish civil war”.

Mahmoud Abu Hamza, a Grandsons of Salahadin commander based in Turkey, told Middle East Eye that the group was backed by both the US and Turkey and considered itself part of the international coalition fighting IS.

“Turkey doesn’t support us with arms. Our arms are American,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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Rivalries stall push to retake Mosul

The Wall Street Journal reports: Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last week that the Syrian town of Shaddadi had been cleared of militants, cutting off an important supply line between Mosul and Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria. Mr. McGurk [President Obama’s envoy on the fight against ISIS] described Shaddadi’s liberation and a similar victory in the Iraqi city of Sinjar as the beginning of an effort to isolate Mosul.

Over the weekend, Iraq’s military airdropped leaflets over the occupied city addressed to “the patient sons of Mosul.” “Your security forces settled the fight in Ramadi in Iraq’s favor,” it read. “Now they are readying for the biggest battle…be ready.”

But Iran, through the Shiite militias it supports, is insisting on a role in Mosul after being sidelined in recently liberated Ramadi, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials. Iraq’s Sunni groups and the U.S. fear militia participation will fan sectarian tensions and expand Iran’s already sizable influence in Iraq.

Kurdish officials insist their forces should have a role in the fight to recapture Mosul, as well. But Baghdad worries the Kurds will use the fight to take territory that helps strengthen their case for an autonomous Kurdish homeland.

The jockeying among Iraq’s splintered groups, and the foreign powers that back them, have repeatedly pushed back the timetable to retake Mosul. As a result, some Iraqi and U.S. officials are now predicting the offensive won’t even begin this year. [Continue reading…]

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Who owns the Syrian revolution?

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Naila Bozo writes: I recognized the importance of Syria in my life through my separation from it. The hours before going to the airport made me feel weak. The departure from Syria was a small but recurring trauma. I was not merely putting kilometers between Syria and myself; I felt I had travelled for centuries, travelled through galaxies as soon as I landed in Europe. Only a few hours after leaving the country, Syria felt like nothing but a hazy memory.

I do not know if I can put a claim to Syria as my home but that sunbaked, dusty country with the coincidental palm trees scattered by the roads, with the empty red bags of potato chips blowing in the gutter and the sound of Umm Kulthum owns me. I can still conjure the warmth of the yellow taxis’ leather seats under my fingers.

The claim to a home has grown more complex with the war in Syria. On one hand, there is a wish to be united with all Syrians against the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad but on the other hand, one cannot ignore the Syrian armed and political opposition’s dubious alliance with Turkey, a state that has violated Kurdish rights for decades and recently intensified its crackdown upon Kurdish civilians and fighters. Today, the mutual mistrust between Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters has intensified due to the former being a loose coalition that includes several formations within the so-called moderate Free Syrian Army that have varying degrees of affiliations with groups like Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra while the latter is being accused of carrying out an expansionist agenda facilitated by U.S. and Russian airstrikes. [Continue reading…]

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