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?

kobane

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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Turkey: Families return to shattered Kurdish town of Cizre – ‘a second Kobane’

IBT reports: Residents have returned to Cizre to find their homes destroyed by shelling. Authorities partially lifted a 24-hour curfew that had been imposed to facilitate security operations against Kurdish militants. A first wave of arrivals reached the town at the break of dawn, their vehicles loaded with personal belongings and, in many cases, children. In the battle-scarred Sur neighbourhood, homes have enormous holes blasted into their walls, ceilings have collapsed, windows are shattered and doors are hanging on their hinges.

The level of damage in some neighbourhoods evoked the early days of military conflict in neighbouring Syria with buildings gutted by shelling and shrapnel. “Those who did this are not humans,” said Cizre resident Serif Ozem. “What took place here is a second Kobani in a country that is supposed to be a democracy.” Kobani is a predominantly Kurdish town in northern Syria that suffered a brutal siege at the hands of the Islamic State (Isis) group. [Continue reading…]

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If the Kurds go broke, it’s lights out for Obama’s war on ISIS

John Hannah writes: Here’s a worrying bit of news: America’s best ally in the war against the Islamic State, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is nearly broke. That’s a major problem, especially as the U.S.-led coalition gears up for its most difficult battle yet: the effort to liberate Mosul, the heart of the Islamic State’s power in Iraq. With the Kurds slated to play an essential role in that potentially decisive military campaign, now is the time for their capabilities to be reaching their zenith. Instead, they’re under growing threat of catastrophic collapse.

A near-perfect storm of crises has been draining KRG finances. First, there’s the burden of the war. For over 18 months, Kurdish forces have been pushing IS back across a 600-mile front. There’s also the KRG’s chronic dispute with the central government in Baghdad that has denied the region its share of Iraq’s national budget for the better part of two years. That’s billions upon billions of dollars in foregone revenue.

Further exacerbating the situation has been a massive influx of refugees and displaced persons, an estimated 1.8 million men, women, and children, fleeing the Islamic State’s hordes for the relative safety of Kurdistan. That tidal wave of humanity has increased the region’s population by an astounding 30 percent, straining its infrastructure and social services to the breaking point (just think about that: in the United States, that’s the equivalent of trying to take in over 90 million people overnight). Finally, like oil producers everywhere, what earnings the KRG receives from its own energy exports have been decimated by the collapse in world prices.

This can’t end well. The warning signs are everywhere. Up to 70 percent of Kurdistan’s workforce is on the KRG’s payroll. Most have not been paid for months. When back wages finally come through, it’s often at a fraction of what’s owed. Going forward, officials have dangled the threat of draconian salary cuts. Labor strikes are breaking out, involving teachers, medical workers, and even elements of the police. Political tensions are escalating. The broader economy is grinding to a halt. Construction of schools, hospitals, roads, and other critical infrastructure, is stalled. Tourism has dried up. Property values have plummeted. Consumer spending is collapsing.

Even more worrisome is the impact on Kurdistan’s oil sector, overwhelmingly the KRG’s primary source of revenue. The small international firms responsible for most of the region’s exports have received only sporadic payments. Absent these funds, the companies largely lack the necessary cash flow to invest in further developing existing fields. And without sufficient capital expenditures, production at these fields could actually begin to decline. New exploration, meanwhile, is at a virtual standstill, with the region’s rig count down by more than 90 percent, reaching levels not seen since the first production contracts were signed more than a decade ago. [Continue reading…]

Foreign Policy reports: Iraqi Kurds’ dreams of energy-financed political independence are taking a beating — and not just because of low oil prices.

Since the middle of February, Iraqi Kurdistan’s tenuous export link to the outside world has been totally shut down. As recently as January, the Kurds were exporting 600,000 barrels a day in exchange for desperately needed revenue. But the mysterious closure of the pipeline that connects Kurdish refineries to the Turkish coast has brought that number to essentially zero.

Kurdish officials say they don’t know for sure why the pipeline has been shut down; theories range from a terrorist bombing to simple sabotage to a precautionary shutdown by Turkish authorities carrying out big military operations in the area.

What’s crystal clear is that a region dependent on oil export revenues — one that was already struggling mightily to make ends meet during its costly war against the Islamic State — now has its back to the wall. The Kurdish region earned about $630 million a month from direct oil sales in 2015, which still fell short of the $850 million or so it needed every month to pay its soldiers and civil servants, as well as foreign oil companies for the crude they’ve pumped. The two-week pipeline closure has now cost Erbil an additional $200 million — and the Kurdish losses will continue to grow until it comes back online. [Continue reading…]

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Kurds carve out new reality in northern Syria

The Guardian reports: Amid the chaos in northern Syria in recent months, several themes have emerged.

The first is that Islamic State has been spared from intensified Russian airstrikes and advances by pro-regime forces. The second, and potentially more important development, is that one of the war’s least visible players – the Kurds – have done more than anyone else to carve out a new reality.

As Lebanese Hezbollah, militias from Iraq, and Syrian troops – all led by Iran – have inched their way around the top of Aleppo, the Kurdish YPG, supported by Russian air cover, has been making strident moves towards areas they have avoided throughout the conflict.

Over the weekend, the YPG moved towards two Syrian towns between the Turkish border and the almost besieged Aleppo, after earlier seizing an airbase that had been held by the opposition. Throughout the war, the YPG had been viewed warily by the opposition, and given a wide berth by the regime.

Now, though, its moves have sharply expanded a footprint in the north, alarming rebels who have been distracted by other foes, and Turkey, which had vowed never to let the Kurds dominate its border with Syria.

The Kurds are ascendant, and the Turks are enraged. Ankara sees YPG militants, who are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), as vying to own areas they have never before controlled, to establish a foothold from Irfin in Syria’s north-west to the Iraqi border, a frontier dominated for decades by Arabs.

Helping the YPG do that are the same Russian jets that are steadily destroying Turkish-supported rebel groups, whose three-year push to oust Bashar al-Assad increasingly looks lost. [Continue reading…]

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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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