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Syrian Kurds

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The Fall of Kirkuk

Two big cities fell within 24 hours of each other last weekend. The fall of Raqqa in Syria, once the capital of all the territory ruled by ISIS, came after a five-month siege and was no surprise at all. The fall of the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk in Iraq took less than a day and came as a complete surprise.

Possession of Kirkuk was critical for the project of Kurdish independence, because it was the source of most of the oil that would have made an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq economically viable.

The Kurds of Iraq came tantalisingly close to realising their dream of independence. Since the first Gulf War of 1990, five Kurdish-majority provinces in northern Iraq have been ruled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which had American support because it opposed Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime. That American support continued even after the US invasion that finally overthrew Saddam in 2003.

The new government the US created in Baghdad had no control over the KRG, and the would-be Kurdish state almost doubled its territory by taking over the other provinces with Kurdish majorities, including oil-rich Kirkuk, after the Iraqi army fled in panic before a suprise ISIS offensive in 2014. Three weeks ago, the Kurdish government even held a referendum on independence in both its old and its new territories.

It has been clear for some time that the KRG’s Peshmerga fighters would be no match for a rebuilt and combat-tested Iraqi army, which had already recovered all the other territory it lost to ISIS three years ago. Yet the KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, still went ahead with his referendum on 25 September, and 93 percent of the voters said yes to independence.

But then Iran, which is worried about the loyalty of its own large Kurdish minority just across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, decided it was time to take the Kurds down a peg or three. As the greatest Shia power, Iran effectively controls a lot of the sectarian militias that make up the new Iraqi army, and the Baghdad government was happy to act as its proxy.

The KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, probably assumed that American support would shield him from Iraqi retaliation when he called the referendum, but it didn’t. When Baghdad sent its troops in on Sunday, the Trump administration merely muttered some weasel words about not liking to see friends fight, and by Wednesday morning the area controlled by the KRG had shrunk by almost half.

Only months ago the Iraqi Kurds were fighting alongside the Iraqi army in the struggle to free Mosul from ISIS control, and the Syrian Kurds have been the main American ally in the fight to destroy ISIS in Syria. But once ISIS was defeated those alliances were bound to end: betraying the Kurds is a old Middle Eastern tradition. The only surprise is how fast it has happened, and how comprehensively the Kurds have lost.

There are about 30 million Kurds, but they live on territory that belongs to four of the most powerful states in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have been seeking an independent Kurdish state for a century now, but all the countries that stand to lose large amounts of territory if it ever actually happened are profoundly opposed to that outcome.

Moreover, the Kurds themselves have never really been united, even within the borders of the KRG. In practice, control of the territory has always been split between factions centred on the Barzani or the Talabani clans. Each faction has its own militia, and they even fought a civil war that killed thousands in the mid 1990s.

People talk about the peshmerga as if it were a Kurdish national army, but it is actually a loose association of separate militias that answer to different commanders. In the past three years they cooperated in the war against ISIS, but they split over the question of Barzani’s referendum, which the Talabani faction thought was too dangerous. That turned out to be right.

There was no joint defence of Kirkuk when the Iraqi army finally moved. Indeed, there was hardly any defence at all; first the Talabani forced pulled out, and then Barzani’s troops had no option but to follow. The Kurdish dream of independence is at an end, and the Kurds will be lucky if they manage to keep even the autonomy they have enjoyed in Iraq since 1991.

Indeed, they will be lucky if can avoid another civil war over who is to blame for the catastrophe (from the Kurdish point of view) of the past few days.

On Wednesday, President Barzani gave a speech that said, presumably about the Talabani faction: “They want to drag us into a civil war, but we will in no way be doing this.”
But a lot of Kurds blame him and his referendum for provoking the disaster, and they will be looking for somebody to punish.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It has…independence”; and “People…right”)

No Peace Yet in Iraq (or Syria)

The shooting was still going on down by the river last week when Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dropped by and prematurely declared that the battle for Mosul was over. He was misled by the various Iraqi army, police and militia units who were competing with one another to declare victory first, but now it really is over – and there is little left of Mosul.

The siege began on 17 October of last year, so it lasted nine months – longer than the Battle of Stalingrad. It probably killed more civilians, too, because the US-led air forces were used to compensate for the shortage of trained and motivated Iraqi ground forces.

Individual ISIS snipers were regularly taken out by air strikes that levelled entire buildings. Life is returning to some of the east-bank suburbs that were retaken last year, but there is nothing to go back to in the oldest part of the city on the west bank, where ISIS made its last stand. And the level of destruction has been almost as high in a lot of other cities.

The Sunni Arab communities of Iraq and Syria are shattered and scattered. The mixed Sunni-Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad were mostly “cleansed” of their Sunni residents in the civil war of 2006-08. Even Sunni-majority cities in Iraq that were taken back from ISIS a couple of years ago, like Ramadi and Fallujah, are still largely deserted, with few signs of reconstruction.

Not many of the estimated 900,000 people in refugee camps around Mosul, almost all Sunni Arabs, will be going home soon either. And in Syria, the eastern side of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, fell last December after a four-year siege. It now contains a few tens of thousands of people rattling around in the ruins.

Raqqa, ISIS’s capital in Syria, will be largely destroyed in the next few months, and after that it will be the turn of Deir-es-Zor. The calamity that began in 2003, when the US invasion of Iraq overthrew the centuries-long Sunni rule over a mostly Shia country, has reached its final phase.

There can be no come-back for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who only make up one-fifth of the country’s 36 million people. They have been ruined by their long complicity with Sunni minority rule of the country, first under the Turkish empire, latterly under Sunni tyrants like Saddam Hussein, and finally by their reluctant, desperate support for ISIS. Some, maybe most, will remain in the country, but not as equal citizens.

The Sunni Arabs of Syria will not suffer the same fate, for they are fully 60 percent of that country’s population, but their current situation is appalling. They were very unwise to throw their lot in with ISIS and al-Qaeda – which most of the Sunni fighters in Syria did in the end, though it is impolitic to say so in public – and they are now paying a heavy price for that mistake.

In the longer run, however, Syria’s Sunni Arab majority will have to be reintegrated into the general society. It isn’t impossible: millions of urban Sunnis never fought against the regime anyway, regarding their mostly rural fellow Sunnis who fell for the jihadi fantasy as severely misguided.

There’s at least another year’s fighting against ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked forces in Syria before reconciliation can even begin. There may be much more than a year’s fighting before the Kurds are subjugated again in Syria and Turkey.

They are out of the box now, controlling almost all of the Kurdish-majority parts of northern Syria and many rural areas in south-eastern Turkey. Since Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan re-started the war against Turkey’s Kurds two years ago, they have even taken control of some parts of the Kurdish-majority big cities in the south-east – and bits of them look like Syria’s devastated cities.

As for Iraq’s Kurds, it may prove impossible to put them back in the box at all. Thanks to the collapse of the Iraqi army three years ago, when ISIS overran much of the country in a fortnight, the Kurdish Regional Government now rules over all the traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq. It is effectively an independent country, and it has scheduled a referendum for September to make that official.

Iraq’s government will fight that, of course, but unless the United States is willing to bomb the Kurds the way it bombed ISIS, Baghdad is unlikely to win. The Iraqi army couldn’t even have retaken Mosul without the lavish use of US air power.

Washington is much more likely to betray the Syrian Kurds, but unless it does, they too will probably manage to keep their de facto state within a nominally reunited Syria. (Turkey would be happy to crush them for free, but the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers would certainly veto that.)

So there’s lots of fighting left to be done, and lots of opportunities yet for the United States and Russia to stumble into a confrontation. Stay tuned.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 14. (“In the longer…misguided”; and “Washington…that”)

Choose a Side: Trump and the Sunni-Shia War

The Sunni-Shia civil wars in Iraq and Syria are both nearing their end, and in both cases the Shias have won – thanks largely to American military help in Iraq’s case, and to a Russian military intervention in Syria. Yet Russia and the United States are not allies in the Middle East. At least not yet.

President Trump may get in bed with the Russians and the Shias eventually, but he doesn’t seem to have given the matter much thought yet. So for the moment US policy follows the line laid down by Barack Obama.

Ex-president Obama was determined not to send American troops into another Middle Eastern war. Even as the Sunni extremists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda under another name) expanded their control in Syria and then seized much of Iraq, Obama restricted the US intervention to training local troops and deploying American air power.

In Iraq the local government’s troops were mostly Shia (as is most of the population), and US support was sufficient without committing American troops to ground combat. The Iraqi army is now in the final stages of reconquering Mosul, Islamic State’s capital in Iraq and an almost entirely Sunni city. Yet there have been no massacres of Sunnis, and only a handful of American casualties.

In Syria, the United States strongly opposed the Shia-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but it did not fight him. Obama found local allies to wage a ground war against Islamic State in the form of the Syrian Kurds, who are Sunni, but more interested in a separate Kurdish state than a Sunni-ruled Syria.

That collaboration worked well too. With US training and air support, the Syrian Kurds drove Islamic State steadily back, and are now closing in on Raqqa, its capital in Syria. And in all that time, Obama avoided taking sides between Shias and Sunnis in what most Arabs now see as a Shia-Sunni war.

Obama even managed to maintain America’s traditional alliances with Saudi Arabia and Turkey despite the fact that those two countries, both ruled by devout Sunni regimes, were sending money and arms to the extremists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front. He successfully walked a fine line in the Middle East for six whole years.

It’s doubtful that Donald Trump has the skill, knowledge and patience to go on walking that line. His instinct is to treat Iran as America’s most dangerous enemy in the Middle East, which would certainly please Saudi Arabia. But Iran is Russia’s close ally in the Syrian war, and Trump’s instinct is also to get very close to Vladimir Putin.

There’s a similar problem with Turkey. On one hand, Turkey is an important NATO ally and it has now sent its army into Syria, ostensibly to help destroy Islamic State.

On the other hand, Turkey is ruled by the authoritarian and impulsive President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a mini-Trump who sprays abuse at anybody who crosses him (he recently called the Germans “Nazis” and the Dutch “Nazi remnants and fascists”).

In 2015 Erdogan deliberately re-started a war against Turkey’s own Kurdish minority in order to attract right-wing votes and win a close election. Now he has sent the Turkish army into Syria, allegedly to help destroy Islamic State but in fact mainly to smash the embryonic state that the Syrian Kurds have been building across northern Syria. Those Syrian Kurds have been America’s closest allies against Islamic State for years.

There are even Turkish troops in northern Iraq (without permission), and Erdogan has threatened to use them if the Iraqi army abuses Sunni Muslims during the reconquest of Mosul. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replied (in November): “We do not want war with Turkey…but if a confrontation happens we are ready for it.”

Erdogan has gone rogue, and Turkey’s recent, quite fragile reconciliation with Russia is not restraining him. The two countries, together with Iran, are jointly supervising the shaky ceasefire in Syria, but they do not share the same goals and they are not really allies.

Into the midst of all this vicious complexity wanders the boy-man Donald Trump, with his full-spectrum ignorance, short attention-span and shorter temper. His appointee as National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, doubtless advised him to support Turkey’s ambitions, but then it was revealed that Flynn was in the pay of the Turkish government and he had to resign.

If Trump cosies up to the Russians instead, he will have to accept a close relationship with Assad’s brutal regime in Syria (no problem there) and also with Russia’s main ally in the Syrian war, Iran (potentially big problem there). But various latent conflicts are likely to burst into flame as the big civil wars in Iraq and Syria stagger to an end. Trump will have to jump one way or another quite soon.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Erdogan…resign”)

The (Very) Slow Death of Islamic State

“Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect zero civilian casualties in armed conflict,” said US Army Col. John L. Dorrian, the spokesperson of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. (Where do they get these ridiculous code-names?)

The CJTF/OIR is the US-led international force that was created to defeat Islamic State, but Dorrian was talking in particular about the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, captured by the forces of Islamic State more than two years ago. There are still at least 650,000 civilians in the IS-controlled part of Mosul, and when the Iraqi army retakes it a lot of them will be killed or injured.

Col. Dorrian was just trying to “manage expectations”, as they say, but he needn’t have worried. As many civilians will probably be killed during the reconquest of Mosul as died in the Syrian army’s reconquest of eastern Aleppo in December, but it won’t get as much media attention – mainly because Islamic State is not as subtle as the Nusra Front, the rival Islamist organisation that dominated eastern Aleppo.

The Nusra Front, now rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front) to disguise its allegiance to al-Qaeda, was clever enough to let little girls blog about the horrors of the siege of Aleppo, and the Western media obligingly ran it all without question. It was a holocaust, they reported, committed by the evil army of that wicked Bashar al-Assad.

The Western media won’t be saying that sort of thing about the inevitable deaths of innocent civilians during the retaking of Mosul, because the West supports the Iraqi army. In any case, Islamic State is probably too rigid to allow that kind of blog.

The Iraqi army’s attempt to take the city of Mosul back from Islamic State has already lasted almost as long as the siege of Stalingrad. So far, it has only managed to clear the suburbs on the east bank of the Tigris river, and civilian deaths have only been in the hundreds.

This week it began its assault on the main part of the city, which lies on the west bank. It may fight its way in to the core of the old city in another month or two, but street-fighting eats up armies, and the streets of the old city are narrow and twisting. The casualties will be high among both soldiers and civilians, and it is unlikely that the operation will end until April or May.

It may not even end in a decisive victory for the goverment forces. There are around 100,000 men in the force besieging Mosul, but most of them are Kurdish militia and “Popular Mobilisation Units” of the Iraqi Army that must not be allowed to enter the city proper. They are either the wrong ethnicity (Kurds) or the wrong religion (Shias) to send into an Arab and Sunni city.

What’s left is the Iraqi regular army, probably no more than 30-40,000 strong around Mosul, and in particular the elite units of the Counter Terrorism Service who have borne the brunt of the fighting. Some of the CTS units have already suffered 50 percent casualties (killed and wounded), and overall Iraqi casualties are at least 5,000 before the final battle has even begun.

Let us be optimistic and assume that Mosul will ultimately fall. That would put an end to the Iraqi half of what used to be called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but what happens to the Syrian part of Islamic State is still very much up in the air.

It was losing territory to the Syrian Kurds, whose army was advancing steadily on the IS capital at Raqqa in eastern Syria. The Syrian Kurds have done so well because they had US air support on call at all times. Indeed, the Kurds were America’s main ally in the Syrian civil war, and the only major ground force (apart from the Syrian army) that was actively fighting Islamic State.

But now all that is at risk because Turkey, which has been the main support of the Syrian rebels for years, has switched sides. It sees a semi-independent Kurdish state in northern Syria as a bigger threat to its territorial integrity than either IS or the Assad regime in Damascus. And it appears to have made a deal with Russia that will give it a free hand to destroy the Syrian Kurds.

It is not clear whether the Turkish army can actually do that without taking very large casualties, but it’s probably going to try. This means that the United States will have to choose between its ally of the past four years, the Syrian Kurdish army, and its faithless NATO ally, Turkey. It will probably choose Turkey, because it is more important, and abandon the Kurds to their fate.

The Kurds are used to being betrayed, so they won’t even be surprised. But it does mean that destroying Islamic State in Syria will have to wait for a while.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It may…begun”)