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The First Bit of Kurdistan

The neighbours are very cross about Monday’s independence referendum in the Kurdish part of Iraq, which is currently known as the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR). They can’t go on calling it that if and when it gets formal independence, and the leading candidate for the new name is “South Kurdistan”. Which is precisely what annoys the neighbours.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who governs the Arab majority (80 percent) of Iraq’s population, says he will impose an air blockade on the KAR if it doesn’t hand over control of its airports to Baghdad by Friday. Iran has already stopped direct flights to the Kurdish region, and Lebanon’s Middle East airlines will observe the ban from Friday.

The Iraqi prime minister also said that Baghdad will fight to prevent Kurdish secession, if necessary, and he has sent Iraqi troops to take part in joint exercises with the Turkish army on the KAR’s northern border. As for the Turkish government, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is enraged and warns that this “adventure” (the independence referendum) “can only have a dark end.”

Turkey is the great power of the region (80 million people and a big, modern economy), so Erdogan’s threats to shut off the pipeline that delivers Kurdish oil to the world and to stop exporting food to Iraqi Kurdistan have to be taken seriously. The KAR is landlocked, and Turkey is its main trading partner (about $10 billion of cross-border traffic a year).

Erdogan tried very hard to persuade Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, to call off the independence referendum. He accuses Barzani of “treachery” for going ahead with it anyway, and warns that “If Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war.”

Most of us were under the impression that that war has already been underway for around five years, mainly in Syria, with Erdogan eagerly feeding the flames. But his interventions in Syria were just dabbling in other people’s problems; an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, he thinks, would be an existential threat to Turkey itself.

He may be right, because one-fifth of Turkey’s population is also Kurdish, and most of them live in the part of Turkey directly across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan. He is terrified that Turkey’s Kurds will catch the independence bug too, and he’s willing to take strong measures against Iraq’s Kurds to stop it.

That’s why the talk of “South Kurdistan” is so incendiary. Seen through this Kurdish nationalist prism, it is the first bit of a big, united Kurdistan: south-eastern Turkey is “North Kurdistan”, southwestern Iran is “East Kurdistan” and north-eastern Syria is “West Kurdistan.” The 30 million Kurds are one of the biggest stateless ethnic groups in the world, but giving them all a national state would require dismantling Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

That’s why it has never happened, although the Kurds were first promised a state of their own when the Western powers were planning the carve-up of the Ottoman empire after the First World War. The Kurds have been seeking it ever since, but everybody else always lines up against them.

Iran has just said that it too will close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan, and Erdogan is confident that Turkey can bring it to its knees: “It will be over when we close the oil taps, all their revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq,” he said this week.

The United States is preparing to abandon its Kurdish allies in both Iraq and Syria, although they have done much of the fighting against ISIS, because it doesn’t want borders to start to move in a region that is already turbulent enough. The Kurds haven’t got a friend in the world, and it is an old international tradition to use them and then betray them.

So why did Barzani hold the independence referendum now? Preliminary results suggest that it was hugely successful at home – a 91 percent “yes” vote on a 72 percent turn-out – but there’s going to be a big, ugly backlash from the neighbours. There could even be a war, and the likelihood that anybody will actually recognise South Kurdistan’s independence is minimal.

Barzani’s motives are partly personal: he must step down before the elections scheduled for November, and he wants to stamp his own name on the independence project. But many Kurds would argue that there will never be a “good” time to go for independence, and that they must just push on and hope for the best. After a hundred years of oppression and division, you can see their point.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“The United…them”)

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”)

Qatar Quarantine

Public-spirited businessman Moutaz al-Hayat is flying 4,000 cows into Qatar from the United States and Australia to boost milk supply in his country, which is being blockaded by most of its Arab neighbours in the Gulf. It will take sixty flights, and is definitely not cost-effective. But that may not be his biggest problem.

Ninety-nine percent of Qatar is open desert, and most of the very limited grazing areas for cattle are already fully occupied. Is al-Hayyat also going to airlift in the fodder for his 4,000 cows? There are many ridiculous aspects to the current crisis over Qatar – but it does have a serious side too.

Compared to the real wars (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya) currently raging in the Arab world, Qatar’s crisis is a bit like a tempest in a teapot. The country is tiny but rich, and nobody is getting killed there yet. Yet there is a blockade, and refugees, and troop movements, and it is not inconceivable that the gas-rich Gulf state might get invaded and its government overthrown.

On 5 June all of Qatar’s Arab neighbours in the Gulf withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, Qatar’s gleaming capital. They also cut all land, sea and air communications with the country. Roads were blocked and flights were banned, which is pretty serious for a country of 2.7 million people (only a quarter-million of them actual Arab citizens of Qatar) that produces almost nothing except abundant natural gas.

Qatari citizens visiting or living in Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were ordered to leave within fourteen days. Qatar Airways lost its landing and overflight rights in those countries, necessitating extensive detours, and the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television service was blocked.

It is a real blockade because 40 percent of Qatar’s food comes in across its one land border, with Saudi Arabia, and that is now closed. The “refugees” are better dressed and educated than the normal ones, but the ban on Qataris living in the hostile countries and citizens of those countries living in Qatar is already uprooting people and breaking up families.

As for military movements, there have been no reports of Saudi Arabian troops moving towards the Qatari border, like they did before they rolled across the causeway into Bahrein in 2011, but speculation is rife that they might.

The Saudis would love to replace the current Qatari ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, with some member of the royal family who would toe the Saudi line. And since intra-family coups have become a bit of a tradition in Qatar, the Sheikh couldn’t complain if other family members decided that he had become a liability and opted for a Saudi-backed coup.

This is a pretty low-key crisis at the moment, but it could turn much nastier – and there are two further complicating factors. One is that Qatar hosts the biggest US military base in the Middle East: there are 10,000 American troops in the country. The other is that there is also a Turkish military base in Qatar.

The Turkish-Qatari agreement was signed two years ago and there are only about a hundred Turkish soldiers on the base yet, but it will accommodate 5,000 eventually. Turkey could fly the rest in very quickly if it chose to, and it just might do that if the crisis worsens. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed Qatar from the start.

Does this mean that Turkey could end up fighting Saudi Arabia in defence of Qatar? It sounds very far-fetched, but things have got so violent and complex in the region that people and countries no longer just stab each other in the back. They are also stabbing each other in the front, the sides, and the unmentionables.

Turkey and Qatar are both close US allies, but they support the same Sunni extremists in the Syrian civil war, and have lavished money and arms on some groups that both the United States and Saudi Arabia see as terrorists (ISIS, the Nusra Front, etc.).

Saudi Arabia, like most of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states, used to support the same extremists. Now it doesn’t any more – or not all of them, anyway – and says it is blockading Qatar because that country does still give money to the “terrorists”.

Whether that is true is debatable, but the Saudi Arabians managed to convince President Donald Trump that it was true during his recent visit to Riyadh, so Trump encouraged this blockade. Indeed, he takes the credit for it.

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of radical ideology,” he said. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!”

And they have just founded a “World Center for Countering Extremist Thought” in Riyadh. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Qatari…blocked”; and “The Saudis…coup”)

Principled Realism

The media mostly missed it (or chose to ignore it as a piece of meaningless rhetoric), but Donald Trump proclaimed a new doctrine in his speech to the assembled leaders of the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. It goes by the name of Principled Realism, although it didn’t offer much by way of either principles or realism. In practice, it mostly boiled down to a declaration of (proxy) war against Iran.

After rambling on for twenty minutes about the wonders of Islam and the evils of “extremism” and “terrorism”, Trump finally got to the point: “No discussion of stamping out this (terrorist) threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists…safe harbour, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment….I am speaking, of course, of Iran.”

No mention of the fact that every single terrorist attack in the West from 9/11 down to the bomb in Manchester Arena on Monday night was carried out by Sunni fanatics, most of them of Arab origin, whereas Iran’s population is overwhelmingly Shia and not Arab at all.

No mention either of the fact that it was Sunni-majority allies of the United States, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, that enabled the two most powerful Sunni extremist groups, Islamic State and al-Qaeda, to seize large amounts of territory in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Qatar gave the extremists direct and indirect financial aid, and Turkey kept its border open so that weapons, money and recruits could reach them in Syria.

And no mention of the fact that the only approved form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, the fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine, is almost identical to the version of Islam espoused by the terrorists. Bringing up such awkward subjects would have upset his audience, and the last thing Trump wants to do is hurt people’s feelings.

Iran, to hear Trump tell it, is the source of all the region’s problems. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region….It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many nations and leaders in this room….”

“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a parter for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”

Trump delivered this remarkable farrago of lies and half-truths two days after Iran, the only Middle Eastern state apart from Israel and Turkey to hold relatively free elections, re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, who has worked hard to reduce the influence of his hard-line opponents. He also signed the deal freezing Iranian work on nuclear weapons for ten years, and he clearly has popular support for his policies.

The “militias” Iran trains and supports include those in Iraq that are fighting to free the city of Mosul from the clutches of Islamic State (they also have tacit American support), and the Hezbollah movement in southern Lebanon, which has been part of the Lebanese government since 2005. There is no evidence that Iran has supplied weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, despite frequent allegations to that effect by Arab and American sources.

The Iranian goverment does not “speak openly about mass murder”, and the one Iranian leader who spoke about the eventual destruction of Israel (although he did not promise to do it personally) was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was defeated by Rouhani in the 2013 election, and was banned from running again in the one just past. “Death to America!” was a nationalist slogan popular in the 1980s.

Iran, like most large countries, has many conflicting political trends, and with careful selection and enough ill-will you can find enough extreme and ignorant comments to demonise the country. (You could certainly do it with Trump’s America.) But the Islamic Republic of Iran has never invaded anybody, and it certainly does not support terrorist attacks against either the West or the Arab world.

Trump has drunk the Kool-Aid. He has bought into a partisan Arab narrative whose theme is an inevitable (and ultimately military) conflict between Iran and the Arab world, and has all but promised that the United States would fight on the Arab side in that putative war.

This is probably the stupidest foreign policy commitment any American administration has made since the decision 60 years ago to take France’s place in fighting the “Communist menace” in Vietnam. Iran has almost as many people as Vietnam, it’s five times as big, and it’s mostly mountains and deserts – plus some very big cities.

Maybe it is inevitable that Sunni Arab leaders will see Shia Iran through the lens of their own fears and stereotypes, and start making self-fulfilling prophecies of apocalyptic conflict. Trump has no such excuse – and ‘Principled Realism’ really is the wrong slogan. How about ‘Reckless Complicity’?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“No mention either …feelings”)