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Post-coup scenario: Turkish president Erdogan to visit Russia on August 09

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One of positive consequences of military coup engineered in Turkey on July 15 is the realignment of Russia and Turkey, former foes for decades, into a friendly and purposeful anti-West relationship. In a remarkable about-face, Erdogan apologized to Putin for the Su-24 shoot-down and asked the family of the killed pilot to “excuse us.” Two weeks later, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that Turkey might even entertain normalizing relations with Syria someday.

After the failed coup attempt in Turkey, international experts have been quick to declare that Turkey will drift closer to Russia and away from its allies in NATO. Putin was one of the first to condemn the attempt and declare support for Turkey’s elected government. Thus their bilateral relationship began to flourish.

As the bilateral relations are getting warmed up, on August 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will travel to St. Petersburg, Russia to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the first time since November 2015.

The plane downing led to a bitter war of words between the two leaders, with the Kremlin strongman calling it a “stab in the back”

and accusing the Turkish president of involvement in the illegal oil trade with the ISIS jihadist group. But after the Kremlin claimed last month that Erdogan had apologized to Putin over the incident, Moscow ordered the lifting of a string of economic sanctions including an embargo on Turkish food products and the cancellation of charter flights to the country.

Further, an official in Turkey said that Erdogan and Putin had agreed to meet ahead of the G20 summit in China in September. Russian news agencies quoted Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, the highest ranking Turkish official to visit Russia since the November downing of the Russian jet on the Syrian border sparked an unprecedented crisis in relations. He said he was in Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Arkady Dvorkovich in an effort to “normalize the situation and our relations as soon as possible and at an accelerated pace”.

Rapprochement

Bilateral relations between two Eurasian nations -Turkey and Russia – have been fraught ever since the Turkish air force downed a Russian fighter plane that repeatedly violated its air space in November. But the tensions between the two countries had been escalating for months before that, due mainly to US instigation, first over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and then over Syria. As a result, in the span of two years, both have largely undone whatever entente they had built over the past 15. However, Turkey woke up before it was too late and readily apologized to Russia.

Ties and tensions between them went hand in hand for years, fueled by USA, NATO and EU. In fact, the Russo-Turkey ties were slowly but steadily improving before the military coup to dethrone ruling government of Erdogan and destroy his AK Party – obviously ploy of the western powers to end Islamist rule in Europe. But the coup meant to destabilize an elected government in Istanbul has brought people together and simply accelerated the process of reinventing a possible Turkey-Russia coalition in warm ties for mutual cooperation in many domains of diplomacy, politics, security and economics.

Neither USA nor EU had anticipated the anti-climax to the plots of coup leaders in Istanbul. President Obama may have been shocked to know that turkey is strong enough to defend itself.

The thawing of ice between the two countries began in June when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter to his counterpart expressing regret over the downing of the Russian jet, extended condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who died in the incident using the apologetic expression “may they excuse us.” Two days after this letter, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin made a phone call to Erdoğan, and said, according to the Kremlin’s website, that the letter “opened the road for overcoming the crisis in bilateral relations.”

This exchange of cordiality resulted in Putin’s lifting of the Russian ban on travel packages to Turkey, which was welcomed by both Russian holiday-makers and Turkish tourism industry alike; and visits made by three Turkish cabinet members—Deputy Prime Ministers Mehmet Şimşek and Nurettin Canikli, as well as the Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekçi—to Moscow last week, only a few days after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, reveal that reconciliation will proceed faster than expected and economic issues will be in the forefront. After the visit, Minister Zeybekçi said that 80% of the problems that Turkey had with Russia have been solved.

As the bilateral relations are getting warmed up, on August 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will travel to St. Petersburg, Russia where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the first time since November 2015. For the past two weeks, a steady parade of Turkish ministers has flown to Moscow to lay the groundwork — confirmation that the Turkish-Russian relationship, on ice for the past eight months, is headed for a summer thaw. But the St. Petersburg meeting between two strong presidents is more than just another summit — it is the opening ceremony for a broader Turkish tilt toward Moscow.

Sudden change

The bases for this sudden change are manifold, but the primary impetus is Bashar al-Assad’s near-restoration in Syria. In the past, Assad had been the major obstacle to improved ties between Russia and Turkey.

Both Russia and Turkey realized they need each other to protect themselves against the Super power, NATO and EU.

Turkey was seriously traumatized by the coup attempt and is trying now to sound certain warnings to the West by floating the idea that it may move toward strategic ties with Russia.

Russia’s economic losses due to Western sanctions have somewhat weakened the Kremlin. Turkey’s economic losses due to the embargoes imposed by Moscow after the downing of the jet and the fact that this incident seriously diminished Turkey’s hand in Syria forced Erdogan in the end to seek reconciliation. The punitive measures had dealt a crushing blow to the Turkish tourism industry, which is hugely reliant on Russian tourists, especially on its Mediterranean coast.

Erdogan’s domestic politics only reinforce his regional calculations for tilting toward Russia. The aftershocks of the attempted coup against Erdogan by a faction of the military on July 15 are steadily pushing Turkey away from the West and toward Russia.

However, given Russia’s growing conflict with the West, which Moscow believes is trying to encircle it militarily, many doubt that Putin will want to squander the opportunity to turn Turkey away from the West. The Turkish president is now trying to improve Turkey’s relations with Russia. This makes Turkey Russia’s ally in the endeavor to split the consolidated position of the West

Turkey is angry with Europe over its “wait and see” stance during and after the coup attempt. The general view is that Europe’s dislike of Erdogan prevented it from providing unequivocal support for the democratically elected president and government of Turkey.

Europe’s critical position on the massive crackdown against alleged coup plotters and sympathizers in Turkey and its reactions to Erdogan’s support for the death penalty for the coup plotters is adding more grist to the anti-Western mill in Turkey.

The beneficiary of coup

One of Russia’s principal aims today was to weaken NATO and it would like an important NATO member Turkey to support the Kremlin to consolidate the ties. Russia always looked for better ties with Turkey but USA opposes that. From the outset, as the coup unfolded, Putin reportedly offered support for Erdogan, in contrast to Secretary of State John Kerry’s initial equivocations. Predictably, that contrast has only grown sharper over the past two weeks: While Russia has raised no objections to Erdogan’s needy purges of key institutions to streamline administration the West has regularly criticized his crackdowns, with Kerry even threatening Turkey’s membership in NATO – the usual bully.

With more strategic foresight than the USA and Europe, Russia played its cards right as the coup attempt was underway and was the first country to immediately condemn this attempt unequivocally.

As the one of first world leaders, Putin called Erdogan earlier this month to express his support after the failed putsch in Turkey, and the Kremlin confirmed at the time that the two leaders would meet in the near future.

Russia appears to be the main beneficiary of the July 15 attempted military coup in Turkey. Moscow clearly sees a strategic opportunity for itself given the sharp increase in anti-American and anti-European sentiments in Turkey, which are being fanned by the coup and rhetoric of Turkish President Erdogan.

The failed coup has increased Russia’s importance for quarters close to Erdogan. Calls from pro-Erdogan circles for Turkey to seek strategic partnerships with Russia and to develop a strategic Eurasian dimension to replace ties with the USA, NATO and the EU are clearly being monitored closely in Moscow with satisfaction.

That Uncle Sam is dragging its feet over Ankara’s demand for Gulen’s extradition, has raised anti-American feelings among Turks to a fever pitch. This has also increased calls for Turkey to seek strategic partnerships with Russia and to replace ties with the United States, NATO and the European Union. These calls are clearly being monitored closely in Moscow. Eyes will therefore be focused on Erdogan’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Aug. 9.

There are indications, however, that while Moscow believes it has the upper hand against Ankara now, and will try and secure maximum advantages for itself as it responds to positive overtures from Turkey, it will still play hard to get. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an early sign of this after the failed coup attempt when he openly declared that the future of Turkish-Russian ties would still depend on Turkey’s position on Syria where Turkey support USA..

“Much will depend on how we will cooperate on the settlement of the Syrian crisis,” Lavrov said, according to TASS.

Now, Moscow and Tehran are in the midst of an operation to restore Assad’s control over Syria’s second city of Aleppo. Even an obstinate leader like Erdogan cannot ignore the hard reality that Assad is here to stay. Turkey’s reconciliation with Russia would make Turkey to work with Russia in Syria.

USA knows the terrible meaning of losing Turkey to Russia. President Barack Obama is not without options, however. To keep Turkey from moving toward Russia, the USA would widen its aperture beyond the Islamic State to include Turkey’s strategic interests in Syria. It would also recalibrate its criticisms of Erdogan.

The USA, which is pitted against Erdogan-inspired Islamists, is shielding the alleged coup mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, who could be an important tool in the hands of all anti-Turkey forces in the West.

One Turkish minister even flatly accused the USA of orchestrating the coup. Incensed Turkish protestors have marched on Incirlik Air Base, the key facility from which the USA flies combat missions against the Syria and ISIS Islamic State.

The PKK is a US-designated “terrorist organization” that has fought a separatist war against the Turkish state for decades. As Turkey turns inward and anti-Western sentiment rises, Turkish military readiness needs to on alert. Its Kurdish sister organization in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD). For the past two years, the PYD has systematically built up its political control in northern Syria under the guise of fighting the Islamic State. President Erdogan would rely on the key player on the ground, Russia, to limit the PYD and PKK.

Turkey has tracked the PYD’s rise along its border with alarm — especially since the group crossed west of the Euphrates, a traditional Turkish red line, to participate in the fight to capture the Syrian city of Manbij from the ISIS.

By sidestepping the question of Assad, Erdogan is attempting to unlock cooperation with Russia on his other major priorities — the defeat of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and the consolidation of domestic power. Erdogan understands that in order to stop the PKK and PYD from establishing themselves along the Turkish border, he must deny them international support — most notably, from their natural regional patrons, Russia and Iran. These sets up a possible transaction in St.

Petersburg next week: In return for Russia withholding its support for the PKK and PYD, Turkey may agree to look the other way on Assad.

From US perspective Russia and Turkey are autocracies while USA and Europe, where minorities are ill treated, are true democracies. From Ankara’s perspective, PKK and PYD pose a more ominous threat than the Islamic State — even after the Istanbul airport attack of June 28.

Objectives

There are indeed achievements made during the talks in Moscow: charter flights will be resumed between Turkey and Russia, sanctions on food exports from Turkey to Russia will be gradually lifted, the Joint Russian-Turkish Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation will be reactivated, negotiations will resume on an intergovernmental agreement on trade in services and investment and a mid-term intergovernmental programme of trade, economic, research, technical and cultural cooperation for the period between 2016 and 2019, visa restrictions will be lifted, and a joint Russian-Turkish fund will be established to finance investment projects in both countries.

Russia and Turkey have affirmed their intention to reinstate dialogue on the proposed Turkish Stream pipeline project. In other words, business will be back to normal very soon between Turkey and Russia.

Trade figures, investment projects and tourist numbers may soon get back to normal. However, it is too early to declare the normalization of ties complete, as obstacles remain in the political realm with the two sides yet to solve their differences over the issue of civil war in Syria.

It appears that the future for the “strategic partnership” with Russia that some in Turkey are hoping for now, purely out of anger for the West, would soon develop into fruitful ties.

With a reconciliation process between the two countries starting in June and gaining significant momentum through the visits of a number of Turkish cabinet members to Moscow last week and an upcoming meeting between the two countries’ presidents, there are sufficient grounds to expect this soccer game to herald the normalization of relations between Ankara and Moscow.

Moscow continues to back the Assad regime and its allies; while from Ankara’s point of view there can be no solution in Syria unless Assad leaves. These two positions appear to be firmly irreconcilable; however given the emerging political will to that end on both sides, a certain degree of common ground can be achieved in St. Petersburg.

In the meantime, Ankara is pinning the blame for the downing of the Russian jet fighter on a maverick pilot who allegedly was part of the coup plot, thus providing another indication of how fast things are moving in Turkish-Russian ties.

The countries’ already poor relations reached a boiling point when Turkey shot down a Su-24 Russian fighter jet last November. The situation in Syria has changed dramatically since that episode, however. The Russian-Iranian offensive in support of Assad has checkmated Turkey, shutting Ankara out of northern Syria.

If the Erdoğan-Putin meeting on August 9 goes well, we might also see the two leaders attending the game together. Turkey and Russia made serious progress in restoring their economic ties, and despite all the difficulties and differences, the meeting in St. Petersburg can produce some form of a common ground over Syria as well. The question for Ankara would be then whether the détente with Russia could be replicated in other problematic areas of foreign policy too.

The relations should be improved and deepened. I believe that the most important file to be taken up during Erdogan’s visit to Moscow, for example, will be the energy file, On the evening of August 31, the newly built stadium in Antalya on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast will host a soccer match between the national teams of Turkey and Russia.

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Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC

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A boy runs in the ruins of the Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Libya. © UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti

Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month. 

In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.  

“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”. 

Postponed elections 

Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.  

The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process. 

New Special Adviser 

Last month, Stephanie Williams was appointed Special Adviser on Libya, having served as acting Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission, UNSMIL, last year.  

To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.  

Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.  

Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe. 

“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council

Welcomed developments 

The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key. 

“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.  

On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.  

Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.  

Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.  

Security situation 

While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli. 

It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added. 

Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes. 

Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January. 

To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.     

At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities. 

Human rights concerns 

“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections. 

“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.  

Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses. 

Migration management  

The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.  

“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.  

Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”. 

“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured. 

Accountability  

To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries. 

She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.  

Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward. 

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Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future

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On Saturday the 22nd of January, activists from across the civil society spectrum in Libya gathered over Zoom with one purpose in mind; publicly declaring their support for the 1951 Libyan Independence Constitution. Despite the political turmoil which has engulfed the country since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, a strong civil society movement which supports a return to our historical constitution, has always existed in Libya. These supporters, who represent a significant number of Libyans from across the country, see the restoration of the 1951 constitution as the only way to shape their future.

Libya has been through an immeasurable amount of internationally led initiatives, all aimed at providing Libya with long term “solutions”. Only over the course of the past decade, one can count the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement in December of 2015, the 2017 Paris meeting, the 2018 Palermo conference alongside Mohammed bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi gathering in February 2019. Followed by Putin and Erdogan’s joint call for a ceasefire in 2020, alongside the first (2020) and second (2021) Berlin conferences alongside UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, each and every one of these efforts amounted to nothing.

The main reason behind these, perhaps well-intentioned but failed attempts, was the simple fact that none of these efforts had any grounding in Libyan history or the support of the Libyan people. Reaching consensus in a society as heavily divided as that of Libya, is a significant challenge. However, placing our faith in our history will undoubtedly provide us with a solution that is closer to the hearts of citizens of our nation and which has the potential to assist in competing factions finally putting their differences aside.

This was the catalyst of Saturday’s meeting which sought to once and for all provide an authentically Libyan solution to the issues which have been plaguing the country for over a decade. The first of these is the preservation of our territorial integrity which has for too long been challenged by foreign actors. It is high time that a long term resolution for our country’s ills is found that ensures the exclusion of foreign elements from shaping the future of our great land.

The second issue the gathering sought to underscore was the need to build an inclusive future for all members of Libyan society. For far too long, our country has excluded citizens of certain political persuasions, cultural backgrounds or those who hold different opinions. Every Libyan deserves equal opportunities, protection of basic rights alongside access to justice. This has been impossible in a country which for so long has lacked a cohesive national identity.

These two issues are indeed intertwined with the third issue which the conference sought to highlight, namely, our demand to return to constitutional legitimacy under the leadership of our Crown Prince Mohammed El Hasan el Rida el Senussi. As the sole heir to the throne of King Idris, passed down through the late Crown Prince Hassan, Prince Mohammad is the leader our country has yearned for.

With leadership claims grounded in historical fact that cannot be upended by foreign or domestic elements, from an ideological standpoint, Prince Mohammad serves as an anchor, offsetting challenges to stability posed by foreign elements. This is strengthened by his position as  the scion of a family which has been in Libya for centuries and founded the Senoussia movement, briniging with it Islam, to the country. Furthermore, historical memories of the reign of King Idris, which saw religious tolerance, gender equality and security for its citizens, reflects the future which Libyan’s would like to see for themselves today.

Bringing together journalists, academics, human rights defenders and political activists, Saturday’s gathering was indeed revolutionary. It would have been unimaginable that such a gathering would even have taken place a mere decade ago. Representing not only themselves, but a wide range of segments of Libyan society, those attending over Zoom broadcasted a powerful message; a rejection of foreign attempts top shape the future of the country alongside a return to historical, constitutional, legitimacy under the leadership of the only man who can help Libya exit the current quagmire and begin its noble foray into the future.

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“Kurdish Spring”: drawing to a close?

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For decades, the Kurdish problem was overshadowed by the Palestinian one, occasionally popping up in international media reports following the much-publicized arrest of the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the genocide of Iraqi Kurds and the scandalous referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. A few years ago, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds’ opposition to the “Islamic State” (banned in Russia) pushed them to the forefront of global politics with the media now talking about the so-called “Kurdish Spring.”

In short, the Kurdish problem boils down not only to the absence of independent statehood for 40 million people, who account for approximately 20 percent of the population of Turkey and Iraq, and between eight and 15 percent of Iran and Syria, but also to the refusal by Ankara, Tehran and Damascus to discuss the possibility of an autonomous status for the Kurds. Today, the very issue of Kurdish independence is being hushed up, at least in public.

The first example of Kurdish statehood in modern history was in Iran: in 1946, the Kurdish Autonomous Republic was proclaimed in the city of Mahabad, only to survive less than a year. Since then, the Iranian authorities have spared no effort to make sure the name of one of the country’s provinces (Kurdistan Ostan) is the only remainder of the Kurds’ presence in the Islamic Republic. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that the Kurds, most of whom happen to be Sunnis, are a hurdle on Tehran’s official course to achieve the religious unity of the Iranian people.

Since all Kurdish organizations, let alone political parties, are outlawed, most of them are based in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. For most Kurdish organizations, the original goal of gaining independence has increasingly been transformed into a demand for autonomy for Kurds inside Iran.

The other “pole” of Kurdish nationalism is Iraqi Kurdistan. The history of the region’s autonomy goes back to 1970, and since the 90s, it has been sponsored by the Americans, who needed a ground base for the “Gulf War.” In 2003, the Iraqi Peshmerga helped the Anglo-American troops to topple the country’s ruling Ba’athist regime.

Under the current Iraqi constitution, Kurdistan enjoys broad autonomy, bordering on the status of an independent state with nearly 40 foreign consulates general, including a Russian one, officially operating in the regional capital Erbil, and in Sulaymaniyah.

Following the referendum on independence (2017), which was not recognized by either Baghdad or the world community (except Israel), Baghdad sent troops into the region, forcing the resignation of the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the founder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Massoud Barzani. He has maintained a close presence though, with both the current president and the prime minister bearing the same surname.

According to various sources, the armed forces of the Iraqi Kurds number between 80,000 to 120,000, armed with heavy weapons, armored vehicles and tanks, and their number keeps growing. Who are they going to fight? Erbil is on fairly good terms with Turkey and Iran, the autonomy’s two “windows to the world,” and you don’t need a huge army to keep the remnants of jihadist forces in check, do you? Iraq? Iraq is a different matter though, given the presence of disputed territories, the unsettled issue of distribution of oil export revenues, and a deep-seated rejection of the 2017 Iraqi military invasion.

However, the political ambitions of the Barzani and Talabani clans, who divided Iraqi Kurdistan into zones of influence back in the 70s, are obviously offset by oil revenues, and are unlikely to extend beyond the “return” of the territories lost to Baghdad in 2017.

The Turkish factor is a major factor in the life of Iraqi Kurdistan: several thousand Turkish military personnel are deployed there, checking the activity of mountains-based armed units of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is branded by Ankara as a “terrorist” organization. Baghdad is unhappy about their presence, while Erbil, rather, pretends to be unhappy as it is in a state of undeclared war with the PKK itself. At the same time, Turkish soldiers are standing by to nip in the bud any further attempts by the region’s Kurdish authorities to gain sovereignty as Ankara fears that an independent Kurdish state will set a “bad example” for Kurds living in Turkey proper.

During the 1980s, several regions in southeastern Turkey declared themselves “liberated” from Ankara. In 1984, the “Marxist-Leninist” PKK (created in 1978) prevailed over all the other local Kurdish groups and declared war on the Turkish authorities. Following the arrest of their leader in 1999, the PKK militants were squeezed out of the country into Syria and Iraq, despite the fact that discarding the slogan of creating a “united and independent” Kurdistan, the party had already settled for a demand for Kurdish autonomy within Turkish borders.

For many decades, the Turkish authorities denied the very existence of Kurds as an ethnic group. During the 2000s, in a bid to sweeten the pill for the Kurds, and meeting the requirements of the European Union, the Turkish government came up with the so-called “Kurdish initiative,” lifting the ban on the use of the Kurdish language, returning Kurdish names to a number of settlements, etc.

Legal organizations and parties, advocating the rights of the Kurds, were granted greater freedom of action. However, this did not prevent the authorities from banning such parties for “connections with terrorists” and “separatism.” The current Kurdish party (creation of any associations on a national basis is prohibited) – the Peoples’ Democracy Party – is also under serious pressure with some of its leading members currently behind bars.

However, the apparent defeat in the military conflict with NATO’s second largest army is forcing Turkey’s Kurdish nationalists to focus on a legal political struggle.

During the past few years the main attention of the international community has for obvious reasons been focused on the Syrian Kurds, who for many decades remained “second-class citizens” or even stateless persons in their own country. Any manifestations of discontent, which occasionally boiled over into uprisings, was severely suppressed by the authorities.

With the outbreak of the civil war, the Kurds assumed the position of armed neutrality, and in 2012, announced the creation of their own statehood with the capital in El Qamishli. Six years later, the name of the quasi-state was changed from a “democratic federation” to an “autonomous administration,” meant to demonstrate the refusal by the authorities of Syrian Kurdistan to pursue their initial demand for independence.

Needless to say, that change of priorities was prompted by the occupation by Turkish troops and their proxies of parts of the Kurdish territories. In 2019, Ankara halted its military advance only after the Kurds had allowed Syrian troops into the areas under their control, and international players “dissuaded” Ankara from any further expansion.

In addition to the Turkish factor, another important factor with a serious bearing on the situation are US troops and members of American military companies who remain in northeastern Syria without any legal grounds for their presence.  Back when the current US President was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he promoted the idea of ​​creating a Kurdish state in Iraq and Syria. The Kurds have long lost their faith in Washington’s desire to grant them independence, but in bargaining with Damascus for the delimitation of powers, they never miss a chance to refer to US support.

However, in recent years, the Syrian Kurds (and not only them) have had ample opportunity to feel the results of Washington’s unreliability as a partner.

A lack of trust in the Americans, on the one hand, and the constant threat from Turkey, on the other, are forcing the Kurdish leaders to ramp up the negotiation process with the leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic. Moreover, the Kurds are pinning their hopes for the success of the negotiations primarily on the mediation of Russia, given Moscow’s allied relations with the Syrian authorities. Besides, Moscow maintains working ties with the leadership of the self-proclaimed autonomy, and with the leaders of the opposition Kurdish parties.

Meanwhile, the negotiations are stalling with Damascus opposed to the idea of either autonomy or the preservation of the Kurdish armed forces’ organizational independence. It is still imperative, however, for the sides to agree on certain conditions. The “return” of the Kurds can become a turning point in the intra-Syrian confrontation as the Americans will feel too “uncomfortable” in a united Syria, and the Turks will lose the main argument for their continued occupation of the border zone, which will now be controlled not by “terrorists,” but by the central government. Which, by the way, is gaining more and more legitimacy even in the eyes of yesterday’s irreconcilable opponents.

From our partner International Affairs

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