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Kurdish Referendum: More Military Threats to Independent Kurdistan



Despite the opposition of the central government in Baghdad, Kurdish political parties agreed to hold a referendum in the region on September 25th, 2017. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said that the referendum includes disputed areas, such as oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which is claimed by the Kurds and Baghdad.

Unquestionably, there will be some serious security and military threats that the KRG will not able to handle on their own. This piece details the security threats (in classical term military threats). So, the question in everybody’s mind these days is what will be the military threats to Iraqi Kurdistan if the region announces its independence?

MPF and Independent Kurdistan

Iran is pursuing a policy of strengthening its influence and interests in other countries, relying on non-governmental actors after the success of the Hezbollah support experiment, which is now in control of the Lebanese decisions. This type of dependence on governmental and non-governmental organizations are prevalent in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, where Iran officially supports groups such as Ansar Allah led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, which seized control of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in late September 2014, and dozens of Iraqi militias active in both Syria and Iraq, such as Asaib Ah Al-Badr, Saraya al-Kharasani, and other Shiite groups operating under the cover of the People’s Mobilization Forces (MPF). Most of the Shiite militias and factions were formed by local volunteers under the PMF. Even though the Iraqi Parliament acknowledged PMF as a legal force, Abadi is too weak to take on the militias directly.  

The MPF objective encompasses eliminating terrorism in Iraq and in the region, to protecting the regime and the political process in Iraq, as per Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who is the deputy chairman of MPF Committee. Shia militants are concerned with protecting the regime and the political process, which is an uncharted territory for the PMF. It is an explicit declaration of the possibility of turning it into a sensitive and dangerous situation. The PMF are a great danger, but their threat is limited to certain (disputed) areas. These militants have fought to turn Iraq into a Shiite state that answer to the mullahs in Tehran. The next battle for Iraqi Shiite forces is to guarantee the territorial integrity of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, so that Iran (and its allies) can move unhindered throughout these regions. The partition of Iraq is the redline for Tehran, and in the case of a referendum and declaration of independence of northern Iraq, the PMF will be mobilized against the KRG. Some believes that the threat of war by the MPF against KRG arises not from the referendum, but from the disputed areas will be included in the upcoming referendum. Nonetheless, several indicators show that PMF will fuel the sectarian situation already present in Iraqi society, and will increase its division, which will inevitably lead to a new civil war and security threats aimed at the Kurdish entity. The war already took place in the disputed areas (Tuz Khurmatu) between Kurdish forces and MPF, after intervention in those areas by Peshmarga forces.   

Arming Minorities in Disputed Areas

The Iraqi parliament voted earlier in favor of the PMF as an official formation and part of the Iraqi armed forces, authorizing them to enter any part of the country to liberate them from terrorist gangs, maintain security in other areas, and defend it against any potential threat. This grants them the flexibility to move into areas that are under the control of the Iraqi army prior to the arrival of ISIS, particularly the disputed areas between the Baghdad and Erbil. It is expected that the MPF would encircle the borders of the Kurdish Region via the exploitation and arming of minorities, particularly Shia Turkmen, who have sought PMF patronage to increase their local autonomy. It is very vital that the road be closed for the plan to work.

Tensions between the Shiite popular crowd and the Kurdish peshmerga already reached unprecedented levels. Clashes erupted in Tuz Kurmatu after the attack on the headquarters of the Peshmerga forces in town, resulting in casualties on both sides. Some factions of the PMF are also arming the tribes of Tuz Khurmato following recent security developments, which began to widen through the mutual targeting of the Peshmerga and civilians. The PMF in the Tuz will not stay long, but arming the tribes will prevent the Peshmerga from coming back to Tuz to create tensions.

Tensions between Shiite militias and Kurds is not only prevalent in Tuz Khirramato district south of Kirkuk, but the crowd is also taking advantage of the battle of Mosul and use it as a cover to approach the borders of the Kurdistan region, as per their earlier threats. Recently, there was a warning that an armed conflict might erupt between both sides over disagreements on the security of the Sinjar area in Nineveh province.  The crowd entering Sinjar, west of Mosul, could very well lead to a war. The leader of the PMF, Jawad Talibawi, already launched an attack on the Peshmerga, and explained that removing them from Nineveh will be easier than expelling ISIS. He also called for the need to subject the entire territory of Iraq to the control of the state, threatening to use force against the Peshmerga in the event of “non-compliance” to the orders of Abadi. Recently, dozens of Yazidis Peshmerga, including military officials who left their ranks and joined the PMF, said that they expect the MPF to help the Yezidis return to their areas and provide the necessary assistance because they are Iraqi forces, and we must respect them as we respect any other fighting force.

Recruiting Kurdish Citizen

The economic situation that the region is going through due to its reduced budget from the central government in Baghdad and the drop in oil prices resulted in increased unemployment; which provided a good environment for PMF to attract the people of the region to join its ranks and promote its agenda, which differs from the one espoused by Baghdad. Those who register will receive 1,100,000 Iraqi dinars per month, and if they have families, they will earn 250,000 dinars more, and if killed, will be considered martyrs, and their families will be granted 15 million Iraqi dinars and a piece of land. Mohammed al-Bayati, the official of the northern section of the PMF, admitted that “a small number” of the region’s citizens and figures had joined them. Some were told that they could form military regiments. Al-Bayati also pointed out that “The Kurds who join the popular mobilization are deployed on the border line of the disputed areas of Kirkuk and Khanaqin because we need them there”.  The registration of volunteers from the Kurdistan region into the ranks of the PMF in the Kurdistan region is reminiscent of the previous regime, which used volunteers to fight Kurdish forces.

In addition, the Iraqi government can further threaten the Kurdish region by preventing the passage of arms, weapons, and ammunition to the KGR, and especially to those partaking in the international coalition against ISIS. Even the United States does not prefer to send direct military assistance to the KRG. The central government may try to sign a security agreement with neighboring countries (Iran and Turkey) to allow for the direct intervention in Iraq through their respective military forces, and the establishment of bases in northern Iraq. Baghdad has been unable to control the regions bordering both countries. On July 23rd, 2017, Iran and Iraq signed a military agreement to step up military cooperation, which also includes border security, logistical, and training support. Despite their disputes, the Iraqi government will take a parallel step with Turkey to militarily contain Iraqi Kurdistan.

In terms of difficulties of referendum, the most prominent is the rejection of the Shiites and Sunnis for independence of the region. The public opinions of Iraqi Arabs (Shiites and Sunnis) have rejected the partition of the country; they have not even welcome federalism. The disputed areas are inhabited by a mixture of Sunnis Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds. The Arab (even Turkmen) nationalist could probably form semi-military organizations to fight Kurdish forces, compelling the Kurds to leave, even abducting and killing them in areas beyond the control of KRG. For instance; after announcing holding referendum in September 2017, the citizens of the Failli Kurds are currently being exposed to various types of threats of killing, displacement, and looting in some areas.

Externally, the military threats are as serious internally as it is externally. The neighboring countries will expose military threats to the Kurdistan region. Iranian and Turkish planes and artillery have constantly bombed border villages in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, targeting elements and positions of PJAK and PKK, YPG, and SDF in northern Iraq, including Sinjar.

The neighboring countries – particularly Iran; might try to create and bring Jihadist to border regions between Kurdistan and Iran in order to destabilize the region.  Ansar al-Islam fi Kurdistan (Jund al-Islam) bases were in and around the villages of Biyara and Tawela, which lied northeast of the town of Halabja in the Hawraman region of Sulaimaniya province bordering Iran. The PUK claims that dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters joined Ansar Al-Islam in Iraq after 9/11 attacks, with as many as 57 “Arab Afghan” fighters entering Kurdistan via Iran. Taken together with credible reports of the return of some Ansar al-Islam fighters to Iraqi Kurdistan through Iran suggest that these fighters have received at least limited support from Iranian sources. It is therefore not surprising that the Iranian government is repeating their previous endeavor when dealing with the Kurdish state. Similarly, Turkey might use Turkmen in Kirkuk and other areas to destabilize the security situation in the Kurdistan region and disputed areas by arming and mobilizing them.

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Middle East

Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power



The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Middle East

Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week



The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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Middle East

North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?



In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.

In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.

Tensions for decades

Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.

With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.

Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.

But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.

What happened?

Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.

It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.

The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.

In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!

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