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Kurdish Referendum: More Military Threats to Independent Kurdistan

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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

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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