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Why Turkey is Amicable to Iraqi Kurds Yet Fights with Syrian Kurds

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Operation Olive Branch and the presidential election, 2019

The Turkish military Operation Olive Branch in Afrin has demonstrated that the problem of Syrian Kurdish militias YPG has driven a serious wedge between the USA and Turkey who are strategic partners and leaders among NATO members based on the size of their military. The reason for the invasion of the territory of Syria by the Turkish military has been the statement by CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Officer Colonel Thomas F. Veale who said that the United States work to establish the People’s Protection Units on the Syrian border with Turkey and Iraq composed of 30,000 Kurdish militias. Ankara has been alarmed with Washington supplying military equipment and ammunition, including mortars, antitank weapons systems and heavy machine guns to the YPG fighters. The refutation by the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said that Washington was not going to establish an armed group in the northeastern border of Syria, which Turkey seems to have misunderstood, has failed to stop Turkey from achieving its goal.

The charismatic leader of the ruling AKP party, Recep Erdogan, who has been ruling the country for 15 years at his discretion and in a tough way, could not but seize the opportunity to strengthen his political capital before the 2019 presidential election. The opposition, except for the pro-Kurdish HDP, has all lent full support to the operation.By launching the military operation, he has managed to draw the Turkish nationalists over to himself. The leader of the nationalist party MHP Devlet Bahceli has already stated that his party would not nominate its candidate, but will support Erdogan in the elections.

If Erdogan manages to complete the military operation without heavy casualties, resettle over 4 million Syrian refugees from Turkey to the Syrian province of Afrin and create a strong buffer zone free from Kurdish militants, he can win the forthcoming election. Thus, many factors have intertwined in the Operation Olive Branch: state security protection, fight against Kurdish terrorists, geostrategic interests of Turkey in the Middle East, and domestic policy challenges.

Turkey’s Carrot and Stick Method on Kurds

It should be emphasized that in the last 15 years Turkey has been pursuing differentiated policies towards the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. If the cooperation with Iraqi Kurds is a tactical friendship, there’s a tough war between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds. What is the secret behind such different attitudes towards Syrian and Iraqi Kurds who belong to a single ethnic group?

The Kurds are one of the largest nations in the world with no national statehood. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, the Kurds were divided between the four countries in the Middle East – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. However, currently there are three active Kurdish ethnic groups that have complex relationships between them.

The first group is led by ex-president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Masoud Barzani, who has managed to establish cooperation with Ankara after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The second group is composed of adherers of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party in Iraqi Sulaimani that has lost its one-time influence after the death of its leader, Jalal Talabani, in 2017. The attitude of Ankara to this group of Kurds can be described as relatively stable. However, Turkey strongly disapproves of the initiatives of KDP and PUK to declare the independence of Kurdistan. Partly due to the diplomatic and economic pressure by Turkey, Erbil has had to freeze the independence referendum results as of September 25, 2017, and remain as an autonomous region of Iraq.

The third group includes Syrian Kurds who have united behind the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that controls the armed militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). According to Ankara, these armed groups of Syrian Kurds are closely related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered by Turkey and western countries as a terrorist organization. It should be emphasized that the Kurdish militants of PKK have been fighting against the Turkish Government to gain sovereignty since 1984. Therefore, Erdogan believes that PYD, YPG and PKK are all terrorist organizations. All three of them Erdogan refers to as Daesh (Arabic language acronym ISIS).

The concerns expressed by Ankara contain elements of truth. Despite the statements made by the Syrian Kurds about their non-affiliation with the PKK militants, evidence suggests otherwise. The training camps of PKK have been known to be based in Syria and Kurdish militants after committing terrorist attacks in Turkey have been hiding there successfully in the north of Syria. It is no secret that the leader of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison in Imrali, is very popular among the Syrian Kurds. Therefore the Syrian Kurdsbuilt a huge, 53-meter-high, statue as a monument of Abdullah Ocalan on the slopes of the Darmyk Mountain in the northern Syrian region of Afrin, which the Turkish air force bombed during the Operation Olive Branch.Yet his life sentence has not stopped him from attempting to become the leader of the whole Kurdish world and to create the united Kurdistan at the junction of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Given that the Talabani group is not strong enough to compete, there’s an ongoing ideological struggle for leadership between Barzani and Ocalan, which has an impact on the situation in the region.

Turkey, in its relations with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, is using a carrot-and-stick approach. The government of Erdogan uses skillfully disagreements between the three Kurdish groups to improve its national security. Ankara is actively developing economic cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan and hosts Masoud Barzani at the highest level. In turn, Masoud Barzani reciprocates for the ‘Turkish carrot’. He tries to force the PKK militants out of his territory and upon the request of Ankara closes the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan for the Syrian Kurds. When in May 2014 the Syrian region inhabited with Kurds raised the question of establishment of autonomy, Masoud Barzani did not support his fellows and took Erdogan’s position. Thus, Barzani and Erdogan’s government have found common interest, which satisfies both leaders.

Unlike their Iraqi fellows, today Syrian Kurds in Afrin feel the brutality of the ‘Turkish stick’ approach. According to the General Staff of Turkey, over 1,000 PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists have been killed since the launch of the military operation. The Turkish army, jointly with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has managed to clean up a significant part of Afrin areas. Operation Olive Branch has demonstrated that Turkey is overreacting to the attempts of the Syrian Kurds to transform into an independent political force in the region.

Putin’s ‘hybrid tactic’ in the confrontation between Ankara and Washington

Erdogan has said that afterthe military operation in Afrin the Turkish army is prepared to clean up Manbij where about 2,000 U.S. troops and an umbrella group of Kurdish fighters YPG are stationed. He has called on the U.S. to leave Manbij and stop supporting the Syrian Kurds. In fact, Ankara has laid out a condition to Washington to choose between the Kurdish militias and Turkey. Washington meanwhile manages to walk a fine line between the Syrian Kurds and Ankara.According to YPG,if the United States refuses to support the Kurdish militias, who have turned out to be a strong support to the Americans in their fight against ISIS,it would be as bad as capitulating to the so-called Islamic State. Yet the red line across Manbij comes closer and closer every day.

Finally, it may be concluded that the confrontation between Ankara and Washington strengthened the positions of Russia, Iran and the regime of Bashar Assad in the Middle East. Russia,who has troops in Afrin and controls the skies over the region, has given a green signal to Turkey to attack US-backed YPG. Thus, Moscow punished the Syrian Kurds for rapprochement with Washington and the refusal to release Afrin to the army of the Assad regime.

Expectedly, the Kremlin will keep on trying to influence the two NATO members to collide, which will curb the influence of the United States in Syria. Erdogan, who has recently strongly demanded regime change in Syria, today he fears that Bashar Assad and YPG can unite against Turkey. This all reminds me of Putin’s ‘hybrid tactics’ during the brexit in the UK and interference in the US electoral process.

Today it is difficult to predict how long the Turkish “whip” diplomacy against the Syrian Kurds will last. The situation is becoming more dangerous. In this situation, much will depend on the statements and actions of Washington, which still has enough influence and resources to defuse the tense situation in northern Syria.

Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam. Modern Diplomacy Advisory Board, Member. SpecialEurasia, Team Member.

Middle East

Middle Eastern autocrats sigh relief: the US signals Democracy Summit will not change policy

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The United States has signalled in advance of next week’s Summit for Democracy that it is unlikely to translate lip service to adherence to human rights and democratic values in the Middle East into a policy that demonstrates seriousness and commitment.

In a statement, the State Department said the December 9-10 summit would “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” e State Department said that in advance of the summit, it had consulted with government experts, multilateral organisations, and civil society “to solicit bold, practicable ideas” on “defending against authoritarianism,” “promoting respect for human rights,” and fighting corruption.

Of the more than 100 countries alongside civil society and private sector representatives expected to participate in the summit, only Israel is Middle Eastern, and a mere eight are Muslim-majority states. They are Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Albania, Iraq, Kosovo, Niger, and the Maldives.

US President Joe Biden has made the competition between democracy and autocracy a pillar of his administration policy and put it at the core of the United States’ rivalry with China.

We’re in a contest…with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century,” Mr. Biden said.

Yet, recent statements by the Pentagon and a White House official suggested that, despite the lofty words, US Middle East policy is likely to maintain long-standing support for the region’s autocratic rule in the belief that it will ensure stability.

Popular revolts in the past decade that toppled leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon suggest that putting a lid on the pot was not a solution. That is true even if the achievements of the uprisings were either rolled back by Gulf-supported counter-revolutionary forces or failed to achieve real change.

To be sure, Gulf states have recognized that keeping the pot covered is no longer sufficient. As a result, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have developed plans and policies that cater to youth aspirations with economic and social reforms while repressing political freedoms.

The US appears to be banking on the success of those reforms and regional efforts to manage conflicts so that they don’t spin out of control.

On that basis, the United States maintains a policy that is a far cry from standing up for human rights and democracy. It is a policy that, in practice, does not differ from Chinese and Russian backing of Middle Eastern autocracy. Continuous US public and private references to human rights and democratic values and occasional baby steps like limiting arms sales do not fundamentally alter things.

Neither does the United States’ choice of partners when it comes to responding to popular uprisings and facilitating political transition. In dealing with the revolt in Sudan that in 2019 toppled President Omar al-Bashir and a military coup in October, both the Trump and Biden administration turned to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Israel. While Israel is a democracy, none of the US partners favour democratic solutions to crises of governance.

White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk signalled this in an interview with The National, the UAE’s flagship English-language newspaper, immediately after a security summit in Bahrain that brought together officials from across the globe. US officials led by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sought to use the conference to reassure America’s allies that the United States was not turning its back on ensuring regional security.

Mr. McGurk said that the United States had drawn conclusions from “hard lessons learnt” and was going “back to basics.” Basics, Mr. McGurk said, in a nod primarily to Iran but potentially also to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, entailed dumping “regime change policies.” He said the US would focus on “the basics of building, maintaining, and strengthening our partnerships and alliances” in the Middle East.

Mr. McGurk’s articulation of a back-to-basics policy was reinforced this week with the publication of a summary of the Pentagon’s Global Posture review, suggesting that there would be no significant withdrawal of US forces from the region in Mr. Biden’s initial years in office.

The notion of back to basics resonates with liberals in Washington’s foreign policy elite. Democracy in the Middle East is no longer part of their agenda.

“Instead of using US power to remake the region…policymakers need to embrace the more realistic and realisable goal of establishing and preserving stability,” said Council of Foreign Relations Middle East expert Steven A. Cook even before Mr. Biden took office.” What Washington needs is not a ‘war on terror’ built on visions of regime change, democracy promotion, and ‘winning hearts and minds’ but a realistic approach focused on intelligence gathering, police work, multilateral cooperation and the judicious application of violence when required,” he added.

Mr. Cook went on to say that a realistic US Middle East policy would involve “containing Iran, retooling the fight against terrorism, to reduce its counterproductive side effects, reorganizing military deployments to emphasize the protection of sea-lanes, and downscaling the US-Israeli relationship to reflect Israel’s relative strength.”

The United States is in good company in its failure to put its money where its mouth is regarding human rights and democratic values.

The same can be said for European nations and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority state and democracy. Indonesia projects itself directly and indirectly through Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement, as the only major supporter of a moderate interpretation of Islam that embraces human rights without reservations and pluralism and religious tolerance.

That has not stopped Indonesia from allegedly caving into a Saudi threat not to recognize the Indonesian Covid-19 vaccination certificates of pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Media if the Asian state voted for an extension of a United Nations investigation into human rights violations in the almost seven-year-old war in Yemen.

Similarly, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates on cooperation on religious affairs even though the UAE’s version of a moderate but autocratic Islam stands for values that reject freedoms and democracy.

The agreements were part of a much larger package of economic, technological, and public health cooperation fuelled by US$32.7 billion in projected Emirati investments in Indonesia.

The Biden administration’s reluctance, in line with a long list of past US presidents, to do substantially more than pay lip service to the promotion of human rights and democratic values brings to mind Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

President George W. Bush and his then-national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, acknowledged two decades ago that jihadist violence and the 9/11 attacks were partly the results of the United States’ failure to stand up for its values. They bungled, however, their effort to do something about it, as did Barak Obama.

It is not only the Middle East and other regions’ autocracies that pay the price. So do the United States and Europe. Their refusal to integrate their lofty ideals and values into effective policies is increasingly reflected at home in domestic racial, social, and economic fault lines and anti-migrant sentiment that threatens to tear apart the fabric of democracy in its heartland.

The backlash of failing to heed Mr. Einstein’s maxim and recognizing the cost associated with saying one thing and doing another is not just a loss of credibility. The backlash is also the rise of isolationist, authoritarian, xenophobic, racist, and conspiratorial forces that challenge the values in which human rights and democracy are rooted.

That raises the question of whether the time, energy, and money invested in the Summit of Democracy could not have been better invested in fixing problems at home. Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh nailed it by noting that “shoring up democracy is almost entirely domestic work.”

It’s a message that has not been lost on democracy’s adversaries. In what should have been a warning that hollow declaratory events like the Summit of Democracy are not the answer, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told last September’s United Nations General Assembly: “The United States’ hegemonic system has no credibility, inside or outside the country.”

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Middle East

International Solidarity Day with the people of Palestine

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Since 1948, the people of Palestine were suffering due to Israeli oppression and aggression. Despite several resolutions on Palestine passed by the United Nation, Israel has not implemented either of them. Despite the struggle from all peace-loving nations, in various forms, the Palestinian people have not yet been given the right of self-determination, or self-rule, and are yet, forced to leave their land, homes and stay in refugee camps or migrate to foreign countries to live a miserable life. After failure from all aspects, the United Nations desp[erately declared to mark International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

In 1977, the General Assembly called for the annual observance of 29 November as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (resolution 32/40 B). On that day, in 1947, the Assembly adopted the resolution on the partition of Palestine (resolution 181 (II))

In resolution 60/37 of 1 December 2005, the Assembly requested the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Division for Palestinian Rights, as part of the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on 29 November, to continue to organize an annual exhibit on Palestinian rights or a cultural event in cooperation with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN.

The resolution on the observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People also encourages the Member States to continue to give the widest support and publicity to the observance of the Day of Solidarity.

The government and the people of Pakistan join the world community in observing the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People (29 November).

The commemoration of this day is a reminder to the international community that the question of Palestine remains unresolved and the Palestinian people are yet to realize their inalienable right to self-determination as provided in various resolutions of the United Nations. It is also an occasion to reiterate our support and solidarity for the Palestinian people who continue to wage a just struggle against the illegal and brutal occupation.

On this day, Pakistan reaffirms its consistent and unstinted support for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause, which has always been a defining principle of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The international community must shoulder its responsibility to protect the lives and fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, and play its rightful role in promoting a just and lasting resolution of the Palestinian question per international legitimacy in the interest of durable peace and stability in the Middle East. The international community should also ensure accountability for the widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the occupied territories.

We renew our call on this day for a viable, independent, and contiguous Palestinian State, with pre-1967 borders, and Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital being the only just, comprehensive and lasting solution of the Palestinian question, under the relevant United Nations and OIC resolutions.

The purpose of marking this day is to remind the whole world that the people of Palestine deserve your attention and your time to think about their sufferings. It is to remind that the whole world should understand the issue and try their best to solve it according to the UN resolutions. Those who believe in justice, may raise their voice in favor of the Palestinian people and condemn Israeli barbarism and atrocities. This Day invites all of you to join the [peaceful struggle of Palestinian people for their legitimate rights. Irrespective of your profession, social status, or your religion or race, you may support the Palestinian cause for justice on humanitarian grounds and keep your struggle till the people of Palestine gets their legitimate status and rights on equal footings according to the UN resolutions.

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Middle East

Israel-Palestine: Risk of ‘deadly escalation’ in violence, without decisive action

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photo: UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

With violence continuing daily throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process urged the Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a more coordinated approach to the region.  

Tor Wennesland told Council Members that “recent developments on the ground are worrying”, pointing out the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and the challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority.  

“I therefore emphasize again the importance of concerted efforts by the parties to calm things on the ground. I am concerned that if we do not act quickly and decisively, we risk plunging into another deadly escalation of violence”, he warned. 

He informed that, in the last month, violence resulted in the death of four Palestinians, including two children, and injuries to 90 others – including 12 children – due to action by Israeli Security Forces. 

One Israeli civilian was killed in the same period, and nine civilians, including one woman and one child, and six members of ISF were injured.  

Challenges 

Mr. Wennesland said that a severe fiscal and economic crisis is threatening the stability of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. 

At the same time, he added, “ongoing violence and unilateral steps, including Israeli settlement expansion, and demolitions, continue to raise tensions, feed hopelessness, erode the Palestinian Authority’s standing and further diminish the prospect of a return to meaningful negotiations.” 

In Gaza, the cessation of hostilities continues to hold, but the Special Envoy argued that “further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately enables a return of legitimate Palestinian Government institutions to the Strip.” 

Settlements 

The Special Coordinator also said that “settler-related violence remains at alarmingly high levels.” 

Overall, settlers and other Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank perpetrated some 54 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in 26 injuries. Palestinians perpetrated 41 attacks against Israeli settlers and other civilians, resulting in one death and nine injuries.  

Mr. Wennesland highlighted a few announcements of housing units in settlements, reiterating that “that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.” 

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have also advanced plans for some 6,000 housing units for Palestinians in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Issawiya and some 1,300 housing units for Palestinians living in Area C (one of the administrative areas in the occupied West Bank, agreed under the Oslo Accord). 

The Special Envoy welcomed such steps but urged Israel to advance more plans and to issue building permits for all previously approved plans for Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Humanitarian aid delivered 

Turning to Gaza, the Special Envoy said that humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction efforts continued, along with other steps to stabilize the situation on the ground. 

He called the gradual easing of restrictions on the entry of goods and people “encouraging”, but said that the economic, security and humanitarian situation “remains of serious concern.” 

The Special Envoy also mentioned the precarious financial situation of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which still lacks $60 million to sustain essential services this year. 

The agency has yet to pay the November salaries of over 28,000 UN personnel, including teachers, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, many of whom support extended families, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is high.  

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