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Whither the Kurds?

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Palestinians have long been known for a history of missing opportunities. By contrast, Kurds spread across several Middle Eastern nations appeared to have a keener understanding of geopolitics and were seemingly willing to embrace the art of the possible. All of that has changed in the past year with both Palestinians and Kurds seemingly further away from achieving their long-standing goal of statehood.

A combination of the rise of US President Donald J. Trump, the emergence of the Islamic State, the wars in Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s turn towards authoritarianism, and the fallout of failed policies by Palestinian and Kurdish leaders have rendered both nations struggling to salvage what can be salvaged.

To be sure, circumstances that shape the struggle to achieve the two peoples’ national aspirations could not be more different. Yet, while Iraqi Kurds may have destroyed in the short-term what they built in almost three decades of autonomy with an ill-advised referendum on independence in September 2017, at least Iraqi and Syrian Kurds could in the middle-term be closer to some form of sustainable self-rule, if not independence, than immediately meets the eye.

By contrast, with Trump backing Israel to the hilt, symbolized by his unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, Palestinians are groping for an alternative framework for peace negotiations and tiptoeing around the possibility of a new uprising or Intifada that the last time round at the turn from the 20th to the 21st century had a devastating effect on them.

A region in transition

Working in the favour of both Kurds and Palestinians is the fact that they live in a region that has been in volatile and violent transition since the Arab popular revolts of 2011. That transition is likely to continue for years, if not a quarter of a century, before the battles between forces of change and counterrevolution and complicating regional rivalries have battled it out and the fallout of the outcome of those struggles settles in.

As Kurds contemplate the future, they have the advantage in contrast to the Palestinians, that the transition calls into question the future political structure of Syria and Iraq, if not their existence as nation-states within their post-colonial borders. Similarly, the nature of the regime in Syria is likely to change with the contested future of President Bashar al-Assad while the prospects of Iraq’s democratically elected, Shiite-dominated government are in flux as it struggles to ensure that the country’s Sunni minority maintains a stake in a unified Iraq and address Kurdish aspirations. In Turkey, too, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to remain in power at least until his country celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023 is certain to encounter headwinds.

Kurdish hopes are often vested in predictions articulated by former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden that “Iraq no longer exists, Syria no longer exists” as well as the disintegration of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the wake of the demise of communist rule. That remains a possibility but more realistic is the fact, at least in the immediate future, the Syrian and Iraqi states as they existed in the past are more likely to change rather than dissolve. The lesson of the 2017 Iraqi Kurdish referendum and the fact that the Iraqi state has already demonstrated resilience in surviving and its Syrian counterpart may well do so too, means that Kurds will have to strive for some autonomous accommodation within a federal structure.

Another lesson the referendum and the wars in Syria and Iraq have taught the Kurds is that, despite having been close allies of the United States in multiple battles, including the fight against former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and the Islamic State, they cannot count on the kind of support Washington has extended to Israel. That, however, may be less of a disadvantage than the obstacles Palestinians face as they counter a strong and entrenched Israeli state that despite widespread condemnation of its annexationist policies enjoys a network of strong international relationships even with those, like the Gulf states, who are unwilling to recognize it and establish formal diplomatic ties.

With the future of Syria and Iraq as nation states in question, Kurds ironically benefit from the fact that Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian constituencies are not striving for a unitary state carved out of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi territory unlike the Palestinians who despite the split between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority on the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip are seeking an independent entity that would encompass both territories. One consequence of that is the fact that Kurdish leaders in the various territories are less stymied by their differences than are the Palestinians whose leverage in potential negotiations and ability to marshal more than symbolic international support has been undermined by their inability to form a united front.

It has also made them more vulnerable to the machinations and manipulations of external players such as Iran, Qatar, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Encouraged by the UAE and Egypt controversial Abu Dhabi-based former security chief Mohammed Dahlan is weighing a return to Palestinian politics and challenge to Abbas either by forming a party of his own or joining Hamas in governing Gaza as part of national salvation government.

Playing ball with Syria

Syrian Kurds are likely to benefit from the fact that decentralization will probably be Syria’s best bet to ensure its territorial integrity once the guns fall silent. That would enable Kurds to claim enhanced powers in purely Kurdish areas, strengthen their demand that Syria identify itself as a republic rather than an Arab republic, create the basis for the children of minorities to be educate in their mother tongue in both Kurdish-majority regions as well as in Kurdish neighbourhoods of major Syrian cities, and allow for an equitable distribution of oil export revenues. Syrian Kurds stressed the centrality of the revenues by declaring in 2016 their autonomous federal region at a gathering in Rumeilan, the oil capital of northeast Syria, rather than  Qamishli, their de-facto capital.

In some ways, the building blocks for autonomy are starker in Syrian Kurdish areas than in Iraqi Kurdistan. The differences in law enforcement, the administration of utilities and social services, and economic policy in Kurdish areas and those parts of Syria controlled by the Assad government are greater than in Iraq.

The regional Kurdish authority has promulgated laws, including a quasi-constitution dubbed ‘Rojava’s social contract;’ created agencies to license and administer investments, education, and media; founded the region’s first university; created a system for the sharing of economic resources; laid plans for an independent central bank, and witnessed the emergence of a broad network of non-governmental associations. Notionally Damascus retained a presence in the regional area by maintaining its monopoly on the issuing of civil record documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, the paying of civil servant salaries, and its control of Qamishli Airport, the area’s main gateway.

Nevertheless, a generation of Syrian Kurdish children is being educated exclusively in Kurdish rather than also in Arabic. They are growing up with a notion of Syria as a hostile, foreign forces, that they have never visited. Kurdish children in Afrin are likely to have had their first encounter with Syrians in early 2018 when Syrian government forces entered the region in support of Kurdish forces fighting off military intervention by the Turkish military and Ankara-backed rebels. Ironically, Kurdish agreement to the Syrian entry could strengthen their bid for autonomy in a future federal arrangement. The agreement reportedly involves the declaration of a no-fly zone over Afrin, the establishment of Syrian military base, and put maintenance of a local administration in northern Syria and sharing natural resources and services on the table. Critics assert that those are conditions that the Assad government is likely to walk away from in the longer term.

To succeed in achieving sustainable autonomy, Syrian Kurds will have to endorse some combination involving and/or the relinquishing of non-Kurdish territory, particularly in areas once occupied by the Islamic state; loosen the ties of the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG) with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) that Turkey labels a terrorist organization; and align its local governance structures with those of Syria. This will likely involve a balancing of Kurdish, Turkish, and Syrian interests.

That could prove easier said than done particularly with Assad seeing the survival of his regime as well as that of his Alawite minority in Syria’s continued embrace of pan Arabism as a concept that includes “all ethnic groups, religions, and communities” and recognizes their contribution to the notion’s development. Assad see his country’s brutal war as an attempt to force Syria to abandon its own identity and kowtow to foreign powers or to become a society of “communities in conflict.” Speaking in late 2017, Assad asserted that “Arabism and national thinking have continuously been accused by their enemies of backwardness and of being old-fashioned in an age overwhelmed by globalization in order to turn us into tools to serve the interests of huge financial institutions led by the United States.”

Returning from the abyss

The Iraqi Kurds wasted their moment in history by falsely assuming that the United States would back their quest for independence based on the September 2017 referendum. Instead it will take the Iraqi Kurds time to heal their internal divisions stemming from one faction allowing the Iraqi military to take unopposed control of the strategic city of Kirkuk and crawl back the degree of self-rule they had achieved under the umbrella of the United States. Iraqi Kurds are still trying to come “to grips with the trauma caused by the abrupt change from a quasi-state status to that of an entity under threat of annihilation…  If Iraq’s history as a nation-state can be taken as a proof then the possibility of peaceful coexistence seems quite unrealistic.,” said scholar Ofra Bengio.

Negotiations are nevertheless likely to be the only way to achieve that. Both sides have incentives to engage in talks. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s military is weak despite its recapture of territory controlled by the Islamic State as well as Kirkuk and has a poor track record in retaining control of territories it has conquered. The threat of a military confrontation with the Kurds will moreover continue to exist as long the two sides fail to reach an agreement that is based on the country’s that recognized Kurdistan’s regional status and gave it a far-reaching degree of self-rule.

Similarly, Iraqi Kurdish leaders have little other choice given the fallout of the mis-guided referendum. External players like Turkey and Iran that were crucial in thwarting Iraqi Kurdish aspirations of independence would likely be supportive as long as Kurdistan remains an integral part of Iraq and Iraqi territorial integrity is guaranteed.

The key to successful negotiations is the elephant in the room: the future of what the constitution terms “disputed territories” that are rich in hydrocarbon resources, which in effect means agreement on the boundaries that separate the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdish leverage in negotiations is likely to be in part determined on whether the potential revival of Sunni-Shiite tensions will erase the sense of national urgency that existed in the three-year struggle against the Islamic State. The jury is still out on whether the local administration that controls Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, will succeed in taking into full account the interests of the Sunnis and ending their sense of alienation. To do so, the government in Baghdad will have to secure the resources to rebuild the shattered city and help its traumatised population – something it has failed to effectively do in the past.

To be sure, Abadi, unlike Assad in Syria, has shown himself to be more sensitive and inclusive. Yet, crucial to the Kurds, is the underlying question of whether Abadi’s inclusiveness will succeed in putting the Iraqi nation state’s core problem, the inability to create a deeply rooted national identity, behind it.

Nonetheless, while it remains likely that the Kurdish-Iraqi standoff will continue without a renewed eruption of hostilities for some time to come, the question is for how long,” “The fractious nature of Iraqi politics inherently works against compromise. In Baghdad, a united front for compromise is almost impossible to achieve. As such, brave or original ideas are easily undercut by opponents who will resort to the lowest common denominator: a unitary Iraqi nationalism. This is the surest way to discredit any conciliatory move on the Kurdish issue… Even if (the current crisis) ends with a return to a mildly reshuffled form of the status quo ante, Arab Iraqis would be sorely mistaken if they celebrate this as an Iraqi triumph: it would be a completely Pyrrhic victory that merely intensifies the mutual mistrust and delays confrontation,” warned Iraq scholar Fanar Haddad.

Regional imbroglio

The various Kurdish struggles risk becoming pawns in the Middle East fundamental rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar that is backed by Turkey and Iran. Turkey has already alleged that the Emirates, the kingdom and Egypt are supporting the PKK. Yeni Safak, a newspaper closely aligned with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), charged that a $1 billion Saudi contribution to the reconstruction of Raqqa, the now partly Syrian Kurdish-controlled former capital of the Islamic State, was evidence of the kingdom’s involvement in what it termed a “dirty game.”

Similarly, Iran reported increased insurgent activity in majority-Kurdish region, asserting that Saudi Arabia was supporting it as part of a bid to destabilize the Islamic republic. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said it had recently seized two large caches of weapons and explosives in separate operations in Kurdish areas in the west of the country and a Baloch region on the eastern border with Pakistan. It said the Kurdish cache seized in the town of Marivan included bomb-making material, electronic detonators, and rocket propelled grenades while the one in the east contained two dozen remote-controlled bombs. Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman vowed last year that the battle between his kingdom and the Islamic republic would be fought “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Compared to the Kurds, Palestinians have the advantage that they confront one rather than multiple states even if stability in Israel and US backing for hard-line Israeli positions is beyond doubt. The Kurds may however discover that the greater complexity of their struggle could turn out to be an advantage provided they are able to play their cards right.

This story was originally published in Europa Ethnica, Vol. ½, 2018

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Middle East

Justice delayed is justice denied. I lost my family to Iran Regime’s barbarity

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Mohammad Shafaei’s family- The toddler in his mother’s arm is Mohammad Shafaei

On May 4, over 1,100 families of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran wrote a letter to the international community. We called on the United Nations and European and American governments to take immediate action in preventing the regime from further destruction of their loved ones’ graves.

I was one of the signatories. I have lost six of my relatives to the regime’s cruelty. I was seven years old when my parents were arrested for their democratic ideals and activism.

My father, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, was a well-respected and popular physician in Isfahan. He was admired by people because he was extremely compassionate and giving to others. He was brutally executed by the regime in 1981 simply because he sought a democratic future for his family and his compatriots. The mullahs also killed my mother, two brothers, Majid (only 16) and Javad, and one of my sisters, Maryam, along with her husband.

By the age of 8, I had lost my entire family, save for one sister, as a result of the regime’s executions and crimes against humanity.

Mohammad Shafaei

The 1988 massacre stands as one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity after World War II. In the summer of that year, based on a religious decree issued by Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime in Iran, tens of thousands of political prisoners were liquidated. Most of the victims belonged to the principal democratic opposition movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

It is believed that the regime massacred at least 30,000 political dissidents that year in the span of a few months. This much was confirmed by the designated heir to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri both in his published memoires and leaked audiotape in 2016, in which he condemned the ongoing crime against humanity in August 1988 during a meeting with high-ranking regime officials.

Those officials continue to serve the regime today in high-ranking positions. Ebrahim Raisi, for example, who was a member of the “death committees” in charge of rounding up and killing the political prisoners, is currently occupying the highly sensitive post of the Judiciary Chief. He is expected to announce his candidacy to run for President during the June election. After the June 2009 uprising, he said, “Moharebeh (waging war on God) is sometimes an organization, like the hypocrites (MEK). Anyone who helps the MEK in any way and under any circumstances, because it is an organized movement, the title of Moharebeh applies.” According the Islamic Punishment Act, the punishment for Moharebeh is death.

For years, the clerical regime has been systematically and gradually destroying the graves of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Tehran and other cities. As the world learns more about the killings and the international outrage grows, Tehran’s mullahs are scrambling to clear all traces of their crimes against humanity.

Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. The campaign for justice for victims of 1988 has gained greater prominence and broader scope. International human rights organizations and experts have described the massacre as a crime against humanity and called for holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account.

Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried. The regime has tried to destroy the mass graves of massacred political prisoners in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery in the latest attempt. Previously, it destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.

These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity.  

The UN and international human rights organizations must prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran. 

Moreover, the Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, to launch an international commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.

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Middle East

Can Biden Bring Peace to the Middle East?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

As the fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinians rages on, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized for its relatively aloof, “stand back” approach that has resulted in the absence of any pressure on Israel to re-think its harsh mistreatment of the Palestinians, vividly demonstrated in the recent police attack at al-Aqsa mosque and the attempted eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, viewed by the Palestinians as part of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Consequently, a UN Security Council draft resolution on the crisis has been reportedly held up by US, which has prioritized the familiar narrative of “Israel’s right to self-defense” ad nauseam, without the benefit any nuances that would reveal any fresh thinking on the problem on the part of the Biden administration.  As in the past, the new crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations has sharpened the loyalties and alliances, in effect binding the US government closer to its Middle East ally under the rainstorm of Palestinian rocket attacks, highlighting Israel’s security vulnerabilities in today’s missile age.  Determined to crush the Palestinian resistance, the mighty Israeli army has been pulverizing Gaza while, simultaneously, declaring state of emergency in the Arab sections of Israel, as if there is a military solution to an inherently political problem.  What Israel may gain from its current military campaign is, by all indications, bound to be elusive of a perpetual peace and will likely sow the seed of the next chapter in the ‘intractable’ conflict in the future.  

Both sides are in violation of the international humanitarian laws that forbid the indiscriminate targeting of civilian population and, no matter how justified the Palestinian grievances, they too need to abide by international law and consider the alternative Gandhian path of non-violent resistance, notwithstanding the colossal power of Israeli army.

As the editors of Israel’s liberal paper, Haaretz, have rightly pointed out, the problem is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is highly unpopular, unable to form a government, afflicted with a corruption case, and who has been appeasing the extremist elements in Israeli politics who have no qualm about the illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands.  Israeli politics for its own sake needs to move to the center, otherwise the Israeli society as a whole will suffer, as more and more educated Israelis will leave the country, Israel’s recent gains through the Abrahams accord with the conservative Arab states will be essentially wiped out, as these states will need to cater to the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiments at home or face serious legitimation problems, and Israel’s regional rivals led by Iran will continue to harvest from the present crisis.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any political will in Washington to spur a political shift in Israel that would secure better results in terms of the elusive Middle East peace and both President Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are concerned that their Republican opponents will seize on any tangible US pressure applied on Israel.  In other words, domestic US priorities will continue for the foreseeable future to hamper a much-needed corrective Washington influence on an ally that receives 4 billion dollar military aid annually and, yet, is unwilling to allow the White House to have any input on its handling of the Palestinians at home and the West Bank and Gaza.  

But, assuming for a moment that the Biden administration would somehow muster the will to stand up to Netanyahu and pressure him to cease its massive attacks on Gaza, then such a bold move would need to be coordinated with a deep Arab outreach that would, simultaneously, persuade the Palestinian groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to go along with a US-initiated cease-fire, followed by related efforts at UN and regional level to bring about the groundwork for a more enduring peace, such as by holding a new international peace conference, similar to the Oslo process.  

At the moment, of course, this is wishful thinking and the protagonists of both sides in this terrible conflict are more focused on scoring against each other than to partake in a meaningful peace process.  In other words, an important prerequisite for peace, that is the inclination for peaceful resolution of the conflict instead of resorting to arms, is clearly missing and can and should be brought about by, first and foremost, a capable US leadership, sadly hitherto missing.

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Middle East

Israel-Palestine Conflict Enters into Dangerous Zone

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

Since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April 2021, tension has escalated, with frequent clashes between police and Palestinians. The threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem has also caused rising anger. But when Israeli security forces entered and attacked the unarmed Muslim worshipers, damaged the property, and humiliated the families, the situation turned into conflict.

Since the irrational and illogical creation of the Jewish State in the middle of the Muslim World, the tension started and emerged into few full-fledged armed conflicts and wars like; 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006 wars/ conflicts. Tensions are often high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank complain that they’re suffering because of Zionists’ expansionist actions. Israel’s severe violations of human rights and extreme atrocities against Palestinians left Palestinians with no option other than protest and agitate. But Israel suppresses them and uses all dirty tricks to keep them silent.

It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions to settle the Israel-Palestine issue peacefully. But Israel has not implemented either of them and kept using force to push them out and settle Jews in their land.

The State of Israel has been enjoying undue supported by the US, irrespective of who is president, but all of them support Israel unconditionally. Israel is the most favored nation of the US and the largest beneficiary of American aid, assistance, and support.

Ex-President Donald Trump helped Israel establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His daughter and son-in-law were the facilitators for his support to Israel.

Till last news, at least 56 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed too. Rockets, bullets, and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021, ahead of a planned march to commemorate Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1967 Six-Day War.  Security forces have set on fire the centuries-old holy Mosque. Serious communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame, and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod termed it a “civil war.”

The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be extremely dangerous as Israel uses hi-tech, advanced, lethal weapons. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as a tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians. He might politicize the conflict in his favor.

There is a severe danger of spreading this conflict to a large-scale war, which might engulf the regional countries. There already exists tension among Israel and few regional powers. The recent Israeli attacks on Russian bases in Syrian may also widen the conflict.

Any war in the middle-East will have dire consequences globally. It is appealed to the UN and all peace-loving nations and individuals to speed up all-out efforts to stop the conflict at this initial stage and avert further bloodshed. It is demanded that the Israel-Palestine issue must be settled according to the resolutions passed by UNSC. Wish immediate peace, sustainable peace, and permanent peace in the Middle East and globally.

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