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Syria lures but will China bite?

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China looms large as a potentially key player alongside Russia and Iran in President Bashas al-Assad’s post-war Syria. With Russia and Iran lacking the financial muscle and the United States and Europe refusing to  engage with the Al-Assad regime, China is from Syria’s perspective the shining knight on a white horse. Syria could become a key node in China’s infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Syria could also bring it closer to being sucked into the Middle East’s multiple conflicts.

China’s economic interests in Syria

Mohammed Jarah and Ahmad Bustati’s warehouse in Damascus symbolized China’s emergence as the largest supplier of industrial and consumer goods to Syria on the eve of the Syrian civil war. The dilapidated warehouse was stocked with everything from Chinese laser cutting machines to plastic toys for children.

A decade of fighting dashed the two Syrian entrepreneurs’ hopes. However, things seem to be looking up for businessmen like Mr. Jarah and Mr. Bustati with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad having gained the upper hand in the war with Russian and Iranian assistance and China seeing longer-term economic potential in Syria as a regional node of what BRI will look like irrespective of the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic consequences.

Syrian officials have sought to drive home China’s competitive advantages and perceived interest in taking a lead in the reconstruction of their country. “The Silk Road is not a silk road if it does not pass through Syria, Iraq and Iran,” said Buthina Shaaban, Bashar al-Assad’s media advisor, referring to the BRI.

Chinese access to the Syrian Mediterranean Sea ports of Tartus and Latakia is an attractive prospect for China’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic. It would complement Beijing’s footholds in Greece’s Piraeus and the Israeli harbours of Haifa and Ashdod and echo Syria’s key position on the ancient Silk Road.

Closely connected to Chinese interest in Syrian ports is the exploration by China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) of the possible upgrading of the deep seaport of Tripoli, Lebanon to allow it to accommodate larger vessels. In contrast to Syrian ports, Tripoli would grant China greater freedom of action because it would not have to share control with Russia. Together with Syrian ports, Tripoli would serve as an alternative to passage through the Suez Canal.

Russia appeared to be anticipating potential Chinese moves when it last year negotiated with the Assad government an extension of its access to military bases including what it describes as a “logistics support facility of the Russian navy” in Tartus.

In the absence of making the agreement public, it remained unclear what Russian intentions are. However, modernization of Tartus for military purposes that would guarantee Russia a role in control of the Eastern Mediterranean would have to involve upgrading it to be able to accommodate all types of vessels, including aircraft carriers.

In a further move, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his foreign and defence ministries in May to reach agreement with Syria on an additional expansion of a 2015 accord that governs Russia’s naval presence in Tartus and allows the Russian navy to base up to 11 ships in the port for 49 years. Mr. Putin wants the life of the agreement to be extended by an additional 25 years.

“From the coast of Syria, there is an opportunity to control not only the eastern part, but the entire Mediterranean Sea,” said Captain 1st Rank Anatoly Ivanov, a Moscow-based naval expert. “The United States has in the Mediterranean Sea not only the ships of its Sixth Fleet, but also an extensive ship repair base and training centres of the Navy. For Russia, the Mediterranean Sea is much closer not only geographically, but also geopolitically. Therefore, to use the opportunity to establish (itself) more densely in Syria seems to be a reasonable measure”

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has already sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to China’s state-owned COSCO Shipping Lines docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria. China has suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the  BRI and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.

Adding to China’s expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean, COSCO acquired in 2015 a 65 percent stake in Turkey’s  Kumport Terminal on the Ambarli coast of Istanbul. To round off the circle, Egypt’s navy last year signed an agreement with China’s Hutchinson Ports to build a terminal in Abu Qir, a port 23 kilometres northeast of Alexandria.  Chinese companies already operate Alexandria’s own port as well as that of El Dekheila, ten kilometres west of the city.

Chinese influence in at least ten ports in six countries bordering the Eastern Mediterranean – Israel, Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Syria – could complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

This was one reason that the Trump administration has warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa, where the Chinese have built their own pier, could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US sixth fleet.

Informing US thinking is China’s Military Strategy white paper, published in 2015, that emphasises the “strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas.” It raises the spectre of Chinese-managed or owned ports in the Eastern Mediterranean serving the People’s Republic’s economic and commercial, as well as military interests.

The Chinese sway over multiple ports in the Eastern Mediterranean could also  encourage  Turkey to bolster its grip on the  energy-rich waters in violation of international law. Turkish military support for the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord produced a maritime agreement between the two entities that created an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean favouring expansive Turkish claims.

China’s interest in Mediterranean ports is part of a larger effort to integrate the Middle East into the maritime leg of the Belt and Road that also includes the Gulf, the Arabian Sea with the Pakistani port of Gwadar as its focal point, and the Red Sea with the establishment of the People’s Republic’s first military outpost in Djibouti.

The integration is further advanced by Chinese investment in ports and logistics facilities in among others Dubai and Oman as well as industrial parks linked to maritime infrastructure. China’s moves have been embraced by Gulf states, several of which have incorporated them in long-term plans to diversify and streamline their economies.

Qi Qianjin, China’s ambassador in Damascus, spelled out China’s interest in Syria when he stressed in 2018, in a statement in 2018 to the People’s Republic’s state-run news agency Xinhua as well as in a letter, his country’s intent to expand its economic, political, and military footprint in  the.

“I think it’s about time to focus all efforts on the development and reconstruction of Syria, and I think China will play a bigger role in this process by providing more aid to the Syrian people and the Syrian government,” Mr. Qi said during a visit to a hospital in the Syrian capital.

Donations in recent years of at least US$44 million to Syria for humanitarian purposes back up Mr. Qi’s statements.

In  a letter written in August 2019, the ambassador focussed among other things, on the development of Syrian railways and seaports. The letter was published a month after Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to lend  $20 billion to Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Jordan for reconstruction and economic development.

Few doubt that China, even prior to the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic fallout, is best positioned to be a key, if not the key player, in post-war reconstruction of Syria, estimated to require between  $250 and $400 billion in investment.

This is even more the case as other potential funders, the United States, Europe, Russia and the  Gulf Cooperation Council states, will either refuse to work with the government of Mr. Al-Assad or be consumed with fighting a domestic and global recession and substantial loss of revenues in the wake of the pandemic. 

Moreover, in opposition to Western states, China on six occasions, backed Russian vetoes in the United Nations Security Council that blocked condemnations of the  Syrian government and its backers, Russian and Iran; calls for ceasefires; and sanctioning of alleged war criminals.

One  of China’s comparative advantages in heavily sanctioned Syria is the experience it garnered  in circumventing US and United Nations sanctions imposed on  Iran and North Korea. 

China further benefits from  alternative institutions that it built like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that it either controls or in which it has considerable influence.

That has not stopped the US Justice Department from accusing Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei of operating in Syria in violation of US sanctions. The department is seeking the extradition from Canada of Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer and daughter of its founder. Ms. Meng was detained in Canada at the request of the United States.

Seemingly oblivious to the risk of being targeted by the long arm of US justice, some 200 Chinese companies in 2018 and 58 in 2019, active in sectors such as telecommunications, oil and gas, and transportation, attended the Damascus International Fair where they discussed deals ranging from car manufacturing to development of mobile hospitals.

The participation of China National Heavy Duty Truck Company highlighted Chinese interest in the Syrian automotive sector. Syria could also prove to be a lucrative market for Chinese military exports. Mr. Al-Assad could well see Chinese interest as a way of loosening Moscow and Tehran’s grip on his country despite Russian and Iranian effort to reap the benefits of their boots-on-the-ground support for his government by winning lucrative reconstruction contracts.

China has so far refrained from responding in any real way to Syrian urging to kickstart reconstruction of critical national infrastructure even before remaining rebel strongholds in the country are reconquered. It has however exploited commercial opportunity.

The vast majority of Syrian exports go to China and Chinese goods are ubiquitous in Syrian markets. Hama, Syria’s most important industrial region after the collapse of manufacturing in Aleppo and Damascus as a result of the war, is awash with Chinese-made car parts, machine tools and equipment for the automobile, motorcycle, and shoe industry.

Multiple delegations of Chinese investors and businessmen have visited Syria in recent years. In 2018, China hosted its First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects with some 1,000 Chinese companies in attendance and pledged $2 billion for the construction of industrial parks.

China’s security concerns from Syria

Mr. Al-Assad’s ability to regain control of most Syria, with the exception of the rebel-held northern region of Idlib, created not only economic opportunity but also heightened already existing Chinese security concerns.

As  Syrian government forces rolled back rebel fighters, China feared that their battle-hardened Uyghur and Central Asian contingent would gravitate towards Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan from where it would be easier to target China.

The presence of Uyghur fighters in Syria was one driver for a brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang. It also persuaded China to step up border security cooperation with Tajikistan and Afghanistan, where militants of the Uyghur jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, allegedly fight alongside the Taliban.

The Uyghur presence in Syria prompted China to consider sending Chinese troops to join the fight for Idlib in violation of its foreign and defense policy principles. China ultimately dropped the idea, which would have amounted to the People’s Republic’s first military intervention in recent memory beyond its borders.

Repeated unconfirmed media reports have, however, suggested that China has been sharing intelligence with Syria and has been sending military advisors for the past four years to help in the fight against Uyghur militants.

The discussion about an intervention followed a pledge in 2016 by Rear Admiral Guan Youfei of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to increase military cooperation with the  Syrian government.

Two years later, a Syrian state-controlled newspaper, Al Watan, Mr. Qi, the Chinese ambassador, and China’s military attaché, Wong Roy Chang, as saying that China wanted to contribute “in some way” to Syrian military campaign against the rebels in Idlib. The PLAN took nine days to deny Chinese interest in getting involved in the fighting, calling the report a “misunderstanding.”

Meanwhile, while supportive of efforts to negotiate an end to the Syrian war, China has studiously avoided taking a leading role. Its sole initiative to shape the outcome of the conflict was a four-point plan that never gained significant traction.

China’s dilemma in Idlib lies partially  in sensitivity to Turkish opposition to an all-out assault on Idlib. Turkey fears that it would likely spark a renewed refugee exodus and concern that Chinese involvement in an assault could whip up pro-Uyghur sentiments in Turkey despite growing anti-refugee sentiment in the country.

Turkey has long supported Uyghur rights and has frequently turned a blind eye to Uyghur militants.

An Uighur dressed in a Turkish military uniform and sporting an automatic weapon, claiming in a video clip posted on Twitter that he was fighting in the northern Syrian district of Afrin alongside Turkish-backed rebels, advised Han Chinese residents of China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang to leave the area. “Listen you dog bastards, do you see this? We will triumph! We will kill you all. Listen up Chinese civilians, get out of our East Turkestan. I am warning you. We shall return, and we will be victorious,” the Uyghur said.

Syria in the wider Chinese Middle East  policy

Beyond its hesitancy of becoming embroiled in the Syrian war, China, despite its consistent backing of the Syrian government as a secular bulwark against Islamic extremism, feared that greater involvement in Syria could jeopardise its successful efforts to remain aloof in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran that influenced multiple disputes in the Middle East.

That fear has receded with states in the GCC ending their long-standing support for anti-Assad rebels and cosying up to the Syrian leader in an effort to counter Iranian and Turkish influence.

Chinese aloofness also shielded it from entering into direct competition with Russia and Iran in the post-war reconstruction phase. Deepening Chinese-Russian ties in the wake of the pandemic and perceived greater Iranian dependence on China may allow for a divvying up of the pie in ways that turn Syria into an important Belt and Road node

Author’s note: The original version of this article was published by the Geneva Center for Security Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postponed elections 

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

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

New Special Adviser 

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

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

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

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

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

Welcomed developments 

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

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

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

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

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

Security situation 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human rights concerns 

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

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

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

Migration management  

The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.  

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

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

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

Accountability  

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

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

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

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Middle East

Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Middle East

“Kurdish Spring”: drawing to a close?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From our partner International Affairs

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East Asia17 hours ago

The role of China in fighting of fascism and racism

Not only did China’s distortion and damage to its interests in the field of sports and the politicization of world...

Middle East19 hours ago

Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future

On Saturday the 22nd of January, activists from across the civil society spectrum in Libya gathered over Zoom with one...

china bicycle china bicycle
East Asia21 hours ago

“Post-Communism Era”, “Post-Democracy Era”, in the face of “authoritarian liberalism”

According to my understanding and analysis of the current appropriate Chinese confrontation mechanisms in the face of American boycott of...

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