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Is Kurdistan Rising?

In the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition, June 20-21, 2015, Yaroslav Trofimov writes of the possible rise of an independent Kurdistan, “The State of The Kurds”. An independent Kurdistan was promised by the WWI Allies in the Treaty of Sevres that ended the Ottoman Empire in 1920. That commitment was dashed by the rise of Turkish Republic under the secularist Kemal Atatürk confirmed in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne denying an independent Kurdistan in what is now Eastern Turkey. Combined a future Kurdistan encompassing eastern Turkey, Northern Syria, northwest Iran and northern Iraq might comprise a landlocked republic of 30 million with significant energy and agricultural resources. The rise of Kurdistan is reflected in these comments in the Trofimov WSJ review article:

Selahattin Demirtas, Chairman of the HDP party in Turkey:

The Kurds’ existence was not recognized; they were hidden behind a veil. But now, after being invisible for a century, they are taking their place on the international stage. Today, international powers can no longer resolve any issue in the Middle East without taking into account the interests of the Kurds.

Tahir Elçi, a prominent Kurdish lawyer and chairman of the bar in Diyarbakir, Turkey:

In the past, when the Kurds sought self-rule, the Turks, the Persians and the Arabs were all united against it. Today that’s not true anymore—it’s not possible for the Shiite government in Iraq and Shiite Iran to work together against the Kurds with the Sunni Turkey and the Sunni ISIS. In this environment, the Kurds have become a political and a military power in the Middle East.

Elçi, amplifies a concern that Sherkoh Abbas, leader of the Kurdish National Syria Assembly (KURDNAS) has expressed in several NER interviews an articles with him:

The PKK has made important steps to adopt more democratic ways. But you cannot find the same climate of political diversity in [Kurdish] Syria as you find in [northern Iraq], and this is because of PKK’s authoritarian and Marxist background. This is a big problem.

As effective as the KRG government and peshmerga have been in pushing back at ISIS forces threatening the capital of Erbil, the real problem is the divisiveness in the political leadership. That is reflected in the comment of  Erbil province’s governor, Nawaf Hadi cited by Trofimov:

For 80 years, the Arab Sunni people led Iraq—and they destroyed Kurdistan. Now we’ve been for 10 years with the Shiite people [dominant in Baghdad], and they’ve cut the funding and the salaries—how can we count on them as our partner in Iraq?” All the facts on the ground encourage the Kurds to be independent.

That renewed prospect reflects the constellation of  events in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

The fall of the AKP government in the Turkish Election of June 7, 2015

There was  the  stunning  defeat of the 13 year reign of  the Islamist AKP headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by the trio of secular, nationalist and upstart Kurdish parties, the CHP, HNP and HDP that might form a minority ruling coalition 45 days from the June 7, 2014 parliamentary elections. These minority parties garnered a plurality of 299 seats in the Ankara Parliament.  That is if these parties can coalesce. If not Islamist figurehead President Erdogan seek new elections if they can’t put together a new ruling government.  A Washington, D.C. forum on what the results of the Turkish  election convened by the Foundation for Defense  of Democracies (FDD) forum presented nuanced views. Watch this C-Span video of the FDD forum.

FDD Senior Counselor John Hannah moderated the discussion with former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and FDD Senior Advisor  former US Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman and FDD Non-Resident Fellow and former member of Turkish parliament Ayman Erdemir.

John Hannah

June 7 in my opinion was an inspiring performance, a much needed triumph of the spirit of liberal democracy in a Middle East landscape currently inundated with way too much bad news.

For those of us who have watched over the past decade with great dismay the slow drip of Turkey’s democracy being drained away by Erdogan’s creeping Islamism and authoritarianism, we frankly weren’t sure anymore if the Turkish people had this kind of an election in them.

Aykan Erdemir

My take-home message would be that we should not read these elections too much with a progressive, liberal-democratic interpretation. But we should not underemphasize the importance of it either, because ultimately June 7 proved to us that there could be a return from competitive authoritarianism, where an incumbent with huge advantages nevertheless can suffer a relative defeat in the ballot box.

I have always argued that Erdogan’s policies and politics cannot be interpreted within the nation-state borders. Erdogan’s policies right from the start have been transnational; it has always been a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented policy, whether in Syria, Jordan, or Egypt. He is a visionary transnationalist politician.”

Ambassador Edelman

Turkey is a deeply polarized society, and the bad news there is that the AKP is the only party that is competitive across the nation.

Erdogan will not see this vote in any way as inhibiting him in creating an executive presidency. …My suspicion is that Erdogan does not want to see a government formed within the 45-day period set by the constitution and would like to see the country go back to elections. He thinks that if he could apply the ‘keep voting until I get the right answer’ standard, there is a chance he will do better in a second election, get at least a governing majority if not the super-majority.

Dr. Harold Rhode, former Turkish and Islamic Affairs expert in the Office of the Secretary of Defense held a more optimistic view cited in a JNS.org article on the Turkish Elections, “noting that he personally knows pro-American and pro-Israel officials “within the senior leadership of all three of the [non-AKP] parties.”

Syrian YPG Fighters capture Tal Abyad  Reuters

Syrian YPG fighters capture Tal-Abyad from ISIS, June 2015. Source: Reuters.

Syrian Kurdish YPG victory at strategic border town of  Tal-Abyad

The second development was the victory by Syrian Kurdish PYG fighters , Christian Assyrian and secular  FSA militias  wresting the strategic border gateway of Tal-Abyad  from  ISIS with support from  US coalition air strikes. This followed the  January 2015 victory in  the siege at the border  city of Kobani. The Syrian PYG, affiliated with the Turkish PKK, a  terrorist group designated by  Turkey, EU and the US, whose leader Abdullah Ocalan is under house arrest in Turkey,  has been assisted  by fighting units of the Iraqi Peshmerga from the adjacent Kurdish Regional Government  (KRG)in northern Iraq.  The third development was the KRG Peshmerga wresting   control  of Kirkuk and its vast  oil field. Kirkuk, as Trofimov noted  is considered  the “Kurdish Jerusalem” .  Not to be outdone by Kurdish compatriots in Syria and Iraq, in mid-May 2015, Iranian Kurdish  Party of Free Life in Kurdistan ( PJAK)  forces in northwestern Iran’s Zagros mountain  fought  Iranian security forces in Mahabad.  Mahabad  was the capital of the short-lived State of Republic  Kurdistan established with Soviet Russian support in  Iran in 1945- 1946.

KRG Delegation meets with resident Obama VO Biden and National Security Council May 2015

Kurdish President Barzani and KRG delegation meet President Obama and VP Biden May 2015.

KRG Meets with President to Free up Arms Deliveries

The KRG quest for independence has been stymied by the Baghdad government of PM Haidar al-Abadi.  The Baghdad  government has not lived up to its agreement reached in December 2014 to provide regular payments to the KRG amounting  to nearly $5.7 billion in exchange for selling 550,000 barrels of oil. The result has been that KRG government  and the 160,000 Peshmerga force have not been paid in months.  More troubling has been the current agreements between the Obama Administration  and  the al-Abadi government for allocation and deliveries of heavy weapons that have not found their way to the highly effective Peshmerga fighting force. This is especially galling given the thousands of Humvees, mobile artillery, anti-tank, main battle tanks and MRAP vehicles abandoned by fleeing Iraqi national security forces in the conquest of Mosul in June 2014 and Ramadi in late May.

A  meeting occurred in Washington in early May 2015 with  KRG President Barzani and senior officials with President Obama, Vice President Biden and members of the National  Security Staff seeking resolution of this impasse.   Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near Policy wrote about this in a May 15, 2015 Al Jazeera, article, “A big win for Kurds at the White House”:

From May 3-8, 2015, Washington D.C. hosted a high-powered delegation from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). KRG President Massoud Barzani was flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, National Security Chancellor Masrour Barzani and Minister of Peshmerga Affairs Mustapha Sayyid Qadr, among other KRG ministers and officials.  [The delegation was originally scheduled for a five minute meeting with President Obama, instead the session lasted an hour].

In particular, the Kurds complained that Washington has allocated too small a proportion of its $1.6bn Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) assistance to Kurdistan.

Slow and indirect delivery of US weapons systems is a connected concern. Washington has chosen to funnel most weapons shipments via the federal Iraqi Ministry of Defense, the only entity entitled by US law to sign end-user certificates (EUCs) for the weapons.

[…]In reaction to these views, the House Armed Services Committee of the US Congress introduced clauses into the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Pentagon’s budget, in an attempt to protect the Kurds’ fair share of US weapons.

The draft NDAA for Fiscal Year 2016 was amended by congress to include a clause (Section 1223) that named the Peshmerga as one of a number of security forces collectively entitled to “not less than 25 percent” of the annual $715m of US support.

Most controversially the amendment would allow the KRG “as a country” to “directly receive assistance from the United States” if Baghdad failed to meet the aforementioned condition, a clause that sparked security threats from Shia militia leaders against US trainers in Iraq.

Baghdad protested the language, and US Vice President Joe Biden signaled one day before the Kurdish delegation landed that “all US military assistance in the fight against [ISIL] comes at the request of the Government of Iraq and must be coordinated through the Government of Iraq”.

[…]

Instead of trying to force the White House to do Kurdistan’s bidding through pressure politics, Barzani seems to have adopted a longer-term view in his dealings with the US on defense.

Section 1223 did not give the Kurds a great deal – sharing a quarter of US material collectively with Sunni Arab paramilitary recipients – but it would have soured relations with the Obama administration at a critical time.

Israeli Support for an Independent Kurdistan

One  Middle East nation that  supports an independent Kurdistan  is Israel . As exemplified by comments from  Israeli Prime Minister  Netanyahu, Israel supports the creation of an independent Kurdistan in  Iraq.  There is a long connection between the Kurds and the Jewish nation. There is  an estimated 150,000 Kurdish Jewish  population in Israel that has fostered  cultural –linguistic exchanges with Iraqi Kurdistan.  Iraqi and Iranian kurds smuggled Iraqi Jews to freedom via Iran, during the days of the late Shah, to Israel and the West.  Iranian Kurds continued that effort despite  the Islamic republic facilitating the departure of Iranian Jews  via Turkey to reach  Israel.  From the 1950’s to the mid-70’s Israel provided covert military training and  equipment  to Iraqi Kurds  against the Ba’athist regime of the late Saddam Hussein.  That ended with a treaty between the late Shah of Iran and Hussein orchestrated by Henry Kissinger in 1975.  During the 1980’s Hussein took his revenge on Iraqi kurds during the  Iran-Iraq War  in a series of genocidal revenge campaigns including a massive gas attack that killed thousands decimating Kurdish villages.   Israel currently hosts the huge U.S. War Reserve Stock for use in Middle East conflicts. Perhaps, the Obama Administration might relent on the current agreements with the Baghdad government and permit transfers from the US War Reserve Stock   in Israel of much needed weapons, equipment and munitions to the Peshmerga in Iraq and the Syrian Kurdish militias fighting ISIS.  Israel is less than several hundred miles from Erbil.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. The featured image is of supporters cheering Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, HDP, in Istanbul, Turkey, in May, 2015. Source: Emrah Gurel/AP.

Iraq on Brink of Disintegration: ISIS Blitzkrieg threatens Baghdad – Kurds Seize Kirkuk

The ISIS Jihad  blitzkrieg seized the oil-rich Northern Iraqi City of Mosul Wednesday, while the Iraqi Army fled. This leaving  nearly half a million civilians, Assyrian Christians among them,  to flee to rural areas of the province of Biblical Nineveh. ISIS is the Salafist –Jihadist Al Qaeda terrorist army, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham,the Levant.

ISIS has looted nearly a half billion in cash and tons of gold bullion making the terrorist army perhaps the largest well funded Al Qaeda affiliate.  Add to that the significant oil fields and Iraq’s largest refinery in Mosul, the ISIS literally may have the fuel to follow through with their threat to attack Baghdad. Mosul  was festooned with the decapitated heads of  Iraqi policemen. This despite Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki putting on a brave face calling upon his parliament to declare a state of national emergency. Now he has to rely on the loyalty of the US trained Iraqi army and militia from his Shia base to defend the capital.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish Regional Government  (KRG) in Irbil dispatched its peshmerga forces to take over what they couldn’t do by plebiscite, the oil rich city of Kirkuk.  A Kirkuk that the Kurds consider as “their equivalent of Jerusalem”.  Now, as one report cited, just a mound of dirt separates Kurdish peshmerga from ISIS jihadi.

At risk is the future of this artificial country created by the British from the Mesopotamian Mandate of the League of Nations following WWI.   Ironically the US surge strategy of General Petreaus nearly a decade ago used nation building and bribery to defeat the al Qaeda forces in the Anbar provinces and Mosul.  Given current developments the  refusal of the Al Maliki government to negotiate a status of forces agreement with may have contributed to this looming debacle.  That choice was up to Maliki.  Because of these missteps we have looming a possible  Sunni Caliphate stretching across neighboring Syria deep into Iraq.  Today the picture gets even murkier as Iran announced dispatch of battalions of its  Quds Force to bolster the defense of Nouri al-Maliki’s beleaguered capitol.  This episode may rival the legendary history of the  sweep of the first Grand Jihad over 14 centuries ago. The Washington Post in a report today on these rapidly deteriorating developments in Iraq quoted President Obama saying:

“I don’t rule out anything, because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria,” Obama told reporters after a White House meeting with visiting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

“I think it’s fair to say that . . . there will be some short-term, immediate things that need to be done militarily, and our national security team is looking at all the options,” he said. “But this should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government” about the need for political accommodation between the country’s Shiite Muslim majority and the Sunni minority, he added.

ISIS loots Mosul Central bank

The International Business Time(IBT)  wrote of how much booty the ISIS secured in the capture of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul Seized: Jihadis Loot $429m from City’s Central Bank to Make Isis World’s Richest Terror ForceThe IBT reported:

Nineveh governor Atheel al-Nujaifi confirmed Kurdish television reports that Isis militants had stolen millions from numerous banks across Mosul. A large quantity of gold bullion is also believed to have been stolen.

Following the siege of the country’s second city, the bounty collected by the group has left it richer than al-Qaeda itself and as wealthy as small nations such as Tonga, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and the Falkland Islands.

The financial assets that ISIS  now possesses are likely to worsen the Iraqi government’s struggle to defeat the insurgency, which is aimed at creating an Islamic state across the Syrian-Iraqi border.

[…]

They also seized considerable amounts of US-supplied military hardware. Photos have already emerged of Isis parading captured Humvees in neighboring Syria where they are also waging war against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

What  is really worrisome is that the vast treasury that ISIS has seized that will enable them to  pay on average $600 a month to attract  thousands of  foreign jihadis, especially those in the West.

Just yesterday, ISIS forward elements seized Tikrit the ancestral home town of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, putting it less than 95 miles from Baghdad. ISIS has also surrounded the city of Samarra less than 70 miles from the nation’s capital.

http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2012/11/kirkuk754.jpg

Kurdish peshmerga troops in Kirkuk. Source: ekurd.net.

Kurdish Peshmerga Seize Kirkuk

The autonomous KRG Peshmerga forces went into action today seizing a virtually defenseless Kirkuk. The KRG had been thwarted by the Al Maliki government from conducting a plebiscite to take back this resource rich original part of the Kurdish homeland.    The Guardian’s report conveys the sense of how rapidly Iraqi forces had abandoned the defenseless city,  Kurdish Peshmerga seize a chaotic victory in Kirkuk:

Capturing the city and its huge oil reserves, just outside the area controlled by the KRG, is a huge achievement. Yet victory looks far from glorious or orderly.

[…]

On Thursday Kurdish officials said they had stepped in to protect the city after government troops fled before advancing rebels from the Sunni jihadi group Isis.

Locals alleged that weaponry inside the K1 base had been seized by Kurdish Peshmerga forces belonging to both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two main political forces in the KRG. But in the confusion of Iraq’s deepening crisis it is hard to be quite certain.

[…]

“There are no security concerns at this moment and the situation is calm in the city,” said Dler Samad, the Kirkuk governor’s press officer. The governor, Dr Najmadin Karim, had visited Peshmerga forces near Hawija, just 3km away from ISIS units. But a minister responsible for regional security forces survived a bomb blast as he drove into Kirkuk.

Chaldean Archbishop Emil Shimoun Nona of Mosul, Iraq. Sourcs CNS Church in Need Service.

The ISIS threat to Christians in Nineveh

We have written extensively of the flight of the beleaguered  Assyrian Christians. A report by Nina Shea in the National Review On-line depicted the crisis that this ancient Christian community faces  in the midst of  the ISIS jihadist onslaught, The Cleansing of Iraq’s Christians Is Entering Its End Game.  Shea wrote:

Mosul’s panic-stricken Christians, along with many others, are now fleeing en masse to the rural Nineveh Plain, according to the Vatican publication Fides. The border crossings into Kurdistan, too, are jammed with the cars of the estimated 150,000 desperate escapees.

[…]

Since 2003, Iraq’s Christian community has suffered intense religious persecution on top of the effects of the conflict and, as a result, it has shrunk by well over 50 percent. Mosul, the site of ancient Nineveh of the Assyrians, who converted to Christianity in the first century, has become the home of many Christians who remained. Considered by Christians the place of last resort inside Iraq, Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain has been home to many Christian refugees driven out of Baghdad and Basra.

ISIS on the march

Sources: The Institute for the Study of War, The Long War Journal. The Washington Post. Published on June 11, 2014, 9:37 p.m. For a larger view click on the map.

Who do you pin the blame on?

Earlier we  noted the failure of the Maliki government to conclude a status of forces agreement when the remaining US forces left three years ago. This was just as the civil war in Syria arose in bloody earnest that spawned ISIS’ terrorist Jihad in the region.  The Wall Street Journal cited Sen. McCain and  House Speaker John Boehner laying blame on Obama, while the Chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Service Committees, Republican Rep. Buck McKeon and  Democrat Sen.Carl Levin held differing views:

Several top Republican congressional leaders Thursday blamed President Obama for what they called policy failures leading to the collapse of Iraqi armed forces and the fall of major Iraqi cities to the control of Islamist militants.

[…]

“Now they’ve taken control of Mosul, they’re 100 miles from Baghdad. And what’s the president doing? Taking a nap,” Mr. Boehner said.

Mr. McCain said the administration’s decision to leave in 2011 was politically motivated.

“The trouble is, as the events of this week show, what the Americans left behind was an Iraqi state that was not able to stand on its own,” he said. “What we built is now coming apart.”

He said the U.S. must “take immediate action” to head off the militants’ advance, and reconsider the decision by Mr. Obama to wind down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in 2016.

[…]

Rep. Buck McKeon (R., Calif.), who heads the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters that he opposed airstrikes and any additional involvement by the U.S. in a crisis that has seen Sunni militants and Kurdish military units make incursions around the country. Iraq’s government had a chance to sign a status-of-forces agreement with the U.S. but didn’t, Mr. McKeon said.

“We lost a lot of blood, a lot of treasure there and gave them an opportunity and they wouldn’t sign the agreement,” Mr. McKeon said, adding that any assistance would add another strain to the military when officials are trying to slim down budgets. “They all take money, they all take resources, they all put people at risk.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), chairman of the Senate armed services panel, blamed Iraq’s government for not doing enough to unify the country and stave off sectarian violence. He also questioned whether U.S. airstrikes would be effective given that Iraqi security forces, he said, have “melted away” in some places.

“While all options should be considered, the problem in Iraq hasn’t been so much a lack of direct U.S. military involvement, but a lack of reconciliation on the part of Iraqi leaders,” Mr. Levin said.

Fred Kaplan in Slate had views close to that of McKeon and Levin in an article, “If jihadists control Iraq, blame Nouri al-Maliki, not the United States”.  Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. After reviewing the success of General Petreaus’ surge in the western provinces and Mosul, Kaplan concludes about the current debacle:

Maliki has his own political problems. His party won a plurality of votes in the recent election, but not enough to declare victory…. The threat from ISIS—and it’s now a dire threat—might move some factions to strengthen the nation’s leader, or it might move more to abandon all confidence in Maliki and turn to someone else.

One hope for Iraq is that ISIS might have gone one rampage too far. While stomping through Mosul, some of their militiamen stormed the Turkish consulate and kidnapped Turkish diplomats. Under international law, that amounts to an attack on Turkey, and it’s unlikely that the Turks will simply shrug. Iran, which has emerged as Maliki’s main ally, has no interest in seeing Sunnis regain power in Baghdad. A strange alliance among all three may come to life to beat back this equally strange insurgency.

With news today that Iran is sending battalions of its elite Quds Force to fight in Iraq, Kaplan’s views appear like grasping a thin reed. Supplying more US military aid and perhaps air resources by the Obama Administration may not even put a dent into the ISIS Jihadist blitzkrieg poised to possibly conduct a siege on the capital.  Iraq is for all intents and purposes a failed state. The world and we in America will pay for its possible demise with a spike in both oil and gas prices. Time for us to bolster the independence of Kurdistan and let the Shia provinces become veritable client states of Iran, while a Jihadist  Sunni Emirate arises. Saudi Arabia will doubtless consider its options with  the failure of Iraq further endangering the Gulf region and its oil fields. Could a regional war of global proportions be in the offing?

Will the US Embassy in Baghdad be evacuating before being overwhelmed? Stay tuned for developments.

RELATED ARTICLES:

Jihadist behind takeover of Mosul released from U.S. custody in 2009
Iraq Isis Crisis: Medieval Sharia Law Imposed on Millions in Nineveh Province
Obama: “The World Is Less Violent Than It Has Ever Been”
Decapitated heads of policemen and soldiers line the streets of Mosul as ISIS imposes Sharia

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.