Resources

Review Category : Kurds

State Dept. Undermining Kurds, Our Long Time Allies

“The United States is deeply disappointed that the Kurdistan Regional Government decided to conduct today a unilateral referendum on independence, including in areas outside of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in September.

The United States State Department says what the State Department says, but what they say is usually wrong.

Read More →

The Enemies of Kurdistan are the Enemies of the US

“The Kurds have no friends but the mountains,” goes a traditional Kurdish saying. No friends but the mountains and Israel would be more accurate.

Israel stood alone when its political leadership embraced the Kurdish quest for self-determination. A “brave, pro-Western people who share our values,” is how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Kurds. The deep affinity is mutual. Israeli flags were raised during pro-independence rallies in the Kurdistan region, the US and across Europe.

Read More →

Is Kirkuk a Melting Pot, or a Pressure Cooker?

Kirkuk, the oil rich province in dispute for nearly a century, may be the upcoming scene of one of Iraq’s longest-brewing post-ISIS conflicts. Located in northern Iraq under the de jure authority of the central government, the province is currently protected by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Peshmerga forces. Kirkuk may provide a battleground for an upcoming struggle that may be necessary to formalize the divorce between Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and Erbil, the Kurdish capital. The President of the KRG, Masoud Barzani has shown no sign of parting ways with the city, promising to protect and return it to Kurdistan. Barzani vowed “any force that thinks of taking Kirkuk by force will be faced by the whole of Kurdistan. We will defend it until the last one of us.” Whether through force or dialogue, the Kurds seem determined to push back external meddling.

The city of Kirkuk itself has historically housed a Kurdish majority with a Turkoman minority from the Ottoman Empire, later facing an influx of Arabs, first accompanying the British with the discovery of oil, then with Saddam Hussein’s Arabization campaign. Over time, the lack of Kurdish influence over the city has weakened Kurdish culture, diminishing Kurdish hopes of regaining what they believe is, historically, theirs. It was not until 2014 that this all changed; with the rise of ISIS came the collapse of the Iraqi army. The region witnessed their retreat, first from Mosul and later Kirkuk, leaving a security vacuum waiting to be filled –  the Kurds seized the moment, declaring to protect the city and promising to never again lose hold of Baba Gurgur (the Kurdish name for Kirkuk, meaning Father of Eternal Fire).

There are ethnic, religious, and resource-based struggles inflicting the whole of Iraq – especially the city of Kirkuk. This can only mean one thing: the city is ripe for conflict. As the Kurds gear up for an upcoming independence referendum on September 25th, their military gains have made them vulnerable on multiple fronts. Under the protection of the Peshmerga, Kirkuk’s society and security has improved dramatically; the city has witnessed infrastructural developments including new roads, malls, and hotels, as well as remarkable social harmony where Arabs, Turkmans and Kurds are seen living side-by-side in peace. The Governor of Kirkuk, Dr. Najmadin Karim – a Kurd himself – has managed to create a sort of sanctuary city, distant from the preconceived narratives of a conflicted province riddled with historic grievances. The governor has taken it two steps further, first by raising the Kurdish national flag alongside the Iraqi flag on government buildings – signaling a strong Kurdish authority – and second by announcing that Kirkuk, a disputed territory under the Iraqi Constitution Article 140, will officially take part in the Kurdish independence referendum.

The Kurds are not historically known to have kind neighbors. The call to include Kirkuk in what is already a controversial referendum has received the unwanted attention of Iran, Turkey, Baghdad and their proxies. This is a worrying development for the Kurds – external influence has the ability to unravel the cohesion established by the Kurds inside the city.

Baghdad deems that Kurds have taken advantage of the collapse of the country since 2014, and that these attempts by Governor Dr. Karim will only benefit ISIS. A Sunni Iraqi MP Mohammed Karbouli stated that this issue, “would trigger ethnic fighting and extend the life of the Islamic State” while Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s spokesperson Saad Hadithi called the decision “illegal and unconstitutional.”

Iran, playing a major role in shaping internal Iraqi politics since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011 under the Obama Administration, is also opposed to the move. Iran has threatened to unleash its Shiite proxy, the infamous Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) if necessary. The PMF is legally the responsibility of the central government of Baghdad, but is fully funded by Tehran. Shiite nationalism has threatened to further ignite conflict based on ethnic lines.

Turkey, an economic partner to the KRG and a strong influencer among the city’s Turkman minority, has warned through its Foreign Ministry that “the persistent pursuit of this dangerous movement will not serve the interests of the KRG or Iraq.” The rival Turks staunchly believe Kirkuk is historically Turkish, purging Kurdish claims and recently reaffirmed by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, that “Kirkuk is Turkish. It will not be subjected to assimilationist aims and ethnic cleansing.”

In what was thought to be an upcoming victory among Iraqis and Kurds with the defeat of ISIS near, the reality seems to hint that Iraq will return to its normal pre-ISIS discords established by Saddam and left by former PM Nouri Maliki. But this “normal” has a new face, one that is fashioned by external coercions. Differing historical powers have ruled Kirkuk at one point or another throughout its history, but none are willing to lessen their hold.

Kurds face a challenging dilemma – they must calculate the value of Kirkuk. For Kurds living inside the city, the participation in the independence referendum means two things. First, it is reclaiming a long historical right, in essence correcting a false narrative forced by Arabs and Turks. Second, the push to be a part of an independent Kurdistan acts as a bridge – one that may once again unite them with their fellow countrymen.

The Kurds require support from the US if they are willing to risk the stability achieved in both Kirkuk and the KRG, a backing they do not have. Possible military action against Kirkuk is not in any parties’ interest. Since 2014, Kurds have established a safe haven protecting all minorities, and disrupting the stability would only be perceived as an attack on the city’s citizens and not the Kurdish authority. This would likely only strengthen the position of the Kurds. Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara may have to accept the reality on the ground – that Kurds have proven to be a highly effective fighting forces against ISIS. The Kurds have successfully governed Kirkuk looking beyond ethnic divisions and embraced the diversity, something both Arabs and Turks have failed to do throughout history.

If the dispute over Kirkuk takes a violent path it will inevitably continue to destabilize not only the KRG but Iraq too and will likely spillover to Turkey and Iran, giving birth to another sectarian and ethnic war no side can afford – or wants. A peaceful solution through open dialogue is certainly the right path. If confronted, do Kurds have it in them to continue onto another war, post-ISIS?  The next war may be more difficult, costly, and will no longer be held to a coalition between the PMF, Iraqi Army, and the Peshmerga. Their fighting forces will likely be far more isolated. Nonetheless, it carries with it the very real possibility of defining a future Kurdish state.

Originally published at Raddington Report.

Read More →

The Thorn in Assad’s Side

Syria’s six-year long civil war is slowly diminishing, with Bashar al Assad as the unbreakable victor. Multiple allies have backed the Arab nationalist Ba’athist government, including Iran, Russia and Hezbollah who shifted the direction of the brutal war in Assad’s favor.

Despite Assad’s determination to clinch onto power regardless of the Syrian people’s aspirations for a change of government, one group, the Kurds, refused to continue to be ruled by the tyrant. Through hard fought battles and loss of many lives, the Kurds – Syria’s largest ethnic minority – managed to establish a secure region in the north much different from the rest of the country in what they call Rojava (West Kurdistan).

At the start of the war, the Kurds of Rojava had little interest in battling the Assad regime or siding with the opposition forces. But this changed when Islamic State (IS) attempted to pivot north towards a small Kurdish town of Kobani, bordering Turkey. Kobani was surrounded; on one side was IS, on the other the Turkish military, watching idly in the hope that Kurdish town would plummet. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even went as far as saying “Kobani is about to fall.” But Kobani never fell, instead becoming a symbol of resilience which has inspired the success of the Kurds to date.

Today, under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a coalition of majority Kurdish but also Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian fighters have pushed back the Islamic State to near nothing. The SDF controls large of swaths territory west of the Euphrates river, weakening IS strongholds. The Syrian army has chosen its battles, combatting opposition forces to regain strategic cities rather than concerning themselves with the Kurds in the North. But this has backfired. The Kurdish forces are now strong, well organized and defiant, helped by the backing of US and Russian forces. To make matters worse for Assad, they now completely govern themselves. And so he is faced with a tough choice: intervene in Rojava and reclaim the land through the use of force, or accept that Syria is no longer whole.

It is true that the Kurds in Syria have established their own safe-haven, and are now preparing to hold local council and regional assembly elections. The Kurds have however attempted to quell fears of total separation, insisting that they are not seeking independence. The regime hopes this is true: Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad stated that “the elections will be a joke. Syria will never allow any part of its territory to be separated” and Assad described the self-governance in the region as “temporary”. Separation would also be a blow for Turkey; its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan fears such move will push Kurds in his own country to demand autonomy and has been accused of aligning with the Islamic state to prevent further Kurdish advances. A former ISIS communications technician stated “ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all [from Turkey], because there was full cooperation with the Turks and they reassured us that nothing will happen…the Kurds were common enemy for both ISIS and Turkey.”

Yet Syria’s main ally in the war, Russia, has been open to granting the Kurds autonomy. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met with opposition parties in Moscow earlier this year to discuss a draft Syrian constitution which pushed for “allowing for autonomy of Kurdish regions.”

Ultimately, the Assad regime must decide how it will prevent the Kurds from moving forward with their ambitions. Although agreeing upon a solution with Russia and the US as mediators is the ideal condition, it is not likely that Kurds will give up territories they have fought for – or that residents within such regions would want to live under Assad’s government ever again. But if Assad does decide to forcefully intervene, the least likely scenario, it may end his regime once and for all. His government does not have the manpower, resources or time to fight on another front after years of war. His allies Russia will not fight the Kurds, and Iran will shy away from advancing north due to the presence of US forces.

The ball is once again in Assad’s court – either make a mistake similar to 2011 when he declined to implement reform or step down during the Arab Spring protests, or commit to a peaceful solution and let the Kurds be. A model comparable to the Iraqi one could be implemented, where it granted the Kurds autonomy under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with its own border, military, parliament and laws. But this may not be the most convincing resolution as the KRG is preparing to divorce Iraq with its independence referendum on September 25, a move Baghdad calls “illegal.”

Syrians should not suffer any longer due to personal ambitions of the regime or power struggles of its allies. The final phase of the civil war is near, the Islamic State is nearly defeated and all actors involved are scrambling to gain last minute spoils, which is not limited to territory but natural gas and oil fields, access to dams along the Euphrates River, access to the Mediterranean Sea and Iran is seeking its long ambitions of completing the Shiite crescent through a land bridge from Iraq, Syria into Lebanon threatening Israel.

Assad’s Kurdish question could have been answered long ago, but the Kurds in Syria have reaped what they have sown: the Syrian regime too weak to call the shots and can no longer determine the future of the entirety of the country.

Originally published at Raddington Report.

Read More →

My Experience in Israel: It Is Not What You See On TV

I recently traveled to Israel as part of a study abroad program through the American University in Washington, DC. As a master’s student concentrating on peace and conflict resolution and as a Kurd from northern Iraq, I was curious about the intense hostility toward Jews in the Middle East, the negative bias in the mainstream media and the continuous antisemitic lectures and activities on college campuses, including my own university.

My trip to Israel was unique. I was able to travel there through the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Having departed from the Sulaymaniyah International Airport in the KRI, I was sent off with a smile among my fellow Kurds without any shame, despite the fact that a trip to Israel is taboo among Middle Easterners.

Upon arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, I was briefly held back by security due to concerns about a first-time traveler to Israel coming from an Arab state with no diplomatic relations (Iraq). This was understandable and expected, I too expect heavy screening towards foreigners entering the KRI due to the hostility of the region. I successfully and peacefully passed through airport security with a visa that would allow me to stay beyond my permitted time.

My first interaction with an Israeli was with a taxi driver driving me to my hotel. His conversations were animated, his politics realistic. He said he doesn’t care what religion one believes in, he just wants to live in peace. I tested the waters and told him I was Kurdish and he was very excited.

His eyes lit up and he immediately called for establishing a Kurdistan without my prodding. “That was easy,” I said to myself.

My time in Tel Aviv was brief, a little over a week. But what the city offered was unprecedented to me, especially in the Middle East. It is modern, filled will young Israelis enjoying life at the beaches, nightlife spots, restaurants. It is also historical and diverse. I witnessed Muslims and Jews intermingling, mosques calling for prayer, Arab families enjoying their time together on the beaches after breaking their fast. No one bothered others; everyone minded their own business. I tried hard to discover instances of negative interactions between the two peoples, but they even smoked hookah together at the local café.

I thought that maybe Tel Aviv is in its own little bubble, distant from the reality we witness every day in the media, so together with my class, we took a bus ride to Jerusalem.

I was excited, having heard so much about the ancient city – from the time when the Kurdish sultan Saladin Ayubi conquered the Old City from the Crusaders to the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

After a short ride, we checked into our dorms and got a tour of Hebrew University, where we would be studying for the rest of the trip. Hebrew University has a beautiful campus situated on a hill overlooking the Old City. Without having any knowledge of the school, I assumed there would be only Israelis studying there, but again I was wrong. Young college students included Jews, Muslims, women with and without headscarves all together at this institution. I was still struggling to find the picture that the Arab world and the mainstream media have painted.

Throughout my time in Jerusalem I had the opportunity to speak with locals and elected officials, Arabs and Israelis at cafés, restaurants, bars, in the Muslim quarter, the Knesset, the shuk (outdoor bazaar) and so on. My interactions with Palestinians took place in the Muslim quarter, at the local restaurants and tea houses – all men, as talking with the women was looked down upon.

I entered the Old City through the Damascus Gate, although I was warned to not enter there because the site had been the scene of stabbings and attacks. I thought to myself, “I’ll be fine – I’m from Kirkuk, a far more dangerous city.”

Wanting to experience the real Jerusalem, I stayed away from popular tourist sites such as the shopping centers and famous high-end restaurants and explored the Old City and the surrounding area for the next few weeks. I made a few Palestinian friends over hookah and Arabic coffee. They tried to not discuss politics but were also keen on labeling me Iraqi. I accepted their opinions, but they were more excited about America and the dream of one day moving there.

I also visited the walls built around the Palestinian territories.

My feelings were mixed, but having personally experienced war and refugee camps from Arab governments, Syrian President Bashar Assad and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a Palestinian ally, I thought although it is not the ideal solution for either side – safety and security are better than terrorism.

One conversation that would stick with me was with a uniformed IDF soldier in his early 20s. I approached him while he was sitting alone having lunch, and began to slowly move past small talk. He was proud to serve his nation and was ready to defend it both literally and verbally.

He wasn’t a “tough guy,” he simply loved his nation.

He mentioned although it is mandatory for him to serve in the IDF, he would have done it regardless. He was also curious where I was from. When I replied Kurdistan, he shook his head in sadness, acknowledging that we are without a state and thanked me for our people fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

We had the privilege of visiting the Knesset. Thanks to my professor, who attempted to keep the meetings with guest MKs balanced, we were given views from the far Left, Right and everything in between. The most surprising comments were made by MK Taleb Abu Arar of the United Arab List, who openly declared Israel an undemocratic terrorist country while supporting Hamas and staunchly backing Turkish President Erdogan. He ignored my questions about double standards on Kurds in Turkey. I thought to myself, “You are calling Israel undemocratic? But you have a seat in their Knesset, you’re openly supporting Hamas and calling the government terrorist? Interesting.”

Unfortunately, the night before the end of the program, when I was having coffee inside Damascus Gate, a terrorist attack occurred. An IDF soldier by the name of Hadas Malka, only 23, was stabbed and lost her life after being rushed to the hospital. The gates were shut down, the city was on alert and Palestinians flocked to the streets to protest. Tel Aviv may be in its own bubble, but Jerusalem is fragile. People do want peace on both sides. We just have to move beyond those who incite terrorism. Israel is not the horror movie we witness on TV or by academics – it is a country simply striving to survive in a hostile region.

Photo credit: Israel Bardugo
Read More →

The IRGC, a terrorist organization that should be designated so

The Trump administration is determining whether to designate Iran’s elite arms unit, the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as a foreign terrorist organization. Officials from both the US State and Defense departments had warned the President to hold off on the order. The State and Defense departments’ hesitation is largely due to the fear of losing Iraq, as Baghdad heavily relies on both the IRGC and the US for military aid. The fact remains that Iraq has already been lost to Shia dominance since former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has favored his own majority, rather than serving beyond ethnic and sectarian lines.

Read More →