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Turkey is now alone, thanks to its erratic alliances

Turkey is now alone, thanks to its erratic alliances

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

This map, produced by pro-gov. Syrian group, hints
to Syria’s claim over most of Hatay province, could explain
the strategy for dealing with Idlib.
There are historical and political reasons for Turkey’s determination to prevent the formation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria. However, Turkey’s government might be nervous not just because of the Kurdish separatist aspirations, but also because of its long territorial dispute with the Syrian government, which considers most of Hatay province (Iskenderun) Syrian territory. Looking at the military strategy the Syria government has put in place since the start of its military campaign to regain lost territory, it would appear that the Syrian government wants to address its sovereignty claim over Iskenderun in the context of this armed conflict, in which Turkey has been deeply involved politically and militarily. Turkey, on the other hand, given its erratic decisions related to the Syrian crisis and given its fickle alliances, finds itself alone, abandoned by old allies, Saudi Arabia and the US, and untrusted by its new one, Russia and Iran.

First, Turkey’s government knows that a sovereign and united Kurdistan with access to international waters is a formidable one. A landlocked Kurdistan will depend on the goodwill of its neighbors to have access to international markets and to the global community in general. But a Kurdistan stretching from the Iraqi-Iranian border in the east to the Mediterranean in the west is viable, strong, and rich. Turkey, more than all its neighbors is threatened by this prospect for many obvious reasons. That is why Turkey feels the need to act now before a political solution for the Syrian crisis, which might result in the creation of a semi-autonomous region in northern Syria, is reached. 
Second, it must be noted that Hatay province is inhabited by diverse ethnic and religious groups, but Arabs and Alevis are a majority in its population of nearly 1.5 million people. The region, therefore, despite being under Turkish control, is strongly pro-Syrian government and throughout the Syrian crisis period, many of its people demonstrated in support of the Syrian government.
Third, nearly 500,000 Syrians were displaced by the violence in Aleppo and Idlib provinces and these displaced people settled in Hatay province. Moreover, the province borders the very volatile Idlib province that has been a relocation destination for all armed groups who chose not to enter into “reconciliation” agreements with the Syrian government. Idlib is controlled primarily by the powerful Islamist factions supported by Turkey and Qatar, mainly Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS; formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). 
Most recently, a number of factions defected from Ahrar al-Sham to join HTS making it the largest Islamist armed group in northern Syria. Parts of Idlib has been designated by the agreement (sponsored by Turkey, Russia, and Iran) as reduced violence zone. However, Russia has insisted all along that all de-escalation zones must exclude terrorist organization and, in the case of Idlib, given its proximity and connection to Turkey, Russia asked Turkey to dissolve or liquidate HTS. Turkey failed to do so, choosing instead to prioritize fighting Kurdish armed groups over fighting HTS and its affiliates. That development initiated a series of other events leading to the current situation. 
First, the Syrian government and its allies determined that Turkey has failed to deal with terrorist organizations in Idlib. The government, aided with Russian air force and allied troops, launched a multi-front offensive from the eastern regions under its control and appears to be moving westward. Today, the Syrian government announced full control of Abu Duhu airbase, a large strategic military facility, nearly 16 km2 at the intersection of three key provinces—Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo, that can be used to launch future operations deeper into all three provinces. 
Turkey moved troops to some points in Syria and began a military campaign against the Kurds in Afrin. Meanwhile, the US shifted its support to Kurds from assistance to defeat ISIS to training and equipping a permanent military force that it called border control units, which angered the Turkish government and raised some questions about the legality of US presence in Syria without clear UNSC or government authorization. 
The Syrian government’s long term strategy is now revealed by its actions on the ground. It appears to involve military campaign to clear internal regions and relocate the diehard armed groups to Idlib with the intent to ultimately force them into Hatay province. Once there, they will be Turkey’s problem to deal with them on its own or enter into an agreement with the Syrian government to settle the border dispute and accommodate the people living therein. That is an impressive long-term strategy, unlike Turkey’s, involving trusted, reliable regional and international allies. 
Turkey on the other hand, did not seem to have had a long-term strategy. That fact can be deduced from its erratic alliances. First it joined the anti-Assad coalition led by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and several EU states. Then it joined the anti-ISIS coalition led by the US. Finally, it turned to Russia and Iran. But in the end, and with its Afrin operation, Turkey finds itself alone. Turkey, now, must deal with the ramifications of a crisis that it helped create but failed to control its outcome. Syria, on the other hand, may end up regaining control over disputed border territory or use it to settle its undesirables and all foreign fighters who came to support them. A Hatay province under Turkish control but full of diehard zealots will continue to be a threat to Turkish security and stability–in fact, more so than the imagined or real Kurdish threat.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated. For more information, please visit: http://www.ahmedsouaiaia.com

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A Kurdish referendum, now, is counterproductive

A Kurdish referendum, now, is counterproductive

There is no doubt that the Kurdish people, like any other ethnic and linguistic community of their size, have a legitimate claim to self-determination. The Kurdish people in all five countries where they have a sizable population and in the diaspora, are more than 35 million people. Were they able to form a nation of their own right after the end of the colonial era, their country would have been the third most populous country in the region. But the powers to be did not allow that to happen. Their claim to nationhood still stands as a legitimate one.

However, the timing of the referendum, the lack of preparation for it in terms of diplomatic support, and the special circumstances of the region all made this decision a very poor one. It may have been motivated by personal impulses than by the urgency to secure the rights of the Kurdish people.
Masoud Barzani, the main proponent of the referendum, is an echo from Saddam’s era. His term in office ended years ago yet he persists to hold power. The regional government has had serious economic challenges and without Turkey’s eagerness to buy energy directly from the regional government, bypassing the central Iraqi government, the Kurdish economy would have collapsed two years ago. 
Since ISIS took over large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria in 2014, Kurdish fighters, with the help of anti-ISIS coalitions, pushed back ISIS only to claim the cleared territory as their own. This alone diminishes from the appeal of self-determination claim that the Kurds have asserted because it makes them appear as an aggressive expansionist regime that is willing to take advantage of the dire situation in Iraq and Syria.

The expansion, is bad public relation statement and shortsighted. Evidently, the newly acquired territories bring with it non-Kurdish populations, Arab, Turkmen, Persian, Armenian, etc. who will be made minorities dominated by a government that privileges and prioritizes Kurdish nationalism—creating new fault lines for protracted conflicts.
Kurdish political leaders ought to learn from the case of South Sudan. Prior to the division of Sudan, the conflict was made to appear as a conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian south, the Arab north and the African south. Since independence, the civil war in South Sudan became worse and the economic conditions of the landlocked territory became dire. Similarly, a landlocked Kurdistan in northern Iraq will make life for Kurds in the other four countries harder, and the potential civil war within Kurdistan in Iraq will increase. Turkey, by virtue of being home to the largest number of Kurds in the region will choke the Kurdish enclave and treat its own Kurdish population with even more hostility.
It is one thing to be supportive of disempowered communities and stand by any people who seek a life where they can live with dignity and respect. But Masoud Barzani used the Kurdish dream for self-determination to make a reckless decision that will, without doubt, make life for all Kurds harder and their fight for a better life even more costly. He failed to win the support of a single influential nation and made it harder for NGO’s and activists to continue their support of the Kurdish people. It is unfortunate that one man, whose term in office has run long ago, has risked the dream of so all, the Kurds, including those outside Iraq.

“No Place for Assad” is not a Plan

“No Place for Assad” is not a Plan

Syrian troops who took part in Deir Ezzor battle against ISIL
The so-called Syrian opposition and their Arab and Western governments’ backers are responsible for the failure in realizing a political transition towards broader representative governance. Now that even the strongest armed militant groups are facing defeat, the possibility of seeing these various opposition groups and personalities exert any significant role in shaping the political future of Syria is non-existent.

It should be noted that the peaceful protest movement that preceded the armed conflict did not set its agenda the overthrow of the Syrian government of even insist that Bashar Assad be ousted. Ousting Assad was primarily the dream of armed groups, especially the Wahhabi-Salafists, and some Arab and Western governments who don’t believe in any form of government except theirs.  They thought that the wave of anger that ousted Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, respectively, could be leveraged to rid the Middle East of those who did not fall inline and accept the oversized roles played by undemocratic, authoritarian rulers of the rich Gulf nations. After all, that strategy worked in Libya when Qatar, backed by NATO nations, financed and armed a ragtag of rebels to overthrow the mercurial, unreliable Mu`ammar Qaddafi. 

For seven years, money and weapons were poured into Syria with the singular objective in the mind and in the mouth of all those opposed to the Syrian government: There is no place for Assad in Syria. That singular goal meant that all those opposed to Assad are lesser “threats” than Assad, including ISIL and Nusra. When Assad outlasted many of the heads of these anti-Assad governments, Like Cameron, Hollande, Davutoğlu, Hamad, and Obama, many realized that “No place for Assad in Syria” is not actually a political platform or plan. 

The French president who replaced one of France’s least competent leaders admitted that much when he acknowledged that “there is no credible or capable alternative to Assad.” But even that view, accurate as it may be, does not represent the full truth. 

Syria is not a one-man show kind of country that can be compared to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, or UAE. Syria, despite the fact that it has been ruled by a single party, is a nation of institutions and fairly sophisticated civil society. It has a professional military, very efficient bureaucracy, highly educated citizens, diverse and inclusive society, and durably functioning political process and more. That reality might explain the fact that, even during the times when the Syrian government’s hold on power was weakest, major Syrian cities remained loyal to the Syrian state.

So it is no surprise now that, when the Syrian government has regained control over nearly 65% of the country, that the political opposition groups are having hard time finding international sponsors. Even the UN sponsored talks that were routinely held are now less frequent, if not fully absent. The hubris of the opposition groups and its leaders perverted belief that undemocratic regimes like those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or UAE would be reliable partners to help them establish a modern Athenian democracy in Syria are stunning. Their bet on self-interested and authoritarian regimes betrayed the hopes of the Syrian people for stronger Syria and produced a destroyed country that will need nearly half a trillion dollar to rebuild, and decades to heal from a war that touched, through death or injury, every Syrian family. 

Syria Control Map as of 09/05/2017

The Syrian government recently breached the 3-year old siege ISIL imposed on Deir Ezzor

What went wrong with Turkey’s referendum?

What went wrong with Turkey’s referendum?

Ayla Gol*

Turkey has missed an historical opportunity to prove that liberal democracy could work in a Muslim country. On Sunday, the 16th of April, over 50 million people voted in a public referendum and approved a constitutional change leading to a stronger presidency with extended powers. The voters had two options in the ballot boxes for an executive presidency (Cumhurbaşkanlığı sistemi): Yes or No. Results released by the state-run Anadolu Agency were that 51.4% voted ‘yes’ to change Turkey’s political system from a parliamentarian democracy to a presidential one.

In the three largest cities – the capital Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir – as well as in the mainly Kurdish southeast Anatolia, the majority said ‘no’. The main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP) are preparing to contest the results within the period of objection.

There is one clear result after the referendum: Turkey is a deeply polarized country with a bitterly divided nation. Polarization has always been part of Turkish society but has never been as visible as it is now: pious and seculars; Turks and Kurds; Istanbulians (Istanbullular) and others, Europeans and Anatolians; and most recently women with and without headscarves, are the best examples. The rift between secularists and Islamists has become the main fault-line in Turkish politics under the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, Justice and Development Party) rule. Post-referendum controversies indicate that the AKP miserably failed ‘the test of democratic change’ in a Muslim country.
The referendum’s legitimacy in question

Turkey’s referendum was free but unfair. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Turkey is a member state, criticized the pre-referendum conditions that gave a disproportionate share of media coverage. The ‘no’ campaign was silenced since the pro-Kurdish party’s co-leaders, Selahittin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, were arrested in November 2016. European human rights observers stated that the referendum failed the marks on international standards expected by the Council of Europe due to irregularities and late changes in the voting system. The European Union (EU) questioned the legitimacy of the referendum and recommended Turkey to investigate the irregularities. Meanwhile, the US President Donald Trump congratulated President Recep Tayip Erdoğan. Mr Erdoğan immediately gave his victory speech on the referendum night and thanked all voters. He also said that Turkey ‘does not see, hear, or acknowledge the reports by the OSCE observer mission.’

According to Erdoğan, the change now opens the path to a much more rapid development so that Turkey will become a more democratic, secure and stable country. Many of us doubt this. There is no question that the current constitution, which was accepted after the military coup of 1980, needs to be amended but not in an illiberal way. I argue that the changes in the constitution embody the illiberal democracy of AKP’s political Islam and nationalist authoritarianism.

Turkey is a country full of paradoxes and contradictions. When the pro-Islamic AKP first came to power in 2002, Turkey was seen as a shining example of a secular democracy in the Muslim world. The AKP has ruled the country since then. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, it has achieved an exemplary economic development, tackled with ‘a state within a state’ (deep state) bureaucracy and clamped the military’s power while engaging with a peace process with the Kurds during the early days of the AKP governance. In 2017, none of these achievements is sustainable. Turkey is no longer a country governed democratically.
The failed coup of July 2016 as a catalyst

Within the last 94 years of its modern history, Turkey has suffered from military coups almost every decade, including the failed attempt of July 2016. The debates on changing Turkey’s political system to an executive presidency also had been on the agenda since the 1970s. Turkey’s previous presidents Turgut özal and Süleyman Demirel, who both had direct experience of military coups, initiated the debate that a presidential system similar to the US could address the ‘compelling issues’ that haunted the country for decades. We still do not know who was the mastermind of the failed coup attempt but Erdoğan points to the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who participated in Turkish politics in the 1970s and lives in exile in the USA since 1999. Within the last nine months, around 50,000 people have been arrested and over 100,000 state officers were fired because of presumed connections with the Gülenist movement. The country is governed under a state of emergency with fear and an ongoing purge.

Following the debates of özal and Demirel, President Erdoğan put the idea of change to a presidential system into practice. The crucial step was taken earlier in 2007 when the Turkish constitution was modified to have a public referendum on the presidency, but the failed coup attempt in July 2016 has acted as a catalyst for change. For Erdoğan, the change is essential to protect not only democracy from shadowy forces within, such as the deep state and the Gülen supporters, but also the unity of the country and the ‘Turkish nation’ against the outside security threats of the Islamic State jihadists and the Kurdish separatist groups in the Middle East. The irony is that both Erdoğan and his opponents argue in the name of protecting Turkey’s national interests and democratic future.
The poverty of democracy in Turkey

Since the transition to a multi-party system in 1950 Turkey has been on a trial whether or not a western type of democracy can be consolidated in a Muslim country. As argued in some of the literature on the subject, “in the west, democracy has meant liberal democracy – a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property”. Despite ‘free and fair elections’, Turkey is no longer governed by the rule of law: it holds the highest number of journalists, academics, judges, and lawyers in jail since the failed coup of July 2016.

Turkey’s main problem is the poverty of its democracy in a deeply polarized society. Secular, leftists and Kurdish groups not only said ‘no’ to the presidential system but have also voiced criticism saying that Turkey has never been a fully-fledged democracy with the protection of basic liberties.

Although Turkey’s current political system is imperfect, nevertheless political power is not concentrated in the hands of one-man because checks and balances operate through the separation of powers: the head of government (the prime minister) and the head of the state (the president) are two different people; the president is neutral without any political party ties and role; the executive branch of the government derives its legitimacy from its ability to command the confidence of the legislature; the power of two branches (executive and legislative) is balanced by an impartial judiciary. The separation of powers is protected by the constitution. Historically, constitutions are essential to establish the rules of a social contract as to how power is exercised within the state. In general, constitutions evolve to reflect the progressive change of societies but, unfortunately, this trend is going backwards in Turkey.

The package of 18 constitutional amendments has passed to abolish the post of prime minister; the president can keep ties with political parties, have the authority to draft the budget, declare a state of emergency; and will issue decrees to appoint ministries without parliamentary approval. More importantly, the impartiality of the judiciary branch suffers the most, as the presidency will have broad authority over the high council of judges and prosecutors. All these changes lead to the concentration of political power in the hands of one individual, president Erdoğan, with weakened checks and balances. In short, by eliminating the separation of powers and the impartiality of the judiciary, these changes reverse Turkey into illiberal democracy and increase Erdoğan’s authoritarianism.
Illiberal democracy and authoritarian nationalism

For some of us, this was an expected result given the fact that ‘illiberal democracies have become more the norm than the exception’ in many countries with different cultures and religions. Erdoğan’s authoritarianism is not a new type of political Islam and but old school nationalism combined with illiberal democracy, just like Putin in Russia and Modi in India. Erdoğan’s authoritarianism has nothing to do with Islam but uses religion supported by the ideology of Turkish nationalism. The main obstacles blocking Turkey’s democratic path are set up by the founding paranoia of the state about its enemies outside and its distrust of ethnic minorities inside. This nationalist tradition has been ruling the country, both in the name of conservatism and religion. In practice, Erdoğan has been in power for the last 14 years and mastered the paranoia of inside and outside enemies by using nationalist and anti-western discourses.

The referendum was about confidence in Erdoğan. One of the crucial changes that Erdoğan promised in October 2016 after the failed military coup is reinstating capital punishment. As one of the pre-conditions of its EU membership, Turkey abolished capital punishment legally in 2004. The AKP government promised to present a draft law reinstating the death penalty in Turkey and Erdoğan promised to approve it immediately after the referendum. It is a response to the nationalist and populist protests calling for the hanging of Fethullah Gülen and the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah öcalan. For Erdoğan, it will send strong messages to Turkey’s enemies inside – Gülenists and separatist Kurds – and the enemies outside which he describes as the west’s ‘crusader mentality’. On the contrary, for his critics, this will widen the gap in a peace process with the Kurds. For Turkey’s EU membership, the abolition of capital punishment is a red line. Turkey has never been further away from its European path in its history and will reverse faster into illiberal democracy.

There is no doubt that authoritarian nationalism and populism continue to leech on the weaknesses of majoritarian politics. The 51% majority of voters decided to allow Erdoğan to remain in power possibly as late as until 2029, in other words being ruled by the same leader for 30 years, as it was under the Ottoman sultans. Moreover, majoritarian politics is a double-edged sword in a marginally divided country, like Turkey. Will Erdoğan continue to polarise the society, oppress the opposition and ignore the other half of society? Within the next two years, in November 2019 and probably earlier, presidential and parliamentary elections must be held. Once again, the majority of people – Turks and Kurds – will have time to observe how Erdoğan will use his extended powers in the coming months. In other words, a lot is at stake under the one-man rule for Turkey’s future, including for Erdoğan himself. The question is whether Turkish society has reached a level of maturity to distinguish liberal democracy from illiberal one or not.


* Ayla Gol is a Reader and Director of Graduate School at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. She is the author of Turkey Facing East: Islam, Modernity and Foreign Policy.

Could the Cessation of Hostilities help U.S. and Russia overcome their differences on Syria?

Could the Cessation of Hostilities help U.S. and Russia overcome their differences on Syria?

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*


ISIL fighters
It is evident at this point that Syria’s war is not a civil war. It is a world war and now the two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia emerged out of the shadows of their regional allies to take charge. Early this year, the two countries reached an agreement called Cessation of Hostilities (CH), initially effecting select cities but open to be applied across Syria.  The Cessation of Hostilities is simply a bilateral understanding between the U.S. and Russia. It is not a peace accord nor is it an armistice. It is something in between necessitated by the complex map of groups fighting the Syrian government. This CH automatically excluded any and all groups labelled terrorists by the UNSC, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its offshoot, al-Nusra Front. In theory, any armed opposition group can be party to this deal provided its members–or a representative thereof–contact monitoring centers staffed by Russian personnel, since Americans are not authorized by the Syrian government to be on Syrian soil, overtly at least. The deal worked in bring some calm to some areas and gave many Syrians some hope.

Earlier, al-Nusra Front, fearing isolation, merged with other groups forming Jaysh al-Fath. With the start of the CH regime on February 27, 2016, al-Nusra used this alliance to launch attacks in northern Syria, virtually collapsing the CH regime. This week, Secretary Kerry announced a new plan, perhaps just and updated one, that could put Syria back on track for a political solution. It might actually work. There are a number of reasons for our optimism.
One of the main reasons behind the failure to solve the crisis in Syria lies in the nature, composition, and regional sponsors of the Syrian opposition. The strongest opposition groups are extremist Salafists and fighters affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The three main supporters of the Syrian opposition fighters, Qatar and Turkey (strong supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Saudi Arabia (sponsor of Salafism), have insisted from the start that the overthrow of Assad supersedes the defeat of al-Qaeda and its derivatives (mainly ISIL, al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jaysh al-Islam). These three countries have principally nothing in common except their shared disdain for Assad. Consequently, their alliance of convenience could not last. So it did not.
Within a year or so, and seeing that Russia and China twice blocked UNSC resolutions that could have authorized the use of force against the Syrian government, the Qatari ruler, Hamad Ibn Khalifa Al Thani, realized that that path he has taken was very difficult. The Emir abdicated and transferred power to his son, Tamim. This move offered the tiny but influential country a way out of a crisis it cannot manage and left Saudi Arabia and Turkey leading the efforts to overthrow Assad.
Initially, these two countries, despite their differences over the status of the regime in Egypt and position on the Muslim Brotherhood politics and ideology, decided to stay united on Syria. Their strategy consisted of continued support to rebel groups, initially organized under a loose umbrella organization called the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting under the green and black flag, to ensure the fall of the Syrian government, not weaken any of them. The transfer of arms and money supposedly to the FSA, somehow, benefitted al-Nusra and ISIL, too. Within months from the start of the armed conflict, the FSA became all but a shell that provided cover to ISIL and al-Nusra. When the latter two groups grew confident and self-sufficient, they abandoned the FSA flag, raising their own black flags over large territories, forcing FSA groups out.  
When ISIL declared its caliphate and took control of key cities and provinces in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. formed a coalition dedicated to fighting ISIL, essentially creating two kinds of opposition groups in Syria: ISIL and the “legitimate opposition.” However, the U.S. and its allies conveniently avoided defining “legitimate” opposition.
In theory, this coalition was to fight ISIL, exclusively. In reality, the this coalition has had two objectives. The coalition bombed ISIL territories from the air, but also provided weapons and training for the so-called “moderate rebels” who would fight both–the Syrian government and ISIL. The efforts paid off on both fronts. While the air campaign limited ISIL advances, the influx of sophisticated weapons to “moderate” fighters, including al-Nusra, allowed them to take over territories previously under government control, threatening even Assad’s stronghold, Syria’s coastal region. This prompted Russia to send troops and airplanes, upon a request from Assad, to help him regain control of the territories his troops lost. He did regain control within about five months. Russia’s intervention created a new balance of power. Importantly, it also offered the anti-ISIL coalition a channel through which to talk to the Syrian government.
The Russian intervention in Syria created a unique challenge for Turkey, especially, since it benefited from Syria’s oil sold by ISIL and was able to limit Kurdish gains. Russia’s intervention strengthened the Syrian Kurds and shut down the flow of Syrian oil. Turkey, reacted angrily, shooting down a Russia bomber near its border with Syria, prompting President Putin to impose crippling economic sanctions and grounding Turkish planes with the insertion of Russia’s sophisticated S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system. These measures forced Turkey’s powerful president to rethink his approach to the Syrian crisis. After nearly five months of refusing to apologize for the incident, Erdogan sent a letter to Putin doing just that and urging Putin to normalize relations. Putin obliged, lifting the ban on travel to Turkey and promising to consider other steps once Turkish authorities take actual steps to address other concerns.
Turkey’s economic and security woes, made real by the July 15 failed coup, have forced the Turkish president to speed up his rapprochement with Russia. His office announced that he will travel to Saint Petersburg on August 9, where he will meet Putin to put their bilateral relations back on track. However, normalizing relations with Russia necessarily requires Turkey to drop its demand for overthrowing Assad and fight terrorism instead. That much was made clear by the Russian leaders upon receiving Erdogan’s letter of apology. Erdogan’s unhappiness with U.S. and European governments may compel him to, minimally take a neutral position regarding the fate of Assad, or side with Russia to maximize return from his overture on Russia. Either of those outcomes will reduce the anti-Assad alliance to one country, Saudi Araba.
The shift in Turkey’s position on Syria is making the rulers of Saudi Arabia nervous since they will be the only ones insisting on prioritizing ousting Assad over fighting terrorist entities. Signs that Saudi Arabia is feeling the isolation already emerged during the last Arab League Summit held this week in Mauritania. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have set the agenda and tone of the outcome of the League’s summit in the past five years. This time, however, Saudi Arabia failed not only to have the Syrian opposition represent Syria during the meeting, but also failed to convince the League to invite it even as observer–a huge change compared to the summit held in Qatar when Syria’s seat was filled by the head of the Syrian opposition, Moaz al-Khatib.
In addition to this game-changer event involving Turkey, a couple of other events created new conditions that are forcing key parties to the armed conflict in Syria to adjust their roles and expectations.
First, Iraq’s success in retaking Fallujah in a relatively short fight against ISIL dispelled the notion of invincibility projected by that puritan group and its supporters. Should the Iraqi forces succeed in retaking Mosul, ISIL will be practically out of Iraq and will resort to suicidal terrorist attacks against Iraqi civilians. Without dislodging ISIL from major cities in Syria, the threat of terrorist attacks will be significant. Moreover, Iraqi gains could be easily reversed should ISIL remain in control of cities and towns along the Syrian borders. Iraqi leaders know this and to prevent that from happening, they announced that they will work with the Syrian government to help the latter retake the city of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.
Second, the rise of the number of terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S., and other countries is forcing more people in countries that ignored ISIL in the past to push their governments to focus on fighting terrorism–not on overthrowing the Syrian government.
These significant changes are keeping U.S. top diplomat, Secretary Kerry, very busy adjusting U.S. strategy on Syria. He travelled to Russia spending about ten hours with Putin and an additional four hours with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. On Tuesday, Kerry said that he will be in a position to announce a robust plan for coordinating efforts with Russia on Syria early next month, signaling the significance of the agreement he reached with the Russian leaders, which would require review and approval by his boss, President Obama, and national security policymakers.
The outstanding problem between the U.S. and Russia has been the lack of coordination of military efforts fighting terrorism in Syria. The U.S. and its allies are insisting on limiting military strikes to ISIL. Russia wants to fight ISIL and other terrorist groups, including al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Although the U.S. recognizes al-Nusra as a terrorist organization, it had not targeted it, perhaps out of respect for some of its allies who are known supporters of al-Nusra and the allies of al-Nusra.
Publicly however, the U.S. administration justified its exclusion of al-Nusra from military strikes by arguing that territories controlled by al-Nusra and “legitimate” opposition are mixed. Russia is not convinced because it is using a different standard. Russian leaders want the Cessations of Hostilities regime to be the determining factor of who should be targeted and who should not be targeted. They argue that if the opposition groups are committed to a political solution, they should stop fighting and move out of the areas controlled by fighters who reject a political solution. The new plan, which will include at least part of Russia’s reasoning, will enable U.S. and Russia to bypass their differences over the identity of terrorist entities and the fate of Assad. Should the new plan use this criterion, terrorist groups will not be able to avoid being targeted by changing their names or breaking their public affiliation with known terrorist organizations.
A new strategy that takes into considerations these complex issues would replace the untenable, self-serving one proposed by the backers of the opposition groups who argued that the Syrian regime will not agree to a political solution unless the opposition forces gain the upper hand.  Five years of relying on a strategy of indiscriminately arming and assisting all groups fighting the Syrian government forces to attain that questionable goal did not work. A strategy that calls on a political dialogue involving only groups that agree to Cessations of Hostilities might work. This strategy could even allow U.S. and Russian military to work together on stabilizing a region in so much need for peace and development.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Kurds One Hundred Years after Sykes-Picot

Kurds One Hundred Years after Sykes-Picot

by Mohammad Ali Dastmali*

About one hundred years have passed since the conclusion of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and now neither Sykes is alive nor Picot.

Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes and France’s François Georges-Picot started a saga through conclusion of a short and apparently simple agreement, which later on affected the lives of many peoples and nations in the Middle East and became a turning point for determining the fate of Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Palestinians and other people in the Middle East.

Now, in the modern times in which unlike one hundred years ago, Britain and France are not big global powers, as was the case in the time of Sykes and Picot, and the United States, Russia and regional powers are more determining and more powerful than others, Kurds have decided to change the situation in their own favor. The question is “when there is talk about Kurds objecting to Sykes-Picot’s approach to borders and political structure in the region, does it represent the dynamic and consolidated demands of all Kurds in the region?” The answer is no, because unlike past decades, Kurds, and in clearer terms, Kurdish parties in four countries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, are not of the same opinion when it comes to necessity of independence and secession, and establishment of a common geographical unit. They are not only discordant in practice, but do not even support such an ideal in their slogans. The following points are noteworthy in this regard:

1. In Iran, due to many reasons, including special bonds that exist between Kurdish people and the Iranian society in general, extreme weakness and withering away of various anti-government parties, the fact that such parties do not enjoy strong political and popular base, and also due to religious and other differences, Kurds are not on course to raise any protest or rise against the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

2. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as the most important political and military Kurdish group in this country, has chosen such a course that its jailed leader has frequently announced there is no need for Kurds to seek independence and establish a government of their own. On the other hand, at least during the past year, this party has become so weak and has suffered such heavy casualties that it cannot practically have a serious say in this regard. Also, it is not unlikely that judicial immunity of PKK lawmakers at Turkey’s national assembly would be revoked in the next coming months as a result of which the way would be paved for leaders and other effective members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is the most important legal institution affiliated with the PKK, to go to jail. At the same time, the PKK has not been able to take its name off the list of international terrorist groups and, as such, does not enjoy international legitimacy.

3. In the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, the situation is quite different and there is the highest preparedness and willingness to build an official, separate and independent Kurdish entity among political parties in this region. Masoud Barzani is the vanguard in this regard and is doing his best to take this case to a final positive closure during the period of his political and personal life. Of course, there are serious differences among various Kurdish parties in Iraq, which follow different nationalist, leftist, Islamist and social democrat approaches, over a variety of issues and interests, but when it comes to the necessity of dismantling the Sykes-Picot Agreement and form an independent Kurdish government in Iraq, all of them are unanimous and even if there is a difference in this regard it is about such marginal issues as the timetable and ways of achieving this goal.

4. In three Kurdish regions of Syria, that is, in Jazira, Kobani, and Afrin, political and military institutions affiliated with the PKK have full control over the power reins. They enjoy a special geographic and defensive position as a result of which, with the exception of Daesh and other terrorist and Takfiri groups, they can cooperate with the United States, Russia, Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and even Iran and others. Although this group of Kurds is still on Bashar Assad’s side in line with an unwritten agreement, they have raised certain claims about how to manage these regions, which have not been accepted by the government in Damascus. As a result, during the latest conflicts in Syrian city of Hasakah, more than 10 armed man affiliated with Assad’s army were killed by Kurds and more than 100 Syrian soldiers were taken into captivity by Kurdish defenders. Therefore, if the scenario, which seeks to oust Assad from power, is put in gears, Kurds in these regions would seek to establish a political structure, and even if it would not be an independent state, it would not be anything less than the current structure in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region either. However, even if Assad remains in power, Syrian Kurds would not go back to the past situation.

What if the Iraqi Kurdistan Region declares independence?

It is possible that in order to declare their independence, Kurds would not wait for permission from the United States, Europe, Iraq, Iran and other regional countries forever, and may face these countries with fait accompli. In view of the current situation in Iraq and the country’s ailing government, it seems that not only there would be no firm opposition in the face of such a possibility, but it is even not improbable that part of Shia political institutions and a large portion of Sunnis would agree to it. In the meantime, let’s not forget that in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Kurds enjoy such facilities and important drivers for independence as military and defensive power in the form of the Peshmerga forces, relative economic power based on the region’s oil and gas reserves, as well as official international relations and political experience. In recent years, Kurds have proven in Iraq and Syria that they have no problem with non-Kurdish citizens in their region, but can also make them a partner to their political and executive power by giving big concessions. It should be also noted that serious threats posed by the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group and dangerous measures taken by this group in Iraq and Syria, in addition to serious fight against Daesh by Kurds have all created a new situation in the region, which makes resilience toward and interaction with Kurds look like a wise and logical option.

It may seem strange, but it is very unlikely that a sudden declaration of independence by Kurds in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region would elicit sharp international reactions. Now, one must wait and see whether the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, especially the Kurdistan Democratic Party and its leader Masoud Barzani, would accept such a risk, or prefer to listen to their consultants and neighbors and defer the implementation of the secession scenario to a later time.
* Expert on Turkey Affairs

Why is AKP – led Turkish government punishing Kurds and leftists for ISIL suicide crimes?

Why is AKP – led Turkish government punishing Kurds and leftists for ISIL suicide crimes?

When ISIL suicide bombers killed more than 32 people at a cultural center in Suruç, near Kobani, the AKP led government unleashed waves of airstrikes against PKK fighters in southern Turkey and northern Iraq, instead of launching punishing trikes against ISIL. When two suicide bombers targeted a peace coalition activists, mostly Kurds and leftists, killing more than 96 people, Prime Minister Davutoglu, blamed “the Islamic State, Kurdish militant factions, or far-leftist radicals.” 

Just one day after the attack, Turkish warplanes struck PKK targets in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey, killing “some 30-35 PKK guerrillas on Sunday alone.” No reported strikes against ISIL. Which brings us to the obvious question: Why is the AKP government punishing Kurds for crimes committed by ISIL?

The AKP, the political party that has governed Turkey since 2002 is responsible for a foreign policy that created security problems because of its support for armed groups fighting the Syrian government, including ISIL. Conveniently, the AKP regime entered into peace talks with the PKK three years ago so that it can focus on achieving its main goal in Syria: overthrow Assad. That strategy failed. Consequently, Turkey’s national security threats increased, its economy slowed, the peace initiative with the Kurds collapsed, and its relations with its neighbors deteriorated. 

Last June, Turkish voters revoked the public mandate it offered the AKP, which allowed it to govern on its own for more than a decade. Instead of forming a unity or coalition government, the AKP opted for a redo of the June elections, to be held early next month. AKP leaders are hoping that they will be able to regain their majority and form a single party government again. They have one path to achieving that goal: attract some nationalist voters. In order to do that, they need to play the nationalist card by amplifying the Kurdish threat, not the religious one. However, even if that strategy were to succeed, the risk of alienating some religious conservatives and independent voters should worry them. Writing a political narrative with the blood of innocent people is not an honorable strategy and for that reason, I believe that the majority of Turkish citizens will oust the AKP, not reward them.

There is a striking similarity between the Muslim Brotherhood – run government that rose to power after the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and the Turkish government during the past five years. Leaders of the AKP and MB are sectarian, nationalist ideologues who failed to honor the dignity of all citizens, including those who do not share their religious and political convictions. The images of an Egyptian Shia and a Turkish Kurd citizens killed and dragged in the streets are powerful, damning visuals that paint these politicians as callous ideologues who failed to uphold their constitutional charge. Like Morsi, Erdogan has chosen his ideology over the pledge to protect all citizens. His standing and that of his party, like that of Morsi and the MB in Egypt, will be reduced because respect for human dignity is a universal value that should not bartered for political gains.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ought to be tried for crimes against humanity

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ought to be tried for crimes against humanity

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

ISIL attacks Kobane

Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Bidenangered some Middle Eastern leaders by making a true statement. Speaking at Harvard, Biden said that the U.S. allies were determined to overthrow Bashar al-Assad from power so they “poured hundreds of millions dollars, and tens thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against al-Assad, accepted the people who would be in supply for al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and extremist elements of jihadists coming from other parts of the world.” Known for his blunt statements, Biden flatly admitted that U.S. “biggest problem is our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks… the Saudis, the Emiratis, etc…”

The White House, under pressure to keep the fragile anti-ISIL alliance together, tried to limit the damage of these extraordinary admissions, first published the transcript of the Vice President’s lecture without these statements (they were said during the Q&A session). When the video clip of the Vice President’s remarks made its way to the Internet, Biden spent the next couple of days calling Turkish and Emirati leaders to clarify his comments and offer qualified apologies. Biden should not have apologized; he should have warned them of the dire consequences of their reckless and criminal actions.

Despite his efforts, Turkey is still refusing to help stop the genocide that is happening near its border by refusing to allow volunteers to cross to Syria to help defend Kobane and by denying residents who are still inside the city resisting ISIL attacks weapons and food. Before he would do any of that, Erdogan wants the West to establish a buffer zone within Syria allegedly to house refugees. In reality, he wants to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria to help Syrian armed groups, including ISIL and al-Nusra, overthrow the Syrian government. In other words, he does not want to weaken ISIL unless the Syrian government is even weaker or better yet, overthrown. He does not seem to care who would take over as long as Assad is out. Erdogan repeatedly stated that his priority is to overthrow Assad, not fight ISIL and similar extremist groups.

When Turkish citizens protested his callousness, he ordered his security forces to do whatever it takes to impose order, killing 32 civilians as of October 11. Erdogan, who allowed foreign fighters and weapons to cross into Syria to fight the Syrian government, is now refusing to allow Syrians to cross the border to protect civilians against the genocidal ISIL fighters. He claimed that the protesters are PKK terrorists. He uses brute force to kill Kurds who are fighting for cultural, political, and economic rights but he condemns the Syrian and Iraqi governments for fighting genocidal groups determined to purge their countries from Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Shia, Yazidis, and anyone who does not believe in they believe and submit to the self-declared caliph.

Erdogan, Turkey’s most polarizing politician, alienated 45% of the Turkish people and is attempting to export his brand of politics outside Turkey. He is following a policy that punishes dissent, stokes sectarianism, and fuels civil strife. He is a destabilizing force who aided in the murder of nearly 100,000 Syrians who were killed on the hands of armed groups and offered the Syrian government cause to kill the other 100,000 people. He ought to be held responsible for killing Turkish protesters and aiding genocidal killers in Iraq and Syria.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Syria’s Kurds, hopes and fears: The civil war in Syria has put great strains on the country’s Kurdish population. The Syrian Kurds’ most powerful politician, Saleh Muslim Mohammad, talks to Vicken Cheterian about their position and future

Syria’s Kurds, hopes and fears: The civil war in Syria has put great strains on the country’s Kurdish population. The Syrian Kurds’ most powerful politician, Saleh Muslim Mohammad, talks to Vicken Cheterian about their position and future

by Vicken Cheterian*
Saleh Muslim Mohammad is the head of the Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat (Democratic Union Party / PYD) and the most powerful politician among the Syrian Kurds. The party – founded in 2003, and closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a longstanding armed campaign in the Kurdish-majority regions of eastern Turkey – itself has a well-disciplined fighting force of several thousands among the Kurds of northern Syria. During a recent visit to Geneva to meet international organisations, I ask him for his assessment of the Kurds’ situation in light of Syria’s evolving war.

Saleh Muslim Mohammad’s attitude is confident: that of a leader who at last was on the winning side after decades of being repressed by dictatorship and buffeted by the unpredictable tides hitting the middle east. He was also concerned to uphold his own group’s standpoint: “Very often, the international bodies receive information from rival Syrian-Kurdish groups which tries to present us in a negative light. We came here to present our point of view and the facts on the ground.” His fighters, he says, are constantly clashing with jihadi formations in the northern regions of Syria.
Mohammad was born in Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab, in 1951. “You know that Kobane was founded by Armenians?” he tells me to my surprise. “The name Kobani is German (from Ko-Bahn, or railway company). The town was a simple railway station built by Germans in 1912, as part of the Berlin-Baghdad route. Then, in 1915, it became a town when Armenian refugees escaping the massacres in Anatolia settled there. The Kurds came later from neighbouring villages. I remember when I grew up there were three Armenian churches in town, but in the 1960s they abandoned us and migrated to Armenia.”
He attended primary school in Damascus and secondary school in Aleppo, then moved to Istanbul to study chemical engineering at Istanbul Technical University before moving to work in Saudi Arabia. He belongs to a Kurdish political generation that was inspired first by the Barzanis’ struggle against the Iraqi Ba’ath regime, then attracted to the PKK’s militant nationalism. He has been president of the PYD since 2010.
The ideological matrix
His comment on the clashes with jihadists prompts me to ask: is the PYD in a war situation, and if yes against whom? “We have been at war since our foundation in 2003″, he replies. “First against the [Syrian] regime – remember at that time it was on good terms with Turkey. We paid a heavy toll. Ahmad Hussein (Abu Judy) was killed by the military intelligence under torture in 2004; in the same year Shilan Kobani and his friends were assassinated in Mosul by the mukhabarat; in 2008, Othman Suleiman was also killed under torture. There are many other such examples. I was myself arrested and tortured. We also had to struggle against other Syrian Kurdish formations who considered us troublemakers, but we are revolutionaries and we did not give in.”
I am about to ask about accusations that the PYD cooperates with the Syrian authorities, when he says: “We are the only Kurdish formation that fought against the regime in Ashrafiye and Sheikh Maqsoud” (two neighbourhoods of Aleppo inhabited mostly by Kurds).
“On 19 July 2012 we managed to take control of the Kurdish regions and instal self-rule. The regime forces withdrew. But then ee fell into another problem, that is fighting with salafi-jihadi formations. Now we are fighting both regime forces and Jabhat al-Nusra, and we fear that massive crimes can happen against civilians of Ashrafiye and Sheikh Maqsoud. These neighbourhoods are constantly shelled by the regular troops, and under siege by jihadis. We call the international community to intervene to stop the danger of massacres.”
But, I intervene, wasn’t the withdrawal of regime troops in July 2012 coordinated with the PYD? He answers: “That’s a false allegation. We put pressure on the regime forces, and they did not have the means to open a new front against us. They still remembered how the Kurds all rose up as one in the Qamishli intifada of 2004. In Ras al-Ayn where the population is half-Kurdish and half-Arab, we entered only Kurdish neighbourhoods. The Arabs there supported the regime. Then the jihadi groups entered and started killing people, and when they started attacking Kurdish neighbourhoods we fought back and eventually expelled them from the town.”
I change tack. At the time the Syrian National Congress was formed, relations between it and other parts of the opposition YPG were difficult. How have they evolved since then? “Let me start from the beginning. When the Syrian revolution started, we were searching for a strategic alliance. We set up the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change with four other groups – the Communist Party, Communist Action Party, Communist Party – Political Bureau, and the Socialist Union. They were the ones with long experience of anti-regime struggle and representation within the society. Our project was to overthrow the regime through peaceful democratic means, rejecting violence. Then a fake opposition was set-up in Istanbul with United States-Turkish backing and Qatari funding. The reality became an internal opposition which has no representation, and an exiled opposition which has no presence on the ground.”
He adds: “It was the regime that wanted the militarisation of the revolution, because it had the military advantage. It released some 1,000 salafi-jihadis from Sednaya prison [a notorious jail near Damascus]. And they succeeded. Who talks about democracy now? Even the most moderate fighting brigade [of the opposition] is demanding the caliphate now!”
In a one-hour discussion, Saleh Muslim Mohammad refers twice to the “philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan” as the PYD’s reference-point. This ideological source can best be described as a Leninist one as adapted to the needs of a national-liberation struggle. In this, the PKK itself was heavily influenced by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) factions of the 1970s. This ideological set-up has little in common with most Syrian opposition fighting groups, which have gravitated towards the salafi-jihadi political culture.
“The Syrian National Council was in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and controlled by Turkey. When the coalition was founded and moved to Cairo, we thought it would form an independent structure. But in the end it evolved into an amorphous body lacking cohesion and eventually returned to Istanbul.”
The regional complex
I ask whether he understands the fears of the Syrian opposition that the PYD is preparing conditions for separation from Syria. “There is no basis for such fears. There is no single Kurdish party in Syria calling for separatism. Demanding our rights is not separatism.”  But in your literature, I persist, you do not talk about northern Syria, but about west Kurdistan. Isn’t this a political sign? He says that west Kurdistan is “not a political term, but a geographic one. There were people who wanted that we forget our Kurdish identity.”
This brings me to the nub of the matter: is the PYD a Syrian or a Kurdish party? A laugh, then: “It is Kurdish, Syrian, middle eastern. We had Arabs, Assyrians, and Turcomans in our party. We follow the philosophy of Ocalan, and whoever is convinced by it can join us.”
The PYD’s analysis largely turns around who is with, and who opposes, the Turkish state. Yet Saleh Muslim himself made two visits to Turkey in summer 2013. Is that a sign of changing times? “We have no animosity towards the Turkish people. We share with Turkey a border of 900 kilometress where there are Kurdish populations on both sides. We expressed our concerns that Turkey is providing logistic support to jihadi groups like Al-Nusra, which they refuted. But we have continuous proof of that. Even now, fighting rages between us and jihadi groups in villages east of Ras Al-Ayn. We also talked about easing humanitarian convoys to our regions.”
Did the start of negotiations between the PKK leadership and Ankara prepare the environment for his visit? “For us, nothing has changed. But [the talks] helped to soften Turkish attitudes toward us. When they themselves negotiate with their own Kurds it is untenable to ask the Syrian coalition not to negotiate with Syrian Kurds.”
When I ask who was his negotiating partner on the Turkish side, he remains vague, saying   only it was on the level of advisor to the foreign minister, without giving names. But he says a third visit is not excluded.
Many Syrian opposition activists view the PYD through the prism of its anti-regime struggle. Similarly, the PYD regards the Syrian opposition from the angle of its own antagonism towards Ankara. To understand the PYD, it’s necessary to look at the Syrian conflict against a broader canvas: namely, the emergence of the Kurdish political factor throughout the middle east, the establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, and especially the role of the PKK in awakening Kurdish national identity within Turkey. In the event of an agreement between the PKK and Ankara, there could be a rapprochement between the  PYD and the Syrian opposition – though the opposite is also true.
When I ask about the role of the United Nations in the Syrian conflict, he laughs again and says: “You know, in the mid-90s the UN was going to shut down when the US refused to pay its dues. Did I answer you?”
So how can the conflict in Syria end? “Very difficult! I feel there are sides who want the destruction not only of Syria, but of the whole region by igniting a Sunni-Shi’a conflict…”
Here, I interrupt, saying that I do not like blaming outsiders; such conspiracy theories are also fashionable in my country of origin, Lebanon, as if we are not actors but simple objects. Saleh Muslim Mohammad agrees, adding: “The problem is that our mentality did not develop enough to ensure the independence of our thought and action.”
*Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva; teaches at Webster Geneva’s faculty of media communications; and is a research associate at SOAS’s department of development studies. His books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)

Mass slaughter of civilian Kurds in Syria ignites heavy clashes and mass exodus

Mass slaughter of civilian Kurds in Syria ignites heavy clashes and mass exodus

by Rozh Ahmad*

Kurdish civilians escaping for their lives in Syria

The al-Qaeda linked “Jabhat al-Nusra” (al-Nusra Front) in Syria, has been held responsible for having instigated a sectarian racist war against civilian Kurds in Syria’s northern Kurdish region, the outcomes of which recently led to the massacre of hundreds of Kurdish women and children, “some of whom were raped and beheaded by jihadists”, says Syrian opposition officials, witnesses and victims.
Human rights activists in Syria’s Kurdish region have confirmed that 450 Kurdish civilians, “mostly women and children, were slaughtered indiscriminately inside their homes at the hands of jihadists of the al-Nusra Front in Tal Abyad, Tal Hassil and Tal A’ran areas of Syrian Kurdistan from July 28 – August 2, 2013.”

They say the attacks are continuous against civilian Kurds, adding that several Kurdish women have also requested urgent help claiming al-Qaeda linked jihadists had gang-raped them soon after their husband and brothers were shot dead in cold blood in front of them.

Naze Alyama, a Syrian-Armenian human rights activist working for the “Heyva Sor a Kurdistane”(Kurdistan Red Moon) charity in Syria’s Kurdish region, whose mission is now stationed on the Syrian-Iraqi Kurdish border, says, “We have helped several women to cross the border into Iraqi Kurdistan who were victims, raped by jihadists of the al-Nusra Front, some of whom had witnessed their husbands shot dead in front of them before they were gang raped by jihadist gunmen.”
“Jihadists slammed into the house, shot several bullets, then they came for me and made me sign papers at gunpoint,” says one of the victims, who a few days ago fled for Iraqi Kurdistan region with the help of human rights activists on the border.  
She says human rights activists, like Alyama, had later on explained the paper she was forced to sign,  “Apparently this was a religious document that permitted my ‘Marriage for jihad’ with all those gunmen who were in front of me, who raped me, one after the other, until I was unconscious. ”
She declined to have her name mentioned in this report, “I am not only afraid of the jihadists.’  She says, “it would lead to stigma in society too, because when people find out you were raped, things would not be normal any more, well, things are no longer normal for me and my situation is really bad.”
Kurdish human rights activists had found her among the refugees in the Syrian Kurdish border village of Taws, in north east Syria. She is one among the estimated 25,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees, who a few days ago, poured in desperation into the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region.
The Kurdish tragedy inside war-torn Syria has finally reached international media outlets, after Iran’s state media confirmed the news of the massacres and broadcast videos showing mass slaughter of Kurdish civilians. These films documented how jihadists blew up Kurdish homes afterwards, in the Tal Abyad area. 
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has criticised the UN Security Council for being “reluctant to condemn terrorist attacks” against the Kurds in Syria. The UN and US State Department recently joined the call condemning the massacres of civilian Kurds by groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in Syria. 
“In the last six months al-Nusra fighters have burned Kurdish homes, killed civilians indiscriminately and the group continues to kidnap many Kurds on a daily basis throughout Syria’s Kurdish region, all with Turkish military aid and medical support on the ground,” says Khalid Issa, Europe’s representative of the ruling Syrian Kurdish “Democratic Union Party” (PYD) and vice president of the wider Syrian opposition coalition, “National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change in Syria’ (NCC).
“Al-Nusra fighters kill everybody, including women and children,” says Issa, confirming that Kurdish women have also been raped during attacks on Kurdish areas, “just like al-Nusra fighters have done in the rest of Syria.  They believe that it is religiously allowed to rape women of any area, ethnicity and religious group they think is ‘unholy’. They now target Kurdish civilians because some extremist mullahs and Islamic muftis have recently classed Kurds in Syria as infidels and unholy people.”
Cemil Xero, a Kurdish resident of the town of Tal Abyad in Syria’s Kurdish region, where one of the recent massacres of civilian Kurds occurred, said in a telephone interview, “When al-Nusra fighters attack Kurds in areas like Tal Abyad for instance, Arab Imams then call on the local people through speakers of the mosques, to do whatever they can to help the jihadists attack Kurdish residents.”
“Many of the Arab residents would then do what the Imams had just asked them to against the Kurds,” Xero added, “The people attacked us Kurds just like that in Tal Abyad, because Arab Imams had announced fatwas declaring it is religiously ‘Halal (permissible)’ to kill Kurdish men, then take their property, women and children as slaves. It is really scary to hear it when the mosque is next door to your house in a small town like here, Tal Abyad.”
Syrian Kurdish officials blame Turkey for much of what is happening, claiming that Turkey is concerned that any Kurdish advance in Syria could later impact on Turkey’s repressed Kurds.
Issa of PYD and NCC says that they have considerable “evidence suggesting Turkish military aid on the ground for these extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.”
He adds, according to PYD figures, “More than 1,200 Kurdish civilians have been abducted in the last two weeks alone across ‘Rojava’ (Syrian Kurdistan), the number of which may be higher even, we don’t know, because the kidnapping and killing of Kurdish civilians have become a daily routine for these extremist groups entering Syria from Turkey.”
The attacks on civilian Kurds have emerged amid intense months-long violent clashes between al-Qaeda linked groups and the predominantly Kurdish popular militia in Syria, “Peoples Defense Units’ (YPG).”
The YPG militia, majority members of which are female fighters, is now seen as the only capable military force that can confront al-Qaeda linked groups on one front, on the other, the Syrian army, across the Kurdish region.
It is estimated that YPG fighters number an estimated 50,000. Its female and male co-leaders claim that they are running, “a democratically elected popular militia comprising all the people of Syrian Kurdistan, including Assyrians, Armenian and Arabs to defend themselves from the catastrophes of the Syrian Civil War.”
They also claim that they are involved in heavy clashes with both the Assad army and al-Qaeda groups like the al-Nusra Front in places like Aleppo, where YPG fighters defend the Kurdish neighbouthoods of Sheikh Maqsood and al-Ashrafia.
In the latest developments, the YPG has even organized a “Battalion of Arab brothers and sisters”, which is attracting hundreds of Arab residents of Syria’s Kurdish areas, including Arabs from Aleppo.
Kurds have now become prime targets for jihadist groups in Syria. Kurdish officials, who’ve gone to exchange prisoners of the al-Nusra Front for Kurdish civilians in the last weeks, have been reportedly beheaded.  A car bomb assassinated earlier this month, Isa Huso, a renowned PYD official in the Syrian Kurdish capital of Qamishlou and leading member of the cross-party Supreme Kurdish Council. In the eastern border town of Derk, a suicide bomber on Saturday killed 7 YPG fighters at a checkpoint; meanwhile the town of Serekaniye  (Ras al-Ain) scored heavy clashes between al-Nusra Front and YPG fighters.
How long can the pro-Kurdish PYD and YPG forces sustain this confrontation with al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups in Syria? This is unanswerable, since the intensity of the upheaval of the war within Syria on the northeastern front is escalating on an unprecedented level.
There is little doubt, however, that this Battle for Syria’s Kurdish region, will soon confirm whether a locally–organised popular militia comprising local young men and women, like that of the pro-Kurdish YPG, can eventually stand the ground against al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria and else where in the Middle East.   
*Rozh Ahmad is a freelance journalist, in the last three years he has reported from Europe, Iraq, Turkey and Syria for different Kurdish and English publications.
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