Kirkuk makes a big difference

Think of Kirkuk as the keystone that holds Iraq together. When the Kurds had it, they could claim possession of the oil resources as well as their cultural capital. Independence was a credible goal. Without it, independence is a pipe dream and maybe even a nightmare.

What caused the loss of Kirkuk, and now other disputed territories? There has so far been relatively little fighting. The peshmerga associated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who held Kirkuk, apparently surrendered most of their positions. The PUK is aligned in part with Iran, which commanded at least some of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that led the re-occupation of Kirkuk.

Iran is in fact a big winner from this latest military development, since it opposes Kurdistan independence vehemently. But so too do Turkey and the US. Sovereign states are loathe to see other sovereign states partitioned, not least because of fears for their own territorial integrity (Turkey and Iran) as well as their relations with the country in question (the US, Russia and others). Preserving the state structure in the Middle East is in fact one of the few things on which all the states there, and their foreign allies, agree.

The Kurdish independence referendum last month was a colossal miscalculation. KRG President Barzani tried to take advantage of his own momentary dominance in Kurdistan’s politics as well as the victory over ISIS to take what he saw as a giant step towards a goal he knows all Kurds share. But the PUK, Gorran and other political forces in Kurdistan were not happy to see Barzani get the credit and dissented from the process for preparing the referendum, which was shambolic to say the least. The foreign powers that count also objected. In this contest between national aspirations and geopolitics, the latter has won this round.

What now? Baghdad’s forces are apparently trying to restore their control to the situation in 2003, which means taking back most if not all of the so-called “disputed territories.” That might be a bridge too far, but in any event the main thing is to avoid bloodletting as much as possible, since that is what would make a bad situation more intractable. Baghdad already has in Kirkuk what it needs to block independence. What is needed now is to calm the situation and get Baghdad and Erbil back to the negotiating table, where they can discuss Kurdistan’s relationship with the rest of Iraq.

The retaking of Kirkuk and other disputed territories will strengthen Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and weaken KRG President Barzani, though the latter may gain inside Iraqi Kurdistan if the PUK is blamed for the military debacle. Abadi has suffered from his predecessor Nour al Maliki’s political maneuvers and was thought to be at risk in elections that are supposed to be held next year. He will now be able to face down criticism from those who thought he was soft on the Kurds.

The KRG is appealing to the Americans to engage. Washington had apparently tried hard to prevent the referendum by doing so. The Kurds made a big mistake in not making sure that effort succeeded. The US may now engage, but with entirely different facts on the ground. While sympathetic to the Kurds and anxious to keep them fighting against the remnants of ISIS, no one in Washington can force Abadi to give up Kirkuk. To the contrary: the Americans will want to maintain as strong a relationship with Abadi as possible, to counter Iranian expanded influence in Baghdad.

Kirkuk makes a big difference.

PS: Lukman Faily, former Iraqi Ambassador in the US, seems to me to do a good job in this interview with Wolf Blitzer:

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More sovereignty, not less

An interview I did for Arlinda Kqiku of the Pristina paper Zeri was published today: 

  1. Months ago central institutions were formed. What is your impression about the work of Government and Assembly of Kosovo, for this period of about two months, and what would you consider as priorities of the new established institutions?

A: The new government and assembly have barely begun their work. I would hope the priority would be completing the sovereignty of Kosovo in a way that benefits all its citizens. That means improving its economy, strengthening the rule of law, expanding opportunities and political participation.

  1. Prime Minister Haradinaj during election period promised that after 100 days of ruling of the new government under his leadership, Kosovo would have visa liberalization agreement with European Union, but it looks like the situation is rather more complicated. Kosovo’s government has established a new commission for border demarcation, while Montenegro insists of being a closed matter. What would you consider as a solution that would please both parts?

A: I doubt there is one that will please both parties, but I also don’t think anyone will remember this dispute a year after it is resolved. For me, the important thing is visa liberalization, not the territorial question.

  1. Demarcation hardly will pass in Assembly and that is because coalition government can not make 2/3 of votes needed. Are the citizens of Kosovo being isolated as a result of irresponsible political class?

A: You are in a better position to make that judgment than I am.

  1. Days ago, President Thaci announced publicly disappointment that he has with European Union and required to President of Albania Ilir Meta the massive equipment of all citizens of Kosovo with Albanian passports. In addition Thaci announced that the European Union criterion is unfair. What is your opinion of such a requirement from President Thaci?

A: I don’t like it. Such a move would reduce Kosovo’s sovereignty, not enhance it.

  1. Is it possible for Kosovo citizens to get the freedom of movement toward European Union, through another country, or do you consider that the requirement was more as a threat of the first of the state for the EU.

A: I take it as a threat, not a serious proposal. Albania won’t do it, for fear of setting back its own EU prospects.

  1. In addition, President Thaci, weeks ago, declared that Special Court can’t provide justice, because, according to him Special Court will consider only the crime of UÇK [Kosovo Liberation Army], while it was him that years ago asked the deputies to vote pro this court. Why this change of course in relation to this international justice institution? Is it the reason that the Special Court can file an indictment to the senior state officials?

A: You’ll have to ask the President, but I think he has made himself clear: he expected much better treatment from the international community for Kosovo and has not gotten it. I am sympathetic with him on that score, though I don’t think it is a good reason to oppose the Special Court.

  1. When do you think that Special Court will approximately file first indictments and what is your opinion toward the movement against the Special Court that most of political parties of Kosovo, including here also the opposition are having?

A: I have no idea when they will file their first indictments.

Politicians do what they need to do to get elected, but I would hope some would speak up in favor of clarifying through the court’s proceedings at least some of the post-war violence in Kosovo, which was committed against Serbs, Albanians, and others. If the KLA wants to be remembered well, its supporters will not defend human rights abuses committed by its members.

  1. The Dialog between Kosovo and Serbia will be led by President Thaci and Vucic. How can this dialog continue when the President of Kosovo critizes the EU for injustice, while EU will be mediator of the dialog?

A: I don’t think criticism of the EU is any reason for the EU not to act as a mediator. We are all subject to criticism for what we do and don’t do.

  1. Do you believe that Kosovo and Serbia are able to come to a consensus through this dialog, a consensus that may be referred as consensus of the century, and as a result of it, Serbia would recognize Kosovo as a country, right before being an EU member?

A: No. I don’t think recognition should wait until just before becoming an EU member. I think it should happen sooner. It need not be bilateral recognition but could instead come in the form of UN membership and exchange of ambassadorial level diplomatic representatives.

  1. What is your thought of Kosovo’s perspective in EU?

A: My thought is that it depends on the willingness of Kosovo’s authorities to undertake the political, economic, and justice reforms required. More action, less complaining, would be my preference.

  1. This year, in Kosovo, some cases of attacks against journalist occurred. What would be the necessary reaction of responsible institutions to guarantee media freedom in Kosovo.

A: In addition to condemning these attacks, arrest and conviction of the perpetrators is what should be expected.

  1. On this Sunday, in Kosovo, local elections will be held. Which candidate for mayor you consider to be favored in this election?

A: I only discuss the outcome of elections after the fact. That way I don’t have to change my mind so often. May the best candidate win!

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National aspirations v geopolitical reality

Some of us have worried about the Kirkuk “powder keg” for a long time. The fuse has now been lit. Preventing the larger explosion should now be top priority.

Kirkuk is a complicated place. Both Arabs and Kurds claim the city, not to mention the Turkomen and the much smaller number of Syriac Christians. It has rich, long-producing oil wells mainly north of the city. The Kurds took advantage of the Iraqi army’s collapse in 2014 to take the town, which had previously been more or less under Baghdad’s control. It’s governor since 2011 has been a PUK (i.e. Talabani-family aligned) Kurdish American, Najmaldin Karim. The Kurdish peshmerga have kept the Islamic State out under difficult circumstances.

Now Iraqi Security Forces and Baghdad-controlled Popular Mobilization Forces (or PMF, which are mainly Shia Arab) are trying to re-occupy key parts of Kirkuk: the airport, an army base, and oil infrastructure. Baghdad’s view is that there is no reason to doubt its legal authority to do so, as it has not accepted Kirkuk as a part of the Kurdistan Region. That region’s government (the KRG) sees things differently, as it claims Baghdad has refused to fulfill the constitutional requirement of a referendum in Kirkuk to determine whether it wants to join the autonomous region. Baghdad has in principle the stronger fighting forces, partly well-equipped by the Americans. But the peshmerga are experienced and capable, also having benefited from American support.

Baghdad is under enormous pressure to reassert its authority in Kirkuk because of last month’s KRG independence referendum, which passed overwhelmingly with many non-Kurds in the KRG not voting. Prime Minister al-Abadi, who in principle is more sympathetic with Kurdish aspirations than most Arabs, needs to prove that he is prepared to stand up for their interests. The PMF, which are at least partly controlled by his rival and predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, are spoiling for a fight with the peshmerga. The Iranians, who vehemently oppose independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, are no doubt backing an aggressive stance, though they have been visibly trying to mediate between Baghdad and Erbil.

KRG President Barzani insisted on the referendum, despite vigorous US, Iranian, and Turkish opposition. He claimed it was merely advisory and intended as an overture to two years of negotiations on the KRG’s borders and status with Baghdad. While he has talked of “confederation” with Arab Iraq, Kurds, especially the younger ones, expect better than that, despite the opposition of all their neighbors. Barzani comes from a family committed for generations to an independent Kurdistan.

The contest is between national aspirations and geopolitical reality. It will now be decided in part by force of arms. But violence begets other realities that neither the Erbil nor Baghdad can afford to risk. The time to stop the clashes between the Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga is now. Let’s hope the Americans can spare enough time from their own internecine squabbles over whether to allow football players to kneel during the national anthem to get two important allies to stop fighting.

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Peace picks October 16 – 20

  1. Iraq’s Political Compact and Its Regional Priorities | Tuesday, October 17 | 12:00 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute and Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (event held at SAIS) | Register Here | The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Foreign Policy Institute and Conflict Management Program are pleased to present a two-panel symposium bringing together analysts, diplomats, and policymakers to discuss the domestic and regional challenges facing Iraq. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joseph S. Pennington will provide keynote remarks. The first panel, titled “Status of and Challenges to Iraq’s Political Compact” will feature Rasha Al Aqeedi of Al Mesbar Studies, Abbas Kadhim of the Institute of Shia Studies, Bilal Wahab of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and moderator Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute. The second panel, “Iraq’s Regional Opportunities: Perspectives from Iraq’s neighbors,” will include Lisel Hintz  of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Ambassador Feisal al-Istrabadi of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Indiana University, Seyed Hossein Mousavian of Princeton University, and the ambassador of Iraq to the United States Fareed Yasseen. The panel will be moderated by Daniel Serwer of the Middle East Institute.
  2. The KRG Independence Referendum and Regional Realities | Wednesday, October 18 | 3:00 – 5:00  pm | Turkish Heritage Organization (held at National Press Club) | Register Here | THO’s panel will bring together former ambassadors along with Turkmen member of Iraq’s parliament to discuss KRG’s controversial referendum and its regional outcomes. Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) controversial decision to go ahead with a referendum on independence from Iraq on September 25 created significant concerns not only for Iraq but also for the neighboring countries. Despite having close diplomatic and economic ties with KRG, Turkey made it very clear that the referendum would only fuel the existing instability and volatility in the region. Echoing these concerns, the U.S. also displayed strong opposition, particularly to the timing of the referendum, and worked its diplomatic channels to dissuade the KRG. The result of the referendum showed that the majority in the Kurdistan Region is in favor of independence. As the KRG leadership gets ready to negotiate an amicable split from Iraq, Turkey and Iran have already started taking various steps in cooperation with Iraq that are aimed at isolating the KRG. With parliamentary and presidential elections less than a month away, it is unclear whether the KRG will take these regional developments and realities into consideration. This event will feature Lukman Faily, Former Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, James Jefferey of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Arshad Al-Salihi, Iraqi Turkmen Front Leader and Member of Iraq Parliament.
  3. Achieving Growth in Contexts of Great Challenge: The Iraqi Private Banking Sector | Wednesday, October 18 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | A functioning formal private sector is critical for the reconstruction and renewal of post-conflict states.  A formal banking sector is critical to a formal private sector and for achieving economic diversification. Banks are at the forefront of reconstruction initiatives in post-conflict Iraq—lending billions of dollars, making mortgages more accessible, and providing commercial credit. However, many challenges remain. Iraqi private banks are a case study in sustaining economic growth in a post-conflict context—one that can offer insights and lessons. Bank deposits and available capital from private banks in Iraq have more than doubled in the last five years. Even in a post-conflict environment, Iraqi banks must respond to “Basel III,” a set of global financial regulations that make lending more difficult. The banking system is also responding to global changes in technology and the management and utilization of new forms of data. Official donors such as the United States, as well as multilateral donors such as the World Bank, support the formal private banking sector in post-conflict settings. Panelists include Dennis Flannery of Citibank, John Sullivan of the Financial Integrity Network, Mazin Sabah of the Central Bank of Iraq, former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Burundi Dawn Liberi, Denise Natali of the Institute for National Strategic Studies, and Abdulhameed Al Saeed of the Iraqi Private Banks League.
  4. Wartime Economies in the Middle East: A Look into Libya, Syria, and Iraq | Thursday, October 19 | 1:30 – 3:30 | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host Chatham House experts Tim Eaton, Lina Khatib, and Renad Mansour for a discussion on the collapse of central authority and its economic impacts across states in the Middle East and North Africa, moderated by MEI’s senior vice president for policy analysis, research, and programs, Paul Salem. In Syria, conflict has paved the way for illicit groups and new elites to control territory and generate revenue. In Libya, armed groups have captured state resources and infrastructure, developing lucrative funding streams. In Iraq, a well-established shadow economy continues to enable groups such as ISIS to safeguard their amassed resources. Such developments present significant challenges for the reassertion of state authority and are likely to have a lasting impact on the political economy of the states in question. This panel will explore the development of the war economies of Syria, Libya, and Iraq, examine the commonalities and differences in the three cases, and discuss the challenges of combating the economic power of armed insurgents.
  5. The North Korean Challenge and International Response | Thursday, October 19 | 3:00 – 4:00 pm | Heritage Foundation | Register Here | North Korea is an existential threat to South Korea and is developing a nuclear ICBM to threaten the American homeland. Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs are violations of UN resolutions and in defiance of the international community. The regime and its foreign facilitators continue to violate U.S. laws by misusing the U.S. financial system. The United States and South Korea are leading the international effort to curtail Kim Jong-un’s growing nuclear and missile threat through a combination of pressure, sanctions, attempts at engagement, and information operations. Washington and its allies must also ensure they have sufficient defenses against the spectrum of North Korean military threats. Join us for a discussion by U.S. and South Korean experts who will discuss the need for stronger bilateral relations in times of turmoil, the foreign policy of the South Korean Moon Jae-in Administration, and the policy options for sanctions and financial pressure. Panelists include Elizabeth Rosenberg of the Center for New American Security, Anthony Ruggiero of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Dr. Kim Young-Joon of the Institute for National Security Strategy, and Dr. Lee Hochul of Incheon National University.  

Beyond absurd

Others have already picked apart President Trump’s speech on Iran, showing it to be inaccurate, vacuous, mendacious, illogical and just plain dumb. Try Paul Pilar at Lobelog, for what will rank as one of the best critiques.

On the central issue–the Iran nuclear deal–Trump is illogical. The justification the President offered for “decertifying” the nuclear deal to Congress is the assertion that the benefits to the United States are not sufficient to justify the sanctions relief Iran obtained. That is ridiculous. Iran today would have a nuclear weapon (or two) without this deal. Blocking all routes to that end is precisely what Trump claims he wants and would be giving up if he decided to renounce it.

That he did not do. His bark is consistently worse than his bite, unless you are Puerto Rico, a minority, someone who needs health insurance, or otherwise disadvantaged. Instead, Trump threw the hot potato to Congress, without any clear direction on whether he wants it to impose new sanctions (hoping that will cause the deal to collapse) or just let things muddle through. Judging from his past performances (read TPP, DACA, Obamacare, and likely soon NAFTA), he’ll opt for trying to cause collapse.

For now, that is not the case. But this decertification ploy, empty as it is of any substantial diplomatic content, has serious long-term implications.

Trump has stabbed our European allies in the back. They regard the Iran nuclear deal as a big European achievement, for good reason. The EU3 (UK, France and Germany) played important roles in applying the sanctions that made it work, keeping the process moving, and getting it to a successful conclusion. They clearly intend to maintain the deal as long as Iran maintains its side of the bargain, which it is doing. Any move by the US to unilaterally impose new nuclear sanctions or otherwise renounce the deal will not make it collapse, but simply divide Washington further from Brussels and improve Tehran’s standing in Europe.

Trump’s failure to acknowledge the benefits of the nuclear deal undermines US credibility with both Iran and North Korea. In Iran, it hurts President Rouhani, who by all reports had a hard time selling the nuclear deal to the Supreme Leader. How would an Iranian who wanted a follow-on deal that maintained the restrictions on the nuclear program now sell that idea to the Supreme Leader (likely the next one, not this one)? The American President said this one wasn’t worth what he paid for it, so how could the follow-on be? Nor would any other country, let’s say North Korea, be prepared to strike a deal with the United States after it failed to maintain its part of the bargain, at least to the point of acknowledging well-documented compliance with a prior deal.

Trump is a bad negotiator who always considers his own alternative to a negotiated agreement and likes to bluster that he prefers that, hoping to get a better deal. But he never considers the adversary’s alternative, which in this case is to proceed to get nuclear weapons. Trump has already convinced Kim Jung-un that continuing in that direction is his best guarantee of regime security. I’d find it hard to argue otherwise. Yesterday he did a great deal to convince more people in Tehran, and maybe other capitals as well.

The global nonproliferation regime America helped to build has demonstrably slowed the spread of nuclear weapons for decades. If it survives the next three plus years, it will be in spite of the United States. That really is beyond absurd.

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What to do in Syria now

Ibrahim al Assil, a founder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and a nonresident fellow at the Orient Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, wrote a notable op/ed for the Washington Post this week. Here is his email teaser, which he has kindly given me permission to publish: 

Syria entered a new reality in the last few months. However, there are significant misconceptions that can alter the future of Syria if not taken into consideration. I’m writing to share my piece for the Washington Post today, titled Syria’s civil war is a long way from over — and here’s why that’s important. I discuss the ideas below:

– Assad has not yet won. What he has done is to prevent anyone else from winning.

– Syria can’t be stabilized under Assad’s leadership. The conflict will erupt again unless a political settlement is achieved.

– Aid to Syria should be sent directly to local communities and those who are in need. This will prevent Assad from weaponizing the aid, and it will ensure that the aid actually reaches the people who need it most.

– The military campaign is not enough to defeat ISIS. Without addressing the root causes that brought about the rise of the terrorist movement, any “defeat” is only short-term. The US should help stabilize those areas and support the civil society and local governance initiatives.

– The US and the EU should help Syrians start to rebuild their communities after ISIS while preventing Assad from cashing in on his Pyrrhic victory.

This to me makes a lot of good sense. It also runs contrary to US inclinations. President Trump has made it clear he wants to defeat ISIS militarily and get out, without taking any responsibility for the state-building required to prevent it from returning. 

Self-defeating would be my term for that approach: it would allow Assad to attempt to retake, with help from his Russian and Iranian allies, those areas in the north, east, and south that are still out of his control, it would allow the Turks to attack the Kurds who have been vital to America’s success against ISIS, it would virtually ensure the reignition of a rebellion against Assad’s heavy-handedness. 

Protecting the remaining opposition-controlled areas and enabling them to govern inclusively and effectively would, by contrast, illustrate to Syrians a realistic political alternative, counter the Iranian expansionism, and help to prevent a return of jihadi extremism. Too sensible by half for Trump, but a real option the US could be contemplating. 

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