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:
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.
The week has already been tumultuous. President Trump has
- dissed Puerto Rico by suggesting it is not worthy of the Federal assistance Texas and Florida are still getting,
- thrown the talks about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement into chaos that threatens to cause their collapse,
- decided to withdraw the US from UNESCO because we owe the organization millions while demonstrating that he does not believe in the First Amendment commitment to press freedom that is a pillar of the organization,
- continued to threaten to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal while the rest of the world and his principal advisers have concluded that Tehran has met its obligations,
- issued an executive order designed to further undermine the affordability of health insurance for those Americans who need it the most,
- gotten into a spat with NATO ally Turkey that has eliminated visas for Turks to come to the US and Americans to go to Turkey, and
- prompted the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to suggest, believably, that the White House is an adult day care center without proper supervision.
Even for Trump, this is an unusual amount of unmotivated and unjustified chaos. No American administration can manage this level of random acts of spite and provocation.
A few Democrats in the House have started to think about articles of impeachment, but that is the least of Trump’s worries right now. No Republicans have demonstrated any real interest in impeachment, or even in supporting a 25th Amendment challenge to Trump’s ability to perform the functions of his office. They are simply too frightened of sinking their own boats along with his.
The world is showing a good deal of maturity in dealing with the madness in Washington. Even Kim Jung-un for now appears ready to stop at childish name calling. The Iranians have indicated they will retaliate against the US if the President decertifies their compliance. But at the same time they appear ready to maintain the nuclear deal with the Europeans. That is smart: it will wean Europe from support for the US and weaken America in its efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, making it harder once the Iran nuclear deal gets ready to expire to extend its terms.
I can’t really think of a lot more things Trump can do to weaken the US, but I’m sure he can. We are all waiting for his noon-time speech on Iran, which will enumerate a long list of its sins, but so far in the White House public affairs preparations there is no sign of anything more substantial. Trump is mostly bark and little bite. But a dog who barks enough will lose a lot of friends.
It’s Friday the 13th, but unlikely to be much worse than the days that immediately preceded it.
It was clear at the Brookings Institution on last Tuesday that nothing is easy to predict when it comes to Turkey-Russia relations. As Torrey Taussig of the Brookings Institution, moderator of the panel “The Roller Coaster of Turkey-Russia Relations,” underlined significant events such as Turkey’s decision to purchase weapons from Russia, the increased dialogue among Turkey, Russia, and Iran concerning the Syrian war, Turkey’s move towards authoritarianism, and increasing anti-Western sentiment in both countries. To further discuss the relationship between Turkey and Russia based on a recently published report, “An Ambiguous Partnership, The Serpentine Trajectory of Turkish-Russian Relations in the Era of Erdoğan and Putin,” Taussig was joined by the authors, Pavel Baev and Kemal Kirişci of the Brookings Institution, as well as Evren Balta of New York University and Naz Durakoğlu of the US Senate.
Immediately evident in the remarks made by the panelists were the frequent fluctuations in relations between Turkey and Russia. Kirişci began his comments by referring to the Turkish shoot-down a Russian plane in 2015. Putin reacted by saying that Turkey’s actions were a “stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists,” associating Turkey with extremist groups fighting in Syria. These comments came only months after Putin had invited Erdoğan to Moscow to restore and open a mosque, making the sharp and sudden shift in discourse an unexpected one. Baev described the study of Turkey-Russia relations as “shooting at a moving target.” Conflicts between the two countries, motivated by their many differences, are common; the positive aspects of their relationship are more puzzling.
The sources of animosity between the two countries are easier to identify. Kirişci noted Russia’s discomfort with Turkey’s leading role in the world of political Islam, which Balta added was a major security threat to Russia. He added that Russia, in fact, saw itself as part of “European civilization” that Turkey no longer fit into, despite what he considered a long European heritage that dated back to Ottoman times.
According to Kirişci, beginning with the Arab Spring, Turkey has shifted from a European identity and to a major player in the Islamic world. Turkey saw the Arab Spring from a religious perspective, while Russia simply from a regime change perspective. Balta also referred to the competing interests of Russia and Turkey in Syria, with each supporting opposing sides. Russia has long been a supporter of the regime of Bashar Al Assad, aiding the government in numerous ways in the fight against the opposition, while Turkey has been an outspoken supporter of the opposition, leading to the association with extremist groups mentioned earlier. What has allowed the two countries to maintain a relationship has been in part Turkey’s acceptance of Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict, according to Balta.
Other factors include collaboration on different domestic issues. For example, Turkey imports most of its energy resources from Russia, and pipelines being built in Turkey will make Turkey a transit route for gas from Russia. Russia will be working on the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear plant. The Kurdish issue has also, for the time being, brought the two countries together. While Balta admitted that Russia may find an opportunity to threaten Turkey by taking the side of the Kurds against Turkey in the future, she emphasized that, currently, Russia is more supportive of Turkey in the fight against the Kurds than the US is, raising another point of common anti-Westernism, which multiple panelists evoked. Turkey and Russia mistrust Western intentions in the region, with both perceiving the goals of the West to be regime and territorial change.
Durakoğlu discussed the relationship from a Western perspective, drawing from her experience at the US Department of State. She emphasized that Turkey’s relationship with Europe is largely an economic one, and its relationship with the US is a security-related one. Turkey’s relationship with Russia, in Durakoğlu’s opinion, has no such definition and is “personality-driven,” based largely on a common anti-Western sentiment.
With its recent, post-coup authoritarian trajectory, Turkey has been “taking risks,” relating particularly to its relations with the US, which could “backfire” as the tolerance of American policymakers decreases. Kirişci sees the relationship between Turkey and the US as similar in its ambiguity to the US relationship with Russia. While Turkey has a stronger relationship with the US than it does with Russia, the Kurdish issue ultimately drives Ankara and Washington apart. Durakoğlu seconded this, noting that Turks constitute the biggest international student population in the US.
The panelists talked mostly a Turkish perspective, which Baev justified by reminding the audience that Turkey remains a US ally, while Russia’s relations with the US are less friendly. Tthe importance of understanding Turkey’s relations, whether it be with Russia, Europe, or the US, was made clear at the panel, making the event, as one of a few that have dealt with these topics, all the more valuable.
Not only is Syria fragmented, its opposition is too. That has been true since the 2011 uprising, but things have gotten worse. The history since then is littered with opposition organizations: the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC or Etilaf), the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), and the High Negotiation Commission (HNC), not to mention the Syrian Free Army (SFA) and its many components. What, I asked last week during my talks with Syrians in Turkey, is the relationship among them. I won’t even try to recount the fate of Friends of the Syrian People and other ill-fated efforts to help.
The SNC, I was assured, has melted into the SOC.
The SOC still exists and claims to be the principal political body of the moderate opposition. It sees itself as setting the policy parameters and emphasizes it is100% committed to the fight against terrorism (principally Al Qaeda and the Islamic State), a point it intends to incorporate more fully into its narrative. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are SOC’s enemies, as much as the Assad regime, as the terrorists have frequently deprived the opposition of territory it controlled. This is an implicit critique of the SOC’s past exclusive focus on Assad.
The SIG is the executive branch of the opposition, whose eight ministers, including the Prime Minister, have relocated into Syria (presumably Idlib). They are trying to provide education, health, and other services in areas where opposition local administrative councils are able to operate. They are also making a big effort to coordinate the local councils (both those inside Syria and those in exile), whose representatives meet regularly under the chairmanship of the prime minister.
While now largely disregarded and unsupported by the internationals, the SOC and the SIG want to preserve the Syrian state by separating its security organs from its civilian apparatus, which will be welcome to return to opposition areas. The opposition is aiming to regroup and rebuild both its armed factions and its civilians apparatus. It seeks broader appeal through its disassociation from extremists and intends to maintain a more united armed wing under the Syrian National Army rubric.
The HNC is the technical negotiating arm of the SOC and SIG, from their perspective (I did not speak with anyone from the HNC last week). There is talk about a reform of the HNC, whose leader Riyad Hijab has been spending a lot of time in medical care in the US. The UN-sponsored Geneva negotiations in which it has been most involved have been unproductive. The regime and Iran see no need to negotiate seriously with the HNC, even if the Russians appear a bit more inclined in that direction.
The Americans do little to support the SOC and SIG, and only a bit more for the HNC. Most of their financing goes directly to local administrative councils and civil society organizations, thus contributing to fragmentation. The Europeans pay a bit more attention to the SIG, which however seems to be penniless at the moment and reduced to begging from Qatar, which has supported it in the past. The HNC was formed in Riyadh and still seems to have Saudi support.
One wag described the SOC, SIG, and HNC as “competing in weakness.” But the fighting has also dramatically weakened the Syrian regime, which depends on the Iranians and Shia militias for ground forces and on the Russians for support from the air. The way to strengthen the opposition is to unify its fighters and connect them more strongly to the civilian opposition local councils. The Russians have some sympathy with this approach. Moscow is interested in particular in using the opposition to fight terrorists in the communities the opposition controls.
Post-war, the SOC wants to see no reconstruction aid or diplomatic recognition for Assad, though some stabilization efforts could be appropriate. Provisional elections at the local level could be a prelude to allowing state institutions back into opposition-controlled areas. Property rights will be a big issues, both in the countryside and in urban areas, where there is extensive destruction of multi-story apartment buildings. Even permission to clear rubble will be a big issue.
One of my interlocutors argued vigorously that efforts at unification are the problem, not the fragmentation. From this perspective, there has been too much effort to smooth over differences between real liberal democrats and Islamists. That has weakened the opposition, which needs to remain true to its initial inspiration: a non-violent rebellion for human rights and freedom. What is needed now is for people who reject Islamism to unify and form the kind of political movement that can eventually win the day in Syria.
The Syrian opposition is fragmented. But it is also fertile, courageous, and determined. I wish those who want human rights and freedom success. They don’t merit the mess that Syria has become.