The Kurds: Everyone’s ally and everyone’s foe

They are supposed to be on the same side, fighting a common enemy. Still, given that the end game for each side is a very different map of what post-civil-war Syria should look like, there are frequent clashes between Kurdish forces fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad and other rebel forces.

Earlier this month, Syrian rebels fighting to capture Islamic State-held al-Bab said they clashed with Kurdish forces also attempting to seize the city. The fighting occurred in the village of Sheikh Nasser, which was only recently taken from ISIS by the Turkish-backed rebels.

Yet Ankara views the Kurd­ish forces, part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, as an enemy and looks at any territorial gain by Kurdish forces with suspicion, afraid that it would contribute to the hope of eventually creating an independ­ent Kurdish state.

History has not been kind to the Kurds as, time and time again, they found themselves short-changed by Western politicians who promised them that they would help establish a Kurdish homeland only to renege at the last minute.

And if history has been unkind to the Kurds, geography has been even more unkind, placing the Kurdish area and people between Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Talk about bad neighbourhoods.

The Iraqis gassed them, wiping out entire villages. Saddam Hus­sein’s henchman, his first cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, notoriously known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, deployed chemical agents regardless of the women, children and elderly present.

The Iranians hanged and exe­cuted by firing squad hundreds of Kurds. Kurdish militants in Syria were arrested and jailed without trial. And in Turkey, the Kurdish parties are considered terrorist organisations.

Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan, officially known as the Kurdish Autono­mous Region, has fared far better that the rest of the country from a security and an economic per­spective.

The region has enjoyed relative calm and has prospered greatly, with a number of international hotels setting up branches in the capital, Erbil. Baghdad, while it has no great love for the Kurds, nevertheless will fight tooth and nail to maintain the region well inside the frail and fractured republic of Iraq given that the majority of Iraq’s oil comes from wells in Iraqi Kurdistan. Losing the oil revenues from the Kurdis­tan region would be disastrous for Baghdad.

Protected by the US Air Force, which turned the entire Iraqi Kurdish region into a no-fly zone for the Iraqi military after the 1991 Gulf War, today Iraqi Kurdistan is as close to being an independent state as it is likely to get, at least in the near future.

As the former representative of the Kurdistan Regional Govern­ment (KRG) told this reporter when the Kurds inaugurated the KRG’s representative office in Washington just a few blocks from the White House: “This is as close to an embassy we will get without seriously upsetting Baghdad.”

The Kurds seem to go out of their way to appease the West, particularly the United States. This is something of an anomaly in a part of the world where ani­mosity to America seems to be the order of the day.

Since the outset of the Syrian civil war the Kurds have sided with the anti-regime forces. The peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, have assisted US forces since the first Gulf War.

They have proven to be an effec­tive force in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). Although they are in large part Sunni Muslim, they op­posed their fellow co-religionists in ISIS. Upon liberating a town from ISIS, Kurdish fighters scram­bled atop an old church to restore the heavy stone crucifix that ISIS had taken down.

So far the Kurdish interaction with Western powers throughout the current Middle East conflict has been quite positive.

But will this honeymoon stand the test of time and Middle East geopolitics?

What is likely to happen if and when Ankara decides to launch an all-out assault on the Kurds? What will be the US position given the close relationship between Wash­ington and Erbil and the fact that Turkey is part of NATO?

Will a battle-tested and largely successful Kurdish military force represent a new military reality to be dealt with in the region?


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What follows after Islamic State retreat from Mosul may be far worse

Change is under way in Iraq where the Islamic State is losing ground in the battle for Mosul to the U.S.-backed coalition supporting government forces. That is the good news. The bad news is what comes next.

Various intelligence reports indicate IS has indoctrinated and trained about 4,000 people to carry out suicide attacks throughout the region and in Europe. It is a frightening thought when one considers the damage even a single such attacker can cause.

There is no concrete evidence to that report however; if there is any truth to it, probably a small percentage of the 4,000 would actually carry out attacks. It is hard to imagine an army of several thousand jihadists marching through Europe undetected but even if only 5 percent reach their intended targets, that is still 200 bombs.

Perhaps just as worrisome as the hundreds of suicide bombers roaming around Europe is the uncertainty of what is likely to replace the void created by the IS defeat.

It is hard to imagine something that does not exist. Imagining the future, be it in politics or other domains, requires much creativity. Who could have predicted the fall of communism and the rise of extremist reli­gious fanatics? Indeed, when the Iron Curtain fell and many countries wasted little time in joining free market economic systems, radical Islamism rose to fill the socioeconomic-political void created by the absence of an ideology.

Political voids come with uncertainty. It cannot be known what will replace what has been pushed aside. Change can be for the better or it can create chaos and violence.

As recent history demon­strates, trends in the Middle East have followed a consistent path: Every period of violence in the Middle East wielded a crop of more radicalized and more violent groups.

What can we expect this time?

A rare message from IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reveals the self-proclaimed caliph’s preoc­cupation with defections from IS ranks with large numbers of militants abandoning the battlefield in the face of the assault on Mosul by Iraqi govern­ment forces and the U.S.-sup­ported coalition.

Baghdadi, in his first audio address to followers in more than a year, called on his fighters to show discipline in battle. This “suggests that the group’s leadership is increasingly concerned about defections,” wrote Ludovico Carlino, senior analyst at IHS Country Risk.

Carlino reported morale among IS troops in Mosul is very low. The troops are reluctantly forced to fight by a hard core of more ideologically committed fight­ers. Ironically, senior leaders of the IS have been leaving Mosul for Raqqa for some time.

As IS fighters retreat from the battlefield, they are expected to punish Western countries that participated in their forced exit from Iraq. To that effect, U.S. intelligence sources alerted security officials in New York, Texas and Virginia. No specific targets were mentioned but the FBI warned those states to be extra vigilant.

What is far more worrisome than a crop of passing suicide bombers is what will fill the political void left by departing IS.

Just as al-Qaida appeared after the Afghan wars and IS made its appearance following wars in Iraq and Syria — each was a notch more radical than the previous group — so, too, will there very likely be some new wave of fanaticism that will rise from the ashes of IS.

Unless there is serious under­taking by the Iraqi government in a massive reconciliation program to help the warring parties realize that there is no future in fighting.

The antagonists need to realize that if they want to ensure the future for their children, they must get beyond the point of seeking to settle every score with blood.

This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.

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Michel Aoun: Machiavelli’s Prince or Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince?

Many Lebanese remain divided over the country’s former army commander Michel Aoun, who after vying for the presidency for nearly two decades was finally voted to the top job. Just getting all of Lebanon’s opposing political parties to agree on the candidate after two years without a presi­dent is quite an accomplishment.

Getting those of varying political agendas such as Hezbol­lah and conservative Christian parties to agree to sit at the same table requires a certain degree of political know-how.

A former Lebanese army general, Aoun was forced into a 14-year exile in France because he opposed Syria’s presence in Lebanon but has now won the presidency with Syria’s support. But does that make him Niccolo Machiavelli’s Prince or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince?

After numerous attempts to find a president acceptable to all political factions, foreign and domestic, the Lebanese parlia­ment has made Aoun proud with his unexpected last-minute political alliances. The result placed him ahead of his rivals for the post, which under Lebanon’s sectarian system is awarded to a Christian.

Some Lebanese see Aoun as the leader who will take the country out of its years of political wilder­ness. Others regard him as a renegade officer and loose cannon who could well reignite the civil war. If nothing else, Aoun is a highly controversial, if not somewhat enigmatic figure. But is he the Prince or the Little Prince?

While Saint-Exupéry, who served as a French military aviator during the second world war and ultimately disappeared in the southern Mediterranean when his aircraft crashed, may have had more in common with the Leba­nese military officer, Aoun picked up more on the practicality of politics from Machiavelli.

Despite his political shortcom­ings, Aoun promised to change Lebanon’s stagnating politics and do away with corruption and sectarianism. This alone has given the 83-year-old military officer-turned politician a head start in the race to the presidency.

The retired general claims much credit for Syria’s rapid exit from Lebanon.

This is worrying many Lebanese who view Aoun with suspicion, if not outright revulsion. Others see in him new hope.

“We have to put the past behind us,” said Tony Haddad, a close aide who lobbies for the general’s interests in Washington.

This might not be as easy as it sounds. Before his exile, Aoun made many enemies when he took on the Syrians, then the Christian militias in one of the final, but harshest, stages of the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war.

So how do you put the past behind you? First, you forgive your enemies, hoping they will forgive you. Second, you try to introduce reconciliation — a relatively little-tested concept in Lebanon. Third, you try to win the people’s trust.

“Transparency is going to be the key,” Haddad said. “People trust him, they want a clean leader­ship.”

Haddad said some of the antipathy felt by many Lebanese towards Aoun was the clash of “reformers versus traditionalists”. Haddad called Aoun a “reformer” who wants to change things. Indeed, his uttering this one word, “change”, was enough to ensure Aoun the support of hundreds, if not thousands, of followers.

“I think his vision is beyond what most people can compre­hend in this region,” said Haddad.

It is, however, precisely this vision that is being questioned. A vision many accuse of being rather blurred and quick to forget the past.

“Ask him about the millions of dollars he received from Saddam Hussein,” suggested a Lebanese friend. I did ask.

“The general got help from Saddam but he gave him nothing in return,” said Haddad, adding even former US secretary of Defense met with Donald Rums­feld had, in the past, met with the now executed Iraqi president.

“The help from Iraq was unconditional,” said Haddad. “We gave nothing in return.”

“Ask him why is it that he has allied himself with the most avid supporters of Syria,” said the same Lebanese friend. I did ask.

In politics, things change, alliances change, explained Haddad, adding all Lebanese politicians, including opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, have in the past dealt with Syria.

It was late at night as I sat down to write these words and caught sight of Machiavelli’s ghost as it floated over my desk.

“Niccolo, is this correct? Is it true?” I asked.

Looking somewhat ashen and in a great hurry to escape Levantine politics, Machiavelli replied, “Certo, certo,” (sure, sure) before quickly disappearing into the night.

But if Machiavelli’s ghost ran away, my friend persisted.

“Ask him how come he has given the Syrians a clean bill of health by announcing they are no longer in Lebanon under any guise when the United Nations hasn’t yet? What was his hurry to do so?” added my friend.

I did ask.

“The general carries no grudges against his former enemies,” replied Haddad.

The general may carry no grudges but some of the people he shelled during the “war of libera­tion” find it hard to forget. Summing up the feelings of many Lebanese who fall into that category, another friend from Beirut simply said: “Ask him when he is going back to Paris?”

Alas, the ghost was gone before I could get an answer to that last question.

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Education is the only hope for the Middle East

by Claude Salhani  –

Fierce fighting between a US-backed coalition, which includes support from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, is under way to oust the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) from the Iraqi city of Mosul.

The United Nations said it is expecting about 150,000 people displaced by the fighting to seek shelter in makeshift camps.

In all probability, those num­bers are likely to grow when equally heavy fighting follows once the battle for control of Raqqa, the main stronghold of ISIS forces in Syria, begins, creating a second front against the extremist jihadist group.

With winter weeks away, there are good reasons to fear for the well-being of these displaced people. They will most certainly spend at least the coming winter under UN tents.
Continue reading

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The Syrian civil war irony: Russia, US reversal of roles?

By Claude Salhani

One of the many facets of the civil war in Syria is what appears to be ironic role reversals between Russia and the United States.

Russia’s military participation in the Syrian conflict comes in the form of help for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It should not be overlooked that some analysts are trying to spin this off as Russia standing up for the defence of Christianity as it takes on the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS).

The United States and its Euro­pean allies are trying to come up with a comprehensive strategy on how to fight the jihadist extrem­ists.

Politics and what motivates political trends in the region can be confusing in the best of times. Throw in the complexity of the Syrian civil war with its multitude of political alliances, the plethora of armed factions — foreign and domestic — and the general per­plexity that surrounds the Syrian conflagration and it is easy to understand the West’s reluctance to commit boots on the ground. Continue reading

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Russia, US should be careful who they arm in Syria

by Claude Salhani

Syria’s main opposition group has called for foreign allies to supply rebel forces with ground-to-air missiles to counter deadly air raids on rebel-held sections of Aleppo. With Russia backing one side in this never-ending civil war and the United States backing another, it is easy to see a repeti­tion of the Afghanistan crisis and its dire consequences in Syria.

As a brief reminder, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, the Cold War was at a peak. So as not to ap­pear that the United States was directly involved in the crisis, US involvement in Afghanistan was channelled through the CIA. The US spy agency, according to some records, supplied the anti-Soviet mujahideen some 500 Stinger missiles. Other sources say a more accurate figure would be closer to 1,500-2,000 missiles along with 250 launchers. Continue reading

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Who holds the key to the Syrian enigma?

by Claude Salhani

A 40-minute conversa­tion US Secretary of State John Kerry had with Syrian opposi­tion leaders at the end of September was recorded and leaked to the New York Times. It reveals a treasure trove of information as to the mindset of US diplomacy regarding the Middle East and sheds more light on the inertia shown by US President Barack Obama’s administration on Syria.

As Kerry pointed out, very few within the Obama administration are willing to use force and the US Congress would not likely authorise any such action.

“A lot of Americans don’t believe that we should be fighting and sending young Americans to die in another country,” Kerry said during the conversation in New York. Continue reading

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Trump advocates grand theft of Arab oil

Donald Trump, the controversial Republi­can Party candidate for the White House, advocates stealing Iraqi and eventually Syrian oil if he were to become the 45th president of the United States.

“The world should pay us for defending them,” said Trump during the first presidential debate with Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton.

“We should have taken their oil” were the very words from the man who wants to become the next president of the United States, unbelievable as it may appear.

This was not the first time the New York billionaire businessman has said the United States should simply grab Iraq’s oil as payment for US involvement in the country’s conflicts.

“We cannot be the policeman of the world. We cannot protect the whole world,” Trump said. Continue reading

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Israel’s lesson from the Lebanon 1982 invasion: Keep out

Claude Salhani

A high-ranking Israeli official on a visit to Washing­ton said Israel must be “sober and realistic” in addressing the current situation in its “dangerous neighbour­hood”.

Moshe Yaalon, a former Israeli Defence minister and military chief of staff, told a panel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that, amid the chaos and civil wars tearing the region apart, Israel’s response should follow a few clear principles in what he described as an “ongoing earthquake”.

The political violence unfold­ing in the Middle East is shaking the foundations of a number of Arab countries. Yaalon, who is a visiting fellow at the institute, cited as examples the situation in Egypt, Syria and Yemen and cautioned that Israel should not intervene in internal Arab affairs, as it had done in Lebanon, so long as Israel was not directly threatened. The real threat to Israel is no longer the Arab states, which it went to war with four or five times in as many decades.

Israel, said Yaalon, must draw on lessons learned in Lebanon following the June 1982 inva­sion and subsequent occupation of the country and of Tel Aviv’s meddling in the internal affairs of its northern neighbour, as was demonstrated by the support of Christian militias and gambling on Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Chris­tian coalition to take over the Lebanese presidency. Gemayel was assassinated and Israel was dragged into the Lebanese civil war.

Israel, said Yaalon, must re­main “neutral,” as it has been in the Syrian conflict. Democracy means more than just having elections, he said.

It is always somewhat ironic that Israel — the cause of many of the region’s troubles — is seen by the West as “the only democratic country in the Middle East” de­spite such undemocratic prac­tices as the continued occupation of the West Bank, the collective punishment of an entire region and the mistreatment of Palestin­ians. Where is the justification for banning Palestinians from driv­ing on certain highways that are reserved exclusively for Israelis and, of course, foreign visitors?

The belief that Jeffersonian democracy can be taken off the shelf and adapted to cultures that have had no prior exposure to truly democratic traditions is wishful thinking.

Syria, Iraq and Yemen are large­ly the creation of colonial powers making decisions on demarcation lines and drawing up borders by tracing straight lines in the sand. Such a creation did not give these countries a solid foundation upon which to build sound democratic systems.

At no time was any considera­tion given to the fact that these redrawn borders separated clans, tribes and families. At the same time, these adjusted borders gave rise to an increase in tensions between opposing ethnicities, religions and tribes that found themselves living on the same side of a border, where previously their ancestors roamed unhin­dered by imaginary frontiers.

The lack of continuity in Washington’s policy strategy was and remains the greatest disad­vantage to promoting democracy in the developing world. The conflicts raging in several Middle Eastern countries are not isolated sideshows but part and parcel of a sustainable strategy by opponents of freedom and democratic ways of life.

Lack of continuity of a sustaina­ble political strategy in the Middle East by consecutive US adminis­trations — both Republican and Democratic — has been one of their greatest shortcomings.

Washington’s lack of a coherent strategy vis-à-vis Syria, for exam­ple, is well explained in a recent episode of the popular TV show Homeland. During a debriefing upon his return from areas under control of the Islamic State, a CIA undercover operative is asked how successful was the US strategy in fighting the terror group?

“What strategy?” the CIA agent replied.

When asked what he believed was needed to solve the problem, the field operative said: “Two hundred thousand boots on the ground and an equal number of teachers for an indefinite period of time.” A senior CIA officer fires back: “Well, that’s not going to happen.”

Until the day peace really breaks out in the Middle East the whole region will continue to live pre­cariously and in a bad neighbour­hood.


Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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Iran seen provoking tensions with US at sea

By  Claude Salhani

As tensions between Russia and the United States over Syria abated slightly, tensions between Iran and the United States continued to build, risking an all-out confron­tation between the US Navy and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Naval units of the IRGC have sys­tematically harassed US Navy war­ships in the Gulf at least 30 times since January. This represents a 50% increase when compared to the same time period of 2015. In each case, an Iranian vessel or ves­sels approached the US warships within weapons range.

According to a report by US Navy Commander Jeremy Vaughan, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute think-tank, IRGC boats have approached US vessels at a distance that could have compro­mised the security of the vessels and the sailors and US Marines who serve aboard those ships.

“On at least three occasions, they closed to a distance that could make a collision more likely or could render US ships nearly de­fenceless to a boat packed with ex­plosive charges,” wrote Vaughan, who served on a number of deploy­ments aboard ships in the Gulf.

Recent altercations include Ira­nian IRGC-Navy craft interfering with the USS Nitze, a destroyer, in late August and the USS Firebolt, a coastal patrol boat, in early Sep­tember.

“Incremental erosion by Iranian vessels of the safety zone sur­rounding US ships and a bias by some US commanders towards restraint have thus created a situa­tion in which Iranian warships are operating at distances that would have been in the past, and should be at present, considered impru­dent,” Vaughan wrote.

He said that “quiet and indirect diplomacy” is needed to prevent “an accident or an incident” in­volving US and Iranian naval forc­es that could adversely affect the broader US-Iran relationship.

The US Navy officer said if the trend continues it could set the stage for a wider confrontation be­tween Iran and the United States. If the harassment continues, it is only a matter of time before a confrontation takes place, the out­come of which would drag the re­gion into another Middle East war, endangering the stability of Gulf states and possibly affecting the flow of oil through the Gulf. That, in turn, would have a serious effect on the world’s economy.

The Americans managed to steer the Iranians clear of their armada in the Gulf. However, given the number of incidents, all it takes is one confrontation to get out of hand for the whole situation could escalate.

In 2015, there were 300 close en­counters between the IRGC-Navy and US Navy vessels, culminat­ing in a highly provocative rocket launch near the USS Harry S. Tru­man aircraft carrier, Vaughan wrote.

In January, the IRGC-Navy seized ten riverine command sail­ors who had strayed into its waters and directly overflew the Truman with an unmanned aerial vehicle. In the last month, IRGC-Navy forc­es approached four US warships, drawing so close there was a dan­ger of collision. The USS Squall, a patrol craft, fired warning shots at the Iranians.

“Navy commanders are taught that the use of force in self-defence requires the presence of all three components of the “threat trian­gle”: capability, opportunity and intent, Vaughan said.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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