War on ISIS more complicated than Trump says

By Claude Salhani

One of the promises made by Donald Trump on the cam­paign trail last year was that one of his priorities would be “the total destruction of ISIS”.

Trump has repeated this pledge several times since tak­ing office and has asked the Pentagon to provide him with options on how to deal with the jihadist threat. They are limited and none of them are really good for the United States. Among those possibilities is arming the Kurds or putting US troops on the ground.

The United States has been arming and advising the Kurds for a while now, though that is not without potential negative backlash.

So complex is the situation in Syria that each solution comes packaged in more problems. If you manage to solve one problem, you get four or five more that pop up in its place. For example, arming the Kurd­ish militias could have serious repercussions from one of Wash­ington’s principal allies in the region, Turkey.

The Kurds deserve all the help they can get. They have been at the forefront of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). However, arming them would irritate the Turks, important US and NATO allies, who would vehemently oppose giving the Kurds, whom they consider terrorists, any as­sistance.

Deploying troops in Syria would drop US forces into a bubbling cauldron of a sectarian conflict. Suffice to look at what happened in Lebanon in 1983 when the US Marines got caught in the intricacies of the country’s civil war. Now multiply this disaster twentyfold.

The fight to exterminate ISIS is going to be a very difficult be­cause the solution is not purely a military one. This problem demands the close cooperation of multiple government agencies and departments as well as the participation of a number of countries in the region.

The intentions of the US presi­dent may be honourable and courageous in trying to rid the world of what is considered such a ruthless terrorist group that even al-Qaeda views ISIS mem­bers as extremists. However, the question remains whether the United States has the long-term commitment needed to see this battle through to the end.

ISIS has hijacked a peaceful religion for its own designs. It has committed the worst atroci­ties, from decapitating hostages, enslaving non-Muslims in towns and villages they occupy and throwing homosexuals off rooftops, to burning to death prisoners they capture and the systematic killing of tens of thousands of Shias

Fighting ISIS will require far more than deploying several thousand US American troops to Iraq and Syria if the Trump administration is serious about the destruction of the jihadist group. The forces battling ISIS would need to attack the group and their allies on multiple fronts. Besides fighting ISIS on the military front and killing as many of its members in battle as possible, there is a need to look at the long-term effects the fight would have on ISIS and its followers.

The solution to the ISIS problem is best depicted in an episode of the made-for-televi­sion hit Homeland. In one of the episodes, top-level CIA officials debrief an operative who had just returned to Washington af­ter spending more than a year in parts of Syria occupied by ISIS.

The field agent is asked what it would take to defeat ISIS. He replies that the United States would need to commit 350,000 military personnel on the ground and then devote the next 30 years to reshape the country’s education system at the cost of billions of dollars to the US taxpayer.

“That’s never going to hap­pen,” replies a CIA official.

Indeed, the solution to defeat­ing ISIS and the dozens of associ­ated groups requires a carefully designed long-term agenda that can be implemented from the ground up. The problem is that US foreign policy is conducted from one presidential election to the next, changing direction every four years. Meanwhile, the Islamists are following a care­fully designed plan for the next 350 years.

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The wider issue of travel bans goes beyond Trump

The debate over US President Donald Trump’s attempt to impose a ban on travel to the United States on people from seven majority Muslim countries continues. Tens of thousands of opponents to the measure have taken to the streets in dozens of cities across the United States and Europe in protest.

This affair, controversial as it might well be, may have yielded positive derivatives. It brings to the forefront of world politics the issue of travel bans on groups or individuals. Trump’s ban, which was blocked by a federal judge in Seattle whose ruling was upheld by an appeals court, has high­lighted the recourse of many governments to impose travel bans, within and outside the realm of the law.

In today’s global economy, peo­ple increasingly view the freedom to travel as an essential right that should be enjoyed by all, regard­less of nationality or faith but dep­rivation of that right continues.

In Egypt, rights groups say, authorities have prevented human rights lawyers from leaving the country. To Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the bans are part of a larger campaign to suppress independent, critical voices inside the country.

Since the ouster of president Muhammad Morsi from power in July 2013, Egyptian authorities are said to have arbitrarily banned at least a score of leaders and mem­bers of Egyptian non-governmen­tal organisations from travelling abroad. Others prevented from leaving the country include mem­bers of political parties, youth activists, bloggers, journalists and academics.

This behaviour, rights advocates say, goes counter to international human rights law and Egypt’s constitution, both of which protect the right of Egyptians to leave and enter their own country.

Egypt is not the only country in the Middle East imposing travel bans.

In Qatar, the home of the televi­sion satellite network Al Jazeera, authorities have prevented a prom­inent human rights lawyer and for­mer Justice minister from leaving the country. Najeeb al-Nuaimi was one of the lead counsels defending ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hus­sein. He has also defended Qatari poet Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 for writing a poem attack­ing the Gulf state’s monarchy. Ajami, who was accused of inciting violence, spent four years in jail before being released in 2016.

“Authorities in Qatar pre­vented… Nuaimi from travelling without informing him about any possible reasons,” the Gulf Centre for Human Rights protested.

Also, many Iranians have been arbitrarily prevented from travel­ling outside their country by the theocratic regime.

Travel bans should not be used as political tools. Governments should not try to prevent people from travelling because of their nationality, politics or religion. They should not misrepresent arbitrary bans as justified by security considerations when they are not.

There can be legitimate security concerns, especially in the global fight against terrorism. In recent days, Amnesty International might have been mixing apples and oranges when it condemned Tunisia for preventing hundreds of individuals from travelling overseas because it suspected them of harbouring an intent to join jihadist groups. By banning these would-be jihadists, the Tunisian government said it was helping safeguard peace and secu­rity in the world. It might have a case there.

This is a quandary for any government when it suspects its younger citizens have been radi­calised and recruited by terrorist groups. Slapping travel bans on terrorist suspects is not the same as imposing restrictions on non-governmental organisation leaders or intellectuals.

Returning to the ban Trump wanted to impose, the proceedings that have unfolded during these last few weeks have surprised many Americans and no doubt left more than one leader in the Middle East speechless.

In a rare demonstration of the extreme complexity of the inner workings of a democracy, the Unit­ed States has shown the world that, despite being the most powerful man on the planet, the president of the country can be challenged by a simple judge — who can live to tell about it.


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Palestine — the forgotten cause

By Claude Salhani —

With the brouhaha over its attempts to decree a travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, the Trump administration has much on its hands as it tries to imple­ment unpopular decisions.

However, it might be worth re­minding those new to Washington that there still lingers what has long been regarded as the root problem of the Middle East’s instability: The struggle of the Palestinians in their dispute with Israel and their aspira­tion of establishing a Palestinian homeland.

Sadly, there has been no shortage of violent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa over the last several decades. For the longest time, much of this violence and the raison d’être of some Arab regimes was said to be due to the ongoing state of no war, but no peace either, that existed between the Arabs and Israel.

The Palestinian-Israeli dispute was one of the prime justifications for the Assad dynasty to cling to power in Syria all those years. This is just one example.

Following the 1967 war when Israel expanded its territory by occupying the West Bank, includ­ing Arab East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, the main item on the political agendas of most Arab states appeared to be focused on a single objective: The liberation of Arab land. At least publicly, that was their agenda.

Palestinian lands had been occu­pied in stages. The bulk of the land that formed the modern state of Israel was carved out from British-mandated Palestine in Israel’s 1948 war of independence. To the Palestinians, this became known as Nakba — the catastrophe.

The new state of Israel ran from Lebanon’s southern frontier in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Jordanian city of the same name alongside the Israeli port city of Eilat. The rest was grabbed in the June 1967 war.

A few years later Israel refused to withdraw from a narrow strip of land along Lebanon’s southern border known as Shebaa farms and part of the village of Ghajar. While geographically the occupation of these two bits of Lebanese territory may not seem paramount to estab­lishing a long-lasting peace accord, it nevertheless complicates matters by bringing the Lebanese Hezbol­lah group into the picture.

During the heydays of the Pales­tine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the mid-1970s and on through the early 1980s, when the PLO and affiliates such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and a slew of others were based in Beirut, the question of Palestine was never far off the minds of many Middle Easterners.

Talk to any Arab official in any ministry in any Arab country from Kuwait to Oman and from Yemen to Morocco and invariably the conversation would shift to the question of Palestine. The resolu­tion of the Arab-Israeli dispute was believed to hold the magic key to the Middle East’s many problems. Alas, no one had an appropriate reply to the question of Palestine.

Ironically, the closer the Palestin­ians got to Palestine, the farther they seem to be from their dream of establishing an independent Palestinian state. The PLO seemed far more able to influence not only Israel but many Arab leaders from its headquarters in Beirut than it is now from its offices in Ramallah in the West Bank, where the issue of Palestine seems to have been taken off the front burners of politics.

It is important to note that no progress has been realised on the road map towards peace without the participation of the American president. From Richard Nixon to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton and to Barack Obama, whatever little steps were taken towards reaching an eventual state of peace in the Arab-Israeli dispute could not have been achieved without direct US involvement at the highest level.

The root problem in the Palestin­ian-Israeli conflict is best explained by Giora Eiland, a former major-general in the Israeli military who served as head of Israel’s National Security Council. Eiland said: “The most Israel can offer remains unac­ceptable to the Palestinians and the least the Palestinians can accept remains too much for the Israelis to accept.” Meanwhile, the stalemate continues.

There was one positive sign to emerge from the Trump White House when the president com­mented on Israel’s announcement that there were plans to build new settlements in the occupied West Bank. US President Donald Trump said building them now would not be advisable.

Perhaps Trump would be tempted to try his hand at finalis­ing a lasting peace accord between the Palestinians and Israelis and to succeed where all other presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower have failed. Now that would be an ac­complishment.


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The failure to predict

By Claude Salhani

The Obama administra­tion will no doubt be blamed for the sad state of affairs that have plagued parts of the Middle East during its time in office. That would be justified in part in regards to the precarious condi­tions found in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Barack Obama and his administration failed to act decisively when they should have engaged in a more comprehen­sive policy in the region.

Equally guilty are previous US administrations, most notably that of George W. Bush, not for its inaction in the region but more for its actions. If Obama will be re­membered for his lethargic policy regarding Syria’s civil war, Bush is to be remembered for starting a war in Iraq that was uncalled for. Sure, Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator but, like other despots in the region, he provided security for his country and kept would-be jihadists at bay. Continue reading

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Inauguration Day — the novel

 a novel by Claude Salhani 

get your copy today on Amazon.com and other outlets.

inauguration-day-by-claude-salhani

 

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A look ahead at the Middle East in 2017

by Claude Salhani

As a new year begins, journalists and analysts often try to project what may lay ahead for the Middle East during the next 12 months. What major changes are likely to occur? Will the conflicts that have darkened the region finally come to an end? Will its countries mature politically and adopt greater democratic reforms, albeit at their own pace?

Alas, one does not need a crystal ball to predict that the outlook for greater change in a positive manner does not bode well for the region.

Considering the numerous conflicts raging across it, one does not need to be a prophet nor have the capacity to read tea leaves to predict that violence will feature high in the forecast for 2017.

Starting with Syria and the devastating war that has been ripping the country apart for nearly six years, there appears to be no end in sight or any immediate relief for the Syrian people. The probabilities are therefore high that 2017 will be another bad year for Syria and that despite the fact that it may very well be the year in which the Islamic State (ISIS) is defeated.

Even the total defeat of ISIS will not come without serious repercussions for the region and even for countries beyond the Middle East. Several European countries and the United States could feel the fallout effect of ISIS’s demise.

One immediate concern is what is likely to happen to the thousands of young jihadi fighters who left their adopted countries in the West and in the East, too, to join ISIS? How likely is it that they could ever be reintegrated into normal society without raising problems of one sort or another?

And what of the fate of the millions of refugees who have unwillingly created new cities on the outskirts of normality across the region and beyond? Jordan’s second-largest city is a refugee camp.

Is it at all reasonable to plant millions of people in makeshift camps, often amid crime, drugs and prostitution, and expect the results to yield the makings of normal society? These camps are the perfect breeding grounds, the incubators of tomorrow’s problems.

If by some miracle the war in Syria were to end overnight, the country would face new challenges in 2017 as it tries to rebuild. Indeed, this war and the refugee crisis it has created have presented the region with a whole new set of problems.

Lebanon has weathered the war next door and successfully thwarted advances of ISIS. At the same time, the Lebanese have finally agreed on a new president after a more than two-year hiatus. Of course, their choice, much like the American people’s choice for president, leaves much to be desired but that is another story.

Violence continued in 2016 and again very likely to continue in 2017 in the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula as another civil war and proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran goes on and on interrupted by ceasefires and attempts to reinstall calm. Efforts to bring peace to Yemen have been as successful as the attempts to stop the war in Syria.

On the other side of the Arab world, conflict continues in Libya where ISIS may also be playing its last card and where concentrated efforts to eradicate the jihadist terrorist group seem to be working.

Political instability in 2017 will very much be the order of the day in Egypt, Sudan, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. The Turks and the Kurds are very likely to go at each other in 2017 as the Kurds continue to aspire for an independent homeland much to the displeasure this may cause in Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus.

Is there good news across the region? Well, Saudi Arabia continues to introduce reforms, albeit at a very slow pace. The United Arab Emirates seems to be riding a positive wave of development despite the drop in oil revenues. Morocco appears to have avoided any great crisis this year and it is hoped that in 2017 it will maintain that stability as will Tunisia and Algeria, though greater efforts in the latter would not hurt.

Here is to wishing you all a very happy new year in 2017.

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Why the UN Security Council vote on Syria is not the solution

By Claude Salhani

The UN Security Council has voted — unanimously — to dispatch international observers to the beleaguered Syrian city of Aleppo to provide safety to residents wishing to flee combat zones.

There are many reasons this vote is more an attempt to absolve the international com­munity and to allow its members to shed some of the guilt they have been carrying on their shoulders like old rifles, whose function is more decorative than useful.

This resolution, which comes five years late, helps Western powers feel good with themselves rather than meet to the basic needs of the people of that city, one that has become a symbol of this dreadful war.

The reality is that this resolu­tion should have come long ago. Indeed, this vote comes much too late and offers far too little.

Why this scepticism?

Because observation forces have never stopped atrocities or put an end to fighting in the many parts of the world they have been deployed to.

Typically, there are too few observers for the force to be effective. The regions they typically deploy to are large enough that those wishing to commit war crimes without being seen simply go around the corner from where the observers are positioned.

Observers are not peacekeepers nor are they a peace implementa­tion force. In fact, UN observers have no authority on the ground, nor do they have the means to intervene militarily if they had to.

Typically, what UN observers do is precisely as their title indicates: They observe. They observe and report to the Secu­rity Council, which files a formal complaint with the offending party or parties.

To put things into perspective, this is what likely happens: Let us imagine that a group of 100-150 civilians — men, women and children of all ages — is trying to make its way out of eastern Aleppo when they suddenly stumble upon armed men who may or may not be members of the Syrian Armed Forces.

As the gunmen round up the civilians, UN observers arrive. They intervene, telling the armed men their actions go counter to conventions of war.

The conversation unfolds in English with a mixture of varying Asian accents on one side and heavy Arabic accents on the other. Both sides have difficulty understanding the other.

Nevertheless, the UN troops succeed in delaying what would have certainly been an execution. Underline the word “delaying”, as it is what transpires. The international observers suc­ceeded only in buying a few more minutes for the ill-fated civilians trying to flee Aleppo and the horror that has developed there.

The UN observers believe they have convinced the gunmen to stand down and lower their weapons.

A few minutes later the observ­ers hear gunfire coming from the area they had just left. They rush to the scene where they find the lifeless bodies of dozens of refugees. The observers write up a report and file it to headquar­ters in New York.

Headquarters tones down some of the wordage from the original report, replacing language used by the observers with more diplomatic grammar.

The report goes before the Security Council where it is read. In their final analysis, the observers confirm that the massacre was perpetrated by forces loyal to the Syrian president — perhaps but not a certainty — by members of the Syrian Armed Forces. Syria is chastised by the Security Council. The ambassadors of the United States, Britain and France — permanent members of the Security Council — denounce “in the strongest term possible that such actions will not be tolerated” or else.

Or else what?

Precisely. With Russia having the right to veto any Security Council resolution, the Western powers can only go so far.

How are the perpetrators of such hideous war crimes pun­ished when they are backed by a sovereign state? They are threat­ened with economic sanctions. Syria has been under sanctions for years for its support of terrorism.

There is a threat to sever diplomatic relations but, then again, is it wise to pull out all US diplomatic personnel and leave Damascus entirely to the Rus­sians?

So it goes. Another UN resolu­tion that will be ignored. At least now the blame for the continued violence can be laid entirely on the Syrians and ot

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The Syrian tango: One step forward, two steps back

By Claude Salhani
As a US-backed Arab-Kurdish alliance announced the start of what it termed “phase two” of its campaign to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in its Syrian bastion of Raqqa, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, on tour in the Middle East, said the Pentagon would be sending an additional 200 troops to back the offensive.

Many of ISIS’s higher-echelon personnel as well as scores of rank-and-file fighters have reportedly withdrawn from positions in Mosul, Iraq, to make a firmer stand in Raqqa. ISIS is facing a formidable onslaught from a combined force that alternatively includes US, Russian, Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, Kurdish and Hezbollah forces. Fighter jets from Saudi Arabia. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are also participating.

This latest deployment increases the number of US troops in Syria to 500 — about the size of a small army battalion— though, according to the Penta­gon, there are no US combat units per se in Syria. Rather, the US Department of Defense says those troops are there in an advisory role only.

ISIS may be taking a beating in Raqqa but they are not to be written off completely. In a surprising move in Syria, ISIS fighters re-entered the historic city of Palmyra months after being expelled and succeeded in retaking most of it, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said.

It may be worth remembering that the United States’ long and painful military engagement in South-East Asia began much like the United States’ involvement in Syria today. The huge American military operation in Vietnam began with the Pentagon sending dozens, then hundreds of advisers and ended up being drawn into a long and costly war.

Over the past year, Washington has periodically increased the number of US boots on the ground in Iraq as well as in Syria — all while trying to disengage from the conflict.

As a superpower, the United States is in somewhat of a bind when it comes to the question of what to do about the war in Syria. It is a damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t situation. The American people are tired of being involved in wars in the Middle East and they will not stand for, nor support, yet another major engagement of US forces overseas.

Neither can Washington — both from a diplomatic and a military point of view — ignore Russia’s military expansion into Syria and continue to be taken seriously as a superpower.

What is likely to be Donald Trump’s policy towards Syria, as the conflict becomes more complex and the situation on the ground perhaps even more complicated by the time he moves into the White House January 20th?

Russia’s high-profile involve­ment in Syria in a manner surpassing even the Soviet Union’s support of the country during the height of the Cold War represents a real challenge for the United States. Russian warplanes flown by Russian pilots go a big step forward from the USSR’s backing of Arab forces by provid­ing them with arms, munitions and military advisers. This time the Russians are committing boots, perhaps not on the ground, but certainly in the air.

Will Trump’s supposed good relations and close connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin help or hinder US policy in the Middle East? Will Trump be influenced by his business and personal ties to Russia and to the Russian president and allow Moscow to continue its current policy without worrying about Americans’ reaction or will the former generals the president-elect has designated to serve in his cabinet influence him to take firm action?

Will we see under the Trump presidency an expansion of US involvement in Syria in efforts to thwart Russian ambitions in the Middle East? Or will Trump allow the Russian a free hand in the region?

Relations between the United States and Syria have always been difficult. Washington and Damascus broke off diplomatic relations in June 1967 and they were only re-established in 1974 following a visit by then-presi­dent Richard Nixon to Damascus. However, with the outbreak of the war and the United States joining the countries calling for the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad, relations soured again.


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

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How will history remember Assad?

By Claude Salhani

A group of lawyers in Germany is planning to launch a case against Syrian President Bashar Assad for alleged war crimes committed by his forces and his foreign allies in the Syrian province of Aleppo.

While all civil wars tend to be fiercely violent, the one unfolding in Syria seems particularly ugly. Indeed, human rights groups say both government forces and opposition groups have committed atrocities against fighters and civilians alike. Both sides in the Syrian war are guilty of human rights abuses.

The Syrian government and its allies, as well as some rebel groups, can just as easily stand accused of carrying out some of the most horrible atrocities as well as general mistreatment of prisoners. There seems to be a general disregard for human decency in this conflict where regrettably reports on the use of torture are all too common.

This particular complaint in Germany, however, focuses on atrocities committed by government forces and their allies in the Aleppo region.

As the lawyers filed their lawsuit, there were reports coming in that government forces in Aleppo bombed a makeshift hospital. Under international law and the Geneva Conventions, targeting hospitals is banned and considered a war crime.

Recent images on internet news sites show Aleppo, once Syria’s main commercial centre, now devastated and ravaged by war. Certain neighbourhoods resemble what Berlin and Stalingrad looked like at the end of the second world war.

The German lawyers presented a criminal complaint against Assad, which they are submitting to federal prosecutors. German law allows international prosecutions on the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, under which countries can pursue foreigners for crimes committed abroad.

Witnesses cited by the lawyers include reports from Amnesty International and individual accounts of asylum seekers in Germany, who reported “overwhelming evidence of multiple atrocities committed by Assad’s forces against civilians in Aleppo between April and November”.

Regardless of the German court’s finding, the outcome of the trial will certainly not carry any real effect in Syria and Assad is highly unlikely to lose any sleep over the findings of a German court. The court’s decision is not going to affect Assad’s relations with his three closest allies: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

The legality aside, is this how the president wants to be remembered? As the man responsible for the killing of half a million Syrians, as the man responsible for the destruction of the country’s economic infrastructure and as the man responsible for turning nearly half of his countrymen and countrywomen into refugees?

Is this how the Syrian president wants to be remembered by future generations? When historians look back some years from now at the battle for Aleppo, currently the focal point in the Syrian war, what are they likely to conclude?

One can only hope that by then authoritarian regimes will be a thing of the past and that democracy in one form or another will prevail and then the truth about the atrocities being committed will finally emerge. Regretfully, as the saying goes, truth is the first casualty of war.

While Assad may come out of the trial in Germany with a guilty verdict, the courts will not have any authority to impose a verdict. Possibly the worst-case scenario for Assad will be that he may not be able to visit Germany any time soon.

History will remember him in the same manner that other tyrants before him are remembered, though Assad remains something of a novice when compared to tyrants such as Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot.

While some leaders are remembered for their great accomplishments, Assad will go down in history as the man who brought about the physical destruction of his country, who was ultimately responsible for the carnage that killed close to 500,000 Syrians and displaced millions of others.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al- Hussein said in October that the government’s siege and bombing of rebel-held eastern Aleppo constituted “crimes of historic proportions”, which have caused heavy civilian casualties amounting to war crimes.

He said the case should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Continue reading

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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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