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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Kurdistan

Some significant developments in the Middle-East. As I have been predicting, the Kurds in Northern Iraq see the current situation as an opportunity to seek independence. The Guardian reports that Massoud Barzani, president of autonomous Kurdish region, called on parliament members to plan for independence referendum. From the story:
Speaking in the Kurdish parliament in Irbil, Massoud Barzani said he no longer felt bound by the Iraqi constitution, which enshrines the unity of the state, and asked MPs to start preparations for a vote on the right of self-determination, which would represent the Kurds' boldest move towards statehood in 94 years. 
"The time has come to determine our fate and we should not wait for other people to determine it for us," Barzani said. The Kurds' historic ambition for a nation state has been given new momentum by the lightning advance of Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) – and Iraqi politicians' inability to act decisively in the face of the insurgent threat. 
Iraq's national flag is now rarely seen in northern Iraq, and the Kurdish colours have been raised above all government buildings in Kirkuk, which Kurdish forces seized when the Iraqi army fled in the face of the Isis advance two weeks ago. 
Government forces clashed again on Thursday with Isis militants near Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, which the army has been trying to retake for more than a week. 
Kurdish fighters have engaged with Isis largely to defend Kurdish interests. In his speech Barzani said: "We will try to help our Shia and Sunni brothers … to get out of this crisis, but to be truthful we will [be responsible for] a new people [Kurds] who believe in coexistence, democracy and constitution. We will not deal with those who sabotaged the country." 
Earlier this week, Barzani suggested that an independence referendum could be held within two months, a move that would redraw Iraq's current borders and in all likelihood spread deep instability in what remained of the country. 
The fallout would be unlikely to stop there: Turkey, Iran and Syria are all skittish about Kurdish claims to sovereignty. Turkey, in particular, has fought a decades-long and bloody insurgency against Kurdish separatists in its south-east, who would be keenly watching developments.
An independent Kurdish homeland will have serious consequences in the Middle-East because it has the potential of significant growth. There are significant Kurdish minorities in Iran and, especially Turkey.

Areas of large Kurdish population in red
Areas of significant Kurdish populations in red (Source)

First of all, while the population growth of most Islamic countries have tanked, the Kurds have maintained relatively high fecundity levels. Thus, as David Goldman noted in October 2012:
Within one generation, at current rates, half of Turkey's military-age population will be born in households where Kurdish is the first language. The Turkish government's hope of integrating the Kurds under the broader Islamic tent have failed, and the new ambitions of Syria's Kurds expose the underlying weakness of Turkey's strategic position and the likely effectiveness of its diplomacy. 
It also calls into question the presumption that Turkey is America's critical ally in the region. If Turkey is likely to be the loser on demographic grounds, American planners need to consider alternatives to reliance on Ankara for regional policy. If a Kurdish state is inevitable for demographic and other reasons, America may do best to place an early bet on the winner.
Turkey has long been opposed to an independent Kurdish state because it believed that such a state would encourage Kurdish separatists within Turkey. However, Turkish Pres. Erdogan may have no choice in the matter. Marc Champion, writing at Stars and Stripes, reported on Thursday:
The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, chose to announce plans for a referendum on independence Tuesday — the same day Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan picked to announce his bid to run for president. If that’s a coincidence, it’s a significant one. 
Officials in Erdogan’s government have indicated at least twice in recent weeks that they are willing to end Turkey’s historical opposition to the creation of an independent Kurdish state. There are several reasons, but the most urgent one is the electoral arithmetic Erdogan faces in next month’s vote. 
The stakes in the presidential race are especially high this time. Whoever wins Aug. 10 — and it will almost certainly be Erdogan — will become the first Turkish president elected directly rather than by parliament. With the legitimacy of a popular mandate, together with his dominance of the ruling party and the flexibility of existing laws, Erdogan would be able to turn what has been a ceremonial presidency into a powerful executive position. 
This prospect was enough to motivate the two main opposition parties — the secularist Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Movement Party — to put aside their differences to select a joint candidate, historian and diplomat Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. The third contender, Selahattin Demirtas, is from Turkey’s Kurdish minority, which accounts for about 20 percent of the population. 
May’s local elections were a dry run for the presidential race, in that both Erdogan and his opponents turned the polls into a referendum on him. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party won 43 percent of the vote, a good result but not the majority he needs to win the presidency in the first round. The two main opposition parties together won 44 percent. 
The even split between Erdogan and the main opposition means that Turkey’s Kurds will be the kingmakers. For them, any concern over Erdogan’s authoritarian bent pales next to securing an independent Kurdish state in Iraq and a better deal for themselves in Turkey. Erdogan is letting them know he is the man to deliver both.
Champion goes on to note other actions by Erdogan to gain the support of Kurds, including an amnesty program for Kurdish rebels. I would also note that Turkey has economic considerations as well--including a major pipeline from northern Iraq through Turkey.

Second, the Kurds possess the only effective fighting force on the ground in Iraq and represent an existential threat to ISIS. Peter Galbraith writes at Politico that the U.S. could use the Kurds to stop or reverse ISIS's advances:
Obama does, however, have one potential ally with boots on the ground in Iraq. It is one of the most pro-American places on the planet and its soldiers are well disciplined, highly motivated and prepared to die for their country. That place is Kurdistan, nominally part of Iraq but with no love for that country. Kurdistan is not yet independent but may soon be. 
Kurdistan’s military, called the peshmerga, is ideally situated to combat ISIS. The Iraqi Army—or what is left of it—is hundreds of miles from Mosul; the peshmerga hold the Kurdish eastern half of the city. Although ISIS readily routed the Iraqi Army from the west bank, it chose not to tangle with far more formidable Kurds. President Obama can only order air strikes if he has good intelligence, controllers who can identify targets and troops who can follow up on the ground. Only the Kurds can do this. 
Over the past two decades, I have talked to Iraq’s Kurdish leaders about ways to maximize their autonomy, including offering advice in connection with the negotiation of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution. But, however much autonomy the Kurds enjoy, their real dream is to have an independent Kurdish state. 
Three factors have kept Kurdistan in Iraq to date: a lack of sufficient financial resources, an unresolved dispute with Baghdad over territory and international opposition to the break up of Iraq. Since 2004, Kurdistan has been developing its own oil resources (I also had a role in bringing in the first oil companies) and has now built a pipeline to Turkey through which it exports Kurdish oil, over Baghdad’s opposition. 
Until last week, Kurdistan’s production was not adequate to finance the operations of an independent state. But then the Iraqi Army fled the disputed city of Kirkuk and the adjacent super-giant Kirkuk oil field. The peshmerga, who had co-existed uneasily with the Iraqi Army in Kirkuk for a decade, now fully control the city and the Kurdish parts of the province. As a result, there is no longer a territorial dispute with Baghdad. For the first time, a Kurdish government controls all Kurdish territory in Iraq. And with the Kirkuk oil field, Kurdistan now has the financial resources for independence. 
Ten years ago, the United States and Turkey opposed Kurdistan exercising even a fraction of the autonomy it has today. Bush administration plans for postwar Iraq (to the extent that there was any planning at all) envisioned Iraq as a centralized federal state of 18 governorates—where there would be Kurdish majority provinces but no Kurdistan government. Turkey had long opposed Kurdistan’s autonomy for fear of the example it might set for Turkey’s 15 million Kurds. 
Today, Kurdistan and Turkey are the closest of allies. Turkey is Kurdistan’s most important trading partner and Turkish companies are the largest investors in Kurdistan. Turkish intelligence and military officials consult regularly with their Kurdish counterparts. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a close personal relationship with KRG President Massoud Barzani and a poisonous one with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In advance of Turkish elections, Erdogan and Barzani jointly addressed a large public rally in Diyabakir, the largest city in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast and Kurdistan is playing a constructive role in support of Erdogan’s effort to make peace with Turkish Kurdish rebels. 
Until last week, Turkey clearly preferred that Kurdistan remain part of Iraq, although in recent years the Turkish Foreign Ministry has changed its language on the subject. Ten years ago, Iraq’s unity was “a red line” for Turkey; in recent years it has been “preferable.” Today, Turkey may well see an independent, secular and pro-western Kurdistan as a far better neighbor than an Iraq comprising an ISIS-dominated Arab north at war with a sectarian Shiite regime in the south.
Meanwhile, my warnings that Shiites should "bug-out" has been borne out. BBC News reports that ISIS forces (which are Sunni) have been systematically hunting down Shiites within the territory they control. From the article:
Many of the displaced are Shias, Christians and ethnic Kurds. 
"For Shias, if they cannot be exchanged for prisoners, [the Isis rebels] would simply cut off their heads," said Hassan, a Kurd who had spent 16 days in captivity until his family paid £30,000 ($51,500) for his release. 
Bashar al-Khiki, provincial leader who fled Mosul, said that the jihadists were "collecting information about people and compiling a database in order to identify those who work for the government or security forces". 
"If they don't repent and pledge their allegiance to the caliphate, they will be killed. A lot of these people have disappeared in Mosul," he added. 
Human rights groups have reported that Isis militants have been going neighbourhood to neighbourhood in Mosul, deliberately targeting non-Sunnis and those opposed to them.
I had also suggested that, at least among Muslims, ISIS may have obtained the moral high ground by declaring a Caliphate. It is certainly working for some of the most radical elements of Al Qaeda. A senior leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula has called for followers to support ISIS.
As its name suggests, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular has long been a part of the wider al-Qaeda organisation, which supplies the Yemeni-based group with money and arms. 
But in an online audio track, entitled Contemplations on the Fruits of Victory in the Land of the Tigris and Euphrates, a senior AQAP leader calls on all Muslims to support rival Islamist group Isis and its call for an Islamic state. 
In the recording, dated 17 June - days before Isis declared it had established a caliphate in Iraq and Syria - Sheikh Mamoun bin Abd al-Hamid Hatem praises Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and says that any act against Isis is the work of the devil. 
His pronouncement is evidence of a major split within al-Qaeda triggered by the rapid advance of Isis, which it spawned. The recent successes of Isis, which also now goes by the name of Islamic State, have inspired and attracted many AQAP members.

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