Who Gassed Khan Sheikhoun? The Investigation Begins

by Aron Lund

On June 29, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, published its final report on events in the Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017.

As you’ll recall, President Donald Trump struck a Syrian air base a few days later in retaliation for what the United States and allied nations, as well as the Syrian opposition, say was an attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s air force. The Syrian government denies involvement and has variously said its jets accidentally bombed a rebel chemical storage or blamed a rebel false flag operation backed by Western intelligence services. Russian diplomats have backed up Damascus and lobbied hard to discredit the OPCW investigators in international fora and in the media. Western nations, too, have played some rough politics on this issue, and the whole debate has turned incredibly toxic and divisive—which is ironic, since all involved claim to want to uphold the international ban on chemical weapons.

The OPCW Fact Finding Mission has confirmed the use of sarin, a banned nerve agent, in the Khan Sheikhoun incident, but it did not assign responsibility to either side. Why? Because that wasn’t its mission.

Instead, another team of investigators known as the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, are now taking over to try and name the perpetrator. It won’t be an easy job, at least not if they are to produce evidence that would hold up in court. It might also be a very dangerous mission, especially if they try to get to Khan Sheikhoun itself. The city is run by hardline jihadis and it is close to one of Syria’s most anarchic and violent frontlines—and for all the lingering question marks, we know one thing for sure: whoever was behind the April 4 killings has a very strong interest in preventing the investigators from getting safely in and out.

In a new report for The Century Foundation, I try to walk readers through some of the obstacles, problems, and possible surprises that the JIM investigators face. They’ll be working under tight time constraints and are up against what could very well turn out to be impossible odds, but their work is of the greatest importance not just for Syria, but for the global ban on chemical weapons and for international law.

An interim report may arrive in September or even as early as August, but the JIM’s final report, which may or may not name a perpetrator, is scheduled for release in October. That’s just weeks before the JIM mandate runs out. The investigation will be forced to swim the veto-infested waters of the the UN Security Council to win an extension in November.

It is not a lot of time, and the JIM leaders are already complaining about obstructions and pressure, including foot-dragging by the Syrian government and constant interference from state actors telling them how to do their work. To be sure, the JIM has hired a highly competent bunch of experts and investigators, but in this environment and on that time frame, it’s anyone’s guess if they’ll be able to put all pieces of the puzzle together before the clock runs out.

Read the report here. Much more will certainly be written in the coming months.

Aron Lund

Topography of Khan Sheikhoun. Source: OPCW.

End of US Support for Syrian Rebels Sounds Death Knell for Attempt to Roll Back Iran & Russia in Syria – By Joshua Landis

Terminating CIA Support for Syrian Rebels Sounds Death Knell for Western Attempt to Roll Back Iran and Russia in Syria.
By Joshua Landis
For Syria Comment – July 20, 2017

Trump’s termination of CIA funds to Syrian rebels signals the death knell for Western efforts to roll back Iranian and Russian power in the Levant.

The reassertion of Assad’s control over much of Syria underlines the success of Iran’s policy in the Northern Middle East.

Western efforts to overturn Assad and bring to power a Sunni ascendency in Syria have failed as have efforts to flip Syria out of Russia’s and Iran’s orbit and into that of the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The cut off of CIA funding for Syria’s rebels is the raggedy ending of America’s failed regime-change policy in Syria and the region at large.

President Trump called the wars in the Middle East “stupid wars” during his campaign. He called America’s policy of regime-change a “failed policy.” This is his effort to concentrate narrowly on eliminating ISIS and ending Washington’s effort to drive Assad from power by force of arms.

He believes that by working with the Russians, the United States will destroy ISIS more quickly. It should be added that Syria’s military, with Russian backing, has killed hundreds of ISIS fighters in the last several months. It has driven ISIS from territory twice the size of Lebanon in the last two months alone. Further efforts to weaken or destroy the Syrian Army will only slow ISIS’s demise.

This decision by the security establishment has been a long time coming. As it became clear that Assad would not fall or step aside, particularly after Russia jumped into the conflict in Sept 2015, the arming of rebels to overthrow Assad became a vestigial policy. President Macron articulated this position for the EU, when he declared that it was unrealistic to believe that Assad would go.

Support for arming rebels has been waning since radicals began setting off bombs in European capitals.

Trump’s decision to stop support for Syrian rebels will be the final nail in the coffin of those factions which draw salaries from the CIA.

More radical groups, such as those historically connected to al-Qaida and Ahrar al-Sham will also suffer from this decision. The radical militias prey on the weaker ones. They extort arms and money from the CIA-supported factions. The porous Syrian border with Turkey can now also be shut more tightly. The need to push resources to the CIA-vetted militias, kept border crossings open to all rebels, including al-Qaida. Factions merge and regroup with such regularity, that border guards could not know who was fighting for what end.

This is the last gasp for America’s policy of regime-change which has so compromised its efforts to promote democracy and human rights in a part of the world that needs both.

Resolving Article 140: Settling the Issue of Iraq’s Disputed Territories Ahead of an Independence Referendum for Kurdistan

This article was published July 13, 2017 by NRT, a media service in Iraqi Kurdistan. The original article is available here. Photos and Images have been added to this re-post that were not present in the original.


A new billboard in Erbil with Masoud Barzani's image reading: "YES—for Kurdish independence and statehood"

A new billboard in Erbil with Masoud Barzani’s image reading: “YES—for Kurdish independence and statehood”


by Megan Connelly and Matthew Barber

Megan Connelly KurdistanBarber, MatthewContested Lands

Last month, talks led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) at the presidential residence, Seri Resh, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) led to a decision to hold a referendum this September on Kurdistani independence. Though the obvious assumption would be that only residents of the area seeking independence (i.e., the Kurdistan Region) would be able to vote on a decision to secede from Iraq, this referendum is being presented as a vote in which residents of Iraq’s disputed territories will also participate.

The disputed territories are areas in Iraq over which both the Iraqi Federal Government (IFG–based in Baghdad) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG–based in Erbil) claim administrative rights. Currently, the Kurdistan Region is an autonomous jurisdictional entity that is part of a federal Iraq but which has its own government, armed forces, immigration laws, administrative bureaucracies, and so forth. Prior to any discussion of potential independence for the Kurdistan Region, it should be understood that the disputed territories are parts of the Nineveh, Salah ad-Din, Kirkuk, and Diyala governorates over which the respective governments of Baghdad and Erbil have been locked in conflict since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Even if the KRI was to not seek independence, the status of each disputed territory as a domain of the Federal Government or the Regional Government must be resolved. Kurdistani independence, therefore, involves more than the question of whether the inhabitants of the KRI desire independence; it also requires determining which disputed territories (all of which are outside of the official boundaries of the KRI) would be included in the KRI, and ultimately within the new independent state.

For years, the disputed territories have been exploited for their deposits of oil and natural gas, but have often been neglected amid a state of political and administrative limbo between Baghdad and Erbil. Many disputed territories have been under Kurdish military or administrative control following the US invasion of Iraq, even though services and infrastructure in many of these territories continue to be funded through the IFG budget. Now, as Kurdish security forces, Hashd al-Sha’bi, and other ethno-sectarian militias seek to consolidate their territorial gains with the liberation of the remaining Islamic State (IS) enclaves in the disputed territories, it is urgent the IFG and the KRG establish clear jurisdictional boundaries by peaceful means—to not do so could spell their eventual delineation in battle. Therefore, Erbil and Baghdad must revisit Article 140, the transitional provision of the Iraqi Constitution that mandates the normalization, census, and referendum processes that must occur to determine the future status of each disputed territory, individually. This will resolve whether the territories will become part of the KRI or will remain within the IFG’s system of governorates.

Why the Referendum Does Not Provide a Solution for the Disputed Territories

Acting KRG President Barzani has declared that the referendum will be a solution to the ongoing Article 140 dispute. But according to Hemin Hawrami, Senior Advisor to the acting president, the sole question that will be posed to voters in the referendum is: “Do you want an independent Kurdistan?”

No one disputes the fact that the vast majority of Kurds desire independence. One Kurdish researcher framed this observation as follows: “Kurdistan does not need a referendum because the history and geography and 100 years of struggle have answered this question for the whole world.” The referendum’s question, therefore, would seem almost superfluous for the KRI. But while the referendum’s proposed question may nevertheless be appropriate to direct at residents of the KRI, it is a premature question for inhabitants of the disputed territories. Whether or not voters want independence is not a relevant inquiry as regards the complex geographic, demographic, and political realities in the disputed territories, where the question that should be posed is: “Do you want your district to become a part of the Kurdistan Region?”

The idea that populations living outside of the Kurdistan Region could participate alongside residents of the KRI in a vote that would establish a basis for the statehood of a region whose future borders are not yet determined is simply confusing for Kurds, Iraqis, and outside observers alike. It is clear that at least two questions—not one—must be answered by separate groups of Iraqis.

Manipulating Patriotism

The phrasing of the referendum’s question is indicative of ethnic outbidding. By asking voters if they “want independence,” as opposed to inquiring, for example, as to whether voters approve of a parliamentary motion to declare independence, the KDP is playing a semantics game designed to force voters to deliver a “patriotic” or “unpatriotic” response, a tactic to rally broad nationalist support behind the KDP’s drive for political dominance while discrediting the domestic opposition by casting doubt on their supporters’ kurdayeti.

Beyond the realm of mere words, Kurdish authorities have already begun arresting dissenters and shutting down media centers that publish literature that “uses inappropriate language in connection with the referendum,” as well as harassing and assaulting journalists and writers who have expressed opposition to the referendum.

To garner support for the vote, the Kurdish nationalist parties—and the KDP in particular—have been aggressively fueling  Kurdish irredentist sentiments and issuing provocative statements, such as KRG PM Nechirvan Barzani’s affirmation that the “disputed territories are no longer disputed,” the acting president’s assertion that opposition to the referendum would be met with a “bloody war,” and a KDP MP’s call for the legal prosecution and punishment of the political opposition to the vote. Moreover, the KDP has linked issue of Kurdish statehood with that of Masoud Barzani’s continued leadership and his defiance of Parliament’s attempts to limit presidential power.  The alarming tone of this discourse rose to a crescendo this week when Barzani, before the European Parliament, accused opposition MPs of concocting an “attempted coupt d’etat” against him in Parliament prior to its dissolution by the KDP, and of being responsible for the deaths of children in the 2015 riots in the Sulaimaniyah Governorate.

Furthermore, the language of the referendum announcement itself does not acknowledge that disputed territories are “disputed,” instead referring to them as “Kurdish areas outside of the KRG’s administrative area.” This language does not recognize the presence of the very populations whose existence is the origin of the disputed territory dilemma: Arabs, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Turkoman, certain Yazidis who do not identify as Kurds, and others.

In addition to validating aggression against Kurdish domestic opposition, this kind of antagonistic, nationalist campaign will do nothing to assuage the fears and mistrust of minorities and non-Kurdish populations with competing claims to self-determination in the disputed areas. This could ultimately provoke violent reactions with armed sectarian and partisan militias, with their various regional sponsors poised to intervene.

Ahead of Referendum, Yazidis Targeted for Supporting Baghdad

In the last few years, observers have become increasingly familiar with how intimidation is employed to pressure minority populations of the disputed territories into political submission. Recent punitive measures against Yazidis who favor IFG rather than KRG administration for Shingal (Sinjar in Arabic) are a characteristic—and unsurprising—case in point.

A new Human Rights Watch report has this week exposed a tactic that the KDP asaish are using to deter Yazidis from aligning with Baghdad: expelling displaced Yazidi families from the IDP camps in Dohuk and evicting them from the KRI, if a family member joins the Baghdad-supported Hashd al-Sha’bi forces in Shingal. This tactic is unsurprising, as the KDP asaish already expelled (from the same camps in 2015-2016) displaced Yazidi families if a family member joined the PKK-affiliated YBŞ, a local Yazidi force in Shingal that challenges KDP hegemony.

The Yazidis of Shingal are a perfect example of the challenge of Iraq’s disputed territories. This population has long stymied KDP attempts to smoothly incorporate Shingal into the KRI. Yazidis are independently-minded, have repeatedly been victimized by external parties vying for control of their areas, and as a result are mixed as to whether they even identify as Kurds. Unlike Yazidis from villages inside the KRI, many Yazidis from Shingal resolutely identify only as “Yazidi,” maintaining that it is not only their religious affiliation but also their ethnic identity. The vast majority resent Kurdish politics and would prefer a quiet form of local governance. This hasn’t stopped the KDP from insisting that Shingal’s population wants to be included in the KRI, and they always have an array of token Yazidi mouthpieces ready to authenticate this claim.

The displacement of the majority of Shingal’s Yazidi population to the KRI during the Yazidi Genocide stirred fears among much of the community that they could be subjected to attempts to be resettled in the KRI rather than helped to return to Shingal and rebuild their lives. A KDP-enforced economic blockade of Shingal (implemented all of 2016 and early 2017) deliberately slowed the returns of Yazidi IDPs to Shingal. One motivation for this measure appears to have been to try to starve the YBŞ of resources and prevent a larger civilian support base for the YBŞ from growing in Shingal. Despite this measure to inhibit civilian returns, the KDP did not hesitate to evict families from the camps and return them to Shingal when their family members joined the YBŞ. Though many families wanted to return and rebuild in areas that had been freed from IS, other families were not yet ready to do so, and this punitive measure placed pressure on families to beg their young people to not join those forces.

For about two years, the KDP has branded the PKK affiliates as “foreign” entities, not acknowledging that their rank and file are comprised of local, Shingali Yazidis. The “foreign” argument is even less applicable to the Hashd al-Sha’bi: Yazidis are effectively being criminalized for the choice to work with their own federal government. Nevertheless, the asaish’s current expulsions follow the same pattern as the earlier YBŞ evictions: Though Yazidi families ultimately hope to return to a secure Shingal, many are not ready to leave the camps—for economic reasons as well as out of concern regarding the now three-way political standoff in Shingal. Targeting vulnerable families with forced evictions is therefore a powerful political deterrent.

Shingal is now divided by three political competitors, each having its own Yazidi militias on the ground: KDP-affiliated Peshmerga, PKK-affiliated YBŞ, and the Baghdad-affiliated Hashd al-Sha’bi. Two out of these three factions (with their associated civilian supporters) obviously do not favor inclusion into a KDP-dominated KRI. Most of Shingal’s Yazidis, therefore, do not oppose Kurdistani independence, but simply view it as none of their concern since they hope to administer Shingal locally and separately from the KRI. This should adequately illustrate how a single-question referendum on Kurdistani independence is entirely incapable of resolving disputed territory issues.

Practical Problems with Holding the Referendum in Disputed Territories

The proposed date of September 25, 2017 for the referendum initially gave the KRG less than four months to raise and allocate money, resources, and personnel to ensure that residents of the disputed territories would be represented. Facilitating the participation of people from the disputed territories will be extremely difficult, and quite costly, due to high rates of internal displacement. So far, only $6 million have been ear-marked for the referendum and the KRG can expect no financial support from its neighbors and international supporters, virtually all of whom have come out against the referendum. Even Turkey, one of the closest allies of the KDP, has spoken out strongly against the referendum. Additionally, none of the KRG’s international partners or the United Nations have thus far expressed a willingness to monitor the referendum. In fact, the United Nations recently issued a statement emphasizing that it “has no intention to be engaged in any way or form” in monitoring the independence referendum due to its commitments to the territorial integrity of Iraq. Therefore, aside from repeated assurances from Erbil that the process will be fair to ethno-religious minorities in the disputed territories, the KRI has not announced any plan to accommodate them or hold separate referenda on their preferences.

Rudaw has recently reported that as of yet, no preparations have been made for the referendum in Kirkuk, the most populated of all disputed territories. Typically, funding for elections would come from the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC), but the Commission’s Kirkuk office has denied that it has a budget or a plan for the referendum. Since the referendum was initiated unilaterally, not through mutual discussion with Baghdad, the KRG cannot expect to receive support for the referendum from the IFG. The President of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, Rebwar Talabani, has proposed that Kirkuk prepare on its own for the referendum without relying on funding from the IHEC, but with just another two and a half months to prepare, there has been no consensus in the Provincial Council on how the referendum should be funded, or even regarding the legality of holding the referendum in the province.

Holding the vote for the people of Shingal could be even more difficult. Shingal’s Yazidis are now divided among the many thousands in the IDP camps of Dohuk; thousands more in IDP camps in Syria and Turkey; tens of thousands of recent migrants to Europe (most of whom would prefer to return to a secure Shingal); others who have migrated to Canada, the US, and Australia; IDPs in camps on Shingal Mountain administered by PKK-affiliated institutions; returnees to damaged/destroyed areas in KDP-administered areas north of Shingal; returnees to Yazidi villages south of Shingal now under the control of Hashd al-Sha’bi. What is the KRG’s plan to make sure that all of these people are able to freely and fairly vote in the referendum?

Mahama Khalil, unelected mayor of Shingal (Sinjar)

Mahama Khalil, unelected mayor of Shingal (Sinjar)—Photo: Kirkuk Now

In a recent interview with Kirkuk Now, Mahama Khalil (appointed by the KDP to act as unelected mayor of the Shingal District) also said that no preparations had been made to conduct the vote in Shingal. In the interview, he also exhibits a certain confusion as to the proper legal channels through which to conduct the vote and stated defiantly that the PKK and Hashd al-Sha’bi will not be able to disrupt the freedom of Yazidis to vote in the referendum. But the real question should be: What will guarantee that the KDP does not apply pressure on the voters? If the KRG intends to facilitate the Shingali people’s free, democratic decision as to the future of their district, things are off to a bad start with their asaish already punishing and intimidating those who express a desire to see Shingal remain under Baghdad’s administration.

Opposition to the Referendum within the KRI

Beyond the anticipated debacle of trying to hold the referendum in the disputed territories, the Kurdish mainland may also temper the success of the referendum. Though the vast majority of Kurds support the principle of Kurdish independence, there is significant anxiety among many in the KRI as to whether this referendum is being pursued in the right way and for the right reasons.

Contrary to assertions that this referendum has the backing of a broad political coalition, this has not been the case. The June 7 meeting at Seri Resh that resulted in the decision to hold the referendum did not include Gorran or the Kurdistan Islamic Group. The Gorran-led political opposition regards the referendum as a vote on the legitimacy of the KDP’s monopolization of power, Masoud Barzani’s unilaterally-extended presidency, and the abandonment of parliamentary democracy. Their sense is that the referendum would effectively make the KDP the vanguard of the nationalist movement and discredit the opposition, which insists upon institution-building or at least having working democratic institutions prior to statehood. Together, Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group constitute 25% of Parliament. The Kurdistan Islamic Union has also announced its refusal to back the vote without parliamentary approval.

Billboards and signs associating Barzani’s presidency with independence now appear everywhere in Erbil

It is also unclear the degree to which the PUK supports the referendum. Despite the participation of PUK Leadership Council members in the Seri Resh conference on June 7th, the issue of holding an independence referendum has divided the PUK. In general, the PUK supports the reactivation of Parliament prior to holding an independence referendum. However, while some have backed the KDP’s proposal to reactivate the legislature with the current Speaker, Dr. Yusuf Muhammad, for one session, thirty-four out of fifty-five PUK Leadership Council members  support[1] not just reactivation, but “normalization”—i.e. Gorran’s argument that Parliament must be reactivated and remain active until the next parliamentary elections (with Dr. Yusuf as Speaker)—and oppose the nomination of a PUK delegate to the Referendum Committee prior to Parliament’s reactivation. KRG Vice-Prime Minister Qubad Talabani and Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Karim’s attendance—in defiance of the wishes of the majority of the Leadership Council—at the Referendum Committee hearings and at the KRG’s delegation to the European Parliament this week (to garner support for the referendum) prompted outrage within the PUK politburo. Mahmoud Sangawi, a member of the Leadership Council and General Commander of the Germian Region, lashed out at Talabani and Karim: “They are not representatives of the PUK. They represent only themselves.”

Is the Referendum Actually Binding?

While acting President Masoud Barzani has promised that the referendum on independence would be “binding,”  Barzani and others, including KDP executive and former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, have qualified this by saying that independence will not be declared immediately after the vote, but rather that the vote would give the KRG a mandate to open independence negotiations with Baghdad.

In fact, it is doubtful that the KRI would benefit politically or financially from declaring independence. With a budget shortfall of over $25 billion, the KRI has had extreme difficulty paying public salaries and pensions, providing services, and maintaining infrastructure in its administrative areas. A declaration of independence would mean that the KRI would not only be responsible for providing salaries to KRI employees, but also for public servants that are currently paid by the IFG, as well as providing utilities, water, and other services to the disputed territories. The KRI’s Ministry of Natural Resources, along with the provinces of Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Salah ad-Din also have production-sharing agreements (PSAs) with the IFG to extract and market Kirkuk crude that provide for significant infrastructure development in the disputed territories, the salaries of KRI civil servants, and healthy dividends for KDP- and PUK-linked production and marketing firms and the KDP-led Ministry of Natural Resources. Moreover, the announcement on the referendum came less than two weeks after the KRG Central Bank announced that it agreed to be taken over by the Iraqi Central Bank and the Iraqi Oil Ministry announced plans to finance the construction of a new oil refinery in Kirkuk to the tune of $5 billion.

With all of the above in mind, it seems that participating parties in the Referendum Committee are more interested in gaining leverage against the IFG and their domestic political rivals, and in maximizing the political and financial gains of the KRI’s two dominant parties (the KDP and PUK).

Whether the KRG actually intends to declare independence or not, the referendum campaign itself could nevertheless stir violent tensions among the various populations and political factions contending for the disputed territories. The referendum’s lack of planning, preparation, legal definition, or multilateral participation sets a dangerous precedent and may also be perceived as anticlimactic by many Kurds who have long struggled for independence.

The Solution

To ensure the stability and security of Iraq and Kurdistan, both the Federal and Regional governments must revisit Article 140 and make a concerted effort to determine once and for all the status of the disputed territories. Of course, implementation will be even more difficult now than it was twelve years ago, mainly because demographic normalization (which must precede the execution of a census and referendum) has been disturbed by population displacements in the wake of the IS invasion. With so much at stake and so many competing territorial claims to evaluate and negotiate, it will be extremely difficult for two governments that doubt each other’s good faith to commit to this long and arduous process. Yet, continuing to avoid the Article 140 process, as the pressure continues to build on all sides, will yield severe consequences for both governments as well as for their international allies.

Most analysts agree that the international community, particularly the United Nations and the United States, must step up its involvement in order to help stabilize Iraq’s post-IS landscape and adopt a framework to address the challenges posed by the jurisdictional conflicts in the disputed territories. Currently, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI)’s mandate is limited to humanitarian and diplomatic assistance at the request of the Government of Iraq. Furthermore, the mandate’s scope is overly-broad, expressing the UN’s intention to promote economic and institutional development throughout Iraq, but without any clear focus on addressing the territorial disputes between the KRG and the IFG. Therefore, the UN will need a mandate specifically tailored to the mediation of the Article 140 process that will provide for the necessary resources for resolving territorial and property disputes and completing the normalization (or de-Arabization) process, conducting censuses, and referenda.

More than simply revisiting Article 140, the mandate must also address the effects of civil war, population displacements, and genocide that have occurred since the passage of the Iraqi Constitution. It will be necessary to secure KRG and IFG cooperation to reconstruct and provide adequate services to recently liberated cities like Shingal and Jalawla. It should also bring community leaders, regional and federal officials together to respond to the requests of small, territorially concentrated ethnic minorities for local administrative autonomy. Finally, but most importantly, the mandate should include the deployment of armed peacekeepers to prevent the eruption of clashes that could sabotage progress on the diplomatic and humanitarian end. Indeed, research has shown that multi-faceted missions (those that include diplomatic, humanitarian, and security provisions) are more likely to have successful, long-term outcomes than missions with a purely humanitarian or security focus.[2]

Although such a mission will depend on the KRG’s withdrawal of the present referendum proposal, independence for the KRI should not be off the table. Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi has even conceded that the Kurds have a right to self-determination, up to and including their own state. However, if the Kurdish parties truly intend to secede from Iraq, the UN and Iraq’s international partners should condition their support for the independence process on the KRG’s commitment to the peaceful resolution of territorial, energy, and water disputes with the IFG, as well as its observance of the Region’s own laws and the authority of its own legally established Regional decision-making bodies. For example, the UN should require that the KRG reactivate its Parliament, hold legislative and presidential elections, and encourage the passage of a motion in Parliament authorizing the formation of a high committee to plan an independence referendum before it agrees to monitor the vote. Likewise, by obtaining guarantees from the international community to support a future independence referendum that is conducted in accordance with the above conditions, Barzani could save face domestically while withdrawing the current referendum.

Although UN peacekeeping missions do not have a stellar success rate, this can be partly attributed to the difficulty of the missions that the UN accepts, the lack of willingness on the part of host nations to give the UN the flexibility it needs to succeed, and a lack of cooperation from regional and international partners. While resolving territorial disputes will invariably be a grueling process, a mission to carry out Article 140 can still succeed if domestic, regional, and international partners are committed to it. Of course, a UN peacekeeping mission would be a bitter pill to swallow for both Baghdad and Erbil. It will be costly, it will require a long-term commitment, and parties will have to accept compromises that they may perceive as sub-optimal. Ultimately, the value of peace for both sides will outweigh the value of the benefits that either side would expect to gain from continuing down the current path, which will inevitably lead to armed conflict, whether by design or miscalculation. The diplomatic efforts of Iraq’s neighbors and international partners, particularly the US, will be crucial in raising the IFG and KRI’s perceived costs of noncompliance (such as threatening a withdrawal of military or financial support from the KRG and/or IFG) and reducing their perceived costs of compromise by offering incentives for both to accept UN conditions. Additionally, US influence will be necessary to secure the resolution from the Security Council to authorize a multi-faceted peacekeeping mission in the disputed territories.

Conversely, the UN must obtain guarantees of cooperation from the potential regional spoilers Iran and Turkey, as well as the United States. This will also require mutual assurances and recognition that a peaceful resolution of the Article 140 disputes is the optimal outcome and that all parties will commit their resources to that end. However, with the Iranian-backed Hashd al- Sha’bi making gains along the Syrian border and the mobilization of Turkish armed forces in the KRI (as well as Turkish air strikes against PKK and YBŞ positions in Shingal), regional actors appear to be on a war footing in Iraq. So is the US. With a weakened Department of State, a newly-empowered Pentagon, and an Ambassador to the UN who recently bragged about cutting the peacekeeping budget by over half a billion dollars, hope of US support for peacemaking in Iraq may prove illusory as well.

Megan Connelly is a PhD candidate with the Department of Political Science at SUNY University at Buffalo, concentrating in civil war, peace-building, and power-sharing studies with a focus on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. She can be followed on Twitter: @meganconnelly48


Matthew Barber is a PhD student studying Islamic thought and history in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, who has conducted research on the Yazidi minority. He was working in Kurdistan when the Yazidi Genocide began and later led humanitarian and advocacy projects in the country for one year (2015-2016). He can be followed on Twitter: @Matthew__Barber


[1] The PUK concluded an agreement with Gorran in May of 2016 to, among other things, form a joint Leadership Council and electoral list and prioritize the reactivation of Parliament and the enactment of political and economic reforms. Gorran has since accused the PUK of violating the agreement because it has continued to negotiate political and natural resource agreements secretly with the KDP politburo.

[2] Hultman, L., et al. (2014). “Beyond keeping peace: United Nations effectiveness in the midst of fighting.” American political science review 108(4): 737-753. Beardsley, K., et al. (2017). “Resolving civil wars before they start: The UN security council and conflict prevention in self-determination disputes.” British journal of political science 47(3): 675-697.

Rollback? Trump’s Iran claims not just flawed but dangerous – by Steven Simon

Rollback? Trump’s Iran claims not just flawed but dangerous.
Steven Simon argues that Trump’s view on Iran is not only analytically flawed, but also dangerous.
July 5, 2017
Previously published on IISS blog
By Steven Simon, John J. McCloy ’16 Visiting Professor of History at Amherst College, and Contributing Editor to Survival

The Trump administration, for all its disarray, has a clear and consistent policy toward the Middle East. In other theatres, administration policy seems to lack organising principles – in Europe, for example, where the United States’ commitment to NATO has been both derided and valourised, and in Asia, where China is a threat one minute and an ally the next.

Washington’s approach to the Middle East, by contrast, is distinguished by its clarity. The organising principle is that Iran is the root of all evil.

There is no doubt that Iran is the root of some evil, but Mr Trump’s totalising claim and the exculpation of other regional states’ role in the current instability is not just analytically flawed but dangerous, leading ineluctably to hazardous policy objectives.

During the Cold War, American hardliners demanded ‘rollback’ of Soviet power from Eastern Europe. They viewed containment, the prevailing strategy toward the Soviet Union, as strategically and morally obtuse. The problem with rollback, however, was that the Soviet Union had an asymmetrically greater interest in holding on to Eastern Europe. These states were the mostly flat plain through which Germany had funneled an army that killed millions. Moscow was not going to surrender this vital bufer easily; a US effort to wrest Eastern Europe from Soviet rule might, therefore, escalate uncontrollably. Rollback never really gained traction, until the Soviets, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, came to trust West Germany enough to be relatively relaxed about dissolving the Warsaw Pact.

After Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and renewed focus on Iran, it is hard not to think of the Cold War rollback debate. Even the language of neo-rollback advocates recalls the apocalyptic wars of the twentieth century. Iran, they contend, wants land corridors to the West to strengthen Hizbullah and launch a second front against Israel while keeping the Assad regime alive.

Strengthening Hizbullah and using it to harass Israel have long been Iranian goals, but in the Trumpian rhetoric they have been transformed into a sinister plan for regional dominion. Phrases such as ‘land corridors’ mimic the geopolitical language of the interwar period, implying an equivalence between the fascist threat to European security in the twentieth century and the Shia threat to Middle Eastern security in the twenty-first. How much of this just bubbles up from the subconscious and how much is sly reference is hard to say. But the effect is to convey urgency and existential danger.

In reality, the Iranian behaviour that has catalysed talk of rollback has not changed since the 1980s, when Israel’s assault on Palestinian militants in Lebanon spurred Shia resentment and ambition, opening the door to Iran. Fighting between Syria and Israel forged a convergence of interest between Damascus and Tehran. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And that was 35 years ago, before many advocates of Iran rollback were born.

Israel rightly points to Hizbullah’s inventory of Iranian missiles as a serious threat. These stockpiles, however, were created without a land corridor. Weapons were flown into Damascus and trucked into Lebanon. The possibility of a land corridor exists only because Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq – the sturdiest possible barrier between Iran and the Levant – was toppled in 2003.

Neither Israel nor the US has devised a way to sever the umbilical link between Hizbullah and Iran, or to split Syria from Iran. There was hope in early 2011, when Bashar al-Assad supposedly agreed to abandon Iran in return for the Golan Heights. This was allegedly curtailed first by Israel’s disinterest, then by war in Syria. Iran’s costly defence of Syria since then has been consistent with their deep reciprocal reliance.

The US has run hot and cold on Iran ever since the Islamic Revolution. The CIA was still passing intelligence to Iran in late 1979. A wish for rapprochement led the US to sell weapons to Iran in the 1980s. That turned into a failed arms-forhostages deal and a renewed tough line toward Tehran. Yet even after Iran-backed suicide bombers killed US marines in Beirut, and Iranian mines blasted a US warship and other vessels under US protection, the Reagan administration declined to escalate militarily.

George H.W. Bush subordinated US hostility towards Iran to the war against Saddam in 1991. The Clinton administration anathematised both Iran and Iraq. Although Iran was complicit in the 1996 Khobar bombing, Mohammad Khatami’s election as president produced a thaw; the US never retaliated. After 9/11, the US and Iran cooperated in Afghanistan, followed by another swing against Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’. The Obama administration embraced toughened multilateral sanctions, cyber war and sabotage, but entered into successful diplomacy after the election of Hassan Rouhani. Given this cyclical pattern, renewed assertiveness and anxiety is no surprise.

The nuclear deal with Iran partly explains the current push for rollback. Israel and the Gulf states have pocketed the deal’s ten years without a nuclear-armed Iran in their neighbourhood, moving the goalposts to what they see as the linked threat of Iranian regional aggression: weapons transfers to Houthi rebels in Yemen; support for a seriously wounded Syrian ally; influence in Baghdad; and a close relationship with Lebanese Hizbullah. It is a remarkable imaginative leap to believe that these concerns, however nettlesome, outweigh the threat of a nuclear Iran, but this calculus does appear to drive Saudi, Emirati and Israeli policy.

The locus of the Iranian challenge is an area in southern Syria where the borders of Jordan, Iraq and Syria meet. Two towns constitute the flashpoint, al-Tanaf and al bu Kamal, straddling the Baghdad–Damascus highway. This trade route has been closed for a long time. Whether it will reopen under US control or under the Assad regime is uncertain. American forces are increasing there, rather than in the areas where the Islamic State is strongest. New powerful artillery systems have been deployed. And the US has been firing on Iranian-led pro-Assad militias extending their tentacles toward al-Tanaf and al bu Kamal.

A long-term US presence, in a bleak desert surrounded by hostile tribes, for the purpose of blocking Iran’s quest for a land corridor is now being contemplated. For the administration, this is where rollback begins. But as in the Cold War, someone needs to be asking where it ends. A version of this post will appear as the Closing Argument in the August–September issue of Survival.

A version of this post will appear as the Closing Argument in the August–September issue of Survival.

Assad cracks down on loyalist militias in Aleppo

by Aron Lund

Half a year after expelling the city’s anti-regime rebels, the Syrian government continues to face problems in Aleppo. Though civilians have trickled back to the eastern neighborhoods – there’s now more people living there than under rebel rule – reconstruction of the bombed-out areas has been sluggish at best, and though Assad’s control is no longer in dispute, question marks remain about basic stability.

In particular, citizens of all political stripes have complained about the lawless behavior of some of the many pro-government  militias that are active in the city.

While most of Assad’s armed forces have moved on to man the temporarily frozen frontlines against Turkey-backed rebels in Idleb and fight the Islamic State near Raqqa, Aleppo is still home to a large number of local militias and so-called popular committees. Some of these groups have become infamous for plundering shops and homes in the former opposition areas, extorting traders at checkpoints, and abusing civilians who object to their behavior.

Though these groups are hated by the opposition and often deeply unpopular with government loyalists, too, they are often protected by high-ranking contacts in the intelligence services. The government continues to rely on their services and, in many cases, officials profit from their criminality. Therefore, despite growing popular resentment, the authorities in Aleppo have mostly turned a blind eye to their behavior. Sporadic police clampdowns and attempts by the Aleppo Security Committee of Lt. Gen. Zaid al-Saleh to enforce rules on checkpoints and smugglers have been stop-gap measures at best.

In early June, Aleppo witnessed a string of particularly brutal and meaningless militia crimes, including the accidental killing of a respected Syrian-Armenian dentist and the senseless murder of a thirteen-year old boy, Ahmed Jawish. The murder was widely reported and condemned across Syrian media, including by stalwart government loyalists, and it seems to have catalyzed a change in the central government’s attitude.

Bashar al-Assad has now sent one of his top intelligence officials to Alepp: State Security director Lt. Gen. Mohammed Dib Zeitoun. He has been tasked by the presidential palace with overseeing a crackdown on organized crime and reining in the militias, and local authorities – including Lt. Gen. Saleh’s Security Commitee, the provincial police chief Lt. Gen. Essam al-Shelli, and the local Baath Party branch of Fadel al-Najjar – are now busily reorganizing the security sector.

The success or failure of Dib Zeitoun’s crackdown could tell us a lot about the Baathist government’s ability to stabilize and restore normal governance to areas of Syria where the rebels have held sway – and you can be certain that both Syrians and foreigners are keeping a close eye on what happens in Aleppo right now.

* * *

I have written a three-part series for IRIN News about how Aleppo has fared since major combat ended there in December 2016. For more on these issues, you can read them all here:

– Aron Lund

Farewell to Ibrahim “Abe” Soliman: A Syrian-American Who Worked for Peace between Syria and Israel – By Geoffrey Aronson

Farewell to Ibrahim “Abe” Soliman: A Syrian-American Who Worked for Peace between Syria and Israel
By Geoffrey Aronson
For Syria Comment – June 10, 2017


Abe Soliman, Jeff Aronson in middle, and Alon Liel at the Bnot Yaacov Baily bridge over the Jordan River

“Hey, it’s Akiva. Who was the old guy with you?”

The “old guy” was Ibrahim “Abe” Soliman.  He and I had just finished a meeting with Ron Prosor, director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, in a nondescript Tel Aviv café. The two of us were exiting to the street when Akiva Eldar, senior correspondent for Ha’aretz, just happened to drive by.

“Oh he’s just a friend, “ I replied. “No one you would know.”

Abe was in Israel during a secret visit in April 2005, part of our quiet dialogue in support of an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. Together with Alon Liel, a former ambassador and top foreign ministry official, we toured the Golan plateau and walked across the Bailey Bridge across the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee Heights.  Abe met with the widow of Eli Cohen and his daughter to discuss the prospect of repatriating her husband’s remains. It’s impossible to keep a secret in Israel. The fact that we were able to keep Abe’s visit out of the press was a testament to the seriousness with which our efforts were viewed … and no small amount of luck.

Eli Cohen’s daughter and widow with Abe Soliman and Jeff Aronson

Some months later we were able to agree upon a “non-paper” outlining the creation of a “park” in the Golan Heights. (link to the Carnegie document). The understanding, drafted with Liel and Uri Saguy, remains the only example of a successful  “track one and one half” engagement between Israelis and Syrians. Eldar’s chance drive by threatened to blow up our three-year effort in mid-course.

Abe died late last month of complications following a stroke. I last saw him only a few days before the debilitating attack. We were making laborious efforts to reconcile opposing combatants in Syria — efforts that, after many frustrating months, had begun to show a hint of promise.  At our last meeting, as Syria’s descent into self-destruction continued, Abe continued to see an opportunity to revive discussions between Israel and Syria on the Golan’s future.

Abe Soliman was all but unknown to the lay public, but he has been a familiar figure to diplomats on three continents who have toiled in the barren vineyard of Israel-Syrian diplomacy for almost three decades.

Beginning with his successful effort to win Syrian approval for the emigration of Syrian Jews in the early 1990s, Soliman worked to improve Damascus’ and the Assad regime’s relations with Washington. And as the Assad’s road to the White House often passed through Jerusalem, this meant that Soliman dedicated time and resources in the last decades to solving the crisis in relations between Israel and Syria.

Abe’s particular role, his effectiveness and its limits, is a reflection of the idiosyncratic exercise of power and authority during the Assad era. Young, Alawi, and dirt poor, Abe was befriended by Hafez al Assad, who had served under the command of Abe’s older brother. Abe tells this evocative story in his self-published memoir, “My Grandfather’s Tree: A Syrian Immigrant’s American Adventures, Friendship with Dictators, and Quest for Peace in the Middle East

Abe emigrated from Syria to the United States in the late 1950s. After establishing himself as a US citizen – a life-changing consequence of a chance friendship with a USFSO whom he met as a young boy  — Abe maintained business ties with his ancestral homeland and continued his close familial relationship with the ruling family and its inner circle.

Syria is a small country steeped in relationships tied to family, geography and religion. Abe was a good businessman and he provided valuable training to woefully ill-equipped members of a new and growing Syrian governing and administrative class. But the real source of his entre was a relationship of trust forged with the Assads, rooted in a shared history that transcended politics or business, and a deeply ingrained belief that quiet understandings reached between men of influence were the key to diplomatic progress.

Abe was intimate with the regime and its shadowy leadership.  But he was not of the regime. Throughout the years he was determined to maintain his independence, including financial independence, from Damascus, and even to risk its displeasure. He understood better than his friends in Damascus that he was more valuable to them and an abler and more effective interlocutor if he stayed outside the wide circle of those who owed everything to the regime.

The gutters of Middle East diplomacy are littered with poseurs and braggarts of all stripes claiming, usually without foundation, privileged access to those in power.

Abe, in contrast, was the real deal. More than one government in the region was satisfied that Abe did indeed have entre to Assad’s inner circle, if only because they could see the star treatment he received upon arrival in Damascus and meetings he arranged for others with the president or his top staff.  Over the years, a parade of US officials made their way to Abe’s modest home outside Washington to sit with senior Syrians around his dining room table.

If on the one hand Abe stood apart from the regime, he well understood that his value to interlocutors from Ankara to Jerusalem and Washington was as an authoritative link to the government and its interests.

He was also well aware that his value to the Assads lay in his ability to articulate their views — not his own  — discreetly and secretly in such a way as to elicit something of value that could maintain or excite interest in Damascus.

Then as now, the regime operated in the dark. The leadership is most at home with the curtains drawn, jockeying for influence among the shadows. Transparency is to be avoided at all costs. Public efforts are all but useless for transacting serious business. This is how power and influence are exercised in Syria.

Abe was a product of this system and a wily, able practitioner who exploited its advantages and was hobbled by its shortcomings. Secrecy was the signa qua non of any effective diplomatic engagement. He was extremely sensitive to the fact that a misstep on his part would not easily be repaired or forgiven by a regime intolerant of any such attempt, undertaken by design or in error. This proved to be the case when Abe arrived in Israel for a second, this time public, visit in April 2007, when he testified before the Israeli Knesset and made an emotional visit to Yad Vashem.

It could not be easy to manage these apparent contradictions — to represent the interests and views of the regime to outsiders while retaining his distance from it and to maintain his personal independence and ability not just to represent but also to influence the policies of Hafez the father and, after his death in April 2000, Bashar the son.

There was also the challenge of maintaining control over the various negotiating tracks that developed during the course of his encounters.  During our efforts from 2004-2007 for example, meetings in Zurich, sponsored by the Government of Switzerland, were only one facet of a multidimensional array of bilateral engagements –like the one with Prosor– some of which at times appeared to be more important to Abe — that is, Damascus –than the track one and one half dialogue with his Israeli counterparts that was nominally the heart of our efforts.  Like the spider at the center of the web, Abe endeavored to make sure that he was the only player with the full picture. I would bemoan this complexity but for Abe it was a natural and necessary state of affairs.

Abe was a son of Syria.  He was only too familiar with the manner in which power and influence were maintained and exercised in Damascus.  Outsiders could never hope to obtain the keys to this particular castle, and Abe was continually critical of the uncanny ability of Americans and others to misread the opportunities for progress.

He had few kind words for the Syrian opposition, especially its expatriate leadership, and many reciprocated his antipathy. But just as he could call upon his lifelong ties to the Assads, he remained a respected figure among some opposition figures whom he had known over a lifetime, and their children, some of whose education he had sponsored at American universities.

Not that he spared the regime. Particularly in these latter years, Abe lamented Assad’s missteps and repression. He despaired for Syria’s independence from Iranian and, less so, Russian designs. And he worried that in Syria, Washington would fall into the trap first opened in Afghanistan, when it succeeded Russia in a war that has yet to end.


For Jeff Aronson’s article, describing the Track II talks with Syria, see

Published on Dec 21, 2010

Geoffrey Aronson, Director for Research and Editor of Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Foundation for Middle East Peace

Nationalism Between Europe and The Middle East – By Sam Farah

Nationalism Between Europe and The Middle East
By Sam Farah
For Syria Comment – June 9, 2017

Steven Bannon, the man behind the nationalist policy in the Trump administration, is quoted as saying, “I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors. And that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward”.

It is true that Nationalism was born in Europe, and is the foundation of the new modern state. However, what Bannon’s remarks miss is the fact that strong nationalist movements in Europe helped lead to the outbreak of World War I and World War II. It has also contributed to a great deal of strife and death in the Middle East.

Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states. Neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these did not really define the political entities in which they lived. In 1800, almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, half its residents did not speak French.

Nationalism did not develop among the general population, it was a construct first developed among the intellectual elites of Europe. Johann Gottfried Herder, a German philosopher who believed that language determined national thought and culture, first coined the term “nationalism”. Nationalists expected patriots to then learn their nation’s language and raise their children speaking that language as part of a general program to establish a unique national identity. Poets and philosophers created folk epics and fairy tales, these epic legends and constructed narratives created imagined communities that gave rise to a sense of delusional, inflated self-worth. English Nationalists argued that England is the kingdom that, of all the kingdoms in the world, is the most like the kingdom of Jesus Christ. And the French believed that France had a special mission as representative of the most advanced form of western culture.

The idea that the boundaries of a nation should, as much as possible, coincide with only one culture, and the belief that a people who share a common language, history, and culture should constitute an independent nation set the stage for decades of war and border disputes on the European continent. The history of Alsace Lorraine is a microcosm of the turbulent years of nationalism in Europe and the rivalry between French and German nationalism. The area was a watershed for invading French and German armies and mutual annexation. The Germans pursued a Germanification policy in the Alsace that prohibited its residents from speaking French in public. A person could be fined even for something as innocent as saying, “bonjour”. Street signs, once displayed in French, were replaced with German signage. When the French annexed the Alsace, up to 100,000 Germans were expelled and German language Alsatian newspapers were suppressed.

The zeal of nationalism in Europe and the need to define an identity for these nations states culminated with the Nuremberg law. It added a racial element to the concept of nationalism, and ultimately contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany and the outbreak of World War II.

By the end of the 19th century, as the sun was setting on the Ottoman Empire, Zionists, who were primarily European Jews, worked to create a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. Young Turks, eager to modernize their state, and young Arabs intellectuals primarily from the Levant who also wanted to emulate the modernity of Europe embarked on a nation building quest of their own, all with irreconcilable claims and overlapping aspirational maps. This was the framework that set the stage for the endless conflicts in the Middle East that continue to plague the region. Today Kurdish nationalists are trying to establish their own nation state from parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Their ambitions have added another layer of complexity to an already intractable situation.

The trauma of the great depression, the threat of communist revolution, the rise of fascism and the ravage of World War II, made Europe search for an alternative to nationalism.

The search for a new framework for Europe was led by Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman. They worked to enmesh the economies and societies of Western Europe with one another. These new transnational ties were expected to create a permanent peace between France and Germany. The road to building this new post nationalist space that culminated in the creation of the European Union, was arduous. Many European politicians resisted the notion of ceding sovereignty to a supra nationalist entity. The project, however, achieved is intended objective, and Europe has enjoyed the longest period of peace in its modern history. In the mid 1970s, just 22% of Germans thought they had more in common with other Germans of different social class then with Frenchmen of the same class (Haas 1997). And Alsace is now a multi-lingual region, its inhabitants shop and work in both France and Germany. In the words of Angela Merkel, “The Europe that suffered from German hubris was transformed into a ring of friends organized around NATO and the E.U.”

The European post-nationalist experiment was not without its flaws. It seeded too many controls to Brussels. Like most hierarchical systems it became top-heavy, and incapable of responding to change. In addition, there were structural flaws in the way the Euro was established adding layers of popular resentment against the European project.

While Europe is grappling with reforms of its current framework and fending off rising nationalism, the Middle East is still in the thrall of its failed nationalist experiment, increasingly chaotic, with rising religious extremism and terrorism.

Moving Forward

How should the people of Europe and the Middle East organize themselves to achieve peace, stability and economic growth? Today, questions of identity, complexity and polity are the subject of research and a new field of study by complexity theorists, social scientists and historians. They believe that to have a peaceful world it may not be necessary to abolish the nation state as it remains the most effective body to write and enforce the rules, just to deemphasize it. What we need, they argue, are multicultural states with overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, fuzzy borders, and the distribution of power to local communities.


The SSNP’s Military: The Eagles of the Whirlwind & Their Emblem – By Jesse McDonald

The SSNP’s Military: The Eagles of the Whirlwind
By Jesse McDonald
For Syria Comment – June 5, 2017

Nusur al-Zawba’a and Some Figures from Syria Since 2016

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), like many political parties in the region, also possesses an armed wing.  In this case, the SSNP’s military wing is called Nusur al-Zawba’a which translates to ‘Eagles of the Whirlwind.’  The Whirlwind here (pictured below) is a reference to the vortex / hurricane-like symbol front and center of the SSNP’s logo.  More on the origins of the Whirlwind (zawba’a) in the piece immediately following this one.

SSNP’s emblem

Much has been written on the roles various militias and National Defense Forces (NDF) play fighting on Assad’s side.  The Eagles of the Whirlwind, being one of these groups fighting with the Syrian regime as well as Hezballah, also, deserves attention and analysis.  However, diving into the groups history and motives for fighting is beyond the scope of this article.  What will be touched upon is a brief overview of these fighters who have died since the beginning of 2016.  This article will point out which towns SSNP members were actively engaged in combat and areas with the highest casualty rates, what the average age was for those who have fallen, and when they joined the party.  Important disclosure: due to lack of information on several party members, this data is not fully complete.  Nevertheless, the intention is to offer a glimpse of recent trends and structure some type of background so the reader can better comprehend the SSNP’s combat role in Syria’s war.

Let’s begin with 2016:

Although active on numerous fronts, the year 2016 did not witness a particularly high mortality rate as a result of armed activities against rebels and jihadists (this is in no way downplaying any low figures or loss of life).  There were a total of eighteen deaths categorized into the following cities/governorates:

Aleppo- 1

Raqqa countryside- 1

Hama- 1

Douma- 2

Homs- 3

Latakia- 10

As one can notice, Latakia registered the highest casualty total out of any province in Syria during 2016.  Five of these ten deaths occurred on February 19 in Kinsaba- one of them being Adonis Nasr (known as ‘Ado’) – who led various media operations for the Eagles of the Whirlwind.[1]  Such operations included recording fighters’ will or testimonials and preparing their autobiographies and ‘martyrdom’ posters.  He also helped run the party’s daily al-Bina’.   The countryside of Latakia was a particular hot spot for the Eagles Whirlwind in 2016, with many battles taking place in the mountains, strategically situated along Turkey’s border and also neighboring Idlib province.  The coastal highlands is crucial for Assad in blocking rebel-held supply lines, linking up to government controlled areas in Hama and creating a buffer between Alawite dominated cities in Latakia and Tartus (Assad’s heartland).  In fact, all but two of the ten deaths in Latakia countyside transpired in Kinsaba (the others died in Kubani).

Photo from Adonis Nasr’s funeral in Lebanon

Five out of six locations mentioned above (where there have been casualties) are areas SSNP fighters have been heavily active.  The one exception is Raqqa’s countryside.  In June 2016, Syrian government troops alongside allied militias, briefly entered Raqqa province only to be repelled and pushed out shortly afterwards by the so-called Islamic State.  It is with this brief incursion a member of the Eagles Whirlwind perished.  However, similar to other examples, it appears this fighter, although an SSNP member, was fighting more with the Syrian army than a powerful SSNP contingent.

Are SSNP members fighting in Syria universally younger or older?  The average age of those who died fighting with the SSNP was around 28 years old.  The oldest, forty-two, was killed near Douma while the youngest was eighteen years of age and died in Homs.  Of the eighteen fighters mentioned, at least seven were thirty years of age or older.  However, I was not able to determine the age of five fighters.

Turning now to party membership.  Ten out of these eighteen SSNP fighters had a clear date as to when they joined the party.  Only two joined the Eagles of the Whirlwind before 2011 while the other eight were either in 2013 or some time after.  I mention 2011 in an attempt to discover whether a pattern emerges between the beginning of the war and overall length of party membership.  Several signed up as recently as 2015 (four people with the possibility of six), and thus, presents an interesting development for analyzing certain fighters on the front lines compared to their duration of time in the SSNP.  Out of the eight which could not be determined, two fighters were around the age of twenty when they died.  Assuming they enrolled in the Syrian army first at eighteen, it is most likely safe to say they joined after 2013 as well.  Albeit on a very small scale, this shows members are signing up to join SSNP’s ranks fairly recently (at least based on information from those who have died).  As opposed to those who have been party members for an extended period of time, prior to violence breaking out, losing their lives on the front lines.  Granted, this does not paint a complete accurate picture of overall party membership since just the fatalities are being examined.

There is debate surrounding to what degree the SSNP is a crucial fighting element for the Syrian army.  Adding to any confusion over just how independent the SSNP is from the Syrian army, half of SSNP fighters who died in 2016 only joined the Eagles Whirlwind after several military courses with the army.  Considering many weapons and vehicles in SSNP’s arsenal are courtesy of the Syrian army, and that the two fight side-by-side on several fronts, more analysis is needed to determine how much leeway members have in joining without first serving in the army.  Besides wearing seemingly identical combat fatigues at times, rendering them indistinguishable in appearance minus SSNP patches or flags, it is difficult to resolve how formidable their fighting prowess is outside of any Syrian army formations.  In stark contrast to the Tiger Forces or Desert Hawks and obviously Hezballah for example.  One of these SSNP members was still in the Syrian army reserves while another fought with the army where he was killed in Aleppo.  Hence, at times it appears the lines are blurred as to the sovereignty and independence of those wearing the al-zawba’a patch.  Another important disclosure: information on prior military service before fighting with the SSNP was not available for half of the deaths that occurred in 2016.

Finally, almost no one fought and died where they were born (including even geographically in the same province).  Granted, such data does not imply fighters were never active at some point near or in the same towns they were born.  This is mentioned because several speculations center around whether SSNP members are able to evade serving in the Syrian army, often times feared on front lines in distant provinces, to act instead as local protection forces in cities of their birthplace.  The SSNP’s Eagles Whirlwind are nevertheless engaged in very active battle zones throughout multiple regions in Syria.  Some of the more prominent or well – known areas and towns include the province of Hama- Salamiyah, Mahardah, Suqaylabiyah and Sahl al Ghab plains to name a few; Homs city, Sadad, al-Qaryatayn in Homs; the countryside of Latakia province-Jabal al-Akrad, Kubani, Kinsaba, Khammam and Salma; in addition to the cities of Aleppo, Zabadani; Douma; Suwayda; Quneitra; and the Qalamoun region.

Eagles Whirlwind in 2017:

According to official Eagles Whirlwind social media pages, three members have fallen so far this year in battle.  One fighter each from Salamiyah (Hama)—24 to 25 years old; Aleppo—39 to 40 years old and Douma—26 to 27 years of age.  The fighter from Aleppo seemed to be more of a symbolic presence alongside Syrian army troops and various militias while the other two died as part of operations with the army (one member who died in Salamiyah actually is said to have been within the army’s formations-adding to previously mentioned blurred lines).  Additionally, all three formally became SSNP party members within the last three years or so.

Interestingly, there is a split off branch from the SSNP’s Eagles of the Whirlwind also fighting with the Syrian army.  This group is called the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in the Syrian Arab Republic.  Apparently, Rami Makhlouf is their main supporter and members are more susceptible to Arabism.  One of these fighters was present when pro-regime forces advanced inside a de-confliction zone near the city of Tanf on the Iraq-Syria border.  The town hosts a base where U.S. and British special operations soldiers are training a rebel faction for future incursions into Syria’s eastern desert-near the town of Deir Ezzor.  Based on a SSNP social media site, this fighter ended up succumbing to his wounds on May 21st after coalition jets struck the convoy on May 18th.  He was a party member since 2008, and along with his brother who died in 2012, happened to be a founder of the NDF’s Idlib branch.  Pictured below is a “martyrdom” poster for this fighter killed near Tanf from SSNP’s group that broke away.  One can clearly differentiate between this and Eagles of the Whirlwind posters honoring their comrades.

SSNP in the Syrian Arab Republic member killed near Tanf

The majority of the eighteen fighters or so from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in the Syrian Arab Republic who have been killed since 2016 occurred primarily in Palmyra and Aleppo.  It does appear more fighters in this group fought around the towns they were born and rarely ever experienced combat in cities Eagles of the Whirlwind fighters were present.  Additional analysis regarding this development will be key in gathering potential negative effects from a split and any coinciding repercussions the SSNP’s influence may suffer as the Syrian war drags on.  Has the Assad regime strategized to split up armed groups gaining influence? Possibly a smart maneuver in order to gain more control over these militias which could one day threaten the regimes power.  In specific areas where rebels and jihadists were defeated, vast amounts of unmonitored armed militias roam the streets, surely Assad is plotting for what comes next to secure his grip.

Lastly, patterns are difficult to detect in only a year and a half.  As such, analysis within that timeframe may cause speculation.  This is understandable.  Moreover, lack of information on certain fighters coupled with an overall low death count makes sweeping declarations mere hypotheses.  Nevertheless, the intention of this article is to act as a starting point for future studies while also laying a basic foundation to garner a better understanding of SSNP activities throughout the Syrian war.  SSNP fighters are very active on multiple fronts across Syria, witnessing some of the more strategic battles, and low casualty figures since 2016 should not mislead such a fact.  The year 2015 saw far more activity for the Eagles Whirlwind.  More on that in the next paper.

[1] Appears he is the only SSNP fighter to have died since 2016 who was not born in Syria.  He was born in Choueifat, Lebanon.

— End —

The Source of SSNP Emblem or the Whirlwind
by Jesse McDonald

Following our previous discussion that sheds light on the Eagles of the Whirlwind in Syria since 2016, we turn to the emblem their SSNP party members display so proudly. Emblazoned with an eagle carrying the SSNP’s logo, the “whirlwind.” What is the inspiration for this symbol? A combination of a cross and crescent- signifying the unity and diverse makeup of the SSNP? Perhaps the Nazi swastika? Or perhaps something entirely different? The SSNP has vehemently denied any link between their emblem and the swastika used by the Nazis.

This photo shows the swastika on a Sumerian bowl from approximately 6000 B.C.
Now, I wish to expand on the early origins of al-zawba’a.

Symbols were often used throughout the ages in ancient cultures as a powerful form of expression. Spanning from South America to Europe and continuing to the Middle East, while also impressing India and China, such images were extremely meaningful and popular within these civilizations. They explained known facts while also depicting energy of the unknown (cosmic universe). It is from these early times the swastika symbol was revealed to the world.

Swastikas were a common geometrical pattern used in ancient art and did not have the same negative connotations it has today. The name swastika typically means “good fortune” or “well-being” in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. Illustrations of this symbol can be found all over the world dating back ten thousand years. Common to antiquity periods, symbols displayed in such a manner usually depicted energies of the universe fashioned around a center point. Notice the appearance of a whirlwind symbol in rotation along with an image of a swastika in the center below.

Photo shows the swastika on a Sumerian bowl from approximately 6000 B.C.
Moving away from the swastika for a moment. In this instance (SSNP), the universe is symbolized by a circle which is always moving. In the center is the mandala- a whirlwind that has a unique and close relationship with the circle. The center radiates towards the circle and the circle gives depth to the center. Why is this relevant? The SSNP believes this universe was centered in Syria when the land sprouted numerous advanced and powerful civilizations thousands of years ago.

Most of the Syrian legends revolve around various cosmic and human themes, most notably the emergence of the universe, creation, death followed by emancipation, conflict, construction, order, et cetera. Inheritance is the primary line, it is the indistinguishable energy and the symbol is the appearance of this energy. It is this focus on the centers energy, specifically marked by the universe and how everything radiates around it, the whirlwind image resonates with the SSNP. Fascination therefore does not appear to derive (although not ruling out any fascist inspiration considering the time period) from the Nazi swastika or a combination of a crescent and cross; both debated and contemplated in Western media publications.

The whirlwind inscriptions found throughout the Levant are also thought to be Phoenician. Antoun Saadeh chose the whirlwind as a symbol of the immortality of the Syrian nation, a symbol symbolized in more than a historical epic of the annals of Syrian history.

Saadeh expanded on the symbol when he said, “The symbol of the Whirlwind was found engraved on more than one fossil in Syria. It symbolizes the interaction of matter and spirit. It symbolizes life, survival, immortality and within the four corners of ‘freedom, duty, order and power.’”

It appears, contrary to popular debate, the SSNP logo derives from a symbol dating back thousands of years found throughout the Levant and Mesopotamia. All things considered, especially when examining their ideological outlook and affinity for ancient ‘Syrian’ civilizations who once dominated the region, this is actually not extraordinarily surprising.

The End of the PKK in Sinjar? How the Hashd al-Sha’bi Can Help Resolve the Yazidi Genocide

This article was published May 30, 2017 by NRT, a media service in Iraqi Kurdistan. The original article is available here. Photos and Images have been added to this re-post that were not present in the original.


Barber, Matthewby Matthew Barber

Sinjar is at a pivotal moment of transition and the next phase of its future will likely be determined by what happens over the next few weeks. This environment of change offers the US, UN, and EU a significant opportunity to help resolve the political crisis in Sinjar, and some specific recommendations for action will be detailed in this article.

Background on the Yazidi Hashd

Observers who have followed events in Sinjar over the past few years have probably seen the KDP-PKK rift as the salient competition in the area. This dynamic is now complicated by the presence of a third major actor, the Hashd al-Sha’bi and their quickly growing local Yazidi battalions.

The Hashd al-Sha’bi (or Popular Mobilization Units—PMU) are mostly known as a set of Shi’i militias, but the Hashd Body (or PMU Committee – هيئة الحشد), the institutional entity under which the Hashd al-Sha’bi are administrated, also serves as an umbrella for affiliated forces among many other Iraqi communities, including Christians, Turkmen, Sunni Arabs, and Yazidis.

Initially, the Hashd Body financially supported Haider Shesho’s forces in Sinjar (from fall 2014 to April 2015), but withdrew their support after his organization mismanaged Hashd funds, and more importantly, after Haider was politically pressured and attacked by the KDP (he was arrested and held for nine days in April 2015 by the KDP asaish). After this, the Hashd began financially supporting the YBŞ, a PKK affiliate in Sinjar mainly comprised of local Yazidis. Baghdad’s interest in supporting these local Yazidi actors who were in political competition with the KDP has to do with Sinjar’s status as a disputed territory to which Baghdad and Erbil both lay administrative claims. The Hashd Body suspended financial support of the YBŞ in October 2016 around the time when the battle for Mosul began, temporarily capitulating to KDP demands in order to maintain harmony among allies in this key operation. This financial support has now resumed, with salaries for the YBŞ having been paid again this month, the first time since October. However, it is uncertain how long this support will last, as this article will question the future relevance of the YBŞ.

In addition to the Hashd Body’s financial support for these Yazidi forces in Sinjar, a Yazidi Hashd force was also created, but it could not reach Sinjar to participate in the fight against IS, because these Yazidi forces were not allowed to pass through Kurdistan.  The Yazidi Hashd force was formed around a year ago by a Yazidi man from Khanasor who goes by the nickname of Khal Ali, but whose official name is Ali Serhan Eissa. (This name deviates from the common patronymic naming system, because Ali’s father’s name is Walati, but this name is not included in Ali’s official name. Walati was killed in Khanasor on Aug. 3, 2014 by IS, and his body is among those in one of Khansor’s mass graves. Khal Ali is therefore a genocide survivor who believed that a Yazidi Hashd force was the best option to provide security to Sinjar.) The initial Hashd force created for Yazidis was called the Lalish Battalion (فوج لالش).

The recent successes in the battle for Mosul have opened up access to Sinjar without the need to pass through the Kurdistan Region. Ever since IS took the Mosul, Tal Afar, and Ba’aj areas in 2014, the KDP has enjoyed exclusive control over civilian and NGO access to Sinjar from within Iraq, a factor that has led to political problems due to the economic blockade and other measures that have prevented Yazidi IDPs from returning to their homes. This is changing as IS is being cleared out of significant portions of the Nineveh governorate, which has allowed the Yazidi Hashd forces to reach the Sinjar area.

The KDP’s Failure to Liberate Yazidi Villages South of Sinjar

Aside from the smaller farming villages around the foothills of Sinjar Mountain, Sinjar’s main population centers are Sinjar City (the largest urban area, located on the south side of the mountain), and lines of large Yazidi towns on both the north and south sides of the mountain (called “collective villages”). All areas to the north of the mountain were cleared of IS in December 2014. In November 2015, the KDP Peshmerga led an operation to retake Sinjar City. PKK forces and their affiliates, not strong enough to retake the city on their own and without the US air support that accompanied the Peshmerga operation, joined in the brief campaign, which many Peshmerga commanders described to Western reporters as “easy” or performed with “little resistance.” Upon the completion of this operation, the Peshmerga did not establish the front line far enough south to place the city beyond shelling range; IS therefore continued to shell the city (beginning to use chemical weapons around February 2016), which resulted in ongoing injury to Yazidi Peshmerga and prevented the return of civilian life to the city. More important than the city (which is almost entirely destroyed) are the southern collective villages, where most of the Yazidi population of the mountain’s south side lived. Fearing that a large-scale return of Yazidi civilians could further degrade KDP influence in the area (while the PKK remains a very present competitor) and preclude the chance for the KDP to regain total control, the KDP has not moved forward on the liberation of the southern collectives and the Peshmerga have sat idle on the front line for a year and a half. Despite official rhetoric on “reclaiming Sinjar for the Yazidi people,” from November 2015 to the present, all of the Yazidi towns south of Sinjar have remained under IS control, even though in many cases these towns have been guarded by a minimal IS presence, and in all cases a presence far less significant than had been the case in Sinjar City. This, combined with the economic blockade designed to prevent Yazidi civilians from returning from the camps to their homes on the north side, even further exacerbated the sense of victimization that the Yazidis felt vis-à-vis the KDP.

These policies have contributed to significant frustrations among the Yazidi Peshmerga, who have not been equipped with the weaponry necessary to liberate their own villages—lying just a few kilometers away—and has produced the conditions favorable for the shift of support toward the Hashd al-Sha’bi, which is underway now.

The Current Hashd al-Sha’bi Operation in the Sinjar Region

On May 12, the Yazidi Hashd began operations on the south side of Sinjar Mountain. They began in the Tal Banat (southeastern most Yazidi collective village) and Nahiya Blej (Arab-majority subdistrict) areas. (This has been part of a larger operation to liberate the entire area from Qayrawan to Ba’aj.)

Hashd al-Sha’bi and Yazidi forces in the process to liberate Yazidis village south of Sinjar

When this operation began, Yazidis begged the Peshmerga leadership to give the order to cooperate with the Hashd and join the effort to liberate the Yazidi towns. This request was refused, leading to great internal frustration among the Yazidi Peshmerga who had long been promised that they would receive support to liberate their homes, but who have instead waited indefinitely.

Naif Jasso (rright), who left the Peshmerga May 15 to form a second Yazidi Hashd battalion, stands next to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis

Qasim Shesho (head of the Yazidi Peshmerga in Sinjar) has had 14 battalions under his command. On May 15, Naif Jasso, for whom one of the battalions was named, and his son Talib who commanded the battalion (which was stationed in the vicinity of the cement factory, several kilometers east of Sinjar City), left the Peshmerga with the men under their command and joined the Yazidi Hashd. Naif is from Kocho, the southernmost Yazidi town on the mountain’s south side, which was the site of the Kocho Massacre (Aug. 15, 2014), probably the single worst massacre of the larger Yazidi Genocide. Naif is the brother of Kocho’s mukhtar, Ahmed Jasso, who was killed along with the other teen and adult males of the town, in the massacre. (Naif was outside of Kocho when the massacre was conducted.) Naif and Talib had served in the Yazidi Peshmerga in Sinjar for about two years before dissociating from it.

From the 15th on, these former Peshmerga participated with the rest of the Yazidi Hashd in retaking Yazidi areas. Other Yazidi Peshmerga also left their units and joined the Yazidi Hashd, whose ranks quickly expanded by the hundreds. To accommodate this rapid influx of new recruits, a second battalion of Yazidi Hashd was created to function alongside the Lalish Battalion; the second force is called the Kocho Battalion (فوج كوچو) and is commanded by Naif Jasso.

Sinjar Yazidis Kocho Kojo Kucho Kujo

The second Yazidi Hashd al-Sha’bi Force, the recently formed “Kocho Battalion”

The Hashd in Sinjar (the two Yazidi battalions along with Shi’i Hashd al-Sha’bi) first liberated some of the Arab villages from IS control, and by the 21st they had fully liberated the Yazidi towns of Tal Banat and Tal Qasab.  On May 25th, Kocho was liberated. On the 28th, Elias Tala’, a Yazidi Peshmerga company commander left the Peshmerga with his men and joined the Yazidi Hashd. By May 29th, all of the remaining large Yazidi collectives (Ger Zerik, Tal Ezeir, Siba Sheikh Khidr) were under Hashd al-Sha’bi control and the Hashd forces completed the total elimination of the IS presence in the Sinjar Region.

Le Carabinier map of Sinjar Shingal Iraq, May 29, 2017 - Yazidis

Detailed map from Le Carabinier showing situation of militias in Sinjar as of May 29, 2017. Click map image to download full resolution map or visit his website.

The KDP Response: Propaganda and Arrests

As soon as the Hashd al-Sha’bi began liberating Yazidi villages, KDP officials and KDP media articles began to condemn the Hashd, demanding their withdrawal, and saying that “only the Peshmerga forces should liberate the remaining areas” or accusing Baghdad of “ignoring Article 140,” referring to the Iraq Constitution’s article about the resolution of disputed territories. It is brazen and even quite comical for Kurdish officials to invoke Article 140, considering the degree to which Peshmerga militias have unilaterally seized many disputes territories in Iraq, including Sinjar itself. Kurdish officials have also claimed that Baghdad is violating an agreement with the KRG, in which Baghdad had said that its forces “would not enter Kurdish areas.” Ironically, this position makes the KDP culpable for not liberating the Yazidi collectives sooner, as it places the onus of responsibility on KDP forces.

In a period of just over two weeks, the Hashd forces did more than the KDP Peshmerga had accomplished in a year and a half. Of course, the KDP is not happy amid their increasing inability to maintain the loyalty of their own troops, whom they have not helped to reclaim their towns.

During the week of May 14, Sarbast Lazgin, Massoud Barzani’s envoy in Sinjar, held a meeting with Peshmerga commanders and other local officials, ordering them to deal severely with any Yazidi from among their troops or tribes who supported or joined the Yazidi Hashd. Yazidis who were present in the meeting report that they were told to forcibly expel from Sinjar the families of anyone who joined the Yazidi Hashd. During the meeting, the KDP authorities said, “Anyone who joins the Hashd al-Sha’bi can leave Shingal and Kurdistan and move to Karbala or Najaf.”

Fakhr Khalaf Khoudeida, arrested May 24 after visiting his village, Tal Banat, on May 21

To try to prevent Yazidis from joining the Yazidi Hashd, the KDP began blocking all movement into the areas south of the mountain. In effect, they were preventing Yazidis from going to liberate their own villages. During the beginning of the operation, those desiring to join the Yazidi Hashd had to travel to the Kurdistan Region, then to Baghdad, then through liberated Mosul, and then finally to the Tal Banat/Tal Qasab areas. Despite these measures intended to prevent Yazidis from joining the ranks of the Hashd just a few kilometers away, many were willing to travel through the entire country to participate in the fight for their homes, and the ranks of the Hashd swelled by the hundreds from the outset. A number of Peshmerga also began to leave their posts during their shifts, weapons in hand, to join the Hashd. Some of these were apprehended and arrested as they tried to desert.

But in addition to the arrests of those trying to leave Peshmerga militias to join the Yazidi Hashd, on May 24, KDP asaish arrested a Yazidi civilian religious figure after he visited his own village, Tal Banat, newly liberated. The arrested man’s name is Fakhr Khalaf Khoudeida. He is a chilagir (چلەگر), one of a small number of Yazidis who adopt a holy, somewhat ascetic lifestyle, observing a 40-day fast each year. A possible reason for the asaish targeting him was that he met with many Hashd commanders, both Yazidi and Shi’i, including the controversial Hashd al-Sha’bi leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who participated in the operation to liberate the villages on the south side of Sinjar Mountain. Fakhr was photographed meeting with these commanders in Tal Banat, which, as a religious figure, lent an aura of legitimacy to the Hashd forces. Still, it was shocking to the Yazidi community that KDP forces would arrest a holy man who sought to boost the morale of Yazidi troops fighting IS on the front line. The episode reflects the growing insecurity that the KDP feels as they witness the popularity of political competitors who reject the KDP’s claim to administrative authority over Sinjar.

Fakhr Khalaf Khoudeida visits Shi’i and Yazid Hashd commanders, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, May 21 in Tal Banat or Tal Qasab

In the current situation, the KDP cannot use the argument that it directs toward PKK affiliates—that they are “foreign” forces. The Yazidi Hashd are not only comprised of local Yazidis from Sinjar, but they are an official force belonging to the central government. Nevertheless, KDP media has been describing the Yazidi Hashd as a “Shi’i force,” failing to mention the Yazidi battalions, just as they describe the YBŞ as a “foreign PKK” force and fail to mention their local Yazidi composition.

A Political Exodus

Eventually, the measures to prevent Yazidis from joining the Hashd forces broke down, as some Yazidi Peshmerga refused to enforce the order and began helping Yazidis get through to the south side of the mountain. Haider Shesho’s forces (which also belong to the Peshmerga) have lost significant numbers of men, as well, and Peshmerga defections have continued. Some locals estimate that the total number of Yazidis who have joined the Yazidi Hashd in the past couple weeks is nearing 1,000 (this does not include the Yazidi Lalish Battalion that existed before the operation).

The widespread readiness of many Yazidis to dissociate from the Peshmerga and join these Baghdad-affiliated forces is driven by growing dissatisfaction exacerbated by a number of factors:

– The families of these Yazidi Peshmerga are now nearing three full years in the camps with their lives on pause;

– For over a year they were prevented by the economic blockade from returning and rebuilding on Sinjar’s north side;

– The Kurdish Peshmerga Rojava now besiege the YBŞ, the main defender of Sinjar against IS, also harming the return of civilian life to Snune and Khanasor; and

– The KDP assisted Turkey in bombing the bases of PKK-affiliated Yazidis in Sinjar who have been at the front line with IS for almost three years.

This behavior was topped off by the refusal to allow the Yazidi Peshmerga to participate with the Yazidi Hashd in an operation to free their own towns—towns that the Yazidis have desperately waited to liberate. The KDP is finding itself on the wrong side of history in this development, as its policy pattern inadvertently produces the perception among many Yazidis that it actively works to thwart the fight against IS. More Yazidis are joining the Hashd every day, and though it is too soon to tell how far-reaching this trend will be, we could eventually witness at least a partial collapse of the KDP Peshmerga in Sinjar.

The Effect of the Hashd Presence on the Future of PKK Influence in Sinjar

Insignia of the Peshmerga Rojava, a force of Syrian Kurdish refugees recruited by KDP asaish out of refugee camps inside Iraqi Kurdistan and trained (with Turkish military support) to be KDP-loyal Syrian force that can compete with the YPG/PYD, currently besieging YBŞ positions in Khanasor, Sinjar

Most observers immediately assume that the new presence of the Hashd al-Sha’bi in Sinjar will be a boon to the local PKK affiliates. The YBŞ has been besieged by the Peshmerga Rojava for nearly three months, with its movements restricted and its fighters harassed by KDP asaish. Baghdad’s financial support for the YBŞ (resumed this month) and the new presence of a military competitor with the KDP would intuitively indicate an upswing in the fortunes of PKK affiliates. But in fact, the presence of this new “ally” will more likely spell the decline of PKK influence in Sinjar. Even if the presence of the Hashd alleviates some of the pressure facing the YBŞ, giving it a longer lifespan than would be the case if it had no support against KDP forces and Turkey, the relevance of the group over the long run may wane.

As I have written previously, Yazidis have hoped that the PKK role in Sinjar would be temporary. Most did not buy into the PKK’s larger ideological message but hoped that the PKK would act as a bulwark, preventing the KDP from regaining hegemony until the Yazidis could create a framework of self-administration. Many Yazidis have been wary of exchanging one form of single-party Kurdish rule for another, but joined the YBŞ and its related civil administrative entities (such as the “Self-Administrative Council”) hoping to resist the KDP’s attempts to restore its dominance until a new opportunity presented itself for the creation of a more autonomous form of local governance. In a sense, they have succeeded in this.

Flag of the Self-Administrative Council of Sinjar

As soon as the Hashd al-Sha’bi arrived on the scene, a crisis began inside the YBŞ. Yazidis are not only deserting the Peshmerga—the YBŞ is also losing many fighters who are flocking to join the Yazidi Hashd. Though Yazidis do not blame the YBŞ for not liberating the southern collectives the way they blame the Peshmerga (they know that the YBŞ have not been capable of doing it alone and yet have been highly active on the front line), other frustrations have led to a gradual increase of tensions with the PKK leadership.

Many fighters have been frustrated at the ineffectiveness of the YBŞ in countering the Peshmerga Rojava’s endeavor to thwart their mobility. The local Yazidis in the YBŞ are frustrated with the PKK leadership for not taking a tougher stance on Peshmerga expansionism in the mountain. But beyond these more circumstantial challenges, the biggest mistake of the PKK has been its inflexibility in pushing its ideological agenda, which is in many ways culturally foreign to Sinjar’s Yazidis. The Yazidis who have joined the PKK-affiliates and helped lead the Self-Administrative Council have repeatedly asked the PKK to empower them to create a more locally-specific system rather than one that has to mirror PKK institutions elsewhere. But as a former Council member confided in me, “What they promise and what they do are different.” Council members also feel that the PKK is not transparent with the Yazidi leaders about its own political agendas, which may not completely align with the goals of the local community. Though in word, the PKK always conveys receptiveness regarding Yazidi aspirations, many Yazidis feel that instead of delivering on these overtures, the PKK ultimately wants the YBŞ to be an extension of the PKK in Sinjar rather than giving it the freedom to be a locally distinct entity that is also part of Iraq.

Senior members of the Council are therefore leaving it, at the same time that many YBŞ fighters are leaving the YBŞ and joining the Yazidi Hashd. The changing affiliation of the fighters is being prompted by both the successes of the Hashd al-Sha’bi and the frustrations with the PKK leadership. An exodus is underway from both the military and civilian organizations affiliated with the PKK in Sinjar.

This could be the beginning of the end of the PKK in Sinjar.

The Misconception of PKK–Hashd al-Sha’bi Alignment in Sinjar

After Turkey bombed YBŞ and PKK positions in Sinjar, several media outlets reported that the PKK and its affiliates were beginning to fly Iraqi flags, as a way to assert that these forces and parties were part of Iraq and that by bombing them, Turkey was attacking Baghdad.

Flag of the YBŞ, a local Yazidi PKK affiliate in Sinjar

These reports were exaggerated; very few Iraqi flags were raised, and only by a few local institutions. The YBŞ and other PKK-affiliated militias did not adopt the Iraqi flag.

When, on March 27, the YBŞ began attacking IS from the west in the Siba Sheikh Khider area (as Hashd forces attacked from the east), the Hashd asked the YBŞ to halt their advance. One of the main disputes was reportedly that the YBŞ were not flying the Iraqi flag. A meeting occurred the morning of May 28 between YBŞ and Hashd leaders; the substance of the meeting is unknown, but afterwards the participation of the YBŞ in the Siba area resumed.

Though there has been a tacit alliance between Baghdad and the PKK affiliates in Sinjar (primarily in the absence of Baghdad forces proper), it is now evident that the relationship between the Hashd al-Sha’bi and the PKK will be uneasy. On May 28, Qasim Shevan (the commander of a nonpartisan force of local Yazidis who stayed to defend Sinjar after the genocide, who has remained active yet unaffiliated up to the present) declared his intention to join the Yazidi Hashd. He and his men attempted to travel around the western end of the mountain (from Khanasor through Bara where they would then be able to come eastward along the highway to join the Hashd), but at Bara, the PKK did not allow them to pass. The next day, May 29, fighters affiliated with “Ezidi House,” a Yazidi political organization that advocates keeping Sinjar under Baghdad administration, also decided to join the Yazidi Hashd, but were likewise halted at Bara by the PKK. This move would not have been at all surprising coming from the KDP, but was unexpected from the PKK and illustrates the fact that all three players have distinct agendas. (It is interesting that these groups were not stopped in Khanasor by the Peshmerga Rojava—perhaps the KDP feels that it can no longer stem the tide now amid the massive momentum.)

Yazidi Sinjar PKK Bara Qasim Shevan

May 28, Qasim Shevan blocked by PKK in Bara from joining Yazidi Hashd al-Sha’bi south of Sinjar Mountain

Here it should be pointed at that PKK personnel in Bara, and not Yazidi YBŞ, blocked the passage of these independent fighters traveling to Hashd-controlled territory. Yazidis on their own would not perform such a maneuver, but the PKK tries to guide the YBŞ into following its agenda. This was a fairly deliberate act against Hashd interests. What it underscores is the fact that despite the conflict between the PKK and KDP, both Kurdish groups see the entry of central government forces as a threat to their respective agendas in the area, and like the KDP, the PKK does not want to see large numbers of Yazidis join the Yazidi Hashd. (On May 30, the PKK finally lifted its blockade at Bara, and hundreds of new men immediately joined ranks with the Yazidi Hashd.)

One reason why the Self-Administrative Council has lost members is due to a frustration with the PKK on the issue of working with Baghdad, in particular. The majority of Sinjari Yazidis see the administration of the central government as providing a greater opportunity for local Yazidi governance in Sinjar, in contrast to affiliation with the Kurdistan Region which would never provide the opportunity for local administration separate from KDP control. The YBŞ and the Council, as local entities, have frequently tried to develop a relationship with Baghdad, but feel that the PKK has quietly worked to undermine this. As YBŞ insiders report, the essential PKK message is: “Sinjar is not part of Iraq and you are not part of the Iraqi forces.” That this attitude characterizes the PKK approach to Sinjar explains why there was little coordination between the YBŞ and the Hashd al-Sha’bi when the operation south of the mountain began this month.

Flag of the YJŞ, the female fighters associated with the YBŞ

Consistent with this, although some photos of a few YBŞ fighters standing with Shi’i Hashd al-Sha’bi forces were circulated on the 29th, claims of “cooperation” between the two groups are exaggerated. YBŞ forces came to support the fight for Siba Sheikh Khider in the general area outside the town, but their involvement was tenuous and the Hashd al-Sha’bi ended up preventing the YBŞ from entering the town. After the issue on the 27th-28th regarding the use of the Iraqi flag, the Shi’i Hashd al-Sha’bi commanders on the 29th expressed their objection to the participation of the female fighters of the YJŞ (female counterpart to YBŞ) on religious grounds. After then noting the presence of PKK guerrillas accompanying the YBŞ forces, the commanders decided not to allow any YBŞ forces to accompany the Hashd al-Sha’bi into the town.

If the Hashd forces develop a permanent presence in Sinjar, Baghdad may begin to see the PKK affiliates as superfluous. The PKK presence may also be seen by Baghdad as a risk in that it could provide Turkey with a pretext for ground intervention, however unjustified such action would be.

Sinjar—A Part of Iraq?

Sinjar has always officially been part of Nineveh administration and the central government has always provided the budget for almost all of Sinjar’s services and infrastructure. Since 2003, however, the KDP has used strong-arm tactics to push out non-KDP affiliated administrators, giving its own loyalists complete control over a budget that does not originate with the KRI. Ask almost any Sinjari Yazidi—in private—what they think of the KDP-appointed Yazidi officials in Sinjar and prepare for an earful of derision. Officials such as the token “mayor” of Sinjar can legitimately speak for very few Yazidis.

Referring to disputed territories, a recent Rudaw article made the claim that “most of the local population is expected to vote for full integration into the Kurdistan Region.” In regards to Sinjar, the opposite is true. Ask Sinjari Yazidi IDPs in the camps—or those families who have returned to Sinjar—in private whether they prefer to see Sinjar remain under Baghdad administration or become an official part of the Kurdistan Region, and most everyone will declare a preference for Baghdad. This is not the expression of a special affinity for Baghdad, or even a rejection of the Yazidi homelands as part of a “greater historical Kurdistan.” Rather, it is about the fact that central administration provides an opportunity for governance in Sinjar to bear a more local character in which Yazidis will be able to manage their own affairs and security without external pressure and cooptation. This preference is not a wholesale rejection of the KRG as much as an acute awareness of the fact that Erbil’s authority over Sinjar will inescapably mean KDP rule. Overtures of “Yazidi self-administration within the KRG” are misleading and meaningless.

Baghdad is competing with the KRG for administration in many areas of Iraq. Sinjar—the site of a recent genocide—needs to be dealt with separately from other areas. Whereas Kurdistan may have legitimate claims to certain disputed areas, Sinjar is a Yazidi homeland where the majority of the population maintains a preference for local administration rather than inclusion in the KRI.

Despite this talk about referendums, we will never see the KDP push for a referendum on Sinjar because they know that the local people will not support KDP administration there. Regardless of the KDP’s ceaseless claims to this disputed territory, they cannot overcome the simple fact that the local majority prefers to work with the central government.

An Iraqi Yazidi Solution

In October 2014, I joined a delegation of Yazidis to Washington that included tribal leaders from Sinjar. In the White House, we met with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes who worked closely with President Obama to define US policy in the Middle East. In the meeting, the Yazidis asked the US administration to empower them to create a local, nonpartisan security force for Sinjar. Rhodes replied that the US was willing to support a Yazidi component within a theoretical Iraqi national guard system. Unfortunately, that support never appeared and the political competition over Sinjar has only further deteriorated.

The new role of the Hashd al-Sha’bi, and of its affiliated Yazidi battalions, provides an opportunity for Western governments to help end the standoff between external Kurdish parties and enable the Yazidis to accomplish what they have consistently asked the international community for since the first day of the genocide: nonpartisan security, administration, and governance, managed by local Yazidis from Sinjar and—appropriately for a context of genocide—sponsored by the international community.

Yazidis are not calling for the kind of autonomy that the Kurdistan Region enjoys within Iraq’s federal system, but rather envision the opportunity to manage their own homeland—as part of a unified Iraq—free of the scourge of single-party rule external to Sinjar. The US and other Western governments can help hold Baghdad accountable in guaranteeing a local, Yazidi administration in Sinjar.

That so many Yazidis are now joining the Yazidi Hashd creates an opportunity to develop this local security force. The Yazidi Hashd can be transitioned into a permanent, local force in Sinjar that does not necessarily need to remain a part of the Hashd system, but could be administered by the appropriate ministry in Baghdad.

Many of the Yazidis who joined the Peshmerga in Sinjar will disclose that they only did so for a salary and do not possess any real loyalty to the KDP. As Yazidis in the KDP Peshmerga and PKK affiliates join a nonpartisan security force (just as they are now leaving their respective militias to join the Yazidi Hashd), the competition on the ground in Sinjar would be rendered irrelevant and the influence of these Kurdish parties would decrease. This would occur without an outbreak of conflict between the KDP Peshmerga and the Yazidi Hashd, as opposition to a new security order will not be significant if the ranks of Peshmerga continue to dissolve. The same will be the case for the YBŞ. We have observed a refusal among the Yazidi Peshmerga to fight any other Yazidi force, which is why the KDP instead sent the non-Yazidi Peshmerga Rojava to besiege Khanasor, backed up by additional Peshmerga from the Gergeri population of Zummar who have occupied Snune. Most Yazidis just want to live a simple life in Sinjar, and will wholeheartedly reject party politics, if a healthy alternative is provided.

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The PKK and its affiliates will always be deeply respected by Sinjar’s Yazidis for saving them when IS besieged Sinjar Mountain, for helping the Yazidis maintain the most effective front line resistance against IS in Sinjar thereafter, for supplying tremendous amounts of food aid to Sinjar for well over a year after August 3, 2014, and for building schools and health centers for IDPs who built their camps on top of the mountain. Nevertheless, the long-term objectives of the PKK in Sinjar are not fully compatible with what the majority of Yazidis want for their homeland: a peaceful area that avoids becoming embroiled in national and regional politics, or pressured to adopt identity definitions imposed by proponents of competing nationalisms.

The new presence in Sinjar of forces affiliated with the central government has immediately diminished the importance of both the KDP and the PKK in the area. If Yazidis continue to join the Yazidi Hashd battalions, the PKK will steadily fade in importance, even if some die-hard members who have fully embraced PKK ideology remain active. The ranks of the Yazidi KDP Peshmerga will probably continue to decline, but with the Peshmerga Rojava and KDP asaish in the area, the KDP will endeavor to forcibly maintain its presence. The international community can facilitate the transfer of authority to the new Yazidi security system while helping the KDP accept the fact that it has lost the contest for popular legitimacy in Sinjar.

KDP administration in Sinjar is spotty at best and by no means indispensable: it currently exists alongside the YBŞ-affiliated Self-Administrative Council—two civil administration systems simultaneously claiming legitimacy in Sinjar. Despite the return of several thousand families to Sinjar’s north side, the KDP has been unable or unwilling to provide much in the way of restored infrastructure or services. If the responsibility for and means to maintain security are transferred to politically-unaffiliated local leaders with good reputations among the people, the community can choose respected representatives to work with the central government in developing legitimate administration in Sinjar.

The UN, US, and a number of European governments have all recognized the Yazidi tragedy as genocide. The urgent priority, therefore, should be facilitating the return of the Yazidi people to their homeland (which is now completely free of IS) and assisting with the reconstruction of their infrastructure and homes, without the harmful presence of Kurdish militias. If the roles of PKK and Peshmerga militias are reduced, and security responsibilities are transferred to a legal, local, nonpartisan Yazidi force, a major step will be taken to end despair-driven emigration from Iraq and ensure the future survival of this minority in its homeland, in the way that they themselves are requesting.

This is an opportunity that must be seized now.

China, the U.S, and the Future of the Middle East – By Sam Farah

Sam Farah

China, the U.S., and the Future of the Middle East
By Sam Farah
for Syria Comment – May 1, 2017

Richard Fontain, and Michael Singh propose Chinese – US cooperation to stabilize the Middle East in a recent article:

The United States and China undeniably have overlapping interests in the region, providing a possible basis for competition, collaboration, or both. They also share a modest record of cooperation, including the Iran nuclear negotiations and on antipiracy operations…. Given the likelihood that the United States and China will remain at loggerheads in East Asia for the foreseeable future, the Middle East could represent an important arena through which to lower bilateral tensions and demonstrate that the otherwise highly competitive relationship need not be zero-sum.

Fontain and Singh are correct. The benefits of a cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China in the Middle East can have tangible benefits for both countries. A stable Middle East is at the heart of China’s new vision for its One Road One Belt project, a strategy that underlines China’s push to take a bigger role in global affairs.

The increased instability and radicalization in the Middle East poses a security threat to China’s mainland.  Thousands of Chinese jihadists from the western province of Xinjiang have come to Syria since the country’s civil war began in March 2011 to fight government forces. And in 2016 a suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in the Kyrgyz capital was ordered by Uighur militants active in Syria.

At the same time, the Middle East has become a major source of energy for China.

And while the Middle East remains a security threat for the U.S. as a source of terrorism, it is less strategically important than it once was. The U.S. has become more energy self-sufficient, and is projected to significantly cut its reliance on oil from the Middle East.

In the same article, Fontain and Sing make a misguided proposal that the U.S. should reengage in the region the” traditional way”:

The best way for Washington to minimize the opportunities for further inroads by Beijing or Moscow—or at least to set the framework by which other external powers engage in the region—is to shore up key relationships with allies like Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf states.

This traditional engagement will polarize the Middle East further, and exacerbate the war in Syria.  U.S. officials know that these allies are arming and supplying the most radical terrorist organizations including ISIS and Al Qaeda in their bid for regional influence.

The traditional U.S.  peace-building effort in the Middle East has focused on individual conflicts and has yielded precious little despite intense effort by several American administrations. Neoconservatives, who argued that the promotion of liberal democracies is a precondition to peace in the Middle East, have pushed for regime change in many countries in the region, only to see violence, extremism and terrorism reach new heights, all at a huge cost to the American taxpayer.

The Chinese approach to the Middle East will be different. According to Yang Guang, the Chinese solution would pair a regional approach with economic development. This is a much different and likely a better approach to peace building in the Middle East. It is clear that the Syrian crisis is a regional war, and the Kurdish issue is a regional issue as is the Israeli – Palestinian issue. The Chinese would also have an easier time than the U.S. facilitating dialogue in the region. China won’t be viscerally rejected by the leftists in the region, and is less suspect than the Europeans whose colonial history in the Middle East has never been forgotten.

The current conflicts in the Middle East are not primordial. The same communities that are at war today have lived peacefully together for centuries. According to Philip Mansel’s book Levant; Splendor and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, many of the cities in the Levant were multicultural, multilingual and mixed; mosques, churches and synagogues were built side by side. Trade bound its inhabitants, and their cities were at once Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. They were cosmopolitan then, as Singapore, London, and New York are today.

The descent of the Middle East into what seems today as perpetual war began with the rise of nationalism in the Middle East at the turn of the twentieth century.

When it comes to the Middle East today, all the major global powers are engaged in reactionary stopgap measures. What the region needs is a departure from nationalist and identity politics.  Creating the conditions and framework in which nationalistic and identity politics dissipate, allowing for communities to live peacefully side by side is the answer. That won’t happen at the bilateral level; it requires a regional approach.

A stable Middle East, neutralized political Islam (depoliticizing islam), and secure energy and trade routes are a win-win for Russia, China, and the U.S., not to mention Europe.

Neither China, the U.S. nor Russia can do it alone. It is also doubtful that any of these major powers want to “win” in the Middle East and be held solely responsible for the stability and security of the region.