Mahdi al-Harati: a Libyan Force Multiplier

By @tamhussein

Mahdi al-Harati

Sitting across Mahdi al-Harati in the hotel lobby it is difficult to see why anyone would want this quiet Libyan dead. His insulin rests on the low table alongside his sugarless coffee and with him is his over-protective doctor and friend. But you need to look closer, there is his trademark military cap worn even inside the lobby, accompanied by wrap round shades; the sort you see spec-ops wear in the Homs desert. His sleeves are rolled up and a hardy watch is attached. There is also the matter of his khaki trousers and his boots un-naturally polished; he is like a retired colonel unable to let go of old habits. These were signposts that hinted at some other person that resided within the recesses of this gentle Libyan.

Should that person within awaken from his slumber, I suspect Harati would stop worrying about the plumber turning up to his flat and he’d scarper off across Iraq, Gaza, Egypt, Libya and Syria like some mad Super Mario chasing that illusive world promised by the Arab Spring. In that mode Harati is a force multiplier; he fights, unseats dictators, conquers cities and sets up fighting battalions. To the powers that be he is chaos personified. And as such the Saudis have designated him a terrorist, the likes of Assad, Hezbollah, pro-Gaddafi factions and Gulf monarchs prefer him martyred than lounging around with me in a hotel in Valetta, Malta.

Some though believe that no one wants to kill him at all, this is just an old has-been charging at windmills and actively myth-making like a Libyan version of Giuseppe Garibaldi.  It is hard to discern whether he is fully aware of what he is doing; like the Italian nationalist, he has an air of naivety. The man sends you emojis in the morning with a cute school girl saying ‘yes Sir!’ and yet Malta Today reported that following his involvement in a knife attack, Harati requested that his name be omitted in court ‘due to expected repercussions in Tripoli’. And yet whilst he is conscious of the media he’s not firing off tweets, Facebook posts and so on, nor does he give interviews to just anyone. He granted me one on a personal recommendation.

Interviewing Harati was probably similar to the uncomfortable feeling that the journalist Spencer Ackerman had with General David Petraeus: there’s an element of Stockholm syndrome. I went in with the intention of not being complicit in perpetuating a myth. But it felt like a perverse encounter between Ulysses and a Siren who doesn’t sing and looks like a roughneck. Harati makes you party to an intimacy, the fraternal kisses on the cheek, the coffee served by his own hand, the phone call to make sure you got back to the hotel and the feeling that he would lay his life down for you. It is disarming. In his behaviour you will find all the qualities you read about in the books of Arab literature on the quintessential Arab aristocrat, and what is worse he does it effortlessly with out any affectation.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

Cynical Western journalists might write him off, his opponents too for that matter and yet there is something of the Garibaldi in Harati. For did Garibaldi not fight with the red shirts in South America, invade Sicily, hold off Napoleonic France in Rome for three months -strike a pose- and then retire to his island with a sack of potatoes? Except of course that Garibaldi lived in an age where the heroic tradition was still alive and that he had the stage to perform his heroics. Harati doesn’t make sense to us because we have more or less discarded that tradition. But to many Arabs and Libyans the likes of Harati make perfect sense. And so what seems to Westerners as a self-serving commander charging at imaginary windmills full of bombast is not viewed in the same way on the Maltese corniche. Accompany him down the promenade, his compatriots invite him for a sit down and coffee, a shake of the hand here, a touch of the breast there. In these men, the heroics of their Islamic and Libyan past are still alive. This is why many stand up in homage and respect when Harati walks past. And this is one of the reasons he could achieve his feats, because there are men who live the epic heroic poem in this day an age.

Harati like Garibaldi, is from an illustrious house, he is of the Ashrāf and he knows it judging by the fact that he often refers to himself in the third person. Ashrāf are families linked to the history of Islam who brought or perpetuated the faith, at its apex were the descendants of the Prophet. In the past, these noble families were like the Medicis and the Borgias without their murderous instincts, they were expected to lead in both the worldly as well as the religious sphere, they had social responsibilities, possessed refined manners and were patrons of the art. These families despite taking a buffering from modernity, still play an important role in the dynamics of the Middle East and it is interesting that many Libyans ascribe to Gaddafi a poor lineage; from being of rough beduin stock to a son of a gypsy to having a whoring Italian father. The term Ibn al-Halāl, the son of a virtuous woman, still rings true in Arab culture. So the echoes of this responsibility is still felt today amongst some Ashrāf families; Harati took on this responsibility because his family took it seriously. In fact, they opposed Gaddafi; in 1981 his uncle Mohammed alongside seventeen other members of his family ended up in the Libyan equivalent of the Bastille, the notorious Abu Salim prison described so evocatively by Hisham Matar’s The Return.

Harati himself had to flee to dusty Cairo with his siblings and mother when Gaddafi threatened another cull in 1989. At fourteen, he tried to enrol into al-Azhar, one of the Muslim world’s oldest religious seminaries, but the Egyptian security services, working in tandem with the Libyans, bundled him into a van. He spent roughly five of his teenage years humiliated, screamed at, beaten and moved from one prison to another often with sacking over his head. The victors were those whose spirits were unbroken. And yet somehow, he used that time to memorise the entire Quran, that again raises him in the eyes of Libyans and Muslims. To be a Hāfiz, a memoriser of Quran, made him special in the eyes of God and in turn Muslims, and he would most certainly be pushed forward to lead the congregation in prayer, and have a duty to teach others Tajweed, the art of Quranic recitation, and be an example to the Muslim community.

Harati is taciturn about how he managed to escape Egypt but he reached Dublin in 1996. Apart from the gloomy weather, he loved Ireland because he could be whoever he wanted. There was no need to worry about that rap on the door in the middle of the night. He married, became a father, his heart hardened by the cruelties of prison were softened by the sound of his children. But Harati never forgot those hard years and continued to agitate and cultivate his relationships within the Libyan diaspora. And whilst he was not affiliated to any political party, he was an Islamist through and through. If Garibaldi’s political outlook was tempered by Mazzini in Geneva, Harati’s political outlook was tempered by the political tradition of the Irish; without doubt one of history’s great underdogs with the soul of poets.

But that does not explain how Harati went from teaching Quran in Firhouse to becoming the leader of one Libya’s most powerful battalions and then go on to set up one of Syria’s earliest brigades Liwā al-Ummah. It is difficult to even picture Harati barking orders or raising his voice. Harati explains it thus: he learnt all about the importance of organisation, military uniforms, badges, cleanliness and discipline from administering this little school in Firhouse, Ireland.

And yet his opponents are sceptical, this is romanticism. In our age can Harati’s rise simply be explained by his administrative skill however superb, charisma and distinguished lineage? He must have had outside support that cultivated his talents; all number of foreign patrons are bandied about: Qatar, CIA, the Muslim Brotherhood and others.

Mahdi al-Harati and Houssam Najjair in Syria with Liwā al-Ummah battalion

Admittedly, whilst Harati downplays his contacts with NATO, his brother-in-law, Housam Najjair says otherwise; in his memoir’s Soldier for a Summer Najjair reveals that NATO officers visited the Nafusa mountains offering Harati, albeit limited assistance, and Harati accommodated their requests by getting rid of military equipment that might end up in the wrong hands. Other fighters also claim that there were “French, Qatari, and CIA support for him so he had military advisors n (sic) stuff and liaison with NATO.” But the involvement of outside support was an accepted reality in the Libyan conflict and not unique to Harati. As one British Libyan fighter recalls even Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda, was advised by “three British operators…they were talking about where to put the HESCO walls and where to put the optics.”

Perhaps circumstances thrust itself onto Harati the way it thrust itself on Toussaint Louverture, the black plantation owner turned general in the Haitian revolution of the 19th century? Harati is a great believer in Destiny; that he at one moment in the Middle East’s history was the instrument of God’s will. Now that sounds fantastic to Westerners who have long discarded God but to Libyans, Arabs and indeed many Muslims, that resonates, as the Prophet Muhammed says not even a leaf falls except that God has allowed it.

But few realise that Harati has combat experience in Iraq and was fighting the Americans well before Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi came on to the scene. This to his followers isn’t coincidence, but the Hand of God preparing him for his future. After demonstrating against the invasion of Iraq alongside fifteen thousand Irishmen on the streets of Dublin, he publicly announced his intention of standing with the Iraqis. In 2003, he flew into Damascus and found himself on the hot white marble floors of the Ummayyad Mosque. Syrians lined up to register for the ‘jihād’ and were herded into busses by men with Baathist mustachios, shades and tattoos of Assad.

“I realised” he recalls, “that the Syrian regime was getting rid of disruptive elements of its population. So I organised my own convoy.”
His convoy made it to Baghdad’s military barracks where he prepared for the US invasion. He didn’t need lessons in wielding a Kalashnikov he had learnt that in Libyan schools; not just ISIS taught its pupils how to use one. And yet, the irony of fighting on behalf of Saddam Hussein didn’t escape him: here he was, someone who had suffered at the hands of a tyrant, preparing to defend another tyrant.
“People” he says in justification, “were telling me that Saddam had changed over the last years”.
And Harati gives him grudging respect because he took on the Americans and died defiant till the very end.

Morale melted away with Apaches on the horizon and Abrams tanks spewing shells and diesel smoke. After a month, those chants of ‘God is most great’ and oaths swearing ever-lasting loyalty to Saddam quietened and Kalashnikovs were abandoned. He recalls trying to fend off the Americans in one of Baghdad’s entry points whilst his comrades-in-arms scattered and told him to make a run for it. But where to? He was stranded.
“Keep your mouth shut” Iraqis warned him, sectarian militias roamed the streets and would take him for an insurgent. He travelled through the Iraqi desert sometimes on foot, sometimes by car until he reached Jordan where he was repatriated by the Irish embassy. He returned defeated but that too had its lessons; he learnt how to cope with the intensity of war and realised that the legitimacy of any government lay in the streets.

Mahdi al-Harati kissing President Erdogan

Post-Iraq Harati saw his stature increase and his continued political activism in real terms were growing, so much so that the Libyan security services tried to kidnap him again in 2007.
“It was” Harati recalls, “in close coordination between the Libyan and Egyptian security services and two Englishmen, we found out their names in a report after entering Tripoli.”
In 2010 his credentials grew more in the eyes of his Libyan compatriots, Harati was on the Freedom Flotilla trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. He was injured whilst Israeli commandos attempted to board the ship. He ended up in an Istanbul hospital bed courted by all those in search of a photo opportunity. President Erdogan, a man Harati admires, paid a bedside visit and so too surprisingly, did the Libyan ambassador, Mr. Ahmed Qaddaf al-Dam. The latter made him an offer that few men would refuse. According to Harati, he had become a hero for the Palestinian cause and the Libyan regime who had always made a great show of defending Palestinian rights, wanted to co-opt him and use him as a propaganda tool. The ambassador offered him amnesty and an absurd amount of money on condition that he return and reconcile with the regime. Harati makes the moment one of high drama, “I swear to God I will only return when I land in Libya to overthrow your government.”  That as he tells it, came to pass.

When Bouazizi, a Tunisian vendor, set himself alight the stage was set, except of course Harati had a slipped disc and was watching the news from a hospital ward in Ireland. Indolence makes him ill. As the Ben Ali clan fled to Saudi Arabia with his country’s gold ingots, the revolutionary fever spread to Tahrir Square, Egypt.
“Perhaps” said Harati, “Libya would be next”. It was here that his fellow Libyans started to gather around the Sheikh looking to him for guidance. It was the most natural thing to do. So many men turned up that the doctors restricted visiting hours. He threw his crutches away and headed towards the Egyptian embassy railing against the Mubarak regime on his loud speaker. He says that Tahrir square itself heard his speech, he is after all half Egyptian on his mother’s side. Meanwhile in Benghazi and Tripoli family members were disappearing and choppers were strafing his friends. He believed the dictator would only go through force of arms. In fact, Housam Najjair too confirms that Harati spotted it first. As the Arab proverb goes ‘he who wants the rose must put his hands through the thorns’.
And so like many Libyans from Dublin, London and Manchester, Harati flew to neighbouring Tunisia where he was respectfully denied entry; despite the Jasmine Revolution the Tunisians had inherited a functioning state that still considered him Persona Non Grata. Cairo too would refuse him entry. In the end it was a Sudanese Imam and an Afghan veteran who petitioned the Sudanese government to grant him a visa to get to Libya.

He flew into Omdurman and was given a state reception complete with red carpet, several civil servants, military and intelligence officers. Harati was puzzled, all he wanted was to reach Kufra; instead he was having high level talks with Sudanese intelligence officers.
“So Sayyid Harati” one said, “how can we help?”
“Just let me go to Kufra.”
“Why? You’ll be killed! Who are you meeting there?”
“I am meeting someone there.”
“I see, are you al-Qaeda?”
“No of course not!” Harati understood there and then that the Sudanese viewed him as a potential partner. The downfall of Gaddafi would mean an end to their own political troubles.
“Still” said Harati, “we honoured them and reciprocated the help they gave us during those times. So the Sudanese intelligence services escorted me to the border where I was met with smugglers who worked with both governments.”
Harati and his two smugglers travelled through the desert vastness relying only on the starry constellations. Half way through the journey, the driver asked:
“So where exactly are you going?”
“Kufra?” said the driver amazed, “are you insane?”
“Why? I thought it had been taken by the rebels.”
“No, it’s still under Gaddafi’s control. You’ll be killed.”
“Look, my friend told me to get to Kufra and look up that man, once he meets me all will be well.”
“So who is it you are meeting?”
“I am meant to meet Abdel Salaam.”
“Do you know where his address is?
Harati shook his head.
“They both looked at each other,” recalled Harati, “you are lucky, the men who will take you the rest of the way are his nephews. The man is well known in town.”
Harati made it clear that yet again Providence was supporting this venture, “when you have a pure intention God will aid you.”
At dawn, they saw the lights flashing in the distance. Harati joined his contact and they drove to Kufra. When Harati entered the town there was a standoff between between rebel and regime supporters, fortunately for him, Kufra was a one tribe town and did not kill its own kinsmen easily, whether he be a rebel or regime supporter.
Abdel Salaam did not know of Harati’s coming.
“I have come to join the rebels” explained Harati.
“What do you mean?”
“But I thought you would help me, I thought you were expecting me.”
Abdel Salaam went white, he sent his nephews away for fear that Harati’s presence would put them in danger, then he called Harati’s man in Benghazi. “You checked out” said Abdel Salaam, “if you stay here you will be killed.”
Abdel Salaam drove him to the rebel base and Harati stayed there for nine days. From there, he travelled to Ajdabiya where he claims Providence again intervened, for he turned up at a three storey family home which unbeknownst to him belonged to family friends he knew in Ireland. That house became one of his headquarters when they attacked Brega.

The Libyan Revolution as a British Libyan fighter recalls was a “proper proletariat revolution not a civil war like Syria. The war itself had a party atmosphere.” And it may explain why Harati was so suited for the task. When Harati entered Benghazi he found Libyans of all ages unified only by their determination to overthrow Gaddafi but lacking in direction and experience. The fighters were according to the British Libyan fighter brave, “everyone from the dumbest kid to the top people were brave because the casualty rate was so high. Remember the main body of fighters are kids with Call of Duty experience, they follow anyone who looks and sounds like a leader.” Harati looked and acted the part, “everyone liked him. He played a very important part. He was a confident and a good leader. He also looked good which in war zones is important. The better kitted out you looked compared to the rag tag kids the more respect you got, like he wore his armour and his hat and sunglasses. So he looked tactical, people listened to him, respected him and followed him.”
What was more he kept his tactics simple which was important in controlling the anarchic citizen militia. Initially, he set up and trained a battalion in a school in Benghazi but as the battle moved towards Tripoli, Harati began to think about how he could cut the distance between himself and the capital. So relying no doubt on his family credentials, he approached the Berber Sheikhs of Zintan and negotiated a deal where he was allowed to move his battalion to the Nafusa mountains. Thereby shortening the distance between him and Tripoli and attracting young eager Tripolitanians like the eighteen year old Ibrahim al-Mazwagi and other British Libyans to his camp.

“You know you have leadership” says Harati, “when the men you are fighting with do not want you at the front and tell you to lead from behind. When you share their dangers, when you deem them precious and put yourself on the line for them, they will give you leadership.”
In other words, there was no need for him to shout. Harati says that his battalion was different from the other battalions, it was characterised by uniforms, ranks and drills. He saw his battalion as being disciplined but the reality maybe somewhere in between anarchy and good order. Going by the account of his brother-in-law, the revolutionaries ripped up the uniforms to personalise it according to their style. When Harati tried to impose a no smoking ban the policy failed miserably. As one fighter told me “we were eighteen nineteen year olds wanting an adventure. But like sometimes people would wake up like groggy and go ‘ah not feeling to go jabha [front] I’ll see you guys later’.”
So perhaps it wasn’t as disciplined as Harati remembers it, but still the rules of war was set down, non-combatants, prisoners were to be treated well, and all this according to his faith.

Al-Harati and Abdel Hakim Belhadj (centre)

As Tripoli beckoned, the nascent political rivalries that currently divide Libya emerged. There were other battalion commanders who were also trying to make it to Tripoli first; not all were willing to cooperate. Some leaders felt that international partners were essential in winning. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former Gaddafi Justice Minister, would probably say that this is the way of the world. But even though Harati’s battalion accepted help from NATO it was an uneasy relationship. As Harati recalled it: “Why were they needed?”
Whilst he did not meddle in the affairs of the Berber leadership, he did not allow himself to be under the orders of NATO. As Harati closed in on Tripoli, one journalist told me, he had to be “accommodated”.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Abdelhakim Belhadj, the founder of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, asked Harati if he could be under their authority. It was clear from Harati’s smile that he didn’t like the idea of being associated with Belhadj or being under him for that matter. He was well aware of his own capabilities and should have been his equal. Harati made it clear that he had met him briefly and did not share his political outlook nor his alleged links to al-Qaeda. The fact that NATO gave its blessing to that arrangement was curious given its hostility to the likes of Belhadj. That being said, unity had been achieved to all outward appearances and Harati expected to go straight to Tripoli.

Harati claims to have planned the conquest of Tripoli meticulously for months in advance. His men were already on the outskirts of Tripoli when Mustafa Abdul Jalil radioed ordering him not to enter the capital.
Harati didn’t want to wait for the rest of the forces, “we need to go in now” he said. Time was of the essence. He claims that the National Transitional Council chairman, Abdul Jalil, threatened him with NATO air strikes if he proceeded any further. He shook his head as he recounted it, he didn’t have time for glory hunters. This was a moment of action, not diplomacy. He told Abdul Jalil that he would speak to his men and get back to him. Meanwhile Harati sent his satellite comms away to the mountains in case the Americans decided to have an ‘accident’ and discharge some hellfire missiles on his person. Then he gave the order to take the rest of the city; resistance crumbled. He only radioed Abdul Jalil once the city had fallen. One can only imagine Abdul Jalil’s reaction at that moment. Harati’s unilateral actions had made him the conqueror of Tripoli, a folk hero, but he had also created powerful enemies. Now that power had been restored to the people, Harati like some sort of Cincinnati, put his weapon down and returned to Dublin in 2011.

Back in Ireland Harati fell ill again, most likely suffering from inactivity. In bed, he watched a Syrian apocalypse unfold. He got out of bed and flew to Turkey and sneaked into Syria, Jebel Zawiya, on a fact-finding mission. There he met Jamal Maarouf, a smuggler and soon to be a disgraced corrupt rebel leader, the late Abu Abdullah, the founder of Ahrār al-Shām and others. According to Harati, the Syrian rebels welcomed him as a brother, but the regime also knew that he was there and made a concerted effort to capture him. It was the presence of the likes of him that gave Assad the excuse to cite foreign elements destabilising Syria.

Harati’s face changed as he remembered how they were surrounded; an Imam they had visited only days ago had his head stuck on a pole, Vlad the Impaler style. Harati was in his element; he operated best when the conflict was simple, one of Light against Darkness, Good against Evil. He phoned his wife and told her that the Syrians needed him and that he would probably not return.
Using his tried and tested formula he set up Liwā al-Ummah, a battalion based in Marrat Numan, it believed that Jihād, the right to defend oneself against a tyrant, was a religious duty. He infused it with organisation, badges, uniforms, drills and as a sign of his awareness of social media gave them a media wing too. And so there we have him on Youtube in full military gear striking that pose, Osprey body armour, revolver, wearing that trademark cap he still wore in our interviews, reciting Quran and exhorting his men before going into battle. This may appear to the Western journalist as bombast, but incorporate his past, his religious learning and of course his military experience and sprinkle it with Quranic verses and you have the beginnings of a mythical hero in the eyes of his supporters.

Harati in Syria

His eyes sparkles as he talks about how he planned lightning fast smash and grab operations against regime bases such as Taftanaz airport in 2012. Certainly, analysts like Aron Zelin believe that Liwā al-Ummah acted as a force multiplier rather than actually leading the conflict.
But then Harati didn’t want to lead, in fact he dismisses the commonly assumed accusation that he filled his battalion with Libyans; there were only thirteen Libyans at the most, and the rest were Syrians. In his view the revolution would only be successful if Syrians took ownership of it. Harati claims to have brought Col. Riad al-Assad out of the Turkish refugee camps and back on to the battle field in an effort to unify the ranks. Col. Assad would be a symbol of the revolution, to lead the FSA and he pressed on Ahrār al-Shām, a major Islamist battalion, to work with them, reminding rebel leaders that it was the Syrian people who had given them legitimacy not the other way round.
In the early days you didn’t need three months ideological indoctrination to participate in the revolution, the enemy was clear: Assad, that was enough to give the rebels legitimacy. He kept on saying it even when, for the first time, al-Qaeda sent people to find out about him. But in the end no one listened. Perhaps he was too independent, perhaps as he claims, there was “no end goal that you are working towards” and the leaders fell under the sway of foreign powers and started to keep him out of important decisions.
“after I left,” he says, “who filled the vacuum? DAESH. So am I really an extremist? Everyone but my enemy knows this.”

In Post-Gaddafi Libya it is easier to be a militia commander, ‘a protector of the Revolution’, riding round in a Pickup with a mounted Doschka and Kalashnikov rather than donning the suit and engaging in the politics of state. And it was in civil society where the military hero Harati clashed with the reality of running a state. When Harati returned to Tripoli in late 2012, he was buoyed by his reputation, he stood as an independent candidate for the Tripoli mayoralty and won in the summer of 2014. But unlike his career as a military commander Harati’s career as a mayor lasted only a year. His assessment; he introduced an Irishman’s efficiency to the administration.
“Before,” he beams, “the Libyan government would break diplomatic protocol and visit the US embassy where they would have to be searched.” Now “they must come to us and be searched and obey the rules,” he went as far as to apply EU directives on his administration introducing a no smoking policy in government buildings. How successful that policy was is difficult to assess considering that he failed to apply the no smoking policy on his own Tripoli brigade.

Others question why he only lasted a year if he was so brilliant? Harati blames Machiavellian treachery. Whilst on a trip abroad, his political enemies schemed to get his cabinet to give him a vote of no confidence. Multiple accusations abound about him during this period, he was accused of being Qatar’s man or CIA’s man. When you ask him about the story of the CIA money found in his house in Ireland, he shrugs it off as a made up tabloid story.
“It was a thief who told that story.” He said it with such finality that I was almost ashamed to probe further. His enemies accused him of corruption but nothing to this day, has stuck. Perhaps the fact that all sides accuse him of being in the other man’s pockets implies that Harati might actually be his own man and had paid the price for having no political allies. Fathi Warfali, a friend and a former member of the Tripoli Revolutionary Council suggests that Harati’s lack of political allies lay him open to broadsides from his enemies.
His supporters believe that Harati was not allowed a chance nor a budget to implement the policies that were needed and so it wasn’t his fault that he failed. His opponents though are not as generous, some complained that as a mayor his primary concern should have been the city itself, what was he doing jet setting from one European city to another to meet with foreign dignitaries when his remit was Tripoli?
Harati’s failure as mayor was probably more to do with an inability to deal with cloak and dagger politics of Libyan society. Like a Garibaldi, he was simply outmanoeuvred by seasoned politicians. The vote of no confidence resulted in his resignation and self-imposed exile in Malta.
“Now” he says, “battalions can wave a gun at a government employee to sign some papers, mayors get kidnapped, not in my day. In my day you left your gun outside of the building, employees got paid on time. Rubbish was collected”
Clearly Harati pushes the idea that things are always worse after he leaves. But what seems clear though is that men in Tripoli also ask ‘what’s he up to these days?’ Perhaps, Harati failed because the mundane activity of ruling, was simply the wrong stage.

On my last night in Valetta, Harati was perturbed. President Trump had made his first congressional speech. You might forgive Harati for that; the World gets perturbed every time Trump tweets.
“Did you see,” he asked, “how Trump said he wants to fight Islamic terrorism?”
It was just one throw away line I thought-relax.
“What if,” he insisted, “Trump decides to fund the dissidents and opposition currently training in Chad funded by Egypt?”

If Harati is right, would that relentless nature awaken and wish to return? What if the Libyan political environment becomes primeval again: revolutionaries versus counter-revolutionaries, Light against Dark. Would he or could he return? Garibaldi periodically intervened in various Italian and European adventures; would Harati?
But Harati cut me short.
“I was probably right for the time and maybe useful later” he said as if the age of heroes had ended. He pointed to the Afghan warlord Hekmatyar’s recent return to the peace talks in Kabul, “he was not suitable during the Afghan Jihād but now, twenty years later, he is reaching out to the Taliban to try to negotiate peace”.

Harati might be accused of having illusions of grandeur, but six years on perhaps he is right, the time for the heroic commander is over. Whilst he got elected on his achievements, the fact that he only lasted a year was also a sign that things were changing even before he resigned the mayoralty. In 2013, a 460 page report commissioned by the British MoD entitled A Behavioural Dynamics Approach to Stability in Libya made a wide range of strategy recommendations going as far as encouraging Libyans to join the Eurovision song contest, to promoting Manchester United, all the while offering a detailed study of how Libyan society works. One observation was: ‘traditional structures are no longer effective sources of leadership. Tribal sheikhs, religious leaders and now central government are often viewed as out of touch with modern Libya. They are accorded only nominal respect, and have limited influence.’  Perhaps this is where Harati belongs; a man with nominal and symbolic influence; what he could do during the revolutionary period- the ‘heroic period’, he cannot do now. The report also said that ‘most of the instability currently prevalent in the country can be directly attributed to groups reacting to or taking advantage of the lack of direction, communication and progress of the government of Libya.’

Today the situation is worse. A Tripoli based business man, Ahmed (name changed), also a revolutionary, warned me that Libya is on the brink of a civil war that will destabilise the whole region. Legitimate authority, in the shape of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj lacks credibility on the ground. Haftar’s supporters, the Madakhila, control the pulpits of Tripoli, carry weapons, are involved in kidnapping and extortion. They have replaced the Sunni Maliki indigenous scholarship in the country with a sub-branch of Salafism whose philosophy is that there cannot be any rebellion against the ruler. Ironically, the Madakhila are using guns to impose this view of anti-Islamism. As a threat to stability they surpass the inter-tribal rivalries between Zintan and Mistrata and Misrata and Tripoli and so on. As the Libyan businessman told me: “May God forgive me, even if the Messenger of God was sent down to Libya he would not be able to rule them! Because they have failed to seize the golden opportunity offered to them.”

To Ahmed the future looked bleak but Harati is curiously optimistic: “The fear is gone.” The rough and tumble of Libyan politics is good for the people, no tyrant will ever be able to control them. And in many ways, despite the chaos, Libya has thirty TV channels, around sixty odd radio stations and three hundred print publications. That is remarkable progress, considering that half a decade ago the country was under a brutal totalitarian government. And yet, whilst the fear may be gone, Libya’s destabilisation has consequences for Europe. Libya has already become a hub for human trafficking exporting the downtrodden of the earth and given birth to wretched young men who blow themselves up in European cities just as the MoD paper predicted in 2013. Perhaps what Libya needs more than ever are statesman, and whilst Harati might suffer from myth-making tendencies he has put his gun away and subdued that relentless nature of his. Perhaps other militia commanders should do the same for the sake of their country. Ironically, history might just remember the restless Libyan for opting for the quiet life (for now at least) just like the Italian nationalist Garibaldi did, sailing off to Caprera with a sack of potatoes in hand, having unified his country.

Iraqi Minorities Face a Dilemma in Kurdish Independence

By Saad Babir

After gaining control of much of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State jihadist movement (IS) and other Sunni extremists committed grave atrocities and international human rights violations against non-Sunni minorities, including perhaps the most extreme crime of all, the genocide that was perpetrated against Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. As IS is gradually defeated on the battlefield, another fear looms ahead for these persecuted groups.

Despite the overwhelming objection of many international and local parties, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) will mostly likely hold a referendum for independence on September 25 in the KRI’s official governorates of Erbil, Suleimaniyah, and Dohuk, as well as in the disputed territories of Kirkuk, Nineveh Plain, and Sinjar.

Ethnic and religious minorities inhabit the disputed territories, which are heterogeneous in population and present different concentrations of Iraqi minorities including Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shabak, and Kakai—minorities that have long suffered threats and persecution. But today, they face another dilemma.

The minorities face two challenges: the potential for immediate danger ignited by the process of independence itself, and secondly, their rights being jeopardized under future separate states of Kurdistan and Iraq.

In the KRI, religious extremism has expanded significantly in the past ten years, paralleling the general increase in religiosity. The number of mosques in the region now exceeds the total number of schools, universities, and hospitals combined. Concerns that religious extremism could increase in the future causes alarm for non-Muslim groups. Studies have shown that around one thousand Kurdish youth joined IS, suggesting that Kurdish societies have serious issues with radicalism that must be addressed.

While the KRI is mainly ruled by nationalist parties that are not ideologically invested in Islamic beliefs, non-Muslim minorities fear that this might not hold in the future and that, as in other Middle Eastern countries, religious attitudes will eventually become dominant.

More importantly, the process of independence itself could be threatening to minorities, especially since the primary areas inhabited by minorities are located almost exclusively on the borders of the KRI, meaning that if Kurdish independence were to be resolved through military means, these areas would be the first to be hit by war. Not only would this delay the return of IDPs to Yazidi areas, but it could even make their return impossible.

Minorities in Kurdistan often claim that they are being used by the Kurdish political parties for political advantages. The referendum was designed to take place without input from the KRI minorities and their political opinions were not solicited. However, some groups have gone ahead and submitted written recommendations or demands. Assyrians, Armenians, and Turkmen have submitted a paper with fifty demands to the High Committee of the Referendum. These demands mainly ask that religious and ethnic rights to be preserved in the new state and emphasize that autonomous administration of their areas should be granted.

Yazidis, the largest ethno-religious minority, will also be participating in the referendum according to the KRG’s plans. Yazidis, like others, are divided on the issue of Kurdistan’s independence; however, most Yazidis will probably stay away from voting.

The Yazidi political elite close to the KDP have been involved in promoting the referendum; however, the general Yazidi public appear to be highly disengaged from the process and to largely reject the referendum on an emotional level.

The disconnect between the Yazidis and the KRG, specifically the KDP, is the result of widespread mistrust. Many Yazidis believe that when the KDP security forces withdrew from Sinjar in August 3, 2014, they abandoned their military obligation and civic responsibility to protect the area, thereby making it easy for IS to commit genocide against Yazidi civilians.

Yazidi support for Kurdistan independence will not be free; if the Kurdish leadership want Yazidis to be on their side, they must commit to serious steps including bringing those who abandoned Sinjar to justice, assuring Yazidis of their rights under the constitution, accepting Yazidis as a group with a full set of rights as an ethnicity and a religion, and guaranteeing autonomy for Yazidi areas in Sinjar and Sheikhan.

Religious groups are also concerned about the demographic changes to their homeland.  Many areas that were once considered homelands for Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, and Kakai in the Nineveh Plain have been altered over the past ten years. Kurdish Muslims have systematically settled in these areas, pushing out the indigenous people.  These changes continue today.  For example, the percentage of Yazidis in the total population of the Sheikhan district, north of Mosul, was around 85 percent 30 years ago. Today, the ratio of Yazidis to Muslims has significantly decreased, with the percentage of Yazidis now estimated to be below 30 percent with Kurdish Muslims around 70 percent.

The Yazidi town of Bashiqa is experiencing similar demographic changes and other Yazidi areas have been (and will continue to be) impacted, as well. The Master Plan for the City of Dohuk, designed in 2010 by the Ingenieurbüro Vössing Germany—Erfur Company (intended to be completed by 2032), would turn Yazidi lands in the Shaariya plains south of Dohuk City into a new suburb of Dohuk. Shaariya is one of the last few Yazidi-majority areas inside the KRI.

The conversation surrounding Kurdish independence also ignores the demands of religious minorities to establish safe zones for their populations in Sinjar and Nineveh Plain under international protection, with the help of both the United Nations and the European Union. These demands can also take the form of self-administered local government and security forces to ensure the stability of minority areas without the meddling of external political parties. No matter how these desires are articulated, with the current political fight between the KRG and Iraq, it is unlikely that anyone will pay attention to the plight of minorities.

Minorities face two options: first, to be part of the State of Iraq, meaning they will have to co-exist and live with the Sunni Arabs encircling them. With a distant Baghdad, this option remains risky and uncomfortable for all non-Muslim minorities.

The second option is to accept the de facto control of the KRG and become part of a newly formed Kurdish State. With all of the challenges detailed in this article, it is clear that this option is also fraught with risks.

The sad plight of Iraq’s minorities today is that there is no clear path to security and survival. Without the concerted involvement of the international community, we may witness the continued decline of these populations, as they continue to emigrate from the country.

Saad Babir has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Dohuk and has worked in the past as a journalist and human rights activist, especially concerned with issues facing the Yazidi component of Iraqi society. Saad lost his brother and two cousins in the attacks against the Yazidi people and now works to help survivors of the genocide. He hopes to contribute to efforts to prevent future genocides against minorities.

Kurdish Independence and the Unheard Yazidi Voice — by Murad Ismael

This article was originally published Sept. 22, 2017 on al-Arabiya and can be accessed here.

by Murad Ismael

Yazidis have a population of about a half million people in Iraq. Their voting power in the upcoming independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) marks nearly ten percent of eligible voters, which would suggest that the beleaguered minority group has an important political voice. However, the Yazidi voice is muted and most Yazidis will likely stay away from the ballot boxes—and for good reasons.

The referendum is on schedule despite the furious opposition of key regional, local, and international players. The neighboring states of Turkey and Iran have expressed their disapproval explicitly or implicitly (or by conducting military drills), threatening a violent response or economic sanctions.

In Iraq, the parliament rejected the referendum, the supreme court ruled for suspension, and PM Abadi even threatened military intervention in the case of violence against “Iraqis.” Within the KRI itself, Kurds are deeply divided: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is the driving force behind the referendum, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is supportive but less enthusiastically, and Goran – the Change Party – is opposing firmly.

The White House announced that US does not support the referendum and the US State Department has declared its strong opposition to the referendum’s “unilateral action” toward disputed territories. The UK, UN, EU, Germany, and an international coalition of 69 countries all share the US view.

Kurds’ Desire for Independence

Amid all of the clamor, the Yazidis remain vastly silent. Yazidis are sensitive to the Kurds’ overwhelming desire for independence, a desire that is rooted in the fabric of Kurdish society. This desire is driven by a 70-year-long Kurdish quest for human rights and dignity. Yazidis do not want, or intend, to oppose Kurdish aspirations.

The Kurds have suffered greatly under successive Iraqi regimes, which has involved the mass killing of civilians in the late 1980s, the use of chemical weapons in Halabja, the destruction of many villages, and the collective subjugation to prejudice similar to what Yazidis suffer today.

However, the aspirations of the Yazidis are distinct and the Yazidi Genocide conducted by the Islamic State (IS) has resulted in the formation of a new Yazidi Identity. These factors come with new political consequences.

I recently spoke with Said Saydo, a physician among the Yazidi diaspora community in Germany, who expressed that many Yazidis wish that they had been consulted prior to the launch of the referendum about such a “sensitive and fateful” step.

He told me: “In principle, there is no doubt that every nation has the right to self-determination, and for this reason, our vision is that this referendum is a legitimate right for the Kurdish People, but with regard to Yazidis in the region, their voices have again been undermined.” Saydo also shared his view that “Yazidis and other minorities should also have the right of self-governance in any future configuration of the post-IS Iraq.”

Complicated Relationship

The relationship between the Yazidis and the Kurds is more complicated than ever. Some Yazidis consider themselves Kurds while others consider themselves ethnically Yazidi or as an ethno-religious group distinct from the Kurds.

The relationship has had many historical ups and downs and we can confidently say that it is going through a deep down now, mainly due to the Peshmerga’s withdrawal from Sinjar in 2014, in addition to the ongoing unfair treatment of Yazidis inside the KRI, which takes different forms, including depriving them of true freedom of choice in politics and the freedom to express their views.

Independence for Kurdistan would mean a great deal of uncertainty for Yazidis, given that most of the Yazidi homelands are disputed between Baghdad and Erbil and the inclusion of these areas in the KRI has never been resolved. Fear and uncertainty about the referendum are causing chaos in the camps and over 1,000 Yazidi families have returned to Sinjar this week, as they worry about potential instability and violence.

If the Kurds gain control of all of the disputed territories that they are seeking to annex to the KRI, Sinjar would be located on the southwestern border of the new state, bordering a Kurdish part of Syria and a Shi’i PMU-controlled part of Iraq to the south. The inclusion of Sinjar in a theoretical Kurdistan would mean that the new state would need to secure a long, porous, and sometimes hostile border of more than 500 km—a border that won’t be easy to secure in times of conflict.

Including Sinjar in an independent state would also mean that a line would have to be drawn inside Sinjar itself, which would divide the historical Yazidi homeland into three parts: a Shi’i controlled area in the south, a PKK controlled area in the west, and a KDP-controlled area in the north. In other words, only a portion of the Yazidis’ Sinjar homeland would become part of the new Kurdish state.

The Yazidi areas in the Sheikhan district are less complicated than Sinjar in term of geography. Lalish, the holiest Yazidi temple in the world, located in the district, is situated on one of the biggest oil fields in the country, the Sheikhan Oilfield, with an estimated 639 million barrels of oil beneath it, making it worth around $39.95 billion. This constitutes another stake that could lead to civil war over economic resources.

Between Two States

Other parts of the Yazidi historical homeland outside of the KRI include Bashiqa and Bahzani, a town of 50,000 that is located only 20 km from Mosul. It is another site of potential economic value as it is a target of oil exploration. When future lines are drawn, this area will most likely fall under the territory that will remain part of the Iraqi state due to its proximity to Mosul.

This means that if Kurdistan were to push forward with independence, the Yazidi community could be divided between two states. The Yazidis themselves are divided on the issue of the referendum. It is likely that most people of Sheikhan support the referendum while those of Sinjar oppose it.

If the Kurds move toward independence after the upcoming referendum, there will be only two paths: a short and bloody path toward a one-sided declaration of independence within a few years, or a long and uncertain process that will take as much as decades of negotiations.

Neither of the above scenarios is helpful to the Yazidis. The first path would mean that all Yazidi areas will be battlefronts and the destruction of these areas will eliminate the possibility for the return of the people.

The second path would mean that Yazidi areas will remain under the “disputed” classification and will continue to be neglected and competed over by both Baghdad and Erbil. Both options would likely lead to borders that would be drawn in the heart of the Yazidi homeland, dividing it into several parts.

It is undeniable that the Kurdish People have suffered greatly under regimes in Baghdad, Ankara, Tehran, and Damascus, and that if there is one people on earth who deserve the right to statehood, it should be the Kurdish Nation.

But for the Yazidis, the situation is much more complex, and if anything, the feeling of their majority on the eve of this referendum is fear and uncertainty, a fear that keeps them silent and will probably keep most of them away from the ballot boxes.
Murad Ismael is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Yazda, the US-based global Yazidi nonprofit, non-governmental organization providing advocacy, aid, and relief. He tweets at @murad_ismael.

KRG Targets Minorities Ahead of Kurdistan Independence Referendum — Part One: Exploiting the Yazidi Genocide

Part Two of this two-part series, on the efforts of the KDP to annex Assyrian Christian areas of the Nineveh Plain to the KRI, can be accessed here.


Kurdish nationalism Bradley Brincka Chamishko camp 2017 Ezidi Yezidi Yazidi

Large signage placed in the Chamishko IDP camp near Zakho for displaced Yazidis. The imagery includes Masoud Barzani’s face above the Yazidi Sharfeddin Temple in Sinjar, scenes from the Yazidi Genocide, and Peshmerga with the Kurdistan flag. The Kurdish text reads: “For the commemoration of the Shingal Genocide—Shingal, through its tragedy, has brought forth the spirit of humanity and proved its Kurdishness.” (Click for full image) Photo: Bradley Brincka, May 2017


By Matthew Barber

The long struggle of the Kurds to achieve liberated status in a region that has oppressed them for generations has inspired many around the world who have sympathized with and supported the Kurdish cause. For those of us who have long believed in the right of Kurds to attain the same dignity deserved by all human beings, a referendum on Kurdistani independence should be a joyous occasion. But unfortunately—and sadly—the upcoming referendum is tainted by deceptive political agendas. The referendum is not simply about Kurdish independence; it is being used as camouflage for an attempted land-grab of minority regions that are not part of the Kurdistan Region.

Some of these minorities are not Kurdish, such as the Christians of the Nineveh Plain whose homeland is now being targeted with annexation. Others are Kurdish-speaking but do not consider themselves proponents of Kurdish nationalism, the particular identity markers and language of which are articulated or appropriated by dominant political parties. What these different minorities have in common is their rejection of being annexed into the KRI and ruled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The hope of Kurds is that independence will be a moment of healing after a long legacy of suffering in which Kurds, as a minority in Iraq, were targeted with tremendous political violence and oppression.

But of course, Kurds are not a minority in northern Iraq, where other minorities are now targeted by Kurdish security forces in ways that are reminiscent of the oppressive measures previously used against the Kurds themselves.

This is the tragic fact of today’s political situation in Iraq: The legacy of Kurdish suffering is dishonored by the unethical tactics used to crush minority opposition to assimilation into a Kurdish political order.

At camps for displaced Yazidis, the KDP asaish often restrict visitation of foreign journalists and researchers, arrest Yazidis engaging in peaceful demonstrations, evict families if a member joins a rival political faction, and erect signage such as that seen in the above image. This begs the question: can a fair vote among Sinjar’s Yazidis in the upcoming Kurdistan independence referendum really be conducted?

Nechirvan Barzani Exploits Yazidi Genocide Commemoration to Attack Baghdad

The beginning of this past August marked the third anniversary of the Yazidi Genocide. In Dohuk on August 3, 2017, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani gave a speech at an event commemorating the Yazidi Genocide.

Nechirvan Barzani Dohuk Yazidi Genocide Commemoration Anniversary August 3 2017

Nechirvan Barzani speaks at Yazidi Genocide commemoration, Dohuk, August 3, 2017 — Photo: Rudaw.

In the speech, Nechirvan attempted to shift responsibility for the abandonment of Sinjar from the Peshmerga onto the Iraqi army. In the process, he made a number of false and misleading statements that sidestepped some uncomfortable realities about the Genocide—problems that will not disappear but which will become part of the historical memory of that fateful day.

Revisiting the heartbreaking moment when the Peshmerga vacated Sinjar as the jihadists approached, Nechirvan repeated the tired claim that the Peshmerga were not sufficiently equipped to defend the Yazidi people, because they lacked adequate weaponry.

Nechirvan should be asked how it was possible that handfuls of Yazidi farmers with hunting rifles were able to prevent IS jihadists from conquering certain parts of the mountain. In 2015 and 2016 I met and interviewed many Yazidis in Sinjar who live off herds of sheep and goats, or wheat, barley, and vegetable farms, who showed me how they were able to keep the jihadists out of a number of little villages—tiny enclaves nestled into the foothills of the mountain. If local people with no combat training, military equipment, or advanced weaponry were able to use the high ground to prevent the jihadists from taking the mountain, imagine how much more effective the defense could have been if the Peshmerga had stayed. Even if the Kurdish commanders felt unable to defend the larger Yazidi communities in the plains near the mountain, they could have remained on the edges of the mountain and provided cover to fleeing civilians, keeping IS away while facilitating the evacuation of the many thousands of fleeing families.

Instead, they fled the entire region and left the civilians defenseless, after promising to protect them.

In his speech, Nechirvan focused on the collapse of the Iraqi army, and avoided drawing attention to the fact that it was the Peshmerga who controlled Sinjar, not the Iraqi army, prior to the Genocide. He also emphasized that Iraqi weapons fell into the hands of IS after the Iraqi army collapsed, which he says made it impossible to defend Sinjar, but he failed to mention that many of these weapons likewise fell into the hands of the Kurds. If fact, entire weapons depots in Nineveh were seized by Kurdish forces. Further, the Peshmerga in Sinjar had looted the weaponry and vehicles of sections of the Iraqi army stationed in the Sinjar area, as well as those of Iraqi troops who did not dissolve, but who stayed and defended Tal Afar until eventually being forced to withdraw. The “we had no weapons” excuse is baseless and a lie.

Nechirvan also didn’t mention that on August 2, 2014—the day before the Genocide—the local Yazidis asked Peshmerga and asaish leaders whether they should evacuate the area. They were told to remain in their homes, promised that they would be protected, and in some cases those who decided that despite these assurances they still preferred to leave were even prevented from evacuating. Survivors from some families reported that after they loaded their cars with supplies and their children, the asaish or Peshmerga guarding their village entrances would not allow them to leave, but instead mocked them: “Don’t you feel cowardly and ashamed to be running away from your land when we are here protecting you?”

Nechirvan blamed the inferiority of Peshmerga weapons for the withdrawal. This makes one wonder why the Peshmerga then refused to leave any behind for the Yazidis, many of whom were committed to remaining and fighting to protect their families. On the south side of the mountain, a large group of Yazidi men—armed with only their personal weapons—held off the IS advance for hours, until it appeared that IS might give up trying to attack that area, but were finally defeated because they ran out of ammunition. If the Peshmerga felt that they had to leave the area because of inadequate weaponry, why did they refuse to leave behind any of those sub-par weapons to the Yazidis who were begging them to leave anything that would help them defend their families?

As I have written about before, the IS attack was not a surprise, but was well-known in advance. The Peshmerga withdrew once it was known that Sinjar would be attacked, but too late for civilians to properly evacuate. The Peshmerga took their weapons with them because the withdrawal was planned and organized, not a spontaneous, haphazard collapse that might have occurred if the enemy had been engaged and proved too powerful. As Yazidis begged them to leave weapons behind, and asked why the Peshmerga refused to do so, Peshmerga commanders responded, “This is against our orders.” In Zorava, a Yazidi town on the north side of Sinjar Mountain, several Yazidi men—desperate for weapons to protect their families—tried to seize some Peshmerga guns as the Peshmerga were heading back to Kurdistan. The Peshmerga fired upon them, and at least two Yazidi men were killed. It is a tragic fact of the Yazidi Genocide that on August 3, prior to the IS slaughter that would ensue, Yazidis had already been killed by the Peshmerga responsible for protecting them.

The Mechanic Who Saved a Mountain

Just as farmers were able to keep IS out of a number of little enclaves in the foothill of the mountain, the mountain itself never fell to IS. If it had fallen, not only would the displaced Yazidis who fled there have been slaughtered, but IS might still hold that defensible territory. The mountain was saved, in part, because of an accident.

As the Peshmerga withdrew, one of their vehicles broke down on the main road leading from Sinjar City up the mountain. The vehicle had a heavy weapon mounted on the back. The Peshmerga just left the vehicle sitting in the road. Later the same day, as the jihadists began pursuing the Yazidi civilians who were fleeing up the mountain road, a poor Yazidi mechanic with no military background climbed into the vehicle, took hold of the gun, and aimed it at the ascending IS forces. Because of the high-ground advantage, this single weapon was enough to halt the ascent of the jihadists, buying time until US airstrikes helped guarantee that IS was not be able to advance on the mountain itself. The mechanic may have single-handedly saved the mountain from IS.

Qasim Derbo Yazidi mechanic Sinjar Shingal Ezidi

Qasim Derbo

Sinjar Mountain was saved by a weapon left behind by the Peshmerga, not in response to the pleas of the Yazidis, but because the Peshmerga did not have time to fix a vehicle. If handfuls of farmers can keep jihadists out of mountain villages, and if a mechanic with one gun on the back of a broken-down pickup truck can stop the IS army from climbing the main road up Sinjar Mountain, imagine how much more effective the defense would have been if the Peshmerga had stayed and fought alongside the local Yazidi people.

Later, the KDP put the poor mechanic, named Qasim Derbo, on their payroll, as they typically do, and made him a “commander.” Rural people with no feeling of personal power, no education, and no voice in politics can be easy to intimidate or control. A common KDP tactic is to try to convert any person of influence or popularity—a religious figure, tribal leader, renowned fighter—to the party in order to attempt to create legitimacy in the eyes of the people. You can imagine how, after Qasim Derbo’s act of heroism, he would have been a prime target for such a tactic.

Once Qasim Derbo was assimilated into the KDP collective, they then built a monument to the incident, memorializing the vehicle and placing a large image of Masoud Barzani next to it.

monument to Qasim Derbo incident truck Barzani saving Shingal Sinjar Mountain Yazidi Ezidi Yezidi

Two combined images showing the monument to the incident of Qasim Derbo’s heroism with the adjacent Barzani signboard. (Click for full image.) Photo: Bradley Brincka

Such is the brazenness of this hypocrisy: Presenting an instance of cowardice and negligence as the selfsame group’s bravery and heroism.

The Broken Logic of Blame

In the first couple of years after the Genocide, the KRG would not use the language “Yazidi Genocide” (which is still often the case within the country, as the first image in this article, of the sign in Chamisko Camp, demonstrates). In previous commemorative events on the Genocide’s anniversary, officials called it “the Sinjar crisis” or the “Sinjar genocide.” Though it is nice to see the Prime Minister now calling the event the “Yazidi Genocide,” the ongoing attempts to avoid responsibility do not help.

Together, Nechirvan’s statements comprise the following logic (main ideas are followed by actual example quotes from the Aug. 3, 2017 speech):

1) The central government did not provide the Peshmerga with the weapons they needed:

“The Iraqi government never gave weapons to the Peshmerga as part of the Iraqi defense system.”

2) Because of this, it was impossible for the Peshmerga to defend Sinjar:

“When ISIS came with those weapons they were more advanced than our Peshmerga. And with the old weapons they had in their hands there was no way the Peshmerga could defend Shingal.”

3) This is just another reason why we Kurds cannot work with Baghdad any longer and need to vote on independence now:

“This is what makes us lose hope that Baghdad could ever solve the Kurdish issue, this is what makes us not trust Baghdad again. … Unfortunately, we have no hope that Iraq could get better. We tried every way with Iraq but we have completely lost hope. Our past experience with Iraq has led us to this conclusion that there is no way we could defend ourselves and our rights in Iraq. … Therefore, in order to maintain and protect our peace and coexistence we will have to show our ambitions to the whole world in a referendum.”

4) Sinjar’s participation in our independence referendum gives it legitimacy:

“The voice of Shingal in this referendum is very important because it is the voice of the Anfal genocide and the voice of the pains of our people. It will be a call for freedom from subjugation and slavery.”

Nechirvan’s statements are offensive to the survivors of the Genocide. Whether a calculated decision or simply sheer cowardice, the Peshmerga withdrawal allowed the Yazidi Genocide to take place. Everyone knows the truth about Sinjar, and the excuses that KDP officials continue to repeat are downright embarrassing.

Yazidi survivors of genocide do not need more empty and false excuses—they need a genuine apology. That KRG officials cannot honestly face up to these facts continues to be a painful thorn in the side of those who lost everything.

Yazidis of Sinjar Cannot Vote in the Independence Referendum

Claiming that Sinjar will somehow meaningfully express its will regarding the Kurdistan independence referendum belies the fact that it is impossible to conduct a vote among the scattered Yazidis now inhabiting camps in the KRI, Syria, Turkey, Sinjar, as well as among those who have taken refuge in Europe, Australia, and North America. Since Sinjar is a disputed territory, and not part of the Kurdistan Region, it is unclear why or how the people of that area would be able to weigh in on Kurdish independence—no referendum has ever been held to allow the people of Sinjar to vote on whether they want to join the Kurdistan Region or remain under Baghdad’s administration. (The widespread rejection of KDP influence in Sinjar following the Genocide indicates that if such a vote were to be held—and held fairly and inclusively—it is most likely that Yazidis would vote to remain separate from the KRI.) Furthermore, since political competition over Sinjar has kept the area unstable these past three years, inhibiting Yazidis from returning, conditions for conducting a vote of any kind in the area are unfavorable.

Nechirvan also omitted that it is the KDP—not Baghdad or another party—that has actively prevented the return of Yazidi IDPs to Sinjar. Yazidis have repeatedly asked the international community for support in creating their own nonpartisan security and local administration, but nothing has been done to facilitate this. Instead, Yazidis have now begun their fourth year living in camps while political parties with militias vie for control of Sinjar. Yazidi emigration from Iraq continues, as discouragement regarding Sinjar’s chances of seeing restored stability sets in.

It is unethical to use the independence referendum and the instability of Sinjar following the Genocide—while its people are still far from having recovered from the trauma—to unilaterally force the annexation of Sinjar, a disputed territory, to the KRI. Western officials should hold the KRG accountable for this unscrupulous approach and ensure that Sinjar can be protected from these ambitions. The disputed territory of Sinjar needs to be dealt with fairly and separately from the issue of Kurdistan’s independence, with local people having the opportunity to legitimately choose their leadership and future.

Nechirvan used his commemoration speech as a political platform to attack Baghdad ahead of the KRI Referendum, rather than using the Genocide’s anniversary as an opportunity to approach the Yazidi people with humility. Instead of helping Yazidis return to Sinjar and build a secure future, their Genocide is still being exploited for political gain. This is disrespectful to the survivors of the Genocide and only causes more pain.

Unwinnable: Britain’s war in Afghanistan 2001-2014- by Tam Hussein

The 9/11 attacks gave birth to a Manichean world which is, as I write this, being played out in Syria and Iraq amongst other places. With this world in mind and the upcoming 9/11 anniversary, Professor Theo Farrel’s Unwinnable is a timely reminder of the consequences of the War on Terror in terms of lives, treasure and more; thousands of Afghan migrants clustered in Calais and Dunkirk hoping to cross the English Channel, and the phenomenon of British Muslims who travelled to Afghanistan, some for aid work some to fight creating a pattern of behaviour for future conflicts in the Muslim world.

Zeeshan Siddiqui, a young SOAS student, after hearing of the 9/11 attacks, knew that Afghanistan was going to be hit. He wasn’t sad that the Twin Towers had fallen, he was swimming in a milieu that celebrated the Afghan Jihad, the Arab contribution to Bosnia, Bin Laden’s exploits against the USS Cole, Emir Khattab’s fight against the Russians. According to a source, Zeeshan went to fight the coalition; one of his friends, Abdur Rahman also known as Anthony Garcia, went with al-Qaeda; others preferred to go with the Taliban. Those who went with the former did ‘madness’. As for Zeeshan, this highly eccentric character was sold to Pakistani intelligence officers by an Afghan for a bag of rice, he was allegedly tortured to extract information with the knowledge of British intelligence agents. Siddiqui then returned to the UK and was put on a control order. He was sectioned for mental illness. He escaped and stayed in the house of a Libyan man who took him in. Zeeshan lived in the basement teaching Quran to his children for seven years before escaping to Somalia where he was purportedly killed in the ranks of al-Shabab. Zeeshan’s story shows how immensely complicated the story of the Afghan invasion is. It shows how no one in the story, from the British, Pakistani, Afghan and indeed Zeeshan himself does not come out clean in this story. How did we get there? This is where Farrel fills us in on the intricacies.

Farrel relays extensive research spanning for over half a decade, incorporating British, US as well as Taliban sources. He tells the story of the invasion of Afghanistan effortlessly flitting to the invasion of Iraq, the dingy cabinet room in Cabinet Briefing Room A (COBRA), to the shady games played by the ISI and the CIA, to displays of venal corruption of warlords to the civilians facing the option of destroying their poppy crop or starvation. Farrel’s account is a British perspective for sure, but he doesn’t hide from the ugly bits whether that be torture or the document plagiarised from the internet, Downing Street issued as their casus belli for invading Iraq; he tells the tale with fairness and verve. The ease in switching from weapons specifications to various fields of operation and countries is remarkable. But then again Professor Farrel has over forty books on the subject of war and conflict. The notes alone for this tome is over a hundred pages.

The first few chapters dealing with the road to war are perhaps the most compelling but that is well trodden ground. Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower comes to mind. Farrell shows Blair to be statesmanlike in his approach and in full support of invading Afghanistan, interestingly less so Iraq. He believed that the Islamic emirate of the Taliban was responsible for harbouring al-Qaeda and should have complied to the demands of the US in handing over Osama bin Laden. In this respect Farrel says that the attack on Afghanistan was a-strategic. It was not necessarily a rational decision but a response was warranted. On the other hand, he notes that the Taliban was making overtures for negotiation. The 9/11 attacks was a surprise even to the Taliban who found out about it on the news. Had the US taken into account the Afghan customs of hospitality instead of giving non-negotiable terms such a costly invasion could have been avoided.

At the time though the Taliban and al-Qaeda were viewed as one and the same. In any case, attacking Afghanistan was seen as a way to finish off the Taliban, a group that looked like a throwback to the Stone Age who repressed the educational development of women, demanded men to grow facial hair and destroyed, not unlike IS, the Buddha statues of Bamyan- a testimony in fact, to Muslim tolerance.  But in taking such a decision the US and the British had set a dangerous precedent: this was violating notions of national sovereignty. Blair believed that in an increasingly globalised world humanitarian interference was necessary. Some likened it to a ‘white man’s burden lite’ if you will, and it was this idea that complicated matters further.

For once the Taliban and al-Qaeda had been defeated the British should have left, the initial war objectives had been achieved, the Taliban’s spine had been broken and al-Qaeda was in disarray.  Whilst the US administration cared little for nation building and stabilisation, for the British, Afghanistan was about nation building and stabilisation. Blair believed that nation building and stabilisation were the key in Afghanistan in order for the Taliban or al-Qaeda not to make a return. That of course meant development of infrastructure.  From the squaddies’ perspective there seemed to be some justification to development, for when an Afghan governor defecates in front of your barracks as an expression of his contempt it becomes difficult not to view the populace as being in need of development. 

But these aims were not necessarily shared by its coalition partners. For the US it was all about counter insurgency, it was about tough marines cracking Taliban heads, whilst Rumsfeld eyed up Iraq. The Germans and the Dutch were only willing to take part in peace keeping. Having no clear war aims, a mass of British brigadiers wrangled with politicos and war lords and ex-mujahideen- the role of the coalition appeared more and more like occupiers. The coalition failed to grasp the sheer complexity of the country; its tribal politics, patronage systems and the culture itself. Thus night raids by special forces might have been successful in the short term but it violated Muslim and tribal honour. It put innocent Afghans in Guantanamo even though they didn’t have any connection with the Taliban or al-Qaeda whatsoever: the rival sub-tribe sold people out to the Americans. There were few men like Michael Semple who knew Pashto and Dari and their customs and knew Aghanistan’s ways and mores.

Whilst the Marines and British might have fought the good fight, the Taliban too made a steady return, fighting doggedly often bolstered by well-trained foreign fighters and with the support of Pakistan’s Intelligence services. Morale for the Taliban was undiminished as Farrel makes clear: to the Afghan fighting the invading kafir, or infidel, and dying in battle meant paradise. But on the ground, the squaddie, the soldier in the Afghan national army and above all the civilians paid a heavy price. Stabilisation meant at times, coalition forces losing their reason for being in Afghanistan, from Guantanamo, to murders in Bagram, to air strikes wiping out entire families, to fighting alongside warlords who raped kids and extorted the populace and flooded their own countries with heroin. It was no wonder that though many Afghans had been glad to see the back of the Taliban, the actions of the coalition had turned an insurgency into a popular uprising and the Taliban became resurgent.

Despite having two capable US generals in the guise of Petraus and McChrystal concentrating like never before in defeating the Taliban, the latter understood and drew strength from a ‘myriad of local conflicts between rival kinship networks over resources and state funds’. Moreover, the ramshackle poppy eradication scheme pushed the local populace in to the arms of the Taliban who had previously been successful in eradicating it. It is as one of the elders in Farrel’s book says all that the British has brought with them is death.

In the end, British ambition was so staggering that it was akin to the Enlightenment and the Marshal plan and set with in the challenges of the Hundred Year War. Farrell’s book is immensely valuable both in its detail and lessons learnt; parallels can no doubt be found in the current conflict raging in Syria and Iraq even though its peoples and customs are different. The conflict in Afghanistan, as Professor Farrel rightly concludes, is unwinnable; initial successes turned into a quagmire – diplomacy and reconciliation seems to be the best way forward.

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