“No Justice for Khan Sheikhoun,” by Aron Lund

On November 7—that’s tomorrow or tonight, depending on where you are—the UN Security Council will get together for a shouting match about the nerve gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun last April. A new UN-OPCW report has blamed that attack on Bashar al-Assad’s government, but, as you might expect, Russia does not agree.

The Century Foundation has just published my new report on what the UN says happened in Khan Sheikhoun and on Syria’s chemical weapons diplomacy, No Justice for Khan Sheikhoun.

In this report, I try to walk you through the main conclusions of the UN-OPCW’s Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, which are quite explosive. In a fascinating feat of investigative chemistry, OPCW scientists were in fact able to reverse-engineer the sarin nerve gas used in the attack, tracing the ingredients back to stockpiles held by the Syrian government in 2013—you know, the stockpiles that Americans and Russians agreed that Assad had to destroy.

To Western governments, this is as close to ironclad proof as you’re ever going to get that the Syrian government has both used chemical weapons, which is a war crime, and consistently broken its 2013 promises to disarm, and, also, that Russia is either actively complicit or completely useless in following up on its ally’s behavior.

To no one’s surprise, Russia doesn’t quite agree with that conclusion. Russian officials insinuate (and Syrian officials say) that it is a false flag operation, and Moscow has refused to change its mind even after the UN-OPCW investigation shot down most of the claims made by Russian and Syrian officials.

These disagreements now move into the UN Security Council, where Western nations seek some form of recognition of the report. They may also be looking for a punishment through sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would be in line with the agreement between the United States and Russia in 2013 and UN Security Resolution 2118, which stipulates that anyone who stores or uses chemical weapons in Syria will be hit with Chapter VII measures. Of course, Russia will accept nothing of the sort, dismissing the report completely.

As things stand, Moscow is threatening to shut down the UN investigations by vetoing a renewal of the investigators’ mandate when it expires on November 16. The Russians have already vetoed such an extension once (on October 24) but an extension proposal may of course come up again.

On the other side of the table, the United States and its allies are scrambling to figure out a way to save the UN-OPCW investigation while also pushing back against what they view as the abhorrent behavior of Moscow and Damascus. As a Plan B, they’re looking at ways to conjure up an alternative UN or OPCW body that could replace the current one and continue working to hold perpetrators of chemical attacks accountable.

They may find both of those things to be impossible. With its veto rights and a Syrian ally whose position is steadily improving, the Russians simply hold better cards.

In fact, Western priorities may also be changing subtly. Accountability remains the goal, but there seems to be a growing realization among American and European policymakers that Assad may still be in Damascus five, ten, or even twenty years from now. If he has in fact kept a stockpile of nerve gas, they need to figure out a practical way to deal with that.

Faced with this dilemma, many seem to want to continue down the current road of talks and inspections, even as they fume over Assad’s apparent noncompliance and hope for some form of accountability for the Khan Sheikhoun massacre and other attacks. Nonproliferation and disarmament tend to take precedence, however, and Western governments still want to keep Syria embedded in the OPCW’s system of inspections, because they see no other practical ways of keeping an eye on regime behavior, obstructing a restoration of old chemical weapons production lines, and preserving some faint hope of a full future disarmament.

It’s a tricky question, but it may also be an issue where new diplomatic options can open up as the war winds down. Yet for the victims in Khan Sheikhoun, justice is as far away as ever—and new attacks may follow.


Check out the report here, and for further reading, these links may also be of interest:

Who Will Usher the Middle East Into an Era of Peace? – By Sam Farah

Sam Farah

Who Will Usher the Middle East Into an Era of Peace
By Sam Farah – @txtwxe 
Syria Comment, Oct 23, 2017

In his book Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb offers a piercing observation: “The entire growth of a society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people. […] Only a few people suffice to disproportionately move the needle.”

This critical insight can be revolutionary when it comes to peace-building in the Middle East. Most observers blame the region’s conflicts on age-old issues of identity. They suggest that the people of the Middle East will have to evolve before the region reaches the political maturity of the Western World.

Robert Schuman

Robert Schuman

But only a handful of people changed the course of Europe; they ushered inan era of peace after decades of war, fascism, and dictatorship. Standing amid the destruction of the Second World War, a few determined European politicians and citizens aimed to eliminate the European ills of nationalism and war-mongering. These founding fathers stitched together what became the European Union with one treaty after another starting with the Schuman Plan of 1950. Up until that point in history, the world had only known empires and nation states. What these pioneering politicians built was nothing short of revolutionary and a paradigm shift in political organization.

The European Union was, and is, first and foremost a project to prevent war on the continent. With the European Coal and Steel Community, the first supranational organization since the emergence of nation-states, the Europeans gave up some national sovereignty over two important commodities without which it is difficult to wage war.  They allowed for the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor among its members, ceding sovereignty over their national borders.  And after decades of nation building on the basis of common languages, cultures, or race, they embraced multiculturalism and multilingualism as pillars of the new Europe. Today there is no official language in the E.U. All 24 languages are official languages.

The same masses that prior to the creation of the European Union were fighting ethnic wars, rallying behind fascists, and committing genocide across Europe, are today largely liberal and multicultural. In the mid-1970s, over 50% of Germans cited Konrad Adenauer as having done the most for Germany compared to 10% who named Bismarck. Only 22% of Germans thought they had more in common with other Germans of different social class than with French people of the same class (Haas 1997). This transformation cannot be attributed to the development and evolution of a population in such a short period of time; this transformation is largely the result of a new post nationalist framework built and pioneered by few people.

Winston Churchill

Today the Middle East political scene is dominated by nationalists and Islamists. Aggrieved and angry, they are fueling the beast of ethnic and religious rivalries that is feeding on their own societies. Both the nationalists and Islamists are suspicious of and deeply misunderstand the European project. Islamists see it as a reconstitution of Christendom, and nationalists in their characteristic winner-and-loser mindset, see it as a union of mature European nations to maintain its competitive advantage against other countries like the United States. These characterizations ignore the fact that Europe became a more secular and a less religious continent since the launch of the post nationalist European project, and that the United States’ military bases still pepper the continent.

But there have been two notable attempts to build a new post nationalist framework in the Middle East by people inside the region. President Bashar Al Assad of Syria in 2009 launched his “four Seas” project to build an economic and energy sphere linking the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf. His project found resonance in Turkey whose foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu had launched his own zero-problem initiative to improve relations with Syria, Iran, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan and even tried a rapprochement with Armenia. Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad extended his hand to Turkey against a chorus of objections from his own nationalists.

These two projects failed for several reasons. First, the major powers never backed the project. Unlike the European project where the United States offered a security and economic blanket to guarantee its success, in the Middle East, the United States wanted to isolate Iran. Later in the Arab Spring, Mr. Erdogan abandoned President Assad for a pan-Muslim Brotherhood project, hoping to revive the past glory of the Ottoman Empire.

After six years of war in Syria, the Astana peace process brought Iran and Turkey closer, and offers hope for a renewed effort for a new regional framework. This framework can begin with Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, with Russia and China offering a security and economic blanket to facilitate its success. This can be a nucleus to a broader post nationalist regional framework for peace that was described in an earlier article.

Some are urging the United States to support Kurdish nationalism, and to get more aggressive in rolling back Iran. Today, the Middle East is becoming less strategically important to the United States, hence there is a diminishing return to any further American entanglement in the region. Supporting a Kurdish separatist nationalist entity in a hostile neighborhood will require a tremendous financial and military commitment by the United States. And as Professor Landis has pointed out in his latest post, the United States’ effort to roll back Iran will cause more conflict and failed states.

If the goal is to change Iran’s behavior, find a solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and its neighbors, and to find a happy resolution to the Kurdish question, then Middle Easterners had better follow the European precedent of changing behavior by changing the regional framework. Cooperating with Russia and China as suggested by Zbigniew Brzezinski, to help the regional players build a new framework and chart a path to peace is the best strategy for the United States and its allies in the Middle East. If a small number of people can put their shoulders to the wheel of change, the Middle East need not be locked in territorial disputes and identity conflict. It can move toward regional cooperation, prosperity, and inclusion for all.

What the KRG’s Loss of Kirkuk Means for Iraq

Masoud Barzani image being destroyed in Kirkuk

Iraqi forces tear down a portrait of Masoud Barzani in Southern Kirkuk (Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP)

By Max J. Joseph

Too many takes on Kirkuk have left me cringing. From Kurds, Arabs, Westerners and pretty much everyone else. Observing the mixture of hysteria and celebration was profound and jarring enough to provoke me into this small piece of commentary. This piece won’t be focused on the small details concerning logistics and troop movements ongoing throughout the northern territories at the time of publishing, but what I think they represent and how we got here.

As part of my MSc thesis 8 years ago or so, I wrote that Kirkuk should be under Federal Government control and eventually given special status in accordance with Iraqi constitutional law, satisfying all segments of its diverse population. No part of that once relatively popular solution included the complete fragmentation and breakdown of Kurdish security forces and a political sundering so vast it might spell the end of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) itself. But that’s where we are now.


There is no doubt that including the “disputed” territories in the unilaterally imposed referendum is proving to be the fatal misstep (in quotes because I’ve never accepted the “dispute”, and don’t want to dignify KRG claims on lands belonging to Assyrians and other minorities outside of the KRI). The Barzani family and its allies within the PUK and other, smaller proxies made the calculation that they would have more leverage, more clout, and a tighter grip on the aspirations of the Kurdistan Region if they delivered this particular referendum question to the people, whatever the fallout afterwards.

Western actors made no secret of their opposition to it, nevermind regional actors such as Turkey and Iran. Nevertheless, the referendum was confirmed the night before its scheduled execution in all its shambolic glory. Voting patterns betrayed endemic corruption: ballot boxes were either stuffed or shuttled away secretly according to eyewitnesses, in keeping with previous elections and referenda conducted by the KRG. Residents were harassed by Kurdish asayish calling and knocking on their doors, state employees were bused to polling stations and watched over carefully by armed soldiers.

What was meant to be an expression of the Kurdish peoples’ legitimate will was transformed into a ploy by illegitimate KRG leaders to have more cards to play in their negotiations with Baghdad. The miscalculation on the KRG’s part was thinking these negotiations would even take place given the nature of the referendum question put forward, or how much it would provide Baghdad a newfound confidence to reject any meeting using its result as a staging ground for any deal-making.

Kirkuk was the only thing the KRG could easily be isolated on, as opposed to lands further north where more complications would have arisen in response to this kind of assertive display of Federal authority. Even with these complications however, it seems Federal Government forces are pushing further north after their political victory in Kirkuk, with reports of peshmerga positions being abandoned in Sinjar and the rest of the Nineveh Plain. The KRG gambled and lost, and that was very much the Barzani family’s call. Greed is a horrible thing, and it remains their cardinal sin.

KDP vs PUK and the Rhetoric of Treachery

A lot of statements, party-focused slander and rumours are circulating among KRG media and Kurdish individuals in the aftermath of Kirkuk. The infighting and self-flagellation really is something to behold. Yet, it truly boggles the mind how this is being interpreted, especially from my vantage point (of being underground and looking up at this mess).

Some Kurds are saying that the lack of bloodshed and violence on the part of the peshmerga and its commanders represents a grand betrayal. That they should have defended the city against all comers. Ex Governor Karim desperately asked ordinary citizens to take up arms and resist before he himself fled to Erbil. Peshmerga commanders were interviewed by KRG media and they promised “massacres” if Kirkuk was approached by Federal forces. None of this happened, and there is a weird air of regret and mourning wafting around the commentary on the internet.

The relevant point here on Kirkuk remains the same for me: the city should be administered in a fair way which represents the people of the city, and not as a vehicle to fill the coffers of the Barzani family. Individuals aligned with the KDP and PUK have taken to social media and declaring each other traitors. No doubt, images of peshmerga crying after having fled can be categorized as the anguish of terrified soldiers, of stolen hopes and dreams, and worry for family members. But why has it even come to this? Why was it so important for the KRG to assert itself as the sole overseers of a clearly heterogeneous city which they could be cornered on and forced into an embarrassing withdrawal in this way?

The KRG, dominated for years by the politically bankrupt KDP, were stubborn enough to go ahead with the referendum in the face of almost universal opposition. The problem was that they went one step further by incorporating post-2014 newly conquered lands into the question. I’ve said this so many times: acquiring leverage for expansion and not independence had always been the purpose of the referendum. The KDP et al had calculated that they needed ownership of Kirkuk’s oil for any prospect of independence, so expansion was the first priority. From the peoples’ perspective, there simply is no real independence with a black market economy controlled by autocrats. The referendum was a heist, and Baghdad was gradually emboldened enough to foil it.

This is not meant to antagonize the rights, well-being and desire for self-determination of the Kurdish people. All people should have equal rights and be free to live in dignity. What is beyond doubt for me however is how people are expected to do this under the auspices of a kleptocratic mafia? Did Kurds really think it was possible?

“Big Picture” Nationalism

A phrase I’m sarcastically coining these days: big picture nationalism is a brand of nationalism that whitewashes the historical and present crimes and failures of leaders within a community (for the greater good they are hoping for).

So many people have decried the use of Western armour and weapons deployed in the reassertion of Federal authority in Kirkuk displacing the peshmerga, but where was the outrage when Western weapons were used by KDP-controlled Rojava Peshmerga units against local Yazidi fighters in Sinjar?

So many people have lamented this historic retreat from Kirkuk, but where were the lamentations for Yazidis and Assyrians when Peshmerga disarmed and abandoned them to ISIS in 2014, only to return years later and declare themselves their liberators and bosses? (Is oil is more important than lives?)

So many people have demonstrated against actions targeting the Kurdish people, but why is there so much silence in the face of an illegitimate and divisive president with countless deaths on his head?

So many people are calling the PUK traitors when big picture nationalism entails they probably support the whims of a family who collaborated with Saddam against his own people after Anfal to retain power.

In the face of genocide, absolutely untold levels of corruption, and a list of betrayals so damning nobody should be allowed back from, Barzani’s regime and its policies still enjoy the support (albeit begrudging in many parts) of large segments of the local Kurdish population. It seems to me that there is the vague hope that these lands and therefore Kurdistan’s future can and should be secured in any way possible, even if it means backing a tyrant. It is this dream of Kurdistan first and then we can deal with Barzani’s dictatorship later, when in reality, the only thing that is real right now is Barzani’s dictatorship. Yet a little voice calls out: free yourself from this ghetto and perhaps greater freedoms lie ahead.

Unless this is meaningfully addressed by the Kurdish people, dreams will remain dreams, and wounds and divisions will deepen. When Kurds voted “yes” to Barzani’s referendum, they weren’t voting on independence, they were voting on the legitimacy of the actors who were administering it and their own sordid ambitions. People know that al-Abadi can be voted out if he fails to deliver. That is reassuring and it makes him act accordingly. Barzani has never had such pressure, and that is a large part of why we are where are today.

The KRG: One of the Biggest Failures in Governance in Recent Memory?

Even with billions of dollars in funding and aid, weapons, mentoring, Western hand-holding and protection, a near enough limitless output of propaganda, media access, long-term concentrated lobbying efforts, and backing from every section of Western society, the KRG has proven to be fundamentally inept at good governance. After all, what has all of this time and energy produced? A redundant parliament, shadowy institutions, fatally divided and bickering security forces built along tribal lines— all being sucked through a fiscal black hole. That is the sum of everyone’s investment and support.

Imagine pinning your hopes and dreams regarding the protection of Kirkuk on a fighting force that’s dependent on already alienated foreign powers for its salaries. Its no wonder a faction of the PUK reportedly caved to Baghdad’s authority, setting off the unfolding domino effect in Kirkuk and the wider region. Its no wonder Federal troops have entered unopposed into Sinjar. Its no wonder Peshmerga are reportedly withdrawing from positions in Bashiqa and other areas in Nineveh.

Assyrians and many other people in territories the KRG have expanded into are literally praying for the sight of Baghdad-aligned armour rolling through their neighbourhoods and tearing down newly installed portraits of Barzani. That is the reality of how bad the KRG is perceived, but you wouldn’t know it because of all of the media noise and heckling. With Baghdad, minorities are one degree of separation from sovereign power. With the KRG, we are two degrees away, and underneath a layer of corruption and nepotism so thick we can’t see any route up and out.

Yes, there is relative security in the KRG, but that is because it is a police state. Yes, you will be safe if you swear allegiance, not to a feudal king or a lord one thousand years ago, but a political party in the information age. Yes, you might start resenting the current regime, but you can’t criticize it and there is no hope it will ever change. If there was any hope, the KDP would not still be the only dominant party, and its opposition would not be as pathetic and skeletal as they are now. Where is the alternative? Where is the anger manifesting inward and producing change?

The Federal Government, for all its innumerable faults, is more democratic. There is more potential to improve, to access things, to change things, and to work towards something than there is with the tribalism and patronage systems defining the KRG. That is backed up by democratic elections and a functioning parliament. What remains dysfunctional today in Baghdad has more scope to be fixed but the same cannot be said of the KRG. Minorities need strong central government, because strong central governments are the only bodies who can afford to decentralize. They are secure enough to do so.


With emerging reports of Federal forces arriving in Sinjar and Bashiqa and the ensuing peshmerga retreat from those areas (their second mass retreat in three years against two different forces) it still remains to be seen how far these Federal forces will go. If they arrive in Alqosh, the besieged town in the far north of the Nineveh Plain, there will be a joyous celebration by its residents. Alqosh’s residents proudly waved Iraqi flags which served to protest the removal of their mayor and imposition of the KDP stooge, Lara Yousif Zaia, as well as make clear their position on the KRG-imposed referendum on their town (which went ahead, returning over 4000 yes votes, despite reality on the ground indicating no more than 400 people voted, and overwhelmingly “no”).

Asserting Federal authority back into Nineveh after years of KDP domination represents a loosening of the noose around the necks of resident minority groups. From being sidelined and co-opted and divided politically, having their lands stolen, and their security totally unreliable — these groups were on the brink of annihilation. Going forward, this arrangement should now halt, or perhaps even reverse.

The security vacuum left by the peshmerga will now be filled by federal forces and aligned groups— meaning for Yazidis, PMU forces aligned with the Federal Government and for Assyrians, the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU). With the NPU, Assyrians already have in place a trained fighting force (recognized by the US and the coalition) ready to be bolstered, equipped and expanded by the Federal Government in our ancestral lands.

Understating how important this is does the NPU’s political mission and its ideological foundation a disservice — this is a force of Assyrians from Nineveh who had formed as a response to ISIS’ onslaught on their towns. They have partaken in the liberation of Assyrian towns and villages alongside the Iraqi Army and coalition forces, but have been cut off from the Northern Nineveh Plain by the expanded peshmerga line which has isolated towns such as Telskuf, Alqosh, Batnaya, and Bashiqa, where many of the NPU’s soldiers are from.

Recent events are proving that their political positioning within the Iraqi security landscape has been astute and well-informed. Many have doubted their alignment, their purpose and even their refusal to engage in armed conflict with peshmerga forces encircling Assyrian towns, but this patience and pragmatism is seemingly paying off with the reassertion of Federal authority.

Every End is a New Beginning

I say this with no real exaggeration: Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has played his hand masterfully. Between taking the fight to ISIS, controlling the Hash’d al Shabi, managing relationships with Western powers as well as Turkey and Iran, navigating the crash in oil prices, plus the fractious relationship with the KRG, he has genuinely proven to be a very capable leader. His re-election after four years in office looks almost a certainty now.

The KRG in had everything seemingly on its side. Any misstep by the Federal Government would have been magnified as a disaster, but these missteps have not transpired. What has instead come to pass has been a considered and assertive approach by the Federal Government, even in the face of endless provocation by the KRG and regional powers. Where people have tried to escalate matters and call for blood, al-Abadi has called for calm and reconciliation. Consider this for a moment: Federal forces marched into oil-rich Kirkuk (some commentators hilariously started dubbing it “the Kurds’ Jerusalem”, or “the new Kobane”) almost without incident. They made no secret of their intention to do this in the days preceding and it came about as a result of political deal-making headed by al-Abadi in the background.

I am not going to speculate on where the KRG goes from here, if it goes anywhere at all. It just seems cruel at this stage given the deluge of rumours abound regarding regional fractures and new alliances. What is clear is that this crisis is one the Kurdish people must address in a room full of mirrors — something I’m not optimistic about given an amplification of the ruinous siege mentality cultivated by the old parties. Nevertheless, there is nobody left to blame for this state of affairs but their own, admittedly unelected leaders.

What many Kurds deem a betrayal, I cant help but feel relieved that very little blood was shed. Kurdish affairs have long orbited around the bloated and parasitical old parties and their whims. These chronic failings, which I and others who have been attacked, derided, and mocked for repeatedly pointing out, have been endemic and unaddressed for years. Now you can see the fruits of these failings and how they have contributed to Iraq growing in confidence as a sovereign state, a state many were classifying as “failed”, in the most volatile region in the world. If the heavily maligned, “failed” Iraqi state managed to completely outmaneuver the KRG politically and militarily, how inept must the latter be, considering the support it has received?

As always, I return to the Assyrian perspective. For us, recent events illustrate a resurgent Iraq, and I think (with a healthy degree of caution and hesitation) that may be a good thing for us and our future in the country. No doubt, it’s clear that the collapse of KRG positions in the disputed territories has been welcomed by the vast majority of Nineveh’s residents and the worldwide diaspora, but much hard work lies ahead in undoing a decade of hurt and neglect by both the KRG and the Federal Government respectively. We should enter this new epoch with open minds, but with the knowledge that things may quickly descend into oppression and tyranny once again. We know the signs now. Call them out ruthlessly and say “never again.”


Max J. Joseph is an Assyrian artist and writer focusing on minority group issues within the Middle East. His work has included presenting research within the European Parliament detailing the security situation for minorities in the Nineveh Plain, Iraq. He holds a BA Philosophy and an MSc International Public Policy, where his thesis centered on addressing the Assyrian question in Iraq post-2003.

Trump’s Iran Policy is More about Rollback Than Nukes; It Will Cause More Failed States – by Joshua Landis

Trump’s Iran Policy is More about Rollback Than Nukes; It Will Cause More Failed States
by Joshua Landis
Syria Comment – Oct 14, 2017

The renewed US offensive against Iran is not so much about its nuclear capability or even its missile program; it is about Iran rollback and hobbling its economy.

Ever since President Obama signed the Iran agreement, howls of disapproval were heard from both Israel and a number of Gulf States, which were not dismayed so much at the sunset clause on Iran’s nuclear refinement as they were at Iran’s escape from economic sanctions. The real danger, in their eyes, is Iran’s economic break out and potential success. The more money Iran has, the more it can consolidate the success of its Shiite allies in the region: Hezbollah, the Syrian government and the Iraqi government.

President Trump’s latest announcement follows increased U.S. sanctions on both Hezbollah and Syria, as well as increased aid to Syria’s Kurds in their effort to expand territorially. It is the latest in a policy of rollback that has been developing for some time. It is a policy that both Saudi Arabia and Israel have been pushing on Trump. It is one that also suits his personality as well as the inclinations of his military advisers because it means supporting friends and hurting enemies. It represents the opposite of Obama’s effort at balancing Sunnis and Shiites along with Saudi Arabia and Iran, not to mention his effort to distance the U.S., ever so slightly, from Israel.

Although, the much ballyhooed “land bridge” from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria cannot be severed by the US army, a high price for building it can be exacted against Iran and its Shiite allies. They can be weakened economically, which is the point of scuttling the Iran deal. The West is also likely to boycott any reconstruction effort in Syria. The new anti-Iran policy will have a profound and far reaching impact on the region. It will ratchet up Sunni-Shiite hostility as well as beggar more countries.

1. The US can rollback Iran by increasing its military and diplomatic support for the Kurds. They will be drafted into a new role of fighting Iranian influence, now that their role in fighting ISIS is nearing completion. Indeed, right wing think tanks in Washington, such as the Institute for the Study of War, are pushing just such a Kurdish led war against the “Iranian back government of Iraq” in their latest publication: The “war after ISIS begins in Iraq.”


The Kurds can be used to push back against Iran’s Shiite allies in Baghdad and Damascus. The US will line up with the Kurds in their effort to acquire territory and fossil fuel resources over which they are competing with Arab neighbors in places such as the Euphrates valley. The US has recently warned Syrian forces not to come north of the Euphrates, even to fight ISIS. This is done to deny the Assad regime the cluster of ISIS held gas fields north of the Euphrates that Assad needs to fund reconstruction. The US seems determined to help the YPG (pro-US, Kurdish-led forces) capture the gas fields for itself, despite the fields’ location in Arab-majority regions. The US presence in Syria will become quasi-permanent as the US commits itself to shoring up an ever larger state for the Kurds. They do not have an air force and cannot compete against either the Turkish or Syrian armies without continued US backing.

2. An expanded US alliance with Kurdish nationalism will further alienate Turkey, driving Ankara deeper into alliance with Iran and Russia.

3. Iran is unlikely to back away from this challenge. It will escalate. Let’s explore how it might escalate.

Until recently, Iran believed that it had won in the northern Middle East by securing victory for Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and the Shiites of Iraq against ISIS and the Sunni Arab rebels of Syria and Iraq. In fact, the US was in alliance with Iran in its fight against ISIS, until now. Nasrallah, Assad and Abadi have all been crowing about their common victory and success. They believed that they had come through the storm to build a new security architecture in the Levant: one that links the northern tier of pro-Iranian Arab states in a common front against their Sunni, Israeli, and American rivals. (It worth recalling that there are more Shiite Arabs collectively in these three countries than there are Sunni Arabs, so the victory of Shia forces is neither unexpected nor solely due to the success of US and Russian air power in killing Sunni rebel forces in Iraq and Syria.) To consolidate their victory, Shiites have recently been seeking to smooth over some of the harsher sectarian animosities that had grown up in wartime. Visits were arranged between Iraqi Shiite politicians (Sadr) and Saudi Arabia as well as Iranian mullahs and Saudi clerics. But efforts at diplomacy, reconstruction, and a return to politics as usual will come to a quick stop.

a. Iran will return to its sectarian cultural offensive to mobilize its allies. It will fight rollback. Saudi Arabia and its allies are mobilizing as well. We should see its spat with Qatar as part of this effort.
b. Iran and allies may blow up US troops in Iraq & Syria. An Oct. 12 Wapo article By Kareem Fahim and Liz Sly suggests just that:

A roadside bomb that killed an American soldier in Iraq this month was of a particularly lethal design not seen in six years.

c. The Yemen war will surely be a fruitful battleground, scuttling hope of diplomatic or political progress toward a de-escalation.
d. Libya too.

There are few American troops in the region, so the US can get the best of Iran in most of these areas, but US success is likely to be Pyrrhic.

New sanctions and bounties on Hezbollah leaders, Syrian businessmen and politicians, and on the IRGC will gum the efforts of the countries of the Levant to pull out of their downward economic and political spiral. The US-Turkish relationship seems bound to go from bad to worse. Of course, Erdogan is to blame for much of this, but it takes two to tango. By siding with Kurdish nationalism, the US has hastened Turkey’s lurch toward Russia and Iran. I believe that Syria’s Kurds deserve their autonomy and eventual independence, but now that they have won against ISIS, the time is ripe for negotiations and diplomacy, not escalation. The Kurds should be trying to consolidate their victory, not expand it. The US should be helping the Kurds to open negotiations with Turkey and Assad, not escalate conflict.

Rollback will produce more failed states in the region. Iran is vulnerable, as are all the other states of the region. The Iranian economy grew by 6% in 2016 and is expected to grow another 5% this year, according to Iran’s Central Bank. $8 billion of foreign direct investment has been attracted to Iran since sanctions were lifted. Only $32 billion in FDI had been secured in the previous 18 years. Iranian officials estimate that they need 1 million new jobs per year to dry up the 3.4 million unemployed people. Iran has been missing its earlier targets of 350,000 new jobs per year.

Renewed and increased sanctions on Iran, Lebanon, and Syria are unlikely to produce compromise and agreement. Rather, they will produce escalation and entrenchment. The human misery of the region will increase. For the first time in almost a century Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are on friendly terms. This presents them with the opportunity to build common oil and gas pipelines, highway networks and trade. The US should be allowing the countries of the region to rebuild and to produce more economic wealth, not attempting to thwart it. In the long run, such a spoiler policy will produce less democracy, less security, and more radicalization. How does the US define success in the region?

Minorities and the Kurdish Referendum—by Alda Benjamen


This article was originally published Sept. 29, 2017 by the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and can be accessed here.


Minorities and the Kurdish Referendum

by Alda Benjamen


“We must write a new constitution for the region [Kurdistan Regional Government] that guarantees the rights of all components, and reassures them of their role in writing the constitution for an independent Kurdistan. We need a new national anthem, and changes to the Kurdistani flag so that it includes symbols of the components and is reflective of all.”1

–Masoud Barzani, August 2017

“In addition to the threat which this war has aimed at the existence and legitimate aspirations of our people, both Kurds and Assyrians, it has brought disaster and affliction upon all its victims, deprived the people of Kurdistan, particularly the Assyrians and the Kurds, of education and health [needs], and rendered tens of thousands of them refugees. All these [calamities] have been inflicted upon us only because we have claimed the basic and legitimate human and national rights, to which we, like any other people, are entitled.”2

–Mustafa Barzani, 1967

Faced with reluctance towards and outright rejection of the Kurdish referendum, Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has turned to minorities for support. Under increased pressure and feeling more isolated, Kurdish politicians are resorting to a tactic they abandoned in 2003: negotiating with minorities. The similarities between the two quotations above, half a century apart, are revealing of an earlier period of political maneuvering and cross-communal partnership. Is it too late for negotiations? And have the historic links – cultural, economic, political – connecting the diverse ethno-religious communities in this region become too disrupted?

Kurds celebrating in Erbil, Iraq, on September 27, 2017 after the results of the independence referendum were announced. Photo: Ivor Prickett/NYT

Though treated as welcome “guests” of the Kurdistan Regional Government, many of these “components,” to use Barzani’s term, are historic communities indigenous to the region. They include ethno-religious and linguistic groups, like the Assyrians, an Aramaic-speaking community belonging to a handful of Syriac Christian denominations; the Yezidis; and the Turkomen. Over the course of the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first, all of these communities have experienced dramatic shifts in their status. With the rise of nationalist and extremist ideologies, several events (Genocide of 1915, Simele Massacre 1933, Anfal Campaign 1988, and most recently ISIS) have precipitated significant declines in their numbers.

Kurdish policymakers and diplomats in the US have attempted to present the KRG as providing a safe haven for minorities that have escaped persecution in the rest of Iraq. This narrative, however, should be challenged on a few grounds.

The Kurds and Assyrians have deep cultural roots across the same region, and members of both communities began migrating to major urban centers in the second half of the twentieth-century in search of better educational and employment opportunities, mainly in the oil and transportation districts (Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basra). Following the civil war in 1961 between the Iraqi state and the Kurds, who were supported by various Assyrian groups and Iraqi leftists, many Assyrian villages were destroyed. The 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iraq and Iran put an end to Iranian support for the Iraqi opposition, and saw the onset of government campaigns against Kurdish and Assyrian villages along the Turkish and Iranian borders that persisted into the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of Assyrian villagers were displaced, and their crops and cultural sites were destroyed. Most were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and relocated in central and southern parts of the country. Iraq’s Ba‘ath regime subjected the Kurds and other groups inhabiting the territorial remit of today’s KRG to forced demographic movement – particularly in oil-rich Kirkuk, which was heavily populated by non-Arabs.

Though divided by periods of violence – for example, the Kurds were deployed by the Ottoman state in the 1915 Genocide against Assyrian and Armenian minorities, whose removal they ultimately benefited from economically – the Kurds and Assyrians have shared a similar fate, pursuing common political goals for most of the twentieth century. Both communities historically leaned left, joining parties espousing secular, nonsectarian principles. Kurds and Assyrians subscribed to leftist ideals that supported workers’ and farmers’ rights. Moreover, the pro-Iraqist political stance of leftist parties appealed to Assyrians and Kurds alike, who felt alienated from Arab nationalist and conservative ideologies.

Both economically and culturally marginalized, and under the influence of the powerful Barzani network, Assyrians joined the Kurdish uprising of 1961. Later, in the 1980s, Assyrians participated in the formal Iraqi opposition. In the early 1970s, 3,000 Assyrian men enlisted in the battalion of the Higher Committee for Christian Affairs in the north. In 1982 the Assyrian Democratic Movement – a political party founded by Assyrian students and youth – moved its bases to the north. Eventually, thousands joined its militia, which fought Saddam’s authoritarian regime alongside Kurdish and other Iraqi opposition groups. It is this momentous demonstration of Kurdish-Assyrian unity that Mustafa Barzani, leader of the KDP and father of Masoud Barzani, invokes in his 1967 statement.

Following the first Gulf War, the Kurdistan Regional Government was created in 1991, presiding over the safe haven and no-fly zone established by the United States and protected by coalition forces. Under this political configuration, the region’s identity was ethno-nationally Kurdish, but Kurdish leaders made room for Assyrians in the public sphere and civil society. However, disputes began to emerge when Assyrians, displaced by the Ba‘ath regime, sought to return and rebuild their villages now populated by Kurds. Lawsuits have been filed in Kurdish courts relating to 45 or so villages, with little or no effect, and new violations against other villages continue.

After Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘athist government fell in 2003, Assyrian groups active in the opposition turned south to negotiate with the new government in Baghdad. The KDP leadership felt betrayed, preferring to take the lead in discussions involving its “components.” Territories heavily populated by minority communities along the KRG borders, though officially under Mosul’s administration, came to be contested between the central and regional governments. Minorities preferred to administer their regions locally, as was allowed by the Iraqi constitution. Concerned that its territorial goals were being undermined, the KRG co-opted minorities by creating and funding civil society organizations and political groups on whose loyalty it could depend.3 More directly coercive methods followed, which included preventing ballot boxes from reaching contested territories and blocking the creation of independent local police forces. This last step would foreshadow the break in relations between the KRG and minority communities following the 2014 ISIS invasion. As both the Peshmerga, the KRG’s military arm, and Iraqi government forces withdrew from Nineveh and Sinjar, leaving Assyrians and Yezidis to face ISIS’ brutal onslaught alone, community leaders rallied to form independent local forces, as they had done just two decades before.

In a lecture delivered earlier this year, Dr. Muna Yaku, assistant professor of law at Salahaddin University-Erbil, suggested that for minorities to feel fully engaged with the referendum they must have real dialogue with Kurds on equal terms, instead of being treated as guests. She highlighted KRG violations against minority communities ranging from political manipulation of quota seats, the continuation of forced demographic change, and the exclusion or misrepresentation of minorities within educational curricula.4 Dr. Yaku was chosen to represent Christians in a committee formed to amend the KRG constitution, but eventually she withdrew in protest at violations of minority rights.5 Similarly, Dohuk native Ashur Sargon Eskrya, President of the Assyrian Aid Society-Iraq, recalling atrocities experienced by minorities, insisted: “When our Assyrian Christian people are facing challenges that affect their national existence on their historic lands…the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples must be adopted in a manner that preserves for our people the right to self-determination and the preservation of their lands and cultural and social heritage, as well as all peoples of the world.”6

A day before the referendum, the high committee for KRG’s referendum issued a declaration guaranteeing the rights of minorities.7 Many community leaders have since criticized that statement, calling it unbinding and shortsighted.8 Whether the referendum drives the KRG to independence or stifles it in the face of mounting pressure, the discussion that led up to it has highlighted the need to revive real and transparent dialogue between the Kurdish leadership and minority leaders, as well as between civil society groups and intellectuals on both sides. Relations between the two will take time to normalize, but engaging with politically independent, local representatives of minorities is a step in the right direction. It is important to remember that only a few decades ago, the Kurds themselves insisted on their community’s rights to full political participation.


Dr. Alda Benjamen specializes in the history of the modern Middle East; in particular she focuses on twentieth-century intellectual, cultural and social history of Iraq and Syria, Middle Eastern minorities and their transnational networks, and women and gender issues. As a postdoctoral Researcher at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania Museum, she examines cultural heritage in times of conflict, focusing on intangible heritage within agricultural domains.

1. http://www.nrttv.com/AR/Detail.aspx?Jimare=56032 
2. Department of State, Division of Language Services (Translation), LS No. 10056, T-58, Arabic, April 22, 1969, “The Honorable William Rogers, Secretary of State of the United States of America,” 1.
3. Alda Benjamen, “Assyrians in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains: Grassroot organizations and Inter-Communal Conflict.” The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq no. 6-1 (Spring 2011): 13-20.
4. “A lecture by Dr. Muna Yaku on the future prospects for the region and the view of our peope,” Facebook video, 18:52, posted by “Radio Ashur,” February 12, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/radioashur/videos/1174189616013352/?hc_ref=ARS2…
5. http://baretly.net/index.php?topic=50352.0
6. Ashur Sargon Eskrya statement was issued on the on the tenth anniversary of the UNDRIP, September 13, 2017, on his facebook page.
7. http://www.presidency.krd/arabic/articledisplay.aspx?id=kpY+pCLPyQY=# ; http://www.ankawa.com/forum/index.php?topic=854423.0
8. http://www.ankawa.com/forum/index.php?topic=854474.0 ; http://www.ankawa.com/forum/index.php?topic=854522.0

Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed? by Landis, Itani, Simon

Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed?
by Joshua Landis, Faysal Itani, Steven Simon
For Syria Comment, 1 October 2017

Faysal Itani, a Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, questioned whether the United States would stand by the Kurds of north Syria, a prediction that I made in a recent interview with Avery Edelman at Syria Direct.

This is what Faysal wrote:

I read your Syria Direct interview today. Very interesting stuff, and I agree with most of it, though I have a couple of questions.

You seem very positive about the emergence of an effectively autonomous ‘Rojave’. Why the positivity? I don’t see the KRG analogy at play. The KRG is run by intelligent and savvy kleptocrats. The PYD are ethno-Maoist quasi-totalitarians, and as far as Turkey is concerned they are the PKK. They are excellent as light-infantry, and dominating rivals, but little else. I believe Turkey will snuff them out at the first opportunity, with regime help for that matter.

The only circumstance under which I can see Rojave surviving at all is behind an American shield. You present a compelling argument for why you think that will be in place – namely, balancing against Iran and Russia. But I can’t bring myself to believe we would stick around in the middle of an incredibly hostile environment such as Syria (McGurk and co. insist we will not, but they could be wrong or lying). Iran, Russia, and the regime would all have an interest in sabotaging it. And in this age of American small-timerism, are we going to defend the place? The idea of doing so just to push back on Iran seems a bit abstract…

I also couldn’t figure out whether you were sanguine about Syria’s future, or pessimistic. Or is that just a question of timeframe? 🙂 .  Take care, F

My (Joshua Landis) Response to Faysal:


Good questions. I have no real insight into the policy making of this administration – you are much closer to it than I — so everything you say could be correct and I haven’t appreciated the real impermanence of US ambitions. I have certainly considered the possibility that the US will simply pull the rug out from under the PYD after seeing them to the Euphrates, much as Kissinger did to the Iraqi Kurds in 1976.

My hunch – and it is only a hunch – is that the US will like what it has conquered once its begins to survey the land and once the Kurds begin to whispering in US ears about the beautiful relationship they can build together. The Kurds will also send up a hue and cry about being cut to pieces and abandoned by the Perfidious US. I think the Kurds are building a constituency in Washington. See the op-ed by Ron Prosor, former Israeli Ambassador to the UN in the NYTimes. Israel is certainly a backer, which still counts for something in Washington. Turkey is no longer a country the US can count on; although it certainly has more ballast and importance than the puny, start-up Kurds.

My bet is that it will become very hard for the US to withdraw from Syria in the future, despite McGurk’s assurances to the contrary. Every Washington think-thank is begging us to stay in Syria and thwart the evil Ruskies and Majousies.

We always seem to get stuck in these tribal regions of questionable strategic worth – witness Afghanistan or Somalia. Why in the world did we just double down in Afghanistan? I know you will tell me that our national reputation depends on it. Afghanistan was a MAJOR investment, unlike the Kurds, who are a sideshow. No president will want responsibility for losing Afghanistan, etcetera, etcetera.

But aren’t these the same arguments that will be resurrected to convince the US to remain in Syria? Washington think thanks will argue – and with some justification – Syria is inexpensive. We can just keep a few troops there to do the job (This is what Hassan Hassan and Weiss have been arguing). Assad is a paper tiger. His army is shot. He has no men. Only Iran and Russia keep him standing. (This is what Tabler is arguing). A few Ranger outposts will do the job. Keep a few US jets policing the line over the Euphrates. Anyway, we need to make sure that IS or something worse doesn’t rear its ugly head in the future. Most importantly we have to cut off the Iranian land bridge (ISW makes this argument) We have to stand up for our allies and punish our enemies (This is what Michael Doran and Smith argue).

And let’s not forget the human rights problem. “How can we allow the Kurds to be massacred by Chemical Bashar? Haven’t we thrown the Kurds under the bus too many times since Woodrow Wilson promised them autonomy? This time must be different.” All good arguments.

I wrote only a few months ago that I did not think that the US should rush into easter Syria, but should instead limit the expansion of the PYD and SDF to Kurdish majority regions in order not to complicate the map of Syria and to suck the US into the swamp of ethnic and religious battles that is sure to rage in the future. I recommended letting Assad and the SAA do the job of killing ISIS in the Arab parts of Syria. Every Washington pundit attacked this view – save for a very few. Even those who spoke up to support this view (such as Sam Heller) were timid in expressing such a “real-politic” and seemingly heartless view. I think it is less heartless than building up expectations that cannot be met, which the US has done time and again in Syria.

Anyway, Washington hasn’t followed this policy. It announced a “no go zone” for Syria north of the Euphrates, even though much of that land is majority Arab. McMaster has been talking about how it has been a mistake for the US to have allowed Assad to make the progress that he has made. McMaster recommends the pocketification of Syria and standing by rebel militias, even if they serve no strategic purpose other than to simply weaken Assad.

As for the philosophical and ideological prejudices of the PYD –  “The PYD are ethno-Maoist quasi-totalitarians, and as far as Turkey is concerned they are literally PKK. They are excellent as light-infantry, and dominating rivals, but little else.” Their totalitarian Marxist roots don’t bother me. Everyone in the region has some sort of totalitarian upbringing. The Kurds are doing a fine job or rebranding themselves as liberal, women liberating, egalitarian democrats who support town councils and civil society when they aren’t saving minorities.

I know you might say that such propaganda is only window dressing and might warn about the true nature of xenophobic nationalism that will express itself as soon as the Kurds get a chance to drive out Arabs, Assyrians, etc., and steal their land. You would probably be right – but I don’t expect many in Washington to actually express such commonsense truths very loudly, as they would quickly be accused of being Kurd haters and Assad lovers.

Again, I don’t know what the US will do in the future. But ever since we jumped into Kobani in defiance of Turkey and in support of the Kurds, I believe that we have been building a new strategic position in the region that will be very difficult to back away from. It has a logic. Turkey clearly sees that logic and has gambled on its permanence, causing it to move toward Russia and Iran in order to counter the US.

This move away from NATO and the US only reinforces the logic of US support for the Kurds. If we cannot trust Turkey, we must stick with the Kurds. What other partner does the US have in the region? Not Baghdad? Not Damascus? Do you really think that the US will crawl back into bed with Erdogan? My hunch is that it won’t. We are building bases in northern Syria. They will look better all the time. Once people own things, they get attached to them and can find a hundred reasons not to relinquish them over to their enemies. Best, Joshua

Steven Simon (National Security Council Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2012, is the John J. McCloy ’16 Visiting Professor at Amherst College) weighs in:

I think both you and Faisal are absolutely right.

Well, what I mean is, it’s too early to call, although I’m inclined to your interpretation.

That reminds me, the US did not double down in Afghanistan. If only you had read my recent Foreign Affairs essay (with Dan Byman) you could have spared yourself this very public error in judgment.

Here’s what I think. If you read what the administration is saying about Iran (cf., Nikki Haley’s AEI speech) and the administration’s unconventional definition of compliance with the JCPOA, the U.S. seems increasingly committed to rollback. (I suggest you read my Survival mini-essay about this.) What the US is thinking about doing in Iraq to achieve this, I really don’t know. Options are very limited. But Syria and Yemen offer opportunities. Syria in the northeast and on the Golan and Yemen in terms of support for the UAE and Saudi. The Israelis are quite important to this in the Washington context. Presumably, however, you’ll have noticed the announcement of the first permanent US base in Israel. Relatedly, Dennis Ross has been in the NYT subtly reinforcing this trend by recalling the bad old days of the “anti-semitic” State Department, when US diplomats disregarded Israeli interests in favor of Arab desires, etc etc.

So on balance I’m on the Landis side.

Yes, it’s an important and timely topic. So you need to organize a small roundtable at Bellagio to get to the bottom of the issue. I’ll start packing…

KRG Targets Minorities Ahead of Kurdistan Independence Referendum — Part Two: Annexing Christian Lands

Part One of this two-part series, on the exploitation of the Yazidi Genocide for political purposes, can be accessed here.

By Matthew Barber

On the same day that the Kurdistan referendum on independence was held, the Assyrian Confederation of Europe (ACE) released a report (primarily authored by Reine Hanna but to which I also contributed) on the situation of Iraq’s Assyrian Christians. Over 100 pages long, the report details a number of serious violations that the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) is committing against Assyrians as it attempts to consolidate control over the Nineveh Plain, an important Assyrian homeland.

This project of annexation has been a long-term strategy, but it intensified this year ahead of the independence referendum regarding the future status of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

The report is entitled “Erasing Assyrians: How the KRG Abuses Human Rights, Undermines Democracy, and Conquers Minority Homelands” (click the title to download the full report). It covers such issues as voter fraud, land theft, the deposing of democratically elected officials and their replacement with unelected party-appointed KDP personnel, and the strategy of co-optation pursued through the KDP’s patronage system.

Report on Assyrian Christians in Nineveh Plain, Iraq

I am providing some excerpts from the report, below, that I believe are of particular significance at present. (Numbers preceding excerpts refer to pages of the report, which can be consulted for more detailed information and footnotes. I will not be placing ellipses between excerpted paragraphs below.)

Replacing Elected Mayors in Nineveh with Unelected Party-Appointed KDP Personnel

During this past summer, the KDP removed the mayors of two important Christian towns in the Nineveh Plain: Faiez Abed Jahwareh of Alqosh and Basim Bello of Tel Keppe (Tal Kayf).

[29] The KDP’s removal of the two elected and longstanding mayors, both of who are unsympathetic to the aims and policies of the KDP, suggest a strategy of preparing to annex the region to Kurdistan.

[Deposing the mayors] was accomplished through the KDP takeover of the Nineveh Provincial Council, which is led by Bashar al-Kiki, a member of the KDP. Thirty-one of the council’s forty-one members belong to the KDP.

The KDP has worked to install its own loyalists in the Nineveh Governorate for years, and it often succeeded in doing so in local districts within Nineveh (Sinjar being a prime example). However, the Nineveh Governorate became increasingly vulnerable to this manipulation following the events of 2014, when governance in Mosul collapsed and government offices serving the then-displaced residents of Nineveh had to be reopened in Dohuk. The affiliation of the Nineveh Governorate with the Central Government in Baghdad is therefore becoming progressively more illusory, as the KDP is able to implement policy through Nineveh while pretending to remain separate from it.

After removing Alqosh’s mayor, the KDP-controlled Alqosh District Council appointed Lara Yousif, an Assyrian KDP member, as the new mayor, without an election.

[29] Lara Yousif was [previously a] schoolteacher who has not served in the military, but she was presented in official photos wearing a Peshmerga officer’s uniform. She also has no experience in politics and has never held a public office.

One of the dangers is that the KDP will spin the criticism against this unilateral maneuver as a “backward rejection of female leadership.”

[30] Town residents have expressed frustration at the media’s misguided portrayal of Yousif’s appointment. Being appointed by a powerful political apparatus—rather than achieving a post through one’s own accomplishment and merit—is not a victory for women’s status in Iraq.

Lara Yousif KDP-appointed mayor of Alqosh, 2017

Lara Yousif, installed as mayor of Alqosh without election, July 2017

When Basim Bello, the elected mayor of Tel Keppe, was removed from office following the forced change of leadership in Alqosh, Bello said in an interview that “the reason for both his removal and Faeiz Abed Jahwareh’s removal in Alqosh are part of the KDP’s plan to eliminate opposition to KRG annexation. Bello feels that he was specifically targeted as he has been an outspoken critic of the KDP for many years” (32).

[32-33] Bello and two other members on the Council unsuccessfully attempted to stall the replacement of the members who had emigrated, believing that the decision should be made after displaced residents were able to return to the town. (Bear in mind that these decisions were being pushed forward while the voter base of the District remained displaced from the area.)

A US official had previously summarized Bello’s positions on KDP efforts to annex Nineveh (as early as 2008) in a cable published by Wikileaks:

[33] “According to Bello, the rift between the ADM and the Kurdish parties began in 2003 as the KRG attempted to expand its political control further into Christian areas of the Ninewa plain.

Bello said that the KRG is following a policy of encroachment into the Ninewa plain by attempting to establish “facts on the ground” by moving Kurds into Christian areas; stacking district and sub district councils with un-elected Kurdish members; and, in the case of Al Qosh, spending lavishly, particularly on the church and church-related construction.” In the same cable, Bello expressed concerns over a potential monopoly of authority by the KDP in the Nineveh Plain district councils:

“His own personal security aside—he believes he is under direct threat from the senior leadership in the KDP—Bello said his greatest concern is the prospect of irreversible modifications to councils that would give the KRG political control to go along with its effective occupation of the area…Bello also raised continuing Kurdish intimidation… there is an ongoing trend toward authoritarianism in the KRG…”

Using the Iraqi Government’s Own Administrative Structures to Weaken Them

The deposing of the elected Nineveh mayors and their replacement with KDP members was accomplished through official structures of the Nineveh Governorate—not the KRG. This was made possible by filling both district and provincial councils in Nineveh with local minority figures on the KDP payroll. (This strategy is linked to that of the “patronage system” touched upon below.) These councils then issued the various orders to depose/appoint the officials mentioned above.

After 2003, the KDP used a similar approach to take over the local government of the Sinjar District, which is one district within the Nineveh Governorate. Iraqi forces based in the Sinjar area were often commanded by Kurds with loyalties to the KDP, who then allowed the Party to establish a Peshmerga and asaish presence there. Enjoying this dominant military/asaish power in Sinjar, the KDP could place its own figures into positions of local administration, without holding elections. Before long, Sinjar fell outside of the control of the Nineveh authorities, even though the District remained the financial responsibility of the Nineveh Governorate.

Yazidi community leaders in Sinjar once described to me an incident (occurring several years before the Yazidi Genocide), in which then Nineveh governor Atheel al-Nujaifi tried to visit Sinjar. KDP personnel in Sinjar put a mob of youth “protesters” together to prevent him from engaging with the local officials there; the young men threw rocks at his motorcade until he had to simply turn around and drive back to Mosul. Sinjar had become a no-go zone for non-Kurdish authorities, and Yazidis who joined non-Kurdish parties were frequently arrested or targeted with political violence.

The KDP has targeted Christian areas with the same tactics that it used in Sinjar. Whereas it succeeded in gaining complete hegemony in Sinjar (something that ended August 3, 2014), its progress has been slower in the Nineveh Plain, where Christian communities have worked hard to resist KDP incursions. However, the KDP has been persistent and patient in its quest to annex Nineveh, and achieved new victories ahead of (and continuing after) the referendum.

This past week, after the publishing of the Erasing Assyrians report, an image surfaced of an official document from the office of Lara Yousif, Alqosh’s new “mayor,” signed by Yousif. What raised eyebrows was that the stamp of the mayor’s office next to Yousif’s signature bore the insignia of the KRG and said “Dohuk Governorate” (in Kurdish).

Alqosh Mayor's Office document (Sept 2017) showing 'Dohuk Governorate'

Signature of Lara Yousif on a recent document from Alqosh Mayor’s Office with stamp showing the KRG insignia and the words “Dohuk Governorate” (Sept 2017)

The Erasing Assyrians report warns about the danger of the annexation agenda, and this image makes that agenda plainly evident. The KRG has now annexed Alqosh; it is not attempting to disguise the nature of this takeover but is revealing the new arrangement on documents issued by the new authority in this town. Keeping in mind the KRG’s current emphasis on independence, we may be seeing future borders being drawn at present—if this situation is left unchallenged by the international community.

[29] The fact that the KDP has infiltrated one of Baghdad’s governorates and is now using that platform to “legally” migrate disputed territories out of that same governorate’s jurisdiction and into the sphere of KRG administrative and security structures amounts to the KRG using Iraq’s own institutions of governance in non-Kurdish areas to prepare parts of Iraqi territory—outside of the KRI—for eventual secession from Iraq.

The Erasing Assyrians report can be consulted for more detailed information on the makeup of the provincial and district councils that were manipulated by the KDP to effect the change of power in Nineveh that occurred this summer. The Assyrian activist Max Joseph also wrote an article chronicling the removal of Nineveh’s mayors, which can be consulted.

Silencing Voices that Critique These Policies: Cracking Down on Protests

Opposition to what has transpired in Nineveh this summer has been met with threats against protesters, legitimized and delivered by the same councils responsible for deposing the elected mayors. These actions represent a crackdown on free speech.

[30-31] The residents of Alqosh have staged three protests since Jahwareh was removed. The first took place on July 20, 2017. The second was held on August 2, 2017 following Yousif’s appointment, and the third was held on August 18, 2017. In all three protests, residents carried Iraqi flags in response to the KRG’s stated objective to conduct its upcoming independence referendum in the Nineveh Plain. A petition was also signed by thousands of Alqosh residents and delivered to the District Council, but they have failed to respond to the petition or the protests.

(See the full report for additional abuses specified in the petition of the protesters.)

[31-32] On August 30, 2017, Alqosh police delivered individual notices to eleven Alqosh residents, warning them against further protests, threatening consequences. The notices were sent by the office of the town’s newly-appointed mayor, Lara Yousif. [These] individuals were identified as the “ring leaders” of the Alqosh resistance. They were asked to sign a notice acknowledging they understood there would be consequences if they failed to comply. All eleven initially refused, but a few signed the following day after being pressured by officers in their own homes. Documentation was secured from the local police station confirming that the order to threaten the protestors came from the Tel Keppe District Council, and had been approved by the Nineveh Provincial Council leader. In an interview conducted during the preparation of this report, one of the individuals targeted with the notices reported receiving death threats from Yousif’s husband, Duraid Jameel Tezi, also a KDP member.

Assyrian protesters in Alqosh threatened with arrest

The following are some images of the protests that occurred in Alqosh. Multiple protests took place and most of the community participated. The police were aware of the protests and were present at them, and the protests were also covered by the press.


The KDP Patronage System

While it is fully within the rights of anyone to join a political party of their preference, including the KDP, it must be understood that the KDP pursues a strategy of selecting members of minority communities to serve as figureheads, putting them on the Party’s payroll, appointing them to positions of importance, and then using them to implement its policy agendas while pointing at them to make the claim that the KDP enjoys significant loyalty within the minority community. The following excerpts from the report discuss the KDP patronage strategy:

[35] To strengthen their prospects of incorporating the Nineveh Plain into the Kurdistan Region, Kurdish authorities have for more than a decade practiced a strategy of offering incentives to minority communities in exchange for their support for the KRG’s claims to the Nineveh Plain, while imposing restrictions on those who do not. The KDP buys the allegiances of many Assyrian tribal and political leaders through a patronage system that fosters political divisions within the community…

The patronage system involves offering visible community figures a regular cash payment that is often referred to by people in the country as a “party salary.” These figures are then expected to publicly and privately endorse and promote the KDP and its agendas within the community. This process has the destructive effect of eroding the legitimacy of both spiritual and political leadership within minority communities, as clergy and political leaders are alike targeted with this “political conversion” effort, amid the deep frustration of the people who then feel abandoned by their representation. The pattern is that without this financial bribery, it is difficult for the KDP to make inroads with communities whose interests are not served by KDP objectives. Usually, only the loyalty of the figure receiving the salary—and that of his inner circle of friends and relatives—is bought by the party; these figures are then generally rejected by a majority of their community, but because the KDP is able to “convert” most of the visible leadership figures, it still succeeds in creating the illusion that a sizable portion of the minority population stands with the party.

In the case of the Yazidis, the effects of this patronage system have so destabilized traditional leadership structures that the people often express despair at not having anyone in their community to speak for them. Yazidi tribal heads, religious leaders, intellectuals, and professional figures are all targeted with this form of politicization. This has had the long-term effect of eliminating any prominent voices within the community that are critical of the KDP and that could rally broad support for Yazidi interests, even though the Yazidi people frequently share with concerned outsiders that this is what they most need. All Yazidis MPs in the Kurdistan Parliament are KDP members—as are Yazidi MPs in the Iraqi Parliament who represent the KRG—but they enjoy little esteem from the Yazidi community and are often the objects of scorn.

The existence of independent Assyrian parties has allowed Assyrians to resist this process somewhat more effectively than the Yazidis, whom the KRG denies the right to create parties, using the rationalization that “Yazidis are Kurds, therefore they can participate in Kurdish parties and have no need for separate representation.” This justification for proscribing the Yazidi political voice is ironic in light of the fact that three main Islamist parties legally function in the KRG and hold seats in the Kurdish Parliament—these are Kurdish parties whose platform is religion and religious identity. The KRG has entrenched an order [36] by which Yazidis who want to participate in politics are forced to join the established Kurdish parties that are not sensitive to the unique concerns of the minority, but which advance the broad Kurdish interests that constitute their platforms. The only alternative to this for Yazidis has been one Yazidi party in Sinjar (called The Movement of Reform and Progress) that has sought to work directly with the Central Government in Baghdad.  It holds one seat in the Baghdad Parliament, but for more than a decade it was harshly suppressed by KDP asaish who threatened, abused, and arrested most of its members. This was possible because of the de facto security control that the KDP maintained in the disputed territory of Sinjar until the Peshmerga withdrawal upon the Yazidi Genocide of August 3, 2014. Successfully thwarted and stifled by the KDP, which used its militarized security forces (something that small parties do not possess) to forcefully establish hegemony in Sinjar, the Movement of Reform and Progress is seen as a failure by Yazidis today.

That the KRG has been forced to recognize the ethnic distinctiveness of Assyrians is one factor that has allowed Christians to resist KDP encroachment in the Nineveh Plain more successfully than has been the case for Yazidis in Sinjar. However, as this report explains, this resistance is weakening as the KDP continues to pursue increasingly aggressive tactics to annex the disputed territories, while shielded by the ongoing absence of sufficient external accountability that the international community could provide. This is exemplified by the cases of the removal of Nineveh district mayors, described in the previous section, which involved the KDP’s use of a number of minority beneficiaries of KDP patronage that had been appointed to Nineveh district and provincial councils.

In a small oversight, the report failed to mention that a new Yazidi party has recently been created by Haider Shesho, though it is understood that this has only become possible because Haider has given up opposing KDP policies and (since spring of 2016) promotes KRG positions on incorporating Sinjar into the KRI. This is a new development and a departure from what has been the established policy of the KRG regarding the Yazidi political voice. Were Yazidis to attempt to form a party that expressed substantial opposition to KDP agendas, it is likely that it would not be authorized to exist or conduct activities within the KRI or KRG-controlled disputed territories.

On the Kurdistan Independence Referendum

The following are some excerpts from the report that deal with the independence referendum:

[42] On March 6, 2017, ten political parties held a press conference and released a joint statement outlining their demands for the Nineveh Plain, calling for the activation and implementation of the January 2014 decision to initiate the creation of a Nineveh Plain Governorate administered by the Central Government. The statement declared that the Nineveh Plain should be excluded from all political and military conflicts arising between the Central Government and the KRG, adding: “We demand that its people are given the right to shape the future of their region independent from any pressure.” The statement also rejected KDP interference in the region: “We reject all practices that are aimed at imposing de facto policies on minority areas that contradict the vision and aspirations [of the people] for their future. We also reject all political schemes designed to divide minority areas.”

Despite ardent opposition from both international observers and local residents of the disputed territories, the KRG has announced its plan to include the Nineveh Plain in its upcoming independence referendum scheduled for September 25, 2017,105 referring to it as a “Kurdistani area” despite the fact that the Nineveh Plain is outside its jurisdiction and has never had a sizeable Kurdish population.

Analysts have noted that it is extremely problematic to unilaterally conduct an independence referendum in disputed territories that have not yet been established as part of the Kurdistan Region—how can inhabitants of areas outside of the KRI legitimately decide whether Kurdistan should secede from Iraq?

Recognizing the dangers posed by the referendum, the U.S. government (in addition to many other governments around the world), including the White House, has declared its opposition to it on multiple occasions. The U.S. State Department published a statement on the referendum on Sept. 20, 2017 stressing that “The status of disputed areas and their boundaries must be resolved through dialogue, in accordance with Iraq’s constitution, not by unilateral action or force.”

In recent months, the Assyrian Democratic Movement has repeatedly called for the Nineveh Plain to be excluded from the controversial referendum, given the current situation. Assyrian politicians have maintained that the people of the Nineveh Plain should not be asked to participate in any such referendum until they have had the opportunity to return home, rebuild their towns, and regain stability.

Nineveh Plain residents feel that KRG authorities are exploiting the suffering of minority communities to advance their own interests, but recent developments described in this report are only the latest actions in a long-term strategy to annex the region.

Even as early as eight years ago, the potential for a referendum to be abused in order to push forward an annexation agenda was noted by observers: “Kurdish officials demand the incorporation of these lands into the semiautonomous Kurdish region through a referendum… For its part, the KRG is adamantly demanding implementation of a constitutionally-mandated referendum on the future of the disputed territories—a referendum that Kurdish officials, with their political and security presence in the area, will make every effort [43] to ensure goes their way.”

The referendum held this past Monday represents the coming to fruition of the long-term strategies that have been described here. The report notes other examples of the kinds of abuses that had been predicted:

[34] Various sources reported that in the week that followed Basim Bello’s removal from office, the KDP pressured other Nineveh Plain mayors and council members to publicly voice their support for conducting the Kurdistan independence referendum in their towns. Council members who had voted in Bello’s favor were harassed. These local leaders were approached and told sign a document in support of the KRG’s referendum. Some felt threatened and were forced to sign the document, after being warned against resisting. One official reported being told that, “it was in his best interest to sign.”

Assyrians in Alqosh protest the Kurdistan independence referendum, not out of opposition to independence for Kurds, but because of the use of the referendum to create a false image of minority support for the annexation of disputed territories

Convincing Americans that Minorities Love the KRG

A serious problem for minorities in Iraq is the way that the KRG PR machine endeavors to dominate the narrative regarding disputed territories and political conflicts inside Iraq. This strategy silences the minorities who are affected by the policies pursued by the KRG. While the KDP works to seize Christian areas in Nineveh, it simultaneously holds PR events in Washington claiming that it is beloved by the minorities who are grateful for its presence. The report touches on some of these that have occurred recently:

[74] On August 1, 2017, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) held an event that focused on the future of Iraq’s minorities,212 but the event failed to represent the voices of the minorities whose lives will be affected by the outcome of the referendum. KRG spokespersons usually define the content of these events, which are devoid of any critical discussion of the real issues in Iraq or the actual views and attitudes of the people being discussed. As the event began, a group of Assyrian students stood up and protested as Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman took to the stage, holding up signs reading “No Free Speech in KRG” and “KRG Is Not a Democracy.”

Rahman responded to the protest saying, “I have no idea what that was about.”

(Click for full image) – Assyrian students protest a KRG event on minorities at USIP in Washington (Aug. 1, 2017)

[73] One of the favorite talking points parroted by KRG lobbyists when issues of human rights abuses are raised runs along these lines: “We know that we’re not perfect, but we’re making so much progress, and we hope that others will note that we are doing so much better than other regimes in the region.” This is quite the weak standard of comparison. It is unacceptable to invoke Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan, Saddam or Maliki, and Iran to avoid facing one’s own human rights failures.

This deflection tactic has been repeated to the point that it is now tired and clichéd. KRG officials must cease their sidestepping of legitimate critique regarding the erosion of democracy and harmful government policies that are resulting in the decline of minorities in the region. At the current rate, Iraq’s minorities could nearly disappear by the time the KRG completes its “journey of progress.”

Other Material

The report contains detailed information on a number of important issues in addition to those excerpted above. These include abuses of the Kurdish asaish, government-sanctioned expressions of anti-Assyrian prejudice, and other forms of discrimination in business and politics. Readers are encouraged to consult the report for any information that may prove useful.


The KDP takeover of parts of Nineveh is not something that should be tolerated by the international community. It is unacceptable to allow the unilateral division of disputed territories like Nineveh and Sinjar between Baghdad and the KRG, permitting each government to administer a part of them. This trend divides communities whose survival is already vulnerable and whose historical cohesiveness is being undermined—due to the politics of nationalism—to a greater degree than at any time in the past.

The recent history of theft of Christian land under Kurdish governance, in addition to the other abuses outlined in this report, should make clear that KRG administration of Nineveh is not a guarantee for improved stability and longevity for Christian minority communities. We may currently be witnessing just another stage in the longer-term trend of the disappearance of this people from their homeland.

When the KDP successfully co-opts a small portion of a minority community, it then advances the claim that the vast majority of the group supports Kurdish administration and that only a handful of “troublemakers” oppose it. But as numerous journalists have reported and as anyone who has spent time visiting communities in northern Iraq is aware, the vast majority of Christians in the Nineveh Plain (like the vast majority of Yazidis of Sinjar) prefer to develop their own forms of local administration and security, legitimized under the appropriate Iraqi ministries. This is not about any particular affinity with Baghdad, but the fact that as part of Iraq, these local regions have the opportunity to develop forms of local governance; annexation to the KRI, on the other hand, will almost certainly turn these areas into KDP fiefdoms. The international community should support the demands of these peoples—rather than dignifying the party policies repeated by their unelected “leaders”—and facilitate this process.

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.