Tag Archives: Kurds

Nouri al-Maliki: Iraq’s Newest Dictator?

The comparisons to the Hussein regime should not be over-stretched. The deep emotional significance of drawing such a parallel, and the limits of Nouri al-Maliki’s power compared to his predecessor, should give those espousing such a view serious pause.

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iraqi girl

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For Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s recent political history remains a specter haunting his regime. Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian rule left little precedent for national, democratic reconstruction according to what external and domestic policymakers had hoped. It is thus unsurprising that the current ruling party has enacted policies that resemble those from a far more sinister past, and Maliki’s practices have been compared to Saddam’s; most importantly, he has arrested political dissenters and established central government control over the security forces. His recent response to the protests sweeping Iraq this past week have raised afresh these analyses. Yet the comparisons to Saddam’s regime should not be stretched too far. The deep emotional significance of drawing such a parallel, and the limits of Maliki’s power compared to Saddam’s, should give those espousing such a view serious pause.

Maliki has certainly exhibited tendencies that spark fear amongst Iraqis. In a September editorial, The Guardian argued that “Nouri al-Maliki’s has some way to go before he matches Saddam Hussein’s terror – but the charge sheet is growing.” For example, as US combat forces departed the country in December 2011, Maliki issued the notorious arrest warrant for his vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi. Soldiers and tanks led by Maliki’s son surrounded Hashimi’s house, detaining several bodyguards who later, after torture, confessed that the vice president had organized illegal death squads against his political rivals. He was soon sentenced to death in absentia for his alleged crimes. The Guardian concluded by bluntly noting that “Iraqiyya [Hashimi’s party]…is not the first victim of Maliki’s power grab.”

Maliki has reinforced his grip through the Iraqi military, reshaping the chain of command so that his office has full control over personnel placement and field strategy. The Iraqi Special Forces have become a personal guard for the Prime Minister, as has the intelligence and judiciary branches. Having confronted the Sunni opposition, many fear that his next targets will be the Sadrists and eventually the Kurds using his strengthened psuedo-legal military options.

Yet there are several key differences between his and Saddam’s regime that must not be ignored. Above all, Maliki simply wields far less power than did his despotic counterpart. The Prime Minister’s inability to coerce the Kurdish President Massoud Barzani into turning over Hashimi in 2011, for instance, underscores this reality. Unlike Saddam, Maliki has nearly no influence or control in Iraqi Kurdistan. Supported by Turkey, Iran, and the United States, Kurdistan is essentially off-limits to Baghdad, lest Maliki violently exacerbate tensions with his regional neighbors.

The Sunni political bloc to which Hashimi belongs, albeit battered, has its foreign allies too. As much as he tries, Maliki cannot eliminate the Sunni opposition, as its leadership would immediately turn to Saudi Arabia if seriously threatened. And he does not have the influence to prevent such links. He can only intimidate and isolate the Sunnis — which he continues to do with limited success — but can never silence their voice.

Even amongst the Shia faction, deep divisions undermine Maliki’s ability to meaningfully consolidate his power. Moqtada al-Sadr, the indefatigable leader of the Sadrist movement, has repeatedly spoken against the ruling party. For all his maneuvering, Maliki has relatively little opportunity to significantly damage or silence the Sadrist minority; Sadr, a “black sheep” in Iraqi politics, needs only align with Iraq’s other opposition leaders to pose a serious threat to Maliki’s grasp on Baghdad, a move he is willing to make if Maliki further strips his political options.

These empirical differences between Maliki and Saddam must be viewed alongside a far less exact, emotional element. Comparisons between the two leaders often ignore the serious and painful realities of the terror with which Saddam Hussein ruled. It is neither accurate nor fair to make such offhand comparisons when the reality does not match. There is little doubt that Maliki’s actions are authoritarian, harsh, and legally questionable, but it is also important to remember that Saddam’s true cruelty, paranoia, and unfeeling political calculations with the lives of his citizens tore far deeper wounds across Iraq. In many respects, Maliki’s ruling style is a product of the stillborn democracy left in the wake of the American departure. His rule will never conform to the ideals of egalitarian and representative government that US leaders espoused. But to compare it to Saddam’s merely exacerbates the situation by pushing the current regime to adopt more insular policies, while at the same time ignores the problem’s roots.

To be sure, the trend towards authoritarianism that Maliki’s government is following does not inspire optimism, nor should it be encouraged. But it should be recognized for what it is, and not compared to a regime it will never truly resemble. How can foreigners understand Maliki? If they look past the Saddam era for answers, the results will be far more enlightening.

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army

Syria: To Arm Or To Not Arm, That Is The Question

The choice by the Turkish and their Arab suppliers to hold off high-tech equipment is the correct thing to do in order to ensure that the rebel forces operate in a more unified manner.

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Free Syrian Army and National Syrian Council

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With the Syrian conflict entering its 19th month, spectators have noticed substantive in-fighting between the different rebel factions that risks their victory over Al-Assad’s forces. With the rebels already on the back-foot in terms of training and equipment, their likelihood of success against the government forces will be further reduced given that many factions can’t even work together to achieve the same goal. But the Turkish and the various Gulf suppliers who are aiding the rebels against Al-Assad have decided, much in the same way parents would with squabbling children, that this argumentative behaviour will not be accompanied by their heavy equipment. Does removing the rebel’s ability to replenish their heavy weapons capability force them into cooperation with each other, or will this move endanger the outcome that much of the world (except for the Chinese and Russian governments apparently) is expecting and hoping for?

Firstly though, why are these suppliers helping the Syrians anyway? Well, although the publicised reasons are all well and good, there seems to be more subtly useful reasons. In general, a unified Syrian rebel force will lead to a more stable post-conflict political situation in the country, something most speculators are hopeful for especially after the recent events in Libya. The Turks, who allow the Gulf-state-originated arms to move across their southern border, have long wanted to be seen as a moral force in the Middle East (perhaps due to their aspiration of joining the EU). Seeing as the Turks have reconciliation with the PKK as a possibility but a resurgent conflict as a reality, they could have a potentially resurgent Kurdish problem on their hands if the Syrian Kurds are not ‘controlled’. By monitoring the supplies entering the combat zone the Turks have acquired powerful means to dictate current and future operations conducted by the Syrian rebels (who may well turn into the future Syrian military) and the Syrian Kurds (who may well assist the PKK from bases in Northern Syria). With the actual arms suppliers in mind, the Gulf states (especially the Qataris) wish to maintain their position in the joint Arab action limelight and also have become the hosts of many Syrian activists since the conflict began, making it difficult not to act if they do indeed want to fulfil that first criteria.

This withholding of arms will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the Syrian rebels’ operations. With the Syrians relying on equipment that is either stolen, smuggled in or given to them by defecting government forces, the chance to get their hands on anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles is a rarity. Surely then, the removal of such a steady and extensive line of supply would seriously inhibit their ability to take on larger and better supported government forces. We have seen scattered and unconfirmed reports of government planes being brought down but the rebel’s ability to accomplish such a task regularly is a necessity if they want to be victorious, and this will be a very difficult job while the missiles are being held back. Anti-tank missiles are important too, although not completely necessary if the government armoured forces are to be defeated given that RPGs and similar systems are readily available.

On the other hand, a move such as this could bring unity and cooperation to the rebel forces. In recent months the rebels have suffered from a lack of mutual support when engaging with government forces; the Syrian army commanders have had years to practice and apply joint battalion, brigade and regimental actions whilst the majority of the rebels have not had that luxury. Although the weapons being, and not being, passed through the border are significant, the rebels’ ability to operate as effectively and cooperatively as the government forces (who enjoy abundant air and artillery cover as well as mutual ground cooperation) is perhaps of greater interest. After all, high-tech weapons are of little importance if the rebel forces aren’t concerted enough to use them effectively.

Although a risky move, this author believes that the choice by the Turkish and their Arab suppliers to hold off high-tech equipment is the correct thing to do in order to ensure that the rebel forces operate in a more unified manner. Alongside this, a more stable relationship between each of the factions in Syria will pave the way for a more stable post-conflict situation if and when the Assad regime is removed. All we have to do now is wait and hope.

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Photo credit: syriana2011

A Strait Explanation For Russia’s Interest In Tartus (Part 1)

Why is Russia so interested in preventing Western intervention in Syria? The first of a two part feature examining the reasons behind Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. 

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Syria protestor

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To the West, Russian actions towards Syria can seem inexplicable, untrustworthy and trapped in the era of great power politics. In October 1939 Winston Churchill famously quipped ‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…’. It seems things have not changed. Churchill offered a potential solution to his own concerns, however. ‘But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interests’.[1] It is apparent that in the last 73 years nothing has changed.

Russian national interests motivate Moscow’s support of Bashar al-Assad, and they are numerous. They include the prospect of future arms sales to the regime and Syrian debt to the Russian state and businesses, debt which might not be honoured if Assad falls. They also include Russian influence in the Middle East and in the wider world, influence that may be bolstered by Russia’s ability to prevent Western intervention at will in the Middle East. Finally, Moscow has an interest in maintaining the international norm of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, an already weakened norm that would be further degraded by Western intervention in Syria.[2] One major interest – an enduring one for Russia – has nevertheless been ignored in media coverage of Russian involvement in the Syrian crisis.[3]

That interest is in maintaining control over the Black Sea. For as long as Russia has existed, it has had an interest in the Black Sea and the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits which control access to it. By extension, it has always had an interest in Anatolia, which straddles this maritime chokepoint. Russia and the Ottoman Empire fought thirteen separate wars from 1568 to 1918, many over control of the Black Sea, as Russia sought to assert its dominance over its southern neighbour. In 1695, Peter the Great used his newly created fleet to attack Ottoman positions and establish his dominance of the Sea of Azov on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Catherine the Great conducted several wars against the Ottomans in the 18th century, securing the Crimea and gaining a further foothold on the Black Sea. In 1827, a combined Anglo-French-Russian fleet decimated the Ottoman fleet at Navarino and in 1828-29 Nicholas I went to war against the Ottoman Empire after it closed the Dardanelles to Russian traffic.

In 1833 he again intervened in Ottoman affairs, this time to protect the Sultan’s government against internal rebellion and thereby secured the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi, which provided for closure of the straits in the event of a European war. This secured the Russian coastline in the event of a war against the British and their allies. From 1853-1857, the Crimean War was fought in part because of Nicholas I’s attempts to secure influence over the Ottoman Empire, at expense of the British and French, by becoming the guarantor of all its Orthodox Christian residents. Another war occurred in 1877-1878 as Russia sought to reclaim its access to the Black Sea, severely limited by the treaty ending the Crimean War.  Finally, the First World War saw the last war between the two states, but not the end of Russian interest in Anatolia.

When Turkey joined NATO in 1952, however, the ability of Russia to directly manipulate it by force diminished.  Russia turned to other methods to guarantee its access through the Bosporus and Dardanelles. It found the means to influence Turkey via Syria.[4] Syria and Turkey had strained relations for much of the 20th century resulting from such things as water rights, Syrian support for Kurdish rebels and the secular nature of the Turkish government, and the USSR sought to exploit this for its own benefit. Aid to Syria, already an associate of Moscow, increased significantly in the mid- to late-1950s.[5] Significant aid flows continued for the duration of the Cold War, even as regimes in Syria changed.

In 1971, the same year of Hafez al-Assad’s first visit to Moscow, the Soviet Union concluded a deal with Syria to establish a naval base at Tartus, in direct challenge to the U.S. Sixth Fleet’s dominance of the Mediterranean. By establishing a presence in the Mediterranean, the Soviet Union pushed a potential battlefield with the United States further from its borders. With the end of the Cold War, the naval rivalry which prompted such manoeuvres disappeared, but Russia’s attempts to influence its neighbours did not; Syrian aid continued to flow unabated.[6]

In 2009, by decree of then President Medvedev, Russia established its National Security Strategy to 2020.  The main objectives of this strategy are the ‘sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, and likewise the preservation of civil peace, political and social stability’.[7] To achieve these objectives Russia must guarantee the security of its borders, which requires a degree of influence over its neighbours, either through cooperative measures or otherwise.[8] In that vein, arms sales and economic assistance to Syria have continued to this day. These provide Russia some influence over the Assad regime and, it is hoped, some indirectly over Turkey.  This influence, and the control it helps give Russia over the Black Sea, is a key factor explaining Russia’s actions in the Syrian crisis. Its actions regarding Syria fit into a broader pattern of manoeuvres designed to secure Russian control over the Black Sea, and thereby guarantee the security of Russia’s borders.

Read the second part here.

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[1] Robert Heinl (1966), Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations, (U.S. Naval Institute), p. 283.

[2] Andrej Kreutz (2007), ‘Russia and the Mediterranean Countries of the Arab East’, In Russia in the Middle East: Friend or Foe?, (Praeger Security International), http://psi.praeger.com/doc.aspx?d=/books/gpg/C9328/C9328-62.xml (accessed 16 July 2012); Dmitri Trenin, ‘Why Russia Supports Assad’, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/opinion/why-russia-supports-assad.html?_r=3&partner=rss&emc=rss (accessed 16 July 2012).

[3] Mark Katz mentions the relationship between the Tartus base and the Dardanelles and Bosporus, but argues that the base is designed to facilitate Russian power projection, rather than secure control of the Straits as an end in and of itself. See http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/07/10/moscows_marines_head_for_syria?page=full (accessed 16 July 2012).

[4] Kreutz (2007).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://rustrans.wikidot.com/russia-s-national-security-strategy-to-2020. See paragraph 35 (accessed 16 July 2012)
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A Round Up Of Turkish-Syrian Relations

As Ankara has made such an issue of Bashar al-Assad stepping down, Turkish-Syrian tensions will undoubtedly remain highly strung for as long as the dictator remains in power.

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1855 Turkey Syria

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]ensions are rising in the Mediterranean after Syria shot down a Turkish military aircraft. The incident happened as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated, as the Syrian regime continues to brutally put down an uprising that began last year.

Before the Arab Spring, relations had been improving thanks to an effort by Turkey’s moderately Islamist government to improve relations with its neighbours.

Historically, the relationship between the two neighbors has been antagonistic, due to the fact that the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire dominated the Middle East for centuries. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, one of the components of the rising Arab nationalism was anti-Turkish sentiment. In the Cold War, Turkey joined NATO and was firmly in the western camp, whereas Arab neighbors like Syria, embraced Nasserite socialism and were closer to the Soviet Union. This remained a long-standing issue under the military regime that regularly interfered in Turkey’s domestic politics. They tried to forge closer ties with Western Europe and largely neglected their neighbours. Turkey was much more interested in joining the European Community (after 1993 the European Union), than improving its relations with her Arab neighbors.

There were a number of specific problems that Turkey had with Syria. The first is the status of the province of Hatay (which is where the Turkish aircraft was shot down last month). It has been part of Turkey since before the Second World War, but Syria claims it belongs to them. Syria also used to sponsor the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has long waged a terrorist campaign against Turkey in the name of an independent Kurdish homeland.

In 2001, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) took over, and in the next few years the influence of the military in Turkish politics was gradually limited. The new democratic government was more responsive to the policy preferences of the voters, and the country started to move away from its long-standing American orientation and focused on improving relations with the Muslim world. This became clear in 2003 when the Turkish government refused to act as a launching pad for the invasion of Iraq. Turks also began to give up on their long-stalled bid to join the EU.

The so-called “Zero Problems” policy was meant to remove any issues with its neighbors. Giving up on Europe, Turkey sought to establish a role as a regional hegemon, seeking a bigger role for itself in dealing with issues such as Israel-Palestine and the Iranian nuclear problem. In the last decade, relations with Syria had improved dramatically. The countries signed a free-trade agreement and the countries leaders met frequently. Tensions over the PPK also dissipated, as the Erdogan government softened Turkey’s stand on the Kurdish issue.

But this all fell apart once the “Arab Spring” began. Initially Erdogan sought to use his relations with Assad to get the Syrian leader to reform on his own. When this failed Syrian security forces started killing their own people in droves, Erdogan dramatically changed his tone, and became a forceful advocate for Assad stepping down. Tensions have been rising steadily in recent months, due to the presence of refugee camps in Turkey for Syrians fleeing the fighting. These camps are too close to the border, and there have already been a number of incursions by Syrian forces looking for rebels in these camps.

The incident last month was the most egregious yet, with the two Turkish pilots killed. So far the Turkish reaction has been remarkably restrained, considering the bellicosity Erdogan is known for. Many see this as a result of pressure from the United States and EU, who are in no rush for a war to break out in the Mediterranean that could further damage the failing economic recovery. But if there are further incidents, Turkey may be hard to restrain. As Ankara has made such an issue of Assad stepping down, tensions will undoubtedly remain as long as the dictator remains in power.

Playing The Great Game

Enmity becomes more entrenched in a Great Game and violence quickly becomes the sole language of political disagreement. If we must play, we had better be sure the prize is worth it.

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In the 21st century of human rights, international law and the United Nations, we have convinced ourselves that the era of the ‘Great Game’ exists only in history books. Many of us have told ourselves that the Arab Spring is different this time – that it will transform the Middle East for the better, where the common man (and woman) finally has the opportunity to achieve popular sovereignty and genuine political representation. Unfortunately, the unbiased lens of history suggests it is imperial business as usual for the Middle East.

No conflicts better highlights this unfortunate truth than those in Syria and Bahrain. Never before have two conflicts, each a different branch from the same tree, managed to so evidently embody the age-old idiom: ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’.

The players? Principally the US, UK and Iran (with Saudi Arabia thrown into the mix). We all know that the tagline of both the US and UK foreign policies is the promotion of democracy and human rights worldwide. Iran, having long considered itself to be the pioneer of the Islamic resurgence within the Middle East, is supposedly committed to the endeavors of Muslims that it sees are striving to end the remnants of Western colonialism in the region. Its support of such groups as Hamas and Hezbollah is guided by this principle.

I may offend your collective intelligence when I say that the Middle East is a demographically complex region. The states that comprise the Middle East today do little to reflect this complexity – the vast majority of them were brought into existence as a consequence of imperial rivalry between Britain and France after the First World War. It would not be far off to suggest that the Arab Spring has been cast out of Arab frustrations of their disenfranchisement resulting from this arbitrary state system. Of course, each Spring is unique based on its host country’s geography, demography, history and politics – but the feeling of disenfranchisement is common to them all.

In their simplest terms, the Syrian and Bahraini Springs have been born out of the same problem – an insular, detached demographic minority ruling over the majority. In Syria’s case, this is the Shi‘i Alawi al-Asad regime ruling over a Sunni majority (with Kurds and various other minorities thrown into the mix). In Bahrain, it is a Sunni monarchy ruling over a much larger Shi‘i minority. This relationship is absolutely abhorrent to democracy, where the concept of ‘majority rules’ forms the basis of our conceptions of popula participation. In theory, the US and UK should be supporting both movements. Regarding Iranian foreign policy ideals, it also should be opposed to despotism, injustice and tyranny – the evils that the Islamic Revolution sought to expel from its borders through ousting the Shah in 1979. But of course (and frankly, predictably), they do not.

Anyone who maintains at least a minimal level of awareness to international affairs will be acquainted with the situation in Syria. The al-Assad regime has literally been getting away with murder against anti-regime protesters, with politicians in the US, UK and France calling for action exasperatingly close to military intervention. Iran is reported to have provided the regime with support in the form of military advisors placed at the highest levels of Syria’s government. Even with the involvement of UN observers, the situation is far from resolution.

Don’t know much about the Bahraini Spring? I’m not surprised, it rarely makes the news – when it does, it is only because it has interrupted our enjoyment of international motorsport, slipping from view when it can no longer create an awkward nuisance. However, the Al Khalifa regime has sported the same disgusting techniques as the al-Asad family, however there has been nothing near the international condemnation as there has been toward Syria. Just like the protestors in Syria, Bahrainis protested peacefully for modest reforms – and were given a government response in the form of live ammunition, tear gas and rubber bullets. In particular, government forces have used the old ‘occupy hospitals and torture the wounded’ tactic against all those suspected to have been involved in the protests. Indeed, the Al Khalifas are certainly not playing cricket.

The most remarkable aspect of the ongoing situation in Bahrain is our complete silence on the matter. Even Tunisia, which has had the most peaceful and stable transition toward democratization, has had more coverage than Bahrain. Whilst we ignore the situation, the Iranian press has adopted a different approach. The Iranian news outlets (all state-owned, I might add) rather obviously refer to the Bahraini protestors as ‘martyrs’ whilst labeling the Syrians with the conspicuously vague ‘armed groups’. The West has acquiesced the Saudi military intervention to crush the Bahraini Spring whilst laying ample criticism on Iran for supporting one of the few allies it still has left.

It is not the intention to lament about the incompatibility between idealism and reality in foreign policy – states have interests, and it has been clear for a long time that states will compromise their ideals to secure those interests it perceives as strategically necessary. But let’s not fool ourselves – what we are witnessing in Syria and Bahrain today is yet another Great Game. However, unlike the Great Games of the 19th and 20th centuries, this Game can now bite us back and the information age has shifted the power of the Game towards the hands of the pawns. In 19th century Central Asia, the response of the local Khanates was constrained to using violence against foreign intruders to such an excessive extent that commanders would think twice before straying again into the Khans’ territory. In the 21st century, protestors in the Middle East can project influence much further than just their local areas.

The Middle East’s greatest tragedy has been its manipulation by the hands of outside powers. By constantly meddling in their affairs, we risk consigning many of these states to a fate similar to that of Afghanistan. The effect of these games of influence will ultimately cause deeper problems that become harder to solve as time progresses. Enmity becomes more entrenched and violence quickly becomes the sole language of political disagreement. If we must play, we had better be sure the prize is worth it.