Why Israel is backing Kurdish independence

Middle East Eye

Developments pointing towards the possibility of an independent Kurdish state raise new questions about Middle East politics, as well as the possibility of a major transformation of the region in years to come.

The history of the Middle East has been determined by events which initially seemed localised and relatively minor, before acquiring great significant and causing many upheavals in the long run. It appears that the region may be heading for yet another transformational change which may, in turn, invite comparisons with the events after World War I that shaped the Middle East of today.

The Kurdish people claim to have lived in the same land for more than 2,000 years. Their land has been divided by imperial manoeuvres. They have struggled against oppression and persecution for almost a century. Now, Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, says that he is going to hold a referendum on independence in coming months.

The outcome is going to be a foregone conclusion. The referendum will result in a vote for an independent Kurdish state north of a truncated Iraq. The prospect is tantalising for many Kurds, persecuted for decades in a land which was divided by imperial powers between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey almost a century ago. At the same time, external powers in the region and afar will be eyeing for the consequences with a sense of delight or foreboding, depending on their own interests.

It is worth considering what has brought the idea of Kurdish independence so close to realisation. In recent months, communities in the autonomous Kurdistan Region have witnessed a growing Sunni Arab uprising in western and central Iraq, including areas around the capital Baghdad and near the autonomous Kurdish Region itself. Kurdish Peshmerga have been deployed outside Iraqi Kurdistan to block Sunni rebel advances, and defend Kurdistan’s borders. Iraq’s Kurdish population is bound to view freedom as too precious to lose, having won autonomy after the fall of Saddam Hussein at the end of a very long struggle.

The widespread alienation of Sunni Arabs caused by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies, and the Sunni rebellion of late, have raised the prospect of Iraq’s formal breakup into Shia and Sunni mini-states. That prospect comes with risks as well as opportunities, not only for Iraqi Kurds, but for the Kurdish population throughout the region, especially in Iran, Syria and Turkey – three other countries with large concentrations of Kurdish communities.

Watching these developments in Iraq, and calculating their possible ramifications, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thrown the cat among the pigeons. Only a few days after the first tanker carrying crude oil produced in the autonomous Kurdish Region arrived at the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashkelon, bypassing areas under Iraqi government control, Netanyahu made his announcement of support for Kurdish independence. Netanyahu’s words must be music to Kurdish leaders’ ears.

The notion that the Israeli prime minister’s expression of support originates from a common history of oppression and persecution of both Jews and Kurds is a sign of naive thinking. For there are Israeli calculations at play to shape a new geopolitical reality that will be more favourable to Israel’s own interests and ambitions in the Middle East.

An independent Kurdish state is a matter of great importance to its people. However from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perspective, such an event would accelerate the disintegration of the present Iraqi state. Since the 2003 US invasion, Iraq is already a much weaker power in the region. Further partition would result in at least three mini-states – Kurdish, and possibly Sunni and Shiite, triggered by a sharpening divide between them. The process may set in motion further balkanisation of Iraq, creating an Afghanistan, Syria or Libya type situation. In the Israeli prime minister’s calculations, that scenario would enhance Israel’s status as the regional superpower. It would give Israel a carte blanche to intervene. But is it going to make Israel more secure?

The implications of Netanyahu’s scheme would not be limited to Iraq’s partition into smaller, mutually hostile, states. He knows that many Kurdish people aspire for independence from Iran, Turkey, even Syria. Once Iraqi Kurds secede, it would embolden their brethren in those countries. The idea of greater Kurdistan is going to be a powerful agent, and confrontations with the central authorities in Ankara and Tehran will follow. Kurdish communities in Syria have been left to their own devices amid war.

Much of Syria lies in ruins. Its state structure and military are under great strain. Once a powerful and uncompromising adversary of Israel, Syria’s future hangs in the balance, and the country no longer poses a credible challenge to Israel. Syria’s destruction has left three more regional powers to neutralise – Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Netanyahu’s open support for an independent Kurdish state is a start on that strategy.

Iran, too, is on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s target list. Israel’s relationship with Iran was close before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the two countries have been at loggerheads. Tehran’s nuclear programme and its support for the Palestinians are the main causes of the Iranian-Israeli animus.

Netanyahu’s advocacy for action against Iran has been particularly aggressive in recent years, and President Barack Obama’s attempts for some kind of rapprochement with Tehran is a source of disagreement between Israel and the United States. The creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq may encourage similar demands from the Kurdish population in western Iranian provinces of Kordestan, Karmanshah and West Azerbaijan. If Netanyahu’s scheme succeeds, those demands will fuel the discontent in the Kurdish and other minorities of Iran. They may even lead to conflict. Iran’s preoccupation with any worsening of the internal situation will suit Netanyahu.

Israel has serious issues with Turkey as well. Their relations have suffered a sharp decline since the Turkish government denounced Israel’s Gaza War in 2008-2009. A major crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations came when the Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of ships in the open Mediterranean Sea carrying humanitarian supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists, including a Turkish-American with dual citizenship, were killed in the incident. Relations between Turkey and Israel have not recovered since. Both sides remain adamant, and there are scores to be settled. Ankara’s difficulties in the Kurdish south-eastern region of Turkey will be of considerable interest to Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement of support for an independent Kurdistan is interesting in one particular respect – he is vague about the boundaries of such a state. His words seem carefully calculated, leaving a number of possibilities as to the size and shape of a Kurdish independent entity. The statement may well be designed to raise anxiety in Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus. It is certainly a recipe for upheaval in future.

The modern Middle East, with Israel as a Jewish state in Palestine, emerged as a result of Anglo-French carve up of the region as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, and a promise made for the creation of a Jewish state under the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. The idea of Kurdish independence within borders not yet specified, and the decision to hold a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, raise the prospect of momentous transformational changes in years to come. Exactly what forces are behind the scheme remains shrouded in mystery. We know only that the idea has come from the prime minister of Israel, and has been seized by Iraq’s Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. How events unfold from now on is going to be of interest to many in concerned capitals and beyond.

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What is happening in Iraq?

Indian Council of World Affairs

The escalating crisis of recent weeks in Iraq has brought the country under new spotlight. A militant group widely described in the media as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has captured a number of cities and towns from government forces in northern and central Iraq. More territory is contested. ISIS successes include Mosul close to Iraqi Kurdistan, areas around Baghdad in the central Anbar province, Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra and Tikrit. Some places have fallen to ISIS after fighting. Others have been lost because Iraqi government troops, depleted by low morale and mass desertions, have simply withdrawn. The Iraqi map, already fragmented, looks more divided than before as a result of the latest rise in militancy.

A decade after the United States invaded Iraq to overthrew President Saddam Hussein and created a new political structure, these events pose a stubborn challenge to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government. Reports in the international media put the blame squarely on ISIS. The organisation is described as an offshoot of, and more brutal than, al-Qaeda, which has actually disowned the group. Last February, a message posted on Islamist websites said the leadership of al-Qaeda had announced that ISIS was “not a branch of al-Qaeda, nor does it have an organisational relationship with al-Qaeda network.” Some have also claimed that ISIS grew out of a previous militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq, whose leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike north of Baghdad in June 2006.

The names of al-Qaeda and those supposedly associated with it have a particular resonance in the American psyche. Think tanks within the Washington Beltway and the Obama administration have described the unfolding scenario in Iraq as a threat to the region and America’s interest. President Obama, cautious and calculative, has ordered the despatch of special forces as “military advisors” to Iraq, but seems reluctant to go much further. He has himself quashed speculation that he may order air attacks against militants unless, he says, there is an accord on Sunni inclusion in Iraq. The experience after the 2003 invasion still haunts America. Usually reliable sources say Obama wants Prime Minister Maliki out as a price for bailing out the Iraqi government. Will Maliki step down easily? Or if he is forced out, what will be the repercussions?

A complex picture
The situation in Iraq is a lot more complex than reports in the media convey, and the local reality does not get the attention it deserves. That fighters from outside, including Syria, are infiltrating Iraq’s porous borders is not in doubt, but Iraqi Sunnis, too, are part of the rebellion. ISIS is known to be well entrenched in Syria, fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as well as more moderate anti-government groups. From northern and central Syria, militants can move to Ramadi, Fallujah and areas around Baghdad along the Euphrates with relative ease. Mosul, north of the Iraqi capital, is within reach.

ISIS has made some effort to win the hearts and minds of local residents where the group dominates, but its strict application of Sharia law has also alienated communities. The conduct of ISIS brings mixed results for the group. ISIS tends to harness discontent in areas of Sunni population that has become alienated because of the central government’s discriminatory policies. However, the sentiment is different in secular Sunni and Shia communities.

Maliki’s sectarian policy
In many ways, the crisis for Prime Minister Maliki is of his own making. For the rebels could not have achieved such military successes in a wide area of Iraq without local support. Sunni communities in many parts of the country, once dominant in Saddam Hussein’s power structure, have found themselves increasingly side-lined under Maliki’s rule. Within days of America’s military withdrawal in December 2011, ending eight years of occupation, Iraq’s Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi was accused of organising murder squads and terrorism and fled to Turkey. Hashemi was later sentenced to death in absentia.
Maliki’s increasingly sectarian approach since America’s withdrawal has caused deep alienation in the Sunni minority.

To say that the challenge to Iraq’s Shia-dominated government is from ISIS alone is a partial truth. The reality is that not only does ISIS enjoy local support, there are rebellions by Iraqi Sunnis across the country. This explains why Mosul fell without much fighting. The Iraqi army withdrew after a period of tension and uncertainty. Mosul’s Sunni residents, who resent Maliki’s rule, were left behind. There was hardly any resistance from the Sunni population of Mosul.

No plain-sailing for rebels
The Iraqi government’s authority was already weak because the country is a much reduced entity. The alienation of Sunnis caused by Maliki’s policy has further eroded his control to the extent that questions are being asked about his future. Nonetheless, predictions in the western press that Baghdad could soon fall to Sunni rebel forces are exaggerated.

ISIS has no doubt made dramatic gains in a short time, but its victories have been limited to Sunni areas. Baghdad today is overwhelmingly Shia except a few neighbourhoods. Shia militias operate with Shia-dominated security forces. Baghdad is hit by suicide bombings from time to time, but a physical takeover of the capital by Sunni rebels seems a far-fetched idea for now. A more likely scenario is continuous weakening of central government control over large parts of the country, thereby making the Iraqi government even more vulnerable and prone to foreign pressure.

America’s return to Iraqi theatre
Events have come full circle in Iraq for the United States. When American forces invaded the country in 2003, they supported the Shia population and pulverised Sunni areas in Baghdad and elsewhere. When the American military subsequently encountered fierce Shia resistance, the Bush administration switched sides. With American help, Sunni tribal militias were created under the umbrella of Sahwa (Sons of Iraq) in 2005 to counter Shia opposition.

Prime Minister Maliki has persistently refused to integrate Sunni tribal militias into the state security forces while packing the Iraqi military and police with Shia loyalists across all ranks. By the end of 2013, the Sahwa militias had become non-existence. Most militiamen were unemployed or had joined ISIS, contributing to the deep Sunni resentment against Maliki’s government and causing the problems he faces today. Now, the United States is again supporting the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, by despatching special forces to begin with, to quell the Sunni rebellion spreading across northern and central Iraq. These alliances are little more than marriages of convenience between disgruntled Sunni communities of Iraq and some foreign fighters on one hand, and the beleaguered Iraqi government and President Obama on the other.

Will these marriages last and Iraq be stabilised? There must be serious doubts. Assassinations of suspected militants with special forces’ help, or high altitude bombing, do not have a good record of success. Maliki, or his successor, will need to adopt an inclusive policy. Even then, there will remain competing interests of Saudi Arabia, other Arab countries and Turkey on one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other. Major powers, the United States and Russia, will continue to vie for influence in the Middle East. Iraq is likely to remain unstable.

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When nation-building goes wrong

Middle East Eye

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue by an American armoured vehicle in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in April 2003 became a telling reference point in Iraq’s recent history. The event marked the end of the battle for Baghdad, which shown live in many parts of the world had been hailed as proof that the US was still the world’s master, less than three years after the trauma of the 11 September, 2001 attacks.

Although the event was portrayed as one of great significance, important aspects were missed in the United States and the rest of the Western world. For instance, it was obvious that the crowds present there were small, and their enthusiasm not great.

Before the statue was toppled, US marine corporal Edward Chin covered the statue’s face with an American flag. The crowd became silent, and one woman shouted at the soldiers to remove the flag, which was replaced with an Iraqi one. Cynics later suggested that the whole event had been staged by the United States military.

Iraq descends

Post-Saddam triumphalism then so overwhelmed the American psyche that president George W Bush, just three weeks later on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, proclaimed this a “mission accomplished” moment. Within a month, Bush had appointed Paul Bremer as governor of Iraq, and dissolved the Ba’ath Party and armed forces — moves that in effect dismantled Iraq’s state structure. The logic was that only by destroying all the old regime could a Western-style democracy modelled on America’s vision be created.

Examples of post-conflict reconstruction in Japan and Germany after their defeat in World War II loomed large. However, both of these defeated powers were wealthy with advanced systems of their own before the war. The versions of democracy created as part of reconstruction had distinct Japanese and German cultural and national imprints.

It was assumed that a new Iraqi state after the 2003 invasion would equally have a strong imprint of Iraqi culture and historical experience. However, when after almost nine years of occupation the American military presence formally ended in December 2011, few could say this had been achieved.

Iraq’s chaotic emergence from eight years of occupation in 2011 was a reminder of what can go wrong in state- or nation-building, particularly when the victorious power’s cultural makeup is radically different from that of the defeated country. The cultural values on which a society is founded take long to evolve, and are so durable that any change involves risks and uncertainties.

However, Iraq is not a solitary example exposing the limits of American military power and its capacity for state-building in this century. As the world’s only remaining superpower, the US had visualised a world in its own image — a community of docile nations who would not challenge American power.

After experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently Libya and Syria, Washington remains far from achieving this. Although America’s overwhelming power enables it to intervene and occupy foreign lands, the country’s ability to sustain war against resistors and undertake the task of state- or nation-building has been found wanting again and again.

Ruthless rulers emerge

Decisions taken immediately after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow were aimed at creating a new state structure to replace Iraq. Instead of a return to stability and rise to democracy, Iraq sank into a vicious multi-layered conflict after 2006, forcing the outgoing Bush administration to negotiate America’s exit — not the dawn of democracy Bush envisioned before leaving the White House. The downbeat exit in 2011 marked an embarrassing finale for the Bush presidency and a painful beginning for his successor, Barack Obama.

Democracy in Iraq is a forlorn hope. The continuing violence in which scores of people are killed and maimed every week is a largely forgotten story in the Western world. The Iraqi state, weakened by harsh American-led sanctions in the 1990s and dismantled in 2003, never regained the capacity to impose control over a fragmented nation, which was created under the 2005 constitution along with a new power elite.

The Shiite majority in the south and the Kurds in the north, long suppressed under Saddam’s rule, have become dominant. The minority Sunni elite that dominated the erstwhile power structure has been isolated, even demonised, in the absence of the effective checks and balances that a real democracy requires.

As sectarian violence prevails in today’s Iraq, ruthless and manipulative politicians like Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki have emerged. The country is neither a democracy nor a US ally.

A graveyard for nation-builders

Instead, Iran, once Iraq’s fiercest enemy, is now its closest ally. America’s neoconservative political establishment and its military-industrial complex may derive perverse satisfaction that Iraq is now unable to challenge the United States in the way that Saddam Hussein had attempted, but this seems cold comfort in the wider context.

Iraq has become the most serious failure in America’s democracy promotion enterprise thus far in the 21st century. But there are other examples, both in the immediate past and in the previous century.

The 11 September, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington prompted a US response in Afghanistan for the second time in two decades — the previous response being in the proxy war against the Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s. The enemy changed from communism to the Taliban militia; the motive was to shape events in West Asia in the West’s interests under the auspices of spreading freedom and democracy.

The US intervention in support of Afghanistan’s mujahideen against communist rule, in particular after the Soviets invaded the country in December 1979, revealed contradictions often seen in other places. An external power’s backing for radical groups in an internal conflict changes the balance in ways that have long- and short-term. In conflicts like Afghanistan, when the intervening power supports a weak non-state or state player, the motive is to gain a foothold and then permanent influence. However, the power thereby contributes to a culture in which violence becomes the primary means of settling disputes and keeping order.

Fragmented societies

Armed groups may not enjoy support in the wider population, but they gain ascendancy. Constitutional arrangements are under sustained pressure until they lose legitimacy. The result is a new fragmented society in which different militant groups occupy their own domains. This is the very opposite of democracy, which takes a long time to evolve.

The failure of nation-building in Afghanistan since the mid-20th century has been due to a combination of factors: conflicting ideological visions of the Soviet Union and the United States as they fought for influence in West Asia during the Cold War, and interests and motives of regional players, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and India.

America’s stated aim was to build state institutions, but the war undermined all such efforts. Since the decade of democracy in the 1960s, the legislative, executive and judicial branches of state were supposed to bring various interest groups together at the centre in Kabul and build a system of checks and balances based on the Western democratic model. Persistent foreign involvement made certain that the reverse happened.

The destruction of the Afghan state from the 1978 communist coup to America’s overthrow of the Taliban regime in December 2001, weeks after the 11 September attacks, was complete.

America’s return after years of neglect raised new hopes for Afghanistan. Those hopes, however, began to fade with the Taliban’s revival barely three years later. Since then, a combination of violence, societal resistance and corruption has created obstacles which have proved insurmountable, steadily draining America’s will to sustain its nation-building mission.

The Afghan experience

Amid a serious crisis of confidence between the Obama administration and President Hamid Karzai in his final months as president, the December 2014 deadline for US military withdrawal is rapidly approaching. A proposed military agreement to keep a limited number of troops in Afghanistan has not been signed, but left to President Karzai’s successor. Like Iraq, the United States is about to leave Afghanistan with its mission of nation-building far from successful.

After 13 years of US-led occupation, the Afghan state remains fragile. It is dependent on massive foreign aid, and its fragmented society is a threat to itself and others. The United States’ presence over these years has halted Afghanistan’s slide into disorder. But the US military’s heavy-handed tactics, such as drone attacks and night raids on the homes of Afghans have also fuelled resentment against the US.

The Taliban’s campaign of violence against the 2014 presidential elections in March failed to frighten away voters, who defied threats to turn out in large numbers. However, tribal societies are built in ways that give certain individuals and groups power beyond their size – a danger that still exists.

Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries have their own particularities, and not to fully comprehend them is central to America’s difficulties in the region. Power in these societies flows from tribal sheikhs who disburse the means of livelihood in rural communities; village imams who interpret customary law, act as judges to settle disputes and issue edicts; and traders who control the bazaar. The king has needed all three to stay on the throne. When the ruler has lost support of one or more sources of real power, he is in trouble.

Great powers who have attempted to impose a new model on these countries have encountered great difficulties. When a king is bought, or a weak individual is installed by an outside power, there often is a rebellion from below involving local elites. When a people feel manipulated by an external power, there is often a sense of resentment and victimhood in that society against the outsider.

In countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, the United States has supported dictatorships to win advantage in the race for influence. The result is deterioration of legislative bodies which are supposed to represent citizens, and judiciary that delivers justice in which people must have confidence. Hence, the nation’s political system becomes hostage to great power ambitions. It has happened not only in the Middle East and South Asia, but elsewhere during the Cold War and after – for instance, in the Philippines, South Korea and South Vietnam; Somalia and what was Zaire; and Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Geopolitical interests

These and other countries have seen some of the most brutal right-wing dictatorships and human rights violations, supported covertly or overtly by Washington, because they served US interests. Twenty-five years after the Cold War ended, the trend continues, and the cause of democracy and nation-building suffers as it runs counter to American geopolitical interests.

Washington’s policy towards popular uprisings across the Arab world has illustrated its contradictions in recent years. When massive protests broke out against authoritarian rule in Tunisia and spread towards the Persian Gulf, including Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, the Obama administration was caught by surprise, and appeared unsure about what to do. Libyan and Syrian rulers had challenged United States policy in the Cold War, aligning themselves with Moscow; Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain were close military allies of Washington, serving America’s interests in the region.

Freedom, democracy, human rights and state-building were therefore all important in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed by anti-Gaddafi militias backed by the United States and allies. In Syria, Washington first backed anti-Assad groups, then got cold feet. Assad survives for now, but the conflict has left Syria in ruins, and atrocities by both sides have caused great misery for millions of civilians. Syria’s refugee crisis is among the worst today.

Libya under Gaddafi was a failing state ruled by a maverick dictator through strictly controlled people’s committees. Now, it is a failed and fragmented state. Rival militias fight between themselves. Much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. People live in fear, and the country has become a leading source of weapons to militants who fight in conflicts across the Arab world. Even the prime minister of Libya cannot feel safe.

A history of failures

United States policy towards Saudi Arabia’s theocracy is mostly one of respectful silence. The Saud family exercises absolute power, state institutions are few and governance is according to the ruling family’s own strict interpretation of Islamic law. When relations between Washington and Riyadh are strained, such as over the Obama administration’s attempts to improve ties with Iran and his decision not to launch air attacks against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, it is the United States that makes overt attempts to repair those relations.

Saudi Arabia is too important as an oil supplier to the industrialised world, buyer of sophisticated weaponry and as the leader of Sunni Islam to alienate. Amid all the push for state-building, democracy and free institutions elsewhere, change in Saudi Arabia takes a back seat. Since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s decision to break from the Soviet Union and join the United States in the 1970s, and his signing of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the US alliance with Egypt has been too important to jeopardise American interests in the Middle East.

America’s unease over Egypt’s popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power and the Obama administration’s soft reaction following President Mohammed Morsi’s removal by the military illustrate the difference between the reality of American actions and the rhetoric about the freedom agenda and nation-building in Washington.

The question remains whether the real motive of the United States is to build free, democratic and sustainable nations. Or it is to eliminate perceived threats to American interests, and if state-building proves too arduous, to leave such countries weak and vulnerable.

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