Category: Turkey

Kurds Host Assad’s Forces to Defend Afrin: Turks Respond via “Idlibistan”

Urgent Briefing (4 min read) – The faith of Afrin remains in the balance. The Kurdish militia, YPG, has struck a deal with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) of Bashar…

Urgent Briefing (4 min read) – The faith of Afrin remains in the balance. The Kurdish militia, YPG, has struck a deal with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to enter Afrin, in a bid of deterring further Turkish advancements. Reports claim that forces loyal to Assad have already entered Afrin canton and are establishing outposts.

Just a month ago, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and embedded Syrian Rebel groups have launched Operation Olive Branch with the objective of ousting the Kurds from Syria’s northwestern corner. This incursion was facilitated by the retreatment of the Russian military policemen stationed in Afrin’s airfield, in exchange of the Turkish cooperation of de-escalating Idlib province for the Loyalist offensive that was ongoing at that time. With both parties not keeping they’re side of the deal in the end, Idlb’s limits began to be fortified by Turkish Army observations posts and likewise, Russia closed the airspace for the Turkish jets over Afrin. With littile advances made on Syrian-Turkish borderlands, the Kurds engaged in a multilateral diplomacy with several parties involved in the war.

Afrin is not in the U.S.-led Coalition’s operational interest or reach, and Washington has been attempting to revigorated the strategic partnership with Turkey after so many years of degradation because of the Syrian Civil War. While U.S. troops are stationed in Manbij, east of the Euphrates Shield safe-zone, they will not allocate deterring force for Afrin. Russia has already pulled-out, with no plans of re-deployment. The Syrian Forces remained more concerned regarding the Turkish intervention invoking sovereignty infringement and fearing that the territory will be de facto annexed or controlled by Ankara through a micro-governance of Rebel parties – as occurring in the Euphrates Shield area.

A similar partnership was struck in late-March 2017. When following the end of the Turkish-Rebel operation “Euphrates Shield” culminated with a pyrrhic victory over ISIS in al-Bab, Ankara was eyeing the YPG-led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) in Manbij. While U.S. troops were detached to parade with the national flag to send a message of deterrence; in addition, the Kurds also sought help from Damascus – which detached several forces near the Turkish positions in south-eastern al-Bab and cutting their frontline with ISIS at that time. It is also ironic, that just several days ago the Kurds backed by the U.S. repealed a massive assault of Russian-private contractor, Wagner Group and Syrian forces in the mid-Euphrates valley, resulting in hundreds of casualties for the Loyalists; while in north-western Syria, the same Kurdish forces are accommodating Syrian troops as a deterrence measure against the Turks. Overall, the Kurds and the Assad government have divergent views over the future of Syria, but have traditionally avoided direct confrontations, with the exceptions of several isolated episodes.

As of now, Loyalist troops are ready to enter Afrin – a deal certified as 100% sure by Syrian media. The Turkish government has a harsh response: “If the Syrian army is to enter Afrin to clear YPG/PKK, we don’t have a problem with that. But if they are to enter to protect YPG, no one can stop Turkish troops”

Operation Olive Branch forces have reportedly shelled the northern vicinity of the Nubl and Zahra villages in Aleppo, attempting to deter Syrian forces from crossing into Afrin. Kurdish volunteers from Aleppo city have also traveled to enforce YPG defensive positions within the canton.

Most probably, the deployment of Syrian Army forces into Afrin will have deterring effects on the Turkish-Rebel coalition forcing them to halt operations in the region’s core – border securing efforts might still continue without targeting Afrin city or other large settlements. However, Ankara will respond by re-escalating the situation in Idlib. Not only will Rebel forces return to that front better armed and supplied, the battlefield itself will be more difficult.

Another day in “Idlibistan”

It is widely known that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is the un-official affiliate of al-Qa’ida in Syria. However, a new faction emerged which claims direct affiliation with the Salafist terror group.  Jaysh al-Malaheem was formed in late-2017 following mass defections from the HTS after the former had a public break-up with AQ; but has grown as media footprint online. The Turkistan Islamic Party is another hardline jihadist group with direct links to AQ, and significant resources on the ground. Most of their recruits are battle-hardened Uygurs that fought against Chinese forces in the Xinjiang Islamic insurgency.

In mid-February, HTS’s main competitor and old-traditional ally, Ahrar ash-Sham has united with the Free Syrian Army-affiliate, Noor al-Din al-Zenki to form a new front – Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (the Front for the Liberation of Syria). This re-flamed the old tensions between Ahrar and HTS and brought the new Rebel Coalition into direct confrontation with the jihadists in western Aleppo and south-eastern Idlib.

More to follow

The developments in Afrin and Idlib are natural response, and sequel to the deadlock reached between Turkey and the Loyalists regarding the previous failed deal. The re-escalation of tensions in Idlib, and the Syrian-blockade over Afrin provides new incentives to negotiate an additional, improved deal between the Astana signatory-actors. If that does not occur, chances are that the Syrian regime forces will remain and annex Afrin canton from the Kurds themselves.

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Why and How Turkey is invading Afrin: Behind the Scenes of Operation “Olive Branch”

Strategic Analysis (10 min read) – The Turkish military intervention to clear Afrin has stagnated in the past weeks. Spearheaded by Syrian Rebels, operation Olive Branch failed to capture more than…

Strategic Analysis (10 min read) – The Turkish military intervention to clear Afrin has stagnated in the past weeks. Spearheaded by Syrian Rebels, operation Olive Branch failed to capture more than a few pockets of lands on the borderlands. While the Kurdish defenses played a role, the key input in this deceleration can only be found in Idlib province. Russia and the Loyalists were the ones that greenlighted operation Olive Branch after striking a deal with Turkey. But they are also the ones to sabotage it. In response, Ankara is enhancing pressure in the Rebel fronts of Idlib complicating the Regime’s advances. The following analysis will detail why Turkey intervened in Afrin, how the operation was planned behind-the-scenes, and how did it came to near failure.

Crowdsourced by Wikipedia’s thread.

The Federation of Northern Syria, or the Kurdish Rojava?

The Afrin canton is a patch of mostly rural hilly lands rich with olive trees, located in north-western Aleppo governorate. This has been the most tranquil sector in Syria throughout the eight-year old civil war. It came under the control of the Kurdish militia YPG and its political wing, the PYD – Democratic Union Party – that provided self-governance in the area following the erosion of Bashar al-Assad’s control over various peripheral provinces of the country in the opening stages of the war. Throughout the fight against ISIS, the U.S-led Coalition enlisted the help of the YPG and several Arab Sunni, Syriac and Turkmen militias to form a multi-ethnic alliance under the direct support and aid of the Department of Defense. The alliance, called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was a sequel to the joint Kurdish-Arab Euphrates Volcano war room that inflicted a turning-point defeat to ISIS in Kobani (2014). Under close U.S. air support and tactical guidance, they came to liberate nearly the entirety of northern Syria: Raqqa (province and city) and the eastern banks of the mid-Euphrates river valley up until the Iraqi border. This vast territory came under the administration of the 2016-proclaimed Federation of Northern Syria to which the SDF serves as an official army. The federation could as easily be called “Rojava” suggesting the western lands of the Kurds.  Throughout this, the administration based in Qamishli (north-eastern Syria) split the territory into four regions subsequently composed by sub-provinces taking after the Kurdish canton system:

  • Afrin region: Afrin province (Afrin, Jandaris and Rajo), Shahba region (Tel Rifat and Manbij),
  • Euphrates region: Kobani province (Kobani and Sarrin) and Tel Abyad province.
  • Jazzira region: Hasakha province (Hasakha, Tell Tamer, Serekaniye and Derbasiyah) and Qamishli province (Qamislhi and Derik).
  • The mid-Euphrates river valley has not been yet distributed within an existent region nor has the SDF created one. The cities of Raqqa and Tabqa have been placed under a civil council, while the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC) of the SDF is still conducting anti-ISIS raids in the far east corner – an entirely Arab Sunni territory.

 

Ankara perceives the Federation of Northern Syria as a Kurdish state that would embolden the decades-long insurgency in southeastern Turkey to manage a breakaway – starting a domino effect in its path to a greater unified Kurdistan. Despite the resemblance with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from northern Iraq, this entity cannot be controlled or curbed through soft power tools. The Assembly from Qamishlo is dominated by the PYD, and the Kurds outnumber other militiamen, despite US efforts to enlist more Arab fighters. There is no political counter-weight to the YPG/PYD hegemony that Turkey can use to its advantage. As opposed to northern Iraq where Ankara would traditionally ally with the Barzani clan and the KDP to counter PKK or PUK.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. The main Syrian Kurdish groups remain wedded to their vision of a Syria where they gain autonomy, in a form of federalism, that is at odds with Assad’s determination to control all of Syria. And given their far-left ideology they try to mitigate an inclusive policy of uniformity in an attempt to include the diverse ethnic-groups and confessions in northern Syria – which is fairly unrealistic given the reality on the ground.  Many reports even indicate that the PYD is suppressing opposition parties or that it even displaced Arab villagers from their homes. While there are instances of harmonious Arab-Kurdish cohabitation within the tribes of Syria’s northeastern provice of Hasakha, exporting that model in others parts – including Arab majority regions – has poor chances of succeeding. And parading with the imprisoned PKK leader’s portrait, Abdullah Ocalan, in the center of Raqqa is not sending a good post-conflict message. 

Ethnopolitics and Military might

Several swats of land controlled by the Federation of Northern Syria are either dominated by Arabs or Turkmen – two ethnicities that Ankara is trying to weaponize against the Kurds. It follows the classical and almost cliché divide et imperia strategy of sectarianism.  That is namely the case of Raqqa governorate and the territory from northern Aleppo province already controlled by Turkey and embedded Rebel groups through operation Euphrates Shield. In early 2017, Raqqa province almost followed the same route. Ankara offered Washington the alternative of using Turkish-backed Islamist groups as Ahrar ash-Sham or the Syrian Turkmen Brigades instead of the Kurdish-dominated SDF to capture Raqqa. That offer was rejected by the Trump administration that then proceeded to arm directly the Kurdish elements of the SDF – a premier for the U.S. strategy in Syria. As a result, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS, Raqqa, was successfully liberated between June and October 2017. Powerless and outmaneuvered, Turkey had to come to terms with the reality on the ground. However, the U.S. guaranteed that the weapons will be retrieved afterwards. That process never occurred as the anti-ISIS operations were later extended down the eastern banks of mid-Euphrates river valley – a process still ongoing.

SDF is here to stay

In January 2018, The United States announced plans to further enhance the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Pentagon attempts to transforme the SDF from an alliance of armed tribesmen and rigid militias to a quasi-professional regular armed force. This plan is vital for security and stability in the liberated territories. It will also serve as a lethal and deterring counter-insurgency “silver bullet” against the displaced, fleeing or hidden jihadists plotting to revive the destroyed “Caliphate”. Presumably, it would also serve the geopolitical role of countering Iranian hegemony developing the region. On the other hand, it suggests that the Kurdish elements will not be de-armed or abandoned by the United States.

Another Turkish-Russian gamble: The Afrin-for-Idlib Deal

Turkey decided to act on the only Kurdish-controlled land that is out of the U.S-led Coalition’s operational interest, protection or reach: the Afrin canton. To achieve this, it had to turn to Russia who provided geopolitical protection for that area. The Kurds (YPG) knew that Afrin was uncovered in face of Turkish hostilities as it lacked U.S. troop presence that would deter them – as they did in Manbij. Inherently, the YPG had to look for another “guarding angel”.

Moscow had a major interest in gaining leverage over Ankara as it was preparing to initiate an offensive against the Turkish-backed Rebels from Idlib. Gaining control of Afrin would draw Ankara back to the negotiations table in that matter. Accordingly, YPG secured the protection of the Russian Federation.

In mid-2017, Moscow deployed military policemen in Afrin to setup an observation outpost flying the Russian flag. That checked Turkey’s move in the region for a while. However, the circumstances on the battlefield changed. The Loyalist camp could not penetrate Idlib province, the largest Rebel-stronghold. Furthermore, the (unofficial) al-Qa’ida franchise there, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) had unleashed a major crackdown on other Rebel fronts, further polarizing the Opposition between Islamists and hardline Salafist jihadists. Fighters defected from other militias to join HTS, which emboldened the group to prey on territories controlled by the weakened Rebel groups. As it seized key routes and cities, most of the Syrian Rebels were subdued under HTS’s command. Throughout this quagmire, in November 2017, the Turkish Armed Forces managed to establish a military outpost in Mount Sheikh Barakatwestern Aleppo countryside, near Idlib.  The province was becoming an impossible nut to crack without Turkish endorsement or cooperation. 

A deal was struck: Afrin for Idlib. Russia pulls its soldiers from Afirn, essentially opening the airspace for Turkish jets and operations, if Turkey intervenes to soften the situation in Idlib. Ankara began pulling Rebel fighters from Idlib and positioning them on Turkish borderland with Afrin. Military convoys of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were spotted entering Idlib province. Moscow expected them to put the jihadists from HTS back in line, but instead the Turkish Army took positions on the mountains overlooking Afrin from northern Idlib. It became clear that Turkey was laying a siege on the Kurds.

In sync, the Loyalist camp, namely Russian, Assad’s forces and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias accelerated their offensive in south-western Idlib taking advantage on the lower Rebel numbers there – transferred by Turkey on the Afrin front. A deal is a deal, so Russia also evacuated its soldiers from Afrin essentially OKing Ankara to commence with the offensive.

Operation Olive Branch

On January 20th, The Turkish Air Force (TAF) began pounding villages in the canton and Afrin city. Rebel light infantry units were formed on the Syrian borderlands embedded with entire mechanized units of the Turkish Armed Forces. A bridge was built from Turkey’s Hatay province for military vehicles to cross the Karasu river into Qara Baba, a village in Afrin, Syria. At the end of the day, over 108 sorties were launched by Turkish F-16s. It kicked-off a slow-moving offensive that made headlines more because of the indiscriminately air strikes than ground achievements. On the same date, the Loyalist managed to capture the strategic al-Duhur air base in western Idlib province – a precious victory against the Rebels that was facilitated or at least accelerated by the Turkish operation. Immediately afterwards, the situation started to suspiciously erode for Ankara.

The Saboteurs

The next day, the Syrian government publicly condemned the Turkish intervention invoking a sovereignty infringement. Pro-government forces even opened Aleppo for YPG to move militiamen and logistics to Afrin. In exchange, the Kurds will trade grain and oil from areas controlled in northeast Syria (Hasakha and Deir ez-Zor), a source said to Al Jazeera. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that close to 50% of Kurdish militiamen are now shifting from active front with ISIS to fight-off the Turkish intervention. The international community, including the United States, the European Union, France and Germany condemned the operation in harsh terms.

In Idlib, the situation was also worsening for the Turkish-backed Rebels. The loss of al-Duhur air base was a defeat too great to ignore. Many of the Rebels transferred to Afrin returned to keep the line against Syrian, Russian and Iranian-backed troops.

On February 3rd, the Opposition Forces downed a Russian Su-25 fighter jet in skies of Idlib. The weapon used was a Russian-made Man-portable air-defense (MANPAD), Sa-18 Igla, that the Rebels captured only days ago from the Kurdish YPG in Afrin. This complicated the relationship between Ankara and Moscow. It is reported that Russia consequently re-closed the airspace over Afrin. Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdağ denied the claims. But security sources told Cumhuriyet that Turkish warplanes and helicopters had only been patrolling the Turkish side of the Syrian border and not crossing since then. Banned from flying over Afrin, the Turks were also not welcomed in Idlib.

On February 5th, The Syrian Arab Army or allied Iranian-backed paramilitary groups have reportedly started shelling the freshly established positions of Turkish forces in the southern countryside of Aleppo province – according to both opposition and pro-government sources. The Turkish Army arrived there from Idlib to establish observation posts as agreed in the Astana de-escalation accords. It is known that non-Syrian Army pro-government units based opposite the Al-Eis area are mostly Iranian-linked or Iranian (proper) forces. The Turkish Army has apparently responded to the attacks with a rocket artillery salvo against pro-governmental positions near Shugheydilah. Casualties were reported on both sides but the incident was buried under the rug. It appears that Russia is willing to push forward the Syrian regime, or even encourage Iran to take more central stage in dealing with Turkey. 

On February 10th, a Turkish T-129 attack chopper was downed by Kurdish anti-aircraft fire originating from Afrin. The helicopter crashed in Turkey’s Hatay province resulting in the death of both pilots. Further, a photo surfaced online showing Kurdish YPG militiamen operating an Iranian-made infantry vehicle armed with an 106mm mounted anti-tank cannon. In response, new Turkish military convoys entered Idlib to establish more observation posts near Loyalist-held positions in Aleppo and Hama. This move enforces the Astana de-escalation accord, essentially blocking the Loyalist offensive in the area.

As of February 12, more than 20 Turkish soldiers and 150 YPG fighters have been killed since the military offensive began. 

 

Back to Renegotiating: To Be Continue

Seemingly, Moscow only struck the deal with Turkey to facilitate further gains against the Rebels in Idlib. As soon as victory was achieved in al-Duhur, it began to backpaddle on endorsing Operation Olive Branch. This is not to say that Afrin is safe from further airstrikes or land incursions. The combined forces of Turkish and Syrian Rebels will move forward with the ground operation regardless of the great costs awaiting them. It is already reported that TAF air strikes have restarted.

The Afrin and Idlib provinces are uniquely interconnected in this late stage of the Syrian Civil War. Likewise, the Ankara-Moscow dynamic has proven to be one of the most creative and unlikely relations. It would be no surprise if the parties managed to compromise and outmaneuver each other again; and again, and again

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Fury in Ankara, Anxiety in Erbil, Distress in Baghdad: Sinjar Declares Autonomy amid Kurdish Independence Vote

Situation Report – Democratic Autonomy has been declared in the Niniveh governorate town of Shengal (better known as Sinjar). This announcement spiked furry at Ankara, distress at Baghdad and anxiety…

Situation Report – Democratic Autonomy has been declared in the Niniveh governorate town of Shengal (better known as Sinjar). This announcement spiked furry at Ankara, distress at Baghdad and anxiety at Erbil that has an independence referendum scheduled for this Autumn. There is an utmost potential that the tinderbox of ethnic, sectarian and regional rivalries of Sinjar could escalate in a battlefield orchestrated by regional stakeholders intending to prevent the independence referendum from taking place.

 

The Declaration of Shengal/ Sinjar

The declaration came at a press conference attended by Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly Co-chairs Hisên Hecî Nefso and Rîham Hıço, Democratic Administration Board Co-chairs Hecî Hesen Pîso and Nehlê Yusif Hefsun, Deputy Co-chair Yardımcısı Kurdê Elî Ezîz, YBŞ (Shengal Resistance Units) Commander Seîd Hesen Seîd, Êzîdxan Asayish member Faris Herbo Xidir and Shengal Youth’s Assembly Co-Spokesperson Îbrahîm Omer, according to ANF (you can find the full communique here).

Press conference held by the Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly through which autonomy was proclaimed for Sinjar/ Shengal.

The declaration invoked the right of the Yezidi/ Êzidîs people for self-determination, mentioning their “most ancient faith and cultural society in history” because of which they “have suffered repeated genocides”, especially mentioning the ethnic cleansing, forced conversion, sex slavery and mass killing at the hands of Da’esh (ISIS). The tragedy began in early 2014 when ISIS was emerging in both Iraq and Syria; in March 2014, the jihadists captured the town of Sinjar administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) but majority populated by Yazidis. The later, took shelter on the near-by Sinjar mountain, becoming encircled and under siege from the terror group. ISIS and its radical and puritarian interpretation of Islam  considers the Yazidis as being “devil worshipers” and therefor legitimizes, in their insane and made-up jurisprudence, to brutalize them as they chose to: from mass-killing to sex enslavement. The tragedy was designated as a genocide by the United Nations, the United States (by both Trump and Obama administrations) and many other countries.

To their defense came the United States that deployed in August 2014 Special Forces and advisors, alongside the British Special Air Service (SAS) to asses options and plan an evacuation of the Yazidis from Mount Sinjar, sparking the first air strikes conducted by the Pentagon against ISIS.  On the ground, salvation came through the Kurdish factions as the KRG’s rulling party KDP, and its military force, the Pashmerga but also rival Marxist guerilla and outlawed PKK-backed by the PUK – the opposition party. Sinjar was liberated in October 2015, lifting the siege on the Yazidi population and also cutting a major supply route from Raqqa (ISIS’s capital) to Mosul (ISIS’s largest city). Since then, both Pashmerga and PKK began contesting the turf. The fighters of PKK backed the formation of the Sinjar Alliance, a joint command room between the the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), the Êzîdxan Women’s Units (YJÊ) – the two Yazidi militas formed in 2007 after the exact model of the Syrian Kurdish YPG/ YPJ groups – and themselves. While the Pashmerga inflicted political pressure backed by their military foothold in the area, somewhat also enforcing Ankara’s protests regarding PKK’s presence in the area. There have been times when the two camps clashed in the Sinjar area, forcing additional displacement from the Yazidis.

Close to 10,000 Yazidis have been killed, kidnapped  by ISIS, even more than this have been also affected or displaced. A study published in academic journal PLOS Medicine found that 3,100 were murdered, with almost half executed by gunshot, beheading or being burned alive, while the rest died from starvation, dehydration or injuries during the Da’esh siege on Mount Sinjar. While 6,800 of them have been kidnapped, most of them (women) being forced into sex slavery.  The same studies suggest that over 2,5% of the estimated 400,000 population of Yazidi has been exterminated by ISIS.

Map of the situation in Mount Sinjar (2014). Source: unknown

 

Sinjar: A Second ‘Qandil’ in the Eyes of Turkey

Turkey fears that a Sinjar controlled by the PKK could become a strategic node for a permanent logistics and paramilitary corridor from the PKK’s homebase in the Qandil mountains (north-eastern corner of Iraqi Kurdistan bordering Iran) all the way to the Syrian boundary, providing the outlawed group with a superior capacity to move and assert its interest against Turkish national security concerns and in regards to the Kurdish population in northern Syria, where they benefit from an allegiance and organizational link with the YPG, Iraq and overall the entire region coordinated through KCK format established as of 2004.

Ankara is also pitted in a difficult situation, as their primary partners in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has not backed down in face of pressure from holding the announced independence referendum. This ballot will also involve Sinjar, regardless of its disputed status in relation with the Iraqi government from Baghdad, therefore the KDP needs a sensitive approach towards the Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly in order to secure their cooperation in the interest of expanding the referendum. On the other hand, both President Erdogan and Prime-Minister Yildirim announced that Turkey will not let Sinjar become “a second Qandil” referring to the safe-heaven held by the PKK on the Iraqi-Iranian border from which the outlawed group has launched repeated attacks in Turkey’s southeastern province for the past decades. They are currently awaiting for the KDP to solve the issue as promised, while not resisting to tease that a second, military option also exists.

Worth to mention that KDP hosts a significant amount of Turkish troops in the area and that Ankara has a training camp at Bashiqa where hundreds of Sunni tribesmen and Pashmerga soldiers have been trained. In a bid to prevent further Turkish actions, the KDP and its Syrian Kurdish allies sought in March to dislodge the PKK from Khanasor by entering YBS controlled area, but failed. Later on in April 2017, Turkish fighter jets targeted PKK and YBS militants in the area, but ended up killing 6 KDP Peshmerga instead.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted n August 21st that his government is considering joint military action with Iran against the PKK. “[The] PKK terror organization has a foot in Iran,” Erdogan said, speaking to reporters ahead of an official visit to Jordan. “They always cause harm to Iran and us. … We believe if the two countries cooperate, we can reach a conclusion in a much shorter period of time.” Iranian-backed PMU’s are kilometers away in northern Iraq, both at the Syrian border after they secured the Umm Jaris crossing, and at Tel Afar, where together with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have just launched an offensive to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Tel Afar, as the post-Mosul nexus. More on the situation post-Mosul in this analysis.

On August 24th, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahçeli issued two major threats in regards to the situation in Northern Iraq“Turkey should cooperate with Iran to destroy PKK terrorists located in Northern Iraq,” In relation to the upcoming referendum which will be held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq, Bahçeli said that it is unacceptable and that it should be considered as a cause of war for Turkey.

Brief Geopolitics of Kurdistan: Can It Break Free of the Constraint Theory?

On June 7th, 2017, after high-level consultations between political factions, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani announced that a date has been set for the Independence referendum to take place: 25th of September. KRG already enjoys a large extent of self-governing features such as an own parliament, armed forces and jurisdiction, however the relations with the central government with Baghdad has always been sour.

(a) The rule of Saddam Hussein threatened the mere existence of the Kurds in northern Iraq, exacerbating armed conflicts and insurgencies in face of chemical attacks and attempted genocides by the Ba’ath authority. The conflict was in a dead-end as the many negotiations between KDP, PUK and Ba’ath failed to produce anything than temporary ceasefires. The situation only improved after the United States launched Operation ‘Provide Comfort’  in 1991 which sought to deter Iraqi attacks on the Kurdish population by implementing a no-fly interdiction in the airspace and a safe-zone on the ground which at the mission’s end in 1996, fully established today’s self-ruling Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

  • In the post-Saddam Hussein era, the divisive Maliki government challenged the economical and political structures and functionality of KRG through its policies. The Maliki cabinet refused to send the block grants that pay for the salaries of the region’s civil servants, or have boiled tensions over the city of Kirkuk at a near-war level, especially since the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) abandoned their positions when ISIS stormed Northern Iraq, creating a vacuum,that in Kurdish eyes, served the area on a plate to the jihadists while the Iraqis were making a run for it. Although deployment of the Pashmerga and the appointment of the comprise government of Abadi loosened up the situation, disagreements remained due to the Kurdish advancement outside the territory of KRG essentially annexing new turf under their jurisdiction, and in regards to the oil exports and revenue.
  • Of course, most of Baghdad’s hostility towards the KRG post-2003 came from the oil disputes, which is also strongly related with the status of Kirkuk. As the central government applies ultra-centralized policies in regards to oil production and exports, the KRG tried to by-pass the Constitution and independently sell oil through separate deals (as with Turkey, for example) while not returning any taxes or revenues to Baghdad, as long as possible. This stirs a never-ending line of blames and justifications between the two intra-state actors heavily dependent on oil exports. In reality, Article 111 and 112 from the Iraqi Constitution related to energy issues clearly states that ‘oil and gas shall be propriety of all Iraqi people in all regions and provinces’ […] ‘The Federal Government should jointly manage oil and from current fields with the governments of the producing regions and provinces, provided that the proceeds from these shall be allocated fairly and proportionately with the population distribution throughout the country’. KRG is entitled to 17% of these revenues.

(b) Iraq’s oil politics is a decisive input in understanding the state of affairs within and around the country. In 2003 the estimated capacity would have put Iraq in equal terms with Saudi Arabia, or even past it taking into account the vast potential of unexplored reserves. This Brooking analysis lists some of those statistics: the Petroleum Economist Magazine estimates that there were as many as 200 bbl of oil in Iraq; the Federation of American Scientists estimates 215 bbl; a study by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice University claimed that Iraq has 220 bbl of undiscovered oil; and another study by the Center for Global Energy Studies and Petrolog & Associates offered an even more optimistic estimate of 300 bbl. Fellow partners from OPEC fell threatened by Iraq’s vast potential and they have good reasons to be so.

(c) World Oil informed two months ago that Iraq was the top crude supplier to India for a third month in May, shipping 1 MMbpd. Iraqi supplies accounted for 23% of India’s purchases last month, up from an average 19% in the previous four months, while Saudi Arabia’s share fell by 1% to 17%, the data showed. Oil producers are facing increasing competition in major markets like China and India as OPEC as those are the fastest-growing and potentially-largest consumer markets. India’s $2-trillion economy imports more than 80% of its crude requirement and the IEA expects it to be the fastest-growing consumer through 2040.

view of Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, as seen from Hotel Divan, a popular spot for the Kurdish elite and foreign businessmen. In the foreground is the long-stalled development Empire World, a casualty of the economic crisis now facing the region. (Jake Naughton/GlobalPost Investigations)

(d) Deepening our understanding of the oil problem, it should be mentioned that a significant part of Iraq’s wealth and deposits are also situated in the North, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the ‘territorial belt’ disputed with Baghdad. According a highly-insightful analysis from the Revenue Watch Institute, the southern-most region of Basra accounts for 59% of Iraqi oil reserves (65 bbl), Kirkuk comes second with 12% (13 bbl), while KRG’s total is only 3%, including the oil fields in Erbil, Dohuk and Suleymaniyah. Looking in stark contrast, northern Iraq did not enjoy the same stability as the southern lands, namely Basra where skyscrapers and luxurious malls are being built, a significant portion of the oil fields in Kirkuk are damaged or outdated and only operate at half their capacity. Kirkuk’s joker card its the undiscovered/ unexploited deposits which maintain optimism and attract investments from international energy giants.

On the other hand, the prospects of KRG-based oil looked fairly pessimistic for investors in the past years, as revisions over some oil fields found more water than oil, reducing the deposit’s projected potential. Consequently, decision makers at Erbil decided to maintain the massive oil fields located in Kirkuk in the post-liberation period. And while energy-reasons are not the most PR-friendly justification, the historical ones are. Kirkuk was a Kurdish majority city up to the rule of Saddam Hussein who forcefully displace them and encourage Sunni Arabs to populate the region instead. Over the course of dozens of years, this social engineering still casts a shadow over Kurdish-Arab Sunni relations.

(e) Geoeconomic-wise, the KRG’s oil potential and independent dealings are conditioned by two complex actors, Turkey and the Iraq.  While Ankara holds the soul pipeline towards its industrial port in Ceyhan used as a hub for further exports and transports, benefiting from a somewhat dependency of the Kurds towards their transitional posture, Baghdad controls the roads and pipelines capable of transporting the products to other regional markets or integrated networks of roads. In an exclusive Reuters article, the region’s minister for natural resources, Ashti Hawrami, said that to avoid detection Kurdish oil was often funneled through Israel, transferred directly between Greek commercial ships off the coast of Malta, and decoy ships used to make it harder for Baghdad to track. However Baghdad did fill a lawsuit against Greek company Marine Management Services over its involvement in these dealings. But even to by-pass Baghdad, KRG needed to help of Turkey.

(f) Looking at trade figures, Kurdistan’s Board of Investments informs that imports account for 85% of the estimated US$5.0–5.5 billion of annual external trade in the Kurdistan Region.  Most imported goods are consumed in the Region and are not re-exported as value-added products. The largest external trading partner for KRG is Turkey and most of products consists in food and consumables.

(g) Translating this data over the disputed areas and into demographics, the Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (IHERC) in Kurdistan reports that:

  • 6 million people in the Kurdistan Region and the disputed territories such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Sinjar, Makhmour and Khanaqin have the right to vote in the referendum.
  • 48% of the Kurdistan Region’s land is still disputed between Baghdad and Erbil, and some 2.7 million people live in the disputed territories.

 

End Notes

(1) Looking at these figures we can conclude that for an independent Kurdistan the possession of Kirkuk, Sinjar and other disputed areas is key. However, given Iraq’s and Turkey’s disapproval towards the vote, and subsequently, leverage over Erbil (trade, energy, infrastructure) the referendum could simply result into a sterile non-actionable outcome if the expected “Yes” camp will win. Both Ankara and Baghdad can simply block Kurdish oil exports and isolate the region as wanted, even before talking about a military solution. Turkish Energy Minister Berat Albayrak already said that the referendum would harm energy cooperation with the KRG, which pumps hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day to Turkey’s Ceyhan export terminal.

According to the constraint theory, there are a number of clear geographical, statistical inputs that can predict an actor’s behavior, there have been enough cases (example: Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in 2015) that ignored strong trade ties, energy dependency or political comfort, on the grounds that third effects could overthrow the second ones, and unlock a better prospect. In this logic, while Erbil knows that the referendum could be disastrous for the country’s trade and economics due to geopolitical constraints as immediate secondary effects, it could also judge the long-term prospects as being an opportunity of emergence which is nothing short or rational thinking however dangerous would it be to roam through an adverse Middle Eastern quagmire.

(2) It is not clear if PKK’s influence over the Sinjar Council that recently proclaimed autonomy will exercise any kind of negative effect over the referendum. It may be the case that PKK wants to assert itself in the region before an independent Kurdistan emerges, in a bid to softly challenge KDP’s authority. However, this uncontrolled enthusiasm could actually put in danger the referendum by attracting a Turkish economic boycott against the KRG, or military intervention targeting the Sinjar Alliance, which is exactly the scenario that Masoud Barzani, KDP President, fears and tries to prevent through a combination of military pressure, shuttle diplomacy and effectively, stalling time. Ankara might not see the proclamation of autonomy in Sinjar as an organic right to self-determination of persecuted Yazidis, but a political instrumentation from the PKK to achieve influence in the area.

(3) Secretary of Defense James Mattis signaled Washington’s nuanced stance on this matter by announcing on August 23rd at Baghdad that they are committed to preserve the unity of Iraq, while the later meeting at Erbil with President Masoud Barzani he only suggested that the dialogue with the Iraqi government should continue on that matter. In addition to this, Iran and Syria also oppose a Kurdish independence in Northern Iraq fearing that a domino effect could vacuum their Kurdish-populated territories as well – also a vital concern of Turkey.

The unanimous decision taken by all Kurdish parties to support the referendum shows a rare moment of Kurdish unity throughout history, which could cancel any external soft-or-smart power effort to disrupt KRG’s affairs.

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A Thin Line: Raqqa Offensive Endangered by Growing Turkish Attacks

SITUATION REPORT – The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have launched successive and coordinated against the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria, between April 24th and continuing…

SITUATION REPORT – The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have launched successive and coordinated against the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria, between April 24th and continuing today. These attacks consisted in air strikes, artillery shells and tank hits. Not even a month ago Ankara announced that it’s ending Operation Euphrates Shield that finalized after on March 23th 2017 al-Bab was liberated and their further advance to the SDF-held Manbij was blocked by an operational trade between the Manbij Military Council with Russia, complimented US presence in Manbij. Still, in no logic did that meant halting every Turkish operation against Syrian Kurds. Subsequently, Ankara began to slowly pass the administrative duty to the local Rebel groups in the safe-zone established and inserting members of the Police Forces trained in Turkey to establish order and enforce law thought the land.

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American, Russian troops in Manbij: Preventing an all-out Turkish-Kurdish face-off?

URGENT BRIEF – The United States have deployed more forces near the northern Syrian city of Manbij, liberated in July 2016 from ISIS, by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-led by…

URGENT BRIEF – The United States have deployed more forces near the northern Syrian city of Manbij, liberated in July 2016 from ISIS, by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-led by the Kurdish militia, YPG. Territory already transferred to Russian-Syrian control in order to prevent a Turkish assault on it.

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Al-Bab Liberated: What’s next? (VIDEO)

VIDEO BRIEFING – The strategic city of Al-Bab has been liberated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) local allies from the “islamic state” (ISIS)…

VIDEO BRIEFING – The strategic city of Al-Bab has been liberated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) local allies from the “islamic state” (ISIS) occupation. The battle is in the context of Operation Euphrates Shield launched by Turkey in late-August 2016 in northern Syria, with the strategic purpose of clearing ISIS out of the border, preventing the Kurdish YPG and the SDF from uniting the cantons and to maintain a leverage against Bashar Assad’s regime. The operational objectives of the battle of al-Bab was the city itself. Taking into consideration Syria’s road infrastructure, al-Bab is a logistical crossroads between the Syrian Arab Army-held (SAA) Aleppo city (west), YPG/SDF-held Manbij (east), ISIS between the lakes corridor (south) and the Turkish border and the Syrian bordering city of Al-Rai (just 35 km north). It was imperative in order to seal the deal of a buffer zone in northern Aleppo governorate. The battle for al-Bab began in November 2016 and ended in February 7th 2017 – lasting 104 days.

Check out the video briefing for maps and battlefield footage + voice commentary of the battle. Moreover, it remains the question of where to next? The Kurdish-held Manbij? Or ISIS self-proclaimed “capital” of Raqqa?

Battle of al-Bab: a story through maps

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NATO member Turkey close to acquiring Russian S-400 missiles

URGENT CABLE – Turkey is likely to reach a final agreement with Russia to purchase S-400 long-range air missile defense systems, according to Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık. ”Turkey certainly…

URGENT CABLE – Turkey is likely to reach a final agreement with Russia to purchase S-400 long-range air missile defense systems, according to Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık. ”Turkey certainly needs a missile defense system and started a program with the aim of developing our domestically produced system. This program takes time, thus we have held negotiations with different countries to fulfill Turkey’s urgent requirement and it seems as though Russia is the most suitable candidate for fulfilling the country’s need at the moment,” Minister Işık said in a televised interview on Wednesday, according to Daily Sabah.

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Objective Raqqa: Actors, Strategies and Black Swans

SITUATION REPORT – The following assessment outlines the Turkish proposals for a Raqqa offensive, made by Akar, the Turkish Joint Chief of Staff to Dunford, the American counter-part. This SitRep…

SITUATION REPORT – The following assessment outlines the Turkish proposals for a Raqqa offensive, made by Akar, the Turkish Joint Chief of Staff to Dunford, the American counter-part. This SitRep contextualizes the situation in Raqqa Governorate and also clarifies the already ongoing “Wrath of the Euphrates” Operation spearheaded by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish militia, YPG. In addition, this assessment preemptively estimates potential “black swan”-type of scenarios that could occur from the Syrian, Israeli or Kurdish camp.

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Life after the Turkish Liberation in Syria: State-Building, Safe-Zone or Annexation?

ANALYSIS – This assessment presents the situation in the areas liberated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and its local allies (Free Syrian Army, Syrian Turkmen Brigades, Ahrar ash-Sham) as…

ANALYSIS – This assessment presents the situation in the areas liberated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and its local allies (Free Syrian Army, Syrian Turkmen Brigades, Ahrar ash-Sham) as affected by the post-conflict Turkish-led reconstruction. The multi-ethnic character of the Aleppo Governorate, comprising of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Circassians and Christians, is a magnet for land claims and geopolitical ambitions, energized by the dramatic changes in the Syrian Republic – ravaged by a perpetual multilateral civil war. You probably know this region for the infamous battle of Aleppo, the largest city of the province and the stronghold of the Rebellion; this region is far more than that. Let us not forget that this is the boiling point for Syria’s Kurdish self-determination and for reactive Turkish endeavors, it caused. The purpose of this analysis is to swiftly summarize the context of military intervention launched by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) since late 2016, and overview how the Turkish administration there affected the lives of the local population and the overall dynamic: Did it improve? Did it worsen? In order to determine such a conclusion, this analysis also contains a case study of Jarabulus (Cerabulus in Turkish) – the first city liberated by Operation Euphrates Shield and under the longest Turkish-led administration.


In addition, this assessment, purposely provocative, draws prospective conclusions in regards to the future of the captured buffer zone, outlined in several hypothesizes: i. State Building ii. Safe-Zone (limited) or iii. Annexation (directly/ indirectly).

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Military build-up on Turkish-Iraqi border

SITUATION REPORT – A video appeared online supposedly showing a military build-up in the Turkish southeastern region of Hakkari, near the Iraqi border. The convoy is formed by dozens of…

SITUATION REPORT – A video appeared online supposedly showing a military build-up in the Turkish southeastern region of Hakkari, near the Iraqi border. The convoy is formed by dozens of vehicles; the number may even reach a hundred.

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