Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian https://www.opendemocracy.net/taxonomy/term/18801/all cached version 21/02/2019 01:03:54 en Kurds’ choices: heed history or the US? https://www.opendemocracy.net/north-africa-west-asia/dunia-assa-farman-farmaian/kurds-choices-heed-history-or-us <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p class="Default">Who controls Syria’s borders? The US and Israel are encouraging Syrian Kurds to fight the regime and its allies for border control. The ensuing mayhem might unravel the Mideast and far beyond.<strong></strong></p> </div> </div> </div> <p class="Default"><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none caption-xlarge'><a href="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/imagecache/wysiwyg_imageupload_lightbox_preset/wysiwyg_imageupload/500209/Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 18.08.01.png" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/imagecache/article_xlarge/wysiwyg_imageupload/500209/Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 18.08.01.png" alt="lead " title="" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload caption-xlarge imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" width="460" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span>Syria is perceived by the West and by many in the Middle East – particularly the Gulf States and Israel – as the enabler of Iran’s <a href="https://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2017/01/31/shia-crescent-middle-east-geopolitics/">Shi’a Crescent</a>, i.e., <a href="https://www.opendemocracy.net/north-africa-west-asia/dunia-assa-farmanfarmaian/saudiiranian-grand-bargain">the extension of Tehran’s influence and the promotion of its Shi’a revolutionary ideology into Sunni Mideast</a>. </p> <p class="Default">Before the <a href="https://www.britannica.com/event/Syrian-Civil-War">onset of Syria’s civil war</a>, the regime resisted Saudi, Qatari, Turkish and American ‘sticks and carrots’ and refused to sever it's <a href="https://www.opendemocracy.net/north-africa-west-asia/seyed-ali-alavi/irans-connections-with-syria-current-status-and-future-perspective">strategic connections with Iran</a>. Once fighting started in earnest, the regime vowed to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity and to regain ultimate control. Ironically, after years of war, destruction and bloodshed, Damascus’ conviction solidified that the Syria-Iran alliance is the guarantor of the Syrian regime’s stamina and long term survival. Given the billions of dollars spent and the forces armed in the pursuit of its downfall, the regime’s political survival – till Russia intervened militarily – would have been doubtful without Iran’s (and Hezbollah’s) initial, crucial and sustained military, logistical and financial support. </p> <p class="Default">Over the past seven years, the ‘<a href="https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2017-10-31/syrias-fair-weather-friends?cid=nlc-fa_fatoday-20171101">Friends of Syria</a>’ alliance that coalesced around the USA delivered massive support to the opposition (Qatar alone is rumoured to have spent over three billion dollars). The ensuing mayhem and chaos became fertile ground for extremism, thus enabling the so-called Islamic State (IS) to take over large swathes of Syrian territory and to establish Raqqa as its capital in Syria’s north. </p> <h2 class="Default"><strong>‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’</strong></h2> <p class="Default">The US’ (and Israel’s) <a href="http://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA00/20171011/106500/HHRG-115-FA00-Wstate-JeffreyJ-20171011.pdf">primary aim</a> in Syria was initially the preclusion of Iran’s supply of arms to <a href="https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hezbollah">Hezbollah</a> via Iraq and Syria, and subsequently – once Hezbollah forces arrived to succour the Syrian regime – the creation of a buffer zone on the Israeli-Syrian border to stem Hezbollah’s ability to launch simultaneously attacks from Syria and Lebanon. </p> <p class="Default">After IS took hold, defeating it was proclaimed an additional objective. In pursuit of these goals, the US made the Syrian-Kurdish militia known as the <a href="https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/12/arming-kurdish-ypg-militia-backfire-on-us-heavy-weapons-syria-isis">People’s Protection Units</a> (YPU) the recipient of its military and financial aid, to the ire of Turkey that has, on and off, fought against the independence agenda of its substantial Kurdish minority. The declared aim of this alliance was to fight against IS for the territory, oil fields and border crossings under its control. Although divided on tactics, Syrian Kurds <a href="https://syria.chathamhouse.org/assets/documents/2016-09-15-kurdish-self-governance-syria-sary.pdf">hoped</a> that autonomy, with US strategic support, would eventually become a stepping stone to independence. </p> <p class="Default">At the outset of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian regime tacitly tolerated <a href="https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/05/pyd-pkk-syria-kurdistan.html">de facto Kurdish autonomy</a> in areas where the Kurds are a majority; this self-ruled territory is known as Rojava (‘Western Kurdistan’ in Kurdish). The regime’s de facto acquiescence to Rojova’s autonomy was a quid pro quo for Kurdish abstention from joining the armed opposition. However, the Syrian government has yet to de jure recognise Rojava's autonomy in Kurdish-majority areas and to delineate its borders.</p> <p class="Default">Last March, the <a href="https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_Union_Party_(Syria)">Democratic Union Party</a> (a Kurdish political party created on 20 September 2003 in northern Syria) established a 'Founding Council of Democratic Federal System in Rojava' and declared the formation of a 'democratic federal system for northern Syria'. Prior to that announcement, Rojava was understood to consist only of the self-proclaimed Kurdish autonomous area in north-west Syria, where Kurds are a majority of the local population. </p> <p class="Default">Last October, a Kurdish affiliated militia called <a href="https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Democratic_Forces">The Syrian Democratic Forces</a> (SDF) recovered – with the help of US Special Forces – vast areas in the north-east and the east of Syria previously controlled by IS, then declared an autonomous <a href="http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/northern-syrias-new-democratic-federal-system">Democratic Federation of Northern Syria</a> (DFNS) to include not only the autonomous Kurdish majority areas in north-west Syria, but also <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2017/10/23/winter-coming-who-will-rebuild-raqqa">the recently acquired IS areas in Syria’s north-east and east where Kurds are not a majority</a>. </p> <p class="Default">By virtue of this additional acquisition, SDF/YPU now control almost 25% of Syria's territory, and the majority of its arable land, oil and water resources. SDF is mostly composed of Kurdish YPU fighters, with token other minority and Sunni participation. All foreign and domestic actors in Syria understand this, as do the tribes and local populations in territories under SDF control. </p> <p class="Default">When the portrait of the jailed leader of Turkey's outlawed <a href="https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurdistan_Workers&#039;_Party">Kurdistan Workers Party</a> (PKK) was brandished in IS’s ex-capital Raqqa after it fell to joint SDF and US Special Forces, the suspicion solidified of a Kurdish global alliance under various names, whose ultimate aim is the creation of an independent Kurdish State that would be carved out from contiguous regions now under Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian suzerainty. </p> <p class="Default">The independence referendum organised almost simultaneously in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan further reinforced this suspicion. <a href="https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/2017/10/25/us-caught-red-handed-in-raqqa-over-banner-of-pkk-leader-erdogan-says/amp">Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria concluded</a> in dismay that the PKK, that advocates Kurdish independence, was firmly in control of the newly-minted autonomous ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’, and that the US was complicit in the drive for an independent Kurdistan. </p> <h2 class="Default"><strong>A matter of time</strong></h2> <p class="Default">Geographically, the territory newly acquired by SDF from IS in Syria is a cumbersome acquisition in a hostile neighbourhood. It is surrounded to the north by Turkey, the east by Iraq, the south by the Syrian army and the west by <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/07/syria-turkish-forces-assad-idlib-erdogan">Turkish-supported Turkic opposition forces</a> and the Syrian army. Kurds do not constitute a majority in most of its cities and towns, and locals do not by and large share the Kurdish dream of independence. Moreover, Turkic opposition forces allied with Turkey physically separate the recently acquired north-east and east Syrian territories from the self-declared autonomous Rojava in north-west Syria. </p> <p class="Default">Turkey is not acting alone. Other state actors – in pursuit of their own national interests – will not enable a viable, independent or autonomous Rojava, whatever its territorial limits might be. They would not allow or facilitate the export of oil or the import of arms, goods or significant <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2017/10/23/winter-coming-who-will-rebuild-raqqa">reconstruction aid</a> to newly-acquired territories under Kurdish control. </p> <p class="Default">The Iraqi government used the ill-fated Kurdish independence referendum to recover Mosul and Kirkuk along with their oil resources, and is in the process of <a href="https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/world-middle-east-41816138">regaining control</a> of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders, including <a href="http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/us-must-not-let-iran-cut-off-the-kurdish-controlled-iraq-syria-border/article/2638759">border crossings</a> into Syria’s Kurdish-controlled areas. <a href="http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/turkey-us-kurdish-syria-terrorist-organisation-militia-pkk-erdogan-binali-yildirim-a7732781.html">Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish YPU/SDF militia a ‘terrorist organisation” affiliated with its homegrown outlawed PKK</a>, and would not relinquish control of its border crossings. </p> <p class="Default">Iran would do its utmost to protect its supply route to Syria and Hezbollah via Iraq, and is wary of its own Kurdish minority that potentially might be used instrumentally by the US and Israel in regime change projects (in 2010 <a href="https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07TELAVIV2652_a.html">WikiLeaks published</a> Israel’s plans, agreed by the US, to use the Kurds and other Iranian minorities to affect regime change). While Syria's Foreign Minister has publicly stated that <a href="https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2017/9/26/assad-regime-says-syrian-kurdish-autonomy-negotiable">Kurdish autonomy is negotiable</a>, unnamed Syrian Army sources have called the SDF-controlled territory a national ‘<a href="https://www.google.co.uk/amp/mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/idUSKBN1D02CN">occupied territory</a>’ and vowed to retake it, echoing the Syrian President who has repeatedly stressed his determination to <a href="https://www.google.co.uk/amp/news.sky.com/story/amp/ill-retake-every-inch-of-syria-vows-assad-10770052">regain sovereignty over every inch of Syria</a>. </p> <p class="Default">It is also doubtful that the Gulf countries would provide long term massive reconstruction aid for this vast SDF-controlled territory, given their present financial restraints born from reduced oil income, diminishing reserves and altered national priorities (Yemen war, conflict with Qatar,&nbsp; confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon, needed massive economic stimulus and investment in the Gulf, etc...). Absent major reconstruction projects that would allow the return of refugees and create employment in the areas under SDF control where Kurds are a minority, it is a question of time before tribal and civil leaders side with the Syrian central government.</p> <h2 class="Default"><strong>Art of the possible</strong></h2> <p class="Default">The Kurdish leadership in Syria would ignore at its peril the <a href="http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-skeptics/kurdistan-catalonia-the-iran-deal-the-perils-overreach-22961">lessons</a> of Kurdish overreach in Iraq, of US refusal to support Iraqi Kurdistan’s recent failed independence bid, and of the blunt opinion voiced by American experts like the US Ambassador to Syria from 2011 till 2014 who stated that the <a href="https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.newsweek.com/us-military-kurds-lose-iran-syria-former-ambassador-627395?amp=1">US will lose Syria to Iran and abandon their Kurdish allies</a>. They would do their constituents and the region a favour by remembering the adage that ‘Politics is the art of the possible’ and Lord Palmerston’s observation that “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests”. Notwithstanding their repeated assertion that Syrian Kurds’ objective is an <a href="https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.al-monitor.com/pulse/en/originals/2017/10/syria-federal-state-kurds-turkey-russia.amp.html">autonomous Rojava within a Federal Syria</a>, the devil remains in the detail! Would they negotiate away areas in the north-east and east, in exchange for autonomy guarantees for Rojava in the north-west, or would they seek to preserve their present control over the expanded territory?</p> <p class="Default">The Syrian regime’s ultimate objectives are survival and the control of all Syrian territory. To quickly wind down the war, attain a political solution and start reconstruction, the regime might agree to grant Kurds de jure autonomy in Kurdish-majority areas only, in exchange for control over non-Kurdish majority areas. However, should Syrian Kurds overreach – encouraged by the US and/or Israel – their neighbours would fight them implacably. The construction of US bases in Kurdish-controlled territories as protection would only increase Kurds’ isolation and further motivate the forces arrayed against them.</p> <h2 class="Default"><strong>Overreach</strong></h2> <p class="Default">Kurds who are tempted to fight the Syrian army for control of the north east and east of Syria need to factor in the US’s checkered history as an ally: Historically, since the latter part of the twentieth century, many allies have found it ultimately futile to rely on the constant, enduring and efficient backing of the United States. In Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia, the US abandoned its allies and withdrew without achieving its strategic goals. In Iran and Egypt, the Shah and President Mubarak, both staunch allies of the United States, were undermined and abandoned at crucial junctures. In Afghanistan, the longest war in American history has resulted in the country’s practical division, with the Taliban regaining control over the majority of the country. In Iraq, the US supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, yet later turned against him due to shifting objectives, and invaded Iraq – a strategic blunder that enabled Iran to expand its influence in the region, and proved Washington to be a fickle friend who failed to support its Kurdish ally’s independence bid. In Syria, irrespective of rights and wrongs, regime change has failed, Iran’s influence has increased, Hezbollah has gained a foothold and strength despite US-led efforts to stem its Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon supply route, and the US-supported Syrian Opposition in exile, is increasingly marginalised, almost abandoned.&nbsp; </p> <p class="Default">The large areas and resources of Syria’s eastern and north-eastern borders that have recently come under the control of the Kurdish SDF should logically form the crux of future negotiations between the Kurds and the Syrian regime over Kurdish autonomy in Kurdish majority areas, and between the US and Syria’s government and allies over the crucial issue of who would control Syria’s border with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. </p> <p class="Default">The Iraqi and Syrian governments, with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are <a href="http://m.gulf-times.com/story/571731/Syrian-army-allies-retake-Albu-Kamal-from-Islamic-">regaining control</a> of parts of the Iraqi-Syrian border. US plans to deny Iran the use of that border for the shipment of arms to Hezbollah are now severely compromised. Knowing this, will the SDF fight to extend the territory it controls to the areas now under the control of the Syrian Army and its allies, or will it seek a compromise with the regime?</p> <h2 class="Default"><strong>Military buildup</strong></h2> <p class="Default">Tehran’s projection of power in the region depends on its continued ability to supply Hezbollah with arms via Iraq and Syria. Would it be willing to trade a Hezbollah-free zone on the Israeli-Syrian border in exchange for this? Would the US accept this trade off? The Syrian regime might accept a joint Syrian-Russian buffer zone on the southern border with Israel; this would probably be conditional on US recognition of Syrian sovereignty throughput its whole territory – including an autonomous indigenous Kurdish area – and Syrian military control of Syria’s northern and eastern borders (to maintain the Iran-Hezbollah supply route). Would the US accept this and force Israel to live with this prospect? And what incentive would the US then have to maintain military bases and Kurdish allies in Syria?</p> <p class="Default">In all probability, neither the US nor Israel would readily agree to this trade off. Their refusal could translate into clashes between the Kurdish forces in the present SDF-controlled territory and the Syrian army and its allies. The US and Israel might encourage the SDF to keep Syria’s northern-eastern and eastern territory recovered from IS, and promise military support and protection to maintain and/or expand it. For the SDF to retain longterm control, an expanded massive US military presence in Syria would become necessary. In acquiescing to this military buildup and enabling it, Kurds run the risk that the US might at will withdraw its protection and abandon them, in exchange for one or both of its, and Israel’s, strategic goals – i.e. stemming the flow of arms from Iran to Hezbollah via Iraq and Syria, and/or creating a buffer zone on the Syria-Israel border (at present, Syrian <a href="http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-giving-secret-aid-syrian-rebels-bashar-al-assad-golah-heights-hezbollah-fursan-al-joulan-a7797151.html">opposition forces financed and aided by Israel</a> constitute a buffer-enclave on that border). </p> <h2 class="Default"><strong>‘Constructive chaos?’</strong></h2> <p class="Default">State actors are actively sabotaging US-Israeli objectives: <a href="http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/us-must-not-let-iran-cut-off-the-kurdish-controlled-iraq-syria-border/article/2638759">Iran’s allies are already taking military action to gain control of the border crossings</a> that separate the SDF autonomous areas in eastern Syria from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan – thus precluding the emergence of a contiguous autonomous/independent Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria. <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-kurds-referendum-borde/iraq-plans-to-take-control-of-kurdistan-regions-border-in-coordination-with-iran-turkey-idUSKCN1C42TA">Iraq’s central government is methodically taking back control of Iraqi-Kurdistan’s borders</a> and airports, in coordination with Iran and Turkey. There are reports that Turkey is <a href="https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/10/turkey-syria-russia-tightening-siege-of-afrin.html">preparing an attack</a> to extend till the Mediterranean the corridor its allies control, in order to completely separate areas under Kurdish control in the north-east from those in the north-west of Syria and encircle the Kurds in north-west Syria. For reasons of national interest, Iran, Turkey and Iraq would actively support Syria’s territorial integrity. </p> <p class="Default"><a href="https://sputniknews.com/politics/201610111046207689-russian-base-syria-tartus/">Russia's national interests</a> also lie in the survival of the Syrian regime as a guarantor to its continued access to its <a href="http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/how-russia-turning-syria-major-naval-base-nuclear-warships-19813">Tartus naval facility</a> – its only warm water naval facility, other than in the disputed Crimea – and in the elimination of <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2015/12/09/russian-fighters-are-joining-isis-in-record-numbers.html">IS’s Russian fighters</a> (its largest foreign contingent). An American-Russian deal on Crimea appears a dim possibility in the midst of US judicial and Congressional probes into Russian interference in the US Presidential election. With no deal in sight, Russia would presumably continue to help its Syrian ally regain control over the totality of Syrian territory. The Kurds would have to fight these allied forces. </p> <p class="Default">Many in the Mideast <a href="https://www.globalresearch.ca/us-sponsored-terrorism-in-iraq-and-constructive-chaos-in-the-middle-east/5387653">and in Russia</a> remember the famous declaration in 2006 of the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice advocating <a href="http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1219325,00.html">‘constructive chaos’</a> as the ‘birth pangs’ for the rebirth of <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1525200/Death-and-despair-amid-US-pursuit-of-new-Middle-East.html">a New Mideast</a>. A <a href="https://www.globalresearch.ca/plans-for-redrawing-the-middle-east-the-project-for-a-new-middle-east/3882">map</a> surfaced in US military publications in 2006 outlining the joint US-Israel vision of a reconfigured Mideast. There is a general suspicion in the Mideast that the Kurds are the US/Israeli tool for the planned fragmentation of the region. </p> <h2 class="Default"><strong>Restive minorities</strong></h2> <p class="Default">At a recent hearing of the US’ House Committee on Foreign Affairs, <a href="http://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA00/20171011/106500/HHRG-115-FA00-Wstate-JeffreyJ-20171011.pdf">written testimony on ‘Confronting the full range of Iranian threats’</a> was received stating: “<em>The U.S. thus must recognize the stakes: if America does not stop the Iranians on this front, they will soon emerge as the dominant force in the region, deeply inimical to the United States and its partners, and allied with Putin’</em><em>s Russia</em><em>”. </em>Should the US act on such advice, it might implement <a href="https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/07/pentagon-build-bases-facilities-iraq-syria.html">Plans to build multiple military bases</a> in Syria to replace its <a href="https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incirlik_Air_Base">Incirilik air base</a> in Turkey that might be threatened by the disagreement with Ankara over Rojava’s empowerment. </p> <p class="Default">In so doing, it would seek to weaponise the Kurds. Washington and its Kurdish ally would do well not to underestimate the collective national interests aligned against them. Should they persevere, they would enter into a direct and simultaneous confrontation with Russia, Iran/Hezbollah, Turkey, Iraq and Syria that would exponentially increase the risk of resurgent nationalism becoming the extremists’ rallying cry and recruitment tool for targeted attacks against American and Kurdish&nbsp; troops in Syria and Iraq, and US and Kurdish civilians.</p> <p class="Default">Absent an urgent regional endeavour to reduce ethnic and sectarian tensions, Syria’s mayhem, strife and destruction would leak into Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf region and Iran – like Iraq’s seeped into Syria in the form of IS. All these countries have societal schisms and/or restive oppressed minorities that could be fanned into militant action: Turkey has a militant Kurdish minority and an upset <a href="https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/07/22/world/europe/alevi-minority-turkey-recep-tayyip-erdogan.html">Alevi</a> one; Iraq has an independence-aspiring Kurdish minority, along with a deep and fractious <a href="https://www.cfr.org/interactives/sunni-shia-divide?cid=otr-marketing_url-sunni_shia_infoguide%23!/sunni-shia-divide?cid=otr-marketing_url-sunni_shia_infoguide">Sunni-Shia schism</a>; Jordan has a <a href="http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/193161">Palestinian and Syrian refugee problem</a>; Lebanon has a sectarian divide that has already caused a civil war, compounded by massive Syrian and Palestinian refugee presence that is <a href="http://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EPRS_BRI(2017)599379">upsetting its sectarian makeup</a>; Iran has multiple ethnic minorities including Kurds, and many of its oil and gas fields are in Arab-populated areas; Saudi Arabia – which is spearheading the pushback against <a href="https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/globalsecurityreview.com/amp/the-rise-and-rise-of-iran-how-tehran-has-become-pivotal-to-the-future-of-the-middle-east/">Iran’s expanding regional influence</a> – has a discriminated-against <a href="https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shia_Islam_in_Saudi_Arabia">Shi’a minority</a> living above its most important oilfields, Saudi-origin IS returnee fighters, a costly <a href="https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran%E2%80%93Saudi_Arabia_proxy_conflict">proxy war in Yemen</a>, rapidly declining oil revenues and national reserves, and an unfolding fractious succession. The Kurds would be deemed complicit in this dangerous escalation and held responsible.</p> <h2 class="Default"><strong>Sectarian Frankenstein</strong></h2> <p class="Default">The sectarian Frankenstein unleashed in the Mideast could wreak havoc worldwide: <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27838034">according to the BBC</a>, the largest contingents of foreign fighters in Syria hail (in descending order) from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia, France, Morocco, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Germany and the UK. The largest contingents of ‘returned fighters’ (in descending order) went to Turkey, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, UK, Germany, Russia, Jordan, France, Morocco and Uzbekistan. </p> <p class="Default">What happens in the Mideast rarely stays there. Continued fighting in Syria would further exasperate radicalism and the epic human tragedy endured by its population, and spill over into neighbouring countries and beyond. Europe especially is vulnerable to increased terrorism inside its border, and to an unstoppable multiethnic tidal wave of refugees from the Mideast heading to its shores, seeking refuge, safety and a future for their families. </p> <p class="Default">The impact on changing demographics and latent separatist strains might politically destabilise Europe and lead to social disorder, internment camps and the rise of xenophobic and nationalist parties. Europe, China and Russia (who all have ethnic and sectarian fault lines) should encourage the Kurds to resist the temptation to retain, as part of an autonomous region, Syrian territory where they are not the majority of the population. By negotiating away these areas in exchange for de jure autonomy in Kurdish-majority areas, Kurds would avoid abandonment by their US ally, and might become partners in the post-war Syrian government.</p> <p class="Default">Ends rarely justify means. Kurdish leaders in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran should not forget that in geopolitics, National Interests are permanent. No sovereign country or national leader would readily acquiesce to the dismemberment of sovereign national territory. By endeavouring, counting on and/or enabling plans to redraw the Mideast’s borders, Kurds would permanently alienate geographic neighbours, and contribute to regional political and social chaos, human suffering, mayhem, unending wars and destruction on an epic scale, in the hope of an independent Kurdistan, with no assurance that backers would stay the course, or that plans would ultimately succeed. It is a well-established military principle that “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”; In this instance, numerous determined enemies would mount a determined, unwavering and effective counter-offensive.&nbsp; </p> <h2 class="Default"><strong>United Syria and equal rights</strong></h2> <p class="Default">The Mideast is on the brink of an abyss because of sectarian and ethnic schisms and <a href="https://www.thecairoreview.com/tahrir-forum/syria-becomes-ever-more-complicated/">vying multi-national interests</a>. The&nbsp; armed pursuit of Kurdish independence would destabilise the region further, and enable the <a href="https://www.thecairoreview.com/essays/how-isis-will-end/">spread</a> of vicious extremism and <a href="https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings/saudi-arabia-travel-warning.html">terrorist blow-back</a> throughout the Mideast, and hence to many African and Asian states along ethnic and sectarian fault lines, where oppressed minorities, like the Rohingya, might provide fertile recruiting ground for evermore virulent fanaticism and extremism born from the ashes of IS’s defeat. </p> <p class="Default">US allies would be undermined. Terrorist attacks would seep into Europe and the US mainland causing public opinion to shift. In a democracy like the US, that shift would result in the redefinition of strategic objectives. The Kurds would become collateral damage to changed goals. </p> <p class="Default">The Kurdish leadership would better serve its constituents longterm by heeding history’s lessons, not enabling Syria’s breakup, and opting instead to pursue equal rights inside a united Syria. </p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ercan-ayboga/solution-for-syria-en-route-democratic-federation-of-north-syria">Solution for Syria en route: ‘Democratic Federation of North Syria’ </a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Syria </div> <div class="field-item even"> Iraq </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Iran </div> <div class="field-item even"> Turkey </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Israel </div> <div class="field-item even"> United States </div> <div class="field-item odd"> UK </div> <div class="field-item even"> EU </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Saudi Arabia </div> <div class="field-item even"> Russia </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Lebanon </div> <div class="field-item even"> Qatar </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> North Africa, West Asia North-Africa West-Asia Qatar Lebanon Russia Saudi Arabia EU UK United States Israel Turkey Iran Iraq Syria Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian Thu, 07 Dec 2017 18:07:31 +0000 Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian 115163 at https://www.opendemocracy.net A Saudi-Iranian grand bargain https://www.opendemocracy.net/north-africa-west-asia/dunia-assa-farmanfarmaian/saudiiranian-grand-bargain <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Pundits have long criticised the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) for propagating Wahhabism, its austere brand of Sunni Islam, but have failed to address the underlying regional context.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p class="Body">Muslims hail from two main branches, Sunni and Shia. The schism arose from a dispute over who should be the Prophet Mohamad's successor. The two sects peacefully co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices. Up until the American invasion begot Shia-domination of Iraq, Iran was the Muslim world's sole Shia-dominated country.</p><p class="Body"><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none caption-xlarge'><a href="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/imagecache/wysiwyg_imageupload_lightbox_preset/wysiwyg_imageupload/550419/Sunni Shiite Divide .jpg" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/imagecache/article_xlarge/wysiwyg_imageupload/550419/Sunni Shiite Divide .jpg" alt="The Sunni/Shia breakdown by country. Sunni: Green. Red: Shia." title="" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload caption-xlarge imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" width="460" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>The Sunni/Shia breakdown by country. Sunni: Green. Red: Shia. Image based on map by Angela De La Paz. Some rights reserved.</span></span></span></p><h2>The rise of an ideology</h2> <p class="Body">Wahhabism is the KSA's state-sponsored religion. It is also dominant in Qatar, with followers in the Indian subcontinent. Around two centuries ago, its founder, <a title="Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_ibn_Abd_al-Wahhab">Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab</a>,&nbsp;<span>called for a return to the Islamic practices of the first Muslims and for a literalist adherence to Islam’s original texts. Wahabis reject religious debate, eschew theological interpretations and oppose doctrines held by other sects – including Sufis, Shiites and non-Wahhabi Sunnis. Mainstream Wahhabism preaches loyal obedience to the Saudi king.</span><span>&nbsp;</span></p><p class="Body"><span class="pullquote-right">The present day tactics of the so-called Islamic State (IS), are all a throwback to the Al-Ikhwan's extremist ideology.</span></p> <p class="Body"><a href="http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikhwan">Al-Ikhwan</a> was a militant offshoot of Wahhabism founded in 1912, dedicated to the forceful purification and unification of the world’s Muslims. This militia was initially used by the founder King Abdulaziz ibn Saud to unify the kingdom, before he crushed it after it rebelled. Al-Ikhwan followers attempted two failed armed uprisings in the 20th century, first against King Abdulaziz in the 1930s and against King Khaled in the 1970s accusing both of religious laxity. The present day tactics of the so-called Islamic State (IS), its slogans, flag, covered faces, swords, beheadings and the call for a pan-Islamic caliphate are all a throwback to the Al-Ikhwan's extremist ideology which continues to have resonance within the ranks of some Saudi and Qatari Wahhabis, including within the clergy.</p> <p class="Body">Since the birth of the KSA in 1932, successive kings pursued the twin goals of politically and physically building the state's infrastructure through universal education (not only males — as was the tradition), the import of foreign labour and a modernisation drive. Their policies propelled a recalcitrant, religiously conservative population from a medieval mindset and lifestyle into the modern era, merging nomadic, feuding and illiterate tribesmen into a more sedentary, unified and homogenous nation state. While spearheading this effort, the Saudi royal family tried to avoid loss of legitimacy by heeding its Wahhabi clergy and by not outpacing its population — caution the Shah of Iran would have done well to emulate while aggressively pursing his modernising agenda at home.<span>&nbsp;</span></p><h2><span>Exporting revolution</span></h2> <p class="Body">At the advent of Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, Tehran launched a policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders. Ayatollah Khomeini <a href="http://politicalquotes.org/node/54131">stated that</a> ‘establishing the Islamic state world-wide belongs to the great goals of the revolution.’ The twin goals of exporting its revolution and establishing a pan-Islamic state set the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) on a collision course with Arab leaders who perceived it as a regional threat to countries with sizeable, often discriminated against and disgruntled Shia minorities. Throughout the Arab world, Shia Muslims have since been perceived as a fifth column. For the KSA, the perceived threat is particularly worrisome given that the vast Safaniya, Shaybah and Ghawar oilfields and the HQ of Saudi Aramco are all located in the heavily Shia-populated Eastern Province.<span>&nbsp;</span></p><p class="pullquote-right">The Safaniya, Shaybah and Ghawar oilfields are all located in the heavily Shia-populated Eastern Province.</p> <p class="Body">Suspicions worsened after large demonstrations by Iranian pilgrims chanting political slogans took place during Hajj in 1981 at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and the Great Mosque in Mecca. Saudi security forces clashed with the demonstrators; hundreds of pilgrims and security forces were killed. In the aftermath, Ayatollah Khomeini incited Saudi citizens to overthrow the ruling family.</p> <p class="Body">This was not the first time that he tried to meddle in the internal affairs of the Kingdom; shortly after followers of the extremist militant Al-Ikhwan occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini stated that ‘It is not beyond guessing that this is the work of criminal American imperialism and international Zionism.’<em> </em>His statements led to riots against Western symbols in parts of the Muslim world, and complicated the Saudi authorities' task. The perpetrators of the siege accused the ruling family of pursuing un-Islamic policies, called for its overthrow and for the repudiation of the West, the expulsion of non-Muslims from the KSA, a return to the original ways of Islam, an end to the education of women and the abolition of television, The bloody siege lasted two months and ended only after the Saudi armed forces resorted to accepting the technical assistance of French and Pakistani special forces.</p> <p class="Body">It later transpired that the attackers had received donations from wealthy Saudi sympathisers and were well-armed and trained; some former military officials of the National Guard had even smuggled in weapons and ammunition, and taken part in the uprising. The clergy was eventually persuaded to issue a fatwa allowing troops to storm the compound, but refused to call extremists 'apostates.'<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p class="Body">At the time, this incident damaged the prestige of the Wahhabi establishment suspected of involvement with the insurgents. Bearing in mind their clergy's fundamentalism, King Khaled shied away from cracking down on excessive puritanism; instead, it reversed efforts at limited social liberalism, espoused ardent religiosity, pursued more orthodoxy, marginalised Shias and exported Wahhabism, all in an effort to stem accusations of religious laxity.<span>&nbsp;</span></p><h2><span>Custodians of the two Holy Mosques</span><span>&nbsp;</span></h2> <p class="Body">The title ‘Custodian of the two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina’ was later adopted by King Fahd and his successors, to reaffirm their piety and their supremacy over the clergy, and to underscore their custodianship of the Sunni brand of Islam.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p class="Body">To counter the doctrine of 'Vilayat Faqih' (Guardianship by Islamic Jurists of a theocratic government) advocated by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Saudi educational system was entrusted to pious Muslim Brotherhood (MB) mostly Egyptian teachers. They taught, along with obedience to the ruler, their ideology that ‘Allah is our objective; the Koran is the constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish.’ With time, they infiltrated, transformed and radicalised Saudi society, including at its highest echelons. The same holds true in Qatar. The KSA's relations with the MB have deteriorated steadily since 11 September; the interior ministry blamed its ideology for causing extremism in the Кingdom and accused it of being ‘the source of all problems in the Islamic world.’ Notwithstanding its recent designation as a terrorist organisation, the MB <a href="http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/new-poll-shows-majority-of-saudis-kuwaitis-emiratis-reject-isis-back-two-st">still enjoys quiet but substantial support</a> among Saudis raised on its militant ideology.</p> <p class="pullquote-right">Riyadh poured funds to purchase armaments in support of the Iraqi war effort during the Iraq-Iran war, and financed Taliban schools.&nbsp;</p> <p class="Body">In the 1980s, the west sought the KSA's assistance in countering the export of the Iranian revolution and in repulsing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Riyadh poured funds to purchase western armaments in support of the Iraqi war effort during the Iraq-Iran war, and financed Taliban schools in Pakistan where Sunni boys, including pious radicalised Saudis, were indoctrinated in jihad (struggle against non-believers), trained in the art of insurgency by the Pakistani secret service and the CIA and armed by the US, before being sent to fight the Soviets.</p> <p class="Body">To recruit for and justify jihad, <em>takfir</em> (excommunication) of the perceived political enemy became part of the political lexicon of militant Sunni preachers. Ayman Alzawahiri (of Al-Qaeda fame), a leader of the Egyptian-born Takfir Wal-Hijra — at the time an outlawed offshoot of the MB — joined the fight against the Soviets. His influence led to the spreading of <em>takfir</em> ideology. Once the Soviets retreated, most fighters returned to the Middle East, North Africa and the West spreading <em>takfir </em>doctrine, to eventually sprout Al-Qaeda and its ideological offshoot IS.</p> <p class="Body">The perception of Shia, and by extension of Iranians, as <em>kuffar</em> (apostates, non-believers) became so embedded in militant religious preaching broadcast to millions via dedicated satellite channels, that Arab leaders in general and Saudi leaders in particular became its hostage, complicating any political accommodation with the IRI.</p><h2>Dynastic discord</h2><p><span>Yet a political regional grand bargain is now essential. Saudi Arabia's dynastic stability — notwithstanding the smooth succession — and its ability to rise to the existential threats of sectarian strife on its borders and at home — would be diminished in the absence such a bargain.</span></p> <p class="Body">The late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz commanded tribal loyalty and was perceived by most Saudis as a paternalistic, modernising, flexible, experienced ruler of undisputed probity and piety. In contrast, his successor King Salman bin Abdulaziz (whatever his past services and his consensus-building abilities might have been) <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/salman-is-known-for-mediating-saudi-royal-disputes/2015/01/22/1bc8dc1a-a2b0-11e4-b146-577832eafcb4_story.html">is rumoured to suffer from incapacitating health</a> problems — a recipe for diminished authority. His half-brother, Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz has no power base within the family, almost no government experience, and the dubious distinction of being the first crown prince without a ministerial portfolio.<span>&nbsp;</span></p><p class="Body"><span></span><span><span class="pullquote-right">Younger second generation princes are of a different ilk to the more savvy and experienced elders.</span></span></p> <p class="Body">Real power lies with 55-year-old Mohamad bin Nayef, who is the Deputy Crown Prince, interior minister and President of the Council of Political and Security Affairs, and with the King's son, the 36-year-old Prince Mohamad bin Salman, the head of the royal court, defence minister and President of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs. As head of the royal court, the King's son Mohamad issues his ailing father's royal decrees and holds the royal seal; he is perceived by some as the de facto ruler. This is an unprecedented concentration of power mostly in the hands of the Sudairi clan (the name of one of King Abdulaziz ibn Saud's wives) — of whom the King, his son and the deputy crown prince are members.</p> <p class="Body">Younger second generation princes are of a different ilk to the more savvy and experienced elders. Rumours are rife that the deputy crown prince is not the consensus choice within the ranks of younger royals, and that Mohamad bin Salman is not popular, even among his brothers. How long will other clans within the House of Saud put up with the monopoly of power by the Suadiari clan? There is a precedent within the royal family for the forced abdication of an ailing King at a time of crisis (King Saud bin Abdulaziz in 1962, at a time of confrontation with Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser).<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p class="Body">Other than the risk of princely discord or of a palace coup, most of King Abdulaziz's grandchildren lack a power base and political experience, particularly in foreign relations, and appear apt to pursue zero sum confrontational policies within the region, in the belief that money buys international influence and protection and resolves domestic problems.<strong>&nbsp;</strong></p> <h2>Challenges abroad</h2><p class="Body">Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was founded in Yemen in 2009 as an alliance between Saudi and Yemeni Al-Qaeda branches that oppose the Saudi monarchy. It exploited Iraq's sectarian fault lines to start a civil war, giving rise to IS. Both Al-Qaida and IS use anti-western rhetoric and attacks on minorities to spearhead their efforts at destabilising Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan and Sub-Saharan Africa. More recently they imported these tactics to Gulf states that joined the US-led alliance fighting them. Their call to arms unfortunately echoes among some Wahhabis in the KSA and Qatar, raised on the state-sanctioned belief that Shias are apostates.<span>&nbsp;</span></p><p class="Body"><span class="pullquote-right">The cesspool of sectarianism needs to be drained.</span></p> <p class="Body">The Saudi establishment is faced with a conundrum: In protecting the country's Shia minority, the House of Saud would be engulfed by the <em>takfiri</em> propaganda; laxity in stemming and punishing attacks on foreign expats and on Shia compatriots would incur the wrath of the west and provide Tehran with <em>casus belli</em> for interference in Saudi internal affairs. The solution to this conundrum cannot be based on a security-only strategy. The cesspool of sectarianism also needs to be drained.</p> <p class="Body">Sharing a border with IS in Iraq for years to come is not an attractive option for the IRI. It might thus be willing to fight IS and AQAP as part of a regional force. It is historically opposed to the advent of an independent Kurdistan — an increasing likelihood the longer Kurdish forces spearhead the fight against IS. It advocates a political regional solution to the Syrian and Lebanese problems, and would like to consolidate its influence over Iraq. While pursuing these objectives, Tehran might be wary of spreading its military, paramilitary and financial assets too thin over many theatres of sectarian strife in the Arab world. However, labouring under crippling sanctions over the nuclear issue and dwindling oil revenues, Tehran has so far chosen escalation in Bahrain, Yemen, and to a lesser degree the KSA.<span>&nbsp;</span></p><p class="Body"><span><span class="pullquote-right">Tehran might be wary of spreading its assets too thin over many theatres of sectarian strife in the Arab world</span></span></p> <p class="Body">Riyadh scored a major strategic victory over Tehran in Bahrain and over the MB in Egypt. In Iraq however, the sectarianism of ex-Prime Minister Nouri A-Maliki's policies led to the rise of IS and to Baghdad's alignment with Tehran. Riyadh is also losing its grip over Yemen to the Iran-allied Houthis and to AQAP. The kingdom runs the risk of its borders being sandwiched between IS forces in Iraq and AQAP forces in Yemen. It also faces a quagmire in Syria, a stalemate in Lebanon, civil war in Libya, possible contagion of Jordan and of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and most importantly, terrorist induced civil and sectarian strife within its borders.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p class="Body">So far, the KSA has privileged a security response at home and supports Sunni uprisings abroad. A victory abroad however is becoming increasingly unlikely at a time when Washington is privileging the fight against extremist IS and Al-Qaida forces throughout the Mideast, and is contemplating a pivot towards the IRI who shares this goal.</p> <p class="Body">A P5+1 agreement over the nuclear enrichment issue is looking increasingly likely; this would hasten the US pivot, and enable Tehran to reprise the Shah's role of Gendarme of the Middle East — an unattractive outcome for the GCC.</p> <p class="Body">The continuation of an all-or-nothing national and regional strategy is hard to comprehend at a time when the KSA has opted to also tussle with the US, Russia and the IRI over its energy market share. Regional and/or sectarian strife would of course defeat Riyadh's bid to maintain low energy prices.</p> <h2>A grand bargain&nbsp;</h2> <p class="Body">A grand regional bargain is a present-day political necessity with religious historic precedent; Muslim sects coexisted peacefully for centuries during the Ottoman era. It should be preferable to the protracted and disruptive alternative. It could involve institutionalised Shia-Sunni power sharing in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, and the integration of Hezbollah forces within the ranks of the Lebanese army. It would lessen the chances of further wars (either by proxy or directly) in Yemen and Libya, and would undermine IS's and Al-Qaida's support.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p class="Body">Absent such a grand bargain, Syria's civil war and its destructive aftermath would be a dress rehearsal to the civil and religious strife that could engulf the Middle East and extend to Asian countries with militant Sunni and Shia populations harbouring grievances.&nbsp;</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/north-africa-west-asia/lorenzo-kamel/why-we-hate-our-reflections-saudi-arabia-and-islamic-state">Why we hate our reflections: Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Saudi Arabia </div> <div class="field-item even"> Iran </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Iraq </div> <div class="field-item even"> Syria </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Lebanon </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Conflict </div> <div class="field-item even"> International politics </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 3.0 </div> </div> </div> North Africa, West Asia North-Africa West-Asia Lebanon Syria Iraq Iran Saudi Arabia Conflict International politics Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian Thu, 19 Feb 2015 20:07:01 +0000 Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian 90658 at https://www.opendemocracy.net Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian https://www.opendemocracy.net/content/dunia-assa-farmanfarmaian <div class="field field-au-term"> <div class="field-label">Author:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian </div> </div> </div> <p>Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian is a former diplomat and retired international civil servant. She is currently based in London.</p><div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Article license:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 3.0 </div> </div> </div> Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian Thu, 19 Feb 2015 17:10:39 +0000 Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian 90660 at https://www.opendemocracy.net