At 1 AM on 3 January, an American drone strike killed the head of Iran’s Quds Force, the division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) charged with exporting the Islamic revolution, and his Iraqi deputy, Jamal al-Ibrahimi (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis). Sulaymani was the strategic driver of Iran’s expansionist policy in the Middle East, as well as the orchestrator of its terrorism and assassinations further afield. Unlike with the killing of Al-Qaeda’s Usama bin Laden in 2011 or the Islamic State’s Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) in October, where the dynamics shifted little, Sulaymani’s death opens up questions about the direction in which the Middle East will now move. Continue reading →
President Barack Obama meeting President-elect Donald Trump, 10 November 2016 [image source]
October 2019 may well remain in the popular memory as the inflection point marking the collapse of America’s — and by extension, the West’s — position in at least the northern Middle East. Having been thwarted twice before in efforts to leave Syria, in March and December 2018, President Donald Trump made one more try. For many, ‘Trump betrayed the Kurds’ will be the summary of the events that followed as Turkey made a swift move into the vacuum. The reality is a lot more complicated, and in truth the amount of blame that Trump can take for the events of the last month is rather limited. This catastrophe was baked into the policy of Barack Obama, and Trump’s main fault is to have followed the policy track laid down by his predecessor. Continue reading →
Turkey killed a senior operative of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the internationally-recognised terrorist organisation and narcoticstraffickingentity that has been at war with the Turkish state since 1984, in Iraq last week. Turkey launched a wave of airstrikes against PKK targets in Syria and Iraq in April 2017 and for the last several months Ankara has been widening its campaign against the PKK outside Turkey’s borders, particularly in Iraq, where the PKK is not protected by the United States, as it is in eastern Syria. Having feinted in June toward an attack on the historic PKK headquarters in the Qandil Mountains—a somewhat symbolic target at this stage, with the bulk of the PKK’s leadership and resources in Syria—it appears the Turks have opted for a more targeted approach.
This operation underscores the continuance of U.S.-Turkey relations, and the mutual benefits of the relationship, even in its current damaged state, where both sides have a laundry list of legitimate grievances with the other. If a formula for normalisation can be found, the potential to contain and weaken some of the worst, most destabilising elements in the region, saliently the PKK and the Iranian regime, is within reach. Continue reading →
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum on 25 September, and voted overwhelmingly—with nearly 93% in favour—for independence. The comparison with Brexit might have been overworked by all sides, but there was a familiarity: while the result itself was not a shock, the fact of the referendum itself came as a surprise to many in what one might call the global elite, which lectured in that endearing way that had such success in deterring Brits a year ago. Then as now, the effect was, if anything, to stoke the bloody-mindedness of a population that had considerable qualms but had enough pride to repudiate being harangued in those accents. Still, as with Brexit, it wasn’t as if the naysayers didn’t have a case, and now comes the really difficult work. Continue reading →
Kurdish opposition figures arrested by the PYD/PKK on 14 September 2017, NORTHERN SYRIA OBSERVER
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally-designated terrorist entity, currently controls about a fifth of Syria’s territory in the northeast, an area it calls “Rojava”. The PKK works, as I explained in a recent report for The Henry Jackson Society, under the banner of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) while on Syrian territory, and has sought—with Western complicity—to obscure its activities even further by attaching some subordinate Arab units to its forces and calling this supposed-umbrella organization the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is the principle partner of the seventy-three-member coalition, led by the United States, that seeks to destroy the Islamic State (IS). On 14 September, the PYD/PKK launched a fresh crackdown on the Kurdish opposition, which has been viciously persecuted by the PKK back to 2011 and assaulted with an especial vigour since the spring of this year. The Kurds arrested by the PKK yesterday, and whose demonstration was attacked and dispersed by the PKK this afternoon, were voicing their support for the independence referendum to be held on 25 September by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. Continue reading →
Kurds protesting against the PYD in Hasaka, 16 August 2016
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian front of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is the leading group in the administration of the Kurdish areas in north-eastern Syria. The PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have become the preferred instrument of the U.S.-led Coalition against the Islamic State (IS) and as a by-product have been assisted in conquering some Arab-majority zones of northern Syria—and perhaps soon of eastern Syria. The PYD/PKK has always treated all dissent harshly and the Kurdish opposition in recent days has reported an escalation in repression by the PYD, which the West—as has become a habit in cases of PYD misbehaviour—has made no public protest about. Continue reading →
Four days ago, Chapo Trap House, a Left-wing politics and humour podcast, hosted Brace Belden, known to Twitter as “PissPigGranddad,” a 27-year-old from San Francisco who has joined the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). It was very interesting and informative on the state of play in northern Syria.
The YPG is run by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) front of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The most amusing part of the interview is Belden’s formal maintenance that the YPG, while fraternal comrades to the PKK and admirers of their ideology, have absolutely no organizational links at all, while at the same time letting the audience in on the fact that the YPG and indeed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition that it controls are parts of the PKK structure. Belden describes joining the YPG by first linking up with the PKK at its headquarters in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, before being spirited across the border into Syria.
Belden gives a very interesting glimpse of the YPG’s method of governance. The YPG calls its rule “libertarian socialism,” says Belden, but it’s “pretty much a Stalinist state”. Belden describes the ascetic nature of the true believers in the PKK’s ideology—of which he, clearly, is not one—and the collectivized nature of life. Among other things, everyone is subjected to struggle sessions of the kind associated with Mao or the Khmer Rouge. Continue reading →
The Pentagon-run train-and-equip (T&E) program had intended to take Syrian rebels, stop them from being rebels by preventing them from fighting the Assad regime, and repurpose them into an American-directed strike force against the Islamic State (ISIS). Unsurprisingly, there were few takers and the program ended in disaster and humiliation. In the wake of this failure, President Barack Obama has turned away from the Arab rebels and looked to the Syrian Kurds to fight ISIS. This is a strategy that is not only doomed to fail—since Sunni Arabs taking responsibility for their local security is the only way to sustainably defeat ISIS—but would, if implemented, make the ISIS problem worse. A report from Amnesty International this week documenting crimes, including ethnic cleansing, by the armed Kurdish forces against Arabs and Turkmens in northern Syria also provides an occasion to look more closely at a force with a history of regime collaboration, political extremism, and terrorism. Continue reading →
The short answer is “yes”. The longer answer is, “It depends on how good you want,” and discovering the answer to that relies on having a strategic vision of what you want from Syria. Continue reading →