The not-so-zero problem

The not-so-zero problem

Turkey’s new bellicose posture may not work as well as it hopes, writes Salah Nasrawi

From the perspective of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP government, the decision to send fighter jets against the Islamic State (IS) terror group’s positions in Syria and the Kurdish PKK’s bases in Iraq probably goes something like this: to survive politically by improving the Party’s waning popularity after its weak performance in the elections and to ensure Turkey is a vital Middle East player by taking back the regional initiative.

This week, the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suddenly decided that IS and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had turned into a threat big enough to be confronted by airstrikes, cross-border bombardments and a massive police crackdown.

But what the AKP government has not yet sorted out is how to go about implementing its newly aggressive approach by going after two ideologically and politically divergent enemies which it had earlier been trying to pacify without raising doubts about its sudden policy shift.

Turkey’s new way of war came on 24 July when Ankara sent its warplanes to hit IS positions in Syria for the first time since the terror group made advances in both Iraq and Syria. Turkish jet fighters also struck at camps of the PKK in northern Iraq.

Soon after the first attacks on IS, news emerged that Ankara had allowed the United States to fly bombing missions against IS militants from air bases in southern Turkey, a move that effectively makes Ankara a partner in the US-led coalition in the war against the jihadists.

The air campaign and the agreement with Washington to allow US planes to use the Incirlik airbase came after an escalation of violence in southern Turkey.

On 20 July a suicide bomber with suspected links to IS set off an explosion in the Turkish border town of Suruc, killing 32 people and wounding more than 100.

A day later, Turkey lost a soldier after its troops came under fire from several IS militants armed with rocket launchers and machine guns. The Turkish security forces fired back at the extremists, killing one and destroying a pickup truck.

As the Turkish military operations against IS and the PKK escalated this week, Ankara has detained thousands of their supporters in a nationwide sweep. The authorities also imposed a ban on demonstrations in Istanbul and expanded a campaign against media critical of the campaign, including a brief shutdown of Twitter.

By abandoning its long history of ambivalence about IS, or even its alleged implicit support – Turkey has long been seen as an IS revolving door – and by ratcheting up the war against the PKK and splintering its fragile peace with the Kurds, Turkey has entered a new phase of uncertainty.

In trying to decode Ankara’s surprising change of strategy two scenarios could emerge that could explain why the AKP government is becoming bellicose in dealing with challenges at home and abroad.

On the domestic front, the move to mix up the war against IS with the fight against the PKK has been carefully designed as the country now faces a 50 per cent chance of being plunged into a snap election if efforts to form a coalition government flounder.

By creating a climate of jingoistic militarism, the AKP is trying to give the impression that Turkey is involved in a national war in order to win back a single party majority in a new poll. Rumours and conspiracy theories have surfaced to the effect that the AKP government has deliberately provoked the wave of violence in order to create a national crisis and make political gains.

One well-known Turkish whistle-blower, known on Twitter as Fuat Avni, tweeted that Erdogan himself was behind the deadly suicide attack in Suruç. Avni, famous for making claims about the government that often turn out to be true, alleged that Erdogan’s intention was to “sow chaos” in society in order to pave the way for the AKP’s return to power as a single party in an early election.

The daily Milliyet columnist Kadri Gursel has also been sacked for alluding to Erdogan’s role in the 20 July Suruç bombing in a social media post. Gursel shared a post on his Twitter account in which he hinted at Erdogan’s involvement and criticised foreign leaders for sending him condolences and sympathy after the Suruç bombing.

As for the other scenario under which Turkey could enter into direct conflict in Syria and Iraq, this reflects Ankara’s determination to play an imperial role in the region and to seek to expand its influence in neighbouring countries and especially to the south.

One of the main goals of Turkey’s intervention is to create a long-expected security zone inside Syria which it claims will drive IS and other militants from a strip of land along its southern borders.

The Turkish and American media have reported that US-led coalition jets will provide security over the 90-km long and 40 to 50 km deep strip, which may be broadened in the future.

The enclave would be used as a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians, who are expected to be largely Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkmens, according to leaked reports.

However, such a zone will also be seen as a move to stop Syrian Kurds who have exploited the turmoil in Syria to seize territory from setting up their authority in captured areas and creating an autonomous entity along Turkey’s southern border.

In the long run, a Turkish-controlled zone would block a united independent Kurdish state in the region that would expand the Kurdish-populated areas in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

But most importantly, the protected strip would effectively create a Sunni enclave under Turkey’s hegemony that could create a Sunni entity away from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s control.

While taking on the Kurds will increase tensions between Ankara and its powerful Kurdish minority and Kurds across the region, a Sunni-dominated enclave in northern Syria would signal Turkey’s intentions to split Syria on sectarian lines.

Worse, such an entity would work to enhance Ankara’s expansionist ambitions in the region. Whatever the reason for its new initiative, Turkey’s step change in its involvement in the region’s conflicts is calling into question its regional strategy.

For years, the theme of Turkey’s foreign policy under the AKP government that came to power in 2002 was “zero problems with neighbours.” The strategy, worked out by the academic-turned-diplomat Davutoglu, had hopes of pacifying decades of regional turmoil and ending tensions with Turkey’s neighbours.

Despite being outlined by Davutoglu as “strategic depth” thinking aiming to reform Turkey’s foreign policy following the AKP party’s electoral victory that year, the approach has failed to accomplish its objectives and in many cases has proved to be counterproductive.

Due largely to Erdogan’s foreign-policy missteps, Turkey has plunged deeply into the region’s conflicts, and Erdogan’s defiance and attempts to enforce his version of Islamic nationalism have also cost Turkey many friends and alienated allies.

From Iraq, Syria and Libya to Egypt, incoherent policies and sometimes Erdogan’s own aggressive behaviour have served Ankara badly and in many cases have raised troubling questions about the country’s foreign policy, especially in serving to breed extremism.

By resorting to NATO for help against IS and the PKK and by giving access to US jets to use Turkish airbases in striking Syria, Ankara is going back to its traditional alliance with the West at the expense of its Muslim brethren.

In Davutoglu’s words, this is a new “regional game under new conditions.” But by making such a dramatic turnaround, Turkey will expose its weaknesses and vulnerability and make it again prone to Western pressure.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on July 30, 2015

After Anbar

After Anbar

The long-expected battle for Anbar has begun in Iraq, but there are huge concerns about its aftermath, writes Salah Nasrawi

For weeks, Iraqi security forces and Shia paramilitaries have been encircling the city of Ramadi, where the government is planning a major offensive to dislodge Islamic State (IS) terror group militants who captured the city, the capital of Anbar Province, some three months ago.

The Iraqi government has now announced the start of a campaign to retake the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province west of Baghdad on 13 July. The offensive includes plans to liberate Fallujah, which has been an IS stronghold since its seizure by extremists in January 2014.

There has been little information about the operation amid a government blackout and increasing concerns about the military and political strategy to fully pacify Anbar and other Sunni-populated provinces after taking them back from IS.

IS militants captured vast amounts of territory in Iraq, including the country’s second-largest city of Mosul, last year, following an uprising by Sunnis protesting against what they claimed was their exclusion and marginalisation by the Shia-led government.

With the Anbar campaign gaining momentum, thousands of Iraqi fighters have joined in the battle, with much of the main thrust of the offensive seemingly directed at Fallujah, some 60 km west of the capital Baghdad.

Iraqi officials say government forces, mainly Shia Popular Mobilisation Units and Sunni pro-government fighters, are taking part in the onslaught to retake this rebellious city. Fallujah was the scene of major battles with American forces following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

After the US troop withdrawal in 2011, Iraqi security forces fought the rebels as the city turned into a bastion of Sunni resistance against the Shia-led government. With the flare-up of the Sunni uprising in December 2012, the government gradually lost control of Fallujah to IS-led rebels.

Government spokesmen now say that Iraqi forces are making major strides in areas near Fallujah and that the city has fallen under a tight siege from four directions and leading to its centre, which they expect to soon fall.

Fallujah’s proximity to Baghdad makes it strategically important for the Iraqi government. While its liberation will drive IS militants far from the capital, Fallujah’s capture is also key to securing Ramadi and the rest of Anbar Province.

In the past few weeks, Iraqi security forces, Shia militias and local pro-government Sunni tribes have been moving to cut the militants’ supply lines and to surround and isolate Ramadi and Fallujah.

Last week, Iraq closed its border with Jordan until further notice. The closure is intended to choke off one of the militants’ sources of finance, depriving them of the taxes they impose on trucks driving through their territory.

But as the coalition of Iraqi forces takes up strategic positions closer to Fallujah and Ramadi, the key question is when will the major offensive to retake the two cities be launched.

Since the seizure of Ramadi in May, the Iraqi government has many times announced an operation to liberate Anbar, but there have not been any major advances on the ground. This could mean that there are disagreements about what strategies should be adopted in the battle for Anbar. The campaign could determine not only the course of the war against IS but also the tide of historical events in Iraq.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said the push in Anbar was being conducted according to plans made some time ago. Like other government officials, Al-Abadi did not set a specific date for the start of the offensive, but he promised the province will eventually be liberated.

Leaders of the Shia militias, however, have announced that the decision to retake the two key cities should be taken by the government, highlighting difficulties in forging a unified strategy against IS.

The United States, which is taking part in the campaign by carrying out air strikes against IS targets, does not appear to support elements of the Anbar offensive, as planned by the Iraqi government.

Strategically, Washington has offered a timeline for the fight against IS that could be years long. Tactically, US generals have opposed a simultaneous operation to recapture both Ramadi and Fallujah, suggesting instead a speedy offensive in Ramadi in order to prevent IS from establishing itself in the city.

Operations against IS in Anbar may have begun to yield some results for Iraqi troops, which have been able to besiege IS militants in Ramadi and Fallujah and force them to slow down their advance. The Iraqi coalition may also be able to push back the militants to the desert or into neighbouring Syria.

But in order for the Iraqi government to regain control of the one third of its territory lost to the jihadists it needs a comprehensive strategy that can defeat IS and hasten its demise.

Recapturing Ramadi and Fallujah would change the situation dramatically in favour of the Iraqi Shia-led government, but Iraqi troops will still face further battles in Anbar on their way to take back Mosul, Iraq’s second city.

Baghdad needs a military approach that does not alienate the Sunni population and create further communal divisions in the divided and war-torn country. While the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Units have proven to be a powerful partner in the war against IS, the government should be careful in deploying militias that have been known for heavy-handed actions and sometimes brutality against the local populations in liberated areas.

The army should also avoid collateral damage while conducting its operations in Anbar. The international human rights group Human Rights Watch has alleged that the Iraqi government has been dropping barrel bombs and may also have targeted a hospital in its battle with militants in the conflict-hit province.

Fear of both the militias and scorched-earth tactics have triggered a mass exodus from Anbar. Tens of thousands of civilians now find themselves trapped between IS militants ready to use them as human shields and a government suspicious of their loyalties.

Military means on their own will also never be enough to destroy the terror group. IS militants have been driven from many areas in Iraq, but they are still fighting on several fronts. In recent weeks IS sleeper cells in Baghdad have carried out a series of devastating bomb attacks targeting Shia areas and disrupted security forces defending the capital.

On Friday, an IS suicide bomber detonated a small truck in a crowded marketplace in Khan Bani Saad, east of Baghdad, killing some 130 people and wounding dozens of others in one of the deadliest single attacks in the country in years.

Retaking Anbar will certainly be a strategic victory over the IS militants, but Iraqi Shia leaders should start thinking of long-term successes rather than transitory gains. The campaign against the terror group will only be successful over the long term if the Iraqi government pursues an approach that overcomes the sectarian split and opens up towards the Sunnis.

With millions of Sunnis leaving areas under IS control amid reports that the terror group is using residents of Fallujah as human shields, the insurgents are losing the strategic depth they need to defend their territory.

Efforts should also be made to find solutions to the sectarian war by fully accommodating nationalist Sunnis who distance themselves from IS and other rebel groups and are ready to work for a political solution.

While a unified nationalist Sunni front remains essential to representing the interests of the Sunni community in Iraq, the Shia ruling factions should also give up the tactical alliance they have built with corrupt, power-hungry and acquiescent Sunni politicians since the 2003 US-led invasion.

This marriage of convenience has given inclusiveness a bad name. After driving IS militants out of occupied cities and towns, Iraq will need new arrangements in which the Sunnis can find their place in a new political set-up in the country. In the post-IS era, Iraq will need a new political system that forces the corrupt and inept multi-ethnic and sectarian political class to give up what has become an extremely lucrative arrangement. This will pave the way for a new leadership to come to power, one that is not based on religious or ethnic beliefs.

Indeed, the future of Iraq is now inevitably tied to the emergence of such secular leaders and movements. The war against IS is a make-or-break moment for the ill-fated nation.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on July 23, 2015



Bad deal or opportunity?

Bad deal or opportunity?

Saudi Arabia believes Iran’s nuclear deal increases Tehran’s regional reach, but this is not necessarily the case, writes Salah Nasrawi

Hours after the P5+1 Group of world powers and Iran announced their historic agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme last week, Saudi-led coalition troops stormed the south Yemeni city of Aden to help Yemeni fighters drive Iran-backed Shia rebels out of the strategic port city.

The spectacular ground offensive, bolstered by coalition warplanes and naval units, succeeded in pushing the Houthi militias and their allies back to the ragged surrounding mountains, putting the city under the control of Saudi-backed fighters.

Saudi planes then flew several members of the Riyadh-backed Yemeni government-in-exile to Aden, these immediately starting efforts to assert their authority over the former South Yemen capital which they hope to use as a base for battling the Houthis in the rest of Yemen.

Saudi-led coalition spokesman Ahmed Al-Asiri said the aim of the operation was to take back the rest of Yemen from the Houthis who have exploited a power vacuum in order to take over much of the country.

However, retaking Aden is far from being a major military success in the war in Yemen, which in the eyes of Saudi Arabia and many other Sunni-dominated Arab countries is only one of several conflicts that involve Shia Iran and its regional proxies.

For the Sunni heavyweight and its Gulf allies, last week’s nuclear deal is a game-changer that will increase Tehran’s regional influence, making it time to recognise the gravity of the Iranian threat and counter it. The Aden incursion was a message of how far the Gulf alliance is likely to take the offensive to encounter Iran’s increasing ambitions.

“Aden is the answer to Vienna,” wrote Saudi commentator Mishari Al-Thaidi in the Saudi Royal Family owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, referring to the Austrian capital where the nuclear deal was signed on 13 July.

While many Arab governments have cautiously welcomed the landmark deal and expressed hopes that it will pave the way for a nuclear-free Middle East, the agreement has jangled nerves in Riyadh and inspired a partial strategic rethink.

The official Saudi response to the deal was a brief statement that said the kingdom backed any agreement that would stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons but stressed the need for strict inspections and the ability to re-impose sanctions.

Saudi media with close ties to the ruling family, however, have railed against the agreement as likely to help Iran expand its geopolitical influence in the Middle East and embolden it to give more backing to its regional allies.

It is no secret that the oil-rich kingdom, which sees itself as being the leader of the Muslim Sunni world, has always opposed the Iranian talks with the United States and five other world powers that were intended to end the 13-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme and that it has done its best to thwart a deal.

Having failed to convince the United States and other world powers to scrap a deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia now faces the daunting challenge of dealing with the consequences of the agreement in a new Middle East that Iran is expected to play a pivotal role in shaping.

What worries Saudi Arabia most is not that the deal will fail to halt nuclear proliferation or that Iran might be able to cheat on the deal and continue to enrich uranium in order to make an illicit atomic bomb.

Instead, it is worried that the new geopolitical climate that the agreement will create will allow Iran to expand further in the region.

What also worries the kingdom is that the lifting of the financial and oil sanctions imposed on Iran will provide the country with some $100 billion in sanctions relief. This might be enough to enrich Iran and embolden its Islamic government’s expansionist tendencies and support for militant movements across the Middle East.

The primary concern for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies is that Iran will begin to mend its 36-year feud with America and re-open broad political and diplomatic relations with the United States and Europe, possibly even establishing closer trading partnerships.

To underscore its fears about the agreement, Riyadh dispatched its foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, to Washington to convey to US President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials the kingdom’s staunch opposition to the deal.

On arrival, Al-Jubeir warned that Saudi Arabia was committed to “resolutely confronting” Iran should it try to cause mischief in the region after signing the nuclear deal with the six world powers.

Obama and his aides tried to ease Saudi fears and promised to follow through on commitments made earlier this year to provide them with new military and security guarantees.

Washington has also sent US Defense Secretary Ash Carter to Saudi Arabia, to be followed by Secretary of State John Kerry early in August, to meet with his Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) counterparts in order to reassert the US commitment to defending the energy-rich countries, including by providing them with new military and security guarantees.

The fears of Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies may not be groundless, but the question is what alternative do they have to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The deal offers the chance of holding back Iran and makes it less likely that the country will acquire nuclear weapons.

Continuous inspections will help make sure Iran does not violate the terms of the deal.

In addition, a verifiably non-nuclear Iran means that the Gulf countries will have long-sought safety reassurances from Iran about its nuclear plants across the Gulf.

Most importantly, a nuclear weapons-free Iran means that the ongoing regional political conflicts and proxy wars between the Persian-Shia nation and its Sunni Arab neighbours will not escalate into a nuclear crisis situation.

Among the key advantages of the pact for the Arabs is the fact that Iran’s behaviour will now be under global scrutiny and it will become a responsible member of the international community with attendant obligations.

Now that the deal has been done and endorsed by the UN Security Council, Saudi Arabia should not lapse into unrealistic thinking and give way to its obsession with Iran. It should not allow its resentment at the nuclear agreement to determine the course of action it needs to take to define a post-deal regional strategy.

While the deal will fundamentally change the nature and dynamics of the region and involve Iran more fully in Middle East issues, the country’s influence will remain limited by political, geostrategic, historical, religious and economic factors.

Saudi Arabia would be well-advised to abandon its rigidity and exaggeration of the Iranian threat and focus its efforts instead on a regional perspective that promotes engagement, peaceful coexistence, and cooperation between Iran and the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the Iranian deal that strips Iran of its capability to produce nuclear weapons is not shared by the rest of the Arabs, including many of its GCC allies who have publicly welcomed the agreement.

There is a lot going on behind the scenes between Iran and the GCC countries. Oman, a member of the organisation, was even a key mediator in the deal. With some $11.5 billion in non-oil exports, the UAE, another GCC member, is one of Iran’s top trading partners.

The Arab League praised the deal as historic and described it as “a first step towards ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.” Egypt also expressed its hope that the deal “will eventually be a step forward to the ultimate goal of a Middle East free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.”

Both the Arab League and Egypt were referring to Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which the Arabs have always considered to be their biggest security threat.

In the light of all this, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers could be an opportunity for the Arabs to address other regional challenges, including settling the long-running rivalry with Iran.

One lesson Saudi Arabia could learn from the deal is that the deal itself and subtle diplomacy and compromise can bridge huge gaps and resolve lingering and complex issues.

There are numerous proposals and ideas in the deal which could be used as the basis to end outstanding disputes between the Arabs and Iran. The experience provides countless successful examples of how to resolve regional conflicts peacefully.

On the broader regional front, cooperation forums could be a good way of starting to build mutual trust for more solid political and security arrangements.

Regarding individual conflicts, in order to confront Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, solutions must be found based on non-interference, national reconciliation and consensus instead of proxy wars or direct military intervention.

This article appeared first on Al Ahram Weekly on July 23, 2015

Kurdish dreams in peril

Kurdish dreams in peril

 Iraqi Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani’s ambitions to stay in power are proving costly for the Iraqi Kurds, writes Salah Nasrawi

 Last month the embattled president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani set 20 August as the date for a direct national ballot to elect the Region’s president, only one day before his tenure comes to an end.

The decree was Barzani’s latest move on Kurdistan’s complicated political chessboard to outmanoeuvre opponents of his endeavour to win a new term in office despite restrictions by the Region’s draft constitution.

The main Kurdish political parties immediately rebuffed Barzani’s move as unconstitutional and insisted on a vote by members of the Kurdistan parliament in line with the Region’s legislation. 

The Independent Election Commission, the constitutional organ entitled to arrange and supervise balloting, also snubbed Barzani’s decision to hold the election without its approval.

Negotiations to end the dispute have thus far been deadlocked, raising speculation about how the incumbent president will act in order to avoid a governmental crisis in the autonomous Region that is already embroiled in a conflict with the Iraqi capital Baghdad and a fight with the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

At the centre of the controversy is Barzani’s desire to remain president despite legal and constitutional limits. The opposition argues that Barzani should leave office when his term ends on 19 August in order to pave the way for the parliament to choose a new president.

The row, touching the core of the Kurdistan Region’s fragile political system, has put its nascent democracy to its biggest test yet. If it is left unsolved, it will have dramatic repercussions on the Region’s stability and the political future of the Iraqi Kurds.

At the heart of crisis lies the failure of the Kurdish movement in Iraq to build a genuine union after it carved out self-rule status following the defeat of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War and his withdrawal from the Kurdish-populated north of Iraq.

Together, the two main political groups, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by veteran nationalist Jalal Talabani, formed an administration to run Iraqi Kurdistan.

But what had been envisaged as a consensual democracy has been replaced in effect by a deeply incoherent system of power-sharing between the Region’s two main political groups, which have effectively turned Kurdistan into a shared autocracy.

In May 1992 the Iraqi Kurds held their first election to choose representatives for a legislative council. The aim was to form an administration to provide public services and to meet the basic needs of the population after Saddam’s retreat.

Having failed to achieve a majority in the Kurdistan National Assembly and form a government, the KDP and the PUK agreed to share power by dividing the seats in the government equally among themselves.

But instead of strengthening the emerging semi-autonomous Region, the process, which became known as a 50-50 deal between Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK, started to tear apart.

Gradually, the alliance started to deteriorate as the two parties fought over resources and government revenues and each of them remained entrenched in territories under its control, refusing to integrate into the union.

By 1996, the KDP, supported by Saddam’s republican guard, stormed Erbil, the Kurdish capital which was under PUK control, and claimed jurisdiction over the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan. Hundreds of their members were killed in fighting over territory and political clout.

While Barzani maintained his Party’s grip on most of Iraqi Kurdistan, PUK forces remained concentrated around the town of Sulaymaniya close to the Iranian border.

It was only after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled the Saddam regime that the KDP-PUL coalition imposed its control over the new administration in Kurdistan, which was declared a federal region by Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution.

Nevertheless, the power-sharing system soon proved to be dysfunctional. There are multiple reasons behind the agreement’s failure, including the traditional competition over power and resources and the heavy-handed rule both parties have imposed on the Region.

The underlining reason, however, was the rise of Gorran, or the Change Movement, in 2009 on a platform of political reform and combating corruption.

In the 2013 election, the group, whose leaders had split from the PUK, won the second largest number of seats in the parliament, altering the political landscape in the Region.

At the top of Gorran’s demands was to change the political system into a parliamentary one in which the prime minister would become the head of the government and the role of the president would be ceremonial.

Gorran soon succeeded in pushing for a draft constitution for the Region that curtails presidential powers and an election law that imposes a two-term limit for presidential tenure in office.

Barzani, 69, has led the KDP since the death of his eldest brother Idris in 1987. Idris succeeded their father, the nationalist Kurdish leader Moustafa Barzani, as commander of the Peshmerga forces in the guerrilla war against Baghdad.

Barzani was elected by the parliament as president of the Kurdistan Region for a four-year term in 2005. In 2009, he was re-elected by the general public according to a law passed by his Party’s majority in the parliament. The opposition have since contested the law, which they say violates Kurdistan’s draft constitution.

Under his rule, the government turned into a presidential system. The president is the head of the Kurdistan Region and wields huge powers, including commander of the military and security forces. The prime minister, who is appointed by parliament, runs many of the day-to-day duties of the cabinet.

Barzani’s last term in office, due to end in July 2013, was extended by two years by the Kurdish parliament on the grounds that the Region was not ready to elect a new president.

Growing speculation suggests that Barzani plans to stay president for life, and he has been promoting his eldest son, Masrour Barzani, as his successor. Masrour, who leads the intelligence service, already wields enormous power. His nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is the KDP’s deputy chairman and the Region’s prime minister.

Other members of the Barzani family have also been dominant in the Region’s politics and economy.

Talabani, who served two terms as Iraq’s president after the US-led invasion in 2003 before falling sick, is also reportedly priming his 37-year-old son Qubad Talabani to take the reins.

Qubad was named a deputy prime minister in the government formed after the 2013 election. Talabani’s other son Bafel runs the Party’s intelligence department while other family members run a number of Party-affiliated organisations and businesses.

Barzani’s attempt to stay in power now seems beyond serious doubt. Everything he has done in recent weeks in relation to the presidential election crisis appears designed to buy time in order to outmanoeuvre the opposition groups into accepting his re-running for the post.

In the past, Barzani succeeded in stifling dissent either by buying off opponents or by playing for high stakes, knowing that the opposition groups were too weak to stop him from pursuing another term in office despite his long stay in power.

Barzani has been trying to settle the dispute outside the parliament in order to avoid public embarrassment. Last week, he called on the political parties to resolve the issue through “consensus,” warning the opposition that failure would “make the political and legal dispute more complicated.”

On 23 June, KDP members walked out of a parliamentary session held to discuss a bill that limited his powers. The Party’s spokesmen later accused the speaker of the parliament, Youssif Mohamed who is from Gorran faction, of inviting an Iranian diplomat to the crucial session. KDP officials have alluded to Iran’s support for the opposition in attempts to dislodge Barzani.

There is a profound sense of anxiety that the crisis of Kurdistan’s presidential election is now pushing the Region into stormy political waters.

With further escalation of the tension in the already politically fragile Middle East, there are concerns that without a peaceful resolution of the crisis Kurdistan will enter a new and unprecedented phase of uncertainty.

In a last-ditch bid to defuse the crisis Barzani sent his nephew and the Region’s prime minister Nechirvan Barzani to meet PUK and Gorran leaders to negotiate a two-year extension to his term in office.

Kurdistan has been struggling with conflicts that have led the Region to the brink of an exit from Iraq and all-out war with IS. As the expiration of Barzani’s tenure fast approaches, both sides may feel the need to stop the posturing and focus on salvaging the situation.

Yet, a sustainable solution to the Kurdistan government crisis seems in doubt unless there is a lasting deal on the political reforms demanded by the opposition.

For a traditional leader who has been using populism for political expediency, accepting a constitution and an election law that put limits on both his powers and his terms in office seems far-fetched.

For the opposition, a parliamentary political system that gives them a real voice is the only means to end the monopoly of power and wealth by Barzani’s KDP. If the opposition makes concessions on its demands, it will be discredited and weakened.




Terror in the Gulf

Terror in the Gulf

Last week’s grisly terror attack on a Shia mosque in Kuwait has sent shivers through the already wary Gulf states, writes Salah Nasrawi

Last Friday three attacks took place almost simultaneously in France, Kuwait and Tunisia killing and wounding dozens of people. The attacks on a factory, a mosque and a beach across the three continents and the killing of dozens of people constitute a grim reminder of the setbacks in the world’s war on terror.

While the barbaric assaults signal that the threat of terrorism remains very real worldwide, efforts on both national and international levels to prevent terror attacks and to fight the deep causes of terrorism remain largely ineffective.

In France, a man was beheaded in an attack on an American-owned industrial gas factory, and in Tunisia a lone gunman killed at least 37 people on a tourist beach. In Kuwait, an explosion struck a Shia Muslim mosque during Friday prayer in Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam.

In all three cases, the attacks are a clear warning that the world is not yet safe, and despite efforts to fight terrorism it still clearly poses a great danger. They also show that terror groups are expanding in their efforts to recruit fighters, taking advantage of the world’s failure to tackle the underlying causes of terrorism and in particular of radicalisation.

The bombing in Kuwait that killed at least 27 people and was claimed by an Islamic State (IS) terror group affiliate provides a clear example of how both the Kuwaiti authorities and the general public have failed to notice extremists working under their noses, failing to thwart their plots.

It is another example of how a stable and affluent nation known for its moderate politics, religious diversity, and vibrant civil society is being plagued by sectarian tensions fuelled by increasing radicalism.

The attack is a huge blow for Kuwait and its government. The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, acknowledged that the attack was an attempt to threaten national unity. Many politicians and religious leaders condemned the bombing as a terrorist threat that aimed to tear apart Kuwait’s national unity.

Kuwait is often heralded as an Arabian Gulf success story. Amid the authoritarian regimes in the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the oil-rich emirate has seemed laudably peaceful. It boasts a constitution, free and fair elections of a parliament, and a vibrant media.

Kuwait is also the closest thing to a success story among the countries in the region that have tried to achieve harmony between a predominately Sunni majority and Shia minority.

As its giant northern neighbour Iraq battles IS terrorists and plunges into intercommunal civil war, the Kuwaiti government has managed to keep sectarian tensions to a minimum.

Yet, as Friday’s bombing of the Shia mosque has showed Kuwait is not immune to the violence afflicting much of the Arab world.

The chilling pictures of the massacre are an indication of how Kuwait has badly bungled its response in anticipating the danger as IS extends its influence across the region and forges connections with other terrorist groups, prompting attacks in the neighbourhood.

The Kuwait suicide bombing did not come out of the blue. Some on-the-ground evidence suggests that Kuwait has been at risk of spawning terrorism and that a terrorist strike was only a matter of time.

In June last year, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior instructed its forces at border crossings to remain on high alert for fear of possible attacks by militants from IS.

In spite of the government’s commitment to making the country safe, concerns about security in Kuwait have increased in recent months as neighbouring Iraq has become increasingly unstable.

Kuwaitis have been divided about the war against IS, with many Shia siding with their co-religionists in Iraq and many Sunnis lambasting the Shia-led government in Baghdad for alleged abuses by Shia militias against Iraqi Sunnis in the war to recapture areas seized by the terror group.

Following the attack on the mosque last Friday, postings on social media networks carried photographs of vehicles delivering aid sent by Kuwaiti Shia businessmen to Shia militias in Iraq with the headlines claiming that the convoys triggered the bombing of the mosque.

The campaign by a Saudi-led coalition that includes Kuwait against Shia Houthis in Yemen that has polarised the region along sectarian lines has also left its impact on Kuwaitis. While Sunnis cheered the Saudi strikes, Shia in Kuwait denounced their country’s participation in them.

In May, a brawl erupted in the Kuwaiti parliament when hard-line Sunni Salafi lawmakers attacked a Shia member who had tabled a motion to question the government about Kuwait’s participation in the war in Yemen.

Critics have blamed the Kuwaiti authorities for turning a blind eye to radicalism by mosques and clerics who preach anti-Shia rhetoric. Shia are a major component of Kuwait, but many in the country’s Sunni elite deride them as Iran’s stooges.

The social networks are rife with postings by Kuwaitis that accuse Shia of being “disbelievers,” describing their mosques as “temples.”

The Kuwaiti-owned TV channel Wisal is among many outlets in the Gulf that broadcast anti-Shia programmes. The government shut down Wisal’s offices after the bombing of the mosque.

Support for the radicals goes far beyond rhetoric, however. Kuwaiti extremists are believed to be flocking to IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria undetected. According to a CIA report update in January, among the thousands of foreign fighters with IS, Kuwaiti jihadists rank per capita among the top recruits.

In addition, rich Sunni Kuwaitis are believed to be among the top donors to extremist groups, including IS militants.

According to many analysts, the Kuwaiti authorities, like many other governments in the region, have failed to think strategically in dealing with the hard-line groups and preachers who are believed to be feeding terrorism with their extreme ideology.

The disclosure that the bomber in Kuwait was a Saudi terrorist does not make it easier for the Kuwaiti authorities to relieve themselves from their responsibilities. The bombing by a Saudi national only demonstrates how complex networks of extremists can now easily cut across even allied nations and work together to achieve their goals.

The IS admission in an audio statement released on Monday that it was behind the bombing of the Shia mosque in Kuwait and its threats to attacks more Shia will also exacerbate fears of a well-coordinated strategy by jihadist networks in the region to work closely together to target the Gulf countries.

The bombing of the Shia mosque was the third attack in five weeks to be claimed by the Najd Wilaya (Najd Province), which is the Saudi affiliate of IS. The group, named after one of the old names of Saudi Arabia, had claimed two prior attacks on Shia mosques in the kingdom that killed 26 people in late May.

The IS strategy of targeting Shia mosques seems to be aiming at sowing sectarian divisions in already sharply polarised societies where Shia-Sunni friction is not uncommon.

IS militants regard Shia as heretics, and in Monday’s audio statement the bomber, identified by Saudi and Kuwaiti authorities as Fahad Suleiman Abdel-Mohsen Al-Qabaa, vowed more attacks on Shia in the Gulf.

The Kuwait bombing, like attacks in Saudi Arabia, is now raising worries in the Gulf. Reports that several Gulf nations have put their security levels on high alert are based on increasing feelings of common threats.

A well-known extremist in Bahrain has warned that Shia mosques in the tiny Gulf kingdom will be the militants’ next targets.

In an Internet posting, the fugitive Bahraini radical Turki bin Al-Ali said IS would bomb a Shia mosque on Friday 3 July, a threat which has triggered calls by Shia in Bahrain to form self-defence committees to protect Shia mosques against violence.

Authorities across the Gulf have tightened security and promised more safety measures to guard Shia mosques against terror attacks. Yet, there are increasing fears that radicalism, religious polarisation and rising sectarianism will continue to breed violence.

While the police or vigilantes can provide physical security, worshipping inside heavily guarded mosques is not the same as openly exercising one’s religious identity.

What the Gulf nations need to do is to deal with the roots of the problem of terrorism by depriving terrorists of a “supportive environment” and the means which provide them with their lifeblood.

Ultimately, the governments of the Gulf nations, where Shia constitute large communities, should make more efforts to ease sectarian tensions which are sapping their energy and dragging them into a deepening regional crisis with Shia Iran.