Tag Archives: peshmerga

Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)
Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)

Aleppo, the most populous city in Syria, has become in August the center stage for one of the most tragic urban battles of the country’s five-and-a-half year civil war.freesyria Syria Flag Icon

The first battle of Aleppo that began in July 2012 and lasted for months, brought some of the worst of the earliest fighting to an industrial and cultural capital home to some 2.5 million Syrians before the war.

By early 2013, after thousands of deaths and widespread urban destruction (including parts of Aleppo’s old city and the Great Mosque of Aleppo), a stalemate developed between the eastern half, controlled by various Sunni rebel groups and the western half, controlled by the Syrian army that supports president Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, rebel forces — including the hardline militia formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — broke through to Ramouseh, a key sector in the southwest of the city. Among other things, Ramouseh is home to some of the most important bases in the area for the Syrian army. More importantly, the rebel offensive hoped to open and secure a corridor between the besieged eastern half of Aleppo to other rebel-controlled areas to the south of Aleppo that could provide a pathway to food, water, power and other supplies to the rebel-controlled portions of Aleppo.

As of last week, the rebels had the upper hand after pushing into Ramouseh. Over the weekend, however, the Syrian army reclaimed some of its territory and effectively halted the rebel advance with punishing support from the Russian military.

(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)
(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)

Meanwhile, civilians across Aleppo (in both the government- and rebel-controlled areas) face a growing risk of a humanitarian crisis, lacking access to basic necessities like electric power, food and water in fierce summertime conditions. Intriguingly, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu also claimed over the weekend that Russian and U.S. forces were close to taking ‘joint action’ on Aleppo. It’s odd because Russian president Vladimir Putin firmly backs Assad, while US officials have expressed the view that Assad’s departure alone can bring about a lasting end to the civil war. One possibility is a pause in hostilities to allow aid workers to provide food, water and medical care to civilians caught in what has become one of the deadliest battles in the Syrian civil war to date.

As the battle for Aleppo dominates headlines about Syria’s war, it is quickly becoming a symbolic fight for Syria’s future. Continue reading Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

The aftermath of an American strike in Syria's Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)
The aftermath of an American strike in Syria’s Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)

Call it the ‘coalition of the frenemies.’Syria Flag Icon

With British prime minister David Cameron’s victory in the House of Commons last week, fully four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus NATO member Turkey and several regional allies, will now be engaged in the fight against ISIS (ISIL/Islamic State/Daesh) in eastern Syria. Following last week’s fatal shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two jihadist sympathizers, US president Barack Obama reassured the United States in a rare Sunday night prime-time address that his administration will continue its intensified airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria, increasingly targeting the oil tankers controlled by ISIS that fund its jihadist mission.

Cameron’s team, including foreign minister Philip Hammond, argued that a force of 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian forces would be willing and ready to take on the ISIS threat in the event of a coordinated allied campaign to deploy sustained airstrikes against ISIS, both reducing the terrorist threat to Europeans at home and establishing the conditions for peace abroad (and the Obama administration has more or less echoed this sentiment). That seems optimistic, however, given that ‘radical’ rebels, like ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra quickly overpowered ‘moderate’ rebels like the Free Syrian Army throughout 2012 and 2013.

In reality, there’s no bright line among anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria. Although Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, 75% of Syria’s pre-war population was Sunni, which means there’s a lot of room for variation. Nevertheless, after more than a year of U.S. airstrikes, moderate Syrians (whether 70,000 or 7,000) and Kurdish peshmerga forces have not effectively dislodged ISIS, particularly outside traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria.

Though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is still boosting peace talks in Vienna in early 2016, neither the Assad government nor the anti-Assad rebels have indicated they will join those talks. What’s more, it’s not even clear who would ‘represent’ the anti-Assad rebels, who are fighting as much against each other as they are against Assad.

Even as countries from four continents are running air campaigns in Syria, they are acting in far from a coordinated manner. Tensions are already rising after Turkey downed a Russian military jet late last month, despite repeated warnings that the jet was infringing Russian airspace. Imagine how tense the situation could become if a Russian jet attacks an American one in the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. None of the actors, including Russia or the United States, has any clear strategic plan for an endgame in Syria. Russia still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Assad rules a united postwar Syria, and the United States still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Sunni and Shiite factions can work together to govern Syria — or even Iraq, for that matter.

The descent of the world’s major powers upon Syria was accelerating even before jihadist terrorists left 130 innocent civilians dead in Paris, and the manner in which Syria has now become a proxy war for so many other regional and global actors is starting to resemble the domino trail of alliances and diplomatic errors that began World War I.  It’s irresponsible to argue that the world is plunging into World War III, but the escalations in Syria reflects the same kind of destructive slippery slope that began with the assassination of the heir of a fading empire by a nationalist in what was then a provincial backwater. Continue reading ‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

Kurdish opportunity rises as US airstrikes hit Syria

mayfieldPhoto credit to Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

Guest post by Christopher Skutnik

Most of the public blowback within the US policy debate over Syria’s civil war revolves around who, among the confusing mishmash of anti-Assad rebels, Western governments might possibly aid in the conflict.  USflagSyria Flag Iconkurdistan

Even as the body count climbed and the war crimes mounted, much of the West declared a policy of non-interference. The inability to find a suitable Western-friendly champion is key among the factors that have most restrained the foreign response to Syria, even as US president Barack Obama yesterday ordered the first airstrikes against Islamic State group (الدولة الإسلامية‎) after six weeks of strikes meant to subdue them in northern Iraq.

In 2011, the US Congress introduced a bill placing sanctions on actors committing human rights abuses in Syria, and which simultaneously and explicitly prevented US president Barack Obama from declaring war or otherwise using force against the Syrian regime. Later in 2012, Congress introduced another bill that began exploring ways to ‘…deny or significantly degrade the ability of [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad…to use air power against civilians and opposition groups in Syria….’

Like the one before it, this bill also maintained that ‘the United States ground troops [shall] not be deployed onto Syrian territory.’

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RELATED: Five thoughts on Obama’s ISIS announcement

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The United States was not alone in its reticence. In August 2013, the United Kingdom’s parliament famously voted 285 to 272 against prime minister David Cameron’s push for a British role in any potential American military action against Syria.

This proved to be a ‘two-fer.’ Not only were the British now going to stay out of Syria, but without the legitimacy of multilateralism, Obama was forced to withdraw to the principles that got him elected five years earlier. Aimed at a different war in a different country, Obama famously argued that the US war and occupation in Iraq that began in 2003 was ‘ill-considered’ and ‘unnecessary,’ and was steadfastly preempting political opponents of a possible response to Syria by proclaiming a ‘no boots on the ground’ policy. 

In doing so, the leader of the strongest liberal democracy in the world was leaving the victims of sarin gas attacks; the moderate, if nebulous, Free Syrian Army (FSA, الجيش السوري الحر‎); and the innocents on the periphery stuck between a vice grip of growing religious extremism and a government prone to attacking villages with helicopter gunships.

Fast forward to 2014.
Continue reading Kurdish opportunity rises as US airstrikes hit Syria

Five thoughts on Obama’s ISIS announcement


So much for US president Barack Obama’s statement last week* that the United States doesn’t have a strategy to combat the Islamic State group (الدولة الإسلامية‎) in Syria, which has taken control of eastern Syria and, more alarmingly, large parts of northern and western Iraq.USflag

In a stunning address for a president whose 2008 election owed greatly to his stand against the US war, Obama announced that he would lead a broad coalition to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ Islamic State, and it will include airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria and the deployment of 425 more ‘military advisers’ to Iraq.

Obama compared the new US military action against Islamic State in the same category as the Obama administration’s targeted efforts in Yemen and Somalia and against al-Qaeda. Furthermore, he warned that the operations would not involve combat troops or significant ground forces. In that sense, it’s true that Obama’s latest mission against Islamic State is more like its previous efforts against Islamic radicals elsewhere and less like the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But that’s not the whole story. As the Obama administration’s efforts continue to unfold, here are five points worth keeping in mind that explain why the United States is entering arguably its fourth war (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) in the Middle East since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, what’s at stake going forward, and what the future might hold for the United States and the region.  Continue reading Five thoughts on Obama’s ISIS announcement

Meet Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s likely next prime minister


With his appointment by Iraq’s new president Fouad Massoum, Haider al-Abadi (حيدر العبادي‎) is almost certain to become Iraq’s next prime minister — even as two-term prime minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to attempt to stop Abadi’s selection by any means possible. iraq flag icon

So who is Abadi? And what does his selection mean for Iraq’s political future?

Like many leading figures in the Shiite opposition movement, Abadi spent much of the Saddam Hussein era in exile, in his case in London. In 2003, like so many other exiles, returned to Iraq when the US military eliminated Saddam’s Baathist regime.

From the outset, Abadi took a leading role in Iraq’s new government. An electronic engineer, Abadi served as communications minister in the Iraqi Governing Council that reigned between September 2003 and June 2003. Most recently, Abadi was elected deputy speaker of Iraq’s parliament last month in what’s been a four-month process to elect new national leaders, following the country’s April parliamentary elections.

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RELATED: Latest Iraqi parliamentary steps
indicate Maliki’s replacement

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Abadi’s appointment has the support of a majority of the Shiite bloc that Maliki once led, the State of Law Coalition (SLC, إئتلاف دولة القانون), and Abadi himself is a member of Maliki’s party, Islamic Dawa (حزب الدعوة الإسلامية‎), the leading force in the SLC. Up until his appointment replacing Maliki, Abadi was as a key Maliki ally, for example, siding with Maliki against Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a former prime minister and former Dawa leader who was kicked out the party in  2008 when he moved to establish a competing group.  Continue reading Meet Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s likely next prime minister

Amid Iraqi turmoil, Kurdistan settles new regional government


The conventional wisdom is that with the growing crisis in the rest of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan has never been better.iraq flag iconkurdistan

‘Better’ is a relative term, of course.

But for a region that also features severe corruption, intense political rivalries, a bloated and unaffordable public sector and fiscal dependence (for now, at least) on Baghdad, Iraqi Kurds have reason for optimism.

With Kurdish peshmerga forces in full control of Kirkuk, the Kurdish regional government can now lay claim to the entire historical region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, notorious for his crackdown against Kurdish identity and nationalism, encouraged Arabs to relocate to what Kurds (and Turkmen) consider their cultural capital.

Under Article 140 of Iraq’s newly promulgated 2005 constitution,  the national government is obligated to take certain steps to reverse the Saddam-era Arabization process and thereupon, permit a referendum to determine whether Kirkuk province’s residents wish to join the Kurdistan autonomous region. Like in many areas, from energy to electricity to education to employment, Iraq’s national government has made little progress on the Kirkuk issue. Kurdish leaders now say they will hold onto Kirkuk and its oil fields until a referendum can be arranged. Realistically, there’s little that Baghdad can do to reverse Kurdish gains.

That, in time, will give Iraqi Kurdistan the oil revenues that it needs for a self-sustaining economy, in tandem with growing Turkish economic ties that crested last year with the completion of a pipeline between Kurdistan and Turkey that allows the Kurdish regional government to ship crude oil out of Iraq without Baghdad’s approval.

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RELATED: Don’t blame Obama for Iraq’s turmoil — blame Maliki

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In that regard, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-’Irāq wa-sh-Shām‎), which now controls much of northern and northeastern Iraq, including much of al-Anbar province and northern cities like Mosul and Tikrit, has been a boon for the cause of Kurdish nationalism.

ISIS, which has newly re-christened itself simply the ‘Islamic State’ (الدولة الإسلامية‎), has declared a 21st century caliphate over the territory it holds in Iraq and in eastern Syria, with ambitious, if unrealistic, designs on Baghdad and parts of Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia:


Sentiment is so heady these days that the Kurdish regional president, Massoud Barzani (pictured above), despite the hand-wringing of US and Turkish officials, has called for a referendum on Kurdish independence — in months, not years:

We will guard and defend all areas of the Kurdish region – Kurd, Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian, Chaldean, all will be protected. We will endeavor to redevelop and systematize all regions of Kurdistan. We will use our oil revenue to create better and more comfortable living conditions for our citizens. And until the achievement of an Independent Kurdish State, we will cooperate with all to try to find solutions to the current crisis in Iraq. With all our might, we will help our Shia and Sunni brothers in the fight against terrorism and for the betterment of conditions in Iraq – although this is not an easy task.

Amid that backdrop, the various political parties formed a new Kurdish regional government last week, two months after Iraqi national parliamentary elections in Iraq and fully nine months after Kurdish regional elections.

As the United States leans on the Iraqi parliament to form a new government quickly, in order to combat more effectively the ISIS threat in Sunni-dominated Iraq, the Kurdish example is instructive. If it took nine months to reconstitute the Kurdish regional government, is it plausible to expect Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to form a national government, under crisis conditions, in just two months?

Even under calmer conditions in 2010, it took Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki nine months of coalition talks to build Iraq’s previous government. Though Maliki’s Shiite-dominated State of Law Coalition (إئتلاف دولة القانون) won the greatest number of seats after the April parliamentary elections, many Iraqis fault his heavy-handed style for the sectarian crisis in which Iraq now finds itself.

In the first meeting of Iraq’s 325-member Council of Representatives (مجلس النواب العراقي‎) last week, Sunnis and Kurds alike walked out on Maliki, and there’s not much hope that a second session on Tuesday will result in additional progress.

Continue reading Amid Iraqi turmoil, Kurdistan settles new regional government

Don’t blame Obama for Iraq turmoil — blame Maliki


A week ago, the biggest story in Iraq was the prospect of seemingly endless post-election coalition talks among Iraq’s secular political elite, negotiations that seemed destined to restore Nouri al-Maliki to the premiership for a third consecutive term.iraq flag icon

But the sweeping offensive last week by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-’Irāq wa-sh-Shām‎), which burst out of Iraq’s western al-Anbar province, has now overshadowed Iraq’s April elections, bringing into serious existential question the concept of Iraqi nationhood altogether. ISIS previously took control of Fallujah and Ramadi in January, where it joined forced with Sunni tribal leaders and others angry with Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule. But with a force of just 700 insurgents, ISIS easily took Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, last week. It followed up by taking Tikrit, another Sunni-majority northern city and the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein. ISIS also briefly took control of oil refining center of Baiji, though government forces have now wrested control back. That leaves much of western and, now, northwestern Iraq, in the hands of ISIS and allied Sunni militias.

Sensing an opportunity, the Kurdish peshmerga quickly moved into Kirkuk, another oil-rich town historically claimed by Iraqi Kurdistan as its capital but controversially left outside of the formal borders of the Kurdish autonomous region in post-Saddam Iraq. Though it’s an embarrassment for the Maliki government to have ‘lost’ Kirkuk to the Kurds, it’s the least of his worries. Kirkuk is probably much better off under Kurdish control than under what ISIS hopes will become a jihadist caliphate that extends from northern and western Iraq through eastern Syria. It’s difficult to believe that the central Iraqi government will have enough power anytime soon to force the Kurds to relinquish Kirkuk (or its rich oil reserves).

The end result is something of an asymmetrical tripartite Iraq.  Continue reading Don’t blame Obama for Iraq turmoil — blame Maliki