by Walter Posch, SWP Berlin
The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq is widely understood as a threat to the whole region and the entire international community. It is with this insight that the US has decided on airstrikes, and convinced some of their local allies to contribute militarily. According to international and Iranian media reports, US and Iranian interlocutors have even held talks about the common threat, without, of course, coming to any tangible conclusion, let alone cooperation. At the time of the UN General Assembly, Americans and Iranians were back to where they had been before: agreeing to disagree on regional policy.
Hence, action to subdue IS on the ground seems to be limited to airstrikes, financial sanctions, the build-up of a new volunteer army, and military support for the Kurds, which is better for the Kurdish forces of the KRG, and of course the Iraqi government. Even for the most illiterate in military matters, this seems to be a modest, albeit expensive contribution to fight an organization that excels militarily, seems unstoppable, has displayed a range of savagery, including the enslavement of women and children of the Ezidi Kurds, plays the Western media skillfully and – just to top it – recruits in Europe and is building up a terror infrastructure in the West. Thus arises the question: what to do next? And therein, as the bard would tell you, lies the rub.
The issue is as much about vision and ideas about the region as it is about strategy and/or military planning. Apparently, all actors on the ground know what they want, why they want it, and how they envision shaping their region. Iran wants to keep Asad in power, strengthen its grip on Iraq, check the
Saudis, and prevent Kurdish independence. Turkey focuses on the PKK and wants to see Asad go. Saudi Arabia wants Iran’s influence checked and, like Turkey, wants to see Asad gone. Asad wants to stay, and dubs resistance against him Islamist, tacitly hoping the West will bomb the Islamists away. All players have followed up on their intentions quite consistently. If they can avoid it, none of them would like to deploy painful and expensive military means. Instead, their disagreements are fought out by proxies. This is not the case with the West. True, there is some idea about preferring stable nation states with more or less democratic and pro-Western regimes to emerge. Given the fact that such a benign scenario will most likely not emerge, the West should take a combination of restringing measures in order to contain and on a later point to destroy IS, combined with a long term commitment of support for newly emerging players. Because one thing is clear neither the EU nor the US or the G7 have enough manpower – let alone political will – to stop IS by force. These measures can be summarized as follows:
- Regard the fight against IS as three fights, depending on the “theater” of war: the fight against the international jihadists, the fight in Syria and the fight in Iraq
- Realize that regional powers have framed their strategic competition in religious terms, which means the West is unable to propose a counter-narrative, which would be a precondition as a starting point for any peace process; hence the confrontation will last for long, perhaps longer than a generation;
- Muster support of the few remaining militarily capable and secular and/or pro-Western organizations, even if they are aligned to banned organizations such as the PKK
- Help facilitating Turkish-Northern Syrian/Kurdish relations
- Realize the entrenched Asad regime is of no real value in the fight against IS
- Support a thorough security sector reform in the Iraqi KRG region and underpin it with a long term commitment
- Realize that Western and Iranian interests align in Iraq but diverge over Syria
- Continue cooperation with Saudi and other moderate Arabs and Turkey over Syria
- Ponder limited military cooperation with Iran against IS in Iraq, coordinated via the Iraqi government
The end of the “strongmen era”
Perhaps it helps to start with stating some obvious facts, such as the end of stable dictatorships, the rise and radicalization of political Islam, regional strategic competition expressed in sectarian hatred, and the Kurdish question.
Although slightly embarrassing, dealing with stable dictators or strongmen was the only way for Western elites to engage with the Middle East, and maybe it was even the preferred one. The “stable dictators” ruled their countries with a mix of nationalist Arab and – more or less – secular ideologies, plus the hard fist of the security apparatus, which was often manned and staffed by relatives, party cronies or related tribes. It is a moot point to muse about whether the “stable dictatorships” were already a model of the past when the shah fell in 1979, or whether one should take 1992, the year of the Basra intifadha against Saddam Hussein or any other date, as its endpoint. The fact is that what replaces the dictator is not liberal democracy, but some form of political Islam.
In general, followers of political Islam are anti-Western and anti-imperialist by inclination. For them as for their nationalist forerunners the Palestine plays a central role in their political thinking, they differ however on their religious as opposed to nationalist interpretation of the “Palestinian cause”. But it is the economic and moral bankruptcy of the secular elites that brings them to power: political Islam is populist too, promising work to the working class and economic liberalization to entrepreneurs. The social differences are dissolved with public morality, hence the importance of issues like the headscarf.
Politicians and scholars in the West, especially those from Europe, have long searched for organizations and parties who would combine political Islam with democracy. But political
circumstances in the region are not conducive to the work of democratic parties, Islamist or not. And even in Turkey, circumstances more tolerant of the ruling Islamic-conservative AKP bewildered many of its former friends and benign transatlantic supporters with outlandish remarks and occasional disrespect for democratic rules and procedures.
The sectarian divide
The rise of political Islam with or without only minor democratic values would have been less problematic, if it wasn’t combined with sectarian hatred. This too is a result of several factors. History and middle-class bigotry is the base for it, but Saudi-Iranian competition is one of its main triggers. Both countries used to wind up or scale down the sectarian factor for tactical purposes. However, Arab nationalism neutralized sectarianism to a certain degree, because it was a challenge to both Tehran and Riyadh. With the end of Saddam’s Iraq and the US’ reframing of the Iraqi society in sectarian terms – some scholars went so far as to describe three ethnic (!) groups in Iraq: Sunni, Shii and Kurds – Pan-Arabism was kicked out of the political arena and driven underground. Given circumstances in Iraq over the last decade, it had to undergo a marriage with radical Sunni Islam, as we can observe with the Islamic State (IS), which integrated many Baathist nationalists. Of course to publicly reject Iraq as an Arab country because it has a Shiite Arab majority had to drive the Arab Shiites throughout the region into Iran’s arms, regardless of whether they follow Khamenei as Supreme Leader or not, notwithstanding the big cultural differences between the Arab and Iranian Shiites.
As the simplistic equation Shii=Persian and Sunni=Arab does not allow for any differentiation, it allows the hawks in Tehran and Riyadh to continue their confrontation from Baghdad to Damascus. Obviously, they are trying to avoid a spillover into Lebanon, where Iran has already taken deadly blows like a bomb attack on its embassy.1 In general, the situation is a bloody draw: the Iranians had to mobilize all of their reserves to support its one and only ally, the embattled pan-Arab, Baathist and secular dictatorship of Bashir Asad. Tehran admits the presence of military and intelligence advisors and a certain amount of volunteers from the wider Shiite communities in the region. However, its biggest asset is the Lebanese Hezbollah. The political price for the Syrian theater is already high, because it led to Hezbollah’s political isolation in Lebanon and destroyed their reputation in the Arab world that they gained in 2006 after the 33-day war. A different situation prevailed in Iraq. The Iranians had been aware of the reconfiguration of radical Sunni-Arab and Baathist forces at least from 2012 onwards. What is unclear is whether they were aware of the weakness of the Iraqi army. In any case, towards the end of 2013, they reactivated their creation from the long Iran-Iraq war: the Badr Brigade.
The Badr Brigade
Badr consisted of Shiite Iraqi volunteers who were sympathetic to Ayatollahs Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim and Muhammad Baqer al-Sadr. They were organized as an infantry brigade under the command of Iran’s “Corps of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”. After the end of the war, Badr was further “Iraqized” when Hadi Ameri assumed command in 1992. It was he who led Badr to Iraq in 2003, where they fought some skirmishes with Saddam’s troops, and it was he who made his Brigade “vanish” before it could be forcefully disbanded by the US Viceroy Paul Bremer. Meanwhile Ameri held some government positions at ministerial levels, such as transport minister, and members of Badr became integrated into the Iraqi administration, some of whom were able to take over positions in the security apparatus, certainly against the will of the US. Reactivating Badr was a meaningful step on behalf of the Iranians, and it was not undertaken without Iraqi consent. Badr will not only be a Shiite militia, but enjoys a special status, as it signed an agreement with the Iraqi army. Not much is known about the contents of this agreement; most likely it contains issues like recruitment and areas of responsibility. What is known is their new base – the former MKO headquarters “Camp Ashraf” near Baghdad.
Tehran’s tempered ambition
It was largely thanks to Badr that the Iraqi government was able, with Iranian help, to push back the advance of IS. For Iran, the main risk was that after Mosul, Erbil might fall, and this radical anti-Shiite force might show up on the borders of the Islamic Republic. As seen from Tehran, preventing IS from entering Baghdad or Erbil and pushing them back from other strategically important and Shiite inhabited areas, such as the Shiite Turkoman village of Amerli, saved the day. The Iranians know they are in no position to retake Mosul for the Iraqi government. In the end, Tehran is content to hold the frontline in Iraq, where it converges with a more or less clear line of delineation between Sunnis and Shiis in Iraq. Beyond that, Iran knows about its own limits, and therefore seems not to have a great appetite to go after IS in Syria. In other words, Iran commits itself to contain IS and does not promise to destroy it, a promise it may find hard to live up to militarily anyway. Tehran prefers to send volunteers, military advisors and intelligence. The better part of the latter belongs to a specialized unit called “niru-ye Qods” commaned by Qasem Soleymani, an Iranian major general who enjoys some celebrity status in the Western press. Apparently, Qods is responsible for coordinating military support between Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish groups. In short, Iraq and Syria have shown the limits of Iran’s capability for projecting its power. Iran is no longer the revolutionary, aggressive, pan-Islamist power it was 30 years ago, but rather it became a concerned Shiite nation state that is careful not to punch too often beyond its weight.
The Kurdish issue
The Kurdish issue goes beyond Iraq, but it helps to better understand the current situation by starting with an analysis of Iranian-Kurdish relations. A multiethnic country on its own, Iran has actively cooperated with Turkey and Iraq for years to prevent an independent Kurdish state from emerging. But at the same time, both imperial Iran and the Islamic Republic have worked with Iraqi Kurdish political groups – namely the Kurdistan Democratic Party/KDP led by the Barzani family and tribe, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, in order to pressure concessions from the Iraqi central government. Depending on political circumstances, Iran supported both Kurdish parties with military advisors and arms from the 1970s until today. In the 1980s and 1990s, Iran took in large numbers of Iraqi Kurdish refugees, among them well-known pro-Western Kurdish politicians like Jelal Talabani, Masud Barzani or Hoshyar Zebari, to name the most prominent ones. Iran was also a tacit party to the Drogheda agreement conducted between Turkey, the US, the UK and the Kurdish parties in Iraq, which ended the inner-Kurdish civil war in the 1990s. And Iran is an important economic partner to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Yet Iran’s help and support for Kurdish groups is far from being altruistic, and does indeed come with strings: in exchange for arms and support, both Kurdish parties were obliged to deny safe haven to Iranian Kurds fighting Tehran.FN As a result, Iran’s domestic Kurdish opposition was successfully emasculated from the 1980s until around 2002.
After the fall of Saddam and the establishment of the KRG in 2003, Tehran and Ankara did not have any reason to be satisfied with the status quo: the Kurdistan Region is a de facto bi-partisan state, where two parties dominate their respective zones of influence. Due to his excellent relations with the West and control over Erbil, Mas’ud Barzani is widely regarded as quasi-president of Kurdistan – i.e. the KRG region plus “contested areas” such as Kirkuk – and insists that Kurdistan has all the attributes of a state, a fact that can be easily rejected when looking at essential issues like its security apparatus. As an example, each party still prefers to keep its party militia under its own command, and does not allow for a unified command under the defense or peshmerga ministry. Only after the fall of Sinjar in August 2014, when the weakness of peshmerga forces was revealed, did public pressure force both parties to address this issue. The reasons for the peshmergas’ failure are still awaiting examination. Dated weaponry may have been a reason, but this cannot explain everything.
TEXT In any case, as “first aid”, European countries have delivered modern anti-tank weapons and started training peshmergas from the KDP.
The fall of Sinjar was crucial not only because it stained the reputation of the peshmerga, especially those who are under the control of Masud Barzani. More important is the fact that another player forcefully entered the scene and was able to cover the flight of the Ezidi population from the advance of the IS: the PKK.
The PKK has undergone an impressive recovery following their military defeat in the 1990s and the capture of their leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. At the beginning of the 2000s, splits in their own ranks, the war weariness of the Kurdish population in Turkey, and the loss of backers like Hafiz Asad’s Syria made the organization look like a spent and isolated force. Öcalan, who remained the ideological and political head of the organization, even in his prison cell, reacted to the new situation with a comprehensive review of the organizational setup and the strategic aims of the organization. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) was renamed or remodeled as KCK (Confederation of Kurdistan Communities), the aim of an independent Kurdish state was officially abandoned and instead, a system called “democratic confederalism”, which encompasses national boundaries, was introduced. In other words, the PKK/KCK prepared the buildup of a parallel administrative-political system, which tolerates but does not share power with other political parties. This is reminiscent of various “people’s fronts” created in the mid-20th century, and a typical form of organization rooted in the far left wing of the political spectrum. The PKK/PYD’s exclusionist policies created tensions with Barzani, who has some followers and a rudimentary party structure in Syria too.
Öcalan was clearly following a double strategy: on one hand he supports the peace process in Turkey – and it took the Turks about a decade to realize there will be no tenable peace without involving Öcalan – and on the other side, he analyzed the consequences of the US led invasion in Iraq for the Kurds: after Saddam’s Iraq, the ayatollahs’ Iran and Baathist Syria may be next. Hence in the years from 2003 onwards, he ordered the creation of several PKK clones, such as PJAK in Iran and PYD in Syria, who enjoy a high degree of autonomy but still remain under firm command of the military political center in Qandil. The best proof of Qandil’s oversight is an agreement between Murat Karayilan, a member of the leadership council, and the Iranian authorities in 2011. After Iranian security forces had captured Karayilan, both sides agreed that in exchange for setting him free, the PJAK would retreat – to Syria.
Rojava and the Fight against IS
Meanwhile, young Kurds from Iran, Iraq and Syria started to fill up the ranks of the new PKKs/KCK’s military apparatus (guerilla), both in the regional organizations and with the military center in Qandil (HPG). It is in this context that the situation in Syria became so important, because the PKK only rules directly in the three Kurdish regions of Syria (Rojava). Its local branch, the PYD, was able to build up an efficient administration, including self-defense forces (YPG, Self-Defense Units, and asayish, police), face down Kurdish competition, and maintain a delicate balance by not openly breaking ranks with the Syrian regime, but not supporting it either. Although the whole setup was defensive in nature, the PKK was able to come and cover the flight of the Ezidis from Sinjar. Therefore, the confrontation with IS had to come sooner rather than later.
IS operates largely in the Sunni-Arab region of Syria and Iraq. There, it tries to capture and hold as many strategic nodal points as possible in order to consolidate its territory. Sinjar is one of those points, and Kobanê in Rojava is another one. Kobanê is a relatively isolated Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria with a strong Kurdish hinterland on the Turkish side of the border. Concentrating on an important border town like Kobanê makes sense: it is relatively weak, hard to defend, and once captured would bring an important border crossing under the control of IS. Crushing the PYD/YPG there would be a serious blow to the self-confidence and manpower of the PKK-fighters in all of Northern Syria and beyond. From a Turkish perspective, IS routing the armed PKK forces in Syria would be an ideal outcome, because it would fulfill a long-standing aim the Turkish army was unable to achieve. At the same time, Turkey’s government does not share the same assessment of the West on the danger posed by IS. Instead, both the leadership of the Islamist AKP and the country’s security elites see a bigger threat in the PKK. Naturally, an assessment like this has to lead to a more cavalier position towards the recruitment of Islamists in Turkey, letting through foreign fighters and allowing medical treatment of IS militants in Turkish hospitals. But it also explains why many in the West doubt the Turkish narrative on what had happened with its diplomats taken captive in Mosul. Erdogan refused for a long time to call IS “terrorists”, and gave in only when NATO allies and the international media accused him of complicity.
In hindsight, it appears Turkish authorities had already expected the fall of Kobanê for a long time, since Ankara had prepared refugee camps awhile ago and even published exaggerated numbers of refugees. With the fighting having dragged on for over a month, the political mood in Turkey as well as internationally has changed. The “Kobanê resistance” became an important cause célèbre for all Kurdish activists, especially those who are sympathetic to the PKK. The mishandling of the case of Kobanê might be the straw to break the camel’s back in the Turkish government’s dragging of the peace process, and therefore may destroy everything Erdogan has achieved in the Kurdish issue so far. As a warning, Cemil Bayik, co-head of the KCK who resides in Qandil, issued a statement that if Kobanê falls because Turkey refuses to allow military help for the Kurds to pass through, the peace process in Turkey is in danger. A few days later, Öcalan reaffirmed Bayik’s statement, and thus declared it “official” PKK policy. But ending this peace process may be a bigger disadvantage for the PKK/KCK than for Turkey, which could legitimately claim its good will to the international community, especially to the Europeans, who are traditionally more sensitive on the Kurdish issue and minority rights.
Besides, a resurfacing of the civil war in Eastern Turkey will yield no other results but terror and disrupt Turkey’s still fragile economy. For Öcalan, any resurgence in hostilities means his influence over developments in the Kurdish cause and the control over KCK events and procedures will decrease. For Erdogan, a direct military confrontation in Northern Syria would be a high risk endeavor too: if the Turkish army goes after IS, their followers and sympathizers in Turkey will wreak havoc, but the same will happen if Turkish troops try to crush the PKK in Kobanê. Hence, the Turkish army will most likely continue to do “business as usual” on the border and wait in cold blood until the resistance in Kobanê either falls or is victorious. At the same time, Erdogan will try to reassure the international community about Turkey’s earnest will to fight “any terror group” in Northern Syria, which translates to IS in Western countries, but to the PKK in Turkish ears.
One notable aspect of IS’ expansion is how well it fits into the strategic setup of regional powers: without necessarily being in cahoots with the caliphate, Saudi Arabia benefits from its presence as it pushes back Iranian influence in Iraq and checks the Syrian regime. From a Syrian perspective, IS checks the Kurds’ and other Islamists’ positions and for Saudi Arabia, it checks Iran’s position. Iran is unhappy about IS, but is content to see it active west of Shiite dominated areas. And for Turkey, IS may crush the PKK and check Asad. Seen from this angle, IS functions as a buffer preventing the direct confrontation of regional players.
The West has no clear vision or idea on the region, but at least some positions and commitments are clear: to crush the IS because via its expatriate members from Europe and elsewhere, it is on its way to becoming a bigger threat than Al-Qaida. A super-Al-Qaida, so to speak, which combines elements of organized crime with military power, terrorist capacities, and a rudimentary knowledge of how to run state-like structures.
If this is the aim, airstrikes are not enough and military action on the ground is needed. Here, one has to observe the fact that there are two theaters: Iraq and Syria.
Syria first: This situation led to the facile, understandable but erroneous conclusion that Western countries should swallow their pride and cooperate with the Syrian regime against radical political Islam. But the problem is that Asad is simply a dysfunctional dictator. Most certainly, he may drag on for as long as this conflict lasts, but he is no position to conduct any decisive military action. After all, he is fighting on so many fronts that he cannot afford to open a new one against IS. At least for now, IS is not his priority, nor is it the priority of his allies, Iran and Hizbullah. Obviously, they are content to see IS establish itself in the East and the North of the country, fighting other groups there.
Among them is the Free Syrian Army, the very militia the West pushed but could not deliver. There is no other way than reviewing past mistakes and retraining, re-financing and re-supporting the FSA throughout Syria. Some of this is already on the way, and the US already trains Syrian volunteers in neighboring Arab countries. But even so, it will take time and before these troops are combat ready. But combat readiness and military skills are not everything. One reason why, for example, relatively modestly trained Shiite militias prevail is faith and ideology. The battle against IS is not only a military one, but also an ideological one, and there, the West does not have much to offer. Whatever the West promises ideologically (democracy, secularism, human rights, economic liberalization, women’s rights), it is in a difficult position when it comes to the martyrs’ paradise promised by IS (literally so!). Let alone the fact that even more secularly inclined groups have their doubts about Western sincerity, given its position on Palestine. This ideological weakness was one of the main reasons why splinter groups trained by the US would later join IS.
Hence Sunni Islamists stick with Sunni Islamists, and Shiite Islamists with Shiites. In this identity game, the West has no card to play. The only possible thing to do is to reframe the political discourse again in a more secular direction, for instance by stressing the fact that sectarianism is just a cover for strategic power games, and thus contribute to the “secularization” of the conflict. This does not leave many choices in the Syrian theater. Except one, and that is a taboo: the PYD.
Safe haven in Rojava
In fact, it is surprising to witness the physical survival of an organization like the PKK in the Muslim Middle East where religion and sectarianism are irrelevant, women equal to men, and which has political aims one can understand and negotiate about. This is not to ignore the PKK’s more sordid aspects, like the bizarre Öcalan leadership cult, its undemocratic structure (it is rather a “people’s democracy”) and its involvement in organized crime in Europe. What remains is the fact that in Syria, the PYD is the only remaining relevant secular power, and the only one that in spite of its anti-imperialist Third-Worldly ideology is not essentially anti-Western; in Syria, that is what is needed.
Yet, in order to come to any tangible results, one has to address Turkey’s legitimate security interests first. And this means a reinvigoration of the peace process inside Turkey, and a guarantee for Ankara that all PKK guerillas be pulled out of the country, that the PYD sever its ties with Qandil and the KCK system and stress its nature as a Syrian Kurdish party. In exchange, Turkey should allow military aid to be delivered under Turkish control and with Turkish cooperation to the PYD. In the midterm, this means an emancipation of the PYD/YPG from the PKK, and a relationship of Rojava to Ankara similar to the one that exists between the KRG and Turkey. Thus Rojava would be more than Turkey’s envisioned “buffer zone”, but could become a safe haven for all Syrians on Syrian territory.
Security Sector Reform in Iraq
This brings us to Iraq, and here too, one key to the solution is in Kurdistan. At the same time, one needs to face the reality that the Iraqi army must be rebuilt and reformed, and the whole counterinsurgency strategy reviewed. In short, the country is in a situation worse than before General Petraeus initiated the Sahwa, and succeeded in isolating and crushing Al-Qaida. These years have been wasted and the situation has been aggravated, because unlike a few years ago, Shiite militias have now been strengthened and play an important role in the country’s security setup.
Here, the first priority is to remain realistic, as any reform will be long-term and there are no short-term fixes. However, Western governments are well-advised to actively pressure Baghdad for a reconciliation process with its Sunni Arab population. Only once Baghdad initiates meaningful steps in this direction can other attempts (counterinsurgency, security sector reform, etc.) be envisioned. And only then, i.e. when the Iraqi government does its “homework”, would it make sense for the US to directly or indirectly talk to Tehran about Iraq’s future.
This may take several years, while the West has to deal with the situation on the ground in the mountains. The sorry performance of the peshmerga and the disunity of the KRG security apparatus is the final proof of the necessity of security sector reform in the KRG. The first step, the delivery of modern weapons systems to KRG forces by Germany, is actually the first step in the right direction, and certainly the first step in a long-term commitment for Kurdistan. It should quickly be followed up by immediate steps under US-led international supervision. It is not so important whether one draws on NATO, the EU, or the national assets of the willing and the capable. What is important is that the following fields be addressed, including the military, with training facilities, new command structures separated from the political parties, and the unification of the peshmerga units (unified uniforms, promotion system etc.; a military reform would necessarily have a certain DDR aspect). This alone will take time, but unlike in the rest of the country, the preconditions are not all that bad in Erbil, Duhok, Suleymaniya and Khaneqin. What holds true for the military must apply to the intelligence and police services too, but it is less pressing, since other countries also have several intelligence organizations. The core is to refit the structures of intelligence sharing and evaluation. This is related to a general problem in the KRG: the weakness of impartial regional institutions vis-à-vis party structures. This problem was partially addressed by EUJUST Lex, which trained police officers and reformed the penitentiary system, but was closed down in 2013.
Although there is no going back to EUJUST Lex, the necessity of police reform is still evident in the KRG, and should be part of the commitment high ranking European politicians have promised KRG leadership on various visits over the last several months.