Category: Kurdistan

On Tabqa and Raqqa

Tabqa airbase liberation2 2017-03-26

Several days ago, following a brilliant surprise air and water borne raid, US-backed Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) landed to the south of Tabqa Dam, securing it before Islamic State (ISIS) jihadis could cause any damage to the structure. Now SDF has taken Tabqa airbase too.

Long-term observers of the war in Syria will agree that the fall of Tabqa airbase to ISIS in August of 2014 was one of the more infamous episodes of the war. The Assad regime had just lost Raqqa city and had withdrawn to the surrounded airbase—their last holding in the entire province. There were over a thousand soldiers trapped in the base with dozens of aircraft, tanks and artillery—not enough to stop the ISIS juggernaut.

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From Kobani to Raqqa

Remember the jihadi selfie at the gate of Kobani? How times have changed! This is me writing on 16 November 2014 when the battle was raging on inside Kobani:

“There is still a long way to go in this battle. Once the Kurdish Stalingrad is completely liberated, the YPG and allied forces will begin to expel ISIS from nearby villages and the country side until the entire Kobani canton is also freed from medieval barbarian invaders. This war will not end until the forces representing life, liberty and modernity march into Raqqa, and destroy the forces representing medievalism, death and darkness in their place of origin.”

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On Newroz

 

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The myth has it that 2600 or so years ago there lived on the outskirts of Zagros Mountains a people ruled by a cruel king named Dehaq. King Dehaq was a supernatural evil as evident in the two snakes that grew on his two shoulders; snakes that demanded special delicacy for food. Thus, two children would be plucked from among his subjects, and their brains fed to the snakes.

 

Below the darkness of the evil king’s castle lived an ironsmith named Kawa. Kawa had sacrificed all his children except one. Dehaq ordered for the last one too to be brought for his snakes. Kawa, with the help of the king’s cook, tricked him by offering a sheep’s brain instead. Thus, his child and other children were saved and were sent high up in the mountains where they lived free and grew into a small army.

When the time came, Kawa led the small army in revolt, broke into the king’s castle and smashed Dehaq’s head with his hammer. The people were freed and the news was spread around the kingdom by fires lit on the mountain tops. A new day, Newroz, was declared. And those saved children who led people to liberation became the ancestors of Kurds.

Happy Newroz! Newroz piroz be!

 

Duplicitious Alliances

The chief of US Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel visited Kobani and Raqqa front lines in Syria yesterday to reassure Kurdish and Arab allies in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that the US is still with them. While he urged the SDF to continue the offensive against ISIS-held city, SDF commanders warned him in no uncertain terms that should the Turkey-backed jihadis attack Manbij, the Raqqa offensive will be over and their forces will withdraw to defend their territory in the north.

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 Taking pressure off Raqqa is precisely the outcome both Turkey and ISIS sought when they agreed to a deal to surrender al-Bab to FSA jihadis in secret talks with Turkish chief of staff in the United Arab Emirates last week. ISIS fighters will retreat and consolidate their forces around Raqqa while Turkey, having caused the failure of the Raqqa offensive by attacking Manbij, can re-portray itself as the only force capable of taking on ISIS. Thus the western efforts to destroy ISIS can be hampered, delayed or otherwise abandoned.

Is the US too blind to see this ploy? On the contrary, Turkey has long signaled that it considers the SDF as greater threat to its interests than ISIS. Turkey only started its campaign to drive ISIS from border areas with Syria when they realised that, after Manbij, the US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance were going to liberate al-Bab. The US is too wrapped up in its formal NATO alliance with Turkey to acknowledge Turkish president Erdogan’s destabilising duplicity for what it is.

Following General Votel’s visit CENTCOM twitter account published several photographs showing SDF fighters fresh out of their training and getting their uniforms and AKs. An image of a US-made anti-IED mine vehicle being delivered to the SDF also circulated. These are not necessarily positive developments for Kurds. In the photo captions, the Arab part of the SDF, Syrian Arab Coalition, was specifically mentioned several times, while Kurds and their Peoples’ Protection Force (YPG) went distinctly unnamed.

Kurds and their Arab allies have every reason to be wary of the strength of the US commitment for the SDF. The so-called real-politik may yet cause the Americans to abandon the only trusted pro-western secular force in Syria in favour of a motley crew of jihadis backed by an unreliable NATO ally.

De-romanticising YPG

Kyle Orton is a budding Middle Eastern analyst who authored an important op-ed for the New York Times last year on the former dictator Saddam Hussain’s rarely mentioned role in creation of Islamism in Iraq. In Syria, he is anti-Assad regime, pro ‘moderate’ rebels, and unsympathetic towards Kurdish national self-determination.

 

Recently, Orton published a couple of blog pieces on western volunteers in the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) ranks, here and here. The pieces, based on two separate lengthy interviews with a former and a current fighter, do a reasonable work of de-romanticising YPG’s International Brigades of Rojava.

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Unheeded Warnings and Turkey’s Multiple Wars

Turkish columnist Cengiz Candar bewails Turkey’s wrong-headed Syria policy and expresses the consensus view that involvement in Syria’s civil war has destabilised his country.

Candar, along with Amberin Zaman and Kadri Gursel, who are also columnists in al-Monitor, are among rare Turkish commentators who can view the events in Turkey from a western perspective and report with little fear or favour.

His article begins with the final paragraph of Turkish author Elif Shafak’s piece in the Guardian post-Reina club attack:

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On Istanbul Attacks

Istanbul is Turkey’s most beautiful, modern and cosmopolitan city. Prime spots are along the Bosporus, where Turkey’s wealthy elite and the city’s old-time establishment reside in expensive historic properties that in the past used to be reserved for Ottoman government’s high-ranking officials. There is precious little space open to public along the coasts of the straits. Those lands and buildings not in private hands are usually educational institutions, some of which are used as setting to shoot soap operas.

The best of the coastline, and hence the schools by location, are on the cosy, tree-lined, Ciragan Street that stretches for 2 km from Besiktas to Ortakoy. There, midway between the two districts and opposite of the main entrance to Yildiz Palace & Park, is a seafarer’s Technical High School, now called Ziya Kalkavan Anadolu Denizcilik Meslek Lisesi. That is the school I boarded and studied for three years from the age of 14 to 16. I almost forgot my Kurdishness and became assimilated as a Turk in that school, hence my strong mixed feelings about the latest attacks.

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Last month, during a football game in Besiktas, twin attacks claimed by highly secretive Kurdish militant group TAK, an off-shoot of the PKK, killed 40 members of the security forces. It was in retaliation for the destruction and massacres wrought in Kurdish towns and districts in 2016. Today, in the early hours of the new year in a prominent night club in Ortakoy, 40 revelers were gunned down and as many wounded by men wearing Santa costumes. Only one police officer was killed. Let’s see if and when ISIS claims responsibility for this carnage against secular-minded civilians in the name of jihad.

Secular Turks, the vast majority of whom continue to kowtow to the racist fascist ideology and legacy of Turkey’s founder Atta Turk, in response to the AKP government’s slide towards Islamism, will again refuse to evaluate and accept the distinction between the nature and the reasons between two attacks and the parties behind them. It is safer to accept the AKP government’s lumping of them both as terrorists who cannot be negotiated with and must be fought off with greater military force. If anything, Kurds are the biggest threat to them because Atta Turk said so, as do Erdogan now.

The reality is a lot different. The war engaged in by the PKK and its off-shoot TAK is, in Clausewitz’s famous words, “politics by other means”. They respond in kind because Turkey refuses to accept that Kurdish parties are rational political actors representing legitimate demands and grievances of a large repressed minority population. Like it or not, the PKK’s cause against Turkish security forces is that of an admissible national liberation struggle, not unlike that of Kosovo against Serbia and that of Iraqi Kurds against Saddam. Successive Turkish governments have failed, and will fail again, to completely rout Kurdish fighters from the country, a la the mortal blow Sri Lankan government inflicted on the Tamil Tigers. Negotiation and a political solution is inevitable if Turkey wants to end the conflict with the PKK.

The same cannot be said of ISIS. The so-called Islamic State is not fighting for political settlement in a world of nations; its ideology, aim and fight are for world conquest. Even if the loony ISIS jihadist dream of bringing all the lands from India to Turkey to Andalusia under Islamic rule turn into reality, they will seek to invade lands from China to Argentina to spread the religion to those infidels who have not yet heard the word and wrath of allah. Islamists have no limits, know no boundaries, recognise no laws and admit to no conventions not found in Koran. They cannot be negotiated with in good faith or even reasoned with. With the promise of paradise in the afterlife, living or dying is a win-win situation for the Islamist terrorist.

Turks fail to acknowledge the sharp differences in the their threat assessments between the two. While retaliatory Kurdish militant attacks on security forces are condemned swiftly and loudly, ISIS attacks are acknowledged belatedly and in a more muted fashion. For example, according to T24 internet newspaper, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said, “there are signs but we can’t say which group did it.” Meanwhile the country’s pro-government newspaper columnists are blaming the night club owner: “If you expected an attack, why did you open the club for customers?” Turkey’s unaccountable religious leaders were declaring Christmas and New Year celebrations as apostasy, and there was a bizarre video footage of racist fascist Turks with Islamist hues first circumcising and then stabbing a Santa puppet in the final days of 2016.

Currently, the lead story on the web page of the pro-AKP government Yeni Safak is a criticism of the renowned Turkish affairs correspondent Amberin Zaman who tweeted, “will the [Turkish] attacks on the most effective anti-ISIS forces YPG [Kurdish ‘People’s Protection Froces’] and the SDG [Syrian Democratic Forces] continue I wonder?” Yeni Safak responded with “she defends terrorist against terror.” The Islamist paper refused to not only speculate that ISIS could be behind the latest atrocity in Istanbul, but saw no distinction between Western-backed groups and ISIS.

For the last few years, international observers mocked the spectacular collapse of Turkey’s ‘Zero Problems with neighbours policy in Syria and Iraq. Turkish soldiers are now in the north of Syria trying to block a corridor linking Kurdish cantons around the town of al-Bab. In so doing they have found themselves combating three sides also staking claim on the town: US-backed YPG/SDF, Russia-backed Assad regime, and Turkey’s friend-to-frenemy ISIS.

What should be of great concern now is whether the instability Turkey has caused in Syria and Iraq will blow back into Ankara’s face. The signs are there; a clear ideological divide between Kemalist establishment and the new Islamist current, mass-casualty attacks, a failed coup that cost hundreds of lives, mass purges of high ranking government officials from generals to judges of Constitutional Court on the claims that they belong to yet another alleged terror network in the Gulenist movement, a police force that shouts ‘Allahu Akbar’ while firing in the air, the arrest of many pro-Kurdish rights HDP parliamentarians and the push to ban legal Kurdish politics all together, and, most recently, Muslim preachers denigrating Christian symbols and calling for assassination of Kurdish figures. The country is slowly simmering for a major internal multi-faceted armed conflict under AKP’s leadership.

This morning I cast my mind to the two spots that were attacked within a month by ISIS and TAK in Ortakoy and in Besiktas. Like many Opera House walks that I make under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in many weekends during my high school years, I would walk on Ciragan Street to the western pylon of the Bosporus Bridge, where the ISIS-attacked night club is now located, and from there I would walk back towards Besiktas, often alongside playing grounds of my football team where TAK blew up a police bus. Having lived there for three years as a teenager, I feel a great deal of affection for that refined, historic city with many centuries-old buildings. Now, it is slowly metamorphosing into a war-zone like Beirut and Baghdad. That is sad to see.