Idlib: the rebel capital of Syria

Turkey and Russia reached an agreement to implement a de-escalation zone over the entire Idlib Province of Syria at the last (6th) Astana Conference. According to the agreement, Turkey would become the guarantor of rebel opposition groups situated in the province. In this way another destructive campaign by the Assad régime in Syria could be avoided, and the migrant populations that have moved there due to their opposition to the régime would be saved from further harm. Turkey is deploying its troops in Idlib, not only to bring peace to the  area itself, but also to surround and neutralise the YPD/PKK Kurdish pocket in Afrin, in conjunction with the Euphates Shield A’zaz to Al-Bab zone to the north. This would bring about Turkey’s aim of halting plans for a unified and contiguous Kurdish state in Syria, and doing so without spilling any further blood.

Idlib has seen many refugees flock to the city, especially after the dramatic fall of Aleppo, bringing the overall population (of the city alone) to well over a million. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), dominated by the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), took control of much of the province after many military confrontations with its rival Ahrar al-Sham. Despite HTS’s overall control, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, Jays al-Izza and Jays al-Idlib, and Nour al-Din al-Zenki continue to control different pockets throughout the province. While these latter groups support the Turkish deployment and its backing of the Free Syria Army (FSA), HTS remains opposed, and there it is likely that a confrontation with Turkish troops occurs at some point. HTS have informants within the other opposition groups and also have high ranking officers who are in the service of Western intelligence agencies.

Turkey’s Idlib Operation replaced the previously planned Euphates Sword, which would have seen an advance directly into YDP/PKK territory in Afrin. It is being conducted with the FSA factions in the lead, in a similar manner to the previous Operation Euphrates Shield (OES), which began from Jarablus. One of the successes of the Turkish Idlib Operation has been to encourage small groups of fighter to split off from HTS, in order to strengthen the FSA with new elements with local knowledge. Another success seems to have been the marginalisation of HTS by prioritising humanitarian aid and reconstruction. It would appear that HTS finds itself in a corner as a result of this policy, since any attack on its part would lead, not only to many losses among its fighters, but also any local standing it might continue to have in the community.

Developments in Iraqi Kurdistan with the collapse of the Barzani independence referendum saw Turkey help Iraq, leading to the prospect of the maintenance of Iraq’s sovereign integrity. Turkey’s change of stance has rebalanced forces within Iraq, where Abadi, instead of relying purely on the US to fend off the extreme pro-Iranian political factions in the Shia coalitions, can now count on a new ally with significant local economic import, to strengthen his suit. Iran , far from seeing this as an unwelcome development in Iraqi politics, is relieved that Turkey can thus dilute the importance of the US here. This reduces the commitments Iran needs to make to the Iraqi economy to keep US influence in the country marginalised, and lessen the reactions against its presence, from nationalist groups such as the Sadr movement. Abadi new tough language with the US is a sign of this rebalancing and of his new political standing.

A new geopolitical understanding has also been reached over a remarkably short period between Turkey and Iran, based on all these developments, which in turn will also help to consolidate the Idlib Operation. The Russian-Turkish-Iranian Astana process has brought peace to the region. In this – its latest phase – the marginalisation of two the major tools of the Western intelligence agencies in the destabilisation of the region is complete: HTS and the YPG/PKK. So quickly has Turkey been able to effect its establishment of bases across Idlib Province, that it appears that a new operation is being envisaged in Afrin province itself.

World growth and the crisis of the West

The IMF World Economic Outlook 2017 shows that global income will reach $103.2 trillion in 2022.

In inflation adjusted terms this will represent $6.5 trillion of added value. The key factor which underlies the modern crisis in the West, however, is the fact that China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, Iran and Russia will account for 54% of this, whilst the U.S., the Eurozone, Canada and Britain will add only 29%, adding to continuing pressure on the budgets of these countries.

This trend became clearest, according to Stephen Roach, as the world emerged from the financial crisis, and is clearly set to continue. As explained in a previous post, the financialisation of the Western economies that sucked spending power out of the real sector and transferred corporate cost bases to China and other developing countries, is the primary reason for this evident decline of the West.

Xi Ping: “The Communist Party is the guarantor of the interests of the people”

The 19th Communist Party Plenary Conference has consolidated Xi Jinping as the Chinese leader for the next fifteen years. His speech points to plans that take him to 2035, when the next national milestone is to be reached on China’s path to becoming a global power by 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic. So, the strong inference is that Xi is likely to remain in office through the 2030s.He is now China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, evidenced by the fact that an entirely new body of “Xi Jinping thought” has been elaborated – and incorporated into the Party’s constitution.

Clearly, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign over the last five years helped him consolidate his position. Since the campaign began, some 278,000 officials have been punished, including 440 at ministerial rank and above – several of which were Xi’s politburo rivals. And, rather than loosening the screws, Xi’s report to the 19th National Congress suggested just the opposite: the Party should prepare for further tightening.

The new Politburo Standing Committee has been shaped by Xi. Li Zhanshu, who will chair the National People’s Congress, and Zhao Leji, who will chair the Party’s disciplinary authority, are both members of Xi’s inner circle. Han Zheng, the executive vice premier, and Wang Huning, who is in charge of all CPC affairs, are both protégés of former president Jiang Zemin. And Premier Li Keqiang and Wang Yang (likely to be Chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee) are from the Tuanpai, the Communist Youth League faction. This political balance will likely favor Xi enough to allow him to secure a third term as president.

Xi’s speech sees China as remaining under the governance of the CPC- a Leninist party that monopolizes state power. Political transformation in the foreseeable future is highly unlikely. Xi states that China will never import a political system from anywhere else in the world. “China’s socialist democracy,” he argues, “is the broadest, most genuine, and most effective democracy to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people,” and it now represents an alternative model for the rest of the developing world. China’s official media have now moved beyond the conventional arguments that democratic decision-making has been ineffective in bringing about long-term economic development, a new set of arguments has been unveiled: Western democracy is corrupt, hypocritical, and fails to meet the needs of the poor.

The edited published version of Xi’s speech provides an invaluable glimpse of the contours of Xi’s strategic vision. It is a vision of a new type of great power relations, by which Xi means geopolitical parity between the US and China. China is to shape the rules governing a new international system that includes not only the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, but also China’s own institutional innovations in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative, the New Development Bank, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Xi’s thought stresses a ”global community of common destiny for all humankind,” as fundamental. This is a departure for China in the long historical scheme of things, since China has never taken on such a role.

The economy remains centre stage and China’s capacity to delivery on its ambitions shouldn’t be scoffed at. Since Den Xiaoping began to institute structural economic reforms in 1978, China has lifted some 650m people out of poverty. By contrast, middle class incomes in Western economies have stagnated. Whilst Western governments led by the US and UK have, in the 1980-2007 period, deregulated and allowed a major shift from the real to the financial economy, the only real growth that has been experienced by Western companies has been due to their ability to shift their cost base to China, and other developing economies partially dragged along in the wake of Chinese growth.

China may have (quite naturally) slowed, but will still add around $1 trillion or more to its nominal GDP, giving it a $12 trillion economy by the end of this year – thus doubling the economy since 2010. Although this is only two-thirds the size of the US economy, this amount is actually larger than the entire GDP of Indonesia or Turkey, and almost as large as the Mexican economy.

Furthermore, growth has shifted away from the previous export-led model. Official data shows private consumption in China accounting for just 39.2% of GDP, rising from 35.5% of GDP in 2010, an increase that amounts to an additional $2.58 trillion since 2010 – an increment actually larger than the entire Indian economy. The growth of Chinese consumption is easily the most important factor in global consumption growth today. If this trend continued up to 2020, the new number would be 41.5% of GDP, adding another $2 trillion. This will represent the most substantial injection of activity into the global economy in the next few years.

The rout of Barzani’s KDP continues as PMM-backed Yazidi group retakes Sinjar

As Masoud Barzani’s independence gambit lies in tatters, and the Peshmerga continue their retreat, the Iraqi Yazidi group Lalesh, affiliated with Iraq’s Iran-backed PMM (Al-Hashd al-Shaabi), takes over the Yazidi capital in Northern Iraq, Sinjar.

The Iraqi federal government’s Joint Operations Command said that Iraqi forces have been redeployed, aside from Sinjar and other areas in the Nineveh plains, across Khanaqin and Jalawla in Diyala province, as well as Makhmur, Bashiqa, and the Mosul dam, Sinjar.

Calls for Barzani’s resignation are coming in now from all quarters of the Kurdish community.

The third act of the Iraqi Saga: Iraq coming together under Abadi

The final act of the Iraqi gambit launched  by G. W. Bush/A. Blair gambit to “reshape the Middle-East” is underway, and may have a surprising outcome. After the 2003 US invasion and subsequent withdrawal, the US proceeded to gradually reinstate itself in Northern Iraq (and Syria) through it alliance with the Kurds, in what is ostensibly a campaign against DAESH/ISIS, the spread of which, however, there is now ample documentation to prove, the US had earlier helped to promote as part of a strategy to destabilise and remove the Assad régime in Damascus, and sever the bridge between Iran and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon.

The US had also helped the Iraqi army reorganise after its defeat in Mosul 2014, given that Daesh/ISIS was threatening the whole of Iraq at the time, and the Iraqi army would be necessary boots on the ground for a difficult campaign against a widely spread opponent. Ultimately, it was the reorganised Iraqi army, with a few US advisers, but nevertheless under Haidar el-Abadi’s leadership, that cut its teeth, and lost much blood, in retaking Mosul. Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi was, until now, veering towards an alliance with the US against the rigidly pro-Iranian sections (e.g. Nouri al-Maliki) of the Iraqi political scene.

All this was before KRG referendum on independence and Trump’s speech decertifying the  Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action  (JCPOA) P5+1+EU Iran Nuclear Deal, and his thinly veiled threats against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Together these spelled a potential reigniting of US ambitions to sever the bridge now between Iran and Syria (Assad having survived) with a Kurdish entity under its aegis. Furthermore, with a Kurdish population in Iran, a KRG-US alliance could potentially provide the US with direct and effective lever to undermine the Iranian régime. It was hardly likely that Iran, with its deep involvement in Iraq, and its need to keep the direct link with Syria would stand idly by and allow that situation to be realised.

Abadi’s reliance on the US to bolster his own position will now melt away, as he will build on his reputation as the conqueror of Mosul. This requires his continued campaigning to keep control over the Iraqi army forces, which have now become the foundation of his rule. The Iraqi PMM militia (el-Hashd el-Shaabi) represents a potential competitor, supported directly by Iran’s IRGC, that he needs to keep on a tight leash in all future conflict. This he can only do by keeping it marginalised as a force secondary to his own.  Trump’s speech will have pushed the IRGC to increase its investment in the PMM hugely to ensure the KRG/Peshmerga’s defeat (besides the effect it is having in raising the IRGC’s stock within Iran) . The US will continue to supply Abadi, irrespective of what he does, because he is their only potentially ally in Baghdad, while Abadi himself will focus on his race against these various mounting pressures.

The KRG’s independence referendum presented a opportunity that answered Abadi’s political needs. The US can now only sit and watch as tensions mount between two of its allies. Trump’s speech made this outcome inevitable. Abadi is on the road to turning himself into a indispensable political force in Iraq as he commits to marginalising the KRG by retaking the Kirkuk oil fields and thus the major source of its revenue. This, it would appear, he has begun to do as the Peshmerga retreat from Kirkuk. The revenue itself is of little import to a government in Baghdad that produces ten times as much oil in its southern provinces. The whole point is to render the KRG’s independence gambit cashless.

Given that the Peshmerga forces that abandoned their positions in Kirkuk belong to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) faction, it would appear that a deal has been struck between Baghdad and the PUK to unseat Barzani and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in Irbil. Bafel Talabani, the son of PUK leader, the late Jalal Talabani, had opposed the referendum and had warned the Kurds were heading for disaster. Two large oil fields a bit further west of Kirkuk, Bai Hassan and Avana Dome, are as of writing, still under Kurdish management although the Peshmerga have now left. Temporary shutdown of oil production at the two field appears to have been reversed as the Iraqi government threatened to remove the management.

Kirkuk has been a bone of contention between Baghdad and the KDP Irbil since the very beginning of the functioning of the new Iraqi constitution. The Kurds had benefitted from US patronage ever since Bill Clinton’s no-fly zone. When the new constitution was written, the KRG was given special autonomy, but without Kirkuk which is only one-third Kurdish in demographic terms. However, it was KDP policy to change that situation by bussing Kurdish populations into Kirkuk, changing, in a phase made famous by the Israelis, “facts on the ground”. This led to bad relations with the Federal Government in Baghdad, whose leaders eventually stopped paying the KRG bureaucracy’s salaries. The referendum was only to go ahead because of the personal intervention of Kirkuk’s hawkish Kurdish governor, Najmeddin Karim. Now he has been stripped of all his powers.

What is helping Abadi to reach his goal is the fact that the US has managed to so undermine its relationship with Turkey, with its Kurdish alliances, that the Turks are now opening new direct border connections with Iraq that bypass its erstwhile KRG. This has led to the complete regional isolation of the KRG, given that Iran is also now effectively closing its own border points with the Kurdish enclave at Haji Omaran, Parwezkhan and Bashmaq. Thus under total siege, KRG’s president Masoud Barzani’s position is unenviable. Time and history is on Abadi’s side, and potentially a military triumph in Kirkuk will mean the survival of Iraq as a nation and its astonishing retreat from the brink of partition.

This will also give hope to Sunnis in Iraq, as a post-campaign consolidation of Abadi’s power vis-à-vis Iranian elements in Iraq, will require that he brings Sunnis under his political tent. This outcome would need to involve a rebalancing of the post-war sectarian régime in Baghdad with its lack of governing capability, but is likely to occur as a result of the new tripartite interaction between Turkey, Iran and Iraq at multiple economic, political and security levels and the need to satisfy the broad range of interests all this entails.

What is now abundantly clear is that the G. W. Bush/A. Blair gambit to “reshape the Middle-East” has failed, and since the beginning of the Astana process, regional powers are consolidating their hold on the region’s security, and sidelining the US. It is remarkable that, unlike Syria, which is now merely a de juro entity, Iraq looks like it will regain its sovereignty. The defeat of the KDP, will bring the KRG back as a player within the Baghdad political scene, while the clear need to include Sunnis in the process will likely be answered by Abadi, for his own political reasons, quite besides it being part of a regional settlement. It all may collapse again, but this is unlikely.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s various attacks on the Federal government over the past two years, has made it clear that there is a strong current in Shia politics in favour of an Iraqi nationalist stance, independent of Iran which Abadi can rely on, and which he can now invest in virtue of his new stature since in success in Mosul, and in Kirkuk (although this last success has something also to do with negotiations between the PUK/Talabani clan and the IRGC’s Qasim Suleimani that took place in Suleimaniya during the KRG’s referendum). A democratic federated Iraq may slowly be emerging, and the era of ethno-nationalisms fading.

 

 

The failed 2016 Turkish coup and the role of the US

The sign on the bus carrying participants to trials of those accused of organising the attempted 15th July 2016 coup reads; “We have not forgotten July 15, we will not let it be forgotten”.

On July 15th 2016, a military coup was hatched which included the attempted assassination of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It failed, and has since been the centre-piece of massive  investigation, arrests, and court proceedings. Fethullah Gülen, who resides permanently in the US in a compound in rural Pennsylvania, was without doubt the focal figure in this coup, which included hundreds of his followers in the organisation known in Turkey as FETÖ. Attempts to characterise the coup as fake and organised by the country’s government have foundered on the evidence. Requests for Gülen’s extradition have been met in the US justice system by total silence – neither acquiescence nor rejection based on evidence-based arguments.

This is despite the fact that the US has supplied documentation to Turkish authorities, which has allowed them to convict Kemal Batmaz as being one of the two leaders of the coup (along with fugitive Adil Öksüz). The document from US border security affirms visits by Kemal Batmaz to Fethullah Gülen in the US, which he had previously denied. It is now fairly obvious that this evidence is as damning of Gülen as  it is of Batmaz.

Now outgoing US Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass,  has caused problems for himself over his strong reaction to journalist reports that an unregistered US Istanbul Consulate staffer was a FETÖ operative. There has been tension between Turkish authorities and the US Embassy on the FETÖ debacle on a number of previous occasions. Before Adil Öksüz disappeared following his controversial and sudden release from custody arranged by FETÖ-linked judges , he received a call from an Istanbul telephone number registered to the U.S. Consulate. Upon being questioned on the matter, US authorities claimed he had been called merely to be told that his visa application had been canceled.

Secondly, FETÖ leaders Muharrem Gözüküçük and Bayram Andaç called the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Consulate one day after the raid by FETÖ-linked officials on trucks belonging to the intelligence services (MİT) in March 2014, which were delivering aid and weapons to Turkmen tribes. This raid was a ploy orchestrated by Fethullah Gülen through former Adana prosecutor Özcan Şişman to implicate the Turkish government as a supplier of weapons to ISIS. Given the evidence from an August 2012 document that the US Defense Dept. was deeply involved in the plan to allow ISIS expansion into Syria in the first place, this was a clear attempt to shift blame onto the Turkish government, using friendly Turkish deep state elements in order to do so.

Furthermore, in respect of Turkey’s ongoing fight against the PKK, Hamza Uluçay, who worked at the U.S. Consulate in Adana for 36 years was charged six months ago with having close ties to the organisation, officially proscribed both in Turkey and the US.

Ambassador Bass says that the arrest now of US Istanbul Consulate staffer Metin Topuz is an outrage and on his view, ‘without merit’. Turkish authorities hold, however, that he actually does not exist on the list of accreditations with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and therefore should not be on concern to the Ambassador. To add to the confusion, Topuz himself maintains he worked for the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), raising suspicions of CIA links. He is charged with espionage and violating the constitutional order: “The suspect had phone contacts with 121 people investigated for links to FETÖ and contacted people using ByLock hundreds of times,” the indictment reported by Anadolu Agency (AA) claims, referring to the encrypted messaging app used by the terrorist group.

Ambassador Bass’ reaction to the situation was to disaccredit a number of journalists reporting on these cases, preventing them from asking questions at his pre-departure press conference. Following that, the US suspended non-immigrant visa applications from Turkey. The sudden action, which appears to have backing at Foggy Bottom, occurred without any prior warning, and seems to be both an admission of guilt (“she both protest too much”), and an act that seems to be designed only to be solved by some kind of covert bargaining. However, in retaliation Turkish visa applications for US citizens have been suspended.

If State Department officials believe that this arm-twisting (essentially taking US – Turkish commercial activity hostage) will lead to the Turkish government rolling-over, they might well be mistaken. It is not merely that the Turks have so far been unmoved by any and all attacks over the roll-over of their state of emergency and accusation of human rights abuses associated with their arrests over the matter of the coup. More generally, in terms of the direction of world trade, “times have changed”, in case this hadn’t been noticed.

 

 

Lesson number six: do not try to reconcile with those who hate you, because you will lose either way

David Hearst writes: Corbyn has much in common with the forces that led the Arab Spring: both represent the poor and the working classes; both emerged from the fringes of the political spectrum; both surprised the establishment; both had the overwhelming majority of the media against them; and both were the frequent targets of attempted coups.

The military coup in Egypt succeeded, but the same counter revolutionary forces funded by the Gulf dictatorships that unseated Morsi also tried a coup in Tunisia, Turkey and latterly in Qatar. The right wing of the Labour Party and the most senior members of the parliamentary party openly and repeatedly tried to unseat their party leader.

Corbyn was trailing 20 points in the polls behind the Conservatives, having just lost massively in local elections. His fortunes changed once his manifesto appeared. Why? Because for the first time in a generation, it offered voters a genuine alternative.There is another lesson here for the forces of the Arab Spring: public opinion is volatile and no war is ever won or lost in a battle. The counter-revolutionary forces of absolute monarchs and military dictators have squandered billions of dollars selling the notion that the Arab Spring is dead and that everyone who took part in it should pack up and go home. Corbyn proves there is life after death.

Lesson number one: never give up. Lesson number two: know your constituency. Lesson number three: never allow anyone to get between you and it. Lesson number four: create your own media. Lesson number five: construct a programme that helps the working class. Lesson number six: do not try to reconcile with those who hate you, because you will lose either way.

Whatever the future holds for him, Corbyn has changed the landscape of British politics – which is more than can be said for a host of Labour leaders before him. Arab states do not need yet another traditional leader. They need a transformation. That can only be done from the inside, from the youth upwards. No outside power is going to help them. Read full article

A Tale of Two Independence Referenda

Catalonia and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) are instances of the central government behaving badly in Spain’s case and the regional entity behaving badly in the other. The fallout in the case of Spain will be ongoing instability, which will have a Europe-wide impact, and in the case of the KRG, contrary to all prognostications, will have a stabilising effect on the Middle East, as Barzani is forced to climb down from the tree he is sitting on.

Spain felt some of the worst effects of the financial crash in Europe and really hasn’t recovered since, except as far as the country’s manipulated national accounts are concerned. Youth unemployment officially at 39%, unofficially much higher, is foreshadowing a lost generation. The effects of all this on Catalan national feeling in the face of an unpopular government of austerity that keeps coming back into power in Madrid, cast the die.

Moreover, this north-eastern region of Spain was granted autonomy under the 1978 constitution. However, a fraught relationship between the political classes in Madrid and Barcelona began in 2010 when extra powers granted to Catalonia in 2006 were unilaterally rescinded by Spain’s Constitutional Court. An unofficial vote on independence in November 2014 showed 80% support for secession, after which the Catalan Regional Government (CRG) decided to launch the current referendum (which seems to have achieved a 90% yes vote of 2.2m people, on a 42% turnout).

Unlike the KRG, the CRG has the administrative wherewithal to make success of independence, and the democratic structures to make independence about all the residents of the region. The reaction of the central government in Madrid will cost it dear in terms of credibility. Without Catalonia, Spain as an entity may shrink, but as a geographical entity, Catalonia isn’t going anywhere, and there is no reason for either economy to suffer anymore than they have already. In fact, shaking moribund Spanish political structures is what is needed for the future.

International opinion has swung the way of Catalonia even as Madrid pummels its people into submission. Nevertheless, the EU has determined their referendum to be illegal, which now presumably makes a mockery of its decision to allow Kosovo to separate from Serbia and continue life as a failed state. The Spanish King read out the script handed to him by the Madrid government, which will reinforce Catalan resistance. The strange thing is that although a part of the Catalan population is opposed to leaving Spain, it is still wholly united with the nationalists when it comes to maximum devolution. Perhaps that is message that needs to be understood.

Barzani’s KRG on the other hand, where the independence referendum passed with over 90% of the vote, is an entity without democratic structures. It is run by the Barzani clan (politically embodied in the Kurdish Democratic Party -KDP) that decided on the referendum precisely because of the pressure it was under from rival groups (the Talabani clan represented by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran movement). None of these parties meet in a parliamentary setting: their role is purely and simply to carve out and rule different pieces of Northern Iraq.

Without the support of Turkey, the KRG wouldn’t have survived its problems with a dysfunctional Iraqi government in Baghdad over the last few years. It doesn’t have the wherewithal to make independence a reality, essentially launching both the Kurdish and non-Kurdish populations of the area into the unknown. Arab and Turkmen residents in the area will fear for their lives, while even Kurds are unlikely to benefit from a system that is socially just. But Barzani is under fire now from his own followers for a gross political miscalculation, and his future is in doubt.

Ironically, however, Barzani’s rash move seems to have strengthened the hand of the Astana trio (Russia-Turkey-Iran). This would not have been predicted by Barzani’s CIA and Mossad advisers. After Putin’s visit to Ankara, Russia is likely to trade its support of Turkey against the KRG referendum in exchange for Turkey’s support for the Russian solution in Syria. This will effectively reinforce the structures of cooperation that have been forged regionally at Astana over the Syria question, and extend them into the Iraqi political quagmire, to provide a framework within which the Iraqi government can be encouraged to reform without facing new potentially existential questions.

Part of what will be driving these developments is the perception by all parties that behind Barzani’s asinine decision lies a US-Israeli axis that will seek co-opt Saudi Arabia and the UAE into exploiting the Kurdistan referendum to start another round of proxy wars in the area. There is no doubt that military manoeuvres on KRG borders by Iranian and Turkish forces together with the Iraqi army reflect an urgent sense of preparing for the worst.

The neocon philosophy dominating the thinking of Barzani’s foreign advisers is typically always linear and always fails to understand the principle of reaction. Not only can Iran and Turkey see them coming, but these regional players now have the power jointly to do something about it, especially if Russia sees it is in its interest to come off the fence.

Iran in particular sees any Kurdistani project as a potential cordon sanitaire that will have the effect of cutting it off from Lebanon, to try to achieve the results that the botched war against Assad never could. So, contained in Hassan Nasrallah’s warnings to Israel and the US over coming conflicts is a promise to take the war to the occupied territories in that  event.

 

The US is “disappointed” (but clearly not surprised) that Barzani went for the referendum

The state Department is by far the largest most complex part of American bureaucracy. But even so, the size of the new US “consulate” in Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is astonishing. It will cost $600 million, and  be built on 200,000 square meters on the Irbil-Shaqlawa Road. This structure will be second in size only to the actual US Embassy in Baghdad which cost $750 million, and was built on 420,000 square-meters, an area the size of the Vatican.

There are currently 30 consulates, six honorary consulates, and six foreign trade offices in Irbil. The latest to open in Kurdistan was the Japanese consulate on Jan. 11. None anywhere near the size of the US project. Iran’s view was expressed by IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Hossein Rajabi when he said that ” the opening more than 30 consulates is not normal”. The upgrading of the size of the US presence in Irbil, followed by the confidence with which KRG President Masoud Barzani went ahead with the referendum, has in diplomatic speak “absolutely nothing to do with US plans to control the dominance of Iran in Iraq” (the unintended consequence of the 2003 war).

Turkey is an ally of the KRG but has taken a harsh stance on the referendum together with Iran and the Iraqi government. Nevertheless, Masoud’s nephew, and KRG Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, is dismissive of the idea that Turkey’s stance is anymore than a negotiating position on their relationship. This view appears to be be in line with the typical pragmatism of Erdogan’s government, reflected in the equally relaxed attitude of his Economy Minister, Nihat Zeybekci.  However, as the KRG begin intense negotiations to regain Turkey’s confidence, they may be underestimating both their clout, and the events of the referendum on the geopolitical situation.

Keeping the Harbur border crossing open isn’t what it seems. Firstly, Turkey’s main practical problem currently is how to trade directly with Baghdad, both given the change of control at the Iraq border, and given that trade with the Iraqi government is worth three times more than Turkish trade with the KRG.  Secondly, unintended consequences being a big political feature of our new 21st century, it looks inevitable that Turkey will continue to keep its military on full alert and present in large numbers on the Iraqi/KRG border.

Barzani’s gamble to save his own political future will have lit 100 fires, and as yet the KRG is still just a large tribal organisation run by a traditional blood clan. At the moment it looks like Turkey together with Iran will work to freeze Barzani’s ambitions. Russia’s position will be to trade its backing for the Turkish-Iranian position in exchange for Turkish backing for the status quo in Syria. This has now been clearly signalled since Putin’s visit to Ankara.

 

 

Mahdi Akef: lived in the open, buried in secret

Drawing source: Arabi 21 ‘A Prisoner across all Ages’

Under the leadership of Muhammad Mahdi Akef, in 2004, the Muslim Brotherhood published the first truly comprehensive reform programme for Egypt and, in 2005, Akef led the Muslim Brotherhood to its largest electoral victory prior to the 2011 Revolution.

Following the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in the July 2013 coup, he was arrested at the advanced age of 85 years and held, like many of Egypt’s 40,000 political prisoners, under absolutely brutal conditions. According to his family, he was diagnosed with cancer last year, and despite declining health, was nevertheless held incommunicado in Junta prisons. Despite the fact that he was acquitted of all (the trumped up) charges against him in January 2016, yet continued to be detained, for another 20 months, away from his family, as his health declined visibly, until his death.

Akef was widely celebrated for refusing to be nominated for a second term as the Brotherhood’s guide, vacating the post in 2010 after the election of Muhammad Badie. He remained one of the few leadership figures who appealed to a wide cross-section of Muslims. His repeated court appearances over the past four years, white-haired, and wrapped in a white blanket posed a strange contrast with the heavy security around him. Needless to say, his family were denied a public funeral by Sisi, who also forbade the “absentee prayer” from being said in mosques in his honour. As Palestinian scholar, Kamal Khateeb, tells us: when Akef fought alongside Palestinians for their rights in 1948, his jailer was still only a ‘black spot on his father’s back’.

Over the course of these four years not a single Western government issued a statement opposing his incarceration or appealing for his release. These governments continue to support the tyranny of Sisi despite its ferocious stench, for profit. The murder even of their own citizens means little to them beside the draw of the filthy lucre. Yet their politicians and intellectuals continue to bore the world with their insistence on ‘Western values’…