Saturday, August 11, 2012

Turkish Kurdistan Ground War in Progress, Iraq Border Crisis Eases: Kurdistan and Syria Update

[Note: See these earlier articles from this blog on related topics, especially with respect to the Kurds and the Arab Spring: “And Now Civil War ... Could Syria Break Up?” (Nov. 2011), “The Iraq War Is Over, but Is Iraq’s Partition Just Beginning?” (Dec. 2011), “Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2012” (Dec. 2011); “Get Ready for a Kurdish Spring” (March 28, 2012); “Shifting Alliances in the Kurdish Struggles” (April 1, 2012); “Turkish Delights Hide Ugly History” (April 4, 2012);  “Syria’s Kurds Are Setting Up a Quasi-State—How Long Can It Last?” (July 2012), “Liberation of Syrian Kurdistan Infuriates Turkey, Iraq, and the Free Syrian Army—in Fact, Everyone but Assad” (Aug. 2012), and, on a pretty much weekly basis, installments of my “Week in Separatist News” columns.]

Developments are coming quick and fast in Kurdistan.  The standoff between three armies—of Iraq’s Shiite-Arab-dominated central government, of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.), and of the Western Kurdistan Autonomous Region in northern Syria—at the border between Iraq’s Nineveh province and Syria has now eased with no casualties.  The result may be greater K.R.G. control over Kurdish-dominated areas it covets in Iraq proper, including Nineveh, which may be what the K.R.G. had in mind all along when it dispatched troops last week to side with Syrian Kurds in the face-off.

Sorry about the “U.S.S.R.”  It’s hard to find this good a Kurdish-population map with contemporary labels.  That’s mostly the Republic of Armenia shown there shaded light green.
But things are heating up dangerously in southeastern Turkey, where to all appearances Syrian control of northern Syria may have made it easier for Kurdish rebels to stage an unprecedented ground offensive to take control of Şemdinli, a town of more than 10,000 in Turkey’s Hakkari province, near the mountainous area where Iraq, Iran, and Turkey meet.  Kurdish rebels also scored a deadly attack in the far west of Turkey, well outside of the Kurdish region, which is also unprecedented in recent years. This will likely heighten the Turkish government’s desire to invade northern Syria and secure a buffer zone (similar to Israel’s in places like Lebanon), to prevent it from becoming a staging ground for further attacks.  Iraqi Kurdistan has already shown its willingness to stand up to the Iraqi army in defense of Syria’s Kurds.  Would they stand up to Turkey’s as well?  In any case, the conflict is widening, even as the Sunni-Arab-dominated opposition in Syria attempts to get the upper hand once and for all, and what happens next is unpredictable.

Here is the rundown of these and other top stories from Kurdistan and surrounding areas this week:

Şemdinli, in happier times, now a war zone
Over 100, Mostly Kurds, Die in Battle for Turkish Town; P.K.K. Claims Control.  115 militants have now been killed, according to the Republic of Turkey’s ministry of the interior on August 5th, in the battle for Şemdinli in Hakkari province in the far southeast of Turkey.  The interior ministry also reported that six Turkish soldiers and two village guards have died.  Those eight, as well 14 P.K.K. fighters that included an alleged female suicide-bomber, all died in a single incident in the battle, an August 4th attack on a military outpost.  A later report cited 15 Turkish fatalities.  The clash began July 29th with what the Turkish government claims was an attempted takeover of the town by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) rebels sneaking across from the newly-declared Kurdish safe haven in northern Syria.  The P.K.K. is a banned separatist militia based in Turkey, but Turkey is portraying the P.K.K.’s traditonal ally, Syria’s Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.), which co-governs the newly declared Western Kurdistan Autonomous Region in Syria, as an active threat to Turkey’s security.  Şemdinli is not actually even that close to the Syrian border, wedged as it is quite close to where Turkey, Iraq, and Iran meet, but a P.K.K. source within Turkey had announced a plan to parlay Kurdish political victories in Syria into military victories in Turkey.  The town has symbolic value, however: it was near here, in Şemdinli district, that the P.K.K. first, on August 15, 1984, declared war against the Turkish state.  Turkey’s minister of the interior, İdris Naim Şahinhit the xenophobic talking points hard in comments to the press, saying that the P.K.K. dead in the battle for Şemdinli included “Armenian, Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Israeli citizens” (prompting a lightning-quick reply from officials in the Republic of Armenia, declaring the utter impossibility of this).  Meanwhile, casualties piled up.  On August 5th, according to the military, rebels attacked a border post in Hakkari province near the Iraqi border, resulting in a battle in which six Turkish soldiers, two village guards, and 14 rebels (including three women) were killed and 15 soldiers wounded.  The skewed deaths in the rest of the battle are explained by Turkey’s use of air strikes.  The Turkish government has been stingy with information about the battles.  The P.K.K., for its part, claims to control Şemdinli.  On August 6th, an overnight explosion was reported in Mardin province, Turkey, on a length of the crude-oil pipeline between Kirkuk, in Kurdish-dominated Iraq, and Ceyhan in Turkey.  The pipeline carries about a quarter of all of Iraq’s crude exports and was expected to be out of commission for 10 days.  Sources close to the P.K.K. report that the group was responsible.  On August 8th, four bombs were found along a Kirkuk pipeline in Iraqi territory and were defused.  P.K.K. members also stopped a bus at a roadblock in Bingöl province in east-central Turkey and abducted three off-duty soldiers riding as passengers.  Their whereabouts are unknown.  The next day, a roadside bomb followed by an ambush of a military bus by P.K.K. rebels killed one Turkish soldier and wounded at least 11 people near Foca, in Izmir province—quite unusually, since Izmir is a resort area on the west coast, on the Aegean Sea, far from the Kurdish region.

3-Way Standoff with Iraqis, Kurds at Syria Border Eased after U.S. Mediates.  An end is in sight for the tense stand-off at the border between Syria and Iraq’s Nineveh province between a Syrian Kurdish militia, the Arab-Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government’s military, and the private military of Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.).  Parleys between the parties first debated this week whether to “activate” a joint committee which would come to an agreement on sharing military role in places like this part of Nineveh, the Zumar district—areas which lie outside K.R.G.’s formal jurisdiction but where Kurdish troops have been in charge since the United States invasion in 2003.  (There is such a committee, but it hasn’t had much sway since the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in December 2011.)  Then, on August 6th, a statement from the K.R.G.’s military, the Peshmerga, said that the K.R.G. and Baghdad would both pull troops back from the border.  “The Iraqi army and the Peshmerga,” the statement said, “will take responsibility for each of the areas where they are stationed, protect the borders between Iraq and Syria and remove tension on the main roads in the area.”  The K.R.G. also said that diplomatic mediation by the United States helped reach the agreement.

Standoff in the Nineveh border region
Syrian Regime Troops Hang Back as Kurds Celebrate in Semi-Liberated Qamishli.  In Qamishli, the notional capital of Syrian Kurdistan, or Western Kurdistan, as Kurdish nationalists call it, about 100,000 Kurds celebrated in the streets on August 6th, even though technically the city has not been fully liberated and so is not a de facto part of the de facto independent Western Kurdistan Autonomous Region declared last month.  The government troops loyal to the embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad, who usually patrol most of the city, were not visible during the celebrations—a fact likely to bolster the view in, for example, Turkey and among the mainstream Sunni-Arab-dominated Syrian opposition, that Assad essentially gave the liberated areas to the Kurds as part of some sort of deal.  Celebrants carried large portraits both of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) and, at least in Syria and in his native Turkey, the spiritual leader of Kurdish nationalism, and of Massoud Barzani—president of northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.), and son of Mustafa Barzani, president of the brief-lived (1946-47) Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, in what is now Iran.

Kurds celebrate in Qamishli
K.N.C. Distances Itself from P.Y.D. in Arbil Meeting with Turkish Diplomat.  In related developments (see above story), it was revealed this week that during the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s meeting with representatives of the Kurdish National Council (K.N.C.) in Arbil, Iraq, last week, the K.N.C. reassured him that its coalition with the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan to form the Kurdish Supreme Council which now governs the self-declared Western Kurdistan Autonomous Region in northern Syria is “strategic.”  The People’s Council is closely affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.), a pro-Kurdish party in Syria whose ties to Turkey’s banned separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) greatly worries Ankara.  In fact, at the meeting with Davutoğlu at which these reassurances were made, P.Y.D. representatives were not invited.  Meanwhile, the P.Y.D.’s leader, Mohammed Saleh Muslim, speaking from the half-liberated Western Kurdistan capital, Qamishli, responded to Turkish concerns, saying, “Turkey has nothing to do with Syrian Kurds.  The protection of my people in my areas, in my town: that is my right, no one can deny it, and that’s what we did.  So there is no need for Turkey to be worried and make threats.”

Turkish Top Diplomat’s State Visit to Arbil Included Side Trip to Rally Iraqi Turkmens.  When the Republic of Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, visited northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region last week (as reported in this blog), his visit to the city of Kirkuk infuriated the central Iraqi government in Baghdad.  Kirkuk lies in an oil-rich region which is dominated by Kurds but lies outside the reach of the official Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.), though to a great extent the K.R.G.’s president, Massoud Barzani, and his militias seem to run the place.  Iraq’s increasingly authoritarian Shiite Arab prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his allies, regarded the visit—which was an unannounced side trip on Davutoğlu’s state-visit-ish visit to the K.R.G. capital, Arbil—as evidence of a worrying cosiness between Ankara and Arbil, knowing that Barzani openly covets Kirkuk and other Kurdish-dominated lands outside his official bailiwick.  This despite the fact that one of the purposes of Davutoğlu’s visit was to warn Barzani against continuing to support Kurdish separatists in Syria.  It turns out that the Kirkuk visit was far from a Turkish stamp of approval on Barzani’s designs on the city, as was revealed this week when the text of Davutoğlu’s speech to Kirkuk’s Turkmen community was officially released.  Turkmens speak a language related to Turkish and have deep cultural roots with Turkey and Azerbaijan, though they are scattered (much like the Kurds, actually) as large minorities in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  They dominate only in the basket-case Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, way on the other side of Iran.  Locally, they are often rivals to the Kurds, and Turkmen aspirations toward an autonomous region in Iraq like the Kurds’ are a source of friction because their planned autonomous or independent Türkmeneli overlaps significantly with the K.R.G. lands and their penumbra.  Davutoğlu told a crowd of rapturous Turkmens, “After 75 years, I am come to Kirkuk as the first Turkish foreign minister.  You waited for us too long, but I promise you won’t wait for us that long in the future.”  At another point, he said, “Kirkuk has a special place in our heart.  I met with members of Kirkuk provincial council and told them that Kirkuk is one of our [sic] ancient cities.”  Not that this shouldn’t make Baghdad nervous too.  The Turkmens hate the Shiite Arabs as much as the Kurds do.  It is notable, however, that Ankara, which seems to be rapidly reassessing its warm ties with the K.R.G. in light of the perceived threat to Turkey from a K.R.G.-armed autonomous state in Syrian Kurdistan, seems to be hedging its bets and making friends among Turkmen nationalists as well.  During Davutoğlu’s speech, a man in the audience shouted, “They are annihilating the Turkmen in Kirkuk.  Help us!” and Davutoğlu replied gently, “No, be sure that such a thing won’t happen.  ...  We will spare no effort to help Kirkuk.”
An optimistically large map of the prospective Turkmen state of Türkmeneli, in what is now Iraq.
Ossetians in Syria Seek New Life in North Ossetia—but Not in South Ossetia.  In the Syrian civil war, Ossetians, most of them descendants of refugees from the Russian Empire’s brutal invasion of the Caucasus in the late nineteenth century, are now seeking to relocate to Russia.  A letter signed by 33 of the estimated 700 Ossetians in Syria and addressed both to the government in Moscow and to the Russian Federation’s Republic of North Ossetia–Alania, in the North Caucasus, asks Russians “to receive as compatriots the ethnic Ossetians from Syria who wish to move to the Russian Federation, to return to their ancestral land in Ossetia in order to live in peace and harmony with the peoples of Russia.”  The letter’s author, Hisham Albegov, says, “Not all of them want to leave.  Many have Arab wives, some have successful businesses that they hope to continue after the war ends.  But 150-200 people are dreaming of returning to Russia.  Some of them even have Russian citizenship.”  The 33 listed in the letter “are the people hardest hit by the war, those who have lost their homes or relatives.”  So far there is no indication that such a letter has been sent to the Republic of South Ossetia, which most of the world regards as part of the Republic of Georgia, but whose de facto independence Russian troops secured in a 2008 war with Georgia.  The Russian government has (as reported in this blog) largely reacted with indifference to the plight of the far more numerous Circassians in Syria who would like to return to their homeland in southwestern Russia, between North Ossetia and the border with Ukraine.  But Circassians are predominantly Muslim, and a rising Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus makes the Russian government wary of them.  Most Ossetians, however, are, like most Russians, Eastern Orthodox Christians, so they may have a chance.

Locations of South Ossetia and North Ossetia
Free Syrian Army’s Arabs Alarmed as Assad Releases 1,200 Kurdish Political Prisoners.  Media are reporting that the regime in Syria has released 1,200 Kurdish political prisoners, along with a larger number of ordinary criminal convicts in the northern, Kurdish area.  An opposition leader in Homs, Abu Salah, said that he believed this was a deliberate attempt by Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled dictator, to, in the words of one news report, “show the Arab population what life would be like under control of the Kurds after his resignation”—even though it is near impossible that Kurds could ever control non-Arab portions of Syria.  Salah also reassured the Turkish government that the Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) would prevent Syria’s Kurds from threatening Turkey.

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it in spring 2013.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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