Oct 7, 2013

PKK threatens to resume an all out war against Turkey

Abdulla HawezAfter Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally revealed the long-awaited package of democratic reforms aimed at advancing peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), PKK leaders at their base in the Qandil Mountains said they consider the package inadequate.
Erdogan has proposed in the reform package the removal of the 10% electoral threshold, which currently prevents Kurdish political parties from entering parliament. Also according to the package, election campaigning is also allowed in non-Turkish languages including Kurdish. The package also suggests teaching in non-Turkish languages would be allowed in private schools, towns will be able to take back their native names, a chauvinist oath recited by the students in the schools will be removed and a commission established to combat hate crimes.

Member of Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), the urban wing of the PKK, Diyar Qamishlo, told the Pan-Arab daily Sharq al-Awqsat, “The package that has been revealed by Erdogan is a joke. And it shows that the mentality of those who are running the country is based on their denial of twenty million Kurds.”
Qamishlo also said that the package gives no guarantees that the Turkey has changed its policies toward Kurds: “The reform package does nothing to reverse the Turkish state’s policy of denial toward the Kurds. Those policies of denying Kurdish existence were the reason of the Kurdish insurgency against Turkey, which led to the death of tens of thousands of people on both sides.”
“Erdogan mentions giving back the original Kurdish names to the villages and cities, this is very strange, especially when Prime Minister calling it an achievement for the Kurdish nation, but it is not, because Kurdish nation doesn’t use the imposed names by Turkish state anyways for example Kurds still call it Amed not Diyarbekir or Dersim not Tuncili, all the Turkish decisions to impose Turkish names failed.”
Qamishlo says on studying Kurdish in private schools, “The packages limits studying Kurdish only in private schools that you must pay money to learn Kurdish, that means if Kurds want to learn Kurdish, they should pay. Before if you talked in Kurdish in official institutions you would have been fined and now you should pay to learn Kurdish – so in both ways you should pay”.
The PKK leader also said, “We didn’t initiate the peace process for that, but our goal was to take back the rights of our nation and to get out prisoners released and to gain the minimum rights and political freedom for Kurdish nation.”
Regarding the truce that lasts until the end of this year, Qamishlo said, “When we entered the peace process based on the initiation of our leader Abdullah Ocalan, we weren’t weak. We were strong and we had a fierce presence in the battlefield. We withdrew based on the call of our leader to give the Turkish state a chance to solve the Kurdish issue. But it has been eight months and the Turkish government has only taken minor steps that don’t meet Kurdish ambitions, and our suspicions grow everyday that the Turkish government isn’t serious about solving the Kurdish question.”
He also said, “If the Turkish government doesn’t respond to our demands, we will make a final decision at the end of this month; we will cancel the truce and we will send our fighters back to Turkish territories and start an all out war. The whole world should know that we will continue our struggle to achieve our goals, and we have the right of self-defense.”
Durak Kalkan, one of the four main leaders of the PKK, who is considered a hard-liner, told Firat News Agency, “The peace process between the PKK and Turkish government has reached deadlock. If the Turkish government wants to waste time and deceive people, then there would be no reason to cease our armed struggle.”
“The Kurdish question is key to solving all the problems of the country. If the Turkish government doesn’t commit to peace, then we will end the truce and resume our armed struggle within Turkish territories.” 

Sep 7, 2013

Kurdistan election with limited impact

With none of political parties able to anticipate a victory, the upcoming Iraqi Kurdish parliamentary election might be the most important one ever.
In addition, the opposition parties have a strong chance to improve their performance.
Iraqi Kurdistan's parliamentary election campaign started on Aug. 28 and the vote is slated for Sept. 21. The Kurdish parliament consists of 111 seats and 1,129 candidates from 30 political parties and blocs will run for 100 seats. A total of 30 percent of the seats are reserved for female candidates. The 11 remaining seats are reserved for minorities: five for Turkmens, five for Christians and one for an Armenian. The election system is a semi-open list with the entire region as a single electoral constituency.
Out of 30 political parties and blocs, only five have a chance to enter parliament: Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Nawsherwan Mustafa's Change Movement (Gorran), the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and the Islamic Group in Kurdistan (Komal).
The competition to gain most seats in the parliament will largely take place among these three: the KDP, PUK and Gorran. In the current round, the KDP has 30 seats in parliament, the PUK has 29 and Gorran has 25.
What makes this election especially important is the absence of multiparty alliances and the future balance of power between the two ruling parties. In the previous elections, the two major ruling parties, the KDP and PUK, had taken part in the elections together and they have shared power ever since. But in this election each of them participate separately, which will jiggle the balance of power because there will be no more share of power based on the 50/50 division that used to be.
The opposition parties have 35 seats in the current parliament and they have a chance to increase the number of their seats to join the next cabinet but it is less likely that they can form the government alone or even by excluding either of the two ruling parties, the KDP and PUK. This outcome is less likely largely because the KDP and PUK have monopolized money and military in the region in a way that it would be impossible to rule without them even if the opposition gets the majority.
This, however, is not sufficient to downplay the power of the ballot box. In the previous election that took place on July 25, 2009, the emergence of the Change Movement, which got 25 out of 100 seats, was an earthquake that gave unprecedented vibrancy to the election process and a more serious political life afterwards.
Observers estimate that the KDP is expected to get the highest number of seats followed by Gorran and then the PUK in the elections. This poll is also expected to be a special rivalry between the PUK and Gorran because Gorran used to be a wing within the PUK but split in 2008 because of deep disagreements. The absence of Talabani, who has been hospitalized in Germany since December 2012, downgraded the PUK's popularity. According to the Kurdish Basnews agency, Talabani may return to the KRG in upcoming days, which would raise the votes of the PUK vastly.
Experts predict that the KDP will receive between 35 and 38 seats, mainly from the cities of Erbil and Duhok. It will be followed by the Change Movement, which is expected to receive between 22 and 24 seats mainly in the city of Sulimania and the PUK is expected to get around 20 seats. The seats of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Kurdish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, are expected to stand at between 10 and 12 seats and the Islamic group Komal is expected to receive between seven and eight seats.
Although the next Iraqi Kurdish election is expected to topple neither of the two ruling parties from power, it's increasingly anticipated to change the balance of power in the oil-rich region and the current opposition may become one of the pillars of the next cabinet.

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

Sep 2, 2013

PKK-KDP row steadily sabotages Kurdish hope in Syria

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border point in Dohuk.

The fierce competition between the proxies of the two mainstream Kurdish factions in Syria's Kurdish areas, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) may sabotage Kurds' best opportunity to achieve self-rule within Syria in a century.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the PKK, is controlling the predominantly Kurdish areas in Syria, which are mostly located in the northern provinces of Hasaka and Aleppo through its militant group, the Popular Protection Units (YPG).
Although the PYD's popularity isn't alone sufficient to rule those areas, recent developments have largely benefitted them. Since the Syrian uprising against the 13-year rule of the country's embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, turned violent, the Syrian army has handed over these areas to the PYD in a secret deal that would deny these territories to the rebels. The PYD is not quite denying that such an agreement exists. In a recent interview with a Kurdish newspaper, Saleh Muslim, the PYD's chief, said, “We don't have an agreement with the Assad regime, but we are in contact with them and we have had meetings with them.”
In response to the PYD's unilateral steps, Massoud Barzani, the KDP leader and president of Iraqi Kurdistan, called on all other Syrian Kurdish political parties to gather in Erbil. The result of the gathering was unifying all the pro-Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) parties under one umbrella called the Kurdish National Council (KNC).
Although the KNC is favored in many places with 50 percent of popularity at times, they have little capability to act on the ground because of the PYD's control. Like its umbrella party, the PKK, the PYD has strong authoritarian tendencies: They don't tolerate any other faction working in areas under their control and remove them if their authority is challenged.
To avert any possible armed conflict between the KNC and the PYD, a meeting was held in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil under the auspices of Barzani. The two sides agreed to cooperate on the ground, establishing the High Cooperation Council. According to the agreement, the two parties share all responsibilities in the Syrian Kurdish territories, but the agreement has so far failed to achieve its goals.
However, the PYD is not the only party to be blamed. The leaders of the KNC are deliberately trying to defame the image of the PYD on regional and international levels. To provide an example from my own experience, Abdulhakim Bashar, one of the top leaders of the KNC as well as Barzani's trusted man in Syria, accused the PYD of confrontation in a forum in İstanbul recently. Furthermore, in meetings with US and European officials, KNC leaders have labeled the PYD as a “gang that belongs to the PKK,” which they listed as a terrorist organization.
In addition to the KNC's psychological war against the PYD, the Iraqi Kurdish party is also constantly pushing the KRG, more specifically the KDP, to punish the PYD by closing the border crossings between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdish areas that are controlled by the PYD's YPG units. The most significant fallout of this policy was a mass punishment of civilians, most of whom need to cross the Iraqi border for medical and other humanitarian purposes.
Border crossings are indeed becoming a dangerous point of conflict between the PKK and KDP and it seems they have little, if any, concerns over the humanitarian consequences.
Three weeks ago, in an article in the Azadya Welat daily, the co-chair of the PKK, Cemil Bayık, accused the KDP of shutting down the border while impoverished people are waiting in Syria to cross it and not letting any aid cross the border from the KRG region to Syria. In response, the KDP denied the border closure and accused the PKK of controlling all the aid that crosses the border. That was the first direct confrontation between the two.
A week after this wrangle, the KRG decided to open the border gates wide to allow a safe passage for Syrian Kurds fleeing clashes in the war-torn country. Soon after the border crossing was opened, a mass exodus from Syria as a result of violence and poverty in the country started to flow into Iraq. Many, including Barzani and Bayık, warned against the mass influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees entering into the KRG region. The number of Syrian Kurdish refugees in the KRG is at staggering 200,000 and they are harmful for the future of Kurds in Syria because they already have an identity crisis in the country.
On the regional level, Turkey's role is surprisingly positive. Although Turkey has had a harsh stance against any attempt to create a Kurdish region within Syria, Turkey's position has softened and actually shifted toward that of the Kurds after the initiation of the peace talks with the PKK and meeting with the PYD leaders. If the PYD inches closer to Turkey, it would be to the benefit of Kurds because Turkey has already had good ties with the KNC thanks to Erbil's good ties with Ankara; that can be helpful.
On the other side, Iran is also trying to get closer to the Syrian Kurds. In the last two months, Iran has invited both the PYD and the KNC separately to Tehran to convince them to back the Assad regime. Iran has promised both parties to support them with money and arms in the event that they back Assad. Iranians have promised even more; they made promises to both parties to support a Kurdish region in Syria if they agreed to accept Iran's demands.
Although heavyweights Turkey and Iran are trying to attract Syrian Kurdish factions to their sides, this isn't what threatens the future of Syria's Kurds or, as Kurds like to call them, Kurds of Rojava. Kurds are the worst enemy of themselves. The PKK, which emerged in Turkey, and the KDP, born in Iraq, are ready to break each other's bones only to widen their leverage over Syria's Kurds.
The worst is yet to come. The real confrontation seemed to have been delayed to the post-Assad era. KNC official Bashar once said in one of my interviews with him that a civil war in Syria's Kurdish areas is a possible scenario if the PYD refuses to share power with the other Kurdish factions.
The PYD doesn't seem to be ready to share power. When asked whether they will let other Kurdish militias emerge in the PYD-controlled territories, Muslim said,“Its not up to us to accept any other Kurdish armed groups to emerge, it's up to the people.” This is a clear sign that they will not let them.
The Guardian has described Kurds as Syria's only winners but they seem to be misplaying their cards in using the best opportunity in a century to build a region of their own in northeastern Syria. If the PKK and KDP don't stop their proxy war in Syria and compromise, the Kurdish ambitious dreams may well turn out otherwise.

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

Aug 23, 2013

Challenges mar grand Kurdish conference

For the first time in modern history, in a significant opportunity to boost their unity, Kurds are planning to draft a strategy with a grand conference, but political rivalry and divisions among the parties as well as concerns of regional powers have largely dashed hopes that it will yield intended results.
The pan-Kurdish conference was initially scheduled to take place in Arbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdistan, and slated for Aug. 20, but it was postponed to September due to what the organizers called “some technical problems.”
The conference will be the first of its kind in the history of Kurds. The first failed attempt to hold a grand Kurdish conference goes back to 1978, when the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) wanted to convene all representatives of Kurds in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
The efforts to hold this current national conference of all Kurds, mainly organized by three leading Kurdish forces -- the PKK, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- have been under way for months. In a meeting on July 22 in Arbil, led by President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani, representatives of the Kurdish parties from the four countries, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, officially agreed on the initiation of the Kurdish national conference. During the meeting, the participants agreed to establish a committee to handle the preparation of the conference. The committee consisted of 21 members: six from Turkey's Kurds, five each from Iraq and Iran, four from Syria and one representative of the Kurdish diaspora in Europe. Around 600 politicians, NGO activists and guests are expected to attend the three-day conference.
The conference is expected to be led by Barzani because he is the most prominent and powerful leader among the attendees. Some accuse Barzani of deliberately rejecting the conference many times before but accepting it now so that he could lead the Kurdish gathering alone astwo other powerful Kurdish leaders are absent: PKK leader AbdullahÖcalan in jail and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in bed in a hospital in Germany.
The main aim of the conference is to unite Kurds at a time when they are more divided than ever over controlling Syrian territories predominantly populated by Kurds and the controversial ties of some forces with regional powerhouses: the PKK with Iran and the KDP with Turkey.
Although Kurds have pinned much hope for this conference, expected to gather representatives of all Kurds in the region, there is only little hope that the conference will yield substantial success in terms of achieving its stated goals. It is true that Kurdish political parties for the first time in modern history could agree to hold this conference, but it is also a fact that these forces also stand more divided than ever before.
Only days before the conference, a fresh wrangle started between the PKK and the KDP over Syria's Kurdish areas that are currently controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the PKK. Newly elected co-chair of the PKK, Cemil Bayık, accused Barzani's KDP of conspiring against Syrian Kurds by closing the border with Syria and working with the anti-Kurdish forces, namely Turkey, in Syria against the PYD. In return, the KDP accused the PYD of building a dictatorship in Syria by unilaterally controlling Kurdish areas and not cooperating with other Kurdish parties that are mostly affiliated with the KDP and hence destroying all efforts to unite Kurds.
This division between the KDP and the PKK, the two major Kurdish parties, is only part of a bigger picture. The Kurdish parties in Iraq are seriously at odds because of mistrust between each other. The Iraqi Kurdish opposition bloc (the Gorran movement, Kurdistan Islamic Union and Islamic group), for instance, boycotted a gathering that would draft the agenda of the conference at the beginning, only to be convinced to participate later.
In Iran and Syria, internal political debates are eating away at the strong representation of Kurds in these countries at the planned conference. In Iran, the Kurds are in dispute over the representation in the organizing committee. The traditional Kurdish forces excluded their main rival, the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the Iranian offshoot of the PKK. In Syria, an agreement between the Kurdish political parties to cooperate hasn't begun to have an impact until now. Many Kurdish public figures, including the leaders of the Kurdish political parties in Syria, warned against impending civil war between Kurds in Syria if the PYD doesn't stop its unilateral steps.
While the Kurdish parties are deeply divided, the regional powers are also in contact with the Iraqi Kurdish officials to make sure the conference doesn't threaten the unity of their countries. Turkey, which has the highest Kurdish population, seemed to be relaxed because only days after the announcement of the conference, the KRG prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, rushed to Ankara to comfort Turkish officials. Only after visiting Ankara, Barzani flew to Tehran to allay Iranian concerns about the conference. His trip to Tehran, however, was portrayed as if he traveled there to participate in the inauguration ceremony of the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. As the two countries and other international players are expected to attend the conference, many activists and political parties refuse foreign participation in the conference because it will further reduce the chance of any serious agreement between the political parties. Iranian Kurdish political parties in particular harshly reject participation of Iranian officials and say itwould jeopardize all efforts to make the conference successful.
Aside from all these political factors, the Kurdish question in each of the four countries that have Kurdish minorities has evolved differently in the last century; this is why a common Kurdish strategy doesn't seem to work.
The negative atmosphere surrounding the pan-Kurdish conference pushed many to consider it as only a symbolic gathering. The conference, however, is significant because it's the first time in modern history that representatives of all Kurds around the world have agreed to gather in one hall.
Even if it fails to set up a national Kurdish strategy, the conference remains an important step forward.

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

Aug 13, 2013

Iraqi Kurdistan: from boom to doom?

Only a decade ago, Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was a dirty, dusty and isolated town. During the summer months, people would refer to it as the “gateway to hell.” But ten years later, Erbil’s image has seen a startling change, and many of Iraq’s 28 millions would now consider the city a heavenly location to spend their summer vacation.
With a series of massive construction projects underway, a booming economy driven by the region’s enormous oil and gas reserves, and a strong business partner in former enemy Turkey, the city looks set to shine in the coming years. Politically, with the Middle East becoming increasingly polarised in the wake of the on-going sectarian civil war in Syria, the KRG has managed to maintain good ties with Iran, Turkey, Israel and the West all at the same time. Given all this, one could reasonably conclude that Kurdistan is booming. But is Iraqi Kurdistan facing an upcoming fall?
Everything that has so far been achieved is as fragile as the region’s uncertain political future. The relationship between the KRG and Iraq’s federal government changes on a daily basis due to the deep levels of mistrust between the two parties, and the interference of both regional and international powers.
Although the Kurds have complained that the dictatorial tendencies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threaten the unity of Iraq, they recently welcomed him on a visit to the region with a lavish ceremony at Erbil International Airport. Nevertheless, it seems certain that relations between the KRG and Baghdad will remain unsettled for the foreseeable future. Indeed, due to the accumulation of a number of serious and unsolved issues, a likely outcome to the relationship is divorce. But any development of this kind will need a green light from regional and international players, in particular from Turkey, as the KRG has become increasingly dependent economically on its northern neighbour.
While the central government in Baghdad is building stronger ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the KRG has drawn closer to Ankara. Since 2007, cooperation over economic and energy issues has helped to redefine a once combustible relationship. Turkey has become Kurdistan’s top economic partner and, what is more, has signed a strategic energy pact that could remap the region both politically and economically.
The new oil pipelines that connect Kurdistan with Turkey were built without Baghdad’s prior approval, and this has helped to exacerbate the already unsteady relationship between the KRG and Turkey on the one hand, and the Iraqi government on the other. The liberal-oriented Turkish daily Taraf recently reported that Ankara had quietly signed an oil partnership deal with the KRG, despite the objections of the Baghdad government. According to the newspaper, the deal is proof that Turkey is elevating its cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan to the level of an international partnership, meaning that the KRG will eventually be able to gain its economic independence from Baghdad.
According to Falah Mustafa, the KRG’s Minister of Foreign Relations, Turkey represents the KRG’s “gate to the world.” This may well be true, but it is worth considering for a moment the nature of the rapidly developing relationship between the two. Turkey has become the KRG’s biggest economic partner, accounting for 70% of all foreign investment in the region, and has recently constructed a series of oil pipelines, despite the objections of the Iraqi federal government. The result is that, while the KRG has been able to reduce its dependence on Baghdad, it has simultaneously become overly reliant on Turkey.
In addition, while it has been busy improving its ties with the Turkish government, the KRG seems to have forgotten Iran’s importance to regional politics and security. The Islamic Republic is the most influential foreign power in Iraq, and its ties to the country’s Shi’a population go well beyond friendship. While the world continues to take note of Turkey’s economic and political dominance in the Middle East, Iran has been silently building a semi-imperial Shi’a region that includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In Syria, where the sectarian civil war divides regional powers into two opposing blocs, Kurds are unquestioningly – and unwisely – backing the mainly Sunni opposition.
It is important to think about all of this rationally. The KRG can never hope to be fully independent, due to its landlocked geography, and should always keep good ties with at least one or more of the neighbouring countries. Moreover, some of the powers that will play a crucial role in the future of the Middle East are Turkey, Iran, and the United States, and none of these players can hope to dominate the region on their own, so the KRG should keep ties with at least two of them. More crucially, the Middle East is witnessing a very decisive period in its history. New states are expected to emerge in the wake of recent developments in the wider region, and for the Kurds the time has come to translate their decades-long struggle for statehood into a reality.
But the Kurds will not be able to make this happen by being overly dependent on just one country while abandoning the others, just because there is deep mistrust between these countries’ governments and their Kurdish minorities. In Turkey, while a peace process to solve the Kurdish question has been initiated by the government, a lasting solution is still far off on the horizon. If the peace process fails, the new ties between Ankara and Erbil will become severely strained.
The KRG’s problem is that it is too ambitious given its size, history and capabilities. It is a small region that wants to play big games. If Iraqi Kurdistan is to continue its current boom period, the KRG should first balance its relations with both Turkey and Iran, and avoid becoming overly reliant on either. It should also stay away from backing either regime or opposition in Syria, and should encourage Syria’s Kurdish parties to remain neutral. In other words, the KRG should avoid taking sides in Syria as otherwise it will automatically commit itself to one of the two regional blocs, led by Iran and Turkey respectively. Most importantly, consolidating democracy internally remains the most important factor to ensure the KRG remains strong, and continues to attract western support. Otherwise, for the Kurds, the boom may very well turn to doom.

This article first appeared on Your Middle East - here:

Jul 31, 2013

Iraq: politics through conflict

Iraqi army personnel and people gather at the site of a car bomb attack in the city of Kut, 150 km (93 miles) southeast of Baghdad on July 29, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
The latest bombings in Baghdad and other cities show how politics in Iraq has become increasingly nasty. Although Iraq has never been a fully stable country since its foundation in 1923, it had never reached a level to be called a conflict.
After the American invasion in 2003, some political players had driven the country toward a devastating sectarian conflict; undoubtedly, the Americans have an important role in strengthening the sectarian identity since the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003. Sunnis that were ruling Iraq for decades felt neglected because Iraq's majority Shiites started to consolidate their power.
So Sunnis started the armed struggle to get back their glory, or at least poison political life; this struggle was based on revenge. Later, when the first elections took place in 2005, Sunnis boycotted it; they felt yet more isolated. Then, when their anger peaked, they bombed the Shiite icon, the AlImamayn Al-Askariyyan mosque, in Diyala province. By then, the Shiites decided to seek revenge as the ordinary Shiites' anger peaked as well.
From 2006, a bloody sectarian conflict has torn the whole country. The prospect of a solution seemed murky, and when the politicians became disenchanted, Iraq returned to medieval times. A fragile deal was signed between power-thirsty politicians as the security got better. But the tutelage of regional and international powers, and the sectarian-oriented beliefs of the Iraqi politicians may drive the country to another, worse sectarian conflict whose outcome this time might be far more disastrous. The already crisis-prone Iraqi political system is run by politicians who are implementing external agendas; when it is needed, they are shaking the political life with bombings and turning it into a religious and ethnic conflict. The recent bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq are entirely linked to the political standoff between Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his Sunni and Shiite rivals. The bombings in Iraq have become a trump card that all politicians are using as the easiest way to get what they want or at least not to allow other parties to set their political agenda. 

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

Jun 12, 2013

Erbil -- the next Dubai or İstanbul?

Erbil, one of the most ancient cities in the world, around 50 miles east of Musil, is the regional capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq. Erbil, with its 1.5 million population, is one of the most rapidly growing cities in the Middle East in both its economy and the tourism sector with investments exceeding 14 billion dollars so far in 2013. Most of these investments come from neighboring Turkey, the KRG's biggest economic partner.   
Now, in the KRG, there are debates about which city Erbil should consider as a role model as Masoud Barzani, president of the autonomous region, more than a few times mentioned Dubai as a role model for the city. “We will make Erbil like Dubai,” Barzani stated. However, one who knows the nature of both cities can easily realize how far this dream is from being reached for various reasons. In addition, apart from the skyscrapers, there is nothing much to take from Dubai.
İstanbul, now in the global spotlight as a center of tension because of the Gezi park protests, could be a good role model for Erbil, for various reasons. Here are some: When we wake up in the morning, we will wash our face with Turkish soap, then we will eat Turkish cheeses with some Turkish breads. After that, we will change our clothes, wearing a Turkish-brand shirt and jeans. Then while going to work, along the road we will see all these new Turkish investment projects. After arriving at our office, we will sit on a Turkish chair surrounded by other Turkish furniture. Later, we will drink Turkish coffee. Then, we will do our job with Turkish-made pen and paper in hand. After some hard work, we will finish our job and go to a Turkish restaurant with our friends to have lunch; there we will be delighted by hearing some Turkish music. Then, home again after a tiring day, we will have a dip in a relaxing Turkish bath. After that, we will sit on a Turkish sofa and listen to news on a Turkish-brand television. At night, we will go to a Turkish shopping center with our family and buy some Turkish products. Later, after finishing our shopping, we will go home to a building made with Turkish tools by Turkish workers. Then, we'll feel sleepy and go to our Turkish-made bed, then have a sweet dream about going to İstanbul for a vacation.
İstanbul is a success story, mixing modernity with its rich authenticity, much ahead of Dubai in all sectors. While Erbil is already becoming the next İstanbul, why it should look to Dubai as a success story?

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

May 2, 2013

Sunni insurgency: Iraq's dissolution and beyond

Iraq's political dilemma has deepened yet further with the bloody clash between the Iraqi Shiite-dominated army and the Sunni protesters in Hawija in southern Kirkuk, that later spread to elsewhere in the Sunni region. However, that was expected. Inspired by the Syrian revolution, demonstrations in the predominately Sunni cities in central and northern Iraq started almost five months ago against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's anti-Sunni policies. They have made seven demands, but the demands have fallen on deaf ears. Now chaos and rebellion spreads in many of the Sunni cities in the northern and central parts of Iraq. Does that signal the beginning of Iraq's dissolution? Or does it suggest the beginning of a sectarian conflict beyond Iraq?              
The Sunni rebellion against the Shiite-led government of Mr. Maliki that was sparked last week has multi-dimensional consequences for the future of Iraq, the Syrian revolution, regional alliances and the sectarian conflict.          
It can be said that the demonstrations in the Sunni cities that began in early January were the first step toward a Sunni region in the central and northern Iraq. But the clashes between demonstrators and the Iraqi army could be considered a bolder step from Sunnis toward forming their region after becoming hopeless about Mr. Maliki's policies that have especially targeted Sunnis, including their leaders. Now, chaos and rebellion are all over the Sunni cities including Musil, Sunnis' biggest city. Sunni fighters are mainly tribal members are trying to establish a de facto Sunni region. Then that means the three-region solution is slowly becoming real, which would seemingly lead to the dissolution of a country called Iraq that has never been fully integrated.          
Here, eyes cannot be blind to the regional powers' role in what's happening in the Sunni cities. A report leaked by Kurdish media in northern Iraq shows that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in line with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is pushing on Sunnis to seize Mr. Maliki in Baghdad and later topple him. Some other reports suggest that Sunni regional powers are pushing Sunnis to build their own region to help the Syrian opposition to attack from Iraq, because most of Iraq's border with Syria is from Anbar and Musil, which are Sunni cities. This is also because they think Mr. Maliki cannot be toppled without overthrowing the Syrian dictator.          
Recent developments in the Sunni region of Iraq have a strong linkage with the Syrian revolution. Protest in the Sunni region first started in Anbar; this city is neighbor to the Syrian city of Dir al-Zur, one of the most anti-Assad cities in Syria. So, the demonstration culture has crossed from the Syrian border to Iraq. If one observes, it can easily be found that the demonstrations that have now developed into armed rebellion have been organized and run just like Syria's.          
What matters most here is the sectarian image that the clash between protesters and the Iraqi government has; that signals another round of sectarian conflict, but what is different this time is that it's very likely to cross the border and engulf the whole region, as we already have it in neighboring Syria.          
To avoid the worst scenario, regional powerhouses, especially Iran and Turkey, should do more to ease the tension and push both sides to stop the violence. Also both Sunni protesters and Mr. Maliki should give up on some of their stubbornness and compromise. However, if Sunnis, like Kurds, want to have their own state, they should be allowed to do so: After all, no one should be forced to live in a state that is already suffering from instability; otherwise, the oblivion will become despair.

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

Apr 10, 2013

Turkey's KRG policy: Is it a healthy one?

KRG President Massoud Barzani (L) greets Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the AK Party congress. (Photo: AA, Kayhan Özer)
The relations between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq are shining nowadays, thanks to economic cooperation and Turkish investment in flourishing cities of the KRG. The energy partnership is expected to boost the ties between the two parties still further. But the Turkish government's political relationship with leaders of northern Iraq seems to be more personal than with the region's authorities as a whole; that's why it lowers the expectations for a long and sustainable relationship between Ankara and the KRG. To avoid that, Turkey should change its policy toward the KRG to a more comprehensive one that embraces all parties of the region.
The ties between Turkey and the KRG have a young history, starting just three years ago. But they have been improving very rapidly. However the relations have mostly remained only with Massoud Barzani and Nechirvan Barzani's Kurdistan Democracy Party (KDP), which controls less than half of the Kurdish region. However, Turkey's relationship with the other parties is very limited. Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls the other part of the KRG, is closer to Iran, and makes up 50 percent of the cabinet. Also, the places that are under the PUK's control have more oil and natural gas than those under the KDP's control, and natural resources are one of the main factors driving the relations between the two parties. This is why many inside the region think that relations between Turkey and the KRG are more personal than the ones between the two national governments. Turkey should seek stronger ties with the PUK because without them, she cannot build an energy partnership with the KRG. Even though Turkey and the PUK already have ties and a high delegation from the PUK visited Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month, these ties are still far weaker compared with the ones with the KDP.

Not only that, if Turkey wants a sustainable partnership with the KRG, it should expand its ties to include the opposition as well, especially the main opposition Gorran movement. The Gorran Movement for Change, which holds 23 percent of the Kurdish parliament, is expected to perform better in the upcoming election, anticipated to be held in August. Gorran is particularly expecting to win in the PUK-held oil-rich territories, which should cause concern for Turkey. Last year, the Turkish government invited Nawsherwan Mustafa, leader of the Gorran movement, to visit Ankara, but that has never happened. While Gorran's relationship with Iran is well established, this could change because this movement is a liberal force; it has no ideological connection to Iran, only shared interests. There is also a possibility that both the PUK and Gorran will make a coalition government without the KDP. Turkey's relations with the KRG will decline at the expense of Iran's because its ally, the KDP, will no longer be the governing party.

Given the fact that Turkey supports democratic change in the region, it should also do the same in the KRG, which suffers from weak democratic institutions and corruption. It should press the ruling parties to make some reforms to consolidate democracy and human rights. If Turkey does those things, then it can secure the supply for its energy-hungry economy with the KRG's huge amount of oil and natural gas.

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

Mar 25, 2013

Iraqi Kurds welcome Öcalan’s message

A wave of reactions, mostly positive, followed Abdullah Öcalan’s call for cease-fire and withdrawal of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters from Turkish territories to northern Iraq, which also raised hope for ultimate peace in Turkey’s Southeast.

Kurdish administrations in northern Iraq that enjoy strong alliance with Turkey welcomed Öcalan’s message. Massoud Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, welcomed the message in a statement and showed his support for it. “This is what we have been calling for for a long time: the settlement of the Kurdish issue through political means not military ones,” Barzani said in the statement. The Kurdish president added, “Peace talks should be considered as a strategic process, not as a tactical or a temporary one.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also sees Öcalan’s message as a positive one. “The KRG welcomes and supports any step from both Kurds and the Turkish government to solve the Kurdish issue through peaceful and political means,” it said in a statement, also calling on both sides not to let anyone sabotage this peace process. 
Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has also shown its support for the message, saying, “We hope Turkey’s new constitution will give equal rights to Turkey’s all ethnic groups.” The PUK’s statement also hoped for an agreement between Turkey’s AKP and the PKK in Turkish parliament.
The main opposition parties in the KRG also supported the message. Nawshirwan Mustafa, leader of the Gorran Movement for Change, an opposition group in the KRG, was among the crowd in Diyarbakır on March 21 when Öcalan’s message was read out. The Kurdistan Islamic Union, another opposition party that is considered to be ideologically close to the AKP, also showed its full support for the message, saying, “We hope everyone sees this message as a turning point in solving the Kurdish issue in Turkey.” The statement also thanked both AKP leader Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish President Abdullah Gül that are “engineers of the peace talks.”
Many Kurdish intellectuals and influential figures also welcomed the message and considered it an important change in Abdullah Öcalan’s and PKK’s mentality.
Meanwhile some ultra-nationalist Kurds especially those living in Europe condemned the message and accused Öcalan for betraying the Kurdish struggle for independence.

Published here earlier:

Jan 28, 2013

Is the rise of political Islam a purely negative phenomenon?*

Two years after the outbreak of what has come to be known as the Arab Spring, the boldest outcome by far has been the rise of political Islam; that’s mainly because Islamic organizations have been among the only forums in which average citizens can express themselves or participate actively in the lives of their communities. However, the story of political Islam hasn’t started here, it has much older record; the wave has first started in Iran, Turkey later Iraq, way before the Arab Spring. Accordingly, the political Islam has been extremely varying from a place to another. Hence, the performance of political Islam has been as diverse as the rainbow, from the dogmatic fundamentalism of Afghanistan’s Taliban to much-praised liberal-oriented the justice and development party in Turkey; that being said, the political Islam is not a purely negative phenomenon.

Islamists versus Islamists
Interestingly all the Middle Eastern powerhouses govern by religious forces from Turkey to Iran, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. However their models are notably diverse, for instance Turkey’s incumbent the Islamic-leaning justice and development party, more commonly known by the initials A.K.P. has been called by many scholars as a new model of political Islam. They have been called Liberal Islamists, liberal in the sense that it respects people’s liberty to choose between Islam and non-Islam, between piety and vice. This liberal experiment of Turkey’s ruling the A.K.P. is becoming a model for Islamist parties in the Arab Spring countries that they already won elections in both Egypt and Tunisia and formed governments. “If Turkey succeeds in that liberal experiment, and drafts its new constitution-in-the-making accordingly, it can set a promising example for Islamist-led governments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere” Mustafa Akyol has written in a piece on The New York Times.
However in the same time, there is the model of Iran, where there is authoritarian theocracy with some elements of modern democratic states such as frequent periodic elections. Furthermore, there is also the model of Saudi Arabia where there is a mix of theocracy and tradition. This is a more totalitarian model of theocracy than Iran’s because of the strong presence of traditions that limit civic freedoms further more. Moreover, the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that found in 1928, but gained power in 2012 could be considered another and different model of political Islam. The Economist in an article that published in late 2011 defines the Muslim Brotherhood as “professing a fairly moderate version of Islam, the Brotherhood is known for its political savvy as well as its resilience and discipline.” This trend that could be considered the widest in the Islamic world is called: democratic Islamism. But, this model might not be liberal like Turkey’s because as Fareed Zakaria says in his book The future of freedom: Illiberal democracy at home and abroad “there are illiberal democracies, too, where the majority’s power is not checked by constitutional liberalism, and the rights and freedoms of all citizens are not secured”. Also in Egypt another type of political Islam is in emergence that is closer to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis. This trend has been called Salafism. They seek to purge the faith of modern masses and impose literal interpretations of dogma. 

Is the rise of political Islam purely negative?
Perhaps the negative image of political Islam is not based on nothing; many Islamists have a notorious history, particularly the ones that ruled before the Arab Spring with exception of Turkey. The Islamic models of Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan and somehow Hamas in Gaza have been considered failure especially with the lenses of the western democratic liberals. However despite the negative commonplace on political Islam that has become stereotype in the west, and in many Islamic countries equally, the rise of political Islam is certainly not purely negative.
A major positivity of the rise of political Islam is engagement of Islamists in the democratic system, while they have been for long perceived as opponents of it. In a country like Egypt, the ultra-Orthodox Salafis until very recently were denouncing participation in the elections or representation in the parliament, but now they have the second biggest share in the parliament. This could be considered an impressive change in the mentality of this fundamentalist group that has picked the ballot box rather than the gun barrel. Even further moderation in their ideology is expected as they face the responsibility of governing. 
The rise of political Islam has also become a strong setback for Jihadists, particularly Al-Qaeda. Many religious youths in the region has joined Jihadist group because they have seen no hope for peaceful change, and they have been oppressed, while it is believed that Islamists will become more moderate when they are not oppressed. Therefore, the rise of Islamists within the new democracies in the region is an automatic setback for aggressive Jihadists. Safwat Abdel-Ghani, the leader of an Egyptian Salafist group says, “Al-Qaeda has not been destroyed by the ‘war on terror' but by popular revolutions that made it unnecessary”.
Another good sign of the rise of political Islam is the diversity. In spite of their landslide popularity in many countries in the region, the range of Islamists can be a guarantee of democratic systems in those countries. Things would be more concerning if Islamists were united in a single worldview. A good example here would be Iraq. With the current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, an Islamist, is consolidation power that threatens the democratic system in Iraq, his opponents that are mainly Islamists are moving to fade off his dream to establish another autocracy, in another form, in Iraq. Now if all Islamists were united in one worldview, the return of autocracy was much more likely. Here, Islamists are becoming guardians of democracy because pluralistic democracy can protect their interest.
A wave of conservatisms is surrounding the Middle East and elsewhere. Islamists can contain them, which is good, because otherwise they might not be controlled. In a country like Egypt only Islamists can reflect the mass, as an overwhelming majority is conservative. Here one can be optimistic, as Islamists are reflecting the majority, otherwise the option for many would be terror.
More positive than all what have been mentioned above is that Islamists can be even more democratic than seculars as in the case of Turkey. The ruling A.K.P. has swept the country toward further democratization since gained power a decade ago. The minorities rights that have always been a black stain on Islamists faces have been considerably widen for Kurds, an ethnical group, and Alevis, a secular sect of Islam. Furthermore political liberalism has been flourished and the country is expected to liberalize further with a new constitution is in the making.
With the rise of political Islam, science is also expected to come back, after centuries of stagnation. In countries like Egypt and Tunisia there are promising reforms in the way university posts are filled. People are being elected, rather than appointed by the regime. Even the other countries of the region that rules by Islamists are performing much better in science than other non-Islamic countries. According to a report by the Economist research spending in Turkey increased by over 10% each year between 2005 and 2010, by which year its cash outlays were twice Norway’s. In the category of best-regarded mathematics papers, Iran now performs well above average, with 1.7% of its papers among the most-cited 1%. 

The late rise of political Islam is gradually reducing the widely negative image on Islamists. The relative success of Turkish model of liberal Islamism may liberalize the other moderate Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region as well. Yet, one cannot be in total optimism as there is fear that the soft and moderate version of political Islam may witness failure, in this case the re-rise of the violent Jihadists is expected. After all the rise of political Islam is still in the making, it has not been completed; that’s why positivity or negativities of it may unpredictably change.

* This is a university essay, but I have rewritten it in a less academic form.

Jan 16, 2013

Shedding Light on the Paris Killing Mystery

Abdulla Hawez 

Many scenarios have been put forward to explain the recent murders of the three Paris-based Kurdish activists (Sakîne Cansiz - Fîdan Dogan - Leyla Soylemez), all of whom were members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party,­ more commonly known by the initials PKK.  Most of these explanations were overly hasty and unconvincing, with a few exceptions.  Here I show why neither Turkish ultra-nationalist, nor a radical wing inside the PKK carried out the assassinations; but an external force that wants to derail the peace talks committed it.
The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan stated a couple hours after the incident that “it might be an internal conflict”. Mr. Erdogan’s evidence is that “the killer or killers had gotten into a building with a security door code, and had somehow managed to get into the office without breaking down the door”. In reality, there is very thin evidence to support this. According to witnesses “the building where assassination took place was not that difficult to access as claimed” says Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a journalist who traveled to Paris after the incident. “The assassination was professionally planned” he adds. It seems to be planned and done by a powerful intelligence agency. There are speculations that they opened door to killers. Killers might have followed them in.
It is true that the PKK contains various wings. It is also true that some are more radical than others. However, unlike all previous occasions, all the factions of the PKK are in agreement on the present negotiations with the Turkish government, simply because the negotiator is Abdullah Öcalan. Mr. Öcalan is the pillar that unites all the factions of the PKK and the other organizations related to it. The hunger strike that lasted more than 60 days in the fall of last year showed how powerful he is. According to a leader of the PKK who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the current situation, Sakîne Cansiz, the main target of the assassination, was one of the consensus-building leaders who had worked to balance relations between the PKK’s different wings. Some Turkish media outlets are claiming that Cansiz was killed because she was “pro- peace talks”, without acknowledging that all the PKK factions are presently pro- peace talks, because of the involvement of Mr. Öcalan, whom they see as their spiritual father.
For the first time, roughly all the major players in Turkish politics agreed on the necessity for negotiations between the Turkish government and the imprisoned leader of the PKK. Even the Turkish nationalists agreed that it was time to tackle the decades-long Kurdish issue: this was not because they wished to embrace the PKK, or even the current government, but simply because there are serious threats to Turkey’s unity at present; more, in fact, than at any previous time. All Turkish political factions are aware of this. The rapid developments in neighboring Syria and Iraq, especially regarding the case of the Kurds in these countries, are threatening Turkey. Furthermore, this year was very tough for the Turkish army, as hundreds of them have been killed in some of the bloodiest encounters with the PKK since 1991.  Interestingly, the Turkish ultra-nationalists, who have a lavish record of assassinating Kurdish dissidents inside Turkey, have not much that record abroad -- even when they were much stronger than now. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is the main opposition party and includes as its members much of the shadowy world of the notorious Turkish "deep state", has notably welcomed the negotiations.  
According to a Wikileaks cable, more than five years ago the American ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, advised the Turkish government to limit the financial resources of the PKK in Europe by arresting both Reza Altun and Sakîne Cansiz. Altun had been one of the main money collectors for the PKK in Europe and was jailed in France in July 2006, and later exiled to Iraqi Kurdistan.  Cansiz, one of the three targets in the Paris incident was according to the US ambassador’s report the agent responsible for the purchase of the PKK’s weapons. She was also, according to Turkish media, one of the PKK negotiators in the Oslo talks between the Turkish intelligence agency and the PKK. She was arrested Germany on the 27th of August 2007 and held for forty days before being released by the court of Hamburg.
The main target of the Paris incident is Sakîne Cansiz; the other two were in the wrong place and in the wrong time. This scenario seems unlikely because Cansiz had supported the peace talks and disarmament of the PKK if the talks succeeded. If the Wikileaks wire proves correct, the Turkish government might have been trying to send multiple messages by ordering the hit. First, to show the PKK it’s capability to hit hard even if the negotiations were to fail. Second, to force the PKK to accept difficult concessions. Additionally, it may have had the purpose of widening the differences inside the PKK by persuading some portion of its members as well as the world at large that the Paris incident was an internal conflict over the peace talks with the Turkish government.
The most probable scenario is that an external force committed the assassinations. This scenario is the strongest amongst all scenarios for several reasons. This is the first time that both the Turkish and Kurdish sides have been seriously engaging in peace talks that might finally disentangle the Kurdish question. The only barrier that has blocked Turkey’s development has been the Kurdish issue. Solving this problem would be a big step for Turkey in terms of economy, foreign policy and joining the EU. This would automatically be a setback for Turkey’s regional rivals, especially those who have Kurdish minorities; namely Iran and Syria. Mr. Erdogan once said that terrorism has cost Turkey more than 400 billion dollars, in spite of the lost of many human resources. We can see that the region is passing through a crucial period that might witness the remapping of the political landscape. With Mr. Erdogan’s government backing the Syrian opposition, the Paris incident might be well linked with the events in the neighboring Syria. We should consider that previous week the Syrian wing of the PKK fought with the regime forces for the first time. This was a very important development as the PKK had been allied with the regime before. Iran, an important regional powerhouse, is also concerned. If the Kurds in Turkey finally find peace, the Kurds of Iran, who compromise 10% of the population, will probably be motivated to seek autonomy, especially as a growing number of them have been hanged lately. Additionally, the PKK that once was part of the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis, might distance itself from them if the peace talks in Turkey succeed. Therefore the peace talks contain multiple negative possibilities for Iran. Aside from all this, we should consider that Iran has a long and notorious history of foreign assassination, from the famous Kurdish politician Abdul Rahman Qasimlo to Sadiq Sharafkandi and Fazil Rasul, both Kurdish politicians. There can be more than one message if the culprit is Iran. First, to the PKK leaders, that nowhere will be safe or peaceful for you, even if you get an agreement with the Turkish government to disarm and reside in Europe. Second, to the Turkish government, that they are capable of poisoning any efforts to reconcile with adversaries on Turkish soil: not while the Turkish state supports the toppling of Iran’s most important ally, the Syrian regime.
Why Paris? For two reasons: because they wanted to target Sakîne Cansiz, the PKK’s most controversial leader, both the Turkish government and the PKK can be accused of murdering her, this way Iran would be distanced from the case. The second reason: because she was based in Paris because Turkey’s ties with France had been deteriorating over the French parliament’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, which Ankara denies.
Whoever is the perpetrator, it should be denounced. Those who carried this action out are dark forces who want bloodshed to continue, and don’t want a prosperous Turkey to emerge from a lasting peace.