The southern Syrian “ceasefire” and fall of Mosul

Jul 13, 2017

The southern Syrian “ceasefire” and fall of Mosul

Update from AIJAC

Update 07/17 #02

With the US, Russia and Jordan agreeing to a ceasefire in south-west Syria and the recapture of Mosul from Islamic State, this Update looks at the implications for the region and in particular how these new developments could affect Israel’s security and Kurdish independence.

First up is Anthony J Blinken, managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, and former deputy-secretary of state in the Obama Administration.  In Blinken’s op-ed “The Islamic State Is Not Dead Yet” in the New York Times he writes that while many will be celebrating the end of the caliphate, the US should assist Iraq with strategies to prevent Islamic State 2.0 and this will include engaging millions of alienated Sunnis. To read Blinken’s piece CLICK HERE.

Next up Foreign Policy reveals that the “Secret Details of the Trump-Putin Syria Cease-fire Focus on Iranian proxies” in a piece by Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary.  The article explains that the confidential US-Russian ceasefire agreement that went into effect on July 9 calls for the barring of Iranian-backed foreign fighters including Hezbollah from a strategic stretch of Syrian territory near the borders of Israel and Jordan, according to three diplomatic sources.  However, the article notes that “with Iran in the driver’s seat” there is scepticism as to whether Russia can deliver on this deal. To see the details CLICK HERE

Meanwhile, independent researcher at the Washington Institute Nahwi Saeed discusses the implications of Iraqi Kurdistan holding a referendum for its independence on September 25. Saeed argues that while the yes vote is expected to win, a genuine solution will require compromise rather than a unilateral referendum. To read Saeed’s perspective CLICK HERE.


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The Islamic State Is Not Dead Yet


By Anthony J Blinken

New York Times, July 9, 2017

The liberation of Mosul – the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Iraq — marks a turning point in the war against the world’s most dangerous terrorist group. Daesh, as the Islamic State is known throughout the Middle East, no longer controls significant territory in Iraq where it can harbor foreign fighters or exploit resources, like oil.

And its core narrative — building an actual state — is in tatters. But while the Trump administration will be right to celebrate the end of the caliphate as we know it, it is far too soon to feel comfortable, especially in the absence of a strategy for the day after Daesh.

Fifteen years ago, at the start of President George W. Bush’s run-up to the invasion of Iraq, then-Senators Joe Biden and Richard Lugar raised a prescient concern: “When Saddam Hussein is gone, what would be our responsibilities? This question has not been explored but may prove to be the most critical.”

Substitute “Islamic State” for “Saddam Hussein” and the question they posed retains a fierce urgency today. Even when the Islamic State is defeated militarily, the political and economic conditions that facilitated its rise — unleashed in part by the 2003 invasion — will continue to fester. How, then, to ensure that Daesh stays defeated?

Most urgent is a fully resourced effort to stabilize, secure, govern and rebuild liberated cities so that displaced people can come home safely.

The good news is that a coalition of 68 countries led by the United States to fight the Islamic State has raised the necessary funds to start that process through the United Nations. A similar plan exists for Syria.

But the ongoing civil war there will make it challenging to implement, as evidenced by the slow process of bringing the city of Tabqa — liberated two months ago and a gateway to the Islamic State’s Syrian capital in Raqqa — back to life.

Even more challenging is what comes next. Twenty-five million Sunni Muslims live between Baghdad and Damascus. They have been alienated from their governments.

Unless they can be convinced that their state will protect and not persecute them, an Islamic State 2.0 will find plenty of new recruits and supporters.

Iraq offers the best prospects for success. But left to their own devices, its leaders are more likely to perpetuate the conditions that gave rise to violent extremism. And Iraq’s neighbors will line up behind whichever sect they support, reinforcing a zero-sum mentality in Iraq itself.

That’s where American diplomacy comes in.

The United States can’t dictate outcomes to a sovereign Iraq. But it can support, incentivize and mobilize those willing to move Iraq in the right direction.

This starts with backing what Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, calls functioning federalism — giving Iraqis at the provincial level the responsibility and resources to provide for their own security, services and schools and to govern their day-to-day lives.

That’s the best way to convince Sunnis that their future is within Iraq and not with a new Islamic State. Iraq’s Sunnis used to oppose federalism in favor of a strong central government; increasingly, they embrace it.

Iraq’s constitution provides for decentralization, but it has yet to be put into effect. Some within the Shia community, goaded on by Iran, will insist on retaining the spoils of majoritarian rule, preserving a dominant Baghdad to lord it over the Sunnis.

Bringing functioning federalism to life begins with effectively implementing a law that governs Iraq’s militia, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Shiite P.M.F. units must be placed under state control, kept out of politics and away from Sunni areas.

Sunni P.M.F. units mobilized into the fight against the Islamic State need to stay on the state payroll and assume responsibility for securing their own territory. Baghdad also must make sure that investment and major infrastructure projects don’t bypass Sunni regions.

At the same time, the Trump administration should use the strong relations it has built with Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors to press them to engage Baghdad and advance Iraq’s regional integration, while moderating the Sunni community’s ambitions.

Their absence from Iraq has left a vacuum for Iran to fill. Their unconditional support for every Sunni demand feeds the sectarianism that further empowers Iran with Baghdad and risks tearing Iraq apart.

Kurdish ambitions pose an equally volatile challenge to Iraq’s stability. The Kurdish region’s leader, Massoud Barzani, has called for a referendum on independence in September.

Meanwhile, the Kurds have taken advantage of the fight against the Islamic State to seize control of 70 percent of the territories in northern Iraq that are in dispute between Arabs and Kurds, and which they won’t be inclined to give up. Kurdish independence is a powerful dream and Mr. Barzani sees its realization as the heart of his legacy.

But moving too fast will incur the wrath of both Baghdad and the Sunnis, not to mention Turkey and Iran. If oil prices stay low, the Kurds will be hard pressed to become self-sufficient.

Here too, the United States should resume its role as an honest broker. There’s a deal to be made that gives the Kurds greater control over the oil in their region, while keeping federal troops out and negotiating joint responsibility for the disputed and oil-rich city of Kirkuk. It won’t happen by itself.

One final question: What, if any, United States military presence should remain in Iraq to help make sure the Islamic State does not rise again?

America’s departure at the end of 2011 reflected the reality then, that most Iraqis simply wanted us gone. Now, as Iraq awakes from the Daesh nightmare, there may be greater appetite to keep some Americans around to train and enable Iraqi forces, and to provide intelligence and counterterrorism support — but not to engage in combat. How the Trump administration navigates this political minefield will be another crucial test of its strategy.

Antony J. Blinken, a managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, was a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration and is a contributing opinion writer.


Article 2

Secret Details of Trump-Putin Syria Cease-fire Focus on Iranian Proxies

But experts doubt whether the U.S.-Russian pact can be enforced.

By Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce, Paul McLeary
Foreign Policy, July 11, 2017

Secret Details of Trump-Putin Syria Cease-fire Focus on Iranian Proxies

A confidential U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement for southwestern Syria that went into effect Sunday calls for barring Iranian-backed foreign fighters from a strategic stretch of Syrian territory near the borders of Israel and Jordan, according to three diplomatic sources.

President Donald Trump hailed it as an important agreement that would serve to save lives. But few details of the accord have been made public.

U.S. Defense Department officials — who would have responsibility for monitoring the agreement — appeared to be in the dark about the pact’s fine print.

The pact is aimed at addressing demands by Israel and Jordan — the latter is a party to the agreement — that Iranian forces and their proxies, including Hezbollah, not be permitted near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which separates Syria from Israel, or along the Jordanian border.

But former U.S. diplomats and observers question whether the agreement is truly enforceable, expressing doubts that Russia could act as a reliable guarantor for a cease-fire involving the Syrian regime, Iran, and its proxies.

“The question is, ‘Who is going to enforce that?’ Is Russia going to take on the responsibility for telling Iran what to do?” said Gerald Feierstein, a veteran U.S. diplomat who retired last year, noting that a peace deal without Iranian buy-in is untenable. “Iranians are much closer to Assad’s position on the way forward in Syria than the Russians are.”

And they have far more leverage. “It’s the Iranians and their proxies who are doing a bulk of the fighting inside Syria,” he told Foreign Policy.

With Iran in the driver’s seat, seasoned U.S. diplomats expressed doubts that the Kremlin could deliver on its promises. “The key to the survival of the Assad regime is Iran, not Russia,” said Fred Hof, a former State Department special advisor for transition in Syria. “Are the Russians trying to rush this [agreement] through without a firm understanding with the regime and without clear understanding of what the ‘or else’ is?”

Since May, the Russians have failed to persuade Iranian-backed militia groups or the Syrian regime to respect a “deconfliction zone” that American commanders had declared near a U.S. outpost in southeastern Syria. Although U.S. officers informed their Russian counterparts about the zone around Tanf, Iranian-backed militias and Syrian fighter jets ignored the warning and moved toward U.S. special operations forces and their Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies. As a result, U.S. aircraft shot down a Syrian fighter jet and an Iranian-made drone and struck Iranian-backed militias in the area.

Given the track record so far, “Why should we believe that it will be different under this cease-fire?” one congressional staffer asked.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasemi, reacted coolly to the pact, saying it contained some “ambiguities” and that “no agreement would be successful without taking the realities on the ground into account.”

“Iran is seeking Syria’s sovereignty and security so a cease-fire cannot be limited to a certain location,” Qasemi was quoted saying by Tasnim News Agency.

Not everyone was so pessimistic. Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said southwestern Syria’s relative calm — and Washington’s continued influence among U.S.-trained opposition factions fighting President Bashar al-Assad — make it a natural proving ground for U.S. and Russian cooperation.

If successful, such cooperation could be employed in other parts of the country. “I think it’s worth a try,” Tabler said. “If we’re going to test something, this is a good place to test it.”

The pact — detailed in a Memorandum of Principle for De-escalation in Southern Syria — established a cease-fire between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups that came into force on Sunday. It calls for transforming southern Syria below Quneitra and Suwayda into an exclusion zone for fighters of “non-Syrian origin,” including Iranian troops, their proxies, and fighters linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which have a limited presence in the area.

“This could be designed mainly to reassure the Israelis that these elements would not be operating in proximity to the Golan Heights,” said Hof, who is now at the Atlantic Council.

The accord calls for maintaining existing governance and security arrangements in opposition-held areas in southwestern Syria, a provision aimed at dissuading Syrian government forces from retaking territory in the area. But some observers said the arrangement could also help turn a de facto partition of southern Syria into a permanent one. “This entrenches Syria’s partition further,” one diplomatic observer said.

The accord also calls for the unimpeded access for humanitarian aid workers and for the creation of conditions for the return of refugees from southwestern Syria. Jordan has received more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees since the conflict began more than six years ago.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Monday the establishment of a monitoring center in Jordan, but State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert declined to confirm any specifics. “Mr. Lavrov likes to talk a lot,” she said.

A State Department official told FP that the United States and Russia are still trying to work out the details of the pact, “including how to monitor the cease-fire, the rules that would govern the southwest de-escalation area, and the presence of monitors.”

“We are looking at various options for the monitoring arrangement in which information can be exchanged and violations resolved,” the official said.

When asked if she was optimistic about the cease-fire holding, Nauert demurred. “Perhaps optimism is too strong a word. But I think it is promising, in a certain sense, we have been able to get the cease-fire underway,” she said.

The White House did not respond to queries about the cease-fire deal.

The agreement — finalized following Trump’s recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin — calls for more coordination among the former Cold War superpowers in the fight against terrorists in Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that the pact may serve as a model for further cooperation in northern Syria and provides the “first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.”

It also marked a recognition by Moscow that a separate effort to negotiate a cease-fire in Astana, Kazakhstan, with Iran and Turkey was foundering. On May 4, the three powers signed an agreement to establish four so-called “de-escalation zones” throughout Syria. But they have been unable to agree on whose forces would monitor those cease-fires.

“Not necessarily a brilliant deal for the Russians,” one diplomatic source said. “I suspect that after the humiliating failure of Astana, Putin needed a ‘success’ to announce and divert attention from Astana failure.”

The cease-fire would be overseen by officials from the United States, Russia, and Jordan at a monitoring cell in Amman, Jordan. Israel is not a formal party to the pact but has been actively involved behind the scenes in the discussions leading up to the agreement.

Hof said the provision for a joint monitoring center resembles a plan put forward by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to coordinate efforts to confront extremists in northwestern Syria. “[U.S. Central Command] was very, very, very skeptical about that when it was first proposed,” Hof said. “They feared being hoodwinked by the Russians into some kind of attack on an urban area that would produce massive civilian casualties.”

In fact, it appears that the military was not consulted this time around. On Monday, BuzzFeed News reported that top Pentagon officials were not involved in the planning or briefed on their role in the arrangement.

A military officer confirmed to FP that the Pentagon and Centcom have very little information about the proposed cease-fire and said, “We’re getting to that level of understanding this week.”

American aircraft rarely operate in southwestern Syria, but “we’ll certainly respect the cease-fire,” the officer said, adding that the U.S. military hasn’t decided if it would fly combat air patrols to enforce any agreement.

The more likely situation would see a “remote” monitoring agreement, where U.S. military personnel would sit together with Russian officers at the proposed facility in Amman, the officer said, though “we have to figure out exactly what it means, and we have to figure out what the terms of reference are between the Russians and us and if the Syrians are even a party to it.”

U.S. troops won’t be working directly with Iranians or Syrians, however. “Our operating assumption is if the Iranians and Syrians will want to be informed, the Russians are going to be the intermediary on all things,” the officer said.

“The United States remains committed to defeating ISIS, helping to end the conflict in Syria, reducing suffering, and enabling people to return to their homes,” Trump’s national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, said last Friday, referring to the Islamic State. “This agreement is an important step toward these common goals.”

But questions lingered about its workability.

The region is occupied by several armed opposition groups backed by the United States, Turkey, Jordan, and Persian Gulf states and also includes small pockets of forces loyal to al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The United States exercises little influence over such extremist groups, making them potential spoilers.

On July 9, Trump tweeted that the Syrian cease-fire seems to be holding. For Moscow, the pact placed Putin in the role of peacemaker, even as Russia continued to provide air support for Syrian offensive operations.

“This is a sop for Russia,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria scholar at the University of Oklahoma. “The Americans can’t police this situation.”

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Robbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues.


Article 3

The Kurdish Referendum and the Status of Kirkuk


By Nahwi Saeed

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 5, 2017

Iraqi Kurdistan has finally set September 25 as the date for an independence referendum. After Mosul fell to the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, Massoud Barzani announced that the region will hold a referendum on independence, as Iraq has already essentially partitioned. Barzani renewed his call for a referendum on February 2, 2016. Calling for a referendum has raised hackles in Baghdad time and again;  this time, the referendum is going to cover the disputed territories of Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Sinjar, and Makhmour. It is expected that the yes vote for independence will win, but the real question is: is it possible to settle the problem of Kirkuk and the disputed territories through a unilateral referendum?

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, particular attention was paid to Kirkuk by Iraqi and non-Iraqi policymakers alike. This is mainly due to the fact that the city has been a point of dispute between the Kurds and successive Iraqi governments for more than seventy years. Article 58 of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), Iraq’s provisional constitution in 2004, committed the Iraqi government to “act expeditiously to remedy the injustice caused by the previous regime’s practices in altering the demographic character of certain regions, including Kirkuk”. In 2005, the new Iraqi constitution was adopted and ratified. Article 140 replaced Article 58 of the TAL, calling for a three-step process in Kirkuk and other disputed territories involving ‘normalization,’ to be followed by a census, and then finally a referendum to determine whether or not the citizens of Kirkuk want to join the Kurdistan region.  In accordance with Article 140, the status of Kirkuk was set to be settled through a referendum to be held no later than  December 31, 2007. But that deadline has long passed and the status of Kirkuk has remained as is.

The UN also tried to find a solution for Kirkuk. In April 2009, UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura formally presented UNAMI report on disputed territories to Iraqi central government officials and the KRG president. Four possible options for resolving the dispute over Kirkuk were given: 1) reformulating Article 140 to make it unambiguous and clear, which would mean clarifying eligibility and voter registration and the physical boundaries of the area; 2) retaining Kirkuk’s status as a governorate that is not organized into a region, as with the other Iraqi governorates; 3) “dual nexus” which administratively links Kirkuk to both Baghdad and the KRG; and 4) “special status” that gives Kirkuk special administrative powers different from any other province in Iraq with high degree of administrative self-rule and less direct influence from Baghdad and Erbil. However, the report did not receive a particularly enthusiastic welcome and was rejected by both Baghdad and KRG. The inability of the disputing parties to agree upon one of the above options was a major reason for overlooking the UNAMI report.

Many other suggestions have been made by academics and research centers since 2003. The International Crisis Group (ICG), for example, has recommended several solutions. In 2006, they suggested that Kirkuk should become a stand-alone federal region for an interim period of ten years with power-sharing between its four communities. However, there was not any real incentive for the Kurds and was therefore overlooked. The ICG outlined another solution in 2008 call the “oil for soil” deal. This would allow the Kurds to use the oil fields within the Kurdistan region in exchange for deferring Kurdish claim to Kirkuk. This deal was also rejected by the Kurds, one explanation being that the suggested deal gave the Kurds nothing they did not already have as the region was already able to manage its own oil and gas.

Thus, all attempts to solve the Kirkuk problem have failed since 2003. One reason for not being able to reach a solution to the governance problem is because it is usually linked to the question of territory.
Settling ethno-territorial conflicts have generally proven more difficult and elusive than those over political interests. In Kirkuk, due to the emotional and historical claims over disputed territories, even if leaders could reach an agreement they would find it difficult to justify any compromises to their constituents.

After the fall of Mosul in 2014, however, a new era began in Iraq in which the Kurds appear to be the main winners and are strong enough not to have to compromise. Now the Peshmerga have taken over most of the disputed territories. Soon after taking control of Kirkuk, Barzani made a visit to the city and vowed that the Peshmerga would never withdraw. From the Kurds’ perspective, the Peshmerga liberated these areas and all sides should be committed to the new reality.

Many Kurds believe that as Article 140 was not implemented and negotiations have failed time and again, the time is now ripe to incorporate Kirkuk into the Kurdish region via referendum. The referendum, however, is expected to spark a showdown with Baghdad and the local communities of Arabs and Turkmen living in the disputed territories. Indeed, Arab-Kurdish conflict over Kirkuk and other disputed territories in the post-IS period will be the biggest potential threat to stability in Iraq.

In addition, the heavy presence of the Popular Mobilization Units and the role of Iran and Turkey cannot be underestimated. The Kurdish leadership appears to be well aware of these obstacles, which is why they have already announced that this referendum will be legally non-binding. They understand that holding a unilateral, legally-binding referendum would be punching above their weight.

The problem of Kirkuk and the disputed territories cannot be solved through any unilateral referendum by any of the parties involved. A real solution can only be achieved through a compromise in which all the parties will have to make concessions.

Nahwi Saeed is an independent researcher. His research interests are centered on democracy in divided societies, coexistence between varying ethnic groups in post-conflict situations, power-sharing and the prevention of ethnic conflict in post-conflict societies with the focus on Iraq and KRG.




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