Tag Archives: Kurds

Iraqi Ballot Warehouse Catches Fire

On Sunday, June 10, an election ballot warehouse caught fire in the al-Rusafa district of Baghdad. The fire affected only one of four warehouse buildings before being extinguished. The fire burned for several hours, but there were mixed reports regarding the extent of the damage. Iraqi officials have suggested no ballot boxes were destroyed, and that only some of the electronic voting machines were impacted by the blaze.

Baghdad provincial council member, Muhammad al-Rabeei, however, claimed that all “boxes and papers have been burned,” although most members of Iraq’s government have maintained that the ballots were not impacted.

On Monday, Iraqi police arrested four suspects involved in the warehouse fire. Three of them were members of the police and the other was a member of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC). Abadi has directed all provinces to enact stricter security measures to protect other warehouses throughout the country.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the fire a “deliberate plot” against the Iraqi government and its attempts at building a democracy. The fire comes just days after the Iraqi Parliament ordered a mandatory nationwide recount of votes in the parliamentary election on May 12.

The Baghdad Post also reports that there were attempts to eliminate a storage site used to house ballot boxes for displaced Iraqi nationals in Jordan as well. The report did not contain information on who made the attempts or the results.

The results of the election could potentially have a major effect on Iraq’s relationship to the United States. The coalition of Shia cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr captured 54 of 328 Parliamentary seats, the largest amount of any party. Sadr has made a long history of fighting U.S. soldiers over the course of the Iraq War, so to see his coalition capture a plurality of parliamentary seats is an alarming development for U.S. and international efforts of bringing stability to the war-torn country.

A few weeks after the May 12 election, Iraqi intelligence officials presented a report recommending a partial recount due to the unreliability of the new voting machines and other instances of voting violations. The fallout of this report and other allegations of fraud spread far and wide. Members of the IHEC were also barred from travelling abroad.

The issue expected to have the largest impact on Iraqi governance is the annulment of thousands of votes, including those cast by displaced Iraqis abroad. Among the annulled votes were votes cast in Sunni-dominated districts of Anbar, Saladin, and Diyala. Iraq has a long history of catastrophic violence between the majority Shia and minority groups, the Sunnis and Kurds. Each of these groups must view the government as legitimate for Iraq to be successful. The annulment of votes from Sunnis is evidence that sectarian issues, especially between Shia and Sunni, are still ongoing in Iraqi politics.

Also on Sunday, Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council named nine new judges to take over the responsibilities of the IHEC and oversee the national recount. Sadr rejected calls for a rerun, instead calling on Iraqis to respect the results of the election. He warned of a devolution into civil war if the political parties were unable to reach a consensus over the election.

Less than a week ago, on June 6th, a mosque linked to Sadr exploded, killing and injuring dozens. There was also an attack on the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), and members of the party claimed the attack was a “deep state” response to the party’s calls to reform the Iraqi government. The ICP has formed an alliance with Sadr to form the Sairoun Alliance to run on nationalist Iraqi policies and rid Iraq of foreign influence, especially from Iran.

Many of the lawmakers who voted for the recount, including the Vice President and Speaker of the Parliament, were part of the losing coalition. Sadr’s coalition boycotted the vote, claiming those responsible for burning the equipment were trying to cancel the election and hide fraudulent voting practices.

Sadr’s claim that some in Iraqi government are attempting to undermine the election has at least a hint of truth, based on the attack and the warehouse fire. Sadr has presented himself as an anti-West, anti-Iran politician, contrasting with current leaders of the government. Sadr has previous ties to Iran, though it was apparent the Iranians only supported him in the fight against Western-backed Coalition Forces. Highlighting corruption caused by Iranian influence in the government, Sadr’s electoral success has caused issues for Iran. The Iranian government will lose influence in its Shia-dominated neighbor, simultaneously hindering its ability to implement policies disruptive to American goals. Sadr has advocated for civil laws that he insists will rid the government of corrupting external forces and create a free, independent Iraq.

Because Sadr’s coalition fell short of the 165 seats required to maintain a majority, it is believed that his Sairoun Alliance will attempt to form a coalition with the Nasr Coalition, led by Prime Minister Abadi. The Nasr Coalition won 42 seats, and the Sairoun Alliance further aligned with the moderate Shia Hikmah party and the secular Wataniyya party. These seats plus the Sairoun’s 54 give the coalition a total of 136 seats. To gain a majority, these two groups will likely have to gain significant support among Sunni and Kurdish groups, though the Hikmah party has made a point of campaigning in Kurdish territories.

Although not likely to form close ties with Iran, this coalition may not be friendly to the U.S. either. It is possible that Abadi, who openly cooperates with the U.S., is again appointed as Prime Minister, though Sadr’s coalition may resist additional U.S. military involvement in counterterror operations. With this arrangement, Iran will still keep its influence among many in the government. However, Sadr’s deliberate campaign against external influence may restrain some of Iran’s ability to effect Iraqi policies. Sadr’s government could have a similar effect on American influence, but if he aligns with Abadi as expected, Sadr’s new coalition would oppose further Iranian influence, while reluctantly cooperating with the U.S. out of necessity.

At present, there is a significant possibility Iran was responsible for burning the warehouse in Baghdad and targeting the one in Jordan. Many in Iraq’s current government have close ties with Iran, and the four arrested could have been directed by loyalists to the Iranian government. Iran opposes Moqtada al-Sadr, who has expressed anti-Iranian sentiments and rode those sentiments to victories in the election. Attacking the electoral process will result in a recount, where there exists the possibility of Sadr’s party losing a few seats, potentially allowing the Iranian-backed Fatah party to add to their current 47 seats. A Fatah party victory would mean the eventual coalition would have stronger ties to Iran than to the U.S., which would mark a drastic shift in Iraqi foreign policy and a huge loss of influence for the U.S. government.

For the time being, it seems the best outcome the United States can hope for is a coalition between Sadr’s party and Abadi’s party to both maintain its influence in the Iraqi government and oppose further influence from the Iranian government. This scenario would allow the U.S. to continue its counterterror operations, continue assisting Iraqi forces in security operations, and curtail Iranian activities in Iraq. This election is the first since the defeat of the Islamic State caliphate, so the results represent a good checkpoint to determine the success of U.S. goals in Iraq.

US Airstrikes Pro-Assad Fighters

On February 7th and 8th in the Khusham province of Syria, the United States military killed approximately 100 members of a pro-Assad militia, according to U.S. military officials.

Airstrikes were called in after about 500 attackers launched a coordinated assault, by firing mortars 5 miles east of the Euphrates river, targeting U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The mortar fire covered the advance of artillery and tanks. The U.S. responded after 20-30 tank and artillery rounds landed within 500 yards of U.S. allies.

U.S. officials said that the airstrikes were launched in “self-defense.” U.S. military officials called their Russian counterparts and warned them about the buildup. The Russians reportedly told the Americans that U.S.-backed forces would not be harmed. The U.S. and Russia back opposing forces in the area, which has necessitated a substantial deconfliction effort.

While the U.S. defended the SDF against pro-Assad forces the same cannot be said about the SDF coalition member the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has come under repeated attack from Turkish forces.

Recently the YPG and Turkey clashed in the city of Afrin. Turkish forces are attempting to push YPG forces back from the Turkish border and capture the city.

The city of Manbij is the farthest west U.S. troops are stationed with the SDF in the fight against the Islamic State. This means so far, no U.S. troops have been endangered by Turkish strikes, even while the Turkish offensive has undermined U.S. efforts against the Islamic State.

The U.S. has largely avoided taking any steps that could be interpreted by the Turks as defending the YPG, but the rhetoric is escalating.

On February 6th, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who directly threatened Manbij calling it a “Bastion of terrorists” and demanding that U.S. forces leave. The Americans refused, with Lt. Gen. Paul Funk saying the U.S. would respond aggressively if attacked.

Funk was one of two senior American generals who traveled to the front lines just outside of the city of Manbij to meet with the SDF’s Manbij Military Council on February 7th.

Turkey’s military offensive against the U.S.-backed Kurds, and increasingly belligerent rhetoric against the U.S., continues to raise questions about Turkey’s role as NATO member and U.S. ally.

Frank Gaffney: Abandoning Kurds in Iraq Is a ‘Strategic Mistake of Epic Proportions’

Originally posted on Breitbart.

Center for Security Policy President Frank Gaffney joined SiriusXM host Alex Marlow on Wednesday’s Breitbart News Daily to talk about Kurdish independence in Iraq, the Iran nuclear deal’s continued survival after decertification, and the rising strategic threat of China.

Marlow began by asking if the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s allegedly insensitive remarks to the widow of U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in a terrorist ambush in Nigeria last week, and President Trump’s assertion that his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, was delinquent in making condolence calls to the families of fallen soldiers, was a manufactured media distraction.

“Any time you’re talking about the fallen and their loved ones, it’s serious, of course,” Gaffney replied. “It is also the case that I think what we’ve watched is now an information warfare operation run by the mainstream media against this presidency, along with an awful lot of other folks, of course – and to some extent, in fairness, run by the President of the United States against the mainstream media.”

“You’ve got distractions being introduced on both sides,” he continued, indicating that he would prefer to “stay with the things that really matter.”

Marlow turned to the conflict between independence-seeking Kurds and the Iraqi government, which launched military operations against Kurdish positions this week with the assistance of Iran-backed Shiite militia forces. Marlow expressed concern that the Trump administration is remaining neutral while the Kurds, a vital U.S. battlefield ally in the successful war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, are assaulted by Baghdad and Tehran.

Gaffney said it was “tragic” and a “strategic mistake of great proportions” for President Trump to withhold his support from the Kurds.

“Their enemies are our enemies, virtually without exception,” he noted. “The Kurds are surrounded by nations that are not just hostile to them, but hostile to us.”

“I would, by the way, include Turkey increasingly in that category,” he added. “It’s still nominally an ally of ours, a member of NATO, but they’re really under Recep Tayyip Erdogan another ‘Islamic republic,’ as they call themselves, and I think increasingly unreliable as well.”

“What I think has happened here, tragically, is a very clear byproduct of the bad advice the president has been getting from H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser,” Gaffney postulated. “He wanted him to stay in the Iran deal. The president made it clear that the ‘Obama bomb accord,’ as I call it, was neither being complied with by the other main party, Iran, nor in our national security interests, but, nonetheless, he was going to stay in it – the kind of Solomonic decision that McMaster and some of his other subordinates were promoting.”

“I think that the interpretation of that from the Iranian perspective was, ‘Hey, they’re still going to let us get away with murder.’ I believe that one of the fallouts of it, an early fallout, was that the Iranian-controlled government of Iraq, and specifically the so-called Shiite militia – which are wholly owned subsidiaries of Iran – are now crushing a country, incipient to be sure, but a country that it is in our vital interests to help birth and support, namely Kurdistan,” he said.

Gaffney looked back to 1956, “when the United States had given encouragement to Hungarians to stand up against their oppressors in the Soviet Union and then just walked away when the Soviets crushed their revolt.”

“It’s epic, and it will have long-lasting repercussions, not least because Iran is going to be further emboldened by what they’re getting away with now,” he predicted.

Marlow feared the efforts by Obama holdovers to protect the Iran nuclear deal and the investment notoriously made with “pallets of cash” to Tehran have gotten out of control.

“If it were just the pallets of cash and the corruption, that would be one thing,” Gaffney replied. “The truth of the matter is that Iran is both engaged in this kind of growing hegemonistic domination of what’s come to be called the Shiite Crescent, a lot of strategic real estate in the Middle East, and it is also aggressively pursuing its nuclear weapons ambitions.”

“It’s the worst of both worlds, and we’re getting the kind of defective – to say the least – leadership out of the Congress on this that is what I believe the American people repudiated at the polls,” he charged. “They didn’t want an Obama third term. They specifically were offered that by Hillary Clinton, and they repudiated it. How the Congress, these so-called geniuses of the foreign policy elite in Congress specifically, but the leadership more generally, can construe this as the kind of policy that is either in their political interest or the country’s interest completely eludes me, I have to say.”

Gaffney quoted his old boss Ronald Reagan’s observation that “personnel is policy” to advise President Trump to “get rid of the people who are poorly advising him.”

“I would start with H.R. McMaster, but the main thing is, if he does, in fact, get the kind of people in his National Security Council and elsewhere in his government who supported him in his campaign, who believe that making America great again involves, among other things, restoring the Reagan practice of peace through strength – not supporting enemies and supporting friends – those are sort of fundamental principles,” Gaffney said.

“He ran on them. He got a mandate to pursue them. He’s not being served well by people opposed to those principles,” he lamented. “I think until he gets rid of them and replaces them with people – I’d personally be very keen to see John Bolton there, for example – who oppose this Iran deal and had a good hand in helping the president towards the end, but he’s been kept out by the current palace guard. That has to change.”

Gaffney agreed with Marlow’s contention that President Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal last week is turning into the sort of “bait and switch” ploy skeptics were afraid of, leaving the deal largely intact while providing political cover for the White House to say Trump’s campaign pledge against the nuclear deal has been fulfilled.

“This is what Donald Trump ran against,” Gaffney insisted. “I was there. As I recall, it was in September of 2015 when he came forward and he denounced this Iran deal with Ted Cruz on a stage in Washington, DC, because he was watching the Republican establishment enable it, as much as what Obama had done and the Iranians and the echo chamber Ben Rhodes created and all the rest of it.”

“He watched Bob Corker – who has, thank God, decided to throw in the towel, but on his way out the door, he’s going to frag the president apparently every single day,” Gaffney continued. “That guy helped engineer an anti-Constitutional approach and approval of this agreement. The establishment, and the press that is enamored of him and his ilk, like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others, I think has done a terrible disservice by enabling this deal to become binding on us.”

“I think the president has been very badly served by those who said, ‘Hey, Mr. President, you can get credit by decertifying, but you just have to stay in the agreement,’” he judged. “I think on this program, I was among the first to call it a bait-and-switch. It was a terrible outcome, I believe. I think we’re going to start seeing more of the kinds of repercussions that we’ve just been discussing with the Kurds as Iran continues to feel that it can get away with murder.“

Gaffney concluded with his observations on China, where he said that “we’re watching this spectacle in Beijing at the moment, the Chinese National Congress for the Communist Party.”

“It’s a spectacle of totalitarianism,” he said. “The reason that it’s so troubling is that it is fueling the ambitions of Xi Jinping, the Communist president of China, the party’s leader, to believe that he can effectively dominate not just his region of the world – militarily, by the way – but also begin inexorably supplanting the United States, including our currency, the institutions we’ve built since World War 2, the kind of world order, if you will, that has largely kept the peace, and I think been very much in America’s national interest.”

“These are tectonic shifts that are taking place. We tend, if we’re thinking about this at all, to look narrowly at North Korea. North Korea – like Iran, like Pakistan, like so many of the other problematic nations in the world – are doing the Chinese bidding. We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball. I think Steve Bannon is exactly right about this. China is at war with us, and it will become more kinetic over time. We’re watching the groundwork laid for that, I believe, at this Chinese party congress,” Gaffney warned.

United States may act pragmatically but should eventually stand with the Kurds

On September 25th, Iraqi Kurds voted in a referendum for independence from the Iraqi state.

The plebiscite reflects the aspirations of the Kurdish people for self-determination. Though non-binding, 93% of the voters supported the referendum, revealing the strength of the Kurdish will for independence.

Historically, countries in the Middle East have denied sovereignty to non-Arab and non- Muslim groups in favor of Arab or Islamic hegemony throughout the region. Therefore, the idea of creating minority states has always been met with resistance and even violence.

In the Arab world, there are substantial non-Arab minorities, such as the Kurds, and non-Muslim minorities, such as Christian Arabs. Some of these minorities were integrated into their respective countries, but others were legally discriminated against or oppressed in some way or another. The only minority group to successfully achieve self-determination were the Jews, and Israel therefore remains a symbol of indignation to the much larger Arab and Muslim majority countries in the region.

This attitude has been encapsulated by the Palestinian Authority’s reaction to Kurdish secession in Iraq. Despite its own aspirations for self-determination, the PA has declared opposition to Kurdish independence because “Kurdish independence would be a poisoned sword against the Arabs,” according to Saeb Erekat, a senior adviser to the PA. Again, the Palestinians seem to hold onto this old Pan-Arabic, Pan-Islamic view that sovereignty of minorities is not to be tolerated.

Although they are Muslim, the Kurds have retained a distinct language and culture, and have viewed themselves historically as a separate non-Arab group with a unique tradition. About 25 million Kurds live in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey altogether.

In Syria, the Kurds have been discriminated against systematically; they lack Syrian citizenship and are entitled neither to medical care nor even bank accounts. In Iraq, they were subjected to coerced Arabization and under Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds and expelled many hundreds of thousands more.

In Iran, Kurds have been coerced into cultural assimilation and many of their political and intellectual leaders have been executed. Thus, when the Kurds approved the referendum in Iraq, the large Kurdish population in Iran was jubilant. leaving the Iranian government uneasy.

After the Kurds approved the referendum, Turkey threatened to cut off their oil pipeline to the region. The Iraqi government also made threats aimed at boycotting and making the Kurds’ lives increasingly difficult. Even worse perhaps, Iraq joined forces with Iran, aiming to secure Iraqi control over border crossings from Kurdish-controlled areas.

Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has told the Kurds that the U.S would not recognize the referendum, calling it ‘illegitimate”, the coalition of Iraq, Iran and Turkey against the Kurds should be strongly repudiated. The U.S can try to mediate in the negotiations in order to pacify tensions between the Kurds and their neighbors, but should also strongly oppose measures against the Kurds.

The Kurds have been an invaluable tool in the fight against ISIS; for that reason, have proved to be one of most reliable allies we have in the Middle East.

Moreover, Iran continues to be a rogue state that carries out destabilizing activities in the Middle East and elsewhere. If the Kurdish referendum promotes Kurdish dissidence in Iran, this should be a welcoming development in itself.

In addition, for the government of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi in Iraq to use Iran as recourse against the Kurds, it is an evidence of how unreliable the Iraqi government is. Iran has established Shiite sectarian rule in Iraq and made way for the Sunni alienation that eventually gave rise to ISIS. The U.S must remain determined in its message that alliances with Iran are not to be tolerated.

Curiously, a news analysis published by the New York Times criticized the Kurdish leadership as monarchical, non-democratic, dynastic, and therefore unworthy of self-governance.  These assertions are clearly untenable, given the fact that the governments of those neighboring countries that reject Kurdish independence are also patently undemocratic, yet their legitimacy is not questioned. The Times, which enthusiastically champions Palestinian self- determination, forgets that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is a corrupt and oppressive kleptocracy– not much better than a monarchical dynasty. Furthermore, there are very few examples in history where countries that gained independence immediately established a democratic government.

The U.S should stick to principles. We must act pragmatically, but we must also view the Kurds as our allies. We owe them and should not betray them. Members of Congress have spoken out on the issue; the Administration should do the same.

U.S.-led coalition air strike to block Islamic State

A US-led coalition carried out an air strike on August 30th to block Islamic State fighters from reaching eastern Syria after they were evacuated from Lebanon-Syrian border. The fighters were heading for the town of Al Bukamal, which borders Iraq. The area bordering Iraq where the convoy was headed is currently under control of Islamic State.

The evacuation was carried out as part of a deal between Islamic State fighters and Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia terrorist group Hezbollah and the Syrian government, to clear an estimated 300 IS fighters and 300 civilians, primary the wives and children of IS, from the Lebanon-Syrian border. IS claimed they would reveal the fate of nine captive Lebanese soldiers that were being held since 2014, as well as surrender Hezbollah and Syrian army prisoners and bodies from eastern Syria, where IS continues to maintain hold over territory.

The U.S. coalition bombing cratered a road and a small bridge and targeted Islamic state vehicles in an effort to prevent movement.

The location of the convoy group is currently unknown, and could either be in Islamic State or Syrian government controlled territory.

The deal to transport IS members and their families came at the end of a joint Hezbollah and Syrian army military operation to dislodge jihadist groups from the Lebanese-Syrian border by directly targeting IS near the town of Ras Baalbek with rockets, artillery and helicopters. The Lebanese Army in cooperation with Hezbollah and the Syrian army also declared a cease-fire, to allow for the terrorist movement through Syria.  This  deal marks the first time the Islamic State has negotiated a forced evacuation for its fighters.

Hezbollah made a statement this August pledging to remove, and fight the terrorists with the Syrian army.

The Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi faulted Syria for moving the IS fighters closer to their border. In a statement made on August 29th he said, “we do not send them to Syria we kill them in Iraq.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the deal made with the Islamic State to transport the terrorists, “a great victory” in speech on August 28th. Despite his prior allegations made earlier in August to expel and fight the terrorist group with the Syrian army, the two groups continued with the deal.

The Islamic State’s foot hold is dwindling. At its peak throughout 2014 and 2015, the jihadist group held 1/3 of territory in Iraq and 1/3 of the territory in Syria. Within this landmass the terrorists ruled over around 9 million people.

By 2016 two years later, IS lost about 22% of its territory and in 2017 it continues to decrease. After Mosul was liberated and returned to the Iraqi government this past summer by American forces, the next critical fight to diminish IS looks to the city of Raqqa.

The battles over Raqqa began this past June of 2017. Raqqa is the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State currently. In the first month of fighting 20% of the city was taken back by the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces, both aided by the U.S. Special operations troops. Unlike Mosul, Raqqa is much less densely populated, but it is still a critical location to obtain.

The Lebanese and Syrian governments should not be permitting the movement of the terrorist organization. The U.S. led airstrike was necessary for this deal to dismantle. By allowing for the movement of the terrorist group knowingly can prolong battles, allow for the group to regain territory and plan for strategic moves in the future. The current situation to question is the amount of U.S. funding toward the Lebanese army.

This year the U.S. has allotted to give Lebanon 233 million dollars in aid, partially to counter balance Hezbollah, the civil war, and for humanitarian support. However, the Lebanese army working in cooperation to Hezbollah calls to question their motives. As Syria and Iraq are gradually gaining back territory from IS, there are several players looking to gain these areas of land.

Iran is backing Syrian President Bassar al-Assad’s Syrian Army and Hezbollah. The United States backs the Syrian democratic forces, the Lebanese army, and the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Although the U.S. supports some “rebel” groups, the first intentional attack on the Syrian government only occurred this past April, after the Assad regime fired chemical weapons.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of Iraq’s state-sanctioned Popular Mobilization Forces, a U.S. designated terrorist with ties to Hezbollah, supported Nasrallah’s decision to allow for IS movement. And while the United States backs the Lebanese army, the support provided by the Lebanese to Hezbollah is concerning.

The decision by Syria and Hezbollah to permit the movement of IS jihadis closer to the border of Iraq should be viewed within the context of the competition between U.S. coalition and Iranian-backed forces to control territories newly liberated from the Islamic State.

Assad’s regime is looking to retake key territory, even while U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces continue to advance in Northern Syria. On the Iraqi side of the border Kurdish peshmerga are still pressing forward with their long effort to establish a Kurdistan while Iranian-backed Shia militias have engaged in population transfers to expand Shia controlled areas. At the same time the Iraqi government is looking to regain their final pieces of territory from IS, which consists of a small region that borders Syria, and some desert space in the northern region.

On August 31st, the Nineveh province in Iraq was liberated, as Tal Afar was lost from IS, and regained by the Iraqi armed forces.  Tel Afar was a key route between Iraq and Syria since 2014 and was the last major center in northwestern Iraq controlled by the IS, recently captured by Iraqi forces.

As IS held territory continues to shrink there’s an increased probability that U.S. and Iranian-backed forces will come into conflict.

Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa

On June 6, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an offensive on the northern city Raqqa, the Islamic State’s (IS) de facto capital in the country. SDF fighters have been advancing toward Raqqa since November, closing off north, east, and west access points, with the aid of U.S. airstrikes and artillery. The launching of Tuesday’s attack marks the final phase of their plan to retake the city from IS.

The SDF, formed in 2015, is made up of mainly Kurdish and Arab fighters whose end goal is the establishment of a self-governing Syria, and an autonomous federal region in the area under their control. Multiple groups are a part of this coalition including the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and the Syriac Military Council (MFS).

Not everyone is happy about the partnership between the U.S. and the SDF. Turkey accuses the YPG group, part of the SDF, of being front for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is a terrorist organization in Turkey and the United States, and which has fought an ongoing conflict with the Turkish government for decades.

The U.S. Department of Defense maintains that the SDF is the most effective partner in fighting IS, and has accepted SDF claims that it is not tied to the PKK.

The conflict between Kurds and Turks began in 1923 when the Treaty of Sèvres, granting Kurds independence, was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, revoking such autonomy. Since then Turkey has been home to uprisings, ethnicity clashes, and Kurdish calls for independence. The PKK was founded in 1978 and launched an armed struggle against Turkey in 1984. The group is currently listed as a terrorist organization.

Tensions continue to run high between the U.S. and Turkey, an important ally in the area, as the operation against jihadists in Raqqa moves forward. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim says that relations between the two countries “will be harmed” and Turkey will take action if the offensive poses as a threat.

Though Turkey remains belligerent towards the attack, the SDF launching comes at a crucial point in the fight against IS. Forces are closing in on IS and are likely to succeed in their launched attacks. This puts IS in a difficult position in the Middle East.

Seized by IS in 2014, Raqqa has since become one of its most central and important cities. According to U.S. General Joseph Votel, it is “the financial, leadership, and external ops center” of IS. As IS begins to lose its grip on Raqqa, it faces a significant loss of power in Syria.

The offensive comes as IS also vies for control over Mosul, another key city for the group. Iraqi forces launched their offensive to take back the city in October and the battle is still underway.

The battle for Raqqa is expected to be a long one. If and when the SDF takes the city, the group plans to turn it into a provincial government, one where local civilians have authority. Not surprisingly, the Syrian government is not in favor of this plan and has reportedly proceeded to send troops to Raqqa, which will only lengthen and complicate the fighting already taking place.

Over the past two years, IS has lost as much as 30% of its territory in Iraq and Syria.

Some may view this as the beginning of the end to IS. However, the most recent terrorist attacks in Iran, Iraq, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere illustrate otherwise. Though its territory and presence may be waning in the Middle East, IS has proven that its influence knows no bounds.

It is capable of reaching almost anywhere and the jihadist group will continue to fight for a global caliphate. Still, disagreement between factions over who will rule in previously-held IS territory will continue to slow the offensive and effort against the jihadist group.

Turkish “Free Police” Another Tool to Stop Kurdish Expansion

On January 24th, a 450-person Syrian police force trained by Turkish police began operating in the rebel-held border town of Jarablus, in Aleppo province. Known as the “Free Police” (an allusion to the Free Syrian Army), this new, armed security force is comprised of regular police and other units that received five weeks of training from Turkish police.

Located in the northern portion of Syria, Jarablus sits at the edge of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit’s (YPG) push to connect the pieces of the de facto autonomous region that the YPG controls along the border of Turkey and Syria. As the YPG has come closer and closer to Azaz (buffer zone on the boarder of Syria and Turkey) Turkey has become more and more hostile, now deploying the Turkish-trained Syrian police force to deepen its influence in northern Syria.

Turkish media reports that Turkey aims to deploy over 5,000 of these police officers. “Our mission is to maintain security and preserve property and to serve civilians in the areas liberated (from Islamic State),” police force head General Abd al-Razaq Aslan told Reuters.

While Turkey’s deputy Prime Minister has claimed that Turkey’s military push in northern Syria is simply to protect its border, it is actually a broader continuation of Operation Euphrates, the Turkish military intervention in Syria with the goal of assisting the Free Syrian Army (FSA – Syrian rebels), and further crippling the YPGs efforts in Northern Syria.

Many of these new recruits are former rebel fighters who fought under Turkish direction in northern Syria last August when the same pro-Turkey forces ran IS out of Jarablus, leaving a vacuum in the region that US-backed Syrian Democratic forces quickly filled. The Kurdish YPG comprises a significant portion of the SDF.

While Ankara has been bolstering its presence in northern Syria, representatives of Bashar al-Assad and leaders of the FSA have been talking for the first time since the UN-brokered negotiations last year. This time, instead of the UN acting as a mediator, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are mediating negotiations in Kazakhstan. The three mediators are determined to end the brutal, nearly six-year conflict in Syria. Not surprisingly, Kurdish forces were not offered a seat at the table.

Reportedly, talks succeeded in consolidating a cease-fire for an unknown period of time. Russia, Iran and Turkey report that they plan on using their influence in Syria to strengthen the cease-fire but no details of how they were planning on doing so were provided. Despite this new agreement, neither the FSA or the Syrian regime are willing to stop fighting at Wadi Barada, an area near Damascus where a major water facility is located.

Yeni Safak newspaper posted a video of the Free Police dressed in Turkish police uniforms and chanting “long live Turkey, long live Erdogan and long live a free Syria.” Turkish authorities have admitted that this effort is in large part to ensure the continuation of pro-Turkish forces in Northern Syria even if a peace deal is reached and Turkey has to pull out of Syria.

The Turks have a long history of fighting with the Kurds.  In Turkey, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has been a source of conflict in Turkey since the early 1980’s when it was first began waging an insurgency inside Turkey. Ankara has blamed the PKK for a number of the recent terrorist attacks there. In Syria, Ankara sees the YPG, and consequently the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), simply as a front for the PKK.

While the PKK and YPG claim that they are not associated with each other, Ankara believes both to be terrorist groups.  The PKK is officially considered a terrorist group by the US and EU, however, they do not consider the YPG a terrorist group.

The EU and US have urged the Turks to stop attacking the YPG but there are problems with this.

First, Turkey has vowed to only stop attacking the Syrian Kurds as soon as Ankara no longer sees them as a threat. Second, Turkey claims that their efforts are primarily directed in fighting the Islamic State (IS). The Kurdish forces in both Syria and Turkey both say that Turkish activity against IS is merely a cover to justify attacks on Kurdish forces.  The SDF have been essential in the United State’s efforts to fight IS in Syria, and the U.S. formally rejects the notion that the SDF has ties to the YPG. Unfortunately, Turkish forces in Syria are known to purposefully attack Kurdish forces – including the SDF that the US partners with – as well as IS.

Ankara’s increased presence in northern Syria and efforts to push out the Kurdish forces could prove problematic for US interests in Aleppo. Erdogan criticized the United State’s strategy saying that it is wrong to fight one terrorist organization with another, making Turkish-American cooperation nearly impossible.

Bombing Kills Security Forces in Istanbul

A remotely detonated car bomb destroyed a Turkish police bus in the capital of Istanbul, in the early hours of Tuesday, June 7th. The bombing took place near the capital city’s historic Beyazit Square, a neighborhood known as a local tourist attraction.

The attack, claimed by the TAK – the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, took the lives of 11 people: four civilians and seven security officers. Another thirty-six were injured, and some are still in critical condition at nearby medical facilities.

So far, four witnesses are in custody, but no further statements were released to the Turkish media.

Despite TAK claims to the attack, western intelligence services, as well as the Turkish government, believe the crime was carried out by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a group well known for its violence against the Turkish government.

Since 1984, the PKK has been fighting the Turkish government as a separatist movement seeking their own Kurdish nation. By 2013, the fighting had come to a cease-fire which lasted until July of 2015. Since then, violence between the PKK and Turkish security forces has killed hundreds of citizens and soldiers on both sides.

At the behest of top Kurdish leadership, PKK militias have conducted terrorist activities inside Turkish borders, mostly towards police forces, claiming a March 31st attack in Ankara; however, Turkish intelligence officials suggest they are the root of more terrorist activity than they take credit for.

The origins of the TAK are often speculated about, but it was originally thought to be a group that stemmed from the PKK. In recent years, the Kurdish Freedom Hawks has been known for their tactic of striking civilian centers and robust areas of human traffic, as opposed to the PKK method of attacking areas where civilian casualties are low.

In March of 2016, Head PKK official Zagros Hiwas provided The Middle East Eye with a quasi-denial, saying the group could not “speak about TAK because we don’t have information about them.”

Turkish analysts like Metin Gurcan – a former military adviser, suggest otherwise, noting it would be unlikely TAK operates outside the control or knowledge of the PKK. Gurcan suggests that though the groups have operational differences, TAK is a “semi-autonomous” subsidiary to the larger Kurdish Worker’s Party, relying heavily on the PKK for vital resources and military training.

Evidence of PKK links to TAK terrorist activities can be seen in other avenues as well, such as the March 13th car bombing in Ankara. Turkish authorities alleged that the bomb which killed 37 people, was detonated by a PKK operative. If true, it would mean the attack took place as part of a coordinated effort with the Kurdish Worker’s Party.

In spite of the Turkish authorities’ allegations, the TAK claimed March Ankara bombing, which does not bear resemblance to the traditional kinds of attacks PKK is willing to take credit for.

Later in March, the PKK terrorist group did take responsibility for a car bombing that killed only Turkish security forces. Such an attack with minimal civilian casualties represents PKK efforts to only strike armed forces of the Turkish government. Similarly, Tuesday’s attack indicates signs of PKK’s method of targeting police centers and security forces.

If the attacks were in fact carried out by the PKK, efforts of the TAK to claim the attack could stem from their desire to bolster their own image following a successful attack against Turkish forces. Another factor could be the PKK’s desire to not be viewed as a group that targets and kills civilians; leaving the Freedom Hawks free to claim the more controversial attacks.

Ultimately, the attacks in Istanbul represent the violent efforts of Kurdish groups to create their own state at a time when self-determination and separatist movements have gained extraordinary momentum in the middle east.

Bombings, Assaults on Reporters, Mar Erdogan Visit

On Thursday, March 31, 2016, a car bomb detonated beside a minibus carrying Turkish police officers in the city of Diyarbakir. Seven police officers were killed by the bomb and two dozen others were wounded. This marks another major car bomb in Turkey this year, as violence between government and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) forces increases.

Earlier today, April 1, 2016, the PKK took responsibility for the attack on the Turkish police forces. The PKK has been engaged in a brutal war with the Turkish government since 1984. The PKK has sought out an independent Kurdish state within Turkey, and the resulting conflict with the government has killed over 40,000 people. In 2013 a ceasefire was reached between the PKK and the Turkish government, but it was abandoned after the government began airstrikes against Kurdish positions in Iraq.

This bombing marks the second major bombing this month by Kurdish forces, and the fourth total this year. In February, two separate bombs targeting Turkish security forces killed 34 and wounded another 64. Both explosives targeted military convoys traveling through Ankara and Southeast Turkey, respectively. Earlier in March, Ankara was again targeted after a car bomb detonated besides a row of buses. The blast killed 36 and injured 127. It was originally believed both these attacks were carried out by the PKK, but both were later claimed by the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK).

Soon after the bombing, Turkish forces began to target PKK positions in Northern Iraq with airstrikes. Turkish warplanes targeted the Zap and Metina regions that were home to Kurdish strongholds. There have been no further reports of the casualties as result of these attacks.

This attack on Turkish forces comes just a day before Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was set to visit the Southeast portion of Turkey, which is primarily made up of Kurds. The Erdogan regime, who PM Davutoglu serves, have been highly criticized by the Turkish people, as well as the Kurds, for severe civil rights abuses. The Erdogan regime has also linked the heavy restrictions on civil liberties to Kurdish protests in the Southeast, but it is not a point to forget that it was the same regime that instigated further violence between the Turkish government and the Kurds. The PKK may have been trying to keep PM Davutoglu out of the portion of the government heavily dominated by Kurds, so they attacked police forces in the area.

The bombing also correlated with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the Brookings Institute, where he was to speak on the future of Turkey. While President Erdogan was to speak on challenges he would face in his own country, he faced another challenge when he arrived at the building. Kurdish and Turkish Americans lined the street opposite Brookings to protest the appearance of Erdogan. Erdogan’s security detail even aggressively targeted some of the protestors and journalists attempting to report on the speech. The security detail even attempted to forcibly remove a Turkish reporter already in the event, only to be blocked by an American security officer.

The current unrest in Turkey will continue to create a perfect atmosphere for the Islamic State (IS) to attack or move through the country. Earlier in March, IS struck Istanbul for the second time this year, killing four and wounding another 36. While Turkey focuses on suppressing the Kurds, it is allowing for other terrorist groups to make its way into its borders.

Erdogan and his regime currently face a growing conflict with the Kurds, but through the heavy-handed response to criticism and increased authoritarianism, he risks political unrest amongst the general Turkish population, including secularists and other regime opponents at a time when the security situation in Turkey is continuing to deteriorate.

IS Continues to Take Advantage of Lack of Security Forces Around Baghdad

Last Friday, March 25, 2016, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed at least 25 and wounded another 90 in Iraq. The bomber targeted civilians gathering to celebrate a local soccer team’s championship in the city of Iskandariya, which resides in the Babil province. A video taken showed the explosives being detonated as members of the team were accepting their trophies.

The attack in Iskandariya comes as Iraqi security forces prepare for their assault on Mosul. Last week the Free Fire Blog discussed the what the capturing Mosul would mean for IS and Iraqi forces, but it also focused on the length of time that will be needed to retake the city. Mosul is a stronghold for IS, and it will require a large force to reclaim. With Iraqi forces focused on Mosul, IS demonstrates Baghdad’s vulnerability in an attempt to disrupt the upcoming operation.

IS has launched several attacks on Baghdad and cities in the surrounding cities since the beginning of 2016 and the fall of Ramadi. Iskandariya lies just 30 miles away from the Iraqi capital, and this attack continues to illustrate how effective IS can be outside the areas it controls.

While IS has been able to launch multiple attacks outside their controlled territory, the Iraqi and U.S. forces have been able to capture and kill several top commanders in IS’s ranks.

In late February, U.S. Special Forces captured Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, the head of IS’s unit developing chemical weapons. Utilizing intelligence gained from Al-Afari, the U.S. was able to kill Omar al-Shishani, one of IS’s top military commanders, in an airstrike on March 4, 2016. Then on March 25, 2016, U.S. officials released a statement saying they had killed Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli in an airstrike. Defense Secretary Ash Carter described al-Qaduli as IS’s top financier.

Even with top commanders being pick off by the U.S., IS is still more than capable of launching effective and devastating attacks, as last week’s Brussels bombing illustrates, even while the Obama Administration touts that it is eviscerating IS.

With Iraqi and U.S. forces focused on taking Mosul, IS will continue to take advantage of targeting opportunities where its opponents are spread thin. Additionally, there remains the possibility IS could move its center of operations. If IS is removed from Northern Iraq the current anti-IS coalition may collapse. Already reports indicate that Kurdish forces and Shia militias are preparing to battle each other over dominance in Northern Iraq. This would be a highly problematic especially as IS is likely to remain a viable threat even after ouster from Mosul and the surrounding area.