Παρασκευή 13 Ιουνίου 2014

Mosul and Kirkuk: Turkey’s Ukraine

By Nicholas Biniaris
In Asterix and Obelix the well-known French comic books, the episode titled “The Rock of Oil” has the two heroes walking through a Middle East desert. They were sent their by the Druid magician to procure oil for him to make the magic potion which gives superhuman strength to the villagers of the rebellious village against the Romans. As they walk in the desert they are attacked by arrows flying from Sumerians, Acadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Medes, Persians and Parthians who are all after each other. This is one of the best depictions describing historically this area in constant turmoil and conflict. All against all for various reasons, which presently involve oil but also religion, sectarianism and minorities as well as flimsy majorities trying to achieve security and establish their dominance. The Romans were back then the far away imperialists and the Americans are today the far away meddlers in all affairs and conflicts of the area.
On June 10th ISIS, a faction of Al-Qaeda, captured Mosul, or parts of the city, as the National Iraqi News Agency (NINA) admited. This is the second most populous city of Iraq and of great significance for Turkey, the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of Iraq, and the Kurdish movement for independence, the existence of Iraq as a unitary state and the evolution of Shiite-Sunni sectarian and power conflict to a full-fledged war. It is also important for the outcome of the Syrian civil war and the American and European policy for the area and most importantly for the economic security of the West which relies on oil, the one abundant commodity coming from the Middle East. Lastly but not the least, it affects the Israeli position versus the existence of an independent Kurdistan and its policies versus a potential Caliphate-oriented Islamic entity straddling western Iraq and eastern Syria.
All the above are more or less a narration of the comic book’s page depicting the ancient warriors seeking each other out. Modern ones are playing a similar game over a lake of oil and gas and also in an area with Israeli nuclear weapons and a shadow of nuclear proliferation by the Iranians and the Saudis.
We must try to untangle one part of this Gordian Knot, this between Turkey, Mosul, Kirkuk Kurdistan and Turkey’s new initiative to “solve” its historical Kurdish problem. Even, as of yesterday, an oil tanker left the Turkish port of Ceyhan laden with Kurdish oil, regardless of the protestation of the central government of Baghdad. The Barzani government in Arbil contends that the central government of President Al-Maliki owes them 6 billion dollars as part of their agreed portion of the national budget. So they have established good commercial ties with Ankara trying to sell their oil directly through the Kurdistan-Turkey pipeline. For this purpose the Barzani government has alienated the Kurds of Syria who wanted to declare an autonomous area, and also is at odds with the PKK which they try to keep at arm’s length pushing it to conclude a peace agreement with Erdogan. Today all these arrangements are up in the air. After the ISIS attack in Mosul, the PKK issued a bulletin saying that it is ready to fight together with the Peshmerga (those who are ready to die) the Kurdistan’s armed forces against ISIS. The Kurdish spirit of national unity is back.

At this juncture, an extremist and utterly ruthless group of fanatics, decapitating and crucifying “infidels” which is actually not in coordination with Al-Qaeda’s nominal leader Al-Zawahiri has control of a city which houses thousands of Kurds, and many Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and other minorities. A large part of these were transplanted there by Sadam Hussein during his inhuman campaign against the rebellious Kurds in 1985-89 and also after their uprising following the First Gulf War. Sadam tried to change the demographics of the area in favor of the Sunni Arabs creating one of the hottest spots in today’s Iraq. Kurds, after the fall of Sadam, who were expelled from Mosul as well as Kirkuk, tried to move back. The new constitution agreed upon in 2005 was sanctioned by the Kurdistan Regional Authority with the provision that there would be a plebiscite in Kirkuk to decide if that city and the province will become part of the Autonomous Kurdistan. This agreement was never implemented due to Kirkuk’s oil reserves which would give Kurdistan a major economic boost and the explosive issue of who is a resident of that city. There was never an agreement about who the voters would be. It was also boycotted by Turkey because it could increase the clout of Kurdistan and promote independence for non-Iraqi Kurds. Mosul, with a large Sunni Arab population but also Kurds was an undecided part of northern Iraq. Turkey lost Mosul after WWI when after the Kurdish rebellion in 1925, exhausted by the Hellenic-Turkish war and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire accepted the British arrangement of an Iraqi state which included Mosul. Since then Turkey is constantly vying for the oil of the north and tried to influence the outcome of the Iraqi wars. This powerful neighbor is constantly trying to square the circle of an Iraqi Kurdistan with the problem of Kurds in Turkey seeking independence or meaningful autonomy from a Kemalist and recently from an Islamic Turkey.
The balance achieved all these years in Kirkuk and Mosul, avoiding a plebiscite, keeping the area safe was destroyed by this ongoing ISIS takeover. The Turkish consulate was seized and Turkey is trying to secure the release of its personnel through diplomatic channels. Why did ISIS abduct Turks? Is this a message to Turkey? Does Turkey have something they want?
The attack on Mosul opened with car bombs exploding and suicide bombers attacking three offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan PUK of Iraq’s President Talabani. The actual assault followed and as news agencies report about 500,000 people fled to safety mostly in Kurdish areas. The soldiers and policemen fled as well as the provincial authorities. This Rommel-type blitzkrieg most probably took advantage of an agreement between the central government and the Kurdish Defense Authority where both withdrew their forces from the vicinity to avoid a hot incident between the two. The actual power vacuum was exploited most efficiently by the ISIS as well as the low morale of the Iraqi army and its corrupt and incompetent leadership trained by the USA with a cost of $25 billion.
The Kurdish Authorities announced that they wait a call form PM Al-Maliki to use Peshmerga troops against ISIS as well as the authorization by PM Barzani. Actually they didn’t wait long. They took the initiative and entered Kirkuk. The city they were after as their historical capital is in their hands. Who can dislodge them from there? The ever postponed plebiscite was implemented by history. And moreover, can the Kurdistan government not intervene in Mosul which holds hundreds of thousands of Kurds who are under threat from ISIS? They will do it if the Iraqi army doesn’t recapture the city. It is reported that the Iraqi army recaptured Tikrit with the aid of the Iranians (Hurriyet 13/6/2014)
Practically ISIS cannot hold such a large metropolitan area. On the other hand they may plan to team up with the local Arab Sunnis and start to push all other minorities out. Reuter’s reports: ““In a newsletter, ISIL enjoined Sunnis to join them in the fight against Maliki's "Safavid" army - a reference to the Persian dynasty that promoted Shi'ite Islam. "Join the ranks oh brothers!" ran one slogan. "Maliki's tyrannical strength no match for pious believers."”
As the situation develops we are informed that they are actually planning run the  cities they have under their control, Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, as a preamble for running a Caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq. They have erased the Sykes-Picot demarcation line between the two countries and provisionally altered the borders of the Middle East. Putin did this with a referendum for Crimea. They did it with the gun and a sectarian ideology. 
Turkey as another Russia has to decide how to play the card of the Turkmen, the threat of a larger and rich Kurdistan versus its Kurdish problem and how to deal with the seizure of Kirkuk which is the epitome of all these.  For Turkey this is a red line which jeopardizes all its aspirations for a brokered deal in Iraqi Kurdistan where the Turkmen will have a saying on government and the oil. If Mosul also falls into the hands of the Kurdistan forces, then a very big Kurdistan is emerging which cannot stand on the sidelines of the Kurdish problem in Turkey or for that reason in Syria or even Iran.
Turkey is in a similar position as Russia is with Ukraine. The only difference is that the oil lies on the other side of the fence and is coveted by her. If Turkey lets Iraqi Kurdistan expand and become independent, it loses its fight with PKK and its internal cohesion is threatened. Erdogan’s and the Islamists’ clout will collapse and new power struggle rising amongst secular and Islamist.. Turkey is the regional power. It has the power to intervene to save the Turkmen in earnest or factitiously. It may try to reverse the seizure of Kirkuk by threatening to intervene or blackmailing the Barzani government. It Turkey would try to thwart the Iraqi Kurds it will resurrect the PKK insurgency. It cannot even intervene to save the Bagdad government from ISIS.
Who can intervene to help Al-Maliki? The USA ponders to send drones. NATO declined to offer aid. But what is the alternative? ISIS has moved on towards Bagdad. Can the central government let ISIS roam freely over such a sensitive area? Can the USA let this humiliating defeat for Al-Maliki go on? Can the USA rationally pursue the recent policy of arming Assad’s rivals after this show of force by jihadists who are also fighting Assad?
Finally, Turkey as well as the Arab League is face to face with the phenomenon of jihad in their own house. In Syria they could cover it up with the theory of the democratic Syrians fighting the criminal Assad. Here the problem must be addressed for their own safety. Can Turkey put up a fight with ISIS? What would be the result on Turkey itself? Can Turkey be safe from jihad? Murat Yetkin says “no” in Hurriyet (12/6/2014). The Arab League is facing the same dilemma. If they try to take ISIS down, the group will denounce them as allies of the West, Iran and Israel. As a matter of fact Kurdistan may be viewed by ISIS as an Israeli outpost in the midst of Sunni Arabs. This is a Catch-22 situation. But can the Arabs afford to let the Middle East turn into another AfPak. Can the west afford oil reaching $300/bbl? If this does happen in a nightmare scenario, Russia would have the last laugh. Then Ukraine and all the humbug about democracy and Russian aggression will be forgotten. And is China going to sit quietly watching her energy bill go up to the stratosphere?
The Middle East is against as it is used to be for thousands of years in a war of all against all. This time we, the bystanders in the West, as consumers will pay the price of a hiked oil price and keep our mouth shut in front of the Saudis and the Gulf States who bankrolled and bred this calumny of a Salafist Islam with our blessing and avid co-operation. We may also remember nostalgically Sadam, Quadafi, Mubarak, and pray for Assad’s victory. This is the way history moves to a circle according to the ancients and to a linear progression according to the Abrahamite religions. Perhaps they are both wrong.  Perhaps they are both right. This constitutes the undecidability of the system. 
Nicholas A. Biniaris Hellas 13/6/2014