Kurdish House Mafia

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

Another consequence of the unregulated and politically destabilizing flood of weapons to Kurdish militants is that allegedly low-grade (i.e. infrastructural) ethnic cleansing is being conducted by some Iraqi Kurdish forces in evacuated areas (areas previously Arabized by Saddam Hussein, of course, but still a war crime).

The evidence, aid workers and residents say, is in the destroyed, empty villages scattered along the front line between Erbil and Mosul and the dusty flats south of Kirkuk.

“These houses are all being destroyed after the conflict,” said another aid worker who works across Iraqi Kurdistan, speaking anonymously so as not to anger the Kurdistan Regional Government and lose access.

The destruction in some villages appears to go beyond simple collateral damage. On a trip to the front line in the area of al-Gweir, 35 miles southwest of Erbil, it looked as though an impossible wind had blown through, yanking house after house down on one side. The fields and gardens that had fed these mostly Arab villages were charred and black.

Heavy fighting has devastated much of northern Iraq, but humanitarian workers, who have seen dozens of these villages, describe consistent and curious patterns of destruction: scorched fields and empty, burnt-out houses stripped down to the wiring. No livestock, no machinery, no curtains, crockery, or any other detritus of daily life that fleeing people typically leave.

“They want to change these villages demographically,” said a Kirkuk-based aid worker. “If they burn and destroy these villages, people won’t come back. And they want the Arabs to go elsewhere.”

Read the rest of the in-depth and in-person investigation.

A map of greater Iraqi Kurdistan including Kurdish Regional Government territory, some militia-held territories captured in the war against ISIS, and territories historically Kurdish before "Arabization" policies.

A map of greater Iraqi Kurdistan including Kurdish Regional Government territory, some militia-held territories captured in the war against ISIS (only as of August 2014), and territories historically Kurdish before “Arabization” policies.

US weapons flood risks destabilizing Iraqi Kurdistan

A new report in Foreign Affairs argues that the uncontrolled flood of weapons from U.S. government sources to Iraqi Kurdish officers in the field and official weapons grants routed through Baghdad (all for the purpose of fighting ISIS quickly, of course) is undermining years of careful work to professionalize the Kurdish peshmerga forces and bring them under civilian authority and a unified military chain of command regardless of Kurdish political parties. This U.S. policy could destabilize the region — which has previously been a fairly steady oasis in the country — and trigger the final exit of Iraqi Kurdistan from Iraq as a whole.

The military aid is uncoordinated, unbalanced, unconditional, and unmonitored. Because of the lack of oversight on weapons’ allocation, and because the weapons come with no strings attached, officials can direct them to their own affiliated peshmerga forces, empowering loyalist officers and entangling the rest of the officer corps in petty rivalries. All this distracts the peshmerga from the real task at hand: assessing, preparing for, and countering terrorist threats. To fix the problem, the U.S.-led coalition should place any assistance under a single command, under civilian control and away from political rivalries.
The West has failed to consider both the evolution of the peshmerga and Kurdish politics in general. It has conditioned weapons deliveries to the KRG on the approval of Baghdad, a policy designed to keep the Iraqi capital sovereign and to discourage total Kurdish independence. But the policy is outdated. Today, the PUK is ascendant in Baghdad, so channeling weapons to the Iraqi government has only further alienated the KDP from the central government. In turn, KDP officials have made increasingly provocative calls for independence and solicited direct arming to cut out Baghdad, which it views as being dominated by Iran. Western policymakers might shrug, believing that such divisions will at least prevent the parties from successfully joining together to press for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan; in reality, these divisions prevent Kurdish parties from effectively participating in the Iraqi state.

This doesn’t automatically mean the United States and its allies should not be supplying weapons to Iraqi Kurdistan’s peshmerga forces, but it does signal that the policy should be reorganized.


Baghdad’s stalling of oil revenue talks is pushing Kurds out

The New York Times published an article on the latest efforts by the Kurdish Regional Government to go their own way from central Iraqi control on oil production and sales, in light of continued failure to negotiate new terms for revenue sharing.

The current arrangement is an 83/17 revenue split, with the national government in Baghdad on the high side, which hardly seems reasonable. I think it’s somehow derived from 17% of the reserves being in Kurdistan, but even that doesn’t make much sense (especially when so much of the past couple years’ rise in Iraqi production and new development contracts have been on Kurdish land and via the regional government). And the article suggests that the resistance by Baghdad to changing the arrangement is fueling a rapidly accelerating cycle of mutual non-cooperation that will probably end in an independence attempt:

The more Kurdish officials developed their oil industry, the more Baghdad balked. The more the central government restricted the Kurds, the more they felt like they had no choice but to press forward.

“Their policy is actually backfiring,” said Howri Mansurbeg, a professor of petroleum geosciences at Soran University in Kurdistan, said of Iraqi officials. “They want to prevent a Kurdish state, and now the exact opposite is happening.”

Maybe there would be a case for such an unbalanced ratio if Baghdad provided tons of services and defense to the Kurdistan Region, but they’ve done jack for them … and then have demanded everything from them, after the national security forces literally threw their weapons on the ground and ran away.

At the point Maliki handed Kirkuk to the Kurdish Regional Government to take care of, and their forces held it successfully, I think they earned the right to a lot more revenue. (And — as the Times points out, matching my analysis at the time in June — at the point he handed them Kirkuk, he also handed them enough oilfields to become independent.)


ISIS hits Iraq’s KRG from the south at Karatepe township

After U.S. airstrikes in August thwarted ISIS incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan from the northwest and broke the ISIS siege of the Amirli, a Shia Iraqi Turkmen town, a division of ISIS in the Diyala Governorate appears to have found a weak point in the armor on the southern side of the zone protected by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

As a result of the June pullbacks by Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi Army, the KRG sphere of responsibility for security now extends south into Diyala, but their peshmerga troops are stretched thin against ISIS and are concentrated on retaking territory in northern Iraq.

ISIS forces staged coordinated attacks against Kurdish peshmerga paramilitary forces all around the Kurdish zone’s perimeter on Monday, October 20, according to a report by Rudaw, the Iraqi Kurdish news agency. Most of these were much further north in the country, however, than Diyala Governorate.

Karatepe under fire

But an encircled group of ISIS fighters in Diyala took advantage of the large stretches of uninhabited and indefensible desert that make up the southern edge of Kurdish control to lead the day’s coordinated offensives by ferociously assaulting the predominantly Iraqi Turkmen community of Karetepe township, which they had apparently identified as vulnerable in a skirmish several days earlier and suicide-bombed the town the weekend before. (Karetepe is the local Turkmen spelling. It is generally spelled Qarah Tapah in Kurdish media and on Google Maps or Qara Tapa in English-language Iranian media.)


The lightly defended town came under heavy ISIS shelling and light arms fire, according to the Karetepe district leader, as reported in Rudaw:

The ISIS attacks began at the outskirts of Qarah Tapah, a town along Kurdistan’s south-western front also targeted by ISIS last week. Three Peshmerga were reported killed and others injured in an intense firefight, according to Mahmoud Sangawi, who is in charge of the district. “We repeatedly have been targeted with ISIS shells,” he said.

“They mean to take on the areas that are populated by Shia in order to carry out another onslaught on them,” Sangawi told Rudaw, referring to Shiite minorities who are living in villages around Qara Tapah.

“Islamic State suddenly began the attack in the early morning while most of people were asleep. They started bombarding the town but Peshmerga responded to their assault immediately,” a Qarah Tapah witness told Rudaw.

Peshmerga forces use intelligence resources to put their fighters on stand-by before an ISIS attack, but “the information this time seemed to be incomplete to guide us how to prepare for their attacks. They changed course and they attacked from different directions,” Sangawi told Rudaw after arriving at the frontline. “We will ultimately destroy them,” he said.


Cnes/Spot Image satellite photo of Karatepe (Qarah Tapah) township in Diyala Governorate.

Cnes/Spot Image satellite photo of Karatepe (Qarah Tapah) township in Diyala Governorate. Diyala is an agricultural province with large farms and orchards surrounded by larger deserts.

On October 21, the pressure mounted, according to a report by Kerkuk.net, the official online publication of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, the party which represents the ethnic minority in Iraq’s politics.

Yesterday morning ISIS launched an attack from three directions on Karatepe township of Diyala with mortar and other heavy weaponry. The local people were forced to leave their homes due to the fierce conflict between security forces and ISIS militants. The number of dead and injured have not been determined so far. ISIS militants have seized the western entrance of the town.

Operations Command indicated that until now Karatepe town had been under the control of the Peshmerga and police forces. Operations Command also indicated that fighter aircraft had started targeting the ISIS militants.

Head of Iraqi Turkmen Front and Kirkuk Member of Parliament Erset Salihi called on all Iraqi Turkmen Front offices and organizations in Hanekin and Kifri in the periphery of Karatepe and instructed them to open their doors to refugees and give them necessary assistance.

According to Iranian state media, which favors the Shia-led Iraqi central government, “targeting” of ISIS attackers by “fighter aircraft” refers to assistance by the Iraqi Air Force. I don’t have details on that, but it would likely consist of barrel-bombing from the unsophisticated and generally inept Iraqi Air Force. No coalition airstrikes around the town have yet been reported.

On October 22, Iraqi Turkmen political leaders called a press conference to assert their view that this is a targeted offensive intended to destroy an Iraqi Turkmen population center and is part of a wider systematic purge:

The Head of Iraqi Turkmen Front and Kirkuk MP Erset Salihi spoke at the press conference and demanded the liberation of Karatepe township.

In his statement Salihi said that it was clear that today Turkmen areas were being targeted. After Telefer, Besir Tazehurmatu regions came Amirli. ISIS has started to target all Turkmen regions such as Tuz, Kirkuk, Tavuk. This time the target was Karatepe township in Diyala which is a major Turkmen settlement area. Kurds, Turkmen and Arab inhabit the region in harmony.

“As Turkmen MPs, we demand that air and land interventions are [begun] as soon as possible to ensure the security of those people and that they are armed so that they can protect themselves, their families as well as the land they inhabit.”

AFP reporting, quoting a source inside the town, implied that the population of the town and surrounding villages was at least 18,000 prior to the start of ISIS bombardment and civilians evacuations. An estimated 9,000 people left in the first day of fighting.

Late in the day on Wednesday, the Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Air Force appeared to declare a preliminary victory in the battle, but it remains to be seen whether this is a temporary win or a decisive repulsing of the ISIS offensive.

Why here, why now?

Although the ISIS forces in Diyala Governorate are relatively cut off from the rest of ISIS, they draw on a deep well of local support. During the second crest of the Iraq War, after the U.S. surge began, many disaffected Sunnis, Sunni separatists, and Sunni insurgents made the province a major staging ground for attacks on eastern Baghdad, U.S. forces, and Shia Arab paramilitaries. By the time of the U.S. departure, the province had become a hotbed of Sunni resentment toward then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose autocratic Shia-led government is widely blamed for triggering the rise of ISIS within Iraq over the past twelve or so months.

Overall, the province is home to a more diverse population than those Sunni Arab extremists would like, which may explain the choice of target at Karetepe, as the political leaders suggested in their press conference. Besides its isolation in the desert making it an easier target, the town is home to a contingent of the minority Iraqi Turkmen ethnic group (learn more — jump to bottom), which ISIS has previously attempted to conduct ethnic cleansing on, all over the Iraqi Turkmen homelands. In the north, the minority has been driven out by the tens of thousands along with Yazidis and other minorities. Most prominently, however, Iraqi Turkmen were nearly starved out during the siege at Amirli, near the provincial border of Diyala, until coalition airstrikes and aid drops began. Having failed to take Amirli, 61 kilometers northeast by highway, Karetepe may be a next-best target for sectarian purgers in the Diyala ISIS faction. Indeed, it is actually even more diverse than Amirli, with Arab and Kurdish residents in addition to the Iraqi Turkmen residents.


If ISIS were to dislodge Kurdish forces and fend off Iraqi government forces and Shia Arab paramilitaries, they would be able to initiate an ethnic cleansing campaign in Diyala province that would make it much more strongly Sunni Arab in its demographics. This would likely boost the separatist aims of the Diyala autonomy movement that attempted in late 2011 to declare the province a “semiautonomous region” on par with the Kurdistan Region. (While that effort was joined by the province’s Kurds, the current war has unofficially absorbed most if not all of the Kurdish areas into the neighboring Kurdish provinces, so they would probably no longer be involved in the movement.) The autonomy backers were met with hostility locally from other minorities in Diyala. The Shia Iraqi Turkmen population at Karatepe and elsewhere in the area is generally somewhat more favorable toward Baghdad and Shia Arab governance than the Sunni Arabs or Kurds.

Another strong possibility is that the ISIS forces in Diyala will put enough pressure on Karatepe to force a significant diversion of troops and resources by the KRG, Baghdad, or Shia Arab paramilitaries that other ISIS positions will be strengthened and could regain ground. At the moment they have been pushed back out of the town and its immediate environs, but that may shift again.

Learn More: Who are the Iraqi Turkmen?

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US and Turkey part ways on Syrian Kurds

US cargo planes yesterday began ferrying supplies and ammunition from the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government to Syrian Kurdish fighters in the besieged town of Kobani, despite protests from Turkey’s president.

Earlier Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would not arm the Kurdish fighters, calling them “equal” to the Kurdistan Workers Party that both Turkey and the U.S. consider a terrorist group.

Erdogan said “it would be very, very wrong to expect” the Turkish government “to openly say ‘yes’ to our NATO ally America giving this kind of support. To expect something like this from us is impossible.”

This echoes the strident remarks made last weekend by Erdogan’s former deputy prime minister and the current number two in the president’s ruling AK Party, in which he asserted that the battle at Kobani was essentially just terrorists fighting terrorists. It also follows last week’s resumption of Turkish airstrikes against the PKK Kurdish fighters in Turkey after two years of peace.

That, combined with the embarrassing reversal on Turkish airbase use for the Syrian campaign a week ago, appears to have served as a breaking point for the United States on trying to placate Turkey on American policy on Syria’s Kurds, because there was another big shift in addition to the supply drops:

[Erdogan] made the comment days after the United States said it held its first direct talks with the Syrian Kurdish political party the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which is tied to the Kurdish fighters in Kobani.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) was formed in 2003 by the Syrian Kurdish backers of the PKK in Turkey, about five years after Syria’s Hafez al-Assad regime switched from supporting the the PKK to supporting the Turkish government and ejected the PKK from Syrian territory. During the current civil war, the PYD emerged as the central government structure of the increasingly independent Syrian Kurdistan in the country’s north, an area called “Rojava” or “Western Kurdistan” (eastern Kurdistan being the Iraqi and Iranian areas of Kurdish populations).

Because of their affiliation with the PKK against Turkey, the United States and the rival Kurdish political parties in Iraq had kept their distance from the PYD and their fighters (known as the YPG), but the threat of ISIS increasingly forced everyone toward a fork in the road on whether to embrace them or leave them behind. Turkey’s government appears to have taken the latter path, while the United States is choosing the former. (The Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government is still more on the fence. Despite yesterday’s aid to Kobani, they have complained as recently as last week that they don’t want to help the PYD because they might be allied with Bashar al-Assad, a dubious albeit vaguely plausible allegation that periodically circulates.)

Given the YPG’s vital help earlier this summer in relieving the ISIS siege of the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in Iraq, helping the Kurdish fighters at Kobani is only fair. Moreover, the Kurdish paramilitaries in Syria remain one of the most reliably US-friendly militant groups in the country’s civil war, and the United States can ill afford to abandon any friends there now.

With the United States now directly talking to Kurdish leaders in Kobani in real time, coalition efforts to lift the siege at Kobani should make much more progress. As I noted previously, it seemed that Turkey’s obstruction and opposition to anyone coordinating with YPG fighters directly was a major impediment to military support at Kobani:

Not only has Turkey still not let coalition planes use airbases close to Kobani — which would make it much easier to reach to offer air support — but Turkey appears to be discouraging the US from talking to Syrian Kurd commanders on the ground to gain real-time intelligence. This may be why coalition airstrikes have been so limited and ineffective at Kobani: there are no spotters on the ground to report rapidly shifting targets for American planes. In contrast, the airstrikes have been much more effective in breaking Iraqi sieges at Sinjar and Amirli in part because the US has a much stronger and pre-existing, working relationship with the anti-ISIS commanders on the ground, particularly within Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government’s paramilitaries.

The US, of course, is also more focused on broader strategic targets that will break ISIS overall, not just at Kobani […] But relief airstrikes have occurred in Iraq at several key points, which implies that if the United States had more ability to break the siege at Kobani, they would do so. A lot of that impediment seems to hinge on Turkey’s vacillation regarding how to handle the situation at Kobani (and its unwillingness to work with the Syrian Kurdish fighters or let the US work with them).

Already we have seen US airstrikes on ISIS at Kobani hit with more frequency and more accuracy in the past several days as YPG commanders provide targeting coordinates to American bombers.

We may well be witnessing the emergence of another far-reaching Middle Eastern alliance between the United States and a minority quasi-government with a large paramilitary.


ISIS still moving faster than coalition forces on Kobani; will Turkey enter?

A second round of US-led coalition airstrikes hit ISIS positions around Kobani on Tuesday, but the group had tightened the circle around the town down to two miles (down from about five or so on Saturday, when the first airstrikes hit), according to CNN:

Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for the Pentagon, said U.S. airstrikes overnight hit the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.

A civilian inside Kobani, near the Turkish border, told CNN on Monday that ISIS was closing in.

The terror group is three kilometers (nearly two miles) east of the town, the civilian said on the condition of anonymity, basically confirming a report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group.
When asked why strikes in the Kobani area may appear to be limited, a senior U.S. official said — speaking separately on background — that factors which may make it appear that way include that the United States has no direct reliable intelligence on the ground and that precise and careful targeting is needed to avoid civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Turkish border, Turkey’s government and military still seems to be weighing whether or not to become directly involved militarily in the civil war by crossing into Syrian territory — and perhaps weighing the long-term consequences of establishing and defending an autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Syria — but in any case they edged visibly closer toward intervention.

30 tanks and armored vehicles from a Turkish armored division have arrived at the border crossing with Syria within sight of where ISIS tanks and artillery have besieged Kobani. If the tanks cross the border, this would be the first time a foreign military’s ground forces have entered the fight against ISIS. The Turkish military reported that they fired on Syrian territory Sunday in response to ISIS shells landing on the Turkish side of the border, but so far no substantial action has occurred.

This may change if parliament approves an intervention, which is under discussion … or if ISIS forces directly attack Turkish troops — a scenario raised again this week by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc in relation to the Turkish Special Forces stationed at the Tomb of Suleiman Shah in an enclave near Aleppo. The tomb, guarded by Turkey’s military since 1938 under the terms of a 1921 treaty with France, has been repeatedly and publicly identified by ISIS as a target all year. ISIS may have hesitated to attack the Turkish enclave, given that a direct assault might trigger an automatic invasion of Syria by all of NATO, under Article V. Turkey beefed up security at the tomb significantly earlier in the year (rather than withdrawing), but the troops there are reportedly tenuously supplied due to deteriorating local conditions as the Aleppo region becomes the center of fighting between Turkish-backed Syrian Arab rebels, the Syrian government, and ISIS.

In another development at Kobani, the Turkish government says they will allow Syrian Kurdish fighters to cross from Kobani into Turkey if forced to cede the field to ISIS, but only without their weapons. This continues the balancing act between humanitarian responsibilities as a refuge and their fear of a disintegration of the ceasefire and peace talks with the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey itself. The Syrian Kurdish fighters are viewed as a potentially destabilizing factor in the effort to make peace within Turkey.
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Troubling double standard on besieged Iraqi town of Amirli

The UN is trying to draw attention to Amirli, Iraq, which ISIS has laid siege to for the past two months. The town, located several dozen miles east of Tikrit or south of Kirkuk, is home to 20,000 Shia Iraqi Turkmen living at the nexus of the Sunni Arab heartland and greater Iraqi Kurdistan — and ISIS plans to wipe them out. No Iraqi, Kurdish, or Western military force has stepped in to help. [Update: On Saturday, August 30, 2014, U.S. airstrikes began, while relief aircraft from Australia, Britain, and France dropped in supplies. Iraqi ground offensives began several days earlier.]

Though surrounded by more than 30 villages (presumably Sunni Arab) that have defected to ISIS, the town was able to seal itself off and maintains a tenuous lifeline to the outside via periodic helicopters. So far they’ve held out without much help since June — essentially just a small number of Iraqi soldiers and any weapons they had on hand — but they are now running out of food. Children are reportedly eating only once every three days.

Click on the map above to zoom out to the wider region.

Here’s one eyewitness report:

No Kurdish peshmerga, who have been fighting the Islamic State, have reached Amerli. There are only a few Iraqi soldiers who have remained after the retreat of the armed forces in June.

Haider al-Bayati, an Amerli resident, said the town is sealed off in all directions, with the nearest Islamic State position only 500 meters. With only helicopters able to bring in food, residents face starvation. Electricity has been cut off. The town has no hospital — the sick and injured must either be treated at a clinic staffed by nurses or evacuated by air.

With the helicopters only able to carry about 30 people per day, women have died in childbirth because of the lack of doctors, and according to residents, “People are dying from simple wounds because we don’t have the means to care for them.”

Dr Ali al-Bayati, who works for a humanitarian foundation has been moving in and out of the town by helicopter, added, “We are depending on salty water, which gives people diarrhoea and other diseases. Since the siege started, more than 50 sick or elderly people have died. Children have also died because of dehydration and disease.”

Former MP Mohammed Al-Bayati claimed that the town was being targeted by the Islamic State because of its Turkmen population. Noting the high-profile international effort to help the refugees of Sinjar after that town was overrun by the jihadists, he asserted, “Unfortunately, the situations are treated with two different standards”.

The question, then, is why the United States and the international community has not rallied to relieve the besieged town as they have done for the 40,000 starving Yazidis who were encircled for a week or so on Mount Sinjar.
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