With Syria in turmoil, little Lebanon remains in limbo

Five years into the Syrian crisis and with an all-out war on its doorstep, Lebanon is experiencing ever-worsening repercussions of its neighbour’s collapse. Yet the small country remains resilient, despite the influx of a million Syrian refugees, the regional turmoil, current tensions over a vacant presidency, and the fact that its institutions are barely functioning. It is therefore a small miracle that Lebanon’s relative peace in a turbulent Middle East has so far been maintained amid its near-total dysfunction, or that large-scale protests did not erupt sooner to lament the country’s many farces and absurdities. This article assesses how Lebanon has been able to contain and deter some of the deep-rooted problems that the Syrian war has made worse.

Lebanon’s existence is based on a sensitive balance of ethno-sectarian ambitions, which have clashed on several occasions, most famously during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war (1975-1990). Decades of conflicts and political paralysis have created a ripe environment for violence to spread. Existing security apparatuses – namely the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) – were stretched to the limit prior to the conflict and are still outmatched against the Hezbollah movement. [1]

Sides and factions changed numerous times; intra-sectarian violence was as common as inter-sectarian violence, as sectarian leaders attempted to consolidate power over their communities. Sectarian groups also changed allegiances due to foreign interventions, by the Syrians, Israelis and the US at points.

The 1989 Taef Agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria, addressed some of these deep-seated sectarian challenges and brought an end to the fighting. Violence abated after 1990, but never disappeared and for years has been on a steady increase. Syria, whose troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 to control Palestinian forces and remained there until their withdrawal in 2005, remained in the country and de facto controlled Beirut in the post-war period. During this time, the conflict between Lebanon and Israel continued until the withdrawal of the latter in 2000, which was largely credited to the resistance military activities of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. This transformed Hezbollah into the primary political party for Lebanon’s Shia community.

Meanwhile, the businessman who had helped broker the Taef Agreement, Rafik Hariri, rose to become Lebanon’s Prime Minister and led a process of reconstruction in the country as well as creating the first major Sunni political party in Lebanon, the Future Movement. Hariri’s vision for Lebanon as a country that would be sovereign and open to economic engagement with foreign countries on an equal basis led to tension with the Syrian regime, which regarded Hariri’s strategy as a threat to its interests in Lebanon.

The Cedar Revolution

On February 14, 2005 a bomb attack on a convoy carrying the former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, killed him, his former economy minister, and twenty others. Popular outrage at the murders – in effect a regicide against the man synonymous with the reconstruction of post-war Beirut – unleashed the “Cedar Revolution”, forcing the involuntary withdrawal of Syrian troops after 29 years of occupation.[2]


Two weeks later, on February 28, 2005 the pro-Syrian Lebanese government resigned and called for new elections. After Syria announced an end to its military presence in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for a pro-Syrian rally to be held in Beirut on March 8. Six days later, on March 14, the anti-Syrian opposition organised a large rally, which marked a month after Hariri’s assassination. From this point, a battle for control of the Lebanese state began between the Sunni-dominated March 14 alliance and the Shia-dominated March 8 alliance and their regional and international allies.

March 8 v March 14

The March 14 alliance is largely made up from centrist Sunni Muslims with a significant number of Christians, and until August 2009, the Druze under Jumblatt. While some members had previously cooperated with Syria, by 2005 all members came to oppose Syrian influence in Lebanon and blamed Syria and its allies in Lebanon for Hariri’s assassination. Up until the Arab uprisings that began in 2010 it was closely allied with so-called ‘moderate’ Arab states and most of the Gulf States, and to Western countries, particularly France and the US.

Meanwhile, the March 8 coalition represented forces that had benefited from the Syrian occupation and continued to align with Syrian interests. This bloc was led by Hezbollah (literally “The Party of God”), a Shia organisation composed of a military branch, sociocultural institutions, and a political party.

Hezbollah Troops

Since its foundation, the movement has continued to play a consequential role in Lebanese politics. The group brought down the government of Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, in 2011. And though Hezbollah helped usher in a replacement in Prime Minister Najib Mikati, it forced his departure from office and a collapse of the government in March 2013 in a dispute over the Lebanese security forces.

Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah

At this time of heightened rivalry and political deadlock, Hezbollah entered a war with Israel after kidnapping two IDF soldiers on the Lebanese-Israeli border in the summer of 2006. During the two-month war, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, stated that he was going to have an open war with Israel, “whether the Lebanese wanted or not.” Nonetheless, Hezbollah managed to capitalise on the war to win hearts and minds not just all over Lebanon but also across the Arab world, as many came to regard it as the only Arab force able to stand up to Israeli aggression. After much negotiation a peace agreement came with UNSC Resolution 1701, drafted by the US, France and Israel on August 14, 2006. In the wake of the 2006 war Lebanon’s Hezbollah’s increased security role remained highly contested but it enabled Lebanon to effectively project power and influence outside its borders and against external threats.

The withdrawal of the Syrian troops and the 2005 elections disrupted the Syrian hegemony and created a new context for security politics in Lebanon. The victorious March 14 forces were able to lead a new government, but parliament was closely divided and the cabinet included representation from the March 8 opposition, including the Hezbollah movement.

Spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon

Although President Bashar al-Assad of Syria withdrew his military forces from Lebanon in 2005, Syria continued to heavily influence internal events within Lebanon. Assad was confident that the Arab uprising that began in Lebanon in March 2005 would not affect Syria. However, on March 15, 2011, just as pro-US regimes across the region were facing waves of demonstrations, a revolution erupted in Syria, this contrary to Assad’s prediction.

The peaceful phase of the revolution was brief, and soon the military crackdown by the Assad regime led to armed resistance by the opposition with the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Increasingly, non-Syrian militias were to join the fight, depicting the Assad regime in Damascus as heretical and ungodly. The Syrian uprising threatened to topple the Assad regime, which, for Hezbollah, would have carried the risk of losing this important lifeline. Iran therefore summoned Hezbollah to help Assad in an attempt at crushing the Syrian opposition.

In the first months of the Syrian uprising, Hezbollah’s leadership refrained from taking a clear and decisive stance, cautiously weighing its options. After summer 2011, however, following the uprising’s increasing militarisation and some individual calls by Syria’s fragmented opposition for international protection and military intervention, Hezbollah began to prop up the regime and gradually increased its support, with a view not only to keep it alive but also to provide it with an edge.[3]

Not only has Hezbollah provided the Syrian regime momentum, it also averted its military defeat; dislodged rebels from areas adjacent to the borders; stopped further outrages against Shia Muslims; and prevented a detrimental recalibration of the regional balance of power. In the process the group has evolved at the military and political level, ultimately impacting upon its strategic outlook, capabilities and role—both in Syria as well as back home in Lebanon.

By May 2013, Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged that Hezbollah was dispatching fighters to Syria, a clear violation of the Baabda Declaration, a document outlining Lebanon’s policy of ‘disassociation’ from the conflict.


By then, Hezbollah had gained unrivalled power within Lebanon and seemed to be securing a stable political order and security position. But these soon began to unravel as the result of Hezbollah’s expanding engagement in the civil war in Syria and of growing sense of insecurity within the Lebanese Sunni community.

Hezbollah’s involvement has also heightened its rivalries and created new enemies within Syria. Because of its military role supporting Assad, it is not surprising to note that Hezbollah is seen as a key enemy by anti-Assad opposition forces. In particular, Hezbollah is especially despised and targeted by groups operating within the “Salafi-jihadist” camp. This is certainly true when it comes to groups like al Qaeda-linked Jahbat al-Nusra (JN) or Islamic State (IS): both organisations have engaged in a number of bloody clashes against Hezbollah and in both cases their military rivalry is heightened by their belief that the group and the Shia community in general is “heretical” in its interpretation of Islam.

Similarly, within Lebanon, Hezbollah’s assistance of the Syrian regime has not only fuelled political and sectarian tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities, but it has also resulted in direct violence against Nasrallah’s group and the Shia community in general. Hezbollah responded by establishing its own checkpoints and visible security patrols around Shia populations and institutions. However, these checkpoints caused tensions with non-Shia communities and Hezbollah faced criticism for claiming public authority over security in areas far from the Israeli-Lebanese border.[4]

2014 Security Plan

In response, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) launched in April 2014 a new security plan to restore the rule of law by setting up their own checkpoints and increasing raids along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Soon elements of the Lebanese security apparatus, spanning the LAF, Hezbollah and others, found themselves cooperating, despite their political divisions and historic background.[5]

Yet, despite this arrangement, the underlying problems caused by the Syrian conflict have not been resolved. A number of direct attacks against Hezbollah occurred in the past few years, including rocket attacks against the “al-Dahiye” – Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut; suicide bombings against Shia, Hezbollah and Iranian targets and operations targeting the LAF. Al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades bombed the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November 2013 and, more recently, IS itself took responsibility for a tragic suicide bomb attack in a densely populated street of Bourj al-Barajneh – a predominantly Shia neighbourhood in Hezbollah’s southern suburb stronghold in Beirut in November 2015.[6]

The Bourj al-Barajneh bombings, killing over 40 people and wounding 200 others have highlighted the security plan’s intrinsic limitations. Its major shortcoming consists in putting the onus solely on security measures, while ignoring root causes: Sunni and Shia radicalisation, fuelled by political parties and regional sponsors; deplorable living conditions for Syrian refugees; the deteriorating socio-economic situation of Lebanese themselves; and eroding state institutions and services.

Still, the margin of action of these militant groups remains limited. They may inflict damage on Lebanon and its people, but not in a systematic, strategically meaningful way. For instance, in August 2015, IS and JN, along with smaller armed groups, attempted to take over a town in north-eastern Lebanon, but their efforts were thwarted by the Lebanese Armed Forces. Moreover, hardly a week goes by without reports of security forces announcing the arrest of a jihadi activist or the dismantling of explosive devices.

The Resistance Axis

The reasons behind Hezbollah’s ‘all-in’ approach with respect to the Syrian civil war are related to the historical strategic alliance between the Lebanese-Shia organisation and the Syrian regime; to the geo-strategic importance of preserving the so-called ‘Axis of Refusal/resistance’ as well as to the strength of the personal relationship between Nasrallah and the Assad regime. The term resistance axis (jabhat al muqawama) designates the alliance among the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria and the strongest Arab non-state actors, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

As Iran and Saudi Arabia jostle for power in the Middle East, Beirut has managed to maintain an uncomfortable balance between the two. However, the last few months the Saudis have grown understandably impatient with the fact that Lebanon, and especially its armed forces, remains under the hegemony of Hezbollah. For the first time, Riyadh is playing hardball in their dealings with Lebanon, deciding on February 19, 2016 to cancel about $4 billion worth of aid to the Lebanese army and internal forces. The aid had been offered in a bid to bolster the army and make it more able to hold its own and operate independently from Hezbollah.

Moreover, Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. These two developments, and other similar moves looming on the horizon, are likely to exert serious pressure on Lebanon’s economic and political stability. It may also make Lebanon less secure. Signalling its concern, the UN has called on other countries to make up the $4 billion.[7]

Political stalemate

The Syrian crisis also tore along political divides, with March 14 supporting the uprisings and their March 8 adversaries the Assad regime. Both sides view the Syrian conflict as potentially leading to a transformation in the domestic balance of power in Lebanon.

After Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his government’s resignation in March 2013, policymaking in Beirut halted and the economy nosedived as pro- and anti-Assad factions struggled to agree on a new cabinet. The appointment of a new interim cabinet in March 2014 was in part the result of foreign patrons putting pressure on Lebanese actors—pressure that was spurred by developments on the ground in Syria.

Also, Lebanon has been without an executive head of state – a position traditionally reserved for Maronite Christians – since President Michel Suleiman’s mandate ended in May 2014. Parliament has convened since then more than 35 times without electing a new president due to the lack of a two-thirds quorum.[8]

In the past few months, however, key Lebanese political players have switched partners, undermining the two main blocs. Late 2015, in an apparent breakthrough, Future Current (FC) leader Saad Hariri struck a counterintuitive deal with Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian politician and close friend of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.[9] This would have made Frangieh president and Hariri, reportedly, prime minister.

This gambit was soon countered by another: earlier this year, Samir Geagea, the head of the Christian political party Lebanese Forces, who had been a candidate for the post, endorsed the candidacy of his greatest rival, Michel Aoun, the 80-year-old leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. The surprise announcement marked a rare show of unity in a Christian community riven by divisions for decades.[10]

Both leaders continue to have deeply divergent political postures, both internally and concerning the region. Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah has grown stronger over the years; he has supported Assad in the Syrian conflict and built close ties with Iran; he is also a harsh critic of the Future Current (FC) and Saudi Arabia. On the other side, Geagea remains a visceral opponent of Hezbollah, Damascus and Iran, and has forged important ties with Riyadh.

Trash collection crisis

Meanwhile, Lebanese citizens have been mired in their own filth since July 2015, when the country’s main landfill closed its gates, without providing an alternative. The protest campaign “You Stink”, led by youth and civil society activists who, being opposed to politicians, claim to be ‘non-political’, pointed the finger at the politicians, who failed to find new disposal options despite nearly a year’s warning.[11]


These activists saw the piles of rubbish as symptomatic of the failure not only of the political class but also of the Lebanese political system. The peaceful protests turned violent by late September and continued throughout the following months amid enduring discontent over the internal political stalemate.

Removal of garbage from the Beirut suburbs began on March 19, 2016 after the goverment approved an emergency plan to temporarily reopen the Naameh landfill.


Lebanon has one of the weakest governments in the entire Middle East, yet it has managed to subvert popular demands for reform more effectively than virtually all of the surrounding Arab states. Nonetheless, a growing number of Lebanese are fed up with the rules of the game in their country: sectarian, patron-based politics and a culture of impunity for elite corruption have left little space for good governance.

In short, the current crisis is the product of the accelerating erosion of state structures, growing social dislocation and displacement, but also communal consolidation and de facto devolution of power to militias. These trends are profoundly reshaping the fragmented Lebanese society, economy and polities, the particular dynamics of which largely are eclipsed by political actors’ single-minded focus on the terrorist threat, the reflexive responses which are exacerbating, not alleviating, the underlying causes.

Although the Assad regime in Damascus is consolidating military gains on the ground, an outright regime victory remains unlikely. However, should the regime emerge victorious, the prospect of widespread renewed conflict in Lebanon could diminish, particularly if Hezbollah withdraws from Syria, removing a major impetus of sectarian violence in Lebanon.

From delayed parliamentary and presidential elections to protests about uncollected garbage, Lebanon remains in limbo. Fortunately for the Lebanese, the country has lost its status as the prime locus of proxy and sectarian wars in the region. In the meantime, Lebanon has no choice but to provide shelter for over one million Syrian refugees.


[1] YOUNG, W., STEBBINS, D., FREDERICK, B.A. & AL-SHAHERY, O. (2014). “Spillover from the Conflict in Syria: An Assessment of the Factors that Aid and Impede the Spread of Violence”. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, p. 29.

[2] GARDNER, D. “Ten years on, Hariri’s murder has reshaped Lebanon’s landscape”, Financial Times, February 16th, 2015, p. 4.

[3] MOHNS, E. & BANK, A. “Syrian Revolt Fallout: End of the Resistance Axis?”, Middle East Policy Council, Fall 2012, Vol. 19, No. 3.

[4] International Crisis Group. “Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria”. Retrieved March 25th, 2016 from International Crisis Group: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/syria-lebanon/lebanon/153-lebanon-s-hizbollah-turns-eastward-to-syria.aspx.

[5] “Lebanese Army launches Bekaa Valley security plan”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from The Daily Star Lebanon: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Apr-11/252980-lebanese-army-launches-bekaa-valley-security-plan.ashx#axzz33V7khACX & KHATIB, L. “Regional Spillover: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict”, Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Carnegie Middle East Center: http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=55829.

[6] BERTI, B. “The Syrian Civil War and its Consequences for Hezbollah”, Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from ISN ETH Zurich: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?id=195591.

[7] “When elephants battle”, Retrieved April 1st, 2016 from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21693898-little-guy-gets-hurt-saudi-arabia-and-iran-squabble-over-lebanon.

[8] SAAB, B.Y. “Back to Lebanon’s Future: The Political Revival of the Country’s Christians”, Retrieved April 1st, 2016 from Foreign Affairs: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/lebanon/2016-01-26/back-lebanons-future.

[9] PERRY, T. & BASSAM, L. “In unexpected twist, Assad ally may be Lebanon’s next president”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-lebanon-presidency-ins-idUSKBN0TJ26620151130.

[10] PERRY, T. “Geagea reshapes Lebanese politics, backs rival Aoun”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-lebanon-idUSKCN0UW24V.

[11] SOLOMON, E. “Lebanon rubbish crisis: a pungent symbol of political inaction”. Retrieved March 22nd, 2016 from Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/3aa1fc0c-3752-11e5-bdbb-35e55cbae175.html#axzz41lN4eDax.


The Arab Spring: Five Years Later

On 18 December 2010, a man in Tunisia burned himself to death in protest of police corruption and ill treament. The following months, uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt led to the overthrow of their heads of state and sparked a wave of protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa, now commonly referred to as the “Arab Spring”, “Arab Awakening” or “Arab Uprisings”.

Five years after the wave of uprisings, the Arab world is worse off than ever. Radical movements in the Arab world seem to have been even more invigorated by the Arab Spring than liberal ones. The Arab uprisings increased the innovation and entrepreneurship of radical groups in the Middle East, at the same time that it increased the opportunities for radicals to gain battlefield experience.

On 9 January 2016, The Economist published a chart illustrating that the Arab revolutions produced few leaders, few credible programmes for action, and few ideas. But they did produce much-needed clarity about such things as what political Islam actually means in practice, where the Arabs stand in the world and with each other, and what the weaknesses and strengths of Arab states and societies are. [1]

(c) The Economist

[1] “The Arab winter”The Economist, 9 January 2016.

Regional Turmoil in the Gulf: Iranian Perspectives

After years of hard negotiations, Iran and six world powers reached a comprehensive long-term deal on Iran’s nuclear programme in July 2015, marking a rare diplomatic success in the Middle East. Moderates and reformists hoped that the nuclear accord would rehabilitate Iran’s international image and allow Tehran to be a regional economic player and force for stability. Israel, among other nations, claimed the agreement was a mistake that would allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons and throw its weight around. Six months later, Iranian leaders find themselves mired in a new diplomatic row, after Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran, following the execution of the prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the subsequent setting ablaze of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and Riyadh’s expulsion of Iranian diplomats early January.


Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties with Iran, as an escalating war of words between the two regional foes threatened to deepen the ongoing proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. Saudi authorities carried out the largest mass execution in the country since 1980, putting 47 men to death on 2 January 2016. All of the men were convicted on terrorism charges, and most were members of al-Qaeda.

According to data collected by Amnesty International, at least 151 people were executed in Saudi Arabia between January and November 2015, while Human Rights Watch recorded 158 in total during the year.

Riyadh’s decision to execute the outspoken Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, an opponent of the ruling dynasty who had demanded greater rights for the Shiiite minority, comes at a time when the regime led by King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud is under pressure. Earlier, Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that the decline in oil revenues would force a painful overhaul of subsidised energy, education and health care Riyadh provides its citizens.

(c) AP
Demonstrators in Iran protested the executions in Saudi Arabia ( Associated Press)

Relations deteriorated even further on 7 January 2016 as Iranian officials in Tehran severed all commercial ties with Riyadh and accused Saudi jets of attacking its embassy in Yemen’s capital Sanaa.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is still considered a close ally by the west — the leader of a broad Sunni alliance, a pivotal player in any plan to end the civil war in Syria and a vital intelligence collaborator in the fight against jihadism.

The rupture between both countries also comes at a delicate moment in the fledgling effort to launch peace talks late January in Geneva between the Syrian regime of President Assad and opposition representatives. Furthermore, the recent developments could affect countries ranging from Lebanon to Iraq and would make it even harder to mount an effective international military coalition against Islamic State (IS).[1]

In a bid to prevent further deepening of the  crisis, it will be up to Washington and Moscow to try to shore up the diplomatic effort and limit the damage from the latest events.

The Sunni-Shia Divide

The recent rift between Iran, a predominantly Shia country, and Saudi Arabia can be traced to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which saw the “Shah of Iran” toppled and Shia religious authorities taking over, offering support and giving hope to Shia populations in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.[2]

The divide between Sunnis and Shia is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. Members of the two sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices, though they differ in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organisation. As of 2010, it was estimated that the overwhelming majority (87-90%) of Muslims were Sunnis; about 10-13% were Shia Muslims.

The Arab spring uprisings that began five years ago in Tunisia have further heightened Sunni-Shia tensions, and led Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia’s to crack down on what they see as Iran’s attempts to promote its radical Shia agenda.[3]

Despite all the fireworks, this escalation will probably not change much. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in a proxy war at various temperatures over regional order for many years, but have so far avoided direct conflict.

The continuing reverberations of the US occupation of Iraq, the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear deal have far more to do with the current spike in sectarianism than some timeless essence of religious difference.[4]

The last time Saudi Arabia broke off ties with Iran, after its embassy in Tehran was stormed by protesters in 1988, it took a swing in the regional power balance in the form of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait to heal the rift.

More recently, the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers – Adel al-Jubeir and Mohammad Javad Zarif – held talks about Syria during a high-level meeting in New York in December 2015.

Iran’s own internal tensions are playing out in the crisis, as well.

Factional politics in Iran can be bitter and complex. The system’s overlapping republican and theological features make it difficult to plot groups along a conventional right/left spectrum. Even more baffling is the absence of effective political parties.[5]

Payam Mohseni has suggested a classification based on the theocratic-republican divide on one dimension and the economic left/right divide on the other. In today’s Iran, however, it is hard to find viable political groups that pursue leftist economic policies.[6]

The Islamic Republic’s governance system mixes popular sovereignty and religious authority. Republican features are most prominently represented by the popularly elected president and unicameral parliament. The president and 290 lawmakers are elected for four-year terms, with the former limited to two consecutive ones. A variety of theocratic bodies oversee these, foremost the Office of the Supreme Leader, which has final word on all matters of state. Selecting and theoretically overseeing the leader is the Assembly of Experts, 86 Islamic jurists.[7]

With Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei aging (he is 76 and has had prostate cancer), many wonder if the next Assembly (during its eight-year term) will choose his successor, who could reshape the Islamic Republic’s course.

President Hassan Rouhani’s competitors are concerned that he and his allies will parlay their foreign policy achievements into electoral victories.

Reformist (طلب اصالح)-conservative (کار محافظه) dichotomy

Even as presidency and legislature switched hands over three decades, the unelected institutions have prevented any faction from attaining complete dominance. Nonetheless, reformists (طلب اصالح) and conservatives ((کار محافظه) in the Iranian regime have been jockeying for influence for decades.

The reformists (طلب اصالح), bolstered since President Rouhani assumed office in 2013, hope the nuclear deal will usher in a broad economic opening, transforming a faltering, socialist-style economy into more of a capitalist one.

However, a backslash appears to be underway, promoted by Mr Rouhani’s hardline adversaries in Tehran who are deeply sceptical of the US and its allies. Ever since the nuclear accord was reached and endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the conservative (کار محافظه) bloc, including the theocratic-dominated Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), fear that social, cultural and political liberalisation will erode traditional Islamic values and weaken their political power.

Hassan_Rouhani_2Reform-minded analysts now fear that the sudden worsening in relations between the Saudi Arabia and Iran will give Iran’s hardliners grist to their mill at the expense of President Hassan Rouhani.

The future direction of Iran is likely to become clearer in February 2016 when Iran holds elections for a new majles (parliament) and Assembly of Experts.

July nuclear deal

The Iranian nuclear programme plays an outsized role in Iran’s domestic politics, uniting a broad swathe of the political spectrum. The vast majority of the Iranians see it as a matter of national pride and certification of their country’s scientific modernity. However, at the same time, the programme illustrates the dichotomy between the political factions (see above).

On 14 July 2015, after weeks of almost uninterrupted negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), a comprehensive long-term deal on Iran’s nuclear programme was reached to limit its sensitive nuclear activities in return for the lifting of crippling sanctions.


On 21 October 2015, Ayatollah Khamenei finally endorsed the nuclear deal, albeit with nine conditions and after characterising it as flawed. Khamenei also insisted it did not signal rapprochement with the US.[8]

Ali Khamenei
(AP Photo/Office of the Supreme Leader)

Although the full agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), came under instant and ferocious attack from its opponents – mostly in the US, Iran and Israel – its defenders portrayed it as one of the most important arms control accords of modern times and a rare diplomatic success in the Middle East.[9]

Between now and “implementation day”, Iran is required to dismantle much of its nuclear programme, decommissioning two-thirds of its uranium centrifuges and selling or diluting 96% of its stockpile of enriched uranium. In return, Iran’s frozen assets will be returned and, on proof of compliance, EU energy and financial sanctions will be lifted. Oil and gas exports, severely restricted since the end of 2011, will resume and Iran will be open for investment.

On 7 January 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the implementation of the deal was only days away and that Washington would continue to ensure that Iran lives up to its commitments. The landmark could usher in a new phase in the budding US-Iranian rapprochement.

Economic war

The devolution in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran could also evolve into an economic war: together with increased US shale production, the recent spike in Saudi oil production – from 9.6 million barrels per day in November 2014 to 10.2 million barrels per day one year later – has ensured that Iran will return to a depressed global oil market.

Iran’s economy faced huge economic problems in recent years due to international sanctions imposed over Tehran’s nuclear programme. Plummeting oil prices only added to economic woes in a country with the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves. Analysts expect that Iran will flood the oil market when sanctions are lifted. Reports that Tehran dispatched a shipment of more than eleven tonnes of low-enriched uranium to Russia has renewed focus on the supply glut.

The Saudis, having their own long-term financial concerns, are very aware that Iran will be able to sell its crude unencumbered by sanctions on the international market very soon and will use all means at their disposal to make sure Iran does not recapture the market share it lost over the past four years.

In April 2015, US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew estimated that Iran’s economy was 15 to 20 percent smaller than it would have been had sanctions not been ratcheted up in 2012 and cost $160 billion in lost oil revenue alone.[10] Since 2012, Iran’s currency, the rial, has declined by more than 50 percent. Its inflation rate reached as high as 40 percent, and remains one of the highest in the world.

In an effort to woo foreign investment in the post-sanctions era, Iran put a set of new lucrative oil and gas contracts, worth more than $30bn, on the market in December 2015.

If all sanctions are be lifted by the beginning of the 2016 Iranian calendar year (March-June 2016), the World Bank estimates that real GDP should rise to 5.8 % and 6.7 % in 2016 and 2017, respectively, as oil production reaches 3.6 and 4.2 million barrels per day. 

Iran’s missiles 

In tandem with its efforts to expand its nuclear capabilities, Iran has made robust strides in developing ballistic missiles. iranian-surface-to-surface-missileThe two programmes appear to be connected, with the aim of giving Iran the capability to deliver nuclear weapons beyond its borders, though Tehran claims that its missiles are strictly defensive in nature.[11]

In December 2015, one of the most important chapters in Iran’s nuclear saga came to an end as the IAEA, UN’s nuclear watchdog, released its long-awaited report on the so-called possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program. It concluded that Iran conducted a coordinated “range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” prior to the end of 2003 and that some of the activities continued between 2003 and 2009.

The lifting of the UN, EU and US sanctions, agreed in the July nuclear deal, hinged on the IAEA’s findings on the issue.

Two recent Iranian ballistic missile tests by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps made clear that Tehran had no intention of obeying a UN prohibition on such launches.[12] While the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action does not prevent Iran from testing ballistic missiles, UN Resolution 1929, which remains in effect until “Implementation Day”, prohibits Tehran from the testing and developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

According to analysts the test appears to have been motivated by domestic politics: an effort by the Supreme Leader to prove to his core constituents that the nuclear deal has not been struck from a position of weakness and for Rouhani to disprove his rivals’ allegation that he compromised Iran’s defensive capabilities.


While neither the nuclear deal nor improved economic conditions have yet to translate into large-scale political or economic changes in Iran, they have created a new mood of optimism. Iran’s 80 million population is predominately young, educated and hungry for change and opportunity.

As the streets flooded with charismatic supporters chanting “Long Live Javad Zarif” in July 2015, some households remained doubtful of the deal’s impact.

(c) Al Jazeera
(Al Jazeera)

11953179_10207628822588759_5066646973362526497_n“The larger, conservative demographic is upset with the deal, claiming it yields too much power to the west. The younger, tech savvy generation with a strong media presence is generally happy with the deal. They are excited about the prospect of exposing Iran to outside influences and modernisation.”

“Personally, I am also sceptical of its impact. Iranians are a proud people and we take pride in our nation. Although we do want to integrate ourselves in the global economy, we also really want to preserve our culture. I believe with the nuclear deal, there is potential for us to accomplish both.” – Marian Haidarali, young American academic with Iranian roots

young Iran


The recent diplomatic rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran marks an ominous start to 2016 for the Middle East. The international community should recognise how dangerous the stakes in the region have become. Reconciling Riyadh and Tehran is essential if there is to be any hope of a resolution to the civil war in Syria.

This battle is happening against the backdrop of deepening political infighting in the run-up to the February 2016 elections to parliament and the Assembly of Experts.

As the Islamic Republic struggles to balance intense factional competition for power and resources against the growing demands of its young, educated population, a realistic outcome will probably be a mix of both – a gradually liberalising yet still regionally assertive Iran.

Thomas Thielemans



[1] Dan De Luce, “Saudi-Iran Rift Threatens Syria Diplomacy”, Foreign Policy, 3 January 2016.

[2] Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlav, Shah of Iran from 1941 to 1979, maintained a pro-Western foreign policy and fostered economic development in Iran.

[3] Larbi Sadiki, “Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring: Rethinking Democratization”, Routledge, 2014; “Sunnis and Shia: Islam’s ancient schism”, BBC, 4 January 2016 & “The Sunni-Shia Divide”, Council on Foreign Relations.

[4] Marc Lynch, “Why Saudi Arabia Escalated the Middle East’s Sectarian Conflict”, Washington Post, 4 January 2016.

[5] “A realignment of Iran’s political factions underway as elections loom”, Guardian, 11 December 2015.

[6] Payam Mohseni, “Guardian Politics in Iran: A Comparative Inquiry into the Dynamics of Regime Survival”, Georgetown University, 2012.

[7] International Crisis Group, “Iran After the Nuclear Deal”, Middle East Report N°166, 15 December 2015.

[8] Thomas Erdbrink, “Backlash Against U.S. in Iran Seems to Gather Force After Nuclear Deal”, New York Times, 3 November 2015.

[9] “Iran nuclear deal reached in Vienna”, Guardian, 14 July 2015.

[10] “Remarks of Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew to The Washington Institute”, The Washington Institute, 29 April 2015.

[11] “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A net Assessment”, IISS, 7 May 2010.

[12] Reportedly, in November Iran tested another medium-range ballistic missile, which violated UN Resolution 1929, which imposes a binding ban on Tehran’s testing of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the JCPOA and overrides 1929, does not prevent Iran from testing ballistic missiles but rather “calls upon” Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” for eight years.

[13] Philip Stephens, “The Saudi-Iran paradox that haunts the west”Financial Times, 7 January 2016.


Yemen: a full-fledged war

In March 2015, in the small Middle Eastern country of Yemen, a long-running political crisis escalated into a full-fledged war. Air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, fighting on behalf of the disposed government have hit nearly as many civilians as rebels. The main fight is between forces loyal to the beleaguered President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Huthis, who forced Mr Hadi to flee the capital of Sanaa early 2015. Efforts to launch peace talks to end an eight-month-old war are currently being thwarted in part by Mr Hadi, who fears a negotiated settlement would drive him from power. More recently, fighting intensified in and around the city of Taiz, Yemen’s cultural capital. The arrival of over 450 Latin American troops adds to the chaotic stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war.



The modern Republic of Yemen is a relatively new state, created after communist South Yemen and traditional North Yemen merged in 1990, following years of strife. However, tensions remained between the north and the south. A southern separatist movement was defeated in a short civil war in 1994, and tensions re-emerged in 2009 when government troops and rebels, known as the Huthi movement, clashed in north Yemen, killing hundreds and displacing more than a quarter of a million people.[1]

With roots in Zaidi revivalism, the movement initially sought to protect religious and cultural traditions from perceived Salafi/Wahabbi encroachment and Western interference in the Muslim world.[2] Then, under the leadership of Hussein Badr al-Din al-Huthi, and galvanised by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, they shifted from religious/cultural to political activism.

In 2004, a failed attempt to arrest Hussein al-Huthi sparked six rounds of brutal confrontation with the Yemeni government. After Hussein’s death, Yemen’s US-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, continued waging intermittent wars on the Huthis — now led by his brother, Abdulmalik. These were carried out with such brutality and incompetence that the Huthi movement grew in size and fighting ability, gaining sympathy from northern tribes who suffered in the wars. Hostilities officially ended with a February 2010 ceasefire, but grievances remained.[3]

After the uprising in 2011 that ultimately forced Saleh to step aside, Yemen was theoretically governed by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the new president named in a transitional process underwritten by the Gulf states and the US. In reality, the government was losing control of the country, with al-Qaeda bombers and kidnappers running rampant. The Huthis were the only group with the cohesion and discipline to hold territory.

In 2011, the Arab Spring pushed the country to the brink of civil war as protesters sought to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ending his 33-year rule. The UN intervened by crafting a model for a peaceful transition with the support of six countries from the regional Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The initiative led to a successful handover of presidency from Saleh to interim leader Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Rise of the Houthis
A Yemeni tribesman keeps watch from the top of a mountain during a Houthi gathering for Mawlid al Naby – birthday of the Prophet Mohammad. Thousands of men and women came from around northern Yemen to hear the leader, Abdul Malik al Houthi, address the crowd on politics, religion, and the West.

After Saleh’s exit, the gradual power transition focused on building consensus among Yemen’s elites. Mr Hadi proved an incompetent leader, unable to provide either physical or economic security to an unstable country.

In September 2014, the political transition began to unravel, when Huthi rebels captured the Yemeni capital, toppling the widely unpopular transitional government. Neither Mr Hadi nor the Huthi movement honoured the soon concluded peace deal.

Early 2015, conflict over a draft constitution led the Huthis to consolidate control in Sanaa, precipitating the 22 January resignation of the PM and President; the latter subsequently fled to Aden.

Since late March, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia, including the US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies has been bombing Yemen extensively in an attempt to push back the Huthi movement, which controls the north and is rapidly advancing south, and their ally, former President Saleh.

While the fighting on the ground has been intense and lethal, it is the air campaign that has caused the most destruction, with fighter jets and bombers circling the capital and the small villages throughout the country looking for military targets, but too often hitting civilians and hospitals instead.

The primary coalition’s goals are to pacify Yemen, to force the Huthis to retreat and to weaken Saleh’s hold on power, but its wider objective is to send a powerful message to Iran: stop meddling in Arab affairs. So far, however, the only definitive outcome of the war is a humanitarian crisis and derailed efforts to combat Islamist militancy in the region.

In addition, Islamic State affiliates and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the terrorist organisation’s strongest branches, and Islamic State affiliates, which seeks to eclipse AQAP, have taken advantage of Yemen’s power vacuum and fragile security situation to strengthen their positions in southern Yemen. Twin attacks by the militants on Huthi mosques in the capital Sanaa killed more than 140 people in March; IS also claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that killed the governor of the port city of Aden early December.

Sunni Muslim extremist groups like IS and AQAP oppose both the Huthis, a Shiite Muslim group, and the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni states, which rejects the radical form of Islamic government they want to impose.

Who is fighting whom?

Supporting Yemen’s deposed government

Saudi Arabia
Leading a coalition of Sunni nations that includes Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt.
United Arab Emirates
In addition to sending its own special operations troops, the UAE has sent more than 400 Colombian troops to Yemen who had been training in the Emirati desert.
United States
Conducted several missile strikes using drones against al-Qaeda since the war started; stationed warships in the Gulf of Aden, provided intelligence to help targeting for airstrikes, as well as refueling aircraft and other logistical support.
Contributed fighter jets to Saudi’s coalition
Reportedly deployed 1,000 troops with vehicles, helicopters (not officially confirmed)
Contributed as many as 800 soldiers with warships
contributed fighter jets
contributed fighter jets despite low profile.
In addition to jets, Sudan reportedly sent 300 troops to the Yemeni port city of Aden in October.
Senegalese officials confirmed deployment of 2,100 troops
UK is not participating directly in the Saudi-led operations, but acknowledges it is providing technical support and precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Voted unanimously to remain neutral.

Against Yemen’s government

Huthi rebels
The Shiite group that pushed the Yemeni government out of Sana, the capital.
Intermittently accused of supporting the Huthis with weapons and launching a robust media campaign against the Saudi coalition. Yet, Iran has denied direct involvement in the fight.

Brigadier Nasser Mushabab Al Otaibi, the Emirati officer leading the combined land force, said around 4,000 troops from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan were now in Yemen, in the first major Gulf Arab-led intervention. He declined to say how many were from the UAE. Nonetheless, progress on the ground has been slow since the coalition took Aden in July. The Huthis and their allies still control most populated areas including Sanaa, and are putting up a tough fight in Taiz, 180 km north-west of Aden.

Mercenaries on the rise

A recent article in the New York Times revealed that the United Arab Emirates has secretly dispatched hundreds of Latin American soldiers, among them Colombians, Panamanians, Salvadorans and Chileans, to Yemen. It appears to be the first combat deployment for a foreign army that the Emirates has quietly built in the desert over the past five years, according to several people currently or formerly involved with the project.[4]

This quagmire has overwhelmed the UN-led negotiations in Sanaa. After three years, stakeholders have little confidence UN-sponsored talks alone will overcome the impasse or produce a lasting settlement.

Humanitarian disaster

Meanwhile, the fighting has exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country. Furthermore, Yemen is rapidly running out of water. Getting food and water to 25 million people who are surrounded by a crazy-quilt of battling militias and jihadis could be almost impossible.

For ordinary Yemenis, the consequences of this conflict have been devastating. According to Johannes van der Klaauw, Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, health facilities have reported more than 32,000 casualties – over 5,700 of them killed. In the same period, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has verified 8,875 reports of human rights violations. That is an average of 43 violations every day. He also added that approximately fourteen million people lack sufficient access to healthcare, with three million children and pregnant or lactating women in need of malnutrition treatment or preventive services, and 1.8 million children have been out of school since mid-March.[5]

More than 1,500 children have been killed or injured according to the UN, with many of the deaths a direct result of explosive weapons such as missiles and large aircraft bombs, artillery shells, rockets, mortars, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Mediation and peace talks

Early December 2015, the UN’ special envoy for Yemen said that the Yemeni government and the Huthi movement would start peace talks in Switzerland shortly and that the two sides appeared willing to accept a cease-fire in their nine-month-old war.

The proposed talks follow months of shuttling between the warring parties by the envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in an attempt to mediate an end to the conflict and to discuss the implementation of UN Resolution 2216 .

An earlier round of consultations convened in June collapsed without the government of Mr Hadi and the rebels ever meeting face to face. Talks that were reportedly scheduled to start last month never materialised.

Mr Hadi has previously insisted he would enter negotiations only once the rebels complied with a UN Security Council resolution calling on them to lay down arms and together with their allies, loyalists of former president Saleh, withdraw from territory under their control.

A new negotiated process, however, could all too easily repeat the mistakes of the past, with the international backers of the transition focused on the political balance between competing elite groups rather than meaningful change, ignoring the elite’s self-interested behaviour until it is too late.[6]


The competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional influence is exacerbating a number of existing disputes in the region, where the two powers are backing different sides – including Yemen. The primary drivers of tension and conflict are local, but the perceived, and often exaggerated, roles of external players continue to affect the calculations of the Yemeni players and of different regional actors.

The Huthi rebels, founded as a revivalist movement for the Zaidi form of Shia Islam that is largely unique to northern Yemen, have transformed themselves over the past decade into a formidable militia, and their military takeover in January 2015 has plunged the country into uncertainty. All these factors will make it more difficult for Yemen’s many parties to return to the negotiating table.[7]

While the Huthis have established their dominance over Sanaa and beyond, they cannot govern Yemen on their own. Without buy in from Yemen’s numerous other parties and financial support from its Gulf neighbors, Yemen faces financial collapse, protracted civil conflict, and an escalating humanitarian crisis.

[1] “The unbeautiful south”, Economist, October 2015, Vol. 417, No. 8961; “Yemen country profile”, BBC, 25 November 2015.

[2] Huthi armed groups are often referred to as “Popular Committees”. They are supported by certain units of the armed forces and loyalists of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh

[3] “The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa”, Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, 10 June 2014; Robert F. Worth, “Yemen: The Houthi Enigma”, New York Review of Books, 30 March 2015.

[4] Emily B. Hager & Mark Mazzetti, “Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Yemen Fight”, New York Times, 25 November 2015.

[5] “Statement to the Press: Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Johannes van der Klauw”, OHCHR, 18 November 2015.

[6] Peter Salisbury & Simeon Kerr, “Yemen’s exiled government agrees to peace talks”, Financial Times, 20 October 2015; Nick Cumming-Bruce, Yemen’s Government and Houthi Rebels to Start Peace Talks”New York Times, 7 December 2015.

[7] “Yemen in Crisis”, CFR, 8 July 2015.


Violence in Israel has been rising for months, with attacks spreading beyond East Jerusalem and the West Bank. At the time of writing seven Israelis and around 32 Palestinians, including eight children, have died in more than two weeks of bloodshed, fueled in part by Muslim anger over increasing Jewish visits to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. Israel has tightened security and clashed with rioting Palestinians, leading to deaths on the Palestinian side. The violence has also spread to the border with Gaza. Neither side appears fully in control amid “lone wolf” stabbing attacks by Palestinians and attempted lynchings by Israelis – including an incident in the seaside town of Netanya when a mob set on three Palestinians.

Once again the Holy Esplanade – known to Jews as the Temple Mount (har habayit) and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary (al-haram al-sharif) – is again the epicentre of a violent escalation. A small plaza (59sq. km) in Jerusalem`s Old City, the Holy Esplanade is Judaism`s holiest site and of great significance in Islam. There is no coincidence that the escalation occurred during the Jewish high holidays – religious festivals in which the ancient Temple, and so today the Esplanade, figure prominently.


Managed by an Israeli-Jordanian condominium, the site exemplifies political exclusion of Palestinians from what they consider their capital and the inability of their fractured national movement to defend it meaningfully.

Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the Middle East And North Africa program at International Crisis Group: “Since the Jewish ‘high holidays’ began in mid-September, Palestinian youth have been throwing stones and firecrackers at the Israeli police to prevent the entry of groups of religious Jews, who have been ascending the Esplanade with the intention of changing the current arrangements at the compound. The Palestinians, who have suffered the desecration of many mosques and holy sites since 1948, feel like they have seen this movie before and fear where it ends.”

The recent tensions have also eroded the status quo arrangement that has mostly kept the peace since Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967.

Palestinians clash with Israeli border police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat following the reports of the body of a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem who was found killed, in the Jerusalem forest, in a suspected revenge attack for the killing of three Jewish teens. July 02, 2014. Photo by Sliman Khader/
Palestinians clash with Israeli border police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat following the reports of the body of a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem who was found killed, in the Jerusalem forest, in a suspected revenge attack for the killing of three Jewish teens. July 02, 2014. Photo by Sliman Khader/

Benyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, blamed the recent attacks on “incitement” by the Palestinian Authority (PA). However, it is more likely that the Palestinian resentment has been stoked by a growing frustration over continuing Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and, even more so, over the lack of any prospect for a peace deal and the creation of a Palestinian State.

According to Mr Netanyahu the number of West Bank settlers has grown by about 120,000 since he took office in 2009. Under international pressure, the Israeli Prime Minister decided to withdraw his plan to build 538 housing units in the northern West Bank settlement of Itamar, sources said last week. Instead, he will promote a master plan for Itamar that retroactively approves existing buildings, but does not allow for the construction of new buildings.

The deteriorating landscape presented intense political challenges for both Mr Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Neither is ready to make a dramatic diplomatic move that could ease the conflict, yet the spiraling situation tests their ability to maintain control of restive constituencies.

For Mr Abbas, who has preached nonviolence for his entire tenure, the escalating unrest undermines his credibility with international supporters and benefits his more militant rivals, like the Hamas Islamists, who have egged on the attackers. A recent report by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that two thirds of the Palestinian public want the ageing Palestinian leader to resign, while a growing amount of Palestinians also said they supported ‘armed resistance’ against Israel.


For Mr Netanyahu, who has made fighting terrorism the centerpiece of his political life and is still reeling from his failure to stop the Iran nuclear deal, the crisis has exacerbated tensions in his narrow, conservative coalition and left many Israelis asking why he cannot keep their streets safe. He also told parliament that the knife attackers would fail just as suicide bombers had failed a decade ago.


Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, urged people to join in the expanding confrontation with Israel during his sermon Friday 9 October. “Gaza is ready to fight in the battle of Jerusalem,” he said. “The battle of Jerusalem is our battle, and we will not relent to always be in the right place.” Haniyeh was referring to a wave of protests and violence over the previous week across both Israeli and Palestinian-controlled territory.

Hamas fought a 50-day war with Israel in the Gaza Strip last year. More than 2,000 Palestinians and 66 Israeli soldiers died in the conflict. The Gaza war turned 2014 into the bloodiest year of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is concern among diplomats and analysts in the region that the recent escalating violence could turn into a new intifada, or uprising. At the time of writing around 61 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds more injured since 1 October 2015. During the same period at least eleven Israelis have been killed by attacks launched by Palestinians.

By mid-October Israel’s cabinet authorised police to seal off “parts of Jerusalem”, in an attempt to halt a wave of deadly attacks. After an emergency meeting, the cabinet said soldiers would also be deployed to help police in some areas. In a measure apparently aimed at Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who hold Israeli IDs, attackers will also loose their residence rights.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat encouraged all Israelis with a gun license to carry a weapon with them at all times in order to counter a recent wave of Palestinian attacks. “I have a licensed gun,” Barkat said in an interview on 8 October. “Every time there is tension, I instruct people who are allowed to carry weapons and are experienced in using them to carry their guns with them. If you check, you’ll see that in many cases, those who neutralised terrorists were citizens who aren’t necessarily police officers, like former soldiers.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated he is planning to travel soon to the Middle East to try to calm violence between Palestinians and Israelis and move the situation “away from this precipice.” The trip would mark Kerry’s most direct efforts to broker peace between the two sides since talks led by the United States failed in 2014. Work is also underway to arrange a meeting with US, Israel, Arab and Palestinian representatives to quell the wave of the recent violence. The United Nations Security Council also held a special meeting Friday 16 October to discuss the recent spate of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. The meeting was called at the request of council member Jordan.


Meanwhile Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, amongst others, declared the current unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank an intifada, as six Palestinians were shot dead protesting at the border fence, further raising the stakes after a week of escalating violence. In a sermon for Friday prayers at a mosque in Gaza City, Haniyeh said: “We are calling for the strengthening and increasing of the intifada. It is the only path that will lead to liberation. Gaza will fulfil its role in the Jerusalem intifada and it is more than ready for confrontation.” These comments resulted in an increasingly widespread use of the hashtag #intifada on Palestinian social media.

Also Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s secretary general, declared his unwavering support to all forms of Palestinian resistance.

Historically, an intifada occurs when a Palestinian leader openly endorses and coordinates widespread resistance, as the local committees (and later the Palestine Liberation Organization) did during the first intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s and as Abbas’ predecessor, Yasir Arafat, did during the second intifada of the last decade.

Israeli media, columnists have now started to ask whether the latest events fitted the pattern of the two previous intifadas. However, unlike the first intifada, which began in 1987, no political decision has been made to fund what is happening as it has emerged. Secondly, the attacks on Israeli that have occurred in recent weeks have been limited to low-tech assaults using ordinary kitchen knives and screwdrivers, and assaults involving cars, most often in what Israel`s security forces call “lone-wolf attacks”.

The current casualty count does not yet compare with either of the intifadas, but the frequency of the attacks has been intense. Tuesday 13 October alone saw five in which three Israelis died.

Both Israeli and Palestinian commentators note that what is happening is a reflection of deeper shifts in both Palestinian and Israeli society. Also, the individually motivated nature of the recent attacks have both blindsided Israel`s domestic intelligence agency Mossad and police, and left politicians with no obvious enemy to pursue.


Beaumont, P. (10.10.2015). Palestine clashes: Netanyahu and Abbas are losing their grip. (The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/10/israel-palestinians-violence-fears).

Gaza Emergency Situation Report (04.09.2014). UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – Occupied Palestinian Territory.

International Crisis Group (30.06.2015). The Status of the Status Quo at Jerusalem`s Holy Esplanade. Middle East Report N°159.

Rudoren, J. (09.10.2015). Israeli Soldiers Kill 6 Palestinians in Gaza as West Bank Unrest Grows. (New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/10/world/middleeast/israeli-soldiers-kill-6-palestinians-in-gaza-as-west-bank-unrest-grows.html?_r=1).

The Economist (07.10.2015). Killing in Jerusalem raise fears of a new cycle of violence. Thrall, N. (29.09.2015). Abbas’ Bum bombshell. Foreign Affairs.

Times of Israel Staff (08.10.2015). Jerusalem mayor calls on residents to carry guns. (Times of Israel: http://www.timesofisrael.com/jerusalem-mayor-calls-on-residents-to-carry-guns/).

Zalzberg, O. (07.10.2015). The Crumbling Status Quo at Jerusalem`s Holy Esplanade. (International Crisis Group Blog: http://blog.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/2015/10/07/the-crumbling-status-quo-at-jerusalems-holy-esplanade/).

Crisis in Syria: a view from Russia

Until recently, Russia, in conjunction with China, prevented any attempts at the UN to condemn the Assad regime in Syria, ensuring that no motion could proceed even if there was the will from others states. Even when the deadlock was eventually broken on chemical weapons in summer 2013, Moscow ensured a favourable outcome for Damascus. However, by the beginning of September 2015, Russia has been initiating a significant escalation in its military role in Syria. It has done so conspicuously, in a manner that appears aimed to maximise political impact as Washington’s hapless Syria policy hit a new low.

Despite claiming to target IS in Syria, recent Russian bombs have peppered central and north-western Syria, regions that are crucially important to the survival of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad`s government in Damascus and his power base close to the Mediterranean coast.

This increased Russian willingness to act in the region can be illustrated by its latest military activity in Syria, sending military advisers, technicians and security guards with the main goal of setting up a military air base near the coastal town of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

With a Little Help from My Friends

On Wednesday 7 October 2015, Russia and the Syrian government unleashed a coordinated assault by land, air and sea on Wednesday, seeking to reverse recent gains by rebel groups that were beginning to encroach on the Syrian coast, a critical bastion of power for Mr Assad. Although in its early stages, the coordinated attack has revealed the outline of a newly deepened and operationally coordinated alliance among Syria, Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hizbollah.


According to pro-government officials, Russia has focused its earliest operations on the insurgent coalition known as the Army of Conquest, or Jaish al-Fatah, rather than on IS, as it is the Army of Conquest’s positions that most urgently threaten the crucial government-held coastal province of Latakia, while IS forces are farther to the east and can later be isolated and hit.

The evolution of the revolt into a mostly-Sunni insurgency battling a regime dominated by the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shia Islam has turned Syria into a battlefield for regional score settling, sectarian bloodletting and international rivalry, Financial Times reported.

Kremlin`s motives

It is important to understand the view of Syria from Moscow. At the beginning of the crisis, Western analysts mistakenly believed Mr Putin’s support was about preserving Russia’s interests in Syria: a tiny naval base in Tartus and a modest arms market. Yet such material interests are, in reality, marginal. Instead, many aspects of the Russian-Syrian alliance are in fact more symbolic than material. Moreover, it has given Moscow a foothold in the Middle East – a region it partly dominated during the Cold War. Giving this up would be a serious geostrategic error, particularly as US influence seems to be waning in this region.

Russia also felt betrayed for endorsing (by abstention) the 2011 humanitarian UN resolution on Libya that was then used by NATO to topple Gaddafi, and now believes the US has the same goal in Syria. The ‘humiliation’ over Libya is strongly felt, and Putin is determined to draw a line to prevent any more Western-led regime changes.

Russian Su-24 pilots at the Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, Syria Photo: TASS/Barcroft
Russian Su-24 pilots at the Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, Syria Photo: TASS/Barcroft

While geostrategic factors have led Russian Syria policy, regional and domestic factors have also been a concern. Fourteen per cent of Russia’s population is Muslim and Moscow has long been worried about the potential for radicals within the Syrian opposition to inspire domestic Islamist violence, particularly in the troubled spots of the north Caucasus. The rise of IS confirms what Moscow has long said to the West: backing Assad’s opponents will lead to state collapse and jihadism.

Other US officials believe Mr Putin is partially motivated by a desire to make a success of his 2015 visit to the UN, shifting the conversation of the Ukraine crisis and potentially weakening support for sanctions on Russia`s economy.

Putin vs Obama

Years of war in Syria have killed thousands of people, displaced millions from their homes and contributed to the rise of IS. It was the central focus of the opening day at the UN General Assembly. On the sidelines, Mr Putin emerged from a rare US-Russian meeting with Barack Obama, saying Russia and the US could find a way to work together on Syria, despite deep differences over the country’s leadership.

Mr Putin, making his first appearance at the UNGA for a decade, was not in the chamber during Obama’s address. He arrived at the UN headquarters in midtown Manhattan just after the US president had left the podium.

Likewise, when Putin was speaking, the US presence was reduced to relatively junior officials. And Ukrainian officials walked out during the Russian address.

At the core of the US-Russian power struggle was the fate of Bashar al-Assad and whether he is the root of the problem or part of the solution.

The US president indicated that he was ready to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, in seeking common ground on the issue, but equally clearly laid out US red lines, the most important of which was transition away from Assad.

Alternative approach is for the Obama administration to respond to Russia`s build up with an increased intervention of its own – to call Putin`s bluff.  A US military $500m effort to train Syrian forces against the Islamic State, however, has resulted in only a handful of fighters actively battling the jihadi army.

Mr Putin’s address was different in tone. While Mr Obama had repeatedly paused for dramatic effect, the Russian leader galloped through his lines, defending his country`s support of the Syrian government.


In his speech Mr Putin showed no sign of willingness to compromise on Assad’s fate, not even conceding that Damascus might be ripe for “reform” after Isis was defeated. “Now do you realise what you have done?” he asked. Mr Putin also called on UN member states to take part in a ministerial meeting, which would lead to a new UN resolution on combating IS, presumably built around support for the Damascus regime.

The Russian position is effectively that once IS is defeated, there can then be a conversation about a political transition while the US believes that Mr Assad`s departure is necessary to defeat IS.


For Israel, the presence of Russian troops and ground-to-air missiles makes it much riskier to conduct air strikes on Syrian territory to prevent weapons transfers to the Lebanon-based Hizbollah without first coordinating with Moscow. These missiles also complicate plans for a no-fly zone in northern Syria that Turkey is keen to establish with US help.

During an urgent visit to Moscow on Sept. 21, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to persuade Mr Putin to prevent any direct friction with the Israeli air force in the Syrian skies.

Tension Rises In Israel Amid International Talks Of Military Intervension In Syria...GOLAN HEIGHTS, UNSPECIFIED - AUGUST 29: Israeli soldiers during a military exercise on August 29, 2013 near the border with Syria, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Tension's are rising in Israel amid international talks of a military intervention In Syria. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Tension Rises In Israel Amid International Talks Of Military Intervension In Syria…GOLAN HEIGHTS, UNSPECIFIED – AUGUST 29: Israeli soldiers during a military exercise on August 29, 2013 near the border with Syria, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Tension’s are rising in Israel amid international talks of a military intervention In Syria. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

The best scenario for Mr Netanyahu would be an ongoing war of attrition, which keeps Israel’s enemies busy fighting each other instead of uniting against it. After more than four years of terrible internal war and devastating losses, the Syrian army is no longer any kind of match for Israeli forces.

The Iranian nuclear deal, and the intense disagreements it sparked between Israeli and U.S. leaders, looms large over this new challenge in Syria.


Days after Moscow began its raids to support Syria’s government, NATO urged Russia to end air strikes “on the Syrian opposition and civilians”. Earlier, on the 3rd of October, Turkish F-16 fighter jets were scrambled after a Russian plane entered Turkey’s airspace. Russia said the violation was for just a few seconds and due to poor weather. Ambassadors from the 28 NATO member states soon after held an emergency meeting in Brussels to respond to what the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, called “unacceptable violations of Turkish airspace” by a Russian jet.

Turkey has been vehemently opposed to Russia`s intervention in Syria. Earlier this year Turkish jets shot down a Syrian helicopter that had crossed into their country`s airspace.

Although the option was considered, diplomats at NATO said Turkey had not invoked an “article 4” emergency meeting, a more serious trigger to discuss a threat to its territorial integrity or stability.

At the time of writing, US-coalition nations conducting airstrikes in Syria include the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.


Even more than Russia, Iran has long been Mr Assad’s main backer, providing him with financial and military lifelines as he has battled rebel groups and Islamic State, the Sunni Muslim extremist group. During the first week of October, Iran continued to expand its already sizable role in Syria’s multisided war in the wake of Russia’s airstrikes, despite the risk of antagonizing the US and its Persian Gulf allies who want to push aside Mr Assad.

Iran`s leader Hassan Rouhani blamed US military action for giving rise to terrorist groups in the Middle East.


Meanwhile, in Jordan, Syrian refugees make up more than fifteen per cent of country`s population. Abdullah II Ibn AL Hussein, King of Jordan, urged protecting the purity of the Muslim faith from worldly contamination.  “As Muslims, this is our fight and our duty,” he stressed. Moderation did not mean accepting those who trampled on others. Today’s global fight is not between peoples, communities or religions; it is between moderates of all faiths against all extremists in all religions.


Gulf countries

In a statement the ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council urged a political solution to the Syrian crisis “without any foreign intervention” – a clear swipe at Russia and Iran. The GCC comprises the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already embroiled in an expensive and bloody war in Yemen that may limit both their military and financial resources.  Saudi officials are particularly worried that the Americans might retreat from their strategy of containing Iran, following the landmark deal struck in July to curb Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting international sanctions.

The Syrian conflict has also been a major concern for many Gulf Arab states since the outbreak of the uprising against the Baathist dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad over four years ago. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait, among others, have been some of Assad’s leading regional opponents and strong proponents of regime change in Damascus. They have therefore reacted strongly to Russia’s escalation in Syria and are among the harshest critics of Moscow’s direct intervention into the conflict by conducting airstrikes against rebel groups and building up Russian ground forces. These developments will likely encourage a deeper engagement by Gulf Arab countries in the Syrian conflict in the coming months.

It remains unclear whether Gulf Arab states would want the Syrian rebels they fund to engage Russian forces in battle – a prospect that would further upset the regional balance of power.


In 2015, a weaker economy and the domestic threat of IS may limit some of the tools available, but are unlikely to alter Moscow’s overall view and strategy in Syria. In that sense, the latest developments simply mean that Russia is finally joining the other states involved in the Syria crisis: pursuing a costly policy, yet still unwilling to compromise.


Barnard, A. & Kramer, A. (07.10.2015). Russian Cruise Missiles Help Syrians Go on the Offensive, (Financial Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/08/world/middleeast/russia-syria-conflict.html?_r=0).

Dagher, S. & Fitch, S. (02.10.2015). Iran Expands Role in Syria in Conjunction With Russia’s Airstrikes, (Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/iran-expands-role-in-syria-in-conjunction-with-russias-airstrikes-1443811030).

Harel, A. (06.10.2015). Israel`s Vanishing Red Lines in Syria, (Foreign Policy: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/06/israels-vanishing-red-lines-in-syria/).

Khalaf, R. (06.10.2015). The many sides of the Syrian conflict. Financial Times: p.4. Maclean, W. (22.09.2015). Gulf Arabs oppose Russia role in Syria, still bent on Assad’s ouster, (Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/22/us-mideast-crisis-gulf-russia-idUSKCN0RM1JX20150922).

Turner, M., Kühn, F. P. (2015). The Politics of International Intervention: The Tyranny of Peace. Routledge.

Zalewi, P. & Barker, A. (06.10.2015). Ankara warns Moscow to stay out of Turkish airspace. Financial Times: p. 4.

°Kurdistan: re-emergence of a traditional regional power?

The capture of Mosul in Iraq by ISIL/Da’esh (the ‘Islamic State’) insurgents and the declaration of the Caliphate during the summer of 2014 gave the political kaleidoscope of the Middle East a profound shaking. Iraq “after Mosul” has presented the Kurdish people with an unprecedented political momentum, one in which they see their aspirations to control their own destiny strengthened by Baghdad’s weakness and in step with powerful regional forces that would now support their plans. Also, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdistan Region has developed from an isolated and war-ravaged backwater into a regional powerbroker.

As the Kurds sit on a great deal of the Middle East’s oil and its possibly even more important water resources, Kurdish nationalism will probably become increasingly salient in the years to come. The Kurdish uprising that has accompanied the Arab Winter since 2011 clearly illustrates the truth of this situation. But who exactly are the Kurds and how will their responses to the increasing instability define the future of the Middle East? The purpose of this article is to survey the Kurdish impetus towards independence. To this end it analyses the recent military, economic and political developments along the boundaries of Greater Kurdistan.


In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, mosques and minarets are now outnumbered two to one by tower cranes. New shopping malls, hotels and blocks of flats are being built at an extraordinary rate. With one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Iraqi Kurdistan is fast becoming a magnet for foreign investors as it begins a new dawn. However, Erbil is situated less than 80 kilometres from both Kirkuk and Mosul – two of the most dangerous places on earth. While Kurdistan indulges in its building and commercialisation binge, the rest of Iraq is still practically a war zone. The dramatic seizure of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, in the summer 2014, by a coalition of Sunni Arab militias spearheaded by ISIL/Da’esh (the ‘Islamic State’), marks what may be a fateful turning point in the Kurdish history. At one moment, as a result of the battlefield victories by ISIL/Da’esh, Iraqi Kurdistan shared a 1000-km border with the so-called Islamic State.


Today, daily life in Erbil is largely stable, as Mohammed A. Salih points out. According to the Kurdish Affairs’ analyst, based in Iraqi Kurdistan, the worst days appear to be over. “At some point in August 2014, everything seemed to be in danger but now life is quite normal. People of course understand that ISIS is still a threat of sorts but no way as powerful as it used to be until a few months ago. As far as the ISIS threat is concerned, Kurdistan appears to be largely secure. However, its internal political and factional divisions are going to pose a serious threat in the future.”[1]

Meanwhile on the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi Arabian air strikes of March 2015 against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have been touted as the latest escalation in a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As the two countries continue to aid rival militants in the Syrian civil war, and to support opposing sides in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen, questions have been raised about where this now-militarised regional rivalry could go.[2]

If the Kurds declare independence in the north and Iraq is divided into three parts, then the Iranians – with their access to the Shi’ite region – will be land-neighbours with Saudi Arabia. Such a situation could provide Iran with a substantial opportunity to provoke the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The Saudis, who also intervened in Bahrain to prevent the outbreak of the Arab Spring, will do everything possible to prevent Iraq’s fragmentation.

As for the Kurds, Mohammed A. Salih argues that if Kurdistan fails to unite around key strategic objectives and allow certain regional countries, such as Iran and Turkey, to play an important role in shaping their policies toward one another and the outside world, Kurdistan will be in a tough position that can destabilise it to some degree.[3]

Some authors have gone further, arguing that the entire system of nation-states designed in 1916, when British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot secretly planned the eventual fate of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, is now being erased.[4] As things develop quickly in the Middle East, the academic world, media and policy makers have remained relatively silent to the so-called “Kurdish issue”: the Kurdish demand for independence along with cultural, social and political rights and their immediate implementation before the window of opportunity closes.


In Iraq, the Kurdistan Region now stands on the threshold of restructuring the Iraqi state according to its federal or confederal design, or exercising its full right to self-determination and seceding from Baghdad, perhaps as the Republic of Kurdistan. By ignoring the realities of Kurdish strength in Iraq, the U.S. and other western powers run the risk of losing influence in the only part of Iraq that can be called a success story. However, by acknowledging Kurdish strength, the U.S. could be drawn into a complex reconfiguration of the Iraqi state, or even underwriting a new Republic of Kurdistan and being involved in the reordering of a new Middle East state system.[5]

All of this means that the Kurds find themselves on the verge of establishing their first viable national homeland – nearly a century after the Great Powers carved up post-World War I Ottoman Empire into the countries of today’s Middle East. As Salih points out: If the regional dynamics keep change in a way that it strengthens the Kurdish position, Kurdistan might become a fully autonomous state, especially as the rest of Iraq appears to be in a serious turmoil!”

Who are the Kurds?

Defining Kurdistan or Greater Kurdistan is a complicated task. Some authors describe it as the largest nation without an internationally recognised territory. Although there are no formal statistics on the population of Kurdistan, an estimated 32 million Kurds live in a geographic area consisting of Turkey (North Kurdistan), Syria (West Kurdistan), Iran (East Kurdistan) and Iraq (South Kurdistan), roughly following the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges, covering a surface slightly larger than Spain. In addition, Kurdish communities are also found much wider afield, notably in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and they form sizeable communities in such cities as Istanbul, Tehran and Baghdad, not to mention Berlin and London.[6]

Kurdish diaspora

A recent phenomenon is the formation of a Kurdish diaspora in Western Europe. In the 1960s, Kurds from Turkey began to arrive in Germany, the Benelux countries, Austria, Switzerland and France as immigrant workers under contracts based on inter-government agreements regarding immigrant labour. Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the military coup d’état in Turkey in 1980 and the Iraqi regimes long drawn out and murderous extermination campaign against the Kurds (Anfal), successive waves of Kurdish political refugees arrived in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America. Other campaigns against the Kurds in the 1990s have increased the Kurdish exodus to Europe. No precise and reliable census of the Kurdish diaspora in Europe has been recently carried out, but the most widely accepted estimates set their number at about 850,000.[7]

Culture and language

Just as the Kurdish people inhabit different countries, the Kurds have several distinctive dialects: Kurmanji (also known in Iraq as ‘Badini’ or ‘Badinani’) is spoken most widely mainly in the north and west, while Sorani predominates the southern and eastern parts of Kurdistan. It is the latter, however, that has made the most headway in recent years by virtue of its position of the main language in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. One cannot even rely on religion when defining ‘Kurdishness’. While the large majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, some fifteen per cent are Shi’ites; including the so-called Faili Kurds, who where largely expelled to Iran by the former Ba’ath regime in Iraq. There are also some other significant Kurdish-speaking religious minorities.[8]

Kurdish nationalism emphasizes grassroots participation, gender egalitarian approach, and increased women’s participation in all levels of social, political, and public life. Many credit the imprisoned Kurdish PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, known as an ardent promoter of gender equality. Around a third of his PKK guerrillas are thought to be women.

In Rojava or Western Kurdistan, a de facto autonomous region in northern and northeastern Syria, the empowerment of women has been a key to the Rojava revolution. A recent report of Roj Women, shows that since the self-declared autonomy, Kurdish women have established a dozen women’s unions, associations and committees and have carried out gender awareness campaigns on a large scale in the region.[9]

Key moments in Kurdish history

Against such a confusing and complex background of what constitutes Kurdistan, a brief overview of the long and complicated history of the Kurds is unavoidable to set the context and to explain the Kurdish struggle for economical and political independence. For centuries the stateless Kurdish people have grappled with shifting power structures in the Middle East, ranging from the centralised forces of the Ottoman Empire to ethnic persecution under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

After World War I, a large portion of Kurdistan was returned to Turkish control. In 1920, after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Sèvres Treaty promised the Kurds the formation of an autonomous state, which would have the right to elect for complete independence after one year, subject to the League of Nation’s approval. Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk later rejected the deal, and Turkey repressed Kurdish uprisings over the next few decades. The borders were fixed and Kurdistan was split up, as it is today, finding themselves divided among superior regional adversaries, namely Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

Victims of the Cold War

In 1946, the Kurds, supported by the USSR, established the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. Moscow hoped to make use of the Kurds to counter British influence in Iran and to put pressure on the central government for an oil concession. Later that year, though, in the context of the very initial phases of the Cold War, the Kurds witnessed their first major blow, when the state collapsed, due to U.S. demands for Moscow’s withdrawal from northern Iran.[10] In the early 1960s the first serious contacts were made with Washington, as the Kurds were emerging as a significant force in Iraq. During this period the Americans gradually gained influence in the Middle East to the detriment of the British Empire. The U.S. continued to show sympathy, but no material support, for the Kurdish cause. According to Shareef, the U.S. had more to gain from regional allies such as Turkey and the Shah’s Iran than from the stateless Kurds in Iraq.[11]

Turkey-PKK conflict

In 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê [PKK]) launched an armed struggle against the Turkish state by attacking both military and civilian targets – both Turks and Kurds – in order to maintain some sort of hold over the population in the region. The PKK’s ideology was originally a fusion of revolutionary socialism and Kurdish nationalism, seeking the foundation of an independent, Marxist-Leninist state in the region, which was to be known as Kurdistan. Most of their bases were outside Turkish borders, mostly in Lebanon and Syria, while significant numbers of PKK members were sent to Europe to mobilise the Kurds who had migrated primarily for economic reasons and who did not have a politicized Kurdish identity.


For decades Turkish jet fighters dropped their bombs on the snow-capped Qandil mountains in northern Iraq to flush out the PKK forces. However, the conflict took a different turn in 1999 when the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured in Kenya, with the help of U.S. intelligence. In October 2002, Öcalan was sentenced to life imprisonment.[12] During his capture, he repeatedly called for a bilateral ceasefire. By March 2013, being imprisoned for more than ten years, Öcalan stated that the era of armed struggle was over and that a deal with the Turkish government was within reach. Exactly two year later, in 2015, he repeated his statement. According to a report provided by the Turkish army, a total of 41,828 people died as a result of the armed conflict. In contrast, the PKK statistics show significantly lower militant but higher security forces deaths.

Meanwhile in Iraqi Kurdistan, from 1987 to 1989, a series of military campaigns against Kurdish “saboteurs” were undertaken by Saddam Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, leader of theBa’ath Party’s northern bureau. What began as a counterinsurgency during the Iran-Iraq war, resulted eventually in genocide. An estimated 180,000 people died during the campaigns.[13] Although the Kurds and the Iraqi ruling elite were all Sunni Muslim, the Kurds were never happy under Arab rule, which persisted, in effect, until the Kurdish area of Iraq became autonomous under Western protection, following the first Gulf War in 1991. Meanwhile, more than a million Kurds had fled to Turkey, Iran and the mountainous areas of northern Iraq.

In 1992, parliamentary and presidential elections were held and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) became reality by the virtue of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, an alliance of political parties. For the first time in decades the Kurds had a state of their own, although hardly on the terms they had imagined, since their autonomy was entirely dependent on outside forces. Unfortunately, violent factional fighting between the two major Kurdish parties soon after beset the region: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani and the Patriot Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani.[14] Eventually, in the late 1990s after two days of lengthy sessions, both parties reached a tentative agreement that came to be called the Washington Accord, with each party asserting control over a portion of the Kurdish enclave.

One of the articles of the Washington Accord stressed that both parties would endeavour to create a united, pluralistic and democratic Iraq that would ensure the political and human rights of the Kurdish people in Iraq and of all Iraqis on a political basis decided by all the Iraqi people. In addition, it stressed that both parties aspired to an Iraq reformed on a federal basis that would maintain the nation’s unity and territorial integrity.[15]

Post-Saddam Hussein period

During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the Bush administration deployed a significant amount of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Northern Iraq to combat the 150.000 Iraqi troops on the border of the de facto Kurdish enclave. A more political reason was to keep the Kurdish troops, a.k.a. peshmerga, in line, preventing the Kurds from taking the oil fields of Mosul and Kirkuk. After the American invasion, the Kurds’ perception was that they were starting to devalue within the context of the new Iraq. During the Interim Government Period, the Kurds were non-players in Iraq; it was only when the constitutional drafting process began that they suddenly became players again.

In the 2005 election the Iraqis voted in favour of a new constitution. To counterbalance a probable Islamist agenda, the U.S. aimed at more Kurdish power in the new transitional government. As a result, the first Kurdish president in Iraq’s history was democratically elected. The new constitution, which was approved by 78% of the voters in a hotly contested national referendum, recognised the Kurdistan Region’s institutions including the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Kurdistan Parliament. At the start of the next year, the PUK and KDP agreed to unify the two administrations. Later, on the 7th of May 2006, Prime Minister and nephew of the current president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, announced a new unified cabinet. Since then, this autonomy increased step by step, leading to developed and autonomous institutions, including a parliament, a national anthem and fast-developing trade and diplomatic relationships with other countries. Though for the time being, Iraqi Kurdistan still remains under Baghdad’s writ.


Economical issues

So, what has held the Kurds back in their attempt to establish a fully autonomous region? According to many, it can be explained in one word – cash. It is in the economic realm that the Kurdistan Region is most keenly tied into the Iraqi framework, or that is, until recently. With the institutions of the Iraqi state in chaos, the need for the KRG to generate revenues has become even more acute. The financial burden has been increased by the addition of more than 300,000 internally displaced Iraqis, and a quarter of a million Syrian refugees, and the need to re-supply and re-equip the peshmerga and security forces, so they at least have the tools with which to defend the region on an equal basis to the abilities of ISIL/Da’esh to attack.

In view of the foregoing the World Bank published in February 2015 its Economic and Social Impact Assessment on the Syrian Conflict and ISIS Crisis. According to the report, the KRG is facing an economic and humanitarian crisis as a result of the influx of the Syrian refugees (starting in early 2012) and more recently the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in 2014. Economic growth has contracted five percentage points, and poverty rate has more than doubled, increasing from 3.5 per cent to 8.1 per cent. The stabilisation cost for 2015 is estimated at $1.4 billion in additional spending above and beyond the KRG budget. This estimate could get much higher depending on how long the crisis will continue.[16]

“This crisis has been an extremely big burden for the KRG to carry given that it has not received its budget share from Baghdad since February 2014,” as Mohammed A. Salih says. “The Iraqi government hardly seems to be taking any serious responsibility for the refugee / IDP crisis in Kurdistan. Kurdistan has reached out to foreign countries and bodies such as UN to help it tackle this issue and despite numerous challenges it has been able to tackle it rather successfully so far.”

In a statement from the Kurdistan Regional Government: “Finance is a sector in the region, which has seen development in recent years, but further reforms are still needed to enhance this sector. Foreign Direct Investment along with local investment is key to the development of the regional banking system.” Although membership is presently not possible, the KRG could encourage the World Bank/IMF to set up working groups on Iraqi Kurdistan.

With respect to the Kurdish banking system, which is virtually non-existing, the Kurdish Globe mentioned that, until now, the majority of the people traditionally keep their savings in safes, or hide here and there at their homes as they don’t have trust in the banks to deposit their savings in.[17] As a result of the lack of regulation and historically weak banking culture, a cash economy has emerged, which has hindered the investments and funding needed to rebuild the region. Therefore, from Kurdish perspective, banking and the introduction of fiscal planning must take priority if the Iraqi Kurds intend to become a credible political force in the region and a government that investors can trust.

Struggle for oil

With the discovery of significant oil and gas reserves, the Kurds have the potential to become a key player within this resource-rich region. Recently, the KRG in Erbil funded a new pipeline, which can start pumping up to 400,000 barrels per day of Kurdish oil a day to Turkey from early 2014. The current pipeline runs from the TaqTaq oil field and connects with the above-mentioned Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, bypassing Iraqi territory and thus excluding Baghdad from any of the proceedings. Only just the TaqTaq field has been described as being “part of the largest great onshore oilfield in the world”.[18]

Yet despite the presence of natural resources, the Kurds in Iraq have been battling a financial crisis since Baghdad authorities cut budget payments in January 2014 as punishment for its attempts to export oil independently.

For years, policy makers in Baghdad have been trying to finalise a national hydrocarbons law that would determine once and for all how to share oil revenues across the different regions and clarify legal issues regarding ownership and exports of national resources. Baghdad says that under the constitution, the Iraqi central government has the sole right to export oil and distribute revenues.

In theory, Erbil is meant to receive seventeen per cent of Iraq’s budget, which would equate to $14.6 billion per year. In practice, before the suspension of payments, KRG officials were of the view that the sums received rarely crept above ten per cent – or some $8 billion.

If the Kurds would develop, however, their own export routes, then 83 per cent of the revenues would still go to Baghdad. Yet, the vision of the KRG is to include a Turkish bank or company in the process. With the development of oil and gas export routes to Turkey, the Kurds would become less vulnerable to the crippling halts of payments from the Iraqis. Thus, starting to self-govern oil exports is yet another step toward increased independence and the solidification of the de facto state discourse as Baghdad loses its main pressure point to the Kurdistan Region.

Washington tried to settle the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil through a new national hydrocarbon law, but the two sides could not agree. Instead, in 2007, the Kurdish parliament passed its own law regulating oil and gas contracts in the region, which the central government in Iraq considered illegal, permitting generous production-sharing deals with dozens of foreign companies, such as the Anglo-Turkish company Genel Energy, China’s Addax Petroleum, France’s Total, Norway’s DNO, and Russia’s Gazprom.

By 2012, even major U.S. oil companies, such as Chevron and ExxonMobil, had sealed exploration and production agreements directly with Erbil, openly challenging Baghdad — and the Obama administration, which, despite Washington’s established support for Iraqi Kurdistan, has opposed the deals, fearing that oil disputes within Iraq could threaten the country’s stability.[19]

In reaction, Baghdad signed, in mid-January 2013, a preliminary deal with the British company BP to develop the Kirkuk line, just west of ExxonMobil’s area.[20] Yet Kurdistan claimed rights to the same field. By rejecting the BP deal in Kirkuk, the Kurds complained that any such agreement must be approved first by all parties in the dispute, as Reuters reported.[21] [22]

An energy agreement was finally brokered between Baghdad and Erbil on the 2nd of December 2014. Underscoring a simple philosophy at the heart of the complicated negotiations, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office stated: “that Iraqi oil belongs to all Iraqis.” At the same time, Mr al-Abadi’s government also agreed to pay the salaries of the Kurdish peshmerga and will also allow the flow of weapons from the U.S. to the Kurds, with the government in Baghdad as intermediary. Although many interpreted the agreement as a step back for Barzani and Kurdish independence, it was considered to be a major victory. The terms do indeed reinstate Baghdad’s right to receive all oil revenues from the Kurdish-controlled areas in return for providing the KRG its long overdue but constitutionally mandated 17 per cent of the national budget. However, the agreement also recognizes the KRG’s legal sovereignty over extraction and sale of oil and gas in all Kurdish areas.[23]


It is thus the fear of being economically dependent on Baghdad that moved the Kurds to plan for an independent oil and gas sector as early as 2004. The more Baghdad squeezes, the more the Kurds move towards economic independence.

Greater Kurdistan?

In 1991 the Kurdistan Region in Iraq came to interact with the international community as a de facto state aspiring to maintain its recently earned autonomy. Based on its early learning, it came to rely on the democratisation of its system as the foundation for its earned sovereignty. Toward the end of the second decade of this de facto statehood, the KRG made significant socio-political progress, and reached an advanced stage of state building – a progress at least partly correlating with its commitments to maintain a viable and secure autonomy within Iraq. KRG’s foreign policy of demonstrating its earned sovereignty actually paved the way to further reforms in the KRG. It even allowed transnational coalitions of external and domestic actors to utilise the KRG’s own foreign policy and discourse to exert pressure on it to take further changes in the same fields that served its legitimation efforts.

As such, according to international law, the KRG today meets most of the criteria of a sovereign state: (1) a defined territory; (2) a permanent population; (3) a government and (4) a capacity to enter into relations with other states.

On the 9th of December 2014, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, reaffirmed his commitment to Kurdish statehood after making a historic call for an independence referendum on the 30th of June 2014. Barzani’s announcement came after the ISIL/Da’esh incursion into northern Iraq earlier that month, which effectively eliminated Baghdad’s control over the disputed territories of Kurdistan. Against this background, Barzani told the BBC that he is intending to hold a referendum on independence within months. “Everything that has happened recently shows that it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence,” Mr Barzani said. He and other Kurdish leaders say that for more than ten years they have done their best to help build a stable, federal Iraq by participating fully in the Baghdad central government. “From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.”[24]


Indeed, Barzani must act fast. In fact, in the best-case scenario, the Kurdish referendum must occur before the June 2015 Turkish parliamentary elections because Barzani is unlikely to have more leverage over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan than he has now.

As the summer of 2014 wore on, the KRG had difficulties to defend its positions from ISIL/Da’esh attacks, putting a damper on Kurdish exuberance about the upcoming referendum. The fall of Sinjar and Zumar and other strategic areas near Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, showed that the peshmerga were beatable. But even that turned into a political blessing for Barzani’s government. Western powers, including the United States and its NATO partners initiated direct military cooperation with Erbil, the Kurdish capital in the north, and military aid began arriving from Europe during August 2014.[25]

All this means that the Kurds now find themselves on the verge of establishing their first viable national homeland. Yet, right now, however, the international environment does not seem to be suitable for independence. First of all, the Kurdistan Region is still officially part of the Republic of Iraq, which is caught in an increasingly sectarian geopolitical power struggle in the region spreading from Iran to Lebanon, and more recently Yemen. Secondly, a declaration of secession by Iraqi Kurdistan could prompt the final collapse of rump Iraq into separate Sunni and Shi’ite statelets, intensifying sectarian conflict through the region. Thirdly, infrastructure weaknesses further challenge Kurdish energy and political ambitions: the amount of oil the KRG is actually exporting is still insufficient to significantly raise Baghdad’s export levels or support an independent Kurdish state. In addition, since the Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk have no access to the sea, they are dependent on the goodwill of Baghdad or their neighbours to ship their oil to world markets. And collapsing oil prices certainly don’t help either.[26]

Baghdad`s response

Alarmed by the secessionist tendencies – even as Kurdish leaders profess to be responsible players in a united Iraq – Baghdad has used various means to thwart the Kurd`s ambitions. The federal government has exploited several advantages: Kurdistan`s landlocked nature, its own monopoly over the export infrastructure and the presence of a far greater volume of oil in non-Kurdish Iraq, especially in the area of Basra.

Regional criticism

The 32 million Kurds of the Middle East don’t only live in Iraq, of course. But all of them are feeling the tremors of change. Iran, for instance, which has a significant Kurdish minority of its own, about seven per cent of the Iranian population, is strengthening its ties with the KRG, which it views as a vital ally in the fight against ISIL/Da’esh. And in Syria, the civil war has enabled the Kurds to set up wide-ranging self-administration in the northeast of the country.

As such, the outlook of regional powers has been in flux before the invasion of Mosul in 2014, and the rise of ISIL/Da’esh since then has only served to further divide the perspectives into a camp that includes several states – namely Turkey, Israel, and some Arab states – that views the Kurdistan Region of Iraq moving towards independence as a positive development, and a camp of one state, Iran, that views Kurdish independence as unacceptable. Interestingly, western powers, and most notably the U.S. and the U.K., are more in line with Iran than with their Turkish, Israeli and Arab allies.

European position

Regarding the Kurdish question, the European Union’s emphasis has been strongly on human rights and finding a holistic solution to the situation in Turkey, being a candidate state. Throughout the 1990s, the European Parliament called for a political solution to the question: “The key to the Kurdish question lies in Turkey, which is, an ally and an important trade partner of Europe…The settlement of the Kurdish problem in Turkey will greatly contribute to finding a solution for the Kurds in neighbouring countries.” Eventually, the Kurdish question became part and parcel of Turkey’s eventual EU candidacy during the 1999 Helsinki Summit.

Since the 1990s, Kurdish-British relations have improved drastically due to the UK’s contribution to overthrowing Saddam Hussein and its recognition of the Kurdish genocide. Also the Germans have since the beginning of 2009 a Consulate-General in Erbil, a fact that also reflects the importance of the Kurdistan-Iraq region and of the Kurdish returnees who had been living in exile in Germany.

During the 2000s, the Kurdish lobby in the EU became somewhat disorganised following the capture of the PKK leader Öcalan and as it was no longer as effective as during its heyday in the 1990s in bringing the issue on the EU agenda. The EU has also designated the PKK a terrorist organisation.

During the summer 2014 events, the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU welcomed the decision by individual Member States to respond positively to the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently military material. The EU Ministers also invited the European External Action Service (EEAS) to ensure a stronger presence in Erbil. Given the Kurdish’ role in the fight against ISIL/Da’esh and in the resolution of Iraq’s political crisis, the EU today seeks to increase its presence in Erbil, in full respect of Iraq’s constitutional order.[27]


From being the singular most important block to Kurdish independence breaking out anywhere –with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once famously joking that he would object to Kurdish independence even in Argentina – Turkey is now the strongest supporter of Kurdish self-determination in Iraq.[28] Recently in Turkey, home to the region’s largest Kurdish minority, the government of Erdoğan has abandoned long-held policies aimed at the suppression of a distinct Kurdish identity and is conducting peace talks with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), responsible for a decade-long insurgency in eastern Turkey.[29]

Rather than being a threat to the integrity of Turkey, an independent Kurdistan (in Iraq) is increasingly seen as essential to Turkey’s own security – by allowing for the engaged management of Turkey’s own “Kurdish issue” with regard to the PKK, as important for Turkey’s energy security – by being a source of much-needed natural gas, and serving as a buffer between Turkey and what is seen as either a jihadist-dominated Sunni Arab region, or a region in the throes of what could well be one of the most devastating sectarian conflicts the Middle East has witnessed. By treating the Kurdistan Regional Government as a de facto nation-state, Turkey legitimises the KRG internationally and increases its sovereignty, knowing that this can eventually result in Kurdish independence.

As Ankara and Baghdad each began to view the other as pursuing antipathetic sectarian-focused policies, Turkey quickly found strong economic and security-based linkages with Erbil – linkages that would prove useful in managing the PKK threat and, most importantly, giving an opportunity to Turkey to improve its energy security and, in the future, limit its exposure to Russian and Iranian natural gas imports.

In 2012 the volume of trade between Iraq and Turkey had reached twelve billion dollars, of which seventy per cent was between Turkey and the Kurdish Region. Interestingly, the latest developments in Turkish-KRG relations have raised alarm in Washington concerning the possible disintegration of Iraq.

Özge H.-I., a female Turkish Kurd who works and lives in Germany, believes that there is a potential for the Kurds to establish a republic by uniting the Turkish, Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi regions of Kurdistan. “In Turkey, they have been trying to obtain autonomy via political debates for more than ten years. The Kurds have made progress, but in my opinion it is hard to finalise it by virtue of peace conditions. In the Middle East it is almost impossible to gain independence without war and bloodshed.” Beside the independence of the Kurdish nation, Özge also pleads for more peace, and human and social rights in the Kurdish region. “In the future, Turkey needs to pay more attention to these factors.” In addition she argued that, despite the reforms, Turkey is heading step by step towards a dictatorship.[30]


For Israel, with a long-standing partnership with the Kurdish leadership and particularly with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) that stems back some fifty years to the days when Barzani proved to be a well-placed ally for Tel Aviv, it is a second nature to support initiatives that serve to break the integrity of Arab states – even those that no longer have the ability to challenge Israel’s right to exist. Perhaps it should not come as a much of a surprise that, in June 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced support for Kurdish statehood, taking a position that appeared to clash with the U.S. preference to keep the war-torn Iraq united.[31]

Sunni Arab States

Since the uprising of the Kurdistan Region in 1991, there is little enthusiasm between the Kurds and Arab Gulf states. However, after the regime change in Iraq and the growth of the KRG’s economy, the KRG has proved to be for the Gulf states an alternative arena to assert their influence and check Iranian-Shia power, as well as to pursue commercial opportunities in general. Newly established consulates from Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine attest to the KRG’s expanding regional support base and its investment potential.30[32] For instance, in 2014 during the opening ceremony of a new branch office in Erbil, Dubai Chamber’s President and CEO Hamad Buamim stressed his organisation’s commitment to enhancing ties with the Kurdistan region. “The office in Erbil provides added value for UAE companies and will help them access businesses opportunities in Kurdistan.”[33]

Iran-Kurdish relations

The mood in Tehran towards the unfolding plans of Erbil is ambiguous. In keeping with the stated policies of the U.S. and the U.K., Iran extended its full support for Iraq’s independence, national solidarity, and territorial integrity and, in so doing, criticised the Kurdish leadership in Iraq concerning the occupation of Kirkuk and the plans to hold a referendum there, and going as far as to refer to the exporting of oil as illegal.[34]

Kurdish issues have been an important part of the myriad political and socioeconomic problems that have preoccupied the Islamic Republic of Iran since its inception. The Kurdish factor has also been an important determinant of Iran’s regional foreign policy in the past three decades. War in Iraq paved the way towards a growing strategic-military alignment between Ankara and Tehran on the Kurdish insurgency. However, unlike Turkey, Tehran did not take its own Kurdish problem as an issue of primary importance, due to its historical relations with Iraqi Kurdish communities.[35] In fact, the Iranians are more aware of the rising number of Azeris, who represents thirty to forty per cent of their population. If the Azeris were to achieve federalism, it would be the end of the Iranian state.

Nonetheless, since the overthrown of Saddam Hussein, Iran and the KRG have enjoyed growing ties. Trade and economic relations between Iran and the KRG have made considerable growth over the past twelve years: from $100 million in trade exchange value in 2000 to almost $6 billion in 2015. Moreover, in February 2015, a joint council was established between the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture of Sanandaj, capital of Iran’s Kurdistan Province, and its counterpart in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with the aim of boosting trade ties between the two Kurdish-inhabited regions.[36]

Iran also has demonstrably taken the lead in aiding Iraqi Kurds in their war against extremist fighters loyal to ISIL/Da’esh. As Kurdish President Massud Barzani explained in late August 2014, “The Islamic Republic of Iran was the first state to help us…and it provided us with weapons and equipment.”[37]


The strongest faction amongst the Syrian Kurds is the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat [PYD]), an organisation closely associated with the PKK. With their close ties to the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel [YPG]), the PYD has significant forces. Being aware of the situation, the Kurdistan Regional Government has engaged in foreign policy and has begun to interfere in the on-going Syrian civil war, keeping in mind a three-legged strategy.

First of all, Kurdistan takes in hundreds of thousands of refugees as part of pan-Kurdish responsibility in times of crisis. Secondly, Massoud Barzani supports the Erbil-based Kurdish National Council (KNC), the Syrian counterpart of the PYD, while at the same time criticising the PYD’s unilateral move.[38] Thirdly, the KRG trains Syrian-Kurdish fighters within Northern Iraq who could possibly return to Syria, where they would strengthen the pro-KDP position, thus limiting the influence of PKK-friendly groups.[39]

Also in Syria, IS emerged as the main threat to Kurdish self-rule. The siege of the Syrian border city Kobani, that ended whith the withdrawal of IS, was even hailed by the media as the “Stalingrad of the Kurds”, adding an epic dimension to the Kurdish nation-building that was accelerated on the ashes of the Arab Winter. The resistance of Kobani has also become the pride of the Democratic Union Party.

The Rojava Model

Amid the Syrian civil war and the withdrawal of the Syrian Army in the north of Syria in 2012, the population of Rojava (i.e. Western Kurdistan) took control of their region and declared a democratic multi-ethnic and multi-religious autonomy similar to the Swiss model with three separate and geographically detached administrative regions or cantons (Kobane, Afrin and Cizire). Despite economic hardship and a de facto embargo from trade with other parts of Syria, Turkey and KRG, the people of Rojava have been using their newly acquired freedom to experiment with radical democracy, by applying the Democratic Autonomy project propagated by Abdullah Öcalan.


The Rojava model is based on two main pillars, which may prove very efficient in the strengthening of democracy in the region. The first pillar is direct democracy as the basis of a communalist system in which citizens participate actively in decision-making and the management of the polis, from the neighbourhood to the municipality and as far as the government. The second pillar, equally revolutionary, is the denial of the nation state structure and philosophy as such. In Rojava, many different religious and ethnic groups–Christians, Yezidis, Arabs, Turkmens, Chechens, and Armenians–live together with the large Kurdish majority.

By officially and insistently denying the nation state and by trying to create administrative structures that incorporate these different elements, the Rojava model gives to minorities a participatory role unprecedented in the Middle East – a role as equals in the management of the polis.

Within two years Rojava has witnessed substantial institutional and political changes and for the first time in Syrian history, the communities are governing themselves without the intervention of an authoritarian central government. Referring to these developments as the ‘Rojava Revolution’, the people of Rojava have eagerly been involved in organising their own affairs, from running schools and hospitals to generating electricity and even making their own tanks.

The most visible change has perhaps been the inclusion of women in the defence force and the police as separate units through the establishment of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and the Women’s Security Forces (HAJ). According to various estimates, female fighters make up between 7,000 and 10,000 of the Kurdish forces fighting in Syria, representing roughly one third of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) in Rojava.[40]

The United States

While the U.S. does have an Iraq policy, it also has a de facto policy towards the Kurds. Over time the very nature of U.S. interaction with the Kurdish movement evolved from initial contacts to a much more institutionalised relationship. Secondly, the Kurdish issue has been a critical issue for important neighbouring states, namely Iran and Turkey, and therefore has played a major role in America’s policy towards those states as well.

Traditional U.S. policy towards Iraq has been to support fully and unconditionally the territorial integrity of the country. While U.S. policy has, since 2003, been mindful of satisfying the Kurds’ federal demands and in keeping the Kurds engaged as fully as possible in the political process in Baghdad, there has never been any notion whatsoever of the U.S. supporting any form of restructuring the Iraqi state into a confederal system in which sovereignty is held by the regions and voluntarily delegated to the confederal state, and has been resolutely opposed to any notion of an independent Kurdish state.

Nonetheless, since 1991, Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed de facto nationhood under U.S. protection. Washington is also wary of the precedent Kurdish independence in Iraq could set to other possible secessionist-minded people across the region, including the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, and also, perhaps, Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia, and maybe even a Basra secessionist movement in the south of Iraq.

That said, the U.S. is popular by Middle East standards in Iraqi Kurdistan, thanks to the establishment of a no-fly zone over the region after the Allied victory over Saddam in 1991, and the overthrow of Saddam and his Ba’ath regime in 2003. The Kurdish community in the U.S. has a presence at the lobbying level through individuals and through the Kurdish National Congress of North America, established in 1988. Between 2003 and 2014 the KRG representation in Washington spent in excess of $8.5 million on lobbying and public relations.

And yet President Obama and his predecessors have all been notably reluctant to give their fiat to Kurdish statehood. America was extremely unclear and inconsistent on where it stood with reference to the Iraqi constitution and its support for what was, essentially, ethnic federalism.

Washington also fears that creating a new player in such a volatile neighbourhood could invite serious instability. However, from a western perspective, the Kurdish peshmerga troops remain the best hope for those who want to stop IS in Iraq, and the Obama administration will likely attempt to persuade them to join the offensive — or at least to provide substantial logistical and intelligence support to the Iraqi army.

In fact, the U.S. did not want oil-rich Kirkuk to go to the KRG, because it believed that this would lead to Kurdish independence. David Mack explained that, when it comes to the Kurdish issue, for Washington, ‘regional stability’ and the stability of ‘our NATO ally Turkey’ are major considerations.[41]

By the summer of 2014, shortly after U.S. bombs started to fall in Iraq, President Obama made clear what his model for the country’s future was. “The Kurdish region is functional in the way we would like to see,” he said in a speech. “It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it is important to make sure that that space is protected.”

The initiation of military support for Iraq’s Kurds and airstrikes in northern Iraq marked an important turn in U.S. foreign policy. Although military support for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remained limited, arming the Kurds represented a serious change in U.S.-Kurdish relations and appeared to conflict with previous U.S. policy in Iraq.

What appears to have changed in the summer of 2014 was a newfound alignment of Kurdish and U.S. interests in Iraq. From the Kurdish standpoint, fears of further setbacks at the hands of the Islamic State made the Kurds increasingly willing to ally with Baghdad and shift their military strategy from defending Kurdistan to crushing the broader threat to Iraq by the Islamic State. Once the front line against the Islamic State shifted from Baghdad to Erbil and Iraqi forces began cooperating with the Kurds, arming the Kurds was no longer a break from U.S. interests to preserve a stable and united Iraq. Instead, the Kurds had become integral to saving Baghdad.

This argument finds support in the growing literature on third-party support for rebel groups, which cites the alignment of the third-party and armed group’s strategic objectives as one of the critical factors behind external support.[42] Effective marketing and diplomacy by these groups are ways in which they make such strategic overlap known to potential sponsor states. Therefore, changing strategic goals and Kurdish framing of those goals may have contributed to the United States’ decision to directly support the peshmerga.

By March 2015, the Kurds were able to hold a 1000-km front against the Islamic State’s advance. Their steadfastness should prompt America to rethink its alliances and interests in the region and to deepen its relationship with the Kurds. The U.S. has also urged the region to rethink its planned oil pipeline to Turkey, which is being constructed in defiance of the central government in Baghdad. Nevertheless, many U.S. oil companies have ignored Washington’s advice, rushing in to join in the growth of now-booming Kurdistan.

With or without Iraq?

In the week following the fall of Mosul, the expansion of ISIL/Da’esh, the paralysis of the Government of Iraq, the remobilization of the Shi’a militias, U.S. and western leaders have remained committed to pursuing policies aimed at the shoring up of the unified Iraqi state. Arguably, the collapse of states and the emergence of new ones presents scenarios that are inherently complex, demanding, and potentially dangerous with unintended and unknown consequences.

Yet, right now, the position of Washington has been to pressure the Kurds to lead the way in finding a solution to Iraq’s problems, rather than implementing ways forward for their own self-determination. This pressure, it seems, has been ignored by the Kurdish leadership who now seem to be on the verge of taking matters into their own hands, irrespective of what Washington wishes to see.

There are also international legal niceties that the U.S. government would be acting against, including the principle of the territorial integrity of states and the inviolability of existing state borders – making it problematic for the United States to publicly support a secessionist movement beyond acknowledging that there exists a right to self-determination.[43]

The break-up of Iraq beyond the current federal status is believed neither to be in the U.S. interest nor to be in the interest of the Kurds. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurds were expected to be helpful to the Americans and not a source of instability.

The positive points, though, at least match if not outweigh the cons. Firstly, within Iraq, the removal of the debilitating “Kurdish problem” would then leave Arab Iraq to work out its differences without the complicating factor of dealing with the Kurds either as enemies or allies. In regional terms, bringing the Republic of Kurdistan into a closer embrace with the United States may further serve to limit Iran’s options to foment difficulties in either Kurdistan or what remains of Iraq. From a U.S. perspective, the Kurds would be a staunch and loyal ally in a region that remains of critical importance to Washington, irrespective of any refocusing of U.S. strategic efforts elsewhere. Lastly, in terms of how this plays in the U.S. heartland, the Kurds are a nation deserving of a state. The embracing of Kurdish independence may be seen as a positive policy action in a region that is currently in the throes of many terrible conflicts.


According to a Kurdish proverb, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” Today, however, Kurds are evolving from a victimised people to a relatively coherent political community with viable national aspirations. At the same time they are caught up in the strategic geopolitical calculations of the various influential actors of the Middle East. With the creation of the post-colonial order, both superpowers and regional powers have fought relentlessly for domination of the Middle East. As a result, and at their peril, the stateless Kurds have had to play at both regional and international levels to advance their ethnic struggle. With Saddam’s regime gone, the Iraqi Kurds had the rare change to forge a new Iraq: democratic, pluralistic and decentralised. However, the United States and other western allies have all been notably reluctant to give their fiat to Kurdish statehood.

The Kurds are thus in a vulnerable position: when needed, as a pawn they gain value, when redundant they are insignificant, but overall they remain most of all an asset to Washington in a hostile region. Which vision prevails will have profound implications for the future of Iraq and the wider region. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s attempt to maintain central authority over Iraq’s provinces has reignited ethnic and sectarian violence, which in turn has raised doubts about whether Iraq can hold itself together. Indeed, an effort by Baghdad to block Kurdish-Turkish cooperation could easily backfire, provoking the KRG to declare Kurdistan’s independence.

The Kurds are at a historic crossroads. However, right now, there are still numerous unknown variables that could potentially pose a threat to the developments I argued above. These include the development of the Syrian civil war and regional sectarian violence and the perspective of the sections on Iran. At this point, it is too early to speculate about exactly how these factors will influence the Kurds. However, it seems to be that the geopolitical map of the Middle East will be redrawn in one way or another.

Thomas Thielemans
MA Comparative and International Politics

[1] Interview with Mohammed A. Salih, 7 April 2015.

[2] Younis, N. (2015). The Saudi-Iran powerplay behind the Yemen conflict. The Guardian, Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/29/iran-saudi-arabia-yemen-conflict.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Sayigh, Y. (2015). Are the Sykes-Picot Borders Being Redrawn? Carnegie Middle East Center, Available at: http://carnegie-mec.org/2014/06/26/are-sykes-picot-borders-being-redrawn/hej5.

[5] Stansfield, G. (2014). Kurdistan Rising: To Acknowledge or Ignore the Unraveling of Iraq. Brookings Institute, Washington DC.

[6] Philips, D. (2015). The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction


[7] Foundation-Kurdish Institue of Paris. THE KURDISH DIASPORA.

[8] Sir Clark, T. (2015). Kurdistan: Historical Perspectives and Modern Travels. Asian Affairs, 46:1, 84-101.

[9] Roj Women (2014). Humanitarian Emergency Scale Perceived Needs(HESPER) Assessment & GenderCbased

Violence Situation Analysis. Available at: https://rojwomen.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/a-gbv-report-on-rojava_sezidi-emergency2.pdf.

[10] Shareef, M. (2014). The United States, Iraq and the Kurds: Shock, Awe and Aftermath. Routledge Studies in US

Foreign Policy.

[11] Ibidem.

[12] Öcalan was sentenced to death, but due to the EU accession reforms in Turkey, the Turkish parliament decided to abolish capital punishment.

[13] Kelly, M. (2008). Ghosts of Halabja: Saddam Hussein and the Kurdish Genocide: Saddam Hussein and the Kurdish Genocide. Praeger Security International.

[14] After the fall of Sadddam Hussein, Talabani was elected the 6th President of Iraq on April 6, 2005 by the Iraqi

National Assembly.

[15] Morse, J. (1998). TALIBANI, BARZANI SIGN HISTORIC ACCORD. FAS. Available at:


[16] World Bank (2015). The Kurdistan Region of Iraq Needs an Estimated US$1.4 billion this Year to Stabilize the

Economy. Available at: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2015/02/12/kurdistan-region-iraq-stabilizeeconomy.

[17] Tashan, S. (2012). Banking system can’t cope with economic activities. The Kurdish Globe. Available at:https://www.kurdishglobe.net/article/B4FD691F7D88146C75192365AF8654FA/Bankig-system-can-t-cope-witheconomic-activities.html.

[18] Black, I. (2013). Golden Oil of Iraqi Kurdistan Raises Tensions with Baghdad. The Guardian, 10.06.2013. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/10/oil-iraqi-kurdistan-baghdad.

[19] Ottaway, M. & Ottaway, D. (2014). How The Kurds Got Their Way. Foreign Affairs, May/June Issue: available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141216/marina-ottaway-and-david-ottaway/how-the-kurds-got-their-way.

[20] Reuters (2013). Iraq minister, BP CEO visit Kirkuk to win support for oil deal. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/06/iraq-oil-bp-idUSL5N0IR2SF20131106.

[21] Reuters (2013). Iraqi Kurds defend oil policy, reject BP Kirkuk deal. Available at: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/01/18/uk-energy-iraq-kurdistan-idUKBRE90H09N20130118.

[22] Johnson, K. (2014). Iraq’s Oil War. Foreign Policy, 17.01.2014. Available at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/2014/01/17/iraqs-oil-war.

[23] Arango, T. (2014). Iraqi Government and Kurds Reach Deal to Share Oil Revenues. The New York Times, 01.12.2014, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/03/world/middleeast/kurd-pact-with-baghdad-againstislamicstate.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias:r,%7B"2":"RI:15"%7D&_r=0.

[24]BBC (2014). Iraq Kurdistan independence referendum planned. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/worldmiddle-east-28103124.

[25] Tanchum, M. (2015). The Kurds’ Big Year. Foreign Affairs, available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142765/michael-tanchum/the-kurds-big-year.

[26] Natali, D. (2012). The Politics of Kurdish Crude. Middle East Policy Council. Journal Essary, Volume XIX, Number 1.


COUNCIL. Elements for an EU regional strategy for Syria and Iraq as well as the Da’esh threat. Brussels, 6.2.2015 JOIN(2015) 2 final.

[28] İnce, B. (2012). Citizenship and Identity in Turkey: From Atatürk”s Republic to the Present Day. London: I. B. Tauris, p. 172.

[29] Caryl, C. (2015). The World’s Next Country. Foreign Policy.

[30] Interview with Özge Hewal Ilbay on March 25, 2015.

[31] Al-Jazeera (2014). Netanyahu endorses Kurdish independence. Available at:



[32] Ibidem.

[33] Kurdistan in Business (2014). Dubai Chamber opens branch office opening in Erbil. Available at:


[34] FARS News Agency (2014). Iran reiterates support for Iraq’s territorial integrity. Available at:


[35] Gülden, A., S. (2014). Turkey and Iran: Between friendly competition and fierce rivalry. Arab Studies Quarterly,

36.1: 6-26.

[36] IRNA (2015). New chapter in ties with KRG. Available at: http://www.irna.ir/en/News/81523197/.

[37] Al Arabiya (2014). Barzani: Iran supplied weapons to Iraq’s Kurds. Available at: http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/08/26/Barzani-Iran-supplied-weapons-to-Iraqi-Kurdish-forces-.html

[38] Van Wilgenburg, W. (2013). Kurds divided over Syrian Autonomy. Al-Monitor, available at: http://www.almonitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/11/syrian-autonomy-divides-kurds.html#.

[39] Arraf, J. (2012). Iraqi Kurds Train Their Syrian Brethren. Aljazeera, available at:


[40] Aretaios, E. (2015). The Rojova Revolution. OpenDemocracy, available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/arabawakening/evangelos-aretaios/rojava-revolution.

[41] Mack, D. (2000). Remarks by David Mack, moderator of panel on Iraq at AU conference on Kurds, April 17. 2000. Available at: http://www1.american.edu/cgp/pdf/mack.pdf.

[42] Salehyan, I., Gleditsch, K.S. & Cunningham, D.E. (2011). Explaining External Support for Insurgent Groups.

International Organization, Volume 65, Issue 04, pp. 709-744.

[43] Ibidem.

International Crisis Group (19.04.2012). Iraq and the Kurds: The High-stakes Hydrocarbons Gambit. Middle East Report N*120.