The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has announced that Iran has now been invited to attend the Geneva talks on the future of Syria, due to be held on Wednesday. That is welcome news, though it is a little odd that the significance was almost lost in the revelation that a whole host of other states have also been invited, including Bahrain, Luxembourg and the Vatican. Given the small size and, at least in some cases, marginal direct involvement of some of the likely participants, it is maybe not surprising that Syrian Kurds — many of whom have also risen up against the regime of Bashar al-Assad — are asking, why not them too? The quick answer from the UN would doubtless be that they are not a state, though some of the other Syrian actors who will be present do not represent a state either. But of course there is a more substantial matter involved, namely the position of Kurds in the whole region. Only in Iraq have Kurds gained a high degree of autonomy; in fact, it is not inconceivable that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq could become an independent country one day. The issue then is, which other areas in the region with a high percentage of Kurds among their population would like to try to become part of some putative Kurdish state? The Iranians stamp hard on any attempts at Kurdish separatism, and Turkey — which houses almost half of the region’s population of Kurds — strongly resists any attempt to undermine the territorial integrity of the Republic of Turkey. Moreover, Kurds in Turkey are themselves divided about how far they ought or ought not to be autonomous, let alone independent. But what is clear from even a cursory study of Middle Eastern history following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire is that the Kurds were denied a proper opportunity for self-determination by the Allied Powers. And if Syrian Kurds are excluded from Geneva2 it will strike some Kurdish activists as yet more of the same.
Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th January, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th December, 2013
Kurdish political parties, both in the Middle East and in exile, have tended to be Marxist in orientation, or at least Socialist, so the idea that Liberal Democracy might be appealing to Kurds is intriguing (though of course there are some Kurds originating from Turkey who have joined the UK Liberal Democrats). Dividing his time between Oslo and Erbil (in Iraq’s Kurdistan autonomous region, KRG) Arif Bawecani, a Kurd of Iranian origin, formed and now leads a party, the Parti Serbesti Kurdistan (PSK), which he wants to align with Liberal forces worldwide. This past weekend I went to Oslo to attend the First Kurdish International Liberal Congress hosted by the PSK, which brought together not just Kurds from Iran and the KRG (Iraq) but other national minorities, notably ethnic Arab Ahwazis from the Iranian coastal region, also living in exile. Foreign visitors apart from myself included a Liberal (Venstre) from Norway and a French member of the International Network of Liberal Women, as well as one US Democrat and one Republican, and a couple of human rights activists from Dubai — a modest and somewhat heterodox group which nonetheless led to some interesting speeches and discussions. In my presentation, I defined from a Liberal perspective the key words of the opening article of the Universal Declaration of Human rights: freedom, equality, dignity, rights and brotherhood, in the context of diversity and tolerance. I don’t know how far this will help the PSK, or the Gorran (Change) Movement from KRG, which was also represented, develop their ideology but it will be interesting to see what evolves.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th August, 2013
The Government’s defeat last night over its motion on intervention in Syria was always on the cards given the deep divisions of opinion within all three main parties. It was interesting that some of the strongest speeches against going down a road that could lead to UK military strikes came from Tory rebels. Clearly memories of the way that the House was lied to over Iraq 10 years ago played its part, but there was also a realisation that a sizable majority of the British electorate is against going to war. At one level I am pleased about that; as a Quaker, that is hardly surprising. But I am anxious that we should not throw the Syria baby out with the bathwater. Last night’s Commons vote should not be an end to the affair. Assad supporters in Homs were out in their cars honking their horns in victory once they heard about the UK vote, but now it is important that Britain and other Security Council members work hard to get a negotiated end to the bloodshed in Syria. That means getting both Russia and Iran on board. I have no illusions about how difficult that may be, but that is not a reason not to try. The killing and destruction and dispossession have got to stop and in the meantime the UK and other countries that were braced to go to war should spend some of the resources they would have devoted to that on humanitarian assistance instead. Syria’s neighbours Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey are all struggling under the weight of the refugee influx and deserve support. The Arab League, which has never really lived up to its potential, should also now step up to the plate and take a leading role in promoting a diplomatic solution. The blatant truth is that on progress so far, the armed rebels in Syria are never going to win militarily and frankly the country would probably descend into anarchy if they did. The military benefits of any external strike were always doubtful too. But to reiterate, just because the House of Commons has given the thumbs down to a course of action which could have led to war must not mean that we just turn our backs on Syria’s agony and walk away.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th April, 2013
The tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq has provided an occasion for reflection on the pluses and minuses of that operation and its aftermath. Having been in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) last month I know that many Kurds there think of the War as a Liberation, and I can understand why, given the dreadful persecution they suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen; it did indeed constitute genocide. But I am also aware, from my last visit to Baghdad, in December 2012, just how shattered Iraq remains as a state. Sunni have been pitted against Shia (who are now dominant) and fatal bombings in the capital are commonplace. As I said in a speech to the Cordoba Foundation and Al Sharq Forum’s Conference at London’s Commonwealth Club, “Iraq 10 Years On”, the Americans made a terrible mistake in pushing de-Ba’athification so far that they sacked the army and police force, as well as many officials — a mistake they notably did not make in Germany in 1945 after the defeat of the Nazis. Saddam was a monster, of that I have no doubt; his torture centres bore all the hallmarks of a true sadist. But the Bush-Blair invasion did not usher in a period of faultless democracy and peace. I never believed it would. Moreover, as Wadah Khanfar — former head of Al Jazeera — pointed out at the same conference, the Iraq War, together with the new Arab Awakening, and all the baggage of Western interference in the Middle East and the unresolved Palestinian situation, has left a region in turmoil. It is not just Iraq that is dysfunctional but the entire MENA region, and I suspect it will take decades before things settle down. Whether that will be within the same b0undaries as the current countries is by no means sure. After all, most of the countries in the Middle East are artificial constructs, the result of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour declaration and the British betrayal of Arab nationalists led by the Hashemites. Moreover, given the Syrian civil war and renewed political activity regarding the Kurdish question in Turkey, it is not impossible that some time in the future there will be an independent Kurdish state. The KRG are currently sticking to their line that they will be happy with devo-max in Iraq, but if Iraq effectively ceases to be a coherent country then there will be a big temptation to go it alone, which could have far-reaching regional implications.
Photos by Richard Chambury (richfoto). 1: Daud Abdullah, Rosemary Hollis, JF, Matthew G Banks; 2: JF.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: al-Jazeera, Baghdad, Daud Abdullah, George W Bush, Iraq, KRG, Kurds, Matthew G Banks, Richard Chambury, Rosemary Hollis, Saddam Hussein, The Cordoba Foundation, The Sharq Forum, Tony Blair, Wadah Khanfar | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th March, 2013
The name Halabja, like Auschwitz and Srebrenica, is etched in the mind, yet it is hard to picture the place until one goes there. The photos one sees of the 1988 chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish population by Saddam Hussein’s evil regime show closeups of bodies lying in narrow streets or on doorsteps. Gwynne Roberts’ films of the Anfal campaign of genocide against the Kurds feature smoke plumes rising from hillsides. So it was disconcerting yesterday, when I was a member of a large international solidarity delegation visiting Halabja yesterday for the 25th anniversary commemoration, to be taken to a nondescript place clearly in the plain and dominated by a museum-monument to the tragedy. Inside were lifesize maquettes mimicking the photos that I know so well, as well as lists of names of the 5,000 dead. Nearby a vast marquee had been erected, in which various dignitaries gave speeches. When the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, spoke there was a silent but effective demonstration by a dozen or so young locals, who held up small xeroxed signs with slogans calling for a distinct Halabja Governate and better opportunities for the areas youth. To his credit, Mr Barzani took the protesters head-on, saying that only the national government of Iraq in Baghdad can decide on creating new governates or provinces. But obviously the grievances of some locals are real in their eyes. And even if some visitors might have felt that it was inappropriate to take such action during an event of solemn commemoration, under the gaze of numerous TV cameras, there is a valid argument that we should not be so concerned with the horrors of the past that we ignore the needs of the present.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 15th March, 2013
Towering over the old town centre of Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, the Citadel must be one of the largest and most imposing mud-brick structures in the world. At its entrance, up a steep incline, sits a substantial statue of the historian and scholar Mubarak Ben Ahmed Sharuf Aldia (1169-1239), who was a Minister in Erbil under Sultan MuzaFaradin. Within its walls are approximately 500 dwellings, though many of these are in a dire state of repair having suffered decades of lack of maintenance and water damage. Ten of them are currently being restored, notably the magnificent Rashid Agha House, with its courtyards and terraces and rooms that have stunning views over the town below. That house is being painstakingly conserved with the assistance of Italy’s Foreign Ministry as well as Kurdistan regional government funds. Saddam Hussein’s genocide of the Kurds included willful cultural suppression so it is not surprising that people here are keen to see their heritage brought back to its former glory. The arrival of our international solidarity delegation from paying homage to martyrs of the Anfal at the Memorial at Kasnazan caused understandable curiosity among the many Kurdish youths in and around the Citadel, but I guess in a few years time Kurdistan will have established itself on tourist itineraries and Europeans will be a commonplace. Much of the modern city of Erbil is rather identikit, with its tower blocks, shopping malls and upmarket suburban housing, though the Hotel Rotana, where I’m staying, can hardly be faulted and the Kurds are genuinely pleased to have foreign visitors.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 14th March, 2013
This year sees the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, which has naturally provoked a lot of media comment in the UK. But perhaps even more deserving of attention is the 25th anniversary of the Halabja massacre, when Saddam Hussein’s army wiped out around 5,000 Kurds in a chemical weapons attack. Most of the victims in the town were women and children. In fact that massacre was the climax of a horrendous campaign of persecution and slaughter against Iraq’s Kurds that had been going on for several years, largely ignored by the outside world, and with a probable total death-toll of around 182,000, most of whose remains have never been located. This week, international solidarity delegations are in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) to mark the anniversary and to continue the campaign to get recognition of what happened as genocide. The UK Parliament just the other day voted accordingly. But at a day-long conference at the Saad Abdulla Conference Centre in Erbil today the graphic horror and inhumanity of the so-called Anfal was brought home by eye-witnesses to the Halabja attack in March 1988 including the celebrated Iranian and Turkish photographers Ahmad Nateghi and Ramazan Oxturk whose images of dead children in their dead mothers’ arms became iconic. There was also interesting testimony at the conference from Senator Peter Galbraith from Vermont who had witnessed the destruction of Kurdish villages in northern Iraq in 1987 and drafted a Prevention of Genocide Act that was passed by the Senate but pooh-poohed by Presidents Reagan and later George Bush Snr, mainly because they hoped that Saddam Hussein would be the next Anwar Sadat, i.e. move Iraq out of the Soviet sphere of influence into the West’s, as Sadat had done with Egypt. The British filmmaker Gwynne Roberts showed and talked about his film “The Winds of Death” and there was a meaty speech of welcome from the President of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, who declared that “We must not forget the past but it should not lead to hatred and revenge.”
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 17th January, 2013
2013 is a year of remarkable anniversaries so far as Kurds in Iraq are concerned: the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War (opposed by many, including me, in Britain, but viewed bythe Iraqi Kurds as a Liberation), the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s Anfal genocide operation and the 30th anniversary of the régime’s killings of men from the Barzani tribe. But those are only milestones — however gross and tragic — in a long journey of suffering that has been the Calvary of Iraq’s Kurds. No wonder they have an ancient saying that their only friends are the mountains. But even the mountains could not protect Kurdish villagers when Saddam’s airforce dropped a cocktail of chemical weapons on them in 1987-1988. First-hand testimony of the effects of those assaults (delivered at an International Conference on the Kurdish genocide, held at Church House in Westminster today) came from Dr Zryan Abdel Yones, who was a medic in the region at the time and had to deal with hundreds of victims dying in front of him, including preganant women whose bodies expelled their foetuses in a pool of blood. Saddam Hussein was indeed a monster — and a megalomaniac, as I had cause to remember when I spent two days in his palace in Baghdad last month. But the Iraqi Kurds do not yet have closure on their suffering; they want the international community to recognise that what was done to them amounted to genocide, as the Norwegian and Swedish parliaments have already done. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of casualties — many of whom simply disappeared without trace — in one of the most sustained and horrific crimes against humanity in modern times. It was really only after the Rwanda genocide of 1994 that the international community began to realise that there was a international moral reponsibility to protect which over-ruled the usual priunciple of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. But it is not too late and a petition to 10 Downing Street has already attracted many thousands of signatures. To sign yourself click on the following link: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/31014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th October, 2012
This evening I took part in a lively and well-attended debate at the University College London (UCL) Debating Society, speaking on behalf of a proposition in favour of international intervention in Syria. I pointed out that there already has been intervention of various kinds on both sides of the conflict for several months, with the Russians, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah notably helping the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad try to cling onto power, while countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — not to forget jihadis from all over the world, including the UK — have backed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or other armed opposition groups, including the Muslim Broherhood. So the real question to answer is: what sort of intervention is desirable? I emphatically ruled out an Iraqi-style US-led invasion (which I, along with the Liberal Democrat Party, vociferously opposed in 2003). But I also excluded a Libyan-style intervention (which I did support), as the situation on the ground in Syria is so utterly different; as Syria’s population density is much greater and there are no big centres of opposition strength, such as Benghazi. No great military intervention would be likely to achieve much except raise the casualty levels, which probably top 35,000 deaths already. On the other hand, the world cannot just stand by and watch Assad and his cronies slaughter the Syrian people (and destroy the country’s rich cultural heritage in the process). We are morally and legally obliged to do something, now that the Responsiblity to Protect is part of International Law, i.e. that when a leader is unable or unwilling to protect his own people then there is an obligation on the international community to come to their aid. I argued that Lakhdar Brahimi’s new plan — which involves a ceasefire and a UN-organised peacekeeping force — should receive strong international endorsement as a good starting-point. I believe even Russia could be won round to this, as Moscow is desperate for some face-saving exit from its current embarassing alliance. Today, even Assad said he would go along with the plan, though the FSA has turned it down. A ceasefire is an essential step in the direction of a workable and lasting solution, but clearly the departure of Assad and some of his closest associated would have to be part of the package.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Bashar Al-Assad, Free Syrian Army, FSA, Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Responsibility to Protect, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, UCL, UN, University College London | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 11th April, 2012
Iran has said it supports the UN special envoy Kofi Annan’s Peace Plan for Syria, which is a welcome development and highlights the fact that any workable settlement may only be possible with Iran’s active diplomatic engagement. Tehran has long been Bashar al-Assad’s closest ally and one of the reasons it was able to endorse the Annan Plan was that that does not call for the removal of Assad, even if that is what many Syrians and Western countries, including Turkey, would prefer. So far, the Assad regime has remained deaf to pleas to end the assaults that have cost thouands of civilian lives as well as fuelling an inevitable armed opposition. But if Assad will listen to anyone, it would be the Iranians. And there is a wider point at stake here. Iran historically was a major regional power, indeed once the centre of a great empire. Recently, it has been trying to reassert its influence, not only in Iraq, which now has a Shiite-led government, but more widely. However, the policy of Washington and the EU — not to mention Israel — has been to isolate Iran and indeed subject it to punitive sanctions, because of the country’s nuclear programme, which may or may not be working towards the production of a nuclear weapons capability, according to who you believe. Certainly Iran’s Gulf neighbours don’t want to see a nuclear-armed Iran and two of them — Bahrain and Qatar — play host to US military forces. However, most of the Arab states in the Gulf are nonetheless engaging with Tehran, as they recognise that whatever differences they may have with the current government there, engagement is more likely to produce a modus vivendi than belligerency. This is a lesson the West could usefully learn. Of course there are many aspects of the Islamic Republic which leave Western governments uncomfortable, not least regarding human rights and President Ahmadinejad’s comments about the Holocaust, but that should not blind people to the fact that through engagement it is possible to work with countries which have totally different political systems or religious beliefs towards achieving common aims.