The Middle East Facing Negotiations in Astana and the Referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan
Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
While we can only guess what awaits the region once the war in Syria ends and what the sides, in one or another extent involved in the conflict, aim for.
The situation in the Middle East continues to attract the attention of the MSM. The end phase of the civil war in Syria is accompanied by negotiations in Astana about de-escalation zones. The region is waiting a referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan. President Donald Trump is working on a new American strategy towards Afghanistan and Iran. The Qatar crisis and the civil war in Libya continue, where France and Italy compete with each other. The events surrounding the Ethiopian dam “Revival” on the Blue Nile compel talks on the approaching first war in Africa about water. On the background of the projects of Arab and Islamic integration, the collapse of the Cooperation Council for the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is close. Rivalling Iran, Saudi Arabia is stuck in Yemen. Radicals make Europe their own and are active in Southeast Asia… We will explore a few of these topics, basing on materials from experts of the Middle East Institute D.A. Karpov and Y. B. Scheglovin.
The USA: Strategic Innovations
President Trump is considering the strategy proposed to him for action against Iran, including against his policies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, according to Reuters citing sources in the White House. He is advised to react strongly to Iran’s influence on the events in Bahrain. The USA should actively respond to Iran’s naval actions against the American Navy in the Persian Gulf and stop the supply of arms to the Yemeni Houthis and Palestinian groups in Gaza and the Sinai. The imposition of economic sanctions is considered against Iran if it violates the terms of the nuclear deal of 2015.
The increased pressure on Tehran is designed to deal with its rocket-nuclear programme, to counter cyber attacks and to weaken the support of Shiite militias. The initiative does not assume the escalation of the conflict in Syria, there the priority for the USA is its fight against the Islamic State. Trump’s policies are a repeat George Bush Jr’s strategies and imply the support of allied countries in the region (KSA, Egypt and Israel) with the active use of military force. The difference in Trump’s strategy is the cautious attitude towards the troops in a particular region of the world. Reliance of force to solve crisis situations is maintained.
The current American administration, when making decisions, does not take into consideration all of the foreign political factors. The previous administration understood that to impose an embargo on Russia and Iran simultaneously is counterproductive. The deal on the Iranian nuclear programme gave an outlet to European companies, displeased with giving in under pressure from Washington and Brussels of economic relations with Russia. Trump does not take this into consideration and is trying to start a trade war with China. As a result the US did not support attempts by Brussels or the IAEA to revise the terms of the Iranian nuclear programme. The possibilities of the Americans to hammer out an international bloc are negligible. What Tehran does in its missile programme is not subject to the restrictions that were imposed at the time by the Security Council of the UN.
Calls for aggressive responses to Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen are without basis due to the lack of American capabilities to influence this process. In Syria and Iraq to influence the pro-Iranian Shiite militia, which are the basis of the spread of Iranian influence, is impossible as the US is limited by a lack of points of support on the ground. This is true in Yemen as well, the invasion of which is fraught with the country’s engagement in the long-running and difficult to predict local conflict. So that Washington’s “aggressiveness” towards Iran presently is limited to diplomatic and economic pressure, which is limited by Chinese, Russian and European economic interests in the Persian market.
About the new American strategy in Afghanistan, its basis is on increasing India’s role as opposition to Pakistan. In addition to the intensification of terrorists in Afghanistan against the American and NATO forces, consultations have begun between regional players. On September 10, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan Salahuddin Rabbani went to New Delhi to meet with Prime Minister N. Modi and the head of the MFA of India S. Swaraj. In the economic sphere, a decision was made about the participation of Indian capital in 116 urban and rural projects in Afghanistan and an agreement on the participation of Indian specialists in the repair of 11 Mi-35 helicopters and the Afghan Air Force for a total sum of 50 million dollars.
India can participate in other programmes in the repairs of military equipment in Afghanistan. The US wants India to take Russia’s place, but experts believe that the format of the cooperation between Kabul and New Delhi in the military sphere will exhaust itself. Sending military advisors to Afghanistan the Indian leadership will not fall for the unpredictable reactions of Islamabad, including Kashmir. So far the head of the MFA of Pakistan Kh. Asif visited Iran, where he met on September 11 President Rohani and the head of the MFA of Iran M.D. Zarif.
In the schedule of the Minister of Foreign Affairs are visits to Moscow, Beijing and Ankara. Pakistan extends its anti-Kabul and anti-American alliance in Afghanistan, and Ankara obviously will support Islamabad because of the conflict between the Turks and the Americans on the Kurdish issue in Syria. So the United States entered into a regional conflict with the risk of blocking all new American initiatives in Afghanistan.
What does Qatar Have on its Mind
The head of the Qatari MFA Mohammed bin Abdel Rahman al Thani spoke out on the continuation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), being the largest fighting opposition armed groups in Syria, and criticised the Special Envoy of the General Secretary of the UN for Syria, Staffan de Mistura for calling on the armed opposition “to admit that they have not won the war”. The principle point of the Qatari programme and its ally in Syria, Turkey, was the strengthening of the “secular” FSA, which was originally pro-Turkish. Qatar supported IS in Syria, and the Turks tried to create a force that could be presented in international formats. Their decision to refuse to support the FSA was accepted too hastily.
Doha and Ankara have considered that in case of Washington’s refusal to support the FSA they had to make a bet on IS and armed opposition groups like Ahrar al-Sham. The latter had to gather the Islamists into one group and drown the pro-Saudi Jabat al-Nusra. Doha and Ankara, working in alliance with Riyadh, argued of the impossibility of legitimising Jabat al-Nusra because of its association with Al Qaida. However, these manoeuvres failed. The project IS, on the background of the success of the anti-terrorist coalitions in Mosul, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor has exhausted itself. There are no prospects of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad through military means. The Saudi gains in Idlib against the background of Russian-Saudi rapprochement, the rift in the Ahrar al-Sham and the absorption of Jabat al-Nusra thanks to financial injections from Riyadh, are the realities of the moment.
Doha proposes in response to sharply increase the funding of Syrian opposition groups under its control. The FSA is designated as the primary recipient of such assistance. Qatar and Turkey decided to make a bet on the “secular segment” of the opposition in contrast to the pro-Saudi Islamists. This indicates a war between pro-Qatari and pro-Turkish groups, on the one hand, and Jabat al-Nursa on the other. The principal arena of this struggle takes place in Idlib. Moscow faces a phase of intense activities in Syria amid a crackdown of these fronts to their maximum attenuation. The crisis in relations between Qatar and the Arabian quartet is extremely beneficial in this context. The main logistical support of pro-Saudi groups goes through Turkey, which enables it to block it.
The disadvantages of the Turkish-Qatari project are its cost. Qatar would have to start from zero in Syria. Thus it had to spend, according to Moody’s, 38.5 billion dollars to support its economy from the beginning of the conflict with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. This is close to 23 percent of its gross domestic product. Qatar is facing problems in financial, economic and social areas due to the limitations imposed by the Arab states in the tourism business, commerce and banking. As a result of the conflict in June and July about 30 billion dollars were withdrawn from the banks of the Emirate. The country has not received funds from neighbouring Persian Gulf States, supporting the sanctions against Doha. Nevertheless, Qatar covers internal expenses and does not borrow funds on the international financial market.
Russia, Turkey and Iran as guarantors of the reconciliation in Syria announced the creation of four de-escalation zones. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Kairat Abdrakhmanov announced this on September 15 at the plenary session of the international meeting in Astana to resolve the situation in Syria. Note in this regard that in the current coordination committee, which effectively replaces the previous Russian-Turkish observation mission of the truce, Iran was included, which makes it officially part of the negotiation process between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Earlier all armed opposition groups were against it as it was the consolidated position of their sponsors represented by Qatar, Turkey and the KSA. In the current state of affairs, there are official concessions of Turkey and Qatar and the unofficial one from the KSA, despite the dissatisfaction of the US, which was ignored by all of them. The recognition of Iran as one of the major forces in the Syrian conflict is an important outcome of the negotiations. Following the USA meant for the KSA and Turkey the uncontrolled growth of the expansion of Tehran, and the inclusion of Iran in the coordination committee structures the framework of Iran’s presence in Syria, which gives the opposition sponsors understanding of Iran’s zones of responsibility and limits their presence in Syria with a commitment from Moscow and Tehran to not violate them.
Giving the de-escalation zones the officially recognised status by the parties to the conflict is to fix imbalances in their forces for today. There are a few local hot spots of tensions from the likes of armed groups such as IS and Jabat al-Nusra, but the main zones of peaceful coexistence of previously warring parties are defined. The new phase in the Syrian conflict is an experiment in the sphere of finding a common algorithm to exit from local wars. It consists of freezing the conflict through the creation of zones of presence of opposing forces with the simultaneous launching of the informal mechanism of tribal and economic diplomacy between groups of populations in these enclaves and in the rest of the country. The forces of the sponsors in any case play a role of peacemakers and forces of differentiation. The emphasis is made on the channels of people’s diplomacy and the ability of society to restore the broken economic and social ties. Hence the importance of establishing local committees for national reconciliation as a mechanism for such diplomacy.
The success of this process will directly affect the progress of talks about further global issues. The time has not come yet for this in Syria, for starters the parties of the conflict and the population must learn to live with conditions of truce and to establish trade and economic ties. The process is difficult and fraught as much with luck as with failure. Thus the six-month trial period, established in the Astana agreement. However if this mechanism works out, this will the first example of the practical realisation the principle about what the Americans are talking about, resolution of problems inside the country with the elite forces from the country itself. So far they have not been able to so in any areas of local conflict where they are present. It is especially significant that for Russia, which, in fact, sat at the negotiation table in Astana with the conflicting parties, it seems to work.
The creation of the mechanism of monitoring the zones and the participation of Ankara as one of their sponsors removes the struggle in these zones for the right of domination over the forces of the armed opposition between the KSA and Turkey to a new level. These countries, one through the representation of armed opposition groups, the other as the official sponsor, went for the scheme proposed in Astana of freezing the conflict, which is dictated from them the idea of establishing its domination in these areas. And this transforms either side into one of the leading players in the Syrian conflict. Only in this case it is possible to speak about the preservation of the Saudi presence in Syria.
This caused the war between the pro-Saudi and pro-Turkey groups in Idlib, the outcome of which will depend on the balance of power in other areas of de-escalation, except, perhaps, the south. In any case the situation is developing according to the principle of “Divide and Conquer”. Fortunately, Riyadh’s position is vulnerable from an international point of view: Saudi clients such as Jabat al-Nusra are not recognised by any full member of the negotiation process. However the elimination of Jabat al-Nusra at the hands of the Turks or its weakening on the agenda stands and the agreement in Astana de facto stimulates this process.
Waiting for the Referendum
On the background of international discussions on the up-coming referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, the internal Kurdish standoff continues. On September 12 the Iraqi parliament, impatient for the outcome of the anticipated consultations in Baghdad between the government and the leadership of the Kurdish autonomy, initiated by the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, disagreed with the idea of holding such an expression in principle. Erbil reacted quickly: the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani called on the Council of Representatives (Parliament) of Iraq to revise the resolution on the referendum on independence for the autonomous region. Barzani stressed that the deputies of the Iraqi Parliament “cannot break the will of the people of Kurdistan”. Thus he rejected the decision taken by the parliament.
The Arab League and the UN, the Arab neighbours of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Russia and the United States were against the referendum, on what align Barzani and his supporters. Washington suggested postponing the referendum, admitting that it is now inappropriate. In Erbil the head of the Turkish secret services MIT H. Fidan and the head of the Quds Special Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ General K. Soleimani are to arrive to convince Barzani to compromise. Fidan is also tasked with analysing with his Kurdish colleague Masrour Barzani the question of the character of his consultations with the head of the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Cemîl Bayik, who came to Erbil in order to consult with the head of intelligence of Iraqi Kurdistan. Ankara has received an extremely unpleasant signal for Turkey that between these two forces an alliance is planned.
He becomes visible in the referendum and interest of the Barzani clan in the support of this idea of the PKK and its affiliates presented as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. This means that the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan will automatically result in holding the same plebiscites in Syria and the prospect of forming of a quasi-governmental autonomy with the subsequent joining of an independent Kurdish state. Such a scenario is capable of creating for Ankara a serious and an ongoing threat, particularly given the neutral position of Washington in the framework of prioritising the more important tasks, such as creating reliable support through the Kurds in Northern Syria. Ultimately a war between Ankara and the PKK has not been ruled out and the truce violated by President R.T. Erdogan is unlikely to be restored in the foreseeable future.
Not everything is clear with the balance of power within the Kurdish autonomy. In Erbil very difficult negotiations continue between delegates of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran (translator’s note: Kurdish Movement for Change) to achieve a compromise on the seven-point preliminary conditions for achieving an agreement on the support by these three major Kurdish parties the idea of a referendum. This support must be realised in the form of convocation of the Parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan, who for the last two years has been in limbo because of the position of the leadership of Gorran, which is boycotting its work. The lack of parliamentary approval of the idea of a referendum and most importantly, the approval at the legislative level, the results most seriously disavows the idea of holding it for the global community.
Experts agree that the parties moved to the provisional agreement, which makes the question of convening a new session of Parliament with a specific case. These same experts agree as well that if this happens, it will be an indication that the question on the referendum between the three main parties has been resolved. This does not mean the end of further discussions, but they will be moved to the parliamentary format. It is important to note that Gorran was able to insist that Barzani and his close relatives not run for the highest positions in authority. Questions remain about the salaries of the civil servants, the harmonisation of the law on presidential elections, a new model of distribution of income from hydrocarbon exports.
The retreat of Gorran from the idea of holding a referendum is possible in the framework of the block with the position of political parties such as the Islamic Party of Kurdistan. The latter categorically rejects the idea of the referendum. This can happen at the last moment due to the fact that the parties cannot agree on the final terms of the agreement: the question of trade in hydrocarbons and the distribution of profits remain insurmountable obstacles, or as a result of working with the Gorran international players, Iran and Turkey. Thus, if the referendum is held, its result will remain on paper only and it is doomed to remain a propaganda fact due to its non-recognition and its outcome by the international community. The formation of the budget of Iraqi Kurdistan while blockading the export of hydrocarbons by Baghdad can create inside the autonomy an economic collapse. The hopes of Erbil relying on foreign investment in the case of such developments is naive due to legal risks
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute