Emerging of Islamic State: A challenge for Middle East Peace Process

--Lt. Col. AFM Khairul Basher (Retd)

War against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq threatens to spill into Turkey  where reports said that the air force had bombed Kurdish fighters furious at Ankara’s refusal to help protect their kin in Syria. At least 35 people were killed in riots last week when members of Turkey’s 15-million-strong Kurdish minority rose up in anger at the government for refusing to help defend the Syrian border town of Kobani from an Islamic State assault. The jailed leader of Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has threatened to call off talks to end a decades-old insurgency in Turkey if no progress is made. Turkish warplanes had hit PKK targets in Turkey, the first such strikes since a peace process began in Turkey two years ago. A US-led coalition is launching air strikes against Islamic State fighters who control swathes of Syria and seized much of northern Iraq in recent months. The turmoil in Turkey shows the danger of spillover from two complex multi-sided civil wars in which every country in the Middle East has a stake. Ankara has refused to join the US-led military coalition against Islamic State unless it also confronts Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It has also denied US assertions that it had agreed to let American planes take off from its air bases. Meanwhile, Islamic State fighters have been fighting their way into the mainly Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobani. The fate of Kobani could wreck efforts by the Turkish government to end a three decades long insurgency by PKK militants, a conflict that killed 40,000 people but largely ended with the start of a peace process in 2012. Air strikes caused “major damage” to the PKK. Turkey has already taken in some 1.2 million refugees from Syria’s three-year old civil war, including 200,000 Kurds who fled the area around Kobani in recent weeks.

While Islamic State fighters steadily fight their way into the Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobani, Turkey has refused to open the frontier to allow arms to reach the outgunned Kurds, wary of emboldening its own Kurdish population. Kurdish efforts to reinforce Kobani from Iraq have also been obstructed by Turkey.  In Iraq, the Kurds are battling to claw back territory from the Islamic State, while in Turkey government jets launched air strikes this week on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the southeast of the country. Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran all have large Kurdish minorities seeking varying degrees of autonomy from central government after decades of state repression. Kurds are a non-Arab, mainly Sunni Muslim people, speaking a language related to Farsi and living in a mountainous area straddling the borders of Armenia, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. For most of their history they have been subjugated. In modern times Iran, Iraq and Turkey have resisted an independent Kurdish state and Western powers have seen no reason to help establish one. Kurdish nationalism stirred in the 1890s when the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs. Kurdish revolts in the 1920s and 1930s were put down by Turkish forces. The Kurds were not recognized as a separate people or allowed to speak their language in public.


Syria: Before Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, Kurds made up about 8 percent of the population. Damascus deprived thousands of Kurds of citizenship rights, banned the teaching of their language and clamped down on Kurdish political activities. President Bashar al-Assad vowed to grant citizenship to Kurds in an attempt to cool resentment. Subsequently Assad’s forces focused on crushing the mainly Sunni Arab uprising in central Syria, turning a blind eye to elements of self-rule in the remote northern and eastern Kurdish regions. Kurds have taken little part in the anti-Assad uprising, but have repeatedly clashed with Sunni Islamist fighters militants at the edges of Kurdish regions, most recently in Kobani.

Turkey: Kurds form about 20 percent of the population. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), named in 1978, took up arms against Turkey in 1984 with the aim of creating an ethnic homeland in the southeast. Since then more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999, tried and sentenced to death. That was reduced to life imprisonment in October 2002 after Turkey abolished the death penalty. Turkey’s president removed restrictions on Kurdish language usage. Around half of Kurds voted for his ruling AK Party and peace talks with Kurds were a major part of his platform. But Ankara’s failure to intervene militarily in Kobani or allow weapons to be sent to its defenders has led to deadly protests and fuelled rumors that Turkey secretly supports Islamic State. Turkish warplanes attacked PKK targets in southeast Turkey in the first significant air operation against the militants since the launch of a peace process two years ago.

Iraq: Kurds constitute 15-20 percent of the population, inhabiting the three northern provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan. The region being autonomous since 1991, has its own government and armed forces, but still relies on the Baghdad central government for its budget. After U.S. troops left in 2011, friction grew between Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani and Iraq’s then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over territory, oil deals and Syria. In June, when Islamic State fighters seized control of much of northern Iraq, Kurdish fighters exploited the collapse of central authority to take control of Kirkuk, the oil city they regard as their ancient regional capital. For last two months Kurdish peshmerga forces, backed by U.S. air strikes, have been clawing back territory lost to an August offensive by Islamic State fighters.

Iran: Kurds form about 7 percent of the population. In 2011 Iran pledged to step up military action against PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan), a PKK offshoot which has sought greater autonomy for Kurdish areas of Iran. Kurds, along with other religious and ethnic minorities, faced increasing discrimination under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rule from 2005 to 2013. Iran executed several Kurdish activists in 2009-2010.

The battle for Kobani has started for nearly a month, with Islamic State slowly advancing and now in control of much of the town. Kurdish fighters known as Popular Protection Units (YPG), allies of the PKK, are demanding Turkey allow arms across the border to help them resupply.”There are fierce clashes, with no retreat or progress (by Islamic State). In the Turkish town of Suruc, 6 miles from the Syrian frontier, a funeral for four female YPG fighters was being held. The US-led coalition has hit Islamic State positions in and around the town but failed to halt the advance. At least six air strikes were heard from the Turkish side of the border. Gunfire and shelling were audible from the Turkish side, where Kurds, many with relatives fighting in Kobani, have maintained a vigil, watching the fighting from hillsides. Obama discussed a strategy to counter Islamic State with military leaders from 20 countries, including Turkey, Arab states and Western allies, amid growing pressure to do more to stop the militants’ advance. Kurds in neighboring Iraq, who are also fighting hard against Islamic State, had sent ammunition to help their brethren in Syria to mark their stand in Kobani.  In Iraq, Kurdish forces and government troops have rolled back some Islamic State gains in the north of the country in recent weeks, but the fighters have advanced in the west, seizing territory in the Euphrates valley within striking distance of the capital Baghdad. The White House says it will not send US forces back into ground combat in Iraq, where Obama withdrew all troops in 2011 after an eight year occupation. US commanders have spoken of increasing US adviser and support for Iraqi ground forces.

The push for Middle East peace must now come from Europe after the failure of US-led efforts. Despite a highly-symbolic British vote to recognize Palestine as a state, the road to official recognition is still fraught with obstacles. British vote to recognize Palestine as a state, following Sweden’s decision to do so, as a small shift. At least 112 countries around the world have recognized a Palestinian state. A Palestinian count puts the number at 134. EU member countries that have recognized a Palestinian state include Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland and Romania. But the EU is unlikely to push further towards recognition, particularly given the sensitivity of European heavyweight Germany’s relations with the Israelis due to Berlin’s Nazi past. France has said it will recognize Palestine “when the time is right”.

But diplomats say Paris will not act outside the European framework. But frustration is growing within the international community in the face of a seemingly intractable conflict with the Europeans increasingly vocal about the cost of rebuilding after military flare-ups. The EU should not be seen as a “cash point” for reconstruction and said it must be the “last time” the international community has to pay to rebuild Gaza, after a global pledge made of $5.4 billion. Political solution seems light years away, pointing to “out of control” Israeli colony building, “weak and divided” Palestinians and difficulty restoring trust after this year’s Gaza conflict that killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and dozens of Israelis. The emergence of Islamic State militants and the crisis in Syria and Iraq threatens to take the international community’s eye off the ball in the Middle East peace process. Israel cautioned that “premature international recognition of Palestine state actually undermines the chances to reach a real peace. It is sure that until and unless Israel and United States recognizes the Palestine state, the real peace in Middle East cannot be achieved.

Presently, new area of serious violence in the Middle East as the fighting continues between the forces of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and US led group with the Islamic State and Kurdish militants have drawn the attention of the world media. It must be stopped to save lives of innocent Muslim civil population. We hope and pray that the Arab leaders and United States realizes the legitimate right and problems of the people suffering from suppressions in the disputed areas. They must play a vital role to make peace by solving all disputes not by force but by dialogue between the rival groups and the states involved in the conflicts. It will surely save thousands lives of unarmed civil Muslim population and bring peace; harmony and stability in the Middle East thus avoiding creating more militants to fight against the powerful regime to establish their legitimate right and for survival.