The threat of ISIS in Iraq has largely subsided, and the country is left in a complicated state. During the conflict, the ISIS threat virtually neutralized the Iraqi army and forced the populace to turn their reliance towards the array of Shiite militias that arose to fill the security gap. Now, the Shiite militias have emerged as the dominant military force surpassing even the authority of the government.
In 2014, the so-called Islamic State took over about one-third of Iraq’s territory, including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. At the time, there was a genuine fear that the predominantly Sunni fighters of the Islamic State were close to capturing Baghdad. National security forces were in no position to subdue the threat. Since 2003, the Iraqi government has faced ups and downs in its attempt to rebuild its security apparatus following the near collapse of Iraq as a unitary state. The disbanding of the army has affected the government’s ability to claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Since then, the fundamental theme has been the relationship between Iraq’s central government and the substate or non-state military actors.
When the war against the Islamic State began in 2014, Iraq’s security apparatus collapsed leading many volunteer fighters to join paramilitaries rather than the weakened military or police forces. These substate forces were grouped under an umbrella organization called the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have volunteered for military service. The group includes over 60,000 fighters. Others estimate that the number ranges from 60,000 to 140,000 fighters (http://carnegie-mec.org/).
Popular Mobilization Forces/Units/Committee (PMF/PMU/PMC) is an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of some 40 groups, almost exclusively Shiite. The People’s Mobilization Forces was formed for deployment against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The organization was formed by uniting existing forces under the “People’s Mobilization Committee” of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior in June 2014. The PMF was formed by the Iraqi government on 15 June 2014 after Marja’ Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa on “righteous jihad” on 13 June. The fatwa called for defending Baghdad and to participate in the counter-offensive against the Islamic State, following the Fall of Mosul on 10 June 2014. The Popular Mobilization Forces consist of both new volunteers and pre-existing forces. These forces have been grouped within the umbrella organization formerly under the control of the Ministry of Interior Popular Mobilization Units directorate. Among these forces are the Peace Companies, previously known as the Mahdi Army, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization (www.alhashdalshaabi.com/).
Many who perceived the PMF to be a security asset and a savior in the struggle against the Islamic State in 2014, when the Iraqi army was in shambles, now view it as more of a liability and menace to the country’s political and security status quo. Following the battle to retake Mosul, Iraq faces key challenges involving the PMF that will profoundly shape the country’s future. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports, for example, have accused it of committing war crimes. Moreover, to many critics, the PMF symbolizes Iranian and Shia efforts to exercise supremacy over Iraq.
Tehran has had a clear hand in coordinating with the PMF leadership, which frequently meets and consults with Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Even Muqtada al-Sadr, whose paramilitary unit falls under the PMF, has referred to the PMF as al-militiat al-waqiha (the Imprudent Militias). Clerics from the Najaf Hawza (the Najaf Seminary), including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is Iraq’s leading Shia religious leader, also criticize the monopolistic conduct of certain PMF leaders, particularly Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis (carnegie).
Known widely by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes is Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), an Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia operating primarily in Iraq. In addition to acting as the leader of KH, Ibrahimi serves as Iraq’s deputy national security advisor and the deputy commander of the Haashid Shaabi, the umbrella group of anti-ISIS Shiite militias also called Iraq’s popular mobilization forces (PMF). According to Iraqi Major-General Jumaa Enad, Ibrahimi today is also realistically and operationally the leader of the PMF.
Muen al-Kadimi, deputy leader of another Shiite militia in Iraq, the Badr Organization, confirmed that Ibrahimi is one of the highest-level commanders in the PMF, saying that Ibrahimi signs off on things. He is also a former member of the Iraqi parliament. Ibrahimi has for years been linked to a series of deadly crimes. In 2007, a Kuwaiti court sentenced Ibrahimi to death in absentia for his involvement in the 1983 U.S. and French embassy bombings in Kuwait, attacks that killed six and injured nearly 90 others. Ibrahimi has also been linked to the 1985 assassination attempt of Kuwait’s Emir.
Ibrahimi believes in establishing a Shiite theocracy and considers himself to be a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei according to Iraqi lawmaker Mishaan Jbouri. He reportedly serves as an adviser and “right-hand man” to Iran’s military envoy to Iraq, the IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. For years, he worked alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Badr Organization (previously called the Badr Corps).
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ibrahimi helped smuggle in a certain kind of improvised explosive device (IED) known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) from Iran into Iraq. EFPs were the primary killer of U.S. troops in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 (https://www.counterextremism.com/).
Two factors played a significant role in building the militia power. One-third of Iraq was occupied at the time. Iraq president Maliki found the state’s large bureaucracy inefficient, given its mandate under a sectarian quota system (muhasasa ta’ifiya), which included members from all major Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni political parties. Having loyal Shia militias, rather than the shaky cross-ethnic makeup of the Iraqi army, seemed a much more reliable way to secure a tighter command and control structure.
Immediately after the Iraqi army’s collapse in June 2014, Maliki signed an official decree to form the Commission for the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hay’at al-Hashd al-Shaabi). The state’s inability to cope with the Islamic State threat led many to rely on the paramilitaries.
Another domestic factor that legitimized the paramilitaries was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s wajib al-kifai fatwa, which his most senior clerical representative, Abdul Mehdi el-Karbalai, conveyed in June 2014. Paradoxically, the legitimization this fatwa furnished was an unintended consequence of Sistani’s order, which had called on all Iraqi citizens to volunteer to join the “security forces.” This was a direct reference to the army and federal police, rather than the seven militias that had been operating alongside Maliki’s government. Sistani’s interference had made the PMF a sacred institution in the eyes of the Iraqi population.
Maliki and his allies pursued a wide-ranging campaign to recruit volunteers through hundreds of centers and offices. This recruitment was predicated on a smear campaign against the very Iraqi army that they had created—the same army that the fatwa had supposedly demanded the volunteers’ join. For Maliki and his supporters, the fatwa allowed the original seven paramilitaries, along with other groups created thereafter, to emerge from clandestine or semi-clandestine anonymity. It gave them legitimacy, which gave them access to the public through their own radio and television networks, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts; these groups now had their own legitimate names, logos, and publically displayed photographs. In short, Maliki used Sistani’s fatwa to give official sanction to these groups for the first time and allowed them to operate out in the open with full state funding.
The PMF groups maintain broad popularity among Iraqi society. The paramilitary outfits are particularly popular among the country’s Shia population. An August 2015 poll claims that 99 percent of Shia respondents support the use of the PMF to fight the Islamic State. Up to 75 percent of men between eighteen and thirty years old living in Shia-majority provinces had signed up to enlist in the PMF by the spring of 2016. Volunteers flocked from all of Iraq’s Shia provinces to enlist, the PMF recruited roughly ten times more volunteers than the Iraqi security forces.
For the emerging volunteers, it was also easier to sign up via political party structures than through the PMF Commission, which was still part of a fledgling state and lacked recruitment offices. In contrast, almost all Shia Islamist parties and even individual clerics or members of parliament had established registration centers. Because the state itself did not have enough offices to register volunteers for the Iraqi army and police forces, volunteers joined paramilitary groups, many of which, including the original seven, enjoyed preexisting recruitment mechanisms.
The PMF, however, is far from a cohesive operation. The PMF contains three distinct factions, based on various subgroups’ respective allegiances to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Muqtada al-Sadr. It remains possible that the PMF’s fractious makeup—its sundry groups with sundry objectives—may serve as a safety valve to ensure that the organization is not used to take over the state. The groups under Sistani and under Sadr will work to make sure that the PMF’s Maliki-allied leadership does not use the sacredness of the PMF brand to retake the state (carnegie).
One of the most divisive issues amongst the militias is the involvement of Iran. Muqtada al-Sadr, who once led violent campaigns against the US occupation that ended in 2011, has emerged as a nationalist opponent of powerful Shia parties allied with neighboring Iran and as a champion of the poor. Al-Sadr's alliance comprising of communists and secular Iraqis has announced it is fiercely opposed to any foreign interference in Iraq - whether Tehran's or Washington's (www.aljazeera.com/news/).
Muqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Regiments (Saraya al-Salam) were founded right after the notorious June 2014 massacre at Camp Speicher. In effect, this was a rebranding of the JAM (Sadr’s group), which had been suspended in 2008 but had kept many of its cadres, expertise, and social networks intact. They were easily remobilized because Sadr had more experience with paramilitaries than other paramilitary leaders. The Sadrist movement, and by extension its paramilitary, derives legitimacy from its presence on the ground in Iraq before 2003. Unlike many other political parties and military wings, the Sadrists were not part of the diaspora elite that returned to Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The movement has stayed close to ordinary Iraqi citizens rather than the country’s elites. It weds nationalism with homegrown clerical authority from the Sadr family name and is now portraying Muqtada as a theological authority rather than a political leader.
Another PMF faction includes several apolitical paramilitaries that swear allegiance to Sistani. They were formed strictly by Sistani’s fatwa to defend Shia holy sites and lands from the so-called Islamic State. Their priority is to keep Shia areas safe and to obey Sistani’s will—this includes a willingness to eventually disband or be integrated into the Iraqi armed forces. According to several of these groups’ leaders and members, they will disband as soon as the threat of the Islamic State subsides. Their priority is to keep Shia areas safe and to obey Sistani’s will—this includes a willingness to eventually disband or be integrated into the Iraqi armed forces.
However, the most powerful groups in the PMF are those that maintain strong links with Tehran and pledge spiritual allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As such, they have been groomed by Iran as reliable political and military allies; therefore, they benefit from greater funding and more supplies from Tehran than other groups in the PMF. This pro-Khamenei group includes a number of relatively small paramilitaries that Iran has created, which serve as proxies for Tehran. In fact, they are arms of Iran’s IRGC and the Iranian foreign intelligence agency, Itilaat. These better-known elements of the pro-Khamenei faction consist of local right-wing Iraqi militant wings that have also become political actors. Their military resources—including heavy armor, drones, and military advisers—all come from Tehran. Their cash and political legitimacy come from Baghdad. These paramilitaries are either full-fledged political parties or in the process of establishing political representation in the lead-up to Iraq’s planned 2018 provincial and parliamentary elections.
For its own part, Iran prefers to keep a strong set of paramilitary allies that could check the Iraqi state if Baghdad ever were to pursue anti-Iran policies. Most groups affiliated with Sistani and Sadr, however, have expressed a willingness to integrate into the state apparatus, or even to disband all paramilitaries. (http://carnegie-mec.org/). Though Sadr has been a critic and deterring factor towards Iranian power encroachment, recent activities presuppose a shift in his position.
In June of this year Iraq's Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced a surprise alliance with pro-Iranian political bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri in a bid to form a government after last month's elections resulted in a hung parliament. At a joint press conference with Amiri in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Sadr hailed the formation of a true alliance to accelerate the formation of a national government away from any dogmatism.
Sadr and Amiri are strange bedfellows. Sadr, who once led violent campaigns against the US occupation that ended in 2011, has emerged as a nationalist opponent of powerful Shia parties allied with neighboring Iran and as a champion of the poor. Amiri, a fluent Persian speaker, is Iran's closest ally in Iraq, having spent two years in exile there during the era of former President Saddam Hussein. The Fatah alliance he led in the election was composed of political groups tied to Iran-backed Shia armed groups who helped government forces defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters (//www.aljazeera.com/). This recent alliance assumes a shift in the political alliance. One that is difficult to assess and place into future context.
Even with Sadr and Sistani in positions of great influence in Iraqi politics, it is clear that Iran holds dominating control over Iraq. The recent alliance between the Sadr and Amiri factions is still too new to draw any serious conclusions. However, it does cast concerns about whether Sadr will be a serious deterrent to the country being transformed into a virtual puppet state of Iran.
It is clear the militias will not disband any time soon. The Iraqi Shiite population, like much of the country, still has no confidence and trust in either the state or government security forces. As such, the militias continue to be seen as the better option for protecting the country in its weakened state from the likes of ISIS or the next such group that they anticipate emerging to threaten them. It is highly probably they will remain as the dominate force in Iraq, even superseding the authority of the government.
The image of the United States is not good and any faction that opposes Iran just as strongly opposes US involvement. This limits options for the US if it has any agenda to thwart Iran’s power growth.
The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency of Mexico has signaled a change in policy toward combatting drug cartels. The policy of the last decade has been to approach the problem through the use of military force. President Obrador has called to remove the military from such duties through a gradual reduction of forces from the mission (mexiconewsdaily.com/).
For the last decade, the Mexican government has approached the drug cartels operating in the country as largely a military threat and have attempted to destroy their influence through military force. Statistics show the federal government deployed 52,807 soldiers to fight Mexico’s notorious drug cartels last year ─ the highest number in the 12-year war on drugs. The record deployment was spread across several states in various regions of the country. Former president Felipe Calderón launched the military-based crime-fighting strategy shortly after he took office in December 2006 by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacán. During 2007, his first full year in office, 45,000 soldiers were deployed across the country. The size of the deployment was increased to 48,650 in 2009 as the number of soldiers, Marines, and Federal Police losing their lives in confrontations with organized crime continued to grow.
With more than 29,000 homicides, 2017 was also the most violent year in at least two decades while more than 200,000 people have been murdered in the 12 years since the crackdown on cartels began, leading many observers to conclude that the war on drugs strategy has failed. The violence of the cartels has turned several states within the country into virtual war zones.
One of the main targets of these expeditions has been the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) (mexiconewsdaily.com/).It is known for its aggressive use of violence, and its public relations campaigns. This criminal group moved drug shipments and managed finances for the Sinaloa Cartel operating primarily in the states of Jalisco and Colima and later extending into Michoacán and Mexico City. The group has been associated with the use of extreme violence. In the period following the emergence of the CJNG, homicides spiked in Jalisco. The cartel also made it one of its early missions to battle the Zetas drug trafficking organization in Veracruz state, under the name “Matazetas,” or “Zetas Killers,” which, depending on the source, is described as either another name for the CJNG or a special cell of the group responsible for assassinations. The group claimed responsibility for a 2011 massacre of 35 people in Veracruz and a month later security forces recovered the corpses of another 30-plus apparent victims of the group.
In April 2015, the CJNG killed 15 Mexican police officers during an ambush in Jalisco state, one of the single deadliest attacks on security forces in recent Mexican history. The group was also blamed for an attack in March 2015 that killed five federal police. Additionally, Mexican officials have previously indicated that the group possesses highly sophisticated armaments. Machine guns and grenade launchers were used to conduct the March 2015 attack. In May 2015, the group continued its deadly streak, shooting down a military helicopter on May 1, and launching a wave of violence across Jalisco.
The CJNG has also been known to appeal to the Mexican citizenry with idealistic propaganda, invoking solidarity and promising to rid its areas of operation of other crime syndicates, such as the Zetas and the Knights Templar another sworn enemy. The CJNG operates in at least in 22 states: Aguascalientes, Baja California Sur, Baja California, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Puebla, Querétaro, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosí, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Morelos, Nayarit, Guerrero, and Veracruz, plus Mexico City and the State of Mexico. The cartel also allegedly has contacts in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Central America, and the United States and uses these connections to traffic marijuana, cocaine, and synthetic drugs. Recent arrests suggest that the Cuinis, the alleged money laundering arm of the CJNG, may have established operations in Brazil and Uruguay. The CJNG’s assets are thought to be worth over $20 billion (insightcrime.org/).
In May of this year, the cartel was suspected for an attack on the former attorney general of Jalisco that was followed by gunfire and narco-blockades on the streets of Guadalajara. An estimated 12 armed civilians opened fire on Labor Secretary Luis Carlos Nájera, who was attorney general between 2013 and 2015. No one was killed in the exchange of gunfire but several people were wounded. Among them were two young girls selling candy outside the restaurant, Nájera, who was struck by a bullet in the hand, and three agents from the state prosecutor’s office, one of whom was reported in serious condition (mexiconewsdaily.com/news/).
In March, three film students in Jalisco were tortured and murdered by a drug cartel before their bodies were dissolved in acid. Javier Salomón Aceves Gastélum, Marcos Francisco García Ávalos, and Jesús Daniel Díaz García were kidnapped by armed men in Tonalá, near Guadalajara, on March 19. The three students — all of whom attended the Audiovisual Media University (CAAV) in Guadalajara — were working on a project in the home of one of the student’s aunts on the day they were kidnapped. CJNG members were watching the house because a rival criminal known as El Cholo, the leader of the Nueva Plaza criminal group, was expected to arrive there. Posing as security authorities, the armed men took the students to a ranch where one died from the beating he received while being interrogated. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity (mexiconewsdaily.com/). But, the cartels are not the only violent factions threatening the stability of several Mexican states.
In response to the violence, several self-defense vigilante groups have emerged in the last few years to combat the cartel groups that have dominated the regions. These vigilantes are organized and financed largely by the local businessmen. They are comprised of a wide assortment of people from business leaders, to migrant workers, to family members of victims from cartel violence and mercenaries. Equipped with full tactical attire and armed with state of the art weaponry, these vigilantes have engaged the cartels in open pitched battle on the streets of towns and cities where the government security forces have either been overwhelmed or have actively colluded with the local cartels.
These groups have been successful in uprooting entrenched criminal organizations in many regions of the country where the government security forces have failed. However, in doing so they have created another destabilizing presence. The corruption of the security forces has led the vigilantes to be suspicious of the government and ill-inclined to relinquish control of liberated territory to official authorities. Nor have they complied with a police order to disband or disarm.
In an attempt to bring some control over the vigilantes, the Mexican military has sought to legitimize them as augmentation forces and have given them official capacity. This avenue has met with minimal success as the vigilantes remain skeptical of the police and military, choosing to maintain their independence. In regions they control, vigilante groups have been known to stop even police convoys and prisoner transports to search them for cartel leaders using police cover to escape.
The vigilante movement has elicited other negative results. In the aftermath of removing cartels from their power over their stronghold regions, the vigilantes have taken to rigorous pursuit of escaping cartel members that have often resulted in virtual witch hunts that involve severe beatings administered to suspected cartel members and rounding up people based on little more than hearsay evidence. All of which has led to negative backlashes from the general public (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmnMgDEp_R0).
Nor, does the vigilante movement operate free from its own criminal indulgences. Since 2013, government officials have claimed on various occasions that the CJNG provided arms to the self-defense forces that purportedly emerged to combat the Knights Templar in the southwest, pacific state of Michoacán — a strategic operating point for criminal groups home to a wealth of minerals and a major seaport (insightcrime.org/). The militaries own involvement in the conflict has left it with a tarnished reputation.
There are strong indications that federal security forces were responsible for the disappearance of 23 people, including at least five minors, in Tamaulipas over the past four months. The United Nations (UN) said that people were reportedly detained by uniformed personnel as they walked or drove along public roads adding that several burnt out and bullet-ridden vehicles [have been] found by the roadside. Many of these people are reported to have been arbitrarily detained and disappeared while going about their daily lives. It is particularly horrific that at least five of the victims are minors, with three of them as young as 14. These crimes, perpetrated over four months in a single municipality, are outrageous. Allegations have also been raised regarding the enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions carried out by public officials (mexiconewsdaily.com/). The last decade of violence has led to calls for a new means of combatting the criminal lawlessness.
The new strategy proposed by the Obrador administration known as #SeguridadSinGuerra (Security without War) promises to create a National Guard and to keep the Internal Security Law (LSI) which formally authorizes the use of the military in domestic law enforcement. A key part of the strategy would be to put an end to the vicious circle of corruption that brings about more corruption as well as impunity and insecurity. The strategy further builds on the concepts of training police and improving their socio-economic conditions which will initiate a comprehensive pacification project that will include analyzing the possibility of an amnesty for some criminals (mexiconewsdaily.com/).
It is too early in the new administration. There has not been enough time to implement any parts of the new strategy. So, its effectiveness has yet to be tested. The concern is that with all the lawlessness going on, the measures may be too late to have any serious effect. With entire regions outside of the government's control and held by well-financed cartels or vigilante groups, the government’s main problem will be reasserting control and establishing its legitimacy. The cartels don’t want to relinquish power and through their enterprises have billions of dollars to use and have found ways to circumvent the security forces and the vigilante groups. The vigilante groups don’t trust the government security forces or the legal system and retain armies. These two groups, holding their own well equipped and trained armies, present a severe challenge of power for the government. The polices in and of themselves are vaguely defined and focus on pacification strategies in dealing with the criminal organizations of the cartels.
It is too early to know if the new policies will have any real impact. While they might have marginal success at some level, it is unlikely they will have much effect on a larger scale. The cartels are not rebel organizations, they’re businesses that can only be subverted by cutting off their financial resources and revenue base. That means stronger cooperation from neighboring countries, such as the United States and Canada, who are the prime sources of this revenue. If the cartels cannot be subdued, then the vigilante groups will continue to gain in power as citizens start to see them as the only viable response to the criminality. The history of the government trying to clean up corruption in the police and military has proven to be short-lived at best. Inevitably, the criminality in Mexico is going to continue because too much money is involved, and their power too well entrenched. The fear is that the violence will become wider spread in the country diminishing control of the government and giving more to the cartels and vigilantes.
Kurdish militias have proven to be a key ally to U.S. efforts in the fight against the Islamic terror group known as ISIS. However, while Kurdish militias have been an effective deterrent to Islamic radical groups seeking control over Syria and Iraq, it has also come with grave repercussions. The continued alliance and support of these militias has worked to strain U.S. relations with some of their long-standing Middle-Eastern allies and in many ways set the U.S. up as a perceived sponsor of terrorism in its own right.
In an effort to combat ISIS with an effective ground force, the United States has developed a policy of arming established Kurdish rebel groups in the region. Most notably the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and its affiliates, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to act as foot soldiers even though they have a history of terrorism. A policy was developed by the Obama administration and has been continued by the Trump administration. The policy has largely created grave contention with existing allies who regard this action as an alliance with terrorists (foreignpolicy.com).
The YPG is the driving force behind a coalition of north Syrian forces allied with the U.S. to battle ISIS. With U.S. support, including around 2,000 embedded forces, the coalition now controls close to a quarter of Syrian territory, concentrated mostly to the north and east of the Euphrates river (theguardian.com).
Turkish leaders were infuriated by an announcement by the U.S. military that it was going to create a 30,000-strong border force with the Kurdish fighters to secure northern Syria. Then secretary of state Rex Tillerson announced that the U.S. would maintain a military presence with the Kurds for the foreseeable future (theguardian.com).
Turkey has long been concerned about the presence of Syrian Kurdish forces in its northern border region, especially the United States-backed Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara deems an offshoot of the outlawed PKK and an imminent threat to its territorial integrity (hurriyetdailynews.com).
Turkey has argued the YPG, a group it considers a terrorist organization, is but an extension of another outlawed Kurdish rebel group that it is fighting inside its own borders. Using that rationale, it has found common cause with Syrian opposition groups who view the YPG as a counter-revolutionary force in Syria’s multi-sided civil war (theguardian.com).
The Turkish government has responded with what it has deemed Operation Olive Branch.
Recently Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Ankara is determined to pursue its cross-border military operations from its southern border to northern Iraq, stating that the operation in the Kandil region is ongoing. These comments came after the Turkish military announced on June 15 that 26 outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants were killed or surrendered in operations since June 12. Another operation against the PKK has begun in Kandil on the Iraq-Iran border as well as the Iraqi-controlled Sinjar region, which is a Yezidi Kurdish region (hurriyetdailynews.com).
Turkish jets have bombed the Kurdish-controlled city of Afrin in northern Syria. Independent sources have reported jets bombing positions in the direction of Afrin. At the same time a convoy of armed pick-up trucks and buses believed to be carrying Syrian opposition fighters traveled along the border. Recent video footage from Turkey showed the military moving tanks to the frontier.
Beginning in 2016, Turkey trained and equipped opposition forces to drive Kurdish fighters out of parts of northern Syria, driving a wedge between two enclaves along the Turkish frontier. Turkish ground forces, including tanks and artillery, crossed into Syria with the fighters to establish a zone flanked by Afrin and Manbij that now serves as a hub for Turkish operations inside the war-torn country (theguardian.com).
Turkey, with the support of some Syrian rebels, has waged the campaign against Kurdish militants, whom Ankara regards as terrorists. Turkey’s military incursion into neighboring Syria has been met with positive response from the locals. Journalists embedded along the border of Turkey and Syria have reported witnessing Bunting made up of Turkish and Syrian rebel flags draped across the area, and dozens of pictures of the Turkish leader hung around buildings.
"Afrin is free, free!" the crowd chanted. "PKK is out! Allah greets the free army." This was in reference to the Syrian opposition fighters who have joined the Turkish-inspired Operation Olive Branch across the border.
The campaign has drawn protests from the U.S., which considers the Kurds an ally in the war on the Islamic State group. The YPG formed the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Force which the U.S. backed, supported and armed during the action to oust ISIS from Syria. Turkey views the YPG as akin to the Daesh terrorists, and President Erdogan has made it a pinnacle of his administration policy to push on until he has cleared his country's entire Syrian border of them. (news.sky.com).
Nor is Turkey alone in its concern of Kurdish extremists threatening their security. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said last week Baghdad was ready to cooperate with Ankara to prevent attacks from Iraq into Turkey (hurriyetdailynews.com).
Most Kurdish groups in existence today are offshoots of the long-established Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). The 1970s saw Kurdish nationalism branching off into a Marxist political ideology which influenced a new generation of Kurdish nationalists. The PKK’s ideology was originally a fusion of revolutionary socialism and Kurdish nationalism which was intended to be used as the foundation of an independent Marxist–Leninist state known as Kurdistan. The PKK fought an armed struggle against the Turkish state for cultural and political rights and self-determination for the Kurds in Turkey (thekurdishproject.org).
Advocating for greater Kurdish autonomy through violent resistance, the Kurdistan Workers Party remains a vibrant militant presence on the border of northern Iraq and southern Turkey.
Nearly a decade after its founding, the group turned to terrorist tactics in the mid-1980s, relying on guerrilla warfare that included kidnappings of foreign tourists in Turkey, suicide bombings, and attacks on Turkish diplomatic offices in Europe. The PKK has also repeatedly attacked civilians who refuse to assist it. As fighting reached a peak in the mid-1990s, thousands of villages were destroyed in the southeast and eastern Turkey. The PKK launched most of its attacks on Turkish security forces, but also attacked other Turkish sites at home and abroad, as well as Kurdish civilians who would not cooperate with the group. An estimated thirty-seven thousand people have been killed in the fighting (cfr.org).
Another primary group that has been mentioned has been the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) is a Syrian affiliate of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PYD calls for the constitutional recognition of Kurdish rights and “democratic autonomy,” rejecting classical models such as federalism and self-administration. Condemning authoritarian rule in Damascus, the PYD is responsible for disrupting Kurdish efforts to form a united opposition front.
While critical of the regime, the PYD has adopted an ambiguous stance toward the revolution. It stands alienated and hostile to the large majority of the organized opposition. It accuses the Syrian National Council of acting as Turkey’s henchman, at the same time disapproving of the Kurdish National Council due to long-standing tensions between Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and an eminent supporter of the Kurdish National Council, and Abdullah Ocalan.
Furthermore, following its violent attacks against Kurdish demonstrators in Erbil and Aleppo and its alleged role in the assassination of Mashaal Tammo (leader of the Kurdish Future Movement), the PYD has been accused of tacitly cooperating with the Syrian regime and acting as its shabiha (thugs) against Kurdish protesters. In addition, the Kurdish National Council has accused the PYD of attacking Kurdish demonstrators, kidnapping members of other Kurdish opposition parties, and setting up armed checkpoints along the border with Turkey (carnegie-mec.org).
The United States is caught in a dilemma. The Kurdish forces comprise the greatest and most useful ground force in the region that has the ability to effectively stave off ISIS and the al Qaeda franchise or other extremist militias that might arise in the area. However, many of the Kurdish organizations that have been backed by the U.S. have a questionable history with their own practice of using terrorism. These organizations offer a sizeable ground military force that Turkey and regional neighbors will have to contend with. Flush with considerable backing from the U.S., these vast militias gain even more power.
The conflict in Syria and Iraq have left the Kurds in a good position having been able to carve out autonomous zones as some semblance of a country for themselves. U.S. support they are receiving will make them an even more significant power in the region.
While the U.S. is assuming that the Kurds will be a stabilizing presence that will alleviate the U.S. from a military ground commitment and deter other countries such as Russia from filling the void. The results are likely to prove different. In the next few months, hostilities between the Kurds and the regional governments are likely to increase. The larger Kurdish groups will likely press their position to expand their control and engage with longtime adversaries such as Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
The empowering of the Kurds has already led to a serious shifting of a geopolitical sphere with longtime rivals Turkey and Iran now pursuing mutual security pacts in preparation for the Kurdish threat they anticipate will create a new institution for destabilization. This will also be damaging to the U.S. image in the world, especially the Middle-East where support of certain Kurdish groups is now being seen by many essential allies as sponsorship of terrorism.
Inevitably the U.S. will be placed in a complicated situation where support of one ally will place it at sharp odds with another. If the U.S. continues its support of the Kurds amidst the growing tensions in the region, it will be seen as a supporter of terrorism, losing much-needed allies such as Turkey, Iraq and whatever government eventually arises in Syria, who will decide that the regions’ security will lie with formation of alliances between neighboring states with mutual security concerns. In other words, likely allying themselves with Iran, and strengthening the Iranian position in the region.
The Russian government justified its September 2015 military intervention in Syria as a necessary measure to restore stability to the country and to deter Washington from using force to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia views its Syria campaign as an integral step toward achieving its broader goal of establishing itself as an indispensable guarantor of collective security in the Middle East (thediplomat.com/).
Starting as far back as 2003, the U.S made a series of radical changes in its military strategy. These changes included the Prompt Global Strike Doctrine (PGS); a doctrine that shifted emphasis from nuclear weapons to technological efforts such as unmanned airborne vehicles. This action was interpreted by Moscow as a serious threat to Russian security. Under this new policy, Russia sees the U.S. building the capabilities to launch a massive salvo of missiles from naval platforms that would be capable within an hour of hitting all of Russia’s military and strategic locations including all its missile bases. These platforms are being located in the North Sea, the Baltics, and the Mediterranean with the remaining platforms being launched from NATO bases located in Romania and Poland.
Russia’s strategic response to this has been its own military buildup and expanding its influence to a more global level. Currently, Russia is planning the creation of a naval force that by 2020 will project a serious military force in all the prime strategic locations throughout the globe. This has not only made the Middle-East a geographically significant location for Russia, but it is also a resource essential location. Russian estimates worldwide? oil consumption rising by 56% by 2040. This will position the Middle-East to be the world’s chief supplier.
At present Russia has signed a 49-year lease with the Syrian government for use of the Port of Tartus after it has been built. This port will allow Russia to maintain up to 11 sizeable naval vessels including nuclear submarines. Additionally, Russia has made an agreement with the Egyptian government for the use of the port of Alexandria to serve as a base for resupply and refueling. Negotiations are ongoing with Sudan to establish a Russian naval base in one of the ports along the Red Sea (Kedmi, 2018). Russia has not stopped simply with military pursuits. It has also tried to further its political position in the region while marginalizing U.S. influence through diplomatic channels.
On January 10 of this year, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow to discuss the resolution of the Syrian civil war, and President Donald Trump’s threats to suspend the Iran nuclear deal. After their meeting, Zarif praised Russia’s resolute support for the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and reiterated both countries’ shared willingness to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria (thediplomat.com/). They have also been an instrumental force in the rebuilding and organization of the new Syrian army.
As early as 2015, Russia became a primary force in the Syrian conflict. First, they forced the Assad military forces to reorganize from several militia forces operating independently to merging them into the greater Syrian army. From this army, they built Assault Corps units (AC). Through the use of Russian advisors, these new AC units were trained extensively in warfare in built-up areas and anti-guerrilla tactics. In addition, these units were fitted with high quality weapons. Some intelligence sources assert that these units were reinforced with Russian military elements to include mechanized infantry, marines, commando special forces elements and artillery units. These AC units were organized and brought under a joint Syrian/Russian command.
As the war progressed, the Russian military mission on the ground became more extensive. Eventually, this led to the creation of new assault corps units that were placed under the direct control of the Russian military. Russian advisors became responsible for more comprehensive training for the Syrian officers in their charge (Malovany & Burgin, 2018). Far from just military intervention, Russia has also capitalized economically by offering itself up as a viable alternative to countries who are currently dealing with economic pressure brought by the U.S.
After President Donald Trump pulled out of the international nuclear agreement with Tehran, Iran signed a provisional free trade zone agreement with the Russia-led economic union.
Iran, which sought to save the nuclear deal with European signatories including Russia, was due to finalize a free trade deal with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) by the end of 2017. The free trade zone agreement between the EEU and Iran lowers or abolishes customs duties starting a three-year process for a permanent trade agreement, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported on Thursday. The deal seeks to expand on the $2.7 billion trade turnover between Iran and the EEU, which includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (themoscowtimes.com/.
In April 2018, Russian Energy Minister, Alexander Novak, stated that Russia is considering an option to make oil payments in other national currencies, particularly with Turkey and Iran. According to Novak, both countries are interested, but there is also a matter of conversion of currencies and their further use. “There is a common understanding that we need to move toward the use of national currencies in our settlements. Thereby eliminating the dollar as the trading currency (financialtribune.com/).
It is too early to assess the relationship between Russia and Iran. Though there have been signs that a strong alliance is brewing and it could prove dangerous in the long run, there is also much to indicate this relationship will be short-lived or limited in scope.
Iranian policymakers frequently tout Tehran’s role as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, but collective security promotion is only a peripheral goal in Iran’s strategic vision. Iranian policymakers are primarily focused on expanding Tehran’s sphere of influence in the Middle East and containing Saudi Arabia’s projected power capacity across the Arab world. These expansionist objectives have caused Iran to cooperate more extensively with belligerent nonstate actors other than Russia and engage in military activities that undercut the effectiveness of Moscow-backed political settlement initiatives.
Iran’s unwillingness to suspend military operations in Syria until Assad has completely vanquished opposition forces also deviates from Russia’s more limited objective of ensuring that Assad controls enough territory to negotiate with Syrian opposition factions from a position of strength. Iran’s belief in the feasibility of a military solution in Syria has made it less willing than Russia to diplomatically engage with Syrian opposition or Kurdish factions during diplomatic negotiations, limiting the scope of the Moscow-Tehran partnership. Prospects for constructive cooperation between Russia and Iran on resolving other regional conflicts, like Yemen and Afghanistan, also appear dim. In Yemen, the already-strained relations between Russia and Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have deteriorated further since the assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on December 5. These tensions have prompted Moscow to establish stronger lines of communication with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on resolving the crisis.
A similar divergence in objectives restricts the potential for Russia-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan. Russia is seeking to implement an Afghan political settlement, which includes the Taliban, as swiftly as possible. While Iran wants a peace settlement in Afghanistan to be achieved in the long term, it is unwilling to suspend military action until anti-U.S. forces have gained a position of primacy in western Afghanistan. As Iran continues to provide military assistance to Taliban forces near its borders, Russian policymakers are concerned that Tehran will obstruct the Afghan peace process to advance its own objectives.
These divergent objectives threaten to unravel Russia-Iran cooperation in Syria, as the conflict transitions from the military to diplomatic phase. Even though Russian military officials have praised the effectiveness of Hezbollah troops during pro-Assad military operations, Iran’s use of Syrian territory to create a permanent transit point for weaponry to Hezbollah has alarmed Russian policymakers who seek to preserve strong relations with Israel (thediplomat.com/).
The direction Russia is taking in the Middle-East presumes two considerations. 1) That it is strengthening its military position in response to the perceived threat created by the U.S. military buildup close to its borders. 2) That it is looking to capitalize on its own economic stability by presenting itself as an alternative trading partner for countries that are hit with U.S. sanctions.
Russia’s actions in the Middle-East are only going to create complications for U.S. power in the region. As the U.S. imposes sanctions on nation-states like Iran, Russia emerges as a viable alternative economic partner. It has asserted itself in key locations such as Syria that will give it commanding influence in the region.
In the long term, if trends continue as they are, Russia will continue to present itself as a viable option to U.S. and Western European influences. While Russia and its allies can’t offer the degree of economic benefits the U.S. and Western Europe can, they do offer a viable alternative and definitely an alternative when it comes to military support. This will gradually erode the effectiveness of economic sanctions and other methods used against states deemed belligerent. It may also work to create a situation where the U.S. begins to alienate itself in the region and thereby see its influence diminish.
Malovany, Pesach, Col, & Burgin Nehemiah, Mother Russia holds the reigns, Israeli Defense Magazine, Issue No. 40, Winter 2018.
Kedmi, Yaakov, Moscow on the Euphrates, Israeli Defense Magazine, Issue No. 40, Winter 2018.
In the last few years Russia has been playing a serious role in the affairs of the greater region of the Middle-East. In doing so, it has assumed a powerful position as both a military and economic power, one that has provided a bulwark against U.S. and western influences in the region.
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Turkish-Iranian relations have a constant characteristic defined in the last century and generally, the nature of these relations are extremely predictable. Various determinants, such as an absence of border issues, full awareness of each other’s reflexes due to a shared centuries-old empire mentality, and close collaboration on bureaucratic security procedures until the Islamic Revolution, have inhibited any radical changes to occur in bilateral relations (iramcenter.org/).
Historically, Turkey and Iran have been mirror images of one another, rarely seeing eye-to-eye, but unable to part ways due to their geographic proximity. Both countries opposed the American invasion and occupation, which they feared could restrict their room to maneuver in their historical sphere of influence. Second, they were suspicious that America would support Kurdish nationalism in northern Iraq and were wary of the invasion’s broader impact on the Sunni-Shia balance in the region.
Yet despite its initial opposition to the invasion, Ankara stood closer to Washington in pursuit of Turkey’s regional goals, while Iran maintained close bonds with the Shia majority and pro-Iranian Shia militias were increasingly targeting U.S. troops in Iraq (americanprogress.org/).
Turkey and Iran continued to compete from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon and from the Gulf to Afghanistan. The Syrian conflict and Turkey and Iran’s divergent policy choices became a bone of contention for the two rival regional powers.
While Turkey framed the growing conflict as a humanitarian issue and an opportunity to enhance its regional clout, Iran saw the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a critical threat. This was because the Iranian establishment considered Syria to be a firewall that would block the disruptive impact of the Arab Spring from toppling regimes friendly to Iran or from reaching its own borders.
Turkey worked through proxies but refrained from directly embroiling itself militarily (americanprogress.org/). Turkish border cities became a chief logistical hub for foreign fighters seeking to enter Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and other rebel groups. By August 2015, Turkey did eventually tighten up security on its borders (english.alarabiya.net/).
Iran, by contrast, employed more direct proxies such as Hezbollah and later deployed its own paramilitary assets to prevent the fall of Damascus. Iran did not hesitate to use the sectarian card in the conflict, employing Shia militias in Syria and Iraq against what it called the forces of extremism, which included not only Al Qaeda and its offshoots—including the Islamic State—but also almost all Sunni rebel groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria.
While Iran aggressively pursued its goals—emphasizing the fight against what it regarded as Sunni extremism—the marginalization of Sunni interests drove Turkey and Saudi Arabia to set aside their ideological differences to stand together against Iranian expansionism. The interaction between the sectarianism stoked by both the Sunni and Shia elements involved in the Syrian civil war and escalating Iranian-Arab and Turkish-Kurdish confrontations is shaking the foundations of the regional order and undermining security and stability. (americanprogress.org/issues/). This tension has also extended into the Iraq conflict.
In Iraq, Turkey claims that it has a historical responsibility to protect the country's Sunni and Turkmen minorities from Iran-backed Shia militias who are in the region to fight ISIL.
Iran, on the other hand, alongside with Iraq's government, views Turkey's involvement in the conflict and military presence in the country as an incursion. Turkey 's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Iran of trying to split Iraq and Syria by resorting to Persian nationalism, while Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, criticized what he called Iran's sectarian policy aimed at undermining Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The fear was that Iran was trying to create two Shia states in Syria and Iraq As ISIL is steadily losing large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria, a significant power vacuum is forming along Turkey's southeastern border, causing Iran and Turkey to clash over who is going to replace the dominant force in the area. The tensions between the two powers were escalating greatly as late as early 2017 (aljazeera.com/). Then in late 2017 circumstances changed the dynamic.
The lack of Arab presence and its inability to formulate new parameters for national and regional security have allowed Turkey and Iran to balance their regional roles within the Arab world.
Turkey and Iran have given the military dimension an important role in shaping their regional role. Turkey used pre-emptive military intervention in its movements in the Arab region after adopting a defensive military approach based on protecting the borders. Turkey is also using its economic growth by branding itself as a country with Islamic economy to serve the Arab and Muslim countries.
The Syrian crisis showed the overlap of issues in the region and that no issue can be resolved without resolving the other and that the regional players should be involved with superpowers to bring solutions to these questions politically. Thus, the Syrian dilemma is looking more and more difficult to solve and radical Islamists have become the common enemy of all (english.alarabiya.net/).
The two countries’ joint stance on the illegitimate referendum in Kurdistan, their joint action with Russia through the Astana Process to minimize the conflicts in Syria; furthermore, their common position on nullifying the conspiracy against the Qatar administration illustrate that the tensions experienced for the past five years between Iran and Turkey have ended and the two countries have begun to increase their alliance (iramcenter.org/).
For the first time in history, military visits were made between Iran and Turkey at the level of Chief of General Staff. This allowed Turkey to organize a military operation on a larger and more strategic area within Syria with relatively low risk, and by mid-October, Turkish troops were situated in various regions of Idlib (iramcenter.org/).
In recent years, relations between the two countries have been developing in all fields of mutual interest and is continuing along this path to serve both nations' interests. President Hassan Rouhani said that the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey enjoy ample historical and cultural commonalities and further deepening of bilateral, regional and international relations between the two countries would be beneficial for peace and stability in the region and the world (iran-daily.com/).
It is not just the military and economic considerations that are driving the sudden change in attitudes between the two countries. Their roles in the Syrian/Iraq conflict and other past political stances have left both sides in compromising positions.
Iran is surrounded by Sunni-majority countries and can only hope to realize its domestic and regional goals in cooperation—or at least coexistence—with the rest of the neighborhood. Gulf monarchies are apprehensive about Iranian encroachment in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and beyond. In response, they are relying on a military buildup and the power of religious orthodoxy to help deter and roll back Iranian intrusion into what they regard as a rightfully Sunni Arab sphere of influence. For Turkey, its official discourse against sectarianism does not change the fact that it is now seen as a pro-Sunni power and, in general, has alienated Shia actors in the region.
This does not bode well for Turkey’s broader aims of regional integration nor its internal dynamics given its large Alawite and Kurdish populations, who feel threatened by the Islamic State and remain suspicious of the growing Turkish affinity with Sunni causes (americanprogress.org/).
Ultimately the real driving force behind this is the threat of Kurdish nationalism and the rise of autonomous Kurdish states in the region. In Turkey, the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) has resumed its terror campaign against the Turkish state. Iran will be watching these developments closely, nervous about its own Kurdish minority and well aware that the PKK seeks to overturn the existing state order in both Turkey and Iran.
Indeed, the PKK and its offshoots’ continued threat to Iran’s national unity was again demonstrated by the recent clashes in northwestern Iran. Kurdish separatism is a real possibility in both Syria and Iraq and is a more distant if just as divisive threat in Turkey and Iran. The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq enjoys strong U.S. support and continues to flirt with the idea of independence. Syrian Kurdish fighters are building de facto autonomy on the ground and enjoy military support from both the United States and Russia, though this is likely to dry up once the Islamic State is defeated (americanprogress.org/).
The decision by both nations to change so abruptly from the last five years of hostility and competition towards working together is rooted in several mutual concerns and interests. That said it is unlikely this alliance is going to be a short-lived relationship. The possible rise of autonomous Kurdish regions especially in a centralized location like Northern Syria and Iraq offers a serious security concern that is igniting another round of destabilizing hostilities in the region. Inevitably this fact alone is likely going to bring Iran and Turkey more closely together as their security interests further align.
It is unlikely that Turkey will simply sever ties with the U.S. over the Kurdish issue. Turkey will continue to try and walk a line maintaining relations with the U.S. as a powerful ally while cultivating stronger ties with Iran, with whom they share grave security concerns.
It is too early to predict what this new relationship means in the interim. This could serve to strengthen Iran’s position; who in the aftermath of the ISIS conflict is left with significant control within both the Syrian and Iraqi governments and will now have means to marginalize the threat of one of their biggest rivals in the region. This could also be an avenue for resolution with the west whereby Iran’s economic interest will force it to pursue a more negotiable position with its previous enemies.
Turkey and Iran have been in constant competition with each other for the last five years, and their relationship has been extremely hostile. In the last few months, however, they have been making serious moves towards building a strong and friendlier alliance. Why?
Check back May 1 for the full report.