In its annual report on defence, published on27 April, the US House of Representatives’ Armed Forces Commission recommended a Bill authorising the government to support the Iraqi forces in their struggle against ISIS with a budget of 715 million dollars. However, the first draft of this Bill provided that 25% of this aid should be allocated directly to the Peshmergas and the Sunni Arab tribal militia as well as the future Sunni Arab National Guard unit. Since US law forbids the delivery of arms to non-State forces, this Bill proposes “that the Kurdish Peshmergas, the Sunni Arab security forces, which have a mission of national security and the Sunni Arab National Guard be considered as countries”, so as to allow these national security forces to receive direct aid from the United States.
This Bill could hardly go any further in directly opposing the Obama Administration’s political line, which from the start of the struggle against ISIS and the fall of Mosul has constantly reiterated its commitment to a “unified Iraq”, whose Prime Minister, Abadi, is the sole representative recognised by Washington. The realities in the military field and the sorry performances of the Iraqi Army in the battle field have, it’s true, led the White House to count on the Kurds and support them in this war — though still going through Baghdad. Similarly Barrack Obama and John Kerry had approved the formation of Sunni militia, more likely to lead to the return of the provinces still occupied by ISIS back into the Iraqi Administration. However, anything that could officially confirm the existing partition of Iraq is systematically blocked.
In theory the arms and equipment sent by the Coalition to Baghdad are supposed to be distributed by the Iraqi government to all the forces fighting ISIS. However the Kurds have not ceased to complain that the highly inequitable sharing of these arms deliveries that mainly benefit the Iraqi Army (and even the Shiite militia, who are also armed by Iran), while the Peshmergas, whose military successes against ISIS are, nevertheless, much more striking, are said to have received very little heavy weaponry.
Finally, after 18 hours debate in the Commission, the Bill was sent on to the House to be examined in May, but amputated of the clause demanding recognition of the Peshmergas, on the one hand and the Sunni tribal militia on the other — as forces of their respective “countries”. However, direct military assistance to both is envisaged.
In his proposals, the leader of the Commission, Mac Thornberry, supported and reinforced the Mission against ISIS and Inherent resolve. He recalled the authorisation given to the Bureau of Cooperation for Iraqi Security and acceded to the US President’s request for an aid of 715 million dollars to the Iraqi forces for their help in the struggle against ISIS. He also stated that 25% of these funds be given directly to the Peshmergas and the Sunni forces, except if the Iraqi government fails to re-integrate the minorities and set up a real policy of reconciliation at national level — in which case the financial aid to the Kurds and Sunnis would rise to 60%.
The Bill, in its original form immediately met with opposition from Obama’s government and the State Department lost no time in making this known. Its spokesperson, Marie Harf, declared: “this administration’s policy is clear and consists of supporting a unified Iraq. We have always said that a unified Iraq is stronger and that this is also important for the region’s stability. (…) Our military aid and our equipment deliveries as well as our policy remain the same , namely that all the transfers of arms must be coordinated via the Iraqi central government. We think that this policy is the most effective way of supporting the Coalition’s efforts”.
Marie Harf added that the White House was going to “work” with Congress to bring this Bill more in conformity with its Iraqi policy.
As might be foreseen, the Iraqi government’s was even more radically opposed to to this legal “recognition” of the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds as “countries” and made this known. On 30 April, the Prime Minister, Hayder Al-Abadi, affirmed this in an official communiqué, stating that “Iraq and all its components are opposed to ISIS. Iraq has proved that all its components continue to fight to liberate the territories from ISIS and for the restoring normal life”. Rejecting the Bill, al-Abadi stated that he it would lead to more division in the region.
There was the same opposition from Muqtada Al-Sadr, who leads a Shiite politico-military movement, which combines religious discourse and bellicose actions. Thus he warned the US that Iraq would no longer be “safe” for the Americans if this Bill were passed, and that US interests in the country and abroad would become a target for Iraqis who “would never accept the division of their country”. He also threatened to reactivate the military wing of his movement, the Mahdi’s Army.
The stand by the Obama government is clearly far from being shared by the American political caste as a whole. The Republicans, in any case, are increasingly calling for the US support to go mainly to the Kurds, who are considered more reliable allies and more capable of effective fighting against ISIS. Kurdish independence is even, sometimes, openly envisaged by the US opposition — perhaps saying out loud what the present government possibly also sees as inevitable. However it probably prefers to leave this hot potato to the next President to deal with, whoever it may be.
Questioned by the Russian RT Chain, Ivan Eland, a specialist in defence issues and, in particular, author of Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq (2009), considered that direct aid to the Kurds and the Sunni Arab militia, would certainly accelerate the partition of Iraq, but that this partition already existed in the field and that, in his view, it was impossible to reunify this State. In his view, the Republican are worried by what they consider the central government’s over-dependence of Iran that, for example, has a cardinal role in training the Shiite militia, who are accused, moreover, of war crimes against the Sunni population. This Bill also aims at putting pressure on Baghdad to distance itself from these militia.
“The United States do not like Iran’s influence in Iraq and this Bill says, in consequence that they will finance the Peshmergas and other militia, that are Sunni, but it also tells the Iraqi government that if it isn’t associated with the Shiite militia it will receive more than the Peshmergas and the Sunni militia. Thus they (the Republicans) are not totally distancing themselves from Iraq but are exerting strong pressure on it to dissociate itself from the Shiite militia — which the Iraqi government will probably not do”.
Indeed, the reality in the field in Iraq excludes any hope that the Iraqi Army could beat SIS without the support of the militia — indeed Tikrit could never have been retaken without them:.
“I think that the Iraqi forces are an empty shell: they break ranks and flee whenever ISIS attacks them (…) so if this Bill is passed, the US Congress will ask the Iraqi government to separate itself from the only reliable military force it possesses”.
While the general elections are du to take place on 7June 2015, the election campaign started in early April. Indeed, Kurdish HDP party submitted the final list of its candidates to the Supreme Electoral Council of Turkey on 7 April. The head of this list of candidates, the HDP co-President, Selahattin Demirtaş, adopted a fairly conciliatory attitude to the other political parties in Turkey at his first public meeting. This took place on 11 April, at the Civil Engineers Hall in Ankara, where he assured his audience that: “no other party is our enemy, but all are our political adversaries. We are waging this election campaign with total humanity and friendly relations”.
Since its formation the HDP has been aiming to cover other sections of Turkish society as well as the Kurds, particularly the votes of the Left. Selahattin Demirtaş has repeated (as he did during the last municipal elections) that HDP was not a party with “a single identity”: “We are the representatives of all the identities in this country”.
However, this “friendly” and “humanitarian” attitude finally gave way, in the course of the month to a more offensive strategy and discourse towards the principal party in the ring, the AKP, which is also the party that is the HDP’s biggest rival for Kurdish votes. Moreover, unknown gunmen targeted one of HDP’s offices on 18 April.
In another meeting held ten days later in Istanbul, the HDP co-President, Mrs Figen Yuksekdag, attacked the Turkish President by name, promising that her party, if its votes pasted the 10% threshold at national level, would become Erdogan’s “nightmare” and “the dream of all the peoples of Turkey”.
These remarks were a direct answer to a declaration by the President foreseeing a “nightmare” for Turkey if the elections resulted in a coalition government. Because, should HDP pass the 10% threshold (which no pro-Kurdish party has ever succeeded in doing in Turkey) it could win 60 of the 550 seats, which would make it harder for the AKP to have the 2/3 majority needed to approve the reform of the Constitution that it envisages, namely to give greater powers to the President. Inversely, a defeat of the HDP would give the AKP about an extra 30 seats.
Opinion polls in April indicated that HDP was indeed close to passing the 10% threshold (between 8 and 11% of the votes) and that the AKP remained the favourite party of the Turkish electorate, with about 42-48% of the voting intentions. Thus the CHP, the main opposition party, seems clearly out distanced by the AKP, and HDP hopes, as during the 2014 Presidential elections to appear as the most credible opponent to Erdogan’s political ambitions. These are ridiculed by his detractors, who say he thinks he is the “new Sultan” — alluding to the “old regime” and conservative themes of his campaign.
A setback for the HDP would, however, harm the peace process, initiated by the AKP, especially as it could strengthen the other Turkish, including the more nationalist ones. All the more so since the road map of this process has never been drawn up by discussion with the HDP (or even the PKK) seems just the fruit of personal negotiations between Ocalan and the Turkish government. Thus its success, presented a s Erdogan’s personal success, left the HDP on the sidelines, where it was limited to being informed of and reading in public Ocalan’s messages. To such an extent that the Kurdish party barely tackles this issue amongst tits campaign themes, concentrating more on the defence of women, young people and ecology. Moreover its determination to win the votes of the Left, disappointed by the CHP (as are the Alevis) certainly urges its candidates not to appear too pro-Kurdish (which, for the majority of Turks means pro-PKK).
Furthermore the rest of the opposition uses this process to claim that the HDP is not seriously opposed to Erdogan’s ambitions and to accuse it of “a secret agreement whereby it would support the regime being presidentialised, as Mr. Erdogan wants, in exchange for peace and reforms favourable to the country’s Kurdish minority” (AFP) — which its leaders deny.
Still on the Kurdish question, the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, aroused some public amusement, widely expressed in the social networks and the press, regarding the omission, in his 350-page political programme of any allusion to the peace process. The very word “Kurdish” is only mentioned once.
Questioned about this absence, during the presentation of his programme, Ahmet Davutoğlu was unable to find any better reply than to say that it was “a mistake” at the printers.
“We only notices that some pages fell down when the programme was sent to the printer: one or two pages fell down. However, these pages will be added when the programme is reprinted”.
More seriously, the attempt to evade the peace process from the AKP election programme could indicate that the party did not wish to upset those middle and lower class voters who vote AKP. These are just the social strata whose sons were sent to the Kurdish front during the conflict and so are the most plunged into mourning by that war. It is also a means of stifling the internal divisions that had begun to shake ther AKP in March 2015 about the negotiations with the PKK and, finally to confirm Erdogan’s toughening on the issue and his U-turns on a Kurdish question that he claims does not exist.
ISIS’s setbacks in the face of the Kurds of Iraq and Syria, may have pushed the organisation, for the time being, to turn its forces to the Syrian West and Centre, this time aiming at both the regime’s army and various Jihadist groups, including Jabbhat an Nusra
The Syrian Army base at Palmyra and the Qusayr stronghold, defended by Hezbollah thus appeared the targets most likely to suffer from an impending attack by ISIS militia. Nevertheless ISIS cannot completely strip its troops from the eastern front. Particularly at Hassaké where it is fighting against the YPG, units of the FSA and the Syrian regime. Communications between Raqqa and Mosul remain an essential condition for its survival. For this reason ISIS can reply on the contribution of foreign recruits to the Middle East, but also on rallying Jihadists belonging to al-Qaida movements or other groups. This may explain its recent attacks on the Syrian Army.
On its North-West front, in the border zone its holds between Kobani and Aleppo, ISIS is confronted by the Volcanoes of the Euphrates, an operating theatre in which the YPG and units of the FSA are co-operating supported by Coalition air raids. Having had to retreat from the YPG advance and cross to the Western bank of the Euphrates in the middle of March, ISIS destroyed two bridges in passing, the one at Shuyukh Fawqani the one at Qarah Qawaz, to stop or hinder the Kurdish advance should they try to push their success further and link up the cantons of Kobani and Afrine. However, outside the areas with a Kurdish majority population, the YPG is not seeking to establish itself. No doubt they distrust a risky incursion that could take them too far from their basis into an area whose mainly Arab population would not necessarily be favourable to them. Thus, for the moment the Euphrates acts as a natural barrier between the two armies.
Contrary to this, at Serê Kaniyê (Ras al ‘Ayn) ISIS has carried out several offensives that enabled it, early in the Spring, to capture several villages to the West and South of the town. Here attacks against the joint forces of Kurdish and Assyrian Christian battalions are recurrent, in addition to suicide attacks at Hassaké. However, for the moment neither of the parties has any advantage in the field. The Kurds are unable to capture land so as to clear the Turkish border zone and make a junction with Kobani but ISISm apart from taking some villages and kidnapping some Christian hostages has not made any territorial gains either.
East of Deir-ez-Zour, on the other hand, ISIS finds itself on the defensive in the face of surprise attacks on its patrols and checkpoints. The attacks are not claimed by any group, but it is suspected that Jihadist groups that rival ISIS and are more or less associated to al-Qaida, like Jabbhat an-Nusra orother FSA militia are the source of this tactic internal harassment, with the help of secret cells in the areas captured by ISIS.
As a reprisal, ISIS has indulged in mass arrests at Deir ez-Zour. Moreover, its positions at Deir ez-Zour have been surrounded by a system of trenches, in fear of attacks from Arab tribes of the region that dislike ISIS’s taking over their zone of influence.
However, ISIS seems to envisage its efforts more against the Syrian regime, to the East of Homs and Hama. This began in March with lightning attacks on Army checkpoints and oil installations. On 27 March an air defence battalion was targeted and on the 31 a village East of Hama held by the regime. These were attacks that could have been made to test the area prior to expansion towards the centre and West of Syria.
At the same time, ISIS engaged in a series of executions of public decapitations of alleged “collaborators” with the regime as well as massacres against Alawite civilians: — so many signals sent to the Syrians in Homs and Hama, whatever their political or religious membership, warning them to prepare to become future provinces of the “Caliphate”.
Nevertheless, apart from these actions, that are more a matter of psychological harassing of the population and terror propaganda, ISIS has had to withdraw on several occasions in the face of air raids by the Syrian air force. As for the threats that it made on the Army base at Palmyra, this could been essentially the result of the deployment by the regime of more substantial forces round the main roads between Aleppo and Deir-ez-Zour, essential for its supplies as well as round the natural gas infrastructures that supply the major part of Syria’s needs for fuel and power.
In Damascus, ISIS’s activity is that of clandestine groups mainly aimed at strongholds of the FSA like Qalamoun. Their purpose was to safeguard its communications between its units east Of Homs and those along the Lebanese border. The actions of these groups are above all kidnappings on a big scale as well as assassinating rival Jihadist or else man accused of collaborating with the regime.
North of Aleppo, ISIS came up against both the forces of both the FSA and those of the Kurds, whose North-West regions it tried to infiltrate by incursions and surprise attacks on their checkpoints. Several fortifications and trenches were set up as a protection against Coalition air strikes.
However, the political and psychological impact ISIS hoped to secure in its favour by its new attacks against the Syrian regime was lessened following the capture of the town of Idlib, on 25 March, followed by that of the neighbouring town of Jisr al-Shughour on 15 April, by a coalition of several Jihadist groups “Jaysh al-Fatah”. This brought together Jabbhat an Nusra, Ahrar as Sham, Jund al Aqsa, Liwa al-Haq, Ajnaad al-Sunna, Faylaq al-Sham and Jaysh al-Sunna. Already completely surrounded since December 2014 by Jihadists, the inhabitants of Idlib (100,000 to 200,000) were asked to stay in doors just before the attack and the Sunni soldiers called on to join the attackers.
On 24 March, tow suicide attacks marked the start of operations causing about twety casualties among the regime’s troops. In the course of the day, the Jihadists already controlled seven checkpoints. On the 25 another two suicide attacks were launched and on the 26 seventeen checkpoints were taken by Jaysh Al Fatah, that succeeded in entering the town during the night of 26/27 March
Despite air raids by the Syrian Air Force, Idlib was almost entirely in the Jihadists’ hands by 28 March and during the night of 28/29 March the central prison and Governors offices fell. The regime’s men retreated Southward to the little towns of Jisr al Shughour and Ariha, remaining in possession of the Army airport of Abou Douhour and five army bases.
After Raqqa, now capital if ISIS in Syria, Idlib is the second Provincial capital that the regime has lost. It carried out 684 air raids on the town between 28 March and 18 April, according to the Syrian Centre for Human Rights, that also says that 335 barrels of high explosives had been dropped on the town by helicopters causing 125 deaths and 700 wounded amongst the civilians,
Jaysh al Fatah then continued its advance towards the South tin the direction of Jisr al Shughour and against the neighbouring base of al-Mastomah. The Chechen group Jund al Sham has joined this coalition. Jisr al Shughour, near the Turkish border, was taken on 23 April. Jabbhat an Nusra started the attack with 15 kamikaze attacks on the morning of 24 April, taking four control posts, including that of Tell Hekmah, which blocked access to the neighbouring town of Ariha, the last locality in the province still in the regime’s hands.
The Syrian air force carried out 70 air strikes on Jisr al Shughour preventing the FSA from controlling it completely by 25 April. Jaysh al Fatah then advanced further South, reaching the North-West of Hama Province. According to the Centre for Human Rights in Syria, 200 prisoners — soldiers, militiamen and members of their families — are at present detained by the Jihadists.
The fall of Idlib and Jisr al Shughour is one of the hardest blows for the Syrian regime. However, it is also a slap in the face for ISIS, which has never won victories of this extent against Damascus, since Raqqa, its capital was captured from Jabbhat an Nusra, not from loyalist forces. Thus the fall of Idlib may reverse the tendency of Jihadist to rally to ISIS
And, while one can expect a resurgence of hardening of Baath offensives against the FSA (Lattaqia is threatened) it is also probable that ISIS try to do some overbidding by attacks on both the Damascus government and its al-Qaida rivals.
On 17 April shortly before midday local time, a car bomb attack caused four deaths (including a policeman) and 29 injured at Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil. It took place in front of a café located near the American consulate. Seven of the victims are Kurds from Turkey. It is not yet known whether the initial target was the US consulate and that, faced with the impossibility of getting past the security arrangements the terrorists finally chose to blow it up in the nearby café. The US State Department announced that no American was injured by the explosion.
One of the experts who examined the explosive used told Reuters that it was C-14, a plastic explosive. The attack was claimed, as well as two other car bomb attacks in Baghdad on the same day, that killed at least 27 people.
Ten days later the Kurdish authorities arrested five men, suspected of being the perpetrators of this attack. Four of them are Kurds living in Erbil and the fifth is an Iraqi Arab. The Kurdish Region’s Security Council confirmed these arrests shortly after in a communiqué:
“These arrests took place on the basis of information from the public and, in some cases, from family members (…) All the members of the group have confessed their role in the attack”.
The confessions recorded on video were seen by Reuters who was able to reveal that the leader of the group was a graduate engineer called Darya Homdamin. He is dais to have recruited the three Kurds who he had known as they all attended the same local mosque. Reuters indicated that the four men expressed themselves in an easy manner and showed no signs of having suffered violence.
Darya Homdamim pointed out he had been in contact via Facebook with a Kurdish cleric originally from Erbil called Mala Shwan, who had joined ISIS and who has appeared in some of the propaganda videos broadcast by the Jihadists. He had urged the young Kurd to go into action in Erbil itself and had put him in touch with an Arab living in Kirkuk but originally from Baqouba, who is said to have supplied the car bomb and who is said to have explained how to make it explode. The four Kurds “themselves went from Erbil to Kirkuk taking a route that enabled them to avoid many checkpoints. They had intended to park the car in front of the US consulate but seeing that theit was not possible to get round the security arrangements, left the car in front of the café, on the other side of the street”.
The Kurdish authorities were able to establish that they then went to a sports centre not far from the café and had detonated the bomb from there.
As for the man consider to be the brains behind the operation, he has since been killed in an air strike in the town of Hawija, Alaw Paer Ahmad Al-Azawi, known as Abu-l-Qasim was a senior officer of ISIS. He was also identified as being behind the November 2014, also in Erbil, as well as other terrorist attacks in Kirkuk. On 28 April he was killed by an air strike after cooperation and sharing of information between the Kurdish anti-terrorist forces and the Coalition.
The Istanbul Film festival, that took place from 4 to 19 April, cancelled the prize giving, on 13 April when some Turkish film directors, including Nuri Bilge Ceylan, winner of the Cannes Festival’s Palme d’or for his “Kış Uykusu” (Winter Sleep), announced their intention of boycotting the ceremony because a Kurdish film “Bakur” (The North) had been excluded from the programme.
This documentary, the work of Cayan Demirel and Ertugrul Mavioglu is dedicated to the PKK fighters. It was due to be shown on 12 April, but the Festival organisers were warned at the last minute by a mail from the Turkish Ministry of Culture that this film could not be shown as it hadn’t received “the necessary authorisations”.
The other film directors then issued and signed an “open letter” to protest against this censorship, talking about a “political agenda”. Twenty-three of them withdraw their films from the competition.
The Festival management published the filmmakers’ manifesto on its own site. The chairman of the jury, Rolf de Heer, attacked an “attack on freedom of expression”.
In a press conference, the organisers then announced the cancellation of all prizes as well as the closing ceremony, but maintained the screening of those films that had not been withdrawn by their makers.
Omer Çelik, the Minister of Culture, spoke of a baseless accusation and described the Festival organisers as “irresponsible”.
“The allegations that our institution is an organisation of censorship are at the least complete and absolute lies”. (AFP).