Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Deconstructing the Syrian Struggle

Trying to deconstruct and understand the Syrian conflict is a challenging task. Three months ago I was in Domiz refugee camp, in the northern Iraqi-Kurdistan province of Duhok. Mostly, Syrian Kurds, now the number on the camp is on the 62,000. By January 15th the number had gone to 72,480 and by February 20th, to 96,270. You can check the UNHCR-Iraq. At that time, I read several news articles, reports and had discussions with colleagues trying to understand the complexity of the conflict, its geo-politics and the mosaic of stakeholders. Now, as I go on my daily work in Iraq, I’m also trying to follow the Syrian crisis, especially, as the number of people crossing surge, and I can notice in restaurants and coffee places the increased number of Syrian workers here in Kurdistan.

Source Syria Deeply, February 22nd, 2013.

The outcome of the Syrian conflict, as complicated and polarized as it is, will re-define the balance of power in the Middle East. At its best it will bring a free, pluralistic and democratic Syria; at its worst it could spill into violence for its neighbors; Iraq, Lebanon and even Iran.

Glen Robinson’s explains a bit of Syria’s history in his article Syria’s Long Civil War. Syrian borders were mainly based on the interest of colonial powers; therefore there is no real Syrian national identity. Allegiance is mostly based on ethnic or religious grounds.

Historically, Alawites were amongst the poorest Syrians and considered a heretical sect. French colonialism helped Alawites to go up. They were active military men and dominated Syrian politics in the beginning of the 1960’s.

The Players
The Syrian regime has a 25% of the population’s backing –Alawites and minorities. On one hand, the Alawite narrative- kill or be killed; Christians on the other hand fear a relegation to second class status under an islamist regime and Kurds firmly believe that hardline islamists will not be supportive of Kurdish rights.

The players on the armed conflict: Pro-Assad Syrian Army, Anti-Assad Free Syrian Army, with Kurdish PYD playing a prominent front in the Kurdish areas. A wide variety of groups or coalitions trying to unite opposition to get international recognition and international support in forming a transitional government once the regime is ousted. Various political groups, exile dissidents, academics and local coordination committees, inside and outside opposition figures form these coalitions.

The Sectarian Divide
The relevance of sectarian sentiment and class divisions has become increasingly apparent as the uprising intensified.
  •  Sunni Arab-the revolution started in rural Sunni dominated areas.
  • Kurdish-had been kept away in the beginning because of the regime’s strategy to appease the Kurds by granting them citizenship) but have recently seen an increase in the fighting.
  • Alawite-in the areas of Latakia and Tartous strongly support the government
  • Druze-in Sweida governorate also support the regime.
  • Christians-among the major cities mostly support the regime, fearing an Islamist take over or a civil war Iraq-style.
The Christians are caught in the crossfire; some of them supporting the regime, because it provides a safe, secular option; some supporting the revolution, and the end of the dictatorship.

I met Father Paolo, a Jesuit priest who lived in Syria for 30 years; he is an ardent advocate for social justice and the protection of the Syrian people. He was exiled by the regime for his support of the revolution. He says the problem is that “There is Alawites and Christians in the revolution, together with Kurdish and Druze and all kinds of Sunnites. The Sunnite is not one kind. There are Sufi people, Muslim Brothers, moderate people, liberals, Sunni Muslims, Salafite, extreme Salafism and Qaeda people. All this is too much to be called just Sunnis”.

There are two sides of the same coin: the revolution all over the country on one side and on the other side, the civil war in the west, where the Sunni villages and quarters in Homs, for example are contrasted by the villages or part of the town that are mainly Alawites, with other minorities. There is revolution all over the country, repressed by Assad’s regime violence, and the civil war, ongoing in the west. The risk is also a possibility of civil war for the Kurdish area; so we are talking about big risks.

Source: Syria Deeply
The Syrian Opposition
National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution
According to Syria Deeply, the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution, or National Coalition, includes representatives from local opposition groups in Syria, the Kurdish National Council, and individuals who have a long history opposing the regime. The Syrian National Council, which was dismissed as ineffective by the Obama administration, was able to win roughly one-third of the coalition’s seats.

Moaz Al-Khatib, a moderate Sunni preacher from Damascus was elected president of the coalition and two longtime dissidents Riad Seif and Souheir Atassi were named vice presidents. The coalition quickly won recognition as the sole representative of the Syrian people from France, the U.K., Spain, Italy, Turkey and Gulf Arab countries, which allowed the nascent group to place ambassadors there, a move that diminishes the Assad regime’s status as a sovereign entity.

As the most prominent political opposition calling for the end of the Assad regime, the Syrian National Council is brings together the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, U.S. and European-based academics, and dissidents from Christian, Kurdish, and other minority backgrounds. The SNC has been the voice for the Syrian revolution in foreign capitals and at the U.N., though at times, internal spats and high-level resignations have tarnished its appeal. The SNC claims to have members working inside Syria, but its impact has been minimal and the group was never able to rally support and garner legitimacy on the ground.

The NCB has called for the end of the Assad regime but rejects Western intervention, putting it at odds with the SNC and others who seek help in establishing no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors. The NCB wants a transition toward a democratic Syria, under the principles of ‘no violence, no sectarianism, no intervention.’

The Kurdish Role in the Syrian Revolution
Kurdish view opposition as Arab nationalists and islamists. One of the Kurdish most influential parties (PYD) has been reluctant to confront the regime, prompting charges of supporting the regime. It is now fighting with FSA for control of Kurdish areas like Ras Al Ayn.

In July 2012, when the regime withdrew from Kurdish areas, PYD ousted the government officials from public buildings and established itself as in charge of Kurdish towns. PYD’s main Kurdish rival is the Kurdish National Council (KNC) sponsored by Barzani (Iraqi-Kurdistan President). The PYD and KNC’s respective regional patrons; PKK and Barzani’s KDP represent two predominant models of Kurdish nationalism and two competing paradigms for dealing with Turkey, which holds a big part of the “Kurdish homeland”. The Kurds are pulled between two forces: Barzani aims to consolidate a broad, Kurdish dominated area straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, in his own interest to protect his growing economic relations with Turkey. Turkey fears implications of such an outcome in its own Kurdish population and in particular its impact on the PKK’s overall posture.

Many Kurds fear how the largely Sunni-Arab opposition will deal with them. The truth is that the Kurds don’t have but patches of territory along the north of Syria, making it difficult to claim an “autonomous Iraq-like region”.  The opinion remains divided, supporters of the revolution underscore the need to support a unified Syria; others say that borders where always artificial.

Kurds fate is resting with Syria and they must negotiate with them their role in the coming order and ensure respect for their basic rights. Father Paolo tells me: “To protect their political capacity of participation they need not to attack the Muslim dimension of the Syrian revolution.” 

The UN, not assuming its international responsibility is watching as the escalation of the conflict and the civil war continues, while the US has also turned a blind eye, because it was concentrated on elections and because it says it does not want to arm rebels that could take it up against the US later. Syrian revolution has become inseparably tied up with regional power politics. Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the USA, France, Iran, and Russia are all intimately involved in a struggle over Syria’s future, not to mention Lebanese political factions, Kurdish militias such as the PKK, PUK and KDP, and Islamist groups like the international Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, and many others.

Father Paolo says the problem is that “the current fight is to take or to keep Syria. The West wants to take Syria, and Russia wants to keep Syria. The Arab Sunnis, they want to take Syria, and Iran wants to keep Syria, this is a bad fight”.

As I talked with Father Paolo, I can only admire his spirit, his commitment for non-violence and dialogue and to end the conflict. He says: “As Christians we don’t want civil war between Shia’a and Sunni. He adds. "I have offered my life for the future of this country, and I wish to stay in full solidarity with them; so I will come back." He is traveling everywhere to bring the attention to the Syrian conflict. Now in Iraq, he seeks to engage Kurds into the view of a unified, federal Syria. "The revolution in Syria should bring a pluralistic, democratic and federal Syria”. He told me that federalism is the healing of division, dividing Syria is not the solution.
Other Sources:

Friday, February 22, 2013

Socio-economic, Cultural and Environmental Impacts of Ilisu in Mesopotamia

In the past, Southern Iraqi marsh desiccation was an environmental disaster that severely impacted a variety of species. Water buffalo, for which the marshes have provided a long-time favorable habitat, were affected by the desiccating process, with additional negative ramifications on economic livelihoods. Drying reduced the number of water buffalo in the marshes, mainly due to their dependence on available water and reeds. Additionally, the buffalo’s economic importance forced most breeders to leave the marshes and seek other wetland habitats far from the desiccated areas. However, in 2003 many breeders returned to the marshes after the re-flooding.

Iraq faces enormous challenges in terms of water resources. Once the cradle of civilizations, an agricultural haven, now Iraq’s land has dried significantly mostly due to man-made causes. For the past 20 years upstream dams in the Euphrates have reduced Iraq’s water income, and now the most important water lifeline in the country, the Tigris River, will be further reduced having catastrophic effects on the lives of Iraqis who will see their livelihoods affected by increased drought and loss of lands due to lack of water.   I was preparing a presentation for the Save Tigris Workshop in Basra with the advise of Dr. Jabbari, an Iraqi professor which has extensive experience in transboundary water issues in the Euphrates Tigris Basin. I received a call from Basra University, Marine Science Center inviting me to give a lecture about the Ilisu dam and its impact in Iraq to its faculty as part of a conference “Learning by Doing”.  It was a great opportunity to connect civil society and academia. The Marine Science Centre at Basra University is the major research center in Iraq and in the region.

Faculty at the Marin Science Center in Basra, Iraq
Basrah, Iraq’s southern most city, is unique in that it is where the Tigrisand Euphrates rivers meet, it is said to be the place where the garden of Eden once was; yet it faces unique water challenges. The city’s water system suffers from high salinity due to intrusion of seawater from the gulf into the Shat Al Arab. the confluence of Tigris-Euphrates caused by decreased flow from the river. The intrusion goes up to almost half of Shatt Al Arab, about 75-90 kilometers affecting most of the city of Basra, in particular Faw, where the population suffer from health issues related to the water contamination.

 Ilisu dam is the biggest dam being built by Turkey on the Tigris River, and one of 22 dams built as part of GAP mega-project in Turkey. When all dam projects are implemented, Turkey’s total storage capacity in the Euphrates will reach 94.78 BCM (three times the river’s average annual discharge at the Syrian/Iraqi border. On the Tigris the storage will reach 17.6 BCM (about the average annual flow at the Turkish/Iraqi border), this means total control over Iraqi water! 

During my presentation, I discussed with the faculty the negative effects on the socio-economical, cultural and environmental resources of a country which is healing from deep wounds cause by years of war and economic sanctions. Ilisu dam will cause further drought in a country that has been severely hit during 2007-2009. Other significant effects are water pollution, degradation of water quality, and loss of agricultural land. Iraq will loose up to 47% of its annual water income and about 40% of its agricultural lands and in turn decrease its agricultural output causing unemployment and subsequent displacement of Iraqi farmers. In Northern Iraq we have sees an example of this with the Alwand River (another Tigris tributary) drying due to upstream diversion and damming in Iran, having devastating consequences for farmers.
Water an integral part of the culture and lifestyle that the Marsh Arabs have sustained for thousands of years. Without water there is no livelihood.

Marsh Arabs livelihoods stems from fishing and buffalo herding. Water buffalos play a key role in Marsh Arab way of life and are an indicator of the quality of marsh life.
The faculty was very receptive but challenged me on different levels. They brought the issue of other dams being built inside Iraq. At the end of the session, they asked how they could provide support. One of the visiting academics commented that Turkey was developing its agricultural sector by building dams for irrigation. Turkey has the right to develop its agriculture, but not in violation of international law and at the expense of millions of Iraqis. Both governments have to reach an agreement for cooperation and equal shares of the Tigris River. We discussed the role of academia, how they have the technical expertise and the access to unique information that can inform policy change for the benefit of both Turkey and Iraq.

The water issue in Iraq has local, national and regional dimensions. The Iraqi government is taking little and slow steps to implement water management policies at the national level, and Maliki said last week that the water committee must take transboundary issues as a priority. At the regional level, on one hand Iraq is vulnerable as a downstream riparian state, on the other hand the Iraqi government has tools to bargain, Iraq being one of Turkey’s biggest trade partners. In 2008 Turkey was the 2nd most important import partner with 20.6% of total export trade, they could bring this to the bargaining table with Turkey. Through projects like GAP, and Ilisu dam, Turkey is strengthening its economic, political and securing its hegemonic position and will have full control over Iraqi water resources, placing Iraq in a vulnerable political position. It is not an easy task that can be solved with one lecture, but this meeting was the start of many more discussions on transboundary water issues that need to happen at a country wise scale. The university is a great place to have these discussions because is the center of knowledge where more open and scientific discussions can be held. Here is a link to the presentation:

Impacts of Ilisu Dam in Mesopotamia 

The muddhif is a reef structure where the tribe’s sheikhs gather to discuss issues of importance to the community. The tribal guesthouse serves as political, social, judicial, and religious centre of the Marsh Arab’s life.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Between politics, culture, nature and religion in Iraqi-Kurdistan

This week has evolved in a series of diverse events. If you want to know what a week in North Iraq’s Kurdistan Region looks like, here it goes: on a single week I have been to the court, the church, the mountains and to a music hall here in Suleimaniya. Sounds like busy fun, huh!  I was in the court to follow an honor killing case, to a reception for the new Chaldean Catholic Patriarch, to a concert featuring Kurdish String Ensemble, and to the mountains were Kurdish Peshmerga fought Saddam and families took refuge from constant bombings; while at the same time, tenth of thousands of Iraqis demonstrating on the streets against government sectarian divisions and unjust treatment of Sunni Muslim minorities in Iraq. ANd one cannot be in this region and not follow closely what is happening in Syria.....Stressed, who, me?

On Monday, I was in Suleimaniya’s court for the hearing of a case of a young woman murdered by her father on February 2012. Her name was Sakar and she was a 28 year-old teacher. The case of Sakar mobilized activists and women rights organizations who started a long advocacy campaign. Supported by more than 60 human rights organizations and activists in Kurdistan, this yearlong campaign has featured demonstrations, TV, radio and newspaper coverage together with meetings with the government to denounce violence against women and demand accountability from the government. Our efforts gained the attention of the Prime Minister and the eventual re-arrest of the father, after he was released last September.

The same week, I was invited to a reception for the new patriarch of the Catholic Chaldean church, Luis Sako, who was until then Kirkuk’s bishop. This celebration contrasts last week news of the pope’s resignation. Patriarch Sako gave a touching but pragmatic speech about tolerance and the need to work together for a pluralistic Iraq. He has a tough task in front of him of building the bridge  uniting Iraq.

Patriarch Sako, after his address followed by the wife of Iraq's president Khero Talabani. 

On Valentine’s Day, I attended a concert featuring the Kurdish String Ensemble and Tara Shaf, a famous Kurdish singer that with her beautiful voice together with the harp gifted the public with traditional Kurdish songs. It was nice to see that there were young and old enjoying classical music here in Suleimaniya.

It’s starting to look like spring, and on Friday we went for a hike in a nearby village, like 40 minutes from the city. We walked through amazing nature, also full of history: this place was once the shelter during Saddam’s attack of the Kurds during the 1980’s and the Iran-Iraq war. One of our colleagues showed us a small cave were he and his family used to hide for 7 months in a time of constant shelling. It was hard to believe that among all the beauty, there is also a story of war and suffering. As the saying goes the Kurds have “No friend but the mountains”.  
Beautiful views even before Spring starts
All that happened on the backdrop of tenths of thousands of Iraqis protesting on the western provinces of Iraq, against what they see as sectarian division and corruption. The demonstrations, which have been ongoing for nearly two months, have consistently urged for the ouster of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki while criticizing the alleged targeting of minority Sunnis by the Shiite-led authorities. The protest have been taking place on Friday’s after prayers on the cities of Anbar, Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul and Samarra, and the protestors have been threatening to take them into the capital Baghdad. SO far, the government has imposed movement restriction in major cities on Fridays. Civil society organizations in Baghdad went to visit the protesters last week and to show support for their demands, saying that the government should respect the right of protestors to demonstrate freely. Provincial elections are scheduled for April and as tensions are escalating, there is increased fear of protests turning violent. I don't want Iraq to turn into a Syria like war. Iraqis have seen enough blood, war and suffering for the last 30 years...

Thousands demonstrate in the western province of Iraq, could this be the beginning of a Syria like civil war?

Staying warm after a long hike