Monday, March 11, 2013

The Spreading Conflict: Challenges to Iraq

These personal notes represent the views of the NCF’s Secretary General. They should not be taken as an NCF position but have been compiled using the resources of the NCF team.

The spreading conflict: Challenges to Iraq

The Syrian conflict has always threatened to engulf the neighbouring countries. Its impact on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan has been considerable. Now Iraq is being affected. It begs the question: how stable is Iraq and can it withstand the turmoil across its border? But the thing is you can’t just look at Iraq to get a good overview of the situation. You need to examine the whole region. So we’ll start with the big boy:


The Turks are negotiating with the Kurdish PKK. Now why? You know how bad relationships have been between the Turkish government and the PKK[1] – or like me do you forget things? There have been so very many terrorist attacks in Turkey. And if you take the long view over a thirty year period then 40,000 have died in the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish militants (mostly during that huge operation to restore government control of South East Turkey in the late 80s and early 90s).

So I’ll answer my own question. Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has messed up on Syria. His Syrian policy has already prompted some Turks to express concern. But the Syria issue is not at the heart of the “what is the Turkish motive” question.

In the 2011 elections, Erdoğan’s AK party (which has links with the Muslim Brotherhood[2]) won power again but the problem is that Erdoğan, Turkey’s most successful politician since Ataturk, wants to retain power. Now Turkey has a powerful Premier and less powerful President. But it wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time the President was powerful[3]. Erdoğan’s plan is to restore the power of the Presidency and to take the post himself.

Erdoğan is not worried that AKP will lose popularity as a result of Syria – it might have an effect in the provinces adjacent to the Syrian frontier, but we doubt whether it would have a serious electoral impact elsewhere.  There is no serious alternative party around to challenge AKP. 

Erdoğan’s problem is a personal one:  the AKP has a couple of party rules which are unique to it – the other parties do not have them.  One states that an individual cannot be adopted by the party as a parliamentary candidate more than three consecutive times.  The other says you cannot run for party leader more than three consecutive times.  Erdoğan is thus now in his last parliamentary term and stint as party leader.  Rules of course can be changed, but he has made a big thing about AKP being different from other parties, and he has repeatedly stated that he will not be standing again.  Thus the only serious option for him to have a political future is to become President.  

The election will be next year – and for the first time (as a result of a 2007 constitutional change) the President will be directly elected by the people.  Erdoğan is most unlikely to face any serious competitor unless the political elements underpinning the ruling party fragment in some way.  There is general agreement between the parties about the need for a new constitution – but not about what that constitution should contain.  The AKP wants to introduce a presidential system (thus of course reducing the competence of parliament) – the other parties don’t.  However, Erdoğan might get the support of the Kurdish BDP[4] (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi = Peace and Democracy Party) for a new draft constitution which could be submitted to referendum.  That is the motive (for the ruling party) in pushing the PKK agreement.  Of course, if the Kurdish question is “solved”, he would reap a considerable reward, both domestically in terms of votes and internationally in terms of prestige, which is perhaps another motive.

Oh and by the way – that being the case there is little or no prospect of any Turkish invasion of Syria.

As we move deeper into this winter of discontent, civilian casualty figures finally show signs of decreasing, while government and rebel figures have stabilized (the NCF carefully compiles and assesses death tolls from all available sources – we regard our figures as closer to an approximation of the real position than those of any other single source – especially if used to indicate trends). The steady emptying of the cities and countryside as the people flee the fighting to take refuge in neighbouring states accounts, in part, for the lower civilian death toll. Those displaced have expressed great anger at the negligence of the Arab world and the international community for not acting. Over 700,000 refugees continue to live in dire conditions in refugee camps. If, as seems likely, present trends continue, these numbers will reach over 1.1 million before the summer. 

Meanwhile  Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Western backed National Coalition faction of the Syrian Opposition, stated he was willing to hold direct talks with the Syrian Government. This came following talks with Russian and Iranian foreign ministers on 2 February 2013. However, some of his supporters from the Syrian National Council reacted negatively, rejecting any negotiations with the Syrian government whilst other more secular groups not in the National Coalition said they favoured talks which, in common with Moaz al-Khatib, they argued could halt the killings and destruction.

The US has remained staunch in its stand regarding the situation in Syria. Although the Obama administration has called for President Assad to step down, they claim a direct military intervention would trigger more violence and this could lead to greater chaos and carnage. According to UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Syria is being destroyed “bit by bit” and “unprecedented levels of horror have been reached”. He urged the UN Security Council to overcome their differences and “grapple with this problem now”.  

Russia remains in the lead on Syria and everyone is heading for Moscow in droves. The opposition is having a hard time and has started the usual rumour mill. They’re spreading around the rumour that Maher, the President’s brother, is dead. According to them he died in Moscow having been flown there for treatment after being severely wounded in the legs. This is quite untrue – Maher is alive. Then they have also been saying the President’s mother and sister fled to Abu Dhabi. They certainly went there to visit and it is unclear whether they are back home yet.

The main point is that Syria is on the road to an interim salvation government prior to Bashar stepping down in May 2014 and everyone is invited to the ‘negotiate the future’ party. Even the Iranians have agreed. Therefore it is important to watch what Sayed Jalili has to say. He is Iran’s National Security boss and says that, “On Syria we support national dialogue and say no to violence but yes to democracy”.

Everyone’s focus now is on who will replace Bashar as the new ruler of Syria. They need and will have a non-Salafist. That’s an absolute red line for the USA, Russia and Iran. Beyond that they don’t care too much.

Names in the frame include some of the old guard. An older person is viewed as acceptable because at least he or she is a known quantity. By way of example: The communist Turkman, Abdulrazak Eid, is a name that has cropped up. He’s a 62 year old writer and reformer. Another possibility is Michelle Kilo, the 72 year old Christian intellectual and human rights activist. But it’s anybody’s guess really and there are a number of possibilities. There is a danger too that naming people too soon ‘burns their credibility’, so we will not try to compile an accurate list of frontrunners.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis have generally dug their heels in. Their conflict with Qatar has reached new heights since they stomped on the Qatar-Bahrain causeway plan. We can but hope that they are stepping back from their policy of backing the Salafists.

At least there is a new team at the top of the Saudi Government which seems like it could potentially be much more progressive in responding to some of the critical issues facing the region, including Syria and Bahrain.

Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud, next in line to the Saudi throne, died in Switzerland following an illness on the 16th of June 2012. He had been Deputy Prime Minister and was the long-standing (since 1975) and hardline Interior Minister. Nayef was the most conservative of the leading Saudi princes, and with his son, Muhammad bin Nayef at his side as his deputy,  spearheaded the country's post-September 11 crackdown on al-Qaeda.

Nayef’s younger brother, Prince Salman, became Crown Prince after being the Minister of Defence since the death of his full brother Sultan and the governor of Riyadh for nearly five decades.

Now, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, former head of the Saudi intelligence and Governor of Madina and Hail and the youngest son of the kingdom's founder Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman Al Saud, has been recently named the country's second deputy prime minister by King Abdullah. The announcement places Muqrin third in line to the throne and at the top of the kingdom's power structure.

Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Doha-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank, described the move as “buying time for the next generation" -- especially as the first Deputy Prime Minister and second in line to the throne, 77-year-old Prince Salman, is reported to be in ill health.

Stephens further noted that it is anticipated that Muqrin will “continue Abdullah's policy of slow and cautious change and ensure that his legacy as a moderniser is secure”.

With Prince Muqrin ascending to third-in-line to the throne and with competent second generation princes, Muhammad bin Nayef and Khalid bin Bandar, now in key decision-making positions as the Minister of Interior and Governor of Riyadh respectively, it is hoped that the wise King Abdullah has put into place a government strong enough to withstand the serious challenges which are currently buffeting both the region and the kingdom itself.


Iraq is really the worry. The Syrian uprising has been spreading. There has been trouble in the provinces of Anbar, Salaheddine, and Nineveh.  Largely this has been in the nature of demonstrations, very well organised demonstrations, promoted by the Baathist / Islamist alliance. And they are getting out of hand. This in an Iraq which is already riven with tensions.

Many Iraqis used to blame Saudi Arabia and Qatar for their problems. Not so today. Today the Saudis are sending positive signals to the Iraq government and vice versa (an Iraqi delegation paid its respects in Riyadh on 16 February on the occasion of the death of Prince Sattam bin Abd al-Aziz.

Today, rightly or wrongly, Turkey and Qatar are viewed as the problem nations, though of course the suicide bombers are still largely young Saudis. “The Qataris are paying money for the Saudis to kill themselves,” one Iraqi told me.

But the demonstrations keep coming. The grievances are expressed clearly. They want less “debaathification”  by which they mean the policy by which people are kept out of politics, even out of employment in certain circumstances if they were ever senior members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, for instance as university professors. The trouble is that some people (around about 4,000 Iraqis) were senior members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. When the liberation of Iraq was on the cards the American State Department had an idea of starting a Truth and Reconciliation committee for Iraq as was done in South Africa, but the US Defense Department stomped on the notion. Such a shame.

Less debaathification is one demand. Another is the release of prisoners. Another is the rescinding of article four on the anti-terrorist legislation which is one of the more widely used articles in the judicial system and says, basically, that life imprisonment is the punishment for “anyone who intentionally covers up any terrorist act or harbors a terrorist with the purpose of concealment.” Sunnis see this law as disproportionately targeting them and the controversial Speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Osama Najefi, has said it would be rescinded.

Iraq’s Deputy Premier Hussein al-Sharistani is negotiating with the demonstrators. But the problem is that some of them are very radical, wanting the removal of all debaathification laws and the release of all prisoners (whatever their crime), indeed some of the demands border on the ridiculous and perhaps are deliberately couched in terms that can never be satisfied.

The view in Iraq is sanguine. Many members of the government think that the West is promoting Salafism in unrelenting fashion. Meanwhile Iraq has to face provincial elections on April 20th of this year. Well let me re-phrase that. Most of Iraq will face elections. The Kurdish region will not as they refuse to have them. They are frightened that the traditional parties (Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK) will do less well. Indeed there is a danger that Talabani’s PUK have grown so unpopular they will be wiped out. The thing about these elections is that they are an indication of what may happen in the January 2014 parliamentary elections. They need to go well and against a backdrop of increasingly aggressive sectarian demonstrations that will not be easy.

In other respects things are better in Iraq with one big caveat. The infrastructure law has not been passed which would allow major projects, like port building, to get moved forward. This is because parliament is not functioning. If they meet, the MPs just fight, by which I mean they thump each other. Malaki’s Dawa could force it through with the cooperation of the Kurdish bloc but the Kurds are demanding 17% of the money and the money is $70 billion. Seems reasonable but the difficulty is they are double-counting because they, in theory but not necessarily in practice, already get 17% of the national budget. You’d think this issue could be resolved in negotiation. It is ridiculous that Iraq’s development is being held back because of childish petty infighting. This is one reason we need free and fair parliamentary elections swiftly. January 2014 is just not soon enough. And we do not need the streets in chaos to do it. This spill over of Syria into Iraq bodes ill.


Elsewhere things bode well. Another country facing elections in 2014, though fortunately perhaps towards the end of the year, is Bahrain. Their ‘national dialogue’ has just got underway and the opposition would like to see it lead to powersharing with a constitutional monarchy. At least there is something going on to try and find a way forward. The key issue is to strengthen those calling for moderation like Sheikh Isa Qasim, Bahrain’s most influential Shi’a cleric. The difficulty from the government’s perspective is that more and more Bahrainis are rejecting parliamentary democracy in favour of street protest. If we see the mainstream opposition fail to participate in the 2014 elections, it bodes ill for Bahrain’s future and indeed for the future of the moderate opposition.
The deaths of both a protester and a policeman at Friday's demonstrations might complicate the national dialogue process which had been helped by the government agreeing to become a "party" to the talks, instead of just a "convening" entity between the "loyalist" and "opposition" political societies.
Ultimately however, political reform will probably only succeed if the Government of Bahrain is permitted by the Saudis to sacrifice the long-standing Prime Minister (Bahrain has the longest serving premier in the world and his removal is a key opposition demand).

On Iran
The forthcoming elections in Iran bode well for the future too, largely because they mark the end of President Ahmadinejad. Key contenders are Valiyati and Qalibaf. Qalibaf (Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf) is the one to watch. He is a pilot and he’s good with media. He was a General in the IRGC and is Mayor of Tehran. He knows Europe. He did many positive things whilst in charge of Tehran. His emphasis is on the economy. He is not radical, not narrow minded. He is middle-aged. Valiyati could win and has his own network, but he’s an old man now.
The reformists will also put forward a candidate of course. It will be either Mohammad-Ali Najafi or Hassan Rohani or Mohammad-Reza Aref – just one of them.
Perhaps 20 candidates will stand in all. But there are four principal groups:
  1. The Ahmajinedati
  2. The Principalists
  3. The Reformists
  4. The Independents
These groups will all watch each other hopefully ensuring that the elections are reasonably fair this time. The Principalists and the Reformists are pragmatic. The election will be in June.
Better times ahead then? Maybe. But if the Syrian civil war spills into Iraq all bets are on hold. Here at the NCF we will be focussing on Iraq a little more in the coming months. Do not expect us to pull our punches.

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