Tuesday, 15 August 2017 14:15

De-escalation zones to end the war in Syria

Article by Shehab Al-Makahleh and Maria Dubovikova

The future of Syria is now being decided in Amman after the withdrawal of Syrian armed opposition troops from neighborhoods near the Jordanian-Syrian border, leaving the crossing point of Naseeb under the control of the Syria Arab Army (SAA). The fate of Syria, and importantly the future of its president, will heavily influence future developments in the polarized region as Middle Eastern states which are divided over the civil wars in Libya and the Qatar crisis are also opposing stakeholders in the Damascus regime’s fate.

An announcement of a ceasefire in southwestern Syria came on June 30, 2017, paving the way for another ceasefire in northern Homs, forcing the armed opposition to move to Idlib. Due to the benefits for both the government and the opposition from the truce, which has been a relief both parties, the regime, its enemies, along with the Russians and Americans, are also considering expanding the de-escalation zones to include eastern Ghouta (Reef Damascus) and the Southeast area by the Jordanian and Iraqi borders following Daesh’s fall in Deir Ezzor.

The expansion of the de-escalation zone in eastern Ghouta is aimed at avoiding clashes between the SAA, its allies, and the US-supported opposition on the ground in that area. The Russians and Americans also coordinating in the area of Deir Ezzor to prevent the Kurds from retaking the lands after the demise of Daesh because Turkey – a major US ally in the Middle East region – is not willing to see a Kurdish state along its southern border. The SAArecaptured the last major stronghold of Daesh on the way to Deir Ezzor. This is the caliphate’s last important stronghold in the central Syria.

Unlike the Russians, the Americans are not in a rush to end the conflict in Syria and they just seek to avoid any armed conflict near the country’s borders with Jordan and Israel. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, a main backer of Syrian opposition, is concerned about the future of Syria and its president. This is clear in the statement issued by Saudi ministry of foreign affairs, which read that Riyadh, still supported an international agreement on the future of Syria and Assad should have no role in any transition to bring the war there to an end. The statement reveals that the position of the kingdom on the Syrian crisis is firm, and it is based on the Geneva 1 Communiqué and on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 which stipulates forming a transitional body that will run the country. Thus, Saudi Arabia does not want Syria to be another Arab country where Iran consolidates its influence.

Thus, the future of Syria right now depends on the de-escalation zones’ efficiency and the seriousness of both international and regional players to stabilize the country which, after seven-and-a-half years of war has seen 400,000 of its citizens killed and 12 million (half of the population) uprooted, resulting in an international refugee crisis that has fueled various levels of instability and exacerbated economic problems throughout scores of Middle Eastern and European countries.

The importance of a lasting ceasefire in Syria will help major powers, the United States and Russia, avoid a complex knot of local and sectarian disputes in Syrian and to avoid spillover of the fighting troops including the armed opposition groups, Daesh, al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.Only with such international cooperation between Washington and Moscow can there be any realistic hope for resolving the Syrian civil war.

The two major Amman meetings between the Russians and Americans along with their Jordanian counterparts helped reach the ceasefire agreement in three governorates in southwestern Syria: Deraa, Quneitra, and Suwaida. More than 2.5 million people are believed to be living in the general area of the four zones which span the southern provinces of Deraa, Quneitra, and Suwaida

Moreover, the talks between Jordanian officials and Syrian armed opposition in Amman at the end of July paved the way for a ceasefire in East Ghouta and other areas. The meeting of leaders of the Southern Front militias was held with American, Russian and Jordanian experts in the Jordanian capital Amman end of July to discuss a truce in southwestern Syria. Another meeting was held also at the sidelines of the Russian-American meetings between Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh to discuss the next step that lead to a transition government.

The agreement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition to cease hostility acts in some locations in Syria is seen as a principled success of the deal that was reached late June in Amman and which has become effective in July to establish a de-escalation zone in Eastern Ghouta and southeastern Syria that would help end up the civil war. The new zones cover North Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and the southeastern region of Syria by the Jordanian and Iraqi borders, slated to be signed in late August to mid-September, paving the way for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. The “de-escalation” zone created in southwestern Syria and northern Homs will be monitored by Russian troops, and is the third of four planned “safe” areas.

At present, Moscow is in direct contact with Americans after some meetings in Switzerland between security and military officials from both countries to expand the “de-escalation zones” in Syria under the terms of the Astana agreement to include Northern Homs and Eastern Ghouta as well as Syrian desert between Iraq and Syria, by the Jordanian borders.

Experts from the United States and Russia are holding consultations on the expansion of the umbrella of de-escalation zones in four regions in Syria. The Russians have already completed negotiations with Jordan on the monitoring of the recently established de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria, and on the Amman Declaration which is on its final stages before being announced this month in Astana.For Jordan, such an agreement is important to support a political solution to the Syrian crisis and eradicate terrorism, ensuring border security and the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland as Syria’s security and stability are of strategic interest for the region.

Article published in International Policy Digest: https://intpolicydigest.org/2017/08/14/de-escalation-zones-end-war-syria/

Photo credit: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr

Published in Tribune

Summary: This article examines the status of Iranian Kurds in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the new ethnic policies being implemented by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as compared with those of his predecessors. The current situation in the Iranian border regions, where Shia-Sunni relations can be problematic, is also examined.

 

Given the ethnically heterogeneous nature of the Iranian population, state ethnic policy is a critical issue for national unity and security, and one fraught with pitfalls in terms of human rights. Attitudes and approaches within the Iranian political establishment vary and are continuing to evolve. Prior to the Islamic revolution, the Iranian government’s ethnic policy was based on the principle of a “united Iranian nation,” a principle devised partly with the aim of preventing separatist trends and preserving the territorial integrity of the country, and one which led to a degree of “Persianization” of minorities. After the establishment of the Islamic regime, this aim remained a priority, but state ethnic policy was reconfigured around the concept of the unity of the Muslim Ummah (article 11 of the Iranian Constitution). In the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran, the term “ethnic community” was replaced by “religious community.” Although the Constitution proclaims Ja'fari Islam as the official religion of Iran, other currents of Islam are also acknowledged, as well as other monotheistic religions. Despite the assumption of power by the Shia clergy, the new Iranian Constitution preserved the same principles of relations between the State and the confessional minorities as those defined in the first Iranian constitution adopted in the Qajar period at the beginning of the 20th century. Unsurprisingly, the new model for “Islamic social justice” being realized by the Shia clergy did not correspond to the aspirations of many ethnic communities in the country, who were not prepared to embrace the concept of the Islamic cultural revolution and rebuild their lives according to the new Shia-Islamic social and legal institutions.

Reliable statistics regarding ethnic minorities in Iran are not easy to come by, but it is generally estimated that around 7 million Kurds are living in Iran, or 8% of the total Iranian population. The majority of them practice Shia Islam (about 4 million), with slightly fewer Sunni among them; and with about 500,000 adherents of Yarsanism or Yarsan, and about 300,000 Yazidis. The latter reside on the territory of Kermanshah: Dalahu, Sarpol-e Zahab and Javanrud, and do not advertise their religious affiliation. According to Article 13 of the Constitution of Iran, freedom of religion among minorities is guaranteed only to Iranian Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians. The Sunni largely consider themselves a minority.

Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchestan have historically been problematic regions for Iranian governments, and they doggedly remain so today. Although gradually improving, the economic situation in Kurdistan remains worse than in other regions. It is noteworthy that local industry is growing in Iranian Kurdistan, while Iraqi Kurdistan is primarily developing only its oil and construction industries. The Sunni factor plays an important role: Sunni Kurds consider themselves deprived in many ways, while Shia Kurds (to the South) are well integrated into Iranian society and economic life. Some Sunni Kurds complain that the authorities consider Iranian Kurdistan an “internal colony,” focusing myopically on its exploitable resources, i.e. oil.

Terrorist groups and activities in Iran are tied primarily to ethnic issues, and the majority of terrorist acts have taken place among the minorities of populated regions. In the past few years, the most intense violence has been witnessed in Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan: the “Party of Free Life of Kurdistan” (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê [PJAK]) and the “Kurdistan Workers’ Party” (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) [PKK] are active. PJAK committed a number of terrorist acts in 2010 and 2011. These generally targeted Iranian military personnel. Teheran responded by launching a series of successful operations against PJAK that led to the arrests or liquidations of many of its members. Yet despite the success of these special operations, the situation in these regions has hardly been defused.

Recently, PJAK has shifted its main activities into Syria, lessening its presence Iran itself. As this development can hardly displease the Iranian government, some experts have voiced the opinion that PJAK has established a kind of a ceasefire with Tehran. 

But if acts of violence have waned, the informational offense continues. PJAK carries out propaganda activity mainly in prisons in Iran — quite the same as it did in 1979-1983 in Turkey before the beginning of combat operations — and the party enjoys great popularity among Iranian Kurds. PFLK, for its part, has organized satellite TV channels especially for Iranian Kurds, which the Iranian authorities try with varying degrees of success to control.

Kurds in Iran are increasingly concentrating on cultural education and propaganda. Cultural Kurdish centers are opening – and occasionally being closed by the Iranian authorities. The image of Iraqi Kurdistan plays an important role in the propaganda, as well as the fact that there are many educated Kurdish youth in Iran demanding the rights and respected they see as existing in Iraqi Kurdistan. To use historian Benedict Anderson’s term, an “imagined community” has formed between Kurds in the region. Satellite TV channels have played a particularly significant role in this.[1] 

Political demands follow on the heels of a strong cultural consciousness. A large human rights movement is also unfolding, especially due to Iranian state reprisals, including the executions of Kurdish activists. State crackdowns may have a deterrent effect on violence but they also further poison the situation — even among Kurds in neighboring countries. In Turkey, for instance, executions have been stopped. Many feel that, ultimately, harsh reprisals only aggravate the Kurdish problem and that perhaps members of PJAK and PFLK often provoke them. There is no shortage of those eager to sacrifice themselves for entry into the “pantheon of heroes.”

The Kurdish separatist movement in Iran seems to be receiving much of its impetus from the increased autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan. The strengthened sense of ethnic identity among Iraqi Kurds has been spreading to Iran and to Turkey. Sunni Kurds in Iran present the most challenges in this respect — Sunni Kurds living in Kurdistan; Shia Kurds, in the Kermanshah region. The negative economic situation in the areas inhabited by Kurds both in Iran and Turkey further aggravates the situation. This combination of factors means that the Kurdish issue will remain a difficult one to regulate, and a worrying security threat for Tehran. But a successful Iranian state policy towards the Kurdish population, one that could somehow balance Kurdish aspirations with the need for security and territorial integrity, would greatly strengthen Iran’s position in the Middle East.

The general trend of growing Kurdish and regional nationalism was somewhat mollified Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term as president, when the Kurdish separatist movement was rather quiet; the only real activity being conducted by Kurds outside of Iran. Ahmadinejad made a priority of reducing the antagonism in the regions toward the sate, and soon after his election began regularly visiting these outlying ethnic communities, particularly the most economically underdeveloped ones. He also had official cabinet and committee meetings there. Thus, Ahmadinejad was the first Iranian president successfully to attract the attention of various government institutions to these remote and underdeveloped regions of the country. What's more, his government invested a part of oil profits into their development, and the Majlis subsequently agreed to cover the needs of the regions using the Stabilization Fund and the National Development Fund.

While it would be misleading to view this positive evolution in ethnic policy without taking into account the continuing restrictions placed on ethnic minorities by Tehran; it would be equally misleading to ignore the external influences on ethnic tensions. No domestic policy exists in a vacuum, least of all in Iran, in which large communities of ethnic groups spill over the Iranian border into neighboring countries. Ethnic terrorism is not simply a reaction to the policies of the central government in Tehran. Indirect support of it is one of the means used by other regional and international players to pressure the Iranian authorities, and it is quite possible that the influence of the ethnic factor on the stability of social and political life of Iran may greatly increase in the future.

A prime example of this problem is the Sistan-Baluchistan region (ostan), the poorest in Iran. Agriculture is not well developed, and the climate is dry. The Shiite minority in the region lives primarily in Sistan; while the Sunnis live in Baluchistan. The Baluch have been pressing for autonomy for the ostan — the largest in Iran in terms of territory — within Iran, largely on religious grounds; which the government in Tehran has not been willing to grant. Around the 100th day of Rouhani’s presidency, militants crossed the border from Pakistan and cut the throats of 17 border guards, filming and posting the killings on the Internet. The Pakistani militant group “Jundullah,” heavily influenced by Wahhabism, is particularly active in the area; and so in response to the border guard killings, the next day the state executed 14 inmates in the prison of Zadedan, allegedly belonging to “Jundallah.” It turned out, however, that “Jaish ol-adl,” a Baluch separatist group, claimed credit for the murder of the border guards. The cycle of misdirected, tit-for-tat violence was not over: Soon thereafter Musa Nuri Gale-Nou, the attorney general of Zahedan was murdered. For alleged links to this killing, 10 were people arrested, two of them women. And so it may continue.

 Like Ahmadinejad and other Iranian politicians, Rouhani has not failed to recognize the problem. During his election campaign, he repeatedly declared that ethnic policy would be a top priority for his government, and indeed, he received most of his votes in the regions populated by ethnic and religious minorities. Shortly after taking office, Rouhani’s government put together an action plan for resolving ethnic issues:

 

1. Preparation of legislation for the full implementation of the Constitution — Articles 3, 12, 15, 19, 22, in particular — and the building of a "state of hope and reason" (a definition given by Hassan Rouhani himself).

2. Broad general public participation (regardless of language and religion) in the process of governing and the implementation of governance by "meritocracy" at all levels. 

3. Appointment of competent local representatives throughout the country to top posts in local and regional institutions.

4. Native language instruction for minorities in schools and universities in accordance with Article 15 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

5. Raise the level of awareness of culture and literature among various ethnic groups of Iran in order to bolster and preserve their ancient Iranian cultural heritage.

6. Respect of the rights of members of religious minorities, non-interference in their religious affairs.

7. Development of long-term and short-term programs (in the cultural, economic and social spheres), especially in depressed areas and border provinces affected by the Iran-Iraq war; the allocation of compensation funds for development in these regions.

8. Elimination of discrimination in all forms and guises.

9. End the practice of considering policy exclusively "from the point of view of national security" in relation to the various ethnic groups and cultures of Iran. Establish rational management in order to optimize the use of human and material resources.

In addition, Rouhani inaugurated the post — the first in Iranian history — of Special Assistant on Ethnic and Religious Minorities, whose duty it is to draw the public’s attention to these problems and meet with activists from ethnic community organizations. Ayatollah Yunesia was appointed to the post. 

The Ministry of Education of Iran has also established a special committee to address the issue of teaching the native languages of ethnic minorities. One of the bullet points in Rouhani’s ethnic policy program notes the need for socio-economic development in the provinces, first and foremost in depressed areas populated by ethnic minorities with the aim of eliminating the gap between the central regions and the periphery. 

Last year, Rouhani visited several ethnic regions and openly acknowledged the need for socio-cultural and economic change in these areas and the need to strengthen ties between Sunnis and Shiites. Shortly after his visit to areas with a Sunni majority, the Advisory Council of Sunnis was created.

It is clear that far from everyone supports Rouhani’s ethnic policies. The Academy of Persian Language and Literature (Farhangestan-e zaban va adabiyat-e farsi) excoriated the initiative for introducing ethnic languages into the educational system as “a serious threat to the Persian language and a conspiracy to reduce its significance” during a meeting with the Minister of Education and Science, Ali Asghar Fani. Several Majlis representatives likewise expressed opposition to the initiative.

It is important to remember that the ethnic policies proposed by Rouhani were also put forward by Khatami during his term as president, but resistance from the conservative opposition camp and Khamenei, the country’s supreme religious authority, the “rahbar,” was so strong that Khatami was unable to realize his plans. 

Approaches to the resolution of ethnic religious problems in Iran differ greatly in conservative and reformists camps. Reformers, including Rouhani, believe that in the framework of Iranian realities, ethnic groups must be granted more cultural and economic freedoms. Conservatives, who generally make up the Majlis and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, strongly oppose such measures. But the credibility of conservative policies has been eroded by their failure to bring about much change: the “mix and match” strategy, for example: Kurdish commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are sent to the regions with Baluch majority, and Baluchs are sent to Kurdish settlements.

Much depends upon the outcome of the confrontation between these two main currents in the contemporary Iranian political spectrum, and of course, on the position of the Rahbar, which in turn will depend on the degree to which Rouhani will be able to influence Rahbar.

The situation of the Kurds in the west of Iran is more vulnerable to ethnic conflict for the following reasons: they live in a very small area; they have a poorly developed economy; and there are few educational and medical institutions. Furthermore, Kurdish nationalists can easily find refuge in mountainous areas of Turkish Kurdistan or the Iraqi territories. Kurds are under political isolation and their presence in the social structure is very limited. They are greatly influenced by the situation of the Kurds in northern Iraq and southern Syria. It should be noted there are very few radical Islamists among the Kurds, as the national agenda for them is of paramount importance. 

And this begs the question that the Iranian political and general community is struggling with — what causes ethnic nationalism? Any attempt at an answer must take into account the structure of the distribution of power (economy, politics and culture), the historical experience of different ethnic groups (whether they have a history of self rule or of being ruled), the attitude of other countries or international forces, the geopolitical conditions of the life of the society and "neighbors" (Kurds in Turkey can influence Kurds in Iran), and the level of development of ethnic consciousness.

Ethnic nationalism is too vital a factor in the life of any country to be considered solely in terms of security; all the more so in Iran, located as it is at the crossroads of civilizations and ethnic groups. While peripheral regions can incite conflict for the sake of acquiring more power and concessions from the central government, and local leaders often exploit ethnic differences for their own political ends; the central government also provokes strife with its actions. If a weak center can lead to disintegration; and overbearing one can lead to rebellion.

 



[1] One recalls the central role satellite TV plays in the 2004 film “Turtles Can Fly,” set in a Kurdish refugee camp in Iraq and directed by Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian citizen and ethnic Kurd.

 

Published in Research