Воскресенье, 04 Февраль 2018 23:11

Afrin battle further complicates Syrian conflict

The Turkish military operation in Afrin in northwestern Syria has started, and future military operations are likely in Manbij and as far as the borders of Iraq as Turkey strives to expel the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers this organization to actually be the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), regardless of the name it is given by the Americans. 

Following the US announcement that it would form a border force of 30,000 fighters led by the Kurds — which was swiftly retracted — Turkey accused Washington of trying to protect the Kurdish people in order to divide Syria. Ankara viewed this number of fighters, which were to be led by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, as an existential threat to its security and stability and a step toward a future Kurdish state. 

Russia temporarily benefited from the US-Turkey conflict over the Kurds, as it had from the differences between Ankara and Moscow over the Syrian government, when Russia continued supporting the regime while Turkey backed the opposition. After the downing of the Russian jet fighter in 2015, Russia successfully used the Kurdish card against Erdogan to acquire more political concessions. 

There are two likely scenarios for the war in Afrin and the rest of the Syrian territory that the Turkish army is eyeing up: The first is a large-scale operation aimed at undermining the Kurdish control of Afrin. This would be similar to Operation Euphrates Shield in terms of preparation, assault and the participation of several departments of the Turkish army, as well as Free Syrian Army fighters.

The second is a limited operation aimed at taking certain areas from the hands of the PKK in order to keep its fighters away from the Turkish border. This requires isolating the Kurds, cutting their communication with the eastern cantons and preventing them from accessing the Mediterranean. 

International players are making their final moves on the country’s chessboard as Turkey aims to oust US-backed Kurdish fighters from northwestern region.

– Maria Dubovikova

There are many challenges facing the proposed Turkish plan. The first is the difference in Afrin’s terrain from the areas taken during Euphrates Shield, making this campaign more difficult and complicated. Moreover, Ankara is not satisfied with the long-term positions of Moscow and Washington. Ultimately this is a Turkish battle — or rather a battle for Turkey itself — but it will also affect the course of events in Syria.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that US “provocations” are a key factor that have complicated the situation in northwestern Syria and prompted Turkey to launch its military operation in Afrin. Russia labeled the US as irresponsible and said its actions would pose a threat to the peace process in Syria.

The Kurds blame Russia for betraying them, but they were trying to milk two cows at once as their relationship with the US threatened Russian interests and its project for the stabilization of Syria. US policies towards the Kurds are also a direct threat to Turkish national interests, with Kurdish separatism a cause of deep concern in Ankara. Additionally, Kurdish ambitions, fueled by the US, have become a threat to the integrity of Syria and the process of reconciliation. Thus Moscow found itself on the same side as Ankara. Before the Afrin operation, Russia and Syria both expressed their concerns, but now it is clear that the move was silently approved by Damascus and Moscow from the beginning. 

On Tuesday evening, Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone with Erdogan to discuss the situation. The sides expressed a solidarity and common vision, vowing to continue working to resolve the crisis based on the principles of preservation of territorial integrity and respect for the sovereignty of Syria. 

The situation in Afrin is changing not only the regional framework, but also the global one. The move by Turkey — a NATO member with close ties to Western nations — against a group backed, equipped and financially supported by the US takes them a huge step away from their former allies. This demonstrates Ankara's independence and alters their former path towards integration with the West. The ongoing situation will bring Moscow and Ankara closer to each other, pushing them to forge a more solid alliance. The West is unlikely to be able to stop Turkey from realizing its plans in the region, as any confrontation would definitely not play into their hands.

Despite claims the assault on Afrin may harm Syria, Turkey insists its operation is limited and will not affect the integrity of its neighboring country. However, the numerous interventions from various regional and international players have complicated the political and military scene in Syria after a glimmer of hope had started to appear at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The international players are now making their final moves on the Syrian chessboard ahead of any peace talks aimed at discussing a political settlement, draft constitution and interim government.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1232356

Опубликовано в Tribune

The Kurds after their setbacks in the aftermath of their independence referendum of 25th of September in 2017 in Iraq are facing another tragedy, but this time in Afrin in the western part of Kurdistan called Rojava. In reaction of a news that the United States intends to create a regular army or border guards strong of (30,000) soldiers in Syria, half of them from PYD forces to protect the border with Syria and Iraq from returning of Da’esh (ISIS) to Syria, led the Turkish troop movements.

On Sunday, January 21, the Turkish army’s land operations backed by pro-Turkish Free Syrian Army (estimated to be 25,000 soldiers declared by SFA) are participating in the operations and together control 4 Kurdish villages in Afrin and confirming that they have entered Afrin. The YPG stated that they have pushed back these forces in some districts and stopped their advancement into Afrin. Media sources are talking about Syrian government forces agreed YPG forces from “Sheikh Maqsoud” neighbourhood in Aleppo to pass through their controlled areas to Afrin. The Turkish Prime Minister announced that Turkey is aiming to create a “Security Zone” 30km depth in Afrin. Erdoğan declared that his goal is also to return back 3.5 million Syrian refugees to Syria through this operation.

All this is happening under a relative silence and acceptance of major players in Syria. Kurds believe that their friends have been “disloyal” to them, they gave a “green light” to Turkey and turned their back to Afrin and allowed the civilian population to be terrorized by Turkish bombardments. Despite non-stop bombardments of Afrin, still the Kurds are resisting. General Joseph Votel, the head of the Central Command of the US army declared that Afrin is not in the framework of their operations and is not of a great importance to them. Russia withdraw its forces from Afrin. There is a Turkish, Russian and Iranian understanding on these operations. Turkey has proven throughout the history its hostility to any Kurdish aspirations in Syria, in Turkey and elsewhere. Turkey does not want the emergence of a Kurdish federal entity on their border sympathetic or an extension to Turkish Kurds and Russia and Iran are concerned that an intensive arming of the Kurds are compatible with the new strategy of President Trump against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

US Secretary Tillerson and Pentagon officials declared that they take into consideration the Turkish concerns and they do not support PKK. The Turkish- American relations are at its worst. There is a serious tension in relations between Turkey and several European countries such as Germany, France, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Cyprus, Greece, UK, etc. The deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations and the antipathy between Erdoğan and Netanyahu also has additional implications on Turkey’s regional and international policies.

Diverse statements came out from Moscow; Russian Ministry of Defence considers Washington for being irresponsible in undermining the peace process in Syria in which Kurds are part of it and that US provoked Turkey by creating an army for the Kurds and armed them in violation to the unity and sovereignty of Syria which led to a violent reaction from Turkey and started its operations in Afrin. 

The Kurds do not see any justification for the Turkish aggression on Afrin and the Kurds of Syria. The (PYD) officials reiterated that they had not attacked Turkey, but in contrary Turkey since more than five years has been attacking the Kurds of Syria including the localities and orchards of Afrin. The Kurdish National Council of Syria (ENKS) a rival political formation to PYD regrouping several political parties and organisations of Syria, also strongly condemned the Turkish shelling of Afrin and other Kurdish areas and asks PYD for Kurdish unity, political reforms in Rojava, and calls the international community to act urgently to stop the Turkish aggression in Afrin and protect the civilian population, who will become the victims of such an aggression.

Observers believe that PYD has made ditches and tunnels and would use the Bosnian methods of city wars as PKK did it in Diyarbakir, Cizire, and Širnax in Kurdish cities of Turkey. On the other hand, Turkey seems to have chosen the Sri Lankan way of dealing with “Tamil Tigers”, to crash utterly its Kurdish opponents of PYD in Syria and PKK in Turkey, and refuses the Spanish-Basque, or Northern Ireland or Colombia-FARC peaceful approach to solve the Kurdish problem be it in Turkey or Syria. Kurds of Syria repeatedly reiterated its intention of good neighbourly relations with Turkey and that they have suffered from historical injustices in Syria and have no plans to carry out any hostile activities against Turkish territories, but Turkey considers them more as an offspring of PKK.

The Turkish attacks are widening in its scope in targeting both the Syrian Democratic forces and the civilians in Afrin, Kobani and beyond; meanwhile, the Turkish army is massing more of its troops with its tanks, artillery and another heavy armament on border areas of Afrin. the Turkish army has been shelling and bombing by artillery, mortars, and rockets a score of Kurdish villages and districts in Afrin and even some towns of Kobani as well as the triangle area between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq in Malikiya district in recent days. 

Afrin is inhabited by almost million people and it is a beautiful fertile and touristic Kurdish city, some 35-45km faraway from the Mediterranean sea, which gives it a special strategic position that makes Turkey nervous about Kurds to get one day a border with the Mediterranean sea providing the possibility of exporting Kurdish oil through the sea and might be used not only as a transport way for Syrian Kurdish oil but also Iraqi Kurdish oil and gas replacing the importance of Ceyhan pipelines. Syrians in general and the population in Afrin are fearful that their region’s demography will be changed and becomes another “Askandaruna” occupied by Turkey since 1930s.

Turks have sent (20,000) soldiers with heavy armament to the borders of Afrin from the north in addition to the Euphrates shield of (22,000) from the West composed mainly of pro-Turkish Syrian Free Army. 13 military formations among them Forces of Sultan Murad, Muhammad Al Fatih and the army of Al Nasr, etc...are ready to participate in the battle of Afrin. 

The attack on Afrin is to separate Afrin from Qamishlo/Hassakah and Kobani, but also to take over the oil fields, the fertile area of Eastern Euphrates and the Tabqa Dam of strategic importance. At least half of the oil fields of Syria are located in Kurdish areas and controlled by PYD administered cantons. On another hand, Turkey tries to separate the Kurds from border cities of Northern Kurdistan (South East of Turkey) which are situated along the border with Syria from Sirnax (Shirnakh) province to Shanli Urfa populated by a Kurdish majority and looks at Afrin and these border areas as a possible logistical way for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

The coalition forces and many others do not share the Turkish opinion that Kurds of Afrin or of Syria have been a national security threat to Turkey. US armed and trained the PYD and SDF. The Kurds are the most reliable and efficient allies on the ground for the US in Syria. Lately, US expressed even more openly political support for the participation of the Kurds in Geneva meetings. Turkey used its veto against the PYD participation and accepted the ENKS delegates in both Geneva and Astana meetings. ENKS has had relatively good and accepted relations with Turkey and the Syrian Coalition of the Syrian opposition, but not without problems.

Kurds have had historically good relations with Russia and stood with Russians in many of its wars with the Ottomans. No doubt that Kurds are the weakest militarily in the equation but their long-time longing for their freedom is unbeatable, and they are very resilient despite all historical injustices, denial policies and genocides. Over 40 million Kurds in this world also have right to have a place under the sun and a corridor to live in it in peace and harmony with their neighbours. Kurds can be an element of stability and prosperity in the Middle East. Unitary states have failed. One hundred years of Sykes Picot’s forcible nation statehoods failed. Today almost the entire region is in a turmoil wasting their natural and human resources in unnecessary proxy and exhaustion wars.

Article published in Valdai club: http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/un-security-council-should-stop-a-bloodbath/

Image credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Опубликовано в Tribune
Среда, 10 Январь 2018 04:27

Russia’s vision for a new Syria to be tested in Sochi

Russia, Turkey and Iran — the guarantors of a cease-fire in Syria — agreed at the end of December to hold the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in the Russian resort of Sochi on Jan. 29 and 30. In their final statement, which was issued last month following the eighth round of Astana talks, the three countries called on representatives of the regime and the opposition to participate in these talks in a bid to end the fighting in Syria and start the reconstruction process.

The three countries agreed on the list of participants and also agreed to exchange prisoners, detainees and abductees and identify missing persons, Russian sources leaked to the media. After the Sochi meeting, a ninth round of the Astana conference will be held in mid-February.

The dialogue conference is deemed to be very important in the efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict, as discussions in both Sochi and Astana will be aimed at agreeing on the final process for a solution that will lead to a new constitution, new elections and a new government.

In December, the head of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Sipan Hamo, paid a visit to Moscow and he was informed that the Russians are pushing for Kurdish representation in Sochi, which would lead to a gradual federation of Syria. This, of course, cannot be achieved without the full approval of Turkey. However, Moscow is expected to be a mediator between the Kurds and Turkey. Russian defense and intelligence officials reportedly told Hamo in a private meeting that they were establishing tactical cooperation with Turkey to make Sochi a success, which means that the YPG will not be officially invited, but they will attend.

All components are designed to serve as a model for a future Syria based on geographical federation rather than a single national state, where elections would be held in the presence of US and Russian observers. In spite of the Russian push to achieve a tangible development toward a solution in Syria, the Kurds still receive Western arms, with a Kurdish leader confirming to Russian media that the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” which includes the YPG, received two shipments of American weapons in recent days. “We have a clear military program to raise the number of our forces from 25,000 to 30,000 with a clear change in the People’s Protection Units’ role after the defeat of (Daesh) to become a regular army,” the leader reportedly said, adding that they call on Washington “for a political recognition of the region under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

The previous Sochi summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani resulted in the three countries agreeing to discuss a list of those who should be invited to the Syrian dialogue conference. This was confirmed at the last Astana meeting, so that representatives of the “three guarantors” would meet to approve a list prepared by Moscow that included some 1,500 Syrians.


Moscow is in a hurry to come up with a solution that would lead to a gradual federation of the civil war-torn country ahead of its own presidential election in March.

– Maria Dubovikova


Moscow’s vision of the dialogue conference in Sochi is to prepare for the launch of the process of drafting a new Syrian constitution by forming a committee of representatives of the Syrian parties.

It appears Moscow is adopting a Russian model of federation for Syria, but Damascus does not view this as acceptable, as what applies to Russia does not necessarily apply to Syria, which is far smaller and less populated. The regime fears that the Kremlin’s view of the political solution for Syria will take too much time to achieve after carrying out the elections, changes to the constitution and giving more power to the prime minister.

The upcoming Sochi meeting is gathering under one ceiling the opposing parties from Syria, including the Kurds — against the will of Ankara and the desire of Tehran. The Russians are in a rush to find a solution because they have a political obligation, which is the presidential election in March.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at the end of last month that “we have a dividing line” between areas controlled by US allies in eastern Syria and those controlled by Russian-backed government forces in the west, adding that “it would be a mistake to go beyond this line.”

This came in response to Bashar Assad’s words that “anyone who works for the interests of foreigners, especially now under American leadership... against their army and against their people is simply a traitor. This is how we see these groups that work for the Americans.”

Moscow believes that Tehran is pushing for a confrontation between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the regime, with Russian generals telling Syrian Kurds that “other forces are pushing the Syrian government to confront you.” However, the Kurds have now received additional arms and military supplies from the US, which is shifting its role from fighting Daesh to maintaining the land it controls, clouding the issue of Syria’s future even further.

Article published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1220841

Опубликовано в Tribune
Вторник, 15 Август 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

Опубликовано в Tribune
Воскресенье, 29 Март 2015 20:19

Iranian Kurds and Tehran’s Policy on Ethnic Minorities

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.


Опубликовано в Research