Reply to Steven Heydemann’s “Assessing Nikolas Van Dam on Syria’s Fate” – By Nikolaos Van Dam

Reply to Steven Heydemann’s “Assessing Nikolas Van Dam on Syria’s Fate”
By Nikolaos van Dam – @nikolaosvandam 
for Syria Comment – November 20, 2017

The assessment of Professor Steven Heydemann of my lecture of 9 November 2017, published in Syrian Comment obliges me to react. Next to concluding that my new Syria book is “an informed and often insightful diagnosis of the violent conflict that has engulfed Syria since 2011”, Heydemann also maintains that my analysis of the war in Syria “seems”, at times, to be “almost wilfully distorted”. Heydemann moreover maintains that my narrative contains “evident historical gaps and omissions …, tensions and inconsistencies”. He even suggests that I suffer from historical amnesia. In fact, however, the opposite is the case: I do not provide a distorted view of Syrian history; it is rather Professor Heydemann who distorts my views by incorrectly portraying them.

In my book, I have attempted to approach the war in Syria in a non-biased way, following the motto of Albert Einstein: “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”

Those who have been missing some elements in my lecture (that was restricted to a maximum of 20 minutes), should refer to my book Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, in order to find answers to most of their questions.[1] They could also listen to the whole symposium on “Syria: Who Will Win the Future?”, in which Hadi al-Bahra and Ibrahim Hamidi participated as key-speakers, with Karin Wester as moderator.[2]

I do not want to react to all the distortions Heydemann makes of my points of view, neither do I want to allege that he did so “almost willfully”. I would rather conclude that he was blinded by his own preconceived visions, when reading my book, as a result of which the words I put on paper did not enter his mind objectively as they were, but rather in a distorted version.

The reader can see this for himself when carefully reading my book, or my article under discussion.

Let us have a look at some of Professor Heydemann’s remarks.

Heydemann maintains that I claim that:

We were wrong to demand compromises of the regime in the first place.

Did I ever mention such a thing? Not once. What I did say was that in order to reach a solution to the conflict one should preferably have contact with the main parties involved, including the Syrian regime. Of course, any negotiations should lead to a compromise. The positions of the opposition and the regime, however, remain so far apart, that a compromise seems impossible at the moment. In order to achieve a compromise, dialogue is needed, not only between the Syrian parties themselves, but also between the foreign countries that are involved by proxy, with the aim of convincing all sides that a compromise is urgently necessary. Most Western and Arab countries, however, broke off relations with the Syrian regime at an early stage of the Syrian Revolution, and thereby stopped having any potential influence over it. In my opinion, breaking off relations was, therefore, a mistake.

Heydemann writes:

[Van Dam’s] recommendation was for dialog with the Assad regime, on terms acceptable to the regime, recognizing its inherent brutality… This disconnect between appeals for dialogue and a characterization of the regime as uninterested in dialog are one of the essay’s (and his book’s) core inconsistencies.…

In Van Dam’s view, because brutality is the nature of the Assad regime we—the external actors who supported the opposition—should have accepted it as such and tempered our expectations and policies accordingly.

It is not me who said that we should have tempered our expectations, but I quoted people from the regime who “wanted the opposition ‘to scale down its expectations’ to some marginality, whereas the opposition wanted the regime to accept its own disappearance.” (p. 179 of Destroying a Nation). In fact, all parties will have to scale down their expectations, if a compromise is to be reached.

I never suggested a dialog with the Assad regime to take place exclusively “on terms acceptable to the regime”, because then negotiations would not be useful; by definition they could not yield results. The terms should be acceptable to all negotiation parties. I noted in my book that

a compromise has to be found. Thus far, neither side has shown any willingness to make any substantial concessions. In general, negotiations are supposed to end in a compromise, in which neither side obtains all of what it wants. If the aim of both negotiating parties is to obtain almost everything they want, leaving the other side with almost nothing, a compromise is practically impossible. (p. 169).

If Heydemann’s analysis is correct, then any form of negotiations is useless. The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura, should (following Heydemann’s analysis) stop his endless efforts. Other negotiation platforms, like Astana, should then be stopped as well, because the parties involved are almost all aware of the fact that the regime is not really interested in dialogue.

My view, however, is that these forms of communication should be energetically continued, in the hope that in the end they will produce positive results. The alternative is doing nothing, which would be a guarantee that nothing positive is achieved, but rather the contrary.

It is for that reason, that I ended my lecture with the words:

Whatever the case, serious efforts should be continued to help achieve a political solution, even if one is not fully convinced that the outcome will be a success. That is why I have ended my new Syria book Destroying a Nation, with the words: ‘Miracles only happen when one keeps believing in them’. (p. 183).

What Heydemann (and some other critics) do not seem to understand is that sometimes – as with Syria – forms of dialogue should be encouraged, even if the prospects for a positive outcome seem distant. On the basis of my experience as a diplomat, I am convinced that in certain situations, serious efforts should be made to achieve a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem; in some cases, efforts that appear pointless lead to success. Heydemann sees this as a “core inconsistency”. I do not. The alternative is “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. All possibilities should be explored. One must always keep in mind the hundreds of thousands of victims.

It is quite obvious that without direct channels of communication, “dialogue” cannot take place. Quite early on in the Syria conflict, most Western and Arab countries cut off their relations with the Syrian regime, presuming that Bashar al-Asad would soon disappear as president. But it turned out to be wishful thinking. Having no diplomatic relations or direct communication with the Syrian regime, implied that these same countries lacked any means of convincing the regime that it should have to compromise with the opposition and implement reforms.

Their only contacts with the regime were through the United Nations or through the regime’s allies, Russia and Iran. But the latter two states had different agendas and conflicts with Western countries (Ukraine and the nuclear file) that made these channels unproductive.

More than six and a half years ago, one month after the start of the Syrian Revolution, I wrote in Syria Comment:

Perhaps there might be a way out through a kind of national dialogue with the aim of reconciliation. But such a reconciliation is only possible if enough trust can be created among the various parties. Why would key figures in the Syrian regime voluntarily give up their positions if they can hardly expect anything other than being court-martialed and imprisoned afterwards? A good beginning could be made by the Syrian regime through essential reform measures by way of an adequate response to the reasonable demands of the democratically and peacefully oriented opposition. Having a totalitarian regime, president Bashar al-Asad should at least be able to control all his security institutions, as well as armed irregular Alawi gangs like the Shabbihah, to guide Syria out of this crisis in a peaceful manner.[3]

The basic message that the regime is not prepared to negotiate its own departure and death sentence, has – even after almost seven years of Syrian Revolution – not yet been fully understood by many observers.

Heydemann writes:

It cannot be overlooked that, in Van Dam’s telling it is they (the opposition and its external backers), not the regime and its allies, which bear the entire responsibility for what has befallen Syria.

This remark is completely unfounded. I criticize most of the parties: the Syrian regime for its severe repression of the opposition and its disproportionate violence, which was bound to create counter violence. I blame the opposition for adapting positions which guaranteed that negotiations were going to be blocked. And I blame Western and Arab countries for creating false hope with the opposition and for prolonging the war by arming the military opposition, but not enough to achieve the regime change they wanted. This contributed to the number of deadly victims going into the direction of half a million Syrians. It also led to a much stronger presence of Russia and Iran in Syria than would have been the case otherwise.

Let me add here that I am strongly opposed to foreign military interventions, because they generally only bring further disaster. We do not need academic studies to convince us that the foreign military interventions in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan have turned out to be disasters. Heydemann, however, would have preferred “the US to align its policies with its objectives in Syria, and equip local fighters more effectively to protect civilians and confront the regime.” In other words, to have regime change through military means.

Yes, I do criticize the Western and Arab countries for creating false expectations and for not supporting the opposition sufficiently to achieve their aims, but at the same time I am convinced that their military intervention would have led – and has led – to disaster.

Heydemann notes that the so-called “abandoned opposition” came close to defeating the regime twice, in mid-2013 and mid-2015, “without a lot of help from the West”. The military opposition groups, however, could never have reached this stage without tremendous help from Western and Arab countries. The opposition was not only fighting with sticks, fists and knives. Heydemann also maintains that the West, and certainly the US, “were marginal players in the provision of arms to the opposition.” The former Prime Minister of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir Al Thani, however, recently confirmed that the military aid of Qatar and Saudi Arabia was channelled to the Syrian military opposition through Turkey, to be distributed from there in full coordination with the United States.[4] I would not describe that as a “marginal role” for the United States. The US role is also well-known from other sources.

Heydemann writes:

the opposition did, in fact, demonstrate flexibility in its positions including on Assad’s fate. It accepted the Geneva Protocol, for example, even though the protocol did not call for the removal of Assad as a precondition. Van Dam ignores that the regime also had unreasonable preconditions, including its refusal to talk with “terrorists,” a category into which it lumped the entire opposition. …

Neither Arab, Western, or UN actors impose on the regime a conception of dialogue based on Assad’s removal from power as a prerequisite—as much as the opposition might have preferred such an approach.

The opposition did indeed accept the Geneva Communiqué (2012) as a basis for negotiations, but, next to that, kept insisting time and again that it was unacceptable for them to share power with President Bashar al-Asad and his main supporters with blood on their hands, who should in their view be court-martialled. Additionally, there is hardly any anti-regime Western or Arab leader who has not declared repeatedly that al-Asad had to leave as president, and that there was no future for Syria with him as president. Al-Asad was, according to most of them, not to play any role in the “interim period” supposedly leading to a political transition in Syria, let alone that he could play a role in future Syria. These positions have never been brought forward as something that was negotiable, and therefore they could hardly be seen otherwise than as preconditions.

I also noted that the regime had unreasonable, if not impossible, demands just as well, by, for instance, calling all members of the opposition delegation “terrorists”. My main point was not that the demands of the opposition were unjustified, but rather that they were unrealistic. (pp. 67, 153, 155, 170, 174).

It should also be noted that various countries have different criteria for who “terrorists” are.

Heydemann writes:

Readers might also be forgiven for perceiving in this account an unsettling sense of historical amnesia. How else to account for Van Dam’s neglect of the many attempts at dialogue, de-escalation, and negotiation that took place early on in the uprising and continued for well over a year, even as the regime’s victims mounted into the thousands.

Has Heydemann read my book?, If he had, he would have noticed that I devoted an entire chapter to the various initiatives undertaken; more than Heydemann mentions. They are described in Chapter 5, “Intra-Syrian talks but no negotiations” (pp. 138-167), and elsewhere. Therefore, I am afraid that it is Heydemann who suffers from historical amnesia here; not me.

This reminds me of a saying my father occasionally used, that “it would be nice if book reviewers would also really read the books they are supposed to review.”

Heydemann writes:

What Van Dam seems to assume is that had Obama not described Assad as illegitimate (in August 2011, by which time more than 1800 protesters had been killed and 12,000 people detained), Syrians might not have arisen at all, or in such vast numbers, or with the illusion that they enjoyed American support. They might have accepted the futility of protest, recognized their cause as lost, and gone back to the lives they lived before March 2011.

But how much difference did Obama’s statement truly make? How many Syrians who were not otherwise inclined to join the uprising did so because of his words? Almost certainly these numbers are very, very small. To argue otherwise is to dishonor the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who took to the streets of Deraa, and Homs, and Hama, and Latakia, and dozens of other towns and villages across Syria to peacefully demand political change, taking hope from one another, and from the discovery that they could, after all, speak, act, and protest, only to be met by the regime’s violence.

According to Heydemann I “seem to assume”! I do not subscribe to such a (fabricated) thesis at all! It also does not contain any logic, because massive demonstrations had already taken place long before Obama’s statement of August 2011. It was not the other way around. Isn’t it elementary for historians to be precise about the sequence of events? I did mention President Obama, however, in relation to his so-called red lines concerning the use of chemical weapons, to which he did not give the suggested follow-up; and Obama’s demand for Bashar al-Asad’s departure, without the intention to enforce it (pp. 126, 133, 171).

In Destroying a Nation (pp. 87-88) I wrote:

Were the demonstrators so naive as to expect the regime to really make any drastic political reforms leading to a more democratic political system and to freedom of expression? Did they really believe that the regime would peacefully give in to their demands, or even that peaceful demonstrations could cause its downfall? It would be unjust to label these courageous demonstrators as naive. They were rather overtaken by their enthusiasm after being inspired by ‘Arab Spring’ developments elsewhere, and they imagined that they were going to be supported by Western countries in achieving their aims for freedom and reform. After all, the ambassadors from the United States, France and elsewhere had shown solidarity with the demonstrators by personally going to Hama in July 2011, thereby openly taking sides in the conflict under strong criticism of the regime in Damascus.

Heydemann notes that “many Syrians today who would, if they could rewind history, stay at home, so horrific has the cost of the uprising been.” I think he is correct in this respect. One might also speculate that if there had been no foreign intervention and no arms deliveries to the Syrian opposition, the Syrian Revolution would have been suppressed much earlier. As a result, many fewer Syrians would have been killed; much less of the country would have been destroyed; and many fewer Syrians would be living in desperation and as refugees. In both cases, however, the regime would have stayed in power.

Whatever the case, one may conclude that the Western and Arab military interventions in Syria, did not bring the people of Syria good; rather they intensified and prolonged the disaster. And if the regime would not have been that repressive, there would probably have been much less foreign interventions.

If no political solution to the conflict is found, those who have suffered at the hands of the al-Asad regime will be more likely to renew their efforts to find a violent reckoning (p. 65). But this is speculation about the future. A political solution is in the interest of all involved parties, including the regime.

Had Professor Steven Heydemann read my book Destroying a Nation without bias, he would have come to different conclusions, and he might even have enjoyed reading it!

*Nikolaos van Dam is a specialist on Syria who has served as Ambassador of the Netherlands to Indonesia, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. He served as the Netherlands’ Spe­cial Envoy to Syria during 2015-16. His most recent book is Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017).


[1] Nikolaos van Dam, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017).


[3] Nikolaos van Dam, ‘The Dangerous Trap of Sectarianism”, Syria Comment, 14 April 2011.

[4] Interview with Shaykh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir Al Thani:

Assessing Nikaolas Van Dam on Syria’s Fate – by Steven Heydemann

Assessing Nikaolas Van Dam on Syria’s Fate
By Steven Heydemann – @SHeydemann Smith College
for Syria Comment, November 17, 2017

Over the course of his long and distinguished career as scholar and diplomat, Ambassador Nikaolas Van Dam, who most recently served as the Netherlands’ Special Envoy for Syria, earned a well-deserved reputation as a deeply knowledgeable specialist on Syrian politics and society. His publications, notably his book, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism, and Tribalism in Politics remains essential reading for students and scholars of the country. In the wake of his most recent diplomatic assignment, Ambassador Van Dam has published an informed and often insightful diagnosis of the violent conflict that has engulfed Syria since 2011, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (I.B. Tauris, 2017).

In the book, the main arguments of which he summarized in his recent essay in SyriaComment, he devoted particular attention to the failures of the West, he devoted particular attention to the failures of the West, and its responsibility for the bloodshed, displacement, and destruction that Syria has experienced. There is much to be learned from his account, but also much that warrants questioning, if not skepticism, and deserves careful and critical scrutiny, precisely because of the weight Van Dam’s assessment is likely to carry. Even focusing on his essay for this website, what emerges from such scrutiny is an awareness of evident historical gaps and omissions in his narrative, tensions and inconsistencies in his views of what might have been, and disconcerting questions about the validity of the underlying assumptions that inform Van Dam’s account. Ultimately, these converge as troubling indicators of a diagnosis that seems, at times, almost willfully distorted in its analysis of the civil war that destroyed a nation.

For Van Dam, the fatal flaw in the West’s responses to the Syrian civil war was its naivete, its failure to understand or appreciate either the cruelty that lay at the core of the Assad regime or the violence it was prepared to unleash to ensure its survival. This misreading was crucial. It stands as the original sin from which all subsequent errors flowed: belief in the possibility of reform; confidence in the prospect of forcing the Assad regime to make compromises, to accept dialogue, enter negotiations, participate in power sharing, and accept a political transition. All of this, the West is said to have believed, could be achieved through a policy of half-measures, limited support for the opposition, and an exaggerated confidence in the prospects for containing the conflict within Syria’s borders.

In Van Dam’s view, because brutality is the nature of the Assad regime we—the external actors who supported the opposition—should have accepted it as such and tempered our expectations and policies accordingly. We were wrong to demand compromises of the regime in the first place, especially since we were unprepared to back up these demands with sufficient force to achieve them. We were wrong to declaim Assad’s illegitimacy. We were wrong to support the armed opposition, and even more at fault for doing so half-heartedly. Not that Van Dam is an advocate of Western military intervention in Syria: just the opposite. His point, rather, is that if the West had properly understood the Assad regime, it would have taken a different tack altogether, and might have spared Syria the horrific outpouring of violence to which its policies contributed.

What might that different tack have been? Van Dam suggests that right from the beginning of the uprising he advocated a different path, but to no avail. His recommendation was for dialogue with the Assad regime, on terms acceptable to the regime, recognizing its inherently brutal nature. One might be excused, given his characterization of the regime in the first place, for wondering how any form of real dialogue would be possible, or what it might achieve. This disconnect, between appeals for dialogue and a characterization of the regime as uninterested in dialog are one of the essay’s (and his book’s) core inconsistencies. Nonetheless, Van Dam chides the opposition and its supporters for demanding regime change as a condition for dialogue in the first place. They should have known better, he tells us, known that the regime would not bend, known the cost they would impose on Syria for the temerity of demanding a political system that offered some possibility – a small possibility, perhaps, but better than exists under Assad – for a government that is less brutal and less corrupt, and less incompetent. It cannot be overlooked that, in Van Dam’s telling it is they (the opposition and its external backers), not the regime and its allies, which bear responsibility for what has befallen Syria.

Readers might also be forgiven for perceiving in this account an unsettling sense of historical amnesia. How else to account for Van Dam’s neglect of the many attempts at dialogue, de-escalation, and negotiation that took place early on in the uprising and continued for well over a year, even as the regime’s victims mounted into the thousands. These include the League of Arab States (LAS) attempts  at dialogue in mid-2011, the resolution it passed in October 2011 calling for dialogue (before the Assad regime’s membership in the LAS was suspended), the LAS peace plan of November 2011 which the regime first accepted then undermined, the near-identical plan the regime accepted the following month and also undermined, the quiet diplomacy between Turkey and Syria before Erdogan concluded that Assad was incapable of reform, and the efforts of the UN under Kofi Anan that led to the Geneva Protocol, as well as the Geneva Process that followed – before it morphed into the zombie diplomacy it has now become. Van Dam was hardly alone in in preferring dialogue to violence, and in ignoring the many efforts to resolve the conflict through dialogue he distorts the historical record.

We now shake our heads – many of us did at the time – at the risibility of imagining that dialogue efforts had any chance of success in the face of the regime’s utter determination to violently suppress the uprising, its total rejection of anything more than the meaningless, cosmetic changes it put forward in the constitutional referendum of February 2012. But even the seemingly inevitable failure of these attempts is worth recalling when confronted with interpretations of the conflict that seek to erase them altogether. They happened. The regime is responsible for their failure to a far greater extent than the opposition—which is certainly not blameless. They certainly merit as much if not more attention than vague and underspecified appeals to the dialogues that might have been, if only . . .

Van Dam’s appeals to dialogue are advanced, moreover, without any suggestions as to how such dialogue might have been organized (that had not already been tried), what might have been a legitimate topic for dialogue – given that real political change would have been off the table because, of course, the Assad regime, with good reason given its nature, would have refused dialogue altogether had it been included – and without a persuasive argument about what we could reasonably expect such dialogue to accomplish. They are also advanced without any apparent acknowledgement of the extent to which the opposition did, in fact, demonstrate flexibility in its positions including on Assad’s fate. It accepted the Geneva Protocol, for example, even though the protocol did not call for the removal of Assad as a precondition. Van Dam ignores that the regime also had unreasonable preconditions, including its refusal to talk with “terrorists,” a category into which it lumped the entire opposition.

Instead, the opposition and the West are faulted for not permitting the Assad regime unilaterally to define the terms of dialogue. Does an experienced diplomat truly believe that this is how dialogue works, or negotiations? Dialogue occurs between parties with opposing views. Through dialogue, differences may be narrowed and areas of agreement and disagreement identified. Yet Van Dam’s view seems to be that the opposition and its supporters were reckless and foolhardy for not accepting the limits on dialogue or negotiation established by the regime. This blaming of the West, or the opposition, for its failure is both unbalanced and a significant distortion. Neither Arab, Western, or UN actors impose on the regime a conception of dialogue based on Assad’s removal from power as a prerequisite—as much as the opposition might have preferred such an approach.

This critique of Van Dam’s discussion of dialogue reflects a broader problem with his account. Much of the focus of his essay, and of his book, is on the mistakes of external actors who supported the opposition. Here too, as in his comments on dialogue, his main critique is that the US and Europe misread and misunderstood the Assad regime, imagining that it was more brittle than it turned out to be.  As a result, he says, the West offered false hope to and ultimately betrayed, both the opposition and the Syrian people by offering them political support, endorsing regime change, but not providing the resources needed to achieve those ends.

Without exonerating external actors, who are, as he rightly states, complicit up to their elbows in Syria’s conflict, the uprising really wasn’t about them, or perhaps I should say, about us.  We, all of us, Arabs, Turks, Americans, Europeans, Iranians, Russians, hijacked bits and pieces of Syria’s uprising for our own, conflicting purposes. In the process we have ensured, as Samer Abboud wrote in 2015, that “the role of international actors in militarily, financially, and politically backing their respective allies in Syria is perhaps the single largest factor explaining the continuity of the conflict, the fragmentation of political and military forces, the failure of reconciliation efforts, and the existing stalemate that is slowly fragmenting the country” (Abboud 2015, 120). These interventions have forever changed Syria, most of all in the human price Syrians have paid. But also in strategic terms. The country is now likely to be occupied by Iranian, Lebanese, and Russian forces for the foreseeable future, governed by a regime that conceded Syria’s sovereignty to ensure its own survival.

What sits uneasily alongside the factual record though, is whether the West in particular played the role that Van Dam assigns to it as the actor principally responsible for these outcomes. To understand why his views miss the mark we need to unpack the central assumptions that drive his critique.  The issues can be illustrated through two counterfactuals.  One is that had the West not intervened, the conflict would have been shorter and less violent. Research on the duration of civil wars offer some support for this counterfactual. But Syria is a tough case in which to prove it, and the actual intervention of the US in the conflict makes it all the harder.

The dynamics that drove the Syrian uprising toward militarization, the escalation of violence, sectarian polarization, fragmentation, and radicalization, were not created by external actors. They were certainly exploited by external actors – regional actors more than their Western counterparts – but the impetus for these trends were largely domestic. As for whether the US was an agent of militarization, recall that it was regularly blamed for standing in the way of arming the rebels, of not providing enough weapons, and not giving the opposition the sophisticated weapons it desperately needed. Instead, the US doled out pitiful quantities of arms, and tried, though often failed, to control their use. Unconscionably, it left Syrian citizens exposed to barrel bombs, ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, heavy artillery, and the combined might of Russian and regime air attacks.

Van Dam acknowledges that Western support fell short of Western pledges, yet nonetheless assigns the West the lead role in the destruction that should more accurately be laid at the feet of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons. My own preference was for the US to align its policies with its objectives in Syria, and equip local fighters more effectively to protect civilians and confront the regime. This never occurred. It was only with the onset of the campaign against ISIS, and America’s desperate search for local partners who could shoulder the burden of ground operations that the US unleashed its full destructive power against ISIS and other armed groups, joining Russia in air campaigns that left hundreds if not thousands of dead civilians in their wake.

What Van Dam’s tone of resigned inevitability about the fate of the abandoned opposition also obscures, moreover, is just how close it came to victory—without a lot of help from the West. At least twice, in mid-2013, the opposition came so close to defeating the regime that it forced Hezbollah to abandon its low-level and quiet presence in Syria for a far more extensive role in the regime’s defense. In mid-2015, the regime was widely believed, in Moscow and Tehran no less, to be so close to unravelling that Qasem Soleimani flew to Moscow to orchestrate what became the decisive turn in the military struggle-unleashing Russia’s air force and beginning the slow-motion collapse of opposition forces.

So the West, certainly the US, were marginal players in the provision of arms to the opposition. This fact notwithstanding, Van Dam roundly condemns this limited role as a collective failure—even though he rejects the utility of better equipping the opposition in the first place! What then is the West’s true failure, its most significant moral and political shortcoming? False hope. The West and the US, President Obama in particular, offered the Syrians hope and support, but never provided either.

Here we can pose a second counterfactual. What Van Dam seems to assume is that had Obama not described Assad as illegitimate (in August 2011, by which time more than 1800 protesters had been killed and 12,000 people detained), Syrians might not have arisen at all, or in such vast numbers, or with the illusion that they enjoyed American support. They might have accepted the futility of protest, recognized their cause as lost, and gone back to the lives they lived before March 2011.

Certainly, Obama’s words, as late as they were, did excite some Syrians and reinforce their determination to resist the Assad regime. And there is no question that there are many, many Syrians today who would, if they could rewind history, stay at home, so horrific has the cost of the uprising been. But how much difference did Obama’s statement truly make? How many Syrians who were not otherwise inclined to join the uprising did so because of his words? Almost certainly these numbers are very, very small. To argue otherwise is to dishonor the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who took to the streets of Deraa, and Homs, and Hama, and Latakia, and dozens of other towns and villages across Syria to peacefully demand political change, taking hope from one another, and from the discovery that they could, after all, speak, act, and protest, only to be met by the regime’s violence.

Ultimately, neither the question that Van Dam uses to title his essay, nor the entirely reasonable answer he offers, seems to have much connection with the account he provides of the conflict itself—an account which, as I have tried to show, is marred by troubling inconsistencies, gaps, and contradictions.  Van Dam is right, in my view. In the near future it will be the Assad regime that wins the war. I also share his view that the regime may find it much harder to win the peace—if peace is what we should call the means by which the regime will reimpose its authority over a society that will not soon forget its suffering at the regime’s hands. Fully understanding how we reached this point however, will require a more balanced and more complete account of the conflict’s history than the one provided by Van Dam.

Syria: Who will win the future? – By Nikolaos van Dam

Syria: Who will win the future?
BY Nikolaos van Dam – @nikolaosvandam 
Henriëtte van Lynden Lecture, Amsterdam, 9 November 2017 [1]

We all know that the situation in Syria has become a disaster. And one can ask oneself whether this disaster could have been foreseen and prevented.

I personally am convinced that the main developments in Syria could have been foreseen, certainly as far as the behavior (and misbehavior) of the Syrian regime were concerned. For many observers, however, all the cruelties at first went beyond their imagination; even though they could have been predicted – and were predicted – by some people having a deeper knowledge of the Syrian regime.

There were some essential elements, however, that could not have been clearly foreseen. One of these was the so-called “Arab Spring” that brought many Syrians in a kind of euphoric mood, after political leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya resigned or were toppled with the help of Western and Arab countries that proclaimed that they wanted to support or protect the Arab populations against their dictators or authoritarian rulers.

The peaceful Syrian demonstrators imagined at the time that they would be fully supported by the Western and Arab countries that had proclaimed that they wanted to help them. In the end, however, it turned out that this help was not only insufficient to achieve regime change, but it also contributed to a prolongation of the war with all its destruction and death.

Another element that was not foreseeable at the beginning of the Revolution was that the Syrian military opposition groups were going to receive substantial military aid from foreign countries like the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, enough to start a combination of a civil war and a war-by-proxy, but not enough to bring about the regime change they wanted. In fact, the war was initiated (in reaction to the atrocities of the regime) without, however, sufficient means and planning that this war against the regime could also really be won. Before engaging in the war, the interfering foreign countries should have sufficiently studied the military situation in order to be sure that their Syrian allies had a realistic chance of winning it; but they apparently did not.

The half-hearted military interventions of various foreign countries in Syria have in fact contributed to disaster. Most of the interfering countries (like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States, Iran, Russia and others) all had their own strategic interests and motives. These were not necessarily coinciding with the interests of the Syrian people; certainly not if one looks at the disastrous results. Therefore, the question seems justified whether or not the so-called “Friends of Syria” in the end really turned out to be “Friends of the Syrian People”. Those who supported the opposition groups, generally claimed that they wanted a political solution, but this solution in reality was intended to be regime change, if not peacefully – which was not going to happen anyhow – then with military force. But this did not work either, because the option of direct foreign military intervention was written off in 2013.

Russia and Iran intervened militarily because they wanted to safeguard the Syrian regime as an important strategic regional ally.

For Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it was important to remove Syria from the Iranian power orbit. And I have few illusions that it was the priority of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to military impose a political system on Syria that they did not have themselves: notably a secular pluralistic democracy.

The United States, who were never friends of the Syrian Ba’thist regimes, wanted the same as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as far as Iran was concerned, but they also welcomed a weakening of Syria to the advantage of Israel.

And Turkey wanted a like-minded Islamic regime in Damascus.

None of these foreign countries has achieved what they wanted, neither did the Syrian opposition.

Many politicians may have sincerely wanted to help the Syrian population against its oppressive regime, but for the bigger countries strategic interests were at least as important as humanitarian considerations.

It should have been clear from the very beginning in 2011 that the regime of Bashar al-Asad was not going to voluntarily give up its power position and resign. Thinking that al-Asad would step down or aside, as demanded by many Western and Arab political leaders, as well as by the Syrian opposition, may have been well intended and justified from their points of view, but it obviously was not going to happen. Which Syrian dictator has ever given up his position voluntarily, to be imprisoned or executed afterwards? None, of course.

The Syrian War was bound to happen, because Syria had been dominated for more than forty years under presidents Hafiz al-Asad and his son Bashar al-Asad, who managed to stay in power with the support of one all-powerful military faction with a highly reliable and effective security apparatus (also effective in the sense of severe repression). This resulted in a period of internal political stability and continuity, longer than ever before since independence. This continuity, however, was also linked to the absence of any substantial political reform or change in the composition of the ruling military elite, which implied the serious future possibility of strong discontinuity and disruption of the regime, once its long-serving political and military leaders would be endangered or would disappear. This so-called stability of the Asad regime, came to an abrupt end with the start of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011.

More than 20 years ago, I predicted (in my book The Struggle for Power in Syria)[2] – and it was not that difficult to predict – that any scenario leading to the overthrow of the Alawi-dominated power elite, would inevitably be extremely violent. After all, the regime had never tolerated any real opposition, let alone alternative military factions that might threaten its position. Serious opponents were generally put in prison, severely tortured or killed. It was all about maintaining regime power and interests, with the most repressive means.

Whereas the common sectarian, regional and family or tribal backgrounds of the Ba’thist rulers had been key to the durability and strength of their regime, the predominantly Alawi sectarian background of many of them was also one of its main weaknesses. This is because the “Alawi factor” (or the Alawi Gordian knot) is hindering a peaceful transformation from Syrian dictatorship towards a more widely representative regime.

During its rule, the Syrian Ba’th regime became the antithesis of its own ideals. The Ba’thists had wanted to do away with primordial loyalties like sectarianism, regionalism and tribalism, which, according to their ideology, were considered as despicable residues or illnesses of traditional society. But in practice, the ruling Ba’thists achieved exactly the opposite, because their sectarian-tinted behaviour strengthened in particular the factors which they claimed to abhor. Their ideals in the sphere of socialism and social equality could not be fulfilled either, because of the fact that their regime was infested with corruption, clientelism and favouritism. And their ideal of Arab unity could not be realized, because there was not any Arab leader who was prepared to share his powers with others. And last but not least: instead of being a Ba’th Party rule, the Syrian regime has become a kind of dynastic rule of the al-Asad family.

Nevertheless, and irrespective of the basic characteristics of the regime which should have been well-known, many Western and Arab politicians wanted President Bashar al-Asad and his regime to voluntarily step down, certainly after enough “naming and shaming” and “moral pressure” had been exercised by the numerous countries condemning him for all the atrocities the regime had committed when violently suppressing any opposition, including the large-scale demonstrations that took place all over Syria, many of them being peaceful.

But Bashar al-Asad stayed and refused to resign – as could have been predicted as well, if only because dictators generally do not follow the rules of democratic accountability.

The Syrian opposition, just like many foreign countries, however, kept insisting that al-Asad should disappear as president, and that he could not play any role in the “transitional period” leading to a new regime, let alone in the future of Syria; and that he should be court-martialled, for instance before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But Bashar al-Asad was in power in Syria, and therefore these demands rather constituted a guarantee that serious negotiations with the regime were not going to take place. The Syrian regime obviously was not prepared to negotiate its own departure and death sentence, and never has been.

The regime and the opposition have completely different views of what a compromise should look like, and without any form of serious dialogue, a political compromise is impossible. This does not necessarily mean, however, that if such a dialogue would start after all, that it would also yield real and substantial results, if only because the regime considers the Syrian War a struggle for its own survival, or a struggle for life and death.

Only by toppling the regime with military force, it might have been possible to effectuate regime change, but not any country has been able or willing to do so. Moreover, regime change by military force would not necessarily have meant that the situation would improve, taking the experiences in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan into account.

After more than six-and-a-half years, real dialogue is still being rejected by both the regime and the opposition, and the ever-increasing number of dead, the endless destruction and the millions of refugees have only strengthened the rejectionist attitude towards one another. Yes, both sides do want dialogue, but only if the other party does more or less exactly what is demanded by the opposing side, or, for instance, by United Nations Security Council resolution 2254 (the contents of which the regime refuses to carry out).

It is remarkable that the Syrian regime has not even made any serious effort to come to a compromise with the opposition that operates from within the country; and opposition members who have been active abroad and want to return into the so-called “lap of president al-Asad”, have been refused entry into the country.

The opposition, and bigger part of the so-called international community, have claimed time and again that they want a just solution, and therefore want the regime and its members to be made accountable for any crimes or war crimes committed. Taking this as a point of departure, they actually want to be sure beforehand that the negotiations will lead to the regime being court-martialled. In other words: they want to negotiate with the regime on condition that president al-Asad cannot play any role in Syria’s future, and, preferably, not either in the political transition that is supposed to lead to that future.

For the Syrian regime, on the other hand, “political transition” is perceived as a dirty word, because it implies a kind of regime change through a political transition, in which the regime has to share political power with its adversaries, and run the risk of being toppled.

If justice is to be done, it can only be done after a political solution has been reached, not before.

One can safely say that if president Bashar al-Asad wins the war militarily – and it looks that way – this does not mean that he has also achieved a victory in the political sense. Because in fact, all Syrians are the great losers in this terrible war.

The gigantic task of bringing Syria back to normal life in every sense, remains one of the weakest spots of the regime. Once this weak spot comes out more into the open, it should not be excluded that opposition against the regime will also grow from within.

Various Western politicians imagine that they can lure the al-Asad regime into political concessions and reform, in exchange for funding parts of the reconstruction of Syria. This is unrealistic, because it is founded on the same false presumption that existed during the last six years, that al-Asad will voluntarily make political concessions; in this case in exchange for foreign funds. Withholding reconstruction funds may hit al-Asad in one of his weakest spots: the economy. But it will also hurt the Syrian population under his control; and that is something most Western countries don’t want. Undoubtedly, there are other countries, like China for instance, that want to jump into the reconstruction of Syria. Participating in the reconstruction of the parts of Syria under control of the regime, without contacts with the al-Asad regime is impossible.

As a result of the War, there are many millions of traumatized and dissatisfied Syrians. Countless Syrians have lost family members, which has caused wounds that are going to stay, on all sides. Corruption, embezzlement, and local suppression have increased enormously as a result of the war economy. People who were supposed to be loyal to the regime, were not always loyal when it came to their personal and economic interests. To force those people, who have profited from the war economy, back into line, and to put the ghost of intensive social conflicts back into the bottle is extremely difficult, if not impossible without yet another settlement of accounts with those who are considered to be responsible for it. If Syria were a very rich country, it would perhaps be somewhat less difficult, but the fact that the social fabric of society and economic life are in ruins, makes it all the more difficult to restore so-called “normal life”.

Personally, I have for practical – and in my opinion also realistic – reasons been calling for dialogue with the al-Asad regime from the very beginning of the Syrian Revolution, because I saw this as a key element on the way to a solution. Most of the time, however, this position was rejected, because al-Asad was supposed to leave. But he did not of course.

With several hundred deadly victims, six-and-a-half years ago, dialogue would have been less difficult than it is now with the death toll going in the direction of half a million people.

Under the present circumstances, it should be expected that the regime will continue the war just as long as it has all Syrian territories under its control again. Whether or not this succeeds, also depends on the willingness of the foreign supporters of the military opposition to continue their aid, and whether, for instance, the United States would consider it worthwhile enough to risk a military confrontation with Russia over Syria. The territories under control of the opposition are among the few remaining bargaining chips, if foreign support is continued.

It should not be excluded, however, that foreign willingness to support the military opposition against the regime is decreasing, particularly after Da’ish has been defeated.

If you would ask me Who will win the future in Syria? my answer is that in the near future it will be the regime, because it is military the strongest. This does not mean, however, that the regime is bound to win the future of Syria in the longer term. There is always the possibility of a change of forces from within. And as long as there is no political solution, the possibility of a settling of accounts between enemies remains.

Whatever the case, serious efforts should be continued to help achieve a political solution, even if one is not fully convinced that the outcome will be a success.

That is why I have ended my new Syria book Destroying a Nation[3], with the words: “Miracles only happen when one keeps believing in them”.


*Nikolaos van Dam is a specialist on Syria and has served as Ambassador of the Netherlands to Indonesia, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. He served as the Netherlands’ spe­cial envoy to Syria during 2015-16. His most recent book is Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017),

[1] Symposium on “Syria: Who will win the future”, organized by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with Hadi al-Bahra (Political Committee Member of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces), Ibrahim Hamidi (Senior Diplomatic Editor of Al-Sharq al-Awsat) and Nikolaos van Dam (former Ambassador and Dutch Special Envoy for Syria) as speakers and Karin Wester as moderator.

[2] Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’th Party (London: I.B. Tauris, 4th edition, 2011)

[3] Nikolaos van Dam, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017),

“No Justice for Khan Sheikhoun,” by Aron Lund

On November 7—that’s tomorrow or tonight, depending on where you are—the UN Security Council will get together for a shouting match about the nerve gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun last April. A new UN-OPCW report has blamed that attack on Bashar al-Assad’s government, but, as you might expect, Russia does not agree.

The Century Foundation has just published my new report on what the UN says happened in Khan Sheikhoun and on Syria’s chemical weapons diplomacy, No Justice for Khan Sheikhoun.

In this report, I try to walk you through the main conclusions of the UN-OPCW’s Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, which are quite explosive. In a fascinating feat of investigative chemistry, OPCW scientists were in fact able to reverse-engineer the sarin nerve gas used in the attack, tracing the ingredients back to stockpiles held by the Syrian government in 2013—you know, the stockpiles that Americans and Russians agreed that Assad had to destroy.

To Western governments, this is as close to ironclad proof as you’re ever going to get that the Syrian government has both used chemical weapons, which is a war crime, and consistently broken its 2013 promises to disarm, and, also, that Russia is either actively complicit or completely useless in following up on its ally’s behavior.

To no one’s surprise, Russia doesn’t quite agree with that conclusion. Russian officials insinuate (and Syrian officials say) that it is a false flag operation, and Moscow has refused to change its mind even after the UN-OPCW investigation shot down most of the claims made by Russian and Syrian officials.

These disagreements now move into the UN Security Council, where Western nations seek some form of recognition of the report. They may also be looking for a punishment through sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would be in line with the agreement between the United States and Russia in 2013 and UN Security Resolution 2118, which stipulates that anyone who stores or uses chemical weapons in Syria will be hit with Chapter VII measures. Of course, Russia will accept nothing of the sort, dismissing the report completely.

As things stand, Moscow is threatening to shut down the UN investigations by vetoing a renewal of the investigators’ mandate when it expires on November 16. The Russians have already vetoed such an extension once (on October 24) but an extension proposal may of course come up again.

On the other side of the table, the United States and its allies are scrambling to figure out a way to save the UN-OPCW investigation while also pushing back against what they view as the abhorrent behavior of Moscow and Damascus. As a Plan B, they’re looking at ways to conjure up an alternative UN or OPCW body that could replace the current one and continue working to hold perpetrators of chemical attacks accountable.

They may find both of those things to be impossible. With its veto rights and a Syrian ally whose position is steadily improving, the Russians simply hold better cards.

In fact, Western priorities may also be changing subtly. Accountability remains the goal, but there seems to be a growing realization among American and European policymakers that Assad may still be in Damascus five, ten, or even twenty years from now. If he has in fact kept a stockpile of nerve gas, they need to figure out a practical way to deal with that.

Faced with this dilemma, many seem to want to continue down the current road of talks and inspections, even as they fume over Assad’s apparent noncompliance and hope for some form of accountability for the Khan Sheikhoun massacre and other attacks. Nonproliferation and disarmament tend to take precedence, however, and Western governments still want to keep Syria embedded in the OPCW’s system of inspections, because they see no other practical ways of keeping an eye on regime behavior, obstructing a restoration of old chemical weapons production lines, and preserving some faint hope of a full future disarmament.

It’s a tricky question, but it may also be an issue where new diplomatic options can open up as the war winds down. Yet for the victims in Khan Sheikhoun, justice is as far away as ever—and new attacks may follow.


Check out the report here, and for further reading, these links may also be of interest:

Who Will Usher the Middle East Into an Era of Peace? – By Sam Farah

Sam Farah

Who Will Usher the Middle East Into an Era of Peace
By Sam Farah – @txtwxe 
Syria Comment, Oct 23, 2017

In his book Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb offers a piercing observation: “The entire growth of a society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people. […] Only a few people suffice to disproportionately move the needle.”

This critical insight can be revolutionary when it comes to peace-building in the Middle East. Most observers blame the region’s conflicts on age-old issues of identity. They suggest that the people of the Middle East will have to evolve before the region reaches the political maturity of the Western World.

Robert Schuman

Robert Schuman

But only a handful of people changed the course of Europe; they ushered inan era of peace after decades of war, fascism, and dictatorship. Standing amid the destruction of the Second World War, a few determined European politicians and citizens aimed to eliminate the European ills of nationalism and war-mongering. These founding fathers stitched together what became the European Union with one treaty after another starting with the Schuman Plan of 1950. Up until that point in history, the world had only known empires and nation states. What these pioneering politicians built was nothing short of revolutionary and a paradigm shift in political organization.

The European Union was, and is, first and foremost a project to prevent war on the continent. With the European Coal and Steel Community, the first supranational organization since the emergence of nation-states, the Europeans gave up some national sovereignty over two important commodities without which it is difficult to wage war.  They allowed for the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor among its members, ceding sovereignty over their national borders.  And after decades of nation building on the basis of common languages, cultures, or race, they embraced multiculturalism and multilingualism as pillars of the new Europe. Today there is no official language in the E.U. All 24 languages are official languages.

The same masses that prior to the creation of the European Union were fighting ethnic wars, rallying behind fascists, and committing genocide across Europe, are today largely liberal and multicultural. In the mid-1970s, over 50% of Germans cited Konrad Adenauer as having done the most for Germany compared to 10% who named Bismarck. Only 22% of Germans thought they had more in common with other Germans of different social class than with French people of the same class (Haas 1997). This transformation cannot be attributed to the development and evolution of a population in such a short period of time; this transformation is largely the result of a new post nationalist framework built and pioneered by few people.

Winston Churchill

Today the Middle East political scene is dominated by nationalists and Islamists. Aggrieved and angry, they are fueling the beast of ethnic and religious rivalries that is feeding on their own societies. Both the nationalists and Islamists are suspicious of and deeply misunderstand the European project. Islamists see it as a reconstitution of Christendom, and nationalists in their characteristic winner-and-loser mindset, see it as a union of mature European nations to maintain its competitive advantage against other countries like the United States. These characterizations ignore the fact that Europe became a more secular and a less religious continent since the launch of the post nationalist European project, and that the United States’ military bases still pepper the continent.

But there have been two notable attempts to build a new post nationalist framework in the Middle East by people inside the region. President Bashar Al Assad of Syria in 2009 launched his “four Seas” project to build an economic and energy sphere linking the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf. His project found resonance in Turkey whose foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu had launched his own zero-problem initiative to improve relations with Syria, Iran, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan and even tried a rapprochement with Armenia. Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad extended his hand to Turkey against a chorus of objections from his own nationalists.

These two projects failed for several reasons. First, the major powers never backed the project. Unlike the European project where the United States offered a security and economic blanket to guarantee its success, in the Middle East, the United States wanted to isolate Iran. Later in the Arab Spring, Mr. Erdogan abandoned President Assad for a pan-Muslim Brotherhood project, hoping to revive the past glory of the Ottoman Empire.

After six years of war in Syria, the Astana peace process brought Iran and Turkey closer, and offers hope for a renewed effort for a new regional framework. This framework can begin with Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, with Russia and China offering a security and economic blanket to facilitate its success. This can be a nucleus to a broader post nationalist regional framework for peace that was described in an earlier article.

Some are urging the United States to support Kurdish nationalism, and to get more aggressive in rolling back Iran. Today, the Middle East is becoming less strategically important to the United States, hence there is a diminishing return to any further American entanglement in the region. Supporting a Kurdish separatist nationalist entity in a hostile neighborhood will require a tremendous financial and military commitment by the United States. And as Professor Landis has pointed out in his latest post, the United States’ effort to roll back Iran will cause more conflict and failed states.

If the goal is to change Iran’s behavior, find a solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and its neighbors, and to find a happy resolution to the Kurdish question, then Middle Easterners had better follow the European precedent of changing behavior by changing the regional framework. Cooperating with Russia and China as suggested by Zbigniew Brzezinski, to help the regional players build a new framework and chart a path to peace is the best strategy for the United States and its allies in the Middle East. If a small number of people can put their shoulders to the wheel of change, the Middle East need not be locked in territorial disputes and identity conflict. It can move toward regional cooperation, prosperity, and inclusion for all.

What the KRG’s Loss of Kirkuk Means for Iraq

Masoud Barzani image being destroyed in Kirkuk

Iraqi forces tear down a portrait of Masoud Barzani in Southern Kirkuk (Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP)

By Max J. Joseph

Too many takes on Kirkuk have left me cringing. From Kurds, Arabs, Westerners and pretty much everyone else. Observing the mixture of hysteria and celebration was profound and jarring enough to provoke me into this small piece of commentary. This piece won’t be focused on the small details concerning logistics and troop movements ongoing throughout the northern territories at the time of publishing, but what I think they represent and how we got here.

As part of my MSc thesis 8 years ago or so, I wrote that Kirkuk should be under Federal Government control and eventually given special status in accordance with Iraqi constitutional law, satisfying all segments of its diverse population. No part of that once relatively popular solution included the complete fragmentation and breakdown of Kurdish security forces and a political sundering so vast it might spell the end of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) itself. But that’s where we are now.


There is no doubt that including the “disputed” territories in the unilaterally imposed referendum is proving to be the fatal misstep (in quotes because I’ve never accepted the “dispute”, and don’t want to dignify KRG claims on lands belonging to Assyrians and other minorities outside of the KRI). The Barzani family and its allies within the PUK and other, smaller proxies made the calculation that they would have more leverage, more clout, and a tighter grip on the aspirations of the Kurdistan Region if they delivered this particular referendum question to the people, whatever the fallout afterwards.

Western actors made no secret of their opposition to it, nevermind regional actors such as Turkey and Iran. Nevertheless, the referendum was confirmed the night before its scheduled execution in all its shambolic glory. Voting patterns betrayed endemic corruption: ballot boxes were either stuffed or shuttled away secretly according to eyewitnesses, in keeping with previous elections and referenda conducted by the KRG. Residents were harassed by Kurdish asayish calling and knocking on their doors, state employees were bused to polling stations and watched over carefully by armed soldiers.

What was meant to be an expression of the Kurdish peoples’ legitimate will was transformed into a ploy by illegitimate KRG leaders to have more cards to play in their negotiations with Baghdad. The miscalculation on the KRG’s part was thinking these negotiations would even take place given the nature of the referendum question put forward, or how much it would provide Baghdad a newfound confidence to reject any meeting using its result as a staging ground for any deal-making.

Kirkuk was the only thing the KRG could easily be isolated on, as opposed to lands further north where more complications would have arisen in response to this kind of assertive display of Federal authority. Even with these complications however, it seems Federal Government forces are pushing further north after their political victory in Kirkuk, with reports of peshmerga positions being abandoned in Sinjar and the rest of the Nineveh Plain. The KRG gambled and lost, and that was very much the Barzani family’s call. Greed is a horrible thing, and it remains their cardinal sin.

KDP vs PUK and the Rhetoric of Treachery

A lot of statements, party-focused slander and rumours are circulating among KRG media and Kurdish individuals in the aftermath of Kirkuk. The infighting and self-flagellation really is something to behold. Yet, it truly boggles the mind how this is being interpreted, especially from my vantage point (of being underground and looking up at this mess).

Some Kurds are saying that the lack of bloodshed and violence on the part of the peshmerga and its commanders represents a grand betrayal. That they should have defended the city against all comers. Ex Governor Karim desperately asked ordinary citizens to take up arms and resist before he himself fled to Erbil. Peshmerga commanders were interviewed by KRG media and they promised “massacres” if Kirkuk was approached by Federal forces. None of this happened, and there is a weird air of regret and mourning wafting around the commentary on the internet.

The relevant point here on Kirkuk remains the same for me: the city should be administered in a fair way which represents the people of the city, and not as a vehicle to fill the coffers of the Barzani family. Individuals aligned with the KDP and PUK have taken to social media and declaring each other traitors. No doubt, images of peshmerga crying after having fled can be categorized as the anguish of terrified soldiers, of stolen hopes and dreams, and worry for family members. But why has it even come to this? Why was it so important for the KRG to assert itself as the sole overseers of a clearly heterogeneous city which they could be cornered on and forced into an embarrassing withdrawal in this way?

The KRG, dominated for years by the politically bankrupt KDP, were stubborn enough to go ahead with the referendum in the face of almost universal opposition. The problem was that they went one step further by incorporating post-2014 newly conquered lands into the question. I’ve said this so many times: acquiring leverage for expansion and not independence had always been the purpose of the referendum. The KDP et al had calculated that they needed ownership of Kirkuk’s oil for any prospect of independence, so expansion was the first priority. From the peoples’ perspective, there simply is no real independence with a black market economy controlled by autocrats. The referendum was a heist, and Baghdad was gradually emboldened enough to foil it.

This is not meant to antagonize the rights, well-being and desire for self-determination of the Kurdish people. All people should have equal rights and be free to live in dignity. What is beyond doubt for me however is how people are expected to do this under the auspices of a kleptocratic mafia? Did Kurds really think it was possible?

“Big Picture” Nationalism

A phrase I’m sarcastically coining these days: big picture nationalism is a brand of nationalism that whitewashes the historical and present crimes and failures of leaders within a community (for the greater good they are hoping for).

So many people have decried the use of Western armour and weapons deployed in the reassertion of Federal authority in Kirkuk displacing the peshmerga, but where was the outrage when Western weapons were used by KDP-controlled Rojava Peshmerga units against local Yazidi fighters in Sinjar?

So many people have lamented this historic retreat from Kirkuk, but where were the lamentations for Yazidis and Assyrians when Peshmerga disarmed and abandoned them to ISIS in 2014, only to return years later and declare themselves their liberators and bosses? (Is oil is more important than lives?)

So many people have demonstrated against actions targeting the Kurdish people, but why is there so much silence in the face of an illegitimate and divisive president with countless deaths on his head?

So many people are calling the PUK traitors when big picture nationalism entails they probably support the whims of a family who collaborated with Saddam against his own people after Anfal to retain power.

In the face of genocide, absolutely untold levels of corruption, and a list of betrayals so damning nobody should be allowed back from, Barzani’s regime and its policies still enjoy the support (albeit begrudging in many parts) of large segments of the local Kurdish population. It seems to me that there is the vague hope that these lands and therefore Kurdistan’s future can and should be secured in any way possible, even if it means backing a tyrant. It is this dream of Kurdistan first and then we can deal with Barzani’s dictatorship later, when in reality, the only thing that is real right now is Barzani’s dictatorship. Yet a little voice calls out: free yourself from this ghetto and perhaps greater freedoms lie ahead.

Unless this is meaningfully addressed by the Kurdish people, dreams will remain dreams, and wounds and divisions will deepen. When Kurds voted “yes” to Barzani’s referendum, they weren’t voting on independence, they were voting on the legitimacy of the actors who were administering it and their own sordid ambitions. People know that al-Abadi can be voted out if he fails to deliver. That is reassuring and it makes him act accordingly. Barzani has never had such pressure, and that is a large part of why we are where are today.

The KRG: One of the Biggest Failures in Governance in Recent Memory?

Even with billions of dollars in funding and aid, weapons, mentoring, Western hand-holding and protection, a near enough limitless output of propaganda, media access, long-term concentrated lobbying efforts, and backing from every section of Western society, the KRG has proven to be fundamentally inept at good governance. After all, what has all of this time and energy produced? A redundant parliament, shadowy institutions, fatally divided and bickering security forces built along tribal lines— all being sucked through a fiscal black hole. That is the sum of everyone’s investment and support.

Imagine pinning your hopes and dreams regarding the protection of Kirkuk on a fighting force that’s dependent on already alienated foreign powers for its salaries. Its no wonder a faction of the PUK reportedly caved to Baghdad’s authority, setting off the unfolding domino effect in Kirkuk and the wider region. Its no wonder Federal troops have entered unopposed into Sinjar. Its no wonder Peshmerga are reportedly withdrawing from positions in Bashiqa and other areas in Nineveh.

Assyrians and many other people in territories the KRG have expanded into are literally praying for the sight of Baghdad-aligned armour rolling through their neighbourhoods and tearing down newly installed portraits of Barzani. That is the reality of how bad the KRG is perceived, but you wouldn’t know it because of all of the media noise and heckling. With Baghdad, minorities are one degree of separation from sovereign power. With the KRG, we are two degrees away, and underneath a layer of corruption and nepotism so thick we can’t see any route up and out.

Yes, there is relative security in the KRG, but that is because it is a police state. Yes, you will be safe if you swear allegiance, not to a feudal king or a lord one thousand years ago, but a political party in the information age. Yes, you might start resenting the current regime, but you can’t criticize it and there is no hope it will ever change. If there was any hope, the KDP would not still be the only dominant party, and its opposition would not be as pathetic and skeletal as they are now. Where is the alternative? Where is the anger manifesting inward and producing change?

The Federal Government, for all its innumerable faults, is more democratic. There is more potential to improve, to access things, to change things, and to work towards something than there is with the tribalism and patronage systems defining the KRG. That is backed up by democratic elections and a functioning parliament. What remains dysfunctional today in Baghdad has more scope to be fixed but the same cannot be said of the KRG. Minorities need strong central government, because strong central governments are the only bodies who can afford to decentralize. They are secure enough to do so.


With emerging reports of Federal forces arriving in Sinjar and Bashiqa and the ensuing peshmerga retreat from those areas (their second mass retreat in three years against two different forces) it still remains to be seen how far these Federal forces will go. If they arrive in Alqosh, the besieged town in the far north of the Nineveh Plain, there will be a joyous celebration by its residents. Alqosh’s residents proudly waved Iraqi flags which served to protest the removal of their mayor and imposition of the KDP stooge, Lara Yousif Zaia, as well as make clear their position on the KRG-imposed referendum on their town (which went ahead, returning over 4000 yes votes, despite reality on the ground indicating no more than 400 people voted, and overwhelmingly “no”).

Asserting Federal authority back into Nineveh after years of KDP domination represents a loosening of the noose around the necks of resident minority groups. From being sidelined and co-opted and divided politically, having their lands stolen, and their security totally unreliable — these groups were on the brink of annihilation. Going forward, this arrangement should now halt, or perhaps even reverse.

The security vacuum left by the peshmerga will now be filled by federal forces and aligned groups— meaning for Yazidis, PMU forces aligned with the Federal Government and for Assyrians, the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU). With the NPU, Assyrians already have in place a trained fighting force (recognized by the US and the coalition) ready to be bolstered, equipped and expanded by the Federal Government in our ancestral lands.

Understating how important this is does the NPU’s political mission and its ideological foundation a disservice — this is a force of Assyrians from Nineveh who had formed as a response to ISIS’ onslaught on their towns. They have partaken in the liberation of Assyrian towns and villages alongside the Iraqi Army and coalition forces, but have been cut off from the Northern Nineveh Plain by the expanded peshmerga line which has isolated towns such as Telskuf, Alqosh, Batnaya, and Bashiqa, where many of the NPU’s soldiers are from.

Recent events are proving that their political positioning within the Iraqi security landscape has been astute and well-informed. Many have doubted their alignment, their purpose and even their refusal to engage in armed conflict with peshmerga forces encircling Assyrian towns, but this patience and pragmatism is seemingly paying off with the reassertion of Federal authority.

Every End is a New Beginning

I say this with no real exaggeration: Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has played his hand masterfully. Between taking the fight to ISIS, controlling the Hash’d al Shabi, managing relationships with Western powers as well as Turkey and Iran, navigating the crash in oil prices, plus the fractious relationship with the KRG, he has genuinely proven to be a very capable leader. His re-election after four years in office looks almost a certainty now.

The KRG in had everything seemingly on its side. Any misstep by the Federal Government would have been magnified as a disaster, but these missteps have not transpired. What has instead come to pass has been a considered and assertive approach by the Federal Government, even in the face of endless provocation by the KRG and regional powers. Where people have tried to escalate matters and call for blood, al-Abadi has called for calm and reconciliation. Consider this for a moment: Federal forces marched into oil-rich Kirkuk (some commentators hilariously started dubbing it “the Kurds’ Jerusalem”, or “the new Kobane”) almost without incident. They made no secret of their intention to do this in the days preceding and it came about as a result of political deal-making headed by al-Abadi in the background.

I am not going to speculate on where the KRG goes from here, if it goes anywhere at all. It just seems cruel at this stage given the deluge of rumours abound regarding regional fractures and new alliances. What is clear is that this crisis is one the Kurdish people must address in a room full of mirrors — something I’m not optimistic about given an amplification of the ruinous siege mentality cultivated by the old parties. Nevertheless, there is nobody left to blame for this state of affairs but their own, admittedly unelected leaders.

What many Kurds deem a betrayal, I cant help but feel relieved that very little blood was shed. Kurdish affairs have long orbited around the bloated and parasitical old parties and their whims. These chronic failings, which I and others who have been attacked, derided, and mocked for repeatedly pointing out, have been endemic and unaddressed for years. Now you can see the fruits of these failings and how they have contributed to Iraq growing in confidence as a sovereign state, a state many were classifying as “failed”, in the most volatile region in the world. If the heavily maligned, “failed” Iraqi state managed to completely outmaneuver the KRG politically and militarily, how inept must the latter be, considering the support it has received?

As always, I return to the Assyrian perspective. For us, recent events illustrate a resurgent Iraq, and I think (with a healthy degree of caution and hesitation) that may be a good thing for us and our future in the country. No doubt, it’s clear that the collapse of KRG positions in the disputed territories has been welcomed by the vast majority of Nineveh’s residents and the worldwide diaspora, but much hard work lies ahead in undoing a decade of hurt and neglect by both the KRG and the Federal Government respectively. We should enter this new epoch with open minds, but with the knowledge that things may quickly descend into oppression and tyranny once again. We know the signs now. Call them out ruthlessly and say “never again.”


Max J. Joseph is an Assyrian artist and writer focusing on minority group issues within the Middle East. His work has included presenting research within the European Parliament detailing the security situation for minorities in the Nineveh Plain, Iraq. He holds a BA Philosophy and an MSc International Public Policy, where his thesis centered on addressing the Assyrian question in Iraq post-2003.

Trump’s Iran Policy is More about Rollback Than Nukes; It Will Cause More Failed States – by Joshua Landis

Trump’s Iran Policy is More about Rollback Than Nukes; It Will Cause More Failed States
by Joshua Landis
Syria Comment – Oct 14, 2017

The renewed US offensive against Iran is not so much about its nuclear capability or even its missile program; it is about Iran rollback and hobbling its economy.

Ever since President Obama signed the Iran agreement, howls of disapproval were heard from both Israel and a number of Gulf States, which were not dismayed so much at the sunset clause on Iran’s nuclear refinement as they were at Iran’s escape from economic sanctions. The real danger, in their eyes, is Iran’s economic break out and potential success. The more money Iran has, the more it can consolidate the success of its Shiite allies in the region: Hezbollah, the Syrian government and the Iraqi government.

President Trump’s latest announcement follows increased U.S. sanctions on both Hezbollah and Syria, as well as increased aid to Syria’s Kurds in their effort to expand territorially. It is the latest in a policy of rollback that has been developing for some time. It is a policy that both Saudi Arabia and Israel have been pushing on Trump. It is one that also suits his personality as well as the inclinations of his military advisers because it means supporting friends and hurting enemies. It represents the opposite of Obama’s effort at balancing Sunnis and Shiites along with Saudi Arabia and Iran, not to mention his effort to distance the U.S., ever so slightly, from Israel.

Although, the much ballyhooed “land bridge” from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria cannot be severed by the US army, a high price for building it can be exacted against Iran and its Shiite allies. They can be weakened economically, which is the point of scuttling the Iran deal. The West is also likely to boycott any reconstruction effort in Syria. The new anti-Iran policy will have a profound and far reaching impact on the region. It will ratchet up Sunni-Shiite hostility as well as beggar more countries.

1. The US can rollback Iran by increasing its military and diplomatic support for the Kurds. They will be drafted into a new role of fighting Iranian influence, now that their role in fighting ISIS is nearing completion. Indeed, right wing think tanks in Washington, such as the Institute for the Study of War, are pushing just such a Kurdish led war against the “Iranian back government of Iraq” in their latest publication: The “war after ISIS begins in Iraq.”


The Kurds can be used to push back against Iran’s Shiite allies in Baghdad and Damascus. The US will line up with the Kurds in their effort to acquire territory and fossil fuel resources over which they are competing with Arab neighbors in places such as the Euphrates valley. The US has recently warned Syrian forces not to come north of the Euphrates, even to fight ISIS. This is done to deny the Assad regime the cluster of ISIS held gas fields north of the Euphrates that Assad needs to fund reconstruction. The US seems determined to help the YPG (pro-US, Kurdish-led forces) capture the gas fields for itself, despite the fields’ location in Arab-majority regions. The US presence in Syria will become quasi-permanent as the US commits itself to shoring up an ever larger state for the Kurds. They do not have an air force and cannot compete against either the Turkish or Syrian armies without continued US backing.

2. An expanded US alliance with Kurdish nationalism will further alienate Turkey, driving Ankara deeper into alliance with Iran and Russia.

3. Iran is unlikely to back away from this challenge. It will escalate. Let’s explore how it might escalate.

Until recently, Iran believed that it had won in the northern Middle East by securing victory for Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and the Shiites of Iraq against ISIS and the Sunni Arab rebels of Syria and Iraq. In fact, the US was in alliance with Iran in its fight against ISIS, until now. Nasrallah, Assad and Abadi have all been crowing about their common victory and success. They believed that they had come through the storm to build a new security architecture in the Levant: one that links the northern tier of pro-Iranian Arab states in a common front against their Sunni, Israeli, and American rivals. (It worth recalling that there are more Shiite Arabs collectively in these three countries than there are Sunni Arabs, so the victory of Shia forces is neither unexpected nor solely due to the success of US and Russian air power in killing Sunni rebel forces in Iraq and Syria.) To consolidate their victory, Shiites have recently been seeking to smooth over some of the harsher sectarian animosities that had grown up in wartime. Visits were arranged between Iraqi Shiite politicians (Sadr) and Saudi Arabia as well as Iranian mullahs and Saudi clerics. But efforts at diplomacy, reconstruction, and a return to politics as usual will come to a quick stop.

a. Iran will return to its sectarian cultural offensive to mobilize its allies. It will fight rollback. Saudi Arabia and its allies are mobilizing as well. We should see its spat with Qatar as part of this effort.
b. Iran and allies may blow up US troops in Iraq & Syria. An Oct. 12 Wapo article By Kareem Fahim and Liz Sly suggests just that:

A roadside bomb that killed an American soldier in Iraq this month was of a particularly lethal design not seen in six years.

c. The Yemen war will surely be a fruitful battleground, scuttling hope of diplomatic or political progress toward a de-escalation.
d. Libya too.

There are few American troops in the region, so the US can get the best of Iran in most of these areas, but US success is likely to be Pyrrhic.

New sanctions and bounties on Hezbollah leaders, Syrian businessmen and politicians, and on the IRGC will gum the efforts of the countries of the Levant to pull out of their downward economic and political spiral. The US-Turkish relationship seems bound to go from bad to worse. Of course, Erdogan is to blame for much of this, but it takes two to tango. By siding with Kurdish nationalism, the US has hastened Turkey’s lurch toward Russia and Iran. I believe that Syria’s Kurds deserve their autonomy and eventual independence, but now that they have won against ISIS, the time is ripe for negotiations and diplomacy, not escalation. The Kurds should be trying to consolidate their victory, not expand it. The US should be helping the Kurds to open negotiations with Turkey and Assad, not escalate conflict.

Rollback will produce more failed states in the region. Iran is vulnerable, as are all the other states of the region. The Iranian economy grew by 6% in 2016 and is expected to grow another 5% this year, according to Iran’s Central Bank. $8 billion of foreign direct investment has been attracted to Iran since sanctions were lifted. Only $32 billion in FDI had been secured in the previous 18 years. Iranian officials estimate that they need 1 million new jobs per year to dry up the 3.4 million unemployed people. Iran has been missing its earlier targets of 350,000 new jobs per year.

Renewed and increased sanctions on Iran, Lebanon, and Syria are unlikely to produce compromise and agreement. Rather, they will produce escalation and entrenchment. The human misery of the region will increase. For the first time in almost a century Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are on friendly terms. This presents them with the opportunity to build common oil and gas pipelines, highway networks and trade. The US should be allowing the countries of the region to rebuild and to produce more economic wealth, not attempting to thwart it. In the long run, such a spoiler policy will produce less democracy, less security, and more radicalization. How does the US define success in the region?

Minorities and the Kurdish Referendum—by Alda Benjamen


This article was originally published Sept. 29, 2017 by the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and can be accessed here.


Minorities and the Kurdish Referendum

by Alda Benjamen


“We must write a new constitution for the region [Kurdistan Regional Government] that guarantees the rights of all components, and reassures them of their role in writing the constitution for an independent Kurdistan. We need a new national anthem, and changes to the Kurdistani flag so that it includes symbols of the components and is reflective of all.”1

–Masoud Barzani, August 2017

“In addition to the threat which this war has aimed at the existence and legitimate aspirations of our people, both Kurds and Assyrians, it has brought disaster and affliction upon all its victims, deprived the people of Kurdistan, particularly the Assyrians and the Kurds, of education and health [needs], and rendered tens of thousands of them refugees. All these [calamities] have been inflicted upon us only because we have claimed the basic and legitimate human and national rights, to which we, like any other people, are entitled.”2

–Mustafa Barzani, 1967

Faced with reluctance towards and outright rejection of the Kurdish referendum, Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has turned to minorities for support. Under increased pressure and feeling more isolated, Kurdish politicians are resorting to a tactic they abandoned in 2003: negotiating with minorities. The similarities between the two quotations above, half a century apart, are revealing of an earlier period of political maneuvering and cross-communal partnership. Is it too late for negotiations? And have the historic links – cultural, economic, political – connecting the diverse ethno-religious communities in this region become too disrupted?

Kurds celebrating in Erbil, Iraq, on September 27, 2017 after the results of the independence referendum were announced. Photo: Ivor Prickett/NYT

Though treated as welcome “guests” of the Kurdistan Regional Government, many of these “components,” to use Barzani’s term, are historic communities indigenous to the region. They include ethno-religious and linguistic groups, like the Assyrians, an Aramaic-speaking community belonging to a handful of Syriac Christian denominations; the Yezidis; and the Turkomen. Over the course of the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first, all of these communities have experienced dramatic shifts in their status. With the rise of nationalist and extremist ideologies, several events (Genocide of 1915, Simele Massacre 1933, Anfal Campaign 1988, and most recently ISIS) have precipitated significant declines in their numbers.

Kurdish policymakers and diplomats in the US have attempted to present the KRG as providing a safe haven for minorities that have escaped persecution in the rest of Iraq. This narrative, however, should be challenged on a few grounds.

The Kurds and Assyrians have deep cultural roots across the same region, and members of both communities began migrating to major urban centers in the second half of the twentieth-century in search of better educational and employment opportunities, mainly in the oil and transportation districts (Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basra). Following the civil war in 1961 between the Iraqi state and the Kurds, who were supported by various Assyrian groups and Iraqi leftists, many Assyrian villages were destroyed. The 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iraq and Iran put an end to Iranian support for the Iraqi opposition, and saw the onset of government campaigns against Kurdish and Assyrian villages along the Turkish and Iranian borders that persisted into the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of Assyrian villagers were displaced, and their crops and cultural sites were destroyed. Most were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and relocated in central and southern parts of the country. Iraq’s Ba‘ath regime subjected the Kurds and other groups inhabiting the territorial remit of today’s KRG to forced demographic movement – particularly in oil-rich Kirkuk, which was heavily populated by non-Arabs.

Though divided by periods of violence – for example, the Kurds were deployed by the Ottoman state in the 1915 Genocide against Assyrian and Armenian minorities, whose removal they ultimately benefited from economically – the Kurds and Assyrians have shared a similar fate, pursuing common political goals for most of the twentieth century. Both communities historically leaned left, joining parties espousing secular, nonsectarian principles. Kurds and Assyrians subscribed to leftist ideals that supported workers’ and farmers’ rights. Moreover, the pro-Iraqist political stance of leftist parties appealed to Assyrians and Kurds alike, who felt alienated from Arab nationalist and conservative ideologies.

Both economically and culturally marginalized, and under the influence of the powerful Barzani network, Assyrians joined the Kurdish uprising of 1961. Later, in the 1980s, Assyrians participated in the formal Iraqi opposition. In the early 1970s, 3,000 Assyrian men enlisted in the battalion of the Higher Committee for Christian Affairs in the north. In 1982 the Assyrian Democratic Movement – a political party founded by Assyrian students and youth – moved its bases to the north. Eventually, thousands joined its militia, which fought Saddam’s authoritarian regime alongside Kurdish and other Iraqi opposition groups. It is this momentous demonstration of Kurdish-Assyrian unity that Mustafa Barzani, leader of the KDP and father of Masoud Barzani, invokes in his 1967 statement.

Following the first Gulf War, the Kurdistan Regional Government was created in 1991, presiding over the safe haven and no-fly zone established by the United States and protected by coalition forces. Under this political configuration, the region’s identity was ethno-nationally Kurdish, but Kurdish leaders made room for Assyrians in the public sphere and civil society. However, disputes began to emerge when Assyrians, displaced by the Ba‘ath regime, sought to return and rebuild their villages now populated by Kurds. Lawsuits have been filed in Kurdish courts relating to 45 or so villages, with little or no effect, and new violations against other villages continue.

After Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘athist government fell in 2003, Assyrian groups active in the opposition turned south to negotiate with the new government in Baghdad. The KDP leadership felt betrayed, preferring to take the lead in discussions involving its “components.” Territories heavily populated by minority communities along the KRG borders, though officially under Mosul’s administration, came to be contested between the central and regional governments. Minorities preferred to administer their regions locally, as was allowed by the Iraqi constitution. Concerned that its territorial goals were being undermined, the KRG co-opted minorities by creating and funding civil society organizations and political groups on whose loyalty it could depend.3 More directly coercive methods followed, which included preventing ballot boxes from reaching contested territories and blocking the creation of independent local police forces. This last step would foreshadow the break in relations between the KRG and minority communities following the 2014 ISIS invasion. As both the Peshmerga, the KRG’s military arm, and Iraqi government forces withdrew from Nineveh and Sinjar, leaving Assyrians and Yezidis to face ISIS’ brutal onslaught alone, community leaders rallied to form independent local forces, as they had done just two decades before.

In a lecture delivered earlier this year, Dr. Muna Yaku, assistant professor of law at Salahaddin University-Erbil, suggested that for minorities to feel fully engaged with the referendum they must have real dialogue with Kurds on equal terms, instead of being treated as guests. She highlighted KRG violations against minority communities ranging from political manipulation of quota seats, the continuation of forced demographic change, and the exclusion or misrepresentation of minorities within educational curricula.4 Dr. Yaku was chosen to represent Christians in a committee formed to amend the KRG constitution, but eventually she withdrew in protest at violations of minority rights.5 Similarly, Dohuk native Ashur Sargon Eskrya, President of the Assyrian Aid Society-Iraq, recalling atrocities experienced by minorities, insisted: “When our Assyrian Christian people are facing challenges that affect their national existence on their historic lands…the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples must be adopted in a manner that preserves for our people the right to self-determination and the preservation of their lands and cultural and social heritage, as well as all peoples of the world.”6

A day before the referendum, the high committee for KRG’s referendum issued a declaration guaranteeing the rights of minorities.7 Many community leaders have since criticized that statement, calling it unbinding and shortsighted.8 Whether the referendum drives the KRG to independence or stifles it in the face of mounting pressure, the discussion that led up to it has highlighted the need to revive real and transparent dialogue between the Kurdish leadership and minority leaders, as well as between civil society groups and intellectuals on both sides. Relations between the two will take time to normalize, but engaging with politically independent, local representatives of minorities is a step in the right direction. It is important to remember that only a few decades ago, the Kurds themselves insisted on their community’s rights to full political participation.


Dr. Alda Benjamen specializes in the history of the modern Middle East; in particular she focuses on twentieth-century intellectual, cultural and social history of Iraq and Syria, Middle Eastern minorities and their transnational networks, and women and gender issues. As a postdoctoral Researcher at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, University of Pennsylvania Museum, she examines cultural heritage in times of conflict, focusing on intangible heritage within agricultural domains.

2. Department of State, Division of Language Services (Translation), LS No. 10056, T-58, Arabic, April 22, 1969, “The Honorable William Rogers, Secretary of State of the United States of America,” 1.
3. Alda Benjamen, “Assyrians in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains: Grassroot organizations and Inter-Communal Conflict.” The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq no. 6-1 (Spring 2011): 13-20.
4. “A lecture by Dr. Muna Yaku on the future prospects for the region and the view of our peope,” Facebook video, 18:52, posted by “Radio Ashur,” February 12, 2017,…
6. Ashur Sargon Eskrya statement was issued on the on the tenth anniversary of the UNDRIP, September 13, 2017, on his facebook page.
7. ;
8. ;

Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed? by Landis, Itani, Simon

Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed?
by Joshua Landis, Faysal Itani, Steven Simon
For Syria Comment, 1 October 2017

Faysal Itani, a Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, questioned whether the United States would stand by the Kurds of north Syria, a prediction that I made in a recent interview with Avery Edelman at Syria Direct.

This is what Faysal wrote:

I read your Syria Direct interview today. Very interesting stuff, and I agree with most of it, though I have a couple of questions.

You seem very positive about the emergence of an effectively autonomous ‘Rojave’. Why the positivity? I don’t see the KRG analogy at play. The KRG is run by intelligent and savvy kleptocrats. The PYD are ethno-Maoist quasi-totalitarians, and as far as Turkey is concerned they are the PKK. They are excellent as light-infantry, and dominating rivals, but little else. I believe Turkey will snuff them out at the first opportunity, with regime help for that matter.

The only circumstance under which I can see Rojave surviving at all is behind an American shield. You present a compelling argument for why you think that will be in place – namely, balancing against Iran and Russia. But I can’t bring myself to believe we would stick around in the middle of an incredibly hostile environment such as Syria (McGurk and co. insist we will not, but they could be wrong or lying). Iran, Russia, and the regime would all have an interest in sabotaging it. And in this age of American small-timerism, are we going to defend the place? The idea of doing so just to push back on Iran seems a bit abstract…

I also couldn’t figure out whether you were sanguine about Syria’s future, or pessimistic. Or is that just a question of timeframe? 🙂 .  Take care, F

My (Joshua Landis) Response to Faysal:


Good questions. I have no real insight into the policy making of this administration – you are much closer to it than I — so everything you say could be correct and I haven’t appreciated the real impermanence of US ambitions. I have certainly considered the possibility that the US will simply pull the rug out from under the PYD after seeing them to the Euphrates, much as Kissinger did to the Iraqi Kurds in 1976.

My hunch – and it is only a hunch – is that the US will like what it has conquered once its begins to survey the land and once the Kurds begin to whispering in US ears about the beautiful relationship they can build together. The Kurds will also send up a hue and cry about being cut to pieces and abandoned by the Perfidious US. I think the Kurds are building a constituency in Washington. See the op-ed by Ron Prosor, former Israeli Ambassador to the UN in the NYTimes. Israel is certainly a backer, which still counts for something in Washington. Turkey is no longer a country the US can count on; although it certainly has more ballast and importance than the puny, start-up Kurds.

My bet is that it will become very hard for the US to withdraw from Syria in the future, despite McGurk’s assurances to the contrary. Every Washington think-thank is begging us to stay in Syria and thwart the evil Ruskies and Majousies.

We always seem to get stuck in these tribal regions of questionable strategic worth – witness Afghanistan or Somalia. Why in the world did we just double down in Afghanistan? I know you will tell me that our national reputation depends on it. Afghanistan was a MAJOR investment, unlike the Kurds, who are a sideshow. No president will want responsibility for losing Afghanistan, etcetera, etcetera.

But aren’t these the same arguments that will be resurrected to convince the US to remain in Syria? Washington think thanks will argue – and with some justification – Syria is inexpensive. We can just keep a few troops there to do the job (This is what Hassan Hassan and Weiss have been arguing). Assad is a paper tiger. His army is shot. He has no men. Only Iran and Russia keep him standing. (This is what Tabler is arguing). A few Ranger outposts will do the job. Keep a few US jets policing the line over the Euphrates. Anyway, we need to make sure that IS or something worse doesn’t rear its ugly head in the future. Most importantly we have to cut off the Iranian land bridge (ISW makes this argument) We have to stand up for our allies and punish our enemies (This is what Michael Doran and Smith argue).

And let’s not forget the human rights problem. “How can we allow the Kurds to be massacred by Chemical Bashar? Haven’t we thrown the Kurds under the bus too many times since Woodrow Wilson promised them autonomy? This time must be different.” All good arguments.

I wrote only a few months ago that I did not think that the US should rush into easter Syria, but should instead limit the expansion of the PYD and SDF to Kurdish majority regions in order not to complicate the map of Syria and to suck the US into the swamp of ethnic and religious battles that is sure to rage in the future. I recommended letting Assad and the SAA do the job of killing ISIS in the Arab parts of Syria. Every Washington pundit attacked this view – save for a very few. Even those who spoke up to support this view (such as Sam Heller) were timid in expressing such a “real-politic” and seemingly heartless view. I think it is less heartless than building up expectations that cannot be met, which the US has done time and again in Syria.

Anyway, Washington hasn’t followed this policy. It announced a “no go zone” for Syria north of the Euphrates, even though much of that land is majority Arab. McMaster has been talking about how it has been a mistake for the US to have allowed Assad to make the progress that he has made. McMaster recommends the pocketification of Syria and standing by rebel militias, even if they serve no strategic purpose other than to simply weaken Assad.

As for the philosophical and ideological prejudices of the PYD –  “The PYD are ethno-Maoist quasi-totalitarians, and as far as Turkey is concerned they are literally PKK. They are excellent as light-infantry, and dominating rivals, but little else.” Their totalitarian Marxist roots don’t bother me. Everyone in the region has some sort of totalitarian upbringing. The Kurds are doing a fine job or rebranding themselves as liberal, women liberating, egalitarian democrats who support town councils and civil society when they aren’t saving minorities.

I know you might say that such propaganda is only window dressing and might warn about the true nature of xenophobic nationalism that will express itself as soon as the Kurds get a chance to drive out Arabs, Assyrians, etc., and steal their land. You would probably be right – but I don’t expect many in Washington to actually express such commonsense truths very loudly, as they would quickly be accused of being Kurd haters and Assad lovers.

Again, I don’t know what the US will do in the future. But ever since we jumped into Kobani in defiance of Turkey and in support of the Kurds, I believe that we have been building a new strategic position in the region that will be very difficult to back away from. It has a logic. Turkey clearly sees that logic and has gambled on its permanence, causing it to move toward Russia and Iran in order to counter the US.

This move away from NATO and the US only reinforces the logic of US support for the Kurds. If we cannot trust Turkey, we must stick with the Kurds. What other partner does the US have in the region? Not Baghdad? Not Damascus? Do you really think that the US will crawl back into bed with Erdogan? My hunch is that it won’t. We are building bases in northern Syria. They will look better all the time. Once people own things, they get attached to them and can find a hundred reasons not to relinquish them over to their enemies. Best, Joshua

Steven Simon (National Security Council Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2012, is the John J. McCloy ’16 Visiting Professor at Amherst College) weighs in:

I think both you and Faisal are absolutely right.

Well, what I mean is, it’s too early to call, although I’m inclined to your interpretation.

That reminds me, the US did not double down in Afghanistan. If only you had read my recent Foreign Affairs essay (with Dan Byman) you could have spared yourself this very public error in judgment.

Here’s what I think. If you read what the administration is saying about Iran (cf., Nikki Haley’s AEI speech) and the administration’s unconventional definition of compliance with the JCPOA, the U.S. seems increasingly committed to rollback. (I suggest you read my Survival mini-essay about this.) What the US is thinking about doing in Iraq to achieve this, I really don’t know. Options are very limited. But Syria and Yemen offer opportunities. Syria in the northeast and on the Golan and Yemen in terms of support for the UAE and Saudi. The Israelis are quite important to this in the Washington context. Presumably, however, you’ll have noticed the announcement of the first permanent US base in Israel. Relatedly, Dennis Ross has been in the NYT subtly reinforcing this trend by recalling the bad old days of the “anti-semitic” State Department, when US diplomats disregarded Israeli interests in favor of Arab desires, etc etc.

So on balance I’m on the Landis side.

Yes, it’s an important and timely topic. So you need to organize a small roundtable at Bellagio to get to the bottom of the issue. I’ll start packing…

KRG Targets Minorities Ahead of Kurdistan Independence Referendum — Part Two: Annexing Christian Lands

Part One of this two-part series, on the exploitation of the Yazidi Genocide for political purposes, can be accessed here.

By Matthew Barber

On the same day that the Kurdistan referendum on independence was held, the Assyrian Confederation of Europe (ACE) released a report (primarily authored by Reine Hanna but to which I also contributed) on the situation of Iraq’s Assyrian Christians. Over 100 pages long, the report details a number of serious violations that the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) is committing against Assyrians as it attempts to consolidate control over the Nineveh Plain, an important Assyrian homeland.

This project of annexation has been a long-term strategy, but it intensified this year ahead of the independence referendum regarding the future status of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

The report is entitled “Erasing Assyrians: How the KRG Abuses Human Rights, Undermines Democracy, and Conquers Minority Homelands” (click the title to download the full report). It covers such issues as voter fraud, land theft, the deposing of democratically elected officials and their replacement with unelected party-appointed KDP personnel, and the strategy of co-optation pursued through the KDP’s patronage system.

Report on Assyrian Christians in Nineveh Plain, Iraq

I am providing some excerpts from the report, below, that I believe are of particular significance at present. (Numbers preceding excerpts refer to pages of the report, which can be consulted for more detailed information and footnotes. I will not be placing ellipses between excerpted paragraphs below.)

Replacing Elected Mayors in Nineveh with Unelected Party-Appointed KDP Personnel

During this past summer, the KDP removed the mayors of two important Christian towns in the Nineveh Plain: Faiez Abed Jahwareh of Alqosh and Basim Bello of Tel Keppe (Tal Kayf).

[29] The KDP’s removal of the two elected and longstanding mayors, both of who are unsympathetic to the aims and policies of the KDP, suggest a strategy of preparing to annex the region to Kurdistan.

[Deposing the mayors] was accomplished through the KDP takeover of the Nineveh Provincial Council, which is led by Bashar al-Kiki, a member of the KDP. Thirty-one of the council’s forty-one members belong to the KDP.

The KDP has worked to install its own loyalists in the Nineveh Governorate for years, and it often succeeded in doing so in local districts within Nineveh (Sinjar being a prime example). However, the Nineveh Governorate became increasingly vulnerable to this manipulation following the events of 2014, when governance in Mosul collapsed and government offices serving the then-displaced residents of Nineveh had to be reopened in Dohuk. The affiliation of the Nineveh Governorate with the Central Government in Baghdad is therefore becoming progressively more illusory, as the KDP is able to implement policy through Nineveh while pretending to remain separate from it.

After removing Alqosh’s mayor, the KDP-controlled Alqosh District Council appointed Lara Yousif, an Assyrian KDP member, as the new mayor, without an election.

[29] Lara Yousif was [previously a] schoolteacher who has not served in the military, but she was presented in official photos wearing a Peshmerga officer’s uniform. She also has no experience in politics and has never held a public office.

One of the dangers is that the KDP will spin the criticism against this unilateral maneuver as a “backward rejection of female leadership.”

[30] Town residents have expressed frustration at the media’s misguided portrayal of Yousif’s appointment. Being appointed by a powerful political apparatus—rather than achieving a post through one’s own accomplishment and merit—is not a victory for women’s status in Iraq.

Lara Yousif KDP-appointed mayor of Alqosh, 2017

Lara Yousif, installed as mayor of Alqosh without election, July 2017

When Basim Bello, the elected mayor of Tel Keppe, was removed from office following the forced change of leadership in Alqosh, Bello said in an interview that “the reason for both his removal and Faeiz Abed Jahwareh’s removal in Alqosh are part of the KDP’s plan to eliminate opposition to KRG annexation. Bello feels that he was specifically targeted as he has been an outspoken critic of the KDP for many years” (32).

[32-33] Bello and two other members on the Council unsuccessfully attempted to stall the replacement of the members who had emigrated, believing that the decision should be made after displaced residents were able to return to the town. (Bear in mind that these decisions were being pushed forward while the voter base of the District remained displaced from the area.)

A US official had previously summarized Bello’s positions on KDP efforts to annex Nineveh (as early as 2008) in a cable published by Wikileaks:

[33] “According to Bello, the rift between the ADM and the Kurdish parties began in 2003 as the KRG attempted to expand its political control further into Christian areas of the Ninewa plain.

Bello said that the KRG is following a policy of encroachment into the Ninewa plain by attempting to establish “facts on the ground” by moving Kurds into Christian areas; stacking district and sub district councils with un-elected Kurdish members; and, in the case of Al Qosh, spending lavishly, particularly on the church and church-related construction.” In the same cable, Bello expressed concerns over a potential monopoly of authority by the KDP in the Nineveh Plain district councils:

“His own personal security aside—he believes he is under direct threat from the senior leadership in the KDP—Bello said his greatest concern is the prospect of irreversible modifications to councils that would give the KRG political control to go along with its effective occupation of the area…Bello also raised continuing Kurdish intimidation… there is an ongoing trend toward authoritarianism in the KRG…”

Using the Iraqi Government’s Own Administrative Structures to Weaken Them

The deposing of the elected Nineveh mayors and their replacement with KDP members was accomplished through official structures of the Nineveh Governorate—not the KRG. This was made possible by filling both district and provincial councils in Nineveh with local minority figures on the KDP payroll. (This strategy is linked to that of the “patronage system” touched upon below.) These councils then issued the various orders to depose/appoint the officials mentioned above.

After 2003, the KDP used a similar approach to take over the local government of the Sinjar District, which is one district within the Nineveh Governorate. Iraqi forces based in the Sinjar area were often commanded by Kurds with loyalties to the KDP, who then allowed the Party to establish a Peshmerga and asaish presence there. Enjoying this dominant military/asaish power in Sinjar, the KDP could place its own figures into positions of local administration, without holding elections. Before long, Sinjar fell outside of the control of the Nineveh authorities, even though the District remained the financial responsibility of the Nineveh Governorate.

Yazidi community leaders in Sinjar once described to me an incident (occurring several years before the Yazidi Genocide), in which then Nineveh governor Atheel al-Nujaifi tried to visit Sinjar. KDP personnel in Sinjar put a mob of youth “protesters” together to prevent him from engaging with the local officials there; the young men threw rocks at his motorcade until he had to simply turn around and drive back to Mosul. Sinjar had become a no-go zone for non-Kurdish authorities, and Yazidis who joined non-Kurdish parties were frequently arrested or targeted with political violence.

The KDP has targeted Christian areas with the same tactics that it used in Sinjar. Whereas it succeeded in gaining complete hegemony in Sinjar (something that ended August 3, 2014), its progress has been slower in the Nineveh Plain, where Christian communities have worked hard to resist KDP incursions. However, the KDP has been persistent and patient in its quest to annex Nineveh, and achieved new victories ahead of (and continuing after) the referendum.

This past week, after the publishing of the Erasing Assyrians report, an image surfaced of an official document from the office of Lara Yousif, Alqosh’s new “mayor,” signed by Yousif. What raised eyebrows was that the stamp of the mayor’s office next to Yousif’s signature bore the insignia of the KRG and said “Dohuk Governorate” (in Kurdish).

Alqosh Mayor's Office document (Sept 2017) showing 'Dohuk Governorate'

Signature of Lara Yousif on a recent document from Alqosh Mayor’s Office with stamp showing the KRG insignia and the words “Dohuk Governorate” (Sept 2017)

The Erasing Assyrians report warns about the danger of the annexation agenda, and this image makes that agenda plainly evident. The KRG has now annexed Alqosh; it is not attempting to disguise the nature of this takeover but is revealing the new arrangement on documents issued by the new authority in this town. Keeping in mind the KRG’s current emphasis on independence, we may be seeing future borders being drawn at present—if this situation is left unchallenged by the international community.

[29] The fact that the KDP has infiltrated one of Baghdad’s governorates and is now using that platform to “legally” migrate disputed territories out of that same governorate’s jurisdiction and into the sphere of KRG administrative and security structures amounts to the KRG using Iraq’s own institutions of governance in non-Kurdish areas to prepare parts of Iraqi territory—outside of the KRI—for eventual secession from Iraq.

The Erasing Assyrians report can be consulted for more detailed information on the makeup of the provincial and district councils that were manipulated by the KDP to effect the change of power in Nineveh that occurred this summer. The Assyrian activist Max Joseph also wrote an article chronicling the removal of Nineveh’s mayors, which can be consulted.

Silencing Voices that Critique These Policies: Cracking Down on Protests

Opposition to what has transpired in Nineveh this summer has been met with threats against protesters, legitimized and delivered by the same councils responsible for deposing the elected mayors. These actions represent a crackdown on free speech.

[30-31] The residents of Alqosh have staged three protests since Jahwareh was removed. The first took place on July 20, 2017. The second was held on August 2, 2017 following Yousif’s appointment, and the third was held on August 18, 2017. In all three protests, residents carried Iraqi flags in response to the KRG’s stated objective to conduct its upcoming independence referendum in the Nineveh Plain. A petition was also signed by thousands of Alqosh residents and delivered to the District Council, but they have failed to respond to the petition or the protests.

(See the full report for additional abuses specified in the petition of the protesters.)

[31-32] On August 30, 2017, Alqosh police delivered individual notices to eleven Alqosh residents, warning them against further protests, threatening consequences. The notices were sent by the office of the town’s newly-appointed mayor, Lara Yousif. [These] individuals were identified as the “ring leaders” of the Alqosh resistance. They were asked to sign a notice acknowledging they understood there would be consequences if they failed to comply. All eleven initially refused, but a few signed the following day after being pressured by officers in their own homes. Documentation was secured from the local police station confirming that the order to threaten the protestors came from the Tel Keppe District Council, and had been approved by the Nineveh Provincial Council leader. In an interview conducted during the preparation of this report, one of the individuals targeted with the notices reported receiving death threats from Yousif’s husband, Duraid Jameel Tezi, also a KDP member.

Assyrian protesters in Alqosh threatened with arrest

The following are some images of the protests that occurred in Alqosh. Multiple protests took place and most of the community participated. The police were aware of the protests and were present at them, and the protests were also covered by the press.


The KDP Patronage System

While it is fully within the rights of anyone to join a political party of their preference, including the KDP, it must be understood that the KDP pursues a strategy of selecting members of minority communities to serve as figureheads, putting them on the Party’s payroll, appointing them to positions of importance, and then using them to implement its policy agendas while pointing at them to make the claim that the KDP enjoys significant loyalty within the minority community. The following excerpts from the report discuss the KDP patronage strategy:

[35] To strengthen their prospects of incorporating the Nineveh Plain into the Kurdistan Region, Kurdish authorities have for more than a decade practiced a strategy of offering incentives to minority communities in exchange for their support for the KRG’s claims to the Nineveh Plain, while imposing restrictions on those who do not. The KDP buys the allegiances of many Assyrian tribal and political leaders through a patronage system that fosters political divisions within the community…

The patronage system involves offering visible community figures a regular cash payment that is often referred to by people in the country as a “party salary.” These figures are then expected to publicly and privately endorse and promote the KDP and its agendas within the community. This process has the destructive effect of eroding the legitimacy of both spiritual and political leadership within minority communities, as clergy and political leaders are alike targeted with this “political conversion” effort, amid the deep frustration of the people who then feel abandoned by their representation. The pattern is that without this financial bribery, it is difficult for the KDP to make inroads with communities whose interests are not served by KDP objectives. Usually, only the loyalty of the figure receiving the salary—and that of his inner circle of friends and relatives—is bought by the party; these figures are then generally rejected by a majority of their community, but because the KDP is able to “convert” most of the visible leadership figures, it still succeeds in creating the illusion that a sizable portion of the minority population stands with the party.

In the case of the Yazidis, the effects of this patronage system have so destabilized traditional leadership structures that the people often express despair at not having anyone in their community to speak for them. Yazidi tribal heads, religious leaders, intellectuals, and professional figures are all targeted with this form of politicization. This has had the long-term effect of eliminating any prominent voices within the community that are critical of the KDP and that could rally broad support for Yazidi interests, even though the Yazidi people frequently share with concerned outsiders that this is what they most need. All Yazidis MPs in the Kurdistan Parliament are KDP members—as are Yazidi MPs in the Iraqi Parliament who represent the KRG—but they enjoy little esteem from the Yazidi community and are often the objects of scorn.

The existence of independent Assyrian parties has allowed Assyrians to resist this process somewhat more effectively than the Yazidis, whom the KRG denies the right to create parties, using the rationalization that “Yazidis are Kurds, therefore they can participate in Kurdish parties and have no need for separate representation.” This justification for proscribing the Yazidi political voice is ironic in light of the fact that three main Islamist parties legally function in the KRG and hold seats in the Kurdish Parliament—these are Kurdish parties whose platform is religion and religious identity. The KRG has entrenched an order [36] by which Yazidis who want to participate in politics are forced to join the established Kurdish parties that are not sensitive to the unique concerns of the minority, but which advance the broad Kurdish interests that constitute their platforms. The only alternative to this for Yazidis has been one Yazidi party in Sinjar (called The Movement of Reform and Progress) that has sought to work directly with the Central Government in Baghdad.  It holds one seat in the Baghdad Parliament, but for more than a decade it was harshly suppressed by KDP asaish who threatened, abused, and arrested most of its members. This was possible because of the de facto security control that the KDP maintained in the disputed territory of Sinjar until the Peshmerga withdrawal upon the Yazidi Genocide of August 3, 2014. Successfully thwarted and stifled by the KDP, which used its militarized security forces (something that small parties do not possess) to forcefully establish hegemony in Sinjar, the Movement of Reform and Progress is seen as a failure by Yazidis today.

That the KRG has been forced to recognize the ethnic distinctiveness of Assyrians is one factor that has allowed Christians to resist KDP encroachment in the Nineveh Plain more successfully than has been the case for Yazidis in Sinjar. However, as this report explains, this resistance is weakening as the KDP continues to pursue increasingly aggressive tactics to annex the disputed territories, while shielded by the ongoing absence of sufficient external accountability that the international community could provide. This is exemplified by the cases of the removal of Nineveh district mayors, described in the previous section, which involved the KDP’s use of a number of minority beneficiaries of KDP patronage that had been appointed to Nineveh district and provincial councils.

In a small oversight, the report failed to mention that a new Yazidi party has recently been created by Haider Shesho, though it is understood that this has only become possible because Haider has given up opposing KDP policies and (since spring of 2016) promotes KRG positions on incorporating Sinjar into the KRI. This is a new development and a departure from what has been the established policy of the KRG regarding the Yazidi political voice. Were Yazidis to attempt to form a party that expressed substantial opposition to KDP agendas, it is likely that it would not be authorized to exist or conduct activities within the KRI or KRG-controlled disputed territories.

On the Kurdistan Independence Referendum

The following are some excerpts from the report that deal with the independence referendum:

[42] On March 6, 2017, ten political parties held a press conference and released a joint statement outlining their demands for the Nineveh Plain, calling for the activation and implementation of the January 2014 decision to initiate the creation of a Nineveh Plain Governorate administered by the Central Government. The statement declared that the Nineveh Plain should be excluded from all political and military conflicts arising between the Central Government and the KRG, adding: “We demand that its people are given the right to shape the future of their region independent from any pressure.” The statement also rejected KDP interference in the region: “We reject all practices that are aimed at imposing de facto policies on minority areas that contradict the vision and aspirations [of the people] for their future. We also reject all political schemes designed to divide minority areas.”

Despite ardent opposition from both international observers and local residents of the disputed territories, the KRG has announced its plan to include the Nineveh Plain in its upcoming independence referendum scheduled for September 25, 2017,105 referring to it as a “Kurdistani area” despite the fact that the Nineveh Plain is outside its jurisdiction and has never had a sizeable Kurdish population.

Analysts have noted that it is extremely problematic to unilaterally conduct an independence referendum in disputed territories that have not yet been established as part of the Kurdistan Region—how can inhabitants of areas outside of the KRI legitimately decide whether Kurdistan should secede from Iraq?

Recognizing the dangers posed by the referendum, the U.S. government (in addition to many other governments around the world), including the White House, has declared its opposition to it on multiple occasions. The U.S. State Department published a statement on the referendum on Sept. 20, 2017 stressing that “The status of disputed areas and their boundaries must be resolved through dialogue, in accordance with Iraq’s constitution, not by unilateral action or force.”

In recent months, the Assyrian Democratic Movement has repeatedly called for the Nineveh Plain to be excluded from the controversial referendum, given the current situation. Assyrian politicians have maintained that the people of the Nineveh Plain should not be asked to participate in any such referendum until they have had the opportunity to return home, rebuild their towns, and regain stability.

Nineveh Plain residents feel that KRG authorities are exploiting the suffering of minority communities to advance their own interests, but recent developments described in this report are only the latest actions in a long-term strategy to annex the region.

Even as early as eight years ago, the potential for a referendum to be abused in order to push forward an annexation agenda was noted by observers: “Kurdish officials demand the incorporation of these lands into the semiautonomous Kurdish region through a referendum… For its part, the KRG is adamantly demanding implementation of a constitutionally-mandated referendum on the future of the disputed territories—a referendum that Kurdish officials, with their political and security presence in the area, will make every effort [43] to ensure goes their way.”

The referendum held this past Monday represents the coming to fruition of the long-term strategies that have been described here. The report notes other examples of the kinds of abuses that had been predicted:

[34] Various sources reported that in the week that followed Basim Bello’s removal from office, the KDP pressured other Nineveh Plain mayors and council members to publicly voice their support for conducting the Kurdistan independence referendum in their towns. Council members who had voted in Bello’s favor were harassed. These local leaders were approached and told sign a document in support of the KRG’s referendum. Some felt threatened and were forced to sign the document, after being warned against resisting. One official reported being told that, “it was in his best interest to sign.”

Assyrians in Alqosh protest the Kurdistan independence referendum, not out of opposition to independence for Kurds, but because of the use of the referendum to create a false image of minority support for the annexation of disputed territories

Convincing Americans that Minorities Love the KRG

A serious problem for minorities in Iraq is the way that the KRG PR machine endeavors to dominate the narrative regarding disputed territories and political conflicts inside Iraq. This strategy silences the minorities who are affected by the policies pursued by the KRG. While the KDP works to seize Christian areas in Nineveh, it simultaneously holds PR events in Washington claiming that it is beloved by the minorities who are grateful for its presence. The report touches on some of these that have occurred recently:

[74] On August 1, 2017, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) held an event that focused on the future of Iraq’s minorities,212 but the event failed to represent the voices of the minorities whose lives will be affected by the outcome of the referendum. KRG spokespersons usually define the content of these events, which are devoid of any critical discussion of the real issues in Iraq or the actual views and attitudes of the people being discussed. As the event began, a group of Assyrian students stood up and protested as Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman took to the stage, holding up signs reading “No Free Speech in KRG” and “KRG Is Not a Democracy.”

Rahman responded to the protest saying, “I have no idea what that was about.”

(Click for full image) – Assyrian students protest a KRG event on minorities at USIP in Washington (Aug. 1, 2017)

[73] One of the favorite talking points parroted by KRG lobbyists when issues of human rights abuses are raised runs along these lines: “We know that we’re not perfect, but we’re making so much progress, and we hope that others will note that we are doing so much better than other regimes in the region.” This is quite the weak standard of comparison. It is unacceptable to invoke Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan, Saddam or Maliki, and Iran to avoid facing one’s own human rights failures.

This deflection tactic has been repeated to the point that it is now tired and clichéd. KRG officials must cease their sidestepping of legitimate critique regarding the erosion of democracy and harmful government policies that are resulting in the decline of minorities in the region. At the current rate, Iraq’s minorities could nearly disappear by the time the KRG completes its “journey of progress.”

Other Material

The report contains detailed information on a number of important issues in addition to those excerpted above. These include abuses of the Kurdish asaish, government-sanctioned expressions of anti-Assyrian prejudice, and other forms of discrimination in business and politics. Readers are encouraged to consult the report for any information that may prove useful.


The KDP takeover of parts of Nineveh is not something that should be tolerated by the international community. It is unacceptable to allow the unilateral division of disputed territories like Nineveh and Sinjar between Baghdad and the KRG, permitting each government to administer a part of them. This trend divides communities whose survival is already vulnerable and whose historical cohesiveness is being undermined—due to the politics of nationalism—to a greater degree than at any time in the past.

The recent history of theft of Christian land under Kurdish governance, in addition to the other abuses outlined in this report, should make clear that KRG administration of Nineveh is not a guarantee for improved stability and longevity for Christian minority communities. We may currently be witnessing just another stage in the longer-term trend of the disappearance of this people from their homeland.

When the KDP successfully co-opts a small portion of a minority community, it then advances the claim that the vast majority of the group supports Kurdish administration and that only a handful of “troublemakers” oppose it. But as numerous journalists have reported and as anyone who has spent time visiting communities in northern Iraq is aware, the vast majority of Christians in the Nineveh Plain (like the vast majority of Yazidis of Sinjar) prefer to develop their own forms of local administration and security, legitimized under the appropriate Iraqi ministries. This is not about any particular affinity with Baghdad, but the fact that as part of Iraq, these local regions have the opportunity to develop forms of local governance; annexation to the KRI, on the other hand, will almost certainly turn these areas into KDP fiefdoms. The international community should support the demands of these peoples—rather than dignifying the party policies repeated by their unelected “leaders”—and facilitate this process.