World Won’t Let Catalonia or Kurdistan Come Quietly onto the Map

Girona Spain demonstration
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Girona, October 1, 2014 (Ariet/Carles Palacio)

Catalonia and Kurdistan couldn’t seem farther away. One is nestled in the peace and prosperity of Western Europe, the other swims in the chaos of a dissolving Middle East.

Yet the two independence referendums of these would-be nation states are revealing. Both raise questions about the meaning of their regional orders and have provoked pushback from the status-quo world. Read more “World Won’t Let Catalonia or Kurdistan Come Quietly onto the Map”

Iraq’s Kurds Deserve the West’s Support for Their Own State

View of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, May 10, 2011
View of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, May 10, 2011 (James Gordon)

Western countries are falling into the familiar habit of discouraging Kurdish self-determination.

American and European officials have urged Iraq’s Kurds to delay their independence referendum, scheduled for next Monday.

The reasons are by now well-known: a Kurdish state would anger the Turks, destabilize Iraq and complicate the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

All of which is true, but there will always be a reason to deny the Kurds self-rule. They have been stateless for generations. If it isn’t Turkish apprehensions today, it will be fears of an Iranian-Turkish condominium tomorrow.

The Kurds, one of the most progressive people in the Middle East, deserve better. Read more “Iraq’s Kurds Deserve the West’s Support for Their Own State”

Iraq Takes Similar Approach to Separatist Challenge as Spain

The Al-Rahman mosque in Baghdad, Iraq, October 23, 2003
The Al-Rahman mosque in Baghdad, Iraq, October 23, 2003 (James Gordon)

Like Spain’s, the central government of Iraq is determined to prevent an independence vote for its largest majority. But like the Catalans, the Kurds are determined to vote anyway.

Iraq’s parliament voted on Tuesday to stop a referendum in its Kurdish region and instructed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to preserve national unity.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to do “whatever is necessary” to prevent a referendum on secession in Catalonia. At his government’s request, Spain’s Constitutional Court has suspended the Catalan referendum law.

Catalan regional authorities are pressing ahead. So is the Kurdistan Regional Government, which controls the northern part of Iraq. Read more “Iraq Takes Similar Approach to Separatist Challenge as Spain”

After Caliphate’s Fall, A Spending Challenge

Since Iraqi troops seized back Mosul last month, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has been reduced to the area around Raqqa in Syria. Predominantly Kurdish forces are attempting to take the city, protected by Western airpower. Authorities estimate the number of Islamist fighters has dwindled from the thousands to the hundreds.

As soon as the caliphate falls, governments will face another challenge: the reconstruction. Read more “After Caliphate’s Fall, A Spending Challenge”

Catalans, Kurds, Given No Other Choice, Announce Referendums

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Girona, October 1, 2014
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Girona, October 1, 2014 (Ariet/Carles Palacio)

Both the Catalans and Iraq’s Kurds have announced independence referendums this week over the objections of their central governments.

The two might seem a world away. Catalans have virtually no security concerns. The Kurds are waging a war on two fronts: one against Turkey to the north and another against the self-proclaimed Islamic State to the south.

Yet they have things in common. Read more “Catalans, Kurds, Given No Other Choice, Announce Referendums”

Defeat in Mosul Will Not Eliminate the Islamic State

As David Downing reported here on Sunday, Mosul could make a quick economic recovery once it is entirely liberated from the self-declared Islamic State by Iraqi government forces.

Not only is the city, once Iraq’s second largest, a hub for northern Iraqi industry and trade; it’s also situated close to major oil and natural gas reserves. The potential for further economic expansion could be close at hand.

The battle will not be over quickly, though. It has been estimated it will take another three to five months to rout the Islamic State from eastern Mosul.

Once the militants are defeated, internal and sectarian divisions could resurface. A Shia-Sunni divide seems inevitable. Mosul being a Sunni majority town doesn’t help the cause for peaceful settlement. Friction between religious groups can hurt reconstruction efforts, especially with the involvement of Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s sanctioned Shia fighters. We are looking at a “game of thrones” mentality where a balance of factions in this enclave becomes quite a task. Read more “Defeat in Mosul Will Not Eliminate the Islamic State”

A Tale of Two Cities in Mosul

Mosul is a tale of two cities.

Eastern Mosul, situated on the left bank of the Tigris, has been fully liberated and a sense of normalcy is returning there. The first schools recently reopened, giving some 16,000 children access to education again. Residents are cleaning and clearing the streets.

Western Mosul, on the right bank of the river, remains under Islamic State control.

Military preparations are underway to retake the rest of the city. Iraqi government forces, supported by the West, have set aside six corridors for displaced people, of which they estimate there will be 250,000 to 300,000.

For now, Islamic State militants continue to use Western Mosul as a base form which to lob missiles at the eastern half of what used to be Iraq’s second largest city. Read more “A Tale of Two Cities in Mosul”

After Mosul Falls, What Then?

There are some 100,000 troops involved in the conquest (or reconquest, depending on your perspective) of Mosul. On the surface, the battle is meant to restore the Iraqi government to its full writ; a Baghdad-united Shia and Sunni realm, a nation state on the way to functionality. In other words, a normal country.

Ah, dreams.

Careful observation reveals a more wretched future. The Islamic State may be doomed, but that hardly means peace for Iraq. There are too many who want a piece of this particular pie.

Many players there are. Let’s start with the greatest of powers, who define the broadest outlines of geopolitics in the Middle East. Read more “After Mosul Falls, What Then?”

What the Upcoming Battle of Mosul Tells Us About the Iraqi State

As battles go, it was a real shocker: less than 1,500 Islamic State fighters defeating perhaps 30,000 Iraqi police and troops. In the course of six days, from June 4 to June 10, 2014, IS militia conquered Iraq’s second largest city using little more than suicide bombers and pickup trucks. They should have been butchered: Iraq’s troops were well-equipped and theoretically well-trained by the Americans. Should have, yet weren’t; instead of victory, Iraq lost its biggest battle since the American invasion in 2003.

It taught us a lot about Iraq, about how states develop and how quickly they can unravel.

Now Iraqi forces gather for the counterattack. From the ashes of the upcoming battle, we’ll learn even more. Read more “What the Upcoming Battle of Mosul Tells Us About the Iraqi State”

Can We Now Finally Bury the “Bad Intelligence” Myth?

George Bush Dick Cheney
American president George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, ride an elevator at the White House in Washington DC, September 11, 2008 (National Archives)

The idea that “bad intelligence” informed the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 is one that has been so thoroughly debunked it’s hard to believe politicians still manage to get away with it.

When Republican presidential contenders in the United States were peddling this myth again last year, I argued they were rewriting history.

This week’s release of John Chilcot’s report in the United Kingdom should finally put it to rest. Read more “Can We Now Finally Bury the “Bad Intelligence” Myth?”