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Middle East Press ( 8 Dec 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Middle East Press On Royal Civil War in Saudi Arabia, Child Recruitment and Iran-Backed Militias: New Age Islam's Selection, 8 December 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Desk

8 December 2020

• How Israel Is Triggering a Royal Civil War in Saudi Arabia

By Elie Podeh

• Fear and the freedom to care: France’s delicate balance

By Tala Jarjour

• Child recruitment casts shadow over Syrian Kurds' push for global legitimacy

By Amberin Zaman and Dan Wilkofsky

• Shiite factions close to Sistani move to separate from Iran-backed militias

By Mustafa Saadoun

• Is the solution to the Gulf crisis not approaching?

By Tariq Al-Homayed


How Israel Is Triggering a Royal Civil War in Saudi Arabia

By Elie Podeh

8 December 2020


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at the Future Investment Initiative FII conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh. October 24, 2018.Credit: GIUSEPPE CACACE - AFP


Two weeks after Netanyahu’s surprising meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, Turki al-Faisal, a prominent Saudi prince close to the ruling royals, lambasted Israel as a "Western colonizing" power, accusing it of incarcerating Palestinians "in concentration camps under the flimsiest of security accusations" and "assassinat[ing] whomever they want."

Turki’s declarations, made at the Manama Security Dialogue in Bahrain, came as a blow to Israeli foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who spoke immediately afterwards, and tried to sweep away the discomfort by expressing "regret" that Turki had expressed sentiments out of sync with "the spirit and the changes taking place in the Middle East."

But Turki’s statements are important. He served as the kingdom’s intelligence chief for 20 years, was ambassador both in London and Washington, and met, unofficially, many Israelis over the years.

His comments stand in sharp contrast to recent statements made by another former high-ranking Saudi official, Bandar bin Sultan, who vehemently attacked the Palestinian leadership for their "reprehensible" opposition to Israel-Gulf normalization.

So what is going in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?

Turki and Bandar express two contrasting schools of thought with regard to the normalization issue with Israel.

Turki belongs to the school of King Salman, adhering to the traditional Saudi view, as expressed in the Arab Peace Initiative which Riyadh initiated, that  normalization with Israel must be part of a reciprocal process. In this view, Saudi recognition of Israel rests on the establishment of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, East Jerusalem as its capital, and an agreed upon solution of the Palestinian refugee problem.

Why Israel’s anti-Bibi left is so lost – and chasing yet another general as its Messiah. LISTEN

As the custodian of Islam’s holy sites, Mecca and Medina, that in non-COVID years draw some two million Muslim pilgrims annually, King Salman has no interest in a diplomatic move that could weaken Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminent leadership status by alienating substantial numbers of Muslims worldwide – and would also result in dramatic economic repercussions.

In contrast, his son, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman is willing to move more quickly on the normalization issue, and seems far less tied to the Arab Peace Initiative criteria. It is still unclear what price he is demanding for recognition, though he certainly wants to wipe away the stain of the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and to be offered a substantial U.S. arms deal, eclipsing the F-35s and drones deal that the UAE clinched.

The internal Saudi conflict on the Palestinian issue should not obscure the fact that Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Israel is a consummation of a long process, and it was not solely triggered by the emergence of Iran as a hegemonic power in the Gulf.


Fear And The Freedom To Care: France’s Delicate Balance

By Tala Jarjour

December 07, 2020

My regional flight had landed in Istanbul just a few hours earlier, and what I thought would be an uneventful early January night at an airport hotel in 2015 turned out to be a nonstop news stream from Paris. Footage showing some car in a narrow street in the French capital was replayed ad nauseam. News bulletins were scrambling to report what was happening around the offices of a satirical magazine I had not heard of. Tension was high; fear and shock were palpable. Never had French news reporting seemed so incoherent. A terrorist attack was ongoing. Charlie Hebdo quickly became a loaded term in Europe, embodying an unmitigated clash of values. But that was just the beginning.

Fast forward to autumn 2020 and a new level of terrifying news emerged from Paris: The beheading of a schoolteacher on his way out of work. I tuned in to the France Culture channel for some local reporting. “Detruire notre liberte” (destroying our liberty) said the live stream. This was a predictable combination of words and receiving them at the outset was little surprise. Returning to the abundance of arguments on individual freedoms, which got heated in the wake of the numerous attacks around Paris in January 2015, and the invocation of the Bataclan alongside Charlie Hebdo are hardly edifying anymore. But, on this occasion, there was more at stake. In France, education is a red line.

The teacher in question was reportedly targeted because he had shown the controversial cartoons. The class in question was civics and the topic was the limits of free speech. The teacher, praised by colleagues and pupils for his competence and care, had a teaching plan and had communicated it to students. According to other teachers, addressing controversial materials such as satirical cartoons is common practice in French classroom discussions on the freedom of speech. In a different world, namely a university classroom in the US, I encouraged students in sessions on music and censorship to find songs from their own world that were subjected to restriction. While initially some were outraged by the thought of censorship in a country where many individual freedoms are constitutionally protected, the students had no shortage of examples. The exercise was eye-opening, to say the least. It demonstrated how society practices censorship in myriad ways. In another example from the US, a colleague who taught a class on civic law told me it was a very stressful experience, and it took a toll on the professor’s popularity among students.

Stirring up emotions when discussing the exercise of freedoms, especially the freedom of expression, is not unusual. The slain French teacher was all too aware of this peril; it was widely reported that he warned students about the cartoons, telling them they could leave the classroom if the images might offend. But little did he know. What in his mind was an act of sensitivity to contradicting views would fail to spare his life.

In the debates that followed the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo staff, I found one notion particularly perplexing: The freedom to offend, which, I must say, was new to me. For someone who spent their formative years in a diverse part of the Middle East, the right to offend contains an inherent contradiction. If behaving sensitively to values that others hold dear is a moral value in its own right, then offending is definitely not a socially constructive choice. In other words, in diverse societies, people take care of each other; avoiding intentional offending is a no-brainer — but that, too, is a choice.

Thinkers have been debating the meaning of free will for ages, and in great nuance. Philosophers, religious scholars and scientists are still trying to work out how free we really are as individual human beings. Recent research suggests that, alongside our upbringing, our genetic makeup also influences our belief systems.

While the existence of mass-disseminated publications that offend may be the result of believing in the freedom to do so, teaching about them is not. If anything, dissecting the complexities of freedom and choice within educational debate helps students appreciate the power of their freedom to choose, which equips them for making socially responsible decisions. This awareness is especially important when disagreements cut wide and deep.

Back in 2015, I packed up and headed to Ataturk Airport in the small hours of Jan. 8. As I lugged my large suitcase to the check-in desk, the TV was still on. My transatlantic flight included a stopover in Paris and I needed to know whether airports were still open, especially to flights and travelers from the Middle East. There were no major disruptions, save for tighter security checks — something I had got used to when boarding US-bound flights in Paris since the early 2000s. But this time I had no complaints. The country was visibly in shock, even in the transit zone of its largest international airport.

Perhaps I should buy something in print with today’s date on it, I thought. A particular option came to mind. “Charlie Hebdo no longer is,” said the newspaper seller, looking me in the eye but staring into the void. Fear had hit home, and deep, his eyes seemed to say. “Ca n’existe plus,” were his exact words, which my mind heard as: “On what planet are you living, insensitive visitor?” I subsequently learned that the magazine prints flew off the shelves while I was glued to a news screen.

The magazine eventually returned to circulation and, with it, seemingly unending controversies. But the memory of that moment in Paris-Charles De Gaulle leaves me wondering today: What other things have ceased to exist in the souls of teachers and parents from all religious creeds and cultural backgrounds in France? How will Muslim parents and children — also teachers — deal with the repercussions of such troubling events as they try to lead normal lives in Europe? As this piece goes to print, France is fully embroiled in debating new laws that will, at best, restrict civil freedoms and, at worst, further isolate specific slices of its population. Reading the news and following the media, I wish that I, and many people, could have a chance to look into each other’s eyes more often.


Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo.” She is Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London, and Associate Fellow of Yale College.


Child Recruitment Casts Shadow Over Syrian Kurds' Push For Global Legitimacy

By Amberin Zaman and Dan Wilkofsky

Dec 7, 2020

Rawan Aleku, a 16-year-old Syrian Kurdish high school student, has been missing from her hometown of Dirbasiya since Oct 8. In multiple interviews with the local press, her father, Umran, claimed that she was kidnapped by an armed group who then handed the girl to “another group.” He has appealed to Mazlum Kobane, the commander-in-chief of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the “highest authority” in northeast Syria, “to undertake his humanitarian duty.”

“Return my daughter Rawan Aleku to me, if you are honest. The pain of her disappearance is killing me. I’m fighting to get her back whatever it costs me, even my life,” Umran wrote in a Facebook post Nov. 10.

Rawan is among dozens of minors who have been either willingly or forcibly recruited by Kurdish rebels to fight in battles spanning Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, all home to large Kurdish minorities. Kurds have long accepted that some of their sons and daughters would have to be given up to the “cause” — to wrest their rights from brutal regimes that have denied their existence and bloodily silenced those who dared to call themselves Kurds. Lovingly framed photographs of “martyred” children in their uniforms are proudly displayed in many a home. Families of the fallen are accorded a privileged status. But in northeast Syria, the mood is shifting as a growing number of Kurds aspire to a more stable life away from war. And a handful of parents like Umran are beginning to air their resentment publicly.

Between God and a hard place

“I have tried every avenue within the autonomous administration’s institutions to get my daughter back,” Umran wrote in the local online Arknews. “But it appears that Rojava isn’t ruled by anyone, but rather a higher power, God,” he wrote, using the Kurdish name for the Kurdish-majority regions of Syria, “Because everyone keeps directing me ‘higher,’ saying that decisions are coming ‘from above,’ and ‘we don’t know anything.’ Who’s above except God? I want to call specifically on Gen. Mazlum (Kobane) to get personally involved and end my suffering. You are the last remaining national hope for us,” the anguished father implored.

Kobane, who successfully oversaw the coalition-led campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, is — without question — the most popular and powerful man in the Kurdish-run enclave that is also known as Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. But can he deliver? The question goes to the heart of the power struggles pitting a bewildering array of Kurdish factions against each other and Washington’s efforts to help the autonomous administration establish political legitimacy in the face of fierce pushback from Turkey.

The armed group Umran alluded to is the "Ciwanen Soresger," or Revolutionary Youth. They are believed to take their cues from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the rebel group that has been fighting Turkey since 1984, initially for Kurdish independence and now for political autonomy.

The “other group” to which Umran says Rawan was handed could be either the PKK or its all-female Syrian offshoot, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).

The YPJ and its male counterpart the People's Protection Units (YPG) form the backbone of Kobane’s SDF. Rights groups and the UN have called out all three over the recruitment of minors for combat in violation of international law.

On June 29, 2019, Kobane signed an action plan with Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba in Geneva “to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children, to identify and separate boys and girls currently within its ranks, and to put in place preventative protection and disciplinary measures related to child recruitment and use.”

A month later, the autonomous administration opened the Child Protection Office to combat child recruitment, among other things.

More than a year on, and in an apparent challenge to Kobane’s authority, there are persistent reports of boys and girls under the age of 18 being recruited by the Revolutionary Youth. They are said to report to senior PKK commanders inside Rojava.

Fuad, another member of the Aleku family, told Al-Monitor that his nephew Lewend was only 13 when he was spirited off by the PKK in 2015 and taken to their headquarters in the Qandil Mountains bridging Iraq and Iran. “They trained him for two years and sent him as a soldier back to Syria. He was martyred in Deir ez-Zor in 2019,” Fuad said.

There are no formal estimates for the number of children who have been forcibly recruited in northeast Syria. The UN said that between January and July of this year, 51 girls between the ages of 13 and 17 had been removed from the ranks of the YPJ and housed in a rehabilitation center, while 18 boys were in the process of being released at the time of reporting.

The Child Protection Office said it had received 50 complaints since opening its doors and had returned as many as 15 children to their families. Kobane said in a July interview that he regarded the practice as unacceptable and that perpetrators would be punished. But there have been no prosecutions so far.

Parents who speak up against the Revolutionary Youth face threats and intimidation, according to several Syrian Kurds interviewed by Al-Monitor. None was willing to be identified by name for fear of retribution. “These child protection offices release one child, and the young men in the background go and take 10 or 15 children and send them to training centers,” said one, adding, however, that he believed the Child Protection Office was sincere in its efforts but could only do so much.

“Revolutionary Youth monitor children through putting on events — sports, recreation, music. They try to exploit children that way, and no one can say anything. No one can raise his voice or complain,” one father told Al-Monitor. “Let’s say there is a soccer match. The Revolutionary Youth will be present at these types of events. They’ll take note of people. Those boys, what are their hobbies? What do they like to do? If any child there is open to the idea of joining, they’ll entice them. ‘What do you guys want?’ they’ll ask. 'We’ll give it to you. Soccer, ping pong, whatever you want.'”

Hosheng Ossi, a Syrian Kurd and former PKK sympathizer who now lives in exile in Europe, says that the Revolutionary Youth is similar to PKK-linked armed youth militias operating in Turkey that keep popping up under different names. “All report directly to the PKK’s military wing, the Kurdistan Popular Resistance Forces,” he asserted in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor.

The Patriotic Revolutionary Youth movement, for example, led the urban insurrection in 2015 across towns and cities in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast region. Entire neighborhoods were pulverized and hundreds of civilians were killed when the Turkish army responded with savagely indiscriminate force. The UN said Turkey’s abuses amounted to “war crimes.” Yet the PKK was also sharply criticized by many of its supporters for putting civilians at risk by shifting its battle to population centers. Over half a million people were forcibly displaced, and Sur — the historic heart of the Kurds’ unofficial capital Diyarbakir and home to a magnificent Armenian church and an Ottoman-era mosque — was destroyed.

A Syrian Kurdish media activist in Rojava said the Revolutionary Youth threatened him because of his critical reporting. “Mazlum is against child recruitment, but he can’t stop it. Why not? Because military cadres in the PKK are directing child recruitment via the Revolutionary Youth,” the media activist told Al-Monitor. Kobane, he noted, “has power over the SDF as an organization. But the PKK military figures, mostly Turks and Iranians, they don’t abide by his decisions."

A PKK spokesman contacted via WhatsApp in Qandil declined to comment on PKK links with the Revolutionary Youth or the presence of senior ranking PKK commanders inside Rojava.

Nasser Afrin, a member of the general coordinating committee for the Revolutionary Youth Movement, also dodged Al-Monitor’s questions about whether it took its orders from the PKK. But he rebuffed suggestions that the group partook in child recruitment. “We are not a military organization that enables us to recruit children. We totally deny it,” he said.

While some Revolutionary Youth members serve on some of the autonomous administration's youth committees, “We are an independent youth group; we are not part of the autonomous administration, there's a difference” Afrin asserted. “Our goal is to be able to organize youth across all areas of northeast Syria, educated youth, youth interested in sports, culture, employed, unemployed. Meaning all youth everywhere..”

Afrin acknowledged that part of the effort to “develop the thought, the talents, the psychology of youth” in communes across the Kurdish zone included “military exercises.” He claimed this was to enable the youth to “protect themselves” and to “develop young people’s potential.”

Queried about Rawan, Afrin responded, “I have no idea about that.”

Kobane’s office did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment as to Rawan’s whereabouts.

The PKK is classified as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. Many of the autonomous administration’s leaders, including Kobane, were drawn from the PKK's ranks. This has served as justification for Turkey’s continued assaults against the Syrian Kurdish entity and pushes US-Turkish ties into the abyss. As Ankara sees things, its NATO ally is partnered with terrorists who pose an existential threat to Turkey.

Washington has sought to allay Turkish concerns, claiming initially that its partnership with the SDF was “tactical, temporary and transactional,” and limited to the fight against IS. But the continued presence of US troops since the fall of Baghouz, the jihadis’ last remaining patch of territory last spring, has deepened Turkish paranoia about Washington’s plans. The abiding worry in the Turkish security establishment is that the United States and its European allies are bent on establishing an independent Kurdish state that will nibble away at Turkey.

The outgoing US administration’s efforts to appease Turkey took a Machiavellian turn in October 2019 when President Donald Trump allowed Turkish troops to invade a large swath of Kurdish-run territory including the border towns of Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad and ordered US troops to withdraw to clear the way. Russian and regime troops moved into the border areas vacated by the Americans who moved deeper south, upending balances in the Kurdish-run zone.

Yankee stay on!

Getting US troops to remain in Rojava is Kobane’s priority. However modest — and precarious — their presence, unlike that of the Russians, insulates the Kurds against attacks from the regime and IS, but not against Turkey. So what could be done to get Turkey to back off? Kobane came up with an idea: reach out to the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC), a group of Syrian Kurdish parties with close ties to the Turkish-supported Syrian opposition and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) wing of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq.

Peace with the KNC serves several important purposes. It would broaden the autonomous administration’s public support, lubricate relations with the KRG and serve as a backdoor for improving relations with Turkey. This would in turn make it easier for US troops to remain in the northeast, melt Turkish resistance to the Democratic Union Party's (PYD) participation in UN-facilitated talks to determine Syria’s future, and expand Kobane’s room for maneuver until these talks come to fruition. And that won’t be anytime soon.

Kobane succeeded in convincing Washington to broker talks for a power-sharing agreement with the KNC that kicked off in April. In a recent interview with Al-Monitor, he acknowledged that he desired detente with Turkey and was ready to talk with Ankara “without any preconditions.”

On paper, there is quite a bit of progress toward finalizing the text of what will be called the Qamishli Declaration. The document builds on an earlier set of principles agreed upon between the sides in 2014 when Massoud Barzani, the KDP leader, sponsored a second — and unsuccessful — round of talks between the KNC and the PYD.

One of the stickiest issues for example, deciding the KNC and the PYD’s respective share of members on a proposed Kurdish Shura Council, has been agreed upon with plenty of prodding from US diplomats on the ground. Many credit Kobane for continuously accommodating the KNC’s demands when it's clearly the lesser power. A well-placed source told Al-Monitor, “The KNC is asking for 50% of what the PYD has but is not willing to give anything that they have in return.”

“For the PYD and for Mazlum, this is an effort worth pursuing anyway because they are interested in reforming the self-administration, they are interested in international legitimacy and they hope it would lead to a role for them in the [UN-mentored] political process — but there is no guarantee for them that it would,” the source added.

However, the one point on which the talks keep getting stuck is the PKK. Kobane confirmed to Al-Monitor that the KNC insists that the Qamishli Declaration contain wording that specifically refers to the PKK and states that the autonomous administration and its affiliates disavow all connections to the group. He has refused, saying the autonomous administration will not declare support or hostility to any group as part of the agreement.

Washington has also long pressed Kobane to “distance” himself from the PKK, not least because their presence in Rojava serves as justification for Turkey’s repeated attacks and poisons US relations.

The catch is that Mazlum and many senior figures in the autonomous administration rose through the PKK’s ranks when its now-imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, ran the insurgency out of Syria. Washington is perfectly aware of this yet feigns ignorance. In 1998, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s late father, Hafez, expelled the PKK leader when the Turkish army threatened to invade. Ocalan was captured soon after — with the CIA’s help — and has been kept in a prison island off the coast of Istanbul ever since.

Coming full circle

During his 19 years in Syria, Ocalan built what is now regarded as one of the most resilient and sophisticated guerrilla outfits in recent history, one that has withstood NATO’s second-largest army for 36 years. His message of mobilizing and empowering women has spawned fawning coverage in the Western media.

Assad Senior gave the PKK sanctuary for two reasons. One was to redirect the ire of Syria’s own restive Kurds to their other big oppressor, Turkey, from whence many had fled in the early 20th century. The other was to use the PKK as a lever to pressure Turkey into releasing Syria’s fair share of water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which irrigate the country’s breadbasket, the Jazirah region.

The Assad regime’s Kurdish chickens have now come home to roost. Kobane is a globally acclaimed figure who has spoken to Trump over the telephone, while Ilham Ahmed, who heads the SDF’s civilian arm, has been received by France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The Jazirah region and the country’s main dams and oil fields are now under Kurdish control and protected by US forces. Turkey occupies large swaths of northern Syria with its Sunni rebel allies. Unfazed and ever recalcitrant, Assad Junior has spurned the Kurds’ demands for a fair deal.

Yet one of Ankara’s worst fears is that they could yet strike one and team up, with Russia and Iran’s backing, against Turkey once again. It follows that Turkey might view a power-sharing arrangement between the PYD and the KNC that would eventually encompass Arabs in the northeast, all under US protection, as a lesser evil.

But there are few signs that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is interested, even though Kobane has signaled privately that PKK cadres within the civilian administration need to be gently eased out. Already by assuming a co-sponsorship role along with the United States in the Kurdish unity talks, Kobane has effectively cast himself as independent of the PKK and the PYD. Not only that, he announced for the first time via Al-Monitor that should this be of benefit to Rojava and his people and, provided that the Turks were sincere, he would be willing to mediate between Ankara and the PKK.

It wouldn’t be a first. Amed Dicle, a veteran Kurdish reporter, revealed in a groundbreaking book about the Turkish state’s secret talks with the PKK that a Turkish colonel had met with the PKK’s top man in Europe on the German-Dutch border in the late 1990s to test the possibility of a cease-fire. The PKK’s man was Kobane. When Turkey’s latest stab at peace with the PKK in the early days of the Syrian conflict was still in play, Kobane was very much in the loop.

Either way, the fiction that the PKK and the YPG are not connected is becoming increasingly hard to maintain.

“The secrecy that was surrounding the presence of these cadres is no longer viable. It’s not possible to keep this clandestine streak in Arab areas like Deir ez-Zor where the way they conduct themselves appears foreign to the area. Today, people know who they are and talk openly about it,” said Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group who just returned from a field trip to Rojava where she interviewed Kobane. “To the autonomous administration’s credit, it’s something that’s being discussed more openly within the realm of the intra-Kurdish talks and the internal reform process that they’ve been undergoing, through town hall, meetings, general conferences,” Khalifa explained in an interview with Al-Monitor. “So, the way they are working on this now,” she continued, “is putting it within the framework of a Syrianization of institutions, reforming local governance based on domestic pressure.”

 Khalifa added, “So when [Kobane] said they’d already committed to phasing out the cadres and that the process has already started, he put it within the framework of intra-Kurdish talks and of the local dialogues they have been having in the predominantly Arab areas [under Kurdish control].”

“Despite the significance of Kobane’s pledge to pull out non-Syrian cadres from Syria, it remains unclear whether such a move would be sufficient to de-escalate tensions with Ankara since for Turkey the main issue is party affiliation (and operational ties to Qandil) rather than citizenship. Ankara is also skeptical whether Kobane is actually willing and capable of implementing such a move,” she said.

Zagros Hiwa, the PKK spokesman, declined to comment on US efforts to drive out the PKK from Syria. "The main source of the problems in north Syria, and Syria in general, is the Turkish state’s occupation of Syria, either directly or through radical jihadist groups. If the US really wants to solve the Syrian crisis, they will have to address this core issue," Hiwa said via Whatsapp.

Kurds across the ideological spectrum support Kobane and his efforts to secure Rojava’s future through a mix of pragmatism and diplomacy. His dream for the northeast to eventually become the template for a democratic and prosperous Syria that is anchored in the West and has cordial ties with all of its neighbors is catching on.

The Revolutionary Youth’s actions and Kobane’s apparent inability to rein them in, however, flies in the face of such efforts and provides Ankara with further ammunition.

KNC officials blame the group for vandalizing its offices in Qamishli in August. The SDF condemned the attack, saying the perpetrators would be held accountable. “Recently, every time the KNC-PYD negotiations have progressed, under American supervision and [with Kobane] present, this group’s activity has increased more and more,” said Ibrahim Birro, a senior KNC figure.

“It’s a clear sign from Qandil, from the PKK, that they don’t want these negotiations to succeed,” he told Al-Monitor in an interview. But is it?

The same night that the KNC affiliate’s office was targeted, Revolutionary Youth members returned to the scene and restored the awning along with a defaced drawing of the party’s flag.

Child recruitment is commonplace among Kurdish groups throughout the region. By resisting Kobane’s efforts to end the practice, the PKK is likely signaling displeasure that the unity talks appear to be coming at their expense.

US hypocrisy in this regard is “utterly disgusting,” said a Western civil society worker who has dealt with Kurdish factions for more than three decades. “All of those US generals who were planning the battles against the Islamic State, who were they planning it with, who was doing the heavy lifting on the ground? The PKK,” he said. “And now they are just supposed to disappear?”

“It’s thanks in large part to PKK cadre that the Islamic State was defeated,” concurred Aliza Marcus, the author of “Blood and Belief,” the most authoritative English-language history of the PKK. “The question is: What is the point of the demand?” she said in emailed comments to Al-Monitor.  “Is this in hopes of satisfying Turkey or is there an actual deal underway? If it’s the former — in other words, a hope this will satisfy Ankara — then the US needs to recognize that removing Turkish cadres will not be sufficient, not least of all because there are Syrian Kurdish cadres active as well,” she observed.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s unremitting attacks against the group across Iraqi Kurdistan contradict its calls for PKK militants to leave Rojava. The weaker they grow in Iraq, the deeper they will likely dig into Syria.

Kobane, in his November interview with Al-Monitor, praised the PKK for its role in defeating IS. “It’s important to note that the PKK made big sacrifices in the war against terror in Rojava. Nobody can dispute this. The PKK will always defend the interests of the people of Rojava. It will not create problems for them. On the contrary, it will always look to ease their path. That is what we believe,” he said. What better proof than to return Rawan to her family.


Shiite Factions Close To Sistani Move To Separate From Iran-Backed Militias

By Mustafa Saadoun

Dec 6, 2020

Four brigades close to top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani held a Dec. 2-4 conference on supporting the state against opposition movements from some militias close to Iran.

The final statement of the conference carried a harsh tone against corruption and militias’ exploitation of the war against the Islamic State for personal and factional interests.

The four factions are Liwa Ansar al-Marjaiya, Liwa Ali al-Akbar, Firqat al-Abbas al-Qitaliyah and Firqat al-Imam Ali al-Qitaliyah. They had previously asked to get detached from the Popular Mobilization Units and instead be affiliated with the Iraqi Defense Ministry, as a part of integration into the state forces.

The four factions declared themselves under full control of the state, demanding to be separated from the PMU and instead be directly connected with Iraq's prime minister, the country's commander in chief.

The final statement was released three days after the “shrine units’ conference” in the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, where Sistani lives. The conference was a surprise for the remaining armed Shiite factions, be they under the wing of the PMU or outside of it.

An official in the shrine units told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that they were working to separate organizations that supported the Iraq government from factions and political parties that follow the interests of another state. This was a reference to Iran, which is accused of controlling the PMU.

He told Al-Monitor, “Some of the armed factions inside the PMU took advantage of Sistani’s fatwa to adopt entities parallel to the state entity and forces parallel to its regular troops. They also exploited the capacities of the PMU and its power in political affairs and were implicated in crimes of corruption and murder.”

The fatwa the official was referring to was Sistani's call upon volunteers to join Iraqi official security forces after the Islamic State seized Mosul and other parts of Iraq in 2014.

The official added, “The separation project was on the table, even before the killing of deputy head of the PMU, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis [in January 2020], but it was delayed when he was killed." The official said other PMU militias have been ignoring the shrine factions' demands to have the PMU under state control and have not been giving the shrine militias a chance to participate in the PMU decision-making process. He said an exacerbating factor was the designation of the Kataib Hezbollah leader known as Abu Fadak as the PMU chief of staff.

“The recent conference was a reaction to the ongoing chaos, including the illegal measure that PMU chairman Faleh al-Fayadh, who is not favored by Najaf, took by installing Abu Muntadher al-Husseini … as secretary of the PMU,” the official said.

The shrine factions' official also spoke about “the imminent withdrawal of their forces from the PMU for good, unless the government and political forces pay attention to the signs of the shrine units united with Sistani.”

Yazan al-Jabouri, who leads a Sunni PMU brigade, told Al-Monitor, “This is a Shiite-Shiite dispute between the shrine units and the loyalist [pro-Iranian] units. We are the state’s units, and we are not part of the dispute. We did not fight for a religious fatwa, but we fought to liberate our areas, and we found in the PMU a legal umbrella for our military presence.”

He mentioned “problems within the PMU,” adding, “These problems threaten the future of the PMU because the risks are internal rather than external.”

Officials in the shrine units accused factions that are loyal to Iran and that follow Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of pursuing riches and their own interests.

The shrine factions' move to associate themselves with the government had been expected, particularly since the four militias had closely cooperated with the chief of staff of the Iraqi armed forces during the battle against the Islamic State, and were also known for not committing human rights abuses.

Mahmoud al-Rabihi, a spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which is accused of loyalty to Iran, told Al-Monitor, “Talking about more than one PMU is unacceptable and violates Iraqi law. Sistani did not make any reference to such a divisive description. Sistani refuses to be affiliated with one party because he is there for all the units, all Iraqis and every believer in all countries of the world.”

Rabihi added, “Stirring this issue does not please Sistani, who has been known to be the father of all. Some want to be affiliated with the general leader or the Defense Ministry, and they have their reasons and motives, which we think will not divide the … PMU.”

Adel Badawi, a professor of political science at the University of Baghdad, told Al-Monitor that the separation of the shine units from the PMU could reduce the legitimacy of the factions loyal to Iran.

It seems highly likely that the shrine factions' push toward separation from the PMU occurred with the knowledge or even instruction of Sistani. Such a conference likely could not be held in the Imam Ali Shrine without the approval of Sistani, who directly oversees it; it also is just steps away from his residence.


Is The Solution To The Gulf Crisis Not Approaching?

By Tariq Al-Homayed

 December 7, 2020

Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser Al-Sabah said that progress has been made towards ending the Arab Gulf dispute with Qatar.

In a televised statement, he said, “all parties involved in recent talks affirmed their keenness on Gulf and Arab solidarity and stability and expressed their desire to find a final and lasting solution to the GCC crisis for the benefit of their people.”

As a result, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan said: “We have made great progress in recent days, thanks to the continuous efforts of Kuwait and to the strong support of US President Donald Trump.

“We hope that this progress will result in a final agreement that appears within reach, and I can say that I am optimistic that we are close to concluding an agreement between all the countries that are in disagreement.”

It is clear, as of now while writing this article, that we are seeing optimistic statements all of which justify the necessity of achieving this peace now between the Gulf countries — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, besides Egypt, with Qatar for the sake of the unity and cohesion of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The truth is that the GCC has gone through many challenges over the past four decades, the consequences of which have surpassed the current crisis or those that preceded it with Qatar, and yet the Council, led by Saudi Arabia, passed through them to safety, and that is with the cooperation of its sister States.

The fear for the GCC is justified, and therefore there were several statements about the need for the Gulf security coordination, and for Gulf-Gulf relations to be good, hoping to cut off the road to Iran, and of course Turkey too.

This was evident in the Vision of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman in 2015 that aimed at achieving the desired integration of the GCC in the security, political, military and economic sectors, and hence no one wants to divide the Council and its States.

Likewise, no one wants to shake the relationship of the GCC with Egypt, which is the cornerstone of security and stability in the region. This makes it imperative to strengthen this relationship, as it is very important to protect Arab national security and achieve higher common interests.

Therefore, what is required now, and in the event of reconciliation, is to ensure that there is a mechanism for resolving differences and disputes that occur in the Council, and that would be practical, in order to ensure that the main issues do not recur, especially since the differences are real, and that affect our security and our existence.

It also affects the security and the entity of the GCC as a whole. There must be a mechanism to ensure that we learn from experiences and not repeat those things that undermine our security.

The differences are fundamental and existential, and that do not end only with a handshake, but with real change. This should be coupled with proper awareness about the importance of the council’s entity, and before that the security and stability of countries.

And I say it again that no one is upset with reconciliation, if it happens, especially if it is based on pragmatic foundations and real guarantees. What is important, and most important, is that we not test the examiner.



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