ISIS and the Specter of Kurdish Independence

In a region whose political lines were drawn by the arbitrary hand of imperialist powers, Kurdistan has remained a nation without a state, militarily powerful enough to ensure political relevance, but lacking the international support to achieve statehood. In the wake of recent victories by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), however, Iraqi chaos could provide a golden opportunity for Kurdish self-rule. Yet while the Kurds may have cemented their political foothold, prospects for independence still remain inhibited by uncertain international support and lingering territorial questions.

The Kurdish people have a long history of manipulation and failed attempts at establishing sovereign authority, traceable back to their 1923 partition between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. In the ensuing decades, nationalist Mustafa Barzani led several revolts against Iraqi authority, achieving autonomy in 1970 and receiving support from Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War. In the 1990s, internal power struggles culminated in the creation of a Kurdish “joint higher leadership” in 2003, and following Hussein’s deposition, Kurdish leaders had success in national Parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, oil production restrictions and territorial disputes with Iraq and Turkey perpetuated regional tensions.

In June 2014, however, the sudden ISIS offensive, sparked by the fall of Mosul, began to transform the Kurds’ bleak situation. Suddenly, a jihadist blitzkrieg was threatening Baghdad, capturing wide swaths of land and major population centers while meeting negligible resistance from the Iraqi military. Yet in contrast to the helpless Iraqi forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga army demonstrated skill and discipline, protecting Kurdish territory so well that thousands of Iraqi refugees fled to the safer Kurdistan.

But rather than deploy their elite fighting force as a tool of Baghdad’s defense, Kurdish leaders instead set their sights on more practical objectives. Prior to the assault, Kurdistan’s military built a security belt insulating its borders but offering no protection to Mosul. Additionally, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) refused the send Peshmerga when asked to reinforce the besieged Fallujah. Ultimately, it was the seizure of oil-rich Kirkuk that illustrated the extent of Kurdish gains from ISIS advances. Occupation of the historic and cultural mecca symbolized the Sunni advance’s menace to precarious Iraqi unity and simultaneous opportunity for Kurdish expansion. As a KRG official acknowledged, “ISIL gave us in two weeks what Maliki has not given us in eight years.”

Moreover, Iraqi instability has enabled independent Kurdish economic expansion. On June 5, Kurdish leaders signed a fifty-year oil agreement with Turkey, embodying the maturity of a now $8 billion-per-year trade relationship. Additionally, while Iraqi authorities denounced a recent Kurdish oil sale to Israel as “illegal,” the KRG defiantly replied, “We are proud of this milestone achievement, which was accomplished despite almost three weeks of intimidation…from Baghdad.” Such overt disobedience has inspired talk of independence. “By all standards, the Kurdistan Region has the right to become a sovereign state,” one Kurdish leader stated.

Military gains and new trading partners, however, are not to be confused with political progress. Internally, Iraq remains a war zone, and while the Military Councils of Iraqi Revolutionaries, which claim to represent the majority of Iraqi opposition forces, has promised to respect KRG borders, ISIS cannot be counted upon to honor such an agreement. Furthermore, the Kurds risk a backlash in Kirkuk, where Sunni Arabs and Turkmen have threatened revolt if oil revenue is not fairly distributed. And even if al-Maliki relinquishes power, it remains to be seen whether a new inclusive government would accept significantly greater Kurdish autonomy.

Yet perhaps the most important factor in Kurdistan’s future is international support. Turkish oil imports and condemnations of al-Maliki’s sectarianism have proven a source of optimism for self-rule proponents. But while Turkey may consider Iraqi Kurdistan a bastion of stability, it concurrently fears the possibility of Turkish Kurds demanding greater autonomy within its own borders. Israel, the Kurds’ other trade partner, has maintained a robust covert relationship with Erbil, but blatant Kurdish cooperation could incur the wrath of Tehran.

Ultimately, however, it is American ambitions that will likely determine the success of any push for statehood. The US remains committed to a united Iraq, not the partition into a Sunni North and Iran-dominated Shia south that could occur were Kurdistan to secede. Such a potentiality could threaten regional American interests, namely oil resources and the security of Sunni Gulf allies. And while KRG President Massoud Barzani may have telegraphed his intentions in telling John Kerry, “We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq,” Kurdish leaders, too, understand the strategic necessity of avoiding rapidly altering the regional status quo. As assistant foreign minister Dindar Zebari noted, “we believe…self-independence will only be achieved, when an atmosphere of coexistence in the Middle East, in the neighboring countries, provides that room.”

Note: This was originally written on June 21, 2014, and may include details that have become outdated.

Abbas Ruins Israel-Palestine Peace Negotiations

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Most issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are two-sided, but the recent action of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to create a “unity” government with the terrorist group Hamas has buried any potential peace deal with Israel in the foreseeable future.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed that there will be no negotiations with a government working with a terrorist organization, especially Hamas.

Palestinian officials claim that this new coalition government will strengthen Palestine through unity. President Abbas has claimed that a coalition government and peace with Israel are not incompatible. At the same time, President Abbas has claimed this new unity government is not one specifically with Hamas, but will be a government of independent representatives with no direct party affiliation and will renounce violence. In other words, the new government will be a coalition with Hamas covered with a blanket of technicalities under the pretense that the Palestine people desire it.

After the announcement of the new coalition government, the leader of Hamas in Gaza said outright that the group has no intention of discussing peace with Israel. The very core of Hamas is to eradicate Israel and all of its citizens. The terrorist group controls the Gaza strip and has sent over 10,000 missiles into Israel cities.

Many claim that a united Palestine will allow for peace, when it does come, to be implemented and maintained. Those on the other side of the argument claim that there is no way Hamas would allow for Israeli peace while the group exists, even more so if they have legitimate power within the Palestinian government.

The United States has openly opposed the action by President Abbas but has tried to keep the peace negotiations alive until the set deadline of the 28th. Due to the fact that the US labels Hamas a terrorist organization, it is unknown what the future holds in terms of US aid to Palestine. In the past, a Hamas-Fatah alliance has failed; perhaps this time it will again and/or will be heavily weakened by lack of US aid or possibly even limited sanctions.

Israeli-Palestinian peace is dead once again, killed this time by President Abbas and Hamas. Now the question on everyone’s minds is how long it will be until negotiations are revived, if they are revived at all.

Republicans Rethinking Social Justice Issues

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The inspirational Pope Francis I is making waves in American politics. Over the past year, the popular Pope has brought the issues of poverty and human dignity to the forefront of Catholic life and international news. An advocate of liberal immigration laws and welfare programs that recognize of human dignity of every individual (regardless of their birthplace or inheritance), the Pope has become very popular among liberal Catholics. As John Carr, director of the Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, notes, the Catholic Church has always cared about issues of poverty and human dignity, but Pope Francis is the first Catholic leader in years who has managed to make these issues relevant and influential. In fact, President Obama has openly acknowledged Pope Francis’s influence on him, and recent comments from Jeb Bush suggest that the Pope’s talk of Social Justice is even beginning to influence conservative American politicians.

This past month, Jeb Bush adopted Pope Francis’s position on immigration when he referred to illegal immigration as “an act of love.” The comment was a far cry from the Republican platform and received criticism from certain conservative pundits and politicians including Charles Krauthammer and Donald Trump. Stephen Colbert even suggested that the comment completely alienates him from his fellow conservatives. However, other conservatives, including Catholic pundit Bill O’Reilly and Senator Marco Rubio, were eager to reconsider their views on immigration in response to Jeb’s comments. In typical fashion, O’Reilly tried to claim that the term “an act of love” was an O’Reilly original that Jeb stole from him, while Rubio tried (in vain) to subtly support immigration reform without alienating his conservative constituents.

Although it is difficult to identify the source of the newfound sense of social justice amongst certain conservatives, Carr suggests that the Pope is behind it. In his words, “Pope Francis’s first miracle is to get political leaders in the U.S. to talk about poverty.” By framing the discussion of immigration and poverty in terms of social justice and Catholic Social Teaching, Pope Francis has given new life to the debate. As someone who is more concerned with policies than with politicians, I am thrilled to see certain conservatives embrace liberal social justice policies and I can only hope that Pope Francis continues to remind politicians of the role social justice plays in politics.

Source: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/04/18/how-this-pope-is-remaking-the-gop.html

Alex Sink Opts Out of Rematch in Florida 13th

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Alex Sink, the Democrat who nearly pulled off a special election victory last month in the Florida 13th congressional district, has announced she will not run again in November. Her statement read:

“I am so honored and humbled by the outpouring of support our campaign received, but after reflection with my family, I have made a personal decision not to run for the 13th Congressional District seat in the 2014 election.”

Sink faced an uphill battle in the March special election against Republican David Jolly because of the Republican tilt of the district and the typically low-turnout in special elections that favors Republican candidates. Despite these challenges, Sink managed to close most of the gap, but could not quite get over the hump. The Democratic Party, including the GU College Democrats, put in a big effort to help the Sink campaign.

With a slightly more favorable political climate in the November general election, many Democrats had hopes of a more favorable outcome in a Sink-Jolly rematch. DCCC Chairman, Steve Israel (D-NY), was actively encouraging Sink to run again in November. However, with Sink’s announcement today that she will not seek a rematch against Jolly, Democratic hopes have faded for the Florida 13th. Even with a popular candidate like Sink, who was polling within two points as of last week, it was going to be a tough race for Democrats. Now, with no obvious Democratic candidate to fill Sink’s shoes, winning the seat is a long shot.

Alex Sink’s decision is another in a long line of events that have hurt Democratic hopes for November. While Democrats continue to lead the generic congressional ballot, a rash of retirements and candidates opting not to run has led to low expectations for the midterms. Not only are the Democrats unlikely to take back the House despite the low popularity of House Republicans, but most are expecting a net gain for Republicans in both chambers.