The Middle East Channel

Syria’s government and opposition trade blame over mass killings

Gulf states pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in Syria aid as the Syrian government and opposition forces traded blame over mass killings in Aleppo. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia each pledged $300 million at the International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria in Kuwait on Wednesday. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon addressed the group:"I appeal to all sides, and particularly the Syrian government to stop the killing" and called for more humanitarian aid. The United Nations was seeking $1.5 billion total in pledges and $1 billion for humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. The remaining money would go to the 4 million Syrians who are still inside the country and need assistance. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime and opposition forces are accusing one another of what appeared to be summary executions of dozens of people, almost all men in their 20s and 30s, whose bodies were found along a river in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo. At least 50 bodies were found, but estimates of the number killed reach over 100. Syrian state media, SANA, reported that the victims' families "have identified a number of the killed, stressing that the Nusra Front abducted them because of their refusal to cooperate with this terrorist group." The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activist group, said 80 bodies were found and blamed the government for the mass killings. About half of the victims identified by Tuesday night were from opposition controlled districts, and some local residents blamed government checkpoints on the opposite side of the river.

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Arguments and Analysis

Does Jordan's election change anything? (Julien Barnes-Dacey, The European Council on Foreign Relations)

"Last week's parliamentary elections in Jordan have been widely hailed as a success. Domestic and international observers have praised the integrity of the vote and the turnout figure of 56.5 percent has been taken, by some, as a popular endorsement of King Abdullah's reform track. The Royal Palace is likely enjoying a moment of renewed confidence following a difficult year, particularly as fears about the spread of instability from Syria are also dampening opposition activism. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the King hailed a "wonderful election outcome."

Yet while the general integrity of the electoral process was a positive improvement on past elections, in and of itself, the vote may not actually mean that much. Following two years of low level - but nationwide - protests provoked by a lack of substantial political reform or the tackling of state corruption, the country remains in a precarious position. Much will now depend on the King's willingness to push through bolder measures aimed at cementing a more inclusive order if further unrest is to be avoided."

Why Palestine Should Take Israel to Court in The Hague (George Bisharat, The New York Times)

"If Palestinians succeed in getting the I.C.C. to examine their grievances, Israel's campaign to bend international law to its advantage would finally be subjected to international judicial review and, one hopes, curbed. Israel's dangerous legal innovations, if accepted, would expand the scope of permissible violence to previously protected persons and places, and turn international humanitarian law on its head. We do not want a world in which journalists become fair game because of their employers' ideas.

If the choice is between a Palestinian legal intifada, in which arguments are hashed out in court, and an actual intifada, in which blood flows in the streets, the global community should encourage the former.

Indeed, Palestinians would be doing themselves, Israelis and the global community a favor by invoking I.C.C. jurisdiction. Ending Israel's impunity for its clear violations of legal norms would both promote peace in the Middle East and help uphold the integrity of international law."

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The Middle East Channel

Turkey’s KRG energy partnership

Only a few years back, the idea of an independent Kurdistan bordering Turkey would have had Ankara up in arms. Not anymore. Past tensions have been supplanted by a new energy partnership and Turkey seems far less worried about the prospect of an independent Kurdistan. In May 2012, Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cut a deal to build one gas and two oil pipelines directly from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to Turkey without the approval of Baghdad, taking the rapprochement started between the two in 2009 one step further. If realized, the Kurdish pipelines will for the first time provide the Kurds direct access to world markets, bypassing the Baghdad controlled Kirkuk-Ceyhan (Turkey) pipeline bringing the KRG one step closer to the long-held dream of Kurdish independence.

Some pundits have argued that for this very reason Turkish approval of a Kurdish pipeline is a long shot. But the construction seems to be underway. According to Turkish press, the KRG has already begun construction on the oil and gas pipelines which are due to be operational by early 2014.

A couple of factors account for the sea change in Turkey's KRG policy. The first being Turkey's energy strategy. Turkey is an energy hungry country with a six to eight percent annual increase in demand. In order to sustain its economic growth, Ankara wants to strengthen its energy security, ensure diversification of suppliers, and establish itself as an energy hub between the energy-producing countries to its east and the energy-consuming countries to its west. Currently, Turkey relies heavily on imported energy from Russia and Iran. Recently, however, Iranian sanctions have driven up Turkey's energy costs. Moreover, the Syrian crisis has revealed that energy dependence on Iran and Russia might restrict Turkey's room for diplomatic maneuver. This is where the Iraqi Kurdish energy supply comes in handy. The Kurdish region sits on significant, nearly untapped oil and gas reserves. The KRG would offer Turkey a high quality low cost energy alternative to Iran and Russia while Turkey might serve as a conduit for KRG energy exports to Europe.

There are also geostrategic considerations behind Turkey's volte-face. The Syrian uprising has strained Turkey's once strong ties with Iran and Syria. In retaliation for Turkey's support of the Syrian opposition, Bashar al-Assad has given the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK's Syrian offshoot, a free hand to establish itself in the country's north. Turkish intelligence reports indicate that Iran has been providing shelter and logistical support for the PKK to launch attacks against Turkey as well. The KRG, on the other hand, has banned pro-PKK political parties, arrested PKK politicians, closed down PKK offices, and closely monitors pro-PKK activities. Against the backdrop of shifting dynamics in Turkey's immediate neighborhood and mounting PKK attacks, cultivating closer ties with the KRG has become one of the most important components of Turkey's anti-terror strategy and the government's most recent "Imrali process," the peace talks with the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Yet another intricacy for Turkey's regional policy has been the face off with Baghdad. An already strained relationship between Ankara and Baghdad due to diverging stances over Syria came to a head after the U.S. withdrawal. In an effort to consolidate his power, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges. Turkey granted refuge to Hashemi and refused to extradite him dealing yet another blow to bilateral relations. The energy deals Turkey signed with the KRG are the latest in the Baghdad-Ankara confrontation. Baghdad is accusing Ankara of meddling in Iraqi affairs by "backing radical Sunni elements" in the country and signing "illegal" energy deals with the Iraqi Kurds, while Ankara is charging Maliki of provoking sectarian tensions and leading Iraq into civil war. Maliki's growing tilt toward Iran has only exacerbated the tension.

Facing a host of new challenges including an increasingly antagonistic Maliki government, growing Iranian influence in Iraq, mounting PKK attacks, and increasing energy demand, Turkey seems to have found an unlikely ally in its ordeal.

Strange as it may sound, the United States is not happy about Turkey's courtship with Iraqi Kurds. Since the first Gulf War, Turkish-U.S. relations suffered multiple crises over the latter's support for Iraqi Kurds. This time, however, it is the other way around. Last week, Feridun Sinirlioglu, Undersecretary of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had a meeting with the State Department in which the United States reiterated its opposition to the energy deals directly between Ankara and the KRG fearing that closer energy ties might push Baghdad's Shiite government closer toward Tehran and threaten Iraqi unity.

Despite opposition from Baghdad and the United States, there seems to be little that can stop the ball from rolling on energy cooperation between Ankara and the KRG. In an interview with Turkish daily Hurriyet on January 8, Namik Tan, Turkey's ambassador to the United States, made it loud and clear: we will not turn our back on the KRG's energy resources.

The energy deals foreshadow a major shift in Turkey's Iraq policy. Gone are the days when the KRG was seen as part of the problem; it is now viewed as part of the solution. Turkey cannot only tolerate an independent Kurdistan but also benefit from it, as long as it remains dependent economically on Turkey. An independent Kurdistan could offer a source of energy, a buffer against a hostile Baghdad and Iran, and an important ally in Turkey's fight against the PKK.

Yet it is not all roses; risks abound for both parties. The oil pipeline deal will allow the Kurds to export up to one million barrels per day, but it might also make reconciliation between Erbil and Baghdad harder to achieve. If the KRG does not find a constitutional solution to its dispute with Baghdad over its contentious hydrocarbon law, the conflict will become regionalized inviting further meddling in Iraqi politics by neighboring powers. Ensuing instability carries the risk of scaring away badly needed foreign investment. Additionally, by bypassing Baghdad in its bilateral agreements with the KRG, Turkey risks losing investment in southern Iraq which holds the country's largest explored oil and gas reserves.

Regardless, Turkey seems ready to take the risk. In light of Turkey's long tortured history with the Kurds, such a radical shift seems nothing short of astonishing.

Gonul Tol is the founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.

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