military stand-off in ninawa: syria inflames kurdistan-iraq dispute

military stand-off in ninawa: syria inflames kurdistan-iraq dispute

niqash | Ahmad Salama | Mosul
The Syria-Iraq border crossing, with billboards showing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

The conflict with Syria is threatening to spill over borders, as Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad line up on opposing sides. Now the face-off has gone beyond words, with Iraqi and Kurdish troops digging trenches in a border village.

For weeks, Iraqis living in villages and towns near the Syrian border have heard bomb blasts and explosions as the Syrian rebels and the Syrian army fight fierce battles. But now observers are warning that Iraqis may soon do more than just hear the noise of warfare, as the conflict threatens to spill over the border.

The would-be battleground looks likely to be the northern Iraqi state of Ninawa and, rather than any Syrians playing a role in fighting, the troops facing off will be those belonging to the Iraqi army, under Baghdad’s command, and troops belonging to Iraqi Kurdistan, under Erbil’s command. The semi-autonomous state has its own borders, government, legislature and military, all of which operate relatively independently of the rest of Iraq.

And while the government in Baghdad appears to have been tacitly supporting the beleaguered regime of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – or at the very least, trying to stay neutral – at least some of the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have been doing exactly the opposite.

For example, the region’s president, Massoud al-Barzani, recently admitted that the Iraqi Kurdish had been giving military training to Syrian Kurdish refugees who had fled over the border.

The Kurdish people are one the largest ethnic groups in the world without an actual homeland and Kurdish living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey share a language, culture and ethnicity. Analysts say that by supporting their Syrian Kurdish counterparts in the ouster of al-Assad’s regime, the Iraqi Kurdish hope to be able to play a role in Syria in the future, should al-Assad be deposed.

Syrian Kurds have long been discriminated against in Syria and if al-Assad falls, they may be able to use this as an opportunity to advance their people.

And now these opposing viewpoints are manifesting in reality, and in particular in the border village of Qahira, which is near the Rabia border crossing. Life in border towns has been tense anyway and when Syrian rebels took control of several checkpoints on the Syrian side, things became even more so.

Additionally, there has been a flood of Iraqis returning home to escape the ever-increasing violence in Syria. The head of the Rabia border crossing told NIQASH that he believed 7,000 Iraqis had returned over this crossing since last Sunday.

Meanwhile the small village of Qahira, with about 80 residences, has seen conflict of a different kind. All of its inhabitants apparently fled the village within the space of an hour recently because of the arrival of both Iraqi Kurdish troops – known as Peshmerga – and the Iraqi military.

“Everyone left because they were afraid of violence similar to what is happening in Syria,” one of the village’s residents, Ali al-Sayed told NIQASH. “The Peshmerga and the Iraqi army seemed to be about to start a battle.  We didn’t know what was going on.  We only wanted to stay alive.”

Al-Sayed says that all of the families in the village, including children and elderly, fled their houses on one of the hottest days they’ve had there so far, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which sees the religious fasting all day until the evening. Currently Qahira’s residents are all sheltering in nearby villages or they’ve gone to the city of Mosul, al-Sayed says.

Now apparently the only people occupying Qahira are the Peshmerga and the Iraqi military. The Iraqi regiment that moved there is part of a larger force that had been deployed along the Iraqi-Syria border when the Syrian rebels began to target border crossings.

The Peshmerga forces have been in this area for longer. Mosul, Kirkuk and other parts of the state of Ninawa are what are best described as Iraq’s disputed territories. That is, there is land there that Iraqi Kurdistan says belongs to Iraqi Kurdistan but which Baghdad says belongs to Iraq. However in reality, the Iraqi Kurdish has been able to, at least partially, control some of these areas, as their military have remained in charge there.

And this could be one reason why the Peshmerga troops refused to allow the Iraqi army regiment to cross the village towards one of the border checkpoints, where the Iraqi army would have been able to stop Syrians passing back and forth between the two countries.

According to local eyewitnesses, the two military groups then began to cement their positions at either side of the village, by digging trenches. Both were showing they would not budge.

Official sources from within the Peshmerga said that no skirmishes had taken place but did admit that their troops had prevented the Iraqi military from approaching the border.

At a recent press conference held by the governor of the state of Ninawa, Atheel al-Nujaifi, he raised concerns about an Iraqi-Kurdish conflict, fuelled by differences over the Syrian conflict.

Ninawa’s governor informed gathered reporters that he knew nothing about the troop movements or the confrontation and that the local government had had nothing to do with any of the mobilizations.

The Ninawa operations command, the Iraqi army authority responsible for security in parts of the province not controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish, confirmed that they had moved some troops into areas of the city of Mosul to fill in gaps created by others heading out to border areas. However, the operations command would not comment on what was happening in Qahira, saying that only the federal Ministry of Defence could make statements on this matter.

Baghdad daily, Azzam, reported a statement from Baghdad: “The Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces announced earlier that the forces within Kurdistan are acting against the constitution, accusing them of nearly provoking a conflict with the armed forces,” Azzam wrote.

“[Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki said in a statement yesterday that there were clear suspicions that the province’s guards had turned the region, near the Iraqi-Syrian border, into a haven for militants to cross to and from Syria, stressing that this was why they refused the army entry to that area, given that they could cut off supplies to insurgents.”

Azzam also reported that al-Maliki had called the moves by the Kurdish forces unconstitutional – the Iraqi military was supposed to protect the nation’s borders – and that it was yet another sign that the Iraqi Kurdish were trying to form their own state.

But without further information, it is hard to say whether the Iraqi Kurdish are helping Syrian rebels move back and forth and thereby tacitly supporting the attempts to overthrow the al-Assad regime. Or whether this is just the latest flashpoint in a long and ongoing saga about the disputed territories in this area. There have been similar situations in the past, and these did not involve Syria.

At the press conference in Ninawa, Governor al-Nujaifi said he feared an escalation of the Kurdish-Iraq conflict, currently escalating in the political arena, where the two sets of leaders have been harshly critical of one another over issues such as oil industry contracts, federalization, power sharing and the Syrian issue.

One thing is certain though: the Iraqi-Syrian border remains as porous as ever, with reports that smugglers from over the border continue to bring contraband, including weapons back and forth, at will.

Rabia is well known for smuggling and one of Iraqi smugglers, who gave his name only as Rahmeh, says that Syrian contraband is moving more freely than ever.

“The Syrian smugglers are doing the same thing we did when the Saddam Hussein regime, and the entire Iraqi state, collapsed in 2003,” Rahmeh says, perhaps giving an indication of exactly how things stand over the border. “They come with their own cars, they cross the dirt barrier and they bring in smuggled goods because there is no one to stop them,” he notes.

The trade goes both ways too: “Ten days ago, the Syrians started to demand more weapons,” Rahmeh says. “We’ve heard that most of these munitions are bound for [the Syrian city of] Aleppo.”

Expanding American Conflicts Beyond Existing Supply Lines

[Just as the American oil majors are pushing the divided government in Iraq to the brink of hostilities over the unprofitability of the post-conflict  environment (as reported below) American machinations outside of Iraq are also magnifying the internal contradictions within that government to the same dangerous level (SEE: Military stand-off in ninawa: syria inflames kurdistan-iraq dispute).  The failed Iraq war is about to escalate into a regional conflict that is also destined to failure.  Imperial planners will have no better success implementing their plans on a regional level.  By utilizing a messed-up government like the one in Turkey as a key player in escalation plans, Turkey’s contradictions have been added to our own, removing any element of certainty that planners might have had in the past.

 The core of the Imperial Plan has always been the expansion of American “conflict management” techniques to manage regional wars in the Middle East.  These conflict management techniques have proven to be insufficient to the task in larger conflicts.  The intention has always been to expand beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, to take in all neighbors to our managed conflicts.  Expanding failing operations is no solution to anything.  The key to success in these endeavors has been to maintain slow escalation, never expanding beyond existing supply lines.  The American plan playing-out now, to throw Turkey into the middle of Imperial takeover plans, threatens to grow rapidly beyond America’s ability to “manage,” merging the war on Syria with the failed Iraqi project.  This will almost spontaneously spawn new wars within these existing wars.  Turkey’s anti-Kurd operations will suck in Iraq’s deadly Peshmerga forces, who will themselves be involved with military actions with Iraq’s Shia-majority government.  The war on Kurds will spill over into Iran, potentially creating an opening for NATO to reinforce Turkey, against Iran.  On the other end of the Kurdish variant, we have the Kurds in Syria, drawing Turkey into Syria.  Lebanon has barely avoided being sucked into the Syrian maelstrom so far, but the fuse is lit, and when it blows, look for Israel to carve-off the Golan Heights from Syria.

Unless American capabilities to exert control can be projected with air power alone, then the Empire is set to totally lose control over the situation, whenever new conflicts outpace our existing supply lines.  Perhaps that is the planned trigger to unleash the level of American firepower (Navy and Air Force) not seen since the early days of the Afghan conflict.  Perhaps it is the idea of America rapidly losing control that will justify using whatever force is necessary, no matter what the collateral damages might be.  Total breakdown of order is required to justify total war and an American police state.]  

Insight: Oil’s big players raise the stakes in Iraqi Kurdistan

By Peg Mackey and Andrew Callus

LONDON

(Reuters) – Iraqi Kurdistan’s crude oil is plentiful and easy to get at, rare among undeveloped energy resources. The man managing it, a former North Sea engineer and consultant turned politician, knows how to attract investment.

But the companies working there under contracts with the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are not getting much out, and they are not getting paid, all because of a dispute over control with the national government in Baghdad.

Despite the row, rooted deep in the tinderbox politics of Iraq, ever bigger oil companies are moving into the northern region, angering Baghdad with their seal of corporate approval for a government that is seeking more autonomy in one of the most volatile parts of the world.

Something has to give.

“The northward migration continues,” said a senior oil executive involved in Iraq. “And this could well be the tipping point.”

Output in this mountainous region bordering Turkey, Syria and Iran is an on-off trickle for now in global terms but, given the right investment and an export route, it could reach 1 million barrels per day by 2014, and 2 million five years later, according to Ashti Hawrami, the KRG natural resources minister.

That would be more than Libya, the North African producer whose civil war outage led to a sharp jump in prices last year.

Hawrami worked in Scotland for the British National Oil Company in the 1970s and early 1980s. He later ran an oil services firm, then moved into consulting before becoming a KRG minister in 2006.

Oil men admire his commercial savvy. They say he understands that companies have a simple need for returns that justify investments, in stark contrast to suspicious governments they deal with elsewhere in the Middle East.

“The difference is that they want us here while in the south of Iraq, it feels like they don’t,” said one oil executive.

The sticking point for KRG development is that Baghdad has jurisdiction over all exports, and contests the validity of contracts signed with the Kurdish government in Arbil.

It tries to keep the region on a tight leash, limiting supplies of fuel and restricting its flow of cash under an entitlement based on 17 percent of the country’s oil export income.

There is much friction, claim and counter-claim over the arrangements, and in its most recent act of protest, the KRG halted oil exports in April, saying Baghdad owed $1.5 billion.

In 2002 Turkish company Genel Enerji blazed an exploration trail to the region. Norwegian company DNO and others followed after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Now more than 40 foreign companies are drilling in oil territory so rich that in some places the crude seeps out of the hillside and collects in the valley below.

Proven reserves in Iraqi Kurdistan of 45 billion barrels amount to more than a third of the national total of 143 billion recorded in BP’s annual statistical review, where Iraq accounts for 8.7 percent of all the world’s known oil.

EXXON GAME-CHANGER

In 2007 Hawrami came within a whisker of making Royal Dutch Shell his first really big signing, but the board of the world industry number two ruled it too risky, an industry source said. Shell later became, and remains, the biggest oil investor in southern Iraq.

Because of the politics and the payback issue, ventures into KRG territory remained the preserve of smaller explorers with an appetite for political risk and nothing to lose in Baghdad.

In November last year, four years after Shell walked away, came the game changer.

Exxon Mobil, the world’s biggest private oil company, signed a deal for six exploration blocks.

Last month, the U.S. number-two player Chevron moved in too, buying 80 percent of two blocks, Sarta and Rovi, from India’s Reliance.

And last week, Total of France piled in, buying 35 percent of the Harir and Safen blocks from Marathon Oil, along with Gazprom of Russia, which farmed in to the Garmian block operated by Canadian company Western Zagros.

Suddenly, four of the world’s top 10 international oil companies by market value have set up shop in Arbil.

Baghdad is furious, and has made it clear that both Exxon and Total are risking their involvement in multi-billion dollar projects in the south of the country.

So what are the big international oil companies thinking?

There is still no obvious way to monetize these investments. Letters last week to the KRG from DNO, Genel and others with activities in Iraqi Kurdistan expressed their continued frustration at not getting paid.

Executives say the move north by the big companies sends a message to Baghdad that its commercial terms on southern oilfield projects are unattractive, and that institutional chaos and the slow pace of postwar redevelopment are problems.

“We understand the political risk of going into the north and the commercial terms are attractive enough to take that risk,” said an oil industry source. “The economics of Iraq’s service contract just can’t compete with the terms on offer in Kurdistan.”

More new entrants may be beating a path to Hawrami’s door for quality acreage and a safer operating environment as well as a better potential rate of return than the south. KRG production sharing contracts (PSCs) promise as much as 25-35 percent versus the 15 to 18 percent in the south for fixed-fee output-boosting and start-up deals on untested fields, oil experts say.

Total’s CEO Christophe de Margerie has been openly critical of Baghdad’s service contract terms. The latest national tender for exploration blocks drew no interest from the oil majors.

Norway’s Statoil and Italy’s Eni are both looking at KRG acreage, say industry sources.

Statoil pulled out of its stake in the giant West Qurna-2 oilfield in southern Iraq earlier this year, while Eni is still leading a project to develop the huge Zubair oilfield in southern Iraq.

Other big companies that still have all their Iraq eggs in the southern basket include Britain’s BP, which recently produced its 1 billionth barrel in the southern Rumaila field, Russia’s Lukoil, as well as the Chinese and Malaysian state firms CNPC and Petronas.

Shell has stayed loyal to Baghdad too. According to industry sources it decided last year for a second time against a KRG tie-up, turning its back on a partnership with Exxon to focus on a $17 billion gas project and other commitments in the south.

BP said it had plenty to keep it occupied in the south and no plans to look north. Although Shell would not comment, company officials privately have a similar view to that of BP.

But those already on the ground in Kurdistan are likely to build up their positions. Exxon, risking operatorship of West-Qurna-1 with its dalliance in the north, is looking at unawarded blocks along the border with Turkey, and Chevron and Total are expected to snap up more acreage, industry sources said.

BAGHDAD’S BLACKLIST

“It’s quite worrying for the Iraqi government to have the big companies walking away,” said a senior oil executive who believes Baghdad will take action to deter further defections.

“If the federal government does not act, other companies will think they can move north without further consequences. And they have to do what they say – so far, it’s just been a lot of noise.

“And we will, of course, use the situation as an argument to look for more reasonable terms (in southern Iraq).”

Baghdad has protested at the highest political level about Exxon’s floodgate-opening move, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki writing to U.S. President Barack Obama predicting dire consequences for the country’s stability.

It has also threatened to throw out Exxon and Total and blacklist Chevron from future involvement. All to no avail – so far.

“I don’t think Exxon can hang onto and work both pieces and they will be forced to choose very soon,” said a senior western executive, adding that he expected chief executive Rex Tillerson, if pushed, to opt for Kurdistan.

In the latest twist, Arbil has responded to Baghdad’s saber rattling with an apparent softening of its position, agreeing to resume exports until August 31 provided it gets the money it says it is owed.

The oil concessions dispute between Maliki and KRG president Masoud Barzani forms part of a deeper political rift in Iraq, whose wobbly coalition of Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders are embroiled in their second serious squabble since the last U.S. troops left in December.

TURKISH QUESTION

With their potential to produce immense wealth for whoever controls them, reserves in Kurdistan also play into the broader balance of power and ethnic tensions in the region.

When it comes to exports, a fully independent Iraqi Kurdistan could in theory avoid Iraq territory altogether by sending its crude through Turkey.

In May, the KRG announced plans to build a pipeline from the Taq Taq oilfield to hook up with an existing one that runs from Kirkuk in Iraq to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, targeting August 2013 as the completion date and initial capacity of 1 million barrels a day.

But there’s a snag here too for the KRG and its investors, and one that could strengthen Maliki’s hand.

Turkey’s prime minister Tayyip Erdogan performs one of the world’s trickiest political balancing acts.

Having turned his back last September on his one-time friend, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and embraced the rebels fighting him, Erdogan has made an enemy along his longest border.

Iran, which backs Assad, is another potentially unfriendly neighbor. Meanwhile Turkey, like Syria, has a restless Kurdish population of its own.

So Erdogan may be reluctant to upset Baghdad, and a Kurdish state flush with oil money on his frontier might not be the perfect outcome for him either.

“The one thing in Baghdad’s favor right now is that the Kurds don’t have an independent export line,” said Raad Alkadiri of Washington consultancy PFC Energy.

“So a lot of this will come down to the Baghdad-Arbil-Ankara triangle, and given developments in the region, including Syria, how this relationship plays out could surprise the Kurds and investors there.”

(Additional reporting by Tom Bergin; Editing by Anthony Barker and Richard Mably)

China Accuses West of Blocking Political Solution In Syria

China lashes out over Syria

Russia (L) and China (R) cast a veto as members vote during a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria on July 19. (AFP/File - Don Emmert)

Russia (L) and China (R) cast a veto as members vote during a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria on July 19. (AFP/File – Don Emmert)

BEIJING: China on Saturday accused countries that oppose its position on Syria of undermining attempts to find a political solution to the conflict, after voting against a new UN resolution on the crisis.

The UN General Assembly on Friday overwhelmingly passed a resolution slamming the Security Council’s failure to take strong steps to end the fighting, which UN leader Ban Ki-moon said has become a “proxy war”.

Russia and China, which have vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, were among high-profile opponents of the resolution which many diplomats said showed frustration at the lack of action on the conflict.

Wang Kejian, a senior official in the Chinese foreign ministry, attacked countries “which have made unfounded criticism of China’s position on the issue of Syria”.

“And these countries, in pursuit of their own geopolitical interests in Syria, are trying to hinder or even undermine the political settlement process.”

“The legitimate requests and aspirations of the Syrian people for change and for safeguarding their own interests deserve respect,” he added.

The assembly’s resolution, which condemned President Bashar al-Assad’s use of “heavy weapons” in the civil war, was passed by 133 votes with 12 countries against and 31 abstaining.

Though the resolution is not legally binding, there was increased attention on the vote after the resignation of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and the mounting battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo.

– AFP/de