Monthly Archives: November 2019

The Darker Side of the Western Enthusiasm for “The Kurds”

A version of this article was published in The Arab Weekly

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 24 November 2019

Solider from the Syrian regime holds up a portrait of Bashar al-Asad and a Syrian national flag, another stands by the Kurdish YPG/PKK flag, in Kobani, 18 October 2019. (AFP)

Mustafa Bali, head of the press office for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the coalition partner against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, sent a tweet on November 14 showing Turkey’s Arab proxies engaged in “ISIS chants.” By this, he meant the takbir, “God is Great,” an expression used by Muslims every day. When criticised, Bali doubled down and blocked many critics. This was a microcosm of one of the darker threads in an SDF messaging strategy that is among the most effective propaganda campaigns on record. Continue reading

Trump’s Middle East Failure Was Made By Obama

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 19 November 2019

President Barack Obama meeting President-elect Donald Trump, 10 November 2016 [image source]

October 2019 may well remain in the popular memory as the inflection point marking the collapse of America’s — and by extension, the West’s — position in at least the northern Middle East. Having been thwarted twice before in efforts to leave Syria, in March and December 2018, President Donald Trump made one more try. For many, ‘Trump betrayed the Kurds’ will be the summary of the events that followed as Turkey made a swift move into the vacuum. The reality is a lot more complicated, and in truth the amount of blame that Trump can take for the events of the last month is rather limited. This catastrophe was baked into the policy of Barack Obama, and Trump’s main fault is to have followed the policy track laid down by his predecessor. Continue reading

The Rearrangement of Northeastern Syria and Signs of Rifts in the PKK

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 18 November 2019

“SDF commander “General Mazlum Kobani” (the PKK executive official Ferhat Abdi Shahin) being interviewed by AFP in Hasaka city, 24 January 2019 [image source]

Even by the standards of Syria’s complicated war, October 2019 was a tumultuous month. The contradictions inherent in the U.S. effort to conduct a counter-terrorism war against the Islamic State (IS) divorced from the realities of the underlying conflict erupted into view. Continue reading

The PKK and Russia

By Oved Lobel on 18 November 2019

PKK at a terrorist training camp in the Asad regime-held Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, 1991 [source]

My friend Oved Lobel, a researcher focused on Russia’s role in the Middle East (among other things), found several interviews the Russian media did with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leaders, one with the leader himself Abdullah Ocalan, talking about, inter alia, the group’s relationship with Moscow. He very helpfully translated them and with his permission they are published below.

The broad outline of the PKK’s relationship with the Soviet Union—and then the Russian Federation—is fairly clear. After the PKK was founded in Turkey in the late 1970s by Ocalan, it was evicted from the country during the 1980 military coup. The PKK moved to Syria, where Ocalan was already based, having fled Turkey in June 1979. From there, the PKK moved into the Bekaa area of Lebanon, at that time controlled by the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Asad, and the Soviets acted through Asad, as they so often did in dealing with terrorist groups, to build the PKK into a fighting force that was then unleashed in 1984 on Turkey, a frontline NATO state in the Cold War. Continue reading

Coalition Partner in Syria Represses Dissent

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 12 November 2019

Ahmad al-Hashlum, Hasan Qassab, Hamza al-Malla, Mazen al-Harami

There has been a renewed crackdown on dissent in the areas of Syria run by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While on Syrian soil, the PKK uses the name Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing is called the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG/PKK is the dominant force in the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the U.S.-led international Coalition’s ground partner in Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS). Continue reading

In Search of the Caliph

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 8 November 2019

The destroyed compound where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was found in Syria // Drone footage taken by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency

The so-called caliph of the Islamic State (ISIS), Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), was killed in an American raid in Syria on 27 October, and the spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was killed the next day in an airstrike. ISIS acknowledged the losses and appointed new leaders on Halloween.

Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi introduced himself in a nearly-eight-minute audio statement as the new spokesman and named Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi as Al-Baghdadi’s replacement. Little information was given about either man.

The U.S. government has said it knows “almost nothing” about the new caliph, Abu Ibrahim, leaving us no closer, for now, to knowing his identity. But some options present themselves. Continue reading

The First Speech of Islamic State Spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 7 November 2019

Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) [right] appearing in an Islamic State video alongside Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani, 3 June 2017, displaying a scene from 2014 when IS demolished the borders between Iraq and Syria. Falaha was killed in August 2016. It is common for IS to hold back pictures and footage of its leaders for time-spans that can reach over a decade.

Taha Falaha was the effective deputy of the Islamic State (IS) when he was killed on 30 August 2016, by which time he was also overseeing the foreign attacks campaign by IS and serving as governor of the IS-held areas in Syria. Likely, however, Falaha, is best-known internationally by his kunya, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, and for his role as IS’s official spokesman, particularly his speech in September 2014 inciting Muslims in the West to commit terrorist attacks against their native countries. Falaha had been recruited in Aleppo in 2002 by IS’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) and steadily advanced through IS’s media department, eventually being announced as the official spokesman with his first speech, released on 1 August 2011. An English-language transcript of that first speech, an hour-long audio message entitled, al-Dawlat al-Islam Baqiya (“The Islamic State Remains” or “The Islamic State Endures”), was released by “Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum Language and Translation Department” and was posted to their forum on 4 March 2012. The transcript is reproduced below with some editions from the Arabic transcript and some important parts highlighted in bold. Continue reading