Iraqi Kurdistan: The Fight for a Seat at the Table of Nations

The result of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum was never in doubt, but the budding state’s future is. Of the 72 percent of registered voters who turned up at the polls, a little more than 93 percent opted to separate their homeland from Iraq. Independence, however, is fraught with the dangers of disputed borders, ferocious opposition from its neighbors and internal dissent.

As a longtime “friend of the Kurds” who made his first illegal attempt to enter Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran in 1974 with ABC News’ Peter Jennings but succeeded many times thereafter, I want to see them free and secure. More than that, my wish is to see them avoid the destruction and displacement of the kind that Saddam Hussein inflicted on them in 1975, 1988 and 1991, when the United States abandoned them to their fate. Their leaders would be well advised to proceed with caution. The Iraqi Kurds’ antagonistic leaders are Massoud Barzani in Arbil and Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, a formidable woman who acts as a kind of regent while her husband, former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, languishes in a semi-coma. The Barzanis and Talabanis, though rivals, guided their people through the dark years of genocide by the Iraqi government and brought them to the semi-independent status they enjoy today. For that, they deserve our respect. They probably do not deserve my advice, but I’ll offer it anyway…

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All the Last Wars: around the world with the Goya of conflict photography

There were no civilian cars on the streets of Mosul, Iraq, last December, when the veteran war photographer Don McCullin and I hitched a ride in an Iraqi Army pickup. A few children smiled and flashed V signs at us, but the adults’ stares betrayed hostility or, at best, caution. If Islamic State fighters returned, anyone seen consorting with the army would be punished.

The soldiers took us to an abandoned house in Hay Tahrir (“Liberation Quarter”), a working-class neighborhood in the northeast. Islamic State fighters had only recently been expelled from the area. A blanket was tacked up over the doorway, and daylight came in through the mortar holes in the walls. We dropped onto the dirty floor, folding our legs bedouin-style. The soldiers offered us tea, which had been brewing on a gas burner.

The Iraqis asked McCullin how old he was. Eighty-one, he said. Did he have children? Four boys and a girl. One soldier asked permission to marry his daughter. McCullin told him he couldn’t afford the dowry. After more banter, the soldiers agreed to let us stay the night and go with them to the front in the morning.

A few minutes later, an Iraqi Army Humvee screeched up to the building, and an officer ordered us to accompany him to a forward command post. The brass had discovered that we were in town without permission. Just a month earlier, the Iraqi Army had been welcoming journalists, boasting of victories against the militants, but there was no boasting now. It was the wrong time to be covering the Battle of Mosul.

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The View of Afghanistan From the Island of Elba

When rulers seek unslayable dragons to destroy, they should remember Elba. This tranquil, idyllic isle off the coast of Tuscany was, from May 1814 to April 1815, home to Napoleon Bonaparte. The British and their allies had exiled him there, leaving him to govern the island’s 12,000 souls. The emperor, a title he was allowed to keep, enjoyed two splendid houses, a magnificent library, servants, a small army and the company of family and retainers. This was a life for a king, but small recompense for a man who sought to rule the world.

Rather than write memoirs of one of history’s greatest dramas, Napoleon escaped. But, wrote biographer Philip Dwyer, “Napoleon left Elba not to save France, but to save himself from oblivion.” As we now know, his decision to resume the fight against Britain proved to be a mistake. His country’s humiliation followed at Waterloo, leaving thousands of his countrymen and their opponents dead or mutilated and forcing him to abdicate again. He ended his days, not in the congenial splendor of Elba, but on another island, Saint Helena, in the icy waters of the south Atlantic. He died there in 1821.

As I explored the grounds of Napoleon’s Palazzina dei Mulini, I thought of U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to send another 4,000 American troops to Afghanistan. The United States’ battles began there in 2001, ostensibly with the limited objective of removing Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers from the country. That was 16 years ago. Sending more soldiers to risk their lives in the South Asian quagmire would make sense if Trump’s strategy differed from the doomed policies of the past. But it doesn’t…

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Colonel Husni Zaim's inauguration

The Voices of Syria Have Always Been Ignored by the West

The Syrian story is a tapestry of tales, woven together from pain and courage, love and hate, innocence suffocated, and cruelty ascendant, that remains undeciphered by those who are determining the fate of that ancient land. Wendy Pearlman writes in We Cross a Bridge and It Trembled, her book of interviews with exiles from Syria’s six-year war, “One wonders what might have been different had we listened to Syrian voices earlier.”

Disregarding Syria’s people has been a constant theme since the creation of modern Syria in 1920. Had anyone listened to them, the multiple tragedies of the past century might have been avoided. France and Britain, after expelling the Ottomans from their Arab empire during World War I, excelled at denying Syrians a voice in their destiny. With the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, they severed what became Syria from its historic peripheries in Lebanon and Palestine. Ghayth Armanazi, in The Story of Syria, a sympathetic history of his homeland, called the Anglo-French accord “an iconic example of imperial deceit and duplicity.” After dividing Syria, the British and French imposed colonial rule on inhabitants, who had made clear their unanimous desire for independence in multiple petitions to the King-Crane Commission, sent by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to gauge public opinion. The British and French armed forces crushed rebellions and uprisings to enforce their rule throughout their tenure in the Levant.

When independence came in the aftermath of World War II, the CIA took no more account of Syria’s “voices” than the British and French had. It engineered a military coup that overthrew the parliamentary government in 1949, setting a precedent for the army, a construct of French rule, to govern without consulting the populace any more than the imperialists had. Repeated wars with Israel led to a loss of face and territory, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, as well as Syrians, who were driven from their villages in the Golan Heights. An experiment in Arab unity — the United Arab Republic that cleaved Syria to Egypt from 1958 to 1961— was another failure of governance. The Syrian military occupation of Lebanon that began in 1976 ended in ignominy in 2005, with a forced withdrawal amid sharp hostility from the Sunni Muslim community that had once seen their country as part of historic Syria…

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Syria Aleppo destruction

Syria: The Road to Nowhere

When I lived in rural Ireland years ago, a favorite joke started with an American tourist stopping a local farmer and asking for directions to Cork. The farmer pondered a moment before answering, “Well, if I was you, I wouldn’t be going there from here.” Anyone advising Washington on where to go in Syria has little choice but to admit that he’s as bewildered as that tourist in the Emerald Isle.

One place to start, though, is Lebanon. For the past week, Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah has been fighting to remove jihadists belonging to the Islamic State and the former Jabhat al-Nusra from the Syrian side of the border. Within Lebanon, the army, with British assistance, has sealed the border against incursions of the kind witnessed in 2014 when the Islamic State captured the largely Sunni village of Arsal and kidnapped more than 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen. This month, the Lebanese army and, over the border, the allied forces of Hezbollah and the Syrian military have caught the jihadists in a pincer. Whether or not the Lebanese and Syrian armies colluded in the venture, it appears to be removing the jihadists from the region…

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© CARL COURT/Getty Images

The United Kingdom Struggles to Live up to Its Name

Flying into the United Kingdom after five months away was like arriving in a parallel universe. Syria, where I’d been covering a war in which the United States and Russia are playing chicken, seemed static in comparison. Tectonic plates are shifting. Strong winds are blowing. Lightning is exposing a beleaguered landscape while wary citizens await the thunder’s rumble. The Royal Ascot races have permitted men to remove their jackets in the heat. The speaker of the House of Commons declared that male members need not wear neckties. A crowd of thousands at a music festival cheered the Marxist leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, as if he were Mick Jagger. Was it only a year ago that an unbeatable Conservative government was on course to balance the budget and stay in the European Union?

A populist tide is rising, as it did in the United States during last year’s presidential race, but from the left this time. It’s engaging youngsters who are fed up with student debt, privatized trains that don’t work, backhanders for the backroom boys and the impossibility of buying the kinds of houses their parents had. There’s a generational divide between young people who want the United Kingdom to remain in Europe, giving them the right to live and work anywhere in the bloc, and a gerontocracy that imagines a post-Europe Britain recapturing the island’s imperial glory.

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In the Horrorscape of Aleppo

Dawn breaks to a daily chorus of artillery and mortar fire in two of humanity’s most ancient settlements that today are Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Projectiles rain on their rural peripheries, where opposition groups still fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad shelter in tunnels below mountains of rubble. Muezzins wake the faithful to prayer, and warplanes deliver the day’s first payloads just after 5:00 AM. The rebels respond with desultory mortar rounds fired at cities they once dreamed of ruling. In Damascus, their shells explode in the Christian neighborhoods closest to the eastern front lines. In Aleppo, artillery batters opposition bases along the western frontier with Idlib province. Both cities’ exhausted citizens have cause to fear for their country’s uncertain future.

I happened to arrive in Damascus, after an interval of four months, on March 19—a few hours after insurgents launched a large-scale assault to break into the city from the eastern suburbs. They emerged from underground caves, smashed through army checkpoints with suicide bomb vehicles, and seized buildings between two besieged districts, Jobar and Qaboun. This happened within sight of the Christian neighborhoods surrounding Abaseen Square. It took the army more than a day to drive them back. Some Damascenes doubted their government’s ability to defend them, and many feared a massacre of minorities. When the battle ended, the lines were back where they had been. The regular pattern of artillery exchanges and aerial sorties resumed. Citizens continued what passed for normal life in wartime, going to work and school to the sounds of violence on the outskirts.

Inside the walls of the old city, the narrow streets around my Ottoman-era hotel sounded like a steel mill. First came the heavy presses, pounding up and down, metal smashing metal, shaking the ground: outgoing artillery from the border separating the old city from Jobar. Then the rumble of turbines, furnace doors screeching open, and flames gushing forth: Syrian air force planes soaring low over the no-man’s-land between the old city and Jobar to strike tunnels and mortar launchers. Finally the staccato of jackhammers breaking ground with relentless fury: jeep-mounted .45-caliber heavy machine guns and old Dushka 12.7- millimeter antiaircraft weapons. Occasionally, something like a compressor rumbled the houses of the old city and splattered shards into the walls: mortar rounds from Jobar, the response of weakened warriors repaying their enemies for keeping them down.

At breakfast one morning, the hotel roof rattled as if a ton of lead had fallen on it. I was about to seek cover, when I looked up. Two cats were fighting on the roof, whose clear plastic sheeting amplified their footsteps. The war seemed to affect even the animal population.

A friend of mine, who has longed for a change of regime since the March 2011 protests in Daraa sparked the conflict, has abandoned hope. “I don’t care how they end it,” he said, “just so they end it.” Ending it was already difficult, but the early April chemical attack that killed more than eighty civilians in Khan Shaykhun, a rebel-held village in Idlib province in the country’s northwest, and the American missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airfield in retaliation are rendering the difficult impossible.

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