Monday 21 Oct 2019 | 10:47 | SYDNEY
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The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.

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Worst enemy: Kurdistan’s history of infighting

Hopes were high in Kurdistan after the historic, if ill-advised, referendum on independence earlier this month. To the question 'Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration to become an independent state?', 92% of respondents voted 'yes'. Turnout was 72%.

The result in itself was not surprising. Kurds in Iraq and throughout the region have longed for self-determination for decades. What was surprising was the insistence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leadership on the timing of the referendum, given all of the risks they knew it would entail. Observers and players warned that the referendum would trigger swift retaliation from Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad, including military retaliation; that the Kurds would risk losing control of Kirkuk; that the referendum would sow disunity within the Coalition against the Islamic State; and that the Kurds' allies would not come to their defence should things go pear-shaped.

Sure enough, that is exactly what happened. President Masoud Barzani thought this referendum gambit would give him and his party a much-needed electoral bump and bring Baghdad to the negotiating table. Instead it drew them to the battlefield.

Iraqi government forces and Hashd al-Shaabi militias pushed the Kurdish Peshmerga out of Kirkuk, lowered the Kurdish flag and deposed the KRG-appointed governor. Iraqi government forces not only took control of the oil fields in Kirkuk but oil fields held by the Peshmerga in Nineveh and Diyala as well, with little opposition from Kurdish forces. The Iraqi government, sensing its momentum, has launched a broader operation to retake all of the disputed territories in Kurdish hands. By all accounts, the referendum was a spectacular miscalculation that cost Kurdistan its oil-rich territories and sowed mistrust and disillusionment among the Kurds with their leaders.

This could be chalked up as yet another chapter in the Kurds' long history of bad timing and their perennial inability to overcome the bullying and entrenched geostrategic interests of their neighbours – despite the clear moral argument in sympathy with their right to independence.

But there is another component to this saga that is often overlooked. The Kurds have often been their own worst enemies when it comes to plotting a path for self-determination and independence. Yes, their friends have abandoned them, their enemies steadfast against them and their resources limited. But it has just as often been internal Kurdish infighting, betrayal and double-dealing that has gotten in their way.

Last week, the Kurds surrendered Kirkuk to Baghdad with little resistance. Though fears of protracted civil conflict between fierce Peshmerga fighters and central government forces abounded if Baghdad sent troops, residents of Kirkuk reported that government buildings and party headquarters were almost empty when Iraqi troops came in. Peshmerga fighters barely put up any resistance. According to one resident, 'they sold Kirkuk' – 'they' being the Kurdish leadership. 'This is shame on the Kurdish leaders and most of the Kurdish commanders in Kirkuk. They didn't fire one bullet from their weapons. They should defended Kirkuk, but they didn't', another resident said.

The Kurds lost Kirkuk ultimately not due to overwhelming force by Baghdad, but as a result of division and betrayal among their own leaders. Divisions between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were growing in the lead-up to the referendum and it is reported that the PUK ordered its Peshmerga forces to stand down after striking a deal with Baghdad and Iran to give up Kirkuk in exchange for some unknown future concession.

This is not the first time PUK-KDP competition got in the way of Kurdish independence. During the 1990s, when northern Iraq was under a no-fly zone and the Kurds were out of reach of Saddam Hussein's government and military, the KDP and PUK proceeded to descend into a civil war instead of consolidating a unified administration. The purported PUK deal with Tehran and Baghdad last week has precedent, and not just within the PUK. During the Kurdish civil conflict in the 1990s, the KDP struck its own deal with Iran. In 1994 it negotiated an agreement that allowed it to conduct strikes against the PUK via Iranian territory. When the PUK later struck its own deal with Iran in 1996, the KDP then propositioned their archenemy Saddam Hussein to help them attack and drive out the PUK from Erbil. The KDP has held the Kurdish capital city ever since.

The 1998 Washington Agreement established formal peace between the two parties. Despite occasional tensions and a byzantine, inefficient governance structure of double ministries run by both PUK and KDP administration, the KRG plodded along. Opportunity struck again in the aftermath of the 2003 Gulf War. The Kurds played their hand skilfully and emerged as kingmakers in the new Iraqi government. The promptly consolidated and formalised their autonomy. It seemed as if the Kurds had learned the lessons from their painful past and would put aside animosity to work towards the greater good of a united and functioning KRG. And to a large extent they prevailed – in the period since 2003, the KRG has made economic, political and diplomatic gains.

But old habits die hard, as this latest episode demonstrates. Corruption and governance problems in Kurdistan remained rife. Kurds were frustrated with the chokehold the major parties had on Kurdish politics and civil society. It paved the way for a reformist Goran movement to gather strong support. But Goran did not have enough sway to break the KDP/PUK chain-link. Instead, the Goran Movement has splintered Iraqi politics further and has itself factionalised. After this latest episode, faith in the KRG leadership has deteriorated even further.

The Kurds may like to say they have no friends but the mountains, but their family has a history of letting them down too.

Kurdistan’s strategic overreach

There is no doubt that the Kurds have been unfairly dealt with as an ethno-linguistic group throughout modern history. They’re not alone in this, but they are probably in a different category as far as the West is concerned, as they have sometimes proven to be good allies. Their recent efforts in fighting Islamic State in Iraq (when Iraqi forces collapsed) and in Syria is the latest example. But that doesn’t mean the Kurds always make good decisions. The latest imbroglio is a good example.

Their efforts against Islamic State have earned the Kurds plaudits as a disciplined anti-Islamist ally, and have put them in a strong bargaining position with Damascus in determining the relationship between the Kurdish northeast and the central Syrian government when hostilities are concluded.

But the situation is complex, and external agents such as the US have explicitly said that their relationship is about defeating Islamic State. The US and the Kurds are tactical allies for sure, but they are not strategic partners. International realities dictate as much. The Kurdish groups are more militarily capable as a result of their relationship with Washington, but they should never have thought there was any sense of support for Kurdish independence. Middle Eastern borders are actually quite durable despite their artificiality, and sovereignty is a powerful motivator for states to maintain existing territorial boundaries.

Even for a group so accustomed to persevering in anticipation of a future Kurdish state, holding a provocative, quixotic and externally friendless referendum was an unnecessary risk for very little return. Including oil-rich Kirkuk as part of that referendum after it was effectively annexed by the Kurds in 2014 was particularly provocative.

The timing was also poor. Kurdish forces fought and died in buttressing the north when Iraqi government forces left the field of battle in a disorganised rabble in June 2014. They were supported by the West when things were tight and they took advantage of the circumstances to expand their territory. A smart operator would have used that leverage to negotiate some concessions to incrementally improve Kurdish political circumstances.

But the world has not stood still since June 2014, and Western support has assisted the Iraqi security forces to improve their technical and tactical capability. They have re-taken Mosul at the cost of nearly 1500 dead and over 5000 wounded. The idea of the Kurds running a referendum not recognised by either the Iraqi state or the international community was a red rag to a bull for a government that had just spent blood and treasure reasserting sovereignty over its second-largest city. Including Kirkuk in the referendum reinforced the confronting nature of the move.

But we must also be aware that the Kurds are not politically homogenous and the idea of the referendum was championed by Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). There are reports that the other Kurdish groups were uneasy about Barzani’s plan, and part of the reason Kirkuk was taken so easily by Iraqi forces lay with the fact that non-KDP elements may not have considered Barzani’s referendum worth dying for.

Of course, people are happy to externalise the blame for the current situation – the Iranians see it as an Israeli project, while some in the US see Iran's fingerprints on the assault against the Kurds. The reality is that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had little choice but to act when and as he did. He is leading a fractured, multiethnic, multi-sectarian federation recovering from an attempted Islamist takeover that has taken years to bring under control. Barzani threw the dice in thinking that his referendum would strengthen his personal position among the Kurds. The large turnout and good press may have provided a political sugar hit. But when none of your neighbours are happy about the conduct of the poll, and your closest external ally, the US, declares it illegitimate, the warning signs were there for all to see. 

The prospect of one US-supplied and trained sub-national group in conflict with a US-supplied and trained national military force is unusual, but not an example of confused US Middle East policy. One should remember that the decision to arm the Kurds was made by several countries (including Australia) as an immediate tactical necessity. The effort to support the Iraqi military (which also included Australia) was part of the national strategic effort. The outcome that pitted one group against another need never have occurred, and Washington had little to do with it. It had much more to do with the overreach of a Kurdish leader and the reaction of an Iraqi Prime Minister who could not afford to let such an unnecessarily provocative act pass.

After three years spent trying to reassert sovereignty within its borders, the Iraqi military has continued to reassert it after Barzani effectively dared it to do so. It will be interesting to see how this plays out among various Kurdish factions, once the enormity of what has befallen them sets in. As a Kurdish contact said to me via social media after he’d been up for 30 straight hours dealing with this train wreck: ‘We lost everything. A black day in our history.’

Syria: Five stages of grief (part 2)

Part 1 in this series described the changing mood in Syria towards acceptance of an eventual victory for the Assad regime. This post examines how the practicalities of re-establishing civil society are going to be worked out including, perhaps most importantly, determining who will pay.

The reconstruction bill is mind-boggling: the World bank estimates one-third of Syria's housing stock has been destroyed or damaged, as have half of its medical and education facilities, while the GDP loss amounts to US$226 billion. Reconstruction will take years, and if the Assad regime (or a variation of it) remains in power then the West will be faced with the tricky question of what, if anything, it does to assist. One line of argument is that such funding could be used to leverage political concessions or alter behaviour, succeeding where the backing of armed groups didn’t. But, the regime feels bullish about besting its opponents after years of war, and its inner working are so opaque that there is little prospect of Western (or Gulf) reconstruction money achieving much leverage. Best then not to donate to the reconstruction effort.  

But there is always economic opportunity after tragedy. Russia and Iran have ploughed both blood and treasure into Syria and will expect to be rewarded economically. Iran has already won contracts for five gas-fired power plants in Aleppo and is signed up to run a mobile phone network, a phosphate mine, and a parcel of 5000 hectares (around 50 square km) of agricultural land. Iran is keen to invest more in the Syrian reconstruction effort and there is little doubt that Tehran sees closer economic ties (particularly through companies linked to the Revolutionary Guards) as the perfect way to maintain influence in Syria after it eventually withdraws its too-obvious military presence when some kind peace agreement is reached.   

Russia, for its part, knows it is an internationally more acceptable foreign investor in Syria than Iran. Russia has had close relations with Syria for 50 years and nearly $20 billion in investment projects in the country pre-war. It will want to recoup those investments and add to its profit-making ventures. There are already reports that private Russian security firms are recovering Syrian economic assets for Damascus in order to get a cut of the subsequent profits. But Moscow has neither the inclination nor the ability to fund Syria’s reconstruction in toto. It has tried to put the onus on the Europeans to help out, though Russia's 'If-not-us-then-Iran' argument is not compelling in the West at the moment.

Meanwhile Damascus, aware of the perils of becoming too economically beholden to one country, has been trying to project an aura of back-to-normal economic activity to woo long-term investors willing to operate in high-risk environments. In August the Damascus International Trade Fair took place for the first time since 2011, although it was marred by a rocket or mortar attack that allegedly killed five people near the entrance to the fairground. Syria has also been busy resuscitating trade deals with India and China, both of whom are likely to be keen to get some return on pre-civil war investments. But even these seemingly ideal investors may present challenges. For example, China has been accused of importing significant numbers of Chinese workers for its infrastructure projects in Africa. This would not be the type of investment approach welcomed (or likely allowed) in Syria. 

Damascus has also indicated countries that supported (or at least didn’t actively oppose) the regime will have the inside running for reconstruction contracts. And there is certainly a sense that there is money to be made post-conflict, as indicated by activities at the port of Tripoli in neighbouring Lebanon, and the first inkling of Syria-focused investment interest in Jordan.

Reconstruction is likely to be slow, to favour those areas that remained with the regime, to be geared towards income-producing infrastructure, and to reward individuals within the regime or allied to it. Even if Assad wanted to rebuild the whole country in a deliberate manner he could not find the money, and in any case differing speeds of re-building will have a demonstration effect. If some parts of Syria remain devastated for years in the future as others prosper, it will cause Assad little grief.

One could argue that this will simply perpetuate the rancour that fuelled the uprising in the first place but Damascus is probably betting that, after years of conflict, national and international exhaustion will give Assad a free hand to deal with his opponents. Whatever occurs, no-one should assume that reconstruction in Syria will be a modern, Levantine version of the Marshall Plan.

War reporting 101: Check your sources

Earlier this year I wrote about the willingness of the news media to highlight claims of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces operating in Iraq and Syria, but their apparent unwillingness to critically examine their sources or to follow up when their claims have been denied, dismissed or proven wrong by the coalition. Of course, errors happen in war and civilians are killed. But some groups and individuals also claim civilians have been killed when they don't know the facts. And in other cases they use the media to promote claims they know to be false.

This issue has been the subject of some heated discussion in Foreign Policy. Airwars, a site that investigates and reports on alleged civilian casualties, published a scathing article criticising US acceptance of, and attitudes to, civilian casualties. In response, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve Stephen Townsend took to Foreign Policy to criticise advocacy groups and the media for a lack of intellectual rigour in assessing their sources before making claims of civilian casualties. He noted that, of the 270 allegations made by Airwars that had been assessed, 258 (more than 95%) had been found to be non-credible. 

The accuracy of sources is always incredibly difficult to determine in a conflict zone, and the coalition has the advantage of a range of intelligence products it can use to evaluate the appropriateness of the targeting and accuracy of civilian casualty claims. Advocacy groups, by contrast, normally rely on sourcing from other advocacy groups who may speak to people who claim to be witnesses. However, these groups may also have ideological biases that get in the way of due diligence or validation of reporting. They could even fabricate claims. The media needs to engage with such issues, and a laser-like focus on the strength of sources is the starting point.  

By way of example, a group called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) is often quoted in the media, and has won media awards for its citizen-journalism. But while it has certainly done some good reporting on ISIS-related issues it also has an obvious anti-Kurdish, anti-coalition (and some may argue pro-Islamist) bias. Even a quick examination of its website is revealing:

The western hostile (sic) of Muslims is no longer a secret, both left and right movements now share this...

the International Coalition warplanes have targeted Tabqa city with more than 25 raids led to the destruction of the only bakery in the city along with Maysaloon School and the field hospital not to mention targeting the residential areas of the city. Activists from Raqqa have...called it the 'Killer Coalition.'

Civilians are now between the criminal terrorists from a side and the International Coalition’s indiscriminate bombing from the other side. Liberating does not come by burning it and destroying it over its people...the International Coalition last campaign comes to add more killing to the endless death sequence.

An organisation that promotes such points of view may have some deficiencies as an objective source of information concerning coalition military action. Yet many media reports and other advocates base their assessments on the group's claims.

A Coalition spokesperson said 'all serious media' should not amplify claims without vetting sources and noted the Coalition held itself accountable through an 'an open and transparent process' to assess civilian casualties: 'Most of our critics do not conduct such detailed assessments and often rely on scant information, which frequently comes from single unreliable sources.The media has already vetted the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and it has been found wanting.'

While news media persist in reporting unverified claims of civilian casualties, they are far less inclined to report the results of subsequent investigations. For example, one investigation into the bombing of a building in a mosque complex refuted civilian casualty claims. Another investigation into the targeting of a school at Maysaloun in Syria concluded there was insufficient evidence to back reports civilians were injured.

Given the low credibility of claims by some advocacy groups, and the refutations supplied by coalition authorities with access to a wider range of sources, it is strange that news media has spent so much time reporting casualty claims later found to be spurious but paid such little attention to the sources of these claims.

The ABC has repeatedly cited Airwars and RBSS. These two groups are presented as authoritative sources, but I would argue they lack both objectivity and - because they don’t have access to intelligence used by coalition in the targeting and evaluation process - methodological rigour. A news story that critically examined the methodology and ideological orientation of activist media sources, and the way in which they seek to use news organisations to achieve profile or policy outcomes, would make for an interesting report. But such a story would require reporters to critically examine their own assumptions, and this isn’t something the media has been keen to do.

Kurdistan precarious but steadfast on eve of referendum

It is hard not to be sympathetic to the decades-long Kurdish struggle for independence and self-determination. The long-suffering Kurdish nation was summarily divvied up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement (a document that continues to vex the Middle East to this day) and the Treaty of Lausanne after World War I. Ever since, the dream of Kurdish statehood has been dashed, Kurdish culture and language the targets of liquidation, Kurdish people the target of massacre and genocide and Kurdish political considerations stifled by regional and international geopolitical interests. Ever since, Peshmerga fighters and astute Kurdish political leaders have been struggling for statehood.

All of the moral, emotional and democratic arguments for Kurdish national independence are there. They always will be. The referendum on Kurdish independence planned for today in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area in northern Iraq seems long overdue.

But (and there is always a but) when it comes to Kurdish independence, the geopolitics remain as treacherous as ever; the security situation as precarious as ever; and the economic viability of a new Kurdish state, amputated off of a hobbled Iraqi state, as fragile as ever. Even as the democratic arguments for Kurdish independence remain self-evident, so too do the daunting geopolitical risks. It is this conundrum that has constantly vexed the Kurdish people in their struggle for a nationhood.

Since the 2003 Gulf War, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has enjoyed an unprecedented level of autonomy and influence. They control their own borders, elect their own parliament, draft their own laws and maintain their own security. Without actually declaring a state, the KRG is a de facto one. It is a tribute to the savvy political tradecraft and strategic vision of Iraqi Kurdish leaders and a sign of Baghdad's dysfunction and weakness. Civil wars, the Islamic State and successive revolutions and coups have kept the region and the KRG's neighbours in a state of disoriented flux. The KRG has deftly exploited the situation to its advantage, never officially declaring statehood but creating facts on the ground and expanding their autonomy. So with an autonomous de facto state, a weak central government in Baghdad, and entrenched opposition to formal Kurdish statehood from international and regional interests, the question is: why now? Why hold a referendum at all?

Proponents of the referendum argue that the same old justifications – Turkey's seemingly intractable opposition, the lack of international support, the need to keep the territorial integrity of Iraq and the potential spillover effect – will always remain, and will not be removed by further delay or negotiations with the KRG's neighbours.

The Kurds could never rely on international support. Baghdad already withdrew budgetary support a few years ago when the KRG and the central government could not reach an agreement on sharing resource revenue. Baghdad has few cards to play. The KRG has been surrounded by security threats since its inception. Despite Turkey's warning of guaranteed retaliation, Turkey is also distracted by political and security problems. Syria is not much of state and can no longer mount serious opposition to the KRG. There will never be a perfect moment and the time is particularly ripe now, particularly off the back of a Peshmerga-assisted victory against Islamic State.

Besides, proponents argue, the referendum is not an official declaration of independence, but one step below. The referendum will only ask 'Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration to become an independent state?'. It is an aspirational question, not an outright declaration. There is no official timeline attached and a 'Yes' vote won't trigger any immediate moves towards independence. All an affirmative vote would do is strengthen the KRG's hand in coming negotiations with Baghdad. With Iran's tightening grip on the rest of Iraq, proponents of the referendum argue that the KRG has little time to waste before Iran's growing influence makes favourable negotiations less likely. Kurdish Peshmerga also now have de facto (though controversial) control over Kirkuk, a city the Kurds call their Jerusalem. The analogy is far from perfect, but control over this resource-rich city is central to the KRG's push for independence.

Moreover, one cannot discount the strong desire for this current crop of KRG leadership, particularly President Masoud Barzani, to be the ones to deliver independence. They are leaders of a certain age who have literally been through the wars. They have personally experienced decades of military and personal struggle, and want to be the ones to deliver independence before they are overshadowed by the next generation of Kurds, who have largely grown up in an autonomous Kurdistan.

Then there are the local political dynamics. The KRG's many successes are often hailed in the media, but there is an underlying instability that this referendum aims to mask. Barzani's term ended two years ago but he remains in his position. He runs his section of the KRG like a tribal chieftain, not a democratically elected leader. Tensions been his KDP party and the PUK and Gorran are high. Opposition figures have been persecuted. The media and civil society have been stifled. Prior to this month, parliament hadn't met for two years, ever since the leader of the opposition was barred from entering. The KRG's budget remains fragile ever since Baghdad stopped payments. The KRG, and Barzani in particular, want to distract from the economic and political troubles and allegations of corruption leveled against KRG leadership. This referendum is a perfect way to do it.

There is also a pervasive sense that, despite the many perils of declaring independence, the Kurds will never be secure as part of Iraq. The chemical attacks of Halabja are seared into the national memory. Saddam's Arabisation policy destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and killed 100,000 people. Iraqi Kurds fear that the same chauvinistic tendencies remain.

But while the reward of statehood might be great, the risks are all too real and could quickly overshadow any victory a 'Yes' vote may bring. The UN Security Council, which failed to pass declarations against the Assad regime during six years of a brutal civil war, issued a unanimous statement expressing concern about the referendum, calling the vote destabilising. The US, the Kurds' strongest military ally, has come out against it. Iran, Turkey and Iraq announced on Friday that they would consider 'countermeasures' if the KRG goes through with the vote. Turkey has begun military exercises along the Turkey-KRG border. And the KRG is being guilt-tripped into calling off the referendum because it could affect ongoing operations and regional cooperation against Islamic State.

But the referendum is going ahead and a 'Yes' vote will be the likely outcome, despite the many Kurds who are sceptical of the timing. An affirmative vote won't result in immediate independence, but it will result in swift retaliation.

Nevertheless, the allure of Kurdish independence has overridden the practical implications and very real risks. The Kurds have a poetic saying that 'the Kurds have no friends but the mountains'. Since World War I, no one has agreed to Kurdish statehood, despite purported sympathies. The Kurds' allies have routinely abandoned them and their adversaries remain steadfast. The unrealistic and audacious vision of Kurdish statehood is reflected in those mountains: precarious but steadfast.


Cutting a deal with Islamic State

Negotiated deals between government forces and various armed groups have been a feature of the Syrian conflict. But a controversial deal involving several hundred Islamic State fighters who vacated the rugged Lebanese-Syrian border area is yet another example, if any more were needed, of how complex this conflict remains.

The story began after simultaneous (but officially uncoordinated) operations by the Lebanese military and a combined Syrian military-Hizbullah force operating from the Syrian side attacked IS forces. It ended after a negotiated deal allowed just over 300 IS fighters and the same number of their dependents to leave the area on buses and transit Syrian territory to join other IS fighters at Bukamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Here the story becomes messy, as the participants in this operation had varied reasons for dealing IS a decisive blow in Lebanon. The Lebanese military wanted to recover the bodies of nine of their soldiers captured in 2014, whose families' protests in central Beirut will now presumably end. The Syrians wanted to recover ground and thereby free up military resources for use elsewhere, while Hizbullah wanted to recover prisoners and bodies of its own, as well as the body of one Iranian soldier.

The agreement was also unusual in that, unlike what has been seen in the fighting in northern Iraq and around Raqqa, IS didn't hold its ground and die in place. This may be a reflection of the much more open (and hence less defensible) ground it occupied and the possibility of gaining more from redeployment east, or the makeup of the fighters themselves. Or it could be that, among the forces arrayed against IS, the desire to retrieve bodies and prisoners was greater than the desire to annihilate IS fighters. Perhaps we'll never know.

The deal was criticised by Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, given that Iraq (fighting IS in its own country) clearly stands to lose from a Syria-Hizbullah deal that moves hundreds of fighters from the Lebanese-Syrian border to the Iraqi-Syrian border. The deal was also condemned by the US-led anti-IS coalition, who then scuppered it by bombing the road and a bridge on its route, as well as some IS vehicles in support of the convoy. At the time of writing, the convoy was stuck in the desert in Syrian government-controlled territory.

However this episode concludes (and current reports as to the whereabouts of the convoy and its members are somewhat confusing), it is unlikely to be a precursor for future deals with IS. There is little appetite anywhere to negotiate with IS, and it is unlikely that its dislocated parts will have the same leverage elsewhere that it did on this occasion. While there has been a relatively minor spat between Damascus and Baghdad over the deal, this will be temporary. And though the relocation agreement appears to have soured once the Coalition became aware of it, the Syrians and Hizbullah got what they wanted. Several hundred lightly armed IS fighters in buses stuck in Syrian government-held territory with Coalition aircraft flying overhead is only a problem for those fighters, not the other actors. Little in this conflict has been straightforward, and this latest little episode continues the trend.

Riyadh’s Shia two-step

Iraqi Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's reconciliation tour of Sunni-run Gulf states continued this week, following up his visit to Riyadh to see Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with a visit to the UAE. There he was met by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayad.

There is little doubt that Gulf states have decided to try a carrot-based approach towards Iraq Shia leaders in attempting to blunt Iranian influence in Iraq, rather than flail around by either ignoring or working against the system. These actions haven't gone unnoticed in Tehran, with the media largely reacting negatively to Saudi Arabia's transparent moves.

It is a common mistake to treat Shia communities anywhere, let alone Iraq, as a homogeneous bloc. When they operate within a sectarian political system, their ideological differences are exacerbated by the normal competition for allies, resources and influence that federal politicking involves. Iranian and Iraqi Shia are both connected and separated by history and geography, and their religious-political leaders have a keen understanding of the way in which regional and local politics works.

Hence Sadr's willingness to be seen to be courted by Gulf Sunni ruling families. Sadr has shown himself in the past to be a particularly flexible politician, and with Iraqi parliamentary elections due next year, he would have understood that it was good politics to be seen in the presence of wealthy Gulf political leaders at the same time as Riyadh is making noises about greater economic links with Iraq.

But we should also not confuse Saudi Arabia's 'carrot' approach towards Iraq's Shia as a major change in response to what it sees as Iranian-inspired adventurism around the region. Rather, it is a small change in tactics. There is still plenty of stick. One need look no further than the Kingdom's Eastern Province, where a rather different Sunni-Shia dynamic is playing out in the sometimes restive province. This time, fighting in the town of Awamiyya (the home town of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Shia cleric executed in Saudi Arabia last year) has resulted in numerous casualties.

The Arab-Persian-Sunni-Shia-Riyadh-Tehran relationship is a complex one, and the events of recent weeks simply go to show that the complexity continues.

Some lessons from the foiled Sydney terror plot

We don’t yet know all the details, but from what we do know there are both disturbing and perplexing elements to the Islamic State-supported terrorist plot to blow up an airliner departing from Sydney. Here are some early thoughts on the issues that should engage our minds as a result of the incident: 

1. Islamic State remains an adaptive terrorist organisation that seeks new ways to penetrate the defensive measures of security agencies. To the best of my knowledge, the method of sending components and instructions for a do-it-yourself improvised explosive device to a Western country has not been tried before. The element of surprise has a limited shelf life, however, and having taken authorities by surprise in developing this planned terrorist attack, it is unlikely to work a second time.

2. This incident proves once again that the threat posed by foreign fighters is not simply the people themselves. Skills degrade, but in the jihadi milieu, connections rarely do. The actual network of terrorists, as opposed to the individuals themselves, was perhaps the biggest security threat to emerge from the war in Afghanistan – the same is likely to be the case following the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. In this case, the connection between the Islamic State ‘handler’ and the Australian end of the plot was made by an Australian terrorist living in Syria, Tarek Khayat. In this instance the Australian end was Tarek’s brother, but the important fact was that the ability to link a neophyte Australian terrorist on home soil with a seasoned operator in Syria came about because of the interconnected nature of the terrorist network established over the years in Syria. Analysts are going to spend decades unravelling the complex networks that have been built up over years of inter- and intra-jihadi cooperation in Syria and Iraq.

3. If Islamic State was able to place a military-grade explosive onto air cargo in Turkey, it doesn’t say much for Turkish airport security (equally concerning is the porousness of security procedures at the Australian end, where it was collected). Given that the majority of foreign fighters and Islamic State members will attempt to exfiltrate the battlefield through Turkey, the incident adds to concerns about the ability of Ankara’s security services (already in doubt, given their focus on the Kurds and the impact of the post-coup purges of Gulenists on their capability).

4. There is a difference between being structured and bold, and being simply bold. While the plotters appear capable enough of smuggling in explosives and components for an improvised explosive device and being in contact with each other without alerting Australia’s security services in order to construct the device, there doesn’t appear to have been much thought given to how to smuggle onto the aircraft. Police said that they had reconstructed the device and tried penetration tests at Australian airports with a 100% detection rate. Unless they believed they had someone on the inside (of which there is no indication), then the terrorists don’t appear to have thought this rather crucial aspect through. All we know is that the device was taken to the airport but never checked in and then taken back to one of the residences. They certainly didn’t lack the intent to kill hundreds of Australians and other nationals, but perhaps the difference between seasoned terrorists providing guidance from Syria and wannabe terrorists from southwest Sydney is their individual capability.

5. If there was any doubt previously, this incident should reinforce the value of our intelligence liaison partnerships. It appears the information regarding the plot and the individuals involved in it was gained as the result of information passed on by a partner agency or partner agencies overseas. In the counter-terrorism field, the public rightly demands 100% success from our intelligence agencies, which depends on prompt and accurate information. The healthier liaison relationships are, the more likely it is that terrorist plots will be foiled.

6. I hope that this once and for all ends references on Q&A, The Drum and other commentary outlets to the rather vacuous statement that ‘more people are killed by falling out of bed/lightning strikes/choose other random act’ than terrorism, and therefore the money spent on counter-terrorism is out of proportion to the risk as measured by the number of people killed in Australia by terrorists.

One of the main reasons why so few people are killed is because of the number of plots that are foiled by our security agencies. Given this foiled plot was designed to kill hundreds of people, it would be interesting to see whether the ’terrorism threat is blown out of all proportion’ brigade still holds to that view.

Saudi Arabia’s change of tack on Iraq

For too long, the Saudis have complained about the 'loss' of Iraq to Iranian influence without acknowledging that their almost complete refusal to establish ties with Baghdad achieved little other than creating the vacuum that Tehran has sought to fill. But there are signs that Riyadh has changed tack and has decided to contest Iran's influence in Mesopotamia.

Work on reopening the border crossing between Iraq and Saudi Arabia at Arar has been completed and there are plans to open the other seven crossings. Having been closed for the most part since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, this is a potentially significant event.

The border reopening follows on from an increasingly active effort at establishing some person-to-person links through senior visits. In February, Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al-Jubeir broke a 20-year drought by visiting Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Saudi Arabia in June this year and last month the Saudi Chief of General Staff Abdulrahman al-Bunyan reciprocated, at which time the decision to reopen the border crossing was made.

Iraq has sent trade delegations to Saudi Arabia seeking investment, but perhaps the most interesting visit occurred in the past few days, when Muqtada as-Sadr made a very public visit to the Kingdom and had a meeting with the Crown Prince. As-Sadr represents an interesting line of contact for the Saudis – an ambitious and enigmatic Shi'a cleric-politician who portrays himself of late as an anti-corruption Iraqi nationalist. Both he and the Saudis potentially benefit from a closer relationship in the future. Regardless, the public nature of the meeting itself has served as a further message to Tehran that Saudi Arabia may finally have decided that the only way to limit Iranian influence in Iraq is to actively challenge it.