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Conflicts in Syria, Iraq far from over despite IS setbacks
By Sarah Benhaida
Baghdad (AFP) Aug 15, 2017

Iran chief of staff in Turkey for talks on Syria, Iraq
Ankara (AFP) Aug 15, 2017 - Iran's chief of staff arrived in Ankara Tuesday for "unprecedented" talks with Turkey's leadership reportedly aimed at narrowing differences on the Syria crisis and coordinating policy on Iraq.

General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri is due to meet Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his three-day visit.

He kicked off the visit by meeting his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Pro-government Turkish Daily Sabah quoted diplomatic sources as saying the visit was a "milestone" and would not have been possible unless both sides were willing to make deals on both Syria and Iraq.

Iran's official IRNA news agency meanwhile described the visit as "unprecedented" in the history of bilateral relations.

"This trip was necessary for better consultation and cooperation on various military and regional issues," Bagheri said in a statement to state Iranian broadcaster IRIB, citing border security and the fight against terror.

Yet relations between overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Turkey, a secular state, and the mainly Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran have on occasion been tense in the last years.

Erdogan has sometimes lashed out at the rise of "Persian nationalism" in the region, especially in Iraq.

Turkey and Iran lie on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, with Erdogan seeking the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad to end the war and Tehran, along with Moscow, his key remaining ally and backer.

But Turkey and Russia have been cooperating more over Syria in recent months, helping to extract civilians from Aleppo and then co-sponsoring peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

But with its anti-Assad rhetoric toned down, Ankara now appears especially concerned about the presence of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the border area.

Although an ally of the United States, the YPG is considered by Turkey as terror group and the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged a deadly three decade insurgency in the Turkish southeast.

The rise of jihadists in the province of Idlib, neighbouring Turkey, has also alarmed Ankara, Moscow and Tehran.

Both Turkey and Iran have substantial Kurdish minorities and they vehemently oppose a plan by Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region to organise a vote on independence later this year.

Turkey has begun building a "security wall" along part of its border with Iran, regional officials said this month, along the lines of a similar barrier on the Syrian border.

Despite the recapture of swathes of territory from the Islamic State group, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria are far from over as their governments face major political challenges, experts warn.

In July the jihadists lost control of Iraq's second city Mosul in a major setback three years after declaring a "caliphate" straddling the two countries.

Across the border around half of IS's de facto Syrian capital Raqa has been retaken by US-backed fighters.

But divisions across political, religious and ethnic lines will again rise to the surface in Iraq after the extremist group is driven out of its last bastions, said Mathieu Guidere, an expert on jihadist organisations.

A month before Iraq declared the liberation of Mosul, the country's autonomous Kurdish region announced plans to proceed with a referendum on statehood in September.

The idea was not new but its timing was criticised by Baghdad, which opposes Kurdish independence, and by Washington, coming as it did with the anti-IS campaign still unfinished.

Analysts said the referendum is one of the many challenges facing the Iraq government along with the presence of a Shiite paramilitary force in Sunni-majority areas and the fate of minorities such as the Yazidis.

How the government deals with these thorny issues will determine whether it succeeds in a post-IS era, experts said.

The jihadist group "is the illustration -- violent, long and complex -- of the dystrophy that reigns in Iraq", said Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, professor of international history at Geneva's Graduate Institue.

- New Iraq 'covenant' -

Ould Mohamedou advocates a "new national covenant" for Iraq that would allow the Shiite-dominated government to gain the trust of the Sunni population and other minorities, particularly in the northern Mosul region.

At the same time the government will also have to skilfully deal with the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi umbrella organisation which is dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias.

Some of the components within Hashed al-Shaabi, which battled IS in Iraq, have for years been sending fighters to support the Syrian regime in its conflict with various rebel groups.

Even as leaders in both Iraq and Syria savour the setbacks inflicted by their forces on IS, they still need to examine the reasons that led to the formidable rise of the jihadist group.

After declaring "victory over brutality and terrorism" in Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said there were "lessons to be learned" to ensure his country never again falls into the grip of IS.

"Huge mistakes have been made," he said.

- 'Reorganisation, redeployment' -

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also faces huge challenges in the country's multi-sided war, despite his forces being backed by allies Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah in the battle against jihadists and rebels.

IS fighters are steadily losing chunks of Raqa to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Arab-Kurdish alliance which broke into the northern city in June.

A Russian-backed government offensive has also targeted IS forces in the central Syrian desert.

Analysts said that if Raqa falls, the Kurdish fighters that dominate the SDF could clash with regime troops.

Assad "does not want an autonomous administration" taking control of Raqa, said Syria expert and geographer Fabrice Balanche.

Ould Mohamedou said the war in Syria "goes beyond the question of IS," having erupted six years ago with peaceful anti-government protests that were brutally put down by the regime.

"In the name of the fight against Islamist terrorism, more and more Western governments have closed their eyes to the massacres perpetrated by the Syrian regime," he said.

The war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people while millions more have been displaced in the two countries.

Rebuilding infrastructure and restoring stability to allow the displaced to return home will be a massive challenge.

The United Nations has said the level of destruction in Mosul alone is one of the largest and most complex challenges it has faced.

Unless all these challenges are tackled, IS jihadists driven out of territory in Syria and Iraq could re-emerge as a more brutal and formidable force.

For IS "the key words now are reorganisation and redeployment", said Guidere.

Ould Mohamedou said that even if IS is defeated in Syria and Iraq "it will bounce back elsewhere and... with a new look".

Colombia FARC rebels want to form pro football club
Bogota (AFP) Aug 11, 2017
Demobilized fighters from Colombia's leftist FARC rebels want to form a professional league football club, officials said Friday. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have disarmed under a peace deal after a half-century conflict and are transitioning to civil and political life. "We received about 10 days ago an official message... from the FARC, who want to talk with the Colombia ... read more

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