Every Kurd in Iraq aspires for independence one day. In recent years the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has taken steps to build its own economic base to achieve that goal. That has not come without costs as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cut off the Kurds’ budget allotment, which provided the vast majority of funds for the region. Then in the summer of 2014 the Kurds were able to occupy much of the disputed territory it claimed as historically theirs as the Iraqi Security Forces collapsed in the face of the insurgent offensive. Kurdish politicians were jubilant over this turn of events only to be shocked when the Islamic State attacked them in Ninewa and Diyala. Since then the peshmerga have joined the fight against the militants in northern Iraq, and made a deal with new Premier Haider Abadi over oil exports to restore its share of the national budget. To help explain these recent turn of events is David L. Phillips, the director of the Peace-Building and Rights program at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Phillips formerly worked at the United Nations and State Department, along with holding positions at Harvard University, the American University, New York University, the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Atlantic Council, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the European Center for Common Ground, the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo, the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, and the Elie Wiesel Foundation. He also recently authored The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East along with other titles.
1. In October 2013 Kurdistan completed its oil pipeline to Turkey. This was a major step in the KRG’s dream of having an independent economic base. This came over the objections of Baghdad, leading Prime Minister Maliki to retaliate by cutting off the Kurds’ share of the national budget at the start of 2014. What kind of damage did Maliki’s move do to the KRG?
Iraqi Kurdistan is due 17% of Iraq’s national income distributed in payments monthly. But Baghdad suspended its payments to the KRG in January 2014. The KRG was cash-strapped and had to suspend salary payments to its civil servants. Baghdad’s approach reminded Kurdish leaders of Kurdistan’s geographic challenge. The Baghdad Agreement of December 2014 was an important revenue generating measure to address the KRG’s immediate cash requirements.
2. In June 2014 the insurgency launched its summer offensive seizing Mosul and Tikrit. The Iraqi army and police collapsed leading the peshmerga to fill the security vacuum in parts of Ninewa, Diyala and Kirkuk. Kurdish officials seemed joyous at the turn of events until the Islamic State attacked them a few weeks later. Why do you think the Kurds ignored the threat posed by the militants?
The KRG reached a tacit understanding with the Islamic State. However, ISIS ignored its commitment and attacked the Kurds. Everyone was surprised when the vaunted peshmerga failed to withstand the Islamic State’s offensive. Peshmerga regrouped and, with support of US air power, stopped the ISIS advance in Makhmour just 28 miles from Erbil. The Obama administration insisted they would not get involved militarily until Iraqis formed a national unity government. Its approach was overtaken by events. The US was persuaded by compelling strategic and moral reasons to stop the Islamic State’s advance. Erbil is headquarters to many US corporations, including major oil companies. There is also a US Consulate General in Erbil. After Benghazi, the Obama administration could not allow Erbil to be overrun.
3. When Kurdish forces were attacked by IS Irbil sent a delegation to Turkey to ask for help. Turkey had become a major ally of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and was the largest investor and trade partner with the KRG. What happened when the Kurds arrived in Turkey?
The KRG sent a special envoy to ask Turkey for weapons and security assistance. The envoy was rebuffed. According to his Turkish counterpart, Turkey could not get involved with presidential elections looming on August 10. The envoy tried again. Turkey refused again. ISIS was holding 46 Turkish hostages seized from diplomatic mission in Erbil. Turkey proved to be a false friend. Ankara supported jihadis in the first place, and then refused Erbil’s entreaties during its moment of need.
4. You’ve argued that Washington should be helping the KRG more militarily against the insurgency. What could the Obama administration be doing and why should they focus upon the Kurds?
Peshmerga have proven they have the commitment and capability to confront and kill Islamic State fighters. The US should expand its security cooperation in the following ways:
- Deliver weapons directly to the KRG rather than through Baghdad.
- Provide heavy and offensive weapons. So far the US has only offered light and medium weapons, while Germany has provided Milan missiles and France has provided 20 mm armor piercing munitions.
- Intensify its training of peshmerga as part of a broader equip and train program.
5. The various Kurdish factions across Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran have all had major differences with each other over the years. How was the Battle of Kobane in Syria able to overcome some of these rivalries?
ISIS succeeded in doing what no Kurdish leader has ever done: uniting Kurds. Any democratic society has factions and rivalries. However, Kurds showed they can come together when they are threatened and at-risk. Kurds are reliable partners in the fight against terrorism.
6. Similarly in Iraq, Syrian, Turkish and Iranian Kurdish forces have all joined in to help fight the Islamic State in places like Ninewa and Diyala. The Turkish PKK and Syrian PYD for example, played a leading role in aiding the Yaizidis in Sinjar in Ninewa. Has the fight in Iraq been able to unite the various Kurdish factions or are those long time rivalries still occurring?
It is remarkable how Kurds came together to defend Kobane. Peshmerga, YPG, PKK, and PJAK all played a role and deserve commendation. The role of women defending Kobane also deserves special recognition.
7. In recent years every time the KRG has gotten into a big spat with Baghdad President Massoud Barzani has talked about declaring independence. In May 2014 for example, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) officials were talking about breaking away from Iraq if Baghdad continued violating the constitution. Then two months later President Barzani threatened a referendum on independence. Nothing substantive has come about from any of these announcements, but it has raised the Kurdish public’s hopes each time. Do you think Kurdish officials have done a good job managing their constituency’s expectations over independence?
I would not use the term “threaten.” President Barzani promised a referendum, recognizing that every Kurd dreams of independence. The ISIS attack on Iraqi Kurdistan affected the path to independence and the timing. To be viable, Iraqi Kurdistan must be secure and solvent. Independence will not be declared unilaterally or result from violent conflict. Independence will ultimately result from political dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad.
8. Finally, many people seem to believe that when Kurdistan becomes independent it will come quickly with an announcement and perhaps a vote, and that will be it. You’ve written that the KRG’s break with Iraq will actually come about through a series of negotiations. Can you explain how that would work out?
The KRG will not unilaterally declare independence. It will not invite conflict with hostile neighbors. A coordinated declaration of independence would require support from the United States and Turkey, which is not forthcoming. Negotiations with Baghdad involve complicated factors, including a division of oil, water, and other assets. Baghdad will not agree to Kurdistan’s independence under current conditions of duress or over Iran’s objection. At this stage, the KRG should focus on state-building. It should take steps to strengthen its democratic institutions, establish transparency over its energy sector, and combat corruption. Iraqi Kurdistan needs to act like a state, rather than behave as a tribe or militia.