Kurdistan: A New Player in the Middle East?

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Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Representative to the United States.

The Fletcher School’s Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies had the pleasure of hosting Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Representative to the United States, this past week. Her father, Sami Abdul Rahman, was a former deputy prime minister of the KRG and a leader in the Kurdish struggle against Saddam Hussein. Ms. Abdul Rahman worked as an award-winning journalist for 17 years before her appointment as a diplomat.

Her discussion ranged from the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and its atrocities against the Kurds in Iraq to the uncertain times and dire regional circumstances that currently surround Iraqi Kurdistan. She concluded by emphasizing the necessity of continued U.S. support.

Ms. Abdul Rahman began with a heartfelt thanks to the United States on behalf of herself and the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. Her gratitude related to an overall theme of U.S. support since the first Gulf War. She discussed the U.S.-Kurdish alliance in the context of three crucial moments: 1991, 2003 and 2014. Each of these periods signified a momentous transition that shaped Iraqi Kurdistan into a thriving and functioning territory.

The post-Gulf War Operation Comfort served as the first U.S. intervention of behalf of the Kurds, saving over 100,000 lives, according to Ms. Abdul-Rahman, by establishing a safe haven for Iraq’s Kurds. This allowed modern Kurdistan to come into being, spurring the growth of political parties and ending infighting that plagued its democracy in the mid-1990s. This state of self-rule was characterized by the Representative as one of “living by guns to civil society”. Although Kurdish society was improving, albeit under harsh conditions, it was not until 2003 that the Kurds were removed from the shadow of fear caused by Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 eliminated the possibility of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party committing another massacre against the Kurdish people. The Representative noted that the initial Kurdish fears of Turkish intervention and Ba’athist reprisals soon disappeared as political developments moved in their favor, describing this phase as a “golden decade” in which Kurdistan was able to come into its own. The establishment of the 2005 Iraqi constitution, along with economic, military and political advancements in Kurdistan over the period, elevated Iraqi Kurdistan to a position of importance – not only in Iraqi politics, but also as a regional force. Similarly, media, culture, and the arts also flourished, and the KRG was able to begin exporting oil, simultaneously reviving the devastated agriculture sector and beginning a fledgling tourism industry. However, recent circumstances have dealt Kurdistan a shock, both militarily and economically.

The emergence of ISIS and its 2014 expansion into Northern Iraq has created an existential threat for Iraqi Kurdistan. Ms. Abdul Rahman pointed to ISIS’s confiscation of the Iraqi Army’s heavy and modern weaponry as a game changer, and claimed that the Peshmerga are fighting at a distinct disadvantage. Cooperation with U.S forces has produced air strikes that have helped the Peshmerga expel ISIS from much of the Kurdish territory. That said, the continued danger of ISIS attacks, combined with Baghdad’s withholding of Kurdistan’s funding (which constitutes 17.5% of Iraq’s national budget), has produced a situation that threatens Kurdistan’s stability and viability.

Abdul Rahman remains confident that Kurdistan can weather these challenges, seeing this new phase as, “like any birth, [both] complicated and painful.” She emphasized the importance of Kurdistan consolidating its advancements by embedding democracy in its political culture and embracing austerity. Abdul Rahman addressed the political tensions that have come to a head recently in the KRG, as President Masoud Barzani has refused to leave office after his term expired in August. She argued that the structure of many problematic Kurdish institutions, such as the divided loyalties of the Peshmerga forces between the two major political parties, were based on historical reasons that no longer make sense.

While Kurdistan, in Ms. Abdul-Rahman’s view, can overcome the economic issues, it will struggle to hold the frontier against ISIS as long as it does not hold a qualitative military advantage. In order to achieve this, Ms. Abdul-Rahman stressed Kurdistan’s continued need for U.S. military training and air strikes, as well as a greater commitment in the form of heavy and sophisticated weaponry. She reiterated that military support will remain essential in the fight against ISIS. Although Kurdistan seeks a peaceful transition to eventual independence, this may not be possible without the required weaponry needed to stabilize its Western frontier and neutralize the threat posed by ISIS.

She was realistic about the limitations on Kurdistan’s resources, especially regarding the refugee crisis. She described the situation as the “Palestinianization of a much larger population in the Middle East,” in which large populations of people are again growing up in camps, and consequently unstable and vulnerable to radicalization. The KRG is particularly unequipped with the mental health resources to address the trauma of, for example, the Yazidi women who were kidnapped by ISIS, and their communities.

To finish her discussion, Ms. Abdul-Rahman answered difficult questions posed by the audience regarding Kurdistan’s future. Questions surrounding the future of Kirkuk as a Kurdish city, future foreign relations between an independent Kurdistan and its neighbors, and the re-taking of Iraq’s third biggest city, Mosul, from ISIS entailed complex issues that could not be entirely answered. When asked about the likelihood of creating a greater independent Kurdistan out of this crisis, Abdul Rahman said that the Kurds must be realistic about geopolitical realities and also acknowledge that Kurds in different countries have evolved in different directions out of a need to adapt and survive.

She went on to question why a sustainable solution to Kurdish needs had to take the form of a nation state at all, asking “Why do we have to think the way we did 100 years ago?” In the Kurdish experience, she noted, the “sacred institution of the sovereign state is dysfunctional,” since the respect for sovereignty prevented outside nations from interfering in Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Kurds. The uncertainty in relation to these challenging topics, among others, reflects the overall haze through which Iraqi Kurds view their future.

Ms. Abdul Rahman remained optimistic about Kurdistan’s future despite these challenges, stating “Today no one can talk about the Middle East without taking the Kurds into account.”

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