Category Archives: Kurdistan Region

Iraqi Kurds remain key ally for Turkey in volatile region

The independence referendum held in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq last year unsettled otherwise strong strategic, economic and political relations between Ankara and Irbil.

Since 2007, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has enjoyed a steady rise in cooperation with Turkey, not least as Turkey endorsed independent oil exports from the KRG through a new pipeline. This close alliance came as Iraq was blighted by sectarian chaos, instability and violence, and while the Arab Spring introduced new complex angles to the already volatile Middle Eastern plains, such as the birth of Daesh.

The rapid rise of the KRG on multiple fronts would not be possible without the support of Ankara. Turkey continues to act as a vital gateway for the Iraqi Kurds for economic prosperity and access to Europe. The strong mutually beneficial trade is rooted since the Kurds won autonomy in 1991 but has thrived since 2003, especially prior to the war on Daesh.

Today, for a stable and prosperous KRG, Turkey remains a key ally for the Iraqi Kurds economically, strategically and in terms of security. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recently emphasized that the KRG gate to the world, especially on crucial oil exports, is Turkey, which he deemed as giving the Kurdistan region “meaning.”

However, this view depicts only one part of story. Iraqi Kurds also remain an important ally to Turkey’s regional goals in a volatile region.

This includes ensuring security in Turkey but also stability in ongoing hot spots such as Syria and Iraq. As a largely secular and nonsectarian region, the KRG has acted as a critical bulwark in recent years against Shiite expansionism that resulted in a strong influence from Tehran in Baghdad along with the sectarian fires that have raged in Iraq since 2003 – all factors that endangered Turkey’s own regional goals.

As the sectarian power struggle continues to grip the Middle East, Iraqi Kurds will play a key role in the regional jockeying for influence.

The Kurds did not expect a smooth ride or lack of repercussions from the historic but contentious referendum and such the ensuing fallout was hardly a surprise. However, the time has come for Turkey and the KRG to look at the bigger picture and the reality that they are neighbors that share common objectives as well as sharing any blowbacks resulting from a volatile region.

The continued suffering of the Iraqi Kurdish population or a weak KRG does not benefit Turkey. It also threatens an expanded Iranian domain of influence in Iraq, while facilitating the long sought-after Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.

As such, Ankara is a decisive actor to finally bring Baghdad to the negotiating table and resolving all disputes in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.

The Kurdish leadership is prepared for dialogue and has already made concessions to lower tensions but months have passed since the referendum fallout and little progress has been made. The airports in the KRG continue to be closed and the military option appears somewhat closer to Baghdad than striking a comprehensive deal with the KRG at the negotiating table based on the Iraqi constitution.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi should accept Turkey’s offer to mediate border crossing and other disputes with the KRG. Baghdad’s continuous blockade of the region and withholding the share of the budgets makes national reconciliation and long-term stability in Iraq all the more difficult and adds to the view that Baghdad wants to collectively punish the Kurdish people.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in his new year message, “Turkey will not be able to secure its future without resolving problems in its region. This leads us to pursue a more active, bold and if necessary, riskier foreign policy.” And, in this direction, the Turkish military is currently conducting the counterterrorism cross-border offensive, Operation Olive Branch, against the PKK-affiliated groups near its border in northern Syria.

As such, the Iraqi Kurds are important in ensuring President Erdoğan’s objectives. A weak KRG gives the PKK a strong foothold in the Kurdistan region as witnessed with increasing influence and autonomy in a number of Iraqi Kurdish regions close to the Syrian border.

The endorsement of “safe zones” along the KRG border with Turkey by the Kurdish leadership aimed at limiting the PKK’s movement across the border is testimony to the KRG’s importance in ensuring border security.

The Kurdistan region not only borders Turkey, but also borders Kurdish regions in Syria and Iran. This gives the KRG a prime hand in encouraging stability in these Kurdish areas. For example, any peace deal with the PKK, as elusive as it seems today, can be supported and boosted by the KRG leadership.

Turkey’s “zero problems” policy with its neighbors have quickly unraveled thanks to the fractious and unstable sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East. As permanent neighbors, and with mutual goals, a strong alliance between Ankara and Irbil remains vital to navigate the growing Middle Eastern storms.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Trump’s decree pours further fuel on Jerusalem fire

turbulent Middle East already engulfed in crisis and conflict hardly needed more fuel on the fire. However, that is exactly what it got after U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and in turn his decree to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

The Israel-Palestinian conflict has dominated the Middle East agenda for decades with a peace deal proving as elusive as ever. The principle of a two-state solution has waned against a backdrop of obstacles and complications that make the prospect of a viable peace deal between Arabs and Israelis a distant reality.

As a spiritual center for Islam, Christianity and Judaism, any settlement of the status of Jerusalem was also going to be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Centuries of conflict have raged for the religious, cultural and economic riches of this ancient city.

The rival claims to Jerusalem were made more problematic by the Israeli capture of Jordanian-occupied east Jerusalem in 1967 in the Six-Day War. Since then, decades of wars, uprisings, failed international diplomacy and thousands of new Jewish settlements have only added to the complications of any peace deal.

The policy of foreign countries has been to keep their embassies in Tel Aviv until a final solution on the borders and Jerusalem is agreed. Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem broke the norm and triggered large scale protests and anger in the Arab and Muslim world.

Trump insisted that this decision does not determine the final agreement between Israel and Palestine, stressing, “We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”

Ironically, serving as major symbolic support to Israeli claims, it makes negotiations far more complex. In turn, it places doubt on the role of the U.S. as an impartial peace broker.

Palestinian officials insisted that Trump’s decision would have no legal effect on the status of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went as far as saying that he no longer sees the United States as having a role in peace negotiations.

Two-state solution

U.S. policy has been generally on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, but in spite of efforts and brokering from successive U.S. presidents, this has proved a tall order.

A more reconciliatory stance would have been for Trump to clearly mark the move as the recognition of west Jerusalem in support of the border of the demarcation line from 1967. The Czech Republic did just that shortly after Trump’s declaration, by recognizing west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Czech foreign ministry statement went on to emphasize that “the Czech Republic together with other EU member states, following the EU Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions, considers Jerusalem to be future capital of both states, meaning the state of Israel and the future state of Palestine.”

East Jerusalem was always earmarked as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and the international community has never recognized Israel’s occupation of all of Jerusalem after 1967.

Any amicable and long-lasting peace deal should be based on international accords, anything less would merely trigger decades of more conflict that will serve neither the Israeli or Arab sides.

Due to the significance of Jerusalem to billions of the world’s population, any final solution must not come to the detriment of Muslims, Jews or Christians, including the millions of pilgrims each year. Jerusalem will always have a special place in the world, not just for Israel or Palestine.

The bold move by Trump has caused division with traditional U.S. allies. The recent U.N. Security Council resolution against Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem – affirming that any decisions on the status of Jerusalem were “null and void and must be rescinded” – was vetoed by the U.S. after the remaining 14 members voted in favor of the draft, including U.S. allies Britain, France, Italy, Japan and Ukraine.

Haley’s way of diplomacy

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley rebuked the U.N. and pointed to the resolution as “one more example of the U.N. doing more harm than good in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Haley, warned ahead of a nonbinding U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, organized as a counter-measure to the U.S. veto of the Security Council resolution, that the U.S. would remember the names of those that vote against it.

Haley does have a point when highlighting the U.S. Congress declaration of 1995 that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of Israel, which includes the relocation of U.S. embassies there. On that note, Trump can argue he is merely implementing a legal commitment. However, Washington must diligently assess why in 22 years, successive presidents have continually waived the implementation of this legislation.

The short-term gain for Trump in appeasing, his vital Jewish support base and fulfilling a key campaign pledge will erode with a ramp up of hostilities in the region and the U.S. losing further influence after it was overtaken in Syria by Russia and with Iran able to propel its regional policies unmolested.

Turkey has been particularly vociferous in rejecting Washington’s move, leading to a bitter exchange of words between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

President Erdoğan denounced the U.S. as a biased broker and indicated his desire to relocate the Turkish embassy to east Jerusalem in response.

In an emergency meeting in Istanbul one week after Trump’s announcement, leaders from the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) recognized east Jerusalem as the occupied capital of a Palestinian state, while calling on the international community to reciprocate.

The U.S.’s decision may lead the two sides to further entrench their positions rather than make concessions, for example, in the settlement building around east Jerusalem. Trump’s declaration increases international divisions, and toughens the Israeli stance and Palestinian disunity. It also promises to make any settlement much more tenuous.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Can independent Kurdistan instill stability in Iraq, Middle East?

After a century of statelessness, the historical Kurdistan independence referendum is just two months away. Yet, many sides warn Kurds they would be fueling instability or claim their time has not come.

Contrary to such threats, Kurdish independence would be a factor for stability in both Iraq and the greater Middle East for several reasons.

Firstly, the historical injustice against the Kurds by depriving them of their right to statehood and confining them to decades of repression as minority subjects is difficult to comprehend through the lens of a Turk, Arab, or Persian.

As long as the Kurds remain the largest nationality without a state, they will never settle.

Moreover, without correcting one of the great dilemmas of the Middle East, the region will always have a foundation for instability and restlessness, both now and in the future.

Clinging on to the myth that artificial borders of Iraq and the wider region are untouchable merely ignores the fact these arbitrary borders are the real source of contention and conflict in the Middle East today.

Iraq has struggled to build any sense of unity since its inception.

One of the pillars of instability in Iraq, after the great sectarian complexities, is a Kurdish population refusing to succumb to Arab rule or to become subordinates of Baghdad.

The Kurdish price for this defiance may be high, but the preservation of their identity was non-negotiable.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently stated, “We are now a united country.”

However, such statements from officials in Baghdad merely ignore the decades of repression against the Kurds and instability that resulted.

As long as Kurdistan is bound to the Iraqi borders, relations will always remain fractious, and scars of suffering under Arab rule will never heal.

In contrast, an independent Kurdish state can open a new chapter with Iraq.

According to the Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, postponing independence would lead to greater instability.

“We have proved that we are factors of stability,” President Barzani said. “What we are doing through a referendum is to prevent that upcoming instability.”

“We want to cut any possibility of bloodshed in the future,” the President added.

Kurdistan has enjoyed stability and newfound prominence, especially since 2003, but whether you call it the “other Iraq” or whatever else, it is still a formal part of Iraq.

The sectarian violence ensures Kurdistan can never truly escape the shadows of the crumbling state of Iraq.

According to Abadi, “It is in national, economic, trade, and security interests if the Kurds are part of Iraq.”

However, the Iraqi tag will always cast a noose over Kurdish economy, tourism, and security.

If there was a uniting factor between Sunnis and Shias, it was the ethnic card against the Kurds.

Focusing on rifts with the Kurds and actions such as cutting Kurdistan’s share of the budget was often a tactic by Baghdad to deflect deep-rooted issues and corruption in the country.

Ironically, an independent Kurdistan may be a uniting factor for the rest of Iraq, by acting as a stable broker and forcing Iraqis to reconcile differences without the Kurdish question hanging over Baghdad.

President Barzani believes an independent Kurdistan could have a much stronger relationship with Baghdad.

“Kurdistan can be a factor for security and stability, and that is best done through an understanding with Iraq,” he stated.

Meanwhile, Mala Bakhtiyar, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) executive body, addressing a recent meeting with Iranian officials in Tehran, said: “We frankly told them that we, as Kurds, live in uncertainty due to the current situation in Iraq, the post-Da’esh [Islamic State] fight, and the disputed territories. We, therefore, decided to hold the referendum to guarantee a path for our future.”

Regarding the wider region, a secular, pro-western and democratic new state home to an array of religions and ethnicities is just what the volatile region needs.

Rather than fermenting instability in Turkey, a Kurdish state can act as a vital buffer against sectarian jostling gripping the rest of Iraq and the region, and can only strengthen the already strong economic and security ties with Ankara.

According to former Iraqi Foreign Minister and a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Hoshyar Zebari, “Kurdistan is the only place from which they can ensure energy supplies,” while it can act as “a buffer between them and the expansionism of Shia militants.”

The United States has pumped trillions of dollars into achieving stability in Iraq since 2003.

Even after the costly and intensive fight against the Islamic State (IS), there remain doubts Baghdad has truly learned lessons.

How can Kurdish secession cause instability when Iraq is deeply embroiled in a battle against IS and self-inflicted crises since 2003?

Does the continuous obsession with a united Iraq benefit US and EU interests, or does a plural Kurdish state that can act as a bulwark against extremism and serve Western ideals in the region?

Much like there will never be a good time to declare independence in a chaotic region, the Kurds cannot be accused of creating unrest and instability when Iraq and the wider region has known nothing less.


Kurdistan independence referendum: Placing national issues above partisan agendas

The independence referendum, set for Sep. 25, 2017, presents Kurdistan with an unprecedented opportunity to rewrite their destiny. However, in the face of regional powers determined to derail Kurdish aspirations, it needs to instill unity and reinforce democratic institutions to achieve national dreams.

As historic as the referendum is for the Kurds, it was beset by bickering from the main parties on the mechanisms to initiate the vote.

The meeting convened between Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani included the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) where the date was set for the independence referendum.

However, this meeting was boycotted by Gorran, the second largest party with 25 seats, and the Islamic League (Komal).

Shorsh Haji, Gorran’s spokesperson, criticized the move toward the independence referendum labeling it as “party-based and an illegal process.”

However, PM Barzani, left the door open for Gorran and Komal, stating, “This procedure does not belong to one political party but all the people of Kurdistan.”

“It is the responsibility of all parties and components in the Kurdistan Region to participate,” he added.

Originally, the PUK was aligned to the Gorran opposition, that reactivation of Parliament was a key precondition before passing legislature on an independence referendum.

In fact, Gorran has an alliance agreement with the PUK, which has largely not been implemented. Both the PUK and Gorran have had their share of internal uncertainty in recent times.

The influential figurehead of Gorran, Nawshirwan Mustafa, tragically passed away last month.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the PUK has been beset with internal leadership squabbles that saw them lose their traditional dominant role as the largest political party alongside the KDP.

The evolving and fluid political climate highlights the desperate need for elections, scheduled for later this year, to be held on time.

New elections and a new gauge of public sentiment are needed to reinvigorate the political landscape and drive Kurdistan forward at this crucial historical juncture.

A functioning Parliament is vital for any healthy democracy. It represents the mandate of the people. The UK is a great example of how snap elections were recently held to renew political orders.

Current UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who assumed the top post following David Cameron’s resignation last year after the UK decision to leave the EU, announced snap elections to give her a strong mandate in exit negotiations with the EU.

Ironically, May’s hand was weakened as the Conservatives lost their majority, revealing a different public sentiment to what she assumed. Nonetheless, this underlines the need for partisan politics to reflect the evolving opinion of the electorate.

Every vote for any party is a reflection of the will of the people. Every political party has a mandate to serve the people but also ensure that mandate continues to be reflective of the will of the people.

The Kurdistan Parliament has been effectively in recess since October 2015, when KDP blocked speaker of Parliament Yousif Mohammed from returning to Erbil, after several demonstrations in Sulaimani Province turned violent with KDP offices torched, resulting in several deaths.

The government itself took almost seven months to form after elections in September 2013, highlighting the tense political climate.

Ideally, the Kurdistan Parliament would have endorsed the independence referendum.

Nevertheless, the issue of self-determination, something the Kurds have been waiting for over a century, goes above partisan politics or any intra-party jockeying.

It’s a national issue and a national right, and all parties, including Gorran, should put national interests first, even if some preconditions have not been met.

This doesn’t excuse the political stalemate since 2015 but, critically, the Kurds need to look to the future and not open old wounds that have not healed between all parties.

Just as elections in Europe see a changing political picture based on the sentiment of the electorate, elections later this year gives the Kurdistan Region renewed impetus on implementing a government that reflects the will of the people.

It’s far from certain how people will vote, and the political parties will need to orchestrate strong campaigns to persuade voters. And, this is how it should be in any healthy democracy.

In early May, Jaafar Ibrahim, KDP politburo member and deputy speaker of Kurdistan’s Parliament, stated, “There is good understating with respect to the question of reactivating the Parliament. I, therefore, think the Parliament will be reactivated in a month.”

A month later, there is still no sign of Parliament reconvening, with one option touted as reactivating the assembly without the current speaker.

However, the efforts and controversy of reactivating a full or partial Congress, should not dissuade from the focus on holding a successful independence referendum and then elections on time.

A lack of unity has often blighted the Kurdish cause. Without a united political front for the sake of national interests, and with many opposing sides determined to derail the Kurdish drive toward independence, Kurdish aspirations will be hampered once more.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel is a London-based freelance writer and analyst whose primary focus and expertise is on the Kurds, Iraq, and current Middle Eastern affairs.

With eyes on statehood, Kurdistan bolsters ties with Russia

The visit of a high-ranking Kurdish delegation led by the Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to Russia had several short and long-term goals.

On the one hand, it reinforced the already strong relations, especially in the battle to defeat the Islamic State (IS), but Kurdish eyes were also on the upcoming independence referendum scheduled for later this year.

As a dominant global power and a major influence in the region, Russian support is vital for Kurdish aspirations and ensuring its prosperity both now and in the future.

Russian backing also provides the Kurds a powerful alternative gateway to the regional players such as Baghdad and Ankara but also diversifies the Kurdish reliance on the US.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the US have enjoyed strong relations, especially since 2003. However, too often the Kurds have suffered under the US’ obsession with a united Iraq.

Its “one-Iraq” policy has seen Washington lean toward appeasing Baghdad, often at the expense of giving the KRG too much support or legitimacy.

One of these key factors was the lack of US endorsement for independent Kurdish hydrocarbon exploration and exportation deals signed with foreign companies, after pressure from Baghdad. The KRG may have pursued with its oil policy regardless, but this offered a major constraint.

Facing a difficult economic crisis over the past three years, the KRG deal with Russian giant Rosneft, reportedly the largest signed at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg (SPIEF), provides Kurdistan with new leverage and breathes life and renewed credibility into the Kurdish oil sector that was stagnating.

The Rosneft statement detailed the signing of a series of documents aimed to expand cooperation between the two parties “in exploration and production of hydrocarbons, commerce, and logistics.”

“The Parties signed an investment agreement under which they committed to develop cooperation in exploration and production, agreed on monetization of the export oil pipeline in [the Kurdistan Region], as well as entered into a number of production sharing agreements,” read the Rosneft report

PM Barzani declared a new state of bilateral relations had begun between the KRG and Russia in all aspects, following meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the unveiling of the historic oil deal with Rosneft.

The PM stated that “this is certainly a sign of restoring trust after all these years of problems in the Kurdistan Region, especially the budget cut, the war on [IS], and 1.8 million refugees.”

“I think this is, after all these problems, a good beginning for the restoration of trust in the markets of Kurdistan,” he continued.

“We hope this marks the beginning of further agreements with countries in the energy and all other sectors,” PM Barzani added.

On his visit, PM Barzani reaffirmed that Kurdistan’s independence referendum is one of the KRG’s priorities.

The major deal with Rosneft, under the auspices of Putin, provides indirect endorsement to a future Kurdish state.

In December, Putin emphasized Russia’s “special and very good relationship with the Kurds” while responding to a Kurdistan24 reporter.

With Putin further adding, “Ultimately, the legitimate rights of the Kurds will be ensured, but what will be the form and how it depends on Iraqis and Kurds themselves.”

The deal was naturally met with apprehension from Baghdad. But, fighting a bitter sectarian war and engulfed in the battle against IS, Baghdad is experiencing a weak hand in provinces under their control, let alone in Kurdistan.

However, the deal did face some criticism from opposition circles at home.

The Change Movement (Gorran), Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU, Yekgirtu), Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal), and Kurdistan Islamic Movement (KIM), issued a statement declaring: “The Rosneft agreement should not have been signed in the absence of the parliament’s observation and interpretation.”

“It is impossible not to know how much discount the Kurdistan Region has made for the price of oil to Rosneft,” the joint statement continued.

“It is impossible not to know in what way Rosneft will become partner or possessor in these five oilfields, and for how many years the deal is,” the report added.

In any case, the finer details of the agreement are expected to take months of ironing out before contracts can be signed.

Despite the objections, the opportunity for lucrative and possibly game-changing energy deals with major powers such as Russia is difficult to turn down, especially with an upcoming referendum, a tough economic climate, and with an energy sector that has been lagging in recent years.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

One way to end uncertainty in Kirkuk, hold long overdue referendum

The Kurds have long considered Kirkuk their Jerusalem. The diverse city has a clear Kurdish identity, notably with the area already under the de facto control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The uproar over the decision of the Kirkuk Provincial Council to hoist the Kurdistan flag alongside the Iraqi one over state institutions ignores the reality and aims at creating a political commotion.

The objections raised by Turkmen, Baghdad, the Turkish government, and even the United Nations (UN) take a narrow view of proceedings.

Firstly, in a deliberate attempt to change the demographic make-up of the area, including governorate boundaries, thousands of Kurds were forcibly evicted from their homes as part of Saddam Hussein’s infamous Arabisation campaign.

Why would Hussein have gone to extreme lengths to Arabise the city if the Kurds did not constitute a majority? Moreover, the same parties that object to the raising of the Kurdistan flag choose to ignore the injustices committed against the Kurds. Instead, they turn the tables by accusing the Kurds of creating instability.

When the Kurds returned to their ancestral homes, the addressing of Hussein’s atrocities was overlooked, and the Kurds were accused of changing the demographic make-up of the city.

Secondly, after Hussein, the protracted and difficult negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad centered on disputed territories.

Throughout those negotiations, which led to the eventual formation of the Iraqi constitution, the Kurds had a clear stance on Kirkuk, leading to Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution that provided a clear roadmap for the resolution of all disputed territories.

Almost 10 years after a referendum that should have been held after a process of normalization, no vote was in sight. The Kurds are now accused of taking illegal and unconstitutional measures, yet why did Baghdad fail to implement a key article of the constitution?

If Turkey, regional actors, and the UN, or any other party, wishes to provide an impartial intercession to support stability, then they should have pressured Iraq to oblige by its constitution.

In short, Baghdad dragged its heel on Article 140, fully mindful any referendum would only rubber-stamp the return of Kirkuk to the KRG.

Lastly, Kirkuk has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural city. Its inhabitants have lived side by side peacefully for decades. Hoisting the Kurdistan flag merely symbolizes the Kurdish majority component and Kurdish identity of Kirkuk. It doesn’t imply the Kurds have chosen to ignore Turkmen, Arabs, or Christians, or have denied their rights.

In the same way, Mosul has an Arab majority, but with a significant Kurdish population, it doesn’t mean Kurds object to Iraqi flags raised across the city.

Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim recently stated, “We tell those who want to instigate chaos: this flag is that of the Arabs and Turkmen, as well as the Kurds. It is the flag of Kurdistan which is a place for everyone.”

When the Iraqi army fled in the aftermath of an Islamic State (IS) onslaught in 2014, and the Peshmerga provided great sacrifices to protect Kirkuk, they didn’t just defend the Kurds, they defended all of its inhabitants. Who else would have protected the Turkmen and Arabs against the atrocities of IS?

Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani defended the raising of the flag as a legal and standard measure. Pointing to the fact the flag had been present since 2003, and especially after the IS crisis in 2014, Barzani underlined in a statement, “It was the same flag that protected Kirkuk from the threat and attacks of terrorists.”

Meanwhile, according to Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the recent actions of the Kirkuk governorate would strengthen peace and co-existence.

“In a complete conflict like that in Iraq, the KRG and Kirkuk governorate have shown a great example of coexistence and keeping their areas from tensions and sectarian fighting,” the PM stressed.

As Karim and Kurdish leaders defended the move as constitutional, it came under a barrage of criticism and warnings.

A statement from Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned against any “unilateral act that would jeopardize the reconciliation and stabilization efforts in the country.”

Arshad Salihi, the leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), claimed that “Kirkuk is a fire that if ignited will burn everyone.”

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) issued its warning “against any unilateral steps that might jeopardize harmony and peaceful coexistence.”

Karim, in a defiant message, insisted they would not be bound by the Iraqi parliament’s vote that only the Iraqi flag should fly over Kirkuk.

As for Turkey, Kirkuk was long a “red line,” but times have changed, and rhetoric aside, Ankara accepts Kurdish rule of Kirkuk that gives the Turks a strategic advantage via its warm relations with the KRG.

Either way, the time of opinion and meddling has long passed. If any side truly wants a peaceful and legal resolution on Kirkuk, then it’s time to hold the long overdue referendum.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Newroz marks sacrifice, freedom, and gallant survival for Kurds

The festival of Newroz, marking the beginning of the vernal or spring equinox, is not just any new year for the Kurds. It’s the very symbol of the Kurdish fight to preserve their nationality.

For thousands of years, Newroz has been a reminder of ancient Kurdish culture and identity, but above all, how the resolve of the Kurdish nation has continuously overcome the fiercest of tyrants to mark new dawns.

According to Kurdish mythology, Kawa, a fearless Kurdish blacksmith ended the tyrannical reign of King Zahak. Fires were lit to mark the end of oppression and the beginning of a new dawn of freedom.

To this day, Kurds have continued to suffer hardships, repression and a battle for survival against all odds. Whether defying the Baathist regime in Iraq, dictatorial rule in Syria or challenging the harsh denial policies of Turkey, Newroz has come to symbolize the strong determination of the Kurds.

Although Kurdish lands were divided and people were separated against their will, Newroz served as a representation of the unity of the Kurdish spirit.

Today, Kurdish fortunes may have transformed, particularly with Kurds enjoying strategic standing in Iraq and Syria, but the symbolic power of Newroz is undiminished.

What should be a festival commemorated by joy and peace, more often, celebration have culminated in tensions, bloodshed and deeper divisions in countries such as Iraq, Iran and Syria but particularly in Turkey.

Citing security concerns about possible “tension and provocations between people who will participate in the celebrations and others,” the decision by governors of Ankara and Istanbul to ban Newroz celebrations this year is likely to fuel more tensions and violence.

With the festival heavily politicized, denial of Newroz celebrations has become synonymous with denial of Kurdish identity and rights.

Turkey is a far cry from the Newroz celebrations of 2013. Firstly, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, declared a ceasefire and start of peace talks, heralding an unprecedented chapter in the decades-old PKK-Turkey conflict.

Meanwhile, in the same year, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was Prime Minister at the time, in a powerful statement, took stage in Diyarbakir alongside the popular Kurdish singers Sivan Perwer and Ibrahim Tatlises.

With an increasing climate of hope and expectation at the time, Erdogan promised a future filled with peace and fraternity. Unfortunately, today, in Turkey, with tensions in Kurdish-dominated parts, curfews and return to violence, this message appears as distant as ever.

As Kurds celebrate across all parts of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Region continues to serve as the greatest beacon of light in the Kurdish nationalist renaissance.

Faced with a bitter enemy, the Islamic State, it is carrying the global flag against terrorism.

In a public message marking Newroz, the Kurdistan Region President, Masoud Barzani, while reiterating his drive for statehood, stated, “the month of March has been the month of triumph, joy and also the suffering of the Kurdish people.”  President Barzani added, “but it has also been the demise of the enemy and the start of new light and life, proving that sacrifice bears fruit.”

Indeed, the March 1991 uprising or “Raparin” that saw Kurds expel the tyrannical Saddam Hussein regime from their lands ended second-class citizenship and opened a new passage to the freedom and prosperity of today.

However, nothing would have been possible without the immense sacrifices of the Peshmerga and the Kurdish people throughout history, with a refusal to succumb to tyranny, no matter the odds or the strength of the enemy.

Today, many dangers and perils remain for Kurdistan. Newroz should serve as a reminder for the Kurds, to avoid slipping into a false sense of security, and that unity is needed as much as ever.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Faced with a common enemy, a new front pitching Kurd against Kurd is a travesty

Even in the face of a common enemy, and at a historic juncture, relations between Rojava and the Kurdistan Region have been blighted by political differences. A prime example is the ongoing presence of the PKK and its affiliated armed wing, Shingal Resistance Unit (YBS), in Shingal region.

Although these forces played a crucial role in breaking the Islamic State (IS) siege on Shingal in 2014, and later in fighting alongside Peshmerga forces against IS, that critical juncture has been passed.

PKK’s continued presence has been a ticking time bomb.

In recent days, an armed confrontation between the YBS and Peshmerga forces in Khanasor that resulted in casualties and scores of wounded culminates the severity of the tensions between the two sides.

There are already many battlefronts facing each side, and it’s most regrettable to open a new front that pitches Kurd against Kurd.

In the dawn of the new Middle East, which has placed both Rojava and KRG in strategic positions, Kurds have an opportunity to rewrite many of the wrongs of history.

To realize such goals, Kurds need unity within borders, but also across their geographical divide; however, political motivations usually blight relations among Kurds and division harms their aspirations.

The disconnect among Kurds is illustrated in their difficulty of arranging a symbolic pan-Kurdistan national conference over past few years. Even those arranged, such as the recent one in Moscow, were never representative, owed to ongoing friction.

The Ezidi community has endured more than its share of tragedy in recent years, and using the local community as political leverage by the PKK will only prolong suffering.

Turning the Kurdistan Region landscape into a patchwork of militias will fuel further animosity and disintegration. Ezidis and Christians have every right to protect their population, but only under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Ultimately, only the Peshmerga forces have the right to be deployed in Kurdistani territories of Iraq.

Anything else results in the formation of unnecessary cantons, susceptible to influence by outside forces, and potentially pitching locals against Peshmerga forces and the KRG.

Motives behind the continued PKK presence are intended for controlling the strategic cross-border area and to maintain political and regional leverage.

A statement from the Kurdistan Region Presidency warned, “No party is allowed to interfere in the Kurdistan Region’s affairs or restrict Peshmerga movement in the Region.” President Barzani had given an order to Peshmerga Ministry to bring “the situation under control and prevent it from escalation.”

The armed clashes in recent days led to accusations from both sides of initiating the conflict. The commander of the Peshmerga forces in Shingal, Sarbast Lezgin, blamed the PKK for creating problems and urged them to leave the area, while also warning that “we will not ask for PKK’s permission to move forces in the Kurdistan Region.”

Lezgin’s call echoed similar statements from the Ministry of Peshmerga affirming that they do not seek authorization from anyone during force changeover, or deployments within the borders of Kurdistan Region.

Meanwhile, in a joint statement, Ezidi leaders including members of the Ezidi Religious Council (ERC) urged a stop to intra-Kurdish fighting and asked the PKK to leave the region.

“The wounds of Ezidis are still not cured, and we don’t want to face more injuries,” the announcement pleaded.

The friction centers on the presence of a 5000-strong Rojava Peshmerga force trained in the Kurdistan Region that is close to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and endorsed by Turkey. In spite of the grave battle against IS in Rojava, these Peshmerga forces have not been allowed to enter owed to mistrust.

The dominant Rojava parties aligned to PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and those close to the KDP, have signed three peace agreements, yet none have been implemented.

The YBS and Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an umbrella organization of the PKK, in separate statements, alleged the recent confrontations were a result of Barzani’s recent visit to Turkey.

The YBS see any deployment of the Rojava Peshmerga in Shingal as an “occupying force,” as they allege financing and training from Turkey.

For the PKK, it’s not just about Shingal, but keeping these Peshmerga forces off the vital border zone between Rojava and Kurdistan Region.

As many of the political leaders have condemned the incident, a political deal is needed to diffuse tension. For example, the KRG could open the border crossing, in return for PKK leaving the area.

YBS helping to stem IS in Shingal at a vital time, followed by Peshmerga forces assisting their brethren in Kobani, when the town was at its greatest hour of need, should have set the foundations for cross-border harmony.

Unfortunately, all too often, political affiliations and party interests quickly resume center stage.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Kurdistan praised in Munich, but real prize remain independence

The 2017 Munich Security Conference in Germany demonstrated the strategic importance of the Kurdistan Region on the regional and global stage, as it held bilateral meetings with a significant number of state officials.

Kurdistan was the only autonomous region to be invited alongside 192 countries, yet, as much as Kurdistan is receiving increasing acclaim for spearheading the battle against the Islamic State (IS), it remains stateless.

Almost three years since IS took control of large swathes of Iraqi territory, IS remains not just a regional threat but is a global threat that has led to deadly consequences across Europe. As Iraqi forces struggled against the IS advance in 2014, the Peshmerga took center stage in putting IS on the retreat.

The Munich Security Conference proved a vital platform for Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, and his accompanying delegation, to boost ties and ensure continued support for Peshmerga forces.

Statements from many high ranking officials in Munich reaffirmed the standing of the Kurds.

Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, described her meeting with Barzani as “excellent” and praised the Kurds as reliable partners while expecting German and international support for the Kurds to continue for “quite a while.”

Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence tweeted after a meeting with President Barzani that he discussed the “the need to accelerate plans to defeat ISIS,” while thanking Barzani for “cooperation with Baghdad.”

Barzani and US Secretary of Defence James Mattis had a lengthy meeting on the sidelines of the conference. According to a statement from the office of the Kurdistan Presidency, Mattis had “reiterating his country’s support for the people of Kurdistan” and had stated he “was familiar with the Kurdish cause and that Kurdistan and the US had made sacrifices side by side.”

Barzani also had a meeting with a delegation of 20 US senators who expressed strong support for the Kurds and stressed the new US administration would not abandon the Kurds.

There were many other positive statements of support towards the Kurds. In fact, the Kurdistan leadership often host high-ranking figures such as UK Defense Minister Michael Fallon in recent weeks.

However, this is only the short-term game for the Kurds. Security is the important theme of today for Western and regional powers, but the Kurds are looking beyond tactical measures.

The fact remains that IS became a problem on the doorsteps of Kurdistan mainly due to the continued sectarian policies emanating out of Baghdad as well as the weak defense that Iraqi forces were able to muster.

While Kurdistan remains part of Iraq, it can never safeguard its future, let alone prevent IS from striking again.
President Barzani has openly discussed Kurdish independence over past few years, but the significant difference is the growing international support for their right to self-determination.

According to Hemin Hawrami, senior advisor to President Barzani and part of the delegation in Munich, “the main point in the agenda of Barzani’s talks has been the independence of Kurdistan,” before adding, “President Barzani discussed this issue with the US Vice President very seriously.”

According to Hawrami, “there might have been some different points of views in timing and the mechanism, but we never heard of any delegate of any country saying the question of independence and self-determination is not your right.”

Kurdistan’s right to self-determination is not bound to the fact they are playing a key part in preserving stability amidst regional fires. However, the reliance on the Kurdistan government and Peshmerga forces at a vital time only magnifies the irony of being the largest nation in the world without a state.

It’s not that Kurdistan has been impatient, almost 14 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the same sectarian issues blight Iraq, Shiite militia forces hold more sway than the official army, and Sunnis remain as disenchanted as ever. All in all, neither sectarian fighting nor political instability will end in Iraq after IS.

Even putting these major issues aside, Erbil is unlikely ever to escape being a subordinate of Baghdad, placing doubt that a genuine partnership could ever materialize.

The fact that some countries continue to insist on delivering military support to Kurdish forces via Baghdad only fuels this sense of subordination.

Barzani remains insistent on pursuing the path dialogue with Baghdad over Kurdish independence as “this will pave the way to many other countries to recognize us.” However, Barzani stressed that as much as they will continue to push for a positive result through dialogue, they “will certainly take other steps” if this fails.

As a boost to Kurdish aspirations, Von der Leyen made clear that independence was a matter for the Kurds to decide and they would respect this decision.

This view was likely to be echoed by French President Francois Hollande, who President Barzani met in recent days. Both leaders emphasized the strong and friendly relations, and France is likely to be a reliable partner of a future Kurdistan.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Kurdistan’s migrant burden deserves international focus

The turmoil caused by the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) has created unimaginable human tragedy, not least millions of refugees and Internally Displaced Person’s (IDPs). While the internationals spotlight about the refugee crisis is mainly on Turkey, the migrant burden has created unsustainable pressure on the Kurdistan Region.

The estimated 1.8 million IDPs and refugees in Kurdistan is a considerable number, but with the ongoing battle to recapture Mosul and the violence in Syria and Iraq far from over, this number is continuously increasing.

Since the battle for Mosul began, an additional 95,000 IDPs have taken refuge in the Kurdistan Region. The Kurdistan Region’s Minister of Interior, Karim Sinjari, issued a warning of “an impending humanitarian catastrophe” as Kurdistan could not cope with a further flood of refugees, especially, as the battle front shifts to the west of Mosul.

Sinjari called for “additional resources to be provided immediately to deal with the increased burden.”

The strain this crisis has placed on the region is visible. Such refugees need adequate food, health care, clothes, and shelter. This is not for a week or two but on a long term basis due to the protracted and complicated nature of events that lead to their plight.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is also facing tremendous pressures caused by a weakened economy and the costly fight against IS. Adding the millions of IDPs into the mix is simply unsustainable, with the region’s infrastructure unable to cope with the increased demand.

Germany’s Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Gerd Muller, in a recent press conference with Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, praised the Kurdistan Region for embracing 1.8 million IDPs, in spite of the harsh economic climate.

Muller stated, “But we have come to support you, as well as the EU, should support the Kurdistan Region,” as he vowed that the “Kurdistan Region is not alone.”

Meanwhile, Barzani stressed, “On a humanitarian level it is indeed very important that Germany helps the migrants, but it is as important to assist the Kurdistan Region to deal with the refugee crisis here and prevent people from becoming migrants in other countries.”

The European Commission has allocated €241 million since 2015 in humanitarian aid to Iraq, with expectation for Iraq to receive another €50 million from the EU in early 2017, of which €28 million has been allocated for the KRG.

But even this much welcome aid is unlikely to be sufficient.

While the focus is primarily on international aid, Baghdad could certainly do more. After all, a large proportion of the migrants is made up of Arabs escaping the violence south of Kurdistan’s border.

Moreover, the weak security provided by Iraqi armed forces and the continued sectarian policies emanating out of Baghdad contributed to this crisis.

Ironically, Baghdad failed to pay salaries of Peshmerga forces, at the heart of the battle against IS, and pay Kurdistan’s fair share of the budget, let alone help with the region’s migrant crisis.

As welcome as international aid will be to alleviate the crisis in Kurdistan, these remain tactical measures. The real focus should be on ensuring the rebuilding of shattered areas so that IDPs can safely return.

Unfortunately, if aid was an issue to sustain internally displaced persons, any rebuilding efforts will run into tens of billions of dollars.

Also, political measures must be taken to ensure the same policies or mindsets do not allow further unrest.

In a recent statement, the KRG stated it has no “intention whatsoever to close the camps where the displaced populations are hosted,” in spite of the great difficulties it has to face. Further, it would only support cases of “safe, voluntary, and dignified” return of any displaced persons.

First Published: Kurdistan 24