Iraqi Kurds Battle Islamic State, Pursue Quixotic Campaign for Self-Determination

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The pair of flags proudly displayed behind the desk of Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman says it all.

One represents Iraq — a horizontal tricolor of red, white and black, with the Arabic inscription “Allahu akbar” (God is great) centered on the white stripe. The other is the flag of Kurdistan — a tricolor of red, white and green bands, with a blazing yellow sun disk of 21 rays at its center.

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Photo: Lawrence Ruggeri of Ruggeriphoto.com
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States

In the ancient Kurdish religion of Yazdanism, 21 is a venerated number symbolizing rebirth and renaissance. But for Kurdistan — at least the part currently under Iraqi jurisdiction — rebranding the semiautonomous region as a truly independent, politically viable nation is going to take a lot more than flags and symbolism.

Nobody here knows that better than Rahman, the first woman ever to represent Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the United States.

Last month, as U.S.-led coalition forces were mapping out strategies to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State fanatics, she sat down with The Washington Diplomat to explain why the Kurds are key to defeating the terrorist group — and why her people have waited too long for independence.

“I come from a very political family that has long been at the forefront of the Kurdish national movement in Iraq,” said Rahman, whose British accent belies her London upbringing. “My maternal grandfather didn’t have an official political position, but socially he was very prominent and was arrested many times by different Iraqi regimes and exiled to Turkey. My father was in the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and my mother was a campaigner and activist. I grew up in this atmosphere, where the Kurdish national movement was a part of everyday life.”

In 2004, her father, Sami Abdul Rahman, was killed alongside his elder son Salah and 96 others in a twin suicide bombing in the Kurdish de facto capital of Erbil.

Since she was a 4-year-old — somewhere there’s a recording of Rahman singing nursery rhymes about the “heroic Peshmerga” Kurdish fighters with her older brother, then 7 — the future diplomat knew exactly where she came from.

“You feel compelled to be aware of your identity because your culture and history is denied all the time,” she told us. “Our history has been written by our enemies over and over. Now, perhaps for the first time, we Kurds are telling our own story.”

A journalist by profession, Rahman spent 17 years writing for several London-based newspapers. By the time the Financial Times sent her to Japan as a correspondent, however, the subject of Iraq wasn’t making front-page news anymore.

“The Western media was not really interested any longer in Iraq. U.S. troops had withdrawn, and Iraq seemed to be muddling along. We had elections and had managed to form coalition governments. We were described as the ‘other Iraq,’ the oil capital of the world, but all of these stories had been told. Then ISIS changed all of that,” she said, referring to another term used to describe the Islamic State. “Whether politicians and diplomats in Washington choose to or not, Iraq has to be on their agenda, and so does Kurdistan.”

Seizing on Instability

The prospect of an independent state for the Kurds — who often describe themselves as the world’s largest ethnic group without a state — is now definitely on the world’s agenda. With the disintegration of Syria and the omnipresent threat of the Islamic State in Iraq, the Kurds have stepped into the breach as one of the most capable fighting forces in the Middle East, using the chaos to solidify their hold on territory and power.

The instability is not only redrawing battle lines, but muddying alliances. In Syria, Kurds have successfully clawed back territory from the Islamic State, making them a critical U.S. ally — and a threat to Turkey, which is fighting a longstanding Kurdish insurgency at home and views the main Syrian Kurdish militia as a terrorist group. Yet Ankara also maintains friendly relations with the Kurdish government in Iraq, bolstered by strong economic ties.

“The Kurds have never been as influential in the Middle East as they are today. They hold the balance of power in Iraq and Syria, and are in the midst of an insurrection in Turkey,” wrote Henri J. Barkey in a Feb. 26 brief for the Wilson Center.

“The U.S. finds itself reluctantly drawn into this Kurdish denouement; it needs the Kurds as much as it needs the Turks in its efforts to defeat ISIS, the jihadi group. Yet America’s primary ally in Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), is being bombarded by its longstanding NATO ally, Turkey,” wrote Barkey, director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.

Meanwhile, “Iraqi Kurds, thanks to American intervention, have now established an internationally recognized autonomous federal zone in northern Iraq,” he added. “Ankara has excellent relations with the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, and is its single-most important trading partner. The KRG remains an important, if incomplete, symbol of Kurdish self-determination.”

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Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Tristan Bolden
A Peshmerga soldier loads ammunition into his magazine in preparation for squad-based training near Erbil on Oct. 14, 2015. As part of Operation Inherent Resolve, U.S. forces have teamed up with Iraqi Kurdish fighters to provide them with weapons and training to help repel the Islamic State.

Yet the Kurds’ growing clout has come at a steep price. Nearly two years of fighting in Iraq have drained the KRG’s coffers, as have tumbling oil prices, unresolved disputes with Baghdad and a refugee influx from neighboring Syria. The KRG argues that without outside help, it will soon find itself on the brink of financial collapse.

And that’s bad news for the White House, warns John Hannah, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in Foreign Policy magazine.

“The region’s 150,000 Peshmerga fighters are, in many ways, the poster children for President Obama’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State: a courageous and pro-American local force that, if backed by U.S. air power, is prepared to defeat the jihadists on the ground and then liberate and hold territory,” he wrote, adding that since the war’s start, Kurdish forces have reclaimed over 10,000 square miles of territory from the Islamic State.

As we went to press, in fact, U.S. diplomats were confirming that the Pentagon-led coalition to recapture Mosul had begun. The focus started shifting to Mosul — an Islamic State stronghold and Iraq’s second-largest city — after coalition forces had seized Ramadi from the group in eastern Iraq. The Pentagon and its allies have already established an operations center in another Kurdish city, Makhmour, 44 miles from Mosul, where the 15th Iraqi military division, along with U.S. advisers, are now stationed.

“It’s already started,” U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk said during a March 16 speech at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani. “It’s a slow, steady squeeze.”

Yet even as the battle for Mosul takes shape, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces are struggling to make ends meet.

“Of course the United States has helped us with weapons and training, but the war’s financial burden is falling on the KRG. It costs us $200 million a month to maintain the frontline Peshmerga and security forces,” Rahman said. “We also have 1.8 million refugees from Syria, and displaced people from Iraq. That’s a huge jump in our population in addition to the 5 million we already have.”

‘Work Harder Than Other Embassies’

That leaves Rahman with the task of convincing the KRG’s American allies to pony up more resources for the war against the Islamic State (according to Hannah, the administration has proposed giving the KRG somewhere in the range of $50 million a month).

The region Rahman represents is home to about 5.5 million inhabitants, but 40 to 45 percent of Greater Kurdistan — an area roughly the size of France — falls outside the KRG’s borders.

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Photo: State Department
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani after arriving at the KRG presidential compound in Erbil, Iraq, on June 24, 2014.

Rahman puts the world’s Kurdish population at anywhere between 25 million and 34 m illion. Many of these Kurds — who are not Arabs — live in countries where the KRG has offices, including Iran, Russia, Australia, Great Britain and the United States.

In Washington, Rahman said she has a “respectful and cooperative relationship” with Iraqi Ambassador Lukman Faily, who, like her, also spent most of his years in exile in the United Kingdom while opposing the regime of Saddam Hussein.

“We don’t interact on a day-to-day basis in terms of reporting to each other what we’re doing,” she said of Faily, “but the ambassador is always there if I ever need him, and we invite each other to receptions.”

As the representative of an autonomous jurisdiction within a country, however, Rahman’s diplomatic status is rather akin to that of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office only two blocks away; that mission displays both the flags of China and Hong Kong.

“We have to work harder than the other embassies,” she said. “We don’t have their budgets or their staff size. Nor do we have the structures in place that their governments have. We’re a government in transition, and most of the KRG’s representatives were not diplomats. We come from various walks of life. I was a journalist. Our rep in Vienna is a doctor.”

KRG representatives may not be diplomats, but they are savvy operators, enlisting friends on Capitol Hill, in think tanks, the media and on K Street to plead their case. To that end, the KRG’s quasi-embassy off Dupont Circle spends generously on lobbyists.

According to an October 2015 article in Foreign Policy, Rahman’s office shelled out $291,000 on three firms and has signed a contract with a fourth worth up to $200,000.

Erbil’s main goal: to convince the White House to drop its policy of sending weapons only to Baghdad, which then distributes them to the Kurds and other militias. Instead, the Kurds want all guns, bombs, ammo and vehicles delivered directly to them.

“To keep policymakers apprised of their progress on the battlefield, the KRG has a sophisticated network of lobbyists, which has included former congressional staffers, members, government officials and political strategists,” FP reported, noting that the KRG liaison office, set up as a nonprofit, had a $1.6 million budget in 2013 — the most recent year for which filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act are available.

Rahman wouldn’t tell us how much her Washington mission is spending this year, though she did say “we really appreciate the bipartisan support we have” on Capitol Hill.

“Perhaps it’s because Americans like to help people who help themselves,” she noted, as two young men — Alex Ebsary, the KRG mission’s director of public affairs, and Ayal Frank of Qorvis Communications — took notes. “We have huge financial problems, but we also have get-up-and-go, and a vision for what we want. We see ourselves as friends and allies of the United States. You walk the streets of Kurdistan and people will tell you how much they love Americans.”

Nevertheless, Rahman is clearly frustrated with the Obama administration.

“The U.S. government is very much tied to the one-Iraq policy,” she said rather delicately, “and sometimes the way that is interpreted, from our perspective, is not very helpful.”

Masters of Their Own Fate

For its part, the U.S. most likely doesn’t view Kurdish moves toward independence as particularly helpful. Washington must tread carefully so as to avoid alienating its KRG allies on the one hand, while supporting the central government in Baghdad on the other.

That balancing act will be tested if the Kurds press forward in their quixotic bid for nationhood. In early February, KRG President Masoud Barzani called for a referendum on self-determination to be held some time in 2016.

“The time has come and the situation is now suitable for the Kurdish people to make a decision through a referendum on their fate,” Barzani said in a statement on his website. “That referendum does not mean proclaiming statehood, but rather to know the will and opinion of the Kurdish people about independence and for the Kurdish political leadership to execute the will of the people at the appropriate time and conditions.”

Rahman reassured us that “it won’t be something that happens overnight. It could be a few years, a decade … or a few decades.” The point, she emphasized, is that the will of the Kurdish people can no longer be denied.

“For the first time, Iraqi Kurds — and Kurds anywhere — will be given a choice to determine their future,” she said. “My guess is the vast majority will vote in favor of independence, and then the Kurdish leadership will have a mandate to negotiate with Baghdad and other countries on the where and when of achieving that. Our aim is to do it through peaceful negotiation. We’re not planning on a war of independence.”

Such a referendum, said Rahman, would be vaguely familiar to the one held in September 2014 on whether Scotland should break away from the United Kingdom (voters said no by a 55-45 margin). Another possible model, she said, is the 1993 “velvet divorce” that divided Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak republics.

Yet redrawing the map of the volatile Middle East is fraught with danger. Dreams of Kurdish independence are a nightmare scenario for the countries that are home to large Kurdish populations, including Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.

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Photo: By Sarchia Khursheed - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Old and new mix in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, as seen in the Family Mall shopping and entertainment center, above, and a qeyseri market bazaar, left.
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Photo: By Adam Jones, Ph.D. - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons

In Syria, Kurdish parties recently floated the idea of declaring a federal region across the northern part of that war-ravaged country. The proposal is likely to be met with fierce resistance from Turkey but might be compatible with U.S. and Russian ideas to eventually carve Syria into autonomous zones.

“The two global powers have backed Kurdish aspirations,” wrote Anne Barnard of the New York Times. “Russia has lately been advocating that Syrian Kurds have a greater role in the Geneva [peace] talks. The United States has supported Iraq’s Kurds for decades and has been arming and offering air support to Kurdish-led Syrian groups to fight against the Islamic State.”

Part of the problem, argues Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, is that the Kurds are not a monolithic entity “in terms of worldview, political goals and relationship to the states in which they live,” he wrote in an online post. “Are the Kurds terrorists, allies in the war against the Islamic State, or a nation in need of a state? The answer is yes to all of these, which makes things extraordinarily difficult for American policymakers.”

For instance, the U.S. agrees with Ankara that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist movement in Turkey that has waged a bloody, decades-long war for self-determination, is a terrorist group. But it disagrees with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the Kurdish political party in Syria is a terrorist offshoot of the PKK.

In Iraq, Rahman said that a KRG referendum on independence should be seen outside the prism of Ankara’s domestic struggle against its own restive Kurdish minority.

“I don’t think an independent Iraqi Kurdish state would come as a surprise to anybody. We’ve been trumpeting it and talking about it, and we’re going to take slow, steady, measured steps toward it. Turkey has come a long way in its perspective on Iraqi Kurdistan as well. In 2008, the Turkish military was ready to invade Iraqi Kurdistan. Within a very short time, all of that changed, and Turkey opened a consulate in Erbil,” she pointed out. “There is now a Kurdish political party, the HDP, represented in the Turkish Parliament. There have been remarkable changes in Turkey. The Kurdish language has been decriminalized, and now private schools are teaching Kurdish.”

Erdogan had indeed made strides integrating the country’s 14 million Kurds, but ever since peace talks fell apart last year, terrorist attacks have been on the rise as Ankara launches an all-out assault on the PKK.

History of Mistrust

Like their brethren in Turkey, the Kurds in Iraq have a long, complicated history with their central government. On March 16, Rahman presided over a Washington ceremony to mark the 28th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical attack on the town of Halabja and surrounding villages that killed more than 5,000 people — mostly women and children.

Tens of thousands of people died during the Sunni strongman’s brutal suppression of the Kurds. While things have certainly improved for the Kurds since the U.S.-led invasion, the KRG’s relations with the Shiite government in Baghdad remain strained as the two sides tussle over land and resources.

“We hear sometimes from our friends in Baghdad that they just want to be rid of us, that we’re a thorn in the side. But you can’t deny a people their will forever. We’ve been denied that will since the creation of Iraq,” Rahman told us. “We’ve suffered repeated acts of genocide. Just a few days ago, chemical weapons were used again, this time by ISIS. And our economy has been completely neglected at best, and decimated at worst.

“Kurdistan’s economy is in dire straits,” she continued. “We can’t borrow easily on the international markets. The World Bank has given Iraq $1.2 billion, and under our agreement, Kurdistan is entitled to a 17.5 percent share of Iraq’s budget. Currently, we’re getting zero.”

That’s because of an unresolved dispute over oil. Mohammed A. Salih, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist writing for the Middle East Institute, said in an analysis that when oil prices were at their peak in 2012 and 2013, the KRG was getting around $13 billion a year from Baghdad. But things started to change in November 2013, when the KRG signed a “strategic” deal with Turkey to export Kurdish oil and gas there for the next 50 years.

Iraq’s then-prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, retaliated by suspending the KRG’s budget share in February 2014.

“We were in the middle of the election campaign, and bashing the Kurds got him some extra votes,” Rahman argued. “He was punishing us pre-emptively because we dared to think about exporting oil.”

Salih, however, also blames the KRG for economic mismanagement and corruption. Now, Iraq’s Kurds are struggling to pay the salaries of their bloated public sector. Salih says “there is little common ground upon which the KRG and Baghdad can re-establish” relations, whether or not Kurdish Iraq declares independence.

“The Kurdish attitude toward Baghdad is shaped by a deep sense of mistrust and they are determined to maintain their current degree of autonomy, including full control over their energy resources,” he said.

One key problem, Salih added, is the lack of incentives for either side to compromise.

“For as long as oil prices are low, Baghdad has little incentive to take the KRG’s oil and pay it an amount that is more than the KRG’s oil output. However, if oil prices recover, the KRG will have little incentive to hand its precious oil to Baghdad because selling oil above $50 per barrel will be enough to cover the KRG’s costs. Whether or not they achieve formal independence, the Kurds will do their utmost to run their own affairs as independently from Baghdad as possible.”

In the meantime, however, the Kurds’ most immediate concern is fending off the Islamic State — and, in the process, helping Baghdad kick the Islamist extremist group out of Iraq. That’s why the KRG has no intention of making the referendum a major issue.

“Right now, the priority is ISIS — fighting it, defeating it and pushing it out of Iraq. But let’s say we are independent or in a confederation,” Rahman said. “We’re already having to think ahead. Now, we can’t even buy weapons because end-user certificates issued by the KRG are often not recognized.”

She said that while the Islamic State is “no longer able to launch those spectacular, massive attacks that it did at the beginning, when it rampaged through parts of Iraq and Kurdish areas like Sinjar, they still attack the Peshmerga. They mine everywhere they go. Everything is booby-trapped. A lot of our casualties have been from IEDs and mines.”

Once the Islamic State is defeated and world oil prices go back up, however, Rahman said attention will again focus on Kurdistan’s ultimate political status.

“The Iraqi binational state was created on the premise of a partnership between Kurds and Arabs, and we’ve always been on the losing end of that partnership,” she complained.

“We face different paths ahead. One is complete independence. Another is for Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq to be in a confederation,” she suggested. “The two would be sovereign states with parity, but they could have a military pact to defend each other and hold joint cabinet meetings.”

As to the idea that eventual Kurdish independence would trigger the breakup of Iraq into three states — a Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish state — Rahman retorted that “Iraq is already broken” — but that the Kurds didn’t break it.

“I don’t know what’ll happen with the Sunni part of Iraq. Some Sunnis want their part of Iraq to be identified as a region. Others don’t want that, and dream of going back to the old days. The problem is that the Sunnis are fragmented, and so far they haven’t really had a coherent, shared vision,” she said. “We have done our best to keep Iraq together, but Iraq is broken. So let’s deal with that.”


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on April 8, 2016