Articles - January 2018

Between Identity, Power & Autonomy

By James A. Winship, Ph.D.


The question itself conjures thoughts of J.M. Barrie's "Neverland," where Peter Pan and the Lost Boys never grow up, or Lewis Carroll's "Wonderland," which Alice discovers when she falls down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world of inverse relationships where language and interactions constantly fold back upon themselves in the most confusing, and revealing, ways. Such beguiling riddles seem more the province of children's literature than the stuff of real world diplomacy, however.

Ironically, this confusing, revealing state of affairs is precisely the dilemma faced by the Kurdish people in the world of international relations, where the central actors are sovereign nation-states. Note the hyphen. Kurdistan is a very real place. The Kurds are an identifiable nation, a people with a unique history, language and customs, and a military presence to be reckoned with on the battlefield of the Middle East. But, that telltale hyphen demarcates a critical reality: not all nations are sovereign states.

That realization has a corollary in international relations: most states are multinational. Their populations often include people from several different national, cultural and linguistic traditions. Yet, at the heart of international relations, the principle of self-determination has taken hold: included among Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points as World War I came to an end; reiterated in the Atlantic Charter adopted by Roosevelt and Churchill in the early days of World War II; and now enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

Despite its diplomatic pedigree, the principle of selfdetermination has been inconsistently applied. Even as "self-determination" has been an intellectual and rhetorical North Star of diplomatic policy statements, political realities have often dictated that not all aspirations to statehood and sovereignty can honored lest the geopolitical map be turned into a mosaic of fragmented loyalties, internecine conflicts, and untenable economies.

This soft definition of self-determination has created the morass of uncertainty under which the Kurdish population, largely Sunni Muslim but including Shi'a Muslims and other religious identities, has lived throughout most of its modern history. As the map of the Southwest Asia (more commonly referred to as the Middle East) was secretly redrawn by the British and French during World War I, in what became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), the Kurds were not granted selfdetermination, leaving them spread across not only northern Iraq, but Syria, Turkey and Iran as well. That formula has persisted for more than a century and has left the Kurds without a sovereign state and with long-standing grievances against the regimes that have governed them.

Ms. Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman is the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq's "ambassador" in Washington, D.C. She functions just as any other diplomatic envoy might, but Ms. Abdul Rahman cannot hold the official title of "Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary" because she does not represent a sovereign nation-state. Instead, her formal title is "Kurdistan Regional Government Representative to the United States."

Though she was born in Baghdad, much of Ms. Abdul Rahman's childhood was spent fleeing the violence of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Her parents briefly found refuge in Iran before moving the family to London in 1976. "I was raised in London from the age of eleven. On the surface," she recalls, "I had a very British upbringing. All of my friends were British. We lived in a very leafy green middle-class suburb of London."

"Yet at home I heard about the suffering of our people. My father was a political and a military leader. My grandfather was a political activist and a strong advocate to preserve Kurdish identity. In that atmosphere, you grow up with the realization that your language is denied, your culture is denied and that just being Kurdish is controversial."

"I grew up with politics in my blood, but I did not see a role for myself in Kurdish politics while I was growing up." Instead, after completing a history degree at London University, Ms. Abdul Rahman built a career in journalism. "For me, journalism was the other side of the coin to politics. I spent 17 years as a journalist in London, and for some time I was also based in Tokyo as a correspondent for the Financial Times."

"In 2004, my father, who was Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and my brother were killed in a suicide bombing in Erbil. That ugly reality solidified my determination to focus on the Kurdish cause. When I was invited to be the representative of the KRG in London that is what I chose to do. London was my first diplomatic posting. After ten years there, I was posted to Washington in 2015."

In the midst of enflamed conflict between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi central government, non-stop meetings with members of Congress and representatives of the Trump Administration as well as Washington foreign policy think tanks, Ms. Abdul Rahman was kind enough to make time to help us understand Kurdistan's situation.

Diplomatic Connections: Events are unfolding very quickly in Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan at the moment. With that in mind, could you explain the international political status of Kurdistan today? What does it mean to be a "semi-autonomous Iraqi region?"

Ms. Abdul Rahman: The Kurdistan Region in Iraq has effectively been autonomous and self-ruling since the first Gulf War in 1991, when the United States intervened to expel Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait. As part of that effort, the United States, the United Kingdom and France under UN Security Council Resolution 688 established two "No-Fly Zones": one over the north of Iraq to protect the Kurds and one in the south to protect Shiite Muslims. It was the establishment of that "No-Fly Zone" that provided the security space for the development of a functionally autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq with substantial assistance from the United States.

The Kurdistan Region became officially recognized as autonomous after a 2005 referendum on the new Iraqi constitution. That document recognizes that the Kurdistan Region has a lawful and constitutional status in a federated Iraq with its own parliament, government, a president, a Prime Minister and Cabinet, and a military force – the Peshmerga. We have 14 representations overseas, including the one in Washington, D.C.

Diplomatic Connections: As we sit here in your office for this interview, you have both the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi flags side by side.

Ms. Abdul Rahman: Yes, of course. As a federated region within Iraq we fly the Iraqi flag, but we also fly our own regional flag. In the U.S., when I'm in California I see the "Stars and Stripes" of the flag of the United States, but I also see the flag of California. I do not think there is an issue about that for us.

Diplomatic Connections: Given the way events have unfolded, has Iraqi Kurdistan enjoyed a good deal more autonomy than the Iraqi constitution might originally have envisaged?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: I don't know about that. We believe that we are operating within the Iraqi constitution. There are accusations flying around left and right about who has violated the constitution. From our perspective, there are 55 articles of the Iraqi constitution that have been violated by Baghdad. Of course, Baghdad has its accusations against the Kurdistan Region.

Actually, the Iraqi constitution of 2005 on the whole is a very good document. It is the social contract by which we all live, or by which we are all supposed to live. Unfortunately, it has not been adhered to. If it had been adhered to, we would not be where we are today.

Diplomatic Connections: Who are the Kurds and what is their story?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: The Kurds are a distinct people. We have our own language, customs, heritage, history, geography. The exact number of Kurds in the Middle East is unknown. We estimate that in Iraq there are about 7 million Kurds. In Syria there are possibly three million. In Iran there are 10-12 million.

In Turkey the number is very large; estimates range from 15-25 million. The range is very wide because many Kurds in Turkey don't live in the southeast, which is the Kurdish area. One to two million Kurds live in Istanbul, for example. So many Kurds have been exiled over the decades that Europe probably has 1 million Kurds spread around various countries. In North America there are 50,000-100,000 Kurds.

Diplomatic Connections: Diplomacy uses the technical term nation-state. The Kurds are by all measures an identifiable nation. But, the Kurds are a nation that has never had a state. How and why has that happened?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: That is the central question and the security dilemma of Kurdish existence.

If you go back in history, the Medes are the ancestors of the Kurds. The Medes were an ancient Indo-European people who lived in the region known as Media in what is the present-day Kurdistan and northwest Iran.

The Medes merged with the Persian Empire. But, at a later time, Kurdistan was divided between the Ottoman and the Persian Empires. At the end of the First World War, the world powers redrew the map of the Middle East in order to break up the defeated Ottoman Empire.

Diplomatic Connections: That was the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and the United Kingdom which drew the modern boundaries of the Middle East, created several new countries that crossed cultural divides, and designated these new territories as either British and French spheres of influence?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: Correct. When the Ottoman Empire was broken up the Kurdish nation was divided among four countries – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, those countries ended up being authoritarian or dictatorships.

Our history in those four countries has not been a happy one. Despite promises by the European powers that divided up the Middle East, the Kurds ended up being a subjugated minority in each of those countries. Our story over the last century has been one of cruelty, violence and silence from the outside world.

Diplomatic Connections: How would you characterize the working relationship between the KRG and the United States over the last two decades?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: The United States and the Kurdistan Region have had a good relationship since 1991-92. At that time, there was an uprising against Saddam Hussein which, unfortunately, he was able to counter because he still had weapons and control of the military. Millions of people fled to the borders of Iran and Turkey, and many died of exposure and disease along the way.

At that point, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Turkey and others intervened to provide humanitarian assistance. "Operation Provide Comfort" was the largest and most successful humanitarian military operation up to that time. It forged a very strong relationship between the Kurdistan region and the United States.

Diplomatic Connections: From that point on the relationship with the United States continued to deepen?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: We fell into a civil war in the 1990s. The United States played an instrumental role brokering a ceasefire and restoring peace between the two sides. In 2003, when the United States liberated Iraq, we were grateful for this liberation because it meant that finally we were out of the reach of the dictator and that Saddam Hussein's regime was finished.

Again, in 2014, the United States came to our assistance when ISIS had attacked Sinjar and was about to attack Erbil. In that case, President Obama ordered airstrikes against the ISIS attackers in an effort to protect the Yazidi people and the Kurdistan Regional Government. The military force of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Peshmerga, was also instrumental in fighting against the Islamic State [ISIS] and protecting the Kirkuk oil fields and Mosul dam from ISIS attack.

Diplomatic Connections: How did ISIS enter Iraq and gain control of so much territory?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: ISIS did not come from Mars. It is a creature of Iraq. ISIS attracted foreign fighters to be sure, but it is an Iraqi entity. Why? Because the Sunni community was so disillusioned, so hounded, so subjugated by the Shi'a majority under Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad, that when ISIS came they thought: "Well, what's the difference?" Of course, many subsequently regretted that decision. They realized ISIS was terrible.

ISIS came in and everybody had to defend themselves as ISIS went on the rampage and pursued genocide. The Iraqi Army in Mosul fled. They did not defend the city against ISIS because they were Shi'a, and Mosul is a largely Sunni, Kurdish and Christian area. The situation was life or death for everybody. Everything was suspended while we, the Kurds, fought ISIS.

It was Kurdistan's Peshmerga forces who protected the Mosul dam and Kirkuk. And, the Peshmerga worked together with Iraqi forces to liberate Mosul from ISIS control. Now, the Peshmerga forces have withdrawn from a number of areas disputed between the KRG and the Iraqi central government.

Diplomatic Connections: With ISIS now largely pushed out of the territory it controlled, the Iraqi central government seems to have turned its attention to regaining control of territory, including territory that has been occupied and controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG]. Do you now feel that the status of the KRG itself is threatened?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: Today we are at a crossroads because right now the Iraqi military and the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization have taken over Kirkuk and most of the disputed territories.

Kurdish forces had protected Kirkuk from ISIS, but the status of Kirkuk has long been disputed between the central government and the KRG. Though outside the formal boundaries of the KRG, those boundaries are themselves are in dispute. In fact, Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution stipulates that the future status of Kirkuk should be determined by referendum. But, the central government has repeatedly avoided holding such a referendum.

Diplomatic Connections: The thing that has driven much of the news regarding Kurdistan, even acknowledging the conflicts over territory, was the referendum on independence for the Kurdistan Region that was held at the end of September 2017. What was the presumed goal of staging the referendum?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: As I have said, the countries among which the Kurds were divided all ended up not fully respecting our rights. That is an important realization. The Kurds should not be penalized for wanting independence.

We should also talk about those capitals – Teheran, Damascus, Ankara and Baghdad. It is critical to recognize their conduct and their discrimination toward the Kurdish people. Why have aspirations for Kurdish independence been thwarted? What is it about the actions of these governments that fuels Kurdish aspirations for independence?

Diplomatic Connections: To no one's surprise the outcome of the referendum was overwhelming support for independence from the Iraqi central government. But, the referendum seemed designed to be as challenging and infuriating to the Iraqi central government as possible.

In an attempt to dramatize the cause of Kurdish independence and bring it onto the world stage, did the Kurdistan Regional Government overplay its hand? Or, was the outcome of the referendum intended to be a bargaining chip designed to protect and enhance the autonomy of the Kurdish Regional Government?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: In 2003 when it became apparent that the United States was going to liberate Iraq, we had a choice. And, it was a conversation that our leadership had: "Do we want now to declare independence? Or, do we decide to be part of this new Iraq?"

The decision was made by our leadership to be part of this new Iraq. Our hopes were extremely high that this would be a democratic, federal, secular Iraq that could be "mid-wifed" into the world by the United States and the international coalition supporting its actions in Iraq. Had the Iraqi Constitution been respected, there would not have been a need for a referendum.

Diplomatic Connections: From the Kurdish point of view, what happened after Saddam Hussein was deposed and a new Iraqi Constitution was written?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: What emerged was a Shi'a majority in almost total control of the government without any real attempt to include minority voices or to rule by consent of the governed. The promise of a new Iraq unraveled before our eyes.

That is not a formula for governing a country where you have three main constituencies – Kurds, Shi'a Arabs and Sunni Arabs – who have completely different demands. It is necessary to develop consensus across groups and build core support within each of the groups that are part of the country and whose rights were supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution. The new Iraq did begin with consensus but eventually that disappeared.

Diplomatic Connections: What is happening between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government in the aftermath of the referendum? Is there a fear that instead of an Iraq whole and united the country will simply splinter and fall apart?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: The problem is that all of the issues that existed before ISIS came are still unresolved. The United States, under Obama and now under the Trump administration, has been preoccupied with defeating ISIS. There has been little interest in resolving the fundamental questions of how Iraq will be governed.

We have heard this phrase over and over again, "The United States and the Coalition are laser-focused on defeating ISIS." That sounds laudable. Still, it doesn't address the problems that existed before ISIS came. Ironically, the KRG has been pushed farther and farther away from the core of Iraq.

Diplomatic Connections: What does the Kurdistan Regional Government now expect to happen in the aftermath of the referendum? Is the outcome of the referendum a demand for independence, a plea for protection and continued assistance from the United States and others, or is it a starting place for negotiations with the Iraqi central government?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: The KRG decided that we wanted a referendum on independence so that our people could have their say. Self-determination is enshrined in the United Nations Charter. We made it very clear that the referendum does not lead to a unilateral declaration of independence.

The referendum leads to talks with Baghdad. We talk about everything. We talk about borders, assets, resources, forces. We talk about everything. There was not a designated timeline for these discussions. The situation presents two options. The first option is a war of independence like the United States had in its Revolutionary War against British rule. The second option is to do everything transparently, openly, step-by-step. The KRG chose the latter option.

Diplomatic Connections: From the KRG's point of view, what would be the desired response from the United States?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: We are right now asking two main things.

First, no more violence. Iraq and Kurdistan need the United States right now. The United States has leverage over all of us. The U.S. should use this leverage to prevent any more violence and to block any more encroachment by the Iraqi military and the Iranian-backed militias.

Second, we have been asking the United States and its coalition partners — partners like Britain, France and Germany — to encourage Baghdad to open a dialogue with the Kurdistan region. We have offered a dialogue on an open agenda. We don't have to be talking about the referendum or independence. We are willing to talk about whatever Baghdad wants to talk about.

There are many critical issues that remain outstanding. These talks have started, but we need the United States to encourage everyone that solutions to these issues can be found, if all the parties involved stay the course and commit to continuing negotiations.

Diplomatic Connections: There are multiple political parties and discordant voices within the Kurdistan Region and across the broader Kurdish community, sometimes resulting in deep disagreements. Can these political differences be bridged?

Ms. Abdul Rahman: Disunity has been our Achilles heel but when we have united, we have been unbeatable. The KRG Prime Minister, Nichirvan Barzani, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Qubad Talabani, who represent the two main political parties, are doing their best to bring about unity as we enter this new phase in relations between Kurdistan and Iraq.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you very much for the time and the insights you have given us.


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