Our Partner Magazine Distilled interviewed Renad Mansour, Ph.D candidate at Pembroke College (University of Cambridge) and assistant research director at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. The interview was taken by Bram De Ridder on the 25th of March .This Article first appeared on distilledmagazine.com.
On 19 March 2003, now 10 years ago, the United States and Britain started their war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Preceded by massive airstrikes, the first troops already crossed the border of Southern Iraq by the next day. From there on they rushed towards Baghdad, which fell on the 9th of April, allowing President Bush to declare on the 1st of May ‘the end of major combat operations’. As we all know now, this confident declaration only signalled the beginning of the real fight for the coalition troops.
But besides the surge through southern Iraq, another front was opened during the opening period of the war. One week after the start of the invasion, American units were dropped into Northern Iraq where they prevented Iraqi troops from reinforcing the south. In their fight, they met with an often unmentioned ally: the Iraqi Kurds, who had been de facto independent since the 1991 Gulf War. With Turkey refusing to aid the coalition, the Kurds rose to the occasion and captured the important town of Kirkuk one day after the fall of Baghdad. But since then, the fate of these people got buried under the stream of bad news relating to the widespread chaos that ensued following the first months of the war.
Today however, Distilled Extra poses the question about the Kurdish role and position within Iraq. They were involved in the largest war so far fought in the 21st century, and due to their position on the borders with Turkey, Syria, and Iran they remain very much a part of regional high politics. Reason enough for us to speak to Renad Mansour, Ph.D student at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, and assistant research director at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. As his doctoral research focuses on the question of Iraqi federalism and the Kurdish attempt to draft a separate foreign policy, Mr. Mansour was able to draw a clear picture of their often forgotten influence.
Although the Iraqi Kurds were participants from the start, their role was far from predetermined before the beginning of the actual fighting. In early 2003, the international community was radically divided over the American plans for invasion and according to Mansour the Kurds also pondered about the course they should follow. ‘Saddam Hussein was a great antagonist to their national struggle, which came to genocide in the 1980s. So although they had achieved de facto independence under the no-fly zone since 1991, coming up to the war in 2003 the Kurds obviously would rather not have a Saddam in power. But they were also worried. First and foremost they did not want to lose the protectorate they had established in the previous decade, which seemed to be jeopardized by the American plans for a reunified Iraq. They did not want to be put again under some sort of Arab government’.
Although this initial fear even led to some talks with Saddam Hussein, the Kurds ultimately decided to get involved with the Americans as soon as the invasion plans became concrete. ‘Very quickly they became aware of the fact that it would be better for them to take charge of the process, and to direct it to their interests’. And those interests meant that they would follow a strategy of federalism rather than independence. ‘A decentralized Iraq with a weak Baghdad was the objective’, confirms Mansour, ‘and it was this idea of federalism that the Kurdish leaders defended at the pre-war meetings of the Iraqi opposition in London and New York’.
The next big step for the Iraqi Kurds was of course the invasion itself. And here an important factor was the Turkish decision not to support the plans of the Bush administration, which allowed the Kurds to come to the fore. ‘The Turks were not going to be allowed to go into Kurdistan’, says Mansour, ‘meaning that the Americans had to come themselves. What happened next was that when the US troops did go into Iraq, the Kurds were already there, prepared to fight along with them’. This led to joint operations, supported by a very cooperative attitude from the Kurdish leaders. Key example of this was their position regarding Kirkuk, a much disputed city which was returned to an Arab administration as soon as the Americans made the demand.
‘Basically, the strategy at that point was to use their new-found alliance with America as well as the erupted antagonism between the US and Turkey to gain leverage’ states Mansour, ‘ and during this period of rearrangement they strongly benefited from the fact that they were the only group that was decently organized, bringing in experts such as former US diplomat Peter Galbraith and Professor Karel Soltan to lobby on their behalf’.The objective was to get as much as possible out of the political scheme that was soon to be drafted, and much of the results of this tactic can be seen in the 2005 Iraqi constitution. ‘Kurdistan has a lot of autonomy, its own foreign policy and taxation, and the Iraqi army is forbidden to enter the region. They are as autonomous as a region can get’.
But as time progressed, it became also important that Kurdistan managed to survive Iraq’s descent into chaos rather unharmed. ‘It remained a relatively stable region, and keep in mind that since 1991 they were governing their own affairs. There was a group related to Al-Qaeda, Ansar-al-Islam, but regional anti-terrorism units quickly kicked them out’. This stability also came with major advantages, as it allowed the Kurds to use the problems of other parts of the country to their advantage: ‘When the Sunni and the Shia were fighting in Baghdad, the Kurds were ready to be kingmakers’.
To some extent however, these successes backfired after 2010. ‘The Arabs in the country simply saw it as too much. If you look at oil for example, which is a national resource according to the constitution, the Kurds have invited international companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Gazprom and Total to exploit their own regional oilfields. Even though Baghdad has explained to these companies that this is illegal’. Such actions led to a reaction from the Arabs of Iraq as a whole, which was nevertheless not directed against federalism as such, but much more against the fact that if it were allowed to progress too far in favour of any actor it threatened the very cohesion of the country.
And yet, Kurds and Arabs have found themselves together in a different struggle. ‘The big issue in Iraq now is the rise of a new despotic power in Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Interestingly enough, this has brought together a cross-ethnic alliance organised by influential Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish leaders to go against him’. And according to Mansour, the Kurds for their part are mainly involved in this because they do not wish to see a new threat arise against their autonomy: ‘They do not want Iraq to have a strong leader’.
Added to the issue of Baghdad centralism is the Kurdish dependency on federal money, with 90% of the resources of the Kurdish Regional Government coming from the capital. ‘This has prompted them to find alternative economic arrangements, one of which is the idea of a pipeline from Turkey through Kurdistan’. So all in all, it seems that after a very advantageous period Kurdistan is increasingly involved in a game of careful balancing between the different forces in the country.
Moving to another field, there is the observation that the Iraqi Kurds are connected to more issues than the national ones. Coupled to their national engagement is the fact that they are playing a proactive role in international politics, and Mansour believes they do so much more than before. ‘In the 1990s they were entirely dependent on the US and the UN as an external guarantor. At least security-wise they can handle their own territory now, and this has allowed them to be more involved in Baghdad politics’. But still, American protection is very much welcome, which has led them to offer the US a permanent base near the Iranian border, although this idea was contested within Kurdistan itself.
The general attitude towards the Iranians seems indeed very hard to describe, as it is fuelled by the antagonism between Tehran and Ankara: ‘There are different segments within Iraqi Kurdistan that have different relations with their eastern neighbour. Iran is a trading partner and some Kurdish Islamist parties have close connections with the country, but other groups are more closely related to Turkey. As a whole, Iraq is becoming a country where these two countries have some sort of a middle-eastern Cold War, and you can observe this as well in Kurdistan’.
Regarding their western frontier and the Syrian civil war, Mansour stresses that there are many foreign policies in Iraq and that the Kurds are only one of the groups that have tried to formulate one of their own. Important for them however is that they have to consider their relatives across the Syrian border, which have been granted a lot more autonomy as Bashar al-Assad wanted to retaliate against Turkish critiques. ‘The consequence was that both Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds now work together to reformat the political program of the Syrian Kurds to one of nonviolence, including a renouncement of PKK strategies. And as long as they do that they will be fine’.
But of course, it is impossible to predict how the situation will evolve for the Iraqi Kurds. It are uncertain times for everyone involved in Iraq and pessimism prevails in European and North-American media. But according to Mansour, there are signs of hope: ‘The picture of Iraq right now is very grim, and is hard to see, at least in the near future, some shift towards democratic governance. But that is not to say it is a complete disaster, and when you talk to many Iraqis they know that the system is corrupt but there is also some optimism, much more than in the West. And they have to be optimistic: not for nothing Iraq has a history of cross-ethnic relations’.