Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Post-Referendum Iraq - Is there a positive way forward?

The suspense is over. Voters in Iraq’s 3 Kurdish majority provinces, comprising the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), supported conclusively – 93% - the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq.  Having chosen independence, what’s next for Iraq’s Kurds?  What type of scenarios can we envision, especially in light of the widespread hostility to the independence project?  Is there a positive way forward?

The backlash
Clearly the enthusiasm with which Iraq’s Kurds welcomed the referendum’s results was not shared by the rest of Iraq or neighboring states. In response, the Iraqi government immediately banned trucks with KRG license plates from entering Baghdad.  While domestic flights are not affected, the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority closed KRG airspace to foreign commercial carriers. Only aircraft carrying emergency supplies can now land at those facilities.  Iran had already closed its airspace to KRG flights prior to the referendum.

The Federal Government is threatening to take over operations of the border crossings into the KRG from Turkey and Iran.  Iraq’s Chamber of Deputies (with Kurdish delegates boycotting) has voted to ask Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to send troops to the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.  Turkey and Iran have threatened military action, either individually, or in concert with Iraqi forces.

Meanwhile, in a somewhat surreal fashion, the Iraqi Army, KRG Pesh Merga forces, and Shica militias (al-Hashad al-Shacbi) are involved in a full-scale attack on one of the Dacish’s last strongholds in Iraq, the town of al-Hawija and its surrounding area, in contested Kirkuk Province.

Fearing that he would be viewed as a weak leader, Haydar al-Abadi has used tough talk with the KRG.  He has not only closed KRG airspace and threatened to place border crossings in the KRG under Federal Government control, but he has demanded that the KRG annul the referendum results before Baghdad will begin any serious discussion of the crisis.

Tough talk in Baghdad may help Prime Minister al-Abadi retain his popularity, thereby fostering his re-election chances next April.  However, it will not force the Kurds to the bargaining table.  Such behavior will only anger the Kurds and solidify support in the KRG for an independent state.  When former Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, sought to intimidate Pesh Merga forces in 2012 near the town of Khanaqin, his efforts did little but produce a tirade of mutual recriminations and ultimately a military standoff.
Moving forward – the need for immediate steps
In the immediate term, the main threat which the referendum poses is the outbreak of armed conflict. An effort by Iraqi troops to enter Kirkuk, for example, would without doubt precipitate a battle which would be in neither side’s interest.  Thus, time is of the essence in preventing the use of military force.

First and foremost, the United States, considered the most respected interlocutor by both the al-Abadi government and the KRG, should move quickly to place military and civilian observers on the ground near possible fault lines dividing Baghdad and Erbil. Preferably, to offset an exclusive “American imprint,” the US should try and convince UN and/or EU observers to supplement American personnel in its efforts to minimize the outbreak of violence. 

Second, the US, UN, EU and reliable allies, such as Jordan, and possibly Kuwait, need to encourage the KRG to commit to not seeking to translate the results of the referendum into action. On the Arab side, Prime Minister al-Abadi should drop demands that the results be annulled. On the KRG side, it should agree to a 3 year period in which no independent state will be declared. Baghdad should then reciprocate by reopening Kurdish airspace and not seek to assume control of crossings along the KRG borders.

Military incentives
To achieve its desired outcomes, not just for its own national interests but for those of the international community as well, the US needs to exercise the considerable power – military, diplomatic and economic - at its disposal. Notwithstanding the excellent performance of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Forces (CTF) and many Pesh Merga units, US military training and targeted bombing and air support were equally critical in the defeat of the Dacish in Mosul and Tal Afar.

The Iraqi Army continues to be dependent on US training and weaponry, and Prime Minister al-Abadi wants to retain a US military presence to offset Iran's military and political influence exercised through the Shica militias it funds.  The US should offer to create a joint Arab-Kurdish military force which would be trained in he use of state-of-the-art US weapons and be supervised by US military officers.

The KRG has consistently pressured the US to provide the Pesh Merga with advanced weaponry, including tanks.  However, the US should make clear to both Erbil and Baghdad that the price of such weapons is the maintenance of a highly trained and professional force comprised of Iraqi Army and Pesh Merga troops. In the effort to create an esprit de corps, the US should offer training for officers in the new military unit in the US, as well as in Iraq.

If after the proposed 3 year period designed to take immediate independence off the table, the cross-ethnic force was unsuccessful, the advanced weaponry would revert to American ownership.  A cross-ethnic force was created prior to 2011 when US forces occupied Iraq and had some success.  Interviews I conducted with Kurdish officers who served in the Iraqi conscript army before Saddam’s toppling in 2003 indicated that their relations with fellow Arab officers were cordial.

What would be the incentive of both the al-Abadi government and the KRG to agree to the creation of such a force?  Aside from the access to advanced weaponry, and training in the ability to effectively use it, the US – hopefully with Canada and EU partners – would simultaneously offer major economic incentives to both sides to increase the probability that the force had time to congeal and establish itself.

Both sides would receive state-of the art military hardware, ongoing training in its use, and access to foreign aid and loans.  The Federal and KRG governments could use these funds to rebuild cities and areas devastated by the war against the Dacish, develop needed infrastructure projects, e.g., repair aging dams, and begin to diversify their economies.  Both the Arab and Kurdish economies are dependent for well over 90% of their revenues from hydrocarbon sales. Neither side views this dependence as economically healthy, especially with a global economy seeking to reduce its carbon footprint and thus the use of oil.

Who would cover the costs of this initiative?  Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states realize that Iran will seek to exploit the ongoing crisis between Arab Iraq and the KRG.  Recently, Saudi Arabia reestablished diplomatic relations with Iraq and is increasing its commercial and financial ties as well.  This is just one indicator of how the Kingdom seeks to use its wealth to offset the Iranian presence in Iraq.

The US should seek to establish an Iraq Development Fund which would draw upon resources from the US, EU states, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states.  Not only do all parties want to minimize Iran’s ability to exploit the Baghdad-Erbil conflict, but they also want to maintain the military coalition which is needed to defeat the Dacish in Iraq and Syria and prevent it from reestablishing a presence in the two countries.  Certainly the IMF and the World Bank could be asked to contribute to the effort of building the proposed development fund as well.

The disputed territories
The problem of the disputed territories, which according to Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, should have been solved over 10 years ago, continues to be a point of serious contention between Baghdad and Erbil.  In a excellent article in The Atlantic Magazine, Joost Hilterman, Program Director for the MENA Region of the International Crisis Group, offered the suggestion that the United Nations be allowed to complete a study of the disputed territories which was never brought to a conclusion.  Having a neutral party such as the UN conduct such a study could lay the basis for elections in the disputed areas and a peaceful solution to the problem.(http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=30553#.WdOcEFtSzRZ)

Human resource training
The US should work to develop the human resources of the Federal Government and the KRG.  Years ago, Azim Premji, the founder of the Indian high tech giant, Wipro, a Muslim and the richest man in India, hired Arab engineers to work at his corporation’s headquarters in Bangaluru (Bangalore).  As he noted in an interview with Thomas Friedman, these efforts were designed not only to enhance the engineers’ technical skills but to offset the Islamist radicalism which has had an ideological attraction for  many Arab engineers and natural scientists.

Drawing upon the resources of states like India, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, the US should create teams of Arab and Kurdish engineers, scientists and physicians to receive advanced training in these countries.  To enhance efforts such as those of Prime Minister al-Abadi and KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani to fight corruption, these teams should include accountants, budget specialists and police officers. Talabani has already sought to use bio-metric technology to combat corruption in the KRG, including eliminating so-called “ghost salaries.”

The US should also work with American universities to bring teams of Arabs and Kurds from Iraq to study conflict resolution in law schools and departments of criminal justice and at the many renowned centers in the US specializing in this important topic. The cost of scholarships to fund this initiative could be shouldered by the Department of Education with contributions from American universities and private foundations.

The role of religious clerics and the UNESCO Chair for Islamic Interfaith Diaslgue Studies
One underused resource in both Kurdish and Arab parts of Iraq is the large number of clerics committed to the norms of tolerance and religious dialogue and promoting the peaceful resolution of conflict.  Iraq’s first UNESCO Chair, the UNESCO Chair in Islamic Interfaith Dialogue Studies, co-chaired by Dr. Hassan Nadhem and al-Sayyid Jawad al-Khoei, which is located at the University of Kufa and the al-Khoei Institute in al-Najaf, have held numerous conference and workshops. Members of all faiths and sects who have attended these events have produced important insights into how religion can be used to promote peace and national reconciliation.(http://chair.uokufa.edu.iq/5807/)

Cultural initiatives in Iraq
Iraqi youth, with whom I’ve had the privilege to work, have developed important organizations which include members of all Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities. Prime Minister al-Abadi has already established a fund for promoting efforts by Iraqi youth to develop civil society organizations.

This fund should become a joint effort between the Baghdad and Erbil governments and the appropriate foreign organizations, which already have had an imprint in assisting youth in Iraq, such as the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, USAID and the United Nations Fund for Democracy. A coalition, of entities, Iraqi and foreign which seek to assist Iraqi youth, 70% of the population under the age of 30,  should add funds and program officers to promote the process of engaging Arab and Kurdish youth to become more active in social affairs.  It should not be lost on us that Iraqi youth – Arab and Kurds – constitute the “generation in waiting,” namely the future leaders of Iraq.

A process begun by Saddam Ba'thist regime, for all the wrong reasons, sent Shica youth to the Kurdish majority provinces in the summer and brought Kurdish youth to the Arab south.  Using summer camps, not for political indoctrination, but to promote inter-cultural understanding would be an excellent idea requiring a minimal amount of funds.  These camps should be established in the KRG.  During the intensely hot Iraqi summers, Arab youth would be delighted to spend time in the KRG, with its cooler temperatures.
The author with Min Washington host Abderrahim Foukara
and Dr. Bilal Abdel Wahab
What the Kurds will lose if they declare an independent state
During al-Jazerra Arabic’s Min Washington (From Washington), on Friday, September 29th, I pointed out that the Kurds have much to lose if they declare an independent state.  Iraq is the only Arab state to have a Kurdish president, Fuad Masu (who followed another Kurd as president, Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan).  It also has 7 ministers in the Federal Government and 72 delegates in the Chamber of Delegates (the national parliament). Iraq is the only Arab country to have had an army chief-of-staff, General Babakir Shawkat Zebari, who occupied the post from 2005 – 2015.

Clearly, the Kurds will forfeit all political influence in Baghdad if they establish an independent state.  Many would argue that they can do better in achieving their goals of an economically and culturally vibrant Iraqi Kurdistan by remaining within the Federal Republic

Dangers posed by independence
Over a million Kurds are estimated to live in Baghdad alone.  Kurds live in many other parts of Arab Iraq as well.  Might some of this population be forced to leave for the KRG if it declares an independent state?  Most Kurds in the south know Arabic but not Kurdish.  Would the new state welcome this burden, when it already is confronting a huge refugee population following the struggle against the Dacish?

Former KRG PM Barham Salih
The KRG depends on investment from Arab countries, particularly those of the Arab Gulf.  Former KRG Prime Minister and Iraqi Federal Government Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, has proposed an enterprise zone in the city of Basra, near the Persian Gulf and Iraq’s (and the KRG's) only port.  This enterprise zone would seek to attract foreign industry and Arab Gulf investment. That plan would contribute greatly to the KRG’s economic development.  It will not happen if an independent state is established.

The Salih proposal would make the KRG less dependent on Turkey and Iran which are hostile to their own Kurdish populations and to the KRG.  Do Iraq’s Kurds want to throw their lot in with Turkey and Iran or the Federal Government (with Kurdish members in the national government) in the south?

Could an independent Kurdish state split in two? An idea has been proposed, apparently by Kirkuk Governor, Najmadin Karim, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to divide the new Kurdish state in two.  The PUK would be given the areas in the KRG already under its control and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.  This maneuver would be designed to reduce the power and access to oil revenues of KRG President Masoud Barzani (who has occupied the presidential office illegally for the past 2 years) and reduce his power and that of the party he and his family control, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)

Given the armed conflict between the KDP and PUK during the 1990s, which the US was forced to resolve, do Iraq’s Kurds want to enter these potentially dangerous uncharted waters?

Finally, there is no doubt that Turkey and Iran will do everything possible to undermine the ability of the independent Kurdish state to sustain itself.  Could an independent state survive under these conditions given the trade and smuggling which currently characterizes the KRG’s economic relations with these two states?  Add an Arab investment boycott, and the economic viability of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq becomes even more doubtful.

The Parti Quebecois controlled the political loyalties and emotions of the Quebecois for many years.  Today with the economic progress of Quebec, and true cultural respect of French speaking Canadians by the central government in Ottawa, cries for an independent Quebec state have all but disappeared.

In Iraq, cultural autonomy within Iraq, including taking the teaching of Kurdish seriously in all Iraq’s schools – in the north and south – and meaningful economic progress can assure Iraq’s Kurds of a future which can meet all their material and cultural needs.