House of Kurds
On Wednesday, the Middle East Institute hosted a talk by Hemin Hawrani, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Leadership Council and the head of its foreign relations office, entitled Dynamics in Iraqi Kurdistan. Randa Slim (director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at The Middle East Institute and an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation) moderated. Hawrani gave a comprehensive presentation about the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s role in the fight against ISIS, Iraqi Kurdistan’s prospects for independence, and internal KRG politics.
Hawrani asserted that the war against ISIS will be lengthy because ISIS is the symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The KRG has a three- phase strategy to counter ISIS:
1. Stop ISIS- this has been accomplished on the ISIS-KRG front.
2. Roll back ISIS- this has been largely accomplished on the ISIS-KRG front, as the Peshmerga have liberated 20,000 km2 from ISIS control.
3. Defeat and destroy ISIS- Still a long way off. Over 1,200 Peshmerga have died in this fight. ISIS continues to gain ground on other fronts. ISIS has managed to almost fully replenish its killed fighters with new recruits.
Hawrani stated that the KRG is a reliable partner in the fight against ISIS, but they need more assistance because ISIS outguns them. The fighting is different that the Peshmerga has encountered in the past because the majority of casualties are from IEDs and suicide bombers. The Peshmerga need more armored personnel carriers, tanks, and high power rifles. They only have 40 MRAPs but need approximately 400 to deploy their forces. They also need transport aircraft, as well as advisory support to modernize their forces. The KRG needs direct arms shipments to avoid delays in Baghdad as well as more help supporting 2 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Baghdad, Hawrani said, is doing little to help. Iraq is broken and cannot go back to the pre-2014 situation. The KRG supported Abadi to be Prime Minister for all Iraqis and concluded an agreement with him to receive a portion of Iraq’s budget in exchange for oil from Kirkuk. Baghdad has not kept its side of the agreement, or its promises to Sunni Arabs. Baghdad claims it lacks cash, but it has money for the Shi’ite PMUs. Baghdad must either commit to helping the KRG or not interfere with the KRG.
Hawrani stated that the independence for Iraqi Kurdistan is a process and that it will happen. The KRG plans to hold an independence referendum for all citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan (Kurds and others) in the next couple of years. The options posed by the referendum will include:
1. A fully independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
2. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan in a confederation with Iraq.
3. The status quo.
The Kurds will discuss independence with Baghdad before any other capitals because they want to pursue this amicably. The KRG seeks to reassure Ankara and Tehran that their desire for independence is not a threat. The KRG does not have a pan-Kurdish agenda and seeks a peaceful, internal solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey and Iran.
The KRG has done its part to be part of a pluralistic Iraq, but the Iraqi state has failed and Kurds no longer want to be part of an uncertain future. Even a fully independent Iraqi Kurdistan would not fully break with Iraq because there would still be economic and defense ties. There might also be a shared currency and shared oil resources. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan would add to the number of functioning states in the region. A referendum will also be held in Kirkuk and other disputed areas to determine if they want to join Iraqi Kurdistan. Hawrani stated that the capture of Kirkuk and other areas is not territorial expansion because the Iraqi Army abandoned these areas.
With regard to internal KRG politics, Hawrani said that the KDP (his and President Barzani’s party ) is on the same page as its rival, the PUK, with regard to ISIS. The KDP has proposed three solutions to the dispute regarding the duration of Barzani’s presidency:
1. Barzani could serve for four more years and hold an independence referendum during this period.
2. Barzani could serve until the end of the current parliament’s term in 2017, at which point there will be elections for both the presidency and parliament.
3. The government could resign and call for early elections.
Hawrani also spoke about KRG policy vis-a-vis the Syrian Kurds (PYD). The KRG does not wish to interfere in Syrian Kurdish affairs or copy and paste Iraqi Kurdistan’s experience onto Syria. Its main stipulation is that Syria’s Kurds act in a unified fashion. The KRG and PYD had agreed that there would be a unified force of all Syrian Kurds and a unified political administration. The PYD has not abided by these terms.