Friday, November 04, 2011
By Shwan Zulal
The manner of the US withdrawal from Iraq has been appalling to say the least and greeted with dismay in Kurdistan Region and some parts of Iraq. In the latest survey by Gallup, three out of four American approved Obama's withdrawal from Iraq. Nevertheless, it is not clear what the strategic objective of the withdrawal is, except electioneering and cost cutting.
Apart from changing the balance of power the region by giving Iran a lifeline and freeing the Islamic republic from isolation, which should be the main concern of policy makers in Washington, the withdrawal will have a seismic effect on Iraqi politics.
The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) was taken by surprise when the announcement was made and the scale of the US drawdown became clear. Soon after the announcement, Iraqi provinces raised their voices demanding to become regions while calling for more decentralised Iraq. Waves of arrest took place throughout Iraq targeting the Baathists, which Maliki's government accused them of plotting a coup. In retaliation, the level of violence has increased markedly and possibly escalating further despite the fact that political leaders are calling for calm.
KR (Kurdistan Region), President, Massud Barzani, was quick to visit Iran and seek assurances whilst gauging Tehran's mood. The sound bites after the meeting was positive and it appears that relation between Erbil and Tehran are thawing, much to the annoyance of Washington.
While the security, economic and cultural ties were discussed during Barzani's visit, it is not clear if oil exports and the future of the disputed areas in Iraq was part of the dialogue. KR oil operators are coming onstream rapidly but due to infrastructure limitation and disagreement over payment mechanism with Baghdad, production has remained subdued. Nevertheless, Iran can provide a short-term solution.
The uneasiness of the Iranian regime was obvious at the US presence in Iraq, sanctions and the inevitability of Syrian regime falling. However, as soon as the US army leave, Iran would be let off the hook and Tehran's influence will extend from Afghanistan to Lebanon.
Turkey and Iran are competing for influence in the area while different branches of Islam subjugate their governments, not to mention different styles of governance. Ankara has already come up with a plan in the form of offering military training to Iraq, but the Maliki's government being closer to Iran, instantaneously rejected the offer.
Barzani is due to visit the US and Turkey in the next coming days while Kurdish PM, Barham Salih, has already made his way to Washington.
There were talk of US bases in KR before Obama's announcement, but decision has not been taken yet. After Salih and Barzani's visit to Washington and talking to Turkey, the Kurdish positions may be clearer. Although the KRG have openly called for the US to stay, it is not clear how eager they are now and how far would they go to persuade White House.
The question which needs to be answered is, at what cost, because clearly the Iranian would not welcome a US base in KR. Kurdish and Iraqi politicians have being saying that, they have no choice with Iran as a neighbour and have to work out a way to live with Tehran. Moreover, Iran has been shelling KR for the duration of last summer - Shelling PJAK bases inside KR and Kurdish border villages- while the White House kept quiet about the Iranian aggression.
The Kurds have always reiterated the fact that KR is the friendliest nation in the region towards the US and have worked closely with the US even before the Iraq war in 2003. However, the alliance has not been on equal terms and the Kurds were always a pragmatic ally.
KR has limited options; to improve relations with Iran by making concessions and leave the US out of the equation, or ally itself with the US ideologically while still maintaining economic ties with Iran. The latter option requires the US to sell arms to the Kurds along with unconditional support and large US present in KR. Nevertheless, the first option appear to be on the table at the moment for KR, as the latter will no doubt has its regional objections like Turkey.
Turkey has a dilemma in the case of Kurdish-US alliance, to accept stronger KR with powerful friends and diminished Iranian influence or a more influential Iran. From Turkish strategic interest point of view, diminished Iranian influence is a more desirable outcome but politics in Middle East is never conducted dispassionately, therefore it is hard to see what the region be like after the US withdrawal.
By Shwan Zulal
Whilst Michael Rubin, a scholar from the American Enterprise Institute, argues in Kurdistan Tribune that Kurdistan Region (KR) President Massud Barzani and PM Barham Salih should pressure US policy makers to block the latest proposed Turkish arms sale, the attention of Kurdish politicians should also focus on their failure to convince the US to sell them military hardware too.
The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) sees itself as a democratic government, developing its institution rapidly, but not quick enough for the Kurdish public. The region has an elected parliament, albeit dysfunctional, and a coalition government that has faced many challenges, regional and domestic. Progress has been painstakingly slow and as the PM, Salih, has admitted on many occasions, the remnant of the two administrations -PUK and KDP – controlling different parts of the region until late 1990s – is still hindering progress.
One of the crucial issues is security in a region where instability and conflict is never too far away. The KR has locked horns with Baghdad over the financing of Peshmerga forces and their status in Iraq and, so far, the issue is still not wholly resolved.
Iraq is to acquire fighter jets and other military equipment from the US and France reportedly. The KR, however, has the largest organised army in Iraq but it is ill-equipped and not in line to be sold any modern military hardware soon by the US or other European countries. Despite the creation of numerous Peshmerga units under KRG control, technically speaking the Kurdish forces can still be called a militia: simply because the forces are loyal to political parties rather than Kurdish government.
One of the crucial failures of the current and previous Kurdish governments, which politicians from all sides need to take responsibility for, is failing to unite the Peshmerga forces. This has been one of the main stumbling block ahead of the KRG in order to have the means to defend its borders, and have credible military capability to at least work a deterrent in the regional squabble.
Due to a lack of engagement with KR, the US has come under a tremendous amount of criticism from Kurdish commentators and politicians alike. Although the KRG has sought military aid from the US and been given it in the past, the assistance has never been adequate.
It is simplistic to accuse the US of a lack of engagement because it is crucial to bear in mind that, as a policy maker in Washington, if you want to even think about selling arms to Kurdistan Region, who you are going to sell it to – PUK or KDP. Furthermore, what guarantees are there these weapons are not misused.
The US will not sell arms to the KRG without considering the regional implication and possibly the consent of NATO bearing in mind the Iraqi central government. The Kurds have not put themselves in any position to even be considered, by having a fragmented chain of command and a divided military force.
Although it is understandable there are genuine fears and lack of trust among the Kurdish political parties given the history between them, they need to overcome their fears and come up with a workable solution to unite the administrations.
It is easy to dismiss failure of reunification down to a narrow point of self-interest, because there could be other repercussions like frequent military coups and an over-zealous military dictating policy. Nevertheless, the current ruling parties have had nearly 10 years to work on reuniting the forces and still a long way to go.
The latest event in Iraq is a wake-up call for the KR political parties. Differences need to be set aside at this critical juncture and establishing a region based on unity and rule of law is an obligation. The right mechanism with checks and balances need to be enshrined in the constitution, ensuring parliament stays the most powerful institution in the region. Until serious steps are taken to address the pivotal issue of uniting the Peshmerga forces, the KR cannot expect the US to sell it any substantial military hardware.