The eyes of the international community were drawn to the enclave of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq during the confrontation with the Islamic State. While acting as the threatened bulwark, Iraqi Kurdistan took the opportunity to strengthen its foreign relations, writes Zana Khasraw Gulmohamad.
The world observed the unfolding events of the blitzkrieg waged by the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’ across Iraq in June 2014, before the organisation renamed itself as the ‘Islamic State’ (‘IS’) and declared the establishment of the ‘Caliphate’ on 29th June 2014. Initially, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) appeared to be comfortably holding its ground and moved to secure the disputed areas, including Kirkuk. Shortly afterwards, however, the situation turned against it when the rapidly proliferating radical Islamists began to advance again, posing a direct threat to the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Kurdish cities, in the meantime, have been engaging themselves pro-actively with the regional and international powers, including Kurdistan’s own ad-hoc governmental and security organisations, to push back the Islamic State’s ruthless expansion.
The worldwide attention that the KRG is now receiving has been translated into various forms and degrees of support to Kurdistan in terms of humanitarian aid (although very limited compared to the large number of refugees) as well as military and logistical help from the West, particularly the US, France, the UK, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands, and regionally from Iran and others. However, the military and humanitarian supplies have fallen short and the Kurds have been continuously appealing for help.
In terms of firepower, the early turn of the tide was due mainly to the help from Iran and the US. It was Tehran that first sent arms to the Peshmerga. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, announced during his visit to Erbil on 26th August 2014 that, “Iran beat the US in providing weapons to Kurdish forces”. According to the Iranian Interior Minister, Abdolreza Rahmani, the assistance included consultancy and training for the Kurdish forces. The Kurdish leaders have acknowledged the Iranian support and thanked the country, while still continuously lobbying internationally for military assistance. The Kurdistan Region and Iran share a long border and Iran only acted in its strategic interests by stopping the momentum of the IS and showcasing its strength and influence.
Subsequently, the US airstrikes on 8th August stopped the thrust of the IS. The US then steadily reversed the advance of the IS by providing support, including weapons, to the Kurdish forces. In fact, Iran and the US find themselves locked in a peculiar situation, adversaries on the one hand and united in supporting the Iraqi Kurds against the IS on the other. This may be called the beginning of a new phase in the crucible of the Middle East, with its multiple idiosyncratic relationships and expectations.
“However, military and humanitarian supplies have fallen short”
The decision of the US to intervene in the region was prompted by several reasons. Alan Makovsky, former Senior Professional Staff Member on the House Committee of Foreign Affairs, said, “The great success story of the KRG which was suddenly threatened (…) and the US felt that it had a prestige stake”. Echoing similar sentiments, Karwan Jamal Tahir, Deputy Minister in the Department of Foreign Relations (DFR) in the KRG, said in an interview with the author on 25th October 2014, “The Western powers help us because of our prosperous region which promotes human rights and international values”.
Moreover, the last minute intervention by the US also had a humanitarian dimension, as thousands of Iraqi civilians had fled from their homes and were suffering terribly as refugees. Whatever the reasons, the Kurds benefited from the cooperation with the US, and utilised it not only to bolster the security of the Kurdish Region against the IS but also to raise its stature politically.
However, the Kurdish forces are desperate for sophisticated heavy weaponry and other hardware, and their leadership is continuously calling for supplies to further push back the IS, which stole a significant amount of American-made equipment from the Iraqi army. On 10th and 19th November 2014, some US congressmen introduced a bill to arm the Kurdish forces directly. This bill came in the wake of the Kurdistan Region’s international relations energised by the Kurdish officials’ visits to Washington D. C., which included meetings with the US administration’s officials and lawmakers and addresses at various think tanks and universities. This new level of relationship between the KRG and the US shows the importance of Iraqi Kurdistan as a platform to launch an effective offensive against the IS. These efforts were bolstered by the Turkish Prime Minister’s visit to Iraq in November 2014, during which he promised to assist the Iraqi and Kurdish military units. This is being seen as an effort to repair the broken trust between the two countries after Turkey had earlier refused to assist military campaigns against the IS.
The foundation of the foreign relations of KRG
The Kurdistan Region’s limited relations with the regional and global powers immediately after the formation of the major Iraqi Kurdish political parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1946 and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in 1976, along with other smaller parties – have gradually grown and expanded since 1992, when the Iraqi Kurds and Kurdish political parties were able to control a considerable swathe of Kurdish territories during the first Gulf War in 1991. Dr Fuad Hussein, the Kurdish President’s Chief of Staff, said in an interview with the author: “Since the establishment of Kurdistan Region’s Parliament, the KRG has started its foreign relations to facilitate its activities, such as economic and cultural relations”.
After 2003, the KRG began the institutionalisation of its foreign relations, permitted in the new Iraqi constitution and induced by the developments in the Kurdistan Region, which is vibrant with a thriving economy, stability and security. The KRG established its Department of Foreign Relations in 2006 (DFR) and today receives more than 31 diplomatic representations. The Region’s foreign relations are basically designed by the Kurdistan Presidency rather than the Central Government in Baghdad. As affirmed by Dr Hussein, “The Kurdistan Region’s President plays the major role in forging foreign relations”. This shows that the KRG’s foreign relations have come of age. Nonetheless, KRG’s foreign relations pre-IS were focused on economic development, while post-IS, they are mainly driven by political, humanitarian and security considerations.
KRG’s involvement in regional security
The KRG’s involvement in regional security has shown a distinct development in the region’s increased military capability and in the Kurds’ solidarity with their brethren in ‘Rojava’, i.e. Western Kurdistan in Syria. The KRG made its influence felt in the region when its military supplies – 27 bundles of weapons and aid – were delivered to Kobani’s Kurdish fighters, largely belonging to the PYD (Democratic Union Party), via US aircraft in the besieged Kurdish town. Another milestone was the KRG’s elite Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, joining Kobani with heavy weaponry at the end of October, after the US pressured Turkey to open a corridor to Kobani. This was a turning point for the Iraqi Kurds, who were now seen as an effective regional force.
Internal and external nexus
The relations between Baghdad and Erbil have been fluctuating and are marred by tensions. This has affected the region’s ability to develop its independence, at least economically. The Kurdistan Region’s recent financial crisis has belied the claims of its leadership for the region to be evolving as ‘a second Dubai’. While both Baghdad and Erbil are in a common fight against the IS, a political settlement is expected which, however, may not last long after the crisis is over. Nonetheless, if a satisfactory agreement is reached, it would augment the KRG’s foreign relations and stabilise the country.
Iraqi Kurdistan is a vital and distinctive component of Iraq, with its peculiar geopolitics and moderate nationalistic aspirations. Secularism and pragmatism – two core values of its mainstream political parties – have elevated its stature in international calculations. The intensifying political and military cooperation between it and the regional and global powers in the wake of the IS threat has only accelerated the process.
A few scholars have tried to identify and analyse the region’s evolution and development on the basis of the existing international relations theories, which have not yet been comprehensively studied. These scholars have come up with some suggestions that might not apply to the region’s current status. In fact, the rapid developments in the region and their relation with the KRG have shocked scholars and observers alike, and led them to question their traditional vision of state-centric theories.
The Kurdistan Region is facing a brutal enemy and, as projected by its people and leadership, is fighting on behalf of the world, although the Kurdish fighters’ offensive is only powerful in Kurdish territories. However, the rise of the IS has not hindered the Region’s evolution and interaction with the international community. On the contrary, the Region has shown its strength and importance at various levels – political, security and cultural. Thus, the cooperation of the international community with KRG is essential to limit and degrade IS.