In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti, Barham Salih, Deputy Secretary-General of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG), warned, “let’s not repeat the mishaps of the Iraq transition” in planning for a post-Assad Syria.
Salih, who also previously served as the deputy prime minister of Iraq, added that Syria’s communities have a shared interest “to prevent the hijacking of the revolution by extremists and fundamentalists.”
Regarding developments in Iraq, Salih said that while the effort by opposition parties to seek a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Maliki is “over for now,” the “Iraqi political crisis is far from over.” He called threats to cut the Kurdistan Region’s share of the Iraqi budget “economic strangulation" and reminiscent of the tactics of Saddam Hussein. He added that “Iraqi politics has been polarized even more than before” and that while “a solution is possible,” there is such distrust among the parties that “it will be a bumpy road to the next elections.”
The full interview is below.
Al-Monitor: The government of Iraq has threatened to cut $3 billion from payments to the KRG as a result of the dispute over oil exports from the Kurdistan Region. Baghdad set a deadline of today [Tuesday, September 11] for a response from the KRG. Where does this stand, and how will it be resolved?
Salih: Understandably we have a serious crisis. But this is not just a Baghdad-Erbil crisis; it is an Iraqi crisis.
When I was prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, we negotiated, in January 2010, what should be considered a win-win for Iraq, the KRG and the oil companies. Companies operating in the Kurdistan Region would be paid for their costs incurred, which would allow the oil to flow, increasing exports for all of Iraq.
This was an important step to improve the ambience and generate good will between Baghdad and Erbil, and showed we can work together.
Baghdad paid half a billion dollars as part of the deal, but payments stopped after a while, and then the companies in turn had to stop their operations.
At a minimum we need to get back to this agreement between Baghdad and Erbil allowing the flow of exports, and Baghdad should embrace development of oil resources of Kurdistan as a source for added revenues for all of Iraq.
The threats, however, reinforce the deep concerns among Kurds about efforts to roll back our constitutional rights by some in Baghdad. We had thought that economic strangulation as a tactic had ended with Saddam Hussein. Instead of such threats, we should acknowledge that we have a problem that needs fixing, and I said with good will there is a win-win way forward.
We are hopeful that when Iraqi President Jalal Talabani returns to Iraq we can begin a meaningful negotiation to resolve this serious crisis.
Let me say again this is a crisis afflicting all of Iraq. This is a crisis of Iraq's nascent political system. Many Sunnis have a problem with the federal government, many Shiites have a problem with the federal government and Kurds also have our problems with this situation. Ten years on from the demise of Saddam, most Iraqis have no more that four to five hours of electricity. Iraqi politics has been polarized even more than before. This is hardly a success. We have a problem — it is an Iraqi problem, not just a Kurd-Baghdad issue.
The way forward has to be based on the Iraqi constitution and the Erbil Agreement of November 2010, which allowed for the formation of the present Iraqi government.
Al-Monitor: The Kurdistan Region’s relationship with Turkey has never been better, and Baghdad-Ankara relations have never been worse. Do you see this as a strategic benefit to the KRG? How do you respond to Baghdad’s objections to a pipeline for Kurdish energy exports through Turkey? Where does this project stand?
Salih: This is quite an irony.
Remember the days when you and I were working together in Washington when you were with Senator Chuck Hagel? There were deep concerns about the problems between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey.
But relations between Ankara and Erbil have been transformed. Colleagues in Baghdad contributed to this transformation. Our American friends also played a crucial role in the KRG’s ties with Turkey.
You have seen the benefits of our ties with Turkey. Turkish investment, trade and business partnerships have been a catalyst for our growth and development. Turkish airlines operate in the Kurdistan region.
Regarding the pipeline, I say to my colleagues in Baghdad that expansion of exports and diversification of export routes could be for the benefit of all Iraqis.
The Iraqi constitution is clear on Kurdistan's rights to develop our oil resources.
I am actually disappointed about the deterioration in Baghdad’s ties with Ankara. This is more a complicating factor than a strategic advantage for us.
I hope that the good relationship between the KRG and Turkey can be a bridge for better relations between Baghdad and Ankara. We in the Kurdistan Region need this, as other Iraqis do also. Iraq should at long last should be at peace with its neighbors, including Turkey.
Al-Monitor: Al-Monitor has been covering the escalation in tension over the Kurdish issue in Turkey, including increased conflict between the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] and the government of Turkey. How does the Kurdish question in Turkey affect the politics of Iraqi Kurdistan and your relationship with Turkey?
Salih: The Kurdish issue in Turkey and Turkey's policies in this regard have a major impact on the politics of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Iraqi Kurds have an understandably close affinity with the Kurds of Turkey. There has to be a political solution for the Kurdish issue in Turkey. Violence cannot be the answer. History is instructive; a political solution is the only way out of this conflict.
Despite the many difficulties of today, I am hopeful about the future. Look at the evolution in Turkey’s relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan. Who would have thought ten years ago that this would be possible? There is no reason why Turkey, as a democratic country, should not be able to solve this.
Al-Monitor: Let’s extend the discussion to Syria. Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani has convened several meeting of Syrian Kurdish groups. Does the KRG see its role in organizing the Syrian Kurds to formally join the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? How is the KRG role influenced, or complicated, by Turkey’s own Kurdish question?
Salih: We are impacted and effected by developments in Syria, no doubt.
We are concerned about the Kurds in Syria. President Barzani helped to bring together Syrian Kurdish groups and have them develop a united approach toward the developments in Syria. We emphasize the need for a united opposition, working for a democratic Syria that recognizes the rights of Kurdish people within Syria. But these decisions are ultimately for the Kurds of Syria, not for us to dictate.
Let me say the present regime in Syria is over. The era of Ba'ath dictatorship is over. We should not count on the regime surviving.
Here again history is instructive. Let’s not repeat the mishaps of the Iraqi transition. It is not just about getting rid of the dictatorship, but also equally important is preparing for the day after. The Ba’ath regime must go, but we need to consider alternative outcomes that could make things worse.
There needs to be a serious focus on the transition mechanism in Syria. All of Syria’s communities — Christians, Kurds, Allawites, Druz, moderate Islamists, nationalists and liberals all have a binding interest to prevent the hijacking of the revolution by extremists and fundamentalists, who should not gain leverage in a way that will be to the detrimental to Syria and the region. Syria must not be allowed into the hands of extremists — this I believe a vital interest of the Syrian people, and should be a common interest for the region at large.
Al-Monitor: Mr. Barzani was among those seeking a no-confidence vote against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki earlier this year. That effort fell short. Is this effort now stalled? Will the Kurdish leader seek reconciliation with Prime Minister Maliki, or further confrontation? What would you consider a good-will gesture from Maliki?
Salih: The Iraqi political crisis is far from over. Iraq desperately needs a political settlement for this chronic power struggle. But here again, it would be a mistake to portray this as a problem just between the Kurds and Baghdad. It is an Iraqi crisis and needs an Iraqi solution. Shiites, as well as many other Iraqis, are dissatisfied. It is not just the Kurds.
The effort to seek a no-confidence vote in the prime minister is over for now. The focus is a now on a reform agenda that will have the key Iraqi constituencies work with Mr. Maliki to push the needed political, security and economic reforms. Simply put, the status quo is untenable. Iraq cannot keep going from crisis to crisis.
I am hoping that the return of President Talabani to Iraq will lead to serious negotiations on a reform program. Good will is needed by all sides. There are lingering security and governance problems. Iraq requires a coherent and united program that transcends the sectarian and ethnic divide.
A solution is possible, but I must accept that with the levels of mistrust, it will be a bumpy road to the next elections.
Al-Monitor: Last year we saw the rumblings of what some called a “Kurdish Spring.” You were KRG prime minister at the time, and spent a great deal of time both facing difficult questions from the Kurdish parliament and meeting with students and activists. How is the political awareness among Kurdish youth affecting Kurdish politics in both the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and more broadly?
Salih: In a profound way, to say the least — 58% of Iraqi Kurds are below 25 years old. There are estimates that as many as 70% are under 30. This is a young population. It is a generation that grew up after the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein.
The PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party delivered tangible achievements for the Kurdish people. Both main parties can be proud of their record of the past. But the message is clear: Changes in Kurdish society require fundamental economic and political reforms. We in the KRG have undertaken some important reforms, but not enough to satisfy our citizens. More is needed.
For example, Baghdad gets four to five hours per day of electricity. The Kurdistan region, by contrast, gets 22 hours per day. But our people do not compare our progress to Baghdad. They want the other two hours. This is understandable.
There are also serious concerns about corruption, nepotism and a lack of change in our leadership. I am proud of our success, but we need to stay ahead of the reform curve, and keep our citizens as full participants in this process.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is a remarkable story. Look at how far we have come. Our story over the past two decades is itself is a “Kurdish Spring.” Kurdistan has been turned into a hub of economic activity and prosperity in contrast with much of our neighborhood. However, we cannot simply count on our past success, we must do better. Our citizens demand better, and they deserve better. This is a fundamental challenge for Kurdish politics.
Andrew Parasiliti is CEO and Editor At Large of Al-Monitor.