“Iraq and Syria are failed states, Iraq first’ is a float policy’

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Ergülen Toprak / New York

David Phillips, the author of “The Kurdish Spring: A Map of the Middle East” and Director of Peace Building and Human Rights Institute of Columbia University said the South Kurdistan, which has no access to the sea, can access to the Mediterranean through Rojava, the Kurdish region in northern Syria.

“Iraq and Syria are failed states. Iraq first’ is a float policy. It doesn’t work,” said Philips. “South Kurdistan needs to start acting like a state. As Iraq falls down, Iraqi Kurdistan will rise up.”

Phillips said that the Kurdish Spring is beyond the Arabic Spring, and Kurds can be a model for the other countries in Middle East. Phillips indicates that Kurds have a high level of democratic conscience due to their political struggle in the last few decades.

Phillips, who also writes articles for American media, wrote an article on CNBC a few days ago, and called on Obama to replace “Iraq First” policy with “Erbil First” policy. “If the U.S. is serious about destroying ISIS, it must give the Kurds tools to do their job. Otherwise, U.S. forces will be boots on the ground in the war against ISIS,” said Phillips.

In this interview with Rudaw, he explains why, and speaks broadly about Middle East politics and the Kurds in particular.

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*You have been writing on the Kurdish issue for a long time now. Your book “The Kurdish Spring” has just come out. What made you choose “The Kurdish Spring?” for the title of the book?

Democracy is flourishing among the Kurds. Arab States overthrew despotic regimes but failed to replace them with effective, representative governance. I think Kurds are an important example for other people in the Middle East, when it comes to human rights and democratic governments.

*Also, there are movements in the Arabic countries called “Arab Spring.” What kind of differences do you see between the Kurdish Spring and Arab Spring?

The Arab Spring has failed, the Kurdish Spring succeeded. Except for Tunisia, Arab Spring countries failed to create functioning democracies. The role of civil society is critical, when it comes to oversight and holding governments accountable. Kurdish civil society is stronger than civil society in almost every Arab country.

*How is the resistance / battle of the city of Kobani making a difference in the history of Syria and the Middle East? What does it mean for the West?

The Obama administration rescued Kobani just in time by launching air strikes, and air lifting weapons. Its actions were taken over Erdogan’s objection. Kobani will take its place next to Halabja as a critical event in the construction of Kurdish identity.

The People’s Protection Units, women fighters, and the PKK deserve high praise for their heroic defense of Kobani. Iraqi pesmerge also participated meaningfully. ISIS succeeded in doing what no Kurdish leader has ever done: Forging unity and common purpose among Kurds. The Kurds are America’s best and most loyal ally in the fight against terrorism.

*In the book you point out that Iraq will be divided in the separate countries, and the map of Middle East will be changed. What should we expect for the future of the Middle East?

The new map involves the establishment of Iraqi Kurdistan as the world’s next newest nation. As Iraq falls down under increasing pressure from ISIS, Iraqi Kurdistan will stand up and the international community will find its interest or serve to closer security and commercial cooperation with the Kurds. Kurds can inspire and help democratization in countries where they reside.

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*If South Kurdistan declares independence, how would it impact the power balance in the Middle East? Who would support the new Kurdish state?

A unilateral declaration of independence can rile tensions. South Kurdistan needs to start acting like a state. As Iraq falls down, Iraqi Kurdistan will rise up. If there is going to be an independent state, it will be through a neutral agreement with Bagdad.

*What kind of road map should South Kurdistan follow in order to be an independent country soon?

It should pursue good governance, income transparency, and revenue sharing of its energy and gas wealth with the KRG’s constituents.

*What is the probable future of an independent South Kurdistan? For example, would they be united with Rojava?

Both Iraq and Syria are failed states. Iraqi Kurdistan’s access to the sea can go through parts of Rojava and Syria. Kurds have great loyalty to one another, especially when they are threatened. There will be some kind of confederation or an informal arrangement with Rojava. Particularly as Iraqi Kurdistan explores the access to Mediterranean through northern Syria. But, I don’t see any kind of formal arrangement between Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava at this time.

*How can Kurdistan’s oil play a role for a strategic friendship between Kurds and the West?

The Baghdad Agreement on revenue production and sharing is a good step. It normalizes relations between Erbil and Baghdad, enabling exports to flow and future development to proceed. It will be in force for a year at which time negotiations will resume based on conditions at that time.

*In American media, you are one of the experts who writes about Kurds. In almost every speech or article you are calling on the Obama Administration to work with the Kurds for a better Middle East. Also, you recently published an article on CNBC in which you criticized Washington’s policy towards the Kurds. What should the Obama Administration do in order to help Kurds?

Let me say this first; air strikes launched by the US saved their bill for being overrun. They prevented the further humanitarian catastrophe in Sinjar, and they allowed peshmerga to regain the Mosul dam, and they supported PKK and PYD to support Kobani. If the US is serious in defeating the Islamic State, it needs to support fighters on the ground. Kurds have shown in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, they have the capability to take down and defeat the ISIS fighters. The US should provide weapons to directly to the KRG, and those weapons should be heavy weapons and are capable to really making an impact on the harmer that the ISIS acquired, have to re add occupied Mosul.

The US should establish closer security and commercial cooperation with the Kurds. The international coalition cannot defeat Daesh, unless Kurdish fighters are involved. For this, the Kurds would deserve and rightly expect for the United States to support their national aspirations.

*Supporting the independence of South Kurdistan, removing the PKK on the “list of the terrorist organizations,” working with PYD in Syria are some of the points you have been making for Kurdish – American alliance. How does Washington react when you present these piece of advice?

Washington’s views towards Turkey are evolving. There is growing debate about Turkey’s suitability as a NATO ally. NATO is more than a security alliance. It is a community of countries with shared values. Since Gezi Park, Turkey doesn’t meet criteria for NATO membership. The PKK was put on the list of foreign terrorist organizations as a deal post-9/11. The PKK should be removed from the terror list. If Ankara and the PKK are talking, why should Western countries still treat the PKK like an outcast?

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*You wrote a road map which was called “Disarming, Demobilizing and Reintegrating the PKK” before the peace process started. During the past years many times you have been in Ankara, Diyarbakir and Erbil. How do you see the peace process?

It is very frugal. The AKP government has not taken any necessary steps to give Kurds political and cultural rights. And President Erdogan uses it as an inflammatory language referring PKK as a terror group. If Turkey is serious about a peace process, it has to take meaningful steps to provide the democratic autonomy. If it is not serious, then there is a real risk of renewed arm and violent at conflict, which is not in the interest of Turkey or the Kurds.

I support political dialogue. However, today there is no peace and there is no process. President Erdogan is wasting a historic opportunity to fully and finally resolve the Kurdish question.

*Can the AKP solve the Kurdish Issue? Are you optimistic for peace between the Kurds and the Turks?

Yes, the AKP can solve the problem. But it must act with principle and commitment to peace. Playing political games with the peace process will merely antagonize Kurds in Turkey and re-radicalize the PKK.

*What about the friendship of Ankara and Erbil? How can this friendship help the peace process?

Ankara and Erbil developed a strategic partnership. However, Turkey proved to be a fair weather friend. When ISIS attacked Kurdistan, envoys appealed to Turkey for help. They were rejected. First, because Turkey was about to have presidential elections, and second, because of Turkish hostages. Turkey still refuses the coalition to use Encirlik Air Force Base for air strikes against ISIS. The jihadi highway from Turkey to Syria is still operating, despite Erdogan’s claims that the border is sealed.

*Recently you visited Erbil and had conversations with the US and Kurdish officials as you mentioned in the article published on CNBC. What did they tell you about the current situation?

The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is much more stable and secure now than it was my last visit in the region in August. The leadership of KRG deserves a great credit for this and there is a lot of Kurdish-US cooperation in arrange of fields including security cooperation. Kurds want to tools to do their job. The job is defeating ISIS, and liberating the all Kurdish territories, and ridding Iraq and Syria of this terrorist group. The US should support peshmerga and the other Kurdish fighters in this battle. We share the common goal, which is to liberate the region from terrorism. We can work more closely together.

*In the article you also point out that the US should give up the “Iraq first” policy. Can you tell us more about this?

“Iraq first” is a float policy. It doesn’t work. We do not wish the collapse of Iraq. But we do envision a negotiated agreement between Erbil and Bagdad on their future tags. So, we should not have an “Iraq first” policy. We should have a simultaneous tracks, and “Erbil is first”, and the Iraq policy promotes the stability and democracy in both inductive.

*What will happen if the US does not give weapons to the peshmerga?

The status quo would remain. Do we want to manage this conflict, or do we want to have the victory? If we are serious of winning this war, the US needs to expand its military assistance to the Kurds, and needs to di assistance directly as both as security support, but also a political statement as the Kurds’ importance.

*In the article you also warn the Obama administration that if the US does not support Kurds, “US forces will be boots on the ground in the war against ISIS.” What is the potential risk for the US?

The Kurds can act as the point of the sphere in the fight against ISIS, but they are not going to murder their fighters unless there is some meaningful reward. The Obama administration has to make a choice. If it is serious about destroying ISIS, it needs to work with the local fighters, especially with the Kurds. If it does that, there can be a victory. If it is continues as current policy, it will manage to conflict and ultimately be in a position of having to deploy the US troops, or to recognize that ISIS is a long war and lead it for future administrations.

*How do you see the relationship between the Kurdish parties? How can the tension that sometimes rises between Kurdish parties impact the future of Kurds and the friendship of the Kurds with the West?

Of course there are factions. It is a healthy sign of political pluralism. There always are in a democracy. However, Kurds come together under duress and when threatened. Pan-Kurdish unity is greater now than it’s ever been. This is what we saw in Kobani. Now it is a time to build on that victory and to roll up additional victories in the battle field, which will translate in the political victories.

About David Phillips

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Phillips served as foreign affairs expert and senior adviser to the US Department of State during the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. He is the author of “Losing Iraq and From Bullets to Ballots.” (Rudaw)


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