British-Kurdish MP: Kurdistan’s economic independence more important than political separation from Iraq

Nadhim Zahawi

Nadhim Zahawi is a British-Kurdish Conservative Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Stratford-on-Avon since 2010. He is also the co-founder of the international internet-based market research firm YouGov of which he was Chief Executive until February 2010. K24 conducted an interview with Zahawi in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region.

Note: This is some parts of the interview. Some of the questions have been changed for clarification purposes. The interview was conducted on November 24. Thus, most of the questions and answers might be related to the incidents that took place at that time.


K24: What are your new plans and strategies in the war against ISIS?

Nadhim Zahawi: Well, I sit on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the British Parliament and we are currently conducting an inquiry, because the Select Committee effectively holds the government account in our Parliament. Our inquiry is looking at the British government strategy towards DAESH [the Arabic acronym for ISIL], [and] also what… the future strategy [will] look like as well? We have split into three groups: one group was in Tehran, Abu Dhabi, and now in Saudi Arabia. I’m leading the group to Baghdad, Erbil, Suleimaniah, and Ankara in Turkey tonight. The third group was in Egypt, Jordan, and are finishing their work in Lebanon and they will come together on Friday and begin to think about our report and whether we publish something early [or] in the New Year, and you have been fighting on all of our behalf…. [I want] to thank the Peshmerga and Kurdistan for fighting ISIL across a frontline of over one thousand kilometers and fighting on behalf of the whole international community. Congratulations to you and to your President and to your whole country for defeating ISIL in Sinjar.


K24: Do you speak as a Kurdish person or as a Britain politician?
Nadhim Zahawi: I think I speak for our whole [British] parliament: my Prime Minister. Last week before I left, [he] actually mentioned the victory in Sinjar in Parliament at a dispatched box. What happened in Paris [recently] was a reminder of what you have to endure day in and day out for over a year. What you have had to endure day in and day out, what has taken place in the streets of Beirut, in Turkey itself, in other countries--but in many ways for the British people the terrorism and the blood thirstiness and evil of ISIS was brought home, because Paris is only a train ride from London and we saw what these evil-doers can do, so what is happening now is I think in many ways, this is Franc’s Seven-Seven or [the US'] 9-11. We have to stand shoulder to shoulder with France.


K24: Didn’t you already stand shoulder to shoulder?
Nadhim Zahawi: Of course we did, but my point being is we have to redouble effort [and] the political will to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS and I think it’s important that my committee does the work. This [is] a complicated issue, there is what we have heard in evidence sessions when we have taken with meetings in politicians of Baghdad, with the operation teams, the military operations teams with the meetings with the President, with Masrour Barzani, with Nechirvan Barzani, with Qubad Talabani, Hero Talabani, with all the parties [like] Gorran. This is not only a military campaign. Militarily we’re confident that the brave Peshmerga can do the job. President Barzani has made it clear that they don’t want boots on the ground; Peshmerga can do the job on the ground. What they need is weapons, they need coordination, and they need the air support. But more importantly we can win military, but how do you win when the peace? How do you then make sure that when you liberate areas whether it is Tikrit, Ramadi, Sinjar, or ultimately Mosul and Raqqa. How do you stabilize and make sure those communities feels safe and can trust their governments?


K24: At the moment, you are faced with two problems regarding Turkey: one is about what happened yesterday between Russia and Turkey [downing of Russian jet striking Syria] that has brought about a big problem and has made you take a trip to Ankara; and the second problem is that Turkey is not interested in fighting against ISIS. What are you going to do?

Nadhim Zahawi: First of all, we have to see the details of what happened yesterday, over the skies of Turkey, so it’s important for me not to rush to comment before we see [all] the details. I hope you’ll understand that we want to see the evidence and actually everyone has to remain calm and focus on defeating ISIL.


K24: But there is a conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, between Iran and Turkey, you see this is a ground conflict. Is it easy to find a solution to this conflict?
Nadhim Zahawi: There are regional powers and it’s not just Turkey or Iran. It is [also] the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, and of course, Russia, the United States of America, and Europe. Many countries have to cooperate together, but I think the message has to be cooperation, fighting, and defeating ISIL; otherwise we will end up seeing another Paris, on the streets of London, or elsewhere, so [that] has to be our focus. We also appreciate what the Turkish government has done in terms of stopping foreign fighters. In fact, they have been quite successful. The evidence we took in London because our inquiries have been ongoing from experts say that actually Turkey has become very effective at identifying and stopping foreign fighters getting to fight with ISIL.


K24: Two years ago, I read [...] that some soldiers went back to New Zealand and others to the UK. They said “if you don’t stand strong against ISIS, what happened in Kurdistan last year will happen in other countries, too.” Now this is happening in other countries. One year ago, President Barzani asked for heavy weapons, but the UK didn’t send any weapons to the Kurdistan Region. Germany was the only country that sent Milan weapons to Kurdistan. Why did the UK refuse to send heavy weapons while the Kurdistan Region asked for them repeatedly? 

Nadhim Zahawi: Well, we actually have talked to operational commanders here in Baghdad, and what they tell us is that different countries have different weapons and technology systems, so the Germans and the French have the Milan, the weapon which has been very effective against ISIL.


K24: Doesn’t the UK have such heavy weapons?

Nadhim Zahawi: Actually we use different weapon systems; the Americans also have a weapon system that’s been useful to Peshmerga, but maybe has a shorter range than the Milan. When you have vehicle IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) coming out, you can see why the Peshmerga worry about needing the longer range, but we have gifted heavy machine guns and ammunition and we have also been transporting weapons. Some countries have the equipment, but they can’t transport it. The British government has been transporting it. The [KRG] President was very clear in his message to us to thank the British government for the air support for the operation in Sinjar, and of course the intelligence work that we do.


K24: Do you think the air strikes were sufficient? It doesn’t seem like that.

Nadhim Zahawi: Well, in Sinjar it worked extremely well and I think we have to learn from these things, and learn what else we need to do militarily, but there is an important point here: we can win the military operation together with the Peshmerga, the Iraqi forces and the forces that are now operating in Syria against DAESH, but how do you then hold territory. How do you rebuild, reconstruct, reconcile Shiite and Sunni, Turkmen, Kurds, [Yezidis] and Christians? How do you bring those communities back to their homes and give them the security that they can live and feel that their government will secure their safety?


K24: But, Mr. Nadhim, we are talking about Peshmerga as the only military force on the ground that is fighting ISIS.
Nadhim Zahawi: The Peshmerga has been the most effective and actually the reports from the U.S. military were incredibly complementary to the ability of the Peshmerga. In fact one report we had was the operation in Sinjar was as good as any theater or training operation that the American soldiers themselves have conducted in their training.


K24: So there is no promise to Peshmerga forces regarding sending heavy weapons to the Kurdistan Region?
Nadhim Zahawi: The Peshmerga that we met and the operation commanders say … it’s [actually] not the weapons problem. Or even the training. The trainings are effective and the weapons are good. The question of what’s the best timing. Secondly, there is a political dimension. The political dimension is: ok, so you defeat DAESH in Mosul so how are you going to govern Mosul? Who is going to govern Mosul? How do you reconcile neighbors who may at one time would have been fighting against ISIL and the other tribe for ISIL?


K24: Did you talk about Iraq’s division? You are right, this is an important question about how Kurdish forces can govern Mosul; how can Shiites govern Sunnis’ territoriesbut did you talk about the division of Iraq? Will it be the last solution?

Nadhim Zahawi: We gathered evidence on everything. There were no no-go-areas, we looked at everything and obviously when we publish our report you will see our findings. Clearly there are challenges, and the Baghdad government is under economic pressure as is the KRG government. One of the things we heard that is almost a bigger threat to Kurdistan then DAESH is the economic strain. War is expensive. It was only last year that the British government paid its final debt for the Napoleonic wars. We are still paying our debt for the Second World War, so wars are expensive and the great danger to Kurdistan is economic collapse: if young people have no work, no future, no prospects, they may turn to radicalism on different sides, whatever it is. But it’s not a good thing. So we are gathering evidence from across the world, the challenges of for example around Diyala, the liberation of Tikrit, and how do you get the people of Tikrit to go back? Ramadi is surrounded now, and ISIL will be defeated there. How do you get the people of Ramadi to return, to rebuild? Sinjar is destroyed. How do we rebuild Sinjar to make sure that the Yazidi people can return to their homes? These are all very big important issues and actually your victory is hollow if you don’t address these issues, because ISIL will just come back again in a different form, something even, if possible, even more evil, even more blood-thirsty, because we [would not have] addressed the underlying issues that communities have to feel safe and have to feel that their government cares about them. There will always be a breeding-ground for terrorism and radicalism.


K24: So, what I understood from your statements is that the first step should be fighting against ISIS and destroying it completely and then you may also talk about Iraq’s division. Is that right?

Nadhim Zahawi: Well, I have to look at the military campaign in parallel with the political solution. What does Iraq look like beyond the liberation? Your Prime Minister is reminding us that there is an Iraq before Mosul and after DAESH took Mosul, which demonstrated that the Baghdad government was unable to protect its communities and its territories from an insurgency like DAESH. So, I think the political thinking and political strategy has to run parallel. We tried this in 2003; we tried it again with the surge later. You can’t have simply a military response, you have to have a political settlement that creates good governance for the people, the people actually feel safe, want to return and then to engage in day to day life, to engage in running the community, in running their town or their city, if they don’t we will just create a different kind of problem.


K24: But, Mr. Zahawi, for Britain maybe ISIS is the only problem, but for the Kurdish people [we] are dealing with lots of problems: ISIS, the problem with [our] neighbors, independence problems, problems with the Iraqi central government, and the problem of receiving weapons that never reached the Kurdistan Region because they came through Baghdad [first]. That is why they asked every country in the world to make a state of its own. We want to have our own state to prevent what happened in Sinjar and other places two years ago and this is what we are asking for.

Nadhim Zahawi: Kurdistan has its own government, and hopefully very soon its own functioning parliament again. It’s important that there is political reconciliation here as well [... and] or the international community to support Kurdistan that we see the political process working again and I’m optimistic from what I have heard that the political parties are serious about political reconciliation, and, of course, you are right to say every Kurd’s dream is ultimately to have independence--but what does that mean? How is that achieved is the question that only you and the rest of the neighborhood the rest of Iraq and of course the regional countries. Actually I am very pleased when I hear the KRG Prime Minister saying whatever Kurdistan does it will talk to Baghdad about it first, because Kurdistan Region wants a strong positive relationship with Baghdad so that is the right attitude to take--whatever the future holds for Kurdistan. The important thing is now the defeat of ISIL, getting the economy back on its feet and working again, because economic collapse will create much deeper problems for you, and ultimately Kurds have to have the ability for self-determination. That is my view. 


K24: Kurds have rebuilt many things and did a lot of things, but because they are part of Iraq they always face obstacles.

Nadhim Zahawi: And this is part of the political process you need.


K24: And you can also work on that?

Nadhim Zahawi: Well, we will report back. This is why we took the time and the care and the level of inquiry. The size of inquiry that we are holding is one of the largest in the history of the Select Committee. So it’s very important to get this right.


K24: What I got from your answers is that your plan is about ISIS and what you are going to do in Europe, but I didn’t get anything about Kurdish independence. What will UK do for Kurdistan Independency? Britain can be a good supporter.

Nadhim Zahawi: Well, it’s not for the UK [to decide]. The UK was involved and many Kurdish leaders remind me it was Winston Churchill who invented [the] state of Iraq. I think it’s important that Kurdish politicians and the Kurdish people engage in thinking what is it that they want out of this [political] process. What we are doing and what our report, I hope, will say, will at least shed some light on what could be possible in terms of political reconciliation. How … a new Iraq will work [and] how … it will function.


K24: New Iraq with the Kurdistan Region separated?

Nadhim Zahawi: Well, let’s see what we conclude on this. But ultimately it’s not for me as a British parliamentarian or the British government to dictate to you how you govern yourself. Ultimately it is your President, your Prime Minister, your Parliament, [and] your political leadership who will have to decide the future of your country.


K24: And if they decide on independence, will the UK support them?

Nadhim Zahawi: Well, look. First of all, we are talking about a hypothetical situation.  I can’t speak for British government. What I would say to you is that, ultimately, the right strategy is the one that your prime minister has adopted which is to say we will do nothing without speaking to Baghdad, because actually this is the neighborhood that you exist in, you can’t help that.

Certainly I would much rather [like] to see the Czechoslovakia example which was done through negotiations and agreement and backing peaceful means versus the Yugoslavia example, which was bloodshed and [their people paid] a heavy price, including genocide. That’s not good for Kurdistan. The bloodshed, the war option, is not good for anybody. Ultimately what I think is best for Kurdistan is economic independence. Gets your economy working back on its feet. When the economy works, politics works. The two go hand in hand, if you are prosperous, wealthy and doing well, with a diversified economy, and not over-reliant on oil and gas. But the Kurds are very talented people. Look at what they have done all over the world: in Sweden, in America, in England, everywhere. Imagine if you could have all that talent working for a more prosperous economically diversified Kurdistan. The strong banking system with a strong manufacturing base with oil and gas, of course. Once you have a robust economy you can do almost what you wish.


K24: But the Kurdistan Region tried to sell oil independently, do you think they were successful?

Nadhim Zahawi: Clearly they are successful, because the Kurdistan [Region] is now exporting over 600,000 barrels a day. The problem you have is even if your exports reach a million barrels per day--unless you reform, unless the economy is reformed my observation [is that] there is an over-reliance on the public sector; too many people work in the public sector. We [sic] have to make some tough decisions like the United Kingdom. In 2010 we had a government that was spending too much money on salaries, on the public sector, on everything else, and we had to try and shrink that expenditure. It’s difficult, but if everybody plays their own role, and I am not just talking about the political elites, but each and every Kurd, when they wake up in the morning, if they asked themselves what will I do today for Kurdistan, not what will Kurdistan do for me. Then you will begin to fix the economic problems and I am confident you are a small country but very talented country, with huge wealth under the ground, but also the most important wealth is human wealth, the human resources. They are very talented people. Look at Singapore with very little resources, but very good governance, created an incredible economy and I think you can rise to that challenge if you begin to get your economy working, everything else becomes possible. It’s then that you are in control of your destiny. You become the architecture of your destiny.


K24: Currently Kurdistan is in an economic crises and Sinjar is now destroyed. In 1991 you worked with Kurdistan's refugees, collecting money for them. What do you do as a Kurdish person even as a politician in UK? What is your plan for Sinjar and for the refugees?

Nadhim Zahawi: One of the things that I think that has come through to us very loud and clear is that it is the economy and wherever we can we should try to help Kurdistan to get back on its own feet. You have 1.7 million IDPs (Internally Displaces People) and many refugees. You now have Sinjar to reconstruct. We are talking to our European allies as well to make sure that we help where we can. Ultimately if we want to feel safe in Europe, in the United Kingdom, and we want people to rebuild their countries whether in Syria or Iraq, then we must help them to rebuild first, otherwise it will wash out on our streets. Not only terrorism, but the economic migration, because if people have no hope in Sinjar, what are they going to do? We met with the UN and they tell you very quickly that it’s the third year when families lose hope, because their children have not been to school for three years. The fourth year they will pick up their luggage and will run and leave for a better life. And of course it’s upon all of us to make sure that we work to eradicate and destroy ISIL, but then to win the peace afterwards.