A look into the Kurdistan Region's foreign policy: An interview with Falah Mustafa

Falah Mustafa Bakir (Photo: Falah Mustafa Bakir)
Falah Mustafa Bakir (Photo: Falah Mustafa Bakir)

Falah Mustafa Bakir has been integral part of the Kurdish Region of Iraq’s (KRI) foreign policy since 2006, when he created and served as the first head of the Department of Foreign Relations (DFR). Travelling the globe to establish bilateral ties with other countries, while also advising KRI President Nechirvan Barzani, has placed him near the center of key diplomatic decisions affecting Iraqi Kurdistan through multiple KDP cabinets and governments. As a result, his views on the international hurdles facing the KRI are relevant to all those interested in understanding where the region could be headed.

The following interview by Dr. Shilan Fuad Hussain, a visiting fellow at the Washington Kurdish Institute, is part of a series where she asks both male and female Kurdish officials from various political parties’ similar questions to better elucidate the ‘Kurdish question’ and provide useful answers.

Q. What would you say are some of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (KRI) at the moment?

A. Like any other part of the world, the Kurdistan Region is currently affected by the economic and health challenges that have come along with the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has not only affected the health of the general public and put a strain on our healthcare services but has also had a noticeable impact on the economy, including the oil sector. In terms of how this affects our international position, I would say that the Kurdistan Region has maintained its reputation for resilience and stability even in the face of the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Another challenge to us is terrorism and extremism. ISIS is still active and is a serious threat to all of us in Iraq and the wider region, as well as other parts of the world. There are some who may think otherwise, but we firmly believe that we still need the support of the international coalition to help us defeat ISIS once and for all and not to allow the reemergence of ISIS or the rise of another terrorist organization. We also must remember the Al-Hol camp in Syria which still houses about 60,000 individuals and poses a massive security risk for us and for the wider world.

This means that we need to address the root causes of ISIS, and in order to do so, we require closer cooperation and coordination between the governments of Erbil and Baghdad, especially between Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces.

The third challenge is the humanitarian situation. We have the Syrian refugees and the internally displaced people from other parts of Iraq who fled ISIS and are still sheltering in the Kurdistan Region. The international community has donor-fatigue and Covid-19 restrictions have impacted the delivery of assistance. Having said that, I am proud that the people, NGOs, and government of the Kurdistan Region have continued to support the displaced and refugee communities.

We are also faced with the challenge of people migrating from the Kurdistan Region towards Europe. This is not unique to Kurdistan, but we must understand the causes of this migration. In the past few months, Kurdish migrants were stranded on the border of Belarus and Poland, facing severe hardship. Others who were trying to reach the UK tragically drowned when their boat capsized in the English Channel.

We need to work with the federal government in Baghdad and the international community to coordinate and work together in addressing these challenges. Certainly, some of the causes of migration out of Kurdistan may be domestic but there are clearly also outside factors that have led to this and that is why there needs to be both a domestic and international solution.

Politically, the people of Kurdistan and Iraq, our neighbors, and the international community are all waiting to see the formation of a new Iraqi government after the elections of last October. Elections in Iraq and their aftermath are always a challenging moment, but the leadership of the Kurdistan Region has played an important role in maintaining an open dialogue with other players in order to achieve an orderly and peaceful transfer of power from the old government to the new one. We are seeking a government that is committed to the Iraqi constitution, that delivers security and services to the people, and believes in Iraq’s role as a peaceful neighbor and international player.

As an autonomous region of Iraq, how much independence does the KRI have from Baghdad’s central government to carry out their own foreign policy?

Based on the Iraqi constitution, the federal government has authority over formulating foreign policy and negotiating and signing international treaties. The Kurdistan Region broadly follows the federal government’s foreign policy since we are partners in the federal government, and we want Iraq to have successful and peaceful diplomatic relations. At the same time, it is a fact that the Kurdistan Region plays a critical role in the security, stability and economic wellbeing of Iraq and having good international relations is important both for us and Iraq, and for our international partners. For example, it is critical that Iraq does not become the battleground for proxy warfare, and the Kurdistan Region can play a role in that policy.

Also, historically, Kurdish leaders have had an international profile, which they have maintained, and which have been a source of support to Kurdistan and Iraq.

The Kurdistan Region encourages its partners in the international community to coordinate with Erbil and Baghdad, to help solve our problems. But foreign policy has many sides to it: diplomatic, commercial, and cultural. We encourage investment in Kurdistan and believe that we are the gateway to enter the rest of the Iraqi market, we promote cultural and educational ties and exchanges, although this has been challenging due to the rise of ISIS in 2014 and then the pandemic. Our outreach is multifaceted.

In what ways is the KRI currently collaborating with the United States government to defeat ISIS?

First, we in the KRI, are grateful for the US-led coalition and to all the nations who have been a part of this effort. Today, there are more than 80 states and international organizations that are part of coalition. This is important as it demonstrates the solidarity of the international community in fighting terrorism and extremism. We share America’s commitment to the enduring defeat of ISIS and will continue to fight the terror organization, even as it has claimed the lives of 2,000 Peshmerga and wounded 10,000.

However, you cannot fight ISIS in one country and leave it to have sanctuary in another, therefore, we support the United States and Coalition in their efforts to defeat ISIS in Syria. Recently, the US mission in Iraq changed from a combat role to one that is advising and assisting the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces. The assistance will be essential in continuing our fight against ISIS.

How has the war in Syria affected the Foreign Relations of the KRI?

When the turmoil first started in Syria, it was not clear what would happen, but we knew that events there would have a direct impact on the Kurdistan Region, whether positive or negative. For us, two things were important: the future of the Kurds in Syria and the stability and security of Syria.

When thousands of refugees crossed from Syria to the Kurdistan Region and we opened our doors to them, the international community took note, especially as this was at a time when some European countries were closing their borders and immigration became a politically controversial issue. The generosity of our public in taking in refugees has been a point of pride and helped Kurdistan’s standing as a safe haven for the persecuted and a beacon of stability. We have worked with international NGOs and the United Nations.

The nature of the Autonomous Administration in northeast Syria has been a source of tension between that administration and Turkey. We have tried to prevent that tension from escalating. At the end of the day, we want as much stability in our region and the well-being of the Kurds and religious minorities in Syria.

We have a stake in the future of Syria. As an escalation or widening of the conflict will have a negative impact on the region’s security and would cause another humanitarian disaster and displacement. We urged the international community to act more comprehensively at the start of the conflict but unfortunately that did not happen. Now we all have to live with the consequences and manage the best we can.

If Assad's government remains in power in Syria, is it possible that the KRI could reestablish relations with him? What would you need to occur for that to happen?

There is not a unified international approach on how to resolve the conflict in Syria. However, it is clear that there is no clear military solution, which means that dialogue and a political settlement are the only way forward. What kind of political settlement remains unknown, but Syria is Iraq and Kurdistan’s neighbor, and we hope there can be a lasting peace. Right now, the situation is not stable nor secure. Some Arab countries have started to normalize relations with the Assad regime, but the international community is still hesitant on how to proceed. The Kurdistan Region will not move forward alone as it is a part of Iraq and Iraq has ongoing relations with Syria.

With talks of an impending invasion, can the KRI play a role in preventing future conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria, if so, how?

The leadership of the Kurdistan Region has been very clear from the beginning with the different Kurdish groups in Syria that they need to be united and have a clear vision if they wish to deal with the Syrian Government or the opposition. We have encouraged our fellow Kurds in Syria to benefit from our experience, our mistakes, and successes.

The Kurds in Syria have suffered a lot in the past, and now they have an opportunity. Unfortunately, the presence of the PKK and its politics have not helped them. The PKK is trying to gain legitimacy internationally by using the Syrian Kurds. Turkey is well aware of this. Turkey was engaged with the PYD and asked that they disassociate themselves from the PKK, not fly the PKK flag, and not hang portraits of Abdullah Öcalan. Unfortunately, Qandil and the PKK did not allow the Syrian Kurds the freedom to do so and now the PKK is trying to impose itself on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as well.

We tried our best to help both sides understand the gravity of the situation at various levels. However, the people in Syria paid the price of the PKK’s insistence on provoking Turkey. The leadership here in the Kurdistan Region still communicates with both sides, first to deescalate the tensions and second to help our brothers and sisters in Syria to understand that Turkey is an important neighbor that has the support of the international community. We will do whatever we can to help deescalate tensions. However, we will not, and we have never interfered in the internal affairs of any country, whether that be Turkey, Syria, or Iran. We are ready to play a positive role in bridging gaps, mending fences, and helping forge peace.

What are some of the ways that the KRI attempts to balance the geopolitical interests and influences of the U.S., Russia, Turkey. and Iran? Is it possible to please all four of them simultaneously?

We have a clear policy which is to have good relations with our partners internationally, regionally, and locally. It’s not a zero-sum game. Having good relations with one state does not mean that it has to be at the expense of another. We want to live in peace within Iraq and have good neighborly relations with all our neighbors.

We are proud and pleased that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have representations in the KRI, in the form of consulates general. With some, we may be engaged more politically, others we are engaged commercially or on security matters.

Both Iran and Turkey are important neighbors for the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, and each has a large Kurdish population, hence we want to base these relations on mutual trust and mutual benefit, and we want the Kurds in every country to be able to live in peace.

What are some of the difficulties that the KRI faces in seeking international agreements since it is not an independent state?

Article 110 of the Iraqi Constitution stipulates that the federal government has the authority over signing international treaties and debt policies. When Baghdad signs a loan agreement or an international treaty, we want to be sure that the people of the Kurdistan Region, who are Iraqi citizens, receive their fair share or benefit equally compared with other citizens of the country. In the past this has not always been the case.

We are trying to encourage positive Erbil-Baghdad relations for the long-term, which means implementing the constitution is essential. Another essential element is for our international friends to mention the Kurdistan Region or our institutions by name in the agreements they sign with Iraq. For example, Japan has stated that the KRI needs to get a share of the loans it makes to Iraq and the US Congress names the Peshmerga forces in the military assistance it provides to Iraq in the fight against ISIS.

What are some of the fundamental security threats and interests currently facing the KRI?

As far as the KRI is concerned, ISIS remains a threat that must be dealt with. Erbil, Baghdad, and the international coalition need to continue to cooperate on intelligence-sharing, blocking ISIS’s sources of financing, and countering their narrative.

Another threat is the outlawed groups and factions that have weapons and are not within the security establishment of the state and threaten the Kurdistan Region and Iraq. They threaten the sovereignty and stability of Iraq as they have access to drones, Katyusha rockets, and other weapons. They have attacked the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad, including a recent assassination attempt on the Prime Minister of Iraq. Allowing these groups to continue in this way is against the interests of Iraqi sovereignty and security.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here represent those of the interviewee and not necessarily those of Dr. Shilan Fuad or Kurdistan 24.