Insight Turkey Debate III: A Debate on the Future of Iraqi Kurdistan: Between Survival and Indepence

Insight Turkey Debate III

September 25, 2012


A debate titled “The Future of Iraqi Kurdistan: Between Survival and Independence” was held with the participation of William Park (Kings College, London), Burak Bilgehan Özpek (TOBB University of Economics and Technology, Ankara) and Shwan Zulal (political analyst and energy consultant, London). The debate was moderated by İhsan Dağı, Editor-in-Chief of Insight Turkey journal. The speakers made the following presentations: “Turkey, the US and the KRG: Moving Parts and the Geopolitical Realities”; “Democracy or Partition: Future Scenarios for the Kurds of Iraq”; and “Survival Strategies and Diplomatic Tools: The Kurdistan Region’s Foreign Policy Outlook”.


The moderator of the debate, and Insight Turkey’s Editor-in-Chief, İhsan Dağı started by introducing the speakers, all of whom also contributed to the journal’s latest issue. He stated that all the participants are experts on Kurdish issues. Dağı then asked William Park if relations between Erbil and Ankara are sustainable given regional and global developments and issues.

William Park

William Park started by thanking those who made this debate possible. He then moved on to answer Dağı’s question by saying that while he talked about the “moving parts” in his Insight Turkey article, he now wanted to talk about the “non-moving parts”, which are Kurdish identity politics, such as the rise of Kurdish nationalism since the founding of the Kurdish government, and Turkey’s own Kurdish problem, such as the growing tension and violence in the country and the political parties’ and activists’ demand for self-determination—what northern Iraqi Kurds now have. He said that the Kurdish problem is here to stay and that the PKK makes life harder for Turkish citizens. He asked “where are we in Kurdish issue?”, and continued by saying “it’s not the time to take out a blank sheet of paper.” He then stated that the issue is not stable and he does not know whether the future is going to be better or worse.
However, according to Park, the growing energy relationship between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Turkey is a positive sign. He said that Turkey’s relations with KRG leader Barzani has made the relationship grow closer. But Barzani’s aspiration for a unified Kurdistan, which includes regions of Turkey, makes Turkish authorities uncomfortable.
He then moved on to talk about the positive sides of the relationship, of which he says the agreement between Turkish authorities and Barzani on strengthening the Kurdish National Council and in creating a Syrian-Kurdish community, an issue which Park has some difficulties with. Park continued by saying that Turkey’s relations with northern Iraq involve more actors than just the KRG. Answering İhsan Dağı’s question of “who needs who the most in this power game, Erbil, Ankara, Bagdad, Washington?”, Park said that Washington has made too many commitments in Iraq and now Washington is just trying to make everyone happy. He concluded his presentation by saying that Washington is crossing its finger and hoping that everything will go smoothly and there will be no conflict.

Burak Özpek

Burak Özpek started by telling a story, which he had also included in his article in Insight Turkey, that illustrates Saddam Hussein’s take on the democracy issue in Iraq. Özpek argued that Hussein’s answer to that question can still be applied to modern Iraq following the withdrawal of US armed forces and the Baghdad government’s centralization policy. Özpek then said that Iraq now is a democracy on paper, and that the future of Iraq depends on how its problems are solved. He also said that the term “de facto” is now more and more commonly used when it comes to Iraq.
He then moved on by examining the question of “how the political regime in Iraq affects Iraq’s future.” He argued that he defines Iraq as a divided society, the Iraqi Kurds being part of this divided society, and the main question is how to keep this divided society unified. He stressed that conflict is a product of an absence of a collective view of the future. Özpek then continued by arguing that the power-sharing arrangements in place have caused a lack of authority.
Özpek stated that democracy is a method for settling civil conflicts, but democracy alone cannot provide stability. He then looked at the consociational model of democracy, which can be argued should be in place in Iraq, and outlined the four basic requirements: 1) executive power sharing; 2) self-government; 3) budgetary and fiscal sharing; and 4) minority rights.
Özpek then examined the current situation in Iraq using these principles. In Iraq the executive power-sharing principle does not work because of Maliki’s centralization policy, which is stimulating collective fears. As for the self-government principle, according to Özpek there are two issues, oil contracts in the KRG and the Turkey-KRG pipeline, which are seen as important by the Erbil government and show the problems of self-government in Iraq. The other issue regarding self-government that Özpek mentioned was the debate over potential sovereignty for regions within Iraq. The third principle of budgetary and fiscal sharing can be examined along with the minority rights issue. According to Özpek Kurds are discriminated against in employment and the peshmerga forces in the KRG have not yet received all the funds that the Baghdad government agreed to provide. As for protecting minorities, since the presidential council has now lost its power, the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish populations are not equally represented.
Prompted by Dağı’s question of “isn’t there a path of independence for Kurds, independent from what Bagdad does?”, Özpek concluded his speech by giving the answer: “The lack of these principles is actually an opportunity for Iraqi Kurds to demand independence.”

Shwan Zulal

Shwan Zulal began his presentation by expressing his gratitude for the invitation. He then moved on to talk about the KRG’s foreign policy in relation to energy and foreign investments. He said that 50 percent of northern Iraq’s foreign investment comes from Turkey, and that Turkey is one of the largest partners of the Kurdish government.

Zulal went on by saying that more oil and gas are being found every day and the KRG is using these resources to make friends with Turkey, the USA and Europe. He said that the KRG has now one of the top ten oil and gas reserves in the world, and the KRG has successfully stopped Bagdad’s attempts to centralize oil policy. But for Zulal, even though the KRG has been successful in developing its oil policy, it has not been that successful when it comes to its domestic policy. Zulal thinks that domestically the KRG is a work in progress, but that failure here could lead to polarization and eventually disunity, and unity is vital for the KRG’s for survival.

Zulal then stated that if Kurdistan ever became an independent country, it would be beneficial for Turkey since the only way that Kurdistan can survive is through the selling of its energy resources, and this would mostly happen with Turkey. He was asked by İhsan Dağı about the possibility of a Turkish-Kurdish coalition, and his take was that it was possible if there were an equal partnership, but in the short term it does not seem possible given the hostility on both sides.
With regards to the KRG’s perception of the AK Party, Zulal argued that the Kurdish government thinks that if it cannot solve this conflict with the AK Party, they will have no one left if there is a change in government in Turkey, and thus it is in the KRG’s interests to engage with the AK Party. İhsan Dağı asked Zulal a question about what the KRG has to do to help resolve the Kurdish conflict in Turkey. Zulal replied by saying that since the KRG represents Kurdistan and the Kurds first of all, they can talk to the PKK. And he said that the KRG acknowledges that Turkey is a big brother since it is a bigger power. In his summation he stated that Turkey should take more advantage of its partnership with the KRG.


Before the question and answer session, William Park gave the example of the Irish-British conflict and compared it to the Iraqi Kurdish issue and democracy in Iraq was generally discussed. Ihsan Dağı then closed the panel, thanking all for their participation.