This year is the 25th anniversary of the election of the first parliament and government of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Thanks to the “Safe Haven” that the U.S. and its European allies created in 1991 to protect the displaced Kurdish population from Baghdad’s brutal attacks, the Kurds turned a crisis into an opportunity to build a forward-looking nation with democratic aspirations. The journey was a tough one, with many successes and failures, but U.S.-KRI relations grew stronger and developed into a mutually rewarding partnership.
The U.S. continued to protect the Iraqi Kurds from Saddam’s regime in the years leading up to the regime change in Baghdad in 2003, and ensured that the Kurds would have their fair share in the new Iraq. The U.S. once again came to the rescue of the KRI in the face of the Islamic State (IS) onslaught in 2014 and continued its support to date. The Kurds have reciprocated with unreserved loyalty and solid support for U.S. policies in Iraq. Peshmarga forces became indispensable partners in the U.S.-led global coalition and instrumental in the ultimate military defeat of IS in Iraq.
Some consider this KRI-U.S. partnership a tactical and temporary one, not only because IS is being defeated and the U.S. will ostensibly not need the Kurds for much longer, but also because the U.S. will ultimately stop relying on the Kurds due to their inability, like the rest of Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, to promote rule-of-law and good governance and to control corruption, which runs unacceptably deep. However, the U.S. and the KRI can prove otherwise.
For a start, the U.S. continues to need strategic partners in the ever-changing Middle East, where its vital interests will remain at stake.
In a region that is in turmoil, there are numerous local, regional and global actors engaged in complex power dynamics and zero-sum games. Terrorism is on the rise with many failed states in the region. The U.S. and Europe face a much-reduced space and leverage for driving and shaping events. Regional state and substate (like KRI) actors have grown in influence across borders. A multitude of non-state actors, legitimized or not, have become increasingly influential in driving events.
The KRI, lying in the heart of the Middle East, is just what the U.S. needs, where it is most needed. The Kurds have proven themselves skillful and dynamic survivors in a conflict zone that is overwhelmed by powerful rivals. They have strong and historic collaborative (love-hate) relations with the Shia political elite of Iraq. They share a long border with the previously IS-occupied Sunni Arab territories, where the challenge of stabilization is greatest. They accommodated the majority of the displaced Sunni Arabs and ethnic and religious minorities during the IS war.
Internationally, despite the complexity of the region’s political and security dynamics, the KRI political parties have actively engaged with both Iran and Turkey, two rival powers and tough neighbors to KRI, and have maintained relatively good neighborly relationships with both. Finally, being a Muslim-majority country and having been part of Iraq, the KRI leaders have had unhindered access to most of the Arab countries.
On the issue of KRI’s internal governance challenges, the U.S. can help a great deal via constructive engagement. KRI leaders have always appreciated the value of a strong partnership with the U.S. The KRI, as a small, emerging nation, remains vulnerable in the world’s toughest neighborhood and continues to need the U.S. for political and security support. This gives the U.S. plenty of leverage that it has never used effectively. In fact, the U.S. has the same kind of leverage with all of its allies in the Middle East but was never willing to use it in fear of negative reactions. On the contrary, the previous U.S. administration chose to almost totally disengage with the region, particularly Iraq, and virtually abandoned its obligation to spread the values of liberty and rule-of-law in the Middle East. The consequences were disastrous, forcing the U.S. to return and face a war against the most radical of terrorists.
It might be rare for politicians to request or accept conditional help, but the KRI leaders do when such requests come from trusted friends. They are, and have been, responsive to terms and conditions that are linked to good governance, designed to help their country become a better, stronger and more prosperous place. Only last year, the U.S. offered $415 million in aid to the Peshmarga and included strict provisions in their contract, demanding measurable steps towards institutionalization of the force. KRG leaders viewed these conditions as “incentives” and “opportunities” to reform. Many used them to convince their fellow leaders to endorse change.
In short, tough love works with the Kurds and the U.S. should help the KRI become the partner it deserves, and the partner KRI deserves to be.
• Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, M.D., Ph.D., is the Founding President of The Middle East Research Institute (MERI), Iraq’s leading policy research institute and independent think tank, based in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. (www.meri-k.org and Twitter @meri_info). Formerly a human rights activist, Dr. Ala’Aldeen has served as a Professor of Medicine in the United Kingdom and the KRG Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research between 2009-2012. His biography is at meri-k.org/scholars/ Follow him on Twitter: @dlawer
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