On Monday, US President Donald Trump spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron and discussed the “need for the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government to resolve their differences through dialogue.” The conversation represents an achievement for the diplomacy of the KRG over the last month, as it has sought to shore up confidence following the chaos that resulted from the September referendum and the October clashes with Iraq over Kirkuk and other disputed areas.
The main drivers behind the Kurdistan region’s diplomatic offensive have been the young leaders of the region, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani. The architecture of this policy has largely fallen on Falah Mustafa, the head of the Foreign Relations Department of the KRG, who has been holding daily meetings with a vast array of officials.
For Mustafa, the last two weeks have been instructive. On November 21, he attended the Halifax International Security Forum, telling a reporter for CTV in Canada: “When we talk about the Middle East and its problems, it will not remain in the Middle East… it will go to Europe and beyond.” Traveling then to the United States, he met with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster along with Bayan Sami Rahman, the KRG’s representative in Washington. In a round of other meetings on Capitol Hill, Mustafa stressed the need for dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad, as well as the need for security and the importance of the upcoming national elections.
In reaction to the momentous independence referendum on September 25, the central government in Baghdad had sought to isolate the autonomous Kurdish region. The international airports in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah were ordered closed and on October 15, Baghdad moved to seize the oil fields and city of Kirkuk. In these disputes with the central Iraqi government, clashes resulted and dozens of Kurds and members of Shia militias were killed. Kurdish military forces retreated from various regions they had helped liberate from Islamic State the year before, including the areas around Sinjar where ISIS had carried out the Yazidi genocide. These moves left the Kurdish region feeling isolated. Foreign diplomats stopped visiting and it became clear that the US, UK and other influential states were not going to stand by Erbil. Nonetheless, some threats against the region have appeared to subside. Turkey did not close the border and Kurdistan is still exporting oil. KRG President Masoud Barzani left office at the end of October. So far, there has been no power struggle in Erbil as the nephew of the former president, Nechirvan Barzani, has carried on with his former position as prime minister, providing continuity.
On November 25, the Italian ambassador to Iraq Bruno Pasquino visited Erbil, followed by the Dutch ambassador Mattthijs Wolters on November 26, the Sri Lankan ambassador Niranjan Asoka Ranasinghe on November 27 and the Spanish ambassador Juan Jose Escobar Stemmann on November 28. The round of meetings were part of a larger group of meetings and discussions with KRG representatives in countries in Europe and in China.
In addition, both Nechirvan Barzani and Talabani met with the US ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman before they traveled to Paris to meet with Macron. The Paris meeting was important symbolically as it broke what was perceived as a kind of “diplomatic embargo” on the Kurdistan region that Western states had imposed after the referendum. Barzani and Talabani, with Macron beside them, stood in front of the Kurdistan and Iraqi flags, as the EU and French flags flanked Macron. The presence of the Kurdish flag also acted as an important symbol.
In his comments, Macron sought to balance his support for the Kurds with support for the unity of Iraq. He stressed the importance of following the Iraqi constitution, including Article 140, which “concerns the disputed territories.” This was a reference to Kirkuk which has seen Kurdish institutions eroded since Baghdad imposed federal control. Many Kurds have also fled the disputed areas and, in places such as Tuz Khurmatu, their homes and businesses have been burned.
Macron also called on Iraq to disband all the militias that had arisen during the last three years to fight ISIS, “including the Hashd al-Shaabi,” the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces.
This is an important development because the Iranian-backed Shia militias, which have tens of thousands of members, were incorporated into the official Iraqi security apparatus in 2016 and have received widespread support from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He called them the “hope of the country and the region” in a meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in October. Tillerson had also called on the militias to “go home.” Iran’s Supreme National Security Council head Ali Shamkhani replied to Macron’s demand by claiming the call to disband the Hashd al-Shaabi was a “plot” against the region.
Two weeks of diplomacy appear to have brought the Kurdistan region a reprieve from the acrimony of October. “The Kurdistan region has taken all steps to undertake the start of dialogue with Baghdad,” Kurdistan Region Security Council head Masrour Barzani told UN Special Envoy Jan Kubis on Monday. Despite this, questions remain about Baghdad’s approach. Iraq is facing elections and much work still needs to be done to bring stability following the defeat of ISIS. In addition, there are millions of displaced people who need to return home after the war, including hundreds of thousands of Yazidis and thousands of women still missing from their community after being kidnapped by ISIS in 2014.