With hundreds of pages of documents piled up on her desk, emblematic of an official representing a place that has recently made a lot of noise in the world, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman is going through a “very proud moment.”
“It is funny how the world just seems resistant to new states,” Ms. Rahman, who is the representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Washington D.C., told The Globe Post in an interview. “And then once they are accepted and recognized, people forget that they had to struggle to be independent and struggle to be recognized.”
Reminding her of that road toward independence is a large portrait of her parents, hung on the wall of her office, both of whom had been tireless Kurdish resistance fighters for decades.
People in Kurdistan went to the polls on September 25 to vote for independence that they long dreamed, and that vote brought strains to the surface in the region. Amid a billowing backlash from regional powers, winning over neighbors now remains the most pressing task for the KRG.
With Iraqi and Kurdish flags behind her, Ms. Rahman said Kurdish authorities had been met with a lot of “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” ahead of the referendum.
“Now that we have done it, we have had a lot of threats from Baghdad, Iran, Turkey,” she noted.
Ms. Rahman, a journalist-turned-diplomat, said her government certainly wants to engage in dialogue with Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors. “We want to de-escalate the tensions,” she said, adding that Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani‘s request to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hasn’t been accepted.
It’s Only a Referendum, Not a Declaration of Independence
Kurdish officials anticipated that they would face blistering criticism from regional countries and allies such as the U.S., but they still moved ahead with the referendum despite incessant pressure from Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Washington.
Now that the referendum is over, a cloud of uncertainty is hanging over the region. Ms. Rahman strove to stay above the combative rhetoric that defined neighbors’ scathing criticisms, reassuring them, and Baghdad, that it is only a referendum, not a declaration of independence.
“We haven’t committed a crime,” Ms. Rahman said.
“They should realize – and we’ve been very clear about this before, during, and now after the referendum – that this is a referendum. This is not a declaration of independence. There’s a difference and there are countries that have become independent just by unilaterally declaring. We chose not to take that path,” she underscored.
Officials in Erbil calculated that the independence referendum would give bargaining power to Kurdish leaders in negotiating terms of secession from Iraq. But threats from Baghdad offered little hope for a rapid resolution of the brewing crisis.
Ms. Rahman asked neighboring states not to see the referendum as a threat to their countries and borders or to their stability. She reminded them that Kurdistan has had semi-autonomy or de facto independence in Iraq since 1991. “Over that period, we could have interfered in Iran and Turkey. There are very large Kurdish populations in both countries. We have not. If anything we have been a factor for stability for those countries and we don’t intend to change that. Our position remains the same.”
Erbil wants negotiations to start as soon as possible. Baghdad’s reaction, according to Ms. Rahman, “has been disproportionate.” She called resolutions passed by the Iraqi parliament threatening Kurdistan “not helpful” and hoped Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi not to carry out those threats. She added that Iraq and Kurdistan need to cooperate to continue to fight against the Islamic State. “So the first step for us is — let’s hope that these threats are not carried out. And let’s begin a dialogue. That this is what we wish to achieve.”
Right Time for Referendum
Until the last minute, Washington called on Erbil to postpone the referendum, saying it could affect the fight against Islamic State. “It shouldn’t disrupt,” Ms. Rahman said, assuring that any interruption “certainly won’t come from our side.”
Kurdistan will do nothing to disrupt the fight against ISIS, Ms. Rahman underscored, and it will do everything to continue its commitment to defeat the extremist group.
She said the U.S. and other countries privately acknowledged that Kurdistan has legitimate aspirations and some of them even agreed that Baghdad had pushed the region into a corner leading effectively to a point where it needed to have a referendum. But they also advised the regional Kurdistan government that it was not the right time for independence.
“But when we asked them, ‘well when is the right time?’, there wasn’t an answer.”
Days before the referendum, Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, held talks with Kurdish officials and offered a deal to the KRG. That roadmap, according to Ms. Rahman, included a two or three-year negotiation between Erbil and Baghdad on all of the issues that they disagree on. These talks would be structured and the U.S., Britain, France and U.N. would be involved in making sure they were productive.
That proposal was rejected. The reason, Ms. Rahman explained, was that it didn’t offer a guarantee that if the negotiations fail, Iraqi Kurdistan could hold a referendum and it would be supported. “So from our perspective, they’re asking us to postpone the referendum to an unspecified date in the future, when a future referendum might again be opposed. So we decided well, we’ll just go ahead. This is as good a time as any.”
The U.S. has been an ally of the Kurdistan region for almost three decades, but it didn’t provide unconditional support during the independence referendum. Ms. Rahman said the U.S had been clear that it disagreed with the timing of the event. In its aftermath, the U.S. State Department said it was deeply disappointed that Kurdistan held the referendum but added that Washington has “a historic relationship” with the region and “this will not undermine it.”
Ms. Rahman said the U.S. was worried that the relationship between Erbil and Baghdad would deteriorate and that might affect how Washington provides assistance to the Iraqi Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, since it has to be approved by the Abadi government.
When ISIS attacked Sinjar and Erbil in 2014, Ms. Rahman recalled, the Peshmerga were caught by surprise and they were under-equipped. While ISIS had captured billions of dollars worth of American equipment from the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga didn’t have the kind of weapons they needed to fight the terrorists, she said. Ms. Rahman claimed the Peshmerga had been denied weapons by Baghdad for years.
At the beginning, the international community sent weapons directly to Erbil because, according to Ms. Rahman, it was an emergency life or death situation. But the Iraqi central government was quick to demand that everything had to come through Baghdad. “And then we saw weapons never reaching us or being delayed. For us it was infuriating because our Peshmerga are being killed. And there are weapons sitting on the tarmac at Baghdad Airport.”
Ms. Rahman said some coalition partners told Erbil that they had written to Baghdad, asking for permission to send weapons – and even sometimes non-lethal equipment – to Peshmerga, but Iraqi authorities never responded. “So yes, technically you could say ‘well, the weapons shipment was never held up.’ But that’s because the weapons shipment never made it, because Baghdad never answered the letters.”
Ms. Rahman and her team lobbied hard with the U.S. Congress, the State Department and with the Pentagon to get the weapons sent directly to Kurdistan. Legislation that would allow direct support to Erbil didn’t pass in the U.S. Senate, but she said it made it clear to everybody in Washington that Baghdad was delaying the process.
Though the bill didn’t pass, it did force the U.S. government to say “you don’t need legislation, we will ensure everything comes to the Peshmerga,” Ms. Rahman noted.
Western Support was ‘Disappointing’
Last week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on President Donald J. Trump to back an independent state for the Kurds, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. lawmaker to publicly support independence. Ms. Rahman welcomed Mr. Schumer’s statement, and said there were many members of Congress who privately expressed support for the referendum on independence. “Now we need them to speak out,” she urged.
Ms. Rahman noted that it was “disheartening” to see Western nations who lecture others about democracy and rights reject Kurdistan’s democratic right to hold a referendum. “It’s very disheartening when all of these democracies that enjoy independence, enjoy democracy, enjoy sovereignty, enjoy self-determination tell us it’s good for us, but not good for you. Yeah, that is disappointing.”
She wished that other countries that have privately told them that they support Kurdish independence would do so publicly. “We’re very disheartened that all of these European Western democracies that are ready to jump all over us when it comes to issues of human rights, transparency and so on … when it comes to conducting a democratic referendum, asking for self-determination, which is enshrined in the U.N. Charter, they’re all opposed. The hypocrisy can’t helped but be noticeable.”
Rich with oil and gas, Kurdistan is a land-locked territory and depends on Turkey to ship its natural resources to Israel and Western markets. Following the referendum, Turkey threatened to start delivering all revenues from the commodities to Baghdad, but the Russian oil giant Rosneft struck a deal with the region this month, despite the air of uncertainty.
Ms. Rahman said Baghdad intends to take over oil fields and that it is against the Constitution. She added that Baghdad cut off Kurdistan’s share of the budget in February 2014 on the pretext that Erbil was exporting oil, although Kurdistan didn’t export it until May that year.
Choosing her words carefully, and avoiding the language of neighbors who assailed Kurdistan, the diplomat urged them to bring the volume down and de-escalate rhetoric.
“Because the threats don’t work, sanctions don’t work on us. We are very stubborn people and if anything, it unites the Kurds even more,” she said.
She argued that the more the international community and neighbors were hitting them over the head just before the referendum, the more it unified the Kurdish public to vote “yes.”
In this path to independence, riddled with land mines, Kurdistan needs to tread carefully. Ms. Rahman often infused her interview with words of assurance that Kurdistan will seek only a friendly relationship.
“We are not looking to destabilize anyone, we are not looking to change borders through the referendum,” she said, noting that it is only a mandate to negotiate on borders, oil, gas, water, minerals, division of debt, and division of assets. “We need our neighbors to understand that.”
Friction with Baghdad was especially acute. The Parliament gave the prime minister the power to send troops to Kirkuk, if necessary. “So far it is fine,” the representative said. “There hasn’t been any security incident that I am aware of.”
Describing the threat to send troops to Kirkuk as “very worrying,” Ms. Rahman hoped that the prime minister would not make this “unnecessary and unconstitutional” move.
Holding the referendum in Kirkuk was especially concerning for Baghdad, since it considers it to be a land-grab by Kurdistan. In addition, the disputed city has sizable minority population that includes Turkmen, and nationalists in Turkey were infuriated by the vote.
Turkey Is Worried
Before and after the referendum, Turkey held a military drill on the border with Kurdistan and invited Iraqi troops to join the exercise. On Sunday, Turkish army chief Hulusi Akar paid a visit to Iran to coordinate response to the independence referendum.
Turkish President Erdogan has vociferously rejected the referendum and promised unspecified “measures” in response. The land border with Iraqi Kurdistan remained open as of Sunday, but three Turkish airlines canceled flights to northern Iraqi cities.
Turkey, which has been fighting against domestic Kurdish insurgents for three decades, is worried that an independent state in neighboring Iraq will destabilize its own restive Kurdish population.
The way to deal with a Kurdish question in Turkey, Iran and Iraq, Ms. Rahman advised, is for those national governments to treat their Kurdish populations with respect and dignity, and to recognize their cultural, linguistic, administrative, and political rights. “If you do that, then there is no ground for a separatist movement, as everybody calls them.”
She cited Scotland and Quebec as cases in point, where ultimately the majority of people have voted not to separate. “Why? Because Canada and Britain are democracies.”
“We’re asking for linguistic rights, we’re asking for cultural rights. We’re asking to be respected. We’re asking to be treated as equal citizens. None of that is out of the realms of possibility,” Ms. Rahman highlighted.
Since 1991, she said, Iraqi Kurdistan has been de facto independent and it has not done anything to destabilize those countries. “We could have through those Kurdish populations and by other means. And we are not threatening to do that now either. We are saying that we haven’t done that. And we intend to continue to be only representing Iraqi Kurds and to be a factor for peace and stability in the region.”
Israel’s Support For Independence
Kurdistan found an unlikely ally in its move toward independence: Erbil earned the loudest cheers from Israel. It was the only country that publicly supported the referendum. And, unsurprisingly, set off denunciations in Ankara and Tehran.
Despite bad optics, Ms. Rahman wouldn’t say she was worried. “We wish that other countries that have privately told us they support Kurdish independence would publicly do so too.”
Some Western and Arab countries, according to Ms. Rahman, told Erbil that they are neutral on the entire process. The others said privately that if Kurdistan declares independence, they would recognize it. Since these nations didn’t say it in public, Ms. Rahman said it appears to the world that Israel is the only country that supports Kurdish independence.
“And of course we know how this is interpreted in some of these capitals. And it’s strange for us, for example, that Turkey which has, I believe, diplomatic relations with Israel is very upset that Israel supports Kurdish independence.”
Public Service is a Calling
In the period leading up to the referendum, Ms. Rahman said they were told “so many alarmist worrying, scaremongering theories as if the sky would fall in.”
“I am very happy to say nothing happened except that people very joyfully, in a very festive atmosphere, went and voted.”
She said her work as the representative for Kurdistan in Washington is not “just a job.” For her, public service is more of a calling. Despite situations that can be very tough at times, she can also witness proud moment.s
Ms. Rahman pointed to her parents’ photo on the wall, and said that during the referendum, she also voted for her elder brother Salah, who was killed along with her father, Sami Abdul Rahman, veteran of the Kurdish freedom movement and the former deputy prime minister, during twin bombing attacks in Erbil in 2004.
“We have taken a leap forward,” she said of the referendum. “And sometimes you just have to do it.”