Karwan Zebari isn’t a career diplomat, an ambassador or even officially the head of a foreign mission here. But the political entity he speaks for — Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government — is suddenly enjoying unprecedented visibility as President Obama enlists allies around the world to help him crush the bloodthirsty Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and restore a measure of stability to a dangerously combustible region.
“My leadership highly values Washington. We have a lot of friends on the Hill, at think tanks and in the academic world,” Zebari told us in a Sept. 8 interview at his office. “Everybody now realizes ISIS is a threat to the Kurds and our national security.”
That’s big talk for a 31-year-old electrical engineer with no previous diplomatic experience or background in world affairs. But these are heady times for the 5.3 million inhabitants of Iraqi Kurdistan, who have been dreaming of independence for nearly 100 years. Denied statehood when the boundaries of the Middle East were redrawn by European powers and persecuted for years by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, the Kurds finally achieved autonomy after the U.S.-led war, but not a nation of their own.
In fact, Kurds are often considered the largest ethnic group of stateless people on the planet. Of the world’s 30 million Kurds, roughly 14 million live in Turkey, 8 million in Iran, 5 million in Iraq, 2 million in Syria and the rest in the diaspora.
Nations like Turkey worry that this large, restive population of Kurds could threaten their territorial integrity. While Turkey has significantly improved ties with its Kurdish minority and maintains good relations with the Kurdish region of Iraq, independence would be a red line for Ankara. Washington also considers the PKK, a Kurdish group fighting Turkey, to be a terrorist organization, complicating support for a separate Kurdish guerrilla force that’s fighting jihadists in neighboring Syria.
Nevertheless, the United States is now relying on Kurdish militias known collectively as the Peshmerga to play a central role in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq. The Obama administration will have to carefully calibrate its support, though, so as not to alienate the central government in Baghdad, Turkey or the Gulf monarchies funding Syria’s rebels — a balancing act that reflects the shifting, convoluted alliances unleashed by both the Syrian civil war and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
In fact, many blame the U.S. invasion for giving birth to the Islamic State, whose Sunni recruits fought American troops and felt disenfranchised by the Shiite-led government installed by Washington. Yet Zebari says the 40,000-square-kilometer wedge of northern Iraq under Kurdish control stands as a crowning achievement of that controversial conflict — a territory that is more strategically important than ever.
“Look at the geographic location of Kurdistan. It’s the most stable, prosperous, safest part of Iraq,” he insisted. “If you’re looking for a success story as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom, you can point to the Kurdish region. To this day, not a single American soldier or civilian contractor has been killed or wounded in the Kurdish region.”
That could change, of course, if American troops are sent into key battle zones, though Zebari says that won’t be necessary.
“We’re not calling for [U.S.] boots on the ground because we already have boots on the ground,” he said, instead urging expanded airstrikes.
President Obama has done just that, dropping hundreds of bombs against ISIS positions in Iraq, including nearly 100 near the Mosul Dam and 30 in and around Erbil, the Kurdish capital. More recently, the United States, joined by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, targeted the Islamic State and another al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria, marking America’s first military foray into that country since its civil war broke out in 2011.
The Sept. 23 strikes came just days after Kurdish pleas to prevent ISIS fighters from overrunning Kurdish towns near Turkey, which closed stretches of its border after an influx of 130,000 refugees, on top of the 1.5 million Syrians it’s already hosting. While the administration has now officially conducted strikes in Syria, it remains to be seen how much direct assistance it will offer Kurds in that country; Turkey would most likely oppose efforts to strengthen Kurdish fighters on its borders.
Zebari says everyone should be doing more to help the region’s beleaguered Kurds.
“The international community must step up and assist those at the frontlines of destroying ISIS — including the Kurds in Syria — to make sure ISIS stops its acts of genocide. There are 200,000 Kurds leaving Syria trying to enter Turkey. We hope that Turkey will show its positive side of letting people in until ISIS is eliminated. We understand that Turkey is overwhelmed with a number of refugees over the past three years due to the conflict in Syria, [but] Turkey is a country of nearly 80 million people. I think it is very well capable of helping them,” Zebari told us.
Now that the focus is turning back to Syria, however, Zebari wants the U.S. to know that the job isn’t finished in Iraq, where Kurdish Peshmerga forces remain splintered among different militia factions and never received the kind of weaponry and training that the U.S. gave to the Iraqi Army in Baghdad.
“While U.S. airstrikes have disrupted ISIS defenses and relieved pressure on the Kurdish security forces, Kurdistan continues to face significant equipment and logistical concerns when it comes to fighting ISIS. They are still under-equipped when it comes to advancing further,” Zebari said, explaining that his 100,000 active troops and 80,000 reservists need more than light weapons and ammunition from Washington.
“The Peshmerga is a professional, organized army,” he said. “There’s a will, unlike what we saw in Mosul, where [the Iraqi army] abandoned their weapons and walked away.”
ISIS’s blitzkrieg on Mosul in early June, and the Iraqi army’s embarrassing retreat, stunned President Obama into action. Despite ending America’s unpopular entanglement in Iraq in 2011, the president’s hand seemed to be forced by the potential fragmentation of the country.
To be fair, nobody in Washington accurately predicted the sudden rise of ISIS and its slaughter of religious minorities and, indeed, any Muslim who disagrees with the group’s fanatical interpretation of Islam.
Yet Zebari said the KRG gave the Obama administration ample warning of what might come next.
“We alerted both Washington and Baghdad that ISIS would ultimately move into Mosul, which is right at our doorstep. But Baghdad never saw it as a serious threat,” he told The Diplomat. “Iraqi security forces collapsed within a matter of hours, and all this heavy U.S. military equipment fell into the hands of ISIS. On June 9, a senior-level delegation came to Washington and made its case for beefing up security assistance.”
Two months later, ISIS fighters were only 25 miles from Erbil when airstrikes ordered by the White House stopped their advance.
“The administration came to the defense of Erbil for a range of reasons,” according to a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal. “It already saw the Peshmerga as trusted allies in a volatile region.
“The combination of bombing runs, replenished ammunition and help for Peshmerga from guerrillas of the PKK and the group in Syria changed fortunes on the ground,” the Journal said. “The jihadists were pushed out of the towns on the road to Erbil and then from the Mosul Dam, which they had seized earlier.”
Beyond the impending humanitarian disaster that Obama cited as justification for the intervention, Erbil is home to a sprawling U.S. consulate as well as U.S. multinationals that have invested billions of dollars in the region’s booming oil industry.
“The U.S. is acting in its own interests,” said Zebari. “If the Kurdish region were to be taken over by ISIS, that would have been an incredible blow. They could have disrupted lives and done a lot of damage. They had heavy military equipment in their hands. Their artillery was in the range of a few miles of reaching the airport.”
However, U.S. help to Kurdish interests apparently came at a price: The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has agreed to postpone a referendum on independence, which it has the right to carry out under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.
“Our priorities have absolutely changed. When you have ISIS at your doorstep and your Peshmerga forces are stretched along a 1,035-kilometer border, you have to make sure your people are safe and secure before you can carry out any referendums,” Zebari said.
Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to both Iraq and Syria (see cover profile), said the idea of Kurdish independence is admirable but extremely risky.
“I certainly understand the yearnings of Kurds to have their own state. Would it be economically viable? Maybe, but that depends on the neighboring countries. The Kurds would have to work with them if they declared independence, and Arabs in Iraq would say you’re ripping our country apart,” he said.
“Doing it unilaterally, without reference to neighbors or other Iraqi citizens, is very dangerous and puts at risk a lot of the gains on the ground. Iraqi Kurds are surrounded by other groups on all sides.”
Washington seems to agree. A State Department official told Reuters that any moves toward independence for Kurdistan at this time “are pretty disruptive and counterproductive.”
The official, speaking on background, added: “We do recognize, though, that you can’t unscramble this egg. There’s not going to be a return to the status quo.” (For one thing, Kurdish forces used the chaos this summer to capture disputed territory, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.) The official said there would be discussions between Baghdad and Erbil “about devolution of authority and potentially some greater autonomy.”
The dream of Kurdish autonomy has endured for nearly a century. Speaking to this newspaper seven years ago, Qubad Talabani — Zebari’s predecessor — told us that “all our problems started with the inception of Iraq. It was an artificial state with artificial boundaries. Nobody asked us if we wanted to be part of Iraq” (also see “Violence in Iraq Threatens Kurdish ‘Island of Stability’” in the September 2007 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Zebari’s official role here is director of congressional and academic affairs — making him one of five directors at the KRG mission, which also has directors of community, diplomatic, political and public affairs. He arrived in August 2012 following the departure of Talabani, the mission’s chief, who became deputy prime minister of the KRG (and who is the second son of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani).
Yet in practice, Zebari is the mission’s de facto chief, overseeing a staff of 11. Born in the town of Duhok, near Iraq’s border with Turkey and Syria, Zebari came to the United States in 1997, earned a graduate degree in engineering and settled in upstate New York, where he worked for aerospace and defense contractors.
But he was always involved with Kurdish issues at the grassroots level. In 2006, the KRG established its own mission in Washington, and three years later moved into its current location — an elegant five-story mansion on 16th Street.
Zebari refused to say what it costs to run his office, though last year the KRG spent $1.7 million on high-powered lobbyists and consultants including Patton Boggs, Greenberg Traurig, Qorvis, and BGR Group.
Asked to name Kurdistan’s best friends on Capitol Hill, Zebari began ticking off names of senators: Carl Levin (D-Mich.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). On the House side, he said, “there’s a whole Kurdistan caucus consisting of about 54 members split right down the middle.”
According to the Wall Street Journal article, the Kurds’ American contacts came in handy when Erbil was sounding the alarm about ISIS.
“The administration was having trouble getting the Iraqi government to let the Pentagon directly rearm the Kurds, U.S. officials added, because Iraqi leaders in Baghdad wanted supplies to go through them to avoid fueling Kurdish efforts to gain greater autonomy,” the article said. “While [KRG President Masoud] Barzani and his aides worked the phones, lobbyists for the Kurds and for U.S. companies roamed Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to press the administration to step up support. Some did so, concerned about the Kurds and U.S. investments.”
Investment is sorely needed in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the few economic bright spots in the war-torn country, at least until recently. Zebari said the strain of dealing with 1.1 million internally displaced refugees and another 300,000 fleeing the chaos in Syria must be addressed. “These displaced persons have taken a toll on the economy,” he said. “On top of that, Baghdad has held the KRG’s budget hostage for the past nine months, exceeding $9 billion.”
Under a power-sharing agreement, the KRG is entitled to 17 percent of all national revenues based on the Kurdish region’s proportion of Iraq’s total population. But “since the beginning of this year,” Zebari complained, “we have not received a single penny.”
The inability to pay the salaries of Peshmerga soldiers partly contributed to ISIS’s battlefield successes, but the Kurds are also to blame for their own financial woes. The KRG has been trying to bypass Baghdad and sell its own oil on the world market. In retaliation, the central government in Iraq cut off payments to the Kurds and stepped up a legal offensive against the KRG after it tried to unload a tanker of crude oil off the coast of Texas earlier this year.
“At stake is the U.S. goal of a unified Iraq, and the Obama administration is stuck in the middle of the dispute,” wrote Steven Mufson of the Washington Post. “Having invested tremendous effort in securing Iraqi federalism and its constitution — which says oil belongs to the entire republic — the administration has been discouraging companies and countries from buying the Kurdish oil cargoes.”
Instead of further partitioning the fragile country, Obama has been trying to encourage a more inclusive central government. After intense pressure from Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resigned in August after eight years in office. Maliki — who was replaced by Haider al-Abadi — had been accused of monopolizing power and promoting divisive sectarianism that strengthened Shiites at the expense of minority Sunnis, some of whom threw their support behind ISIS.
“ISIS was able to gain momentum from inside Iraq because of the lack of leadership and the marginalization of Sunni Muslims by Maliki,” Zebari claimed. “In Iraq, I think you can blame almost all of it on Maliki.”
Yet that argument doesn’t hold water, counters political analyst Zack Beauchamp, who says that blaming Maliki alone “misses the real drivers of sectarianism in Iraq,” as well as the complicated, multifaceted sources of support ISIS enjoys.
“To take one example, many Sunnis wrongly believe that they’re the largest demographic group in Iraq,” Beauchamp wrote on the Vox website. “This belief, spread during Saddam’s time to justify Sunni minority rule, leads Sunnis to see any government they don’t head up as fundamentally unjust. Neither Maliki nor his also-Shiite successor [al-Abadi] can fix that.”
The Kurds, who almost torpedoed al-Abadi’s appointment, aren’t giving the new prime minister much room to maneuver. They issued him a three-month ultimatum to resolve longstanding disputes or else they will pull their support from his government. Among the conditions they’ve laid out: unfreezing salaries, arming Peshmerga fighters and settling the status of Kirkuk.
Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) argued in a recent policy brief that the United States should push al-Abadi to fulfill some of the Kurds’ demands, including paying KRG salaries and funding the Peshmerga.
“A wider international effort to destroy ISIS would be far longer and more costly without the KRG, which can provide secure basing and direct access to over a thousand miles of the group’s front lines in northern Iraq and, importantly, Kurdish-populated parts of eastern Syria,” he wrote.
Several European countries, including Germany and Britain, have already agreed to arm the Kurds, while the Obama administration has brought together a coalition of more than 40 nations — including 10 Arab countries — to “destroy” ISIS. In mid-September, diplomats from dozens of nations meeting in Paris pledged to help Iraq fight ISIS “by all means necessary.”
Zebari says it will take all the resources the West can muster to counter one of the most well-funded militant groups in recent memory — one that, by some estimates, earns $1 million to $3 million a day from oil smuggling, extortion, taxes, crime and private Gulf donations.
“Whoever’s funding ISIS is nobody’s friend. It’s a cancer. We have to get rid of this security threat before we move on,” Zebari said. “It’s an ideology that’ll take years to get rid of and destroy. Look how long it took to dismantle al-Qaeda.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.