By Barry Rubin
Dr. Jonathan Spyer, senior fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, has just returned from a visit to northern Iraq. He is the first Israeli analyst to meet leaders of the Kurdish-ruled region there, and to interview the leader of the radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He is interviewed here by Professor Barry Rubin, director of the GLORIA Center.
Rubin: What were your impressions of Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq?
Spyer: The most important impression is of stability and rapid economic development. It is far safer than central and southern Iraq, where there is a lot of violence and kidnapping for ransom. There is an enormous amount of construction. New hotels, malls, and private housing projects are springing up. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has successfully attracted U.S. investment. The Erbil airport, opened in September, is ultra-modern and looks like the airport of an independent state.
The second main impression is that northern Iraq in many ways resembles a quasi-state. Kurdish flags line the airport road, but there’s just one Iraqi flag. The first language on all signs is Kurdish, followed by English, and only then Arabic. Kurdish is also spoken by almost everyone. Arabic is rare. Northern Iraq has its own military and security forces — the Peshmerga — and KRG officials are particularly proud that they have kept Islamist terrorism out of their region even at the height of the insurgency.
Rubin: How do Iraqi Kurdish leaders view Israel and their own role in the Middle East?
Spyer: They are cautious, expressing a general hope for peace between Israelis and Arabs, and a general sympathy for both sides. Clearly, KRG leaders don’t want to be drawn into the conflict. They know they occupy a precarious space both geographically and politically. They also know their enemies routinely dismiss them as U.S. and Israeli stooges. Thus, their obvious natural sympathy and empathy with Jews and Israel is understandably overlaid by a desire to protect their interests.
Rubin: How do they rank various threats or allies, including Iraq’s central government and Turkey?
Spyer: Their most immediate concerns are with the Baghdad government and Turkey. They know they must walk a narrow line, asserting their interests while not antagonizing unduly either of these powerful neighbors. This relates to such issues as the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, other Kurdish-speaking areas of Iraq that haven’t been included in the KRG’s region, the presence of anti-Turkish PKK guerrillas in the north, and Turkish fears of Kurdish sovereignty.
Rubin: What do they say about U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq?
Spyer: There was an absolute consensus among everyone I spoke to that withdrawal was premature.
Yet they have a pragmatic, problem-solving mentality. So I didn’t hear resentment but rather gratitude to the United State for freeing Iraqi Kurds from the rule of Saddam Hussein.
Rubin: You spoke to the head of the Turkish Kurdish PKK group, which historically was allied with Syria and Iran. What is the current status of those links?
Spyer: Syria was once the PKK’s key state ally, providing bases and safe haven for its leader, Abdullah Ocalan. This changed with Syria’s reorientation toward alliance with Turkey after the near-war between them in 1997. Ocalan was captured after Syria made him leave. Thus, Syria-PKK links appear broken.
As for Iran, the PKK’s sister organization among the Iranian Kurds, PJAK, maintains a presence alongside the PKK in the Qandil mountains area where Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish borders meet. As a result, that stronghold is subject not only to Turkish aerial attack, but also to Iranian bombardment. The PKK is thus diplomatically isolated, having lost its links to Syria and Iran without finding alternative alliances. Nevertheless, the PKK has a powerful infrastructure and guerrilla force on the Qandil mountains and shows no indications of facing crisis.
Rubin: How does the PKK assess current politics in Turkey and set its strategy?
Spyer: The PKK considers that the early hopes that Prime Minister Erdogan’s regime would make reforms benefiting Turkish Kurds has proven empty. It hopes to capitalize on their disappointment and anger. The PKK asked Kurds to boycott the recent referendum on constitutional reform in Turkey, arguing the changes brought Kurds no benefit. This succeeded, with large numbers of Turkish Kurds boycotting the referendum, reaching over 90% in some areas of southeast Turkey.
I interviewed PKK leader Murat Karayilan, and he stressed the growing strategic alliance between Iran and Turkey, which he says is also directed against the Kurds. Karayilan considers that Turkey has plans for a major all-out, “Sri Lanka” style operation into the Qandil mountains and is trying to create a diplomatic situation to make this possible.
The PKK seems aware that it has nothing to gain from all-out, open confrontation with the Turks, but wants enough fighting to keep the Kurdish issue alive in Turkey. Thus, it is alternating unilateral ceasefires with attacks on infrastructure such as the recent mining of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline. The goal is to pressure Ankara to grant greater autonomy to Turkish Kurds.
Rubin: What was it like as an Israeli to be in northern Iraq, and how did people there react to you?
In the Kurdish zone the atmosphere and prevailing attitudes are very different from the rest of Iraq. In meetings, the general sense was one of obvious core sympathy with Israel, combined with a desire for caution in expressing opinions on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and with the broader Arab world.
Yet there is a sense of normality in the attitude toward Israel. Israel is seen as simply another player in the region. That’s to say that the shrillness, paranoia, and strangeness so obviously and depressingly present in so much Arab (and pro-Arab) discussion of Israel is simply, and very refreshingly, absent.
Rubin: In your new book about your personal experiences and fighting in the 2006 war, you focus on the transformation of the conflict into one of revolutionary Islamism versus Israel. Please explain about that.
Spyer: The book, The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict, focuses on the development of an Iran-led alliance, including Hamas and Hizballah, seeking to destroy Israel. This has transformed the challenges facing Israel in a way that hasn’t received sufficient attention. So the “international community” busies itself with reviving the 1990s “peace process” and so on, remaining unaware that the region’s transformed strategic situation renders all such attempts worthless.
The Iran-led bloc will prevent progress towards peace. The Palestinian national movement is not ready for historical compromise with the Jewish national project. It is also split, with the more powerful element aligned with Iran. The book discusses these issues, but also contains accounts of my own experiences, including participation in the 2006 Lebanon war, subsequent travels to Lebanon, and Israel at the time of the Second Intifada.
All of these things interweave to affect not only the political situation in the region but also the lives of those who live here.