May 19, 2014

A new tourism hub in the Middle East

Erbil: An ancient city with a modern face

Only a decade ago, Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was a dirty, dusty and isolated town. During the hot summer months, people would refer to it as the “gateway to hell.” But today, Erbil’s image has been transformed, and many of Iraq’s 28 million residents would consider the city a heavenly place to spend their summer vacation. With a series of massive construction projects underway, a booming economy driven by the region’s vast oil and gas reserves, and a strong business partner in former foe Turkey, the city looks set to shine in the coming years.

In October 2012 – competing with Beirut, Taif and Sharjah – Erbil won the title of the 2014 tourism capital from the Arab Council of Tourism (in 2013, the title was given to Manama, the capital of Bahrain). The award inspired the city to accelerate its development of tourism. Over the past two years, the government has spent around USD 6 billion on infrastructure development; increased the number of projects; and signed multi-billion dollar investments. In addition to the growth of Erbil, these measures have led to more vibrancy in the market.

Business is flourishing in the capital of this autonomous enclave, with Erbil viewed as a trade gate to the rest of Iraq. The city has also become a favorite destination for foreign investors, thanks to its friendly investment law. This has led to a dramatic increase in flights into Erbil. In 2010, the number of flights landing at Erbil International airport was 19 per week; by late 2013, that number had increased to 90.

Cranes now dot the Erbil skyline, as enormous construction projects change the city’s landscape. One of the biggest projects, expected to be ready by 2018, is Downtown Erbil, an area comprising 541,000 square meters of houses and apartments, offices, hotels, mall and parks. The project is a USD 3 billion investment by Emaar, the company responsible for such global icons as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping and entertainment center. Another massive project is Empire World, a housing development costing around USD 2.3 billion. Empire World will include dozens of towers, many above 30 stories, and 300 villas. Construction also restarted on the Nishtiman Bazar, the biggest shopping compound in Iraq. The bazar, situated beside the Erbil Citadel, is a USD 1 billion  investment. In 2015, Erbil will also become home to Iraq’s tallest building, at 275 meters high.

The investments in Erbil reached USD 16 billion in 2013, with most investment concentrated in the construction sector. Property prices in Erbil have tripled in three years. In 2010, the price of a square meter of land was USD 350; in 2013 it rose to USD 1,250. In some areas of the city – such as Dream City, a new residence village close to the Empire City project – villas are sold for USD 1-5 million. Many economic observers fear that this rapid increase in prices is a temporary bubble, and that if the government doesn’t act to curb inflation, this bubble may burst in less than a decade.

In the midst of this breakneck development, Erbil is a muddle of competing ambitions and visions. While the city celebrates being one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited townships, it is steadily becoming one of the Middle East’s most modern cities. In spite of its modernization, city authorities struggle to maintain the historical identity of Erbil. In the new master plan for the city, all areas one kilometer or less from the citadel – a seven millennium old occupied mound in the heart of the city – should be renovated in a traditional style. Erbil can be best described as an “ancient city with a modern face.”

For years, Erbil was known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” for its surrounding nature and pro-business attitude, but devastating wars have turned many green parts of the city into desert. Now, the KRG is trying to turn back the clock by making the city “green friendly.” In 2005, when development started in the city, only 3.5 per cent of the city was made up of parks and forests; by 2013, that percentage increased to 17.4. Authorities say they are aiming to increase the city’s green spaces to 40 per cent by 2025. Currently – in addition to the government’s strategic plan to revive agriculture – there are two major environmental projects in Erbil. One is Sakran National Park in the northern part of the Erbil governorate, and the other is the Erbil Botanical Garden. “We are aiming to open Sakran National Park in the middle of this year, making it one of the top ten national parks in the world,” Hamza Hamid, the manager of media and relations for the Erbil governorate, told The Catalyst.

This year, with the Kurdish capital serving as the Arab capital of tourism,  authorities are planning numerous cultural activities, from shopping festivals to sports. “We have one hundred different activities [planned] for this year,” Hamid said. For the first time  skiing on Kurdistan mountains took place in mid january, which was covered with large layers of snow during winter. Korek Mountain is also home to Iraq’s biggest telefrik, in a resort compound that includes a five star restaurant and a café with spectacular natural views. During the wintertime, there will be many activities because, as Hamid pointed out, this part of the world lacks winter tourism and Erbil can fill that void.

Although the tourism industry in the Kurdistan region is still new, Erbil attracted 1,250 million tourists in 2012, and 2 million in 2013. Authorities hope to attract three million tourists from different countries in 2014. Their enthusiasm is mirrored in the media. National Geographic and Time magazines ranked the city among the best destinations to visit in 2012. The New York Times listed Erbil among 20 cities to visit in 2013. The citizens of the EU and the US are issued a free visa upon arrival in Erbil, which lasts for 15 days. Nevertheless, the city has failed to attract enough foreign tourists; most visitors come from the war-torn south of Iraq. Hamid expects this to  change this year. “Because Erbil holds the title of the capital of Arab tourism, the reputation of the city will reach a greater number of potential visitors,” he said.

There are other reasons to be hopeful. Instability in other regional tourism destinations – such as Syrian, Lebanon, Bahrain and Egypt – will make Erbil a likely choice for tourists who either live nearby or wish to visit the region.  Hamid also explained that the government has plans to cooperate with private companies in order to attract Arab and Western tourists. One of these plans is to offer group discounts in local hotels and restaurants.

There are benefits to attracting tourists to Erbil beyond the economic aspects. Visitors could introduce new cultural behaviors into the conservative Kurdish society. The many Iraqis and Syrians – those who have recently fled violence and settled in Erbil – have already changed Kurdish society. This is a welcome shift. For decades, Kurds remained isolated, cut off from the region because of violence and oppression. Today could be the beginning of a new cultural exchange between Kurds and other cultures, driven by tourism.

After decades of devastating war, Kurds finally have the opportunity to build their own future. Through Erbil – a growing city expected to attract a vast number of tourists in 2014 – Kurds can show their true face to the world. Meanwhile, though, it is important that authorities in Erbil outline a plan to protect the unique identity of the city in the face of  development and globalization. Kurds representing their capital should be aware of this, and work to preserve the cultural identity of Erbil.

Is Democracy the ‘Only Game’ in Iraqi Kurdistan

More than four months have passed since the regional legislative elections in the Kurdistan Region, but the main winners have failed to form a new cabinet. This, despite news that the formation of the cabinet is in sight. It has all but been confirmed that the three main parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Change Movement (Gorran) – will participate in the new government. This could be an opportunity for the Kurdistan Region to consolidate democracy and lead the Kurdish model into a new phase.
Unlike the rest of the Middle East, the Kurdistan Region has a good chance of becoming a consolidated democracy. But this depends on the political leaders to direct the region on the right path during this transitional period. Last year, we had a relatively fair and free election with proportional representation, considered the most democratic election system. Democratic consolidation was meant to describe the challenge of securing new democracies, of extending their life expectancy beyond the short term and of making them immune to the threat of authoritarian regression.
For political scientist Adam Przeworski, democracy is consolidated when it “becomes the only game in town, when no one can imagine acting outside the democratic institutions, when all the losers want to do is to try again within the same institutions under which they have just lost.” Of course, democracy is not yet “the only game in town” in Kurdistan. There are still authoritarian enclaves inherited from decades of authoritarian rule by the central Iraqi government.
Many positive elements have already emerged from the Kurdish experiment, such as a strong new opposition in 2009, a colorful range of popular political parties, the secular nature of the major parties and an emerging civil society and free press.
Still, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) has a long way to go before it can be labeled a democracy. The new Kurdish assembly, the Kurdistan presidency and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) need to work together in order to push the Kurdish experiment toward a full democracy. There are certain steps which the next parliament is required to take in order to do this, starting with the constitution.
As expected, the draft constitution will return to parliament. The priority, if any changes are made, must be a clear separation of powers: legislative, executive and judicial. The legislative power in the Kurdistan Region is still weak for many reasons, the most important being that the political parties are still not fully committed to the democratic game and tackle crucial issues outside of parliament. Additionally, the vast majority of parliamentary members are new and inexperienced. (There is a similar problem in the new democracies of Eastern Europe, and the Kurdistan Region should learn from their experience).
The executive bodies suffer from corruption and a political division between Erbil and Sulaimani that was inherited from the civil war of 1996. The judiciary, although seeing some improvement, is still not independent and its role has been marginalized. But a strong and fair judiciary is one of the foremost elements of a functioning democracy. The Kurdish judiciary should become an independent body from the legislative and executive bodies.
The constitution should also strengthen the secular elements of the state. Democracy cannot function properly without a secular system in place. Therefore, the role of religion in public institutions should be lessened. The Kurdish constitution in its current shape makes the system more of a theocracy than a democracy: Article 6 clearly states that the government should not “enact a law inconsistent with the provisions of the fundamentals of Islam.” In the same article, it also states that the government should not “enact a law inconsistent with democracy principals.” This article contradicts itself, since there are Islamic laws that are undemocratic, just as there are democratic laws that are un-Islamic.
Although an article in the Iraqi constitution states that no regional constitution should violate the Iraqi constitution, secular political parties are a vast majority in the Kurdistan Region. They could go ahead and secularize the Kurdish constitution using legal loopholes in the central Iraqi document. The Iraqi constitution clearly states that no law should violate the principles of democracy and human rights, and Kurdish legislators could argue that secularization is necessary for a strong democracy and universal human rights.
Another important step toward consolidating democracy is the decentralization of state powers. Provincial authorities and local economies should have enough autonomy to function properly.
The KRG should also adopt a clearer economic vision. There is a direct relationship between democracy and economic performance. The government’s reliance on oil rents has made the KRG a “renter state.” More than 90 per cent of the KRG’s revenues come from oil rents. Rentier states are more likely to become authoritarian because the government controls the economy. Here, the government must have a vision and a timeline toward reducing reliance on oil revenues by diversifying the economy. The region can correct the distortions of the economy because it has enormous alternative resources such as agriculture, tourism and industry. The KRG should also adopt a clear tax policy in order to strength democracy.
Another important component of democratic consolidation is civil society. In the IKR, civil society is still weak and occasionally partisan. But it is steadily growing stronger and more independent, thanks to international aid. Yet, civil society needs time to grow even stronger.
Despite the fact that the Kurdistan Region is still a part of Iraq — and the region faces growing challenges — internal reforms remain the most crucial element in the process of building the Kurdistan Region. Kurdistan should adopt a more secular constitution. The Kurdish assembly should seek further decentralization of power. And the KRG should develop alternative sectors to natural resources and gradually diversify the economy, making it more autonomous.
The coming four years are critical for the region, because it will become clear which road the region will take, catching up to developed countries or staying loyal to its geography. 

This article has first appeared on Rudaw English:

Oct 7, 2013

PKK threatens to resume an all out war against Turkey

Abdulla HawezAfter Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally revealed the long-awaited package of democratic reforms aimed at advancing peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), PKK leaders at their base in the Qandil Mountains said they consider the package inadequate.
Erdogan has proposed in the reform package the removal of the 10% electoral threshold, which currently prevents Kurdish political parties from entering parliament. Also according to the package, election campaigning is also allowed in non-Turkish languages including Kurdish. The package also suggests teaching in non-Turkish languages would be allowed in private schools, towns will be able to take back their native names, a chauvinist oath recited by the students in the schools will be removed and a commission established to combat hate crimes.

Member of Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), the urban wing of the PKK, Diyar Qamishlo, told the Pan-Arab daily Sharq al-Awqsat, “The package that has been revealed by Erdogan is a joke. And it shows that the mentality of those who are running the country is based on their denial of twenty million Kurds.”
Qamishlo also said that the package gives no guarantees that the Turkey has changed its policies toward Kurds: “The reform package does nothing to reverse the Turkish state’s policy of denial toward the Kurds. Those policies of denying Kurdish existence were the reason of the Kurdish insurgency against Turkey, which led to the death of tens of thousands of people on both sides.”
“Erdogan mentions giving back the original Kurdish names to the villages and cities, this is very strange, especially when Prime Minister calling it an achievement for the Kurdish nation, but it is not, because Kurdish nation doesn’t use the imposed names by Turkish state anyways for example Kurds still call it Amed not Diyarbekir or Dersim not Tuncili, all the Turkish decisions to impose Turkish names failed.”
Qamishlo says on studying Kurdish in private schools, “The packages limits studying Kurdish only in private schools that you must pay money to learn Kurdish, that means if Kurds want to learn Kurdish, they should pay. Before if you talked in Kurdish in official institutions you would have been fined and now you should pay to learn Kurdish – so in both ways you should pay”.
The PKK leader also said, “We didn’t initiate the peace process for that, but our goal was to take back the rights of our nation and to get out prisoners released and to gain the minimum rights and political freedom for Kurdish nation.”
Regarding the truce that lasts until the end of this year, Qamishlo said, “When we entered the peace process based on the initiation of our leader Abdullah Ocalan, we weren’t weak. We were strong and we had a fierce presence in the battlefield. We withdrew based on the call of our leader to give the Turkish state a chance to solve the Kurdish issue. But it has been eight months and the Turkish government has only taken minor steps that don’t meet Kurdish ambitions, and our suspicions grow everyday that the Turkish government isn’t serious about solving the Kurdish question.”
He also said, “If the Turkish government doesn’t respond to our demands, we will make a final decision at the end of this month; we will cancel the truce and we will send our fighters back to Turkish territories and start an all out war. The whole world should know that we will continue our struggle to achieve our goals, and we have the right of self-defense.”
Durak Kalkan, one of the four main leaders of the PKK, who is considered a hard-liner, told Firat News Agency, “The peace process between the PKK and Turkish government has reached deadlock. If the Turkish government wants to waste time and deceive people, then there would be no reason to cease our armed struggle.”
“The Kurdish question is key to solving all the problems of the country. If the Turkish government doesn’t commit to peace, then we will end the truce and resume our armed struggle within Turkish territories.” 

Sep 7, 2013

Kurdistan election with limited impact

With none of political parties able to anticipate a victory, the upcoming Iraqi Kurdish parliamentary election might be the most important one ever.
In addition, the opposition parties have a strong chance to improve their performance.
Iraqi Kurdistan's parliamentary election campaign started on Aug. 28 and the vote is slated for Sept. 21. The Kurdish parliament consists of 111 seats and 1,129 candidates from 30 political parties and blocs will run for 100 seats. A total of 30 percent of the seats are reserved for female candidates. The 11 remaining seats are reserved for minorities: five for Turkmens, five for Christians and one for an Armenian. The election system is a semi-open list with the entire region as a single electoral constituency.
Out of 30 political parties and blocs, only five have a chance to enter parliament: Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Nawsherwan Mustafa's Change Movement (Gorran), the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and the Islamic Group in Kurdistan (Komal).
The competition to gain most seats in the parliament will largely take place among these three: the KDP, PUK and Gorran. In the current round, the KDP has 30 seats in parliament, the PUK has 29 and Gorran has 25.
What makes this election especially important is the absence of multiparty alliances and the future balance of power between the two ruling parties. In the previous elections, the two major ruling parties, the KDP and PUK, had taken part in the elections together and they have shared power ever since. But in this election each of them participate separately, which will jiggle the balance of power because there will be no more share of power based on the 50/50 division that used to be.
The opposition parties have 35 seats in the current parliament and they have a chance to increase the number of their seats to join the next cabinet but it is less likely that they can form the government alone or even by excluding either of the two ruling parties, the KDP and PUK. This outcome is less likely largely because the KDP and PUK have monopolized money and military in the region in a way that it would be impossible to rule without them even if the opposition gets the majority.
This, however, is not sufficient to downplay the power of the ballot box. In the previous election that took place on July 25, 2009, the emergence of the Change Movement, which got 25 out of 100 seats, was an earthquake that gave unprecedented vibrancy to the election process and a more serious political life afterwards.
Observers estimate that the KDP is expected to get the highest number of seats followed by Gorran and then the PUK in the elections. This poll is also expected to be a special rivalry between the PUK and Gorran because Gorran used to be a wing within the PUK but split in 2008 because of deep disagreements. The absence of Talabani, who has been hospitalized in Germany since December 2012, downgraded the PUK's popularity. According to the Kurdish Basnews agency, Talabani may return to the KRG in upcoming days, which would raise the votes of the PUK vastly.
Experts predict that the KDP will receive between 35 and 38 seats, mainly from the cities of Erbil and Duhok. It will be followed by the Change Movement, which is expected to receive between 22 and 24 seats mainly in the city of Sulimania and the PUK is expected to get around 20 seats. The seats of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Kurdish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, are expected to stand at between 10 and 12 seats and the Islamic group Komal is expected to receive between seven and eight seats.
Although the next Iraqi Kurdish election is expected to topple neither of the two ruling parties from power, it's increasingly anticipated to change the balance of power in the oil-rich region and the current opposition may become one of the pillars of the next cabinet.

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

Sep 2, 2013

PKK-KDP row steadily sabotages Kurdish hope in Syria

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border point in Dohuk.

The fierce competition between the proxies of the two mainstream Kurdish factions in Syria's Kurdish areas, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) may sabotage Kurds' best opportunity to achieve self-rule within Syria in a century.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the PKK, is controlling the predominantly Kurdish areas in Syria, which are mostly located in the northern provinces of Hasaka and Aleppo through its militant group, the Popular Protection Units (YPG).
Although the PYD's popularity isn't alone sufficient to rule those areas, recent developments have largely benefitted them. Since the Syrian uprising against the 13-year rule of the country's embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, turned violent, the Syrian army has handed over these areas to the PYD in a secret deal that would deny these territories to the rebels. The PYD is not quite denying that such an agreement exists. In a recent interview with a Kurdish newspaper, Saleh Muslim, the PYD's chief, said, “We don't have an agreement with the Assad regime, but we are in contact with them and we have had meetings with them.”
In response to the PYD's unilateral steps, Massoud Barzani, the KDP leader and president of Iraqi Kurdistan, called on all other Syrian Kurdish political parties to gather in Erbil. The result of the gathering was unifying all the pro-Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) parties under one umbrella called the Kurdish National Council (KNC).
Although the KNC is favored in many places with 50 percent of popularity at times, they have little capability to act on the ground because of the PYD's control. Like its umbrella party, the PKK, the PYD has strong authoritarian tendencies: They don't tolerate any other faction working in areas under their control and remove them if their authority is challenged.
To avert any possible armed conflict between the KNC and the PYD, a meeting was held in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil under the auspices of Barzani. The two sides agreed to cooperate on the ground, establishing the High Cooperation Council. According to the agreement, the two parties share all responsibilities in the Syrian Kurdish territories, but the agreement has so far failed to achieve its goals.
However, the PYD is not the only party to be blamed. The leaders of the KNC are deliberately trying to defame the image of the PYD on regional and international levels. To provide an example from my own experience, Abdulhakim Bashar, one of the top leaders of the KNC as well as Barzani's trusted man in Syria, accused the PYD of confrontation in a forum in İstanbul recently. Furthermore, in meetings with US and European officials, KNC leaders have labeled the PYD as a “gang that belongs to the PKK,” which they listed as a terrorist organization.
In addition to the KNC's psychological war against the PYD, the Iraqi Kurdish party is also constantly pushing the KRG, more specifically the KDP, to punish the PYD by closing the border crossings between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdish areas that are controlled by the PYD's YPG units. The most significant fallout of this policy was a mass punishment of civilians, most of whom need to cross the Iraqi border for medical and other humanitarian purposes.
Border crossings are indeed becoming a dangerous point of conflict between the PKK and KDP and it seems they have little, if any, concerns over the humanitarian consequences.
Three weeks ago, in an article in the Azadya Welat daily, the co-chair of the PKK, Cemil Bayık, accused the KDP of shutting down the border while impoverished people are waiting in Syria to cross it and not letting any aid cross the border from the KRG region to Syria. In response, the KDP denied the border closure and accused the PKK of controlling all the aid that crosses the border. That was the first direct confrontation between the two.
A week after this wrangle, the KRG decided to open the border gates wide to allow a safe passage for Syrian Kurds fleeing clashes in the war-torn country. Soon after the border crossing was opened, a mass exodus from Syria as a result of violence and poverty in the country started to flow into Iraq. Many, including Barzani and Bayık, warned against the mass influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees entering into the KRG region. The number of Syrian Kurdish refugees in the KRG is at staggering 200,000 and they are harmful for the future of Kurds in Syria because they already have an identity crisis in the country.
On the regional level, Turkey's role is surprisingly positive. Although Turkey has had a harsh stance against any attempt to create a Kurdish region within Syria, Turkey's position has softened and actually shifted toward that of the Kurds after the initiation of the peace talks with the PKK and meeting with the PYD leaders. If the PYD inches closer to Turkey, it would be to the benefit of Kurds because Turkey has already had good ties with the KNC thanks to Erbil's good ties with Ankara; that can be helpful.
On the other side, Iran is also trying to get closer to the Syrian Kurds. In the last two months, Iran has invited both the PYD and the KNC separately to Tehran to convince them to back the Assad regime. Iran has promised both parties to support them with money and arms in the event that they back Assad. Iranians have promised even more; they made promises to both parties to support a Kurdish region in Syria if they agreed to accept Iran's demands.
Although heavyweights Turkey and Iran are trying to attract Syrian Kurdish factions to their sides, this isn't what threatens the future of Syria's Kurds or, as Kurds like to call them, Kurds of Rojava. Kurds are the worst enemy of themselves. The PKK, which emerged in Turkey, and the KDP, born in Iraq, are ready to break each other's bones only to widen their leverage over Syria's Kurds.
The worst is yet to come. The real confrontation seemed to have been delayed to the post-Assad era. KNC official Bashar once said in one of my interviews with him that a civil war in Syria's Kurdish areas is a possible scenario if the PYD refuses to share power with the other Kurdish factions.
The PYD doesn't seem to be ready to share power. When asked whether they will let other Kurdish militias emerge in the PYD-controlled territories, Muslim said,“Its not up to us to accept any other Kurdish armed groups to emerge, it's up to the people.” This is a clear sign that they will not let them.
The Guardian has described Kurds as Syria's only winners but they seem to be misplaying their cards in using the best opportunity in a century to build a region of their own in northeastern Syria. If the PKK and KDP don't stop their proxy war in Syria and compromise, the Kurdish ambitious dreams may well turn out otherwise.

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

Aug 23, 2013

Challenges mar grand Kurdish conference

For the first time in modern history, in a significant opportunity to boost their unity, Kurds are planning to draft a strategy with a grand conference, but political rivalry and divisions among the parties as well as concerns of regional powers have largely dashed hopes that it will yield intended results.
The pan-Kurdish conference was initially scheduled to take place in Arbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdistan, and slated for Aug. 20, but it was postponed to September due to what the organizers called “some technical problems.”
The conference will be the first of its kind in the history of Kurds. The first failed attempt to hold a grand Kurdish conference goes back to 1978, when the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) wanted to convene all representatives of Kurds in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
The efforts to hold this current national conference of all Kurds, mainly organized by three leading Kurdish forces -- the PKK, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- have been under way for months. In a meeting on July 22 in Arbil, led by President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani, representatives of the Kurdish parties from the four countries, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, officially agreed on the initiation of the Kurdish national conference. During the meeting, the participants agreed to establish a committee to handle the preparation of the conference. The committee consisted of 21 members: six from Turkey's Kurds, five each from Iraq and Iran, four from Syria and one representative of the Kurdish diaspora in Europe. Around 600 politicians, NGO activists and guests are expected to attend the three-day conference.
The conference is expected to be led by Barzani because he is the most prominent and powerful leader among the attendees. Some accuse Barzani of deliberately rejecting the conference many times before but accepting it now so that he could lead the Kurdish gathering alone astwo other powerful Kurdish leaders are absent: PKK leader AbdullahÖcalan in jail and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in bed in a hospital in Germany.
The main aim of the conference is to unite Kurds at a time when they are more divided than ever over controlling Syrian territories predominantly populated by Kurds and the controversial ties of some forces with regional powerhouses: the PKK with Iran and the KDP with Turkey.
Although Kurds have pinned much hope for this conference, expected to gather representatives of all Kurds in the region, there is only little hope that the conference will yield substantial success in terms of achieving its stated goals. It is true that Kurdish political parties for the first time in modern history could agree to hold this conference, but it is also a fact that these forces also stand more divided than ever before.
Only days before the conference, a fresh wrangle started between the PKK and the KDP over Syria's Kurdish areas that are currently controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the PKK. Newly elected co-chair of the PKK, Cemil Bayık, accused Barzani's KDP of conspiring against Syrian Kurds by closing the border with Syria and working with the anti-Kurdish forces, namely Turkey, in Syria against the PYD. In return, the KDP accused the PYD of building a dictatorship in Syria by unilaterally controlling Kurdish areas and not cooperating with other Kurdish parties that are mostly affiliated with the KDP and hence destroying all efforts to unite Kurds.
This division between the KDP and the PKK, the two major Kurdish parties, is only part of a bigger picture. The Kurdish parties in Iraq are seriously at odds because of mistrust between each other. The Iraqi Kurdish opposition bloc (the Gorran movement, Kurdistan Islamic Union and Islamic group), for instance, boycotted a gathering that would draft the agenda of the conference at the beginning, only to be convinced to participate later.
In Iran and Syria, internal political debates are eating away at the strong representation of Kurds in these countries at the planned conference. In Iran, the Kurds are in dispute over the representation in the organizing committee. The traditional Kurdish forces excluded their main rival, the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the Iranian offshoot of the PKK. In Syria, an agreement between the Kurdish political parties to cooperate hasn't begun to have an impact until now. Many Kurdish public figures, including the leaders of the Kurdish political parties in Syria, warned against impending civil war between Kurds in Syria if the PYD doesn't stop its unilateral steps.
While the Kurdish parties are deeply divided, the regional powers are also in contact with the Iraqi Kurdish officials to make sure the conference doesn't threaten the unity of their countries. Turkey, which has the highest Kurdish population, seemed to be relaxed because only days after the announcement of the conference, the KRG prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, rushed to Ankara to comfort Turkish officials. Only after visiting Ankara, Barzani flew to Tehran to allay Iranian concerns about the conference. His trip to Tehran, however, was portrayed as if he traveled there to participate in the inauguration ceremony of the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. As the two countries and other international players are expected to attend the conference, many activists and political parties refuse foreign participation in the conference because it will further reduce the chance of any serious agreement between the political parties. Iranian Kurdish political parties in particular harshly reject participation of Iranian officials and say itwould jeopardize all efforts to make the conference successful.
Aside from all these political factors, the Kurdish question in each of the four countries that have Kurdish minorities has evolved differently in the last century; this is why a common Kurdish strategy doesn't seem to work.
The negative atmosphere surrounding the pan-Kurdish conference pushed many to consider it as only a symbolic gathering. The conference, however, is significant because it's the first time in modern history that representatives of all Kurds around the world have agreed to gather in one hall.
Even if it fails to set up a national Kurdish strategy, the conference remains an important step forward.

This article first appeared on Today's Zaman - here:

Aug 13, 2013

Iraqi Kurdistan: from boom to doom?

Only a decade ago, Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was a dirty, dusty and isolated town. During the summer months, people would refer to it as the “gateway to hell.” But ten years later, Erbil’s image has seen a startling change, and many of Iraq’s 28 millions would now consider the city a heavenly location to spend their summer vacation.
With a series of massive construction projects underway, a booming economy driven by the region’s enormous oil and gas reserves, and a strong business partner in former enemy Turkey, the city looks set to shine in the coming years. Politically, with the Middle East becoming increasingly polarised in the wake of the on-going sectarian civil war in Syria, the KRG has managed to maintain good ties with Iran, Turkey, Israel and the West all at the same time. Given all this, one could reasonably conclude that Kurdistan is booming. But is Iraqi Kurdistan facing an upcoming fall?
Everything that has so far been achieved is as fragile as the region’s uncertain political future. The relationship between the KRG and Iraq’s federal government changes on a daily basis due to the deep levels of mistrust between the two parties, and the interference of both regional and international powers.
Although the Kurds have complained that the dictatorial tendencies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threaten the unity of Iraq, they recently welcomed him on a visit to the region with a lavish ceremony at Erbil International Airport. Nevertheless, it seems certain that relations between the KRG and Baghdad will remain unsettled for the foreseeable future. Indeed, due to the accumulation of a number of serious and unsolved issues, a likely outcome to the relationship is divorce. But any development of this kind will need a green light from regional and international players, in particular from Turkey, as the KRG has become increasingly dependent economically on its northern neighbour.
While the central government in Baghdad is building stronger ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the KRG has drawn closer to Ankara. Since 2007, cooperation over economic and energy issues has helped to redefine a once combustible relationship. Turkey has become Kurdistan’s top economic partner and, what is more, has signed a strategic energy pact that could remap the region both politically and economically.
The new oil pipelines that connect Kurdistan with Turkey were built without Baghdad’s prior approval, and this has helped to exacerbate the already unsteady relationship between the KRG and Turkey on the one hand, and the Iraqi government on the other. The liberal-oriented Turkish daily Taraf recently reported that Ankara had quietly signed an oil partnership deal with the KRG, despite the objections of the Baghdad government. According to the newspaper, the deal is proof that Turkey is elevating its cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan to the level of an international partnership, meaning that the KRG will eventually be able to gain its economic independence from Baghdad.
According to Falah Mustafa, the KRG’s Minister of Foreign Relations, Turkey represents the KRG’s “gate to the world.” This may well be true, but it is worth considering for a moment the nature of the rapidly developing relationship between the two. Turkey has become the KRG’s biggest economic partner, accounting for 70% of all foreign investment in the region, and has recently constructed a series of oil pipelines, despite the objections of the Iraqi federal government. The result is that, while the KRG has been able to reduce its dependence on Baghdad, it has simultaneously become overly reliant on Turkey.
In addition, while it has been busy improving its ties with the Turkish government, the KRG seems to have forgotten Iran’s importance to regional politics and security. The Islamic Republic is the most influential foreign power in Iraq, and its ties to the country’s Shi’a population go well beyond friendship. While the world continues to take note of Turkey’s economic and political dominance in the Middle East, Iran has been silently building a semi-imperial Shi’a region that includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In Syria, where the sectarian civil war divides regional powers into two opposing blocs, Kurds are unquestioningly – and unwisely – backing the mainly Sunni opposition.
It is important to think about all of this rationally. The KRG can never hope to be fully independent, due to its landlocked geography, and should always keep good ties with at least one or more of the neighbouring countries. Moreover, some of the powers that will play a crucial role in the future of the Middle East are Turkey, Iran, and the United States, and none of these players can hope to dominate the region on their own, so the KRG should keep ties with at least two of them. More crucially, the Middle East is witnessing a very decisive period in its history. New states are expected to emerge in the wake of recent developments in the wider region, and for the Kurds the time has come to translate their decades-long struggle for statehood into a reality.
But the Kurds will not be able to make this happen by being overly dependent on just one country while abandoning the others, just because there is deep mistrust between these countries’ governments and their Kurdish minorities. In Turkey, while a peace process to solve the Kurdish question has been initiated by the government, a lasting solution is still far off on the horizon. If the peace process fails, the new ties between Ankara and Erbil will become severely strained.
The KRG’s problem is that it is too ambitious given its size, history and capabilities. It is a small region that wants to play big games. If Iraqi Kurdistan is to continue its current boom period, the KRG should first balance its relations with both Turkey and Iran, and avoid becoming overly reliant on either. It should also stay away from backing either regime or opposition in Syria, and should encourage Syria’s Kurdish parties to remain neutral. In other words, the KRG should avoid taking sides in Syria as otherwise it will automatically commit itself to one of the two regional blocs, led by Iran and Turkey respectively. Most importantly, consolidating democracy internally remains the most important factor to ensure the KRG remains strong, and continues to attract western support. Otherwise, for the Kurds, the boom may very well turn to doom.

This article first appeared on Your Middle East - here: