According to Bakir, refugees are currently “the first challenge” of the Kurdistan Region, which “has taken 300,000 refugees from Syria and 1,500,000 internally displaced people (IDP) from Iraq”. The figures, the minister argues, are growing every day. “Receiving 1,8 million people means a 30% increase of the population of the Kurdistan Region. It is our people”, normal citizens, “who are sharing water, electricity and heating with them, while Iraq has done nothing to help them. It is important for the rest of the world to know that we have been left alone with that. While minorities have been chased from Iraq, [IDPs] were welcomed in Kurdistan. We are proud of hosting them, as we remember of ourselves when we were needing that kind of support in past times.”
There are many problems in the refugee camps, Bakir argues, with education and tents in the first place. “Many children are Arabs, but we do not have Arab teachers. And we need vaccination programs”. In fact, the minister says, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) does not need short-term programs, but whole, long-term systems to support refugees and IDPs in the future, “to provide education, health and job opportunities for them, as there is no solution for them in sight. We need to change the approach.”
“Refugees and IDPs are a challenge not only for us: if we are unable to meet all their demands, they will cross the border to Turkey and then to Europe”As regards some communities, particular needs arise. “Yazidis need political and moral support to have their genocide recognized”, says Bakir, recalling that thousands of Yazidis have been killed, raped and/or kidnapped by ISIS. “They need support to be able to release their people”, those who are still in ISIS hands. Yazidi refugees “are traumatised. We need to provide psychological centres for them. We also need to talk to their political and religious leaders and tell them that their raped women are not culprits,” as some Yazidis regard them, “but victims.”
A note of warning —one of several— to Europe: “Refugees and IDPs are a challenge not only for us: if we are unable to meet all their demands, they will cross the border to Turkey and then to Europe.” In this process, Bakir fears, “part of them will suffer from human trafficking, child labour, sex labour... which should be avoided off course. Europe must help us.”
“Thanks to our Peshmerga we have been able to defeat ISIS,” Bakir proudly says of the Kurdish armed forces. It should be noted however that air support from the United States in critical moments of ISIS expansion was key to save Kurdish capital Erbil from the extremist militia. Furthermore, Yazidi groups not linked to the Kurdish government resent what they perceive to be an absolute abandonment and defencelessness by the Peshmerga of the Yazidi homeland in Sinjar as ISIS units approached, and finally, overrun the area in August 2014, opening the door to Yazidi genocide at the hands of Islamist extremists.
“Humanity is threatened by such a group’s extreme brutality,” Bakir goes on, “but if we do not address the root causes of it, we will be trapped into the same circle again.” That is why Bakir mentions “the education of people in tolerance, dialogue and respect” as yet another main challenge of his administration.
“Humanity is threatened by ISIS’s extreme brutality, but if we do not address the root causes of it, we will be trapped into the same circle again”There is more to say, according to the minister. “More than 100 nationalities can be found among ISIS’s ranks. Why is that? Some of them have been brainwashed, others were not granted economic opportunities, while others felt that they were not integrated into your democracies,” recalling the fact that part of ISIS members hail from Western countries.
Furthermore, Bakir wonders, “can we explain the strength that ISIS acquired —it became a real state, regardless of what international law theories say— only resorting to collections of money in mosques that were sent to them? I do not think so. There were much bigger [economic] efforts backing them. Otherwise, ISIS would not have survived. ISIS is driven. Who was behind them?”. The minister leaves the question unanswered.
On democracy building and the rights of women
“We are trying to bring democracy to Kurdistan. Sure we make mistakes. It is a democracy in the making,” Bakir acknowledges. Human rights groups certainly point to serious shortcomings and violations in areas such as human rights, democratic governance, transparency and accountability, the position of women... “But nevertheless”, Bakir goes on, “we are trying to build a democratic system with free media, strong civil society, women empowerment, respect for pluralism... We are proud to be a secular, stable island in the Middle East. In Europe, you have obtained all of that through hard work. That is why Europe needs to be hands on the Middle East, to be engaged both with governments and people, not ‘either/or’. Because, on the other side, we do not find any partner for that goal in the region. That is why we look to the West.”
“We are also leading with the example on the issue of women: we are also dealing with honour crimes, forced child marriage... Barzani personally decided to no longer hide problems under the table, and decided to establish the KRG High Council of Women's Affairs. An example is honour killings, which is now a crime” according to KRG law. “You go to prison for that offence,” Bakir recalls, although this does not always happen: women rights groups say application of the law is far from being universal, and many criminals are successful in escaping arrest.
Still, the minister admits that more needs to be done, and again calls on Europe for help in a continued course, he says, to “empower women in areas such as education, politics and society at large.”
On internal KDP-PUK strife
Bakir is asked about current relations between the two main political parties in the Kurdistan Region, that is the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), to which he himself belongs, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). He is reminded that a Kurdish civil war in the 1990s pitted one party against the other.
“No one can change history,” Bakir regrets, “but we also had two leaders —[KDP’s] Mustafa Barzani and [PUK’s] Jalal Talabani— who signed an agreement in 1997, under the auspices of [US secretary of state] Madeleine Albright to put an end to the conflict. It succeeded, and it was a founding point for our stability.”
“Both parties,” Bakir continues, “are now partners in the government, and we are working in the same team. We are determined not to let that conflict happen again. Government is a power-sharing structure. I am not denying there are divisions among us, because there are some.” Indeed there are: KDP is more oriented towards Ankara while PUK leans more towards Tehran, and both parties have had rows over the extension of the term of KRG president Masoud Barzani and the suspension of activities of the Kurdish Parliament since October 2015. “But at the end of the day, the decisions the government takes are on behalf of all people.”
On the course towards independence from Iraq
Now and then Barzani says his government will likely call a referendum on independence from Iraq. This hardly ever happens —a vote was organized in 2005, with no practical consequences—, but in most recent years calls for a vote on secession have been increasingly voiced. Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said in March 2017 that a vote will take place before the end of the year, and KDP and PUK senior members are holding discussions on the matter.
“Kurdistan has suffered a lot,” Bakir recalls. “Our rights were denied under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Not only we were not equal citizens, but the regime massacred our population,” most notably in Halabja in 1988 in a gas attack. “A ‘Kurdish Spring’ started in 1991 in which we needed to lead a smooth transition from being a struggle movement in the mountains to forming a government of our own.”
“In 2003, we joined what was supposed to be a ‘federal, pluralistic and democratic’ Iraq. But Iraq has never met that. We cannot stay in such a situation”“Later, in 2003,” after the second US-led war against Hussein, “we joined what was supposed to be a ‘federal, pluralistic and democratic’ Iraq. But Iraq has never met that. We cannot stay in such a situation. The Iraqi government has even cut our entire budget. This has shown that we are not Iraqis in the end, as it is not normal for a government to punish its own population. The same can be said about IDPs: instead of helping all of them, the Iraqi government is just helping Shi’a Arabs, while letting Sunni Arabs, Christians and Yazidis to arrive to the Kurdistan Region as IDPs.”
“We have tried monarchy, republic and autonomy in Iraq. But Iraq has proved to be a failed state. They cannot even secure the Green Zone,” the name by which Baghdad’s International Zone is known. “Meanwhile, we are working with IDPs, with women issues, with democracy building... we are leading with the example, but we are tired. Instead of making progress, we are being backtracked.”
“That is why we want to have a legitimate mandate to have an independent Kurdistan in a peaceful way through dialogue with Baghdad,” the minister argues. This nevertheless is yet another example of a shift in the rhetoric by the Kurdish government, which instead of insisting —as it had done in past times— in unilateral independence, now seems to prefer a negotiated settlement. “In order to avoid [further] bloodshed we are presenting Kurdistan independence as a solution, to be good neighbours [with Iraq] and become good partners who nevertheless have been unable to live under the same state.”
On the Iraqi government
Bakir revolves on yet more reasons why Kurdistan, in his opinion, cannot stay in Iraq: “Both Shi’a and Sunni camps are Islamist”, the minister says. “We suffered under Sunni Arab rule, and we are now suffering under Shi’a Arab rule. For us, it is all the same.”
“Why should the Iraqi government be banning miniskirts, or alcohol drinking? That is a matter of personal freedom. And furthermore, the government should realize that not only Muslims are living in the country”“The current Iraqi government”, led by Shi’a politician Haider al-Abadi since September 2014, “is leading to Shi’a majority rule, and we do not want to be a part of that.” Most Kurds are Sunnis. “The government is militarising the country through the Al-Sha’abi forces,” an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of dozens of mainly Shi’a militias, “in violation of the Constitution. Why only creating them out of one sect? Why not building a true national Iraqi army? Why should the Iraqi government be banning miniskirts, or alcohol drinking? That is a matter of personal freedom. And furthermore, the government should realize that not only Muslims are living in the country.”
On relations with other Kurds
It is a well-known fact that Kurds mostly live in four sovereign countries in the Middle East, that is Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, the areas they inhabit commonly called “Kurdistan”. The Kurds have a tumultuous, shaky, violent history of relationship with their neighbours. But for Kurds in Iraq, the fact that they currently have a system of large autonomy is also a game changer. “For Kurdistan, geography is enemy number one,” Bakir regrets. “We wished we had different neighbours.” The minister recalls an old saying in the region: “‘Beat your own Kurds, love your neighbours’ Kurds.’ But we cannot continue to play by the same rules,” he argues.
“Other Kurds are indeed our brothers and sisters. But a independent Kurdistan will play by the rules of international protocols. This means that we will not interfere our neighbours”“We must respect existing borders, whether we like them or not.” Bakir admits they have been told not to mingle in Kurdish-related issues pertaining to our neighbouring countries. “And we must be aware that we must balance our position between our powerful neighbours. If we just chose to work with one single neighbour, that would be counterproductive to us. It must be understood, furthermore, that an independent Kurdistan,” that the Kurdish government is seeking to establish, “will play by the rules of international protocols. This means that we will not interfere our neighbours.”
But on the other side, Kurds in neighbouring countries “are indeed our brothers and sisters.” This is what the Kurdish government always says when asked why it allows PKK guerrillas to stay in the Qandil mountains. “Our way to help [other Kurds] is bringing peace and stability. The period of the peace process” between the Turkish government and the PKK “was the best one. We hope that, after a while, after the 2016 coup and when things settle again, there will be a new entry” to the peace process. “And then we will do our best to help.”
Bakir believes that, from a historical point of view, it can be said that a lot of progress as regards Turkey has gone through, “way far from the times in which Kurds were officially regarded as ‘Mountain Turks’ by the Turkish government.” Bakir too underlines the fact that in the second-to-last legislative election in Turkey, mainly Kurdish HDP party managed to get 80 seats, the first time ever they were able to clear the 10% threshold. “Maybe those are too little steps, but for Turkey they are major ones.” The minister insists on the need for peace building: “We were supporting the [PKK-Turkey] peace process, because we need to live in peace, we have to live in peace.”
Furthermore, “Turkey is an important country in the region. We supported them to join the European Union, also because we wished to have a border with the EU! Compared to other neighbours, the Turks were the best option for us.”
Bakir insists on how relations between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region have changed: “Only a few years ago we had thousands of Turkish troops on our border, threatening to invade us. Now, on the contrary, we have three daily direct flights with Turkey, good energy and economic relations, many Turkish companies investing in Kurdistan, our flag has even been raised on Turkish soil...”
The KRG has had, and continues to have, difficult relations with the Kurdish-majority, self-declared cantons in the north of Syria —or Rojava, as Kurds refer to it. The cantons are governed by a PKK-linked coalition, which Turkey —now a KRG partner— labels as “terrorist”. At times, the Rojava-Kurdistan Region border has been closed down by KRG authorities. “Syrian Kurds have suffered a lot,” Bakir points out, “they were even deprived from citizenship for many years” under Al-Assad rule. “In a new Syria, we hope they have the right to govern their own areas, be that through decentralization, autonomy or federalism. We have seen a lot of inaction from the international community. It is time for it to intervene and to ensure a better future for Syrians.”
Bakir seems not to wish to elaborate much on the cantons themselves, and delivers more general opinions on Syria as a whole. “There are many issues still to be fixed there. For instance, who will rebuild Syria? We need to focus on such issues, for the sake of humanity. Otherwise Syria could become a sanctuary of terrorism as happened in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora. We want a stable, secure and democratic Syria.”
“Al-Assad will not leave power now”, Bakir believes. “There has to be a political settlement, maybe for a period of 2 to 5 years, at the end of which there is an election that opens the door for Al-Assad to be ousted.”
It is commonly regarded in the Middle East region that Israel and the KRG maintain good relations, certainly not to the likening of many Arabs. “We have no problem with Israel. We have ancient links with the Jews. Thousands of Kurdish Jews who still speak the Kurdish language live in Israel. In fact, we feel Israel’s moral support to our rights. But because that support exists, Baghdad uses it against us. Nevertheless, some countries in the region are now perceiving Iran as a bigger threat that Israel. Therefore, we can expect this fact will change some dynamics in our region.”
Bakir is also asked on links between the KRG and the Kremlin. The minister recalls that Kurdish-Russian relations have in the past run deep, for example during the exile of one of the most prominent leaders in Kurdish history —Mustafa Barzani— in the Soviet Union after the demise of the Republic of Mahabad. “We have an open door to a policy based on mutual respect, understanding and benefit,” the minister says. “Russia was the first country that opened a general consulate in Erbil. Gazprom is actively working in the Kurdistan Region. Nevertheless, we do not put all our eggs in the same basket. We want to be free in our decision making processes.”