Approximately 80 people attended a presentation on Kurdistan by Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative to the United States, in the ASEAN Auditorium Tuesday evening.
The talk, “Kurdistan: The New Player in the Middle East?,” was hosted by the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies within The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
The event began with an introduction by Richard Shultz, a professor of international relations and the director of the International Security Studies Program. Shultz spoke about Abdul Rahman’s work as a journalist and her experience in diplomacy as a former Kurdish representative to the United Kingdom. Rahman’s father, he said, was also involved in the Kurdish Freedom Movement.
“Our speaker today has terrific and important Kurdish roots,” he said.
During the talk, Abdul Rahman spoke at length about the difficulties that Kurdistan faced in the past under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule and the ways in which the United States has helped Kurdistan over the years.
She referenced Operation Provide Comfort — a military operation executed by the United States, United Kingdom and other Gulf War allies to defend and aid Kurds after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 — which former Fletcher dean and NATO commander John Glavin led.
Abdul Rahman also expressed gratitude towards the United States for its role in removing Hussein from power in 2003.
“We thank the United States for helping us … The liberation in 2003 changed everything for us,” she said. “With all of the troubles that we have in Iraq and Kurdistan, it makes all the difference that Saddam is removed.”
Following Hussein’s removal, Kurdistan experienced a golden decade of economic growth, which coincided with Kurdistan’s development as an oil capital, she said. This growth has made Kurdistan an important force in the Middle East region.
“Kurdistan is the new player in the Middle East,” she said. “Politically and economically, we are there to be reckoned with.”
During a question and answer session that followed Tuesday’s event, Abdul Rahman addressed various topics, including Kurdistan’s potential independence, the Kurdish fight against ISIS and water access in Kurdistan and the Middle East.
“We are heading towards independence, and I say that with more confidence than I would have said it 10 years ago,” Abdul Rahman said. “I have a son and I am confident that he will one day have a Kurdish passport.”
She added that she did not know when Kurdistan would gain independence, but said that she would like it to happen peacefully.
“We would like independence to happen through dialogue and through negotiation and peace — we are not planning a war of independence,” Abdul Rahman said. “All Kurds want independence, it’s a Kurdish dream and it’s what everybody strives for…but politically, everybody is realistic.”
Abdul Rahman told the Daily before the event that it is in the best interest of the United States to support Kurdistan as it continues to develop as a key player in the Middle East.
“Already we’ve proven ourselves to be a reliable partner to the United States,” she said. “No single coalition soldier was injured or killed anywhere in Kurdistan. That illustrates the friendship that we have [with] the United States and [with] other coalition countries that helped to liberate Iraq.”
Abdul Rahman pointed to a joint mission completed by Kurdish troops and U.S. special forces in Hawija in mid-October, during which 69 Iraqi hostages were rescued from Islamic State fighters and lost intelligence about the terror group was recovered, as an example of close cooperation between the government bodies. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated in his speech last week to Congress that he expects similar operations in Iraq in the future, she said.
She also thanked the U.S. government for its intervention in Kurdistan in 2014, saying that this enabled the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to fight against ISIS.
“America’s support changed everything for us,” she said. “Up to that point, we felt that we were alone. We didn’t expect Baghdad would help us because they never have … And since then, we have…a close cooperation with the United States with the coalition militarily. The Peshmerga are the tip of the spear against ISIS.”
Abdul Rahman noted, however, that while the U.S. has provided Kurdistan with weapons and training in the fight against ISIS, there are problems concerning the types of weapons that are transferred and their means of delivery. Discussion continues about what types of weapons are necessary for the Peshmerga to adequately combat ISIS, she said.
Current policy states that all U.S. arm transfers to the Kurds must first pass through the Iraqi central government, which has historically resulted in weapon delivery delays, she said. An immense amount of U.S. pressure has been required to ensure that the weapons get delivered in a timely fashion.
“The moment [U.S] pressure is off of Baghdad, I wouldn’t be surprised if we went back to delays,” Abdul Rahman said. “We want to have some kind of a more permanent solution, and the permanent solution is to have the weapons delivered directly to Kurdistan.”
In addition to the difficulties Kurdistan faces in its fight against ISIS, the region also has a humanitarian crisis — around 1.8 million refugees and displaced people have entered Kurdistan from places such as Syria in the last couple years. Abdul Rahman said about 80,000 people were entering Kurdistan each day at the peak of the migrant influx in 2014, and that the current scale of the crisis is beyond regional control.
“We thank the United States for being the biggest humanitarian contributor to the U.N. mission in Iraq, but unfortunately, it’s just not enough,” she said.
While the 30 percent increase in population since 2014 has had a huge impact on the Kurdish economy and community, the people of Kurdistan have responded compassionately, she added.
“The people of Kurdistan have welcomed them with open arms because most Kurdish people have been refugees or displaced at least once in their lifetime,” Abdul Rahman said.
Abdul Rahman said she strives in her role to strengthen American support for Kurdistan by making the humanitarian and military issues more widely understood. She works with consultants, lobbyists, think-tanks, media outlets and government officials to shed light on military and humanitarian issues. She said Kurdish Americans are often influential in bringing these issues to U.S. government officials.
“[When they lobby,] their representatives listen,” she stated. “In the short time that I have been in the United States, I have already seen how that can have such a positive effect.”
Abdul Rahman explained that cultural exchanges can be key to helping the countries better understand one another. Deepening the relationship between Kurdish and American academic institutions could also be beneficial to Kurdish institutions, she said.
“We’re a new democracy — new to governance, new to government,” she said. “We need to strengthen our institutions, so having relationships with any of these American organizations would really help us.”
Abdul Rahman hopes that the United States’ relationship with Kurdistan can eventually develop into a full-fledged friendship.
“I do want to broaden all that so that Kurdistan‘s relationship [with] the United States is broadened out to [include] trade and investment, to [include] cultural exchanges with universities and our education establishments, and it should be a fully-rounded relationship,” she said.
Sarah Zheng contributed reporting on this article.