Oct 16 2014

Kurdish Liberation Movement in Iraq – Interview with Dr Yaniv Voller

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In preparation for his talk on Tuesday 11 November at LSE, MEC research fellows Filippo Dionigi and Zeynep Kaya met with Yaniv Voller to discuss his most recent book ‘The Kurdish Liberation Movement in Iraq: From Insurgency to Statehood’. Starting from the Kurdish liberation movement in Iraq, this book analyses the concepts of sovereignty and legitimacy in international politics.


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Filippo Dionigi: In what ways does this book help understand the current Kurdish situation in Iraq? Does it provide a framework for the complex, historical question of Kurdistan Iraq?

Yaniv Voller: It clearly does. You cannot understand the current Kurdish situation and the way the Kurds relate to the current Iraqi government without understanding the roots of the Kurdish struggle for liberation and the evolution this struggle has gone through. In my opinion, what we see today is just another stage in this struggle of liberation. What I argue in the book is that the Kurdish liberation movement has transformed from focusing mainly on guerrilla operations to concentrating on less violent forms of resistance, more particularly statebuilding. To put it differently, I argue that statebuilding, which has been taking place since 1991, is just another liberation strategy. If you look at the way the Kurds have been armed, you can see that almost every step the Kurdish leaders have taken was driven by defining sovereignty, which also explains the title of the book: Emphasising on the fact that the Kurdish movement is still a liberation movement that moved from insurgency to statehood.

Zeynep Kaya: If we widen our perspective a bit, moving from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), to focus on your framework of de-facto statehood. Would that framework be applicable when trying to understand other self-determination movements, for example Palestine or South Sudan?

YV: I do not think this framework applies to the Palestinian case. The idea of a Palestinian state is already legitimate. Palestinians are not necessarily struggling to gain international legitimacy for their cause, but they have to struggle against the Israeli presence. In the case of the KRG, it’s the complete opposite situation: The KRG has managed to drive out what they identify as the ‘occupying forces’, the Iraqi army, and they have managed to build a more or less independent state, but they haven’t been able to achieve international legitimacy yet. South Sudan is a much more interesting case. When South Sudan managed to gain autonomy, it was very clear that it was on its way to statehood. I would think Western Sahar is probably the ideal analogy: It has a government which controls a certain part of the claimed territory, while the rest of the territory is still under the control of Morocco. There are many similar cases around the world as well that I use to structure my theoretical framework. Some examples include Kosovo, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Somaliland.

FD: How does the regional context affect the capacity of the KRG to progressively gain its autonomy and perhaps its independence? Since the Kurdish people are not limited to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and an independent Kurdish state there would have implications for neighbouring countries.

YV: The KRG has become a very significant regional player in the last few years, especially since 2003. From being the object of intervention, where Iraqi Kurdish provinces were constantly subjected to interventions by neighbouring states, what we see today is the growing assertiveness of the KRG and its leadership. If the KRG gains its independence, then it is bound to produce shock waves around the region. However, on the other hand, it has a potential of becoming the solution for the future: if the Kurds have a state on some territory, it might ease the pressure off others in neighbouring countries to negotiate a solution. The creation of a Kurdish state, even one not covering the entire territory of historical Kurdistan, could serve as a base for settlement. Continue reading

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Sep 29 2014

US and Iran: ‘More cooperation than meets the eye’

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Bitter adversaries for a generation, the US and Iran now face a common enemy: the ‘Islamic State’. But, in an interview with DW, Dr Roham Alvandi argues that politics prevent Tehran and Washington from cooperating publicly. On Monday 16 October, Dr Alvandi will be presenting his most recent book ‘Nixon Kissinger and the Shah’ at LSE.


John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif during direct talks, July 14 2014

John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif during direct talks, July 14 2014


 

DW: What are the US and Iran’s respective interests in fighting the “Islamic State”? Are they opposed to IS for the same reasons?

Roham Alvandi: They’re not quite the same reasons. They each have their own interests in Iraq, and they each have an interest in containing and eventually defeating the Islamic State. From the US point of view, what they’re trying to do is defeat the IS threat but also create some sort of inclusive government in Iraq where you have some sort of balance between the Shi’a, the Sunni and the Kurds.

Whereas from the Iranian perspective, that’s much less their priority. They’re very much backing their allies in Iraq. But on the whole, there’s probably more cooperation going on than meets the eye. I suspect that there was a great deal of cooperation behind the scenes that has to do with the creation of the new government in Iraq, and I suspect that there’s also some cooperation in terms of the military operations that are going on. But neither side has an interest in acknowledging that openly, so they’re going to keep that very quiet.

Ayatollah Khamenei said that he rejected an offer from the US to cooperate against the Islamic State. Why would Iran oppose cooperating with Washington against a common enemy?

Iran assisted the United States in Afghanistan back in 2001. They helped defeat the Taliban; they helped create the Bonn process [to rebuild Afghanistan's political institutions]; they helped create the Karzai government. And what they got in exchange for that was “axis of evil” and more sanctions. Nothing came out of it and that was quite a gamble for President Khatami who had convinced the leadership that this was the right thing to do. So you can’t really blame them for being skeptical as to whether the US will really come through on any sort of quid pro quo as far as Iraq is concerned.

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Aug 19 2014

If Iraq is to survive, then it must be divided into separate regions

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by Ranj Alaaldin

It is no coincidence that country’s most stable areas are those where security and governance are in the hands of locally supported groups. This piece was originally published by the Independent on Sunday 17 August 2014.


Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters look on as smoke billows from the town Makhmur, about 175 miles north of the capital Baghdad, during clashes with Isis militants. AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters look on as smoke billows from the town Makhmur, about 175 miles north of the capital Baghdad, during clashes with Isis militants. AFP/Getty Images


Since ordering US airstrikes against jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (who now call themselves the Islamic State, or IS) in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, President Obama has gone one step further by arming Kurdish forces and helping them in their fight against the group.

The UK is also expected to provide the Kurds with arms and has already deployed SAS forces to the Kurdistan region as well as a fleet of Chinook helicopters to airlift Yazidi refugees besieged on Mount Sinjar, where they have had to choose between dying of dehydration or descending and facing inevitable slaughter at the hands of Isis militants.

All this should be welcomed. The West has been relatively muted in its response since Isis took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city of 2m people and other parts of Iraq’s north. It has established a self-declared caliphate in territory stretching between Iraq and Syria. Left alone, Isis will expand further; it will garner far greater resources than it currently enjoys and, as an organized, disciplined and resource-rich organisation will continue to recruit local Iraqis, Syrians and other jihadists from around the world to its cause.

The decision to become actively and directly involved in the fight against Isis acknowledges a number of realities that policymakers have for too long ignored: firstly, that the Kurds are a reliable, organized and moderate force capable of countering Islamic radicals in Iraq as well as the region; secondly, that the Kurds will declare independence sooner or later; finally, that Iraq, with or without the Kurds may disintegrate anyway.

Except, Iraq has already disintegrated. Baghdad no longer has any control over its Sunni Arab north. Its Shia-dominated government presides over the capital Baghdad, as well as the Shia south. Baghdad may still retake the north and it should be helped by the international community to achieve this but although it may do so and although Iraq could recover from the current crisis, it is unlikely to progress to such an extent that makes a recovery irreversible.

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Aug 12 2014

Book Review: The Struggle for Iraq’s Future by Zaid Al-Ali

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by Dr Zeynep Kaya

In this piece, originally published on the LSE Review of Books, Zeynep Kaya reviews Zaid Al-Ali’s latest book The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy.  Zaid gave a public lecture at LSE launching his book on Wednesday 7 May; you can listen to the podcast here.


The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy. Zaid Al-Ali. Yale University Press. 2014.

The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy. Zaid Al-Ali. Yale University Press. 2014.

The rise of ISIS in parts of Northern Iraq and the possibility of a breakaway of the Kurdish region from the central Baghdad government make questions about Iraq’s future more prescient than at any stage since the 2003 invasion. If Zaid Al-Ali’s central claim in his book The Struggle for Iraq’s Future is accepted, Iraq’s position today could be entirely different if the artificiality of sectarianism was understood and if today’s political elites could act beyond their short-term interests. Al-Ali provides a detailed account of the downward progression of the state of affairs in Iraq, offering readers illuminating explanations of the political, economic and social context of the increasing sectarian rift that has led to today’s turmoil.

Al-Ali, a lawyer who specialises in comparative constitutional law and international commercial arbitration, explains how hopes for Iraq to become a freer and more prosperous country faded over a ten-year period following the collapse of Ba‘ath regime. Particularly focusing on the period since 2005 when the Iraqi constitution was drafted, he provides a forensic and compelling account of the constitution-making process and the substantial issues within the constitution that set the ground for the political turmoil which followed. In more general terms, Al-Ali compares pre-2003 and post-2003 Iraq, which helps the reader to identify the long-term and short-term problems Iraqi politics and society have been experiencing.

There can be little doubt that this book is more suitable for those who already have a relatively good understanding of Iraqi politics and society, the political divisions among parties, and the process of intervention. Having said that, the opening two chapters, ‘A legacy of oppression and violence’ and ‘The origins of the political elite’, offer a lucid and accessible background for the general reader. Combined, these chapters cover Iraqi politics before the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and outlines the origins of the new political elite (who are mostly once exiled Iraqis), and the design of the Iraqi constitution. This background frames subsequent discussions of the rise of al-Maliki and his return to sectarian-style politics after 2010. The remainder of the book, however, is aimed at readers interested in an in-depth look into the thinking and actions of the key actors, the working of the newly established government and its ministries, and the events that took place within the last decade.

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Aug 6 2014

The GCC’s National Employment Challenge

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by Dr Steffen Hertog

This piece was originally published on The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog on 31 July 2014.


Foreign laborers work at a construction site in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 30, 2013. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Foreign laborers work at a construction site in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 30, 2013. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)


Citizens of the Gulf monarchies are more dependent on state employment than anywhere else in the world (except perhaps North Korea). As working age populations grow, the implicit government job guarantee is increasingly becoming unsustainable, especially in relatively poorer countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ruling elites recognize this, and have been pushing for increased private employment of Gulf nationals. These “Gulfization” policies are set to be the GCC’s prime social and economic challenge in coming decades. No one is close to resolving it: Private sectors continue to be dominated by migrant labor, with nationals holding a small or miniscule share of private jobs.

“Gulfization” policies have acquired additional urgency in the wake of the Arab uprisings. The costly wave of public job creation decreed by GCC rulers soon after regional turmoil spread in 2011 has further increased the long-term cost of the government payroll. GCC regimes have become even more sensitive to the economic demands of their young populations – who are for the most part not openly politicized, yet are concerned about their economic status and often expect their governments to cater to their needs. Public sectors in the poorer GCC countries already cannot absorb all new job seekers.


Figure 1: Distribution of employment by sector and nationality in the GCC

Source: National Agencies

Source: National Agencies


What makes Gulfization so difficult? In essence, it is the gap between nationals and migrant workers in both labor costs and labor rights. Nationals typically expect pay and work conditions similar to what is available in government, and can change employers at any time. Foreigners from low-wage countries are willing to put up with much lower salaries:

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