LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

October 16th, 2014

Kurdish Liberation Movement in Iraq – Interview with Dr Yaniv Voller

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

October 16th, 2014

Kurdish Liberation Movement in Iraq – Interview with Dr Yaniv Voller

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

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.


DSC_0024


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.

ZK: Do you see this as a form of solution or do you see the KRG leadership establishing itself, in the long run, as an independent state and assuming the role of leadership among Kurds for the whole of the Middle East?

YV: I think the Kurdish leadership is proving itself to be very cautious and moderate. I don’t see them becoming the champions of Kurdish independence in other parts of Kurdistan; but Kurdish independence in Iraq might inspire other Kurdish nationalist movements to strive towards independence as well. It is of course very hard to predict what would happen, but if I had to think of different scenarios, then one possibility is that the KRG would come to embody  Kurdish nationalism allowing Kurds in other parts to perhaps consider integrating further into this state rather than fighting for independence. Most observers feel that if Iraqi Kurdistan does gain independence, it is bound of affect other Kurdish regions. Most significantly, the KRG has built very cordial relations with the Turkish government in the past few years. For example, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the pashmerga are serving as the force on the ground against IS. They now have gotten the chance to fill in the gap they have always pretended to fill, that of the local responsible powerful force in the region. This identity is probably the most significant result of this de-facto state of Kurdistan, which they will embrace and maintain after independence.

ZK: Do you think then that the creation of a legitimate Kurdish state will elevate the status of ‘Kurdishness’, the idea of Kurdish identity, in the region?

Of course I do, and that is why I am saying it is not necessarily bound to create a domino effect, but it can actually serve source. The biggest loser would obviously Iraq, but that’s politics. If other countries in the region are willing to sacrifice Iraq, then it might be a good solution, at least on the short term. It can take decades and even centuries for these things to evolve but on the short term it might calm down some of the separatist tendencies amongst some Kurdish groups.

FD: Is there any chance the Iraqi government, as it stands today, could accept an independent Kurdistan, no matter how complex the current situation is? The Iraqi state seems so weakened and failed but is it to an extent where it is willing to lose some of its territory in order to solve one problem, easing the tension between Baghdad and Erbil?

YV: No, I don’t think this is possible in the foreseeable future. The rejection of a Kurdish state is so embedded in Iraqi history and identity, that there’s no way the government could accept the idea of Kurdish independence, even if it means gaining some advantage on other fronts. I can’t see the Iraqi government approaching it the way to British government approached the Scottish referendum. On the other hand, I also can’t see the Iraqi government being able to do anything about it, not militarily at least. It could use its status as a fully-recognised UN member to try and condemn any recognition of a Kurdish state in Iraq, but I don’t imagine them being able to send military expeditions able to stop the Kurds. I think the biggest hurdle for the Kurds is Ankara. If the Turkish government embraced the idea of a Kurdish state, that would ease many problems. If Ankara was to agree to a Kurdish state, then the Iraqi government would have even less of a choice. It might have to accept it eventually. Ankara today objects to the idea of a Kurdish state because it fears of a potential dominance. I feel it is also part of the DNA of the Turkish state to reject the idea of Kurdish separatism even outside of Turkey. However, in the past few years we’ve seen Ankara and Erbil getting really cosy together and the only chance for a Kurdish state is with Turkish approval.

FD: How does Israel view a potential Kurdish state? Is there an official policy towards the idea?

YV: No there is no official policy, but it is an open secret that Israel has very good relations with the Kurdish liberation movement and that there exists a lot of sympathy towards the Kurdish cause in Israel: partly due to ideological affinity and partly due to strategic alliances.

ZK: Is also because they are both close to the US?

YV: It is true that the KRG is a Western actor in the region, but Israel doesn’t need it as an ally to improve its relations with Washington. It is more about the long history of cooperation and the sense of strong sympathy, of persecution. I think most of the Israeli policy makers are very aware of the implications the Kurdish secession will have on the Palestinian question so they are in a very difficult position. Israel is never known to openly support self-determination causes. It was very supportive of South Sudan, and it is now supportive of the Kurds but it is because they share the sense of persecution but there’s no clear policy about it. If the idea of a Kurdish state comes to a vote in the UN assembly I’m confident Israel would vote in favour.


Peshmerga on a T-55-Tank outside Kirkuk in Iraq, copyright Boris Niehaus, wikipedia.com
Peshmerga on a T-55-Tank outside Kirkuk in Iraq, copyright Boris Niehaus, wikipedia.com

ZK: Do you think that IS attacks on Kurdish areas of Iraq are easing the process towards an independent state?

YV: Definitely, yes. The fact that the peshmerga lost their few first battles against IS fighters was a terrible blow to their reputation and to their self-confidence but very beneficial to them on the longer term. They have already, because of the defeats, managed to gain more sophisticated and modern weapons that they have been asking for since 2003. For the first time, the international media and the public identify the Kurds as a pro-western element. This has given such a great exposure to the Kurdish case and has shown the Kurdish being persecuted – the Yezidis often being considered to be Kurds. The fact that they were the victims of IS attacks puts them even further in the western camp, in a way serving the Kurdish cause.

ZK: Do you think that the fact that the UN is functioning from Erbil not Baghdad and that refugees are coming into Kurdistan for shelter and safety, are other ways that helped shed Kurdistan in a positive light?

YV: I discuss this extensively in my book, the fact that the Kurds play on this narrative a lot: Kurdistan is a safe haven from terrorism, free of violence, where everyone can come in and feel safe whether Christians or Muslims. A lot of it is propaganda, obviously, but it doesn’t mean that it is completely untrue. This is what I mean by how the Kurds are turning the quest of international legitimacy into a strategy for liberation.

FD: Is a Kurdish state as an independent entity both geo-strategically and economically viable? Can it actually afford its independence? It is true that Kurdistan is rich in oil but it is also landlocked so exporting it can be difficult.

YV: Not only is Kurdistan landlocked, but it is also surrounded by states that aren’t very comfortable by the idea of its potential independence. I think this goes back to my argument that turkey is the key player in this situation. If Turkey accepts an independent Kurdish state, then this state will have some access to very open markets, not to mention the Turkish market itself, which is huge. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has a few advantages and it is a well-known holiday destination because of its climate and mountainous nature. I believe that it is already quite prosperous, much more than the rest of the country. This is mainly because the KRG has managed to play its cards right, by toning down its dose of Kurdish independence. It could be an economically viable state as long as it does it diplomatically.


Yaniv Voller will launch his new book ‘The Kurdish Liberation Movement in Iraq: From Insurgency to Statehood’ at LSE on 11 November 2014. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the author

Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

Posted In: Interview

Leave a Reply

Bad Behavior has blocked 1490 access attempts in the last 7 days.