Michael Knights at the Washington Institute.
WASHINGTON DC – The Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq is a “managed democracy,” and the best option for other Kurds to band around and form their own self-rule regions, according to Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute.
“The Kurdistan Region within broader Kurdistan might not end up being the biggest element of pan-Kurdish nation or people out there, but it’s the most advanced project for Kurds to band together and form their own self-governing and semi-autonomous regions,” Knights told a Policy Forum luncheon in the US capital last week, where experts discussed the situation of Kurds in the Middle East, particularly the Kurdistan Region.
At the forum titled The Kurdish Crescent: New Trends in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, Knights said that Kurdish parties in the Kurdistan Region are aware of their civil war of the 1990s and therefore try to maintain the stability they have today.
Knights, who has worked in Iraq as advisor to local government officials, security forces, and foreign investors, said: “There is a conservative tendency in KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) in protecting individual powerbases, ensuring basic stability is maintained. KRG is adept in managing (the) democratic process and preventing it moving in directions too fast or too dangerously destabilizing.”
He said that the move by the Kurdish parliament in June to extend the presidency of Massoud Barzani for another two years might have helped avert a political crisis.
“The process might not be democratic or constitutional, but it stretches out the political reform process, putting off many tough issues for a future day and creates political space and tries to move the reform at a slower pace,” he said.
Knights predicted that Baghdad and Erbil, which as late as a year ago were facing a possible military confrontation, will have a common threat to face in the future from and that is organizations such as al-Qaeda.
“The two not only have to face a resurgence of an organization that carries out coordinated attacks from Beirut to Diyala but they even have to cooperate with each other,” he said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki’s recent visit to Washington underscored the threat, Knights added.
Knights, who has just returned from a visit to the Kurdistan Region and the volatile disputed territories of Diyala and Mosul, spoke about the attack by al-Qaida-affiliated groups in Erbil in September.
“Considering the proximity of Kurds from areas like Kirkuk, Mosul and Diyala it’s pretty a miraculous record they got, one that any major city or country in the world will be very proud of.”
There were concerns that the attack on Erbil’s security headquarters -- a rare incident in the autonomous Kurdistan Region -- might deter foreign investors. But in Knights’ view, investors and local authorities alike acted properly in the aftermath of the attack.
“Everyone reacted pretty well to the attack, and Kurds reacted appropriately and strongly,” Knights told the forum. “The investor community reacted appropriately, demonstrating a lot of confidence in the KRG and as a result the attack blew over.”
Knights stated that the Kurdish government is doing a good job managing domestic politics, border issues with Iraq and counterterrorism. But he added that the KRG, “At some point needs to achieve some form of political reform to reduce the level of tension building up within the society.”
On Kurdistan’s economy, Knights said that the 17 percent of the budget that Erbil gets from Baghdad is “the lifeblood of the KRG. Without that money KRG simply stops working.”
He believes that even if the Kurdistan Region produces half a million to a million barrels of oil per day it would not be able to match what it gets from the central government, given that Iraq is also increasing its oil exports and subsequently adding up its budget.
But Knights added that the next two years are significant for the KRG as it starts to export its own oil via Turkey, noting that all parties seem to be on the same page over the issue.
“Baghdad has stepped out of the way, Ankara is supportive, and the less Baghdad threatens the more comfortable Ankara is; the more comfortable Baghdad is the less inclined the US is to invest capital, trying to change the situation,” he said.