Dr. Jonathan Spyer, senior fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, has just returned from a visit to northern Iraq. He is the first Israeli analyst to meet leaders of the Kurdish-ruled region there, and to interview the leader of the radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He is interviewed here by Professor Barry Rubin, director of the GLORIA Center.
Rubin: What were your impressions of Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq?
Spyer: The most important impression is of stability and rapid economic development. It is far safer than central and southern Iraq, where there is a lot of violence and kidnapping for ransom. There is an enormous amount of construction. New hotels, malls, and private housing projects are springing up. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has successfully attracted U.S. investment. The Erbil airport, opened in September, is ultra-modern and looks like the airport of an independent state.
The second main impression is that northern Iraq in many ways resembles a quasi-state. Kurdish flags line the airport road, but there’s just one Iraqi flag. The first language on all signs is Kurdish, followed by English, and only then Arabic. Kurdish is also spoken by almost everyone. Arabic is rare. Northern Iraq has its own military and security forces — the Peshmerga — and KRG officials are particularly proud that they have kept Islamist terrorism out of their region even at the height of the insurgency.
Rubin: How do Iraqi Kurdish leaders view Israel and their own role in the Middle East?
Spyer: They are cautious, expressing a general hope for peace between Israelis and Arabs, and a general sympathy for both sides. Clearly, KRG leaders don’t want to be drawn into the conflict. They know they occupy a precarious space both geographically and politically. They also know their enemies routinely dismiss them as U.S. and Israeli stooges. Thus, their obvious natural sympathy and empathy with Jews and Israel is understandably overlaid by a desire to protect their interests.
Rubin: How do they rank various threats or allies, including Iraq’s central government and Turkey?
Spyer: Their most immediate concerns are with the Baghdad government and Turkey. They know they must walk a narrow line, asserting their interests while not antagonizing unduly either of these powerful neighbors. This relates to such issues as the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, other Kurdish-speaking areas of Iraq that haven’t been included in the KRG’s region, the presence of anti-Turkish PKK guerrillas in the north, and Turkish fears of Kurdish sovereignty.
Rubin: What do they say about U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq?
Spyer: There was an absolute consensus among everyone I spoke to that withdrawal was premature.
Yet they have a pragmatic, problem-solving mentality. So I didn’t hear resentment but rather gratitude to the United State for freeing Iraqi Kurds from the rule of Saddam Hussein.