WASHINGTON DC – At a seminar titled “Kurds and Kurdistan,” former US diplomat and onetime adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peter Galbraith provided an overview of the Kurdish situation in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.
Galbraith, a former US Ambassador to Croatia who advised the Kurds during constitutional negotiations with Baghdad following Saddam Hussein’s 2003 downfall, remembered the difficult years when Iraqi Kurdistan became a self-governing region in 1991.
“Iraq was under sanctions. There was no money to pay salaries. There was limited electricity. Kurds’ only source was smuggling of oil,” he recounted before an audience of senior citizens.
Speaking about the current situation in the Kurdistan Region, and contrasting it with the rest of Iraq, Galbraith noted that American citizens needed a visa to travel to Iraq, but not to the Kurdistan Region.
He noted that many international airlines do not fly to Baghdad, but they do to Erbil.
Talking about his most recent visit to Kurdistan, Galbraith said each time he goes to Erbil he cannot recognize the city because of the rapid development.
Focusing on Turkey, Galbraith noted that more than half of the world’s Kurds live in that country.
“Turkish policy has evolved dramatically. There is recognition of the Kurdish identity, recognition of broadcasting in Kurdish and possibly teaching, education in Kurdish,” he recounted.
He contrasted the present situation against 2003, when Ankara was adamantly opposed to any Kurdish advances, including in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Ironically, now President Barzani is received as the head of state in Turkey, while the Turkish foreign minister goes to Erbil and doesn’t tell the Iraqi government that he is going to Kurdistan.”
Talking about ongoing relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, Galbraith stressed the importance of the recent oil export pipeline built by Turkey, connecting Kurdistan to its Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
The American diplomat also elaborated on Turkish treatment of its own Kurds, explaining that an internal democratization process is happening through the European Union.
He added that Ankara sees Iraqi Kurds as potential allies against Iranian- dominated Shiite Iraq.
Briefly touching on the Kurds in Iran, Galbraith claimed there was always recognition of Kurdish identity in Iran, and a province called Kurdistan also existed.
“In fact the first expression of Kurdish nationalism in the 20th century was in Iran, when the Mahabad Kurdish Republic was declared, which lasted 11 months.”
Galbraith also touched very briefly on Syria, and reminded the audience that Syria was officially called the “Syrian Arab Republic.” He said Kurds were deprived of basic rights and did not even have citizenship.
He added that Turkey was nervous about the situation in Syrian Kurdistan because of the control there of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“This is why Turkey is nervous about the situation in Syria,” he said. He added that, although Kurds were repressed by the Damascus regime, they did not join the opposition because they do not trust the opposition to accommodate them in a new Syria.