Ex-Kurdistan PM Barham Salih says ‘Present
Regime in Syria is Over’: Interview
By Andrew Parasiliti - Al-Monitor
September 13, 2012
Iraq's Kurdistan region then-prime minister Barham
Salih, Erbil, 2010. Photo: Reuters
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ERBIL-Hewlêr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — In
an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor’s Andrew
Parasiliti, Dr. Barham Salih, Deputy
Secretary-General of the Patriotic Union of
Kurdistan (PUK) and former prime minister of the
Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG), warned,
“let’s not repeat the mishaps of the Iraq
transition” in planning for a post-Assad Syria.
Salih, who also previously served as the deputy
prime minister of Iraq, added that Syria’s
communities have a shared interest “to prevent the
hijacking of the revolution by extremists and
Regarding developments in Iraq, Salih said that
while the effort by opposition parties to seek a
vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Maliki is
“over for now,” the “Iraqi political crisis is far
from over.” He called threats to cut the Kurdistan
Region’s share of the Iraqi budget “economic
strangulation" and reminiscent of the tactics of
Saddam Hussein. He added that “Iraqi politics has
been polarized even more than before” and that while
“a solution is possible,” there is such distrust
among the parties that “it will be a bumpy road to
the next elections.”
The full interview is
government of Iraq has threatened to cut $3 billion
from payments to the KRG as a result of the dispute
over oil exports from the Kurdistan Region. Baghdad
set a deadline of today [Tuesday, September 11] for
a response from the KRG. Where does this stand, and
how will it be resolved?
Understandably we have a serious crisis. But this is
not just a Baghdad-Erbil crisis; it is an Iraqi
When I was prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional
Government, we negotiated, in January 2010, what
should be considered a win-win for Iraq, the KRG and
the oil companies. Companies operating in the
Kurdistan Region would be paid for their costs
incurred, which would allow the oil to flow,
increasing exports for all of Iraq.
This was an important step to improve the ambience
and generate good will between Baghdad and Erbil,
and showed we can work together. Baghdad paid half a
billion dollars as part of the deal, but payments
stopped after a while, and then the companies in
turn had to stop their operations.
At a minimum we need to get back to this agreement
between Baghdad and Erbil allowing the flow of
exports, and Baghdad should embrace development of
oil resources of Kurdistan as a source for added
revenues for all of Iraq. The threats, however,
reinforce the deep concerns among Kurds about
efforts to roll back our constitutional rights by
some in Baghdad. We had thought that economic
strangulation as a tactic had ended with Saddam
Hussein. Instead of such threats, we should
acknowledge that we have a problem that needs
fixing, and I said with good will there is a win-win
We are hopeful that when Iraqi President Jalal
Talabani returns to Iraq we can begin a meaningful
negotiation to resolve this serious crisis.
Let me say again this is a crisis afflicting all of
Iraq. This is a crisis of Iraq's nascent political
system. Many Sunnis have a problem with the federal
government, many Shiites have a problem with the
federal government and Kurds also have our problems
with this situation. Ten years on from the demise of
Saddam, most Iraqis have no more that four to five
hours of electricity. Iraqi politics has been
polarized even more than before. This is hardly a
success. We have a problem — it is an Iraqi problem,www.ekurd.net
not just a Kurd-Baghdad issue. The way forward has
to be based on the Iraqi constitution and the Erbil
Agreement of November 2010, which allowed for the
formation of the present Iraqi government.
Q: The Kurdistan
Region’s relationship with Turkey has never been
better, and Baghdad-Ankara relations have never been
worse. Do you see this as a strategic benefit to the
KRG? How do you respond to Baghdad’s objections to a
pipeline for Kurdish energy exports through Turkey?
Where does this project stand?
Salih: This is
quite an irony. Remember the days when you and I
were working together in Washington when you were
with Senator Chuck Hagel? There were deep concerns
about the problems between the Kurdistan Region and
But relations between Ankara and Erbil have been
transformed. Colleagues in Baghdad contributed to
this transformation. Our American friends also
played a crucial role in the KRG’s ties with Turkey.
You have seen the benefits of our ties with Turkey.
Turkish investment, trade and business partnerships
have been a catalyst for our growth and development.
Turkish airlines operate in the Kurdistan region.
Regarding the pipeline, I say to my colleagues in
Baghdad that expansion of exports and
diversification of export routes could be for the
benefit of all Iraqis. The Iraqi constitution is
clear on Kurdistan's rights to develop our oil
resources. I am actually disappointed about the
deterioration in Baghdad’s ties with Ankara. This is
more a complicating factor than a strategic
advantage for us.
I hope that the good relationship between the KRG
and Turkey can be a bridge for better relations
between Baghdad and Ankara. We in the Kurdistan
Region need this, as other Iraqis do also. Iraq
should at long last should be at peace with its
neighbors, including Turkey.
Q: Al-Monitor has been covering the
escalation in tension over the Kurdish issue in
Turkey, including increased conflict between the
Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] and the government of
Turkey. How does the Kurdish question in Turkey
affect the politics of Iraqi Kurdistan and your
relationship with Turkey?
Kurdish issue in Turkey and Turkey's policies in
this regard have a major impact on the politics of
the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Iraqi Kurds have an
understandably close affinity with the Kurds of
Turkey. There has to be a political solution for the
Kurdish issue in Turkey. Violence cannot be the
answer. History is instructive; a political solution
is the only way out of this conflict. Despite the
many difficulties of today, I am hopeful about the
future. Look at the evolution in Turkey’s
relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan. Who would have
thought ten years ago that this would be possible?
There is no reason why Turkey, as a democratic
country, should not be able to solve this.
Q: Let’s extend the discussion to Syria.
Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani has
convened several meeting of Syrian Kurdish groups.
Does the KRG see its role in organizing the Syrian
Kurds to formally join the opposition to Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad? How is the KRG role
influenced, or complicated, by Turkey’s own Kurdish
Salih: We are impacted and effected by
developments in Syria, no doubt. We are concerned
about the Kurds in Syria. President Barzani helped
to bring together Syrian Kurdish groups and have
them develop a united approach toward the
developments in Syria. We emphasize the need for a
united opposition, working for a democratic Syria
that recognizes the rights of Kurdish people within
Syria. But these decisions are ultimately for the
Kurds of Syria, not for us to dictate.
Let me say the present regime in Syria is over. The
era of Ba'ath dictatorship is over. We should not
count on the regime surviving.
Here again history is instructive. Let’s not repeat
the mishaps of the Iraqi transition. It is not just
about getting rid of the dictatorship, but also
equally important is preparing for the day after.
The Ba’ath regime must go, but we need to consider
alternative outcomes that could make things worse.
There needs to be a serious focus on the transition
mechanism in Syria. All of Syria’s communities —
Christians, Kurds, Allawites, Druz, moderate
Islamists, nationalists and liberals all have a
binding interest to prevent the hijacking of the
revolution by extremists and fundamentalists, who
should not gain leverage in a way that will be to
the detrimental to Syria and the region. Syria must
not be allowed into the hands of extremists — this I
believe a vital interest of the Syrian people, and
should be a common interest for the region at large.
Q: Mr. Barzani
was among those seeking a no-confidence vote against
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki earlier this
year. That effort fell short. Is this effort now
stalled? Will the Kurdish leader seek reconciliation
with Prime Minister Maliki, or further
confrontation? What would you consider a good-will
gesture from Maliki?
Salih: The Iraqi
political crisis is far from over. Iraq desperately
needs a political settlement for this chronic power
struggle. But here again, it would be a mistake to
portray this as a problem just between the Kurds and
Baghdad. It is an Iraqi crisis and needs an Iraqi
solution. Shiites, as well as many other Iraqis, are
dissatisfied. It is not just the Kurds.
The effort to seek a no-confidence vote in the prime
minister is over for now. The focus is a now on a
reform agenda that will have the key Iraqi
constituencies work with Mr. Maliki to push the
needed political, security and economic reforms.
Simply put, the status quo is untenable. Iraq cannot
keep going from crisis to crisis.
I am hoping that the return of President Talabani to
Iraq will lead to serious negotiations on a reform
program. Good will is needed by all sides. There are
lingering security and governance problems. Iraq
requires a coherent and united program that
transcends the sectarian and ethnic divide.
A solution is possible, but I must accept that with
the levels of mistrust, it will be a bumpy road to
the next elections.
Q: Last year we saw the rumblings of what
some called a “Kurdish Spring.” You were KRG prime
minister at the time, and spent a great deal of time
both facing difficult questions from the Kurdish
parliament and meeting with students and activists.
How is the political awareness among Kurdish youth
affecting Kurdish politics in both the PUK
[Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and more broadly?
Salih: In a
profound way, to say the least — 58% of Iraqi Kurds
are below 25 years old. There are estimates that as
many as 70% are under 30. This is a young
population. It is a generation that grew up after
the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein.
The PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party delivered
tangible achievements for the Kurdish people. Both
main parties can be proud of their record of the
past. But the message is clear: Changes in Kurdish
society require fundamental economic and political
reforms. We in the KRG have undertaken some
important reforms, but not enough to satisfy our
citizens. More is needed.
For example, Baghdad gets four to five hours per day
of electricity. The Kurdistan region, by contrast,
gets 22 hours per day. But our people do not compare
our progress to Baghdad. They want the other two
hours. This is understandable. There are also
serious concerns about corruption, nepotism and a
lack of change in our leadership. I am proud of our
success, but we need to stay ahead of the reform
curve, and keep our citizens as full participants in
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is a remarkable story.
Look at how far we have come. Our story over the
past two decades is itself is a “Kurdish Spring.”
Kurdistan has been turned into a hub of economic
activity and prosperity in contrast with much of our
neighborhood. However, we cannot simply count on our
past success, we must do better. Our citizens demand
better, and they deserve better. This is a
fundamental challenge for Kurdish politics.
Andrew Parasiliti is CEO and Editor At Large of
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