Transcript: Q&A with Emma Sky on the state of Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion

Partial transcript of Q&A with Emma Sky, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University and former political advisor to General Raymond Odierno during his service as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, on the state of Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on March 21, 2013:

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
…Tell us a little bit about the state of Kurdish Arab politics at the moment. Obviously concerns that moves by the Kurds in selling their oil from the north or – I should use that word carefully – their oil. Oil extracted in northern parts of the country and their efforts to sell it, further stoking tensions with the central government. Help us understand as well as obviously key unresolved land rights issues up in the north. Help us understand where things stand today.

Emma Sky, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University:
At one level, Kurdistan is almost the success story of Iraq because it’s in Kurdistan that you have got electricity 24 hours a day. There’s much more employment. People there do feel happy and they do feel it’s much much better than they have in the past. So at one level, this is the Kurd’s moment.

At another level, relations between Kurdish leaders and Baghdad have probably never been so poor. And this – a lot of it goes back to personalities. There’s a real absence of trust among the elites in Iraq. A lot of this boils down at the moment to personal disputes between President [Massoud] Barzani and Nouri al-Maliki.

Barzani and other Kurdish leaders genuinely fear that Maliki is becoming an autocrat. Their sense of history – they’re affected by it the same way as Prime Minister Maliki is affected by it. So the Kurdish sense of history makes it always fear central government and they see in the future that the tanks, the F-16s supplied by the U.S. could be used against them.

So there’s this huge distrust. Before, it was President Talabani who served as the mediator, as the broker, between President Barzani and Prime Minister Maliki. And now that he’s incapacitated, there’s nobody who is brokering that disagreement.

Now, as you mentioned, there really are substantial issues to be dealt with. The issue of land was supposed to be resolved through the constitution Article 140 and it hasn’t been resolved. So should those disputed areas become part of Kurdistan, should they stay with central government? All the measures that were put in place have not taken place so whether it was the census, the referendum – none of that has happened. So the Kurds are frustrated and think it’s never going to happen.

You also mentioned the oil issues. And the Kurds have been exporting their oil, as you called it, through trucks to Turkey, through trucks to Iran, and there’s talk now about a direct pipeline between Turkey and Kurdistan. And they have been giving out oil contracts to international companies, and some of those contracts have been for fields in the disputed territories. So for central government, this is a great concern because they fear that if the Kurds can have a direct pipeline with Turkey that would lead to them breaking out of Iraq.

We saw in months last year and the year before the movement of Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces facing off against each other in the disputed territories, and when the U.S. military was there, the U.S. military served as a mediator between the different forces. Now, there is no mediator and there is concern that it only takes one shot for things to spiral out of action.

Recently, the budget was pushed through Parliament without the agreement of the Kurds and many of the Iraqi members boycotting it. But that is what’s led to the Kurdish boycotts of government because they fear that Maliki doesn’t want to share power. They now fear that they’re not real equal partners in Iraq. We’re back at the beginning 2003, 2004, you heard Kurdish leaders saying now for first time I feel Iraqi.

More and more and more the Kurds are becoming autonomous. They are seeking economic independence from Baghdad. So they’re drifting further and further apart.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
Emma, let’s talk about Syria for a moment. There’s a tendency here in Washington to view, for instance, Maliki’s acquiescence to Iranian overflights to Syria as a result of Iranian pressure. But Maliki has his own reasons for, perhaps, wanting to see Assad remain in power. Now, is it the kinship among the Shia and the Alawites? Is it a concern that if his government is toppled, it puts additional pressure on sectarian tensions within Iraq. Help us understand why the Maliki government is taking the position it is vis a vis the conflict of Syria?

Emma Sky, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University:
I think when you look for, you know, simple explanations, it’s very difficult to find simple explanations of this. It’s through Syria that many international jihadists entered Iraq and committed those terrible terrorist acts. The Syrian regime did very little to try and prevent that flow. Whether they facilitated it or not is another question but they didn’t stop it. And in 2009 after a particular horrible set of bombings that targeted the Foreign Ministry, Prime Minister Maliki wanted to take Assad before the Criminal Court for that. When people look at the Ba’athist regime of Syria, it looks like Saddam’s regime. When people see uprising in Syria, it looks like Iraq in 1990, 1991.

So how did this come about? And I think it’s too simplistic to say Maliki’s a pawn of Iran. I think more the issue is that Maliki and Shia Islamists in Iraq see the threat facing them in the same way that Iran sees the threat. And by the threat, I mean this fear of the Sunni regimes getting together – Saudi, Qatar, UAE, Turkey – coming together to overthrow the Shia regime of Assad in Syria as the first step of them overthrowing the Shia regime of Maliki in Baghdad. So it is this fear of the alternative. It’s fear that it’s all part of a regional…it is fear that if Assad is overthrown that the people who are going to come to power are…the most Salafist jihadist branch of the opposition and that fear is propagated through the media, it’s propagated in dialogue between people. But the relationship between Syria and Iraq is very complex because the different communities inside Iraq have got different relationships with Syria. I mean, yesterday when Robert Ford was testifying, he spoke about how Iraqi government was not preventing weapons from Iran reaching Syria. He also described how some Shia extremists from Iraq are inside Syria fighting on behalf of the regime. But there’s also plenty of Sunnis from Iraq who are fighting inside the opposition. Al Qaeda in Iraq members, who might be in Syria, who might be in Iraq, going back and forth.

And also Kurds inside Syria see a new opportunity and there’s fear there that if Assad goes, the Kurds will become more empowered inside Syria. So how will that affect Kurds inside Iraq? So they’re all inter-connected.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
The European perspective on the Iraqi-U.S. relationship.

Emma Sky, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University:
I think many people looking at that relationship just feel that the U.S. just wants to forget about Iraq, just want to start looking at it through the rear-view mirror, just to move beyond. And people find that quite difficult to understand after all that investment. I mean, huge investments in blood and treasures over the years.

When you look at the time of the surge, the U.S. reputation was way high and Iranian influence way low. And yet, now, that’s – you know, the balance is completely changed. People think that the U.S. has much more influence and is not wielding influence that it could have. So people ask why doesn’t the U.S. do more to contain some of Maliki’s worst instincts, why doesn’t the U.S. do more to create a better balance inside Iraq, between different communities?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, National Editor at The Washington Post:
How should the United States be doing that? …How do you all believe that the United States should be recalibrating this relationship? And building upon Ambassador Sumaida’ie’s point, if the natural allies to the United States are those who believe in more secular government, how do you do so in the zero-sum nature of Iraqi politics without further breaking the relationship with the Maliki government? Or do you accept that as a cost of doing so?

Emma Sky, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University:
I think people believed that the U.S. betted on Maliki. They betted on Maliki in 2010 and thought “This is the guy who’s going to get us a follow-up security agreement. This is our man.”

So rather than investing in processes, the institutions, it was just seen as troop withdrawal – “Maliki’s the guy.”

But the long-term interests of the U.S. do rely on Iraq being more democratic. It’s never going to be a liberal democracy in the Western style but to be inclusive of all its communities.

As Ambassador Crocker said, it’s the strategic framework agreement, which provides that framework to do that, to invest in the institutions, to build up better relations with Iraq’s peoples. So there is that.

There’s also the huge influence that the U.S. exerts with the Sunnis, with the Kurds, with the neighboring countries. Baghdad needs the U.S. to use that influence to help Iraq, to help Baghdad, to help Maliki himself have better relationships.

And of course, there’s the arms sales. Will the U.S. continue to just sell arms, sell arms, sell arms so that any conditions placed on it – if those weapons, if those security forces are used to oppress Prime Minister Maliki’s domestic rivals?

Emma Sky, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University:
…I think he is very hard to read but in the last few months, you could say there has been a maturing in his behavior. When you look at the intra-Shia competition going on, it’s Muqtada who has chosen not to be more sectarian. He’s actually chosen to reach out to the Kurds and reach out to the Sunnis…So you’ve seen a change in his behavior, and he could have acted differently. So I think he deserves some credit for that.

Emma Sky, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University:
2010 – you saw how the electorate voted. People were voting for parties that were not running on sectarian platforms. You could see the electorate – the Iraqi people – not wanting to define themselves in that way and not wanting to vote for political parties that stress sectarianism. Unfortunately, the opportunity that the U.S. had to negotiate a new political dispensation then to break the sectarian construct of the state, to get a new agreement, was missed. And the same dysfunctional system is in place. What I fear coming into the national elections, which is scheduled for 2014, is that you probably will end up with Prime Minister Maliki as the largest party – largest coalition – but is unlikely to be able to get enough votes to get the support of the parliament. But there’s likely to be no consensus candidate in opposition. So you’ll end up having an acting Prime Minister with everybody else acting because the system itself is now creaking with the same elites not willing to do a deal with each other.


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  1. Pingback: Transcript: Zbigniew Brzezinski on the geopolitical lessons of the Iraq War | What The Folly?!

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