David L. Phillips, author of "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East," believes that "Kurds can be a model for other countries." The writer, who is also a program director at Columbia University and serves as a foreign affairs expert and senior adviser to President Barack Obama's administration, says that is because the Kurds have a high level of democratic consciousness, due to their decades-long political struggles. Phillips, who has also been an advisor to previous US administrations and has authored several other books, recently wrote an article on CNBC calling for the Obama administration to replace its "Iraq First" policy with an "Erbil First" policy. In this interview with Rudaw, he explains why, and speaks broadly about Middle East politics and the Kurds in particular.
Rudaw: What made you choose The Kurdish Spring as the title of the book?
David Phillips: Democracy is flourishing among the Kurds. Arab States overthrew despotic regimes but failed to replace them with effective, representative governance. I think Kurds are an important example for other people in the Middle East when it comes to human rights and democratic governments.
Rudaw: What differences do you see between the Kurdish Spring and Arab Spring?
David Phillips: The Arab Spring has failed, the Kurdish Spring succeeded. Except for Tunisia, Arab Spring countries failed to create functioning democracies. The role of civil society is critical when it comes to oversight and holding governments accountable. Kurdish civil society is stronger than civil society in almost every Arab country.
Arab States overthrew despotic regimes but failed to replace them with effective, representative governance.
Rudaw: In the book you are pointing out that Iraq will be partitioned, and the Middle East map will change. What kind of change should we expect?
David Phillips: The new map involves the establishment of Iraqi Kurdistan as the world's next newest nation. As Iraq falls down under increasing pressure from ISIS, Iraqi Kurdistan will stand up and the international community will find it is in its interest to move to closer security and commercial cooperation with the Kurds. Kurds can inspire and help democratization in countries where they reside.
Rudaw: If South Kurdistan declares independence, how would it impact the power balance in the Middle East? Who would support the new Kurdish state?
David Phillips: A unilateral declaration of independence can rile tensions. South Kurdistan needs to start acting like a state. As Iraq falls down, Iraqi Kurdistan will rise up. If there is going to be an independent state, it will be through a neutral agreement with Baghdad.
Rudaw: What kind of road map should South Kurdistan follow in order to be an independent country soon?
David Phillips: It should pursue good governance, income transparency and revenue sharing of its energy and gas wealth with the KRG's constituents.
Rudaw: What is the probable future of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan? For example, would they be united with Rojava?
David Phillips: Both Iraq and Syria are failed states. Iraqi Kurdistan's access to the sea can go through parts of Rojava and Syria. Kurds have great loyalty to one another, especially when they are threatened. There will be some kind of confederation or an informal arrangement with Rojava, particularly as Iraqi Kurdistan explores the access to the Mediterranean through northern Syria. But I don't see any kind of formal arrangement between Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava at this time.
Iraqi Kurdistan's access to the sea can go through parts of Rojava and Syria.
Rudaw: In the American media, you are one of the experts who writes about Kurds. In almost every speech or article you are calling on the Obama Administration to work with the Kurds for a better Middle East. Also, this week you published an article on CNBC criticizing Washington. What kind of policy should the Obama Administration follow with the Kurds?
David Phillips: Let me say this first: air strikes launched by the US saved Erbil from being overrun. They prevented the further humanitarian catastrophe in Sinjar (Shingal), they allowed Peshmerga to regain the Mosul dam and they supported PKK and PYD to support Kobane. If the US is serious in defeating the Islamic State it needs to support fighters on the ground. Kurds have shown in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan that they have the capability to take down and defeat the ISIS fighters. The US should provide weapons directly to the KRG, and those weapons should be heavy weapons and capable to really making an impact on the armor that ISIS acquired.
The US should establish closer security and commercial cooperation with the Kurds. The international coalition cannot defeat Daesh unless Kurdish fighters are involved. For this, the Kurds would deserve and rightly expect for the United States to support their national aspirations.
Rudaw: Supporting the independence of Kurdistan, removing the PKK from the terrorist list and working with PYD in Syria are some of the points you have been making for friendship of Kurds and USA. How does Washington react when you present this kind of advice?
David Phillips: Washington's views towards Turkey are evolving. There is growing debate about Turkey's suitability as a NATO ally. NATO is more than a security alliance. It is a community of countries with shared values. Since Gezi Park, Turkey doesn't meet the criteria for NATO membership. The PKK was put on the list of foreign terrorist organizations as a deal post-9/11. The PKK should be removed from the terror list. If Ankara and the PKK are talking, why should Western countries still treat the PKK like an outcast?
Rudaw: You wrote a road map called "Disarming, Demobilizing and Reintegrating the PKK" before the peace process started. During the past years many times you have been in Ankara, Diyarbakir and Erbil too. What was your role in the peace process? Are you still playing a role in the peace process?
David Phillips: It is very frugal. The AKP Government has not taken any necessary steps to give Kurds political and cultural rights. And President Erdogan uses an inflammatory language when referring to PKK as a terror group. If Turkey is serious about a peace process, it has to take meaningful steps to provide the democratic autonomy. If it is not serious, then there is a real risk of renewed armed and violent conflict, which is not in the interest of Turkey or the Kurds. I support political dialogue. However, today there is no peace and there is no process. President Erdogan is wasting a historic opportunity to fully and finally resolve the Kurdish question.
Rudaw: Can the AKP solve the Kurdish Issue? Are you optimistic for peace between the Kurds and Turkey?
Washington's views towards Turkey are evolving. There is growing debate about Turkey's suitability as a NATO ally.
David Phillips: Yes, the AKP can solve the problem. But it must act with principle and commitment to peace. Playing political games with the peace process will merely antagonize Kurds in Turkey and re-radicalize the PKK.
Rudaw: What about the Ankara-Erbil relationship? How can this friendship help the peace process?
David Phillips: Ankara and Erbil developed a strategic partnership. However, Turkey proved to be a fair weather friend. When ISIS attacked Kurdistan, envoys appealed to Turkey for help. They were rejected: first because Turkey was about to have presidential elections and second because of Turkish hostages. Turkey still refuses the coalition the use of the Incirlik air force base for air strikes against ISIS. The jihadi highway from Turkey to Syria is still operating, despite Erdogan's claims that the border is sealed.
Rudaw: How do you see the future of Syria and Iran and what kind of role can Kurds in those countries play?
David Phillips: The People's Protection Units, women fighters and the PKK deserve high praise for their heroic defense of Kobane. Iraqi Peshmerga also participated meaningfully. ISIS succeeded in doing what no Kurdish leader has ever done: forging unity and common purpose among Kurds. The Kurds are America's best and most loyal ally in the fight against terrorism.
Rudaw: What does the Kurdish resistance in Kobane mean for the West?
David Phillips: The Obama administration rescued Kobane just in time by launching air strikes and air lifting weapons. Its actions were taken over Erdogan's objection. Kobane will take its place next to Halabja as a critical event in the construction of Kurdish identity.
Rudaw: Recently you visited Erbil and had conversations with US and Kurdish officials, as you mentioned in the article published on CNBC. What did they tell you about the current situation?
David Phillips: The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is much more stable and secure now than it was during my last visit in the region in August. The leadership of KRG deserves great credit for this and there is a lot of Kurdish-US cooperation in a range of fields, including security cooperation. Kurds want the tools to do their job. The job is defeating the ISIS and liberating all Kurdish territories and ridding Iraq and Syria of this terrorist group. The US should support Peshmerga and other Kurdish fighters in this battle. We share the common goal, which is to liberate the region from terrorism. We can work more closely together.
Rudaw: In the article you are also pointing out that the US should give up the "Iraq first" policy. Can you tell us more?
David Phillips: "Iraq first" is a float policy. It doesn't work. We don't wish the collapse of Iraq. But we do envision a negotiated agreement between Erbil and Bagdad on their future tags. So, we shouldn't have an "Iraq first" policy. We should have simultaneous tracks and Erbil is first.
Kobane will take its place next to Halabja as a critical event in the construction of Kurdish identity.
Rudaw: What would happen if the US doesn't give Peshmerga weapons?
David Phillips: The status quo would remain. Do we want to manage this conflict, or do we want to have the victory? If we are serious of winning this war the US needs to expand its military assistance to the Kurds directly -- both as security support but also a political statement as to the Kurds' importance. The Kurds can act as the point of the sphere in the fight against ISIS, but they are not going to murder their fighters unless there is some meaningful reward. The Obama Administration has to make a choice: if it is serious about destroying ISIS, it needs to work with the local fighters, especially with the Kurds. If it does that there can be a victory. If it continues its current policy it will manage to conflict and ultimately be in a position of having to deploy the US troops, or to recognize that ISIS is a long war and leave it for future administrations.
Rudaw: How can Kurdistan's oil play a role for a strategic friendship between Kurds and the West?
David Phillips: The Baghdad Agreement on revenue production and sharing is a good step. It normalizes relations between Erbil and Baghdad, enabling exports to flow and future development to proceed. It will be in force for a year, at which time negotiations will resume based on conditions at that time.