Students reflect on a week of dialogue in Iraqi Kurdistan

Delegates meet with President Masoud Barzani at the Saladin Presidential Palace

Delegates meet with President Masoud Barzani at the Saladin Presidential Palace

Delegations for Dialogue, organised their inaugural fact-finding programme in Iraqi Kurdistan in July 2017. A total of 18 student delegates representing nine countries were selected to participate in this week-long exploration into the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for Iraq's Kurdish Autonomous Region in light of September's independence referendum. 

During the week, delegates were able to directly engage in dialogue with representatives from all of the region’s political parties at the Kurdistan Parliament in Erbil as well as members of the Gorran Movement Party at their headquarters in Sulaymaniyah to discuss the upcoming referendum. Delegates were also invited to meet with President Masoud Barzani for a two-hour long private meeting at the Salahdin Presidential Palace.

Beyond these official meetings, excursions were made to important historical sites such as Halabja, where delegates were able to meet with a survivor of Saddam’s 1988 chemical attack. Delegates also visited Lalish where they were welcomed by leaders from the Yazidi faith who had prepared a special lunch. The programme concluded with a roundtable discussion with Kurdish youth, hosted in cooperation with the Global Shapers Erbil Hub

Here are some extractions of reflections made by three student delegates: 


I perceived a deep connection to the past and the recent history of the Kurdish nation.

Christopher Bowring (UK) , University of Cambridge.

Christopher Bowring (UK) , University of Cambridge.

There is a strong sense of history in Iraqi Kurdistan. Throughout our meetings with members of the government, political parties and people of Iraqi Kurdistan, I perceived a deep connection to the past and the recent history of the Kurdish nation. Ernest Renan, a French historian of the late 19th century, remarked that a nation required a national memory, which in turn would foster a national consciousness. A clear narrative, that was shared by the people we spoke to, irrespective of their politics, quickly emerged from our meetings. This narrative spoke of a struggle, fought for over a hundred years, for the right to self-determination that was promised during the treaties of Sykes-Picot and Sèrvres (promises later retracted in the treaty of Lausanne). We saw for ourselves aspects of this struggle, our visit to Halabja, where we met a survivor of the attack, was especially poignant. I found that such experiences, and the continuing image of a disinterested, intransigent and ineffective central Iraqi government, plagued by sectarianism, enhances this national consciousness and desire for independence.

The historical consciousness of the Iraqi Kurds informs their justifications for independence and also an understanding of some of the potential problems. Safeen Dizayee, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, as well as President Barzani laid these out extensively. They argued that independence, above all else, came from a desire to self-determination. Their primary motivation was therefore not geopolitical nor economic, but moral. The use of such language emerges from their national memory. During our trip I came to believe that this is the most important reason why independence has become such a force in Iraqi Kurdistan. The principle of self-determination, founded on historical understanding, has permeated every level of society; whoever we spoke to agreed that the Kurds should be independent. This speaks, on the one hand, of the progress Iraqi Kurdistan has made in terms of democracy, where ideas can flourish among an open-minded population. Yet, on the other hand, the reluctance with which potential problems were raised, (some of which verged very close to opposition to independence) shows how much progress is still to be made in terms of creating a free and open public discourse, where any idea can be legitimately challenged.

While the principle of independence was rarely disputed there was a great deal of positive engagement with the problems such a development might bring. Again, an understanding of history seemed to inform a very pragmatic approach to the political realities. The challenges of economic diversification, security and the role of the government in the economy were debated in our meetings. From a geopolitical perspective it was understood that independence had to be limited, at this time, to Iraqi Kurdistan only. An avoidance of conflict was also prioritised by the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, who pointed out how the Kurds have often become a bargaining chip between the states surrounding it, especially in times of crisis or conflict. 


With every meeting the same greeting: “before I answer questions, let me give you a brief summary of Iraq’s history.”

Daniel Whitten (Canada) , University of King’s College

Daniel Whitten (Canada) , University of King’s College

Coming to Iraqi Kurdistan I was certain in very few expectations aside from the overwhelming heat. Stepping through the 45-degree curtain between the plane and the gate was only the first step into an experience that challenged as many perceptions as it deepened about Kurdistan and its political climate. My research had prepared me to expect the Kurdish pride over and against an Iraqi identity, the tenuous and fraught intersections of the sociopolitical landscape, and the carefully-worded references to contentious regional issues. What struck me most politically is the juxtaposition of the rest of the world’s rhetoric about Kurdistan’s potential independence with the domestic debate within Kurdistan itself.

With every meeting the same greeting: “before I answer questions, let me give you a brief summary of Iraq’s history.” This seemed a necessary cultural ritual as much as a cup of sweet, rich tea. This emphasis on a Kurdish narrative of Iraq’s fraught history became the most accessible window for me to understand the caesura between the outsider and the Kurds view of the referendum. For those outside of Kurdistan, the rhetoric of “the timing is not right” inevitably refers to the perceived danger to the balance of power in the region, at a time of particularly instability, as power lines are re-distributed and alliances re-forged in the waning of the Syrian conflict.

For this outsider—for me in Canada—looking at the discourse in Kurdistan, it seems as if the same discussions are happening at a local level. The government declares that now is the opportune time to fulfill historic aspirations, and the opposition protests—“the timing is not right.” Those, like me, expecting a macro-version of the regional and international debate tinged with tribalism will find themselves surprised. The answers to the burning questions of the rest of the world are answered uniformly across the Kurdistani political spectrum. The generation of virtual separation from Baghdad has severed any Iraqi ties that ever formed. The repetition of the Kurdish-Iraqi history underlines the unwavering faith in the necessity, justice, and efficacy of an independent Kurdistan in the eyes of its people. What comes into fierce debate then is not the end but the means. Today’s Kurdistan is struggling not with the prospect of its independence nor the nuances of nation-building. All too aware that the road to independence points the direction of the nation, Kurdistan is struggling with the precise fruition of a centuries old process of national-liberation. 


I hope my government, and other powers, help Kurdistan bloom into the successful, stable and thriving nation

Tom Fenton (UK), Durham University

Tom Fenton (UK), Durham University

Before I visited Iraqi Kurdistan I had a simple but positive view of the region. I knew the Kurds had been brutalised over many years, and their calls for self-determination stymied by enemies and allies alike. And I knew that the Kurds – with poor weapons but great morale – have been a vital part in defeating Islamic State and terrorism. But what I did not understand until I arrived and spent a week in Kurdistan was the genuine coexistence that exists between the many different ethnic communities.

We witnessed this by visiting a church in Erbil and the Yazidi community in Lalish and by speaking to members of ethnic minorities in the capital. I also noted the excellent security situation, feeling as safe (or safer) as I would in a Western city. But on the other hand I also noted a country whose divides – between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, between the elites and the uneducated – could possibly burst into civil conflict if independence is achieved in the near future.

Although almost every person we met wanted independence at some stage, many understandably questioned the timing of the referendum: in a genuine, civil democracy, debating matters such as these freely and at no risk of persecution are absolutely necessary to guarantee the survival of representative and free institutions. In addition, I also noted a cult of personality – politicians should be here today, gone tomorrow leaders, and a democratic nation must always be about its people and not its leaders.

However, these are problems facing all new nations: I hope my government, and other powers, help Kurdistan bloom into the successful, stable and thriving nation it can become. This was one of the most enriching experiences of my life, with many highlights, from meeting the President to going to the frontlines near Mosul. The one that will stick out for me was being able to meet the Yazidi leaders in Lalish. This was a humbling experience, not least because the Yazidis have suffered unspeakable atrocities. It was a genuine pleasure to sit and eat with them as they told their history and their stories. I will be back some day, hopefully with some friends from home in tow.