What does this French visit mean in practical terms?

French Defence Minister Jean Yves Le Drian arrived in Erbil on 11th April, and met with President Masoud Barzani for talks relating to the ongoing fight against Islamic State. What does this visit mean for Kurdistan, and for the immediate future of the conflict?

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On one level, the visit is simply a sign of how seriously the French are taking the conflict. The arrival of M. Le Drian, along with a number of other French officials, was probably intended of a symbol that France would not be scared away from the conflict by the events of the Paris terrorist attacks, and a renewal of France’s commitment to the defeat of IS in the clearest possible terms.

Indeed, that commitment has been stated by all those involved. According to President Barzani, there has been a French promise of all necessary support for the peshmerga forces engaged in the conflict, and a recognition of the role that they are playing in combatting the threat posed by IS on the ground. President Barzani has, in recent weeks, emphasised the importance of that role and the crucial work that the men and women of the peshmerga perform.

What does this French visit mean in practical terms? It is hard to be sure, because of the shifting nature of any conflict, exactly what extra commitments will result from this visit, if any. We know from previous visits by others that they can result in additional weaponry, training and resources for the peshmerga, but the exact scale of such support can vary considerably. Kurdistan must be wary that what it hopes to receive and what others are prepared to provide do not find themselves too far apart.

It is even possible that this is almost entirely a symbolic gesture. France wants to reaffirm both its commitment to the conflict and its connections to Kurdistan. It is possible that any support that follows may be little more than a token effort, there more to show the French public that its politicians are continuing the fight against those who would attack France’s people than to produce significant results. It would not be the first time that a visit to Kurdistan has taken place purely so that those involved can say that the visit has taken place.

Of course, we don’t know what the implications of this visit will be yet. It may be that it will result in substantial support. Yet even a symbolic gesture could be useful for Kurdistan. It is a reminder of Kurdistan’s increasing political connections to the wider world, and of the importance of its position in the region. It is a legitimisation of its position, and of the de facto independence that holds sway there.

If and when a transition to full independence takes place, visits like this one may well have a role to play in making it possible for Kurdistan to reinforce its position. They will remind the world around Kurdistan that it does not stand alone, and will make the process of international recognition easier to achieve. In the longer term, visits such as this one will help to forge the trade and cultural links that are vital to a thriving society.

It is interesting to note what doesn’t appear to have been discussed in the meetings, however, as much as what has. The current refugee situation is a vital topic for both Kurdistan and Western Europe, while Kurdistan’s economic circumstances require urgent attention. Yet the focus here seems to have been military, with the choice of France’s Defence Minister making that clear.

In some ways, that says a lot about the kind of relationship France is hoping to have with Kurdistan, and Kurdistan must take notes of the limits of that relationship. France, like many of Kurdistan’s other international partners, is hoping for a military partnership, with Kurdistan taking on the bulk of the task when it comes to combatting IS so that French troops do not have to be committed directly to the conflict. There is little sign of the kind of cultural or economic links Kurdistan will really need as an independent nation. It falls to Kurdistan to try to build that into something both more wide ranging and more lasting.

On a more local level, the visit provides useful political support for the Kurdistan Regional Government, reminding the world of its role in the region as well as projecting its potential to attract outside support to Kurdistan’s people. It is a reminder of the role that it plays in helping to secure Kurdistan’s future, as well as putting the threats that Kurdistan faces into context and hinting at some of the possible solutions. As with all such visits, this one is not, in itself, confirmation of anything final, but it does open up possibilities, and that is what matters.

By Davan Yahya Khalil