What good will these diplomatic efforts do, though? Can talking to world leaders ever hope to shift the situation around Kurdistan

Prime Minister Barzani’s Davos Visit: What did it achieve?

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From the Davos summit to meetings with multiple governments worldwide, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has been on a whistle stop tour of world leaders in recent weeks. The events precipitating this connection building are clear: the aftermath of Kurdistan’s referendum on independence. Even Prime Minister Barzani’s message is clear: that Kurdistan is working hard to create peace in Iraq, not conflict, and that the Kurdish people only want what is theirs by right.

The effort put into this process is easy to see, but the expected outcomes are less clear, as is what is likely to happen next for Kurdistan. How will the world’s major players react to the situation around Kurdistan, and to this renewed diplomatic effort? What effect will it have on the circumstances there? Prime Minister Barzani is having to step carefully between competing interests, trying to raise support for Kurdistan’s situation, trying to draw investment into Kurdistan, while simultaneously making it clear that Kurdistan is not seeking to reignite conflict in the Middle East.

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Prime Minister Barzani and King Abdullah of Jordan.

What is the audience for these efforts? Perhaps some of them are ultimately intended for domestic consumption, showing the citizens of Kurdistan that their government is working on their behalf. Perhaps some of it is about establishing greater respect for Nechirvan Barzani at a time of political change within Kurdistan. Perhaps some of it is about reminding those who would damage Kurdistan’s prospects for political gain that there are bigger issues at stake. Much more of it, however, seems aimed at reminding the world’s political leaders that Kurdistan exists, when they so frequently seem inclined to forget.

What good will these diplomatic efforts do, though? Can talking to world leaders ever hope to shift the situation around Kurdistan, when years of such efforts have not already? One answer to this is that change within international relations is not a linear process. It does not happen in neat, well defined steps. Instead, pressure builds up behind the idea of transformation, until one day it seems bizarre that it has not happened already, and the world is prepared to act.

Another element of it is the need to keep Kurdistan in the eyes of the world’s media, power brokers, and governments. That is an ongoing process, where being forgotten creates the space for others to undo the gains made in the process of Kurdish nationhood, and where outright attacks against Kurds are a distinct possibility in the event of failure. Being forgotten also damages investment in Kurdistan at precisely the time when it needs to establish as much inward investment as possible.

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Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdish premier, meets with German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen

There are some signs that these diplomatic efforts are having an effect. European leaders have already urged the Iraqi government to pursue dialogue with Kurdistan rather than continuing to act unilaterally, and after months of relative silence in the European press, it seems that Kurdistan has become a subject to talk about again. Even the UK has invited Prime Minister Barzani to visit in the future to discuss matters further.

The likely outcome of all this is not clear as yet. It may well be that in spite of these efforts, Russia and the US will continue the studied neutrality regarding Kurdistan that has allowed its opponents to attack it. However, there may also come a point where efforts aimed at them succeed in changing the minds of their leaders, along with their policies within the region.

It seems clear that the current situation cannot continue, and in creating the space for potential change, Nechirvan Barzani’s efforts should be applauded. The situation as it stands is one that involves Iraq both insisting that Kurdistan must remain a part of it and simultaneously refusing to pay the budgetary obligations that would apply if it were. Both insisting that it function as a part of Iraq and using blockades to ensure that Kurdistan cannot function at all. It is an act of collective punishment that might not involve gas or bullets, but still constitutes an attack on Kurdistan’s people as a whole.

In Kirkuk, it has taken resources that are key to Kurdistan’s economy, persuading elements of Kurdistan’s political environment to act in their own interests rather than those of the whole region. Without international support, it is hard to see how this damage can be undone.

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Kurdistan Region Prime Minister PM Barzani met with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands in Davos

While these attacks represent difficult situations, they may also work to Kurdistan’s benefit in the long term. Although the fight with IS has not finished, it is less pronounced than it was. The world is no longer in a phase, therefore, where it is likely to tolerate the excesses of erstwhile allies as much. Turkey, Iraq and Iran are all coming under pressure from abroad, and diplomacy at this crucial time may remind the international community that it has a more palatable ally in the form of Kurdistan.

In this respect, Nechirvan Barzani is calling attention to the destruction of the Kurds through inaction. Through standing aside while the Iraqi government makes it impossible for their airports or government institutions to function are sanctioning the resulting damage, while those who stand aside while there are more physical attacks on Kurdish populations are tacitly sanctioning their deaths. His diplomatic efforts seem to be aimed primarily at overcoming the inertia of those who feel that events around Iraq are set and settled, reminding the world that the issues involved in Iraq haven’t gone away.

Will the result be an immediate transformation of the situation in Kurdistan? No, of course not. However, there is a clear path to eventual freedom and sovereignty for the people of Kurdistan, and that is a path that requires both international attention and international support. It is, as a result, a path that requires exactly the kind of international diplomacy that Nechirvan Barzani is engaged in, and one where his work in Davos and beyond may prove the difference between a forgotten Kurdistan and a free one.

By The New Mail Staff