Masrour Barzani and Nechirvan Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government have travelled this week to Munich in order to speak at the 54th annual Munich Security Conference. In doing so, they hope to make the case for Kurdistan’s importance at a time when it is crucial to meeting some of the security challenges that face the world in the next year.
The Munich Security Conference is one of the key occasions allowing major powers to discuss threats at local, regional and global levels. Over 450 crucial decision makers from around the world will be there to forge closer ties, discuss common security concerns, and plan cooperation on strategic issues. It is a mark of prestige, and of Kurdistan’s importance within the Middle East, that two of its key politicians have been invited to speak there.
Part of their role at the conference will be to stress Kurdistan’s ongoing importance to the stability of the region. Now that the fight against ISIS/Daesh has seen it pushed out of the lands it has held, the temptation among some at the conference may be to see the situation as essentially complete, and to withdraw the support given to Kurdistan as a major bulwark against it. It will be crucial for both Masrour and Nechirvan Barzani to emphasise that the situation in and around Iraq remains unstable, and for them to stress Kurdistan’s capacity to prevent that situation from devolving into renewed violence.
What major challenges will they highlight in their speeches? The Middle East is hardly a region that is short of potential dangers, so it is impossible to know for certain which will form the focus of those speeches, but it is possible to highlight some of the potential threats that face both Kurdistan and the world.
One potential source of threats in the immediate future is that the end of the conflict against ISIS has allowed space for rivalries between the powers of the region to renew themselves. Pressures that were put on hold in the face of greater threats have started to come to the fore once more. Turkey has sought to push back against potential opponents both at home and abroad in recent weeks, the Syrian government has tried to reassert control of its former territories, and Iran’s long term nuclear ambitions appear to be continuing in the face of threats from the USA.
In Iraq, the Baghdad government has clamped down on Kurdish moves towards independence since the referendum there in November, taking back Kirkuk, while Kurdistan’s other neighbours have also sought to apply pressure to it in order to contain any separatist impulses in their own Kurdish citizens.
In terms of other threats, there are ongoing pressures from a standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have been trying to demonstrate their power in recent years through a series of proxy conflicts. Those conflicts potentially affect Kurdistan, and risk it becoming an arena for the efforts of those larger powers. Then there are the influences of world powers such as the USA and Russia, which appear to be seeking greater disengagement from the region while trying not to give up their influence there.
Given those varying pressures, Kurdistan’s politicians must chart a careful course between them. They must stress that Kurdistan’s role in the region is not finished simply because its peshmerga have done their job in fighting ISIS. They must emphasise that attempting to force borders back to the places they were before the beginning of the war would only spark further conflict. They must find a way to show the world that the tensions inherent in some of the artificial countries of the region will only continue to bubble into violence if they are not addressed.
It is also crucial to consider what the conference can achieve for Kurdistan, simply because of its role as a forum in which to meet many world leaders in the same place. At its most basic, it may form a neutral environment in which Masrour and Nechirvan Barzani can seek to defuse some of the dangerous opposition to Kurdistan’s autonomy. It may allow them to seek allies and support from beyond the usual narrow range of actors in the Middle East.
Even though this is a security conference, there is also the potential to build Kurdistan’s economic future. While it is vital that they are able to keep Kurdistan’s situation as a region under siege from its neighbours on the international agenda, it is also important that they show that it is still a region that is open for business. In the modern world, economic and security factors are intrinsically bound up with one another, so that the ability to demonstrate safety is vital to the region’s economic interests, and economic success is vital to the maintenance of a strong security force.
Whatever approach Masrour and Nechirvan Barzani take at the Munich Security Conference, it is vital that they succeed. They need to be able to make the world see the security concerns of the coming year in a way that demonstrates that Kurdistan is still at the heart of those issues, and that keeps the eyes of the world on the region.
By Davan Yahya Khalil