By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The title of this year’s Suli Forum is “Iraq and its Neighbors: Towards a New Regional Order.” It is the sixth forum of its kind and held March 6-7 in Sulaimani, in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani.
After the defeat of ISIS in Iraq in 2017 and the upheaval of the Kurdistan independence referendum the same year, 2018 was a year that allowed Iraq to recover from years of instability and conflict. As such the 2019 forum comes as ISIS continues low-level attacks and as the US is seeking to draw-down from Syria. This puts Iraq at a crossroads between US policy, which tends to be confrontational toward Iran, and a growing consensus by Iran, Turkey and Russia regarding Syria. Turkey also has increased its role in northern Iraq confronting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Iran fired ballistic missiles at Kurdish opposition groups in Koya last year. Meanwhile the KRG still is recovering from disputes and a political crises and this leaves unresolved the issue of disputed areas in Kirkuk and Sinjar. Many Yazidis still cannot return home. ISIS is active in areas between Peshmerga and Iraq federal unit control near Makhmur. And the country needs major economic investment after protests in Basra revealed corruption and failures in essential services.
The forum gathered an impressive list of speakers and attendees. It also had decent coffee and sign language for the deaf. It began with opening statements by Kurdistan Regional Government Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani. Then Iraqi President Barham Salih, returning to the University he helped create, said “The victory we achieved against ISIS is important but we must not underestimate the dangers ISIS still pose. We achieved a military victory and ended the Caliphate but ISIS pockets remain.”
He touched on the fact that “Iraq has been an arena where regional states settle their scores.” Reiterating a comment he has made before after Trump suggested Iraq would be used to “watch” Iran in January, he noted that the US troops in Iraq were present to combat terrorism, and nothing else would be accepted.
Salih also stressed the fact that Iraq would continue to have Ethnosectarianism but that Iraqis are united on other issues. Arab League Secretary General called sectarianism the “scourge of our region.”
UN envoy Jeanine Hennis spoke, supporting women and minority roles in Iraq. Others touched on this important subject as well on the second day. A Yazidi activist spoke about the need for peace. But some questioned the optimism. And others wondered whether the propaganda about minorities being an “integral” part of Iraq, was meaningful, given the fact that areas such as Sinjar lack any investment. William Warda of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization said the representation of minorities was flawed. Some wondered why many of the speakers were older men, and less young faces, even though Iraq is a young society. Many don’t even recall Saddam Hussein and some don’t know who he was.
Iran and Iraq
Ambassador of the UK to Iraq, Jon Wilks. He stressed Iraq’s relations with US and Iran.
There was a panel on Iraq returning to a regional role where former vice-president Ayad Allawi discussed whether the ideology of ISIS had been defeated. Former Prime Minister Haider Abadi agreed that although liberated, Iraq needs “training, logistical and intelligence support to fight terrorism.” Dr. Tariq Hammouri, the Minister of Industry, Trade and Supply in Jordan, called to fight extremism with knowledge, and development.
Ammar al-Hakeem: “All armed forces in Iraq must be under one system and command and must not have political affiliations or be involved in politics.” He also said that “Iraq is in the heart of Persian, Turkish, Kurdish and Arab nations – if you want stability in Iraq, you need a strong state.”
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Peek seemed to agree with Salih and others that Iraq shouldn’t be a “playground” for outsiders. Ebtisam Al-Ketbi, President of the Emirates Policy Center, disagreed about Iraq’s newfound influence in the region, arguing Iran wants a weak Iraq.
Essential and insightful insights from Iraq’s Minister of electricity, Luay al-Khatteeb: “Iran provides Iraq with energy that we cannot replace with any other neighbour in the short term. It will take us two years to find an alternative source to meet our demands.”
Former Prime Minister Haider Abadi, after making a controversial statement about few civilian deaths in the battle for Mosusl, said that he respected Qasim Soleimani, “he serves his country well. He looks for his state’s interests, not mine.” He also touched on the issue of foreign fighters, “Their countries should take them back and charge them for their criminal activities. Why should Iraq take blame for them? If they are Iraqis, fine we will take them, but if they are foreign why should Iraq take them?”
Falah Mustafa, of the KRG office of foreign relations, noted “The Kurdistan region has been very clear in its vision and also its approach towards the regional powers and beyond, including our neighbours.” He also argued that Iraq was entering a new phase in the struggle against ISIS, fighting an insurgency.
Of particular interest was a panel on the Hashd Al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units, the mostly Shi’ite militias raised in 2014 to fight ISIS that were incorporated as an official paramilitary force between 2016 and 2018. Erwin Van Veen of the Clingendael Institute who is researching conflict in the Middle East tweeted several important takeaways.
He writes: “Most Hashd fighters are from the Basra area where criticism is growing. Badr offices stormed….The CTS is mistrusted by many because it is US funded and trained. Seen as tool of US policy. Hashd are seen as a public Iraqi good. Some Hashd groups see themselves as guardians of Islamic society but undertake un-Islamic activities. How long before their credibility suffers?” Also, “government institutions look at the Hashd as a pillar of the state. Including PM Abdul-Mahdi. ‘Honor and contain’ the Hashd.”
He also notes that “the US supported the Lebanese Lebanese Armed Forces to under cut Hezbollah narrative on being needed to defend the country. A clear failure. So will it work in Iraq re: the Hashd? Not too likely.”
The forum overall has been an important airing of many themes that underpin Iraq today. It examined the role of the US and Iran in Iraq and the tensions that this has brought to the country in the wake of the defeat of ISIS. It noted that the war against ISIS enters a new phase, a phase of combating ideas and counter-insurgency. It also touched on the role of a strong or weak Iraq in the region and whether the PMU will become a permanent force, even a force that dominates the countryside.