What exactly is the nature of the threat you now face with ISIS?
Masrour Barzani: We were caught by surprise, to be quite frank with you, about the way the Iraqi military institutions collapsed – divisions of the Iraqi army left their posts and all the military equipment they left behind, most of that are now in the hands of ISIS. Now they are better equipped, they have more people, they have more territory and they have more intention to control the areas and expand their areas of influence.
Of course being the southern part, let’s say of Kurdistan or our southern neighbour – having ISIS there – is a great concern for the Kurdish people and specially for the areas close to them. We feel responsible that we have to protect not only the areas but the population that resides in those areas. It’s not just people in that area but, quite frankly, more than half a million of IDPs and refugees that have come from different parts of Iraq and Syria.
The collapse of the security forces. Do you have a thorough assessment of what equipment they’ve gotten and how much of it?
It would be difficult to be precise. Artillery, tanks, armoured vehicles, lots of ammunitions, machine guns – everything the Iraqi divisions had in their possessions most of that now ISIS has.
In terms of the threats it seems at the moment, certainly the perception, that these groups are busy fighting elsewhere. Are there active attempts by these groups to launch attacks against or in Kurdistan at the moment?
There have been clashes, of course – there have been military confrontations, there have been fighting constantly between Peshmerga and these terrorists organisations. They did launch attacks against Peshmerga in a number of areas.
Are there any attempts to launch attacks within Kurdistan, as we saw last September?
I hope we will be able to maintain security inside Kurdistan, although there is not 100% security anywhere in the world. We are trying our best to make sure that there are no sleeper cells activated, or if we know that there are people trying to destabilise the area. Of course we have very competent and capable agencies and organisations that are trying protect people and make sure that does not happen. We are doing our best.
Has there been an increase in attempts to destabilise or attack inside Kurdistan?
This is a continuous effort – it’s a constant effort by our organisations to try to maintain security and to provide the best security for the people. Of course, terrorists will try their best, if they can, do some operations here. So far they haven’t been able since the last attack, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried. There has been some attempts that have failed – in some cases we have announced, and in some cases we haven’t.
How many attacks since the last attack in September?
There has been quite a few attempts.
Have you noticed in any change since after the fall of Mosul? Have there been more attempts?
No, there has not been a significant change inside Kurdistan. The challenge is quite different now; we have, as I said, half a million IDPs in Kurdistan. It makes the job of our security forces much more difficult to keep an eye and try to monitor the situation.
Are you worried that within that population there are sleeper cells?
We don’t know. I hope not, but of course I cannot ruled that out.
Do you have concerns about that population becoming long-term? There are people now from Salahaddin, Diyala and Anbar for months now. Do you worry this population, like Syria, could become permanent?
I hope not, I really hope that the security situation in the rest of Iraq and in Syria will get back to normal so these people could go back to their homes and start their normal lives. Kurdistan has opened its doors for all those people that need shelter and protection and, so far, I think the KRG has done its best to provide whatever they can to assist these refugees that have come into Kurdistan. I think the burden is too much, so there has to be some sort of international intervention to come to the assistance of the KRG and to provide for these refugees.
As you mentioned, there has been some fighting along this new border with ISIS. But I mean it seems the bulk of the fighting is further south, do you think or expect that will change at any point in the future – perhaps turn their attention to Kurdistan?
I don’t think it would be right to speculate what they will do. But we have to be ready and expect the worse. We are trying to make sure that the borders are secure enough that if they do attempt to come north then we have enough forces to stop them.
Can you give us an idea of some of the measures that you’re taking to prepare for that eventuality?
Of course reinforcements – deployment of more Peshmerga forces to those areas. – this is the basic step pretty much that anyone has to take to control those borders. That may not be enough, though, we are also trying to work out with the locals in the area of providing services and trying to talk to the locals so that they feel more comfortable and try to stay safe in their own areas and not fearing fleeing to somewhere else. That is what we’re doing right now, of course after the events unfold in the future then I think we have to take measures accordingly.
How long do you think youre going to have this border with ISIS? Is this a year problem, is this a five year problem, or is this a new reality?
Well they have become a new reality. We don’t hope to see a terrorist organisation be our neighbour. We hope that the international community will step in and try to assist all the forces that are willing to stop ISIS from growing. But as long as they are there we have to deal with them as a potential and foreign threat to our security
Do you think that Baghdad will be able to take back Mosul and other areas in Ninewa?
What we have seen from the military capabilities of Iraq, I doubt they can do anything soon unless they have to reorganise their military and all the divisions and units. I think at this moment they might need some external help otherwise they will not be able to take back all the areas they have lost to ISIS.
International help from?
All the free world that is willing to stand up against terrorism.
United States, Europe, everyone that believe in democracy and rejects extremism and terrorism.
Has the KRG had any offers of that kind of assistance from any country?
Unfortunately, no. There have been talks but there has not been any serious step taken to assist KRG for its efforts to fight back against terrorism and protect all this populations – whether it’s the indigenous inhabitants of Kurdistan or the IDPs and refugees that have come into Kurdistan.
Can you give us an idea of who those talks were with?
All of our counterparts, everybody who has an interest in Iraq. We have had talks with the US, we’ve had talks with some of the some European countries, but no practical steps have been taken to provide assistance to the KRG, specially on the military front.
What would you want to see on the military front from the United States?
Like I said, ISIS has a lot of modern military equipment in their possession, and to fight against them Peshmergas have to be much more equipped than they are, and for that the US and the international community as a whole should feel responsible. They have a moral reasonability to come to the assistance of those people that are putting their lives on the line to protect civilians. Now Peshmergas are there fighting, and they deserve to be supported militarily, and of course Kurdistan as a whole should be supported in every way – politically and economically.
Do you believe ISIS is better equipped in some cases than the Peshmerga?
I wouldn’t say that, I don’t want to go into detail about what kind of weapons Peshmerga and ISIS have, but let’s not forget that ISIS took a lot of Iraqi military equipment and that is making them much more powerful than they use to be.
Apart from sending more reinforcements to the border and digging trenches and requesting assistance, what other kind of measures are you taking to preserve security here?
Well for the internal security, we have internal security organisations that are constantly trying their best day and night to provide the security and maintain the security that exists here in Kurdistan to protect the people, make sure there are no terrorist activities anywhere, make sure that there are not new recruitments, make sure there are no rhetoric or people who may be sympathetic to the ideas of extremism and radicalism, which fortunately we don’t have in Kurdistan to that extent.
What is your assessment on the size of ISIS across the border?
Well across the border would be difficult to say because, as they came in, I have to say that the number of ISIS fighters were less than 2,000 when they attacked Mosul, but they managed to take Mosul, and now they have a much bigger territory to control. Now Their number have increased – there have been new people coming from Syria – new people that have been recruited, so the assessment based on the information that is available to us is probably around maybe 12,000.
12,000 – in Iraq, including Ninewa, Diyala, Anbar?
And then the other fighting groups, how big are they?
That’s important to know because many of the other groups that fought against Baghdad or the Iraqi Government were not all affiliated with ISIS. There are other organisations like the Baathists, Naqshabandis, Ansar al-Islam and so on and so forth – these are other groups that have their own, let’s say, militias and terrorist groups to launch attacks against Iraqi targets.
Recently, because of how ISIS is successful, some of those groups or units within those groups have joined ISIS. So the rapid increase of the number of ISIS [fighters] is not really because lot of new people were recruited but because some have joined [from these groups]. They are not, in terms of numbers and those people who have the capability of fighting are not to the extent of ISIS so they’re much weaker than ISIS.
Here in Kurdistan now, some of the groups that have been fighting Baghdad and/or ISIS have had representatives hosted here. Are there attempts to coordinate with kind of nominal representatives of these armed groups?
Let’s distinguish terrorism and the Sunnis. There are a number of Sunni groups or personalities that have had issues with Baghdad and they are not on good terms with Maliki’s government – that does not mean they are terrorists. There have been tens of thousands of refugees from different parts of Iraq – Shia and Sunnis – that have come into Kurdistan. Some of their leaders have come to Kurdistan but these are not terrorists that have come here. In fact Kurdistan is in the front line of fighting terrorism, some of the accusations coming from Baghdad are absurd and baseless. Anyone who has a political difference with Baghdad – if Baghdad wants to label them as terrorism that does not mean they are.
Those other groups say that they envisage that eventually there will be some kind of fight between them and ISIS. Are there any discussions between you and those groups about taking on ISIS?
We reject terrorism all together. All the tribes and moderate organisations that are willing to fight back to protect their own areas of course we will support them. We support their efforts and we are willing to talk to all the moderate forces to provide more security to the rest of Iraq.
With the threat now that is faced with ISIS, and the fact that the Iraqi army is incapable of taking back the area, what is the long term solution to ISIS being there?
We are talking about the consequences, not the sources or reasons to the problem. We believe the main problem in Iraq is political and that the deterioration of the security situation is a result of a politically failed system. Baghdad has not been able to abide by the Constitution, it has not been able to fulfill its commitment of keeping a abroad based government. The marginalization of the Sunnis and the Kurds, and moving towards a sectarian regime in Baghdad are probably the main reasons why the security situation deteriorated to such an extent where ISIS can come in and take advantage.
In order to solve this problem, you have to have a more broad based political solution for the problem, and that has to be based on the new realities. Now there is a new reality in Iraq, so you cannot expect everything could go back to the pre-occupation of Mosul by ISIS. Now there is a new reality on the ground and it has to be addressed and accepted. To deal with this, you have to accept the fears and the concerns of the Sunnis, of the Kurds, and of course of all the Shia that may not be totally in line with Maliki’s government.
So what would that look like?
To us Kurds, there has to be a common ground; there has to be a common dominator for all the people living in Iraq to feel comfortable living with each other. Whatever that form of government that may be should be acceptable by the people living in this country. They should not fear from being retaliated against, they should not be afraid being dominated by a more powerful community in the country. If there are no guarantees that these people should feel safe and free, I think it would be very difficult to impose a solution – a rhetorical solution – and to us that solution has to be based on new realities.
It’s more of a decentralised model?
Absolutely. It has to be a decentralised solution.
From your view in the security field, is there a there a certain tipping point in your mind where the KRG would feel it has to declare independence to protect itself?
Independence is a right that the Kurds have. They have not experienced it and have not been allowed to experience it. Like every other nation, the Kurds have the right to self-determination and if they want it in the form of independence then of course they have the right to an independent country. Let’s not forget Kurds are the largest stateless nation in the world. Why is talking about independence is a big taboo, or it has been up until now?
But for the moment, let’s look at the facts on the ground. I don’t think that any rational or reasonable person in the world would accept the Kurds to live and accept to be partners in a country with a terrorist organisation. The reality today is that Kurdistan has a neighbour that is a terrorist organisation, and that it has a government in Baghdad that has failed to keep the country safe and united; the collapse of the military institutions in the country and the rise of militias in the rest of Iraq, are all concerns that the Kurds should seek a different way to protect themselves.
The Kurds are not responsible for breaking the country apart but they are responsible for protecting the citizens living in Kurdistan and protecting the democracy – the only democracy that exists in Iraq – in Kurdistan. It’s our responsibility like any other government in the world to protect the people and protect the region from terrorism and this chaos that exists in the region and for that we have to have free choices to make – we have to have the ability to make decisions and not to be taken hostage to a government in Baghdad that has failed to fulfill its responsibilities.
We have discussed the threats from Sunni insurgent groups, but you mentioned militias. There have been fairly hard-line comments from Shia militia figures, how do you assess the threat from that camp into the Kurds in Iraq?
Any unconstitutional, illegal militia groups are not acceptable, where ever they come from. First its responsibility of Baghdad to bring everybody under the law and, since they are controlling just a few provinces in the country and not the whole country, to make sure they use the institutions supported by the Constitution not to bring alternative militias as replacements. So it’s first the responsibility of Baghdad to that and, for us of course, we will not accept the rule of any militias outside of the law or the constitution.
Would you say that they pose a direct threat to Kurdistan?
They are far away, I think they are more busy trying to keep the areas they control from falling into the hands of ISIS. You hear rhetoric in different times, but when the situation changes and normalises, you see that the tone of those rhetoric softens. So we have to see how serious they are about this, but for us anybody threatening Kurdistan we take it seriously.
What about the cases of Kurds being killed by militia groups?
There have been individual cases, but we haven’t seen a major campaign of targetting Kurds. Of course there have been threats and warnings and mistreatment of Kurds in those areas, and that’s very unfortunate. The Kurds have been only the elements of stability and trying to be constructive, but fortunately those people that have failed to protect their own areas and fight against terrorism now cover up for their failures – they’re trying to go against defenseless civilians, and that’s unacceptable.
These joint-liaison centres that the Americans are setting up, one has bee setup in Kurdistan? How is it working?
As you know, the American decision that there will be some operation centres in the country – in Baghdad and elsewhere – one of them being in Kurdistan is mostly for consultation and exchanging views and assessing the situation so far.
Does it seem there will be any change?
We don’t know, I think you have to ask our American friends that question.
Do you think the air strikes would make a difference?
I think there has to be a more serious attempt to face ISIS. What’s been going on so far, we don’t think its sufficient enough to really damage ISIS or their forces. Whether its air strikes or other ways of combating them, that has to be discussed by the military experts. But from what we see, we really quite frankly have not seen a very serious attempt by the international community to step in and to face ISIS.
They [the international community] think of themselves first and say, ‘Well look this is Iraq and Syria, we can let it burn,’ – do you think that’s a fair assessment?
I don’t think it is, I think they are mistaken by saying that because many of the members of ISIS that have come from abroad have come from Europe, US, Middle East and North Africa – all over the world. They have come as extremist fighters to join ISIS, these are people that are not going to die in battles in Iraq and Syria, many of these people will go back to their countries of origin becoming potential leaders or terrorist operatives which could really become bigger threats to their own countries. There is a choice, it is inevitable that everyone in the globe has to face terrorism. But they have a choice: they either come and face them here, or they wait for them to go back to their own countries and face terrorism on their doorsteps.
Other than that, what would you say are consequences of the west or other international powers failing to take more robust action in Iraq?
What are the consequences?
Yes, what is the end game? What will happen, what do you expect?
I think the biggest price that is going to be made is the lives of innocent people, and we are paying that every day. There are innocent lives being lost, so I don’t know what else is more valuable than the lives of human beings being lost to this terrorist organisation. Short of that would be strategic , political, economic and security interests in the rest of the world. I think all the reasons for the international community to step in and do something – save lives, provide better security, secure a better future, and also make sure that this threat does not grow bigger.
Do you feel Iran is helping now?
Helping fight the threat from ISIS?
They have their own interests in keeping security in Iraq and I don’t think they would have an interest in seeing the situation become more deteriorated.
Are they providing anything concrete?
They are talking to Baghdad and they have not been shied away from talking about it.
What about Turkey?
All Iraqi neighbours have their own interests in making sure that the security the region is controlled and maintained. But we haven’t seen really – at least in our areas – an active role of interference rather than showing their support for all the people in the country.
Do you feel Iraq is a failed state now?
I think it is a failed state, absolutely. It is unfortunate but it is a failed state. It’s a fabricated state, it has never been a state by choice of people or the components of this country – they were forced to live together. Unfortunately there are two ways to keep the country united – either by an iron fist that happened under the rule of Saddam Hussein’s regime, or by making compromises and coming together – which we believe after 2003 the Constitution provided this opportunity to the people.
Unfortunately not abiding by the Constitution and not implementing the Constitution and being subjective to the articles of this Constitution has also moved away keeping a united country. Baghdad’s regime is mainly responsible for proving that even this federal system in the country that does not have a mechanism of checks and balances to keep someone from abusing power, [has failed to] to move the country towards safe shores. So we do believe it is a failed state and the actions are very clear.
Do you think it can be fixed?
Not in the sense that Iraq has been seeing because, let’s say, if Iraq was a successful state why would it come to this? So There is something wrong in the beginning, something has been wrong that Iraq was established or created. There has to be a new way of looking at Iraq, there has to be, let’s say, courage to accept the realities in this country. The realities are that these people that live in this area are very much afraid of the future. If you look at the Kurds, everything that happened to the Kurds – from the infamous Anfal operation, genocide war, chemical bombardments – are fresh memories, and there is a fear of repetition of these atrocities in the future. If you look at the Shia and the Sunnis they all have their own concerns. The Sunnis have ruled this country forever and only after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime the Shia have come to power. The Shia are also afraid that what happened in the past could happen again in the future if the Sunni extremists, let’s say, come to power. And when you talk to the Sunnis, they are very afraid that when the Shia come to power they [Shia] try to retaliate against all the wrongdoings that some Sunni extremist did under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
So everybody is fearful of being retaliated against, and that is not going to be solved by political statements. These are real issues, these are issues that I think everybody has to address and accept to come and talk about it and not be afraid of looking at different solutions to this problem, and to us a solution would be you have to give people a choice of how they want to live.
A choice and that choice would be?
Well for the Kurds, of course, like we have said in the past there is going to be a referendum and we will let our people speak for themselves. None of us are in a position to speak on behalf of an entire nation, we would rather have the nation would speak and say what they want.
What do you think the solution is for the Sunnis?
For the Sunnis too, I think the Sunnis and the Shia might come to terms and accept that there needs to be an agreement; whether they want to live together or they don’t, but there has to be an agreement and come to some terms. You cannot impose a solution if people don’t really accept it. I’m not talking about politicians speaking for people, I’m talking about people living in this country; they have to be satisfied, they have to be ready to accept whatever solution is proposed to them and that would probably be left up to them to decide whatever form of government or future they want to have.
So assume the referendum goes through for the Kurdish Region and people vote as they did informally in 2005 for independence, what then? Does Kurdistan declare independence or is there an agreement with Baghdad?
I don’t know exactly how long after the referendum a decision has to be made. This is a decision that all the Kurdish political parties and people must take into account what the people say. The result of the referendum will determine what decision should be made, but timing, I think, will depend on how the situation will be at the time. The Kurds have no intention to destablise the region more than it already is; they have no intention of animosity with any of the nations living in this region – not only in Iraq but the entire region. We mean peace, we mean co-existence, we mean cooperation with everybody. But there is a time that the world has to accept that the Kurds deserve to live like every other nation, and if they [Kurds] decide to have their own independent state we expect everybody should look at Kurdistan as an element of stability, a constructive element and not a threat to anyone. I think we have proven so far that the Kurds have been only contributing to the stability and economic prosperity in Iraq and the Region.
Do you think the United States has been responsive to that, do they grasp that that the Kurds are, regardless of what the Kurds decide to do, that it’s their right and they can be a force to stability?
I hope they realise that.
Kerry was just here…
We’ve talked to them, but I think it’s important that whatever they officially come out and say so I will leave it up to them. But we certainly hope that the US with the rest of the world will accept that the Kurds deserve much more.
But right now are you happy with the way they are responding, or do you feel they need to be doing more?
We always expect more, we expect full support from the US and the rest of the world. So unless we do have that full support we will not be satisfied.
Do you feel you are getting full support from them right now?
Not right now, but we hope that there would be much more support.