In February 1968, the legendary Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani wrote a letter to the President of the French Republic General Charles de Gaulle, asking France to suspend arming Baghdad. The general complied.
Now, Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s grandson, President of the Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani, is received officially at Elysee Palace. He has made four publicly announced visits and several more undisclosed meetings in less than a decade. At first glance, this is a tremendous political development and a monumental diplomatic victory for the Kurds, but on a second look, we see that history is repeating itself. In Barzani’s latest visit to Paris this past week, 55 years after his grandfather’s letter, the topic of discussion is again the Kurdistan Region’s frustrations with Baghdad.
President Barzani knows that the Kurdistan Region matters to France
He is most likely seeking French mediation with Baghdad. This is not an unfamiliar task for Paris. Just over five years ago, France was crucial to easing the Kurdistan Region’s international isolation after its 2017 independence referendum.
Paris has a horse in this race. An unstable, weak, chaotic Iraq does not serve French interests. For example, in July, the Iraqi government and French oil giant TotalEnergies signed a long-awaited mega-energy agreement for four projects worth an estimated $27 billion. Another venture with French involvement is construction of a metro system in Baghdad.
Amicable Erbil-Baghdad relations are favorable to Paris. To this end, France supports resolving outstanding issues between Erbil and Baghdad based on full implementation of the Iraqi constitution, something Barzani has been calling for since 2017. The Kurdistan Region is frustrated with Baghdad’s lack of responsibility when it comes to implementing the constitution, recognized globally as Iraq’s political roadmap, and Baghdad has reservations about the Kurdistan Region’s conduct.
France knows the Kurdistan Region matters. It is through Erbil that Paris can project its influence into Baghdad. There is recognition in Paris that in a Middle East riddled with problems, the Kurds are an asset. The French recognize that things get done with the Kurds and promises are kept. The Region is seen as a place where France can work with the people rather than a problem that Paris wants to wish away. Hence, the phrase “important partner” used frequently by French President Emmanuel Macron to describe the Kurdistan Region.
The French know an unhappy and frustrated Kurdistan Region means an unstable Iraq. And an unstable Iraq means an even more volatile Middle East. For this reason, France should be committed to Kurdistan Region’s security and stability, regardless of an American military presence in Iraq. France is capable of training and equipping the Kurdish Peshmerga. Last July, Paris and Baghdad reached an agreement for 80 French trainers to conduct a two-year training course of about 2,100 Iraqi soldiers. Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga should have a substantial share in this training. Strengthening Kurdistan Region’s defense capabilities is in the interest of Western powers.
Macron also appreciates Barzani’s level-headed leadership and moderating influence in Kurdistan, Iraq, and the broader Middle East. France knows moderate leaders in a volatile Middle East can be a rare commodity. Barzani should not be taken for granted. Barzani is an unusual case in that he is liked and respected internationally, by both Western and Middle Eastern leaders. His charisma, charm, and high emotional intelligence are a source of consistency and continuation vital in an unpredictable part of the world. It was Barzani’s shuttle diplomacy, mediation skills, and ability to find common ground, consolidated with wisdom and earned trust, that revived relations between Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The two countries are now on a friendly footing.
Since 1991, the Kurdistan Region has been a factor for stability in the Middle East, enjoying positive and constructive relations with all regional powers. Having said this, internal Kurdish unity is paramount to maintaining this strategic position. Such unity is possible if the will is there. Barzani reiterated this sentiment earlier this year at the Erbil Forum where he candidly said that there is no alternative other than reconciliation amongst Kurdish political groups. He characterized the emergence of two separate Kurdish administrations as a “Zero Administration,” describing the collapse of the whole Kurdish enterprise should this happen.
It has not happened yet. The Kurdistan Region is still in a good position. Though officially a semi-autonomous non-state entity, it enjoys agency and influence on a par with any other sovereign state. Should any serious threat emerge to Western interests like that of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), Paris understands the importance of Kurdistan Region’s role in maintaining the stability of Iraq and the wider Middle East region.
Paradoxically, the more instability there is in the Middle East the more valuable the Kurdistan Region becomes. Former US President Barack Obama once famously characterized the region as “the island of decency the Kurds have built.” This sentiment is echoed throughout the Western liberal world. France appreciates Kurdistan Region’s role as a factor for stability and a haven for all. It is tolerant of all religions, ethnicities, and nationalities. Though not perfect, it is constantly working to improve its human rights record and it encourages women’s participation in public life. In the Kurdistan Region, rights and freedoms are on a par with most advanced liberal nations.
This is not to say everything is all rosy and sunshine. France is concerned about the Kurdistan Region’s fragmented politics. The tension between the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its coalition government partner the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is damaging their cause in Iraq. This is another area where France could help, a role Paris has experience in, during the mid-1990s when the KDP and PUK were embroiled in a devastating civil war.
France is also important to the Kurds. It was one of the first countries to open a consulate in the Kurdish capital of Erbil in 2009 after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, and played a critical role in helping the Kurds in the war against ISIS, including supplying arms and training to the Peshmerga. France joined the US and UK to protect the Kurdish populated areas in northern Iraq under a no-fly zone.