IS Was at Erbil’s Gates; Turkey Did Not Help
In an important interview Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to the Kurdistan Region presidency, revealed just how dangerously close the Islamic State (IS) armies came to overrunning Erbil in attacks last month. He said that the United States “played in important role” with airstrikes, and that Washington’s swift response was key to winning global support in the war against the group formerly known as ISIS. In this interview with Rudaw that offers rare insights into the war and behind-the-scenes workings of developments, Hussein expressed Erbil’s huge dissatisfaction at Turkey for offering words at a time of imminent danger when the Kurds needed more. “Turkey consistently reiterated that if the security of the Kurdistan Region is threatened they would intervene. Well, our security was under threat, but still we did not receive any support from Turkey,” Hussein said. Here is an edited transcript of his interview:
Rudaw: What roles are different countries playing in the assistance given to the Kurdistan Region, such as the United States, France and others?
Fuad Hussein: The US is leading the international community, and had it not been for the US’s swift support for the Kurdistan Region, we might not have received such a level of backing from the international community. The US was quick to support us. Then, Europe supported us and that was due to France’s efforts. The role of France is very important and the US and European countries are coordinating together in supporting Kurdistan.
Rudaw: It is believed that, had it not been for US airstrikes, IS militants would have entered Erbil.
Fuad Hussein: This is a military assessment. But in reality they reached Makhmour, Gwer and Khazir, which are the entry points to Erbil. In fact, when they reached Gwer they were not that far from Erbil International Airport. Therefore, it is fair to say that the US played an important role and inflicted huge damages upon IS. IS did not only wage a military war. They were also inciting fear among people through social media by beheading people, which led to some people fleeing their cities. It was a huge problem.
Rudaw: The night that the IS entered Makhmour, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani was on the telephone with Washington. How was the US persuaded to attack the IS?
Fuad Hussein: There were lots of phone calls to Washington on the night of August 6. The phone calls were a preparation for the call between Barzani and US Vice President Joe Biden. That was arranged, and Barzani clearly explained the situation, saying that the IS was using advanced military weapons and their fight was different from conventional fighting. After the authorization of airstrikes, President Barack Obama delivered a speech to the American public. President Barzani was informed of the content of the speech before President Obama delivered it. Following the speech, the US started attacking IS militants on August 8. The first US attack was an airstrike on an armored artillery that could hit targets as far as 30 kilometers. It was an American armored artillery that was taken by the IS from the Iraqi army.
Rudaw: Why did the IS attack Kurdistan?
Fuad Hussein: The IS was interested in Shingal and Tel Afar because of their geographic locations and religious and ethnic issues. The IS has its own map, which spans from India to Europe. In their map, Saudi Arabia is called Hijaz, Ethiopia is named Habasha and Spain is known as Andalus. They intend to take all these areas. They were interested in Kurdistan because of its oil and mountains. It would have been very dangerous if they had reached the mountains of Kurdistan. But I don’t know why they attacked Kurdistan. You should ask them, because we don’t know what is going on in their heads. What is clear is that their ideology is different from that of the Kurds, and they consider the Kurds infidels.
Rudaw: Does Kurdistan have any direct or indirect dialogue with IS?
Fuad Hussein: The IS is the enemy of the Kurds and Kurdistan. In the past we used to negotiate with different Iraqi governments (despite our war with Baghdad) after a period of fighting. But the IS is against humanity; how can we build ties with them?
Rudaw: There are several American oil companies in Kurdistan. Is it true that they had a role in mobilizing American support for Kurdistan?
Fuad Hussein: No, they did not do anything. It is true that before the war the oil companies had lobbied for US support for Kurdistan’s oil policy, for the betterment of ties between Washington and Erbil and to put pressure on former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. But for this war, no company intervened.
Rudaw: Have you called for an American force to be based in Kurdistan?
Fuad Hussein: In reality, when America withdrew its forces from Iraq Maliki told the whole world that the security of Iraq was under control. But it was not true. President Barzani had warned about the withdrawal of American forces. We saw that after the withdrawal of US forces the security situation in Iraq got worse over time, until it reached the current situation. Iraq needs America’s support in fighting terrorism. Kurdistan is part of Iraq and Baghdad should accept such a demand.
Rudaw: Were the US airstrikes for the sake of Iraq or the Kurdistan Region?
Fuad Hussein: The Syria crisis started three years ago and all Arab countries, Gulf States and Turkey called for US intervention. But the US didn’t do that. IS reached Baghdad, Mosul, Anbar, Diyala and Tikrit, and nothing happened. But as soon as they changed the direction of their attacks to Kurdistan, the international community came forward in support of Kurdistan. Historians should record this and people should carefully analyze that the US did not let IS advance into Kurdistan. Barzani has built an extensive network of relations with the international community and we have seen its results. The decision of the West and the US is not only the decision of their governments, but also the decision of the public. The American and European nations were in favor of protecting the Kurds. This is the first time that Germany decides on military support for a region that is at war. Therefore, the policy of the Kurds is not only engaged with the governments of those states but also with their people.
Rudaw: Kurdistan considered Turkey as its closest ally, but Turkey has not assisted Kurdistan in this fight. Why?
Fuad Hussein: We were in a very tough situation. In a tough situation even a glass of water matters. But when you are offered a glass of water when not thirsty it is not bad, but not effective. We were in need of help in the beginning. The US, France and Europe came to our rescue but our neighbor refused to do so, even after we asked for help.
Rudaw: What was Turkey’s response?
Fuad Hussein: They did not say they would not help. They said they would do so after Turkey’s presidential election. But we were in a very difficult situation. We had no choice but to wait until after the elections, yet they have not helped us. Turkey did not meet our expectation.
Rudaw: Are you upset with Turkey?
Fuad Hussein: There are extensive economic, trade and political ties between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region. If you analyze the extent of our relations with Turkey you would assume that Turkey would be heavily involved in this issue. Turkey consistently reiterated that if the security of the Kurdistan Region is threatened they would intervene. Well, our security was under threat, but still we did not receive any support from Turkey.
Rudaw: Would this situation cause a reassessment of relations with Turkey?
Fuad Hussein: It is in Turkey’s benefit to continue energy cooperation with Kurdistan. The US announced that it would protect Kurdistan to preserve its interests. Turkey says it has 49 of its diplomats taken hostage by IS. But Turkey has a consulate in Erbil, and what would happen had IS taken Erbil? Thousands of Turkey’s workers are working in Erbil and the Kurdistan Region. What about them? Does Turkey want to save the 49 diplomats at the expense of thousands of Turks in Kurdistan?
Rudaw: Have you decided to reassess your ties with Turkey?
Fuad Hussein: We have to be very clear with Turkey. How can we have such relations? It is in the benefit of Turkey to stand against the IS. The IS is not a friend to any country. Turkey, at least, could help us through some of its military bases in Duhok.
Rudaw: Turkey is worried that some of the weapons offered to Kurdistan might fall into the hands of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Can you guarantee this will not happen?
Fuad Hussein: The government, parliament, and the presidency of the Kurdistan Region receive the weapons and it is sent to the battlefields. The PKK does not rule Kurdistan. It is ironic that they make such a demand. This is the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. If true, then the economy and politics of Kurdistan are run by the PKK. Turkey should come forward. Then we can talk.
Rudaw: Is President Barzani upset about this?
Fuad Hussein: Barzani is the president of the Kurdistan Region. Every single Kurd is upset with Turkey’s position. How would President Barzani not be upset about it? We are upset, because they did not help us when we needed them.
Rudaw: What is the difference between Maliki and Haider al-Abadi?
Fuad Hussein: Every individual is different, but they are from the same school of thought and political party. Personality matters and our role in Baghdad to work as a team matters as well — because we did not have a team in Baghdad. Abadi contacted President Barzani before and after his appointment as prime minister and announced his intention to cooperate and work together.