Peter Galbraith, a former Politics and Economics student at St Catherine’s College, returned to his alma mater on 27th October to deliver a talk on Syria, Iraq and ISIS. Highlights of his career include helping to uncover Saddam’s Hussein attempted genocide of the Iraqi Kurds, being the ï¬rst US Ambassador to Croatia during the Balkan Wars and uncovering election fraud as Deputy UN Special Ambassador to Afghanistan during the 2009 Afghan presidential elections. Galbraith has also been one of the most vocal supporters of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish state. I caught up with him after his talk to discuss the state of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, the US-Iran nuclear deal and a potential resolution to the Syrian conï¬‚ict.
The Syrian Civil War, in which more than 200,000 Syrians have lost their lives, has been dragging on for more than four years with no end in sight. This has led a group of states, headed by Russia, to argue that any possible solution to this conï¬‚ict has to include ï¬nding a compromise and maintaining at the head of Syria its current president, Bashar Al-Assad, the autocrat whose despotic regime sparked the outrage that led to the beginning of the conï¬‚ict.
As a man with years of experience in hands-on negotiations and disputes in the Iraqi-Syrian region, Galbraith provides a refreshingly pragmatic assessment of the current state of the Syrian conï¬‚ict. He is obviously aware of what a fair end to the conï¬‚ict would look like. Yet he seems more interested in actually ending this war, rather than pursuing some far-fetched ideal resolution whose lack of plausible application only delays an actual end to the war, and thus costs more lives. As he says, any deal that involves maintaining Assad in power is “an unjust agreement, but the continuation of the war is even more unjust”.
He continues on to explain that “there’s no justice in Assad remaining… but what’s the alternative? It’s ï¬ne to say Assad must go…but he isn’t going. So the question is, how can you achieve peace, or some kind of settlement that will bring peace, [that] will preserve the multi-confessional, multi-religious, multi-ethnic nature of Syria? It’s hard to see how you get there except by having some arrangement that includes Assad. It’s not desirable, but I would argue that it’s better than the alternative of an indeï¬nite continuation of the war.”
Galbraith’s view of an improved Middle East has at its heart an independent Kurdish state. He has always had a special interest in the fate of the Kurdish people, who are a minority in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran and have been at the forefront of the ï¬ght against ISIS. He sees in the Syrian conï¬‚ict an opportunity for the Kurdish people to emancipate themselves and redetermine the arbitrary lines between states drawn by the French and British after the First World War.
Speaking of the Syrian Kurds, Galbraith notes that in his trip to that region in December 2014, he noticed that “they have gone from being rebels in charge of an area to having many more attributes of a government.” It is obvious that Galbraith believes that the conï¬‚ict in Syria and Iraq oï¬€ers the possibility of stable and peaceful Kurdish states rising from the region’s ashes.
Yet he is more sceptical about the possibility of a unified Kurdish state, which would span Syria, Iraq, Turkey and possibly Iran. He explains that at least among the Iraqi Kurds, who currently are the closest to having a sovereign Kurdish state, “there is no desire for it”. Because there are more Kurds in Turkey (11-20 million) and Iran (8-10 million) than in Iraq (5-7 million,) a uniï¬ed Kurdish state would imply having to “share [the Iraqi Kurds’] resources with a much larger population” and probably being “ruled not from Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) but from Diyarbakir, in South-East Turkey”. For these reasons, Iraqi Kurds might feel better oï¬€ on their own.
It is easy to reduce the Kurds to one ethnic group with homogeneous interests, but it must be remembered that each Kurdish minority has its own history of cultural identity and struggle. This contrast between Kurdish minorities is best illustrated by the continued Turkish ï¬nancial and political support for a sovereign Iraqi Kurdish state, while the Turkish state is simultaneously in an open conï¬‚ict with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a rebel group that has led the ï¬ght for Turkish Kurdish independence for the past thirty years.
As such, Galbraith concludes that “there is not a desire nor a drive for a Greater Kurdistan” in the Iraqi Kurds, which should make one reï¬‚ect, if a Greater Kurdistan is oï¬€ the table, on what the future of Kurdish minorities in Syria and Turkey might look like if the ethnic tensions that rock the region subsist or even possibly worsen.
Galbraith also discussed the US-Iran nuclear deal, and its impact on the Middle Eastern region. Galbraith believes that the deal is “a very good deal from a Western perspective,” partly because of “the overwhelming prospect for change” that Galbraith witnessed in the Iranian population on a recent trip over there. He observes that “the mullahs [a term used to characterise Shi’ite clerics] seem to have lost control of society,” in that the Iranian population seems ready to move on from the stringent religious laws imposed by Iranian religious leaders and embrace more liberal values; “this deal has strengthened those who want change.”
Generally, Galbraith sees a “common interest” between the US and Iran on geopolitical matters, be it the preservation of the Iraqi government or the defeat of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. As such, the deal strengthens one of the more stable states in the Middle East, while preventing their possessing weapons of mass destruction in such a troubled region.
All in all, Galbraith distinguishes himself from what can be found in academic journals or everyday newspapers. He puts pragmatic perspective over armchair-theoretic daydreaming when it comes to the Middle-East. He presents the cold, hard facts and searches for the most eï¬ƒ cient solution over the morally ideal, or “just” solution.
You might agree or disagree with such a cynical point of view, but it is important to keep one’s thoughts on the Middle East grounded in reality. No matter how desirable a utopian outcome might be, we have to start moving forwards from what is happening there right now.