American journalist Scott Peterson speaks with Rudaw English on the sidelines of the Suli Forum on March 6, 2019, in Sulaimani, Kurdistan Region. Photo: Chris Johannes / Rudaw
American journalist Scott Peterson was one of the few Western journalists to cover the 1991 Kurdish uprisings against the Baathist regime and subsequent abandonment by the United States when the late former US President George H.W. Bush turned his back on the Kurds. On the 28th anniversary of the revolts, Peterson reminisced about his experiences with Rudaw English.
Working for the Daily Telegraph at the time, Peterson smuggled into Iraq from Turkey as some one million Kurds fled into the mountains of Iran and Turkey to escape dictator Saddam Hussein's retaliatory bombings.
The Yale graduate, who now works for the Christian Science Monitor, explains from the sidelines of the Suli Forum at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani on Wednesday how Kurds in Iraq have progressed through the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but still are far from having perfect governance.
Peterson recalls a conversation in 2001 with prominent Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari on the decisions Kurds must face when choosing an armed struggle against a central government versus negotiations, similar to what Kurds in Syria are currently facing.
Rudaw: Why do you continue to be drawn to the Kurdish issue 28 years after the events of 1991?
Scott Peterson: Visiting Kurdistan and visiting the Kurds have been something on my resume for three decades now. It has been fascinating to watch them because when I first got to know the Kurdish issue was the First Gulf War in 1991. Kurds were at a particularly vulnerable moment. They'd had an amazing uprising; there was a lot of hope at that time. That was of course broken as Saddam Hussein's forces turned the tide and recaptured parts of the north [of Iraq] that Kurds had taken over and then forced out more than a million refugees into Turkey and Iran.
So walking over the mountains, speaking to the people there about what their concerns were and how, at that time, they had felt
The Kurds have been on a learning curve and they still are
betrayed. They had felt that President Bush, that American support would be with them during an uprising. It really for me encapsulated – unbeknownst to me, but it was the first chapter of what I would be watching in Iraq for decades to come.
Since then we have seen much more robust American interventions: We've seen the fall of Saddam Hussein. But in the initial stages also, we saw Americans create that no-fly zone and protect that Kurdish region in such a way that the Kurds were really able to get an advantage during that period. Now, we have so many more issues...
To get into those issues, the Kurds have had 27 years of basically self-governance and 14 years since the 2005 agreement. Are changes happening fast enough within the Kurdistan Regional Government? Are people demanding too much of a government that is so young?
The Kurds have been on a learning curve and they still are. They had an advantage because for some years they were able to self-rule during the time Saddam was still in Baghdad, but they themselves kind of had this autonomy – and that's been very important. But, I believe there are a lot of Kurds now who believe a lot more could have and should have been done in terms of democratic issues, in terms of democratic rule, in terms also of management. We are starting to see more of these things in Kurdistan. There are more parties. There are more voices. There are also higher expectations among people.
I think [Kurds] could have made more progress at this point
For me, I think back to what people's expectations were back in 1991. They had given up everything. They had also just survived the late 1980s Anfal campaign. So they had nothing. There is no question, so many Kurds could look around at their situation in northern Iraq and say, 'Wow, we are just – we have progressed a lot.' But I think a lot of people ask themselves, 'Have we progressed as much as we should have or could have?' And I think that they could have made more progress at this point – and they are working towards that. There is no question.
There was an agreement signed between the two major parties three days ago in Erbil that has been described as the most important and historic since the deal that was signed a decade ago. What would you say to detractors who say that Kurdish nationalism only exists in times of crisis or in that 2008-2011 period when it was just booming economically?
Kurdish nationalism is going to be around forever. And it has been around forever. It's always a question of how it is defined because the actual ethnic Kurdish nation is divided up across four or five different countries. But ultimately, each of those groups in each country has its own history, its own aspirations, and they are also treated differently by the central governments under which they operate. That's one reason why the KRG is a specific experiment Kurdish rule and why the standards are so high for all other Kurds in the region. This is the place that can set the example.
With that point, the only lasting autonomy that the Kurds have been able to achieve is through establishing the Kurdistan Region with Baghdad. What is the best option: an armed struggle or working through governments in
Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara?
Here in Kurdish Iraq before 2001, Kurdish leaders like Hoshyar Zebari specifically were telling me that our hand for a sustainable
Having an entity that was always going to be at war with a central government was ultimately not a sustainable solution
protection of our people is to have power in Baghdad also, that that was crucial. So basically having an entity that was always going to be at war with a central government was ultimately not a sustainable solution. You'll find the same thing in Turkey with the PKK being at war with the Turkish central government, you could do this for decades and they've been doing it for decades, but that actually hasn't brought a peaceful prosperous result for their people.
Iranian Kurds have had a much better experience, but not a perfect one, and the same for the Syrian Kurds. Syrian Kurds through the SDF and others are armed and essentially gaining more territory. But there are also signs that as Damascus wins this war more broadly, they'll be able to negotiate and discuss with them as they once did. All of these are separate cases and separate circumstances. But ultimately, you are going have to work with some of the structures that already exist if you are going have a longer term, peaceful and prosperous future for your own people.
Despite the United States building the largest consular complex in the world in Erbil, given Trump's chaotic nature and increasing Russian influence in the region, should Kurds expect a lasting US presence when you have Iraqi leaders saying there will not be US forces in Iraq?
President Barham Salih was very specific about that. He said they are here for a specific reason at the invitation of the Iraqi government. And that is to train Iraqi forces; it's very specific as to what they are doing. They've also been helping in the ISIS conflict with airstrikes and things. But also as Barham said, this has been a multi-national effort. The Iranians have been incredibly helpful over the years and that is completely true since ISIS came into Iraq.
Iraq has to play a game that fits and works in the region
So Iraq has to play a game that fits and works in the region. The Americans have had a very long and detailed history here and what's been important for Americans to make a sustainable presence is also to bring things that are going to be helping people who are here. Sometimes they are seen as helpful. If they are seen as not helpful, then they are not going to be welcome in Iraq. Iraqis are in a position to make that decision themselves.
President Obama gets a hard time for having 'let Iraq go' without some kind of deal. I was reporting on that at the time. The Iraqis were quite adamant for their own reasons, not just the Iranians or any other neighbors didn't want the Americans here, but that Iraqis themselves didn't want a permanent US presence here that would mean there would be American bases everywhere. That just wasn't an option at the time. The Americans, all the players here, and in the region operate with what tools they have.
They're bringing to the table what they can. They're trying to maximize their influence and impact, hopefully a positive impact, on Iraq. But Iraqis are absolutely their own agents in a lot of these things. They make their own decisions. Washington is never going to be happy with every decision Baghdad makes or Erbil and Sulaimani make, and the exact same is true for Tehran, nor are the Turks, because Iraq is making decisions based on their self-interests.