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France wants to redesign its Iraq policy through President Barzani: analyst

France wants to use the Kurdistan Region’s President Nechirvan Barzani for its plan to redesign its policy in Iraq, a France-based Kurdish analyst has said, as Barzani prepares for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday.

“The visit comes at a time when France is redesigning its policy in the Middle East. This redesign of the policy begins in Iraq. I mean, France wants to turn Iraq back into the focal point of the Middle East,” Adel Bakawan, Director of Research Department at the Mediterranean Middle East Research and Studies Institute (iReMMO), told Rudaw English on Monday.

“To do this, the French government and Emmanuel Macron believe they should begin the process with one of the strongest actors in Iraq, which is the Kurdistan Regional Government… it is the Kurdistan Region’s President who has very strong and important relations with Emmanuel Macron as an individual,” he said, adding that France believes that Barzani can help them implement this plan.

Tuesday’s meeting between Barzani and Macron in Paris is different from those of the past because “most of the previous visits were upon the request of Kurds… while this one is upon the request of French President Emmanuel Macron,” Bakawan said.

Stability

France is a member of the Global Coalition Against Daesh (Islamic State, acronym ISIS) – formed in 2014 after the terror group took hold of swathes of Syria and Iraq to assist local forces in defeating the extremist group. Despite the resurgence of ISIS in territories disputed by Erbil and Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, France wants the Peshmerga forces of Kurdistan as a main ally on the ground, because it only wants its personnel on the ground for advice or training purposes, Bakawan said.

On Iraq’s upcoming elections, Bakawan said Macron believes Barzani “can play a great role in stabilizing Iraq,” and that France will seek Barzani’s help to guide them how to assist Iraq in the upcoming election in October.

Barzani has played a significant role in resolving outstanding issues between Kurdish parties, and between the Kurdistan Region and other governments. Hussein Omar, a Kurdish analyst, said that Barzani is “respected by various political parties in the Kurdistan Region, Iraq and throughout the region. He also has an approach based dialogue to resolve issues. He is skilled in dealing with allies and opponents.”

“France wants Iraq to be secure and politically stable. This will not happen without the Kurdistan Region,” Omar told Rudaw Radio on Monday, adding that France officials have said in the past that they want “a strong Kurdistan in the framework of a strong Iraq.”

Martin Lafon, a commercial attaché and advisor at the French Consulate General in Erbil in 2012 and 2015-2016, believes that the two leaders “may discuss the escalation of tensions in northern Iraq, including in Sinjar (Shingal) where France is very involved,” referring to the Iraqi government’s decision to remove all militia groups from Shingal – a decision rejected by forces affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Iraqi stability is also dependent on external powers. Iran and Turkey have been accused of political interference in the affairs of Iraq, and the two countries also frequently bomb Kurdish rebel group sites within Iraq’s borders – sometimes killing civilians in the process. Bakawan says France understands the strong relationship Barzani has with both Ankara and Tehran, and wants him to help stop this interference.

“What causes issues for this project [Iraqi sovereignty] in the political mind of France is Turkey and Iran, and how the President of the Kurdistan Region – who has a peaceful, strong, and personal relationship with Tehran and Ankara – can participate in reducing the intervention of Turkey and Iran in Iraq so that Iraq can be stable.”

Iraq and the Kurdistan Region have had strained financial  and political relations for years that look unlikely to fade soon, with the long delayed, contested 2021 federal budget bill still yet to be passed.

‘Special’ relations

France has had a unique and strong political relationship with the Kurdistan Region since the establishment of the Region in 1992, providing political and military support to the Kurdistan Region in the last three decades. However, before the nineties, France was an ally of Saddam Hussein and his oppressive regime. This change has come about because of a new generation of politicians in France that support the Kurdish cause, according to Bakawan.

“There are two schools in France. One of them is composed of France’s elder politicians who are interested in strong, totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. They want France to provide more support to Iraq so that it [Iraq] is centralized and stronger against the marginalized,” Bakawan said, adding this school of thought applies to other Middle East countries as well.

“Another school – consisting of younger people – are very sympathetic of the Kurdistan Region, and believe that the democratization and liberalization of Iraq as well as the stabilization and secularization of Iraq can be done through Erbil,” he said.

“French civil society is very sentimental about Kurdish issues. Those who rule France cannot ignore public opinion.”

For Lafon, French-Kurdish ties are “special.”

“French citizens do not necessarily understand all the complexities of this part of the Middle East, but know about the Kurds and feel like they have values in common.”

The Kurdistan Region has changed considerably since Lafon arrived in 2012, including the economic boom at the time collapsing due to war with ISIS and post-referendum tensions with Iraq and neighboring countries.

“There were happy and difficult times, but I saw over the years a growing interest from France in the Kurdistan Region,” Lafon said.

“I have seen the city evolving in the positive direction, with more opportunities of distraction for young expatriates, for young parents. There is indeed a potential for Erbil to develop further as a regional hub, if it maintains its stability.”