BY KARIM SINJARI AND DAVID L. PHILLIPS, OPINION CONTRIBUTORS
Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces fought alongside a U.S.-led coalition to break the back of ISIS and drive terrorists from Mosul, Kirkuk and other parts of the Nineveh Plains. But while this success was a critical milestone in the fight against ISIS, it left in its wake immense collateral damage. More than 3.5 million people are displaced from their homes. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has accepted its critical humanitarian role, while bearing the cost. It is a proven partner of the United States.
In addition to taking on ISIS, the Kurdistan Region has been a factor of stability and religious tolerance in the Middle East. Without humanitarian aid, the victims of ISIS easily could become radicalized. If the KRG does not care for them, these people will stay on the move, threatening our region and global stability.
This is certainly not a problem for the United States to solve on its own. International cooperation is needed to face this humanitarian emergency, lest it metastasizes into a broader security crisis.
To understand the complexity of this humanitarian challenge, consider its scope. The Kurdistan Region, which has roughly the population of Wisconsin at about 5 million inhabitants, has welcomed nearly 2 million displaced people, including hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, in the past five years. That would be like the United States, with a population of 325 million, absorbing nearly 100 million refugees — or roughly the combined populations of California, Florida, Texas and New York — virtually overnight.
Most of these displaced people are women and children, some of them the families of deceased ISIS fighters. Kurdistan hosts many unaccompanied minors. Meeting their basic human needs and helping them heal from the mental and physical wounds of war is more than a moral imperative. Refugees are vulnerable to radicalization while in settlements, particularly when terror groups promise basic resources the KRG cannot provide on its own.
Kurdistan wants a deeper partnership with the United States and the international community to effectively provide post-war humanitarian relief to displaced people and to help rebuild from years of war. An effective response will mitigate the next conflict in the region, drain support for extremism, and prevent the next-generation of global terrorists.
To ensure the KRG can build a stable future for its people and for millions of internally displaced people and refugees on its territory, as well as advance our common interests in the region, the KRG seeks a meaningful dialogue with the Iraqi government. The KRG is fully prepared to continue a dialogue to solve all pending issues within the framework of the Iraqi constitution.
We must work together to resolve disagreements between the KRG and the Iraqi government. Without having to choose sides, the United States could facilitate a productive dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad, and keep both governments as indispensable allies.
A cornerstone of any settlement between Erbil and Baghdad must be restoration of international commercial flights out of Erbil and Sulaimani airports. Such freedom of movement is prevented by Baghdad’s embargo. The ban on commercial flights is affecting U.S. business interests in the region and preventing residents from traveling internationally. Moreover, it has thwarted delivery of international humanitarian aid to more than 1.5 million displaced people living in the Kurdistan Region.
The Middle East is changing. Stable governments and institutions are desperately needed. As we look to the future of the Middle East, Iraq and Kurdistan — not to mention the future of America’s role in counter-terrorism in the region and in Iraqi reconstruction — the KRG will be an invaluable partner. Ensuring the Kurdistan Region continues to have a functioning democratic government, strong security forces ready to aid in the pursuit of a secure and prosperous Kurdistan and Iraq, and an effective humanitarian response system is critical to stabilizing the region.
Although ISIS is on the run, this is hardly the end of the fight. America will continue to rely on its Kurdish allies in the global war on terror. Conflict between Kurdish and Iraqi forces serves no one’s interest.
The United States has some friends who offer little in return for its generous support. They take U.S. assistance for granted. This is not the case in Kurdistan. Investing in a strong Kurdistan Region will result in a key security partner tomorrow, as it did over the past decade.
As long as the Kurdistan Region and its people are being suffocated by a humanitarian crisis and
increasing economic isolation and pressure from Baghdad, its capacity as an ally is limited. The goal of a stable Middle East, free from terror, pays the price. The United States should stand by friends. The Kurds have proven they are a reliable democracy and security partner.
Karim Sinjari is interior minister and acting minister of Peshmerga for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. David L. Phillips directs the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University and has served as senior adviser to the U.S. Department of State.