“Iraq has inherited a heavy legacy of hostility and distrust as a result of the policies of the previous regime. Since 2003, the political system has faced many challenges in an effort to restore Iraq to a position worthy of its rich cultural heritage, its honourable people and its abundant wealth.
Iraq in the new era is an advocate of constructive dialogue, has the confidence to become a key player and stability actor in the region and is determined to be involved in the international community as a credible interlocutor, a fair and honest partner.”
GDL: What is Iraq’s role as a critical global partner and a stabilising force in the Middle East? What are the main aspects of your foreign policy?
SKS: Iraq has inherited a heavy legacy of hostility and distrust as a result of the policies of the previous regime. Since 2003, the political system has faced many challenges in an effort to restore Iraq to a position worthy of its rich cultural heritage, its honourable people and its abundant wealth. Iraq in the new era is an advocate of constructive dialogue, has the confidence to become a key player and stability actor in the region and is determined to be involved in the international community as a credible interlocutor, a fair and honest partner.
We were able to put an end to the isolation imposed on Iraq, and today Iraq enjoys a large and strong network of relations with its neighbouring and regional countries, as well as with the European Union and the countries of the world. We have strong relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States of America, and in many cases we played a positive role for the convergence of views between the two parties, as well as between some Arab Gulf States and Iran, as Iraq refuses to enter into alliances or blocs against any country.
In addition, the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed by Iraq and the European Union constitutes a long-term agreement that establishes a legal framework for cooperation between Iraq and the EU in areas of common interest, such as democracy, human rights, economic and commercial affairs, immigration, security, energy and the environment, to name a few.
Iraq today also maintains distinguished relations with the Russian Federation and China and has become a key partner of the international coalition to fight terrorism; as the great sacrifices Iraq made to eliminate the so-called Caliphate and ensure stability in the region are widely acknowledged.
All in all, Iraq’s foreign policy is based on the value of peace and aims at normalising its diplomatic relations with the international community on the basis of cooperation, respect of mutual interests and in accordance with International Law, adopting the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other States, and in turn, not allowing any country to interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq.
GDL: How concerned is Iraq with the deteriorating situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East?
SKS: Of course, Iraq is concerned about any deterioration occurring, whether it is in the Middle East or in the Eastern Mediterranean, as it can have a negative impact on the whole region as far as security, humanitarian, economic and political matters are concerned.
We have all witnessed how the deterioration of the situation in Syria has reflected on the security and economic situation in Iraq, due to the crossing of thousands of terrorists into our country through the Syrian territory, in addition to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. As a matter of fact, as a result of the events in the region, more than a million refugees sought refuge in Europe, not to mention the great human losses and the humanitarian repercussions and destruction.
We are also monitoring events in the Eastern Mediterranean and we hope that Turkey, Greece and Cyprus will resolve their differences through diplomacy, in accordance with international laws and the Law of the Sea. We see that the EU is working with a positive approach to resolve these issues. The Eastern Mediterranean is a distinct and very important geographical region, as it mediates between East and West and any deterioration of the situation, God forbid, would be a disaster affecting everyone.
“The new approach to foreign policy in Iraq is to resolve differences through dialogue and non-interference in internal affairs.
Our neighbours are our destiny and we are working in order for the differences and destruction to turn into prosperity and economic stability in an environment where the interests of all parties are taken into account.”
GDL: Iraq is experiencing violations of its territorial integrity and threats to its political unity and sovereignty? How do you cope with this alarming situation?
SKS: After the great change in the political system since 2003, we were able to reduce the problems with neighbouring countries, especially with the brotherly State of Kuwait and the friendly Islamic Republic of Iran. As I mentioned earlier, the new approach to foreign policy in Iraq is to resolve differences through dialogue and non-interference in internal affairs. Our neighbours are our destiny and we are working in order for the differences and destruction to turn into prosperity and economic stability in an environment where the interests of all parties are taken into account. Iraq is the gateway for European and Turkish trade to the Middle East and the Arab Gulf region and we seek to strengthen and develop trade relations with friends in Turkey, as the volume of bilateral trade exchange amounts to more than 10 billion US dollars annually.
However, there is a growing concern about the interference of neighbouring Turkey in Iraq and its repeated bombing of our lands, which leads to great losses in civilians’ lives and destruction of large areas of agricultural land and property of citizens, displacing large numbers of them. We also reject the occupation of parts of our lands by the Turkish forces in Bashiqa and areas of Dohuk Governorate, as Turkey has established 37 checkpoints within the Iraqi borders without any prior coordination with the Iraqi Government. We affirm that these attacks are a violation of international principles of good neighbourliness and conventions on relations between States. Turkey is using illogical justifications for its military operations, as the increase in the presence of PKK, which in reality came as a result of a peace agreement concluded between the Turkish Government and the aforementioned organisation in 2013. At the time of this agreement, Iraq protested about it strongly to the Security Council. This concerns an internal Turkish problem that Turkey exported to Iraq, using it as a pretext for intervention and attacks. We reaffirm that Iraq refuses to use its territory as an arena for aggressions against any neighbouring country, for security threats or international conflicts, as stipulated in the Iraqi Constitution, and we call upon Turkey to respect that.
GDL: In democratic states, the foundations of national policy are the respect of International Law and the Principle of Good Neighbourly Relations. Unfortunately certain countries insist on provocation, illicit rhetoric and gunboat diplomacy. How can anyone engage in dialogue with a neighbour under a climate of distrust and lack of credibility? What is Iraq’s position?
SKS: Iraq’s views are based on the principles of ending tensions, promoting dialogue and respecting International Law and Sovereignty of States as the means to achieve peace. International law should be respected by all and at all times. You do not pick and choose when to adhere to International law.
Starting a war is very easy, but putting an end to it is the difficult part, while its cost in material and moral terms is very high. We, in Iraq, with great regret, have witnessed several wars and its concurring tragedies in recent history. We know that achieving peace and political harmony can sometimes be very difficult and requests the largest amount of endurance and patience. As the renowned author Anaȉs Nin has put it: “Peace is like a war, a battle that has armies and crowds, plans, goals and self-confidence is a battle against all the complications of defeat”.
GDL: What are the regional challenges that Iraq faces now and how would you describe your relations with Iran and Syria?
SKS: Iraq, thanks to its geostrategic position, has become since ancient times a river, land and sea crossing between continents. There is no doubt that the challenges for Iraq increased with the exacerbation of conflicts, bringing instability, due to the contradictory interests of the major countries in the region, which have also led to external interventions. Our goal is to prevent Iraq from becoming an arena for these conflicts, just like it happened in the case of terrorism that spilled over and posed a great challenge for Iraq and for the whole world. Therefore, we work with the international coalition and other parties to prevent allowing any room for the re-emergence of terrorist elements, whatever their name, scope or origin.
That said, Iraq maintains good relations with neighbouring Syria. We have diplomatic representation. Since the beginning of the events in Syria, our position was clear; against any military intervention. We emphasised the need to respect the choice of the Syrian people by establishing a democratic political settlement in Syria and not interfering in its internal affairs. Certainly, we are concerned about the situation in Syria, as it has a direct impact on Iraq. There are thousands of terrorists who entered Iraq from Syria. Therefore, we support the stability of the situation in Syria and the solution of the problems through political dialogue so that the refugees can return to their areas and turn from the page of destruction to the reconstruction chapter.
Concerning our relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran they can be characterised as strong. Our borders extend to more than 1,000 miles. The bilateral trade exchange amounts to approximately 12 billion dollars annually and there are also social, cultural and religious ties that connect us. For the record, we should note that Iran was at the forefront of the countries that helped Iraq after Daesh terrorist groups took control over large areas in Iraq.
GDL: The recent visit of the Greek Foreign Minister and the Deputy Minister to Baghdad revealed the interest of Greek investment in the reconstruction plan in Iraq and the potential of bilateral cooperation in many fields. What are the favourite sectors that both sides should focus upon?
SKS: The recent visit of the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Dendias and the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kostas Fragogiannis, to Baghdad indeed highlighted the interest for Greek investments in the reconstruction plan of Iraq, but also the interest of Baghdad for benefiting from the Greek experience in the field of renewable energy sources, as well as in the field of restoration of archaeological sites and the archiving of all Iraqi antiquities. Daesh terrorist groups destroyed the largest museum in Mosul, and this is another field in which the Greek know-how is important to us. Issues relating to maritime transport and more specifically shipbuilding and port construction, as well as other projects within the framework of cooperation for the reconstruction of Iraq, were also discussed such as the construction of cities, city street planning, to name but a few.
Three Memorandums of Understanding were signed during this visit. One concerned the political consultations between the two countries; the second was about the cooperation of the Greek diplomatic academy with Iraq and the third, and extremely important, concerns the encouragement of investments between the two countries. There were plans for signing more memorandums, relating to health, agricultural policy, transportation, however, the acceleration of the visit did not allow enough time for their preparation.
It is important to note that our trade exchange has grown to more than 4.5 billion euros, as in 2019 Iraq ranked as the third most important exporter to Greece, on an international scale, bringing it to the first place of trade partners to Greece amongst all Arab countries.
Greek companies have proved to be a key partner to Iraq, especially when it comes to health, manufacturing and construction. Defeating terrorism has brought a number of new business development opportunities in Iraq, placing the reconstruction of the country in the centre of it all. As Greeks enter the Iraqi market of course there will be an increasing interest for partnerships on the Iraqi side to enter the Greek market. I am confident that Iraqi businesses would be eager to invest in Greece following a combined effort to facilitate the obtainment of visas and advertise and promote the opportunities of investment.
“It is very encouraging that the current Greek Government has placed particular importance toward the Arab world and the Middle East in general. And we see that the visits of Greek officials to Egypt, the UAE and other Arab countries take place on a weekly or monthly basis.
We encourage these relations because they are very important for both Greece and the EU. Greece can play a big, important role for the Arab countries, and Iraq of course, in both the EU and the UN.”
GDL: Your Excellency, how can Greece promote Iraq-EU relations, particularly support towards the consolidation of security?
SKS: It is very encouraging that the current Greek Government has placed particular importance toward the Arab world and the Middle East in general. And we see that the visits of Greek officials to Egypt, the UAE and other Arab countries take place on a weekly or monthly basis. We encourage these relations because they are very important for both Greece and the EU. Greece can play a big, important role for the Arab countries, and Iraq of course, in both the EU and the UN.
Iraq on its part has achieved, thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of its great people and support of its friends, to liberate its entire territory from Daesh terrorist groups and successfully restore security and stability on its grounds. I strongly believe this new environment constitutes a great opportunity for European companies to acquire a large share of the reconstruction of cities which were destroyed by Daesh terrorist groups and also of the reconstruction of infrastructure in other Iraqi provinces. Iraq is ranked 33rd when it comes to the 2019 volume of trade exchange with the European Union and needless to say that the Iraqi Government is engaged in providing the appropriate conditions and necessary facilities to European companies through regulations and laws that support the European investor.
Indeed, financial advancement can help consolidate a new political culture, based on confidence in democratic governance, which can in turn establish an environment of unity and consolidation of security.
GDL: For some time, security breaches have strained Iraqi-US relations. What needs to be done and do you foresee a change in US policy toward Iraq under the new US Administration?
SKS: We appreciate and thank all the countries that have supported Iraq in the war against terrorism, especially the United States of America. We do have strong relations with the USA, which were further enhanced since 2008 through the Strategic Framework Agreement, an important political, economic and security agreement that organises the temporary presence of the US military forces, as well as their withdrawal from Iraq.
What happened a few weeks ago was a shooting by outlaws at areas near the US Embassy in Baghdad. The Government and most of the parties in the Iraqi Parliament condemned this act and the Government made great efforts to halt such attacks, and indeed they have stopped.
President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi extended congratulations to the President elect Joe Biden, whose relationship with the Iraqi leadership is old and strong. Actually, before Mr. Biden took office as Vice President in the Obama Administration, he had visited Iraq several times. I do not think there will be major changes in the US policy concerning Iraq, but we look forward to strengthening the strategic relations between our countries towards a future based on mutual respect and close cooperation to overcome any challenges ahead, support peace and security and ultimately achieve prosperity.
GDL: The Islamic State (ISIS) is quietly rising from the ashes in parts of Iraq and Syria. Is this resilience due to the lack of State’s indecisiveness or because of the assistance shown to it by its network of affiliates and allies? How can the international community eradicate this unjustifiable terrorist organisation?
SKS: This terrorist organisation several years ago was controlling large areas in Iraq and other countries and declared the Caliphate, but thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of the children of Iraqis and with the help of the international coalition and other countries we were able to eliminate this terrorist organisation and destroy this imaginary Caliphate. Now this terrorist organisation has been weakened, leaving it unable to launch large attacks or control areas in Iraq.
However, there are some small cells that appear here and there that are quickly eliminated, while some cells are also found in some European countries and in Africa. Terrorism is a problem for everyone. Therefore, we must continue to cooperate and work together to exchange security information about their movements and activities and to dry up their financial resources.
The problem of terrorism is not solved only by means of weapons, but we must look into the reasons of its emergence and in response consolidate the values of tolerance, coexistence, moderation, pluralism and acceptance, rejecting discrimination, hate and intolerance. We must begin by instilling these principles in our families first and foremost.
GDL: What initiatives has the Iraqi Government undertaken to bring back to their origin displayed populations?
SKS: The post-conflict period allowed for the return of over 4.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their areas of origin. However, there are challenges in areas of displacement and in areas of return that still need to be addressed. According to the IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix and Return Index, the lack of job opportunities, lack of services and shelter are the three key factors hindering return.
The Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement is determined to develop a plan in cooperation with the Ministry of Planning to facilitate the return of the displaced persons to their homes and their smooth reintegration. The UN also has a great role when it comes to the coordination for the return of the IDPs, as well as the humanitarian organisations in Mosul, and we call on countries around the world to stand with this issue. We should note, however, that according to PAX NGO, in 2020 nearly 50,000 acres of land were burned due to Turkish military campaigns taking place in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, causing civilian casualties and deaths, displacement of thousands of people, destroying their livelihoods and damaging fragile ecosystems.
“The problem of terrorism is not solved only by means of weapons, but we must look into the reasons of its emergence and in response consolidate the values of tolerance, coexistence, moderation, pluralism and acceptance, rejecting discrimination, hate and intolerance.
We must begin by instilling these principles in our families first and foremost.”
GDL: Iraqi-Greek civilizations are among the most ancient civilizations in the world with both countries relations categorised as longstanding and important. What is the pace of current relations and, in your opinion, how can they be enhanced?
SKS: The historical ties of Iraq and Greece go a long way back. Our shared cultures and values constitute a living guarantee for our excellent cooperation for years to come. And even in troubled times, when faced with terrorism and financial challenges, the bilateral relations between Greece and Iraq have been growing stronger thanks to the drive and willingness of both countries.
Greece has supported Iraq through the Global Coalition to defeat Daesh terrorist groups, through the EU and NATO, has provided support to the Iraqi Armed Forces in the field of training and has also received an important number of Iraqi immigrants. During the recent visit of the Greek Foreign Minister to Iraq we thanked Greece for its treatment and support provided to the Iraqis living in the country, despite the financial difficulties. It should be noted, however, that the number of immigrants from Iraq to Greece has decreased after the improvement of security in the country and the victory over Daesh.
Iraq and Greece also cooperate and support each other in all international organisations. Iraq already participates in the 3+1 framework of cooperation of Greece, Cyprus and Jordan and is also part of the Ancient Civilisations Forum, a Greek initiative. As a matter of fact, Iraq, Ancient Mesopotamia, is not only the cradle of great and ancient civilisations, but also is a country where the catastrophic contemporary barbarity against monuments of civilisation has been manifested. Both Iraq and Greece have a rich and very old cultural heritage; and we cherish that in our cooperation. Greece’s democratic history, proven know-how concerning tourism, academia, RES and agriculture, are an unparallel match to the focus Iraq places on education, democratic institutions, energy alternatives and growing tourism.
GDL: Mr. Ambassador, you have been posted as the Iraqi Envoy to Greece since January 2019, how have you found diplomatic life in Athens, and what do you foresee changing, if anything, for the future of the diplomacy sector under the light of social restrictions?
SKS: Let me take this opportunity to say that I am honoured to have been working in Greece as an Ambassador. Greece is widely known for its cultural heritage and rich history. But apart from this, I witnessed first-hand the hospitality of your country and I must say I have great admiration for the peaceful and tasteful Greek people. Greece is indeed a beautiful country, full of potentials and diplomatic activity.
However, like many sectors of public and private life, diplomacy has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Most importantly, the Covid-19 crisis has shown us that the world needs to cooperate and increase the budget allocated to health, in comparison to other sectors, not only to overcome the current pandemic, but also in order to be prepared for any other similar crisis in the future.
During the pandemic, diplomacy moved to new work settings, such as online conversations and teleconferences. Our experience has the potential to lead to more effective diplomacy. The first and most obvious working change, in times of the pandemic, relates to time management, as a direct consequence of cancelled travel. But most importantly, we should grab this opportunity to benefit from the use of digital technologies in all aspects of work life.
The changes we witness now will in all probability have an ongoing impact in a way that post-pandemic planning for Foreign Ministries can bring transformational change to diplomacy and global governance.
Interview by Nicolas Boutsikos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life