The Kurds in the Middle East series – Speaker Bios

Session One
Nechirvan Barzani (keynote speaker)
President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

The grandson of legendary Mustafa Barzani, Nechirvan Barzani was born in the town of Barzan on 21 September 1966. He is the Deputy President of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the second President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since the formation of the Kurdistan Presidency in 2005. He has served as the Prime Minister of the KRG’s eighth cabinet (2014-2019), seventh cabinet (2012–2014), fifth cabinet (2006–2009) and fourth cabinet (1999-2006) as well as serving as the Deputy Prime Minister of the third cabinet (1996-1999).

Nechirvan Barzani attended college in Tehran, studying politics and international relations; due to political and personal reasons, however he had to discontinue. In recognition of his achievements, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, United States. He is fluent in Kurdish and Persian, and proficient in Arabic and English. President Barzani is married and has five children.

During his tenure as Prime Minister, he endeavored to develop and stabilize the political process by promoting an inclusive and consensus approach to governance. His vision is for a homeland that is democratic, peaceful and politically stable, and a valued contributor to the peace, stability, and the well-being of Iraq and the Middle East. Under his premiership, personal security, human rights, and political stability have been enhanced; notably over a dozen laws legislated to ensure women’s rights, press freedom, and action to combat domestic violence. He also promoted religious and ethnic diversity, and coexistence. To support this policy institutionally, the KRG has established specific departments in the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs to address the needs of the Region’s major religious communities.

President Barzani proactively pursued a foreign policy based on enhancing regional and international cooperation to strengthen peace, stability, and development. During his tenure, more than thirty countries have opened official representation offices in the Kurdistan Region. He also led the Region from a state of devastation through the 2004-2014 decade of accelerated economic growth that resulted in building of thousands of education, and health facilities, transportation projects, and modern airports, electric power, water treatment plants and telecommunication networks. Additionally, he was instrumental in founding a dynamic petroleum industry with over two dozen international oil companies, including Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Total, and Gazprom Neft.

Emma Sky (moderator)
Director, Yale’s Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program

Emma Sky is director of Yale’s Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program and a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute, where she teaches Middle East politics. She is the author of the highly acclaimed The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (2015) and In a Time of Monsters: Travelling in a Middle East in Revolt (2019). Sky served as advisor to the Commanding General of US Forces in Iraq from 2007-2010; as advisor to the Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2006; as advisor to the US Security Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process in 2005; and as Governorate Co-ordinator of Kirkuk for the Coalition Provisional Authority, 2003-2004. Prior to that, Sky worked in the Palestinian territories for a decade, managing projects to develop Palestinian institutions; and to promote co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, Emma has provided technical assistance on poverty elimination, human rights, justice public administration reform, security sector reform, and conflict resolution in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Sky has published numerous articles including in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Politico, Atlantic, Slate, Survival, Center for a New American Security, US Institute of Peace, the Guardian, and the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. Sky was educated at Oxford (UK), Alexandria (Egypt), Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel) and Liverpool (UK). Sky is an Officer of the British Empire.

Thomas S. Kaplan
Chairman of Justice for Kurds; Entrepreneur and Conservationist

Thomas S. Kaplan is an American investor, environmentalist and advocate for humanist values. He is the chairman and CEO of The Electrum Group LLC, a New York City-based investment, advisory and asset management firm with a focus on the natural resources sector. Kaplan is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and the International Council at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where he created, with General David Petraeus and Professor Graham Allison, the Recanati-Kaplan Intelligence Fellows program.
Kaplan is an active environmentalist. In 2006, he and wife founded Panthera, now considered the leading NGO devoted to preserving big cats and their critical ecosystems. In the arts, Dr. Kaplan created The Leiden Collection, which is focused on paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and their circles. Kaplan is Chairman of the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH). A joint initiative of the governments of France and the UAE, ALIPH is dedicated to the implementation of preventive, emergency response, and restoration programs for cultural property in danger of destruction, damage or looting. Kaplan served as president (2009-2012) and chairman of the board of directors (2012-2015) of the 92nd Street Y, New York’s most prominent Jewish community and cultural center.
Kaplan holds B.A., M.A, and D.Phil degrees from the University of Oxford. He was awarded the Legion of Honor, and the Order of Arts and Letters, for services to France.

Bernard-Henri Lévy
President of Justice for Kurds; Philosopher, Filmmaker and Activist

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French philosopher, activist, filmmaker and one of the most esteemed writers in Europe. He is the author of over 30 books, including works of philosophy, fiction, and biography. He has written extensively on the ground from war stricken countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Bangledesh, Libya, Sudan and Lebanon.
Some of his most well-known books include The Empire and the Five Kings (2019), American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (2006), Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (2003), and Barbarism with a Human Face (1977).

Lévy’s public commitment to the Kurds is demonstrated, most recently, in his making two documentary films entitled Peshmerga and The Battle of Mosul in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Peshmerga, (Official Selection at Cannes Film Festival 2016) was filmed in 2015 and tells the story of those embroiled with ISIS in the Middle East. For this film, Lévy traveled over 650 miles of the frontline separating Iraqi Kurdistan from Islamic State troops to give voice to the Kurdish fight against jihadi fundamentalism. His second film about Kurdistan, The Battle of Mosul, premiered in March 2017 and shows the liberation of the eastern half of Mosul.His other films include Bosna! (1994) on the Bosnian conflict and The Oath of Tobruk (2012) on the fall of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Lévy is the Co-Founder of SOS Racisme, a French NGO which combats racism and anti-Semitism and Co- Founder of the international humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger.

Session Two
Emma Sky (moderator)
General (Ret) David H. Petraeus
Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University; Chairman, KKR Global Institute

General (Ret) David H. Petraeus (New York) joined KKR in June 2013 and is Chairman of the KKR Global Institute, which supports KKR’s investment committees, portfolio companies, and investors with analysis of geopolitical and macro-economic trends, as well as environmental, social, and governance issues. He was made a Partner at KKR in 2014. He is also a member of the boards of Optiv (cybersecurity) and OneStream (business software).
Prior to joining KKR, Gen. Petraeus served over 37 years in the U.S. military, culminating his career with six consecutive commands, five of which were in combat,including command of coalition forces during the Surge in Iraq, command of U.S. Central Command, and command of coalition forces in Afghanistan. Following his service in the military, Gen. Petraeus served as the Director of the CIA during a period of significant achievements in the global war on terror.

Gen. Petraeus graduated with distinction from the U.S. Military Academy and subsequently earned a Ph.D. in an interdisciplinary program of international relations and economics from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He subsequently taught both subjects at the U.S. Military Academy and later completed a fellowship at Georgetown University. He has also served for 3-1/2 years as a Visiting Professor of Public Policy at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College and he was for 6 years a Judge Widney Professor at the University of Southern California and a Senior Fellow at Harvard University.

Currently, he is also a personal venture capitalist, a Visiting Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute, an Honorary Professor of the University of Birmingham (England), a member of the Trilateral Commission, Senior Vice-President of the Royal United Services Institute, and Co-Chairman of the Global Advisory Council of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, as well as a member of the boards of the Institute for the Study of War and the Atlantic Council and over a dozen veterans service organizations.

Gen. Petraeus has received numerous U.S. military, State Department, NATO, and United Nations medals and awards, including four Defense Distinguished Service Medals, the Bronze Star Medal for Valor, the Combat Action Badge, the Ranger tab, and master parachutist wings, and he has been decorated by 13 foreign countries. Over the past 15 years, General Petraeus has also been named a runner-up for Time magazine’s Person of the Year, the Daily Telegraph man of the year, a Time 100 selectee, and for three years one of Foreign Policy magazine’s top 100 public intellectuals.

Amb. Dennis Ross
William Davidson Distinguished Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Prior to returning to the Institute in 2011, he served two years as special assistant to President Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and a year as special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

For more than twelve years, Ambassador Ross played a leading role in shaping U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process and dealing directly with the parties in negotiations. A highly skilled diplomat, Ambassador Ross was U.S. point man on the peace process in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He was instrumental in assisting Israelis and Palestinians to reach the 1995 Interim Agreement; he also successfully brokered the 1997 Hebron Accord, facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and intensively worked to bring Israel and Syria together.

A scholar and diplomat with more than two decades of experience in Soviet and Middle East policy, Ambassador Ross worked closely with Secretaries of State James Baker, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright. Prior to his service as special Middle East coordinator under President Clinton, Ambassador Ross served as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. In that capacity, he played a prominent role in U.S. policy toward the former Soviet Union, the unification of Germany and its integration into NATO, arms control negotiations, and the 1991 Gulf War coalition.

During the Reagan administration, he served as director of Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff and deputy director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. Ambassador Ross was awarded the Presidential Medal for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President Clinton, and Secretaries Baker and Albright presented him with the State Department’s highest award.

A 1970 graduate of UCLA, Ambassador Ross wrote his doctoral dissertation on Soviet decision-making, and from 1984 to 1986 served as executive director of the Berkeley-Stanford program on Soviet International Behavior. He received UCLA’s highest medal and has been named UCLA alumnus of the year. He has also received honorary doctorates from Brandeis, Amherst, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Syracuse University. Ambassador Ross was named a 2016-2017 senior fellow by Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

Ambassador Ross has published extensively on the former Soviet Union, arms control, and the greater Middle East, contributing numerous chapters to anthologies. In the 1970s and 1980s, his articles appeared in World Politics, Political Science Quarterly, Orbis, International Security, Survival, and Journal of Strategic Studies. Since leaving government at the end of 2011, he has authored many op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other papers and magazines. In addition, he writes monthly columns for US News and World Report, and the New York Daily News. In addition, he writes monthly columns for the Middle Eastern newspaper Asharq al-awsat.

Ross is the author of several influential books on the peace process, the Middle East, and international relations. His most recent book, co-written with his Washington Institute colleague David Makovsky, is Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny (PublicAffairs, September 2019). The book illustrates “profiles in courage” of four Israeli leaders who faced existential questions about the future of Israel: David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon. Ross and Makovsky provide a reminder of the courageous decisions taken by these leaders in the past and calls for yet another courageous decision in the present to preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Previously, Ross authored Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, October 2015). That book was awarded the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for history. He also co-authored Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East (Viking, June 2009) with Mr. Makovsky. An earlier study, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004), offers comprehensive analytical and personal insight into the Middle East peace process. The New York Times praised his 2007 publication, Statecraft, And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), as “important and illuminating.”

Session Three
Rory Stewart (moderator)
Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University

Rory Stewart focuses on contemporary politics in crisis and on international development and intervention in fragile and conflict affected states.
Stewart was the UK secretary of State for International development where he doubled the U.K.’s investment in international climate and environment. Prior to that Stewart served in a variety of roles including as minister of the environment, Minister of State responsible for development policy in the Middle East and Asia and UK policy in Africa, as Minister of State for Justice, and as Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. Earlier in his career he served briefly as an infantry officer and then as a diplomat for the UK government in Indonesia, the Balkans and Iraq. He founded and ran the Turquoise Mountain foundation in Afghanistan and was the Director of the Carr Centre and the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Stewart has also written four books: The Places in Between, Occupational Hazards or The Prince of the Marshes, Can Intervention Work?, and The Marches.

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman
Kurdistan Regional Government Representative to the United States

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Representative to the United States of America. Key to her role are strengthening ties between Kurdistan and the United States, advocating her government’s position on a wide array of political, security, humanitarian, economic, and cultural matters and promoting coordination and partnership. Prior to her US appointment in 2015, Ms. Abdul Rahman was the High Representative to the United Kingdom. She was elected to the Leadership Council of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in 2010.

Before her career in public service, Ms. Abdul Rahman worked as a journalist for 17 years. She began her career on local newspapers in London and won the Observer Newspaper’s Farzad Bazoft Memorial Prize in 1993, which led her to work at The Observer and later at the Financial Times. She worked for the FT in Britain and in Japan, where she was Tokyo Correspondent.

Her late father, Sami Abdul Rahman, was a veteran of the Kurdish freedom movement, joining the Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1963 and playing a critical leadership role in the Kurdish and Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime. He held the post of Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and General Secretary of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Sami Abdul Rahman was killed alongside his elder son Salah and 96 others in a twin suicide bombing in 2004.

Ms. Abdul Rahman was born in Baghdad. Her family briefly lived in Iran in the mid-1970s before moving to Britain in 1976. She is a history graduate from London University.

Sinam Mohamad
Representative of the Syrian Democratic Council to the United States

Sinam Sherkany Mohamad was the founding Co-President of the People’s Council of Rojava. The People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (Rojava) was founded in 2011 during the first term of the Syrian opposition uprising, and operated as the supreme political body of the liberated areas of northern and northeast Syria. This governing body is now known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), and is known as the authority associated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). She served as the European representative of the AANES. As the Co-Chief of the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council in Washington DC, Mohamad is currently the top diplomat of the AANES. She is also a member of the Presidential Council of the SDC.

Mohamad is a Kurdish woman and has been a leading advocate for women’s rights and democracy in Syria. She was twice nominated to run for Syrian Parliament, in 2003 and 2007 during the Assad regime’s rule. Mohamad was born in Damascus, Syria. She is a graduate of the University of Aleppo. She is married with four children.

Session Four
Janine di Giovanni (moderator)
Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University

Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. A Guggenheim Fellow, Di Giovanni is currently working on a book called “The Vanishing” about Christianity in the Middle East to be published in 2021. In 2020, the American Academy of Arts and Letters gave her their highest non-fiction prize for her lifetime body of work. This year, in addition to teaching two seminars on Human Rights, she is also directing a UN sponsored project to enable witnesses in Yemen, Syria and Iraq for future war crimes tribunals.

She is the author of the award-winning book, The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria, which has been translated into 30 languages. She is also the author of seven other books on war and conflict. Di Giovanni is a former Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). In spring 2017, she was Professor of Practice in Human Rights at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Before joining CFR in 2017, Di Giovanni was the Middle East Editor at Newsweek reporting mainly on human rights abuses and investigating war crimes, as well as a frequent writer for The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Harpers, Granta and The Guardian. A recent Pakis Scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Di Giovanni has extensive experience focusing on war crimes, international law and international security.

She is a leading expert analyst on the Middle East, the Balkans and Africa, geopolitical risk, international security, conflict prevention, strategic communications, human rights, sustainability, and global terrorism. She has investigated war crimes and reported war on four continents over the past three decades. She is the subject of two long-format documentaries, including the widely acclaimed 7 Days in Syria, and “Bearing Witness”.  Her TED talk “What I Saw in the War” has received nearly 1 million hits on YouTube.

Di Giovanni has reported widely on war, conflict, and its aftermath for nearly 30 years in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Africa. She has witnessed the siege of Sarajevo, the fall of Grozny, and the destruction of Srebrenica and Rwanda in 1994 , the wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Syria as well as more than a dozen other active conflicts where she was a front-line witness. Her documentation of war crimes has resulted in seven books and her work has been used to cite criminals in later tribunals. She bases her Yale classes on these experiences. She is also non-resident International Security Fellow at the New America Foundation and an Associate Fellow at The Geneva Centre for Security Policy, where she originated their geopolitical debate series. She is a former Ochberg Fellow at Columbia School of Journalism, given in recognition of her work with victims of war trauma.

She is a frequent moderator of high-level panels and roundtables, an analyst on foreign policy at conferences and on major international news channels (CNN, BBC, France 24) and has worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, the UN, Harvard’s Kennedy School, Princeton, the LSE, and many other institutions. She was  a delegate for then Foreign Secretary William Hague’s 2014 Conference on Sexual Violence. In 2014, she also worked for the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery at Central European University with a focus on transitional justice in Aleppo.  She has also worked for the United Nations Refugee Agency and the United Nations Democracy Fund, where she designed and spearheaded project on Transitional Justice  in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Di Giovanni has won more than 10 major awards for her extensive work in war and conflict zones and during humanitarian crisis in Palestine/Israel, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, East Timor, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Rwanda, South Africa, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bahrain, UAE, Algeria, Turkey, Greece, Vietnam, and other countries. In 2016, the International Womens’ Media Foundation gave her their Courage Award, in recognition of her work. ,In 2019, she was selected for the Guggenheim Fellowship. 
She is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Amb. Robert Ford
Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University

Robert Ford finished a 30-year career with the Peace Corps and the U.S. Department of State in April 2014 and now is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he writes and speaks about Syria, Iraq and North Africa. He was the U.S. Ambassador to Syria 2011-2014, receiving wide recognition for his work defending Syrians’ human rights in the face of the Bashar Asad regime’s repression. He received the annual Profile in Courage award in 2012 from the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston for his human rights work and a Presidential Honor award in 2012 for his stewardship of the American Embassy in Damascus during a crisis period. Ford was the U.S. Ambassador in Algeria 2006-2008, boosting bilateral cooperation in education and the rule of law. Ford also served five years in Iraq helping the Iraqis establish their permanent government through three rounds of elections and preparation of a new constitution. He received from Secretary of State John Kerry in March 2014 the Distinguished Service award, the State Department’s highest award. Ford has appeared on CNN, PBS, MSNBC, Fox, NPR, the BBC, Arabic networks speaking in Arabic as well as in numerous print media, including The New York Times. Ford has taught at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and is a devoted fan of the Baltimore Orioles.

Kenneth Pollack
Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing in particular on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries.

Before joining AEI, Pollack was affiliated with the Brookings Institution, where he was a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Before that, he was the center’s director and director of research. Pollack served twice at the National Security Council, first as director for Near East and South Asian affairs and then as director for Persian Gulf affairs. He began his career as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA, where he was the principal author of the CIA’s classified postmortem on Iraqi strategy and military operations during the Persian Gulf War. Among other recognitions, Pollack was awarded the CIA’s Exceptional Performance Award twice and the Certificate of Distinction for Outstanding Performance of Duty, both for work on the Persian Gulf War.

Pollack has also worked on long-term issues related to Middle Eastern political and military affairs for the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he was a senior research professor at the Institute for National Security Studies at National Defense University.

Pollack is the author of 10 books, including “Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness” (Oxford University Press, 2019), a history of Arab armies from the end of World War II to the present, in which he assesses the performance of Arab armed forces and the reason for their difficulties; “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy” (Simon & Schuster, 2013), named one of the “Best Books of 2013” by The Economist and one of the “100 Notable Books of 2013” by The New York Times; “A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East” (Random House, 2008), a Washington Post and Foreign Affairs bestseller, which was chosen as one of The Washington Post’s “Best Books of the Year” for 2008 and as an editor’s choice of The New York Times Book Review; “The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America” (Random House, 2004); and “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq” (Random House, 2002), a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller.

Pollack is the author of numerous articles and has been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and The Atlantic, among others.

He received a bachelor’s from Yale University and a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.