On the Verge

MOHAMMED SHAREEF — Since 2003 Iraqi Kurdistan has changed from a pawn to an actor. Today this transformation is being put to the test.

For Iraq’s Kurdish leaders, independence remains the ultimate goal of their modernization agendas in the KRG. Does the current fighting in northern Iraq present Erbil now an opportunity unique from those in the past to pursue its goal of establishing a separate Kurdish state in Iraq — do Kurdish leaders have anything more to gain by actively pursuing independence now rather than consolidate power within their existing autonomous region?

The aspiration for independence, both by the Kurdish leadership and people, is alive and well. Although this goal is shared by both groups, there is a difference between the people and its leadership. The latter is pragmatic, and therefore do not push for Kurdistan’s independence quickly. Rather, Kurdish leaders want to convince regional and international powers that Kurdistan’s independence is the right choice geopolitically. They situate the issue of independence in terms of democratic responsibility. The Kurdish people yearn for independence, and it is thus the prerogative of democratically-elected representatives of the population to answer the population’s requests and demands. Yet pragmatically, Kurdish leaders have postponed the fulfillment of national aspirations until regional conditions improve.

The current Kurdish leadership is benefitting from the trappings of an independent state in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRG) without the burden, requirements, and restrictions that an independent state brings. The current situation represents, in many ways, the best of both worlds: The KRG is practicing independence, but is not officially independent.

The Iraqi narrative increasingly focuses on sectarian dynamics within the country between Sunni and Shia factions. The Kurds are often considered a third element in this equation. How does Kurdistan’s nature as an ethnically separate entity from Arab Iraq impact its dialogue with other national groups?

Iraq comprises various components. Each one of these groups and components have their different agendas: “Iraq” does not exist. This principle applies at the sectarian level to Sunni and Shia, but also at the ethnic level with regards to Kurdish aspirations and liberation movement. There is a tension from which the Kurds are suffering, that is, their interaction and link to Arab Iraq. Both Sunni and Shia in Iraq are predominantly Arab. This creates a sense of conflict under which the Kurds are perceived and treated as a major fragmentary power — as a threat to Iraq’s internal integrity. This feeling is manifest in various policies adopted by Sunni and Shia groups. There is a unification of opinion on the Arab side about the Kurdish issue. There may be all sorts of divisions between the sectarian factions, but when it comes to the threat of Iraq’s fragmentation, the two unite. Although this sentiment can serve as a unifying factor, it also is a major restriction for the KRG in Erbil, as it circumscribes their flexibility.

The prospect of Kurdish independence has excited international scholars and Kurdish leaders in recent months. Yet several barriers remain to the achievement of this goal. How can Kurdish leaders reconcile deep political divisions, existential threats posed both by ISIS and ill-disciplined government militias, and foreign interests within an increasingly independent Kurdish polity?

There are of course divisions between the five main Kurdish political parties — the KDP, PUK, Gorran, and both Islamic parties. These are manifest in minor differences of opinion. For example, the KDP leans closer to Turkey and is more flexible with regards to independence aspirations. The PUK, on the other hand, is generally more restricted in its pursuit of independence because of its geopolitical proximity to Iran. Yet if one looks closer at the Kurdish body politic it is possible to see that regarding the major, critical issues of national security and the higher national interest there is a sense of unity, solidarity and a single objective.

Since the Islamic State managed to capture huge swathes of Sunni Arab Iraq, including Mosul, Kurdish leaders have increased the KRG’s territory. Erbil will likely use these territorial acquisitions to pressure the Iraqi government in Baghdad to ensure compromise — whether in terms of the national budget, petroleum sales, or even increased autonomy or independence. It is important to remember that when former British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited President Masoud Barzani in Erbil last year, Barzani used the opportunity to declare that Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution — which outlined the Kirkuk status referendum and policies to reverse Saddam Hussein’s Arabization of the province — has been implemented, and there will be no further talks on the issue.

Many people think that the Kurds have canceled their objective of independence. This is untrue. These goals have been postponed after the ISIS crisis in the summer — especially after 3 August 2014 when ISIS managed to capture Kurdish territory in the Sinjar area. Recently, though, the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament passed a law to establish a high commission for elections, and this process is ongoing.

Since the ISIS-led takeover in northern Iraq, Kurdish forces have engaged extremist militants across Iraq-KRG frontier zones. Yet it is unknown whether Peshmerga are willing to liberate non-Kurdish parts of the country. What stake does Erbil have in the current fighting?

There are various factors that contribute to the Kurdish position. First, the threat from the Islamic State is pressing. Kurdish leaders have realized that ISIS is pursuing a dual policy of consolidation and expansion — on the most recent map of their so-called “Islamic Caliphate,” it is clear that the Kurdistan Region is part of this envisaged polity. The Kurdish leadership realizes that ISIS is willing to incorporate all of its territory if given the chance. Second, the KRG wants to capture Kurdish territory that has been denied it by Baghdad, based on the 2005 Iraqi Constitution. The current crisis presents a fantastic opportunity for Erbil to grab that land — particularly around Kirkuk according to Iraqi Constitution Article 140 — which has previously been heavily contested. Finally, the Kurdish leadership wants to be seen as pro-West, anti-Islamic, secular entity in the Middle East. For that reason it is happy to expend its resources and blood to demonstrate that the KRG is a very valuable asset for western powers.

Have western leaders recognized these efforts? From 10 June 2014 onwards — after Barzani went on television asking very clearly for an independent Kurdistan based on a referendum — the West was not too happy with the Kurdish position. It was seen as opportunist, as something politically inappropriate considering the circumstances in which Iraq found itself. After 3 August, when ISIS reached the outskirts of Erbil, the international community realized it had to protect the Kurdish entity: it was Iraq’s only democratic success story, and the only model that could possibly be worth emulating in Iraq was the Kurdish one.

The KRG was established in 1992 after general elections, under US and British no-fly zones. A Kurdish parliament and government emerged, but shortly thereafter on 1 May 1994 a civil, or “fraternal,” war erupted between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which heavily damaged the credibility of the Kurdistan Regional Government: As soon as the Kurdistan region had been liberated from Saddam Hussein’s military, the dominant factions began to fight each other. Governmental institutions in Kurdistan did not properly develop — they were based on nepotism and cronyism. Only after 2006, when KDP and PUK administrations re-unified, were attempts made to gradually create competent institutions of government. Although the Kurdistan region subscribes to a democratic system, it is not a mature democracy. Immature democracies require many years, and many generations before they reach the level of sophistication enjoyed in many western countries.

The ISIS incursions into northern Iraq revealed, amongst other things, the Peshmerga’s weakness. Before and after 10 June many western analysts considered the Peshmerga as strong, well-equipped, and a disciplined military force. After 3 August it became quite apparent to the West that the Peshmerga were not as strong as they wished. Over 15 countries have sent advisors and weapons to the KRG, to enhance its abilities. The Kurds are essentially fighting a war on the ground against Islamic extremism, necessary both for their own security and partly on behalf of the West and the rest of the world that would find it difficult to send combat troops to Kurdistan and Iraq because of domestic public opposition. This material support has bolstered Erbil’s confidence. American, British, and French air forces rapidly directed airstrikes against ISIS positions in the area. These actions gave the Kurds a great deal of political legitimacy, founded on national security. Although the Kurdish political model has its deficiencies, it nevertheless deserves respect and protection. The government in Baghdad is in disarray, and quite pro-Iran — something western powers are wary of.

International leaders realized that, after the June crisis, Iraq has the potential to break up — it may become impossible to maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity as a centralized state while simultaneously unfairly accusing the Kurds of undermining this unity. Of course, Kurdish leaders publicly state they prefer a united country. But by enhancing its strength, consolidating power and expanding, the KRG can pursue domestic reforms — human rights, women’s rights, or children’s rights, for example — and continue to build support for eventual independence.

The current crisis in northern and western Iraq has raised important questions about the Kurdish role in both Iraqi and regional affairs, as Peshmerga remain the most effective fighting force against ISIS in the area. The KRG has expanded its military role, supporting Syrian Kurds in places like Kobane. How do leaders in Erbil understand their role in the current conflict — as defenders in Iraqi Kurdistan or as heads of a developing pan-Kurdish movement against an existential regional foe?

A paradigm shift has occurred with regards to the Kurds in the Middle East: The Kurdish position has changed from pawn to actor, from object to subject, a radical departure from the situation in the 1970s-1990s. After 2003, with the Kurdish leadership assuming prominent roles in the Iraqi government — and with the KRG being recognized in the Iraqi Constitution in 2005 and diplomatic circles — the Kurdish position changed dramatically.

The Kurdish actions in Kobane fit into these trends. Peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan were able to cross into Syria via Turkey — an operation that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The KRG is emerging as a subject, an actor, in the region. Its actions have a growing impact on developments in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. For example, last year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited Barzani to attend Nawroz celebrations: Turkey needs the KRG to mollify its own Kurdish population, while simultaneously to appease Kurds in Iraq. Last year as well, Barzani was received by Jordan’s King Abdullah as the Kurdish “head of state” — the KRG flag was flown behind Barzani as he spoke to the King.

Kirkuk sits on top of nearly 10 percent of Iraq’s oil wealth, and comprises diverse ethnicities. For Erbil, how have historical claims to territory intertwined with or been separated from strategic motivations when negotiating with Baghdad?

Kirkuk province will play a major role with regards to Iraqi Kurdistan’s future and its relations with Baghdad. Since 2003 the Kurds have tried very hard to impose their authority on Kirkuk. The city’s first governor was Kurdish, and the current governor is a PUK politburo member. Leading members of the city’s administration — the police chief, for example — are Kurds, as are the majority of council members. Kurdish leaders maintain that their ethnic group constitute the majority population — their figures indicate that over 52 percent of Kirkuk is Kurdish (around 33 percent are Arab, and the remainder, less than 15 percent Turkomen and less than 1 percent Assyrian Christian). Erbil thus lays historical claim to the land based on ethnic occupancy.

There may be some ultimate compromise with Baghdad regarding Kirkuk province’s future borders, but Erbil will never let the province out of its grasp. The agreement reached between Baghdad and the KRG in December 2014 regarding the latter’s right to export oil from Kurdistan-administered Kirkuk evinces the new Kurdish position there and within Iraq. The establishment of the oil and gas pipeline from the KRG to Turkey represents Erbil’s attempts to establish fiscal and economic independence. Baghdad has asked the KRG if it can export its own oil through that pipeline, as the other route is currently controlled by the Islamic State. The Kurds will hang onto these achievements.

***

MOHAMMED SHAREEF is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society in London, and a lecturer in politics at University of Exeter (United Kingdom) and in international relations at the University of Sulaimani (Iraqi Kurdistan). He is the author of The United States, Iraq and the Kurds: Shock, Awe and Aftermath.

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