The Pragmatism of Iraqi Kurdistan Reply

The Kurds of Iraq and Syria are seeking greater autonomy. How to achieve that autonomy is another matter. Part 2 of 2.

By J. Dana Stuster

Yesterday’s post discussed the efforts of Syrian Kurds to bolster the autonomy they’ve achieved as regime forces have been drawn toward more contentious hotspots. Today, I’ll discuss the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan. Like Syria’s Kurds, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan seeks to maintain their hard-won autonomy, but because they have already achieved legal autonomy, their actions take place within the overarching Iraqi government structure, which necessitates a more pragmatic approach.

Iraqi Kurdistan

While Syria’s Kurds are seizing and shoring up their autonomy, Iraq’s Kurds are working to maintain their autonomy within the Iraqi federal structure, which has recognized Kurdish autonomy in some capacity since at least 1992 (when the Kurdistan Regional Government was formed). To do so, Iraqi Kurdish policy has become a game of high-stakes politicking to broker compromise with the central government. The guiding principle of the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) remains, like that of their Syrian neighbors, the maintenance of an autonomous sub-state, but to achieve this, Iraqi Kurdish politics are less about physical security and more about economic and political security. KRG president Masoud Barzani is well suited to the role of pragmatist; he has been a counterweight to the PKK in Iraq while also an intermediary with PKK-aligned groups, including the PYD, which has seized control of portions of northeast Syria this year.

Barzani and the KRG has been a facilitator for the Syrian opposition, but has been reserved officially. Erbil has become a hub for Syrian opposition leaders, despite the opposition’s wariness of Syrian Kurds, and with the support of Ankara, the KRG is training Syrian Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq. But Barzani has also been reticent to throw himself behind the Syrian Kurdish opposition — most salient, he’s a PKK rival, a status that is important in his tenuous strategic relationship with the Erdoğan government.

Though it has largely been overshadowed by the increased attacks by Sunni extremists and the escalating tension between the Maliki government and swing blocs of his coalition (notably the Sadrists), the Kurdish government has become a bulwark of the opposition to the current Iraqi administration, which many Iraqis (and outside observers) fear is veering close to autocracy. (For a detailed discussion of the Maliki government’s power expansion and opposition concerns, see International Crisis Group’s two-part report — part 1 and part 2 — from late July.) The Kurdish grievance with the Maliki government is primarily economic — the KRG has negotiated oil deals with foreign companies that were not approved by the central Iraqi government, including some in disputed territories claimed by both the KRG and other Iraqi provinces. While these tensions existed before the U.S. withdrawal at the close of last year, since then, they have become increasingly salient.

In a governance crisis in late 2010, Maliki, Iyad Allawi of the Iraqiyya bloc, and Barzani, negotiated a power sharing agreement in the Kurdish capital of Erbil — an agreement that, though never made public, Maliki has been accused of not honoring. And when Maliki put out a warrant for the arrest of Iraqi vice president Tareq al-Hashemi, al-Hashemi was sheltered by the KRG, where the Iraqi government would not arrest him for fear of starting a fight over judicial sovereignty. Oil tensions have pushed the KRG closer to an unlikely ally, Turkey, and Barzani’s record as being a moderate pragmatist has made him an attractive regional intermediary to Ankara. Many suspicions persist — “If you’re drowning in the sea, you’ll even hug a snake,” a retired Turkish general told Crisis Group, adding bluntly, “Barzani is the snake.” — but the Turkish government is working on a broad array of issues with the KRG, from economic issues to PKK disarmament. When al-Hashemi eventually left Iraqi Kurdistan, it was to take up residence in Istanbul. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has tried to run major oil companies out of Kurdish regions.

These power plays have occurred as Erbil and Baghdad jockey for position in on-and-off oil negotiations. The KRG wants to retain the oil deals it negotiated independently; the Iraqi government wants a greater cut and continued Kurdish reliance on Iraqi infrastructure. At an extreme, officials in the central government worry that independent trade and economic self-sufficiency will sever the last remaining threads that bind the KRG to Iraq. Denise Natali wrote last April that “the KRG will ultimately have to recognize that it is no longer a victim in post-Saddam Iraq” — on the contrary, the KRG’s actions of the past nine months demonstrate forceful political agency. Iraqi Kurdish policies have demonstrated a willingness to challenge the Iraqi government while cultivating better relationships with its neighbors, and with so much at stake in its relationship with Turkey and its unease with the PKK, the Barzani government is unlikely to throw itself into the Syrian issue aside from its role as a facilitator. Any broader, more public involvement is an unwarranted risk while Iraqi Kurdistan is fighting diplomatically to secure its own autonomy. This hardly means that Iraqi Kurds will not play a role in the fight for autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan — Iraqi Kurdish militants are popping up in Syrian border towns to participate in attacks against Turkey — only that the KRG is taking a pragmatic approach to secure its own borders.

Different Means

The dream of a united, independent Greater Kurdistan isn’t dead — Guerin found young romantics in Syria talking about how they would bring together the Kurds of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran — but it has been eclipsed by pragmatism. Iraqi and Syrian Kurds both want autonomy, but first they must establish it within their countries, which at times puts their immediate interests at cross purposes with the idea of Greater Kurdistan. The KRG’s reliance on Turkey prevents it from being more supportive of Syria’s Kurds; Syria’s Kurds’ relationship to the PKK puts it on tenuous footing with the Barzani government; in Turkey, Kurdish advocacy since the election of the AKP has shifted from a decades long low-level insurgency toward civil and political spheres; and over all of this rests a pall of mutual suspicion that these alliances of convenience will come undone. For now, Syrian Kurdistan is bracing for war and Iraqi Kurdistan is fighting for economic sovereignty — but at its core, it’s the same politics through different means.

J. Dana Stuster is a Senior Editor for The Jerusalem Review.

Photo credit: Luis Dafos, LightStalkers

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