A Kurdish Moment?
Before the so-called Islamic State emerged in the Middle East, not too many had heard of the Kurds. Commonly referred to as “the world’s largest nation without a state” following World War I, international actors skipped over the Kurds when awarding statehood to various actors in the region. As a result, the group was left at the mercy of strong and antagonistic central governments in Ankara, Baghdad, Damascus, and Tehran. As a minority, they remained isolated from international actors, who feared provoking irredentism.
Since the emergence of IS, however, many in the West have become convinced that openly supporting, and even arming, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria is one of the best ways to combat the Salafi-jihadist group. IS has presented the Kurds with their opportunity to solidify their relations with international actors and increase their autonomy en route to their treasured status of independence.
A previous Kurdish “moment”
This is not the first time that the Kurds have been on the brink of such a “moment.” During the 20th Century, they had minor glimpses of achieving significant political status. For instance, in 1946 and with the support of the Soviet Union, the Kurds in Iran founded the Mahabad Republic, which became the first and only Kurdish state in modern history. The Mahabad leadership also included Kurdish elites from Iraq, most notably Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Nonetheless, the Kurdish state lasted no longer than six months.
More significantly, from 1961 to 1975, Mustafa Barzani led the most significant Kurdish moment in Iraq. His movement was marked by political successes vis-à-vis the central government in Baghdad. Its greatest triumph came in 1970, when Barzani signed an Autonomy Agreement, known as the March Declaration (bayan adhar), with Saddam Hussein. In this declaration, Baghdad recognized, for the first time, the Kurdish right to autonomy.
The movement was also marked by political successes in foreign relations. During this period, Barzani attracted a strategic set of international allies, including the U.S., Israel, and Iran, all of whom were eager to support the movement against a threatening Arab nationalist and then Ba’athist regime in Baghdad. For Washington, support for the Kurds became even more crucial after 1972, when Iraq signed a Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Union. In that year alone, the U.S. provided Barzani’s movement with a $3 million subsidy.(1)
Finally, the movement was marked by military successes. Barzani institutionalized his coercive apparatus in the Peshmerga (meaning “those who confront death”). Israel even sent agents to the Kurdish mountains to train Peshmerga forces. Barzani’s military experienced several successful campaigns during this period. As a result, in 1974, David Hirst wrote an article in the Guardian newspaper highlighting the Peshmerga’s advances, which posed a serious threat to Baghdad.
However, Barzani’s movement faced a major pitfall: it was dependent on both an untrustworthy central government and an alliance with international partners who remained adamant on keeping the relationship covert. As such, this Kurdish moment eventually collapsed in 1975, when the U.S. brokered the Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq and cut all support for Barzani’s movement.
Since 1991, the Kurds in Iraq have again on several occasions found themselves on the brink of realizing their political aims. Following the first Gulf War, the U.S., France, and UK facilitated the establishing of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. This provided de facto autonomy to the Kurds, who were able to set up institutions of self-administration, namely, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Kurdistan National Assembly.
However, in 2003, the Kurds were asked to rejoin a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. They demurred, fearing that the de facto autonomy they secured from 1991 onward would wither away. As such, they became champions of federalism, which the Kurdish leadership believed would best sustain the Kurdistan Region’s autonomy vis-à-vis a decentralized Baghdad. However, their political ambitions constantly faced uncertainty by those who feared irredentism, among them Arab leaders in Baghdad, regional actors, and even the U.S. and other international players.
Is this moment different?
Until quite recently, U.S. policy toward the Islamic State has been mostly characterized by disengagement. This hands-off approach endured as IS conquered parts of Syria and then moved into Iraq, taking Fallujah in December 2013 and Mosul (Iraq’s second-largest city) in June 2014. During these events, the White House cited the need for congressional and UN approval before it could take any action.
However, when IS directly threatened Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, President Obama decided, overnight, to launch airstrikes and protect the Kurds. This officially launched U.S. engagement against IS in the region. Clearly the Kurdistan Region has some role to play in Washington’s regional calculus. As such, one can conclude that this moment, in 2015, is distinct.
The question, then, is whether 2015 is different from 1975—that is, has the emergence of a so-called Islamic State on Iraqi territory changed the regional calculus and facilitated a significant moment for the Kurds to realize their political ambitions? The Kurds themselves certainly believe so. According to Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to the Kurdistan Region President, Masoud Barzani, “On that day in August 2014, we knew that it was not 1975.”(2) They do for a number of reasons.
A weak central government
One difference between then and now is that Iraq is no longer a unitary state. The current central government is marred by civil war and internal political divisions, which have left it weak and divided. The KRG’s leadership is now seeking to take advantage of the schisms to push its own agenda, without precipitating a major backlash or repression from the central government. For instance, today, the Iraqi security forces are not allowed to enter the Kurdistan Region, which is controlled by the Peshmerga.
The 2005 Iraqi constitution became an important springboard for this Kurdish moment. The leadership employed international legal experts to ensure that the country’s top law codified Erbil’s autonomy. The resulting document is widely perceived to be Kurd-friendly. For instance, Article 121(1) stipulates that “the regional powers shall have the right to exercise executive, legislative, and judicial powers in accordance with this Constitution, except for those authorities stipulated in the exclusive authorities of the federal government” and Article 121 (2) claims that “In case of a contradiction between regional and national legislation in respect to a matter outside the exclusive authorities of the federal government, the regional power shall have the right to amend the application of the national legislation within that region.” Article 142 further states that any constitutional amendment requires the support of a majority of voters and cannot be rejected by two-thirds of voters in three or more governorates.(3) Since the KRG is composed of three provinces, this article provides the Kurds with a de facto veto over any constitutional change. Therefore, constitutionally, the Kurdish cause has progressed since 1975.
The political scene in Baghdad is also different from the past. The president of Iraq, although primarily a symbolic post, has been a Kurd since 2005. Kurds have also held significant posts as deputy prime minister, foreign minister, and finance minister, among other cabinet positions. Unlike 1975, then, the Kurdistan Region’s leadership has greater sway in Baghdad’s politics. This becomes most evident during national election season, when the Kurdistan List, a parliamentary bloc that includes the KDP and PUK, seeks to use its parliamentary seats to endorse the next prime minister in exchange for certain concessions. The Kurds of Iraq want to use this status as “kingmaker” to gain greater sway in the central government.
A stronger foreign policy
The Kurdistan Region’s diplomatic apparatus is also much stronger than it was in the 20th Century. Most notably, it is no longer taboo for foreign capitals to engage with the substate government. As such, relations are not confined to being covert affairs, but are open, continuous, and professionalized—akin to state diplomacy. The KRG has institutionalized its foreign affairs and diplomacy through the Department of Foreign Relations (DFR) and has set up de facto embassies in strategic foreign capitals, including Washington, DC, London, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, among others. In return, these states have set up consulates in Erbil, and those diplomatic outposts at times are more active than the embassies in Baghdad.
From a regional perspective, Erbil’s relationship with Ankara, and more specifically with the Erdogan regime, is also a departure from the past. In 2003, an anxiety-ridden Turkey refused to recognize or meet with KRG officials unless the latter were part of an Iraqi delegation in Baghdad. Ankara feared the pan-Kurdish movement and believed KRG progress in Iraq could inflame Kurdish nationalist tensions inside its own borders, where some 25 million Kurds reside. Yet, in 2013, Turkey signed an independent oil and gas agreement with the KRG, despite Baghdad’s protests. Most critically, this deal has the potential to give the Kurds in Iraq the final piece to their nationalist struggle: economic independence from the central government. For the first time in history, Turkish heads of state are uttering the word “Kurd” or “Kurdistan,” visiting Erbil, inviting KRG officials to official ceremonies, and even using the Kurdish language during speeches. This change in Turkish perception of the Kurdish issue in Iraq, from 2003 to 2013, is in part the product of the Kurdistan Region’s attempt to prove its trustworthiness, which entailed providing guarantees that it would not press the Kurdish issue in Turkey and finding points of mutual interest, which meant Turkey’s need for oil and gas and the KRG’s need to export oil and gas. Unlike in previous times, this Kurdish moment is endorsed by Turkey, which has become an economic and political partner despite its historic reluctance to recognize any Kurdish self-government in the region.
From an international perspective, Erbil’s relationship with Washington also represents a departure from the past. The Region’s leadership wants to become a local partner on the ground by claiming that it could be Washington’s strong and loyal ally in a chaotic country and region. In the U.S., the Region’s diplomats seek influential partners. This strategy includes a comprehensive lobbying campaign, the establishment of a Kurdish-American Congressional Caucus, and various modes of public diplomacy, such as airing prime-time television advertisements. Through these relationships, the KRG is represented and supported by the various segments of the U.S. political elite, and particularly the Senate, Congress, and increasingly the Pentagon.
A legitimate military
Linked to increased recognition is the international support for the Region’s Peshmerga, which are no longer viewed as a guerrilla resistant paramilitary but as a legitimate national army and the only force allowed to govern in the Kurdistan Region. Not only is there a recognition of the Peshmerga’s exclusive right to operate in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, but in September 2014, Washington, Ankara, and other foreign capitals supported its offensive to enter into Syria and fight the Islamic State in Kobane. Unlike in 1975, when foreign capitals hid their support and involvement with Mullah Mustafa’s Peshmerga, today they are supporting and empowering it in what is effectively foreign adventurism.
Likewise, an “arm the Peshmerga” campaign has picked up steam in several foreign capitals, where many elite believe that the Peshmerga is the best fighting force in the region. According to U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, it is “truly unmatched by any other group.”(4) Both the trustworthy and successful reputation has elevated the Peshmerga as a recognised military that foreign capitals are openly willing to support. Even countries like Germany, which tended to shy away from providing military support, began offering military aid and training for the Region’s Peshmerga. German Defense Minister Ursula Von Der Leyen has similarly stated that the world should support the Peshmerga.(5)
As we have seen, 2015 is a major departure from any past Kurdish moment. The Kurds in Iraq are as close as they have ever been in modern history to achieving their political ambitions in a sustained, long-term, manner. This is predicated on a weakened central government, a strengthened substate diplomacy, and the emergence of the Peshmerga as a fighting force. Nonetheless, challenges lie ahead.
First, exacerbated internal cleavages threaten the KRG’s reputation as a democratizing government. A significant protest movement has emerged and seeks to relay anti-corruption grievances against what it views as a nepotistic system; after all, the president, prime minister, and head of security are all “Barzanis.” More critically, the KRG’s institutions operate at the behest of political politburos. One key grievance on the Kurdish street is the position of the presidency. Masoud Barzani has constitutionally exceeded his tenure but remains president, and the parties are unable to reach a compromise. Barzani’s ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), uses its Peshmerga to expel or intimidate political opponents who call for greater accountability and transparency. Most notably, in October 2015, the speaker of the parliament, Yousif Mohammed, was prevented from passing a checkpoint into Erbil.(6) The move was significant, insofar as Mohammed hails from the Change Movement (Goran), which represents the loudest voice against the current elite. As such, many are beginning to doubt the KRG’s position as a pro-democracy entity and question the sustainability of tribal or family rule.
Nonetheless, corruption tends to be endemic in fledgling states, and its appearance here does not necessarily threaten this moment. The Kurdish opposition, although passionately opposed to internal problems such as corruption, holds a peculiar sense of unity when faced with an existential threat or external actor and the chance to advance the nationalist movement. Nawshirwan Mustafa, Goran’s leader, has stated on several occasions that his movement is primarily concerned with internal KRG issues. In general, the political elite hold a sense of appreciation that this moment is special and cannot be ruined.
Second, although it has become the West’s favorite fighting force, the Peshmerga still faces challenges. Most notably, it is not unified. The KDP and PUK each control their own separate militias, which administer different territories. This becomes problematic because Goran, which is the second largest party pursuant to parliamentary seats, does not have a Peshmerga and as such faces noticeable difficulties. Various attempts at unification have failed because each party fears losing influence if they give up their security apparatus. As such, the KRG, as an institution, cannot claim monopoly over legitimate violence, in a Weberian sense. Instead, the politburos are tasked with commanding security affairs.
There is a fear that, with the aforementioned divisions, violence may erupt in much the same way it did in the mid-1990s, when the KDP and PUK Peshmergas fought a civil war. Yet, all sides have made it clear that the memory of a civil war and the chance of squandering the current moment make a civil war nearly impossible.
Third, the center-periphery relationship between Baghdad and Erbil is not clear, and is still hotly disputed. The issues of oil and gas and the “contested” territories continue to loom. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi expressed his reservations over the KRG’s oil ambitions to this author in 2013. His stance has not changed, and Erbil is locked in a dispute over revenue sharing and independent oil exporting with the central government. Moreover, the emergence of the Islamic State in Mosul and elsewhere has called territorial boundaries into question. Referred to as the “contested” territories in Arabic but the “occupied” territories in Kurdish, the most notable prize is Kirkuk, which nonetheless has a legal solution via the constitution. Article 140 in effect calls for a referendum in the province to decide its fate, and based on numbers in past elections, it is likely that the province would be incorporated into the KRG. However, Baghdad is wary of the constitutional article and of Kurdish ambitions, and will most likely contest such a scenario over Kirkuk. As a prelude, we have seen skirmishes between Baghdad-supported Shi’a paramilitary groups and the Peshmerga in Kirkuk. After the Islamic State, this issue will remain and continue to cast a pall over the KRG’s ambitions.
Fourth, the Kurdistan Region suffers from an economic crisis that further threatens the moment. Erbil remains dependent on revenues from Baghdad for over 90 percent of its state budget. During times of tension and dispute, the central government cuts its revenue stream and hampers the KRG. The Kurdish leadership began courting international oil companies (IOCs) during the country’s post-conflict oil rush, which started in 2007, in order to limit dependence on the central government. However, the recent drop in the price of oil has greatly affected the substate’s economy and ended the initial rush. More critically, it exposed the rentier nature of the KRG’s dependence on oil. The government is not able to pay the IOCs as it has promised, and the economy has tanked. The KRG also faces difficulties paying state salaries. The promise of a “new Dubai” has become a distant memory, and the inability to export sufficient amounts of oil independently and thereby reach economic sustainability delays the Kurdish moment.
Out of these four challenges, the latter two present the biggest impediments. If Erbil continues its conflict with Baghdad, and if it is unable to recover from its current economic crisis, the KRG will not be able to take full advantage of the current moment of opportunity and will remain stagnant.
It is clear that the Kurds in Iraq have passed a threshold and as such do not fear “a return to the mountains.” Whereas just a few years ago, the Kurds were unknown by many in the West, today they have become “friends” against the Islamic State in the Middle East. This transformation is distinct, and presents a clear moment of departure from the realities of the Kurdish past.
Nonetheless, challenges remain; the world system is still state-centric, and even their closest allies are not convinced that Kurdish secession is good. There are occasions when the KRG delegation is left out of strategic meetings and conferences because it lacks de jure status.
For the KRG, however, this moment is not necessarily about secessionism or the emergence of a de jure Kurdistan. It is about changing who represents an actor in the international system. Although the Region has not achieved statehood, it has achieved many of its trappings. It has proven that de jure recognition is not necessarily the ultimate indicator of status or influence in the region. The KRG engages in direct relations with states, negotiates bilateral agreements on oil and other issues, and sends its Peshmerga to fight wars in other countries—all with the support of international actors. All of this is done with either minimal input or great protest from the central government in Baghdad. This represents the new reality in Iraq.
Renad Mansour is an El-Erian fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on Iraq, Iran, and Kurdish affairs. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Mansour was a researcher for the Pembroke Security and Intelligence Initiative at the University of Cambridge, where he also taught history, international relations, and comparative politics of the modern Middle East.
3. Cabinet of the Government of Iraq, “Destour jumhuriyya al-Iraq [Constitution of the Republic of Iraq],” n.d., http://www.cabinet.iq/PageViewer.aspx?id=2