The Kurds are anxious to modernise, but Baghdad must cooperate
Greater autonomy is growing within Turkey and Syria, and an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is becoming more likely by the day.
Iraqi Kurds are the success story of the Iraq invasion, which they requested. A genocidal dictatorship was replaced by a democratic and federal constitution, albeit one which was largely ignored as Iraq’s old divisions exploded.
But there was steady progress in Kurdistan: the development from scratch of an oil and gas sector, an historic rapprochement with Turkey, rapid growth, and increased living standards.
However, the rise of ISIS, warnings of which had been ignored by Baghdad and the wider world, effectively partitioned Iraq in 2014 when the Iraqi army crumbled.
ISIS turned on the Kurds in August and came near to taking Erbil, the capital (American airstrikes managed to save the city).
The Peshmerga’s extended supply lines, insufficient weapons and lack of experience in facing a frontal assault on the plains forced a temporary retreat, but they have since recaptured most lost land.
The author with a Peshmerga fighter: click to enlarge
The Peshmerga desperately need modern heavy weapons. An estimated 1300 Peshmerga have died fighting ISIS, mostly because their AK47s cannot stop armoured suicide vehicle bombs barreling towards their lines and exploding.
The need for more arms was raised with President Obama by President Barzani, whose chief of staff Dr Fuad Hussein told me in Erbil that while America will respect sovereign power in Baghdad, the Kurds will get what they need.
The ISIS advance was also a wake-up call for the Peshmerga to become a national institution answerable to the state rather, as most of its soldiers are, to two historic parties.
Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, a former Kurdistani minister who now heads Kurdistan’s major independent think-tank, the Middle East Research Institute, told me that his organisation is ‘a bridge between external expertise and the Peshmerga in finding a home made solution.’
He added that ‘Kurdistan is beginning to make the most of its international support but the Kurds need to be more efficient in putting our own house in order.’
Ala’Aldeen argues that the reason for the political division of the Peshmerga – mutual suspicion between the two main parties – no longer holds with young people.
The Kurds have been extraordinarily generous to nearly two million refugees and displaced people, but their services are immensely strained.
Iraqi civil servants from Mosul are paid salaries by Baghdad via Kurdistani civil servants who have not been paid for months because the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has received just one third of its entitlement in the past five months, and the budget was entirely cut last year.
The Kurds are owed perhaps $16 billion, but Baghdad/Erbil relations are based on mutual suspicion and loathing. Many Shia politicians never accepted the Iraqi constitution’s enshrining of federalism, and autonomy in energy matters to Kurdistan.
Private companies are charitably providing daily meals to the Peshmerga, some of whom buy their own weapons and ammunition.
Growth has nosedived, with hundreds of public investment projects in limbo and Kurds surviving on handouts from their families or from savings.
The Peshmerga are fighting ISIS with increasing efficiency but the Kurds were excluded from two recent international meetings of the coalition against ISIS.
Baghdad’s obstinacy is also driving independence, but Kurdistan is landlocked and a unilateral declaration of independence could stop imports, exports, passports, and airports.
Independence would have to be negotiated with Baghdad, and the KRG’s southern boundaries – including Kirkuk – must be finalised to avoid the province becoming a flashpoint for Arab revanchism for decades.
Kurdistan has to be match fit for any possibility if it is to escape the Soviet-esque legacy of the old Iraq. Most people are state-employed, which suffocates the private sector; meanwhile the rentier economy is almost wholly dependent on energy.
Minerals could become a major money-spinner through which Kurdistan could achieve food self-sufficiency and export surpluses. Tourism is another potential boon.
A tribute to workers in Erbil: click to enlarge
It is easy in theory to design an architecture that maximises enterprise, civil society, greater women’s rights, an independent judiciary, a thoughtful media, evidence-based policy-making and so on. It is harder in practice, especially at a time of great crisis.
The other big question in the next few years is independence. America has always clung doggedly to Iraqi unity, although there are tantalising signs of a subtle shift toward neutrality in Washington.
In the UK, a landmark report from the Foreign Affairs Committee in March helped break the taboo of the ‘One Iraq’ policy.
MPs acknowledged unpredictable consequences of unravelling borders but also recognised that it is rational for the Kurds to seek increased self-governance or independence, a medium term possibility that should be accepted and respected if done with the consent of Baghdad.
The Kurds have long survived in the violent vortex of bigger empires. There is an old Kurdish saying: ‘The Kurds have no friends but the mountains’, but they now count many countries as friends.
Kurdistan could check the expansion of ISIS as a willing part of the free world, and it is anxious to modernise itself. Its success could be a game-changer in the Middle East.
Gary Kent is Director of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region and an honorary member of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. He writes in a personal capacity.
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