French President Francois Hollande receives the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani for talks at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on February 21, 2017. Liewig Christian/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The continuation of a de facto autocracy in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has led to an extension of oligarchic authority and created a neglected nation, poor society, locked economy, and an irresponsible and corrupt government.
The persistence of this situation would direct Kurdistan politically into a one-party dominant violent system, administratively into a corrupt financial system, economically into a divided society between multi-billionaires and deprived classes, and security-wise into an unconstitutional cartel of armed groups and small-secure islands.
Socially, it would create undeveloped, conservative, and religious individuals; in terms of general living conditions, it would link income sources with loyalty to the dominant political family and party; and in terms of foreign relations, it would change the regional influence of Kurdistan into a critical, sanctified hegemony which secures the existence of and advantages for autocratic party leaders for a moderate to long period of time.
Why did it happen?
In June 2014, Jihadi Kurds, Arabs, and foreign ISIL militants seized Mosul. A Kurdistan presidential decree kept Peshmerga forces in a defensive posture rather than an offensive one. The public in Kurdistan was told that the Iraqi state had collapsed and that Kurdistan would hold an independence referendum so it could live in peace side-by-side with its new Takfiri neighbor as two independent states.
The Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) thinking on this issue derived from promises made by political and tribal Arab leaders who fled from Baghdad to Erbil to support Sunni Islamic resistance cells, led by ISIL and supported by regional Sunni states.
The anti-ISIL international coalition significantly supported Kurdistan both politically and militarily. Presidents, vice presidents, prime ministers, defense and foreign ministers, military commanders, and intelligence officials from a majority of the countries in the anti-ISIL international coalition visited Kurdistan and provided political, military, financial, and logistical aid.
Exploiting all this support resourcefully could have advanced the Kurdistan region considerably. Instead, this political and military support was poorly utilized, inducing a suspension of the political process, a halt to economic growth and the administrative capacity of government, a loss of public trust in authority, and a change in the balance of power in Kurdistan.
Most of the weapons, ammunition, and military equipment for the counterterrorism battle delivered to the KRG have been stored in political parties’ storerooms unlawfully; and some of these supplies were distributed inequitably on the war fronts to politically affiliated commanders.
This model of distributing international aid changed the balance of power in Kurdistan and pulled the region backwards by almost twenty years to an era when outlawed military groups emerged and incited a civil war. Simultaneously, foreign officials’ visits to Kurdistan were interpreted as support for the KRG’s president.
As a result, the Kurdish administration abandoned its reform promises and halted planned democratic agreements. The president remained beyond the end of his term, parliament was suspended, the speaker of parliament was dismissed, and four ministers, including the Peshmerga Minister during the counterterrorism war, were sent home.
Consequently, the economy collapsed and the ISIL war was used as a scapegoat for the deterioration of individual income and salary cuts of up to 75 percent and multiple month delays for civil servants. The lack of a budget paralyzed the government and people completely lost trust in the government’s authority, particularly given their knowledge of the billions of dollars of the KRG’s revenues stored abroad.
This situation created a suitable environment for the growth of radical Islamism and for Salafi groups to develop swiftly. The three Islamic political parties in Kurdistan are now attempting to unite against the liberal parties. The establishment of one Islamic front promises heaven to those stuck in the hell of an otherwise dysfunctional Kurdish world, attracting teenagers from poor and marginalized families, which could generate an uncertain future for Kurdistan’s security.
The formation of a society directed toward radicalism, a crippled political system, an inactive government cabinet, a weak economy, and a nation with no faith in administration has paved the way for the intervention of regional states in Kurdistan’s internal affairs, particularly as the Erbil administration has needed to secure its survival against the reactions of its protesting populace.
Hence, Turkish economic influence in Kurdistan has changed dramatically, as Ankara not only took control of the Kurdistan region’s market, but also secured transporting Kurdistan’s oil to international markets for the next 50 years. Documents leaked by Kurdish media even revealed that some of the oil fields in Kurdistan have been sold to Turkey. Turkey’s control over Kurdistan’s natural resources allows Ankara to consider Erbil’s security as part of its own strategic security, and manipulate Kurdish issues in Syria and Turkey through Erbil.
Iran has also started cashing in its regional influence for an active role on the ground. Tehran is working to control Kurdish areas covered by Article 140 of Iraqi Constitution—disputed oil rich areas—and snatch this land from Kurdish forces using the Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces. Iran is also working in cooperation with Russia and the KRG to drill oil and gas in Kurdish fields, and export it to the international market. According to some sources in Kurdistan region, the KRG has proposed selling oil directly to Russian firms.
Ten years ago, Kurdistan was considered a safe and semi-democratic island of the Middle East in geopolitical literature. Now, due to the war with ISIL and international support for its political authority, the Kurdistan region is currently under the influence of neighboring countries and is run by a de facto autocratic administration, which relies on those regional states for its survival.
The influence of these regional countries on Kurdistan makes Erbil unable to follow the US administration’s strategic plans in the Middle East, and limits its ability to lay out its own independent political and economic strategy. As such, one can argue that this de facto autocracy become a major threat to the future of the Kurdistan region and its dream of establishing an independent Kurdish state in the northern Iraq.
This piece was first published on Georgetown Security Studies Review on 8 April 2017.