The Kurdistan Region of Iraq Is Struggling to Survive

Seth J. Frantzman

The road north from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, is festooned with construction equipment for work on a large modernization project. Earthworks have been churned up, bridges are under construction, like the new multilane span across the Great Zab River. It is part of an artery for trade heading north to Dohuk and Turkey. The construction presents a contrast with the poorer farmers who line the road to sell tomatoes, tea and fish.

On October 17 an area north of these nice pastoral areas became host to refugees fleeing fighting in neighboring Syria. Up to eighteen hundred people, mostly Kurds, had come to a camp near Bardarash. They had come from border areas under bombardment by the Turkish air force and under assault by the Syrian National Army, a collection of Syrian rebel groups. Families from Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ayn) said they fled to Qamishli and then south to the border crossing in northern Iraq that links Syria with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This emerging instability in eastern Syria, an area that the KRG authorities had assumed would remain quiet for years due to the U.S. presence, is now on the list of concerns in Erbil.

The contrasts of instability and stability in this region is symbolic of the autonomous Kurdistan region as a whole. In Erbil the pulsating nightlife and broad ring roads that swaddle the city present a picture of prosperity and stability in the new Iraq that has emerged after the war on ISIS. However, there are lingering problems such as disputes between Erbil and Baghdad over budgets and arms for the Kurdish security forces, called Peshmerga. There are vacuums between the defensive lines where the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces are supposed to meet and where ISIS remnants have found small ungoverned spaces to exploit. Most of all, there is the strategic position of the region, politically closer to the United States and Ankara, and wary of the rising power of Iran and Iranian-backed political and paramilitary groups that dominate parts of Iraq. The protests that erupted across central and southern Iraq on October 1, leading to the deaths of dozens and a harsh crackdown by Baghdad, were not felt in the Kurdistan region. While Baghdad suppressed social media and cut off the internet, in Erbil people could still use apps and cellphones.

A recent multiday visit to the region reveals the hurdles the KRG faces two years after it held an independence referendum that was condemned by its neighbors and largely ignored or opposed by the international community. Under new and younger leadership of President Nechirvan Barzani and Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, the region has moved on from a focus on national dreams of independence to more pragmatic day-to-day issues of economic revival and working with Baghdad to secure the region’s demands under Iraq’s 2005 Constitution.

In mid-September Nechirvan Barzani held a series of important meetings. He met with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, the Speaker of Iraq’s Parliament, the president of the country, and other officials. India’s minister of state for external affairs arrived in Erbil on September 17 to unveil a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Prior to that, on September 15, the deputy prime minister of the KRG, Qubad Talabani, met China’s consul-general in Iraq to discuss bilateral relations. This capped a month of similar important meetings and discussions, including a phone call between Nechirvan Barzani and Vice President Mike Pence in late August. During the phone call Pence commended the region’s efforts at aiding the war on ISIS and hosting displaced civilians. The Kurdistan region is asserting itself on the international stage and attempting to show Baghdad how it is a key to stability in the country. “The people here  suffered a great deal, we need to focus on reconstructing the country and looking to the future, a secure and brighter future cannot happen unless there is stability,” said Falah Mustafa, the senior policy advisor to the regional president.

While the region appears stable and its officials and Peshmerga generals often describe it as an island amid a region that is plagued by extremism and sectarianism, there are fears that  a combination of threats are a rising tide around the island. ISIS is seeking to reorganize itself to the west, just an hour’s drive from Erbil. Baghdad’s Iraqi security forces are stretched thin and U.S. coalition advisors can only assist in encouraging the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces to work more closely together. The KRG is wary of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) that man checkpoints across Nineveh plains down toward Kirkuk to the south, disputed areas that Baghdad wrested from Kurdish control in 2017. There is lasting anger at the way Peshmerga were evicted from Kirkuk in 2017. In the KRG there is a feeling that the United States, a key partner, turned its back on Erbil and enabled U.S.-supplied tanks and weapons sent to Baghdad for the ISIS war to be used against the Kurds. Local officials have said that a security mechanism is needed and trust-building necessary to normalize the situation.

The role of Iran in Iraq is a sensitive issue in Erbil but it is also one that comes up in almost every discussion. This includes complaints that Shi’ite religious groups are fanning the flames of incitement against the Kurds. For instance, scurrilous reports in Baghdad in late August suggested there was an Israeli base in the Kurdish region, leading the authorities to issue a denial. This comes amid near-daily reports of suspicious air strikes on PMU positions across central and western Iraq that Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has blamed on Israel. PMU figures have also blamed the United States and Israel for the attacks that began in late July and often target PMU munitions. It has led PMU members such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis to suggest the PMU needs an air force. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq has condemned the United States. The Kurdish region views these comments as a dangerous development. Some in Erbil now believe the PMU is seeking to become an Iraqi version of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a kind of parallel state with its own powerful army, economy and maybe even air power.

The rise of  the PMU, now an official paramilitary force in Iraq paid by Baghdad and once described by former Iraqi prime minister Haider Abadi as the “hope of the country and region,” leads to questions about why Baghdad is not paying Peshmerga salaries. Unlike the PMU, the Kurdish Peshmerga are part of the Iraqi constitution. Negotiations for  the budget have dragged on and despite promises from Baghdad the Peshmerga are systematically underfunded. A visit to their bases and frontlines reveals the reality, they often lack heavy weapons, uniform armored vehicles and even the proper barracks and facilities for the men. During the war on ISIS the Coalition helped train the Peshmerga and equipped some brigades, and millions in funding from Washington is still supposed to be forthcoming. The Peshmerga want support to reform their units, and they desire anti-tank weapons, body armor, as well as anti-drone capabilities. But the concern is that support, if it ever arrives, will be too little and too late as Iran’s allies grow more powerful and through their power in the largely Sunni provinces liberated from ISIS a new conflict with extremists will emerge. A Peshmerga general warned that currently his men receive only two percent of the equipment and budget they should receive. “All of the rest of it ends up with Iraqi Security Forces and the PMU.”

Some of the tensions have improved under Iraq’s Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi. But he lacks power and is not rooted in either the Fatah Alliance that is linked to the PMU or Muqtada al-Sadr’s party, which has the largest number of seats in Iraq’s parliament. The protests in early October appeared to erode what little authority he has. Evidence points to the abuses by the PMU, including sniper fire against protesters. Iran may benefit from the instability in Baghdad, even though some protesters have condemned Iran’s role in Iraq. Sadr showed up in Tehran for a ceremony on September 10 with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. The symbolism was not lost in Erbil. “It shows no matter how much Saudi Arabia  or others pay Sadr, he is in their [Iran’s] pocket,” said one official.

With a relatively benign prime minister in Baghdad, a rising Iran, sectarian paramilitaries on the border and ISIS resurgence, the Kurdistan region looks to the United States and other western powers for support. “Who do you have as a friend, ally and partner, with an open and welcoming society,” say those in Erbil, suggesting Erbil shares values with western democracies. After many years working with Washington, Erbil wants a clearer statement or kind of “white paper” that expresses U.S. commitment and intentions. But there are simple hurdles that make the region more distant. For instance in the absence of a visit by Baghdad’s leaders to Washington the KRG’s leaders have been told that protocol means they cannot come. Iraqi president Bahram Salih met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on September 23 during the UN General Assembly. But closer relations between Baghdad and Washington are overshadowed by Iran tensions and protocol appears to prevent a high level visit from the KRG, even though it would be in the interest of both the United States and Iraq. For instance, President Donald Trump’s visit to Iraq in December 2018, in which he didn’t meet officials, was seen as snub in Baghdad. Comments about using Iraq to “watch” Iran ruffled feathers. In Erbil the region would welcome a high-level visit though.

Among the other challenges Erbil faces today are a desire to solve disputes with Baghdad over Kirkuk and Sinjar, as well as encourage more  stability in Nineveh plains between Erbil and Mosul. The minister of transportation and communication, Ano Jawhar Abdulmaseeh Abodka, is a member of the Christian minority. He speaks with passion about the KRG’s role in sheltering Christians who fled ISIS and also in creating conditions for the community to thrive today. He also speaks of the problems Christians face today in Nineveh due to sectarian paramilitaries. Here he suggests the United States could also play a role, especially given the current administration’s commitment to religious freedom. Yazidis who fled ISIS are also still living in IDP camps in the Kurdistan region, unable to return to Sinjar where they lack security and investment.

The transportation minister says that there is an opportunity now to commit to the private sector and provide new options for transportation. The KRG suffered from historic neglect, especially in the era of Saddam Hussein when the region was persecuted brutally. Now the bridges and new highway stretching north of Erbil to Dohuk and the Turkish border are examples of the future. But again, here, he stresses the need for a budget from Baghdad.

The fiscal constraints facing the transportation sector are linked to those facing the security forces in the region. The Peshmerga provide the security to keep the region safe and stable and enable an economy that is closely tied to trade with Turkey to prosper. It is a complex and hard-to-balance situation. “We need serious help to protect ourselves, we are under threats every minute. We must be ready for the eventualities,” says a Kurdish commander who is in charge of the border regions between the KRG, Iran and Turkey. “We are trying to get back on track and our relations with central government is getting better, I think the current PM is the last chance for Iraq, if we can’t solve the problems with those who lead Iraq now, then we are unlikely to solve them in the future.”

Across the border in Syria the surprise U.S. decision to leave on October 6 has added to the problems facing Erbil. The current and past presidents have warned the United States and also called for a return to peace in eastern Syria. Even though Washington scrambled to put together a ceasefire on October 17, the reality appears to be that fighting will continue. This will mean more refugees coming to the Kurdistan region. It also raises questions about who will control the border area, will it be the Syrian regime, or will Turkey have increased influence, or will the Syrian Democratic Forces remain. If the United States is willing to walk away so easily from an area it invested in since 2014 to defeat ISIS, what will become of U.S. policy in Iraq? These are the questions now being asked in Erbil.

The Peshmerga commander’s comments about fears for the future and those of other officials from ministries and frontline Peshmerga units show the growing concern about the future of the region two years after ISIS was routed in Mosul and Erbil suffered a setback after the independence referendum. Washington’s policy is to avoid a conflict with Iran while keeping up the maximum pressure campaign. Tensions across the Gulf have affected Iraq where Iranian-backed Shi’ite paramilitary groups, some of them already sanctioned by the United States for ties to the IRGC, have threatened U.S. forces and demand the United States leave Iraq. This puts U.S. forces in a bind, wary of the threats and also wanting to continue the mission of defeating ISIS. It also means that U.S. policymakers are concerned about alienating Baghdad. For the Kurdish region the main message is that Washington should see Erbil as an essential partner for regional stability, a hinge on which stability across northern Iraq and into Syria turns. With the United States already involved in a complex balancing act in eastern Syria, fighting ISIS while keeping an eye on Iran and working with Turkey on a security mechanism, the KRG is more important than ever. Erbil wonders when the United States will start to see it that way.

Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen Publishing). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.

Image: Reuters

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