Iraqi Kurdistan Four Months after the Referendum

Jerusalem Post, 20/1

Four months on from the referendum which they had hoped would be a foundation stone for the building of statehood, Iraq’s Kurds are demoralized and facing an increasingly uncertain future.

The loss of Kirkuk to the Iraqi army and its Shia militia allies halved the Kurdish Regional Government’s revenues in a single stroke.   The international airports at the KRG’s capital of Erbil and Suleymaniya remain closed. Only domestic flights are currently operating out of Erbil airport,  (the ‘Baghdad shuttle’, local Kurds call the air hub, which once carried air traffic from across the world. )

The only precarious links still maintained by the KRG to the outside world are the border crossings at Ibrahim Khalil to Turkey, and at Fishkhabur to the Kurdish-controlled Federation of Northern Syria.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, meanwhile, who headed the effort to crush Kurdish hopes of independence in cooperation with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Shi militias, is riding high.  Abadi is the favored candidate of the west as the Iraqi election campaign kicks into gear.  The polls are scheduled for May.

For people living in the KRG, the loss of revenues since 2014 have had a severe impact.  The closure of the airports and the loss of Kirkuk compounded an already difficult economic situation.

The earlier difficulties derived from a number of factors. Firstly – low oil prices, in an economy almost entirely dependent on oil revenue.  Secondly,  the burden of 1.67 million mainly Arab  refugees who fled to the KRG during the advance of the Islamic State across western Iraq in 2014.  Thirdly, the failure of the Baghdad government to provide the KRG with its share of the budget as stipulated by the Iraqi constitution in the period after February, 2014.    As a result of this situation, KRG public sector employees have suffered severe reductions in their salaries. Some public sector salaries have been cut by as high as 75%.

The impact of the closure is felt in various ways.  One KRG official who spoke to the Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity described a situation in which wounded Peshmerga needing specialized medical treatment are unable to travel abroad to seek treatment, foreign companies can no longer bring their employees into the KRG, and Baghdad makes problems for journalists seeking to cover the Kurdish areas (prior to the airport closure of late 2017, the KRG administered its own far more lenient visa system for foreign visitors).  Tourism, once an important source of revenue for the KRG, has come almost to a halt.

The Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reported this week that Baghdad and Erbil had reached an ‘understanding’ regarding the future administration of airports and border crossings.  While no date has been set for the opening of the airport, the details available suggest, predictably, that Iraqi government supervision of the airports and those coming through them will sharply increase following their eventual reopening – with permanent representatives of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority to be stationed there,  according to a Rudaw report on the negotiations.

One KRG official succinctly summed up the meaning of the Iraqi government’s demands re the airports in the following words:  ‘I heard that Beirut Airport is supervised by Hizballah.  So apparently Iran wants the same arrangements at Erbil. You get the point?  Welcome to the new Iraq.’

As this last statement would suggest, the KRG official who spoke to the Jerusalem Post considers that ‘regional power interests,’ and specifically Iran, are the key force behind the isolation and what he considers to be the slow strangulation of the KRG.

He pointed to the KRG’s refusal to allow its territory to be used for the transit of Iranian supplies and volunteers to Syria during the most intense period of the civil war and the war against IS as the key element behind Iran’s decision to act to reduce the  quasi-independence possessed by the KRG prior to October 2017.

Such a thesis is plausible, but impossible to prove or disprove.  What can be said with certainty, however, is that the main beneficiary of the defeat of the KRG’s bid for independence is Iran.

Teheran has invested heavily in the politics of Shia Arab Iraq, as part of its more general regional program of outreach.  Had a large chunk of Iraq split off, taking with it the oil wealth of Kirkuk, this would have represented a disaster for Iran.  The fact that the ruling KDP is pro-western and pro-US greatly compounded the issue.  The newly born Kurdish state would also have served as an example for Iran’s restive Kurds.  Kordestan province in Iran is contiguous to the KRG area.

Major General Qassem Suleimani of the Revolutuonary Guards Corps was directly involved in the negotiations with a section of the Kurdish Talabani family which formed the prelude to the Iraqi and Shia militia descent on Kirkuk.  He appears to have been involved in brokering the deal which led to the PUK Peshmerga leaving the field and rendering Kirkuk  indefensible in October, 2017.

His militia lieutenants, Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Organization and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Ktaeb Hizballah took part in the conquest of the town, together with their fighters.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, meanwhile, this week announced that he would be running together with the militias in their political iteration in the May elections.  The union proved short lived.  Apparently Abadi’s decision to include Amar al-Hakim, a Shia cleric who has recently distanced himself from the Iranians was too much for the servants of the IRGC.  Badr’s Hadi al-Ameri,by the way, is now also a realistic candidate for the prime ministership.

The incident shows the extent to which the Iraqi Prime Minister, a veteran member of the Iran-supported Shia Islamist Dawa Party, occupies an adjacent political space to the direct servants of the Iranian hostile takeover bid in Baghdad.

The open cooperation with Suleimani and his allies last October in Kirkuk  is an established fact.  The direct electoral compliment to this was narrowly avoided this week.

There appears at the moment to be an emergent US-led strategy to seek to roll back Iranian influence in the Levant and Mesopotamia.  The decision to retain a US presence in eastern Syria forms a key part of this.  Support for Saudi Arabia against the Houthis in Yemen, and acknowledgement of Israel’s security needs in south west Syria are additional components.

It is not clear why the US appears to be following a precisely opposite policy in Iraq, where its preferred candidate for the prime ministership in Baghdad is a close collaborator with the Iranian regional design.  This policy has left the staunchly pro-US Iraqi Kurds, in the words of the KRG official, ‘choked and cornered’ in  their now truncated and cash-strapped autonomous area.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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