Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Unhappy Marriage of Baghdad and the KRG: Like it or not, Divorce is not an Option

Clashes outside the Kurdish Regional Government parliament, Oct. 29, 2017
The Western media’s analysis of the recent KRG independence referendum and the subsequent Kirkuk crisis has focused on the usual questions:  Who were the winners and who were the losers? Did the US or Iran benefit from the crisis?  Did the crisis strengthen Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi or the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units?  Is Masoud Barzani’s political career finished?  Moving forward, what will the relationship be between the two dominant Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK?

While these questions are important, more fundamental questions, those with serious long-term implications, have largely been ignored, such as the role of corruption, nepotism and authoritarian rule in the current crisis.

The inconvenient truth for those on both sides of the crisis is that the Federal Government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil are joined in an irrevocable marriage, unhappy perhaps, but one in which divorce isn’t an option.  Unless this fact is recognized, there can be no solution to the how the two parties can live together.

Because the Federal Government and the KRG can’t separate, the constant criticisms by those advocating for the Kurds and those supporting Baghdad - on social media, in blogs and in interviews with the media which attempt to assess blame for the conflict, are misplaced.  

All those who argue the crisis do is to fan the flames of anger.  Kurds who feel that their legitimate right of self-determination has been ignored and belittled, and Iraqis in the south who feel that the Kurds seek to break up their country, leading to more chaos in an already unstable region, find themselves locked in a constant cycle of point, counter-point.

These arguments notwithstanding, let’s be clear on an inconvenient truth.  The desire for self-determination is one thing, a viable Iraqi Kurdistan is another.  Why is an independent Kurdish state unfeasible?  We can point to at least five reasons why this is the case.

First, such a state is economically untenable. Blame for this state of affairs is the result of Saddam Husayn’s brutal regime, the policies of the two ruling Kurdish parties - the Kurdish Denocratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and changes in the global energy market (we could add post-WWI British colonial rule which always opposed an independent Kurdish nation-state).

Saddam’s notorious ANFAL campaign of the 1980s razed hundreds of Kurdish villages, killed thousands of men between the ages of 15 and 55 (many of whom were farmers) and in the process destroyed the Kurdish agrarian sector.  Today, 90% of food supplies are imported by the KRG.  Once known for their yogurt and milk products, Iraqi Kurds now import them, primarily from Turkey.

The second area of blame needs to be laid at the feet of the Kurdish political elite, the rulers of the KDP and PUK, which split from the KDP in 1977.  Despite the PUK having originally identified itself with Marxism, it, along with the KDP, has exploited the KRG’s oil wealth, creating a politcial economy based on extensive corruption and nepotism.

Rather than use the KRG’s oil wealth to rebuild the agricultural sector and diversity the economy, the ruling KRG political elite rested on its laurels, raking in large amounts of oil revenues which were used to expand patronage networks, enhance the power of domestic intelligence agencies, and prevent the media from offering any criticism of the two ruling parties.  The callous alliance between Masoud Barzani and Saddam Husayn during the UN sanctions regime of the 1990s demonstrates clearly that the Kurdish people’s interests were not the main concern of their leaders.

When Barzani’s KDP forces faced defeat by the PUK’s Pesh Merga in 1996, which were backed by Iran, the KDP leader asked Saddam to send his tanks north to help him prevent a PUK victory.  In return for the favor, Barzani turned over 130 anti-Saddam activists, many seeking to create a democratic Iraq, to Saddam’s secret police who immediately executed them all.  

The second reason an independent Kurdistan can’t sustain itself is the failure of the Kurdish leadership, from 1991 but especially after 2003, to use its oil wealth to develop a diversified economy and thereby spread the benefits of the KRG’s oil revenues beyond its political elite. 

Exacebating this problem has been the KRG's inability to develop the human resources necessary for a modern economy. Kurdish universities give preference to members of the two ruling political parties when they apply for admission.  This policy has undermined the ability of most Kurdish universities to improve the quality of their graduates.  With a higher education policy more focused on political patronage, as opposed to learning, Kurdish universities haven’t  produced the professional cadres required for developing the type of diversified economy, e.g., technology startups, food processing, and the tourist industry, all of which could augment the oil sector. 

Further, oil revenues have not been used to promote entrepreneurial initiatives which might have dissuaded many KRG youth from immigrating to Europe, North America or other parts of the MENA region.  Thus domestic KRG policy has undermined its ability to form an independent state.

A third factor relates to the current condition of the global energy market.  In the US, oil is rapidly being replaced by natural gas in heating and industrial production.  Increased US oil production has made it an oil exporter. The slowdown of the Chinese economy, together with the Japanese and European Union economies, has decreased the global demand for oil.  As oil prices have dropped, so has Iraq’s revenues, including those of the KRG.

As oil prices dropped, so did the ability of the KRG to pay its bills.  One victim of the collapse of global oil prices were its employees, whose salaries were cut by 40%.  Indeed, I know colleagues in the KRG who have been receiving reduced salaries for close to two years.
When Iraqi Kurds (and Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran as well) speak of the injustice dealt the Kurds by the victorious allies in WWI by not allowing them self-determination, they fail to realize that the world in 1918 is far different from the world in 2017.  A globally integrated world market, in which national sovereignty is increasingly subordinated to international economic processes, means that small states, such as a would be independent Iraqi Kurdistan, are buffeted by forces over which they have little or no control.

A fourth factor which precludes the establishment of an independent Kurdish state is the KRG’s neighbors.  More significant than the Federal Government’s opposition is that of Turkey and Iran which themselves have large Kurdish minorities who have been seriously mistreated for many decades.  A landlocked Kurdistan would become thoroughly dependent on Turkey and Iran for its export of oil and for its imports and professional expertise needs.

A foreshadowing of what Turkish and Iranian hostility could do to an independent Kurdish state has been evident by the actions of Iraq's Federal Government.   Having closed KRG airspace to international flights and taken over border crossings with Turkey and Iran, formerly controlled by the KRG, have major implications for the future autonomy, let alone independence, of Iraq’s Kurdish population.

The occupation of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and the territories seized by the KRG in 2014 in the wake of the Iraqi Army's abandoning of much of north cenbtral Iraq after the Dacish seizured Mosul, have now reverted to Federal Government control.  This means that the KRG lost, within a period of a several days, 30% of its oil revenues, which comprise the mainstay of its budget.  Clearly the Federal Government has inflicted economic harm on the KRG which pales in significance to what the Turkish and Iranian regimes could do if they wanted to undermine a newly independent Kurdish state.

Fifth and finally, there is the problem of the serious internal divisions among the Kurds themselves.  Even before the referendum, there were rumors that Kirkuk Governor, Najmadin Karim, was part of a PUK plan to join the areas it controlled in the KRG with Kirkuk, marginalizing Masoud Barzani and the KDP in the process.  The PUK’s cooperation with Federal Government forces in Kirkuk and elsewhere in areas seized by the KRG in 2014 infuriated Masoud Barzani and the KDP, whio have referred to them as "traitors".

Following the announcement on October 29th by Masoud Barzani that he would resign as KRG president (even though he has occupied the post illegally for the past two years), chaos broke out in the KRG parliament as thugs attacked opposition delegates. Later opposition delegates had to be rescued by security forces so they could exit the parliament.

Marun Raouf, a MP representing the Gorran Movement, was beaten by KDP thugs after he refused their demand that he apologize to Masoud Barzani for criticisms of his remaining in office illegally. The parliament speaker said he feared for the KRG’s stability after witnessing these events. In Zakho, the same day, the offices of the Gorran Movement were burned.  KDP members are clearly frightened that they have lost the goose that laid the Golden Egg.

Any rational observer must conclude that an independent Kurdish state in Iraq is not possible at  present.  What rational actors in Baghdad and Erbil need to do immediately is to begin negotiations which, while private in terms of content, send a message to their respective publics that the way to move forward is first and foremost to eschew violence.

The agenda for such negotiations will be long and complex.  However, the alternative to negotiations is instability within Iraq and the creation of power vacuums in the areas which separate the three Kurdish speaking provinces of the KRG and Arab provinces to the south.  Political chicanery by Iran, Turkey and a revived Dacish could produce violence and economic  destabilization which neither the Kurds ,nor the Arabs and Iraq’s other minorities desire.

Foreign mediators – including the United States, the European Union and the United Nations – need to act forcefully to move the negotiation process forward.  The production and export of oil and the revenues derived from it sales constitute Item Number 1 on the agenda.  A close second is the disposition of the disputed territories, according to the Constitution, or through developing alternative proposals to which all parties might agree, e.g., making Kirkuk a governorate (province) under the control of the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen where all ethnic groups benefit from its oil production.  

Another aganedda item needs to be the Iraqi Army which must become a national professional institution, rather than one which is divided between the national army, two Pesh Merga forces, and multiple Shica militias, some of which hold allegiance to Iran rather than Iraq.

The possible eruption of conflict within the KRG between the KDP and PUK, with attacks on the Gorran Movement, Arab refugees who have taken refuge in the KRG, or Arabs who live permanently in the north, constitutes another potential problem which needs to be prevented before they occur.  Clearly the Kurds must put their own political house in order before they revisit the idea of independence or a restructuring of their status as an autonomous region within Iraq.

Cooler heads must prevail.  Although the KRG has renounced the referendum and a KDP—PUK delegation has gone to Baghdad, now is the time that the problems which have been swept under the rug by both the Federal Government and the KRG must be addressed head on.  More indecision, instability and possibly violence will only serve the interests of Iraq’s enemies.

For those, especially in the West, who only see an Iraq going south in the future, just think how much has changed since the overthrow of Saddam Husayn.  Negotiations are beginnign  hbetween Baghdad and Erbil.  Commanders of the Federal Army and Pesh Merga forces are meeting to prevent the outbreak of armed conflict.

The main threat facing Iraq is the effort of Iran to capitalize on the KRG-Federal Government crisis.  This issue will be the topic of the next post from The New Middle East

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