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Iraqi Kurdistan: from democratic consensus to de facto autocracy

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.

Result

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.

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