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Déjà Vu All Over Again: Iraq’s Escalating Political Crisis
Déjà Vu All Over Again: Iraq’s Escalating Political Crisis
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Iraq’s Escalating Political Crisis

To overcome Iraq’s current political crisis and prevent the breakdown of the entire post-2003 order, Prime Minister Maliki and his opponents both will have to agree to painful compromises.

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Executive Summary

At first glance, the current Iraqi political crisis looks like just one more predictable bump in the long road from dictatorship to democracy. Every two years or so, the political class experiences a prolonged stalemate; just as regularly, it is overcome. So, one might think, it will be this time around. But look closer and the picture changes. The tug of war over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s second term suggests something far worse: that a badly conceived, deeply flawed political process has turned into a chronic crisis that could bring down the existing political structure. To avoid this outcome, both Maliki and his opponents need to make painful compromises: the prime minister should implement the power-sharing deal negotiated in 2010 and pledge to step down at the end of his term; in turn, his rivals should call off efforts to unseat him and instead use their parliamentary strength to build strong state institutions, such as an independent electoral commission, and ensure free and fair elections in two years’ time.

The present stalemate has its immediate roots in the Erbil accord between key political actors, which led to the second Maliki government. Key elements of the power-sharing agreement, which political leaders reached in a rush in November 2010 as impatience with the absence of a government grew, were never carried out. Instead, the prime minister’s critics accuse him of violating the constitution, steadily amassing power at the expense of other government branches – parliament, the judiciary as well as independent commissions and agencies – and bringing security forces under his direct personal control. They also criticise him for reneging on crucial aspects of the understanding, notably by failing to fairly apportion sensitive security positions.

When, in December 2011, the judiciary issued an arrest warrant against Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi – a vocal Maliki critic – whatever good-will remained collapsed. Several of the prime minister’s partners boycotted the government, arguing that he increasingly was veering toward indefinite, autocratic rule. While they returned to the council of ministers after a few weeks, Maliki’s opponents – which include a broad array of Sunnis, Kurds, but also Shiites – have since vowed to unseat him through a parliamentary no-confidence vote.

The prime minister’s detractors have a case. A master at navigating the grey areas of law and constitution, he has steadily concentrated authority since 2006. But they also have a fair share of responsibility, having signally failed to marshal their parliamentary strength to pass legislation that would keep Maliki’s growing power in check. Arguably, had they devoted their energies to the hard work of confronting him through institutions, they would not have found themselves compelled to seek a no-confidence vote as a last resort to block his apparent path toward autocratic rule. If, as is undeniable, Maliki has added to his powers during his six-year tenure, there can be no question that a large part of his success derives from his rivals’ incapacity to thwart him via institutional means.

It is unclear how this imbroglio will end, although at this rate and without a tangible change in all sides’ behaviour, it almost certainly will end badly. Regardless of whether he survives in office, Maliki has lost the trust of vast segments of the political class, including among former Shiite allies. At the same time, opposition members are deeply divided, both on fundamental substantive issues and on whether to push Maliki to implement the Erbil agreement or remove him once and for all. The odds that they can muster the required votes to unseat him are low; even should they succeed, they are highly unlikely to agree on a common platform to form an alternative government. This would leave Maliki as caretaker prime minister until the next elections in 2014. In the meantime, his government will increasingly find it difficult to govern. All Iraqis will pay a price.

Iraq’s predicament is a symptom of a problem that goes far deeper than the unimplemented Erbil understanding or even Maliki’s personality. It directly relates to the inability to overcome the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its repressive practices: a culture of deep suspicion coupled with a winner-take-all and loser-lose-all form of politics. Because it never produced a fair, agreed-upon distribution of power, territory and resources, the political bargaining that followed the regime’s fall did little to remedy this situation. The constitutional order the U.S. occupying power midwifed was an awkward patchwork that did not address core issues – the nature of the federal system; the powers of the president, prime minister and parliament; even the identity of the state and its people. Worse, by solidifying an ethno-sectarian conception of politics, it helped fuel a conflict that at times has been more violent, at others more subdued, but has never wholly vanished.

The recurrent political crises that have plagued Iraq are the logical manifestations of this original flaw. Not once did the outcome of these recent cases tackle, let alone fix, the source of the impasse; rather, they were more like band aids, superficial agreements leaving issues either wholly unresolved or resolved but without an enforceable implementation mechanism. What is more, with each episode the wound grows deeper: the gap between political parties widens, bolstering centrifugal forces first manifested in the 2005 process of drafting the constitution as well as in the substance of the text.

This time, political leaders must do more than merely patch things up and live to fight another day, without touching root causes. A quick fix today could mean a comprehensive breakdown tomorrow: the 2014 parliamentary elections loom, and for all parties stakes are higher than ever. Without an agreement on constitutional and legal rules of the game, the prime minister desperately will seek to cling to power and risks of electoral malfeasance will increase commensurately; this will render any outcome suspect and therefore contested. Ultimately, the post-2005 constitutional order might unravel, potentially amid violence.

Making an understanding even more urgent is the uneasy state of the region. From the outset, the political system’s frailty has drawn in neighbouring states but rarely in so perilous a fashion as now. Following the U.S. troop withdrawal and the growing sectarian rift that has opened in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab uprisings, Iraq could fast become a privileged arena for a regional slug­fest. While all attention today is focused on Syria, regional actors, the Maliki government included, appear to see Iraq as the next sectarian battleground, particularly should Bashar Assad’s regime fall. Founded in reality or not, the perception in Baghdad is that the emergence of a Sunni-dominated Syria would embolden Sunni militant groups at home; the prime minister also feels that a broad Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey has painted a target on his chest as part of their cold war with Iran and, more broadly, with Shiite Islam. Maliki has thus essentially thrown in his lot with the regime next door, notwithstanding their tense relations in years past; some neigh­bours likewise are convinced he has grown ever closer to Tehran.

It will not be easy to right the course of Iraq’s drifting ship of state, but Maliki, his opponents and neighbouring countries share an interest in reducing tensions and returning to power sharing, as the alternative could be renewed civil war with greater foreign interference. Because amending the constitution has proved near-impossible, peaceful change will have to occur through constitution-based political consensus – finally beginning to address what for too long has been ignored.

In a companion report to be released later this month, Crisis Group will highlight a specific aspect of the current crisis: the inability of one of the opposition alliances, al-Iraqiya, to present an effective barrier to Maliki’s incremental power grab. Iraqiya’s flailing efforts, along with those of other parties, to unseat Maliki through a parliamentary no-confidence vote underscore its waning power; show that what remains of the country’s secular middle class lacks an influential standard bearer at a time of ongoing sectarian tensions that Syria’s civil war risks escalating; and underline the marginalisation of Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkomans, further increasing the potential for violence.

Baghdad/Erbil/Brussels, 30 July 2012

Twilight of the Kurds

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Kurdish officials once dreamed of forging their own state out of the ashes of the war against the Islamic State. Now they are fighting for their very survival.

Just a few months ago, it appeared that the Kurds of Iraq and Syria were the biggest winners in the war against the Islamic State. Bolstered by alliances with the very Western powers that had once betrayed and divided them, they dared to dream that they were on the verge of undoing what they perceived as a historic wrong, when geopolitical maneuvering denied them a state following the end of World War I.

Yet, instead of witnessing the creation of an independent homeland, the Kurds have suffered a major setback. As the military campaign against the Islamic State winds down, the United States and its allies’ enthusiasm for using the Kurds as their proxies against the jihadi organization has not translated into long-term military or diplomatic backing and certainly not into support for statehood.

Kurdish leaders were always aware of such dangers but nevertheless agreed to go along, seeking a fair reward for sacrifices made: the thousands of lives lost and massive investments diverted from the development of Kurdish areas to recapturing areas of great concern to the United States and its allies but not necessarily to Kurdish forces themselves. Such missions caused deep frustration among the Kurdish public. A Kurdish lawyer in the Syrian city of Qamishli noted that Kurdish forces had fought to liberate numerous Arab towns while majority Kurdish areas still suffered from a lack of basic infrastructure, such as schools and electricity.

To make matters worse, the combination of Western abandonment and internal political dysfunction has left the Kurds in a more precarious position than ever. Over the past year, Kurdish authorities in Iraq abandoned their cautious strategy to achieve independence in the hope that American support would allow them to leapfrog over the remaining hurdles in a dash toward the finish line – and were proved wrong. And their decision to go ahead with a controversial referendum on independence, defying the will of more powerful states, led to a setback of historic proportions.

The September 2017 referendum was supposed to begin the process that would see the Iraqi Kurds reap the rewards from their role in the war against the Islamic State. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, extended the vote to areas known as the disputed territories – borderlands between Kurdish and Arab Iraq that are claimed by both sides and prized for their oil. The Baghdad government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi objected in particular to this decision, seeing it as the first step toward the Kurdistan region’s annexation of these areas.

The Iraqi government’s response was swift and severe: In the aftermath of the referendum, Abadi sent federal troops into the disputed territories to restore Baghdad’s authority. It had lost these areas to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters more than three years earlier, when the Iraqi Army crumbled under the Islamic State’s initial onslaught. In October, after retaking the Kirkuk oil fields, Iraqi security forces then kept rolling, retaking vast swaths of the disputed territories in northern and eastern Iraq – more than what the Kurds had seized in 2014.

Western abandonment and internal political dysfunction have left the Kurds in a more precarious position than ever.

Barzani quickly found that his allies had abandoned him and his enemies were united against him. Iran, which long opposed any move toward Iraq’s breakup, deployed some of the Shiite groups it had trained and equipped against the Kurdish forces, which withdrew in the face of Abadi’s advancing army. Turkey, a Barzani ally, was concerned that secessionist sentiment could spread to its own Kurdish population. It threatened to close its critical border along the Kurdish region and stood aside as Iran brokered a deal that allowed the Baghdad government to push back against the Kurds.

For their part, U.S. officials had long opposed any changes to the Middle East’s borders for fear of setting off an unstoppable domino effect, as well as any move that threatened to undermine the Iraqi central government, and publicly told Barzani not to proceed with the referendum in preceding weeks. Washington then took no action when it learned that Abadi had struck a deal with one of the Kurdish groups, the Talabani faction of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to retake the Kirkuk oil fields without bloodshed. That deal appears to have been brokered by Iran.

The Iraqi government’s seizure of the oil fields around Kirkuk may represent a larger blow to the Kurds’ aspirations than the loss of the city itself. The oil is critical to their independence bid: It provides a revenue stream that gives them economic leverage with their neighbors. Losing control over those fields means having to revert to an earlier era when they were dependent on Baghdad for income from Iraq’s much larger southern fields. Baghdad’s approach since it retook Kirkuk in mid-October suggests that this is precisely the situation it intends to restore: the Kurdish region’s almost complete reliance on Baghdad.

The Kurdish leadership made two miscalculations that led to their current perilous position. The first was Barzani’s expectation that the United States would support him as he moved toward statehood, based on what he viewed as the Kurds’ utility to the West and the West’s assumed sympathy for them. Kurdish leaders believe they have proved their worth as U.S. allies time and again and have been marketing Kurdistan as a dependable partner in checking Iranian ambitions in the region.

Kurdish leaders also have long invoked their support of democratic principles, claiming to be a model for the Middle East after 2003. They never fail to mention their protection of ethnic minority groups and of more than a million internally displaced Iraqis in the Kurdish region. And they argue with justification that their pursuit of statehood is no less legitimate than was America’s in its war for independence and that the principle of self-determination is enshrined in international law.

The Iraqi government’s seizure of the oil fields around Kirkuk may represent a larger blow to the Kurds’ aspirations than the loss of the city itself.

That the charm offensive hasn’t paid off is partly due to the second source of Barzani’s miscalculation, which lies much closer to home. The inconvenient fact is that Kurdish leaders like to boast that they built a thriving democratic bastion in the largely autocratic Middle East – but they never actually did. After Saddam Hussein’s fall, the two main Kurdish parties – Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s PUK – did not pour their energies into creating functional rule-of-law institutions or diversifying the economy. Instead, they used oil money to enrich themselves, their families, and their party cadres.

The Islamic State’s slash-and-burn offensive through northern Iraq in June 2014 made matters worse. Fighting off a common threat gave Barzani political breathing room, a justification for closing parliament, and a chance to extend his term as the region’s president. Party rule was replaced by personality-based rule. The front line with the Islamic State in both KDP- and PUK-controlled areas was commanded by a network of political, military, and business figures who were mainly related to party leaders by personal or familial links.

The coseizure of the spoils of war by a handful of increasingly powerful leaders undermined the political system. Government ministers belonging to opposition parties had less power than KDP or PUK subordinates in the same ministries, who became the Kurdish region’s primary sources of patronage. Masrour Barzani, Masoud’s son, strengthened his control over the KDP’s security apparatus in a power struggle with his cousin Nechirvan Barzani, who is the region’s prime minister and a pragmatist focused on growing the economy.

Unconditional Western military support reinforced these trends. The United States and European countries supplied large amounts of weaponry to Kurdish forces – nominally to the regional government but in reality mainly to the KDP. The KDP’s and the PUK’s security forces pushed farther into the disputed territories, destroying some non-Kurdish areas in the process of fighting the Islamic State and preventing civilians from returning home unless they pledged their loyalty to the Kurdish parties.

The coseizure of the spoils of war by a handful of increasingly powerful leaders undermined the political system.

In the run-up to the battle to wrest control of Mosul from the Islamic State in late 2016, the mixture of bad governance, political polarization, and popular discontent started to boil. Some saw the fight against the Islamic State in areas outside the Kurdish region as a tool for Kurdish leaders to enrich themselves, with no tangible benefit to ordinary Kurds. “Why should we fight for this political class?” one Peshmerga fighter asked at the start of the Mosul campaign. “Why should we go to fight in Mosul if Mosul is not part of Kurdistan?”

The KDP-PUK split deepened and has led to a territorial division within Kurdistan; entering KDP-controlled Erbil from PUK-controlled Sulaimaniya now feels like crossing a border. In a way, the referendum and subsequent backlash were both spurred by the two parties’ efforts to secure their survival against each other: In order to mobilize popular support for the referendum, the Masoud-Masrour Barzani faction of the KDP struck an uneasy détente with PUK leaders who felt threatened with marginalization by the party’s Talabani faction. This gambit encouraged the Talabani group, through Iranian mediation, to seek an understanding with Baghdad and pull its forces out of Kirkuk.

The Talabanis’ role was critical. They had given only tepid and belated support to Barzani’s referendum plans. When they noticed how much regional and international opprobrium the president incurred for his decision to push ahead with the referendum, they saw their chance to turn the tables on him. As a result of their withdrawal from Kirkuk, the Iraqi Army, backed by pro-Iran military factions, met virtually no resistance as it advanced.

Barzani appeared blindsided by these developments – a testament to his likely belief that Western support and oil revenues had inoculated him against the need for compromise. His party had increasingly taken a go-it-alone approach: “If Sulaimaniya won’t come along with us, we’ll build Kurdistan in Dohuk, Erbil, and the Nineveh Plain,” a businessman-turned-Peshmerga fighter said before the recent events, referring to areas in which the KDP exercises virtually exclusive control.

As a result of this hubris, it is now increasingly doubtful whether they will be able to build Kurdistan anywhere at all.

The group ruling Kurdish districts in Syria’s north may soon face similar challenges. It too has been willing to fight America’s battles in exchange for military hardware, and it too may prove disposable as the Islamic State’s remaining strongholds crumble and Washington’s attention is drawn elsewhere. What will then happen to the de facto autonomous region Syrian Kurds have managed to carve out over the past five years?

Like their brethren across the border in Iraq, the Kurds in Syria have taken advantage of a weakened central state. In 2012, President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime pulled out of the north, leaving a vacuum that was filled by a local affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. This group – known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG – has received U.S. military largesse despite the fact that its leaders are trained by the PKK, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.

The inconvenient fact is that Kurdish leaders like to boast that they built a thriving democratic bastion in the largely autocratic Middle East – but they never actually did.

As in Iraq, armaments and training have enabled the YPG to deal the Islamic State defeat after defeat. These victories have had two contradictory consequences: They have fed Syrian Kurds’ appetite for building an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria like the one in Iraq, and they also have empowered PKK-trained commanders operating in Syria, the primary U.S. interlocutors. These commanders are torn between wanting to invest their gains in Syria in support of the PKK’s struggle in Turkey and securing first and foremost autonomy in Syria.

The political monopoly exercised by PKK-trained cadres has alienated the YPG from northern Syria’s Kurdish merchant and professional middle classes, who may be thankful for the group’s protection but chafe under its tight control and feel increasingly pushed aside by the war profiteers gravitating around it. As one middle-class resident of Qamishli put it: Taxi drivers have become powerful police officers, and “simple shopkeepers can now be seen driving a 2017 Mercedes because they’re smuggling oil and exporting cement.” He went on to lament that such changes are especially galling at a time when teachers, lawyers, and doctors are doing small jobs on the side simply to survive.

The YPG faces a serious dilemma: In order to be militarily strong, it needs to remain tied to the PKK, from whose training grounds it draws its senior commanders. Yet doing so will prevent it from gaining support from a local population that finds no benefit in PKK-trained commanders carrying the flag of the Kurdish cause in Syria. Whatever the local people think of the group’s ideology, they object to its exercise of power, which tolerates zero opposition. At the same time, the YPG’s PKK affiliation makes it a direct enemy of Turkey, which has tried to strangle northern Syria economically. If the Syrian Kurds are not careful, they will find themselves isolated by their neighbors; Ankara and Damascus may in the future collude to oust the YPG and restore central control, just as Ankara gave a green light to Tehran to set back Kurdish aspirations in northern Iraq.

Like their brethren across the border in Iraq, the Kurds in Syria have taken advantage of a weakened central state.

The YPG has two potential routes to avoid this fate. It could relinquish control over non-Kurdish areas to local non-Kurdish allies following the Islamic State’s military defeat and then focus on building a more viable autonomy for majority Kurdish districts. To do so, it would need to rely on the educated middle class affiliated with parties other than the PKK and its trained military cadres and hope that the United States will provide protection. This might also be acceptable to Turkey, which can tolerate a Kurdish entity on its border, as it has in Iraq, but not one dominated by its mortal enemy, the PKK.

That strategy, however, is complicated by the fact that the U.S. alliance with the Syrian Kurds is even less stable than Washington’s partnership with the Kurds in northern Iraq. In late November, President Donald Trump suggested that the United States might end military supplies to the YPG. If this was a signal that the United States intends to abandon its proxy in the foreseeable future – a possibility that is the subject of vigorous debate within the YPG and PKK – the Kurdish group will have no choice but to diversify its alliances if it wants to survive.

Given this reality, the Syrian Kurdish leaders’ other path would be to integrate their local governance and security institutions under the framework of the Syrian state, whose capability has been severely eroded. The YPG has been present in northern Syria at the tolerance of the regime and its powerful backers, and its fighters have mostly coexisted with Syrian security forces in the cities of Qamishli and Hasakah. The PKK also has a history of making deals with the regime since at least 1978, when it had offices in Damascus and trained its fighters in Lebanon’s Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley.

The YPG would do well to focus on creating effective governing institutions in cooperation with local Kurdish parties and consider inviting the return of the Syrian state’s service delivery ministries. Such an approach might unlock the doors to trade with Iraq through the shared border, now controlled by Baghdad and Iran-affiliated armed factions on the Iraqi side, because the Iraqi goverment might look favorably upon an understanding between the YPG and Damascus.

It is unclear whether Assad will agree to anything less than full restoration of Syrian sovereignty over the Kurdish areas, but it’s equally unclear whether he will have the capacity to pull it off. Moscow has suggested that it might not oppose Kurdish autonomy. Much will therefore depend on whether the United States, with Russia, will agree to broker a post-conflict arrangement that would allow the Kurdish districts to emerge from the Syrian war with a measure of self-rule.

By demolishing the border between Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State challenged the political order that governed the post-World War I Middle East. Its brash actions helped nourish Kurdish dreams of independence; it invited Western intervention on behalf of the Kurds and offered the chance to change the region’s borders to the Kurds’ benefit. On both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, Kurdish leaders waited for central states to collapse under the strain of civil war while strengthening their forces with the help of Western weaponry. In Iraq, in particular, they appeared to bet on something more important: Western backing for statehood once that battle was done. Increasingly, however, this is looking like it was a losing bet.

Kurdish leaders will now need to start over.

There’s a better way for the Kurds to pursue independence than relying on outside powers and escalating repression at home. Until a year ago, Iraqi Kurdish leaders had a brilliant strategy to achieve statehood: an incremental leverage-building process based on the presence of oil and gas inside the Kurdish region. For almost a decade, they were able to lure increasingly powerful oil and gas companies to invest in these largely unexplored blocks, accumulating political support in the process from the companies’ home governments, including the United States, Turkey, and Russia. This approach would not have delivered independence soon, but it laid the foundations for it.

Kurdish leaders will now need to start over. Doing so will require reinvesting in the kinds of institutions that can both lead to and sustain an independent state, if and when the regional balance of forces turns in the Kurds’ favor. A vibrant parliament and an independent judiciary are two essential such institutions, as is an independent anti-corruption agency working in tandem with the judiciary.

The Western-backed fight against the Islamic State encouraged Kurdish leaders to erode the very bases of sustainable statehood. The combination of political overconfidence and territorial greed triggered the disastrous setback for the Kurds in Iraq – and it could soon do the same in Syria as well. If the Kurds want to have any future prospect of independence if and when the regional equation changes, their leaders would do better to prioritize political reform at home. If they fail to do so, they may, seven years after the Arab uprisings, face a Kurdish spring of their own, driven by a youthful populace –furious, frustrated, and keen to punish them for their historic blunder, political mismanagement, and irredeemable corruption.

Contributors

Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
JoostHiltermann
Former Senior Analyst, Iraq