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The Kurds: A Divided Future?
The Kurds: A Divided Future?
A New Generation of Activists Circumvents Iraq’s Political Paralysis
A New Generation of Activists Circumvents Iraq’s Political Paralysis

The Kurds: A Divided Future?

Originally published in The New York Review of Books

The Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq are linked by a thin and fragile thread, a two-lane highway that passes camps filled with refugees from the wars ravaging these lands. The road is bisected by the Tigris, the international frontier that separates not only Syria from Iraq but also Kurds from Kurds. This was the border that first took shape one hundred years ago this week with the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France—the first of a series of negotiations aimed at dividing the former Ottoman territories of the Levant between the two European powers. And while ISIS has made its hostility to the Anglo-French map well known, it is arguably the Kurds who have been most affected by the modern state system that has emerged from it.

Just how divided the more than 30 million Kurds continue to be was made clear to me this spring, when I crossed this border from Iraq to Syria. The crossing itself is not difficult: on the Iraqi side, an immigration officer of the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil checks with her supervisors, fills out a form, and gives the green light. The whole procedure takes less than fifteen minutes. A small boat then ferries you across to Syria, where an employee of the newly-minted Autonomous Administration of the Syrian Kurdish region enters your information, and gives you a stamped piece of paper attesting to your right to enter. You are then free to drive westward to Qamishli, the first major Syrian Kurdish town. On neither side of the border can one find evidence that the sovereign governments in Baghdad and Damascus are exercising their authority here.

Easy procedures, yet complex politics. The Kurds may have thrown off central rule in Iraq and Syria but the border is still there: despite the Kurds or, perhaps more accurately, because of them. The Kurds have long talked of reuniting their people in a greater Kurdistan, but today their population is carved up between not only Syria and Iraq, but also Turkey and Iran, which have sizable numbers of their own. These different national populations have discovered over time that what sets them apart may be more significant than what they have in common: differences in dialect, tribal affiliation, leadership, ideology, historical experience. And Kurdish parties on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border are reaffirming these differences every day with remarkable bureaucratic fastidiousness. What’s more, the Kurdish parties seem to have internalized the very nation-states they scorn: in Syria, their leadership and members are almost exclusively Syrian Kurds; in Iraq, Iraqi Kurds; and in Iran, Iranian Kurds. Only the Kurdish movement in Turkey, which has pan-Kurdish ambitions, includes Kurds from neighboring states, though the top leadership is from Turkey (and some only speak Turkish). 

All this is apart from the deep political divisions that exist among the respective national populations. In Iraq, for example, the Kurdish leadership has developed strong relations with Turkey, which has become a principal source of investment and trade; while in Syria, the dominant Kurdish party, the PYD, is a sworn enemy of the Turkish government through its close links with the PKK, the militant Kurdish movement in Turkey that is now at war with the government. And within both Kurdish regions, the dominant parties face strong opposition from a number of other factions. 

Here is the quandary in which the Kurds find themselves when they make their claim for independence: Whose claim exactly? And how to realize it? To what territory, and under whose authority? As these questions remain unanswered, the old borders are proving stubbornly persistent—by the Kurds’ own hands.

In many ways, Syria’s Kurds today appear to be reliving what their Iraqi counterparts experienced at the end of the Gulf War in 1991: the same economic desolation; the same combination of military control and security provided by rebel Kurdish parties that are prized for their ability to maintain law and order but enjoy only lukewarm local support; the same deep relief that a hated regime no longer has much say in their affairs; in both cases, a measure of unexpected support from the US; the same upswell of hope now that they are finally achieving some autonomy; and the same nagging fear that an oppressive central government—whether the current one in Damascus or a future incarnation—will return to impose its will.

But looking across the Tigris, Syria’s Kurds regard their Iraqi compatriots’ twenty-five-year-old experiment in self-government as only a partial success. The Iraqi Kurds’ opportunity arose from serendipity: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and subsequent defeat there left a political vacuum, but the regime rebounded, brutally suppressing their rebellion. Then, the United States and its Gulf War allies bailed them out, establishing a safe haven. Freed of the regime, the Kurds ruled their quasi-independent enclave for twelve years. After the 2003 invasion, Washington compensated them for their loyal support by securing them a place in Baghdad and helping them consolidate their autonomy. Oil and gas exploration and trade with Turkey and Iran gave the Kurdish region’s economy an enormous lift. Looking at the troubles to their south, Kurdish leaders called themselves “the other Iraq.”

But amid this remarkable progress, there have been continuous setbacks. Between 1994 and 1998, the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), fought a civil war in which Barzani opened the gates of Erbil, the region’s capital, to Saddam’s forces in order to defeat Talabani. The conflict was brought to an end by US mediation in 1998, and the two parties agreed to form a unity government in 2005. This brought stability and prosperity, but also allowed the two ruling families to split up the oil bonanza between them. Economic growth came with rampant corruption, which, when oil prices plummeted a year ago, has landed the two parties in a profound crisis of legitimacy. Instead of progress, Kurds have suddenly faced drastic reductions in public-sector salaries, while their protests have been suppressed or preempted through intimidation by the KRG’s party-led security police.

Meanwhile, Barzani has clung to power as the region’s president, even though his term in office has expired (twice)—and despite his failure to institute reforms. At the same time, the prospect of true independence for Iraqi Kurdistan looks agonizingly remote. This may explain Barzani’s recent renewed call for an independence referendum: more a gambit to shore up his flagging popularity than a concrete step toward fulfillment of the Kurdish dream.

For Syria’s Kurds, the lessons of Iraqi Kurdistan are in any case far from the immediate concerns of war. Unlike its counterpart in Iraq, Syria’s Kurdish population is separated into three cantons in two non-contiguous areas in the country’s north, and continues to face a constant threat from ISIS forces nearby. Also unlike the Iraqi Kurds, they are aided by their alliance with Turkey’s militant PKK, but this has brought challenges of its own. The civil war in Syria has revitalized the PKK, allowing it to effectively seize control of Syrian Kurdish areas through its Syrian affiliate, the PYD, expanding the territory under its command. But the collapse of peace talks between Ankara and the PKK last summer has meanwhile precipitated a new violent conflict in Turkey, causing the Turkish government in turn to put more pressure on Syrian Kurdish areas. (Since the peace talks broke down, Turkey has accused the PYD of sending arms across the border to support the PKK’s insurgency.) Today, the Turkish-PKK war is causing large-scale displacement in southeastern Turkey and giving no sign of letting up. It seemed paradoxical, standing safely in Qamishli in a Syria at war, to listen to the sounds of gunfire just across the border in Turkey.

Complicating matters further, while the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish leaderships have diametrically opposed relations with Turkey, both are now allied with the US in a joint struggle against the Islamic State—a struggle in which both Kurdish regions have proven notably effective. This has presented the Syrian Kurdish PYD with a tricky strategic choice: Should it seek to replicate the Iraqi Kurdish model of using American power as a vector for Kurdish ambitions? If it does so, it knows that Washington seems likely to limit those ambitions, providing some degree of Kurdish autonomy within a Syrian state that Washington hopes to rebuild through a peace process sponsored by the US and Russia. Or should Syria’s Kurds exploit the country’s disorder to expand the territory under their control and simultaneously escalate the war in Turkey in overall pursuit of the ultimate Kurdish goal: to gather up the four severed Kurdish parts and reconstitute them into a single “Greater Kurdistan”?

Though the motivations are very different, the long-term geographic aspirations of the Kurds are oddly similar to those of the jihadists they are fighting: both seem equally intent on erasing the old borders of the post-Ottoman order. When I drew this somewhat audacious parallel in conversation with a PYD official in northern Syria during a visit in March, there was a brief, uncomfortable silence. Then he flashed a bright smile and said: “Daesh threw the first bomb. We will reap the result.”

Syria’s Kurdish leaders are frank about their willingness to use conflict and chaos to their own advantage. The PYD’s fighting force, the YPG, having gained a sense of its value, and therefore leverage, as an indispensable ally in the fight against the Islamic State, doesn’t shy away from playing the big powers in the region—the US, Russia, Turkey, the regime of Bashar al-Assad—against each other, regardless of the cost. If Washington continues to treat the YPG as little more than a private security company, a hired hand to help it dislodge ISIS from the banks of the Euphrates, and refuses to help the YPG in its territorial ambition to unify the three Kurdish cantons (which are interspersed with Arab, Turkoman, and Christian populations), then the YPG believes it can use the prospect of a defacto alliance with Russia to get more support from the US.

Kurdish leaders say that Russian officials have told them that if the YPG tries to extend the area of northern Syria under its control all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean (where, incidentally, few if any Kurds can be found), Russia will not prevent it. This may help explain the PYD’s announcement of a federal region (under its control, and with boundaries not yet established) on the eve of the Kurdish New Year in March, a statement that lit up social media and electrified opinion throughout the dismembered Kurdish realm. Another reason for the timing of the announcement may have been the PYD’s wish to draw attention to its cause after it was excluded from the Geneva talks about Syria. Of course the announcement does not create a unified region—to unify the Kurdish areas would require a major military effort against both ISIS and Turkey, and US-backed rebels north of Aleppo. But the YPG is a disciplined and accomplished military force and, unimpeded by a major power, could make significant headway in realizing this goal.

What makes such consolidation of territory particularly dangerous is the possibility that it might draw in the Turkish military. Turkey has already warned that any move to connect the Kurdish canton of Afrin north of Aleppo with other Kurdish areas further east along Turkey’s border would be unacceptable. This is not only because it cannot countenance a large area of Syria’s border with Turkey controlled by Kurds allied with the PKK. It is also because such a move would sever the only remaining supply line to rebel groups in Aleppo that are backed by Turkey. A Turkish military counter-move against the YPG, if not done by proxy, might in turn trigger Russian airstrikes, and from that point on, given Turkey’s likely invocation of its NATO membership, further international intervention could derail efforts to wind down the Syrian war.

It need not come to this. If it does, it will be because the Obama administration, the one power that has leverage with both Turkey and the YPG, is so internally confused that it cannot accomplish either one of its strategic goals: a political transition to a post-Assad era in Syria and the defeat of the Islamic State. It is pursuit of these two aims that has seen some factions in the Obama administration pressing for greater support for Turkey-backed Syrian rebels in Aleppo and along a corridor to the Turkish border; and other factions that are championing a strengthening of the YPG as the US’s most effective auxiliary in the fight against the Islamic State, which it sees as the top US priority. The two approaches cannot be successfully pursued simultaneously.

The sensible way forward would be for the Obama administration to condition its support for the YPG on the latter’s willingness to rein in its territorial ambitions; the quid pro quo could be a promise of US support for Kurdish rights in Syria during a political transition and beyond. At the same time, the administration would need to nudge Erdoğan to return to peace talks with the PKK in exchange for US support of Turkish interests in northern Syria, including prevention of a unified PYD/YPG-run Kurdish region and an end to the YPG’s provision of weapons and other assistance to the PKK in southeastern Turkey.

Such a deal, a tall order by any reckoning, is further complicated by two issues. One is Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, including, in recent months, the intimidation, censorship, and detention of journalists and other critics, and the use of the fight against the PKK to try to push through constitutional amendments in Turkey to create a presidential system. The Turkish head of state may prove difficult to dissuade from the effort to erode his country’s democratic institutions, unless either military failure in the southeast or a popular uprising against his rule provides the necessary counter-pressure. The other issue is the Turkish perception that the PKK’s resurgence is part of a larger regional competition involving Iran. According to this view, Iran has stoked Kurdish irredentist nationalism in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria (but not at home) against those Kurds who are supported by Turkey and who are willing to work within the existing state system. The area in which this struggle has unfolded most dramatically is northern Iraq.

 “We are in a chess game in which we are the pieces, not the players,” observed Shaho Saeed, a philosophy teacher at the University of Sulaimani, in northern Iraq. In the past, the Kurds’ four hosts—Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria—used the Kurds’ geographic and ideological divisions to limit their aspirations in their own territory. Now, with Damascus preoccupied with greater threats and the government in Baghdad effectively neutralized, the Kurds have two enemies fewer to cope with, more time, and more terrain in which to lay the foundations of a future unified state. Their two other hosts, Turkey and Iran, remain strong, however, and despite their quarrel over who should rule Syria, both seek to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state.

Turkey’s proven method of influencing Iraq’s Kurds is economic: it uses its weight as an economic powerhouse to offer favorable trade, investment, and business contracts to northern Iraq. In return for their pliancy, Iraqi Kurds gain an export channel for their oil through Turkey, which secures what has become their principal revenue stream. This arrangement, in place since 2008, has worked well for both sides and has survived regional upheavals, at least until now. But neither Turkey nor Iraq’s Kurdish leadership has much to offer Syria’s own Kurds, at least as long the PYD remains in charge and subordinate to the PKK.

Iran’s method is to rule by dividing: to support one Kurd against another, and Baghdad against the Kurds. The main dividing line in northern Iraq lies between pro-Barzani Kurds near the Turkish border, who speak the Kurmanji dialect, and Surani-speaking pro-Talabani Kurds in areas closer to Iran. Notwithstanding the two parties’ strategic partnership and common enmity toward the Islamic State, Iran has handily exploited the historic competition between them, and has tried to bring its own favored Kurds—the PKK in Turkey, the PYD/YPG in Syria, and Talabani’s PUK in Iraq—into a broad alliance against Barzani’s KDP. For its part, the PUK is torn between its ideological predisposition and its economic interests: “Its heart belongs to the PKK but its pocket to the KDP,” as Shaho Saeed put it memorably.

In short, the Kurdish political landscape is no less fractured than the region around it. Iraqi Kurdistan may have ended its economic dependence on Baghdad but any notion it harbors of breaking away from Iraq can never amount to more than quasi-independence—shibeh istiqlaal in Arabic—as an opposition leader put it, as long as the region, floating on a sea of corruption and adrift in economic misery, lacks the economic resources, military power, and international recognition it would need. Were Barzani to press ahead with formal statehood, the Kurds, who would be a late addition to the family of nation-states, would be living in a newly independent failed state on the model of South Sudan. Heavily indebted to the oil companies that came in search of its riches, the new entity would be choked off economically by Turkey and wracked by internal conflicts stoked by Iran.

Having been denied a state for the last one hundred years, and now facing a collapse of the old post-Ottoman states in Baghdad and Damascus, many Kurds may dream of destroying the modern borders of the Middle East to finally create one. Yet they first have to contend with ISIS, which wants not just to erase the borders but to bring down the entire Middle East as we know it. Nor have the Kurds been very effective at changing any of the borders that obstruct them. What comes next may be determined less by Kurdish dreams and schemes than by what remains of Syria once Daesh leaves, and what protections for Kurds might be wrung from that. Paradoxically, to guarantee their autonomy—and their survival—the Kurds may end up needing Sykes-Picot just as much as their old overlords did.

Maria Fantappie talking to young Iraqis by the Tigris river. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A New Generation of Activists Circumvents Iraq’s Political Paralysis

Researching the talks on forming a new Iraqi ruling coalition, our Senior Adviser for Iraq Maria Fantappie finds a country whose youth, women, civil society, officials and even politicians are hungry for bottom-up change to a stalemated, top-down system of governance. 

BAGHDAD – I have spent much of my career – as an academic, an adviser to the EU and a policy analyst – speaking with high-level policymakers in Iraq. In my many meetings, I have tried to get a grip on the complex political structures of a country ravaged by war, sanctions, foreign occupation and internal conflict. It is easy to be caught into a general tendency to look closest at what is going on at the top, focusing on the government, the challenges it faces inside Iraq and beyond, and the shortcomings of the political system that arose after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. We tend to forget that when a political system fails to deliver, societies may organise and find solutions on their own.

I visited Baghdad between October and February to research the difficult and lengthy process of forming a government, which has yet to be completed. The cabinet’s composition is new but sadly familiar as well. Appointing technocrats rather than members of the political class to ministerial posts marked an attempt to trigger a transition from a dysfunctional political system. Yet technocrats remain dependent on the old political figures who have little interest in reforming a system that serves them. In that sense, Iraq is at a crossroads. A sense of hope and a readiness for reform run parallel to a stubborn belief that a broken system will continue to sputter along.

Washington’s post-invasion attempt to remake Iraq has entrenched ethno-sectarian politics in the country. It empowered political parties organised along ethnic or sectarian lines, and rendered it almost impossible to rise through government ranks without affiliating with one of these parties. Ethno-sectarian politics, together with the oil-based economy, has discouraged meritocracy in the public sector, which employs the majority of the working population. Instead it has encouraged patronage, which consigns public sector employees and (indirectly) everyone else to dependence on the political class for access to quality health care, education and jobs. This political class is largely discredited, its policies dysfunctional and unpopular, but Iraqis feel the system would not work without it.

Maria Fantappie during a meeting with a tribal leader. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Because the political class generally benefits from this vicious cycle, I am not surprised when some of them openly say: “We want to keep things this way. It is more convenient for everyone”. But some of the newly appointed technocrats are desperate to break out of the cycle. I am here to understand how that might be done.

The Green Zone

A typical week begins with a meeting with a newly appointed government minister. He sends an armoured car for me, making it easier to get through the checkpoints that abound in the city. The driver takes me into the Green Zone, a fortified area in which many Iraqi officials live and work, though most ministries are located elsewhere in the city. Parts of it have long been off limits, but since the U.S. invasion, this section of the city was cut off from the rest of Baghdad, its high walls and barbed-wire fencing translating the stark disconnect between government and society into a concrete geographical division.

One of the new government’s first decisions, taken in December, was to reopen parts of the Green Zone to the public in the early mornings and late evenings. My driver, Abbas, recalls the moment as exhilarating, and insists that today we traverse the 14 July bridge – a privilege the U.S.-led occupation authority and subsequent Iraqi governments once restricted to persons with the appropriate government-issued badge. “This bridge was closed to us for 15 years,” he says as he drives across it. “They wanted to keep this part of the city for themselves”.

Concrete walls and barbed wire protecting the Green Zone, Baghdad. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

At my appointment the minister leads us into a meeting room and we begin talking about his role in the government. He is a technocrat, and claims that he did not want his job, but that the new prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, an old friend, pressured him to accept. He is keen to improve service provision, yet describes himself as doomed to fail or with little chance of success. He insists that he will be thwarted by a senior cadre of officials in his ministry, who have vested interests in keeping things exactly as they are.

He says: “Whatever reforms I may have in mind I cannot implement through my ministry. Before starting any reform from the top, I would need to replace all general directors [senior posts in the Iraqi administration] or to appoint them to different tasks. Several gained their positions through affiliation with parties that are powerful in parliament or connected to militias. Firing them is impossible”. This system is so entrenched that he has little choice but to play the same game.

He also has to watch his own back, taking care not to alienate others within the government who might become vindictive rivals, or to make a misstep that an adversary might be able to characterise as corrupt. In a system rife with abuse, accusations of corruption – whether warranted or not – are a common way to dispose of political enemies. “Look at that,” he tells me, pointing at a black briefcase on the floor. “Every day at 5:30pm, a car comes to my home with paperwork for me to sign. I have to read each paper, carefully, making sure that none of what I sign will incriminate me later. That is half a day of work right there lost in signing papers … without improving anything”.

A Generational Shift

Iraqis, and especially millennials, have grown up in a political system that offers little participation or representation. Yet, regardless of their level of education, many also have developed an aspiration for realising civic rights and accountability, whose absence has fuelled disillusion and disengagement across society.

As a female professional, I am particularly sensitive to this challenge. Many women of my generation are disillusioned with ossified political institutions resistant to change. In our youth, we were taught to believe in equal opportunity. But as we grow older, we find that change takes much longer than we expected, even in institutions that purport to champion equal opportunity.

As I research how to break the stalemate of Iraq’s political system, I see similar patterns. Merely speaking about political reform is not going to generate solutions. Political elites too often manipulate these ideas to serve their own purposes, emptying them of content. Most of the leaders I speak with fit a similar profile: male, middle-aged, their roots in the same political establishment. This is not where solutions to Iraq’s deep challenges will come from.

Mutanabbi Street in central Baghdad. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

As my days of meetings turn into a week, I wonder what new forces might be brought to bear to make change. I think I need to look at Iraqi politics from a new perspective. Maybe it is time to identify who from outside the political class could drive change.

A Somewhat Self-governed Society

It is clear that society is not sitting back and watching, but already organising itself from the bottom-up. Iraqis have had practice at this. During the 1990s, the decade of UN-imposed sanctions, Iraqis developed an impressive ability to adapt to hardship. The younger generation learned from their parents’ experience.

To be sure, the crisis of political representation has not energised every person in this new generation. For some, it has fostered disengagement, if not nihilism. This alienation is what has led many youths to take up arms – against other Iraqis during the civil war from 2005 to 2007 and to fight the Islamic State, or ISIS, between 2014 and 2017 – or to leave the country.

But in others, the representation crisis has triggered a pragmatic, constructive response. “If the government won’t do it, we will,” one 22-year-old tells me. Young Iraqis and women, for whom it is hardest to gain access to formal politics while staying independent, have found in civil society opportunities for political participation, and have launched or joined initiatives that develop solutions to policy problems that the political class has been unable to address. Some of these organisations have been operational for years, but many of them formed in 2014, when accumulated governance failures allowed ISIS to conquer large swathes of the country. Eventually, the government, with the aid of paramilitary groups, retook all this territory. But the organisational energy generated by the 2014 shock endures, and a new generation of civil society activists is emerging.

Many of these civic activists argue for a new social contract based on citizenship and merit instead of patronage and unquestioned loyalty. They put forward a civil and social rights agenda, with top priority on improving education and health care and a renewed focus on climate change.

A Lawyer’s Story

I decide to meet a group of women activists, all leading members of civil society organisations working on everything from improving women’s rights to political participation. It is to take place at Hanaa Edwar’s home and office in Baghdad’s Karrada neighbourhood. Hanaa heads Amal (“hope” in Arabic), an association committed to development and the respect of human rights in Iraq.

Activist Hanaa Edwar in her garden with a group of activists. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

I enter a small, impeccably trimmed garden. Six poodles run around excitedly, but there is no sign of Hanaa or anyone else. I make my way through the quiet, austere interior to the reception area.

I am soon welcomed by Shaima (all names of activists mentioned below are pseudonyms), a 28-year-old freshly graduated from the College of Law in Baghdad. Together with other young lawyers, Shaima began volunteering in 2016 and then established an NGO dedicated to advancing a women’s rights agenda in parliament. She explains, “For a long time women have been waiting to be granted their rights. We want to [make women] an active part of the solution through the skills and knowledge we offer”. The group is working to speed up passage of the domestic violence law in parliament, amending discriminatory articles in the penal code (some clauses prescribe different punishments for men and women who have committed the same offence) and contesting religious courts’ authority over marriage and divorce. “We are also working to have women become judges on the federal court, which has no female representatives,” she tells me.

Piece by piece, Shaima shows me the pertinent legislation: those bills that parliament has passed, those that are being drafted and others that have yet to be amended or replaced. Yet cooperation with parliament has been difficult, she says. “The women’s committee has gradually lost its relevance. In the new parliament [elected in May 2018], the committee has been merged with the human rights committee, as only a few lawmakers were interested in being on it,” she explains.

Women are severely under-represented in the Iraqi political system, notwithstanding the women’s quota in parliament (the constitution allocates 25 per cent of seats to women). Reform of the political system and access to political participation for women are deeply inter-related. Many of the women civic activists are religious, and precisely because of their faith they denounce Islamist parties that use sectarian identity and religion as tools for perpetuating their power. Shaima articulates it this way: “As long as you have a political system that redistributes posts on the basis of ethnicity and religious belonging, you will have the same political parties in power. These parties – many of which are Islamist – will fill the women’s quota only with women affiliated with them, who have no interest in advancing women’s rights as citizens. Absence of reform of the political system and discrimination against women are part of the same problem,” she says.

A Water Activist’s Story

My next meeting with the new civil society generation is at the headquarters of the Iraq Civil Society Solidarity Initiative. It is located in an ordinary house in central Karrada that has been transformed into a shared working space for various initiatives. One undertaking is devoted to the protection of Iraq’s water resources. The government has been in negotiations with Turkey over the Tigris and the Euphrates waters – both rivers originate in Turkey – and with Iran over waters of Tigris tributaries. Turkey and Iran are rerouting the rivers and building dams, greatly reducing the flow of water into Iraq. Since the government has made little progress toward restoring the flow, Hussein, a volunteer, says his organisation has focused efforts on water management inside Iraq.

Members of the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative at their office in Baghdad. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

“The idea of environmental activism is relatively new in Iraq,” says Hussein, who is still in his twenties and in 2016 became the executive director of an initiative for the protection of the Tigris. He notes, “Sectarianism and terrorism might end as politics evolve, but the issue of water is going to last. The protection of water resources is going to affect the very existence of Iraq. We need to make people responsible for the way they manage and use water”. Hussein’s goal through his organisation is to work with farmers whose livelihood depends on the two rivers to improve irrigation and raise awareness about the importance of water management.

One of his organisation’s activities is holding youth camps in Iraq’s southern marshes, which offer young people from different parts of the country a chance to observe agricultural practices in this sensitive ecosystem. “We are also engaging with activists from Iraqi Kurdistan and bringing them to the south. When it comes to nature, we should work together regardless of political differences,” Hussein declares. I ask Ali, another activist, what sparked his interest in protecting the environment. He says he was deeply touched by a visit to a family in the marshes whose cow had died due to lack of water.

Intrigued, I want to find out if youth activism on the water issue is matched by equal attention on the government’s side. Hussein arranges an appointment for me at the Ministry of Water Resources.

An Official’s Story

At a section of the Ministry of Water Resources in central Baghdad I’m welcomed by Marwa, a 32-year-old agricultural engineer. I have requested an appointment with the national director of irrigation projects. She welcomes me in the reception area and escorts me to the general director’s office. It is crowded with visitors. When she presents my request to the director’s secretary, he responds bureaucratically: “If she wants to meet the general director, she will have to provide me with a written request”. We turn and leave the noisy room behind us.

Marwa invites me to her office on the second floor. We walk through dark corridors with broken windows, flickering neon lights and a makeshift cardboard ceiling. Marwa shares an office with a female colleague. The two desks are loaded down with papers. Maps of Iraq’s waterways are stacked on the floor next to a kettle, a computer made in 1998 and a defunct keyboard. She proudly shows me the origami figurines with which she has decorated her office. “I learned this on YouTube,” she says of her hobby.

Linking the grassroots to the state bureaucracy is a departure from years of failed top-down reforms.

Marwa turns on the kettle and offers me coffee. She starts: “I am embarrassed to show you my office. You see, this is what we actually do from 9am to 2pm: we produce papers all day long. We can only use one computer for printing, and its keyboard is broken. We run from floor to floor to ask directors and general directors to sign these papers, and then we come back to our office”.

The ministry has its own water management initiative. It selects local leaders and puts them in charge of water distribution. The initiative is similar to the one started by the civil society activists, but the ministry’s version usually involves local leaders who are close to major political forces, and it appears to end up benefiting some who are closer to the local parties’ representatives.

While describing the initiative’s limited impact, Marwa pauses to say: “I volunteered to sit on a committee in charge of cooperation with civil society initiatives on water. At least, we can see some results through them. I often use the ministry’s data and pass this on to the activists. They might make better use of it”. She smiles. The depth of cooperation with civil society initiatives depends on the government official. Marwa is somewhat unusual. Many Iraqi officials distrust civil society organisations because they suspect them of being foreign-funded and because they resent outside oversight of their work.

Bridging the Gap

I never get my appointment with the general director. But as Marwa accompanies me back to the foyer, she shows me pictures on her phone of an initiative of her own at the ministry. She has distributed red lapel pins representing the campaign to stop violence against women, office by office, to everyone throughout the ministry. As she bids me goodbye, she says: “I really can’t stand doing nothing”.

As a public sector employee and part-time activist, Marwa is struggling against the odds to bridge the yawning gap between government and society, connecting a sluggish bureaucracy to civil society initiatives. And while hers may be an individual endeavour, linking the grassroots to the state bureaucracy is a departure from years of failed top-down reforms.

Now it is time for the government to step up as well, and make the issues that civil society has championed its own priority, working in coordination with organisations and individuals like the ones I met. After all, these issues – from women’s equality to water management – are critical to Iraq’s future. In working to address them, the country’s political leaders should know that they have allies. And these are not just in faraway capitals, but close by, in their own communities, primed to help.