By Farid Mirbagheri
The Kurdistan region in Iraq is going through a tumultuous phase. Other than the carnage and savagery inflicted by the Islamic State and its violent ramifications, the region is suffering from serious political divisions, endemic corruption and diminishing public confidence in their leaders.
Although the Iraqi Kurds are eager for recognition in the international community as a state, the region’s problems are in fact pushing them in the opposite direction, even bringing the presidency of Masoud Barzani into question particularly since his term officially ended on August 20. If left unchecked, the geographic and political divisions could potentially lead to a split region and even civil unrest.
The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) is the outcome of a compromise arrived at in the aftermath of the Kurdish civil war between KDP (Democratic Party of Kurdistan) and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) between 1994 and 1998. The deal, however, never resolved the issues relating to revenues, resources and authority. Now, competition for the oil in Kirkuk is bringing rivalries back to the surface with new claimants such the Iraqi government in Baghdad as well as officials in Kirkuk itself entering the foray.
Lack of transparency in the oil sector is further fuelling the fire of political divisions in the region. According to some reports, officials on the oil and gas committees in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament claim “no one knows where the KRG’s oil revenues are actually going.” Out of the 16 bank accounts held by the region’s authorities the finance minister in KRG has access to one that reportedly has a balance of only $14 million dollars. The remaining accounts are allegedly controlled by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.
One strategic mistake that may have contributed to the deepening financial crisis is the oil deal between the KRG and Ankara signed in December 2013. The Iraqi government denounced the deal accusing the Kurds of “being in pursuit of independence” and Turkey of “interfering in the sovereignty rights of Iraq”. One Iraqi Kurd has observed that the KRG shot itself in the foot by placing all its eggs in the Turkish basket, while simultaneously weakening links with Baghdad.
Of course when it comes to the question of identity or any existential issues relating to the Kurdistan region, most if not all Kurds in Iraq are a united front. They believe that their history and heritage merits an autonomous, if not entirely independent, authority and that what Baghdad is offering amounts to a much less attractive alternative.
Be that as it may, political realities cannot be wished away. Any declaration of an independent sovereign Kurdistan in the foreseeable future would probably be vehemently and possibly militarily opposed by Ankara. Together with the tragic situation in Syria, we may end up having Ankara, Baghdad and Damascus in a long-term alliance against the Kurds that will further drag the Middle East into bloodshed and misery. It will be a conflict that once started will be difficult to bring to an end and will be viewed and fought as an existential threat by all the parties involved with no clear winner in sight. Kurdish officials may want to bear that in mind before embarking on any such policy.
The P4+1, the four Kurdish political parties and the KRG as they are known, are engaged in discussions to resolve the presidency issue with no solution in sight yet. A resolution, however, may have to wait until the next election scheduled for 2017, which could prove decisive in many ways. Given the current financial crisis, allegations of corruption and the questions of legitimacy a de facto administrative break-up in the region may not appear far-fetched. However, with brinkmanship and courage, Kurdish leaders could guide their people away from divisions and conflict and towards the hope of a more peaceful and prosperous future for all.
Professor SM Farid Mirbagheri is professor of International Relations in the Department of European Studies and International Relations at the University of Nicosia