Analysis

Kurdistan’s at a Breaking Point, but Will It Be a 'Kurdish Spring' or a Civil War?

The Iraqi government would love to punish the Kurdish province for its independence referendum this fall, but if it takes too hard a line, it runs the risk of starting a civil war

A protester pouring oil on a fire in a street during a demonstration against political corruption in the city of Rania, north of Sulaymaniyah in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, December 20, 2017.
Shwan Mohammed

Some people are already talking about Iraqi Kurdistan undergoing its own Arab Spring, while others suggest it is more like the walking dead. Optimists believe money will bring a solution, while pessimists predict a new civil war.

For more than a week now, throughout the region – and especially in the cities of Sulaymaniyah and Halabja – street protests have been occurring and attracting hundreds of people. The local education directorate has called on teachers in the Sulaymaniyah district to strike (without going out to protest) because many have not received their full government salary for two months, and some haven’t been paid at all. Over 200 demonstrators have been arrested, five were killed in clashes with the security forces, and the province considered the safest in Iraq appears to be on the brink of political collapse.

The positive international reputation gained by the Kurdish leadership under Masoud Barzani – from the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003 through the war against the Islamic State, when the Kurds played a decisive role in helping defeat ISIS in Iraq – has slid away and now a different type of reputation is forming.

Among the protesters’ complaints: the deep-seated corruption that has created a small elite class of multimillionaires and billionaires who live in huge mansions and own fleets of luxury cars; the nepotism which allowed the president’s son, Masrour Barzani, to become intelligence chief and the president’s nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, to become prime minister; the kickbacks enjoyed by government officials – especially the Barzani family – from every deal made in the province; the persecution of media outlets critical of the government, even including the murder of journalists; and the delays in holding parliamentary and presidential elections.

Last week, three parties decided to leave the coalition, with the aim of trying to pressure the government to agree to a transitional government without Nechirvan Barzani as prime minister. Naturally, the president’s nephew is opposed and has promised only to move up the election due to be held sometime in early 2018, without specifying a date.

In the province’s “eastern wing,” which is largely controlled by the family of the late leader Jalal Talabani – Barzani’s former ally who later fought against him in the Kurdish civil war in 1994, and afterward became his partner again – life is not so sweet either.

Talabani died in October and his widow, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, and her two sons, Bafil and Qubad Talabani, have taken the reins and are independently negotiating with the Iraqi government and Iran, to try to obtain more sources of income in return for political support that will undermine what they define as the Barzani family dictatorship.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, currently basking in his role as the great conqueror of ISIS, is exploiting his enhanced standing and Kurdish infighting to settle scores with the Kurdish leadership that “dared” hold its September 25 referendum on Kurdish independence in defiance of Iraqi unity.

Shortly after the referendum, Abadi ordered Iraqi troops to seize the oil hub of Kirkuk and to expel the Kurdish forces there. Barzani’s people accuse the Talabani loyalists who previously controlled the city of “traitorous” collaboration with the Iraqi government, and of deliberately retreating so the city could be taken by Iraqi government forces.

But now the Kurdish province has to live with the harsh consequences. Before the battle for Kirkuk, it was producing and exporting 660,000 barrels of oil. Now that amount has been reduced by half. Needing $700 million a month to pay the salaries of civil servants, including tens of thousands of teachers, the Kurdish government has had to seek draconian loans from the oil companies and international financing companies. But the oil firms are in no rush to provide them, since the province has still not repaid earlier loans and is currently $20 billion in debt.

A still image taken from a video showing Kurdish President Masoud Barzani giving a televised speech in Erbil, Iraq, October 29, 2017.
Reuters TV

The $2 billion in foreign currency reserves are gradually dwindling because they are being used to meet daily budget needs, while the budget due to be allocated by the Iraqi government for 2018 is likely to contain a major cut.

According to the Iraqi constitution, the Kurdish province is entitled to 17 percent of the national revenue, in accordance with its proportion of the total population. But the Iraqi government has not been transferring the full sum since 2014, and the province in turn has not been transferring the full revenues from the oil produced in its territory, as stipulated in an agreement signed with the Iraqi government.

The agreements signed have thus far failed to be implemented, so now the Iraqi government is expected to reduce the province’s share from 17 to 12.5 percent.

Warnings from the International Monetary Fund that the budget will not be able to cover the province’s needs, and will likely spark conflict between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish province, don’t seem to have made much of an impression on the Iraqi prime minister. “We will not transfer funds to cover salaries because of the corruption and lack of transparency in the province,” explained Abadi. Apparently he’s forgotten that Iraq was ranked 166th out of 175 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2016.

But Abadi’s resolve should be taken with a degree of skepticism, since any holdup of funds could lead to violent clashes within Iraqi Kurdistan that could develop into a civil war, which could spill over into other parts of Iraq where Kurds live. The Iraqi government, gearing up for elections next May, hardly needs something like that on its hands, having just wrested itself free from ISIS’ presence. Iraq is well aware by now that a conflict with minorities – be they Sunni tribes or Kurds – invites external “hunters” to come in.

The West is also aware of the area’s volatility and the potential reverberations for the region. The big question is: Who’s going to be willing to pay as much as is necessary in order to keep Iraqi Kurdistan quiet?