Six Questions on the Kurdistan crises

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

In mid-December anger began to boil over in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. On December 19 several protesters were shot and killed in Rania, a city with a long history of Kurdish patriotism and national aspirations. Protesters and riots swept many other towns and cities in the eastern region of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG); in Chamchamal, Koya and Sulaimaniya. This is the heartland of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the largest parties in the KRG. Its longtime leader and co-founder Jalal Talabani had died in early in October.

Many questions are being asked about the protests in Kurdistan. There are fewer clear answers. Here are some that I’ve asked, or seem to be common on social media. With some major media in the Kurdistan region shut down, or websites removed such as NRT, it is hard to gauge all the different views. Also many of the protesters themselves are not tweeting or writing in English. Their views are not aired on some of the local media.

When did the protests begin?

After the independence referendum on September 25th there was a brief period of celebration in the Kurdistan region. That turned chaotic after the Iraqi central government sent tanks and soldiers to occupy Kirkuk and Kurdish Peshmerga forced withdrew from one of the regions largest and most important cities. Slow, but persistent, anger appeared online and elsewhere demanding answers and trading counter-accusations of “betrayal.” Economic woes continued, including Baghdad’s continued unwillingness to transfer federal budgets to the north, an air embargo preventing international flights from Suli and Erbil, and brief closures of border crossings with Iran. Larger protests began in Chamchamal on the Kirkuk-Suli road on December 16th. These spread throughout towns and cities two days later.

Many are reminded of the protests in 2011 which included similar themes. In 2011 protesters also attacked political party offices, specifically the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office in Suli. Gunfire was used on the crowd. The protesters were also connected to the Gorran (Change) party. They also demanded an end to corruption and a two party system and changed in the KRG. Diliman Abdulkader wrote on twitter “they’ve been explaining it for 26 years. They want an end to corruption. What the media is telling you is false as it’s led by KDP/PUK.” With similar contrasts today, in 2011 international human rights groups tried to portray the Kurdistan region as the problem. Amnesty International condemned ” the use of intimidation” and HRW claimed “Kurdish authorities are trying to stifle and intimidate.”

Protesters who gathered in Koya told NRT on December 19 they wanted basic services and salaries: “Now, we don’t call on the government because there is no government.  Since the government do not exist, we call on it to leave. The lawmakers and ministers all remain silent for money. Our demand is that government leaves,” a teacher added. They said they hadn’t been paid for up to four months. Protesters blocked the Kifri-Kalar road. They also attacked the offices of the five main political parties and NRT said they burned the local Asayish (internal security) office. The attacks on the offices of political parties is a hallmark of the protests. The same thing happened in Piramagroon, photo were posted online. The burning of the party offices would seem to indicate that no one party is behind the protests.

Did the independence referendum lead to the protests

Before the independence referendum on September 25th there were many voices who opposed the move. Some accused it of being merely symbolic or, as one pro-Gorran author wrote at Al-Jazeera, “many Iraqi Kurds in political leadership positions see the referendum for what it is – political theatrics to reinvigorate the old crumbling political parties.” Michael Rubin claimed an independent Kurdistan would be a “failed state” and compared Masoud Barzani to Yasser Arafat. Now, months later, commentators are saying “I told you so,” as they watch the protests and “chaos” unfold. Daniel Pipes tweeted on December 23rd that as headlines claim Kurdistan is “descending into chaos,” that he had “warned against that foolish Sept. 25 referendum.” He claims that those like him are “sadly being proven right. Some developments have to be carefully nurtured. Kurdistan is one of them.”

Pipes, Rubin and others might be right, as some people I know have said, “Kurdistan was not ready for prime time.” But the rejoinder to that could also be, were other states that sought independence ready for “prime time.” The US after 1776 was not a stable democracy. It took chaos and instability to bring about a constitution in 1787 and more wars and chaos to end slavery in the 1860s. Then reconstruction and vast corruption to get to the 20th century. One could say that even into the 1960s many of the problems created in 1776 had not been resolved. The French revolution of 1789 led to the “reign of terror” in 1793. The Russian Revolution was chaos for many years. Independence movements that challenged colonialism in Africa didn’t lead to stable democracy, certainly not in the Congo or Nigeria, and many led to dictatorships and coups. The Middle East’s current chaos comes a century after Sykes-Picot.

The question is whether the referendum led to the protests or whether the protests were merely waiting to re-emerge after 2011, after several years where society was united against the common enemy of ISIS. It appears that the trauma of losing Kirkuk so quickly in mid-October and accusations against how the political parties seem to have acquiesced to that, accelerated demands for change. That was certainly the view online among many, especially younger people who felt that the older generation had done its job and could move on. However there was a brief interlude in November as the younger leaders of the KRG, Nechirvan Barzani and Qubad Talabani, held many high level meetings with foreign leaders and also travelled abroad to secure support for the region. This diplomatic offensive was supposed to bring new legitimacy to the political leadership after Masoud Barzani left office at the end of October. His decision also led to low level protests in the region. In the western part, such as in Zakho, pro-KDP activists were accused of attacking opposition party offices, particularly Gorran.

The referendum and the Kirkuk crisis helped encourage the protests. But wouldn’t they have come anyway? Was the economic crisis going to be solved and the payment of salaries and other issues, if a referendum had not been carried out. Wasn’t Baghdad planning on returning to Kirkuk anyway? With the war winding down these questions were going to come in to the open. Baghdad certainly played on the referendum as an excuse to re-assert its control. There seems to be evidence that these structural issues were waiting throughout 2017 to come up. The relate to such things as the re-opening of the local KRG parliament and elections. The parliament reopened specifically to approve the referendum.

Should Baghdad and the international community “intervene” in the KRG

There are several different narratives coming out of Erbil, Baghdad and elsewhere about KRG-Baghdad relations. After the referendum there was a month-long silence by the international community relating to Erbil. This was designed to punish the KRG. Baghdad planned its move on Kirkuk with knowledge of western governments, using coalition-trained units deployed after Hawija, to take Kirkuk. It coordinated it with the western governments as well. These governments waited until after clashes had resulted in deaths to jump in and discuss dialogue. Then, during November, the KRG went on its diplomatic offensive, seeking “dialogue” with Baghdad.

This diplomatic offensive was sill on display even during the protests in mid and late December. For instance Bayan Sami Rahman tweeted about a meeting with Andrew Peek “to discuss the situation on the ground. Pleased to hear again that America supports a stable , strong Kurdistan Region and a stable, strong Iraq. Recent gains by Erbil and Baghdad, such as the defeat of ISIS, are reversible if we don’t start talking.”

The leadership in Erbil has been surprisingly quiet about the protests. This has invited Baghdad, which senses its hand is strong, to dangle the concept of intervention out to see what others say. Prime Minister Haider Abadi has said “We are following closely the developments in Kurdistan region and are in contact with the regional authorities there.” The Government of Iraq also tweeted: “We will not stand idly by if citizens in Kurdistan are attacked; they are our citizens. We reject measures that deny them their constitutional right to free speech and to peaceful protest.”

As the Iraqi government boasts of reconstruction in Mosul and its close work with the coalition to conduct stabilization, the Kurdistan region is portrayed as the “problem,” in Iraq today. It is portrayed as the one region now challenging the government’s stability. Rubin has written that this is like a kind of “Kurdish spring,” and that “It’s time to realize that standing with the Kurds and standing with the Kurdish leadership are two different things. The former deserve support; the latter do not.” Those critical of the KRG write that “peoples grievances” are against “tribal rulers” and “corruption.” They have argued that the US, UK and others should reduce aid to the region or make it contingent on changes. For instance Abdulkader writes “They need to pressure them to fulfill those demands I listed, they receive millions in aid. KRG is not a state, same rules don’t apply. KRG also has no leverage over US.”

The question is, if the US worked so hard alongside other western powers, to stop the referendum, why would its pressure work now. Go back and read Brett McGurk’s press conference comments before the referendum in Erbil. “his is not just about the United States. It is nearly every country that cares a lot about Iraq and about the Kurdistan Region has the exact same position…there is no international support for the referendum, really, from anybody.” There was massive pressure to cancel the referendum. It was not cancelled. The punishment came after, as most countries refused to meet with the KRG for a month. If it was true that lack of US assistance would change things for Kurds, then how does one explain what goes on in Iran or Turkey, where obviously the US and international community does nothing for Kurds, has that helped achieve things? The argument that the West can help end “tribal” politics would be a bit odd consider the $6.2 billion contract with Qatar that was just signed with the US. Qatar is a tribal-run dictatorship. The idea that the US or UK must turn the KRG into a non-tribal democracy would run counter to the usual methods of how the US, UK and others operate. Similarly, the idea that Baghdad should intervene in Kurdistan doesn’t explain why Baghdad’s politics are necessarily less “tribal” or less “corrupt” than Erbil’s. There have been massive anti-corruption protests every year in Baghdad for the last three years. It’s unclear why Baghdad is some kind of non-corrupt democratic model. For its part the US has said it wants to do more in the KRG, not less.

Where is the Kurdistan leadership?

The near silence from the KRG leadership during the current crisis has been clear. PM Nechirvan Barzani tweeted “These are challenging times for our region. Your frustrations are understandable, and I hear them. Peaceful expression of views is of course a legitimate and democratic right…” on December 19. Qubad Talabani hasn’t tweeted anything between December 11 and 23.

Lahur Talabany has tweeted something similar to Nechirvan. “The right to protest is a democratic one. The demands of the people are legitimate but I urge the protestors to exercise restraint&to avoid partaking in violence. This will not be acceptable. We must maintain the security&safety of .”

The problem facing the leadership is that they have been trying to shore up support abroad for the KRG at the same time as the internal crises. The crises empowers Baghdad and also makes the government in Erbil appear less stable. The situation in Suli especially has allowed critics to portray the PUK leadership appear in disorder, riven by internal problems, and less legitimate. It could not come at a worse time for the KRG. This has led to headlines abroad describing the Kurdistan region as “penniless.”

However the lack of appearance of the leadership and the resort to using security forces against protests, even shutting down news channels such as NRT and detaining reporters, has not helped. The leadership thinks that the protests will go away and the crises will diminish. Some have claimed that the whole protest is partly a conspiracy, connected to Iran or others who seek to undermine the region. That seems in contrast to some of the critics who tweet things like “You beg Baghdad to talk to you, yet refuse to talk to your own people, whom you’re supposed to serve, but enriched yourselves on their expense.”

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What comes next?

The protests in the KRG, ill-understood and ill-reported on, seem like a real crises, but it is unclear what they will bring. Will elections be postponed. Will the PUK suffer major electoral loses? What impact did the loss of Jalal Talabani have on the PUK, has his death helped pave the way for the crisis in Kirkuk and the current riots?  Will the Gorran movement benefit. Will Barham Salih’s new party perform well (ironically the 2011 protests were during his premiership). Will the KRG be increasingly divided into two parts as in the 1990s. Is this a “Kurdish spring”?

Two of the parties in the governing coalition have withdrawn, including Gorran and the Islamic Komal party. The Islamic party KIU may leave next.

The reality is that there is a tautology when it comes to Kurdish politics in the KRG, we don’t know what we don’t know. This is like Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” and “unknown knowns.”  A lot of questions still surround what happened in Kirkuk in October. How were the deals with Baghdad worked out, who coordinated with who. Who were the central players and who drove the Kirkuk operation. Conspiracies point to “betrayal” and “Iran’s hand,” but it isn’t as simple as that. If it was just an Iranian conspiracy working with figures in the PUK, then it doesn’t explain the KRG’s withdrawal from other parts of Kirkuk where the KDP was powerful, or Sinjar. If that was due to “strategy” or “tactical redeployment,” those are nice words, but they don’t explain other things. why invest in re-taking Sinjar, just to give it away? Why talk about an Iranian corridor through Sinjar, only to leave it to the militias. If that was to create “clarity” and force the US hand, it hasn’t worked. And why did someone think the US would be so concerned about Sinjar as to do anything?

These questions are mostly immaterial, because there isn’t an answer to them. There is no “Wikileaks” suddenly showing up with documents and internal communications. And it may be that these is no complex explanation, sometimes decisions are made by locals or made by one individual, without consulting others. Bafel Talabani has attempted to articulate his views on the Kirkuk withdrawal before and has had a new interview with the Telegraph. He warned that ISIS was not gone, and that he “called on Britain to negotiate an end to a months-long confrontation between Iraqi and Kurdish forces previously allied in the fight against the terror group.”

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Kurdistan’s friends, real friends and enemies

During times of crisis there is always discussion about what is “best” for Kurdistan. This is especially true among some international supporters of Kurdistan who are divided often between the “real friends” and the “friends.” There are those that claim “real friends” give “tough love,” namely that they stand with “the people” and oppose the politicians. These are the same people who tended to oppose the referendum, claiming it wasn’t the right time, or it was symbolic or lacked legitimacy. They tend to appoint themselves as knowing what is best for Kurdistan, in a way they don’t seem to know what is best for the Gulf States or Togo or the Congo. It’s interesting that they say it is not the “right time” for an independent Kurdistan, but if you asked if it is the right time to create a half dozen small Gulf Kingdoms based on family rule and all the size of Erbil province, then they will say, well of course there should be Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait. For some reason the Kurds end up being the one group that the experts run forward to say “well lets be cautious here.” Kosovo, of course, it should be a country. South Sudan, sure. East Timor, sure. But Kurdistan, and Somaliland, well let’s not rush.

Which is fine, because the local leadership and people in Kurdistan can’t seem to decide either. But there is no reason that foreign “experts” know what is best for Kurdistan.  They also knew what was “best” for Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s. They also tended to support the 2003 invasion, and then some of them ran to support Nouri al-Maliki. And then they claim to be experts predicting the rise of ISIS, “Maliki alienated the people and created the conditions for ISIS. Poverty, of course is the underlying factor, and sectarianism, and feeling the central government doesn’t support the people.” Right. So then why did you support Maliki and a “strong central government.”

It’s never clear or consistent. Some of those who say they are friends of the Kurds oppose the KRG because they see it as riven with corruption and other problems. But what do they propose to do, remove the KRG and replace it with another KRG? This is the same story we hear about the Palestinian Authority. It is “corrupt.” Ok. So you prefer Hamas? No. So if you remove the PA there will be chaos and extremism? Yes. So then what would you like to do?

This is part of a kind of neo-colonial and Orientalism that posits that somehow outsiders can do better. But the reality is perhaps they cannot do better, and the local system, imperfect, will remain. Perhaps young protesters will remove “tribal politics,” but just as likely they will not. Can one only support the “Kurdish people” and oppose the local government. And perhaps the reality is that outsiders are only exposed to certain voices from Kurdistan. Some will claim that actually it is the “English-speaking” leadership of the PUK and KDP who are good at getting their message across. But that’s not entirely accurate, the anti-KDP/PUK voices on social media are just as articulate. And there is no shortage of them. Many of them are followed by international media so see their voices as “authentic” and tend to claim that anyone connected to official circles or to Rudaw or Kurdistan24, are somehow “inauthentic.” But why would that be? Why would only one group of critics be “authentic”? Aren’t there also authentic voices in Erbil or Dohuk or Akre or other places that happen to support the current status quo. Do they only support it because they “don’t know any better” or they are “tribal”?

And what is wrong with being “tribal”, in a region where the tribe has tended to be as powerful as the state and where the tribe has aided its people when the state has collapsed. What is so great about nationalism that transcends tribalism? Was Nasser’s state so perfect? Saddam’s “non-tribal” Ba’athism? Assad’s rule? And aren’t Assad and Saddam and the rest simply replacing one tribe with another the way Soviet communism replaces one thing with another?

There is an aspect of the current crises that brings these questions to the front. But the reality is that no one can make this decision except local people. And those people are not a monolith. They are certainly diverse. The protests may be a sign of health for the Kurdish region. If they are channeled into reforms, perhaps that’s a decent thing. Or perhaps not.

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