Iraqi Kurdistan: A United Front?


Iraqi Kurdistan: A United Front?

02 Jun 2015

As Kurdistan continues to battle ISIS, International Crisis Group has published a report on political divisions and external influences on its forces. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics draws out the key arguments.

Iraqi Kurdistan's political and military systems are experiencing several internal fissures and external pressures. A new International Crisis Group (ICG) report, Arming Iraq's Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict, published on 12 May 2015, looks at how these may contribute to future instability and conflict. The report details the traditional relationships of the two main Kurdish political parties, the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) with their main allies (Turkey and Iran respectively). It lays out how these relationships have changed in the face of the rise of ISIS, Turkish reluctance to actively join in the campaign against the group, and Iran's rising regional influence.

The report goes on to detail some of the unintended consequences that international engagement with the Kurds in the fight against ISIS has had on widening and entrenching these fissures. The report also condemns the anti-ISIS coalition's lack of an effective and comprehensive strategy of engagement with Iraqi Kurdistan, for its potential to threaten the success of the fight against ISIS.

The lack of a comprehensive strategy threatens the fight against ISIS. 

The Kurdish peshmerga militias have in recent months been lauded for their bravery in the fight against ISIS and protection of minorities such as the Yezidis in face of ISIS atrocities. The ICG report, however, reminds that the Kurds are not a united people nor are the peshmerga a single, nonpartisan, or professional fighting force. Different Kurdish factions often have competing political and military agendas. The report states that the aid flooding into Kurdish hands, especially from the anti-ISIS coalition, lacks "a concerted political strategy to coordinate it" and there was also a "failure to monitor where [supplies] went or how it was used." This, ICG argues, in many ways exacerbated divisions within the peshmerga and increased its "fragmentation" into disparate – and competing – personal militias of political party leaders instead of developing into an integrated, professional military force under civilian control. 

The ad hoc influx of arms and resources to the Kurds from the international anti-ISIS coalition also came at a moment when traditional power sharing agreements within Kurdish politics were fraying. The KDP, which is led by Masoud Barzani, and PUK, which is led by Jalal Talabani, are moving away from an agreement that stabilised the parties' previously violent relationship. The leaders of both parties are declining in influence; Talabani has effectively stepped back from running the PUK though he still is the head of it. This leadership vacuum has led to an increase in intra-party tensions as rivals vie to replace the current party leaders. This resulted in the deepening of "ethnic and sectarian tensions [in Iraq] that had catalysed ISIS' emergence," as Shia and Kurdish militias mobilised to protect their own community, not national, interests.

Kurdish factions are choosing competition over coordination.

Iran's role in Iraq has also become more overt since the withdrawal of US troops from the country and the outbreak of civil war in Syria. The ICG report charts how the growth of ISIS across the region accelerated this process. In Kurdish affairs, Iran has historically had a relationship with the PUK party, while the KDP has historically looked to Turkey as an ally. Iran's relationship with the Iraqi (PUK) and Syrian (People's Defense Force (YPG)) Kurds allowed it to facilitate cross-border cooperation in defence of Kobane in the autumn of 2014. It also allowed it to coordinate greater cooperation with the Shia militias in Iraq that came increasingly under Iranian Revolutionary Guard control following, what the report calls, the "disintegration" of the Iraqi military.

Iran has succeeded in gaining influence within the Iraqi military, civilian militias, and many (especially PUK) peshmerga forces. This has embedded Iranian influence in Iraq's fighting forces and politics, increasingly allowing it to dictate a pro-Iranian agenda that will be difficult to mitigate or reverse even after an ISIS defeat. Entrenched intra-Kurdish partisanship rather than a single chain of command increases the operational and intelligence gaps of different Kurdish factions, making them less effective and more reliant on external actors such as Iran. This process was further facilitated by the continued internal fragmentation of Kurdish politics and militias, which the anti-ISIS coalition has not systematically opposed because many fear that a united Iraqi Kurdistan would agitate for independence. The report argues that this is not necessarily true, however, and that a united coordination of aid and resources from the anti-ISIS coalition to the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs would be a first step toward a more effective peshmerga campaign against ISIS.

The report portrays Iraqi Kurdistan as almost a house of cards, buffeted on multiple sides by external pressures, weighed down by additional weapons and resources that are allocated unevenly and inefficiently, and riddled from the inside out by "topdown-sanctioned corruption," ineffective governance, and "party-based cronyism." The report states that Kurds can still be an effective partner on the ground in the fight against ISIS, but that without an effective and comprehensive strategy of engagement with a view to the long term desired end state of the region, as well as more immediate sustainable cooperation among the various Kurdish factions, the region may fall prey not only to ISIS, but its own divisions.

Key Findings
  • Internal political divisions have long existed in Kurdish political systems, most overtly between the two main parties. These divisions are decreasing cooperation between each party's peshmerga forces, degrading peshmerga military effectiveness.
  • Internal peshmerga divisions along political party and regional alliance lines decrease effective coordination and intelligence sharing, prolonging the conflict with ISIS and entrenching warlord/personal militia mentalities. These will linger beyond the fight with ISIS and make future integration of peshmerga brigades under a united, civilian controlled, and professional military command, as well as cooperation with the government in Baghdad more contentious.
  • Perceived Kurdish "land grabs" within the disputed territories of the Iraqi state (including the city of Kirkuk) in the wake of the Iraqi military's disintegration in face of ISIS aggression, have raised an additional barrier to Erbil/Baghdad relations.
  • Kurdish strategising to liberate and protect towns in the disputed territories from ISIS by embedding its own influence and interests in the areas, further exacerbates current internal resentments in those areas against Kurdish influences. Such demonstrations of Kurdish dominance within disputed territories with little inclusion of local, mixed Kurdish/Sunni or predominantly Sunni populations risks transferring to the Kurds the resentments among Sunni Iraqis currently directed against the government in Baghdad for perceptions of marginalisation from power. Such perceptions have led in part to the support of, or acquiescence to, ISIS and contributed to its capacity to seize large swaths of territory in the country.
  • The increasing reliance of both major Kurdish parties on Iran, following Turkey's reluctance to become physically involved in the fight against ISIS, creates the opportunity for long term international, especially Iranian, interference in Kurdish affairs.

The report can be found in full here

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.


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