The Kurdish kingmakers

Unless Abbadi’s government resolves longstanding issues with the Kurds, Obama’s ISIL strategy may di

The Kurds argue that the issues on the table have been debated and discussed for years, writes Denselow [AFP]

There is a temptation when viewing the Middle East to be so preoccupied catching up with the latest crisis that the older ones are neglected. Take the long-standing issue of Kurdish nationalism in a region whose original colonial state builders neglected to find space on their canvas to draw the borders of Kurdistan. 

Today it is no underestimation to say that the Kurds have gone from being a fringe element to the region’s power equation to one of its central players. Nowhere is this more obvious than in US President Barack Obama’s new ISIL offensive. At its most conventional, Obama looks to support the new “inclusive” Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi against the neo-barbarian hordes of the ISIL marauders. Yet Abbadi’s government was only able to form on the basis of Kurdish buy in and that didn’t come for free.

Indeed somewhat unnoticed in the celebration of former Premier Nouri al-Maliki’s fall and the new era of national unity government was the clause that the Kurds inserted into their joining the government – that all of the Kurdistan Region’s “lagging and serious issues” with Baghdad must be resolved within three months. These issues are fairly fundamental to the Abbadi of the viability of a future Iraqi state and they’ve proved intractable over the past 11 years since the US-led invasion. So Abbadi faces the twin pressures of reuniting a fractured Iraq under a common vision and dealing with the richest and perhaps most vicious terrorist group in recent history – and if he can’t make progress on the first part within the next few months then the entire process may collapse.

Serious deadline

December 8 is the “serious deadline” for the Kurds to see action from Baghdad coming exactly three months since the formation of Abbadi’s government. While this timeline may seem unrealistic, the Kurds argue that the issues on the table have been debated and discussed for years with the status of Kirkuk, the “Kurdish Jerusalem” as some refer to it, supposed to have been settled by the end of 2007.

Iraqi Kurds battle Islamic State fighters

Gary Kent, director of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan, told me that “The international community needs to recognise that Baghdad has sold the Kurds short for a decade with broken promises. Even as the security and humanitarian crises accelerated this year the Kurds have received no budget entitlements at all and Baghdad has sought to block oil exports which are allowed under the Iraqi constitution.”

In September, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond explained that “In Iraq we’re collectively building international support for Abbadi’s government, which is committed to political reform and to representing all of Iraq’s communities.” To date there appears to be little progress in showing Baghdad’s commitment to the Kurds. While coalition aircraft continue their attacks, it is the Peshmerga who are fighting ISIL on multiple fronts along a 966km-plus front line stretching in an arc from near the Syrian border in the northwest to the Iranian frontier in the east.

To emphasise the issue of the blocking of funds, the Kurds have been engaged in a PR blitz reminding the world that they are fighting the good fight with desperately poor resources whether its World War II era guns or homemade tanks that wouldn’t look out of place in the new “Mad Max” film. Meanwhile as Prime Minister Abbadi continues to talk the good talk about inclusivity, members of Iraq’s minority population are reportedly joining the Peshmerga.

‘We hear you’

Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has expressed his desire to hear Baghdad tell the people of the Kurdistan Region: “We hear you, and we will solve your problems because we know that we can’t expect you to continue to participate in Iraq without hope.” The KRG’s High Representative to the UK Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman has called on the government in Baghdad to “recognise the Peshmerga as part of the Iraqi military as stated by the Constitution” warning that “if we don’t see improvement we will review our position”.  

The issue of oil revenue would appear to be the most immediate as both a gesture of intent and practical support for the fight against ISIL. However, instead of releasing the 17 percent of the Iraqi budget that is earmarked for the KRG and unblocking oil sales reports have emerged last month of the Iraqi government looking to classify Kurdish oil as “stolen property”. Resolving the status of Kirkuk and the disputed territories would appear to be the trickiest issue to address with continued ISIL activity in the area leading some to speculate that the focus will be on the uncertainty of today not tomorrow.

This confluence of thorny issues has the added element of humanitarian crisis layered on top of it. The Kurdish controlled statelet of some five million people has received some 1.4 million refugees. Winter is coming and Barzani has warned that Iraq’s government must “intervene immediately” to prevent large scale loss of life. These political, economic, and humanitarian challenges that Abbadi faces will be a crucial component of whether the Obama strategy can endure. The clock is ticking.  

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.