International Support for Kurdistan: Hard versus Soft Assistance

By Goran Abdulla:

Kurdistan Region parliament

Kurdistan Region parliament

The offensive by the barbaric Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) might have provided what is going to probably be a missed window of opportunity for Kurdistan region of Iraq (Kurdistan) to establish the seeds of a state with clearly defined borders. A host of economic, political and military factors has undermined the courageous response by the Peshmarga forces against ISIL. Those factors did not feature on the agenda of the Western support to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Instead, the KRG receives what might be called ‘hard’ assistance while getting little of ‘soft’ support to reform its economic, political and military policies. The latter, I argue, are substantially more crucial than ‘hard’ military support for establishing the KRG as a reliable and self-sustaining ally of the west in the increasingly hostile Middle East.

The KRG is almost entirely dependent economically and financially on the central Iraqi government. As the previous few months showed, political and personal animosities between policymakers in Erbil and Baghdad can cripple KRG’s financial survival. The KRG has failed to establish a self-sustaining economy that is secure from hostile political contingencies. This probably has historical roots that go back to the 90s of the last century. In addition to sanctions by the Saddam Hussein regime, the UN chose to bypass the administrative structures of the KRG in implementing the oil-for-food programme of 1996-2003. This policy by the international community sabotaged an important opportunity to establish and develop KRG’s administrative and bureaucratic capacities. Although the KRG received a better constitutional and administrative treatment following the 2003 war but its structural and institutional shortcomings facilitated the cancerous spread of corruption, inefficiency, ineffectiveness and inequality in its governmental programmes. The recent allegations of using an HSBC bank account in London to bribe KRG’s government officials by Korean oil companies is just the tip of the iceberg in what appears to be the normality of corruption in Kurdistan [i]. The latter case also provides an insight into the place of corruption in Kurdistan in the international context of recent HSBC scandals. However, this disastrous reign of corruption is inseparably linked to the dysfunctional parliamentary/presidential political system in Kurdistan.

The nature and future configuration of the political system in Kurdistan have obsessed recently politicians, civil society activists and journalists. As August 19th, 2015 is fast approaching (when the legal covers for the previous extension of the current president’s term in office end) political parties and regional powers are getting increasingly anxious. While President Barzani appears to have both the active and passive support to rule for another term, such extension would introduce significant tensions and possibly fractures within Kurdish politics and society. The former opposition movements and parties (Gorran – Change – in particular) joined a national unity government on a platform that promised an end to corruption, a parliamentary system and a unified Peshmarga force. Another term for the president might be viewed as another failure added to the inability to fulfil some of the other promises.

Questions have been raised about the rationality of the continuity of participation of the former opposition parties in the national unity government. Some argue that Gorran, in particular, have not been a genuine partner but rather a mere participant in the government. Despite the fact, that the movement lead key ministerial portfolios such as finance and Peshmarga, that does not seem to have helped achieve the promises of ending corruption, unifying the military forces and establishing a parliamentary system. These perceived or real failures have convinced some of the notion that the PUK and KDP have used Gorran and the other opposition parties just to introduce a sense of legitimacy. Others argue that the KDP and PUK have succeeded in undermining the popularity and credibility of the former opposition parties by intentionally preventing them from implementing any visible reforms. The failure to unify the Peshmarga forces, a large part of which is still divided along party political lines, is perhaps the most hurtful failure.

The ISIL offensive and the financial crises are abused by the powerful interest groups in the KRG as an excuse to block or postpone any attempt to end corruption, reform the political system and unify the military forces. However, what else than a crisis can offer a powerful exogenous contingency to introduce and implement substantial changes? The financial crises should have provided a strong incentive to put the KRG’s account in order and end corruption. The military threats by ISIL should have pushed a faster unification of the Peshmarga forces and an end to the current militia-like structures. That would have enabled the KRG to establish itself as a self-reliant and defensible entity that is ready for statehood and independence. It might not be too late to do so. The international community should match its military support with urgently needed help in all of the aspects outlined above. Without that, a rare partner and ally in the midst of its numerous enemies might be lost.

Dr. Goran Abdulla, a doctor from Kurdistan, is doing his PhD in International Public Health Policy at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political


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