Iraq’s problems were not born in 2003.
In a roundtable discussion hosted by the Middle East Institute on last Tuesday, Dr. Luay al-Khatteeb, founder and director of Iraq Energy Institute, made clear that current discussions in Washington about Iraq are lacking. The focus in DC think tanks on “the day after ISIS” neglects a century of mistreatment, mismanagement, and disregard.
Taking a longer vie, al-Khatteeb focused on the origins of Iraq’s present problems. Sectarianism has been a virulent force in Iraq since before the Ottomans; it didn’t suddenly appear in 2003. Al-Khatteeb points to the 12 successful coup d’états in Iraq’s recent history as a major source of instability in Iraqi politics. If Turkey’s week is any indicator, coups shake the foundation of a society to its core, and their reverberations continue to affect societies long after their conclusions.
The strong centralism that dominated Iraq for most of the 20th century didn’t prepare Iraq’s political class or citizenry for federalism. According to al-Khatteeb, the Kurds had an 11-year head start; enjoying self-government for a decade before the fall of Saddam gave them a huge advantage going into the post-2003 political process.
Miscommunication about federalism in the establishment of the new Iraqi state is one of the major factors contributing to Iraq’s current governance failures. Many political participants came to the negotiating table talking about federalism, but were still grounded in the centralism of previous decades. Kurds adopted the language of federalism, but had independence in the back of their minds throughout the negotiations.
Because of this lack of meaningful consensus, Iraq never established functioning governing institutions. How then, did Iraq survive for 10 years ? Al-Khatteeb says sheer luck. Oil prices were high enough that the Iraqi government could muddle along without thinking of the future. People in government looked at oil money as a supermarket—taking as they pleased to finance any number of special projects. Currently there are 7 million Iraqis on government payroll. Those constantly expanding public salaries drained surpluses during high oil prices and are now dragging Iraq down into deeper deficits. In 2013, Iraqi foreign reserves were at 80 billion. Total is down to 40 billion today.
On the Kurdish question, al-Khatteeb predicts that the now dominant KDP would lose to the PUK and Goran alliances if an election was held today. They are clearly winning at the constituent level, and are negotiating with Baghdad to ask what’s in it for them to remain in the Iraqi state.
Right now, the answer is quite a bit. The KRG gets $100 billion per year from Baghdad. It also gets to keep somewhere around $40 billion in its own production, although exactly how much oil is produced and exported from Kurdish regions is not publicized. However, Kurdish production is dependent on Kirkuk, and Kurdish hold there is tenuous at best given the competing claims for the territory. Even still, oil production in the Kurdish area has fallen from 800,000 barrels to 550,000.
Everything comes back to government mismanagement. There are 1.4 million people on government payroll in Kurdish areas. The Iraqi federal government was encouraging governorates to hire as many people as possible, and threatened to withhold funds if hiring demands weren’t met. The salaries of government officials are criminally high, in al-Khatteeb’s mind. MPs make $20,000 monthly, each of their dozens of advisers each make $10,000, on top of the president and PM making $50,000 each month. If Iraq is going to overcome its centuries of neglect, they need to start paying some attention where it matters.
The Bipartisan Policy Center hosted Cascading Conflicts: U.S. Policy on Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds Tuesday morning. This was nominally a launch of its report on Authoritarianism and Escalation: Preparing for the Worst in Turkey’s Resurgent Kurdish Conflict but ranged rather far from that excellent account of how Turkey has repeatedly turned to war when its government has become more authoritarian.
Eric Edelman, Co-Chair of BPC’s Turkey Initiative and former ambassador to Turkey, discussed the mutual misreading of priorities and interests between Turkey and the US. Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Institute, recalled how the peace talks between the PKK and Turkish government in February 2015 raised hopes for reconciliation that were then dashed by President Erdoğan. Ceng Sagnic, Junior Researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, considered how the Kurdish situation in Syria has thwarted Turkey’s foreign policy and prompted its interventionism. Aliza Marcus, Communications Consultant for the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund at the World Bank, assessed the relationship between the YPG/PYD (the dominant Syrian Kurdish organizations) and the PKK (the dominant Turkish Kurdish organization) as well as Turkey’s position on the question. Ishaan Tharoor, a reporter for the Washington Post, moderated a lively discussion spanning Turkish domestic politics, the fight against the Islamic State (IS), and more.
Amberin Zaman elucidated how domestic and international factors have influenced Turkey’s position on Syria and the Kurdish question. She maintained that peace talks with the PKK faltered in part because of rising tensions with the YPG/PYD in Syria and also in response to Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. Growing Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria has emboldened Kurds everywhere. In the words of Aliza Marcus, no matter how hard the Turkish government hits the PKK domestically, now there will always be a powerful Kurdish presence across the border in Syria.
The conversation then turned to Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism. Ambassador Eric Edelman argued that the US has a vested interest in shaping Turkey’s domestic politics. Long-term US interests and Turkey’s status as a NATO ally—an alliance intended to be a union of liberal democracies— demand that US use its position to speak out publicly and privately on Turkey’s civil rights violations.
Aliza Marcus explained how the YPG grew out of networks of support for the PKK in Syria. However, despite clear evidence of ties between the two, she said that it is unclear to what extent the PKK and the YPG/PYD are independent decision-makers. She added that, from Turkey’s perspective, the question is irrelevant. The two are one and the same, and nothing will diminish Turkish fears of Kurdish nationalism.
After hearing from audience member and representative of Rojava Cantons, Sinam Mohamed, on Kurdish governance and long-term strategy, Ceng Sagnic contended that Kurdish-controlled areas show more signs of functioning governance than the rest of Syria currently does. He also commented on current Syrian Democratic Force movements into Sunni-Arab areas in northern Syria. Marcus countered that Kurdish forces are not expanding for expansion’s sake, they are simply going where the Islamic State already is–namely Sunni areas.
Last month, the Middle East Institute’s (MEI) Turkish Studies program hosted a panel entitled “The Kurds’ New Clout in U.S. Ties with Turkey and Iraq” which focused on the challenges and opportunities in U.S. relations with Turkey and Iraq in light of the growing regional influence of the Kurds. This growing influence, with the Kurds emerging as a key player in the fight against the Islamic State, has put US relations with the governments in Baghdad and Ankara to the test.
How will US collaboration with Iraqi Kurdistan affect US-Turkish and US-Iraqi relations? What will the implications be for the future of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)?
Panelists included Mohammad Shareef, founding member of the London Kurdish Institute, Denise Natali, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, and Gönül Tol, founding director of MEI’s Center for Turkish Studies, with Daniel Serwer moderated.
Shareef outlined the regional, economic, and political factors that define Iraqi Kurdistan as an emerging regional power. The logical conclusion was apparent: sooner or later Kurdistan would achieve independence, as a natural consequence of its growing strength and importance.
Denise Natali believes, however, that Kurdistan’s success needs to be viewed in the context of the region’s increasingly complex and unstable environment, as well as America’s other relations in the region. There is no ‘clear cut’ US Kurdish policy, as Washington views Turkey’s Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) as a terrorist group, while the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces are fighting alongside the US in Iraq.
Notwithstanding that cooperation, the White House remains committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq. This became a point of contention during President Barzani’s recent visit to Washington, when it was made clear that US military support would have to pass through Baghdad.
Gönül Tol outlined Turkey’s changing relationship with the United States on issues such as ISIS, economic cooperation, and rapprochement with Turkey’s Kurds. Turkish fear that the US wants to break up Turkey was allayed with the 2008 Turkey-US security agreement. Ankara’s relationship with the KRG mirrors this progression. Turkey opened a consulate in Erbil and has expanded bilateral trade centered on the natural gas and oil.
Natali believes that the Kurds might have overstepped in their territorial acquisition in Iraq—will they be able to pay for the lands and administer effective control over these areas? Considering the KRG is 17 billion dollars in debt, this remains to be seen. Mohamad Shareef believes that the KRG can be economically viable. A highlight is the 2006 Liberal Investment Law, which has offered vast benefits for foreign investors.
Serwer agreed that perhaps the Kurds have taken on more land than they can realistically control, but this could result in a ‘land for peace’ exchange. Kurdish independence has been postponed due to ISIS, but this issue is sure to resurface in the next 2-3 years, as the Iraqi Kurdish people overwhelmingly support independence. But in the absence of agreement on the borders of Kurdistan, independence could lead to more war, not less.
- Fighting ISIS: News from the Front Lines in Kurdistan | Tuesday February 3 | 10:00-11:30 | The Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS is hosting a discussion with Aziz Reza, senior advisor to the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The talk will also feature Mousa Ahmed Agha, Deputy Head, Barzani Charity Foundation and will be moderated by Sasha Toperich, Senior Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS
- Yemen – If this is a policy success, what does failure look like? | Tuesday February 3 | 12:30-1:45 | Georgetown University | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Last September, in announcing military operations against ISIS/ISIL, President Obama referred to Yemen as a US policy success, to the bafflement of many within and outside the country at the time. The jury was still out on our drone-dependent security/CT operations, the economy was in disarray and the political transition – a relative bright spot – was dimming. Recent events call the September judgment into even more question. What is really happening, and what does it mean for the US, the region, and the Yemenis? Georgetown University invites to a discussion with Ambassador Barbara K. Bodine, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
- Countering Violent Extremism: Improving Our Strategy for the Future | Wednesday February 4 | 14:00-15:00 | Brookings Institute| REGISTER TO ATTEND | The recent deadly attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Jewish market in Paris were sharp reminders of the continuing threat of violent extremism in the West. With similar attacks in Ottawa and Sydney, and a concerning number of Westerners moved to fight in Syria, preventing acts of violence by extremists has become a top priority. To help the United States and its allies move forward, the White House announced that it will host a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism on February 18. Bringing together a panel of experts on counterterrorism and radicalization, the conversation will raise questions about the efficacy of the current U.S. approach, successful practices of counterterrorism programs both domestically and abroad, and strategies for countering violent extremism going forward.
- Subcommittee Hearing: The Palestinian Authority’s International Criminal Court Gambit: A True Partner for Peace? | Wednesday February 4 | 2:00-5:00 | Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa | The House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa is holding a hearing on the issue of the Palestinian Authority’s pursuit of membership in the International Criminal Court. Among the witnesses called to speak are Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President for Research, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Eugene Kontorovich, Professor of Law, Northwestern University School of Law, Danielle Pletka, Senior Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute and David Makovsky, Ziegler Distinguished Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
- Why Corruption Threatens Global Security | Wednesday February 4th | 16:00-17:30 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND The world seems to be on fire—the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq; the endurance of Boko Haram in Nigeria; the East-West standoff in Ukraine. Is there a common thread tying these events together? Sarah Cheyes, who spent a decade living and working in Kandahar Afghanistan, and serves as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will demonstrate how governments that resemble criminal organizations drive their indignant constituents to extremes. Drawing on her personal experience in some of the most venal environments on earth, Chayes will present examples of what emerges where kleptocracy prevails: Afghans returning to the Taliban, Egyptians overthrowing the Mubarak government (but also rebuilding Al-Qaeda), and Nigerians embracing both radical evangelical Christianity and the Islamist terror group Boko Haram.
- Advancing U.S-Afghan Ties: A discussion with Senator Tom Cotton| February 5 |9:oo -9:45| USIP | REGISTER TO ATTEND |The election of a reformist national unity government in Afghanistan and the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States have restored bilateral relations that had badly deteriorated under President Karzai. The Afghan government, facing huge economic and security challenges, has requested significant and sustained assistance from the United States and the international community over the next decade. The United States has committed to provide civilian and military support up to the end of 2016. Several weeks before an anticipated visit by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, the question of future of U.S.-Afghan relations becomes more critical. USIP and the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People is pleased to host Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), a U.S. Army veteran who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq and a newly elected member of the U.S. Senate, to provide his views on the shape of future U.S.-Afghan relations. Senator Cotton serves on the Armed Services Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence.