Parties before people

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted Adnan Kocher at a roundtable discussion on Thursday. Kocher is a senior advisor on international political affairs to Lahur Talabani, Head of the Kurdistan Intelligence Service. Kocher is also chairman of the Kurdish Cultural Center in London.

What Kocher had to say about the ongoing conflict between the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and Da’ish (aka ISIS) was not especially enlightening. He called, as many others have in recent months, for a stronger anti-Da’ish policy, going beyond airstrikes and supply of small arms to approved groups. Noting that the jihadis still enjoy grassroots support from local Sunnis, Kocher stressed that it is necessary to work carefully with Sunni groups to defeat Da’ish and erode its support network. He also called for empowering of local fighters – including the Kurds – to combat the so-called Islamic State on the ground.

These jejune (though not inaccurate) observations came amidst thinly veiled sniping at Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which currently holds the most seats in the Kurdish Parliament and is led by the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani. Kocher’s affiliation is with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani (former president of Iraq), and brother of Lahur Talabani. The apparent political divisions, and implicit nepotistic factionalism within Kurdistan highlighted by Kocher over the course of the discussion was revealing of the challenges the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) faces in both its fight against Da’ish and its quest for independence.

Factionalism and nepotism among the Iraqi Kurds is nothing new. In 2009 a US report described the KDP as a family run, mafia-like organization. A quick glance at the names of those holding high office in the KRG shows the KDP dominated by the Barzani family and the PUK by the Talabani family. The two have competed with one another for years (even going to war in the Saddam Hussein era). This ongoing feuding is weakening the Kurdish position at this difficult time.

The lack of cooperation extends to the peshmerga forces. Both PUK and KDP run their own, rather like private armies. Divided chains of command as well as differing objectives and goals challenge the unity of Kurdistan’s response to Da’ish. Kocher underlined failures by the KDP peshmerga and successes by the PUK peshmerga.

Could a lack of a united framework, and even competition between the two factions, be a contributing factor in failures to push back Da’ish? In Sinjar and around Mosul the peshmerga have lost ground and continue to struggle, while Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG) have held swathes of territory in Rojava, helped defend the Yazidis in Iraq, and withstood the brunt of the jihadist war machine in the town of Kobane. This despite the fact the YPG’s parent organisation, the PYD (Democratic Union Party), is banned in Syria and has no official government authority.

Kocher also frequently referenced the lack of supplies going to the Kurdish forces. Commenting on video footage of PUK peshmerga waiting on the frontline, he drew attention to lack of combat boots, poorly made uniforms, and lack of ammunition. This is surprising. The US has been explicitly funding and supplying the peshmerga since August. Even before that, well equipped and trained peshmerga could be seen in and around Erbil (KDP territory) wearing new and well-kept uniforms.

With the division between the two major Kurdish parties and their affiliated troops, it is possible that resources, funds, and equipment are unevenly distributed. There are also vast differences in operational capabilities of different peshmerga forces, exacerbated by lack of a clear and unified command structure and leading to reductions in the combat effectiveness of the KRG. For Western governments, this makes knowing to whom weapons and funds should be sent complicated.

There are also international actors with stakes in the Kurdish political factions. In recent years, the KDP has had strong ties with Turkey. Relations between Presidents Barzani and Erdogan are cordial. The PUK is backed by Iran. Kocher tried to dispel concerns over Iran’s influence on his party, claiming that the PUK instead considers Israel a friend (without acknowledging that one can be friends with Israel and still have ties to Iran). As Iran and Turkey continue to compete through local factions, their influence in Kurdish politics further serves to divide and polarize, as the two jostle for influence.

Kurdish leaders can ill afford to be playing politics. Though Da’ish is starting to be pushed back, jihadists continue to threaten KRG interests and operate in and around its borders. The KRG is facing skyrocketing costs even as it struggles to raise revenues after months of budgetary disputes with Baghdad over Kurdistan’s oil (the latest deal was announced on Thursday).

Kurdistan has been one of the few success stories of the Middle East in the past decade. Its people have grown wealthier, its infrastructure improved, and it has enjoyed stability in a volatile region. However, much of its leadership is composed of families and their followers who are mistrustful of one another. They put their parties ahead of their people. No one would deny the bravery of the peshmerga soldiers as they fight against a better armed enemy – but the political class is letting them down.

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