Tensions Threaten Iraqi Kurdistan’s Fragile Stability

Tensions Threaten Iraqi Kurdistan’s Fragile Stability

September 17, 2014 | 0051 GMT




A rumor is circulating in Kurdish media that Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party has unilaterally decided to terminate its alliance with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Originating in an Arbil-based BasNews report citing unnamed sources close to Barzani’s party, the rumor has not been confirmed. However, tensions between the parties are already obvious. Internal complications are growing and Iran and Turkey are vying for influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, returning the Kurdish factions to a familiar state of rivalry.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party was founded in 1946. Barzani’s father, Mustafa, led the party from 1949 to 1979, and the younger Barzani has served as the party’s president ever since. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was founded in 1976. Jalal Talabani, the former Iraqi prime minister, leads the party and was one of its founding members. The Talabanis and Barzanis, based in Sulaimaniyah and Arbil, respectively, are two of Iraqi Kurdistan’s preeminent families. Their competition for leadership of Iraq’s Kurdish population reflects the linguistic and cultural divisions still present in Iraqi Kurdistan and has provided ample opportunities for neighboring Turkey and Iran to back different sides of this ongoing rift.

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Realizing Iraqi Kurdistan’s energy potential, the unique opportunity afforded by having an (albeit temporary) U.S. shield in Iraq and the danger of returning to the level of competition that pitted the parties against each other in a civil war just a decade earlier, the parties signed a power-sharing agreement in 2005. However, Stratfor has regarded this period of Kurdish unity as highly anomalous. Amid growing internal and external pressures, it became inevitable that the Kurdish fault line would not only become active again but also threaten the unity that many energy investors and outside observers have taken for granted.

Reasons for the Split

Several factors are behind the widening split. First, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is undergoing a leadership crisis in the absence of Talabani, its ailing leader, just as the Goran movement is on the rise at the expense of Talabani’s party, in part because of the quiet support of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. Next, an economic crisis is growing in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Islamic State is creating a security crisis in the region. Finally, Iraqi Kurdistan is feeling the effects of the growing regional competition between Turkey, which is aligned with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Iran, which has a closer relationship with both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Goran movement.

All these issues have intensified greatly in recent weeks. Fuel shortages in the region have driven protests throughout Iraqi Kurdistan — protests that both factions accuse the other of encouraging. Militant control and sabotage of major refineries are exacerbating the shortages, but so is high-level corruption in which political officials make more money smuggling crude oil across the border to Iran than refining and selling subsidized fuel to Kurdish consumers.

Furthermore, the Kurdistan Democratic Party has maintained a hard line in negotiations with Baghdad, despite the economic pain caused by the central government’s failure to provide its $1 billion monthly budget allocation to Iraqi Kurdistan. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan officials have publicly criticized the Barzani faction’s policies, which advocate an independent Kurdistan under Turkey’s shadow, appealing instead for a more pragmatic approach with Baghdad.

On the security front, the divisions run just as deep. The peshmerga, also split between the two parties despite nominally answering to Barzani as commander-in-chief, has been feuding over failures and successes in its fight against the Islamic State. When peshmerga forces filled a security vacuum in oil-rich Kirkuk in June, the Barzani and Talabani parties fought over whose peshmerga forces would secure the oil formations. Such infighting will only intensify if Kirkuk continues to destabilize in the coming weeks and months. Both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party want to ensure they can keep a tight grip over Kirkuk’s oil (and smuggling schemes). Meanwhile, Kirkuk Gov. Najmaddin Karim is entertaining proposals to make Kirkuk its own autonomous region.

The Split Beyond Iraqi Kurdistan

The parties’ rivalry is also a function of Iranian-Turkish competition in the region. Iran and its Shiite representatives in Baghdad are already coordinating with peshmerga and officials from both parties, making clear that security cooperation against the Islamic State comes with a price: Working with Baghdad means ending the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Turkish-backed bid for energy independence and renegotiating the status of Kirkuk in the disputed territories. With the Barzani and Talabani parties moving in opposite directions on this policy, and with the Goran movement easily played by multiple sides, distrust between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan will naturally deepen.

Even if the Kurdistan Regional Government tries to gloss over these rumors and reassure investors that a formal split is not underway, the divisions are already apparent and growing. This will have significant implications for security in the region, even as the United States struggles to patch together a coalition of local ground forces to support its air campaign against the Islamic State. For those energy firms that have ventured into Iraqi Kurdistan’s disputed regions, such as Kirkuk, the complications in operations will only increase as the Barzani and Talabani factions compete for control of resources. Meanwhile, Turkey, Iran, Baghdad and even local jihadists can be expected to exploit the Kurdish rift as all parties seek to limit Kurdish autonomy while competing on multiple levels.