Political instability in Iraq’s federal Kurdistan Region is gradually worsening. And it does not look as though intervention by international or regional forces would bring about positive outcomes.
There are two main forces in the federal Kurdistan Regional capital Erbil. These are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by the Barzani family, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by the Talabani family. The regional government is formed of a coalition of these two parties. This government has been unable to function for months now, and its activities are being boycotted by the PUK.
Prime Minister Masrour Barzani is the son of the KDP leader Masoud Barzani. But the Deputy Prime Minister is Qubad Talabani, the second son of Jalal Talabani, founder and former leader of the PUK. Qubad Talabani and the PUK ministers have been refusing to participate in the activities of the government in Erbil for over six months now. The PUK state that Masrour Barzani is applying an embargo to their regions and that he is not distributing income fairly. There are certainly other reasons too, which we will come to.
A meeting was held on 28 January to try to overcome this political impasse. Nothing conclusive emerged from this meeting of KDP and PUK delegations, though they did state that there will be more meetings.
It is worth drawing attention to a number of points relating to the political shape of the region, before moving on to the reasons for this crisis, this political impasse. Although the federal Kurdistan Region is a single region, internally, it is divided in two. Erbil, Dohuk, Zaxho and environs are under the control of the KDP, while Sulaymaniyah, Raparin, Garmian and Halabja are under PUK control. There is not yet a unified military force. There is no real co-operation in institutions like the Asayish (internal security), the intelligence service and strategic institutions. This in itself is a potential cause of problems.
The KDP region is under the absolute sovereignty of the Barzani family. Masoud Barzani is the leader of the KDP. His nephew Nechirvan Barzani is the regional leader but at the same time he is a deputy in Masoud Barzani’s party, and Masoud Barzani’s son Masrour Barzani is the government’s prime minister. Other members of the Barzani family are heads of other important institutions.
Jalal Talabani’s son Bafel Talabani is the current PUK leader. An earlier system of co-chairs was abolished and his cousin Lahur Sheikh Jangi Talabani’s influence over the party was done away with. But there are multiple influences in the PUK politburo. While the KDP is a family party, by comparison, the PUK shelters wider circles within its structure.
Let us now look at the reasons for the crisis mentioned in the introduction.
The first reason is the economy. The PUK says that Masrour Barzani is obstructing material resources needed by their regions, that spending is at a rate of over 5:1 in favour of Erbil over Sulaymaniyah, i.e. that the income is not being fairly distributed. When the cashflow stops problems start to arise in the streets, salaries cannot be paid and public sector workers and teachers organise strikes. The KDP calculates that in this way the respect among the community for the PUK will be eroded. Around $5.5 billion of official income from oil was unaccounted for in 2022. Every month 400 billion Iraqi dinars flow directly from Baghdad to the government in Erbil, but this money is not spent in the regions where the PUK is active. When the PUK could not correct this situation, it started to boycott the activities of the government, and this has been the situation for months now.
Recently the PUK leader Bafel Talabani organised a very important meeting with the participation of all the political parties, in the city of Dokan in his own region. The agenda of this meeting was the roadmap from here on out.
At this meeting, Bafel Talabani made a proposal to the political parties: to separate from the federal Kurdistan Region, to declare themselves a separate federal region and to work directly with Baghdad. Bafel, and by extension the PUK, think that they can no longer work together with Erbil – that is, the Barzani family. Iraq has a federal constitution, meaning that ‘federal regions’ can declare themselves. Each federal region works directly with Baghdad. This suggestion of Talabani’s was warmly received by the political parties.
In response to this the White House’s North Africa and Middle East Co-ordinator Brett McGurk visited Erbil, met with the KDP and the PUK and cautioned them to overcome their problem. The US does not want the situation to intensify, and it believes that a separate autonomous region on the border with Iran would not be in its interests. It was as a result of this that the meeting of 28 January took place, though there does not appear to be much hope emerging from that meeting…
Turkey is another reason for the current crisis. The fact that the KDP is working unconditionally with Turkey is already disturbing for all Kurdish circles, but recently Turkey has been following up certain new initiatives in the region. The Turkish government wants to exploit the natural gas resources in the Garmian region. The Garmian region is under the control of the PUK. Turkey was unable to persuade the PUK in this matter. It tried to apply pressure through the KDP, but still to no avail. This is an important reason for Masrour Barzani’s implementation of the economic embargo. It will be recalled that there was previously a 50-year oil agreement between Turkey and the PUK. The Turkish government wants a similar agreement for the natural gas in Garmian. When extreme pressure was applied last year, Bafel Talabani said, ‘they can take those areas over my dead body’, because the natural gas resources in this region have the potential to supply the whole region. These natural gas fields have gained a new importance since the Russia-Ukraine war. Turkey wants to use them as an alternative to the Russian supply. A Turkish delegation went to Sulaymaniyah on 20 January to talk with the PUK about this, but it appears that there was no development.
At the time this was all happening Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani was in Paris meeting with Macron. At the same time Sudani met with three big French energy firms and invited them to Iraq. Macron is supportive of this. As a result, the PUK and the central government of Baghdad will be able to exploit these natural gas fields with the help of the French, bypassing Turkey and the KDP. If such a development occurs the balance of the region will change completely. Naturally the questions of what Iran will say to this or how the US will approach the matter still remain. It won’t be that easy, but it is possible that this is how the process will evolve.
We should add that last week Iraq’s Federal Court ruled that the sending of 400 billion Iraqi dinars each month to the federal Kurdistan Region is an illegal practice. So if the government does not want to, it can apply the court ruling and not send the money. This situation has thrown the KDP and Ankara into a panic. Nechirvan Barzani went straight to Ankara and met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on 26 January, because Baghdad says that the oil agreement between the KDP and Turkey is in contravention of the law and that the money must go to Baghdad. Turkey has no intention of complying with this. Turkish oil companies made over $7 billion of extra income from Kurdish oil in the region in 2022.
In conclusion, it will be difficult for the meetings between the KDP and the PUK after months of all this, to reach a positive conclusion, because they are not the only ones making decisions. The parties’ politico-economic power struggle is reflected in heavy costs to the people of the region. The current situation has no meaning other than to cause damage to the Kurdish people, who have already paid through the nose to achieve the status quo. The people have just about given up on these political structures. The youth in particular is preferring to go abroad. The people’s expectation is a new politics, a new vision. It looks as though this will be a very big ask in this region in the near future.
Amed Dicle was born and raised in Diyarbakır, Turkey. He has worked for Kurdish-language media outlets in Europe including Roj TV, Sterk TV and currently ANF. His career has taken him to Rojava, Syria, Iraq and many countries across Europe. Follow him on Twitter.