Why the West needs to re-examine how it helps the Kurdistan Regional Government
By George Dyson and Rebwar Rawf Salih.
The West should use military aid to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to leverage political reform, or risk inadvertently worsening regional security. For the KRG, political reform will strengthen its chances of not only surviving but of flourishing.
Amid political uncertainty, the Kurdistan Regional Government of Northern Iraq continues to receive funding and support from the coalition states in its admirable fight against Islamic State (IS). However, as crucial as the fight against IS undeniably is, and as much as Kurdish forces need international support, there is a danger in providing unconditional support. Moreover, as Donald Trump’s election to President of the United State has reminded us, there is no such thing as a certainty in geo-politics, especially in the region in which the Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq (KRI: the region, as opposed to the KRG, the body that rules it) finds itself.
With this in mind, the KRG would be wise to demonstrably embrace principles of Western democracy and establish itself as a useful partner to the West, especially, after its counter-IS role is no longer required.
Political deadlock an ongoing concern
The KRG has been undergoing a crisis of government for over a year now. The President of the KRI, Masoud Barzani, has exhibited authoritarian tendencies during his tenure and a lack of willingness to reform. In 2013, his term as president was extended by two years to 2015 in the Kurdistan Regional Parliament. Two years later and he is still in office, with critics claiming he has overstayed his tenure. Despite indications from Barzani last November that he was willing to step down to end the political impasse, he is yet to do so. Now voices from within his party are calling for him to stay.
Some commentators believe this has been at his behest. Since December 2015, the speaker of the house, Yousif Mohammed, of the Gorran (Change) Movement has been unable to enter the regional capital, Erbil. Apparently blocked by forces loyal to Barzani, Mohammed’s absence has paralysed the parliament. Furthermore, protests against his rule, as well as corruption and other issues, have been rocking the KRI.
The two largest political parties in the KRG – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – were once locked in a brutal civil war. The situation in the KRI is highly combustible and there is a very real danger of violence. The first concern is that in this situation, military and even economic support can actually worsen the security situation, if handled incorrectly. Secondly, at the same time the KRG risks putting off its Western backers in the long term, if its actions appear overly undemocratic. That being said there are solutions to these issues, namely using military support to leverage reform and for domestic actors to continue to push for change.
The ‘securitisation spiral’
With regard to the first issue, there is the danger of the KRG falling into a so-called ‘securitisation spiral’. In the context of the KRG, where the control of security forces and the security forces themselves are highly politicized, foreign military and also economic support, could inadvertently reinforce anti-democratic tendencies.
Amid their alarm over the rise of IS, the EU and the U.S have invested considerable sums of money in military support to actors fighting against the group. In light of a string of embarrassments concerning U.S support of ineffective groups or groups who have actually harmed U.S interests, an effective, friendly anti-IS group is a highly-sought commodity.
The KRG and Kurdish groups in general are held up as beacons of democracy and progressive politics in Western media and governmental discourse, with issues such as certain groups’ progressive attitudes on women’s rights receiving considerable attention. There is of course considerable truth to this positive press, and various Kurdish groups in the region should be commended for sincerely adopting progressive attitudes. However, this overwhelmingly positive attention can mask and actually aggravate very real problems.
The West needs a ‘good guy’ in the narrative about the fight against IS and Kurdish groups fill this role. This can, for different reasons, lead to a lack of critical assessment or a willing blindness on the part of media and governments, which inadvertently come together and reinforce each other. With respect to governments, in their desperation for a ‘good’ partner to fight IS, support ends up being provided with insufficient conditions.
At the same time, given IS’ rapid spread, politicians in areas directly threatened, such as the KRI, are under pressure to demonstrate they are combatting the group. This can lead to a ‘securitization’ of discourse. Either in order to gain political support or in an attempt to acquire military aid, or both, all opponents become terrorists or traitors, all problems become security problems. This can be used to mask authoritarian actions and shuts out objective discussion.
In addition, military aid and training make security forces more lethal but without conditions or by focusing only on combat training, such training does not make them more accountable. Politicians can be tempted to divert funding to forces loyal to them and thus aid can even be used for patronage purposes. This can create situations whereby particular groups within the army become more powerful. Politicians, buoyed by loyal security forces, see less need to compromise, leading in turn to further dissent. This can ultimately boil over with potentially destabilising and bloody consequences.
It is now over a year since the KRI has been mired in political deadlock and it is a year that has been repeatedly marred by protests. Almost all parts of the armed forces are politically aligned and behave accordingly. Moreover, the region has a history of violence between its two largest rival parties. This is troublingly fertile ground for a ‘securitisation spiral’.
Kurdistan risks treading a well-worn path
This phenomenon has a precedent. Mali received considerable military aid in the late 2000s to combat the spread of Al-Qaeda and similar groups in North West Africa. It was heralded as a beacon of democracy, specifically of Muslim democracy. Democratic deficiencies were overlooked. Support and military aid were given to the country with little conditionality for reform.
The armed forces, subsequently buoyed, cracked down not only violent Islamist groups but their political opponents as well. This crackdown arguably sparked the 2012 Tuareg rebellion and the military’s subsequent coup d’état which overthrew the Malian government, unhappy with its response to the uprising.
In the desperate search for a ‘good’ partner who can be portrayed domestically as democratic and subscribing to ‘Western’ values, Western countries are often willing to overlook democratic deficiencies in their chosen partners in the fight against violent Islamist groups.
A similar process can now be witnessed in Tunisia, as Western countries have held up this country as a beacon of (Muslim in particular) democracy and a reliable partner in the fight against IS. The reality is far more complicated and unconditional military aid risks reinforcing the power of the country’s ministry of the interior, which is still dominated by reactionary, ancien regime figures.
Fortunately, the KRG also appears to place value in maintaining at least a democratic image to the West, given the amount of positive messaging about issues such as religious tolerance and women’s rights. The KRG, landlocked and isolated, has a near-existential reliance on Western support. The KRG and other Kurdish groups have found that by projecting a democratic, egalitarian ideology, they are able to generate support among the public of Western countries. This support is at least somewhat contingent on this image reflecting reality.
As mentioned above, the KRI’s democracy is currently on shaky ground, with accusations of one-party-rule increasingly levelled at Masoud Barzani. The likelihood of Barzani stepping down appears increasingly low. Moreover, figures from within the Gorran Movement say that this would merely be a cosmetic change anyway and what is needed is structural reform. Western support for the KRG can be used to leverage reform if handled effectively. If handled poorly, it could actually damage security in the region.
The onus is also on actors within the KRI to push for change. There is a case to be made that U.S support will not go on forever if they see no effort at reform. Moreover, while Western populations are supportive for the time being, this could easily change if the balance in press coverage tips the other way. The KRG has proven it can use its natural resources as a means to leverage external support but this is not a strategy which leads to internal stability. The interlinking of security management and natural resource exploitation has led to elites capturing and monopolising resources, creating cycles of corruption, which have exacerbated internal frictions within the KRG.
The KRG enjoys the support of Turkey and the two cooperate on energy exploitation. However, attitudes towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s enemy, among different factions within the KRI, complicate this relationship. For the KRG to survive and enjoy domestic harmony, it needs to push forward on implementing democratic values and combatting corruption in a meaningful and demonstrable fashion. The peaceful transfer of power, separation of powers, apolitical armed forces and the strong rule of law have to become normalised. With both critical engagement and support from the West, relevant actors within the KRG can draw on the certainty and impetus required to bring about substantive change.
George Dyson is Head of Research at the Centre for Turkey Studies and has worked as a research analyst on conflict, political risk and business intelligence in Turkey and the MENA region.
Rebwar Rawf Salih is from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and was a political activist in the 1990s. He now works for the Centre for Kurdish progress. He holds an MSc in Government, Policy and Politics from the University of London.