The Kurds of Iraq pin great hopes on US President Joe Biden, viewing him as the most pro-Kurdish American politician ever. In the past he displayed concern for their plight, and as vice president under Barack Obama he visited Iraq 24 times and developed good ties with the Kurdish leadership. He supported a federal structure for Iraq but was against Kurdish independence. Still, following the Kurdish referendum for independence in 2017 he stated that the United States “could have done more for the Kurds.” Indeed, his sympathy for the Kurds won him the title “enemy of Turkey” in the Turkish media.
What then can the Kurds of Iraq expect from the Biden administration? It is difficult to predict but one important consideration might be the Kurds’ own status in the fractured Iraqi state. Presently, the Kurdish situation is witnessing a lot of ups and down. Until the autumn of 2017, they boasted of a “Kurdish spring” of sorts and a strong autonomy after they had contributed immensely to the defeat of Daesh, expanded their control over the disputed territories with Baghdad by 40%, and held a referendum for independence which elicited 93% of the votes.
However, all these achievements evaporated in the aftermath of the referendum as the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (KRI) experienced one of the worst setbacks ever: Turkey, Iran and Iraq joined hands in an attempt to put an end to Kurdish autonomy, suffocate its economy and bring the Kurdish leadership to its knees. Initially, the Trump administration turned a blind eye to its erstwhile ally the Kurds, but then it did help the KRI to somehow weather the crisis.
For now, the KRI is confronted with huge challenges, the major of which are the following:
First is the socioeconomic challenge exacerbated by the fact that wages have been suspended for a few months because of the financial crisis with Baghdad. This is in addition to COVID-19, which hit the region severely.
No less severe is the ongoing rivalry between the two leading parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), or the two extended ruling families – the Barzanis and the Talabanis. This rivalry has deepened not only because of the historical struggle for power between the two but also due to opposite orientation: While the Barzanis are Ankara-oriented, the Talabanis are Tehran- and Baghdad-oriented, something which fueled further the two capitals’ tactics of divide and rule against them.
Another intra-Kurdish challenge is that of the Kurdish–Turkish Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK) which has entrenched its bases inside Iraqi Kurdistan. This presence triggered the establishment of Turkish bases inside the KRI and instigated Turkish army attacks against the PKK, thus jeopardizing the Kurdish region’s security and stability. Iran is another spoiler whose targets include the American bases in the region.
The thorny relations with Baghdad pose the most serious challenge. Even under the amicable Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, there are ongoing attempts by the central government to incapacitate the Kurdish region by initiating various moves such as overturning the federal system, implementing centralizing policies, halting payments to the region, encouraging Arabizing policies and ignoring the constitution’s articles which call for carrying out a census in the oil-rich disputed areas.
Having said that, Iraq can be described now as a country of two non-state entities, the Arab and the Kurdish ones that are held together by a “balance of weakness”. Still, the Kurdish part appears to be the relatively stronger of the two. Indeed, for all the fluctuations it has experienced, the Kurdish autonomous region has managed to keep a modicum of stability and security in comparison not just to other parts of Iraq but to the Middle East as a whole.
Similarly, for all the rivalry between the KDP and PUK, they do not fight each other and do not pose a challenge to the Kurdish government. This contrasts sharply with the huge number of Shia militias which militate against each other and keep challenging the Iraqi army and the central government in Baghdad. In fact, these militias have emerged as the real decision-makers in Baghdad. Adding further to the insecurity and instability on the Arab side are the ongoing attacks by Daesh, most of which are directed against the central government, the American forces and the Shia militias. With this, the Kurdish region has managed to remain quite safe from them.
Another severe challenge for Arab Iraq are the ongoing demonstrations which started in October 2019 and which reached the level of anarchy, costing the lives of some 700 Iraqis and triggering the change of government, but to no great avail. It is true that in the last few weeks there were some bloody demonstrations in the Kurdish region as well, but again they pale in comparison with those on the Arab side. In short, in terms of governability the Kurdish region is functioning much better than the Arab side.
What does the future hold for Biden’s stance vis-a-vis the KRI? It seems inconceivable that he will encourage or support the establishment of an independent Kurdish state but he may play a crucial role in brokering a fair agreement on outstanding issues between Erbil and Baghdad. The three main issues are the budget, the disputed territories, and the preservation of the constitution.
Based on past American experience in Iraq it is in the interest of the new administration to help solve these problems and see to the entrenchment of a strong and stable Kurdish region for strategic, ideological and economic reasons.
First, the Kurds have remained the most reliable and pro-American partners in a turbulent Iraq as not one American soldier was killed there since 2003.
Second, in terms of ideological posture while extreme Islamism and anti-Americanism is cutting roots in the Arab part of Iraq, the Kurdish region has remained immune to these trends.
Third, the Kurdish region is very rich with oil and gas which may be very beneficial for American enterprise there.
Fourth, if the American forces decide to withdraw from Iraq they might need to relocate to the safer region of Kurdistan.
Fifth, supporting the Kurdish region may send a strong message to both Iran and Turkey, prevent their encroachment into Iraq and weaken the pro-Iranian forces there.
All in all, it remains to be seen whether or not Biden’s goodwill and American interests will withstand the three pronged Iraqi-Iranian-Turkish pressure.