As the war against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq enters its final stages, the eyes of the world have begun to focus intently on how the political landscape of the Middle East will take shape in the post-IS era. In particular, regimes and experts both within the Middle East, and across the globe, have taken an interest in the ascendant push for the creation of an independent state for the Kurdish people in northern the northern regions of Iraq and Syria. For decades the Kurdish ethnic populations in these areas, as well as in regions within the borders of both Turkey and Iran, have struggled to assert their autonomy, frequently against the backdrop of violent oppression by Middle Eastern regimes (such as Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapon campaign against Kurdish settlements in Iraq). It is clear to most international experts and policy makers that the Kurdish people are hungry for a state of their own, and moreover, probably deserve one. What is less clear, however, is what such a state would look like, and how it would fare politically, economically, and militarily, given the circumstances it now finds itself in. During the war against IS, American and European leaders have been quick to paint Kurdish military forces as progressive, democratic, and devoutly pro-western. The governing structure of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, known as the ‘Kurdish Regional Government’ has even been described by the United States as a ‘haven of religious tolerance and relative safety’ as well as a ‘sanctuary’ for refugees. As IS began to falter, Turkey (a longtime opponent of Kurdish ethnic independence) even normalized relations with the KRG, and Ankara became the Kurds’ top external trading partner. Everything, it seemed, was looking up for Kurdistan.
However, recent events in the area have exposed many of the cracks in the foundation of the Kurdish independence movement, and exposed more than troubling indicators for the form such a state would take. To many experts, Kurdistan’s future is anything but certain. Firstly, one can examine the KRG’s governing structure to quickly find inconsistencies for how Kurdish leaders portray themselves to the world, versus what actually happens on the ground. To establish political context for the KRG, one only needs to go back to 1998, to the end of the four year civil war between the two main Kurdish independence parties: The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KDP proved victorious in this war, and has dominated the Kurdish region of Iraq ever since. The Washington Institute for Near East Studies classifies the behavior of the KDP from 1998 until now to be ‘democratic in name, but increasingly authoritarian in practice.’ Since its founding in 1946, the party has been led and controlled almost singularly by the powerful Barzani family, who have used their influence to routinely repress democracy in the region when it does not suit their interests. For example, when in December of 2015, the Kurdish parliament attempted to alter the presidency laws in the constitution in order to promote fairer election practices, the KDP had the speaker of parliament expelled. In many ways, the KDP, in their control of the regional government, has sought not to build up national institutions or a democratic governing structure, but rather to dominate and intimidate any Kurdish groups who challenge their authority.
Looking past the political sphere, the inherent problems with the ability of the KRG to police both its borders and its own population are easy to view. The various military and paramilitary groups fighting under the broad banner of the Kurdish cause are neither unified nor truly institutionalized. Both the KDP and the PUK have split military forces along party lines, and both command their own separate ‘Peshmerga’ (the official Kurdish security force) units, as well as party affiliated private security forces. As the Kurdish people struggle to build a workable state out of the ashes of the war, this has the potential to lead to endless internal conflicts and power struggles, backed by real threats of violence. Not only that, but the Peshmerga and their affiliates would be hard-pressed to defend a Kurdish state against outside threats. Such a state’s new neighbors (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria) all possess much larger military and economic capabilities, and a hint of this imbalance was seen after the Kurdish declaration of independence in late 2017, which was immediately followed by military interventions by the Iraqi and Turkish governments, who quickly seized the Kirkuk region from Kurdish fighters with little organized resistance. This is even ignoring the fact that due to Kurdistan’s mountainous, underdeveloped geography, the Peshmerga has struggled to assert primacy in many rural regions, leading to an uptick in local militia groups taking control, who all could pose major security threats to the KRG in their own right.
Economically speaking, the road ahead for Kurdistan could be described as rocky at best. Over the past 25 years, the lifeblood of Iraqi Kurdistan has been the oil industry. Attempting to follow in the path of many other Middle Eastern oil-wealth success stories, the KRG has failed to take actions towards effectively diversifying the economy, content with trying to build Kurdistan up as a purely petro-state. And the short sightedness doesn’t stop there: there seems to have been a precedent set for the KRG of short term gains over long term economic development, as when Kurdish forces seized the huge Kirkuk oil fields in June of 2014, the government ‘all but stopped’ developing its own oil fields in historic KRG areas. The retaking of this region by the Iraqi government has therefore caused an unprecedented economic crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan, and forced the cash-strapped regime to abandon their previous government allowance program paid to high-unemployment areas, causing widespread unrest. At the time of writing, the KRG’s total debts number over $20 billion, and recent explorations have found that the Kurdish region may have far smaller oil reserves than the KDP has previously claimed, causing a large rollback in investment by companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron, which is likely to make the economic crisis even worse. Such economic problems would be a struggle enough for a stable, well run government to handle, but within a regime as contaminated by corruption, cronyism, and instability as the Kurdistan Regional Government, these problems seem increasingly insurmountable. The current structure has created an intense wealth divide between the politically connected urban elite and the rest of the population, creating potential opportunities for more extremist Kurdish militant groups like the radical-socialist Kurdistan Workers Party to exert greater influence over the population and provoke instability, or even revolution.
On an ideological level, most would agree that the Kurds probably deserve their own state as much as the next group, and have suffered decades of oppression in its pursuit. However, in the current situation, the budding Kurdish government has found itself isolated diplomatically, on the brink of collapse economically and militarily, and mired in corruption and authoritarianism politically. As the situation in the area continues to destabilize, major regional powers like Iran and Turkey may soon get their opportunity to swoop in and return the dream of Kurdish statehood to just that: a dream.