Syrian conflict threatens to fracture Iraq
Semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and the central Iraqi government are on a collision course as the Kurds increasingly side with the Syrian opposition and Baghdad stands by the Assad regime.
Irbil, Iraq — In September, as the Iraqi government reached one of its lowest points in relations with Turkey in years, Ankara welcomed Iraqi Kurdistan's President Massoud Barzani as a guest of honor at a convention hosted by the ruling Justice and Development Party.
The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and the federal government in Baghdad have not seen eye to eye for years, and the gap between the two is now widening, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. That's been put in stark relief by the ongoing civil war in Syria, which has shifted the fortunes of Iraq's Kurds.
A decade ago, Iraq was a Sunni Arab-dominated dictatorship that shared many problems with the Sunni Turks to the north. Both countries had restive ethnic-Kurdish separatist movements and uneasy relations with their Shiite and Persian neighbor, Iran.
Today, Iraq has a Shiite-dominated government that is close to Tehran, which is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria's civil war. Turkey, still eager to prevent Kurdish separatist sentiments within its borders, now sees the Iraqi Kurds as a potential ally in opposition to the interests of Iran, Baghdad and Damascus.
The emerging sectarian alliances have prompted Baghdad and the KRG to throw themselves into opposing camps in the Syrian war, creating conflicting interests in the supposedly unified country.
As regional and Western diplomats point fingers at Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for aiding embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a charge which Baghdad vehemently denies – Iraqi Kurds are increasingly involved with the opposition, lured by the possibility that in a post-Assad Syria, Kurds there might achieve some degree of autonomy. That would allow the KRG to expand its foothold.
The KRG has hosted leaders of the Syrian opposition in its regional capital, Erbil, much to Baghdad's dismay. It has also lent support to Kurds in northeastern Syria – Barzani publicly admitted in July that his government is providing them with military training. And now some of the Kurdish factions there are holding talks with the mostly Arab Syrian opposition to decide whether and how to join them in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad, even though the relationship between the two camps has been strained by several bouts of fighting.
"The Syria crisis is forcing everyone around Syria to choose sides," says Joost Hiltermann, who follows Iraq for the International Crisis Group (ICG). "Maliki is worried about the emergence of a post-Assad Sunni Islamist order in Syria... he finds that he has to support Assad by default. This puts him de facto in the Iranian camp and in conflict with Turkey."
The Iraqi Kurds are at the opposite end of the equation from Maliki. Though Turkey treats its own Kurdish population poorly, the KRG's deep mistrust of Baghdad has seen a tactical relationship developing between Ankara and Erbil and, by extension, the regional Sunni powers backing the Syrian uprising.
Although the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, Hiltermann says the KRG's interest is not about religion, but an attempt to further nationalist goals. "They [Kurds] have long-term aspirations to independence, and today this means allying themselves with Turkey, which is encouraging them to take distance from Baghdad," Hiltermann says.
Although Iraq's constitution gives the federal government theoretical control of the country's foreign policy, the KRG seldom defers to Baghdad on matters of international relations.
Iraq's Kurds have enjoyed a high level of autonomy in northern Iraq since the 1990s, when the West backed a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds during an uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime. The KRG has its own diplomatic representatives in some key international capitals – Washington, London, Paris, and Moscow among them – and more than 20 countries, including the US, have diplomatic missions in Erbil.
To say that Baghdad has a problem with the KRG's overtures to the Syrian opposition and its backers is to put it mildly.
"They have completely gone their way and are sometimes on a collision line with the federal government [in Baghdad]," says Saad al-Muttalebi, a prominent figure in Maliki's coalition. "Unfortunately the KRG behaves as if it's an independent state and sets up its own international policies... without any consideration to the central government."
Politicians in Baghdad are particularly unhappy with KRG's closer ties to Turkey, which harbored exiled Sunni Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi after he fled Iraq earlier this year. Mr. Muttalebi, who used to serve as an adviser to Maliki, lashed out at Turkey for choosing "an unwise course of action" and "misusing its relations with Iraq."
But Erbil sees Ankara as a critical counterbalancing factor against Baghdad, which the Kurdish government accuses of being increasingly heavy-handed.
"It is true that there is a federal broad-based coalition government in Baghdad, but day after day we see it becoming more autocratic," Safin Dizayee, the official spokesperson for the KRG, told The Monitor at his office in Erbil.
"[Iraq's] foreign policy is determined not by the institutions of the state, but by certain individuals within the state or a certain party," Dizayee explains, referring indirectly to Maliki and his Shiite Dawa Party. "And when it comes to the policy of that party toward Syria, that might be actually questionable."
Turkey's annual trade with Iraq stood at around $11 billion in 2011, according to Turkish government's figures, but Kurdish officials say about 70 percent of the trade occurs with the Kurdish region. The discovery of large oil reserves in Iraqi Kurdistan has only made the energy-thirsty Turkey more interested in developing closer ties with the KRG without much regard for Baghdad's opposition. Erbil has been happy to go along.
But for a country with a long history of internal conflict and instability, the current regional shift may not pay off in the end.
"Baghdad and Erbil are taking decisions that they believe will enhance their regional and domestic positions," says Ahmed Ali, a Middle East analyst at Georgetown University. But in a region of ever-shifting alliances, there is danger in charting "domestic policy while thinking that regional alliances are permanent and will help them fulfill their plans."