Rising Tensions in Kurdistan

The headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) during anti-government protests in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan Region, December 8, 2020 (Reuters)

By Azad F. Kurd 


Tensions in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq are escalating as Baghdad and Erbil try to overcome domestic affair obstacles. While most of the strains are domestic, Turkey’s involvement in the region transforms it to the international level. Giran Ozcan, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) representative to the United States, will shed light on a possible correlation between events happening in Turkey and Kurdistan Region. At the same time, the co-founder and spokesperson of American Friends of Kurdistan (AFK), Diliman Abdulkader, will focus on the tensions’ domestic component.

On December 3, the people of Sulaymaniyah once again led the anti-government demonstrations, demanding teachers’ unpaid salaries and changes to the increasing unemployment rate. Thousands of teachers, employees of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and their supporters peacefully marched towards Saray Azadi Square (Freedom Square). One other factor of the demonstrations is the announcement that came from the KRG in June of this year, which initiated a twenty-one percent wage cut for government employees.

Reporters were arrested. The headquarters of a local broadcasting station was shut down by the security forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to block the televising of the demonstrations. The PUK is known to be the party in control of Sulaymaniyah and has been subjected to heavy criticism for the demonstrators’ harsh treatment. Tear gas and live ammunition were used, resulting in the deaths of eight demonstrators.

In 2015, anti-government demonstrations began in the city of Sulaymaniyah over three months of unpaid salaries where two thousand government offices and schools went on strike. The lack of funds was blamed on the fight against ISIS back in 2015 by the KRG. However, many critics blame the ruling family of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and KRG, the Barzanis, due to oil agreements made independently from Iraq’s central government, which has caused the already severed relations between Erbil and Baghdad to be further strained. One such deal is an agreement signed between the KRG and Turkey, announced by former prime minister Nechirvan Barzani in 2014: a 50-year deal to export Kurdish oil via Turkey. The KRG’s response to the economic crisis directly points the finger at Baghdad for not providing the Kurdistan Region with a fair share of the budget.

Baghdad significantly criticizes the KRG’s independent oil exports, considering it unconstitutional, additionally calling for the handover of border crossings in the Kurdistan Region to Iraq’s central government.

The KRG is reportedly exporting 450,000 barrels of oil per day via Turkey, of which 250,000 is supposed to go towards Baghdad’s budget. The KRG has been unable to meet the daily oil quota because of its debt payments. Kurdistan Region’s reported debts in 2017 totaled up to $5.5 billion, $4 billion owed to Turkey and $1.5 billion to the Russian energy company Rosneft. In 2018, the Kurdistan Region’s estimated debt was $17 billion, which is profoundly related to the loss of Kirkuk oil fields in October of 2017.

Another looming crisis is the meddling of the Turkish government in the KRG. Many Turkish airstrikes have killed civilians in the autonomous region, and Turkey reportedly has over ten permanent military bases in the Kurdish region. Only recently, three civilians were killed by a Turkish airstrike in Duhok. The KRG’s prime minister Masrour Barzani has been hesitant to condemn Turkey’s illegal attacks and invasions into the Kurdistan Region. On the contrary, he has wasted no time condemning alleged PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and YPG (People’s Protection Units) attacks on Peshmerga forces. A condemnation of Masrour Barzani’s KDP came from the general commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Mazloum Abdi, urging to solve issues between the Kurdish parties via dialogue.

Kurdistani has reached out to Giran Ozcan to question a correlation between the amounting pressure on the HDP and the Kurdistan region’s tense situation.

Kurdistani: There is significant pressure on the HDP, especially recently, led by the ruling far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Why is such pressure being imposed on the HDP? Can we expect it to escalate, or is it merely a political strategy? 

Ozcan: The Turkish state deems the Kurdish existence in all of its forms as an existential threat. In its alliance with the most racist and nationalist elements of Turkey’s ruling elite, the AKP has taken it upon itself to prove that they can be the most anti-Kurdish political party in Turkey. As the most comprehensive political articulation of Kurdish rights, the HDP bears the brunt of the Turkish government’s anti-Kurdish policies. As longs as racist and nationalist sentiments animate the Turkish ruling parties, we can expect a continuation of the targeting of the HDP.

Kurdistani: Is there a correlation between the pressure against the HDP and the tense situation between Kurdish parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government?

Ozcan: There is definitely both a historical and conjunctural correlation between the attacks against the HDP and the rising tensions between Kurdish parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government, as what is happening across the border in the KRG is a direct extension of policies in Turkey. The Turkish state is waging an all-out attack against Kurdish self-determination, wherever it may find the opportunity to express itself. The unfortunate thing is that in the KRG a Kurdish party, the KDP, is aligning itself with these attacks.

Diliman Abdulkader has also been contacted for comments on the situation in the Kurdistan Region.

Kurdistani: There are sparks of protests in cities over the Kurdistan Regional Government; what has caused these protests, and what are these protesters’ demands? 

Abdulkader: The KRG has failed to address people’s grievances and frustrations for years. The demands have always been the same: an end to corruption and nepotism by the ruling Barzani and Talabani clans. Although on the surface it may seem the demands were about unpaid salaries, they are deeply rooted in years of negligence, incompetence, and irresponsible governing in this cabinet and the ones before it.

Kurdistani: There are reports of demonstrators being killed and arrested. Exactly which parties are responsible for these events? Is there an offered solution on the table by the KRG? 

Abdulkader: Both the KDP and PUK are responsible for the loss of life. In cooperation, the ruling KDP and PUK decided to turn to violence rather than listening to people’s demands. The parties instead attempted and still try to blame “outside events” for their government’s failure. To date, the KDP and PUK have not offered a solution, and they should realize that Baghdad is not the solution but an attempt to avoid solving the corruption and nepotism crisis.

Kurdistani: There are serious accusations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê – PKK) getting involved in the protests. Do these accusations hold any truth?

Abdulkader: The accusations against the PKK from the KD and PUK contradicts their positions that they are the popular parties among the people. If the PKK is weak, how can it influence Kurds across the region to stand for their rights? Either the PKK is not so weak as KDP and PUK would have us believe, or they are trying their best to avoid taking responsibility.

Kurdistani: The military wing of the PKK, Hêzên Parastina Gel‎ (HPG), has released a statement mentioning that they have been attacked by the special forces of the KDP in Duhok, while prime minister Masrour Barzani has condemned an alleged attack by the PKK in Duhok as well, killing a peshmerga officer. What is the reality on the ground in Duhok regarding these allegations?

Abdulkader: There were reports from pro-KDP and pro-Masrour Barzani outlet Kurdistan 24 where eyewitnesses stated that it was the KDP that attacked the PKK. The prime minister [Masrour Barzani] must, for the sake of Kurds, not incite or suggest any sort of infighting. A KDP versus PKK war would not serve anyone but adversaries of Kurdistan. The prime minister must focus on the region’s lack of services and protests under his rule rather than attempting to start a war with the PKK.

Kurdistani: In the case of a dissolution of the current Kurdistan Regional Government, what is the next step? How does KRG march on from the long-term rule of the Barzani and Talabani families? 

Abdulkader: Kurds know Kurdistan is filled with talent outside of the Barzani and Talabani clans. The dissolution of the current government means instability, of course. But at the same time, is Kurdistan stable for Kurds at the moment? 

We know resigning is the last thing the current government wants to do, but he [Masrour Barzani] is also not taking any responsibility for the region’s chaos. The lack of institutions in the KRG is suited for the KDP and PUK for precisely this reason: not having a post-Barzani-Talabani rule.

Kurdistani: Is the unity of all Kurdish parties possible under the current government of the Kurdistan Region?

Abdulkader: Unity is possible if parties communicate openly and face to face. Unity is impossible if each party uses its media and outside forces to exchange words. 

If we are honest, the current Kurdistan Regional Government is not interested in unity but being the sole Kurdish faction. We know this is an unrealistic take. Masrour Barzani must set personal egos aside and think of Kurdistan as a whole for all Kurds and not just pro-KDP Kurds.

Kurdistani: Any additional comments?

Abdulkader: Kurdish parties must not serve anyone’s interest but Kurdistan’s. The Kurds desperately need bold and brave leaders to think outside of the box rather than living the same failing conflicts, which only take Kurdish lives away. Unfortunately, we do not have this leader at the moment.

On December 21, Baghdad and Erbil agreed on the 2021 budget bill, finalizing overwhelming negotiations between the two sides. Despite the agreement, complications are expected to rise before reaching an agreement for existing disputes.

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