Sulaymaniyah-Erbil Disagreement: Scenarios of Division in Iraqi Kurdistan

EPC | 21 Mar 2021

The Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI) faces a real challenge in preserving the existential benefits that it gained after the fall of the regime of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in April 2003, whereby the KRI became one of the poles of the ruling political system in Iraq. This time, the problems of the KRI are not a dispute with the central government in Baghdad as before, but rather a dispute between the two partners of the ruling regime in Kurdistan, namely the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by the family of the late President Jalal Talabani. This paper discusses the causes of the real dispute between the two parties and whether an administrative division is possible in the KRI authority.

The precursors of the intra-Kurdish divide

The actual differences between the two KRI ruling parties accelerated during the post-2003 political process, when the position of the PUK regressed due to the defection of some leading figures therefrom (this defection resulted in the formation of the Movement for Change (Gorran) led by Nashirwan Mustafa in April 2009), and the PUK’s subsequent preoccupation with its internal divisions, which were exasperated by the death of its Secretary-General Jalal Talabani on 3 October 2017, leading to the decline of its parliamentary seats in both the local and federal parliaments. Meanwhile, the KDP has been consolidating its political presence in the Centre and the KRI.

The previous balances between the two parties regarding the distribution of the federal and local positions used to reflect in assigning the Presidency of the Republic to candidates of the PUK while assigning the KRI Presidency to the candidates of the KDP. The ministries would be shared, and candidates of both parties would assume the premiership of the regional government on a rotational basis during its full four-year cycle. That is, each party would lead the government for two years.

The Kurdistan Alliance bloc in the Iraqi Parliament comprised 45 Members of Parliament (MPs) prior to the federal legislative elections in 2010, with the two Kurdish parties having a roughly equal share, together with a slight parliamentary presence of the Islamic Movement with both its components, namely the Brotherhood and Salafist groups (five seats for the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), and three seats for the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal)). Likewise, in the Regional Parliament, the PUK had more than 30 seats, while the KDP had up to 45 seats. The KDP maintained its parliamentary share, while the PUK lost its own when the Movement for Change seized nearly 11 of the PUK parliamentary stock in the last two electoral seasons. Thus, the PUK bloc had 19 seats in the Baghdad Parliament and 21 seats in the Erbil Parliament.

This decline of the ruling party in Sulaymaniyah prompted its ally, the ruling party in Erbil, to reformulate the equation and the mechanism for allocating positions in the KRI and the Centre, in an agreement concluded on 5 February 2019, whereby the PUK would assume the Presidency of the Republic in Iraq, the Presidency of the Kurdistan Parliament, and the Deputy Premiership of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in addition to the position of Governor of Kirkuk. On the other hand, the KDP would assume the post of the KRI President (assumed by Nechirvan Barzani, nephew of Masoud Barzani, the KDP leader), the Premiership of the KRI government, without rotation as was the case in the past (the position was assumed by Masrour Barzani, son of the KDP leader), together with the assumption of the majority of the Kurdish component ministries of the central government in Baghdad. While both parties agreed on this new formula, their persistent difference continued over the unification of the Peshmerga forces (the two armed wings of the two Kurdish parties) under a real unified command, given that the Sulaymaniyah wing continued to control the city, while the Erbil and Dohuk wing continued to control its two cities as well (in the KRG, there is a Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, but rather than constituting a military authority over both armed wings, it serves to regulate their financial and administrative affairs in the budget), in addition to a minor military division in the Kirkuk Governorate, which is politically and militarily subject to the PUK hegemony.

This new equation did not appeal much to the PUK, especially after the latter observed attempts by its ally to undermine the PUK authority in the region. The KDP no longer viewed the PUK as an equal partner in the equation, but rather as a minor partner. The KDP took several actions that made the PUK feel that Barzani's party is transforming from an allied to a domineering party. Thus, the PUK began to escalate its media campaign against the KDP. Among the most prominent of those actions are the following:

  • Deploying in the areas under PUK military control, as was the case in the Zinni Warti area close to the Qandil Mountains, which is the epicentre of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and the provocation of the PKK by the KDP, an ally of the Turkish authorities, by pushing the Turkish rebels to carry out military operations that are responded to by Turkish military bombing of their headquarters located within the areas of PUK influence.
  • Escalating disputes with the federal government in Baghdad regarding Kurdistan’s financial resources, without reaching actual results that would end the salary crisis of the two million KRI employees who have not received their salaries since February 2020. The Kurdish side negotiating with Baghdad does not show any flexibility regarding solving the economic problems between the KRI and the Centre. The latter demands that the KRI hand over the revenues of oil exported from Kurdistan, in the quantities exclusively specified by the Iraqi Oil Marketing Company (SOMO), in addition to the revenues of the border crossings. Otherwise, the central government would not pay the salaries of the KRI employees. For the first time, the PUK leadership took the side of Baghdad in the media against the KDP which accused the Centre of marginalising the right of the Kurdish people in the budget. In a speech, the PUK co-leader Lahore Sheikh Genki described his counterpart’s speech as an attempt to “appease national sentiments”. This implies the existence of a divided vision regarding negotiation between the KRI and the Centre.
  • Taking a unilateral KRG decision to cut employee salaries and deduct 21 percent thereof under the heading of savings, in the light of the stormy economic conditions in the region. This decision was strongly opposed by the PUK and other Kurdish actors because it leads to the outbreak of protests in the cities of Sulaymaniyah and Halabja, which are characterised by a civil climate, thus causing a setback for the ruling party there. Conversely, the PUK’s ruling counterpart in Erbil and Dohuk is reassured about its position in those two cities, as they are subject to tribal and religious norms, which are part of the KDP’s pure tribal culture.
  • The PUK and KIU together with some Kurdish parties in Sulaymaniyah held conferences calling for decentralisation and administrative separation from Erbil, the latest of which being in the spring of 2020.

The PUK seeks to stop the domination and monopoly by the KDP over power, although the PUK shares power with the KDP. However, that partnership has regressed from its earlier status in terms of taking external and internal Kurdish decisions through consultation and agreement. The first attempt came about with putting forward the slogan of "decentralisation" to constitute the identity of the KRI political regime and a true solution to the central hegemony practised by the KDP over the PUK effective power within the legitimate government in the region.

However, Sulaymaniyah’s attempts to administratively separate from Erbil, and perhaps form an independent region that includes the governorates of Sulaymaniyah and Halabja, may fall within the framework of the PUK vision for its own political future in the light of the relative decline in its popularity within the governorate and the KRI in general, given that it has lost some parliamentary seats in favour of the Kurdish parties which directly compete with it in Sulaymaniyah, Halabja and Kirkuk. In addition, the new election law that stipulates direct individual and multi-district elections may lead to a greater decline in the PUK results in the early elections scheduled for October 2021, given that the elections are expected to contribute to the victory of many Independents and small parties. Therefore, the PUK may find out that it is no longer a main partner of Barzani's party in Erbil or Baghdad as usual, but rather a participant who gets some minor government benefits and shares in the KRI and the Centre. The opposite is true in the event that Sulaymaniyah becomes independent, where the PUK would remain in control in its areas and negotiate with Baghdad alone on the PUK shares of the budget and the Kirkuk oil.

Scenarios of the split between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil

First scenario: the tendency by the PUK and the actors opposed to the power of the KDP to escalate and work on the project of decentralised administration in the KRI, given that changing the administrative identity of the Kurdish system of government would bring general economic benefits and private partisan benefits to the anti-authority actors. These can be summarised as follows:

1. Addressing the blockage of the prospects for traditional political solutions between the actors opposed to the authority since 2003 until today. The central system in the KRI has got caught in a vicious circle and cannot find effective solutions to its problems as a result of the resort by its most prominent decision-makers to tension and intransigence in dialogue with the central regime in Baghdad, which is always detrimental to the KRI. The KDP, despite being a "long-established" political party, continues to adopt a tribal culture that does not show political flexibility in dealing with the national interior or the outside. This was a source of suffering for the Kurdish actors themselves when the KDP was adamant to carry out the referendum on the independence of Kurdistan, which ended in failure in 2017.

2. Maintaining the Kurdish political process by redistributing power once again under a decentralised KRI is something that the anti-KDP parties view as an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and seek to persuade the Kurdish street regarding their new rhetoric and behaviour. Among the leading beneficiaries is the PUK which fears the resumption of protests in its areas of influence, especially in the city of Sulaymaniyah which witnessed on 2 December 2020 massive demonstrations in protest against the delay in the payment of the employees' salaries, and ended in the killing of 10 demonstrators and the injury of 120 others, in addition to setting fire to 150 government and party buildings, chiefly the headquarters of the KDP which has a partisan presence within the PUK stronghold. The arson was the first indication of holding the party in power and its other allies accountable.

3. Administrative decentralisation provides flexibility to the interaction between Baghdad and the governorates of the KRI, so that the PUK would be able to negotiate with the central government regarding the economic share of the PUK for the cities under its control, namely the governorates of Sulaymaniyah and Halabja together with the regions of eastern Kurdistan, without the need for consensus with its counterpart, namely the KDP, which is always unsuccessful in its dialogues with Baghdad regarding the KRI’s share in the federal budget.

4. The new context of the Kurdistan regime could provide the PUK with the opportunity to re-arrange its position and form a political front of like-minded civilian actors, such as the Movement for Change, the Communist Party of Kurdistan (KKP), the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party (KSDP) and some minority actors, in addition to benefitting from the positive relations lacked by the KDP with the actors of political Islam in the region, to form a broad parliamentary base in the Kurdistan Parliament.

5. The regional influence in Kurdistan by both Iran and Turkey is one of the most prominent factors that push towards the internal Kurdish division. The more the differences escalate, both countries see an interest in weakening the "autonomy" experience of Iraq’s Kurds and continuing to confront the Kurdish insurgency in their countries.

6. The proposal will receive central political support on the part of the Shiite blocs that always approach Talabani's party at the expense of its Barzani rival because the latter adopts a fanatic nationalist rhetoric, albeit at the expense of sharing the central government with the actors of the Shiite political Islam. On the other hand, the Talabanists practise a flexible political behaviour that made the Shiite blocs champion them when the candidates of the two parties Barham Salih and Fuad Hussein competed for the Presidency of the Republic on 2 October 2018, after which the new bipartisan agreement was reached on 5 February 2019 on the redistribution of the federal and local positions between them.

Second scenario: the continuation of the unity of the central system in the KRI so that administrative powers would be granted to the provinces of the KRI as a precautionary measure against the “decentralisation” project put forward by the PUK, with the aim of returning the KDP to the position of political partnership in the administration of Kurdistan. The enablers of maintaining the current centralised nature of the region are as follows:

1. The extension by the KDP of concessions to its disgruntled ally within the authority, and persuading it to give up the “decentralisation” project in exchange for a return to the earlier power-sharing agreements that would enhance the PUK’s political presence both presently and in the future.

2. The agreement by the two parties to pursue a policy of soft diplomacy with the central authority in Baghdad to come up with lasting and feasible agreements that guarantee the KRI’s financial rights, and continuing to pay the employees' salaries for political precaution against protests by this segment.

3. Allowing the opposition actors, both secular and Islamic, to assume some executive positions in order to ease the severe political congestion in the KRI and diffuse any likely political crisis in the future.

4. Developing a new road map for the division of the domestic resources in an equitable manner between the governorates of Kurdistan, in a way that avoids any relative disparity that is attributable to political motives, and adopting the principle of practical transparency between the actors of the KRI itself, and also between the KRI and the Centre.

5. The KDP fears that the “decentralisation” project could be leveraged within the framework of the new election law that divides a single governorate into several electoral districts, which may be electorally beneficial to the political opponent in the partisan conflict areas both inside and outside the KRI.

6. The US role in support of the Kurdish experience in Iraq may push the KDP to make those concessions in order to preserve the experience against division, and to perpetuate the strategic relations between Washington and the KRI. The party in control of power would no longer return to the state of rebellion against the US demands, as it did in the matter of the referendum, because Erbil’s loss of Washington would have an enormous price that the KDP would not want to pay again at a later stage.

Conclusion

  • The KRI is facing a real challenge in terms of preserving its important benefits that it gained after the fall of the regime of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, having become one of the poles of the ruling political system in Iraq. This challenge lies in the deep disagreement between the two partners of the ruling system in Kurdistan, namely the KDP led by Masoud Barzani, and the PUK led by the family of the late President Jalal Talabani.
  • The PUK seeks to stop the KDP domination of and monopoly on power, although the PUK is the KDP’s partner therein. However, that partnership regressed compared to its previous status in terms of taking external and internal Kurdish decisions through consultation and agreement. The first attempt is to put forward the slogan of "decentralisation" as the characteristic of the political system in the KRI, and a real solution to the central hegemony exercised by the KDP over its effective power within the legitimate government in the KRI.
  • There are two scenarios for the future of the local balance of power in the KRI: the first, which is the plausible one so far, is for the PUK and the actors opposed to the KDP ascendancy to escalate and pursue the decentralised administration project in the KRI, given that changing the administrative nature of the Kurdish system of government would bring general economic benefits and private partisan benefits to the anti-authority actors. On the other hand, the second scenario assumes the continuation of the unity of the central system in the KRI while granting administrative powers to the KRI provinces as a precautionary measure against the “decentralisation” project pursued by the PUK.

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