The recent flare-up of tensions between Baghdad and Erbil over the exportation of Iraqi oil to Turkey has fueled the international media’s preoccupation with ethno-sectarianism and the vulnerability of the state in post-Saddam Iraq. Subsequent predictions by international media outlets of an imminent breakdown of order in the north of Iraq ignore the complex reality that, since 1991, Iraqi Kurds have consciously maintained stability despite various upheavals in the south of the country and the region. On a recent research trip to Erbil, I observed firsthand the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) resolve to prevent regional chaos from spilling into their autonomous region.
On January 4, 2014, the Iraqi central government lost control of the city of Fallujah to the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), a militant group previously associated with al-Qaeda which still holds significant territory and influence in the Anbar province and parts of northern Syria. The next day, I flew from Amman, Jordan into the Erbil international airport, intending to continue my research on the effects of Syria’s civil war on neighboring countries. I anticipated some sort of tangible sign of the then 213,000 Syrian refugees the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) reported in Iraq, the majority of whom had settled in the Kurdish autonomous region, but found none: normalcy prevailed in Erbil.
Despite (or perhaps in spite of) the violence in Baghdad, the newfound prominence of an internationally-recognized terrorist group in the west of the country and the strain of incorporating almost three years of Syrian refugees into the country, the KRG’s capital thus far seems resistant to the pervasive regional instability I had sensed even in the relatively quiet streets of Amman. This calm, in part a result of sufficient KRG oversight of refugee management and ethnic ties between the Iraqi Kurds and the majority-Kurdish Syrian refugees, seems tenuous as refugee camps are filled beyond capacity and the international community continues to provide insufficient aid to host countries. Nevertheless, the KRG remains confident in its own exceptionalism.
“Iraqi Kurds are not a part of the chaotic system that exists elsewhere in the world,” a member of the Kurdish parliament said in a January 8 interview. This sense of regional progress was a common theme in discussions I had with government officials, journalists, community leaders and professors in Erbil. “We broke the cycle of revenge,” a minister of Kurdish descent explained when asked about the difference between Erbil and Baghdad. “The history of this region is bloody and goes on forever. Somebody had to say ‘stop’ and we said it. It’s not that we like [Baghdad], it’s that we like our children more.”
This conscious rejection of chaos and enforcement of order has made Erbil an attractive destination for Syrians and other Iraqis alike. A second minister reported that, in the first week of January alone, over 30,000 Iraqis had fled from the south to the Kurdish autonomous region – although official reports put this number at about half of his assessment at 14,000 – fearing for their safety in light of the violence in Ramadi and Fallujah. Persons of all religions and ethnicities seeking shelter would be welcomed, he said, insofar as they rejected violence and ethno-sectarianism and respected the authority of the KRG.
Four months later, the Kurdish region is still characterized by a unique and uneasy peace. The rest of the country is not so fortunate: ISIS remains in control of parts of Anbar and the New York Times reported on March 1 that levels of sectarian violence in Iraq today rival those seen in 2003, one of the bloodiest periods in the country’s modern history. One Kurdish parliamentarian pointed to continuing violence and the clashes in Anbar as signs of the inevitability of a split between the Kurdish region and the rest of the country. “Sovereignty isn’t sacred here,” he added. “Nothing in Iraq is sacred.”
Relations between Erbil and Baghdad are tenser than ever as the central government continues to withhold the portion of the country’s budget intended for the KRG in response to the region’s unofficial exportation of oil to Ceyhan in southern Turkey. The Baghdadi government holds that such maneuvers go against Article 107 of the constitution which stipulates that the federal government has “exclusive authority” in the matter of negotiating, signing and ratifying international treaties, agreements and trade policies. However, some Kurds consider direct oil deals with foreign powers as an appropriate and necessary measure in the face of Baghdad’s inability to monopolize on the country’s natural resources and economic opportunities.
“There are a number of differences between Erbil and the central government,” a high-ranking member of the Kurdish Democratic Party stated in an interview. “Erbil has vision, has leadership, has commitment, and it knows where it stands and what it wants.” A KRG minister echoed this sentiment, adding, “For the last century, Kurdistan has been played with. Now, we are playing.”
It remains to be seen whether or not Erbil can continue to “play” on the international stage and withstand the numerous internal and external pressures that threaten the Kurdish region’s fragile peace. While the West continues to predict a breakdown of order, the Kurds I interviewed were aware of their precarious position and nothing if not pragmatic. They unanimously agreed that if the constitution were implemented exactly as it was written, rejecting ethnic and sectarian divisions as a basis for governance and focusing on economic and political progress, Iraq as a whole could progress beyond its current conflicts and become a major player in the world economy. However, if Baghdad is not willing to both respect the constitution and provide all of Iraq a chance for success, Erbil will not allow itself to be dragged into chaos and conflict.
“There is a growing gap between the KRG and Baghdad, not only in terms of language,” a female former member of the KRG parliament said. “Erbil is Western-looking, while Baghdad looks only inward.” The controversial oil deal with Turkey is perhaps just the first of many Kurdish initiatives to extricate the KRG from the perceived backward sliding of the rest of the country.
Elayne Stecher is a student at Tufts University, class of 2014, and the winner of Al Nakhlah’s first undergraduate op-ed competition.