Iraq and Gulf Analysis

The Syrian Crisis and Its Repercussions for Erbil-Baghdad Relations

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 30 July 2012 9:51

One of the interesting aspects of the crisis in Syria is the way Syria’s Kurds are navigating between regional power brokers in Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq. In particular, there seems to be a degree of tension surrounding the relationship between the largely pro-Turkish regional government of the Iraqi Kurds and Syrian Kurds who are seeking the support of Erbil but are not necessarily quite so supportive of Turkey.

So far, no decisive policy seems to have emerged among Syria’s Kurds in this respect. As for the spillover impact on the Iraqi scene, the Syrian crisis has so far served to further strain relations between the Iraqi Kurds and the central government in Baghdad. Due to tension in border areas with Syria, central government Iraqi forces have been seeking access to areas controlled by the Kurds, and this, in turn, has aggravated the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad.

For the first time, the Kurdish peshmerga ministry has now published a constitutional defence of its position. In a letter directed to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Kurds enumerate four constitutional articles that they consider Baghdad are violating when they are seeking access to the Kurdish areas: Articles 9, 61, 111 (some sources say 11 but that makes no sense) and 121.

Article 9 of the Iraqi constitution deals with the Iraqi army. It is one of the few constitutional provisions to specifically demand proportional representation on an ethno-sectarian basis (quotas), and this is conceivably what the Kurds are complaining about, even though there are large numbers of Kurds serving in the Iraqi army controlled by Baghdad.

Article 61 deals with parliamentary powers, and presumably the Kurdish objection relates to the failure of government to have leading military officials confirmed by parliament. This is a real problem, although there are reports that the government has lately sent a list to parliament which is now awaiting approval.

Article 111, if correctly cited, deals with oil ownership (“Iraqi oil belongs to the Iraqi people in all the governorates and regions”)  and is presumably a general criticism of Baghdad regarding the longstanding dispute about whether Erbil or Baghdad should conclude deals with foreign oil companies.

Article 121 specifically gives federal regions the right to organize internal security including “guards of the region” which is commonly seen as the standard reference to the Kurdish peshmerga militia which is now the official internal army of the Kurdish region.

All in all, whereas it seems clear that the central government may need to make some improvements as regards Kurdish representation in the Iraqi army (article 9) and getting parliamentary approval of army officials (article 61), it is hard to see how article 121 could override the exclusive prerogative of Baghdad when it comes to managing national security and external defence  as set out in article 110-2, where “borders” are specifically mentioned. Indeed, article 121 itself at the outset explicitly stipulates that the powers given to the region should not usurp exclusive prerogatives of the central government as specified in article 110.

What this whole issue brings to the forefront, of course, is that whereas Iraq on paper may be a federation, it is in practice a confederacy in which the Kurdish entity appears to be torn between seeking independence and de facto Turkish overlordship. The Syrian crisis is likely to make these tensions more acute, given the apparent greater scepticism of the Syrian Kurds when it comes to accepting the idea of a substantial role for Turkey in deciding their destiny. As a consequence, it is possible that the autonomous Iraqi Kurds, too, will finally have to be more specific and concrete about where exactly they are heading and when.

14 Responses to “The Syrian Crisis and Its Repercussions for Erbil-Baghdad Relations”

  1. Hala said

    Presumably because you wanted to write a short and general piece outlining the problems between Iraqi Kurds and the central government, you haven’t touched on a) the mainly hostile reviews in the Turkish press to Erdogan’s forward policy with regard to Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish border issues; b) the growing impression in some Arab circles that Turkey has become yet another non-Arab power to contend with in the region, along with Israel and Iran and c) the rivalries among the Kurds themselves, whether Iraqi, Syrian or splinters in both camps. Perhaps you can elaborate on such in the ensuing discussion, if you think the points are within the scope of your post.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Hala, thanks, to be frank, it is also because I don’t know enough about internal Kurdish issues or Turkish foreign policy to comment in detail on this. But any input is very welcome!

  3. Hala said

    The invaluable Frank Rettenberg, who posts on Gulf 2000, which I believe you subscribe to as well, periodically translates Turkish reports on Kurdish issues and posts them on G2K. I’ll dig out the latest and send them to you on your email account. The problem I have is whether his translations are complete or just plain selective. I thought you might have more info.

  4. I believe Hala has quite rightly pointed out the multi-varied dimensions to the ‘crisis’ and I can’t agree more Reidar that the agressive nature of the Barzani/KDP reaction to events in Syria – while very much playing to the burgeoning nationalist sentiment in the region – nonetheless exposes him and the KDP (if not the KRG) to being forced to ‘show their hand’ in Erbil-Baghdad relations ahead of when they both wanted to as well as ahead of their normal glacial pace since 2003. Thus, it challenges Iraqi federal relations and moves KRG (at least in the hands of the KDP) onto a new terrain in terms of a tactical mode where they have not been operating in the past – is their crisis management and political solidarity with the other factions robust enough to cement a Barzani hegemony of traditional authority westwards into terrain previously dominated by PKK-cadres overseen by Ba’thist elements of the Asad regime? It is a true gamble IMO.

    Frank Rettenberg’s contributions to summarizing events on G2K have been most helpful, but that forum shies away from anything not directly tied to the Gulf itself (admittedly an arbitrary fashion as outlined earlier today by Gary Sick himself). I would most enjoy a vetting and discussion in such a forum as this …

    … which raises the obvious concern of Reidar’s humble response to Hala – there are a tremendous number of moving parts to this and they are moving at a pace that belies any real confidence – by political actor or analyst alike!

  5. Christian said

    Guys, who do you think is most likely to be the “foreign” nation that gave anti tank and anti aircraft missiles to Kurdistan?

    Turkey, USA (assuming Obama grew balls which is unlikely), a Gulf nation, or even Israel?

  6. Christian – while constitutional challenges to such a purchase are most likely correct, thats exactly the question raised in the post above … what is the KRG today (what type of state)?

    I’d also challenge the “gave” moniker – the Kurdistan leadership (if the weapons procurement is indeed true) will have paid handsomely.

    The question has always been central to the entire political dynamic – is Kurdistan pursuing independence, federal, or confederal arrangements – and with what status / rights if not full statehood. The agressive move in support of Syria’s Kurdish region is bringing this to the fore in a dynamic and pronounced fashion as we have all stated above.

    I’m assuming you’re not denying the KRG’s desire to defend the people of Kurdistan with such weapons purchases.

  7. Mo said

    Hi RV:

    You stated: “it is in practice a confederacy in which the Kurdish entity appears to be torn between seeking independence and de facto Turkish overlordship.”

    Is there a practical difference between these two scenarios?

    Did you see the interview between Barzani and Jane Arraf? Barzani states/implies that it is only a matter of time (not IF) that kurdistan will seek independence. I would argue that today KRG functions almost like an independent country except that it is receiving 10 billion USD in subsidies from Basra petro dollars. But in practice, the all-powerful Maliki has absolutely no influence on KRG policy.

    Even if Maliki were today to state, “look Kurds, I am sick and tired of your antics..let me save you the trouble, I hereby call upon parliament to expel the KRG from the rest of Iraq!” The two main issues that would be need to be resolved are 1)would a war break out between newly indpedendent kurds and iraq over the disputed territories?, and 2) would turrkey allow the kurds to exist as indendependent country to export oil, etc?

    My point is that even an independent Kurdistan would be completely (even moreso than now) reliant on Turkey for life-support (as their overlords). The only difference is that they would then lose the Basra petro dollars and their economy would be in major trouble.

    Turkey seems to have an ambiguous policy as far as I can see; but it certainly will not be sustainable much longer…they will need to show their hands.


  8. Reidar Visser said

    Mohammed, my suspicion is that the Turks would balk at full formal independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. And there is also the economic issue as you say. There is no Basra in Turkey. For those reasons, as well as to avoid potential conflagration regarding the disputed territories, the Turks may prefer to maintain the facade of a territorially unified Iraq but with heavy de facto Turkish influence inside KRG and maybe in a separate Kirkuk federal entity as well.

    My point is that this more realistic scenario is at variance with the message Barzani is pumping to his electorate on Kurdish independence and Kirkuk. The Syrian factor is going to make it all the more acute since Turkish and Kurdish aims appear to be even more divergent in Syria than in Iraq. Syrian Kurdish and Iraqi Kurdish cooperation right now is likely to emphasise some of the contradictions in Barzani’s manouevering between Ankara and Baghdad.

  9. Lets assume Barzani makes a unilateral declaration of independence, Talbani who’s sponsored by Iran may not like it, Iran intervene on behalf of Talbani, will Turkey or the U.S. come to the side of Barzani in an open fight with Iran? Hell No!
    Barzani must guarantee NATO membership before he can open his mouth, NATO membership will not only protect him from Iran but from Turkey and Iraq. I don’t see anything coming out of Barzani’s threats anytime soon.

    Christian: The Iraqi press seems to suggest that the “foreign” nation is Russia or one of the old USSR republics.

  10. Mohammed said

    Hi Reidar:

    I agree with your points, my confusion is with your statement: “Turks may prefer to maintain the facade of a territorially unified Iraq but with heavy de facto Turkish influence inside KRG and maybe in a separate Kirkuk federal entity as well.”

    Undoubtedly there is Turkish influence in the KRG, but the problem is that there is not even a facade of territorially unfied Iraq anymore. The Iraq army is not allowed to protect its own borders and cannot step one foot into KRG territory. By taking these actions, KRG has in effect stated that the federal govt has absolutely no say over any matter in the KRG, and “please send us our 10 billion in basra petro dollars thank you very much!” As I see it, the Kurds have input into what happens in the rest of Iraq by virtue of their 50 seats in parliament, but the rest of Iraq has ZERO input into what happens in the KRG. Barzani also stated that if Maliki were to withhold the 10 billion, that would amount to a declaration of war! (see Jane Arraf interview). What unity?

    Withe the Total deal today, the pressure will mount on Baghdad to do something. Exxon also announced recently that it plans to start drilling. If Turkey allows the Kurds to ship oil through a new pipeline directly to Turkey without agreement from Baghdad (and that decision will need to be made in the next 1-2 years), it essentially means that they have accepted Kurdish independence, no? At that point, it would be comical to call the KRG as part of Iraq (it would more accurately be described as an autonomous part of Turkey). I can’t see Turkey refusing the oil pipeline. After all, they are letting hundreds of trucks a day full of oil through—that is very inefficient.

    My point is that if Turkey wants to keep that “facade” going, it will simply not be sustainable beyond 1-2 years (even if there was a different PM in Baghdad).


  11. Christian said


    “I’m assuming you’re not denying the KRG’s desire to defend the people of Kurdistan with such weapons purchases.”

    As someone who supports eventual Kurdish independence and the Kurdish people in general, no I do not deny Kurdistan’s right to defend itself, I was merely inquiring as to the exact nation in question that sold the arms to the KRG in the first place.

    If it’s say a nation that merely sold the weapons because of money (like say Belarus) and not because of politics (like perhaps Turkey, the USA, or a Gulf Arab State) then the origin isn’t really significant. However if it is the latter, then it *is* important, because it would explain the particularly heightened emotional responses coming from certain corrupt politicians from Baghdad.

  12. Christian said


    “The Iraq army is not allowed to protect its own borders and cannot step one foot into KRG territory.”

    Is this really such a terrible thing considering that, consciously or unconsciously, Maliki ordering his troopers to cut off the border with Syria only serves to benefit Khomoenism’s interests and not the world’s short term and Iraq’s long term interests??

    I read that a State of Law MP whined loudly about how violating of Iraqi sovereignty it was that Barzani was training freedom fighters in Kurdistan to help overthrow the Baathist Iranian cliented regime in Syria that Maliki detested in 2009 for brazenly murdering hundreds of Iraqis in car bomb attacks. Now why the hell is this a bad thing?

    Is this what Iraqi “nationalism” has come to?

    Only hating the Turks for breathing air in Kirkuk and the Kurds for batting eyelashes in Kurdistan while Iran bribes almost every single political party and ruins the civic society?

    Shame on those Iraqi “nationalists” who care more about phantom Salafists and “uppity” Kurds under their beds then the actual theocracies and actual terrorists next door.

    Shame on them!!!

  13. Hi Christian,

    The media report (at least the longest version of the AFP English-language story I’ve been able to find is here: Kurds in secret weapons deal: Iraqi official [])

    It seems the source of the weapons could be either Russia, or a former Soviet satellite able to procure and sell such weaponry; as suggested on another list discussion the Iraqi government’s efforts to access Russian helicopters – with which they are more familiar than the more expensive and harder to maintain Russian models – will be driving their procurement … BUT, promises of a large purchase order from the Iraqi state might be used as leverage to keep Russia from selling to the KRG …

    … this thread is so important because of the fluidity of the situation … while both sides might be ‘playing’ the Russians and their former-Soviet compatriots in a zero-sum game between Baghdad and Erbil … but, with Gazprom’s entry to Kurdistan’s petroleum sector and the (now four) major oil companies efforts to develop fields in the north the KRG might itself have returned to a battle of proxies between regional and global powers … how the KRG navigates this will keep all of our attention’ I am certain.

  14. Christian said

    @13 Landscapeandlegacies

    Well God willing they will remain as liberal and secular as they’ve always had. They even have female fighting units in the Peshmerga, something we Americans don’t have yet!!!

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