Iraqi Kurdistan has done well for itself in recent decades by carving out a largely autonomous region free of most governance and security interference from Baghdad. The alliance of convenience between the two pre-eminent Kurdish parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – effectively seized the opportunities presented to consolidate and expand Iraqi Kurdistan, such as the international no-fly zone (1991), the US intervention (2003), the crafting of a new constitution for Iraq (2005) and, arguably, even the rise of the Islamic State (IS) (2014).
Yet, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) also faces a triple crisis. Politically, this includes the exclusive and increasingly repressive rule of the KDP and PUK in a context of mediocre governance, as well as strained relations between Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Baghdad over the disputed territories. Economically, it includes a general downturn combined with serious financial disputes with Baghdad. Socially, it includes deteriorating popular satisfaction with the quality of rule and life in Kurdistan.
In this context, this report analyses four factors that could create (in)stability in western Iraqi Kurdistan in the near to medium term: 1) geopolitical tensions; 2) further clashes over the disputed territories; 3) growing dissatisfaction with the KDP and 4) protracted displacement. On balance, it does not consider the risk of immediate crisis or violence as being very high, but the report does note that many elements are in place that could easily trigger violent incidents with the potential of escalation or build momentum for violent crisis in the medium term. For each factor, the report proposes restraining factors, developments to monitor and trigger events.
While international influence on the domestic politics of Iraqi Kurdistan is limited, coupling an offer of international (UN) mediation to facilitate resolution of the disputed territories with the development of a dedicated fund that can rapidly initiate the reconstruction of the Greater Mosul area (including some of the disputed territories) would be a valuable intervention to further the peaceful development of Iraqi Kurdistan.
About the authors
Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow with Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. A political scientist by training, Erwin applies this lens to the analysis of relations between political order, security and justice in conflict-prone environments. Extensive travel in the Middle East also generated Erwin’s lasting interest in the region’s conflicts.
Al-Hamzeh Al-Shadeedi is a research assistant with Clingendael's Conflict Research Unit. He focuses on local governance and security settlements in Libya. In addition, he is interested in security dynamics, political settlements, and culture in Libya, Iraq, and its Kurdistan Region.
Pre-referendum, pro-Kurdistan, pro-independence rally in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq © Wikipedia / Own work